Robert Appleton

Adventures in Science Fiction

Prehistoric Clock - Excerpt #2

Chapter Two

Son of a Marquess


“Get out of my way, blue bottle.” Lord Garrett Embrey brushed the irritating old butler aside and marched along the strip of tan carpet flanked by varnished oak panels. Too many nautical oil paintings adorned the corridor walls. Grosvenor House was as self-righteously appointed as its committee members, and he’d long grown tired of this superciliousness.

“May I take your hat and coat, My Lord?” The pesky servant wearing a shiny blue waistcoat scurried after him.

Embrey stopped outside the new conference room door, inhaled the strong smell of lacquer and then shrugged his damp top coat off while the man held it for him. He handed his top hat behind him and waited until the blue bottle’s shoes squeaked away out of earshot. This moment to gather himself before the interrogation was the most crucial time of the evening, he knew. He plucked his father’s bronze pocketwatch inscribed with the Embrey coat-of-arms from his waistcoat—the timepiece was pretty much the only item belonging to the old man he still used—and raised an eyebrow.

Seven-twenty-five. He was deliciously late.

Oh, let them slither a while longer.

The 1801 Thomas Luny painting, Battle of the Nile, caught his eye. Thrilling and majestic, it echoed the nautical reminiscences his father had shared with him by the fireside after many a dinner. As far back as he could recall, Garrett had loved imagining them perched together in the crow's nest of a grand ship of the line, sharing a spyglass in the run-up to a fierce engagement. 

How often he'd pictured his older self as the spitting image of Marquess Embrey, a much-admired figure in London society. 

Alas, how little he resembled his father these days! In his teens, everyone had remarked on the likeness. Now at twenty-five, Garrett was a little over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, strikingly blond, and he had his mother’s sharply defined, heart-shaped face that many had called handsome. But it was in his father’s name that he must contend with the Special Committee on War Crimes this evening.

Eighteen months after they had wrongfully convicted and executed Marquess Embrey for treachery against the Crown, the vipers still wanted more blood. Now they were after him, the last surviving member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in England. He tempered his urge to punch a hole through the glass by loosening his shoulders as he would on the playing fields of Oxford. He straightened his white bow tie and winged collar. During this meeting, his rage would have to remain subcutaneous, for his enemies were circling, and he must not be baited.

Very well—have at it, vipers.

He flung the door open and a score of gazes tried to strip him bare. Two long mahogany tables formed a V in the middle of a vast maroon carpet. The low ceiling, the centric lighting and the broad dimensions of the room had been designed to intimidate, to set visitors immediately ill-at-ease.

The game was afoot.

As he had during his Oxford days, Embrey fed off the challenge. He’d sparred with Sir Horace Holly himself on the debating floor, and the old adventurer had personally lauded his composure. It would take more than legal double-talk to ruffle him. He breezed to his chair held out for him by a gaunt, monocled clerk, bowed to the vipers slithering to their places, and sat.

“Lord Embrey, might we enquire as to the reason for your tardiness? I recall this is not the first time.” The hawkish, crookbacked chairman, the Rt. Hon. Lorne Wallingford, a member of the Whig cabinet, didn’t look up from the documents arrayed in front of him.

“You may enquire, yes.”

“I see. And may we now also proceed, if Your Lordship deigns to stand accused?”

Hateful old Quasimodo. “Pray proceed, sir, if you have the gall to accuse face-to-face.”

“Very well. Let us begin,” Crookback said, to much rustling of paper around the tables. “On March seventh last year, your father, the Marquess of Embrey, and your uncle, Lord Fitzwalter, were executed after being found guilty of treason against the Crown. Their crimes were perpetrated in the Benguela region of Angola, West Africa, and those actions led to a vicious assault by our enemies on the construction of our second Leviacrum tower—an assault which, I must remind you, cost the lives of hundreds of British servicemen and women. Lord Embrey, you have been summoned by this committee to answer the charge of aiding that assault by means of direct correspondence with your father and uncle, assisting in the redeployment of British regiments from Benguela, and by contacting elements of the rebel Coalition forces personally.

Embrey shot out of his seat at that last remark. “What? Since when? What is this? I demand an explanation.” Hushed chatter throughout the assembly suggested this was a pre-emptive gambit, something Wallingford and his cronies had cooked up in private. In other words, a hatchet job. Remembering his promise to keep his composure was the only thing stopping him from chinning the old bastard, crookbacked or not.

“I have before me signed documents proving your collusion, sir. No further explanation is needed. Professors Talbot and Vaughn-Britton, two noted forensic document examiners, are willing to testify under oath that it is indeed your signature. They are waiting in the next room. I will summon them in due course, but first I would like to read the documents aloud to this committee so that it might better gauge the gravity of your complicity in these events.”

Embrey thrust an adamant finger at the chairman. “You dare spit one more word of fiction. I’m warning you.”

Forged letters? Handwriting experts? Throwing an insane charge of treason at him? It was so eerily reminiscent of Father’s and Uncle Ralph’s travesty of a trial at the Old Bailey that he shuddered. His knuckles and fingertips gripping the table’s edge turned white. He lifted them and watched his moist fingerprints fade to darkness. Would his family name, his great and noble lineage, be next? He stepped to one side. An atavistic call to flight rang through him from head to toe—it urged him to take the quickest possible exit.

“Lord Embrey, the sooner you take your seat and cooperate, the sooner you will have your opportunity to rebut these charges. Bear in mind, sir, that this is only a preliminary hearing and no official criminal indictments have entered the judiciary. Our job is merely to ascertain the veracity of these documents…and your own evidence, of course.” Crookback leaned across to confer with his colleague, a much taller, fat man with a double chin.

How did these sons of bitches get away with stunts like this? Embrey stepped farther from his chair.

“Lord Embrey,” Double Chin said, “I must remind you that until these hearings are satisfactorily resolved, you must not leave London.”

“Who put you up to this? The Leviacrum Council?”

“I beg your pardon!”

“You’ll rot in hell for this. Mark my words, you unconscionable bastards.” Embrey thumped the table with a livid fist. So much for composure.

Crookback whispered something to the monocled clerk, who rushed for the door Embrey had entered through. This couldn’t end well. Two police constables guarded the front of Grosvenor House, and Wallingford was clearly after apprehending him here and now. Those forged letters were as good as arrest warrants.

The urge to flee stiffened his considerable frame. But through one door waited the police, and through the other…learned forensic stooges ready to tighten the noose and sell their souls to the hot place.

“Might I at least see these letters first?” He stalked behind the line of swivelling snakes and toward the brain of this political Hydra—old Crookback himself. “For all I know, you mistook my signature for my father’s.” Those words choked him but he carried on.

Wallingford kept a defiant expression, adjusted his pince-nez as Embrey approached. “Nonsense. They have been thoroughly—”

Embrey barged him sideways off his chair. The old crookback squealed and hit the carpet with a thud. Protestations erupted all around the “V” but Embrey kept his composure when it mattered, just as he’d promised. He stuffed the folder containing the forged letters inside his waistcoat, and bolted for the clerk’s chair which stood beneath one of the arched windows.

Double Chin accosted him from behind. “Blackguard! Traitor! You won’t get away that easily!”

Incensed, Embrey reached inside his tail coat with both hands and drew two steam-pistols from the clip-on holsters over his hips. He thrust them in Double Chin’s beetroot face. “Step away, you sack of shit.”

The man spun and waddled after his fleeing colleagues with surprising speed. Embrey holstered his sidearms and then hurled the chair through the window. The clatter of glass merged with the thunder of heavy rain outside. A formidable gust flung both shards and stinging water at him. He ducked.

“Stay where you are. This is the police!”

Jesus. Embrey glanced over his shoulder as the constables charged across the empty conference room waving truncheons. He vaulted onto the stone window sill, then leapt out onto the privet hedge. It broke his fall nicely. After clambering over an iron fence with arrow-tipped posts, he sprinted down Hendron Street with only one thing on his mind…

Leaving England—as soon as possible.

The chimes of Big Ben barely registered through the torrential downpour. Eight o’clock and still he ran. The Chamber of Commerce, the Westminster Observatory, and even the row of giant dirigible hangars lining the Thames were deserted as he passed. Over a mile behind, high up in the storm clouds, the lighthouse atop the Leviacrum flashed brilliantly, guiding wayward airships home through the treacherous weather. Such a laudable beacon, yet the giant tower was far more than an aviation aid. Many of the country’s brightest minds gathered there to research, to confer and to implement scientific breakthroughs. This controlled explosion of ingenuity had heralded a new age for British supremacy around the globe. But why did the Leviacrum have to grow taller every year? The cylindrical copper and iron edifice already reached thousands of feet high, and still the Council insisted on its upward expansion. Some said it would one day pierce space itself. That may have been the plan all along.

But why? And for the love of God, why build another one thousands of miles away on an African plateau? The official reason—that Britain needed a fortified headquarters to coordinate the extraction of natural resources from that region—had rung false to Father and Uncle Ralph for years, and it rang false to him now. Digging for petroleum, gold, copper, iron and diamonds had nothing at all to do with building a skyscraping edifice. And what was it about his family that frightened the Leviacrum Council so much? Before the arrests, he'd had no warning, no inkling that his world would be flipped upside down.

What secret had Father uncovered during his expedition to the Benguela Plateau?

The wet cobbled road suddenly blazed with yellow light. Embrey spun. The blinding headlights of an automobile bounced after him. He skipped onto the pavement, rested against a streetlamp and retrieved the folder from his waistcoat. He pretended to read it under the breast of his coat as though it was a map and he was lost in the rain. Police couldn’t afford steam-powered vehicles, so it had to be a civilian. The driver might stop and offer him a lift. If not, at the very least, no one would suspect him of running for his life.

The brass car clattered by; the moustached driver didn’t even notice him. Typical steamhead—always in a hurry, cocooned in his contraption. Embrey walked after it at a breezy pace along Whitehall and Parliament Street, reckoning it would take him another twenty minutes or so to reach Jack Sorkin’s marina on foot. His yacht, the Lady Godiva, was berthed there, and he had enough provisions aboard to last him across the channel to France. The crossing might be deuced dangerous in a storm but he would not last long on the run in London. He could always hug the coast until the weather subsided. His whole world seemed to be flying apart on the vicious gusts, washing away in the gutter torrents. How could something like this happen to the son of a marquess, a peer of the realm?

What would the boys at the social club make of all this?

He stopped dead. The faint clack-clack of horses’ hooves on the cobbles froze his blood and he immediately reached for his pistols. No, it might not be the police. He’d be calling unnecessary attention to himself if he drew on an innocent coachman. But what kind of coach would be out in this weather? The storm had now raged for two hours, at least. He glanced to his right…

…and bolted at the sight of four Black Marias hurtling down Bridge Street.

He passed Westminster station on his left and spied the turn for the Victoria Embankment ahead. Not enough time. Good athlete though he was, he was fagged, and the police had clocked him. Their clattering pursuit gained ground.

God Almighty.

An ungainly-looking vehicle rolled out of the rain sheets ahead. It resembled a small, steam-powered tractor with only three wheels, and pulled a white carriage behind it. It moved at a fair speed and had just crossed Westminster Bridge. Embrey drew his pistols, bid the driver stop.

“Oi, what’s your game?” the Manchester man protested. He wore a flat cap and a white milkman’s jacket. A young boy cowered in the passenger seat. “Don’t ’urt us, mister. We sell ice cream, that’s all.”

“I don’t have time to explain. Turn onto Victoria Embankment right now.” Embrey wrenched the stiff door open and climbed in, shuffling the boy up against his father. “Go as fast as you can.”

Despite his terrified expression, the man reached for the valve handle and pressed it slowly forward, precipitating a gentle hiss, then a clunk, clunk as the vehicle gathered steam. It accelerated quickly as he turned the wheel.

“Head up the embankment. See if you can make it to Wharf Fourteen.”

“The Griffin?”

“Indeed. Can’t this heap go any faster?”

“Jus’ let ’er catch ’er breath first,” the man boasted, but the Marias hurtled into view before he completed the turn.

“Oh, Christ.” Embrey hurriedly removed the propulsion cylinders from his pistols, felt their weight. Good—plenty of acid and water to combine and create steam pressure for both weapons. He reaffixed them. The gap-toothed young boy clung to his father’s jacket, eyeing Embrey with what appeared equal parts fear and fascination. Clutched under the lad’s arm was a thin, cloth-bound book. “Don’t worry, chief. These aren’t for you.” Embrey clinked the brass weapons together.

“Daddy, what’s ’appened to the rain?” the lad called out.

Embrey looked up. What the deuce…? The rain had taken on a lilac luminosity, as though bathed in some kind of purple light. But light from where? He scrutinized the nearest factory. One or two oil lamps glowed inside, nothing untoward. The boy and his father scanned the river and the sky, each turning back to Embrey with blank expressions. Now the rain appeared to fizz as it fell, emitting acidic smoke on the ground. A loud sizzling all about made him fear the vehicle itself might be in danger.

The entire riverside seemed to be cooking with liquid brimstone.

The boy hid his face behind the book as a blinding purple flash forced his father to swerve…