"Who is the Ferryman?" Kevin asked Tanji.
"I told you about him once, remember?" she hissed in response.
There was a long pause, while Kevin wondered what to do next. He was almost certain that he was missing something important, but his instincts and intellect seemed to have gone their separate ways. Everyone seemed to be surprised, even astounded, as if by the sudden appearance of a mythical figure - several mythical figures, in fact. Everyone, that is, except Tanji's Uncle, who looked unsurprised and, curiously, distinctly relieved.
The old man stood up, bowed formally and said a few words which Kevin took to be a greeting, which was acknowledged by bows returned by the Ferrymen. He then said something else, the meaning of which Kevin could not begin to guess at.
"What did he say?" Kevin whispered to Tanji.
"He said, I wondered when you'd get here." she replied, sounding as flabbergasted as Kevin.
As if at a silent instruction, all three figures removed their hoods. Kevin was dumbfounded to recognise all three of them. The evident leader of the group was Bret's mother, whose name he had never learned. She was supported by Bret himself, as well as Peter Brenner, the Project Manager from Kevin's company. Bret had shape-shifted to his male form, and Peter looked the same as ever. By contrast, Bret's mother had eschewed the option of masculine appearance. She looked stern and imposing, and Kevin could not help but think that she would give Tanji's Uncle a run for his money in the statesman-like gravitas stakes.
"Bret's mother is the Ferryman!" whispered Kevin to Tanji.
"You know these people?" she gasped.
Kevin recalled that Tanji had never met Bret. For some reason, he and Bret had not been had any direct contact over the last few weeks, indeed since Tanji had replaced Ricard as his Guide. This was not of itself particularly unusual, although Kevin did entertain a fleeting suspicion that perhaps this was not entirely accidental.
Amiss and the Professor seemed to draw together, perhaps unconsciously, as they realised just who it was under the hoods and robes. Ricard, never an imposing presence at the best of times, was doing everything he could to become even more inconspicuous.
Bret's mother surveyed the scene, seemingly able to look all of them in the eye simultaneously. Finally, she addressed Alan Wilmington.
"I think I need a little more explanation," she said, using English presumably for Kevin's benefit, "What's so important about this damn paperweight?"
"But, but you've already heard about the predictor magic working in the Other World," the Professor stammered, "Surely you must understand that we cannot permit any such object to have free circulation over there."
Bret's mother said nothing. Her eye fell on Amiss, who clearly felt compelled to make a contribution of some kind.
"We must recover it," he asserted, "at any cost."
Alan glared at Amiss, their previously seamless non-verbal communication abruptly failing.
Suddenly enraged, Kevin jumped to his feet, much to everyone's surprise. Tanji's Uncle looked at him as if he had gone mad. Amiss jumped, and then moved as if to try and silence Kevin. Only Tanji herself seemed to understand, and she too stood up, blocking the path between Amiss and Kevin.
"But you must already have the bloody paperweight," he shouted angrily at the Professor, "I left it on your desk, completely by accident, I might add, when we did a runner from your office!"
The Ferryman remained calm in the face of Kevin's outburst, although she undoubtedly understood the importance of what he had just said, and the unexpected reaction from Amiss.
She addressed Tanji.
"Is this true?"
"Yes," she replied emphatically, "We were so rushed, so frightened, that we completely forgot about it until it was too late to go back."
Bret's mother's gimlet eyes fell on Alan. It seemed that everyone in the room was aware of the sudden tension between the Professor and the Ferryman.
"Do you have the object?" she demanded of Professor Alan.
"No," he squeaked.
"Do you know where it is now?" she asked again, sounding suddenly dangerous.
"No, no I don't."
"When did you last see the paperweight?"
The Professor wilted perceptibly under the piercing lance of the Ferryman's gaze.
"It was on my desk, in my office at NISSA," he said in a barely audible voice.
"After your guests had left so, shall we say, unexpectedly?"
"So, our Visitor here" - she indicated Kevin with one hand - "quite definitely did not remove it from your office?"
"And who therefore cannot possibly be attempting to use it in a fashion I would disapprove of?"
"So what happened to the paperweight? I presume it is no longer on your desk?"
"No it's not. Amiss told me to leave it there, and go home, when I called him to say that Kevin and Tanji had escaped through the window," Amiss responded meekly, "He was furious. When I returned to the office the next day, it had gone."
"You used the telephone to speak to Amiss?"
"So he was already in the Other World at that time?"
"Oh, yes. He must have been."
Amiss had been following the exchange of question and answer with visibly increasing concern. His nerve must have snapped at that point, since he made a sudden dash for the door.
"Hold that man!" commanded the Ferryman.
There was never any serious possibility that Amiss could have got very far, Kevin thought. The Guardians were still stationed in the doorways, and had clearly been following events closely. Two of them had grabbed Amiss before he had got more than three steps, and he put up no more than a token struggle before being dragged back to face the Ferryman. She glared at Amiss, unmistakably angered at this challenge to her authority.
"I will get to the bottom of this matter," she thundered.
She waved a hand to summon one of the Guardians, and spoke privately at length with him. He then nodded deferentially in confirmation and left quickly accompanied by one of his companions.
She then looked directly at Kevin.
"I've just asked for a thorough search to be undertaken," she said, "in a number of places in your world. I have every confidence that the Guardians will track down and retrieve that retched paperweight of yours."
"And as for you two," she rounded on Amiss and Alan, who quailed at her expression, "I have every reason to believe that you have both been acting against the interests of Lyndesfarne. I am not at all impressed."
She signalled again to the Guardians.
"Take them away!" she commanded.
The two men were rapidly bundled out of the room. She then focussed her distinctly scary attention to Ricard, who had been trying, but now evidently failing, to hide himself from her gaze below the edge of the kitchen table.
"And as for you," she began, pointing at the cowering man, "I suspect you have more involvement in all this than you are letting on."
Ricard squeaked something unintelligible in an exquisitely pitiable manner.
"I think you will be able to tell us rather a lot," the Ferryman continued, "And I should encourage you to tell us everything that you know. If you don't, things will go very badly for you, I expect."
Ricard's response was inaudible, but he meekly allowed himself to be led away by one of the Guardians. Kevin had noted that the Guardians all seemed to be deferring to Bret's Mother, and she seemed very much in control of the situation. In any case, it occurred to him, that the commanding, if disembodied, voice they had all heard earlier was very probably hers.
The Ferryman looked around at the remaining people in the room. Kevin followed her gaze. Tanji's Uncle was looking rather self-satisfied. Kevin had an inkling that it was through some intervention of his that the Ferryman and her cohort had been tipped off. Tanji's Aunt seemed extremely relieved, and was being supported by her husband.
Kithyn had collapsed in tears, apparently on the verge of catatonic shock. Tanji seemed to have got over her terror, and appeared to now be more worried about her friend. She moved across the room to comfort her. Kevin followed, sensing that, despite her compassion for her friend, Tanji too needed much emotional support.
"I don't think we need the services of the Guardians any further," the Ferryman said to the room at large.
She waved over another one of the Guardians and, after briefly conferring, signalled to the remnants of the group, who left swiftly and in near silence. Once the Guardians had left, the Ferryman conferred at some length with Bret. She then came over to where Tanji was attempting to comfort Kithyn, and Kevin was standing nearby, feeling slightly helpless.
Kevin saw her approach, and turned and stood up straight.
"I'm really sorry to have caused all this trouble," he said rather formally.
The Ferryman's expression softened into a faint smile.
"I really don't think it's actually your fault," she replied, "I am quite convinced that you have been doing your best to complete the New Bridge. You should know that this is something which I am generally in favour of. In my view, we owe you both an apology and a debt of gratitude for unmasking a plot and several self-serving villains."
Kevin was uncertain how to react, and eventually opted for a neutral response.
"Thank you, Madam," he said.
"Oh, no, thank you. And rest assured that you will be very welcome in my house again."
On this note, she gathered up her robe and swept out of the room, trailed by Peter Brenner.
Tanji swung around to face Kevin, looking astounded.
"I hadn't realised that you were quite so well-connected," she gushed, obviously hugely relieved after the unexpected reprieve.
"Frankly," Kevin replied, shaking his head, "I hadn't realised that I was either."
Bret then approached Kevin and Tanji.
"I guess I have managed to surprise you again," he said, smiling.
"Too right," Kevin countered flippantly, nevertheless feeling very relieved to discover that Bret appeared to be on his side, "You seem to be getting quite good at it."
Bret smiled more broadly.
"You know, I've been concerned about Amiss's position for some time. Ever since I discovered that he was on the management team for the New Bridge project."
Kevin was confused, and not for the first time.
"Amiss?" "Did you not recognise him?" Bret asked.
Kevin shook his head.
"He was calling himself Panit. And he changed his appearance somewhat. But, at the time, he was officially speaking for the Board of Control."
As soon as Bret had uttered the words, the reality came crashing in on Kevin. Of course Amiss was also Panit! How could he have been so stupid as to not have seen it?
"Of course," he answered, doing his best to cover up his confusion, "But won't the Board of Control still have their concerns, even more so now that we know that there really was a deliberate attempt to transfer a powerful magical item to my world?"
"Oh, I don't think so," Bret said, "It must be clear to us all that Amiss and Alan wanted to keep the artefact for their own objectives. It was probably just personal gain, most likely in collusion with some organised group in your world, and almost certainly illegal. They just wanted to make a great deal of money."
Bret thought for a moment, and continued.
"So, I believe that any credibility in Amiss's political position will have been swept away by the revelation that that he was a common criminal, and the rest of the Board of Control will bend over backwards to avoid being seen to be associated with him."
Kevin nodded, happy to accept Bret's political savvy on this point.
"Look, I need to send a few messages," he said, "Would you excuse me for a few minutes?"
Bret took a slate from under his robe, and withdrew to the far end of the kitchen table.
Kevin returned his attention to Tanji. It appeared that Kithyn had finally reverted to speaking the Lyndesfarne language. She was still being comforted by Tanji, although it was not clear to Kevin how effective this was being. Finally Kithyn left, still weeping, and refusing any offer of help.
Tanji turned to Kevin and grasped his hand in a way that left him feeling suddenly hot inside.
"What's she going to do?" Kevin asked her solicitously.
"I don't know, and quite honestly I don't think she does either," she replied. "She feels that she has to support Amiss, whatever he's done, but she's also understandably upset by the way he's treated me. And you too, of course."
"Will you keep in touch?" he asked.
"I think I should," she replied, "I have a feeling that she will find it very difficult for a while yet."
"You're probably right. But, who are the Ferrymen? And why did they turn up here?"
"So many questions, as always," Tanji laughed, "Why don't we ask my Uncle for an explanation?"
She had also noticed that her Uncle seemed unsurprised by the appearance of the Ferryman. He had evidently explained to his wife what had been going on, and both of them were quietly sitting side-by-side at the kitchen table. Kevin and Tanji drew up chairs beside them, and Tanji said something to him that Kevin did not follow.
The old man nodded, and also spoke in the Lyndesfarne language.
"You will have heard of the legend of the Ferryman?" Tanji translated.
Kevin nodded, and the other man continued.
"Some stories tell us that the Ferryman's role changed when the bridge - the Old Bridge, I should say - was constructed. This is all shrouded in myth and secrecy, but it seems that the Ferryman remained the final arbiter of truth when it comes to the crossing. But the Ferryman himself became a reclusive figure, independent and distant."
"When I heard Tanji's story," he continued, accompanied by Tanji's sing-song interpretation, "About your discovery and your crossing from the Other World, I made some enquiries amongst my contacts. Over the years, I have built up quite a network, and I think I can say that I am rather well-connected with the governance bodies, including the Board of Control."
Kevin nodded in agreement, since it appeared this was expected of him at this juncture.
"Anyway, when I found that the information I was getting from my contacts was contradictory, and in particular quite different from the tale as related by Tanji, I felt there was a lack of clarity about motivations. I had heard of some ways of contacting the Ferryman, which I used, speaking of my concerns and requesting that he intervene. I hadn't quite expected the manner of his appearance!"
Tanji laughed politely after completing the translation, and Kevin joined in.
Bret seemed to have completed his writing, and rejoined them, pulling up another chair on the opposite side of the table. There was one question still worrying Kevin, and he rapidly concluded that Bret was as good a person as any to answer it.
"Am I still going to get mind-wiped?" he asked.
Bret smiled, evidently amused at the sight of Tanji and Kevin sitting so closely together, almost unconsciously touching each other.
"Oh, no," he said, "I think we can find something much more useful for you to do."
|© 2006-2008 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 15 March 2008|