Chapter 23 – Alive, But Sleeping
There she was. Tim saw Foxy in the early evening light. There was something different about her and after a moment he realised she wore her hair over her shoulder in a great golden plait. It was her sole concession to practicality for she still wore her tight knee-length skirt, green jacket and heels.
Tim considered his own ensemble: blue jeans, a faded maroon cotton shirt and old leather jacket. He tried to imagine himself in a variety of more stylish outfits. A Saville Row brown and mustard three-piece gave way to a zoot-suit and homburg, then a leather trench coat, high boots and monocle. He discarded them all, this was who he was and he had no inbuilt desire or indeed talent to wear clothes other than the ones he felt comfortable in. Also, accessories were problematic. A trench coat and monocle demanded a half–track armoured staff car with uniformed driver and motorcycle outriders. Considering the turning-circle, parking in Brighton would be a nightmare.
‘Hi,’ Foxy said, arriving with a small jump and a bright smile.
They looked at each other for a moment.
‘Well, here I am,’ Foxy said. ‘What do we do now?’
Tim’s guess about the number of people who would be around at this time of day was wrong. The sky was overcast but the streets still thronged with people walking home, waiting for buses or gathering in animated groups before heading off for an early drink.
‘Take a walk and have a casual look around,’ Tim said. ‘And try not to be noticed.’
‘OK. How about this?’ Foxy slipped her arm through his. ‘Two friends out for a walk.’
It was worth it just for this, Tim decided.
‘What’s up?’ Foxy said.
‘It feels strange to be here just because a pen made a hole in a map.’
‘That’s down to you. When I first came here I didn’t think men were good for much of anything, but you’re not like those guys, you’ve got some real talents.’
‘Foxy, where exactly did you come from?’
‘A place where all the men are fat, lecherous bores. Just like that Troy Jarglebaum.’ Foxy briefly hugged his arm. ‘You wouldn’t fit in at all.’
They walked in silence for a moment then Tim said, ‘One or more of these buildings will have a car park. We’ll check them as we walk past.’
‘What does the car look like?’
Tim told her.
Foxy nodded. ‘Big, old and black.’
‘Big, old, black, and beautiful,’ Tim said.
‘Only ships can be beautiful. Other machines are just things.’
‘This car will prove you wrong.’
The first car park was at ground level under a concrete cube of a building on concrete stilts. Foxy and Tim strolled past. All the cars were modern ones.
The next car park was in the basement of a large and featureless office block. A concrete ramp descended from the street and ended in a metal roll-door. A security camera on the wall covered the approach. As they passed by the door clanked up, a car exited up the ramp and the door rolled down behind it.
It was going to be difficult to get in there unnoticed. Although there were long glassless windows at pavement level they were only about eighteen inches high.
‘Let’s try further on,’ Tim said.
By the time they reached the end of Trafalgar Lane the commuter crowds had thinned to a few lone individuals. The rest of the office buildings either had no parking at all or open lots where it was easy to see all the vehicles. There was nothing that looked like the Imperial.
Tim looked doubtfully back at the basement car park. ‘If the car’s anywhere, it’s in there.’
Overhead the clouds lowered, flinty grey. A cool wind started and moments later a few fat drops of rain spattered the pavement.
Foxy slipped her arm free from Tim’s. ‘Keep an eye out, I’m going to take a look.’
A stronger gust of wind blew a flurry of rain and litter down the road. Foxy crossed to the other side. Tim looked up and down the road, saw it was deserted and hurried across to join her.
Foxy dropped to her knees beside one of the long low openings and peered through.
Tim looked left and right. A lone man exited a doorway, raised his umbrella and hurried away.
Foxy pulled her head back. ‘It’s too gloomy, I can’t see anything.’ She shrugged out of her jacket, lay flat on her stomach and wriggled in past her shoulders.
‘I can see seven, eight cars, more further back. My body’s blocking the light.’ She slid a little further in then went still.
Tim crouched beside her. ‘Foxy, are you all right?’
‘Yes,’ came the muffled reply. ‘My eyes are getting used to the light.’ More of Foxy disappeared into the low gap. ‘The floor’s not that far down. I think I could… Eeek!’
Before Tim could move she vanished. All except for a single aqua-blue mid-heel pump. The street was still empty. Tim lay flat on the pavement and called into the gap. ‘Foxy, are you all right?’
After a moment he heard her moving, then a low laugh. Foxy’s fingers wiggled at the lip of the sill ‘I’m fine. Where’s my shoe?’
‘Here.’ Tim dropped it down, along with her jacket.
‘Nobody’s here, it’s very quiet. I think everyone has gone home.’
It looked like there was just enough room. Tim took off his own jacket and pushed it into the gap. ‘I’m coming down.’
He wriggled in head-first and saw the floor was about five feet below him. He swung his legs round and dropped down.
Foxy was right there, her eyes bright, her smile mischievous. She swung her jacket over her shoulder. ‘This is fun.’
The cold air smelled of damp concrete and exhaust fumes. Tim looked around anxiously. If they were caught it would not look good, they’d have few excuses. Once again he’d be forced to ask Troy Jarglebaum for help. ‘Let’s keep the noise down.’
Dim light seeped in from the street behind them. Further back scattered pools of illumination came from a sparse scatter of wall lights. To their right the steel shutter closed off the exit ramp. In the far corner a green ‘Exit’ sign glowed above a door. Most of the parking bays were empty, a few dim silhouettes of vehicles showed here and there.
Foxy’s heels echoed on the walls as they walked forwards. A small green hatchback emerged from the gloom, a large saloon straddled two bays further back. A couple of the wall lights were out, Tim walked through a pool of darkness and found it empty.
‘Well, at least we…’ Tim began and the words died in his mouth.
‘What?’ Foxy said, then, ‘Oh.’
In the furthest corner of the garage was an alcove wide enough for three cars. A glint of reflected light shone from the centre bay. Tim took a step closer, then another. A twin rail front fender with chrome over-riders gleamed, above it a tall grill fronted a high, black bonnet.
Tim and Foxy walked slowly forwards, the scuff and click of their shoes on the dusty concrete the only sound.
Twin headlight cones, white-wall tyres, chrome disk hub caps. Glistening black bodywork deep and dark as midnight water. The glorious, grand sweep of the front wheel arches and running boards revealed themselves as they approached.
Foxy stood still. ‘You were right, it is beautiful, like it’s alive. Alive, but sleeping.’
‘Single-piece curved windshield,’ Tim whispered. ‘Wind-tunnel designed streamlining. Both firsts. Chrysler was the first company to realise that cars were, up until that point, essentially built back to front.’ Unbidden his hand reached out to touch the liquid black paintwork.
‘Don’t.’ Foxy’s hand was on his arm. ‘You’ll leave prints.’
‘Have you done this before?’
Foxy’s eyes glittered in the quiet gloom. ‘No, but I wish I had.’
Seeing her standing in the half-light beside the Airflow the thought came to Tim that she was a woman from another time, another world.
Foxy shifted under his gaze. ‘What is it?’
‘We did it, Foxy. We found the car.’ He could hardly believe it himself. ‘The divining worked.’
Suspension creaked softly as Foxy stood on the running board and peered through the side window. ‘Empty. It’s so clean it could be new.’
Tim took a long admiring look at deep-buttoned red leather upholstery, carpets, chrome fittings and walnut trim on the dash. Then he made his way round the back. ‘She’s definitely the one. There’s an old FN badge on the rear fender.’
Foxy offered Tim a tissue. ‘Try the boot.’
‘This is better.’ Tim removed the handkerchief with the ‘MK’ monogram from his jacket. ‘It belongs to the owner.’
Foxy studied the embroidered material as it lay in his hand. ‘I don’t like it,’ she said. ‘Use my tissue.’
‘It’s just a handkerchief.’ Tim wrapped it round the handle. With a soft clunk the boot opened, a dim bulb lit the interior.
The boot was lined with a plush burgundy carpet. A cardboard stationary box sat to one side. Taking up most of the space beside it was a large hessian sack bulging with something bulky and heavy.
Tim looked down at it with cold dread. Foxy’s hand crept into his. Gratefully he held it tight.
‘What do you think it is?’ Foxy whispered, her eyes as round as saucers.
‘I don’t want to know.’
‘I know what you mean. I want to close the lid and walk away, forget we ever saw it.’
‘I know that too.’
Gingerly Tim reached into the boot and prodded the sack. He pushed it again, harder. ‘I don’t think it’s a body.’
‘Are you sure?’
Tim swallowed. ‘Fairly sure. Also – the smell.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There isn’t one.’
‘You need to take a look.’
‘Right,’ Tim said.
‘Well, go on then.’
Tim squared his shoulders. He took a moment to memorise how the sack lay, then opened the neck and looked inside. Relief flooded through him. ‘Oh, thank goodness.’
‘What– What is it?’ Foxy asked.
‘I don’t know. It looks like a bit like coal, a bit like black, knobbly potatoes.’ Tim reached into the sack and extracted a dark, round lump a little smaller than his own fist, a squat and bumpy ovoid heavier than stone. The knobbled surface was smooth in some places, pitted elsewhere.
Foxy took it and turned it in her hand, puzzled. ‘That’s very strange. I’m sure I’ve seen this before.’
Tim took it back and slipped it into his pocket. ‘Let’s see what’s in the box.’
As he lifted the lid the stairwell door banged open. Footsteps moved crisply across the car park.
Foxy and Tim crouched down. The boot light shone on their faces. Tim reached up and eased the boot lid down. The strange lump lay cold and heavy in his pocket. Whatever it was, what reason could there be for a sack of it lying in the boot of such a beautiful old machine?
A starter motor whined, an engine burst into life. Transmission whined briefly as the vehicle moved across the car park. The metal roll-door noisily clattered up on its chains, the car drove up the ramp and the door rattled down again.
‘We should go,’ Tim said.
‘Wait.’ Foxy pulled some printed sheets from the box and quickly looked them over. ‘They’re all the same. OK, let’s go.’
Tim replace the box lid and refolded the top of the sack as best as he could remember. The boot closed with a soft clunk, the light went out.
Back where they had come in Foxy slipped off her shoes, reached through the gap and put them on the pavement.
‘Here’. Tim cupped his hands and made a step. Foxy stepped up into his hands, her foot warm, muscular and strong. He took her weight, she slipped neatly through the gap.
‘Come on,’ Foxy had her shoes back on. All Tim could see of her was her feet and ankles. ‘I’ll help you.’
Tim put his hands on the sill, jumped up, and fell back. The skylight was too narrow, he couldn’t get enough leverage to push himself through. He tried hooking up one leg but it was too high. He lost his grip and fell hard onto the concrete.
‘You all right?’ Foxy peered through the gap.
‘Yes, but I don’t think I can get out.’
Tim jumped again. Foxy grabbed his collar and pulled. His head and shoulders emerged through the gap. Foxy pulled again. Tim swung a leg up, wriggled, twisted and rolled. Scraped and dusty, he was through. Tim stood up and brushed himself down. He looked at Foxy’s broad, yet feminine shoulders with renewed respect. ‘You’re pretty strong.’
Foxy dusted off her hands. ‘I do a bit of swimming.’
Trafalgar Lane was deserted. Wind gusted fitfully, a tattered white plastic bag spiralled into the air then rolled along the street. While they had been underground the sky had darkened, Thunder rumbled over the hills of Ditchling beacon.
Foxy gazed at Tim, suddenly serious. ‘We did it, Ace. We found the car.’
‘We did.’ Tim was more than half amazed himself. He thought back to the pen and map, Foxy’s unquestioning support. His life was changing for the better and she was the reason. ‘I couldn’t have done it without you.’
‘Thanks.’ Foxy smiled. Hesitantly she lifted her hand. ‘You’ve got a smudge on your chin.’
‘So have you. On your nose.’ He thought it made her hotter than ever
He reached out. Foxy bobbed her head and ducked away. She produced a tissue from somewhere and dabbed the smudge away. Her comb appeared in her hand and with three strokes, left, right, and down middle her plait fell apart and her hair rearranged itself into cascades of loose, bouncing curls.
Self-conscious at his own scruffiness Tim ran his fingers through his hair. A few drops of rain spattered down. Tim took a chance. ‘Let’s go for a drink.’
‘Sure,’ Foxy said, then froze. ‘Damn. My jacket.’
‘I gave it to you,’ Tim said.
Foxy looked down into the car park. ‘I must have left it in there. Dammit, I can’t remember–’
‘What’s in it?’
‘Nothing. It’s just a jacket.’
‘I’ll fetch it,’ Tim said.
‘No, don’t bother.’ Foxy looked up at the darkening sky. ‘Let’s go for that drink.’
‘I don’t think we should.’
‘Oh, yes, I see what you mean.’
‘Wait here and help me back up.’ Tim lay flat and swung his legs back into the gap.
With a rumble of thunder, the heavens opened. Foxy shrieked as a deluge of rain poured down drenching everything.
‘Don’t worry,’ Tim shouted over the thunder, ‘It won’t last.’
‘I love it!’ Foxy cried.
Tim looked back and saw her in the middle of the road with her head thrown back and arms wide.
‘You’ll get soaked!’
‘I don’t care.’
Then she looked down at herself and gave a panicked cry. Saturated by the rain her blouse was near transparent. Her arms covered her chest, she turned away. ‘I have to go.’
‘No, wait, your jacket,’ Tim cried. He rolled to his feet, slipped on the wet pavement and barked his shin on the kerb. He clutched it in agony. ‘Wait, Foxy. I can’t get out on my own.’
But she was running.
‘Wait.’ Tim rubbed his leg, trying to hop and run at the same time.
Foxy turned the corner.
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had started. Dark clouds parted and the evening sun shone down, the air filled with the oddly pleasant smell of wet pavements.
‘Foxy.’ Tim called. He ran to the end of the street. ‘Foxy.’ It was no good, she had gone.
Rainwater dripped off the end of Tim’s nose and trickled down the inside of his collar. The elation he felt at finding the car vanished. Despondently he began to make his way home.
Then he slowed as he remembered something and the spring returned to his step. Foxy Bolivia had called him ‘Ace’ and she’d said it like she meant it. It was a good feeling.
To be continued…