4. Joe flies back from Tashkent and into a storm - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
From the air the base looked like a kicked ant-heap. And what were those two large white pantechnicons with the red crosses painted on their sides doing parked on the left side of the field? And why wasn’t Dex on the RT when he’d identified himself to begin his approach?
What, in short, was going on?
Joe landed, and taxied over to the hangar. A couple of the boys came running over to greet him as soon as he swung out of the cockpit, but before they could do anything other than exchange the most perfunctory of greetings a chilly, blonde person in a severe British naval uniform which denoted her status as Sick Bay Attendant (Senior Grade) but which did nothing for her more-than-presentable figure appeared from out of the hangar’s gloom. She looked down at her clipboard, and checked something off on it in royal-blue ink with a rather excessive flourish of the fountain-pen she pulled from her breast-pocket.
“Good,” she said without preamble. “About time. We’ve been waiting for you to land. You’re lucky. Surgeon-Commander Davies can see you immediately.”
He gaped, and she looked impatiently across at him. “Well,” she said, “don’t keep him waiting. He’s got another twenty-four scheduled for this afternoon. If you weren’t in the Priority A group - direct and prolonged contact - you’d be waiting until tomorrow. And it’s a good job you weren’t held up any longer. After all, we don’t want to extend the quarantine on the base any longer than necessary, now, do we?”
With an effort, he clamped his jaw shut. He felt otherwise he’d be resembling the local village idiot any moment now. Among the group who were helping to wheel his plane away to its place in the hangar he spotted Sandy’s grizzled, reassuringly sensible head.
“Sandy? Would you kindly tell me what the hell appears to be happening?”
There was a snort from beside him; it appeared their visitor disapproved of swearing, at least in mixed company. Sandy shrugged.
“No idea. They came in day before yesterday. Seems there’s some sort of high-level naval flap among the British about whether people who came into contact with Totenkopf’s menagerie have started spreading some new sort of bird flu, or something.” He frowned. “Kalinov seems to think it’s all a big panic about nothing, but Dex left orders saying they were to be allowed to get on with it, and we were to clear space for their mobile clinic, and fall in to be examined. So we did. Not that there’s much to it. They did me yesterday. Just banging a hammer on your knee and taking some blood and asking you all sorts of idiotic questions about where you’ve been and who you’ve seen - ‘trying to trace possible disease vectors,’ they called it.”
The visitor was tapping her pen on her clipboard with ever increasing impatience, and Joe decided that the only thing for it was to find this Davies person and find what on earth this was all about. He set off towards the pantechnicons with a long-legged stride which left the visitor scampering to keep up, and visibly clinging onto her dignity as she babbled some idiocies about zoonoses - and heavens knew those beasts had been quite smelly enough at close quarters, so that at least made sense - as she did so.
He was not, to be fair, minded to pay her much attention. But the sooner he got to the bottom of this nonsense the better, and it was clear that only the top man would be likely to tell him anything useful. It seemed idiotic to him - surely any illness would have shown up months ago - but Franky’s lot were hardly renowned for throwing large public panics about nothing, and if Dex had given orders that it was to be taken seriously -
Then the oddity of Sandy’s phrasing struck him. Not “given” orders. “Left” orders. The radio silence on his approach assumed a new and sinister significance. His stomach muscles clenching with apprehension, he strode into the mobile clinic.
Some time later, Joe found himself equally agitated, but much better informed.
Franky’s pet saw-bones turned out to be a slight, dark-haired, sallow-featured man, whose chilly manner and hooded eyes gave him a repellently reptilian air. He was also, Joe gathered, a very long way indeed from being just her medical officer.
In a brisk, impersonal tone he outlined the events of the last few days. Joe’s mood sank through horrified disbelief to horrified acceptance to - just plain horror.
A traitor on the base - the prototype stolen - Franky putting her neck and career on the line for the lot of them - and Dex, Dex -
Joe began fiddling with a pencil that someone had left on the desk between him and Davies, and was surprised, a second later, to hear a sharp sound and feel the sting of splinters flying into skin as it snapped under the pressure of his fingers. Davies - blast him - looked at him in an interested way, as though, Joe thought fiercely, he was mentally ticking a box in some diagnostic checklist or other, and contemplating recommendations for appropriate therapy.
“Yes,” Davies said, “it was rather difficult to persuade the Captain to tell me that particular detail. But it was blindingly obvious there had to be more to the story than she was prepared - at first - to share with me. And I pointed out to her that as a doctor there are few things more frustrating - or, indeed, unhelpful - than a patient concealing important details because of a misplaced concern for the reaction of the physician. And that I’d found the principle transferred admirably into other areas of expertise. A view she was - eventually - prepared to accept.”
He looked thoughtfully across the desk at Joe.
“Very curious, the phenomenon of inversion. What causes it, I wonder; the little fault-lines that form under the surface of an apparently normal exterior and then, when conditions favour it, simply - shatter.”
He raised his hand above the desk, opening his clenched fist and spreading his fingers wide in a dismissive gesture which, Joe presumed, was intended to mimic a flawed personality finally coming to grief under ideal laboratory conditions.
His voice a touch rougher than, perhaps, he had intended it to come out, Joe said,
“I’ll remind you, you’re talking about my closest friend. The cleverest man I know. As well as one of the bravest. One who’s saved my life more times than I can count. I can tell you now; whatever’s happened, Dex wouldn’t just - shatter.”
Davies put his head on one side, eying Joe with a speculative air that was only just the right side of offensive. Momentarily Joe wondered how unforgiving Franky would be if he gave in to his sudden impulse to force Davies’ head through the nearest solid wood panelling. Before, however, he could say or do anything Davies added,
“Of course, it’s something we all, still, know very little about, even with the benefits of all the insights into the Mind which weren’t available to our predecessors. And, strictly between ourselves, I remain unconvinced that even a giant like Freud didn’t approach the subject with an uncharacteristic lack of sophistication.”
“Why don’t you write your own paper, then?” Joe snapped. “As a Surgeon-Commander in His Majesty’s Navy, I’d say from personal observation and popular repute you’d hardly lack for research material.”
Unexpectedly, a smile broke through Davies’ wintry expression, rendering him almost human. “And I can name at least one former Lord of the Admiralty who was entirely of your opinion. Yes. Quite. Given our officers go virtually from the nursery to their all-male prep-schools, then on at thirteen to Osborne and Dartmouth - which remain, despite the strenuous efforts of the likes of the Old Lady, almost as sequestered from the influence of the fairer sex - and that our Other Ranks are, to put it bluntly, the opportunistic sweepings of all the dockyard slums from Portland to Peterhead, drifting endlessly around together in what is, at best, a floating prison, swinging between extremes of intense boredom and momentary spasms of heart-quickening terror - well, I agree. I’d not say my thesis would be likely to be gravelled for lack of matter. Still. Revenons à nos moutons. I believe, you know, that our enemies will, at this particular moment rather be ruing their choice of blackmail topics. To say nothing of their choice of victims. Yes. A very short-sighted move on their part.”
Joe’s heart leapt. Suddenly he started to appreciate the little man’s finer qualities. After all, he’d never known Franky pick a duffer yet - he’d eventually learnt by expensive personal experience not to bet against her, no matter how favourable the odds.
Davies shrugged. “Work it out for yourself. Once - Dex - resisted the blackmail - and I’ll grant you his courage, that can’t have been easy - releasing the photographs would be the best way they could find to ensure not only that Uncle Sam would pull the current contract but that you’d never get a sniff of the next one ‘til after Satan found himself ice-skating to work.”
Joe’s insides gave a lurch.
Davies shrugged. “Your research director? The acting commander of the base? That sort of allegation? I can tell you, from what I know of how the Powers think, I reckon you could be the most forward-thinking genius the world has yet known, and have single-handed saved the world from an enemy worse than any of us dreamt of having to face in the last little problem we knew as a World War, and Ours and Yours would still pull your security clearance forever if they got a whiff of something like this.”
Joe nodded, his lips tightly compressed. It wasn’t, after all, as though he had any basis on which to disagree.
Davies’ expression changed; he looked positively cheerful. “So, then we know that they can’t use the photographs without landing themselves with a whole new contractor goodness-knows-where to infiltrate - bless him for taking himself off the board rather than let himself be played, after all. You’re right; he must have quite a brain on him. So now we know, don’t we, where they’ll be coming next.”
Joe tried to look less non-plussed than he felt. But:
“Where?” he hazarded.
Davies had an unmistakably Cheshire Cat smile.
“Why, to you. Of course. What else did you expect?”
And as Joe was still absorbing that particular blow to the solar plexus, Davies bent confidingly across the desk.
“I do have one or two suggestions for when they do. If you’re not offended if I share them?”
Joe nodded, wordlessly. Their heads bent together. After half an hour or so Joe left the pantechnicon. His head was still in a whirl, and there was information he’d had today that he thought it might take a lifetime to get to grips with, but there was one thing he was certain sure of.
It wasn’t just personal vanity that told him that Franky had an unerring gift for choosing the right man for the job.
Whatever it might be.