11. And the men behind the villainy make their first appearance - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Three men were sitting in a mahogany-panelled room. Old Masters hung on wires from the picture rail and the ceiling was discreetly shrouded in a green silk ceiling-cloth, whose elegant folds radiated outwards from the central rose, from which depended the electric chandelier. Its soft light bathed everything in a serene yellow glow.
The only jarring note amid all of the restrained opulence was the mass of bent and twisted metal which two discreet servants had brought in and left on the rich Persian carpet for their contemplation.
The three men regarded it in silence for a long time.
“So,” the man with the gold pince-nez said at length, “it would seem our friend was - unduly optimistic - in his promises.”
The bull-necked, crop-haired man, whose weather-beaten face implied he spent nine-tenths of his time in the outdoors, and in no mild climate either, twisted his face into an expression of disgust.
“He underestimated the faggot’s brains, you mean. Tricky as weasels, some of these people.” He turned and spat abruptly into the fireplace. “They make me sick.”
Pointedly refraining from making any comment on the gesture, the third man, the silver-haired one with the elegant patrician face and the air of habitually holding the destiny of nations between his hands, steepled his fingers and looked sharply over the top of them at the other two.
“When I called us together, gentlemen, it was not for the purposes of conducting a post-mortem. Recriminations are a luxury we are not able to afford. We have suffered a set-back; if we are not careful it could turn into a catastrophe.”
“If!” The bull-necked man jutted his chin aggressively. “We spend hundreds of bucks and the best part of two years getting onto the track of this project in the first place. We spend another few grand making sure it gets placed with a contractor where we knew we’d already got a man in place who’d be willing to talk business - at a price - oh, and what a price! And you aren’t telling me what he’s skinned off us over the last few months for “bribes, sweeteners and unforeseen contingencies” went anywhere other than into his own pocket, either -“
The silver-haired man contemplated him steadily for several minutes.
“In my experience of dealing with men of his type,” he said eventually, “they feel - comforted - by the notion that they are defrauding their employer. And they perform infinitely better once they have that particular comfort. And our people were monitoring the situation. His peculations were within acceptable tolerances for such matters.”
The man with the gold pince-nez leaned forwards.
“And, nevertheless, despite our recent - set-back - we have learned, from his last report, of one fact of unquestioned importance. The most likely whereabouts of the missing piece of our jigsaw.”
He nodded towards the twisted wreck on the carpet.
The bull-necked man snorted.
“Yes. In the safe in the office belonging to the Base Commander. Wonderful. And that particular piece of information cost us how much, exactly?”
The man in pince-nez shrugged. “Nevertheless. And I feel that, at this precise moment, gentlemen, that safe is by no means as inaccessible to us as - in ordinary circumstances - we might think it to be.”
Both the other two turned abruptly towards him, different expressions of dissent and disbelief springing from their lips. He heard them both out to the end, and then shrugged.
“Quite so, gentlemen. Yet I hold by my original opinion. After all, this - debacle -“
He gestured again towards the mangled hunk of metal on the carpet.
“Has at least achieved one objective brilliantly.”
He leant forwards; the leaping flames in the fireplace reflected in his pince-nez, rendering the expression of the eyes behind them curiously unreadable.
“Gentlemen, we have succeeded, at least, in causing the most perfect of possible diversions. Think about it.”
He made a side-on chopping gesture, like the fall of an executioner’s sword, with the edge of his hand.
“Liken the aftermath to that of a huge explosion. An explosion, in its own way, worse infinitely than that which our target endured half a year ago. And what happens in the wake of such an explosion? Dust. Debris. Soul searching: how could such an explosion, so devastating, from so unexpected a quarter, ever have been permitted to occur? And, gentlemen, amid all of that activity, who among our opponents will think to look elsewhere; to somewhere wholly untouched by the current devastation, to look for a hair-line crack, a hairline crack which has existed since long before the current excitements; oh, so seemingly innocuous, so almost invisible were one not looking for it, but nevertheless a crack which reaches far further into the heart of our opponent than any explosive - however showy - could possibly do.”
His tongue flicked out to lick his thin lips. Unconsciously chilled despite themselves, the other two men recoiled slightly. Seeing it, he smiled.
“Given the right lever, gentlemen, applied to the right place we could prise that crack apart, and turn it into a doorway that would leave us a clear pathway straight to the heart of our enemy.”
He paused, for a few seconds only.
“Gentlemen, I believe that now, if at few times in the future, there are ways we might get a party of our people onto the base; and that if Silverman could be part of that party his - diverse talents - might make him just the lever in just the place I require him to be.”
The bull-necked man looked as though he would have liked to spit again, and even the silver-haired man permitted an expression of faint distaste to pass across his chiselled features. The smile on the speaker’s face became, somehow, subtly more vulpine.
“Why, what would you, gentlemen? That we should abandon a possible tool because it happens to be a crude and grubby one? Surely you realise that the cruder the tool, the easier it is to discard. At small cost. And so - the less chance of tracing it back to us. Yes?”
And he beamed around them all.
The bull-necked man looked across at him. And then he nodded towards the prototype.
“And the - tool - who brought you that? What of him?”
From outside the silvery sounds of a clock striking the quarter hours became audible. The silver-haired man took out a watch from a vest-pocket and consulted it.
“Rest assured. The instruction has already been given.”
He looked up.
“Gentlemen. We risk being late for dinner. Should we debate the details below?”
He stood up. The other two drew back to let him pass through to the stairs.
It was then quarter to eight in the evening. At half-past six the next morning a routine police launch patrolling along the East River would pull from the water a battered mass of flesh that had once been a man.
In due (and creditably quick) time they would compare it to missing persons reports, and by certain scars and tattoos conclude that in its life it had once been known as Sean Patrick O’Flaherty Grogan.
And so they would inform the relevant authorities. Including the man’s late employers, who had filed the missing person report in the first place.
But by the time that news would be available Joe would have been in the sky for four hours, fighting the controls of his plane over the storm-tossed Atlantic in an effort to find the one man who, he thought, might be able to decode Franky’s thought processes even when she chose to hide them from herself. And so he would not hear the end of Grogan’s story until the next day, when he landed in England.