5. The count-down continues: - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
A thin wintry sun had just risen over an airfield slightly to the North of Glasgow, and a man stood by his plane as Shuttleworths’ finest mechanics ran through a final series of exhaustive tests. It was a pity, of course, he hadn’t had the chance to test out the modified rudder bar on a couple more trial flights, but that couldn’t be helped, and deep down he knew that he was as ready as he was ever going to be; as ready, actually, as he’d ever been in his entire career.
He watched while the w/t apparatus was duly set to the correct frequencies, and then ran through the recognition codes Dex had slipped him after dinner. Absurd, really, this cloak and dagger business, but necessary - look at how Joe had reacted to Dex’s announcement he proposed to take the lead role in the boarding party who would seek to disable the weapon in flight. Joe had almost looked as if he wanted to veto Dex’s involvement altogether, although Dex not only was the only man who could possibly pull off this insane plan but had a full complement of functioning limbs and was combat fit, to the Legion’s exacting standards, to boot -
A thought struck him and he cursed, softly, under his breath. There was one thing he had overlooked, after all. He felt in his pockets for his fountain pen.
There was no point being other than realistic about this. The three of them - even if Joe thought it was only him and LeFauve - were up against six aces, judging by the list provided by that American woman (and thank God she seemed to have dropped out of the picture as far as Joe was concerned; in the nearly ten years Charles had had of acting as a silent spectator to the succession of emotional car crashes that had represented his friend’s romantic life she’d been quite the most spectacular pile-up to date, and that wasn’t just because if they’d had the benefit of Joe’s plane covering the retreat from Nanjing he might still have had both his legs). OK; most of those aces were of his own vintage, and flying was a young man’s game, but it was only sensible to take precautions. He’d sent a letter to Piglet, of course, last night, and neither she nor Stinko were the types to be grasping about matters like this, but between Aunt Catherine’s over-assertiveness, and Helen’s undue diffidence it would be as well to have everything legally cut and dried.
He found a pad on one of the mechanics’ clip-boards, and tore off a page. The lawyer chappies would wrap this in their own special brand of verbiage, of course, but he thought he could remember enough of the gist to make it work.
When there was a suitable break in the testing procedures he summoned a couple of the mechanics over.
“I’ve got to send something to my lawyer in a hurry,” he said. “Would you two chaps mind witnessing my signature? Just a formality.”
He had picked the younger ones, who had not gone through what he still thought of as “the Great War”. They signed, without realising the significance of the fact he had asked for two of them. He folded the paper and noted on the outside of the fold the name and address of the Cook family solicitors, a firm of intense respectability somewhere near Lincoln’s Inn. Someone would undoubtedly make sure it was forwarded, should need arise.
That matter settled, Charlie Cook then turned his full attention back towards the mechanics and how they were preparing his ‘plane.
Dark was lifting at last in these Northern latitudes; a cold clear dawn sweeping in from the east. The ‘plane that had been ghosting around at will in the gloaming suddenly found itself having to take thought for its own vulnerability.
It made one last pass over the house, the noise of its engines blown away and lost on the ten knot breeze, and transmitted a quick, coded burst.
And then the pre-arranged signal group which was not just coded but in Ancient Greek to boot:
Wreathed is the bull for the sacrifice, and the slayer too stands ready.
Ives had, as earlier noted, assumed he would find the Old Lady’s cabin empty at that hour. When, after an excruiatingly cramped few minutes wriggling down the ventilation duct he found himself looking out through the light metal grille at his skipper, her hands stretched out above her head, handcuffed to a pipe on the bulkhead, the sight discombobulated him totally. A gag which appeared to have been improvised from a face flannel blocked her mouth, and - he winced at the sight, while loving her all the more for the snarling unconscionable arrogance she displayed - they had taken off her eye patch, so the ruin of that side of her face was exposed to anyone who might see.
His shocked gasp must have been audible. Certainly her good eye moved from its previous stoic fixation on the ceiling, evidently seeking the source of the sound. She fixed on the ventialtion grille and signalled frantically with an eyebrow.
There was nothing for it. Four quick passes with the screwdriver he had prudently pocketed at the start of this mad endeavour and he was standing on the sole of his captain’s cabin.
His first action was to rip the gag off. She nodded with - he felt a sweep of pleasure - approval.
“Desk Top drawer,” she said abruptly. “Kick it first. And then press hard - twice - on the key-hole.”
Much to his surprise, the drawer yielded to this treatment, shooting out twice as far as he had expected, and disgorged a weapon which, frankly, looked more like something from a comic book. She had seen his stare of unbelief. Her lips curled.
“Non-regulation, natch. Birthday present. From a friend of mine. And it can burn through battle hardened steel.” She raised her wrists and rattled her chains at him. “Don’t be clumsy. Please.”
The strange weapon did everything it said on the tin. His arms and wrists felt strangely weak when he had finished, and his skipper was sitting on the desk, massaging her wrists and looking intently at him through her one good eye.
“Well,”she said eventually, “is that a known bug in the system?”
She gestured impatiently at the wreckage of the ventilation shaft out of which he had emerged. In an instant various realisations coelesced.
She wants to know if I’ve made a habit of spying on her in her private quarters.
What a disgusting notion.
I wonder why it didn’t occur to me before?
Uneasily conscious that his thought processess might be transparent to that intent, one-eyed scrutiny (she’d found a spare eye patch from somewhere, returning her face to its normal severely official guise) Ives gulped.
“N-not so far as I’m aware. Ma’am. I mean, this is the fi - the only time I’ve used it, and I think I’m the only one who - and I haven’t said anything -“
“A lout, but a trainable lout,” she observed to no-one in particular, and then turned towards him, exhibiting a smile so dazzling Ives turned weak at the knees.
“Mr Midshipman Ives. Recall to me what I last told you, on the last occcasion we had the pleasure of meeting.”
Ives winced. He rather hoped she had forgotten.
“Um - you - ah - said that -“
He gulped. His skipper’s smile was wide and inviting. He tried but failed not to remember the couplet about “And welcomes little fishes in/With gently smiling jaws.”
With a rush he said, “You said, that if I ever brought off anything like that again aboard any ship you were in command of you’d personally castrate me with your bare hands, chop me up in little bits and feed me slowly to the sharks. Or crocodiles. Depending on latitude. Ma’am.”
He waited. Her smile became broader but, somehow, no less threatening.
“And so I did. Hm.”
Her remaining eye narrowed to a bright sharp point.
“Consider that order rescinded, Ives.”
That rocked him back on his heels, She smiled in the teeth of his discomfiture.
“By six bells I would like this vessel to be in a state of anarchy. Do what you like to bring that about, Ives; short of scuttling the Albion or murdering Lieutenant-Commander Ferguson.”
The specific nature of this prohibition was baffling, and the implications horrifying - did the Old Lady really intend to give him carte blanche to assassinate anyone else he choose in the entire ship’s company? He coughed.
“Ma’am? You said - ah - not Lieutenant-Commander Ferguson?”
Her smile was by now downright disconcerting. “Indeed. I’d hate to be deprived of that particular pleasure. Although, now I come to think of it, it would suit me if you could render the Lieutenant-Commander in urgent need of medical attention some time in the next fifteen minutes. I could organise a search party over the ship to find out where they’ve hidden Alan, but it’d be simpler if they led me to him. If you get into Sick Bay Stores, Ives, you’ll find a demi-john marked “Mal. Malefic.” Third shelf, half way along. It’s Alan’s patent remedy to deter malingerers. A good dollop of that in Ferguson’s tea, and - we shall see what we shall see.”
Ives gulped again. “Ma’am -? Permission to clarify? You - um - you’re ordering me to poison a senior officer?”
Her face, now, was wholly serious. “If I’d got a better idea of who else he’d dragged into his mutinous little schemes I’d order you to poison a lot more than one senior officer. Let’s see now - who are his cronies in the ward room? Rawson, Adams, Moore, Phelps, Dawkins and Sturmer-Smythe. Dose the lot of them, Ives. God will know her own. Oh, and while you’re at it, don’t forget Gibbs.”
“Gibbs?” His incredulity was naked on his face; surely the Old Lady couldn’t suspect the painfully earnest Chief Maintenance Officer of involvement in a mutiny?
Her face showed a flicker of regret. “Well, I daresay you’re right. It was just that he would tell that story about the vicar and the donkey cart again at dinner last night, when I’d promised myself I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions if he did. Also, he should have been the one to work out the potential offensive and defensive possibilities of those ventilation ducts, without waiting for an idiot wart to blunder into it - Still, you’re quite right, Ives. No way to treat a loyal officer. Belay the order so far as it concerns Gibbs.”
Ives nodded, his mind racing. The Captain’s word was law aboard ship, of course, but could the concept of lawful order really be extended to administering noxious substances to half the warddroom?
She, clearly, was in no doubt about it, moving on to the next stage in the plan.
“I expect you to extend your talents to the utmost. Recruit whomever you can trust. Someone, Ives- ” she stalked across the cabin and retrieved a set of keys from a remote drawer, brandishing them as though they had been a revolver. “Someone wants to do this to England. And we’re going to stop him - oh yes, we are. But before we do, let him have a taste of his own medicine. Disorder, was it? I’ll show him disorder!”
There was only one thing to do. Ives nodded fervently and murmured, “Yes, Ma’am!”
Having collected one or two other oddments from drawers about the cabin, - including, Ives noted with some alarm, a gasmask - she strolled casually over to the door, and shot the bolt on the inner side of it.
“We’ll leave the way you arrived, Ives. We won’t be able to leave the ventilation shaft looking exactly as it should, but it should baffle them for a bit where I’ve got to.”
She caught the edge of the ducting and pulled herself up into the shaft in one long athletic movement. Ives felt momentarily dizzy. A voice, slightly muffled by the pipework, said impatiently, “Well? What are you waiting for, man?”
It was only when they emerged at the far end of the shaft that he felt brave enough to put into words what he had been thinking.
“Ma’am? You do know that they’ll courtmartial you for this, don’t you?”
She turned to face him, the light of battle glowing in her one good eye.
“Well, I sincerely hope so.”
He must have gaped, inelegantly, because she tapped him firmly on the shoulder.
“A severely practical institution, the Royal Navy. However much provocation one may have given them, they don’t waste time court-martialling corpses.”
He was still letting that sink in when she smiled that dazzling smile again. “Still, if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined, eh? Up, Ives, and at ‘em!”