3. Franky throws out a life-line - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The restaurant lights pooled out onto the rainwashed parking lot. Inside, it was warm, welcoming; a home-like mix of Tiffany glass-shaded lamps, and comfortably worn red leather booths. Dex, once he had steeled himself to this meeting, found himself being unreasonably glad that hewould not have to wait around. Franky had preceded him to the rendezvous.
She looked - like she always did in civvies. As though she’d marched up to her dressmaker and ordered him at gunpoint to find the hidden military styling buried within whatever the extravagances of the current fashion might be, and for God’s sake bring it out, smartish, or she’d know the reason why. Her silk-stockinged ankles were crossed as she lounged back in the restaurant booth; at his approach, the waiter bobbing nervously in front of him, she uncrossed them so as to get to her feet and extend a hand to shake, man-like, earning herself a withering glance of disapprobation from the All-American family two tables over and one to the left, self-evidently celebrating a birthday for either the little girl in frilled organza or the little boy in a white Eton collar, to which Franky responded with a dazzling smile, tossed back over one immaculately-tailored shoulder.
Dex felt a very slight easing of the knot in his guts.
The waiter hovered; took drinks orders; vanished.
“Well?” Franky barked. “This had better be important, Dex. I don’t get allowed so much leave on top of the King-Emperor’s princely salary that I can afford to waste it.”
His hand was shaking, but he pushed the torn scrap of paper across the red and white gingham towards her. In one quick glance she took it in, and then as Dex had been expecting, her brows drew down.
“If you go looking for it, you might be surprised by what will be found with it,” she quoted. “Well Dex? What might be found with it? And what the blazes is ‘it’ when it’s at home?”
He bit frantically down on his gum. But if he funked telling Franky everything, the only other place to go was to Joe - and he couldn’t even imagine that. So this was his only option.
“What might be found - well, I t- think that’s going to be photographs.”
His stomach lurched again as another connection was made. That faint sound in the cheap hotel room, in among that frantic melée of sweat and guilt and fumbling; pretending what he’d got that night was anything other than - what he had got. Pretending (God forgive him) that the thickset body on top of him wasn’t that of a random stranger, that the fleshy torso bore shrapnel scars, not the indented cicatrices of the waistband of an off-the-peg suit, worn too tight for vanity’s sake, that the eyes gazing at him weren’t a flat brown, glazed with the effects of indifferent liquor and bloodshot about the whites.
I still should have realised that was a camera shutter opening. I’ve heard them often enough, after all. Round Joe - round Joe and Polly - Cap lives his life accompanied by an orchestra of cameras snapping. Even through that kind of background clutter, I ought to have picked up that signal, at least -
“O- of me. With someone.”
Franky’s remaining eye smouldered, her mouth looked as though she was biting down on something she didn’t find all that palatable.
“Well, for your sake, I’d certainly hope it was with someone, Dex. I mean, however much of a mechanical genius you are, I’d hate to think that there was blackmailing potential in a photograph of you with no-one. So? Whom?”
He gaped. Her brows snapped down impatiently; her good eye flashed fire.
“Spit it out, Dex, for God’s sake. If you’re holding back on the details in order to spare my maidenly modesty, I can assure you that the Senior Service demands you hand it in when you join, for the duration. No doubt they’ll let me reclaim it when I finally turn in my papers, provided I pass over the right chitty. But, in the meantime, I’ve been in charge of a vessel with a human complement of the best part of a thousand for nearly three years. If there’s a variety of human idiocy that exists, I’d be surprised if it hadn’t been brought to my official attention by now. Including that variant from Gib, which involved the Pongos’ regimental goat, a rugby ball, two of the most notorious tarts on the Rock and the best Chief Petty Officer I ever sailed with. Which you’re far too innocent to be told anything about. So. What photographs and with whom?”
Dex shrugged helplessly.
“I - didn’t know his name - his real name. I didn’t know -“
Franky’s half-ruined, wholly beautiful face came alight for a second, giving Dex a momentary glimpse of a blazing emotion - relief? regret? - too evanescent to put a name to, before the shutters came down again, and she was all brass buttons and navy blue serge again. Her voice was clipped, parade-ground, official.
“So. You and someone you didn’t know. Some - him.”
He nodded, ducking his head beneath her gaze, and chewing nervously on his gum. She sighed, noisily. In the pointed silence which prevailed for the next few minutes the waiter reappeared, took their order - more for form’s sake, so far as Dex was concerned, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to swallow again - and vanished.
Franky looked like she wanted to rake her fingers through her hair - they were straying that direction - but as ever it was tightly braided back, under official discipline even if the rest of her was off-duty for the evening.
“Suppose, Dex, you tell me what’s been taken? And from where?”
In a low voice - conscious, all the time, of the All-American family’s inquisitive eyes on them, evidently trying - and failing - to find a category to slot them into, and developing a visible resentment towards them from that fact alone - he explained about the prototypes. When he had done she let out a low whistle.
“So. It seems you have a traitor on the base. And if that weren’t hard enough for you to handle, it would seem it’s Uncle Sam’s secrets he’s been helping himself to, to boot. What’s that about, Dex? I always thought you guys prided yourselves on being strictly independent? At least, that’s what you’ve always told me when I fancied putting you under an exclusive retainer on the King-Emperor’s account.”
Relieved beyond measure to have something impersonal to discuss, Dex outlined quickly the full extent of the economic harm that Totenkopf’s mechanical monsters had inflicted on the Legion. How desperate their financial straits had been. So, conscious all the time of the dangers of becoming Government contractors, there had really been no option but to take the seductively profitable development opportunities offered. On a strictly one-off and short-term basis, of course. And now -
She exhaled again.
“Another complication I could have done without. Look, Dex; it’s no official secret that Ours and Yours are the closest of possible allies. The most intimate - “
Dex was unsure whether that look down her nose as she exhaled the adjective was directed at him or not.
“The most intimate of special relationships. Quite. Divided by mutual suspicion, cultural incompatibility - you think it’s easy explaining Prohibition to an Able-Seaman who’s landed in New York for the first time in his life after 28 days at sea? - backbiting, two incompatible but equally pronounced superiority complexes and a prolonged squabble about who really won the last war which won’t be resolved until the next war thankfully puts it out of everyone’s consciousness….”
Franky sighed, and stared into her glass of Coke as if she’d really rather it had a large dollop of Jamaica rum in it.
“So?” Dex said, when the silence threatened to become even more pronounced, and even the Norman Rockwell portrait of family unity across the aisle was showing signs of boredom. Franky looked up at him with a set expression.
“It means, Dex, that even from a semi-demi-hemi-official position I can’t do a thing for you. On pain of - at the very least - a diplomatic incident. Being drummed out of the Service. Collapse of relations between London and Washington. That sort of thing.”
His stomach turned over, and the restaurant whirled around him. For one brief instant he wondered if it was possible to die of pure shame. Before he had to turn back to the base and wait for Joe to land so he could confess everything to him. Who was now, of course, his only option. When he could listen again, however, Franky’s calm, British tones were still proceeding above the level of his head.
“Brace up, Dex. You Yanks are all the same. You always make the mistake of stopping lying at the precise moment when keeping right on with the misinformation is what’s needed to get the job done. As a Malaysian stoker of mine once said: God wouldn’t have given us an Empire on which the sun never set if he thought he could trust an Englishman in the dark.”
He looked up. There was a very faint thaw about her face. She reached out for his hand, and patted it as it rested on the fine linen of the tablecloth.
“I’ll sort it, Dex. After all, suppose they find out. What can they do: ground me? I’ll still have had three years flying time I’d have lost if some genius hadn’t proved to the Powers That Be that there are mechanical ways of compensating for loss of stereoscopic vision. No matter what Official Regulations might say about one-eyed pilots, impossibility of authorising, rules for the prevention of.”
Her voice changed.
“Be on the dockside. Steamer Piers, Bay 21, 02:00 hours. Bring your kitbag and all the liquid untraceable assets you can get together in the time. You’re shipping out, until someone gets to the bottom of all this. And that someone can’t be you. In the circumstances. You’re the hole that the bad guys think they’ve got into the Legion. As from now, I’m getting you out of that situation.”
He was dizzy with gratitude, but there was still a small, masochistic part of his brain that impelled him to say,
“But the - other thing? What about that?”
Her glance was, for the moment, frosty. He knew, now, how she might have earned that other, opprobrious nickname that he’d seen Joe punch a man half-way across the hangar for using in his hearing. Nevertheless, he was not without courage. It was for lack of the right skills that he had never flown with the Legion, not the lack of the right spirit. He pressed on.
“Well? Now you know I’m a pervert? A law-breaker?”
Her infinitely aristocratic lip curled.
” We-ll, if this was one of those times when I have to consider such matters under King’s Regulations then I grant things might be a lee-tle awkward. Fortunately, our little local difficulty back in 1776 makes King’s Regulations sublimely irrelevant to you. “
That dispassionate, one-eyed glance swept over him again.
“And even their Lords of the Admiralty’s disapproval tends to be based on their belief that that sort of thing is likely to prejudice the good order and discipline of the vessel or the safety of the ship, rather than anything else.”
Her eye rested on him for the moment. Her lips relaxed from their expression of frozen chill.
“Dex, I never thought for one instant you would ever do anything to prejudice the safety of any ship Joe was sailing on at the relevant time. After all, you’re here now.”
Her long forefinger tapped down on the incriminating message on the tablecloth.
“Contrary, it seems, to the expectations of our anonymous friend here.”
And also unlike someone else we could both mention. But won’t. hung in the air between them.
Her smile became unambiguously warm for the first time that evening.
“Go on, Dex. Whatever I might think about anything else, I can’t care for a law that turns honest men into traitors for sheer fear. Come on. We’d best be going. You to pack, and I - I’ve got some telegrams to send.”
Franky raised an arm in an imperious gesture, summoning the waiter. When the check arrived on its little silver tray she captured it despite Dex’s protests, and dropped two bills down, waving off the waiter’s mutters about change in a way that suggested either she was used to tipping with wild generosity or that she hadn’t quite managed to adjust to the dollar/sterling exchange rate.
“After all,” she said with a subtle, serpentine smile as he handed her into her car before finding his own in the restaurant parking lot, and catching (as he had) the parting, anxious glance of the family from the adjoining table as they bundled into a Black Ford coupe, “it would never do if we weren’t going to live down to their expectations, the both of us, would it?”