6. Joe pursues the missing prototype, and Polly pursues her own agenda - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
It took a day for the expected message to arrive, and when it did it was a phoned-through telegram.
WANT DEAL QUERY GO CITY STOP ADVISE YOUR LOCATION TOMORROWS CHRONICLE PERSONALS
CODEWORD SWEETKITTEN STOP
CONTACT YOU THERE STOP
Joe wandered into the mess while breakfast was in progress. He took his tray over to a packed table.
“Room for me here, boys?” he enquired, sliding into a seat as he was greeted with a chorus of questions, complaints and agitation. He waved an airy hand.
“Yes, no, I think so, haven’t a clue and I’m taking it under advisement.”
When the hubbub had died down a bit, he smiled and added,
“Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
Without pausing for an answer, he went on,
“Well, the good news is that quarantine’s lifted from 10:30 am this morning, and the British Navy boys have given you all a clean bill of health, provided none of you starts quacking or squawking in the next couple of hours.”
He grinned. “The bad news is, if any of you were planning on using your freedom to visit the Lair tomorrow night, I’m pulling rank on you, OK?”
There was a predictable chorus of moans - mostly hammed up for effect (the Lair, the downtown apartment which formed an informal club-house for members of the Legion when in the city was theoretically open for exclusive booking to all of them, but by immutable custom there was only a tiny inner circle who took advantage of the privilege, and if you were in that circle you knew it) - and a few ripe comments. Joe took them in stride.
“Well, guys, see you later. I’ve some jobs to be getting on with.”
The Chronicle girl who took his call when he tried to place his personal ad turned out to be on her first day, and proved unexpectedly sticky about the immutability of the Chronicleads policy being strictly cash with order. And since he could hardly afford to delay a day until they got his seventy-five cents in their hot sticky hands (and apparently it would take that long, even if he sent it out in person on a motorbike, owing to some complication he couldn’t understand and suspected she didn’t either about when Accounts could “recognise” payment had been made) he had had, once pure charm had failed, to use the pull of his fame as Sky Captain to inveigle her into taking his ad for immediate publication. It gave him a pang of uneasiness, but he consoled himself that, from everything he’d ever heard, the luminaries of the Chronicle reporting staff might vaguely have heard that the ads department existed, but would be hard put to find them with a full-blown investigative team and a brace of bloodhounds.
He put it out of his mind, and turned to the next on his list of calls to make.
There was a touch of frost in the air as he drove over the bridge towards the city at about 5pm the next day, and the trees that lined the roadside were a blaze of reds and golds. The road ahead of him was almost empty; the exodus of workers driving home to well-earned dinners in the suburbs flowed past him in the opposite direction, while the counter-tide of pleasure-seekers coming up to the city to dine and dance and lose themselves in the evening’s whirl had yet to gather force.
As he drove he reviewed Davies’ short list of those members of base personnel who’d left the base during the window of opportunity since the new prototype had been signed off on by Sandy, and Dex’s detection of the substitution, and who’d done so in any form of transport capable of standing up to carrying the prototype.
There were six possibles, but, so far as Joe was concerned, only one probable: Grogan.
He hoped it wasn’t just personal prejudice which made him finger the big Bostonian, but somehow he doubted it.
They’d not hit it off from the beginning, for reasons he’d never been able to put his finger on (though he’d never got on with people who assumed that his opinions on certain political matters could be summed up in the fact that his surname was Sullivan, and anyway Franky’s mother had lost a kid brother in a fire started by Land Leaguers, so despite his surname no-one was going to convince him in a hurry that the weight of atrocity sat wholly on one side of the scales).
Grogan was a character - that went with being in the Legion - and had a colourful past - that did, too - and if not all of his stories about it quite hung together, then that was also true of most of his fellows, even those without having the excuse of having kissed the blarney stone.
But - Joe shook his head. There was something about everything Grogan did that was subtly offkey, something that screamed “PHONEY” at him, without his having a shred of evidence to back him up.
And he’d asked Davies to have his people be very, very thorough indeed in checking out Grogan’s connections, and he’d taken care to send a few rabbits down a few holes himself.
The results - he smiled grimly to himself - had been not without interest.
He left the car in its accustomed place; nodded briskly to the uniformed attendant sitting at the desk in the lobby of the managed apartment block in which the Lair was situated, who favoured him with a sly, annoyingly over-familiar smile as he collected and signed for the Tiffany gift—wrapped parcel he’d ordered yesterday, and which they’d delivered, as requested, to the front desk that afternoon.
He tucked it into his jacket pocket, and ignored the lift in favour of a brisk sprint up three flights of stairs.
He had barely started to turn the key in the lock when the nagging doubt in his gut became an absolute certainty.
The door was already unlocked. Which, so far as he was concerned, meant only one thing.
He moved soundlessly to the bank of switches near the lift, and switched off the lights in the corridor. Tiptoeing back in the darkness, he eased open the door of the apartment just enough to insert his hand„ and flicked the light-switch down.
What he saw in the sudden blaze of illumination caused him to groan, audibly. He pushed the door wide, and stood in the gap, trying to look as menacing as he could.
Wholly unfazed, Polly looked up from where she was sitting on the sofa. He spotted a folded copy of today’s Chronicle on the cushion next to her: somehow, he didn’t think she’d been whiling away the time by doing the crossword.
“So how did you get in here?” he demanded, not particularly because he was interested in the answer, but because it seemed to be important that he have the first words in this exchange.
She smiled; not the rare flash of genuine warmth and tenderness which could light her from within, and which, despite all that had happened between them, still had the power to move him to his bones, making him want to hammer a way through the frozen fortress of her professional poise and free the flesh-and-blood girl who was imprisoned within, the girl who could still laugh, and weep, and love, but that other smile, the falsely genial, superior curl of her lips which always set his teeth on edge, even before she’d said a word.
“Charm.” She put her head on one side. “And a hairpin. Don’t blame that nice man at the desk, Joe. When I told him what number apartment I was looking for, he didn’t seem to have any difficulty believing me when I told him I’d got a key.”
Her voice was razor-blades concealed in black velvet.
“So, Joe? Who is she?”
For a moment he was nonplussed. She gestured decisively.
“Please, Joe. Stop playing games with me. Oh and “Sweetkitten”? I thought, at least after meeting Franky, that you had better taste in floozies than that.”
There was an awful pause; and then as Joe guessed the nature of Polly’s error - the light it suddenly cast on the arcane processes of her mind’s workings (so far as Joe was concerned the interiors of women’s minds were considerably more complex than the guts of a jet engine, and didn’t have the benefit of coming with technical manuals to assist) it hit a mental nerve, and he collapsed into the nearest armchair, overcome by helpless guffaws.
She looked across at him as though she’d met more personable cockroaches.
“Oh, Polly!” There was even a tinge of affection leaking through the exasperation in his voice. “You couldn’t possibly think this whole elaborate set up is an assignation, could you?”
She looked at him.
“Well?” she demanded. “What else was I supposed to think?”
Joe coughed, pointedly.
“Well: “that’s interesting but none of my business” would have made a nice change.”
She glared at him. He sighed.
“Believe me, I wish it was - anything but what it is. Polly; what I’ve got to deal with here is a serious leak of confidential material from the base. And I’m here to get it back.”
She leaned forwards towards him, her eyes sparkling. “That’s the truth? You swear, Joe, you’re not putting me on?”
He nodded. “Cross my heart.”
Polly pursed her lips. “Well, Joe, why didn’t you tell me you suspected you’d got a leak of secrets?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Ah - for much the same reason that my natural response to a dripping tap isn’t to turn on the nearest fire hydrant?” he hazarded.
She ignored him.
“Count me in, Joe, please. I can help - we can work together on this one - we can pool our information sources -“
Joe had a brief mental picture of attempting to pool Polly with Surgeon-Commander Davies, and practically choked. Fortunately, at this moment there was a brisk knock at the door of the apartment, and a voice from the corridor outside said, “Message for Mr Sullivan.”
The envelope was a plain, cheap white one, bearing just his name, typewritten. Delivered by hand, then. He ripped it open and read the short message made up of pasted together words from newspapers inside, and had a quick glance at the chrono on his wrist. Twenty minutes to the rendevous; it was going to be tight. COME ALONE. Well, a bad idea on general principles, but one which suited him down to the ground at the moment.
His smile could have matched hers for shallow insincerity.
“Excuse me a moment, Polly.” He palmed the message into his hand and went through the door which led to the bedroom, leaving it ajar, and then through into the adjoining bathroom. He locked the bathroom door, and, running water to conceal the sound, lifted up the frosted-glass sash window.
Like all airmen, he had a healthy respect for the dangers of fire, and one of the primary attractions which had induced him to sign the lease for the Lair had been the convenient proximity of the building’s fire escape to the back of the apartment.
Of course, it had also amply proved its worth in getting things (predominantly alcoholic) and visitors (predominantly female) into the Lair without the attendants in the lobby below being any the wiser.
But that was just an unforeseen bonus to its self-evident safety value.
He held the message out into the darkness, letting the light from the bathroom fall on it so it could be read. A discreet cough from the fire-escape conveyed MESSAGE RECEIVED AND UNDERSTOOD.
He turned off the tap, shut the window, and came out through the bedroom into the sitting room.
“Sorry, Polly, have to dash. And the nice men with black hats tell me this one’s strictly a stag affair. So if I’m free later, perhaps we could have supper together, go dancing?”
He was backing towards the stairs as he spoke, and his long legs and advantage in footwear got him the start on Polly to the street. There was a cab passing; he flagged it and muttered the address he had been given to the driver. They shot off into the night, and tried a few random twists and turns, but even as he neared the warehouse distict chosen for the rendezvous he was left with an unmistakable sense there was another car on his tail.
He shrugged. He’d done his best, and if Polly wanted to thrust her head into a hornet’s nest, let her.
And with any luck at all he ought to be able to tackle whatever was waiting for him, and keep her out of serious danger.
And retrieve the base’s secrets intact, and without letting too much slip to Polly.
Possibly, at any rate.