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In which the Tar Man has his first encounterwith the twenty-first century, and Kate and Dr. Dyeragree to conceal the truth from the police
It was late afternoon on December 30, the last Saturday of the Christmas holidays, and freezing fog had settled, shroudlike, over London. It had been dark since four o'clock and wherever street lamps cast their orange glow, droplets of moisture could be seen dancing in the icy air.
In Trafalgar Square, seagulls, drawn inland by the severe weather, perched on top of Nelson's head. In St. James's Park, pelicans skidded on frozen ponds. Harrods, its immense contours outlined by a million twinkling lights, appeared to float down Knightsbridge like a luxury liner. To the east of the city, dwarfing St. Paul's Cathedral, gigantic skyscrapers disappeared into the fog, their position betrayed only by warning lights blinking like ghostly spaceships from within the mists.
Meanwhile, in a dank, dark alley off Oxford Street a road that in centuries past led to a place of execution at Tyburn a homeless man was stuffing newspapers down his jacket and covering himself with layers of blankets. His black and white dog, who had more than a touch of sheepdog in him, lay at his side, shivering. The echoing noise of the street and the drip, drip, drip of a leaking gutter swiftly lulled the man to sleep and he did not even stir when his dog got to its feet and gave a long, low growl. If the man had looked up he would have seen, looming over him at some yards distant, silhouetted black on black, and perfectly still, an alert figure in a three-cornered hat who sat astride a powerfully built horse. His head was cocked to one side as if straining to hear something. Satisfied that he was alone, the dark figure slumped forward and laid his cheek against the horse's neck, expelling the breath that he had been holding in.
"What manner of place is this," he complained into the animal's ear, "to unleash all the hounds of hell for making off with a single prancer? Though 'tis true you wouldn't look amiss even in the stables at Tempest House. You have spirit I shall keep you if I can."
The Tar Man patted the horse's neck and wiped the sweat from his brow, though every nerve and sinew was ready for flight or combat. In his years as Lord Luxon's henchman he had earned a fearsome reputation. Few dared say no to him, and if they did they soon changed their mind. He had his hooks caught into enough rogues across London, and beyond, that with one twitch of his line he could reel in anything and anyone. Nothing happened without the Tar Man hearing of it first. But here, wherever "here" was, he was alone and unknown and understood nothing. It suddenly struck him that his journey here had stripped him of everything except himself. He clutched instinctively at the scar where the noose had seared into his flesh so long ago. What I need, he thought, is sanctuary. And a guide in this new world...
The Tar Man knew precisely where he was and yet he was lost. The roads were the same but everything in them was different.... This seemed to be London yet it was a London alive with infernal carriages that moved of their own accord at breathtaking speed. The noises and the smells and the sights of this familiar, yet foreign, city tore his senses apart. He had hoped that the magic machine would take him to some enchanted land where the pavements would be lined with gold. Not this...
He became suddenly aware of a faint scraping of heels on gravel behind him. Then a flicker of torchlight illuminated the deeply etched scar that cut a track down the blue-black stubble from his jaw to his forehead. He wheeled around.
"Stop! Police!" came the cry.
The Tar Man did not answer but dug his heels into the sides of the horse he had stolen two hours earlier from the mounted policeman on Hampstead Heath. Without a second's hesitation, horse and rider jumped clear over the vagrant and his dog and plunged headlong into the crowds. The frenzied barks that followed him were lost in the blast of noise that emanated from the busiest street in the world.
Wild-eyed, the Tar Man stared frantically around him. It was the time of the Christmas sales and half of London, after a week of seasonal overindulgence, was out in search of bargains. Oxford Street was heaving with shoppers, packed so densely that it took determination to walk a few feet. Never-ending streams of red double-decker buses and black cabs, their exhausts steaming in the cold, moved at a snail's pace down the wide thoroughfare.
The Tar Man drove his horse on, vainly trying to breach the solid wall of shouting pedestrians that hemmed him in. His heart was racing. He had stepped into a trap of his own making. He berated himself furiously. Numbskull! Have I left my head behind as well as my nerve? Do I not have sense enough to look before I leap?
If he could have, the Tar Man would have mown down these people like a cavalry officer charging into enemy infantry. But he could scarcely move an inch. He was trapped. Glancing around, he saw a group of men in dark blue uniforms emerging from the alley, pushing their way violently toward him, as menacing as any band of footpads of his acquaintance. Curiously, one of them was shouting into a small object he held to his lips.
Everyone was jostling and pressing up against him and screaming at him to get out of the way. All save a little girl who reached up to stroke the horse's moist nose. Her mother snatched her hand away. The Tar Man's eyes blazed. I have not come this far to fall at the first post! They shall not have me! They shall not! And he leaned down into the mass of pedestrians that pushed against him, and when he reappeared he was gripping a large black umbrella as if it were a sword. He thrust it at the crowd, jabbing at people's chests and threatening to thwack them around the head to make them move away. Their piercing screams reached the policemen, who renewed their efforts to reach him through the crowds. Soon, though, the Tar Man had won a small circle of space in which to maneuver. He reversed the horse as far as it could go and whispered something into its ear. The policemen, now only five yards away, watched open-mouthed as they beheld a display of horsemanship the likes of which they were unlikely ever to see again.
The Tar Man held the horse still for an instant and then urged his mount into a majestic leap. Four horse hooves exploded like a thunderclap onto the top of a black cab. The impact was deafening. All heads turned to discover the source of the commotion. Skidding and sliding on the shiny metal, the horse could not keep its footing for long and the Tar Man, his great black coat flying behind him, guided it onto the next cab and then the next and the next.... Hysterical passengers scrambled to get out onto the street. Pedestrians stopped dead in their tracks. And, looking down from their ringside seats on the upper decks of buses, people gawked in disbelief at the spectacle of the Tar Man and his horse playing leapfrog with the black cabs from Selfridges to beyond John Lewis. Soon screams were replaced by laughter and whoops and cheers and the furious shouts of a long line of outraged cabbies. The merest hint of a smile appeared on the Tar Man's face, but just as the thought flashed through his mind to snatch off his three-cornered hat and take a bow, he became aware of an unworldly wind and a rhythmic thrumming that caused the ground beneath him to vibrate. He looked up.
The police helicopter slowly descended. It hovered directly above the Tar Man, its blades rotating in a sickening blur. When a booming voice, like the voice of God, spoke, he held up an arm to his face and paled visibly, paralyzed with fear.
"Get off your horse. Get off your horse and lie on the ground!"
A pencil beam of blinding, blue-white light moved over the Tar Man. He was center stage, spotlit for all to see. The visitor from 1763 could not have orchestrated a more public entrance into the twenty-first century if he had hired the best publicist in London.
The pilot's magnified and distorted voice bounced off the high buildings into the foggy air:
"GET OFF YOUR HORSE! NOW!"
The Tar Man did not could not move. The helicopter descended even lower. In a reflex action to stop his three-cornered hat from blowing away, he clasped it to his head and, somehow, this simple action seemed to break the spell. He managed to tear his gaze away from the giant, flying beast and quickly scanned his surroundings for an escape route. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he recognized an alley from the Oxford Road he knew. Praying it would not be a dead end, he tugged sharply on the reins and urged his horse on. The crowd was less dense here and the Tar Man broke out, unchallenged, from the circle of light and vanished into black shadows. The helicopter pilot, anxious not to lose his prey, instantly flew higher and headed to the south of Oxford Street, training his searchlight onto half-lit sidewalks and picking out bewildered shoppers in its powerful beam, but the fugitive horseman was lost to sight.
The Tar Man emerged from the alley and rode at breakneck speed through the network of quieter streets toward Piccadilly. Onward the Tar Man galloped, never stopping nor slowing down. He encountered few of these outlandish carriages that moved without horses, and whenever he did see one, the Tar Man charged directly at it, wielding his umbrella fearlessly and daring it to attack him. In every case the strategy worked the carriages squealed to an immediate halt. But how little bottom their passengers displayed, cowering behind those queer, curved windows! Faith, they are meeker than milkmaids! Why do they not challenge me?
"Does no one ride in this city?" he yelled at a young man in a black MINI Cooper. "Where are the horses? Where is the dirt?"
The bewildered man shook his head slowly from side to side.
The Tar Man took off again. Onward he galloped, but always above and behind him he sensed the thudding of the flying beast getting nearer. He backtracked and hid in doorways and still managed to outwit his airborne pursuer. As he rode, window displays of impossible refinement flashed by extraordinary costumes and shimmering jewels, all illuminated by lights that seemed as bright as the sun. With candles or lamps as powerful as these, he thought, the city need never sleep. Moon-cursers and cutthroats and assassins would be at pains to find a dark enough spot in which to do their business.
Sirens still wailed all around, but like the insistent whirring sound of the helicopter, the fearful noise was beginning to recede into the distance. The Tar Man allowed himself to slow down and he scrutinized the sky above. To the west of him, he could just make out the fuzzy white line of the helicopter's searchlight piercing through the swirling fog. He let out a sigh of relief.
The horse was tiring. Steam rose from its flanks and its breath came out in short bursts. When the Tar Man turned a corner into a grand square and saw that there was an enclosed garden at its center, he decided to rest there awhile. He whispered into his horse's ear, clicked his tongue, and galloped toward the iron railings. The horse sailed over them and came to a halt under the cover of trees. The square was deserted except for a few couples strolling around its perimeter. The Tar Man slid off the horse and patted its neck.
"You have done well, my friend," he said. The horse blew noisily through its velvet nostrils and reached down to tear what blades of grass it could from the clipped turf. The Tar Man walked over to one of the wooden benches that lined the gravel path and slumped down. He put his head in his hands. He was trembling whether on account of the cold or the danger he did not know.
Unnoticed by the Tar Man, a police car glided into Berkeley Square, and when its driver spotted the horse, he turned off his engine and spoke into his radio. Slowly and quietly, two police officers got out of the patrol car and scrambled over the iron railings, landing noiselessly on damp earth.
A gray squirrel, ferreting about among plastic wrappers in the litter bin next to the Tar Man, disturbed him. He looked up. As he did so, he caught sight of the row of fine, tall buildings on the east side of the square. Distressed, he jumped up and looked at the west side and then looked to the south. His heart skipped a beat. Did he find himself in Berkeley Square? Could that huge edifice be Landsdowne House? He tipped back his head and peered up at the topmost branches of plane trees. These trees must be nearly two hundred years old!
"How in heaven can this be?" he exclaimed aloud. "This is Berkeley Square!"
He had accompanied Lord Luxon here only last month on a trip to see Mr. Adams, the architect, who was trying to persuade his master to sell his house on Bird Cage Walk and build a five-story house here in Berkeley Square instead. Yet there had not been a single plane tree in sight on that day and the front facade of Landsdowne House was barely started! The thought struck him that he had understood right from the start why this London was at the same time friend and stranger to him yet he could not admit it to himself until now.
"I am undone!" he exclaimed aloud. "The machine has brought me to the future! How am I to return home?"
"Would this be your horse, sir?" asked a flat, deep voice behind him.
The Tar Man swung around. He had been surprised in attack too often in his time to hesitate. As soon as he saw the two men, dressed in the same uniform as his pursuers on Oxford Street, he dived straight at their legs and grabbed a knee each, so that they toppled over one on top of the other. Before they were back on their feet, the Tar Man had already leaped onto his horse and was galloping away up the gravel path beneath the plane trees. The policemen ran back to their patrol car, radioing for assistance as they went.
The Tar Man's heart was pounding. These soldiers, with their ugly dark blue uniforms and cropped hair, were clearly not about to give up the chase. He was the fox and the pack of hounds was baying for his blood. Sirens blared from all directions. Then he heard the helicopter alter its course and move nearer. It was beyond his understanding how they did it, yet he was convinced that the soldiers could signal to each other from great distances....
He had to find his way back to his old haunts, seek sanctuary at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden. At all costs he must avoid the main thoroughfares where he would be easy game for the flying beast. Instead, he would head south toward Green Park and then east toward Leicester Square, taking care to avoid Piccadilly.
When the Tar Man turned into Dover Street, however, he was confronted by another horseless carriage, this time with blue lights blazing on its roof and a wailing siren so piercing it hurt his ears. It accelerated straight at him at tremendous speed. The Tar Man pulled on the reins so sharply that the horse reared up into the air on its back legs. He retreated backward and turned around, only to see two more police cars coming toward him from the direction of Berkeley Square. Now he fled toward Albermarle Street, but fearing that he would be trapped into riding into Piccadilly itself where he would be too exposed, he pulled up sharply and turned right into New Bond Street instead. London was clad in different, garish clothes and yet, here, its bone structure was still the same. He knew these streets. He galloped recklessly on, but a moment later he knew, without even needing to turn around, that his pursuers were upon him.
"So," he cried to the horse, "it seems that you are the last prancer in London and I am to be hunted down by persons determined to offer me hospitality of a kind I should prefer to refuse.... Ha! Damn their eyes, I say! If they're bent on nabbing us, let us not give them an easy ride!"
He swerved right into the Burlington Arcade and even as he rode for his life through the glass tunnel of luxury shops, all crystal and silver and jewels and silks, his jaw dropped at the sight of such rich pickings. It was near closing time and there were only half a dozen people left in the arcade. The air rang with the deafening sound of horse hooves striking polished stone.
"Hold, there!" he cried and pulled hard on the reins. His mount reared briefly onto its hind legs and horse and rider came to a skidding halt outside the window of a jeweler's shop. The Tar Man's eyes devoured the king's ransom of precious stones and gold that nestled in dove-gray velvet before him. A woman in a pearl necklace and cashmere coat stood cowering next to the same display. If the Tar Man was transfixed by the sight of a sapphire as big as a chestnut, sparkling under a spotlight, the woman was equally transfixed by the dark figure towering above her. She could feel the heat coming off his horse's steaming sides. The explosive roar of police motorcycles flying into Burlington Arcade broke the sapphire's spell, but the Tar Man was not going to flee without some reward. He switched his attention from the shop window to the woman's necklace in the blink of an eye. He snatched hold of her pearls and gave them a sharp tug. The clasp broke, leaving her neck bare and her face frozen in shock. Two powerful motorbikes screeched past her as, opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water, she watched the Tar Man and her pearl necklace vanish out of sight into Piccadilly.
A few hundred yards away lay Piccadilly Circus. London was coming to life for the evening. Giant neon signs blinked on and off above the bustle of the street, black cabs deposited theatergoers close to Shaftsbury Avenue, and couples stood hand in hand outside restaurants, examining the menus. A large group of young tourists sat on the edge of the fountain under the statue of Eros. They were drinking from cans and were dressed in T-shirts despite the bitter cold. One of them filmed his friends as they stood, laughing and posing outrageously, on the steps beneath the fountain. When they suddenly stopped playing around, their attention drawn by something behind him, the boy turned and focused his lens on a sight that had not been advertised in the travel brochures.
A lone figure on horseback was galloping toward them, picking his way through the crowds on the sidewalk and the traffic in the street. In front of him, people scrabbled desperately to get out of his way. When a stunned driver braked right in front of him, the horseman simply jumped onto the roof of the car before continuing on his way toward Piccadilly Circus.
"Wow!" exclaimed the boy and zoomed in on the Tar Man's pursuers. A wall of police cars and motorcyles, headlights blazing and sirens screaming, stretched fully from one side of the street to the other. Above them all, a helicopter hovered angrily, like a wasp that has been brushed aside once too often and is getting ready to strike.
The boy trained his camera on the rider. He was wearing a bizarre black hat as well as a look of intense concentration, and the boy recognized an unmistakeable glint of enjoyment cross his face. A surfer on the crest of a wave of police cars! This guy was actually having fun! The boy gave a whoop of appreciation. Whatever he'd done, he sure had gotten under the skin of the police they looked mad!
When the rider drew close to Piccadilly Circus tube station, and he saw the steady flow of people descending beneath the sidewalk, he slowed down briefly. Giving a cursory glance over his shoulder at the stream of patrol cars sweeping up behind him, he suddenly turned one hundred and eighty degrees and disappeared down the steep stairs into the London Underground. The horse had such confidence in his new master that he trotted down willingly, for all the world as if he caught the tube every day. Up above, police cars and motorcycles screeched to a halt. Passengers started to flee up the stairs in panic but immediately had to press themselves against the walls as a small army of uniformed officers converged on the ticket hall in hot pursuit of the desperado on horseback who had left a trail of destruction halfway across London.
A few minutes later, shortly after the horse had trotted calmly back up the steps, a man emerged from a different exit, wearing a tweed jacket several sizes too big for him. He had long black hair which settled in rats' tails on his collar and fell forward across his face, concealing the rather nasty scar on one cheek. The man set off, head down and hands in his pockets, in the direction of Covent Garden.
Kate woke up screaming, "Peter!"
Dr. Pirretti, who was driving the hired estate car up the M1 through dense fog, swerved involuntarily with the shock of it.
"Whoa!" she exclaimed. "That was a close call!"
Kate's Labrador, Molly, who was sitting in the trunk, started to whimper and put her golden head over the rear seat so that she could lick her face. Kate's father, Dr. Dyer, pushed the dog away.
"Everything's all right, Kate," he reassured her. "You're safe. I thought you were never going to wake up you've missed all the fun...."
"Where am I, Dad? What's happening?"
Kate was not quite awake and felt sick and confused and disoriented.
"You're going home. Anita is driving us back up to Derbyshire."
"Dr. Anita Pirretti from NASA. I told you she and Ed Jacob came over from the States when they heard that you and Peter had disappeared from the lab. She's been team-leading the antigravity project...."
"Too much detail!" protested Dr. Pirretti. "The poor kid's scarcely conscious!"
"Anita and Ed managed to get us out of Hampstead Heath without attracting too much attention."
"If we'd been spotted," laughed Dr. Pirretti, "we'd be in police custody by now! Your dad and I must have looked a tad suspicious bundling an unconscious girl and a dog into a car in the dark...."
"Ed was no better. He certainly looked as if he was up to no good sliding the antigravity machine into the back of that massive van...."
"Better too big than too small!...Kate, you don't know how glad I am to meet you at last...."
But Kate was not listening.
"Dad!" she exclaimed, ignoring Dr. Pirretti. "What happened to Peter? Where is he? Did he make it?"
There was a pause. "No. Peter was left behind. The Tar Man took his place.... There was nothing I could do...."
"But we've got to go back! We can't leave him there on his own!"
"I'm taking you back to your mother before we decide what to do next...."
"What's to decide? We have to go back and get him!"
"Ssshh...Kate. Calm down. Everything will be fine...."
"We are going back to get him, aren't we? I promised I'd never leave the eighteenth century without him!"
"Of course we are, love, but I'm not going to keep you from your mum a second longer than I have to.... She's been through enough. Not to mention your brothers and sisters. Sam was there when your mum took the phone call. He was beside himself I couldn't tell if he was laughing or crying."
Kate sighed deeply and let her tired eyelids close, but immediately the vivid memory of Peter being hurled backward from the antigravity machine came at her again, and for a split second she relived the horror of that moment. The dismay in Peter's dark eyes as he faded from view...She shuddered involuntarily and put her hand to her forehead.
"Does your head hurt?"
"Mine too. I'll give you some something for it."
"Do you think Molly's got a headache, too?"
Kate twisted round and stroked Molly's soft ears.
Dr. Dyer poured some hot, sweet tea from a vacuum flask and passed it to Kate. She swallowed the painkillers her father held out for her, and then gobbled down the chocolate he proffered to take the taste away.
"Mmmm...I've missed chocolate."
Her father laughed. "So are you going to say hello to Anita?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Hello, Anita."
"Good to meet you, Kate," said Dr. Pirretti. She spoke in a mellow Californian accent. "You've been on an amazing and unique journey but I sure hope there won't be anyone following in your footsteps!"
"But we've got to go back for Peter!" exclaimed Kate, looking alarmed.
"Of course, we will," said Dr. Dyer quickly. "But for the time being, at least, we can be grateful that he's with friends. Gideon will look out for him until we can rescue him...."
"But, Dad, Gideon will be on the run!"
"Well, if Peter is with Gideon, they'll just both have to be on the run for a while, won't they? And Gideon, of all people, knows how to handle himself when he's up against it. If he needs to get lost and stay lost in 1763, he'll do it. It's not like today, when you can't take a step without a security camera pointing at you."
"I swore I wouldn't come back without him. I feel so guilty that he's still there and I'm here...."
"It was hardly your fault! Kate, I really think you should get some rest while you can. You look even worse than I feel and we won't be at the farm for a couple of hours at least."
"No buts. You'll just have to be patient until we can sort this mess out.... Okay?"
Kate nodded reluctantly. She snuggled up to her father's shoulder and closed her eyes. She felt terrible, as if recovering from a bad illness. She fell in and out of sleep, vaguely aware of the hum of the car engine and the spasmodic conversation between her father and the woman with the American accent. Once she woke up and heard herself ask, still half-asleep: "Where's the Tar Man?"
"I don't know, love. When I woke up he was already gone."
When he was sure that Kate was finally asleep, Dr. Dyer discussed with Dr. Pirretti what they, or rather Kate, should say to the police not to mention Peter's parents. They agreed that the only course of action open to them was to insist that Kate was suffering from amnesia. She would have to say that she could remember nothing that happened to her after running down the corridor after Molly in the laboratory.
"Will Kate be able to pull it off, do you think?" asked Dr. Pirretti.
"She understands how vital this is. I know she'll do her best. And although Inspector Wheeler won't give her an easy ride whatever she tells him, it'll be much easier for her to deny remembering anything than coming up with some far-fetched story which Inspector Wheeler will take great pleasure in demolishing. If he catches even the vaguest scent of the truth, we've had it. We'll never be able to kick over the traces."
They fell silent as the car sped through the foggy night toward Derbyshire. After a while Dr. Dyer said: "I wish I'd managed to tell Peter that his father had tried to telephone him just as he and Kate were being catapulted across time.... They'd had a serious falling-out apparently. It occurred to me a couple of times to say something, but people were around and it just wasn't the right moment. I don't know what Peter's last memory of his dad was, but it certainly wasn't a good one. It's too late now...."
"Don't beat yourself up about it, Andrew. How were you expected to know that the boy was going to leap off the machine and that an eighteenth-century villain was going to hitch a lift to the twenty-first century?"
"I feel bad about it all the same.... So what are you planning to do with the antigravity machine?"
"I've told Ed Jacob to keep it locked up in the van until he can find a safe hiding place. Then I want him to go back to the States to see Russ Merrick at MIT. I told you that one of the main reasons we came over to see you after Kate and Peter's disappearance was because Russ's antigravity machine vanished without trace the same night as his office cleaner...."
Dr. Dyer nodded. "And you were speculating that the same thing had happened on both sides of the Atlantic...."
"Except that now it transpires it was all a red herring. The cleaner wasn't lost in the mists of time, after all he turned up in North Carolina."
"And the machine?"
Dr. Pirretti shrugged her shoulders. "It's a mystery. I feel uneasy about not even knowing whether it was stolen or not. I sincerely hope we won't live to regret being unable to trace it. Russ called me last night to say that he has nearly completed a prototype of an antigravity machine which incorporates elements of your friend Tim Williamson's design with his own."
"Did you tell him the real reason you commissioned him to build it so quickly?"
"No...and he's not going to be happy when Ed tells him that now that we have Tim's machine I want him to stop work on it. I don't think I'll mention that we intend to destroy it...."
"Destroy it! But surely we should wait until we've got Peter back what happens if Tim's machine has been damaged?"
"It's because of Tim Williamson that I'm in such a hurry to destroy both antigravity machines."
"What do you mean?" asked Dr. Dyer, alarmed at the mention of his colleague. "What's he done?"
"It's more a question of what he will do. He came to see me a couple of days ago. He said that if we've discovered time travel, before long someone else will, too. You can't un-discover something. You can't turn back the clock. Ha! Except now, it seems, you can. He said that it was absurd and illogical to walk away from something so momentous as the discovery of time travel."
"And, of course, if you say it quickly enough, that sounds perfectly reasonable," said Dr. Dyer.
"He was talking about patenting 'his' invention and approaching the Ministry of Defence to ensure that it didn't fall into the wrong hands..."
"How can it not, sooner or later, get into the wrong hands? People would kill for such a secret surely Tim can see that!"
"I have this sinking feeling," continued Dr. Pirretti, "that there will never be an end to this.... We're doomed to failure. A bunch of King Canutes ordering the waves to stop."
"I'll go and see Tim and try and talk some sense into him. I can't say I'm surprised, though. A bit tough to know you've made a world-shattering discovery only to be told that you have to deny all knowledge of it...."
Dr. Pirretti did not respond and Dr. Dyer saw a frown appear on her face in the rearview mirror. She looked exhausted.
"I keep thinking about the first nuclear explosion," she said. "And what Oppenheimer said when he saw that deadly cloud rise up into the sky, knowing that it was his own creation 'I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds.'"
"Is that how you feel about time travel?" asked Dr. Dyer.
"Don't you? The more I think about it, the more terrified I am by what we've done."
Kate groaned in her sleep and her father tried to make her more comfortable, tucking in the blue tartan blanket that covered her knees and smoothing back the strands of red hair that tumbled over her face.
"Is she okay?" asked Dr. Pirretti.
"Yes. She's fast asleep. By the way," continued Dr. Dyer. "I meant to ask how you are doing. Did the hospital sort out your headaches?"
"No. Plus I'm now having problems with my hearing. Not that I can't hear...sort of the reverse. It's difficult to describe.... Sometimes I think I'm..."
"No...I mustn't make too much of it. My overactive imagination sometimes plays tricks on me." She changed the subject abruptly. "What are we going to do about our uninvited guest from the past? I guess it's our duty to track him down and send him back to his own time though I suspect that he'll disappear out of sight never to be heard of again. After all, who's going to believe he's from the eighteenth century? What did you call him?"
"The Tar Man. It's on account of him being hanged for a crime which he probably didn't commit. Unfortunately for him, they didn't find out he was still alive until after he'd been covered in tar and strung up from a gibbet on the village green for the crows."
Dr. Pirretti shuddered. "Great...so you didn't just bring back anyone, you brought back an eighteenth-century villain with a grudge against the world!"
"It's not the Tar Man who's worrying me it's Peter. You're...you're not actively against trying to rescue him, are you?"
Dr. Pirretti did not answer right away and then replied: "If you knew, for sure, that going back in time again could potentially damage the universe in some catastrophic way we can't yet envisage, would it be right to risk the safety of the rest of humanity for the sake of one innocent boy? That's the question I've been asking myself and I don't know the answer."
The evening air in Covent Garden was full of applause and laughter. Large circles of people had formed around one of the street entertainers who are always ready to perform for the crowds near the market halls. This particular entertainer was riding on a unicycle as tall as a bus. He was inviting members of the audience to throw up a variety of objects, all of which he would endeavor to catch on his head, balancing all the while by pedaling backward and forward and holding his arms stretched out wide. Someone had thrown up an empty beer can and he had managed to balance it on his forehead while whistling "Oh my darling Clementine." This earned him a big round of applause. The Tar Man marveled at the bizarre contraption which the entertainer rode with such skill, and idly wondered about the beer can, which looked as if it were made of metal and yet appeared to weigh so little.
He stood, half-hidden behind a pillar, under the portico of St. Paul's Church, which rose up like a small Roman temple on the west side of Covent Garden Piazza. The Tar Man had stood in this selfsame spot so many times in his life either sheltering from the rain or, more likely, on the lookout for fresh talent, as he watched the spectacle of London's villains plying their trade. He would admire the skill of a cutpurse filching a snuffbox, or perhaps a lace handkerchief, from a gentleman on his way to see Mr. Garrick in his latest role at the Covent Garden Theatre and if he was any good his victim would be none the wiser. Or, on a moonless night, he would watch a gang of footpads lurking at the entrance to an alley, waiting for the linkboy to reappear, panting, into the Piazza. The linkboy, paid to escort a party through an unlit passage with his high lantern, would abandon his terrified victims in the darkness, helpless and ripe for the picking....
The main entrance to St. Paul's Church was not in the Piazza but at the opposite end of the building through a pleasant churchyard to be reached via Bedford Street. The Tar Man had just come from there and he was not well pleased with the elderly church official who had refused him entry.
The church was hosting a concert that evening and a soprano's voice trilled and soared up into the night. It was fortunate for the Tar Man that the police had lost his trail because the sanctuary that he had claimed at St. Paul's was not going to be granted to him on this evening. The old man had even gone so far as to try and sell him a ticket.
"I ask for sanctuary and you demand ten pounds!"
"Or five for concessions. Are you a student or unemployed?" asked the old man, but his outraged interlocutor had already left in disgust.
Now, as the Tar Man stood looking out over Covent Garden Piazza, refused sanctuary in this world as he had been in his own, his mind turned to how he was going to make his way in this strange, modern world. It would be a new beginning. Powerful though he had been, the Tar Man was tired of being Lord Luxon's henchman. In this London he would bow to no one.... Fate had led him to the magic machine in Derbyshire and nothing would stop him from making his mark.
The crowd in front of him burst into peals of laughter. The Tar Man looked over and saw the cause of the merriment. A little girl, perhaps five years old, who announced that her name was La-La, had been invited to throw up some plastic rings for the entertainer to catch in his teeth. She found that she got more applause if she missed, and started to throw them randomly into the crowd instead. Sensing the entertainer's thinly disguised anger, the crowd was in fits of laughter. Soon, the entertainer had had enough of a child stealing his thunder and wound up the show. He took his final bow and passed around a top hat. The spectators reached into their pockets and coins rained into its silk interior. Those who drifted off without contributing, he shamed by shouting after them. Most of them sloped back guiltily and dropped fat pound coins onto the pile with a clink. When the entertainer thrust his hat at the Tar Man, he glanced up at him and coolly shook his head.
The street entertainer insisted and poked his hat, jingling with coins, at the Tar Man once more.
"So you expect me to provide you with free entertainment, do you?"
The Tar Man laughed in his face in such a way that the entertainer felt obliged to join in even though he felt the hackles rise on the back of his neck.
"Upon my word, sir, you do entertain me vastly!"
The Tar Man grabbed hold of the entertainer's arm with an iron grip and forcibly wrenched the hat from his grasp. He had stopped laughing and was fixing the entertainer with a stare that made his blood go cold. Without breaking eye contact the Tar Man flung the hat and all its contents onto the Piazza so that dozens of coins rolled all over the cobblestones.
"Oi!" squawked the entertainer and raised an arm in a fist as if to thump him. But the Tar Man easily deflected the halfhearted blow, and taking hold of the entertainer's ear, he twisted it mercilessly until the man sank to his knees, crying out with the pain of it.
"Where I come from, beggars have better manners," the Tar Man commented with an expression on his face that discouraged any thought of retaliation. "Pray that our paths do not cross again."
It pleased the Tar Man that his old haunts were as busy and lively as ever. And so respectable now that it made him want to laugh what sights he had witnessed in these streets! No doubt the men in the dark blue uniforms had put a stop to that sort of thing....
It is astonishing how quickly novelty wears off. After half an evening strolling around Covent Garden, the Tar Man was no longer shocked at the sight of women in trousers and with their hair cut short. In fact, he even appreciated it, in a way. But how the cloth merchants must suffer, he thought, on account of this fashion. Why, the material needed for one dress in his time would surely clothe three or four women now. He was no longer taken aback by girls revealing their ankles and knees and thighs, for that matter. And he was already accustomed to seeing the large number of foreign faces. It took him longer, however, to get over the lack of poverty and malnourished faces on every street corner.... Gone were the armies of barefoot children and beggars in rags, skin stretched tight over bone. Instead he saw plump, clear complexions and shining hair and such white teeth! This truly was a land of plenty. He drank it all in and reveled in it. Was the whole of London like this? He loved the shop windows bright as a sunny day and the neon signs and the orange streetlights. The Tar Man quickly learned to keep to the sidewalk and noticed that if people wanted to cross to the other side of the street, they tended to walk over black and white stripes painted on the hard, dark surface. The Tar Man preferred to take his chances and darted through traffic, causing waves of drivers to screech to a halt or sound their horns. But as he played tag with the streams of horseless carriages, he began to take some interest in them. He admired the way they glided along and how the passengers looked so at ease inside. A low, silver carriage, parked on a quiet back street, caught his eye and the desire swept over him to sit inside it. He struggled in vain to open the door and ended up kicking it in frustration. When the vehicle came to life, screaming at him with an unworldly, pulsing, deafening howl and with lights flashing, the Tar Man fled as fast as his legs would carry him. But at the end of the street he turned back to look and saw an elderly man walking past the protesting vehicle, quite unconcerned. Intrigued, the Tar Man walked up to another carriage, this time a large, shiny green one, and waited until no one was looking. This time he did not jump quite as much when his kick provoked a stream of high-pitched staccato beeping. Again, no one seemed to take any notice. The Tar Man smiled to himself. If these carriages could talk, he thought, they would be shouting "Stop, thief!" Save their plea falls on stony ground, for the good citizens do not care a fig for their predicament.... Back in the main thoroughfares, the Tar Man observed that when people raised their hands, large black carriages would swoop to the pavement, whereupon the passenger would climb into the back and recline on a spacious seat and be transported away. Soon he, too, would command a carriage and ride in style through the streets of the city but not yet. First, he needed to learn the rules of the game...and above all he needed a guide.
As the evening wore on, he became increasingly tired and hungry and thirsty. He stopped for a moment in front of a French restaurant and peered through an abundant display of flowers at elegant couples who sat at circular tables bathed in pools of gentle light and at attentive waiters in black waistcoats who proffered menus and brushed crumbs off white linen tablecloths. The Tar Man licked his lips. This was a tempting chop house; he could smell meat.
He made a note of the entrance where waiters periodically appeared laden with plates of steaming food. Then he waited for the right moment and walked confidently into the restaurant, weaving between the tables and making directly for the kitchens. London is a tolerant city that welcomes eccentrics and the Tar Man's dress overlarge tweed jacket over knee britches and buckled shoes, with a hairstyle resembling dreadlocks provoked little comment and at least one complimentary remark. A girl indicated his knee britches, smiled, and gave him the thumbs-up sign. Unsure of the meaning of her gesture, the Tar Man nevertheless bowed his head in acknowledgment and continued into the bright, white kitchen.
A young chef was pouring brandy over a pan of sizzling steak. He paused for a moment when he saw the Tar Man.
"Ze toilets is to ze right, monsieur," he said in a strong French accent, indicating the direction with a wooden spoon.
The Tar Man nodded and smiled and glanced around the cluttered surfaces. There, near the door, he spotted a row of freshly arranged plates ready to go. The chef tipped the sauté pan so that the gas ignited the warmed brandy. Blue flames shot high into the air. When the chef turned back, the Tar Man had gone.
Back outside, on Floral Street, the two roast breasts of duck burned into the Tar Man's hip through his pocket lining. He took one out, blowing on it and passing it from one hand to the other while tearing at its piping hot flesh with his teeth. He discovered that there was some loose change jingling at the bottom of his pocket. He took out the greasy coins and examined them. What I fancy now, he thought, is some decent ale, and he wondered if the tavern he used to frequent nearby was still there. He doubted it but headed, in any case, toward Rose Street. To his delight, there it was, almost the same except, like everything else now, or so it seemed to him, cleaner and more respectable.
"By the devil!" he exclaimed. "The Bucket of Blood! Though I'll warrant they've put a stop to the fistfighting!"
The pub was smoky and crowded, with low beams and an open fire burning at the back, and there were far too many people trying to get served at the bar. The Tar Man instantly felt at home. He took up a position at one end of the polished wooden bar and threw down the coins on the counter.
"A tankard of ale, if you please, mistress."
The barmaid, who was used to tourists shouting their orders in Olde Worlde English, reeled off the names of the different beers she could offer him. Confused, he pointed to the glass of pale amber liquid that his drunken neighbor was nursing in his hands. The barmaid nodded patiently and deposited a pint of lager in front of him. It was only when he pushed all his coins at her and was still ninety pence short of the price that she began to show signs of irritation. She was on the verge of calling the manager when the drunken man slumped over the bar offered to buy him a pint.
"Are you sure?" said the barmaid, unwilling to let this character take advantage of one of her regulars.
"A friend indeed is a friend in need," he slurred, and pulled a five-pound note out of his wallet.
The Tar Man looked at it with interest. "You can pay with that?" he asked.
The drunk screwed up his eyes and turned to look at him. "You foreign or somethink?"
"I am from far away."
"Well, welcome to London, mate. Cheers!"
"Thank you, my friend," said the Tar Man, and they clinked glasses.
He took a large mouthful of lager and all but spat it out in shock.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, then cautiously took another sip and shook his head in delighted surprise. He drank again and smiled broadly.
"What's up? You all right?"
"It's cold," breathed the Tar Man. "It's as cold as a mountain stream!"
"Don't they serve beer cold where you come from?"
"Where do you come from?"
"Course you do, mate! Nice scar you've got. A real beauty. How did that happen, then?"
It amused the Tar Man to tell him his life story, knowing that the drunk would remember nothing in the morning. Indeed, soon afterward, his generous drinking partner collapsed onto the bar.
The Tar Man looked down at him and shook his head. "People haven't changed for the better," he said to himself, gulping down more lager, "but some things definitely have!"
When the barmaid called "Time, gentlemen, please!" at closing time, the Tar Man slapped the drunk man's face to rouse him. When this had no effect he heaved him up and supported him into the street. He propped him up against the nearest wall and removed his wallet. He slid out the wadge of paper money and slipped the wallet back into the man's pocket.
"Never let drink get the upper hand, my friend," the Tar Man whispered into his ear. "And never let sentiment rule your actions."
The Fall of Snowflakes
In which Mrs. Dyer sees something alarming,the Tar Man finds what he is looking for,and Kate contacts Peter's father
When Kate walked into the kitchen at the farm, exhausted and utterly overwhelmed by her conflicting emotions, she was immediately enfolded in a forest of arms that refused to let her go. Her brothers and sisters stood on the threshold, huddled around her. Only Sam, the next eldest, held back a little, his eyes too brimful of emotions to risk anything more. The twins, Issy and Alice, covered her with kisses, as she knew they would, while the two youngest, Sean and little Milly, crawled up her legs as if she were a tree trunk. She tried to speak, but couldn't. When she looked at her mother she saw, etched into her features, despite her current joy, the pain and fear of the preceding weeks.
But now it was Monday morning, barely a day and a half since her return, and Kate was helping her mother with the milking. She wanted to feel that everything was back to normal even though it was far from it. The calm patience of the cows and the smell of the milking parlor were so familiar and comforting it made her want to cry. Where was she going to find the courage to leave her mother and her brothers and sisters and return once more to 1763? And what if something went wrong? She might never see them again. She almost wished that her father had not brought her home surely it would have been better to go back and search for Peter straightaway.
In the blinking fluorescent light, beads of moisture shone on Erasmus Darwin's broad pink nose as she waited her turn to be milked. Kate stroked the cow's soft, black ears and admired, as she always did, the length of her eyelashes. The memory of her meeting with the cow's namesake, the real Erasmus Darwin, suddenly flooded into her head she recalled how excited she had been to meet the great man in Lichfield after the party had been attacked by the highwayman, and how she had let slip that Darwin's grandson, Charles, would discover evolution. Peter had been so cross with her afterward!...She smiled at the thought but then, unbidden, another memory rushed in. She pictured the tiny attic room in Lincoln's Inn Fields where she and Peter had sat sweltering in the heat of a sunny summer afternoon. It was the day of the blood pact and she could hear herself making Peter repeat after her, "I swear on my life that I shall never return to the twenty-first century without you." Except it was she who had broken that sacred promise. A wave of grief and guilt passed through her but she did not allow herself the release of tears.
"There," said her mother, standing up and pushing back a dark curl from her face. "All done. Let's go and get some breakfast inside you. Megan's mum sent over some Cumberland sausages; she knows how much you like them."
"Can Megan come over later?"
"Yes, of course she can. Inspector Wheeler promised he'd be finished with you by noon."
Kate's face dropped.
"I hate having to lie. I don't think he believes me."
"Oh, Katie...I wish we didn't have to put you through this."
Kate put her arms around her mother's waist and buried her head in her shoulder.
While Mrs. Dyer finished up, Kate opened the barn door and stood against it watching the line of peaceable animals pass through. The cows ambled across the muddy yard in their rolling, ungainly way, following the exact diagonal path they always trod. They trooped into the field and she clanged shut the metal five-bar gate behind them.
Dawn had just broken and a few fluffy flakes of snow floated down from a lead-gray sky. The wind had dropped and the valley seemed eerily still. Kate's spirits rose a little, for she loved snow. If it settled, she and Sam could make a snowman at least once Inspector Wheeler and his entourage had finished asking her their interminable questions. With any luck his police car might get stuck in a snowdrift! She twirled round and round, head back, mouth open, hoping that a snowflake would land on her tongue. As she looked up, she had the strangest sensation that the laws of gravity had been temporarily suspended and that the snowflakes were hanging, immobile, in the column of cold air above her. It must be a trick of the light, she thought.
"Look, Mum!" she shouted. "It's snowing!"
Mrs. Dyer did not answer her but stood, motionless, an anxious expression forming on her face, at the other side of the farmyard.
"Mum! Look, it's starting to snow! Mum?...Is anything wrong?"
Her mother neither moved nor spoke and then Kate heard an unearthly sound behind her, horribly loud and deep, an unrelenting, throbbing noise which she felt in the pit of her stomach. Fearful of what she might see, she pressed the palms of her hands over her ears and whipped around. Yet there was nothing unusual as far as she could make out apart, perhaps, from the cows, which would normally have reached the other side of the field by now. Instead, they were still all clustered around the gate and every single one of them was looking directly at her. Then she noticed that none of them was moving at all not even a twitch of a tail. The huddle of black and white cows fixed their unblinking gaze on her, and all the while this awful, piercing sound drilled into her.
But when Kate looked back at Mrs. Dyer for reassurance, she saw that her mother was, just like the cows, motionless, seemingly frozen, and, in a deeply distressing way, elsewhere.
Horrified, Kate ran over to Mrs. Dyer. Something was very wrong indeed she was not responding.
"Mum, please! What's happening?"
Kate reached out to shake her, but the instant she touched her mother everything was transformed. She experienced a sensation similar to opening the door of a quiet, air-conditioned train and stepping out onto a bustling station platform: one moment you are cocooned and safe, the next you are buffeted by waves of noise and activity. All at once the volume was turned up: The cows were mooing, her mother was speaking, the cold wind was blowing, and the snow was falling. She was a part of the world again, and she brushed aside the small voice in the back of her mind that asked why, if there was something wrong with her mother, did she suddenly feel so different?
Kate scrutinized her mother. She did not look ill.
"Are you all right? What happened to you?" asked Kate. "You were acting really weird!"
"I was!" exclaimed Mrs. Dyer. Kate watched her mother pass her hands over her eyes and shake her head as if to clear her mind. Then she said: "I'm all right low blood sugar or something.... For a minute, I thought...Oh, never mind, let's go in and get some breakfast inside us."
Kate kissed her mother's cheek. "You've been working too hard what with me and Dad being away. I think you were about to faint. It was really strange almost like you were moving in slow motion."
The cows were still mooing and pressing up against each other, their hooves churning up the mud next to the gate.
"Look," said Kate, pointing at them, "you've even spooked the cows."
As they were walking back to the house, the newspaper boy arrived. He was a couple of years ahead of Kate at school.
"It's you!" he grinned. "We all thought you was a goner!"
"That's nice!" laughed Kate.
"Look," he said, opening up the front page of their newspaper and pointing to a photograph. "You're famous! Here, you can have that one, too, I've got a spare. Bye! Don't go getting lost again!"
Kate and her mother spread out the newspapers on the table. They looked at the first. The news of her return had not made the front page, owing to an England soccer star's divorce, but there, on page two, was Kate in her old school photograph. Kate was appalled.
"Oh no! You let them use that photo?" she exclaimed.
Then she noticed the puzzling and bizarre headline above it and quickly scanned the article. The news reporter had asked Inspector Wheeler if he would like to speculate on what could have happened to Kate Dyer to have made her lose her memory. A traumatic event of some kind? An attempt to conceal the truth?...The Inspector had replied that, despite extensive investigations, all their lines of inquiry had turned up one blank after another; he therefore could not afford to leave any stone unturned. The reporter had clearly taken him at his word.
"Oh no," said her mother as she saw the headline. "Your father and Dr. Pirretti are going to go mad when they see this...."
It read: POLICE STUMPED: WAS MISSING GIRL ABUDCTED BY ALIENS?
It was early afternoon and a wintry sun shone down on London from a cloudless sky. There had been a hard frost that night and the puddles were still iced over and the wind was bitter. The Tar Man, however, sat warm and at his ease, his long legs stretched out beneath a window table at The George, a former coaching inn, a stone's throw from London Bridge. His fingers were draped over the fascinating black radiator beneath the window ledge and were periodically withdrawn when they grew too hot.
The Tar Man found that he preferred to sup his ale in taverns he had frequented in his previous existence. The George Inn was one such, and it had changed surprisingly little. All the stagecoaches between London and Canterbury used to stop here, and there were rich pickings for any highwaymen prepared to tackle the guard and his blunderbuss. The George Inn still had its pretty, galleried balconies that overlooked the large cobbled yard, but gone were the noise and bustle, the passengers clamoring for food and the drivers shouting at the stable lads to bring water for their horses. It was here that the Tar Man liked to meet the highwayman, Doctor Adams, so called on account of his habit of dislocating the shoulder of any victim who proved uncooperative. He would, however, generously push back the arm into its socket before taking his leave for, as he freely admitted, once he had deprived his victims of their valuables, they would be hard-pressed to pay for a doctor afterward.
"Enjoy your meal, Sir."
One of the bar staff placed a large plate of fish and chips in front of him, golden brown and crunchy. There was a steaming mound of green peas on the side. The Tar Man devoured it with his eyes first. At that time of day, the low winter sun hit the windows of the modern office block opposite and its rays were reflected back through the casement windows into the dark, wood-paneled room. A narrow beam of sunshine passed through his glass of ice-cold beer and cast a pleasing amber glow on his succulent meal. The Tar Man licked his lips. And fresh peas, too! How the devil did they manage to grow garden peas in the middle of winter! He was beginning to warm to the twenty-first century.
While he ate, the Tar Man's gaze fell onto the cleanly swept yard with its rows of wooden tables and benches and curious outdoor heaters like giant mushrooms. He took another gulp of beer and looked at the scene outside. It amused him that all these people would choose to eat under the open sky when they could be sitting here in the bar. Something made him look twice at a girl of perhaps fifteen or sixteen who was walking past his window. She settled herself at a bench underneath one of the heaters. He watched her pull open a packet of what he had only that morning discovered were crisps. He did not care for them. They hurt his gums. The girl took a swig from a red-labeled bottle. What was it about her? She was very pretty she had olive skin and large, expressive, dark eyes, and her silky black hair was cut short like a boy's but it was more than that. Her clothes, which the Tar Man found ugly in the extreme, like most of the fashions paraded on London's streets, were deliberately ripped and baggy and drab, yet her outfit could not disguise her natural grace. But what caught the Tar Man's attention above all was the professional way in which she scanned the yard before she sat down, as if she were making a careful mental note of who sat where, who was worth a second look, and where the nearest exit was to be found. He recognized a kindred spirit. They belonged to the same tribe, he and this girl; he was certain of it.
The Tar Man ate the last morsel of fish and pushed away his plate contentedly, although his gaze kept wandering back to the yard. Four youths walked by carrying pints of beer and chose to sit at the table adjacent to the girl. She had taken out a paperback book from her pocket and was poring over it, popping crisps mechanically into her mouth as she read. The youths were all loud and intent on having a good time, but one of them, the leader of this little gang, was more full of himself than the rest. He was tall and blond and kept looking over at the girl and after a while started to imitate her, hunched up over a book, in order to win her attention. His mates laughed; the girl did not react. Then the youth reached over and tried to grab her book. Before he could touch it, she swung her arm up sharply, without even raising her head, and knocked his wrist out of the way. He could not stop himself from crying out she was wearing a chunky metal bracelet, and she had hurt him. She continued to read. His mates, on the point of laughing, stopped themselves when they saw the thunderous expression on his face. He shouted something at the girl. The Tar Man could not make out the words he used, but by the reaction of the people seated at tables around them, they were ugly. At first the girl did not move but then she coolly raised her head and looked up at the boy. Whatever it was that she said to him, all his mates burst into spontaneous laughter, spluttering their beer into the air. The blond youth kicked out petulantly at the girl's table, causing her bottle of Coca-Cola to wobble from side to side. The girl's hand shot out to steady it and calmly went back to her book. The Tar Man smiled appreciatively. She had spirit and knew how to handle herself. A thought came to him: Could this girl be the guide he was seeking?
After a few minutes, he observed her gather her things together and walk toward the inn, squeezing through the rows of benches. She slid past a large, burly man whose generous rear was jutting out over his bench. He was staring deep into the eyes of an attractive woman opposite him as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist for him. The Tar Man did not have a clear view, yet he was certain that the girl had taken something from his back pocket. She had chosen well of all the customers in the yard he was the easiest target. Then he saw her tap the big man on the shoulder, whisper something in his ear, and point at the table of youths. The big man immediately got up, felt in his trouser pocket, and, finding it empty, tore across the yard like a charging bull elephant.
Her pretty face alight with a delighted smile, the girl entered the low-ceilinged bar where the Tar Man sat. She ordered a cup of decaffeinated coffee at the bar, and while the barman had his back to her she removed several ten-pound notes from the big man's wallet and shoved the evidence between a potted plant and its holder. The Tar Man called over to her from his table.
"That was neatly done."
The girl whipped round. She was angry with herself that she had not noticed him sitting there.
"What you talking about? I never did nothing!"
The Tar Man smiled broadly. "Never try to hoodwink a hoodwinker. I say it as one who has an appreciation for such things."
The girl looked the stranger up and down, took in his scar and his unusual taste in clothes.
"Well, I can see you ain't the law...."
She walked toward his table, ignoring the Tar Man, so that she could see what was going on outside. She grinned broadly. The burly man was dragging the youth, shouting and kicking, out of the yard into Borough High Street.
The barman came over to the table with the girl's coffee, thinking they were together.
"No " she started to say.
"Yes," interrupted the Tar Man, "let us drink a glass together."
"You don't half speak funny...."
"I see that it pleases you to read."
The girl looked askance. "Yeah, and...?"
"Would you do me the kindness of reading this for me?"
The Tar Man pointed to a small framed poem hung on the wall next to the window. It was a surprising request and the girl found herself reading it before she could think of a reason to refuse.
"Weep on, weep on, my pouting vine!
Heav'n grant no tears but tears of wine!"
She reads well! thought the Tar Man. Even better...
"Forgotten your specs, have you?" asked the girl.
"Specs? I do not understand you."
"Spectacles! You know..."
"Ah. No. It is not for that reason that I cannot read."
"You're dyslexic, then?"
"Upon my word your speech is hard to follow!"
"You get your letters confused?"
"As I never knew my letters, I could hardly confuse them. In my time, natural good sense was more than sufficient and I never felt the lack. I fear that things have changed."
The girl looked at the Tar Man. He read suspicion and curiosity in her features.
"I have a fancy we could be of use to each other, you and I."
He had unsettled the girl. Usually she was good at sizing people up, but she did not know what to make of this character.
"I gotta be going."
"Tell me your name first."
"My name ain't none of your business!"
The Tar Man stood up and bowed his head. "Then until we meet again..."
"I doubt it."
The girl swallowed down her coffee and made for the door. The Tar Man made sure that he was looking away when she sneaked a final glance at him, as he knew she would.
It was the first day of the spring term for Kate's younger siblings. Sam, who never usually gave his sister hugs, ran back from the Land Rover to give her one before he left. She had tousled his hair roughly and told him that he had gone soft while she had been away, but he could see that she was pleased. Kate was half- expecting her parents to say that she had to go to school too, as her mum was always so strict about taking days off. Instead, her mother had encouraged her to take it easy and catch up on her sleep if she could. Mrs. Dyer had then gone even further and, to Kate's astonishment, had telephoned Inspector Wheeler to insist forcibly that her daughter was exhausted and needed rest and calm and could not possibly be questioned again today. So Kate found herself at a loose end: She had eaten lunch, taken Molly for a walk, and read the two little ones a story before their afternoon nap. She decided to go downstairs and watch television. Sean and Milly were both light sleepers, so she crept carefully down the creaky stairs so as not to disturb them. The kitchen door was shut and she thought she could hear voices. Her dad had gone out mid-morning so she presumed it was the radio, but as she was about to turn the handle she recognized both her parents' voices. They were speaking in a desperate tone and, fearful, she stood for a moment to listen. What she heard convinced her to remain outside the door unannounced. She pressed her cheek against the heavy oak door.
Her mother was speaking. She sounded agitated.
"Dr. Pirretti can't be serious about destroying the antigravity machine tonight! Even if it's true that Tim Williamson intends to get it back, it doesn't follow that he is going to spill the beans to NASA or to the press."
"I think he will," replied her father. "I think he wants to go down in history as the inventor of time travel. Anyway, he lied to me about where he was going. It was only because his flatmate happened to be there that I found out that he wasn't going to be around over the next couple of days because, quote, 'he's picking up a large bit of equipment.'"
"Where is the antigravity machine, anyway?" asked Mrs. Dyer.
"In a lock-up garage behind a post office in a village in Hertfordshire. Middle Harpenden or something."
"But how can Anita even think of destroying it now?" said Mrs. Dyer. "It's monstrous!"
Dr. Dyer did not answer.
"Please don't tell me that you would be prepared to leave Peter stranded in 1763!" shouted his wife.
Kate bit her lip. This was awful. She could tell her mother was close to tears. It was bad enough eavesdropping and hearing her parents argue which was something they never did but she could not believe what she was hearing.
"Listen," said Dr. Dyer. "I am trying very hard to keep my head and to do the right thing. I didn't say that I was happy about leaving Peter in the eighteenth century! And I'm quite sure that Anita isn't either but can't you see that she is justified in fearing the consequences of going back even one more time? And she's worried that Inspector Wheeler may wheedle the truth out of Kate, that Tim Williamson may go public, and that the antigravity machine will be impounded.... If the tabloid press get their hands on this story, we'll have more to worry about than headlines about alien abductions."
"But a boy's life is at stake!"
"You don't need to tell me that!" roared Dr. Dyer. "And who knows how many lives will be at stake if we do go after him!"
"Ssh...," said Mrs. Dyer. "Kate might hear us."
With difficulty, Dr. Dyer made himself speak slowly and calmly.
"Can't you see what a nightmare time travel could be? The future of history would be up for grabs.... Just imagine what it could be like the person you're talking to could suddenly disappear because someone went back in time and changed something that wiped out his entire bloodline. We're old enough to have learned that life is a game of chutes and ladders at the best of times. I, for one, don't want to live in a world where you are forced to play it in several dimensions."
"And Anita Pirretti thinks it's okay to sacrifice Peter to her doomsday theory?" asked Mrs. Dyer.
"Of course she doesn't think it's okay! But she does think it might be the most responsible course of action...."
Mrs. Dyer let out a desperate little cry.
"And does the same go for you? Are you going to stand by and let her do it?"
"I...I don't know yet. My heart and my head are saying different things."
"Peter's father is coming over this evening," Mrs. Dyer cried. "Tell me, what are we supposed to say to him?"
"As little as possible...."
Behind the door Kate clenched her fists. She turned white with anger.
"And remember," continued Dr. Dyer, "that we have no guarantee that we can return to 1763 a third time or, if we manage it, that we could then return to the present."
"But we've got to try, surely! Peter is an innocent victim in all of this. He didn't ask to be sent back in time!"
"True but how many innocent victims will there be if we let the world know that time travel is possible?"
Kate had heard enough was this really her Dad talking? What kind of a monster had he turned into? She took a deep breath, composed her face into a smile, and burst into the kitchen. Her parents were standing at opposite sides of the room, and her mother's complexion was blotchy. Both immediately clammed up and stood looking awkwardly at their daughter.
"Is it still okay for me to invite Megan over?" asked Kate brightly.
"Yes, of course it is, love, if you feel up to it," answered her mother. "But you...you will be careful what you say to her, won't you?"
"Of course," replied Kate. "I'll give her a ring, then. She'll probably be back from school by now. Can she stay for a sleepover?"
An hour later Mrs. Dyer stood at the window holding little Milly. They watched Kate run out into the yard to greet Megan. The valley was already in dark shadow, and the hilltops with their light dusting of snow glistened red. Banks of ominous gray clouds were building up to the north. "I shouldn't like to be out tonight," she said. "Aren't you glad we'll all be warm and cozy inside...." Milly did not reply, preoccupied as she was with puckering up her lips against the pane of glass like a fish in an aquarium. Through the window they heard squeals of delight as the two friends ran toward each other arms outstretched, so happy to be reunited. Kate and Megan had talked endlessly on the telephone but this was their first meeting. The girls' breath came out in great clouds of steam. They hugged and talked and hugged each other again. Then they disappeared into the cowshed for some privacy, as they often did. Mrs. Dyer smiled to see them.
"Do you know," she said to Milly, "your big sister and Megan have been friends since they weren't much older than you? It seems like only yesterday since I saw them walking hand in hand into nursery school on their first day, eyes wide as saucers at this big new world. You've got that coming, my love...."
Milly blew bubbles on the glass. "Your big sister is going to want to go back and rescue Peter. I know she is...."
"Pe-ta," repeated Milly.
"But I shan't let her not again. I almost hope that the antigravity machine will be destroyed tonight! Why should our family suffer anymore? It wasn't our fault! Perhaps it is right that one boy's happiness be sacrificed for the greater good.... And he has a difficult relationship with his father, according to Margrit. Why, he might even prefer it in the eighteenth century...."
The toddler started to wriggle and Mrs. Dyer put her down. "You're getting heavy, Milly, my love."
As she stood up again, her hand pressing against the small of her back, shame pricked at her. She thought of Peter's mother and what she must be going through, and then turned her mind to what on earth she was going to say to Peter's father when he arrived in a couple of hours' time.
Kate was telling Megan about her parents' argument. "It's like they'd had a personality change! I couldn't believe it!"
They were sitting side by side on a bale of hay, their backs against the cold brick wall. Kate's long, red hair made Megan's blond ponytail seem even paler. Megan knew her friend well enough not to argue.
"Stress does funny things to grown-ups."
"You will help me, won't you, Meggie?"
"Yes, of course I will.... Not that I want you to go back in time again either."
"I don't have a choice! If I don't try to save him, I'll have to live with it for the rest of my life. It was a blood pact."
"You are going to tell Sam, aren't you? You don't realize what a terrible state he's been in. I don't know how he'd cope if he woke up and found you'd disappeared again."
"Wouldn't it be better if I just went? He'll only get upset anyway and then he might give the game away."
"That's not fair, Kate we didn't know if you were alive or dead! It's torture not knowing.... If you explain it to him, he won't like it but at least he'll understand."
"Okay, okay. I'll tell him."
Megan's big Christmas present was a state-of-the-art mobile phone which had barely left her hand since she had pulled it excitedly out of its box. Now she used it to track down Mr. Schock's office number. She was convincing enough to persuade the receptionist to reveal her "uncle's" mobile number. She put her own mobile to her ear and waited.
"He's not answering it's gone into voicemail," she said. "Now what do we do?"
"Leave a message, of course! Here, give it to me!" exclaimed Kate.
She gulped and took a deep breath, suddenly unsure what to say.
"Hello, Mr. Schock. You don't know me but I know your son very well. My name is Kate Dyer. Will you please ring this number urgently. I need to talk to you before you come to the farm. Before you speak to my parents. Please. This is a matter of life or death for your son."
"Well, if that doesn't get a response, nothing will!" said Megan.
There was a knock on the barn door. It was Sam.
"Come on in, Sam," called Megan. And then, with a pointed look at Kate, "We need you to help us with something. Kate's got something to tell you. Kate, you'd better keep hold of the phone in case Peter's dad calls."
The poor boy looked alarmed as Kate patted the haystack next to her. He sat down next to his big sister and Megan discreetly retreated to the house.
"You can start packing," Kate called after her. "Look under my pillow...."
Sam looked even more alarmed.
Megan waited in Kate's room. She picked up the pillow and saw, neatly arranged underneath, all those items which Kate had deemed essential for a stay in the eighteenth century. Megan picked them up one by one and stashed them in Kate's canvas backpack. It was strangely like packing for a vacation. There was a wide-toothed comb and shampoo; toothbrush and toothpaste; perfumed soap; plasters and antiseptic wipes, plus a small brown bottle labeled PENICILIN: TAKE ONE CAPSULE THREE TIMES A DAY. COMPLETE THE COURSE which she'd filched from the medicine cabinet; a large bar of chocolate (Kate's belated Christmas present from the twins); three cans of Coca-Cola; a small flashlight with spare batteries; two old watches (presumably to sell); lace doilies (ditto); spare sneakers; enough underwear for a week; and her Swiss Army knife.
After twenty minutes, Kate and Sam reappeared. Both their noses were red and Kate sniffed between sentences.
"It's on. Peter's dad called. He's meeting me in the lane at eight o'clock. And I've told Sam. You're going to help us aren't you?"
Sam was going on ten and in looks took after his mother. He was skinny with thick dark hair which went curly when it was damp. He nodded but looked close to tears.
Megan gave him a hug. "She'll come back. You know your big sister no one gets the better of Kate Dyer...."
"You better," said Sam gruffly.
At ten to eight, Kate stood at the kitchen door. Her mum was preparing the grown-ups' supper in time for Mr. Schock's imminent arrival. Issy and Alice were on the floor in front of the Aga cooker stroking Molly, who was almost asleep, lulled by the heat and all the attention. Kate walked over and crouched down next to the little group. She rested her head on Molly's fat belly for a moment.
"I'm cold. I'm going to have a hot bath," she announced. "Then I think I'll read in bed; I'm really tired."
"Okay, love, I'll come up and kiss you good night later," said her mum, giving her an anxious look. "Your dad's gone out.... I wish he hadn't. Mr. Schock will be here any minute.... If you're too tired to say hello to Peter's dad tonight, can I tell him that you'll speak to him in the morning? I know it'll be hard, but..."
"Yes. I don't mind...."
Kate walked over and put her arms round her mother's waist.
"I love you, Mum."
Her mother put down the tea towel she was holding and took hold of Kate's face. She kissed her forehead.
"And I love you."
Kate retreated from the kitchen before her courage failed her.
"Good night, Issy. Good night, Alice...."
True to his word, Sam stayed in the bathroom and turned the water on and off and splashed and even hummed his sister's favorite song. Kate turned up the music in her room and then she and Megan crept down to her dad's study downstairs. Dr. Dyer reluctantly allowed Kate's mother to store Bramley cooking apples wrapped in newspaper on his corner bookshelves and it was the familiar smell of books and waxy fruit and leather that caused a lump in Kate's throat. It was in this room, sitting on her father's knee, that she had learned to read, and he had told her so many wonderful stories.... Suddenly, the urge to leave it all for the grown-ups to sort out nearly overwhelmed her but she forced herself to run to the window and push it open. A blast of icy air slapped her face and brought her to her senses. Suddenly the wind caught hold of the window and she only just managed to grab hold of the frame before it smashed against the shutters. Snowflakes blew into the room and immediately melted on the worn Oriental rug. Kate climbed out, her feet leaving short-lived evidence of her escape on the snow-covered lawn. Megan leaned out to pass her the backpack.
"Here, catch!" said Megan, throwing a small object to her friend.
"Not your mobile! I can't! You've waited all year for this!"
"It's fully charged. If you keep it switched off most of the time it ought to be okay for a couple of weeks. I've already downloaded lots of my favorite songs...."
"Oh, Meggie...I can't. What if I lose it?"
"Don't! Just take me some good pictures of 1763 and shut up!"
"Thanks, Meggie.... You'll like Peter."
"He'd better be worth it. I'll see you soon. Okay?"
"Yeah. Very soon."
When Mr. Schock saw Kate walking toward him he started up the engine and turned on the headlights of his long silver car. The blue-white beams illuminated dense flurries of snow. He leaned over to the passenger seat and pushed open the door. Kate got in and brushed wet tendrils of hair from her face. Mr. Schock took hold of the backpack and threw it onto the cream leather backseat. Then he turned round to look at her. His blue eyes blazed.
"You must be Kate Dyer."
"Then you'd better stop playing games and tell me what's going on! Where's my son?"
"I'll do better than that. I'll take you to him."