7. Confrontation in a warehouse; Joe reaches a conclusion and Davies causes a diversion - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The warehouse was an echoing place, the hoists and pulleys of its workaday existence casting shadows on the walls that looked like those of gallows in the harsh glare of the overhead lights.
And they were, as promised, waiting for him. There were four goons standing over the prototype: overkill, in Joe’s opinion. It was hardly as if it was that hard to lift. He ignored the hired muscle and concentrated on the skinny ginger youth with bad skin, who stood a little apart from the others, his hand inside his jacket, a sneer on his face that made Joe heartily wish to rearrange his dentristy for him.
He made his walk an easy, unhurried stride as he strolled towards them.
When Joe was about ten yards away he stopped, his hands loosely at his sides, his weight on the balls of his feet, a genial and wholly fake smile on his face.
“Well, well, well,” he said. “What do I have here? A barber-shop quartet complete with your actual original barber’s cat, it looks like to me. Want a saucer of milk, Ginger?”
The ginger youth’s sneering smile deepened.
“Huh. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a comedian here, guys. Well, see if you’re still smiling after this!”
He whipped his hand out from inside his jacket pocket, revealing - a narrow envelope sealed with a blob of red sealing wax.
Joe didn’t blink, and thought he detected a trace of annoyance from the ginger lad at his sang-froid. He couldn’t see why: it would have been rather counter-productive to go to all this trouble to bring him to the meeting and then shoot him before he’d had time to do more than utter a rather feeble wisecrack.
He put his head on one side.
“Why, isn’t that sweet of you, Ginger? But if you were going to send me a birthday card, they should have told you it isn’t ‘til next month.”
Ginger shifted from one foot to another; plainly he was getting bored with the backchat. Joe couldn’t blame him, though etiquette demanded that he spin the preliminaries out as long as possible.
“You’ll laugh the other side of your face when you see what present the Boss got for you,” Ginger warned, making a game attempt to come back from 30-love down.
For public consumption Joe raised a bored eyebrow.
“Oh? And do I get to see it anytime soon, or are we both going to stand here playing Guess ‘til you grow up enough to start shaving?”
One of the goons emitted an unscheduled snigger, earning himself a quelling glance from Ginger. Joe winked at him matily.
Ginger set his teeth. “Well? Would you like to see them?”
Joe shrugged. “Well, it might be a bit more interesting than looking at your pimples all evening. I’m game. Fire away.”
Ginger slid a long thumb under the seal, and broke it. He passed the envelope across to Joe.
“Enjoy,” he said.
There were four photographs in the envelope; only prints, of course. He hadn’t, Joe told himself firmly, really expected that they’d have brought the negatives: Grogan - if it was Grogan - had far too many brains to take a risk like that even if he did like to come the thick Paddy if he thought it might get him out of inconvenient duties.
He saw the ginger youth craning his neck, trying to get a glimpse of the photographs (not deep in the plot, then) and deliberately angled them towards his own body for better concealment as he glanced down at them.
It was as well he’d had years of training in keeping a poker face. They were worse even than he’d expected. And if they ever got into the hands of the Vice cops -
The ginger youth was still watching him for his reaction. Idly, he turned over the top print, making as if the back was of at least as much interest to him as the front, neither side being especially gripping -
He suppressed a triumphant exclamation as several pieces of the jigsaw fell into place at once.
The photographic paper was watermarked. And Joe knew that watermark intimately.
The Legion got through reams of photographic supplies with their reconnaissance photographs, to say nothing of Dex’s experiments, all of which had to be meticulously recorded.
Their cameras and the precious intelligence captured by them were practically as important to the Legion as their weapons. And it had been worth their while having fine grades of photographic paper developed exclusively to meet their exacting specifications.
Watermarked with the Legion’s crest.
These prints had been made on the base. He and Davies had thought it was possible; after all, it was not, given what they had surmised about the nature of them, as if whoever had taken them could send them to a professional laboratory.
And they’d accordingly taken care to pull the records of dark room use over the relevant period.
And with the precise satisfaction he felt when the third bearing in a three point fix plotted with pin-point accuracy on top of the other two, he realised his hunch had to have been right.
Because of all the people who’d left the base during the window of opportunity, and all the people who’d used the dark room over the preceding few days, his was the only name appearing on both lists.
Which, with any luck at all, might mean that Joe’s hunch about what Grogan had done with the negatives was also right. He wasn’t looking for the negatives with the whole city to search in any more.
Just for a plain old fashioned needle in a haystack.
And any fool knew that the way you found a needle in a haystack was with a magnet.
Joe started to feel insensibly more cheerful.
“Well,” he said, tucking the prints back into the envelope and putting it into his jacket pocket, his knuckles brushing against the little gift-wrapped Tiffany packet as he did so, “I’ve seen one half of what your Boss wants to put on the table. Let’s see the other half’s the genuine article, then.”
He turned, quickly, before the ginger youth could summon up the gumption to object to his casual appropriation of the prints, ran a quick proprietorial hand over the top of the prototype, and hunkered down to examine its sides and base. He was careful not to direct unwelcome attention by too close a scrutiny, but it was with relief that he noted that no-one seemed to have touched the little metal plaque, bearing a serial number and maintenance instructions, which was screwed in an unobtrusive spot on the lower side of the machine. No: those screws had definitely not been touched; Dex had taken care that their heads were made of a much softer alloy than the stainless steel they appeared to be, and they had left-hand threads, too. Anyone who’d tried to remove the plaque couldn’t have failed to leave traces.
He straightened up, sneaking a quick look at his chrono as he did so. Any time now -
“Well,” he said slowly, “I’ve seen the goods. I’d say they were -“
He paused for a carefully-timed four seconds. “Of some interest to me. Up to a point. At the right price, I might be prepared to do a deal. So why don’t you tell me your Boss’s opening price, so that I can get the shrieks of hollow laughter out of the way, and then we can start talking real business?”
Ginger sneered. “The Boss says he’s got an opening price and a closing price. And they’re both the same price, and he isn’t about to haggle. And the deal is: you agree to keep us supplied with more of the same - and you get the pretty pictures with the negatives, and we don’t tell Uncle Sam that this little beauty -“
He patted the prototype lovingly.
“Has ever been on an unscheduled vacation.”
Before Joe had time to say anything the noise outside the warehouse (of which he had started to become conscious during the last few moments) rose to a crescendo, the door at the far end of the warehouse crashed open, and a bewildered, very Cockney voice, slurring slightly, said to someone unseen behind him,
“You sure that bloke at Cosy Rosie’s wasn’t having you on, Bert? It’s a bleeding funny place for a boozer, that’s all I can say.”
Another voice; assured, confident and with vowels that bespoke Birmingham with every word he uttered, said,
“Nah; I’ve been here before. It’s just what they have to do round here to get a drink, like. Otherwise, the rozzers bust it up.”
“Bloody daft way to run a country,” a Yorkshire voice commented. There was a chorus of agreement, and a dozen or so sailors - looking to be well set for an epic first evening of shore leave, despite unfavourable circumstances - spilled through the door into the warehouse, blinking in the harsh lights, and peering around in a bewildered search for the promised party.
The goons - albeit equally befuzzled - had grasped one essential point. They grabbed the prototype and started legging it towards the rear door. Their action attracted the notice of the new arrivals.
“Them mucking bleeders is legging it with the booze!” carolled someone from the back.
The sailors, whooping and yelling, pounded across the warehouse.
Ginger took advantage of the momentary distraction to make a quick lunge at Joe’s pocket, twitching the envelope out in his finger-tips, and diving towards the emergency exit at the top of a flight of steps to his left.
Abandoning the prototype, Joe went after Ginger, rugby tacking him round his legs and bringing him down in a crashing heap just as he was pushing the door to the street open. Down on the floor of the warehouse battle raged.
There was a sudden shout of shock, rage and indignation.
“Bloody mad bastard’s got a gun -!”
The squat evil shape of the automatic in the leading goon’s hand spoke once. The bank of switches in the corner burst apart in a shower of sparks and all the lights went out.
Ginger kicked out frantically, to release himself from Joe’s grasp; Joe grabbed the envelope back from him, and, successful, broke away. His own gun was suddenly in his hands, pointed straight at Ginger’s chest.
“Now,” he purred, “don’t do anything hasty. I’ve got the photographs; you’ve got the machine. How about we call it a draw, and go our separate ways, hm?”
Ginger, breathing heavily, sneered at him.
“Well, don’t know how you figure it, but it sure looks like a win from where I’m standing. We’ve got the machine and we’ve still got the negatives. Those prints aren’t worth nothing to you.”
“As bright as he’s beautiful, that’s what your old mother used to tell the neighbours, I bet,” Joe said. “Suppose you stop informing me of the startlingly obvious, and beat it? I’ve about had enough of your company. Push off, Ginger, and tell your Boss I’m not interested in dealing. Scram!”
He gestured dangerously with the gun.
Ginger took no second chances. He was off through the door and haring along the street. Back in the warehouse the sounds of the fight were dying away; Joe guessed that the goons had taken advantage of the darkness to make off with the prototype.
Still, it wasn’t as though that was something he needed to worry about at the moment. He had other, more pressing concerns.
He went out through the emergency exit, moving at a brisk trot to the nearest well-lit thoroughfare, where he flagged down a passing taxi and asked the driver to take him to the Algonquin Hotel.