The cabin was filling with water at an alarming rate. It seemed incredible that a few small holes could let in so much, so quickly but before we knew it the water was sloshing around our ankles and rising rapidly towards our knees. Of course we did what we could to plug the holes using whatever papers and bits of old rag we could find but the sea seemed able to force its way through any barrier we constructed.
As Sid had predicted the radio was completely defunct, not that any of us had the slightest idea of our current position even if the means of sending out an SOS had been available to us. The narrowness of the stairs meant that only one person could get at the cabin door at any one time, severely hampering our efforts to break it down. We took turns battering fruitlessly away whilst the other three sloshed about below, struggling to plug the leaks whilst trying hard not to think about the fact that even if we escaped from this water-logged cabin it would still leave us adrift in the middle of the pitch-dark Mediterranean with no realistic prospect of rescue.
“Damn it! I’ll swear that bloody door has been welded into place,” complained Sid as he gave way to Michael after another failed stint at the top of the stairs. “Your pal sure knows how to set a trap.”
“Can I just say once again that that man is no pal of ours,” I irritably pointed out. “He is the evil twin of our pal.”
“Whatever,” muttered Sid. “Your pal should be a bit more careful about who he associates with.”
“That’s not exactly fair,” Michael breathlessly asserted between heavy thuds as he repeatedly flung his shoulder at the cabin door. “After all, nobody gets to choose their relatives.” Thud. “How would you like…” Thud. “…to be held responsible…” Thud. “…for the actions of your evil twin?”
“I’m damn sure my evil twin never nicked anybody’s hard earned loot and left them to drown in a sinking boat,” insisted Sid. “That’s not evil, that’s just plain sneaky.”
“And I’m pretty sure my evil twin isn’t perpetrating minor tax frauds in a small provincial town,” I threw in. “I can’t believe he said that.”
“Of all the things he said, that’s what you’re objecting to?” Michael took time out from his exertions to throw a withering glance over his shoulder.
“I’m just saying she’s probably at least fairly high up in some serious criminal organisation,” I said defensively. “Like deputy head of Spectre or something.”
“Whatever my evil twin is up to, I can only hope she’s making a better job of her life than I am,” Felicity suddenly announced. “Let’s face it, she could hardly do much worse.”
These were pretty much the first words Felicity had spoken since the departure of Evil Sturridge and they were uttered in a tone of such abject misery that we all instinctively stopped what we were doing and turned to look at her. There was an uncomfortable pause where nobody seemed to know quite what to say in response. Finally Sid made a tentative gesture towards her and began, “Aww, Fliss…”
“Please don’t,” said Felicity quickly, retreating away from his outstretched hand. “The truth is I was a failure in the real world – just another second rate author with a broken marriage – but I suppose that was a rather commonplace kind of failure compared with the mess I’ve made of things since I came to the landscape of the imagination.”
“Aww, hey now…” Sid tried again but Felicity backed away still further, slumping down onto a sodden bunk.
“It’s perfectly true,” she mournfully insisted, fixing her eyes glumly upon the water-logged floor. “My detective agency was a failure and now just look where this heist business has landed me. I suppose that’s the nature of the imagination – if it allows you to dream bigger, it also enables you to fall further. I wish I’d never come.”
There was another long awkward pause before I quietly asked, “Why did you come to the landscape?”
Felicity lifted her head slightly.
“I mean, I was just wondering, cos when we first met you told us that you came here in search of your character, Jerry,” I went on, “but that lad that worked in your office in Havana told me that you had originally come here in pursuit of someone from your own world. Is that true?”
It was a question I had wanted to raise ever since that breakfast encounter on the boulevard but I’d never seemed able to find just the right moment. You might be thinking that trapped on a sinking boat in the middle of nowhere is hardly the right moment and chances are you’re probably right. But just now it was far from certain that there would be any other moments. And to be perfectly honest I’ve always been rather uncomfortable around other people’s emotional outpourings. My friend Becky is an absolute ace when it comes to unexpected breakdowns – any kind of emotional trauma and she always seems to know exactly the right words to say, able to offer precisely the right amount of support without ever seeming intrusive. But me… Well, I’m afraid that despite my best intentions I only ever seem to put my foot in it and make things worse. So in lieu of any appropriate words of comfort I thought I might at least try distracting Felicity from her misery for a while.
The tactic seemed to be working, at least in so far as she dropped her gloomy air long enough to fix me with a curious gaze and said, “You spoke to Raoul?”
I nodded. “He said that you went looking for this person, whoever they were, but that something scared you off.”
“Well that just goes to show how much he knows!” Felicity’s despair seemed to be temporarily forgotten whilst she developed a bit of a huff. “Do I look like the sort of person would could be easily ‘scared off’?” She threw such a defiant glare around the cabin that everyone felt immediately compelled to shake their heads. “I tell you, if Alice had ever really been in danger there is nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that would have stopped me from getting to her.”
“Who’s Alice?” asked Sid with a puzzled frown.
“Oh, you don’t know her. This was long before I met you,” replied Felicity quickly. Then, seeing that all three of us were still regarding her with the utmost interest, she gave a sigh and began her story.
“Alice was a very old friend of mine, we had known one another since our schooldays,” she explained. “She was quite a staid girl in many respects, married a dentist, settled in Sussex – quite the last person you would expect to be mixed up in any kind of imaginative caper. Though she did write poetry in her youth if I remember rightly – quite incomprehensible, modernist tosh as far as I can recollect. I’m quite sure none of it was ever published…
“Anyway, when she first spoke of the landscape of the imagination, of finding her door in the wall, I hardly paid any attention. I thought it was just more airy nonsense. You can imagine my surprise when I heard that she had suddenly vanished one afternoon. Went to the butchers and never came back, they said. Even then I never really made the connection… Until a few days later when I was sitting in a Lyon’s café, minding my own business, and suddenly Franz charged up, all in a tither…” She softly shook her head and smiled. “Although of course I was soon to learn that that was really just Franz’s way – he was always in a tither about something or other…”
“Franz?” I said.
“Franz Liszt,” Felicity casually noted. “He told me that Alice had found her way into the landscape but she had got herself into some kind of trouble and he had been sent to help me rescue her.”
“I’m sorry, do you mean the composer Franz Liszt?” clarified Michael from his seat on the stairs where he had long since forgotten about the cabin door. “Nineteenth century musical genius Franz Liszt?”
“Yes, I confess it was quite a surprise to see him pop up in a Lyons café in 1937,” remarked Felicity.
“Why him?” I asked.
“Well now, that was something that was never quite satisfactorily explained,” confessed Felicity. “Franz always insisted he’d been specially requested though I’m quite sure I was never consulted on the matter. I can hardly say he would have been my first choice – after all, he was never the most practical of men… But then, it could have been worse. After all I have always had quite a passion for the romantic composers. And Liebestraum has always been a particular favourite of mine…”
She shut her eyes for a moment and swayed her head lightly, summoning up the melody.
“I suppose it worked out well enough in the end,” Felicity continued. “At least we got on perfectly well together.” She paused and flushed slightly. “A little too well, you might say…”
“What do you mean, too well?” Sid demanded gruffly.
“Well, you know how it is. Two people thrown together in an enterprise of danger and excitement…” She looked around with rather a coy smile. “And of course though he was technically dead the Franz I met was very much in his prime. A rather dashing prime it was too. It wasn’t hard to see why so many young ladies in 19th Century Europe lost their heads over him.”
A somewhat awkward pause followed. Michael and I were busy looking nowhere in particular while Felicity drifted off for a moment into distant memories. Sid confined himself to grinding his teeth and holding onto the edge of the table so tightly that I was afraid he might snap it off.
“So what happened in the end?” I eventually asked.
“Oh, we just drifted apart really,” replied Felicity. “Franz was a lovely man but altogether too excitable for my tastes. It was always the most feverish excitement or the deepest gloom with him… But I suppose that’s musicians for you.”
“No, I meant what happened about your friend,” I said.
“Oh Alice! Well, that was nothing more than a storm in a teacup really,” declared Felicity. “It turned out she’d got herself mixed up with a group of Narrative Anarchists who had sworn a pact to free the art of story-telling from the tyrannical grip of cause-and-effect. It all started out as a bit of a lark I think but some of them got pretty serious about it. Which seemed to worry the powers-that-be, what with cause-and-effect being a pretty integral part of telling a story. I mean, it’s one thing to grow a little tired of the three act structure but if you destroy forever the possibility of plot point A leading to plot point B then most of the landscape of the imagination would probably just collapse into some kind of enormous narrative black hole. It seemed that Alice had become caught between two factions and needed our help to prevent a narrative catastrophe.”
“I assume you succeeded,” said Michael. “I mean, the landscape of the imagination hasn’t collapsed into a narrative black hole as far as I’m aware. So how did you do it?”
“We didn’t really – the whole thing more or less fell apart before we had even located Alice,” explained Felicity. “It turns out that you can’t destroy the whole edifice of cause-and-effect without a good deal of careful plotting and any amount of plotting is going to rely pretty heavily on cause-and-effect. In the end the whole thing just collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.”
“What happened to Alice?” I asked.
“As far as I know she went back to the real world, to her quiet life with the dentist in Sussex,” replied Felicity. “I guess she’d had enough excitement to last her a lifetime. And with the landscape safe I thought I might as well try looking up Lord Jeremy.”
“What about Liszt?” asked Michael in a studiedly casual tone. “Where did he end up?”
“I can’t say for sure,” confessed Felicity. “We parted ways in a rather pretty Alpine village. Franz said he wanted to stay on, he found the place very inspirational musically. Although whether it was the scenery that he found inspirational or the barmaid at the local inn I wouldn’t like to say. Anyway, I was ready to move on and that was that. Franz always assumed that the powers-that-be would come for him sooner or later and he wanted to make the most of whatever time he had left in the landscape.”
“Why didn’t you mention any of this before?” I asked. “When we told you our story back in your detective office in Havana didn’t it strike you as rather familiar?”
“Well, naturally I noticed a few similarities,” admitted Felicity, “but I didn’t think you’d want to hear about them. People who come to consult a detective are usually too wrapped up in their own problems to care to listen to other people’s tales. And, besides, I didn’t want to put you off. I was afraid that if you heard how things worked themselves out in Alice’s case you might be a little less determined to find your friend and, to be perfectly honest, I was in rather desperate need of the business at that stage.”
The mention of her ailing detective agency seemed to suddenly remind Felicity of her earlier misery. She gazed unhappily around the cabin and all the animation and vitality with which she had related her story seemed to visibly drain from her. “At the time I thought a dud detective agency was the worst failure I could possibly imagine. Well, just look at me now. This really is the failure to end all failures.”
“Hey now, don’t say that!” exclaimed Sid, swiftly throwing off the intense frown he had been wearing ever since Franz Liszt had entered the conversation. “You’re no failure Fliss.”
“It’s sweet of you to try and comfort me Sidney,” said Felicity with a soft sigh, “but just look at the facts.”
“Exactly, look at the facts!” declared Sid enthusiastically. “Haven’t you just planned and carried out the heist of the century, outwitting not only one of the tightest security details ever seen but also all those other thieves itching to get their mitts on the rubies? Now I ask you, could a failure have done that?”
“A failure could certainly then have the prize stolen from her grasp by that odious man,” retorted Felicity, determined not to be comforted.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that oily turd. We’ll get even with him,” insisted Sid dismissively.
But Felicity shook her head once more. “Anyway, the truth is I never really cared about the rubies. I only wanted them as a way into the Promethean Circle.” She gave a harsh little laugh. “What would the Promethean Circle think if they could see me now?”
“Who cares what that lot think?” snorted Sid defiantly.
“I do!” protested Felicity. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t. I know you’re going to tell me that it’s silly to worry about what other people think but I can’t help it. The simple truth is, I’ve always wanted to belong. That’s only natural, isn’t it? I mean, is it really so wrong to want to find one’s own niche?”
Sid sloshed forward and grasped her hand. “Let’s make our own niche,” he suggested. “We’re a good team, you and me. If we put our minds to it – got ourselves a proper crew, picked out our own targets – we could still make a real go of this heist business. Then all those fancy-arsed Raffles-types will be begging to join our club. What do you say?”
Felicity squeezed his hand and offered him a sad smile in reply. “Oh Sidney, you really are a gentleman, aren’t you? But I’m afraid it’s all a little too late for any of that.”
“Too late, my eye!” Sid stoutly retorted. “We ain’t done for till we’re done for. You just let me at that door again, I’ll get us out of here. Out of the way Mikey-boy!”
Michael compliantly slid back down the cabin stairs but Sid froze before he had chance to put one foot on the bottom step. We all heard it at the same time. It was a dull whining sound, something like a lazy wasp drifting across the sea, but it was gradually growing louder, indicating that whatever was making the sound was headed in our direction.
“Is that a boat?” I murmured.
“A plane perhaps?” suggested Felicity.
“Nah, that’s definitely on the water,” said Sid after an uncertain pause.
“Do you suppose they’ll see us?” said Michael.
Another pause and then, almost as one, we each broke into a chorus of wild yells and cries, thumping on the nearest bit of cabin wall we could find in an effort to make our presence heard across the sea. After a couple of minutes of this we all instinctively fell silent at the same time, listening anxiously for any sign that our efforts had been successful.
Sure enough, the strange buzz of the craft was almost on top of us now and we felt a familiar bump as it pulled up alongside. As the high-pitched whine abruptly ceased we all turned with anxious eyes to the cabin door. Now that rescue seemed at hand a nervous pall fell over the group. Just who exactly was buzzing around the Mediterranean Sea in the middle of the night? Could we be certain of a friendly response? What if Evil Sturridge had changed his mind and come back to finish us off?
There seemed to be a collective holding of breath as footsteps moved across the deck above us and we heard the bolts being slowly drawn back on the cabin door. Then the cabin door swung open and two slick young faces peered curiously down into the gloom.
“Well, this is an odd time to be taking a cruise,” remarked Morrie Minkel with his trademark grin. “Looks like your boat might have sprung a bit of a leak too.”
“What the hell are you doing here?” I exclaimed.
“Just keeping an eye on our favourite girls, ain’t we Art?” Artie Minkel, leaning nonchalantly against the doorframe, responded with his customary shrug. “After all the trouble at the hotel we had an idea you might run into some trouble with your getaway,” continued Morrie, “so we hijacked ourselves a little transport to see if we couldn’t pick up your tail. Looks like we caught up with you just in time. What happened? You got the rubies?”
“Not any more,” I ruefully admitted. “It’s kind of a long story. Can you give us a lift back to shore?”
“Sure thing babes. We’re not the kind of guys to leave a damsel in distress. We’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
“Thank goodness for that,” remarked Sid.
“Hey now, I said we look after the damsels, I didn’t say nothing about you guys,” retorted Morrie.
“I’m not going anywhere without Sidney,” Felicity swiftly insisted, grabbing hold of her fella’s hand in a gesture of solidarity.
“Now look, it’s only a small speedboat we got out here,” returned Morrie. “Things are gonna be kinda cosy as it is, ain’t that right Art?”
Artie shrugged again.
“Come on Morrie, I’m sure you could make room for us all if you wanted,” I pleaded. “Please. As a favour to me and Felicity at least?”
Morrie made a show of thinking it over, exchanging looks with his brother and tipping his head from side to side. “Well, I guess maybe we could just about squeeze you all in…” he finally said.
“On one condition, that is…” he added with a particularly lurid grin.
“So how was your date last night?” asked Michael, looking up from the breakfast table with a teasing smile.
“I told you before, it was not a date,” I replied with a frown.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” said Michael, his smile only growing all the broader. “How was your double date?”
I glared at him, torn between whether to kick him in a vulnerable spot or to simply turn and walk away, but the delicious looking array of breakfast pastries on the table persuaded me to abandon both options in favour of sitting down and taking a plate instead. “You know, as it was only by agreeing to go on this bloody date that I managed to save you from an unpleasantly soggy end in the Mediterranean,” I pointed out, helping myself to a croissant, “you might consider cutting out the wisecracks.”
“You’re right, I apologise,” conceded Michael, pouring me out a conciliatory cup of coffee. “But just out of curiosity, how did things go?”
“Not nearly as bad as I feared actually,” I admitted. “The Minkels insisted on taking us to some fancy restaurant for starters which was fairly excruciating but after that we went bowling and then danced until the early hours. Even Felicity loosened up after a bit. After a couple of bottles of champagne you could barely get her off that dancefloor.”
“Better not tell Sid that,” said Michael. “He spent the whole night moping into his whisky and grumbling that there should be a nine o’clock curfew for anyone under the age of 21.”
“Oh, I don’t think Sid has anything to worry about,” I breezily replied. “Felicity knows where her heart lies now. And besides, I wouldn’t be surprised if Artie’s passion has cooled a little by this morning.”
“Surely young love can’t be that fickle?” said Michael with a raised eyebrow.
“It can if the object of its affections criticises its bowling technique as remorselessly as Felicity did last night,” I remarked. “She didn’t take kindly to the fact that Morrie and I cleaned up at the bowling alley.”
Michael chuckled. “And what about you? You weren’t sufficiently swayed by Morrie Minkel’s bowling prowess to consider giving it all up for life as a gangster’s moll?”
“Do you mind? I’m not cut out to be anyone’s moll, least of all somebody who’s not quite old enough to register to vote. I’m hardly Bugsy Malone material, am I?”
“Not with that singing voice.”
“So I suppose it’s time we both gracefully retired from the heist business,” noted Michael with a vaguely wistful air.
“And got back to the rescuing Sturridge business,” I agreed. “Original Sturridge, that is. I’ll be quite happy if we never cross paths with Evil Sturridge again.”
“At least we can assume that Original Sturridge is still in need of rescuing,” said Michael. “Can’t we?”
“The inter-dimensional travel drive seems to indicate he is and that’s the best guide we’ve got,” I suggested. I paused and picked thoughtfully at my croissant for a moment. “Is it wrong that it was almost a relief to find out that it wasn’t him running free on the Riviera? I mean, obviously I would have been happy for him that he’d escaped…”
“But after all our efforts it would be a bit of a disappointment if we weren’t in at the death?” Michael finished for me.
“Exactly!” I declared. “I suppose you kind of get sucked into these things without really getting a chance to consider where it might lead.”
“Being inside the story makes it difficult to predict the ending,” mused Michael.
“And I’m not saying I need any massive epic death-or-glory finale,” I went on, “but I would hate for it to be a complete anti-climax.”
“I guess all we can do is wait and see,” remarked Michael, taking a thoughtful sip of coffee. “But I’m pretty sure, however this ends, there’ll be a few more twists or turns along the way.”
“We’d better make the most of breakfast then,” I noted with a smile and helped myself to another croissant.
Travels Through an Imaginary Landscape will return…