“You’re confused, I can tell,” said the fox, as Leitha banged the kettle onto the gas flame.
“Why can you talk?”
“I am a messenger for the Lady. Perhaps you should ask why you can understand me?” suggested Nine Tails.
“Why can I understand you then?” demanded Leitha.
“Because we are over the border. While we are moving.”
“Moving where?” The conversation was confusing Leitha even more.
“About a week. Can I have your pie?”
The pie from the baker’s shop still sat on the kitchen counter; the fox was eyeing it longingly.
“I suppose so,” Leitha said slowly. It looked a bit too squashed and dried up to appeal to her. She laid the plate down in front of the animal, who tucked in gratefully.
“Always wanted one of these,” the fox explained with her mouth full. “Won’t be any more now.”
“Is the baker dead?”
“No, he escaped to the countryside. Didn’t you hear him say so?”
“I heard him call people to come on a picnic with him,” Leitha admitted.
“Clever man,” the fox licked the plate clean. “Got quite a few out and they made it to the caves in time.”
Leitha stored this information in case it made sense later.
“So, while we are over this border, I can understand you. Is that why I could understand Takeshi and the Watchmaker talking in Japanese?”
“Expect so. This place is right on the edge so there’s often leakage even when it’s stable in the manifest. On this side, communication takes the optimum form, that’s all.”
“Can people read my mind?” wondered Leitha.
“If they wanted to, if you were thinking about saying something. It’s generally not considered polite”
Takeshi glanced hopefully up when the kettle boiled.
“I’m going to wash up first,” Leitha told him. “Before you make any more mess. We don’t want to get chucked out!”
She was about to pour the hot water into the empty sink when she happened to look at the window behind it and froze. Where there had – most definitely had – been just a printed poster of trees, there was now a view into an extensive forest. A breeze whisked some fallen leaves against the glass as she stared.
“Look, there’s another fox!” she exclaimed. Nine Tails leapt up into the sink, gazing out intently.
“Oy, I was about to use that sink,” Leitha complained. The fox ignored her.
“It was just a flash of white over there,” she explained, “I only assumed it was another of you, don’t get too excited.”
Nine Tails showed no sign of moving. Leitha sighed, piled the dishes from the other sink onto the floor and used that one instead. On the other side of the strange window, the breeze increased to a blustering wind. Shadows flitted between the lashing branches, but if there had been another fox, there was no sign of it now.
A rattle of keys made her look round, to see the Watchmaker locking the blue door behind him. He crossed the room, leaned around the fox and pulled down a heavy blind.
“She saw Yipyip,” Nine Tails said.
“Possible,” agreed the old man. The fox jumped back down to the floor.
“Are we ready then?” she asked him. The Watchmaker had his gold timepiece in his hand.
“Re-engaging in three….two…one…” he said confidently, and looked up. Nothing happened. He checked the watch again, shook it, held it to his ear.
Nine Tails barked crossly.
“Ah..we have landed then,” he said cheerfully. “Very smooth. Surprise myself sometimes.”
He saw Leitha staring at him and looked embarrassed.
“It’s the hat, isn’t it?” he said, taking off a large pointed wizard’s hat. “Goes with the cloak, but I can’t help feeling it’s out of fashion these days.”
He was wearing a very old and tattered cloak over his informal attire; it was so threadbare that the intricate embroidery might have been all that prevented it from disintegrating entirely.
“You know, if your mistress could see her way to sending me a new cloak, it’d be greatly appreciated,” he told the fox, but Nine Tails’ attention was focussed on the shop door. She barked again, sharply.
“Yes, yes, don’t be in such a rush. Probably won’t like it.”
They followed him to the door, where he carefully undid all the locks, bolts and chains which festooned it. He turned to the children.
“Now be still while I look outside. On no account leave the shop!”
His intensity made Leitha afraid, yet she took Takeshi’s hand and placed themselves so that they could see out of the door without being too close. The Watchmaker lifted the ornate brass latch and peered out cautiously.
“Oh dear, oh dear, it is worse than I thought,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of closing the door on whatever fearful view lay outside.
“We need to see.” Leitha said firmly. Takeshi looked up.
“See.” he affirmed.
The old man sighed and tutted. He carefully pushed the door open. A sharp smell of old burning drifted in. Heavy rain cascaded from a lowering sky, washing ash from the charred wreckage of Patriot Avenue, feeding the foaming rivers racing down the gutters. Across the road, twisted and scorched plastic toys spilled over the jagged remains of their shop window, the garish colours highlighting the dark grey of this bleak scene.
Leitha could neither move nor speak. Takeshi clutched her hand harder.
There was a sound like gravel hitting a window. The Watchmaker looked nervously up and down the street. Suddenly a large splinter of wood seemed to fly off the door by itself, the noise of many heavy running footsteps, loud voices, coming towards them!
Swiftly he slammed the heavy outer door shut, feverishly locking, bolting and chaining it. Outside, there was shouting, hammering and kicking until the children feared the door was bound to shatter into a thousand pieces.
“Quickly, run to the back!” cried the Watchmaker. He seized a lever hidden in the corner shadows. It was nearly as tall as he was, but it moved steadily as he leant his weight on it. Crouching behind the conter, the children heard a creaking above, as if mighty gear wheels were beginning to turn. The shouting outside stopped, the lever suddenly lost all resistance taking the Watchmaker to the ground with it, and a tremendous crashing sound filled the air.
The whole shop trembled violently, clocks shuddered to the edge of their shelves, tipping off to shatter below. A thin crack zig zagged across the ceiling. Dust filled the air as the thundering roar subsided to an occasional thump.
Leitha peered out. The Watchmaker was picking his way through the debris towards the fireplace, where he adjusted a cast iron slider. The dusty air began to clear. Takeshi crawled out from under the counter, coughing. NineTails emerged from the living room, shaking her coat.
As the dust settled, the damage seemed almost superficial, as if nothing much had happened. Until Leitha looked at the fallen window display. A corner shaped dent had pushed the metal shutters in and crushed its way through a whole section of the diamond window panes. The Watchmaker inspected this with concern.
“Check the kitchen, will you?” he called. Leitha found the back room relatively undisturbed, relieved to see no more cracks in the ceiling. A vase lay in pieces by the fire; a cupboard had come open, scattering tins of food. Some of the clean dishes had fallen off their stack. Once she’d replaced them, Leitha couldn’t resist lifting the edge of the blind to see the forest outside the kitchen window again.
It was not there. She gazed out into an inky blackness which had patterns of deeper black moving in it. These seemed to be gathering around her reflection in the glass…
“Don’t look!” shouted the Watchmaker, as her reflection laughed and swirled away like a ghost. Leitha dropped the blind nervously.
The old man took off his cloak, now ripped beyond repair, surveyed it ruefully and dusted himself down in the fireplace. He sank wearily into his armchair.
“Make me tea, young lady,” he demanded.
“Make you tea?” cried Leitha, “ What’s happened to the Avenue? Has there been an earthquake? Was someone shooting at us?”
“Yes. No. Nothing good. Currently we are safe under several hundred tons of masonery, the repairs on the charging systems are holding and all we need to do is wait. Now, I expect we could all do with a drink to wash away the dust before any more talking goes on.”
The tap was still working. Leitha filled a bowl for Nine Tails, who lapped it up gratefully. Takeshi was curled up on the settee and ignored the cup of tea placed beside him.
“So,” said Leitha, politely waiting until the Watchmaker refilled his cup. “Explain.”
“Sit. Rep.” barked NineTails, scowling up from the rug.
“Your war has been building up to something of an end game recently,” said the old man carefully. “Hence our involvement, of which you are a tiny part.”
“Go on,” she encouraged, “What happened to the Avenue?”
“There was an aerial bombardment of your town, starting with a direct hit on the Embassy and culminating in a nuclear explosion at the factory complex to the west. The environment outside this shop is not only ruined, but highly toxic. We are protected from it by several different layers of shielding, one of which requires a great deal of a type of power which we are short of.”
Nine Tails barked.
“Because I didn’t check the charging systems until it was nearly too late. You should appreciate my attention to the defenses though,” he admonished the fox. Nine Tails huffed, and jumped up onto the settee to console the unhappy Takeshi.
“Defenses?” prompted Leitha. “The earthquake?”
“I said it wasn’t an earthquake.” The old man was clearly flustered by the fox’s critical attitude. “I’ve owned – my family have owned – this building for centuries. The whole of the upper stories are rigged to collapse in case of real trouble. We’re completely buried in stones now, no-one can reach us from the outside.”
“So how do we get out?”
“You wouldn’t survive if you did. There are – or were – places to go, but you’d be fatally contaminated before you got there. You’ll have to use the back way, but there are problems with that too. Fortunately, I’m in a better position to resolve them. We just need to wait for some charge to build up. It could take a few days. You’re welcome to stay.”
“Thanks,” Leitha acknowledged gloomily. The Watchmaker drained his tea and stood up.
“Now I need to attend to certain things in the side rooms. Could you please clean up the broken glass for me? There’s a bin in here,” he indicated the utility room.
“Don’t open the garden door,” he called back as he left the shop, followed by the fox, “It’s not there just now.”