Titus and The Blackburn’s:
18 years before the story begins.
Titus stared at the disappointing paper cup of hot water from the airport café. From the lack of steam he could tell that the temperature was incorrect, but he tested it with his finger. It was tepid, hot at best, but not the boiling temperature required for the black or fermented teas. Reaching into his coat pocket he pulled out a small steel container that was lined with Chinese characters on the façade and separated into three sections. Dismissing the first section, his fingers hovered over the second that contained an exceptional green tea from Japan. Shaking his head and acknowledging that the water wasn’t even hot enough for the green, he opened the third section. Inside was the delicate white tea from a Northern Chinese plantation with subtleties that always delighted him. He poured a measure into the cup and counted to five before straining it back into another cup through a fine mesh. Titus smiled as he drank the tea slowly, allowing the tender liquid to soothe him. It didn’t approach the delicacies of a mountain stream brew, but it was adequate. A man sitting at the next table watched him and after looking at his own cheap cardboard brewed airport tea, slid his paper cup away. Titus winked at him before strolling over to the Quantas Airlines counter on the opposite side of the lobby.
“Paris, please, one way economy class.”
After she flicked through his passport the woman behind the ticket counter smiled up at him. “That will be $1760 including tax, Mr. Richardson. Any luggage to check, sir?”
“Just a small carry on,” he replied.
The flight from Sidney to Paris changed in Singapore, and Titus decided to discontinue the flight, instead purchasing a first class ticket to Hamburg. He sat next to an elderly German lady who inquired into the reason for his trip in accented but good English.
“I’m a pharmaceutical executive travelling on business,” he replied, in perfect German.
Not being overly suspicious of her routine conversation, he nevertheless spent the flight questioning her, looking for inconsistencies in her stories. He found none. She was as advertised—a wealthy German lady returning home from visiting her son in Hong Kong.
In Hamburg, he caught a taxi to a downtown bank where he accessed a safety deposit box, changed passports, and picked up new credit cards and a stack of euros. An hour later, in Dammthur train station, he boarded a train to Cologne. It was November and bitterly cold, so he bought some warmer clothes and a small travelling bag in a gentleman’s clothing store. It began to snow and Titus found Cologne as charming as ever. He purchased a quick pastry and coffee in a nearby bakery and caught another taxi to Koln-Bonn airport, then purchased a ticket to Stockholm under the identity of a Luxembourg national called Hans Bakker, travelling to Scandinavia for spa treatments.
The flight to Stockholm was half-empty and uneventful, but despite three days without sleep, he remained watchful and alert for any unwelcome surveillance. He detected none.
It was snowing hard in Stockholm and he was glad of his fur-lined coat and hat. He caught a taxi to a café on Kraakgrand. After ordering a coffee he went to the empty bathroom and opened the first stall. He closed the door, stood on the toilet seat, looked up at the ceiling, counted three panels across and tapped hard. The panel moved slightly and he was able to remove it. He reached his hand up to the left and grabbed hold of a package wrapped in a waterproof material. From inside he retrieved a passport, new cards, and a stack of crisp, fifty-pound notes. Titus put his old passport and cards in the package and placed them in the ceiling before he reclosed the panel. He drank his coffee and caught a train to Malmo.
Titus rented a car using his new identity, Michael Decker, and drove across the bridge to Denmark. He arrived in Copenhagen at dawn and found himself nostalgic for a time many years ago when he’d lived in the old city. He’d been very happy here and even took a wife for a while.
Titus drove straight to the port and boarded a ferry to Bergen, Norway, and spent the trip on deck watching the passengers. Nobody paid much notice of an old man with a cane in an overcoat.
In Bergen, he had his first real meal in four days, enjoying a superb salmon dish in a charming restaurant by the port. An hour later he was on another ferry, this one destined for Newcastle, England. On deck, with the frigid North Sea air biting at his face, he had his first view of Britain for many years. Titus had spent significant time on the British Islands, both bad and good, knowing that one day his fate would lead him back.
He made sure he was the last passenger to exit the boat and carefully scanned the dock for any unwanted attention.
Without spending any time in the town, he caught a bus to the train station and then spent forty minutes on a cold platform waiting for the express to Leeds. The train was cozy, and a paper cup of hot chocolate revived Titus as he watched the countryside of the North of England speed by. A group of rough looking youths came in to the car with open cans of lager, chanting football songs. Titus pointedly ignored them. All the other passengers moved from the car, clearly intimidated by the youths. The ticket collector looked on nervously, eventually leaving Titus alone with the group.
“Oye, Grandpa, why don’t you let me have a go on that hat,” said skinhead hooligan number one, a tattooed muscle-bound man of about twenty. Titus didn’t even move his eyes from the window.
“He’s talking to you old-timer,” said another skinhead, this one a little older with a scar from ear to chin.
Titus slowly fixed his attention on both of the men. “Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui.” said Titus, in a low deliberate voice.
“What you saying?” said the first one, fear creeping into his voice, infecting it like a virus.
Titus smiled up at them. “What I said you filthy waste of oxygen is, ‘beware of what you say, when, and to whom.”
Both skinheads became pale, and with slack-jaws they backed slowly down the car towards the rest of their group. “Come on, out now!” one of them shouted at the rest, and as they hurried from the car Titus could tell that at least one of them had soiled himself. Titus wrinkled his nose and allowed himself a brief smile at this fleeting but amusing distraction.
Sometime later the train pulled into Leeds station and Titus walked around the bustling city for a few hours, circling around squares and looping around the downtown, checking constantly for anyone who might be following him. The city had changed vastly since the last time he’d visited many years ago, but he recognised much of the distinctive Victorian architecture carved from the pale Yorkshire stone.
At two-thirty in the afternoon he caught the four eight two from the bus station to the market village of Otley, at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. In Otley, he jumped on an empty bus to the tiny hamlet of Wharfvale, a collection of stone houses, a pub, and a post office, pinned to rich farmland at the beginning of the Yorkshire Dales that stretched many miles into the Lake District. It was picturesque and desolate and served as the terminus for the bus service from Otley. Any further and you would be wandering rough moorland for days on end. Titus got off at the terminus outside the post-office and walked up the hill until he came to the entrance of a narrow lane, partly hidden by a hedgerow with a signpost that announced: Dovecote Lane.
Titus paused and circled slowly. He could see the village below, a few cars snaking down the road towards Otley, and the bus returning. Above him, in a pasture field where sheep grazed idly, a tractor ambled along with a farmer at the wheel. But the driver was focused on his field and paid Titus no mind. Titus took a deep breath of bracing country air and found the tranquil scene soothing after days of constant travel. He walked up the lane for five minutes before stopping in front of a large rambling cottage with a well-kept garden and ivy snaking up the old stone walls.
Titus rapped on the door with the back of his walking stick.
The door was opened after a few seconds by a grey-haired dapper man in a tweed jacket with pens sticking from his front pocket. “Yes, may I help you?”
“You are Arthur Blackburn.” It wasn’t a question.
“I am. Do I know you?”
“Have you forgotten who put you here, Arthur? It is I. Titus,” he said.
After a lengthy pause the man became pale as his face registered the shock he was clearly experiencing. “My God. We thought you’d forgotten about us. It’s been so many years.”
“Forgotten? Of course I haven’t forgotten about you. Well, are you going to ask me in or shall I converse on the stoop like a salesman.”
Arthur nodded quickly and swung the door wide. “Yes, yes, of course. Isabella?” he called up the hall. A handsome woman in her mid-fifties emerged from the kitchen with a tea towel in her hands. “We have a visitor,” Arthur told her.
“Tea then?” she said, with a smile stretching across her face, as if a neighbour had popped in with scones.
“Tea would be lovely,” said Titus, placing his hat and coat on a rack and putting his bag and stick on the floor.
As she fussed in the kitchen, Arthur showed him into a comfortable sitting room. “I should have recognised you instantly because you look exactly the same,” said Arthur.
“It has been number of years.”
“Thirty one years to be exact, Titus.”
Arthur took off his glasses and cleaned them with his tie. “You haven’t aged a day.”
“I’ve been taking in the Mediterranean air, Arthur. It’s rather good for the constitution.”
Isabella Blackburn came in with a tray and distributed cups and saucers. Titus took the time to study the couple. Arthur had matured into the studied look of the venerable university professor, which of course he was. He was a distinguished man with salt and pepper hair and fine wrinkles across his face. Isabella had the grace of a ballerina, which she had been earlier in her life. She’d retained much of her youthful features and looked a good deal younger than her husband.
Isabella poured the tea and offered scones and cakes from a silver tray. Arthur nibbled nervously while Titus sipped his tea and happily gobbled up several of the cakes.
Isabella nodded and smiled self-consciously.
“I’m pushed for time so let me get down to brass tacks.” Titus put his teacup and saucer down and arched his fingers, as he leaned back in his chair and paused to gather his thoughts. “Three days from now, twelve babies will arrive. Their names will be sewed into their blankets and you must use those names. Please don’t mix them up. You’ll adopt them and raise them as your own. They’ll attend the local schools until they’re ten, and then I’ll return and finish their education. You’ll need help, especially in the beginning, and I’ll leave you the number of a friend in York. She’s one of us—absolutely trustworthy, and she’ll provide anything you require to aid you in this endeavour. Your stipend will of course be increased to accommodate the changes in household expenses.” Titus picked up the cup again and sipped his tea. “You’ll not mention my name or hint at my existence to anyone, including the children, until I return in due course with further instructions. There is the possibility that the children will begin to show signs of their individual gifts before they’re ten. If that happens, advice will be provided. Now you’re beginning to see why I asked you to purchase this large house. I apologise for the delay in starting your mission. The arrangements took longer than I anticipated. Questions so far?”
The Blackburn’s shook their heads and Titus poured himself more tea from the pot and ate another scone. “Darjeeling?” he asked.
“Yes, single-estate,” answered Isabella.
Titus savoured the tea and looked around the room at the various souvenirs from their earlier lives as archaeologists. He recalled the day he met them in the foothills of The Himalayas over three decades ago, and he smiled at the memory. Isabella was haggling with a tea merchant on a market stall and he’d struck up a conversation with her about which mountain estates were providing the finest selections that year.
“Korukunda, if I’m not mistaken. The tea from the Nilgiri mountains is really quite splendid,” he said, finishing the cup.
“Of course, you’re correct,” she answered.
“Titus, when you recruited us for this mission, you explained that it could prove to be very dangerous. Is this still the case,” asked Arthur.
“More so. The danger is tangible and omnipresent and they’ll stop at nothing to destroy all of us if they learn of our plans. However, I’ve been extremely careful and am confident that at the moment we’re safe. I’ve put into place certain contingencies and I can assure you that you’re being guarded. Eventually, we’ll have to face these enemies, but with the God’s luck and protection it will be on our own terms. You’ll have the insulation necessary to raise these children.”
“Twelve babies,” Isabella said quietly, and shook her head.
Titus nodded and looked at his watch. “Time to leave already, I’m afraid. Arthur, you’ve a Land-Rover, I believe.”
“Please get it ready for us.”
After Arthur bounded out of his chair and from the room.
Titus handed Isabella a plain business card with the name, Edith Mithlewright, written on it and a phone number. “Isabella, think of this person as an extension of myself. Edith is absolutely trustworthy.” He rose, kissed her on the cheek, and walked to the hallway to retrieve his belongings. “I have absolute confidence in the both of you.” Titus doffed his hat and left the house.
“Where are we heading,” asked Arthur, as they drove down the lane.
“Left at the end and then out of the village towards the Ripon road. And you’re going to speed up a bit, if you please,” answered Titus, looking out of the rear window as they made the sharp left. “Any regrets, Arthur?”
“We’ve been waiting for so long, we just thought it was never going to happen. No. We talked about and we both agreed we’d be ready whenever and if ever it happened.”
Titus grunted in appreciation of his conviction, a demonstration of the steel in the Blackburn’s that he’d observed all those years ago. It was that combination of courage, education, empathy, and loyalty that had made them, in his mind, the perfect candidates.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that what you’re about to do is the most important task any humans have undertaken for millennia, and the implications of which will be far-reaching and without compare.”
“We’re ready, I assure you of that,” said Arthur.
“Left here.” Titus pointed to a dirt road that led to a large open field. As they entered the field and crested a hill, Titus motioned for them to stop. Ahead of them, in the middle of the short grass, a small passenger aircraft waited. A man in military fatigues stood beside it and watched them. Titus waved at him and the man got in and started the aircraft’s engine, blasting the ground with hot air.
“This it for a while,” said Titus, pumping Arthur’s hand.
“Is there any way to get hold of you, if anything comes up?” asked Arthur.
“Isabella has Edith’s number and she’ll help you with anything you can’t handle.” Titus lifted his walking stick and tapped the ground twice. “I will see you in precisely ten years.”
Arthur nodded at the old man and Titus smiled and walked briskly to the roaring plane.