Read Seven Steps to the Sun Online

Authors: Fred Hoyle,Geoffrey Hoyle

Tags: #sf

Seven Steps to the Sun (9 page)

'Where are you from?' said one of the uniformed men.
'Southampton,' came the reply from inside the cab.
'Going through to London?'
'Yep. Chiswick depot.'
'What are you carrying?' asked the official.
'Lettuces,' came a laughing reply from the cab.
'O.K. don't lose that valuable load,' said the official, moving back from the vehicle. The truck ground off in bottom gear. Mike was relieved that the check spot was only for the truck and not him. Must be for vehicles moving from one zone to another.
It was about half an hour later when the truck swung off the motorway onto the Chiswick fly-over. Mike slid his legs from underneath the strap. The truck slowed up as it turned onto the northern ring road. Mike jumped backwards, landed on his feet but, misjudging the speed of the lorry, fell forward into the road. He rolled to a stop, picked up his bruised and battered body and rushed for the safety of the verge as another large truck thundered towards him. He would have never recognized this great expanse of motor road as the old north circular. He followed the direction signs to Hammersmith, walking along with a jaunty gait.
'Want a lift?' said a voice alongside him. Mike clenched his fists and turned as naturally as he could. A man's head appeared from the door of an electric taxi.
'I'd love a ride, but I've run out of money,' said Mike, smiling and shrugging his shoulders.
'That's all right, mate. I'm off duty and on my way home,' said the driver.
'Where are you going?'
'Shepherd's Bush,' replied the cabby.
Mike hadn't really wanted to go back to the vicinity
I
>l his arrest, but the offer of the lift was too tempting.
'Well, if you could drop me as near as possible to Notting Hill, that would be very kind.' He'd go to Notting Hill, to see if he could find evidence of Pete's death. It was a mad decision in the circumstances. I le would have to be very careful. The taxi gathered speed and they silently passed through the sleeping city.
'Been on a gambling spree?' asked the driver, with a cheery smile.
'Something like that, they nearly had the shirt off my back.'
'It's always the way,' said the man shrewdly. 'That's why I work as much as I can, otherwise I would be doing the same. The young people are going to be worse off than we are.'
'Do you think so?'
'Well, with total automation in the factories and such places, the young man of tomorrow is going to have a hell of a lot of time on his hands. I'm old fashioned, I like working for my living. I wouldn't want to be paid for not working, as a lot of people are today.'
'Beginning of a cabbage society,' said Mike pondering.
'I think they're that now,' said the man, strongly.
'I hope I don't come under that classification,' said Mike, with a smile.
'Depends on what you do. I must admit you're the first person I've offered a lift to who refused because he hadn't the fare. Gives me a little hope. What do you do?'
'I write for a living.'
The man's eyebrows went up at this, and he looked inquisitively at him.
'Anything wrong with being a writer?' asked Mike.
'No, I like reading but there's lots of people who don't. You must have a rough time, unless you're one of those writers who writes what he's told,' said the man sarcastically.
'I'm a story teller,' Mike offered.
'Where would you like to be dropped?' said the driver.
'Near the tube station, if that's all right.' The taxi pulled into the side of the road. First reasonable man he'd met, thought Mike as he thanked the driver warmly for the lift. The tube station was still open and in the ticket hall he found what he was looking for; a large illuminated map of London. A cemetery was marked in the Notting Hill area, and he decided he would start his search there.
It was still dark and the gates of the cemetery were locked. He felt he should have brought a spade as he climbed in over the wall. Once inside he began to see the size of the task in front of him. There were acres of tombstones. His only hope was that they had a system of burying people in different sections depending on the war in which they died. Mike walked round and round,
in
hopeless quest. Dawn was coming up and he felt very tired. He started to look round for somewhere to rest his bones. Ghostly thoughts of sleeping with the dead were far from his mind as he settled down on a bench in the cover of a vast tomb. He couldn't quite make out who was buried there but he reasoned
that
they wouldn't begrudge him a little sleep.
Mike woke with a terrible headache and a feeling that he might be developing a cold. A bird sang sweetly to him from a bush near by. He got up and the bruises really hurt, but he couldn't worry about that, as he heard footsteps on the gravel pathway. Looking carefully out from his tomb he saw an old man in dirty overalls, carrying a spade, go by a few yards away. He allowed the man a few yards start and then left his hiding place, to follow him.
'Excuse me,' he said catching up with the old man. 'Sorry to bother you, but I'm looking for the grave of someone who might be buried here.'
'What for?' said the man suspiciously.
'I'm going abroad and I'd like to pay my last respects,' Mike said with great authority, as he was fed up with people looking suspiciously at him.
'What's the name of your friend?'
'Peter Jones, and I think he passed away on June 7th, 1979.'
'Do you know what he did for a living'?' asked the man.
'He was a musician,' said Mike, irritated. 'Ah, musicians, you'll find them over in the north corner,' said the man.
'Thank you, you've been most helpful,' said Mike, moving quickly away. He soon found the north corner he'd been directed to, and from there it was an easy job to trace the head stones. Mike, moving around in the damp grass absorbed in his task, saw, with a sudden shock, the cold, hard words engraved on a stone 'Pete Jones.' He had not wanted to believe the story that Pete had been killed. It was only on seeing the grave that the full reality of what might have happened came rushing back.
'You stupid bastard, why didn't you just let it happen, instead of fighting it?' said Mike quietly to the damp earth. 'You know if you hadn't spent all your life fighting your way around you might be alive today.' The tears welled in Mike's eyes, and he fiddled with the earth around the grave. Then standing up abruptly he made his way back to the entrance where he found an office.
'Yes, sir, do you want to arrange your funeral?' asked a slick individual, as Mike came through the door.
'Not at the moment, thank you. There is something I'd like to do. You've got a man buried here, a Pete Jones up in the musicians' section. I'd like the grave kept tidy, and fresh roses every week.'
'Right, just let me make a note of all this. Can I have your name, please?' said the man, writing down the information.
'Jerome, and I'll pay for this by banker's order.'
'I'm afraid we don't do that,' said the man with a self-satisfied smile.
'You bloody well will do it that way, or I'll have the body removed somewhere where they will do as I want,' said Mike, wanting to smack the fellow.
'Certainly, it seems such a shame to waste money though,' said the man greasily.
'What do you mean?'
'Well you're the first person to take an interest in that grave, and there's no one buried there,' said the man, with a laugh.
'What the hell are you talking about?'
'Nothing, I'm sorry I mentioned it.'
Mike took a grab at the man but missed.
'There's no need for violence, I will accept a banker's order, and carry out all your instructions,' said the man, retreating behind a desk.
'Fine, now what do you mean, there's no one buried there?'
'I'm afraid, Mr Jerome, that cemeteries are a bad way of making a living.'
'Fine, I get your meaning. You'll have to wait until I've been to the bank.'
'Then, when you return, I shall be glad to tell you what I know,' said the man. Mike took hold of the desk and banged it against the wall, trapping the man's legs behind it.
'Right, what do you know?' asked Mike, smiling into the whitening face.
Well it's nothing really, please let me go,' pleaded the squirming individual.
'Tell me,' said Mike, pushing against the table.
'Well it was a cremation case. We didn't do the cremation here, as we were told it was going to be done outside London. Eventually we got the canister. Unfortunately for me, I am over curious, so I had to take a peep inside. It was empty,' said the man. 'What did you do?'
'I phoned up the number we'd been given, and told this lady. She said she would see that I was looked after, so we buried the empty urn and that was the end of it until you came on the scene.' Mike let go of the table, and the man scurried for safety.
'Can you remember the name of the woman?' said Mike thoughtfully.
'No,' was the prompt reply.
'Thanks, I'll get back to you some time in the day and we'll settle up, O.K.?'
'That would be very kind of you, Mr Jerome, very kind of you, indeed.'
'One other question. Have you ever buried a man called Michael Jerome, he was a writer?'
The sleazy looking man suddenly went absolutely white in the face. Mike smiled and left him to wonder what kind of ghost he'd just been talking to. He took a few steps from the door and then tiptoed back. As he expected, the man had picked up the phone and was speaking urgently to someone.
Mike wondered whether he should have found out who the man had been talking to, as he marched with great determination across the damp morning grass of Hyde Park. He felt that everything might be going his way as he strolled down Piccadilly. The thought of keeping himself out of sight from the public had vanished. He was now happy. There was a chance that Pete hadn't been killed but had been caught up in the same time change as himself.
On reaching Piccadilly Circus, he looked round for the subway. Impatiently he dived into the nearest one and descended to the underground shopping centre. To his surprise, although there were no signs of activity above ground, here people were rushing about from shop to shop as if their lives depended on it. Mike walked through various galleries, looking for his bank. He stopped and asked his way at a sort of news stand and a feeling of relief swept over him as he pushed the automatic sliding doors of the bank and stumbled through.
'I'd like to draw some money out, but I've mislaid my cheque book,' said Mike to a teller.
'Can I have your account number?' asked the man.
'I can't remember that either, I'm afraid.'
'Then I'd better have your name,' said the man smiling.
'Michael Jerome.'
'Michael Jerome,' repeated the man, writing it down and going off to a central desk in the open space behind him. He typed something out, and waited. The answer didn't satisfy him so he typed out more instructions.
'I'm sorry, Mr Jerome,' said the man, as he came back, 'but you don't seem to have an account number.'
'But that's ridiculous. The last time I cashed a cheque I had over two hundred pounds in my current account and several thousands in a deposit account,' said Mike.
'How long ago was the last time you cashed a cheque, sir
?'
asked the man.
'It must have been about ten years ago,' Mike said, as naturally as he could. The man's eyebrows went up. He jotted this information down and returned to his typewriter. It seemed an age before the fellow came back. Mike was relieved to see a smile on the man's face.
'You're quite right, sir. But since you weren't available to sign the relevant documents, your account isn't filed under our new filing and accounting system,' the man said cheerfully, delving into a drawer. He produced a sheaf of papers and a small credit card, which Mike signed. With this new form of cheque book he learnt he could buy anything anywhere, all over the world. Mike withdrew three hundred pounds from his account and left the bank.
After a brief stop at the Information Desk he surfaced from the multicoloured subterranean cave feeling much better with money in his pocket. He hailed a cab and asked the driver to take him to Park Lane. With all the modern buildings it was difficult to see where number
140
was, but eventually he found the right entrance and went in to look at the name plates. He saw what he wanted, and took a lift up to the thirty-seventh floor. The lift opened straight into the offices of the musician's union.
'Can I help you?' said a pretty girl at the reception desk.
'Yes. I want to know if a Mr Peter Jones has paid his union dues.'
'Just a moment, please. Mr Rodgers is the man who would know.'
A few minutes later he was ushered into Mr Rodgers' office. A young man got up from his seat and came to greet Mike.
'What can I do for you, Mr...?'
'Jerome, I am just inquiring whether a Mr Peter Jones has paid his union dues recently,' said Mike, looking round.
'Just a moment,' said Rodgers pleasantly, going pack to his seat. After a little time Rodgers got up and came back to Mike. 'It appears that Mr Jones hasn't paid his dues since
1979.
Do you want to pay them, Mr Jerome?' asked the young man, enthusiastically.
'No, but I'd like you to do something. If Mr Jones should come in to pay his dues, could you say that I'd like to see him, and to leave a note at my bank?'
Rodgers made a careful note of Mike's instructions.
'All right?' said Mike.
'Fine, I'll do that,' said Rodgers cheerfully.
'Thank you Mr Rodgers, thank you,' said Mike leaving the room and descending back to Park Lane.
Mike felt ready to return to the cemetery and pay the greasy fellow a last visit. He waited for an empty cab, and drove in style to Notting Hill. The cemetery didn't look nearly as fearsome now that the gentle morning sun warmed the air. The office was empty. He walked into the cemetery but couldn't see anyone, so he made his way back to the entrance. Suddenly he realized that he'd fallen into a trap. The main gates had been closed. Mike ducked down behind a tomb and listened.

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