1. With zero hour approaching, Joe finds the number of people whom he can trust is vanishingly small, and that this time the crisis demands much more than willingness to sacrifice his own life - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The butler entered, bearing a yellow envelope in the middle of a silver salver, and carried it with a slow dignity to the gangly, pale boy who sat at the head of the table with a slightly nervous air as if wondering how he’d got there.
Indeed, Joe thought, casting a glance round the chilly eighteenth century elegance of the panelled dining room, Paul Shuttleworth might well have reason to wonder at being deferred to in this company. He was the youngest person in the room; his only near-contemporary, seated at his left, was clothed in all the assurance that being the sole heir to one of the oldest Dukedoms in England and having the looks of a young Adonis might be expected to afford a man. The alchemical power great wealth - the sort of wealth which this room indicated with every understated line - confers upon its possessor had been disclaimed by Shuttleworth himself. When they had all congregated here earlier that day he had freely confessed that his father - while in no way allied to Mosley and his treasonous crew - nonetheless regarded their threat as phantasmagorical, born out of his son’s reading “too many John Buchan shockers”. He had told his son and heir in no uncertain terms to get back to his proper business of achieving the academic honours his father craved by proxy, or risk being disinherited. That was the reason, it turned out, why the presence of this heterogenous group at his family home had had to be camouflaged as a gathering of friends for a belated 22nd birthday dinner.
And then the shy gangling young man had dipped his chin, and added, “But that doesn’t matter, of course: I have to do what I must. I’m in, however Dad takes it, you do know that, don’t you?”
Momentarily, Joe had been taken aback. They had been in the cool elegance of the entrance hall of the Shuttleworth mansion out near Helensburgh, and from where Joe had been standing he could see the mansion’s grounds falling away to the lake, and his Warhawk parked by the private airstrip beyond it at such a distance that the powerful plane was diminished to the size of a child’s toy. It had suddenly reminded him by force of sheer contrast of the run-down set of rooms in West London that had been his family’s last home before he’d got out of there forever at 15, lying outrageously about his age and attaching himself first as a dogsbody, mechanic and runaround and then, seizing the faintest slender possibility of a chance, as one of the daredevil motorbike riders on a touring Wall of Death. He’d clawed his way outwards and upwards, aiming always for the sky, the memory of those dingy, noisy, overcrowded rooms, the peeling wallpaper and the sour smell of long-boiled cabbage on the stairs acting as the spur which had driven him onwards in those early days.
It had occured to him to wonder since then how much the sense of space - of having grown up never having felt cramped for room to turn round - had attracted him to Franky in the first place. She carried these Palladian serenities around with her; they had formed part of her being. She had grown up breathing a more spacious air than he had ever known, and it had shaped her beauty and her authority both.
It was almost humbling to see the readiness with which young Shuttleworth was prepared to sacrifice that birthright for the sake of what he thought was right. And for a moment he had been lost for words. But Dex, bless him, had grinned up at the kid, bright-eyed, and drawled lazily, “Keep your hair on. From what I’ve seen of your designs, you’ll never starve. If your father kicks you out, any design shop that knows diddleysquat about engineering would take you on in a heartbeat. We certainly would. But your father’s no greenhorn. He’s not about to lose a design wizard to the competition if he’s half the man they tell me he is.”
And the tall gangling lad had flushed with confusion, and not seemed to know what to say. It occurred to Joe that it was perhaps the first time that he had been sure that any compliment had not been addressed to the Palladian expanses he represented than to himself. Perhaps, however broad one’s ancestral acres might be, they could still be as cramping and confining as the meanest set of West London rooms when they became the prism through which your every action came to be viewed.
As Paul Shuttleworth opened the telegram Joe cast a look around the dining room, which was wreathed in blue clouds of after-dinner smoke.
MacAllister was sitting back in his chair, having declined the excellent cigars which were being passed round but accepted the no-less-superb port; he was engaged in an animated discussion with Charlie Cook and Chris Sugden, to whom Charlie appeared to have taken in a big way. Helen Adamson sat opposite them, contributing an occasional comment. Earlier she had asserted with all the force her cousin Franky might have used, the right not to be banished in solitary state while the gentlemen sat over port and cigars. Chris and the old engineer had backed her to the hilt, but their championship, in Joe’s opinion, had been wholly unnecessary: she had gained a new assurance since learning how crucial her intervention had been to rescuing Polly and preserving the crucial intelligence she had gathered.
From the Legion there was LeFauve - a blessed inspiration of Dex, that, to bring the Méti back with him last week, when they’d blown unexpectedly in a breath ahead of a sequence of storm fronts that had closed the Atlantic skyways for the next four days even to the most audacious of the Legion’s pilots. In Joe’s opinion, there was no finer reconnaissance pilot to be found on this Earth than LeFauve, and his worth in the present venture - as Joe would shortly reveal to the assembled company - had already proved itself to be beyond price.
And then, of course, there was Dex himself; sitting to Joe’s right and, so carefully, not looking at him, in a way that Joe found, unexpectedly, almost unbearably touching. It was as though Dex too recognised what he himself felt about this thing they had found between them over the last six weeks; something which felt so natural and inevitable that Joe sometimes thought that it must have been carved in hieroglyphics on the Great Pyramid.
Shuttleworth looked up and tapped a fork on the side of a glass to gain attention. When the talk fell silent and they turned their heads to look at him he gulped convulsively, twice, looking suddenly very young.
“It’s from my cousin Francesca. She sends her apologies for missing my birthday dinner. It seems the Albion’s been ordered into surprise exercises in the North Atlantic.”
Charlie jerked up suddenly from his half-slumped position behind the desk, and turned to twitch back the heavy brocade curtains behind him. Helen, her shoulders bare in the black silk evening gown she was wearing, shivered as the icy draught made its way through the cracks in the casement. The blizzard which had sprung up in the early evening was still raging, the whirling snowflakes plastering against the glass and the wind howling.
Charlie turned back to the table.
“Lovely weather the Admiralty seems to have chosen for it.”
His voice was light, non-committal. His fingers, curved round the stem of his glass, told a different story. Joe thought if there was something he could say. Before he could think of anything Helen’s hand stole out, timidly, and wrapped itself around Charlie’s. Charlie exhaled, slumping back in his seat.
“And the other two Fortress-class vessels attached to Home Fleet are into Devonport for refitting,” Sugden observed. They looked at him in surprise, and he shrugged.
“Letter this morning. The Admiralty don’t care for Union men, but they can’t keep them out of the Royal Dockyards if they want to maintain Fleet at all. I’ve asked the odd lad I can rely on to keep his ear to the ground. And the Fortress-class aren’t the only big-gun vessels to be taken out of commission unexpectedly. I doubt - if one added it up, which no-one official seems to be doing - ‘cept Churchill, of course, the Daily Worker said today he properly gave ‘em what for last night at a meeting in Manchester, it almost made me forgive him for Tonypandy - the Home Fleet is less than 50% of the strength it should be, by right. “
It was the longest speech he had made since he had arrived; Joe guessed he’d found the tangible evidence of capitalist excess through which he was moving intimidating.
Nevertheless, he was listened to in respectful silence, and when he had finished a murmur of assent ran round the candle-lit, panelled room.
“Aye, I can smell it. Things are beginning to move, right enough,” MacAllister said. “There’s uncanny things stirring along the Broomielaw; Wee Tammie’s been a good pair of eyes and ears these last three weeks, and a wee laddie can go where a grown man might be noted. And he tells me there’s been a rash of back-yard orators been stirring up trouble whenever they’ve found a few idle souls to listen. Oh, ye’ll always find a few. But these last weeks they’ve clustered thicker than wasps round a honeypot - aye, and the bobbies have no been so fast as they might to move them along, notwithstanding they’ve been stirring trouble.”
The young blond aristocrat at Shuttleworth’s side smiled, slightly grimly. “And just when Uncle Peter might have been useful, he’s stuck in some bally Balkan backwater, whose foreign minister just seems to have got himself assassinated, and the ruling prince wants him to stay and investigate the murder and make sure the howling mob doesn’t go taking matters into their own hands and lynch the wrong chap for the murder, don’t you know?”
There was the sharp sound of indrawn breath, and an uneasy silence fell on the room. Before now a Balkan assassination had triggered a maelstrom of blood and destruction that had borne 15 million lives away before its force had been spent.
The time had come. Deliberately Joe leant forward, catching Dex’s eye. Dex gave him the faintest perceptible nod. He withdrew the thin, airmail letter and the photograph from the breast pocket of his dinner jacket.
“You’re right. I doubt we’ve more than a day - two at the most - before the balloon goes up.” He tapped the blue paper with his forefinger. “Fortunately - and thanks to some pretty good intelligence work from a number of people - we’ve got some sensible material to work on at last.”
He’d alerted young Shuttleworth before the dinner, and the lad had prepared; right on cue the butler re-entered with a footman, each bearing sheets of Ordance survey six-inch-to-the-mile maps.
They unrolled them ceremoniously on the table, weighting their corners down with the silver epergnes and candelabras which had formed the centre-piece of the table decoration.
Joe picked up the riding-crop someone had left on the window-seat - Shuttleworth had a teenage sister at home, he’d confided; he thought he’d even caught a glimpse of her whisking round a bend of the elegant staircase, pigtails flying.
“Right, then: this is the situation,” he said, gesturing at the map with the end of the riding crop, and then from the startled expressions of most of the other guests, and the amused look Dex and LeFauve exchanged, realised that he must have slipped into “Legion briefing” mode.
He shrugged. “I hope by now all of you have realised we’re on our own here. This conspiracy has reached goodness only knows where; certainly we can’t trust any official response. And we’ve just been called to action stations. So whether you were expecting it or not: sorry, but it’s up to all of us to do what we can to stop it.”
There were a few nods at that; he continued crisply on.
“Thanks to the material the Legion seized in Canada we know how many cylinders of helium left the base in New Brunswick. Thanks to Petersen we know the name of the vessel they left on, too; the Elena Martinez.”
He paused, and looked at the old engineer. “And thanks to MacAllister’s connections with the puffer skippers up and down the coast, we know the harbour where the Elena Martinez off-loaded those cylinders a few days ago.”
The little leather loop at the end of the riding crop flicked down on the map, indicating a remote corner of North-West Sutherland.
“But we know more than that,” he continued. He glanced down the long table; their faces were grave, as one might have expected, but calm, focussed only on the job ahead. An odd little bunch they might be, but he knew, suddenly, that he could ask any and all of them to follow him to the gates of Hell, and that they would do so without a backwards glance.
“Polly’s been tracking down the US end of the conspiracy like a demon. And she came up with pure gold.”
The lightest flick, this time, with the end of the riding crop on the taut paper of the Ordnance Survey six-inch. It echoed like a gunshot in the silent room; they craned over to see where he had pointed.
“There’s a big sporting estate - a few thousand acres or moorland and a twelve-head deer forest - just about here. Last year it had nothing much on it beyond a tumble-down shooting lodge, with more holes in its roof than a colander, and a few ghillies’ cottages, That’s before a Kansas oilman bought it.”
“Kansas,” Dex said ruminatively, and looked up with an air of bland interest. “Lot of helium in Kansas, Cap. If you know how to get it out, that is.”
Bless him for his ability to deliver the straight line. And for so much more - oh yes -
Joe coughed repressively.
“Indeed so. And this oilman - we needn’t put a name to him just yet, I daresay he’s got a white-haired old mother who deserves to be spared the shame of it, and anyway, Polly’s earned her scoop - has been contributing lots of it to the National Helium Reserve. Just like a good little patriot should.”
He paused, knowing his smile was wide and feral - he saw it reflected back from him in the hungry, intent eyes of the audience a split-second before he caught sight of himself in the age-spotted gilt-framed mirror above the fireplace.
“Only - it seems his helium declarations and his IRS returns have been about keeping pace with each other. He’s been black-marketing the stuff for years, but lately, it seems, he’s decided to cut out the middle-man.”
He flicked the centre of the map, blank apart from contour lines clustered thick as blackberries and the occasional spiky outline which conventionally depicted a sparse coppicing along the thin wiggly lines of river valleys.
“So, he bought the estate to bury some of the excess, from an impoverished laird who inherited from a brother who died at Passchendaele, and who probably hadn’t been able to pay off the death duties in two decades. And here’s what it looks like now.”
He spun the photograph he had been holding down onto the map on the table; it was dark and blurry, but when he’d first seen it in the dim red light of the hastily converted bathroom/darkroom he’d almost kissed LeFauve for the sheer nerve and brilliance that had produced it, and he wouldn’t have swapped that photograph for one of Jean Harlow stark naked on a sable rug.
“There,” he said. “Taken yesterday afternoon at precisely 12.45.”
His glance passed down the table again. LeFauve’s long-tailed eyes were dark and enigmatic.
“There’s the carcase of the airship on the terracing in front of the new house our man’s building - note that it’s partially inflated already. And there are the rest of the gasbags and the cylinders stacked close by.”
It took Dex’s quiet voice to put into words what most of those in the room, Joe suspected, had also spotted in the blurry photograph.
“And there’s a good half-dozen warbirds standing by to defend it.”
Joe made an airy gesture.
“Nothing we can’t handle. Haven’t handled before. And the good news is that they don’t seem to have replaced the two they lost last month. Either when it comes to pilots or ‘planes, they aren’t sitting on unlimited resources.”
Dex emitted an audible and expressive snort. “Sure, Cap. Just nearly. Enough to paralyse all the Fortress-class vessels in home waters. And without a Fortress-class - once the weapon’s mounted aboard the airship - well, I daresay things could get a mite sticky.”
He paused, his frustration and despair showing clearly enough through the resolute façade he was presenting to the assembled company. They had gone through this together, yesterday, in exhaustive detail, and Joe knew what the problems were. The others didn’t, though, and Dex was the acknowledged expert here; it wouldn’t do any harm to let him tell them the scale of the problem.
“Tell us, Dex.” His voice was low and fierce. “Why won’t we neutralise the weapon, if we can outgun the ‘birds and take down the airship?”
Dex shrugged; his face was infinitely bleak, like a hopeless dawn breaking over a barren land to which spring would never come again.
“Read the weapon specs again, Cap. Once it’s armed, an enemy would need to blow it and whatever vessel was carrying it back to its component molecules before he could be sure of its not taking out the target and anything within ten miles radius of it, probably.”
He looked like a man trapped in nightmare; Joe would have given anything at that moment to have been able to take him into his arms and caress him, telling him in the only way he might have understood it that invention knew no laws but its own, and genius could not bear all the blame for the perverted lengths to which ambition would take it.
He made his voice as gentle as he possibly could.
“So, Dex? What do you suggest? A bombing raid to take it out on the ground, before they mount it? What do you reckon, Red?”
His eyes slid round to LeFauve, who had leant over to peer intently at the map.
“Nasty place,” he observed obliquely. “You’ve got to come in on a narrow front up a steepsided valley, and there’s no way out ‘cept the same way you came in. And you’ll have spotted these?” He pointed at the photograph, to two squat dark shapes Joe guessed would be reinforced concrete bunkers of some sort. “My guess is, they’ve stashed the weapon in one of those. You’d have to take them both, to make sure. And that target ain’t bigger ‘n it need be, neither.”He looked expressively at the windows against which the wind was still driving snow, and smiled his slow dangerous smile. “Still, they ain’t planning on defending against pilots who can see in the dark, neither.”
Dex rounded on him, his face ablaze with fury and reproof: even in this infinitely privileged gathering the degree to which Legion planes had been adapted beyond the normal or even what anyone outside the most arcane reaches of MI might think of as the possible was one of their most closely guarded secrets. Joe let it slide; they were all inner circle here, and Dex would come to realise that in a heartbeat, left to himself. And at least it was taking his mind off the pointless soul-searching over how the weapon had come to fall into enemy hands in the first place - something which, in Joe’s opinion, was a mess too tangled to expect anyone to unravel: in his private opinion it was at least as much Polly’s fault as anyone’s, and he shouldn’t imagine Polly was paralysed with guilt over the matter, in fact he’d be flabbergasted if she’d even thought twice about it, or made the connection between her actions and the stealing of the plans at all.
For a very brief moment he tried to visualise Polly’s expression if he were to set out to explain that his choice as to the bed in which he was proposing to end this evening had been determined as much, perhaps, by that fundamental truth as by any other consideration.
The sight of Charlie’s face forcibly deflected his mind from his own personal affairs. It must, Joe thought, be as close as he ever wished to come to hell (and he had been no saint throughout his life to date, and Father Nolan would have been unequivocal about what his current activities were likely to be doing for his chances of a cool and comfortable afterlife) to be in the centre of a gathering on the edge of epic events, and to know that one was fated to take only a civilian’s part in them. And when the other civilians around included Chris Sugden and Andrew McAllister, the role a one-legged man had left to him might seem even more restricted -
Helen leant over the plans and emitted what had by now become her trade mark snort.
“Oh, honestly! You’re all so determined to prove that it’s possible for you to fly up a dead-end valley into the teeth of a howling blizzard and blow up a target the size of a dustbin lid at the end of it, that you’ve never even bothered to ask, any of you, if it’s sensible. If it’ll actually help. Men!”
There was a hubbub of confused muttering, which she quelled with a single, decisive geture. Charlie, Joe noted with relief, was so taken at this assault from such an unexpected quarter that he was leaning forwards, his lips parted in a grin, and his eyes alight with amusement.
“I mean, what’s this American millionaire going to do if you blow up his shooting lodge? Whatever the people behind this conspiracy might be, they’ve all got power and influence; they aren’t even suspected of anything criminal. You’ll all end up in gaol, then they’ll just build another weapon and have a go at their leisure, and you won’t be able to do a thing to stop them.”
There was a murmur of protest.
“And how’s this Kansas chappie going to explain away half a dozen fighter planes on his estate, then?” Viscount St George demanded.
Helen shrugged. “Start of an air museum? Props for a Hollywood movie he’s backing? Hush-hush defence contracting stuff? That’s not the point. He’s not the one who’ll be asked to explain anything. Unless you catch this crew red-handed, you’re sunk.”
She sat back in her chair, as one who has said all she had to say, and doesn’t expect to be listened to. There was a faintly stunned silence.
“It would seem the lassie’s in the right of it,” MacAllister observed.
Dex nodded. “I agree. And that’s why - when Red produced that photograph - I did some figuring on my own account. And here’s what I came up with.”
And he pushed aside the Ordnance survey maps, and pulled out a sheaf of drawings with figures on them: velocities, specifications, tolerances.
They had had all yesterday evening to talk about the problem and Joe had been deciphering Dex’s scribbled strokes of genius for a very long time. While the others were still craning their necks to see better, or simply looking baffled, Joe knew exactly what Dex planned.
His mouth went suddenly dry, as though he had swallowed ashes. He looked across the table, at Dex’s white, set face; the lines etched around his eyes by needless shame and guilt, and raged inwardly. No hope of deflecting him once he had made his mind up; integrity was fundamental to Dex’s essence. His conscience would enshrine his resolve in granite. The personal risk it entailed for Dex himself would be seen as the only fitting expiation for his guilt in bringing about the situation in the first place.
Worse; he was right. All the other avenues of strategic thought which he had considered since LeFauve had come back with the photograph had ended in dead-ends. Helen’s objection to their destroying the weapon on the ground had merely echoed his own misgivings. And he had, he had to confess, vaguely toyed with an idea akin to Dex’s, but without, he realised now, thinking through how he could account for six enemy aces without Franky flying wingman for him, and still put himself in the right place in time to disable the weapon before it arrived at Balmoral.
Dex’s plan, desperate as it was, carried the same unassuming stamp of pure genius that he brought to everything else he attempted. Slender as the chance might seem, it was a real one.
Just one which for the first time in their long friendship placed Dex unquestionably in the position of maximum danger from the outset.
And that was the point at which he baulked.
Joe knew that if he vetoed the idea - as it was within his power to do - as he desperately wanted to - he would be ranking the fate of millions as less worth than his own feelings. “So what? Haven’t you done enough over the years to earn a break?” a voice whispered in his ear.
He paused on the brink for a seeming infinity of time. And then he heard another voice, answering the first, “And you think Dex would see it that way? So who wins if you sell your soul and lose him anyway, because you’re not the man he thought you were?”
There was a bleak relief in the truth of that reflection; he had, after all, no real choice. He made his voice coldly official.
“That has to be the single most hare-brained, reckless suggestion I’ve ever heard in all my time in the Legion.”
Dex’s head was cocked up at an angle; as though he had been listening intently. But he knew, too, what he had not heard. His lips curled in a smile; his eyes slid sidelong towards Joe.
“Not from where I’ve been sitting all that time, Cap.”
LeFauve threw his head back and guffawed, and the others in the room, still several steps behind, caught the sudden release of tension, and started to relax. Only Charlie - who had heard the particular exhilaration that comes with knowing one is committed to staking one’s all on the gods and the morrow - still looked grim.
Joe tried to flatten any bitterness out of his voice.
“Well, Dex, as the genius who thought up this plan, why don’t you brief everyone on what they have to do to carry it out? I wouldn’t want anyone to be under any illusions what we are asking of them.”
Dex’s glance at him had been a covert plea for support as well as anything else. The “we” had reassured him, Joe could tell. He cleared his throat, got to his feet, and made a grab for the sheaf of notes.
“Well,” he said, “they chose helium not hydrogen for the buoyancy, and they’d got good strategic reasons for that, obviously. But what they may not have realised is that by choosing helium they’ve left us with a strategic avenue of attack that wouldn’t otherwise be available. And fortunately, I understand Mr Shuttleworth is able to put an airship at our disposal, which is something, again, they won’t be anticipating. So here’s what I suggest -“
And Dex, his voice growing in confidence, outlined the plan in the candlelit dining room, and Joe watched the shadowy faces learn, at last, the sheer magnitude of the effort which would be expected of them if the civiisations and decencies symbolised by the Palladian elegances around were not to perish and go down forever into the dark.