CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
Ben Santiago’s trip on a British airway’s economy flight to London had been uneventful. He had forgone the luxuries afforded by his wealth in an effort to unravel the mystery of his recurring dream. His personal jet had therefore been left in his hangar along with his normal entourage of advisers and bodyguards.
He glided through customs almost as if he was half invisible and completely uninteresting to the officer who stamped the passport of David Lopez, a diamond dealer from Bolivia. His alias was half true, he had emigrated from South America in the late nineteen forties after the disappearance his Mother and Father in a light plane over the Andes. No wreckage had ever been found, but after a month the search was called off and Ben pronounced an orphan and a distant relative transported him to New York.
There he grew up and lived on an allowance from the estate of his deceased Father. It was never quite enough to allow him to be comfortable, to fulfil his yearning for the type of lifestyle he glimpsed in the Big Apple’s restaurants and hotels, but it was enough to survive on as a youth who quickly parted company with his benevolent relatives and hit the streets.
He began life dealing in anything which brought a profit. Slowly he advanced from the world of the legal business to drugs and guns. Quickly his business grew and he found a world desperate to use his services and his complete impartiality which, as he moved into international arms dealing he found the to be of particular use.
As he now exited customs he felt a tingle of excitement whip down spine. It was almost like a drug related flashback. For a minute, a myriad of memories tripped through his mind, the places the faces of those he had done his early deals with in far flung corners of the earth.
He had dealt with them all. With provincial tyrants and national dictators, with military governments and desperate rebels. All their causes were his profits, their politics and the outcome of his involvement irrelevant. The catastrophe and misery he fuelled meant little to him, death and destruction gave him the opportunity for profit. He turned no one down.
Now on this visit to England it all came back. He felt the thrills and exhilaration he had done then and it made him feel twenty years younger as the adrenalin pumped through his fifty-five year old veins. He smiled broadly and walked with a bouncing stride as he made his way to the car hire desks.
At the Hertz desk he hired a vehicle from an attentive female clerk. She found his bronzed complexion and cold blue eyes, a result of his German Father and Bolivian Mother sent a quiver through her body. The man smiled at her and his vaguely accented English added to his appeal.
Suddenly she wanted him.
Although she was very attractive, Ben Santiago was not interested in her at all today. He had seen and experienced this reaction many times before, he knew the effect he had upon the opposite sex. Normally, detecting the signs, he would have asked her to dinner followed by an invitation to his hotel room, which they never refused; then left them bruised and exhausted in the morning without a word or a parting kiss.
But today he had deep, more urgent desires and he ignored her as she brushed provocatively past him as she explained the controls of the hire car. He thanked her and smiled knowingly as he slipped into the driving seat and drove off without a second glance.
Dismayed the woman returned to her desk and dreamed unknowingly of what might have been that evening, curious to know why her seductive charms had unusually failed her. She shook her head and smiled. It was his loss, she muttered to herself. And after all, he would return the car and she would be there. Perhaps, when he had concluded his business, he would be in a more receptive mood, prepared to celebrate a little, she’d enjoy that, she thought.
Consulting his map, Santiago picked his route out of Londons annoyingly chaotic road system and eventually slipped onto the relative openness of the motorway and sped North.
The car, which was small by his standards, sat easily in the fast lane and ate up the miles as he mused over the meaning of his dreams and his willingness to respond to their call by travelling half way across the globe to some god forsaken town in the midst of rural England.
Two hours later he had left the motorway and found himself amongst the rolling Staffordshire countryside. He calculated that in half hour he would be in the town he had glimpsed in his dreams and whose existence in reality had been revealed in the monochrome of ten year old photographs. There he would find the reasons for his unconventional and sometimes, unbelievable summons.
He drove almost by instinct now as day turned to the crisp dusk of a winter’s evening. The cars headlamps lit up the narrow country roads which were bordered by squat hawthorn hedges and ivy clad oaks. Santiago had never been in such countryside before, although during his life he had seen much of the world. He now felt strangely relaxed as the compelling call of his summoner quietened in his mind as he responded to its urgency.
Quaint local road signs, stamped in wrought iron and painted black on white, now guided him and counted down the miles to his destination. The town he sought was indicated on every one and soon, some way into the distance, its presence was given away by the glow of an orange aura infused into the pitch of the night sky.
Minutes later he crested the top of a hill and there before him the necklaces of neon and white light told him that Bramston sprawled in the wide, but shallow valley below. He slowed and coasted down the gently twisting road which led down to the town centre.
Beneath the hazy street lights he cruised slowly. It was late and there were few people out on the streets. He decided to find a service station and ask for directions when he filled up his fuel tank.
As he entered the market square beneath a great floodlit church spire that brought his dream into a sharp reality, he was forced to brake sharply as two teenagers leapt the churchyard wall and dashed across the square. He cursed them as his heart pounded heavily. He didn’t need this sort of excitement at his age. He was well into the age when a left handed gift from the gods was all too common.
He shook his head at the couple rapidly disappeared into a side street and then moved off in search of fuel and directions. His circling of the small town was in vain and ten minutes later he found himself back in the town square. He noticed a lone figure standing by the church wall staring out across the cobbles.
Santiago drove slowly until he was level with the youth and then wound down his window warily. The youth stepped back and stared at him, his eyes wide in shock. “Hey, you.” Santiago shouted. “Do you know of the Cross Keys Public House?” The youth just stared at him dumbly. Santiago was frustrated and tired. He gritted his teeth.
“It’s a simple enough question boy. Nod your head for yes and shake it for no.” he said. The youth still said nothing, but his eyed studied Santiago intently.
The arms dealer returned the stare and felt as if his mind was being invaded, the hairs on his neck stood on end. He shook his head and cursed the youth, putting his foot to the floor and sending the car, tyres squealing, into the square. Ben trembled and looked in his mirror, the youth still stared at him and he still felt something inside his head.
The geek gave him the creeps and he needed to be as far away from him as possible. Then he laughed out loud. He had no need to be frightened of some dumb country yokel in a small town lost in the middle of England. What on earth had got into him?
After all it was he who had the forty five magnum under his coat. Santiago realised that at two o’clock in the morning he had little chance of finding the public house without directions. Despite the town’s relative size to cities that he knew quite well, the complexity of this places backstreets had him beaten. So when the welcoming neon of a hotel sign flickered off and on above a street beckoning him, he pulled in gratefully, roused the sleepy night porter and booked a room for the night.
The stillness of the quaint ‘olde worlde’ decor of `Brampston’s Oldest Coaching Inn’, The White Hart pleased Ben and he suddenly felt tired. The journey had taken more out of him than he expected and he dropped himself down on the four poster bed and was dragged by fatigue into a deep sleep. The reoccurring dream did not return on this night. Another took its place. Again he found himself floating in the night sky, but the city below him was far from the town that he had seen before. He was in a world of twilight and he sensed that it never got any lighter here above the sprawling maze of crevice like streets onto which a thin drizzle washed relentlessly without any cleansing effect. He felt himself descending towards the towering, but tightly packed tenements that lined every street and realised that he was not alone. Someone else was present in his dream. His summoner.
The builders of the city he now glided down towards had given little thought to architectural flair or style, it was chaotic, disorganised – a city of thousands of towering Babels. Each storey of these building had been added without thought or relation to any engineering theory.
Consequently they leaned precariously over the streets below as if the slightest tremor would send them plunging onto the seething masses below.
“The Lower City.” boomed a voice. “My domain.”
Santiago felt his self sweeping down into the City’s ravines, gliding above the jostling crowds where his attention was directed to figures in black whom the ragged citizens avoided. The figures he now regarded seemed arrogant, their attire of top hats and long black coats setting them apart from the others who milled around them in the confines of sewage washed streets.
Both of the men he now watched were armed, one with a ancient flintlock rifle, the other with a rusty cutlass. They stepped back to the side of the street as four men dressed in short leather tunics beat and barged their way through the crowd. The High Hats backed off drifting anonymously down a side street.
“They are Tans.” the voice spat. “They out number us and stand between me and my rightful place in this city - as its master!” the voice became increasingly angry, seeming as if it were reverberating around the City’s canyons. But the Tans did not hear the voice for Ben realised that this was not a dream, this city was a real place. Somehow he was here and the voice was inside his head, its owner guiding him and commentating on the power distribution here.
Compared with the High Hats the Tans wereheavily armed. Although they were still bearing weapons which the arms dealer had only seen in museums or hanging on apartment walls, they seemed almost overburdened in comparison to their potential adversaries and the weapons seemed in better condition.
Ben Santiago slowly began to realise what was happening here and the part he was destined to play. Somehow he would equip these underdogs in order that they might prevail over them and put their enigmatic master in his `rightful’ position. He heard a soft chuckle inside his head and realised that the commentator could read his thoughts and knew that his message had been made clear. This accomplished he felt himself being borne into the air again and flying over the city. They were moving on. Something else had to be explained or so it seemed.
From high above the city he looked down on a great, black river snaked in stagnant loops across the city dividing one section of the population from another from horizon to murky horizon.
On the opposite bank ahead of him, a narrow strip of land gave a clear view from the walls of a divided section across the river to the boundaries of the Lower City. Tans guarded the bridges and gate of the Upper City in number, bristling with muskets, pikes and swords. His flight continued over the Upper City and the terrain below him changed little from the cramped chaos he had left behind. Only the great domes of the Halls of machines were different in their monumentally impressive size, so huge that they dominated the Upper City that the buildings here seemed to be enveloped entirely in their sooty shadows.
Then beyond them Santiago saw the city of the Tallmen. Here was a startlingly different culture that radiated the existence of a technology far beyond that attained by the rest of the city he had seen. It might pose a problem he thought, and different solutions would be needed than those to brush aside the Tans.
The voice ominously remained silent as it waited. Beyond the Halls of Machines, whose bulk cut off the Upper City from the city of the Tallmen, high towers housed searchlights which swept relentlessly the wide, paved killing ground between the two cultures. As if organised to for his benefit, two human figures emerged from the shadow Machine Hall side of the paved clearing and sprinted towards the light towers.
They ran only a few paces before lasers arced from the nearest sentry towers and reduced the trespassers to ash. Here was a challenge. Santiago thought. But one which could be overcome. Technology was never infallible and the more complex it got the easier it was to fool. He laughed as he realised he was rising to the challenge and the voice laughed with him.
Abruptly the dream ended and Ben awoke slowly, readjusting to the surroundings of the hotel room. He lay back considering the dream as a shaft of colds winter light broke into the room through a crack in the heavy curtains. Was it really real? Was there such a place as he had seen or was he going mad, inventing all this inside his own head, living out some fantasy? He reached into his wallet and pulled out the photographs of the town. These were real. He was here. The answers to his questions, Ben knew, lay at the Cross Keys Public House and, there too; his so far nameless, summoner.