10. Joe plays poker with a traitor - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe sat in the easy chair in the sitting room, which he had carefully moved out of its usual position, so it was on an oblique angle to the door to the Lair. There was a glass of brandy on the little table by his hand - Davies, thoughtfully, had left him the hip flask - and his gun was conveniently next to it, acting, at present, as a paperweight for the envelope Davies had given him earlier.
Intermittently, he ran a hand over his face, probing tenderly at the damage. His lower lip had split: it was certainly going to look a picture in the morning.
Abruptly, he recollected a scene from the Albion after they’d been retrieved from the escape capsule, his jaw still throbbing from Polly’s last powerful punch, his being in the process of assessing the extent of the damage in the mirror, and Dex interrupting him by coming into his quarters to bring him something-or-other, and commenting diffidently that if Polly was going to make a habit of coming along on this sort of thing, would it make sense for Dex to have a word with the Legion’s gym instructor and see about getting her some unarmed combat lessons, so she could defend herself more effectively if she got into trouble?
And he’d snapped, without bothering to turn round, that so far as he was concerned the last thing she needed was anyone telling her how to punch harder, or with a better grasp of the right direction. And then he’d caught sight of Dex’s laughing dark eyes as his face was reflected from behind him in the mirror, and suddenly realised that Dex knew all about why he was touching his jawline tenderly, and that he was being royally teased. And he’d swung round, the laughter bubbling up inside him, because Dex was here and with him and winding him up; not twisted in death under the collapsed wreckage of the base, or the subject of who-knew-what obscene experiments at the hands of Totenkopf’s mechanical monsters or ethics-free scientists.
A wave of black misery hit him abruptly. He’d taken the last few days on pure adrenaline and black coffee, and now both were losing their powers. If he could only magically go back to that moment, that sunlit cabin, that shared laughter; start over from there. Only this time he’d -
His head went up. The smallest of possible sounds had just become audible from the doorway.
Someone was trying to get in.
Someone with a key.
He let the door get three parts open before he said, in his most icily official Base Commander tones,
“Grogan. I thought I’d made it clear that I’d reserved the Lair for myself this evening.”
Grogan spun towards the sound, reaching inside his jacket -
And stopped, abruptly, seeing that Joe’s gun was already pointed steadily at his heart.
“Hands in plain sight, Grogan. There’s a chair behind you - no, don’t turn round. You can kick the door shut with your foot. We don’t want to upset the gentlemen in the lobby downstairs, now, do we? The service charges on this place are high enough as it is. That’s right. Very good. Now; hands flat on that little table in front of you. Even better. Now, Grogan. I understand you want to talk to me about something?”
Grogan leaned forward and in his rich brogue, which, Joe thought, had never sounded more unattractively stagey than this evening, he started to curse. Every epithet gleaned over a career knocking about in low company everywhere from the Dublin tenements to the brothels of Shanghai and most points in between was brought into play in a hissing stream of focussed invective.
Joe sat through it all; consciously fixing a remote half-smile on his lips and an expression of cool indifference in his grey-green eyes.
Eventually, with one last fling at Dex (“Satan-souled misbegotten twisted-minded faggot bastard”) Grogan ran to a stop.
Joe raised an eyebrow. His voice was loaded with boredom.
“Try to power it up, did you?”
Fluently, Grogan informed him that he had, indeed, attempted to power up the prototype. Joe shrugged.
“Well, I suppose that’s one of the risks you take. If you choose to steal a design. That the operating instructions might not be - as complete as you might have been expecting.”
“Well,” Grogan snarled maliciously, “I hope you’re happy with what they’ll be saying by the end of tomorrow about your precious legion and its pet pervert engineer. If the prototype had worked, and you’d been prepared to play ball that would have been one thing. But you outsmarted yourself stealing those prints. Have you never heard anyone say: “Where you cut down one swordsman, ten will spring forward into his place?” A set of those prints will be with every one of your potential contractors before the end of the day tomorrow.”
Joe carefully kept his face absolutely straight. Here was, of course, the major question of the evening. Had Grogan, in his hurried, furtive time in the dark room taken the precaution of running off more than one set of prints? Or had he relied upon Miss Kitty O’Farrell’s guardianship of the negatives, and assumed that as he could run off prints whenever he liked he only needed to do the bare minimum to prove that what he had in his hand was as devastating as he alleged?
He coughed. “If you’ll forgive my mentioning it, you don’t seem to have changed for the evening yet. So I’ll take the liberty of assuming you’ve not yet had the pleasure of catching up on the news with the delightful Miss O’Farrell? Who was so anxious to entrust that envelope you gave to her to me, just as soon as I started to sing along with her from the official rebel songsheet. Adorable, isn’t she? And sapphires compliment her eyes so perfectly.”
Grogan’s face changed. He started to rise from his chair; Joe waved him back with a contemptuous gesture with the gun.
“I said; back in the chair, hands on the table, Grogan. And I haven’t given you permission to get up yet.”
His heart was singing. That half-arrested movement had told him all he wanted to know.
“Where have you put them?” Grogan snarled.
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Not here. And that’s all I’m telling you, Grogan. Unlike you, I’m not the kind of idiot who puts private jokes to myself in ransom demands.”
He put his head on one side. “But there are some things I want to know, Grogan. And since you seem to be in a talkative mood tonight, maybe you’ll be minded to tell me?”
He did not wait for a response, but continued smoothly onwards.
“I’ve been hearing stories, Grogan. And you’re something of a story-teller yourself, aren’t you? In fact, you’re a bit of an artist in your own line. And like all artists, you always put a bit of yourself into your creations.”
He leaned forward, moving the gun around in a tight, controlled circle, always aimed at Grogan’s chest. Grogan followed the movement as if hypnotised.
Joe dropped his voice to a low, intent purr.
“Except: you know one thing, Grogan? The details in your stories are always spot on; they couldn’t have been made up. Someone really saw those happenings, and remembered them, and put them into a story to tell everyone else about.”
“But you know one thing, Grogan? I’ve always felt, somehow - under my skin, as it were - that something was wrong about your stories. And I think I’ve finally worked out, after all these years, what that thing is. That is; the position you put yourself. You see; in your stories the one place from which you can’t see those little details that you describe so very vividly is the centre of the stage. The details which make them true are the ones you get from an oblique perspective; from the viewpoint of someone who skulks in the shadows. But you’re always in the centre of the stage in your stories, aren’t you, Grogan?”
He raised the hand that wasn’t holding the gun, and snapped his fingers.
“So I took your stories, Grogan, and I started to wonder what they’d look like once you’d corrected the viewpoint for parallax and compass deviation. And when I switched your stories around, and looked at them from that angle - well, it started to look much more interesting. And then I took my version of your stories, and ran them past British Naval Intelligence, and they found them interesting too. And they started to run them past their friends in the FBI.”
Grogan, visibly, had stiffened in his seat. Joe smiled coldly down at him.
“And my stories started to breed other stories. Oh, they started to breed like rabbits, Grogan. F’rinstance, I heard a story about a kid by name of Byrne, from the back streets of Dublin. Hung about on the edge of those sorts of circles, ran errands during the Easter Rising - made a sort of mascot by the lads of the IRB. That sort of thing. Grew up a bit. Carried on fighting with the rebels. Until one of those days there was an ambush on the road to Wexford. An ambush that failed; that the Black and Tans got to hear of first. Nasty, Grogan. I’m sure a man of imagination - such as yourself - can imagine just how nasty.”
He clenched his free hand into a fist, and then opened it, letting whatever it might be that he’d crushed within it fall invisibly, inconsequentially to the carpet.
“They said, afterwards - the remnants of the men who’d planned that ambush - that Byrne had been a paid Government informer. But they never found him. But something tells me, Grogan, that they’re still looking. That they’ll always be looking.”
He looked steadily across at Grogan. His face was the colour of sour milk. But he was still, when all was said and done, Legion. He kept his tongue between his teeth, and stared blankly back at Joe.
“And then I heard another story, Grogan. About a guy calling himself Malone, working float-planes for a bunch of rum-runners, down between Bimini and the Keys. And one day they get advance weather information. Tropical storm coming in; aiming straight at their hideout. And Malone and a guy called Riley volunteer to be the last men out, securing everything they can while everyone else evacuates in a hurry.”
Joe eyed Grogan coolly. His face was now the colour of wet ashes, but he never blinked. Joe shrugged.
“Well, they get back there eventually, to see what’s left after the storm. And what do they find but Riley, with a knife in his throat. And Malone’s vanished clean away. Along with a little matter of $25,000, which they kept in a safe in the hideout. Kind of insurance in case they had to buy off anyone expensive at short notice, I assume.”
Joe made his voice sound almost chatty.
“The guy who told my friends that story happens to be detained in the State Penetentiary at present. The authorities picked him up for something or other. But they tell me he’s been a model prisoner. Release date comes up next month, I gather. And after that, no doubt he’s looking forward to being reunited with all his old friends and business acquaintances.”
Joe leant forwards slightly; Grogan’s eyes were fixed on his; Joe doubted if, by now, he could look away if he tried.
“Except he’s not going to be reunited with Riley this side of the grave, is he Grogan? And my friends tell me he’s very bitter about that. Being as Riley was his kid brother and all that.”
Grogan ran his tongue over dry lips.
“Get to the point,” he said hoarsely. “So what? There were once two bad guys with Irish names. So, what’ve they got to do with me? What have they even got to do with each other? Hell, Sullivan, the amount of paperwork they asked for when I joined the legion - you must have seen my pilot’s permits, birth certificate - hell, probably even my vaccination certificate. And they all tell you that I’m Sean Patrick Grogan, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 27th of April 1906.”
“They do indeed,” Joe said, his voice loaded with fake geniality. “And I take your point about Legion paperwork. Sometimes it seems almost as bad as if we were in the regulars.”
He picked up Davies’ envelope, and, one-handed, lifted the flap.
“But it turns out that there’s one bit of your paperwork we missed, after all. Here. Take it. It’s yours.”
And with a quick sideways flick of his wrist he shied it at Grogan, who, instinctively, put out a hand and caught it. Opened it. And looked up at Joe, who had now risen to his feet.
“What? I don’t understand,” Grogan began. Joe shook his head.
“Quit bluffing, Grogan. I’m holding a royal flush. “
He nodded towards the envelope.
“It took a bit of digging, but they turned it up in the end. A death certificate. Of one Sean Patrick O’Flaherty Grogan. Who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1906. And who died there two weeks later.”
He was towering over Grogan now, his voice the merest whisper.
“Tell me, Grogan, how come you manage to look so healthy given you’re a man who’s been dead for the best part of 33 years?”
He didn’t wait for a response. His fist was already powering forward into the punch. It connected with the point of Grogan’s chin and Grogan and the chair went over backwards together.
He had finished disarming Grogan and going through his pockets when the Bostonian recovered consciousness. He stared across the room at Joe.
“So,” Grogan said, his voice thick with hatred, “what do you plan to do?”
Joe shrugged, his eyes cold. “I’ve been thinking about that. You see, Grogan, unlike you I find I have difficulty killing a man in cold blood. Especially one I’ve fought besides. Whatever he’s done.”
His voice changed.
“I’m giving you eight hours to get clear, Grogan. After that your name, description, photograph, known aliases and history goes to all the authorities who might conceivably take an interest.”
Grogan looked up, started to say something, was stopped by an arresting gesture from Joe.
“Oh, and another thing, Grogan. At the same time, a copy of the exact same dossier goes by special delivery to Miss Kitty O’Farrell.”
Grogan’s hand went to his lips, his eyes widened in shock. Joe’s voice continued in its gentle, thoughtful way.
“Now, you could say I’m not being a gentleman, telling a lady something like that about a man she - loves. But I don’t think Miss O’Farrell’s as delicate as she looks. And I don’t think she’s at all the sort of girl who’d appreciate being kept in the dark about something that’s going to matter that much to her, out of some misplaced notion of chivalry. And I know that she is going to find it fascinating - in the end - to learn what you really did for the sake of dear Auld Ireland.”
Grogan stumbled to his feet, moving like the animated corpse his papers proved him to be. After he had left the Lair, Joe sat on in silence for a long time. He didn’t feel hatred, or triumph or anything so positive as either of those. Just faint nausea, exhaustion, and the profound desire for a bath.