9. Joe places a telephone call, Polly posits a Theory, and last chapter’s chickens come home to roost - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The door to the Lair was open again when he returned; a thin line of light spilled out onto the corridor. He had a fairly shrewd idea who it was likely to be but nevertheless his gun was in his hand as he nudged the door further open with his foot.
Polly looked up from the Chronicle which was balanced on her knee. With a flicker of amusement he noted that by this time she evidently had been there long enough to have become sufficiently bored to start on the crossword.
If she was surprised to see he’d changed she didn’t show it. She had, too; from the immaculately tailored business suit she’d been wearing earlier to a bias-cut satin sheath with a bugle-beaded trim. It looked like she was intending to hold him to his flippant offer to take her dancing. Which was all very well, but he suspected there was one more interview he needed to be prepared for that evening. And he most definitely did not want to have Polly within eavesdropping range of that one.
Still, there was nothing he could really do about it without triggering Polly’s lethal curiosity.
“Give me a couple of minutes,” he said.
He went through into the bedroom, this time kicking the door shut behind him. The bathroom window squeaked a little as he thrust it up. He cursed under his breath, and hurriedly turned the tap on.
“Yes?” a cautious whisper came from the fire escape.
“Yes,” he confirmed. There was a brief exhalation of relief. He passed the envelope containing the negatives out through the window, and was surprised to receive a scrap of paper with a telephone number scrawled on it in exchange.
There was a dry cough.
“The Old Lady told me to tell you she’d appreciate an update. She’s going to be on that number for the next two hours.”
Joe nodded, closed the window and stole quietly towards the telephone by the side of the bed. He lifted the handset and grimaced at the cheerfully indiscreet “ping” it emitted. Keeping his voice low, he called the operator and asked if he might place a priority long-distance call.
He was surprised to find the phone, once connected, being answered by some remote flunky who announced that he was through to Big Trout Lake Resort Hotel, which on closer interrogation turned out to be somewhere in the remoter reaches of upstate Vermont.
Yes, Commander Cook was indeed staying at the hotel. Yes, the flunky could certainly get her for sir, if sir cared to hold for a moment.
At the far end of the line he heard a faint sound, presumably as the handset was placed down on a counter while the flunkey went off in search of Franky. And in the sudden silence Joe heard the sound he’d been half-dreading; the faintest possible click as the handset of the extension in the living room was lifted.
“Joe? Is that you?”
The familiar crisp tones on the other end of the line told him Franky had been found. With Polly’s ears flapping on the line, he couldn’t afford to risk her unwittingly blurting Dex’s secrets. His mind raced, and to gain time he said,
“Franky, what on earth are you doing in Vermont?”
“I came here for the skiing.”
“Franky! It’s mid October. There isn’t going to be any snow for another two months.”
He could almost hear the dismissive shrug in her voice.
“I was misinformed.”
He ground his teeth. “Franky! I haven’t got time for this. I only called to let you know we’ve retrieved the microfilm.”
There was a pause of several seconds. A thinking pause.
Silently, Joe blessed Franky for what he had always appreciated about her; her razor-sharp intelligence, and the fact that unlike practically any other woman of his acquaintance she had the ability to apply her brains to reach a conclusion and act decisively on it without the need to waste time on camouflaging her own brilliance so as to appear ladylike.
Her voice, when she spoke again, was calm and level.
“You got it back? Good. I’m sure Dex will be relieved to hear that.”
She was feeding him his straight lines, bless her. He licked his dry lips.
“I’m sure he will. When I find him. Look Franky; heaven knows he’s earned a holiday -“
She interrupted him, her voice loaded with meaning.
“It was hardly just a holiday. Surgeon-Commander Davies advised me that given the - the pressure he’s evidently been put under - that had he been asked to do so, he would unquestionably have signed him off active duties for the forseeable future.”
Her official voice changed; became warmer, more genuine. There was even a hint of advocacy about it.
“He’s a good man, Joe, one of the best, and when I saw him last he was the nearest I’ve ever seen him to cracking up.”
He knew his voice was loaded with resentment; knew, too, that this was a conversation he could not afford to pursue, not with that silent, listening presence hanging on the other extension. But nonetheless -
“If only he’d waited - come to me - to talk about the - pressure he was under -“
Franky’s voice had an edge which could have stripped furniture.
“Waited till you got back from whichever extended trip you’d been on this time? Central Asian Republics, wasn’t it? I mean, I’d be the last person to criticise how you choose to discharge your command, but you might want to consider the next time you’ve got time to think about it when you’re on one of these extended flights between everywhere from Yellowknife to Uttar Pradesh that you’ve taken to going off on, that it strikes me that for the last few months Dex has pretty much been doing two people’s jobs, both of them exceptionally tough ones.”
That stung. And the more so because it was true, and even more than that because of the listening presence on the line, with her perilous misapprehensions about what a fleeting moment at the end of a time of inconceivable stress meant, or didn’t mean, and the impossibility of extricating himself from the current mess of half-baked, half-unspoken assumptions and expectations without tears and recriminations on a scale which he quailed at contemplating.
Oh God. He only wished he’d been granted the time for such analysis.
Franky managed to get in while he was still flailing.
“In fact, Joe,” she added with that air of being a condescending elder sister that, in the end, had put an obstacle to their continued relationship that six months in a Manchurian slave camp had failed to do, “it seems to me that most of the pressures Dex has been under recently have been down to you, one way or the other.”
Whatever the constraints on their conversation at present, he wasn’t going to let that one pass.
“I’m hardly responsible for the - ” he caught his words just in time. “For the pressures on him about the microfilm business,” he amended.
There was a speaking pause from Vermont. With the air of sounding incredibly restrained, Franky said, “No? Joe, for someone I’ve personally seen shoot the pips out of the six of diamonds at 20 paces, there are times when I get bloody flabbergasted at what you manage to not to spot that’s right under your nose.”
He wasn’t entirely clear what she meant by that one; he’d have to think it over. For the meantime -
“Anyway, Franky, stop playing games. Leave or no leave, I need to get hold of Dex to tell him about the microfilm. So where is he?”
There was a carefully measured pause. And in a tone redolent with deep surprise Franky said, “How on earth would I know? The last I saw of him was over a week ago, when he hopped a lift on that civvie cargo shipment we were sending back to the UK. After all, why bother paying your passage if you can work it? Presumably they notionally signed him up as a supernumenary engineer and they swapped mods and tolerances the whole way across the Atlantic. I’ve absolutely no idea where he’s got to now.”
And if Joe knew one thing about Franky, it was that while she could equivocate with the best, she almost never came out with a bare-faced lie. Especially when she might end up being shown to have lied.
So if Franky said she didn’t know where Dex was, then - she probably had made sure she didn’t.
Damn and blast and bloody hell.
“Well, thanks for that,” he said with reserve. Franky’s voice rang with false cheer and the local idiom.
“You’re very welcome. Have a nice evening.”
“Oh, I’m sure I shall,” he said with restraint. A trifle maliciously, he added, “Anyway, I have to go. I’m going dancing with Polly.”
Franky’s voice on the other end of the line was serene; almost euphoric.
“Oh, wise choice. You’ve been under so much stress, something pleasantly undemanding like Polly’s conversation sounds like just what the doctor ordered.”
He bit his lip. And then a small, terse inhalation, rapidly suppressed, from the unscheduled other listener made him suddenly see the funny side.
His voice was at least as relaxed as Franky’s as he said, “Quite. Exactly. Anyway, Franks, do look me up when you’re next in town, won’t you?”
“My pleasure,” a clipped accent said. “I look forward to it.”
The line went dead.
When he got back in the living room Polly was conspicuously standing by the window, as far from the extension to the telephone as possible. He coughed.
“Anyway, should we be on our way?”
She tuned to him. “Joe, there’s something I’ve been wondering - I should have asked you about earlier. How’s Dex?”
He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to spit in fury. Instead, he shrugged and said,
“Well, he’s on leave at the moment. After all, he’s got enough to accrued to take the next two years off it he chose to, and he needed the break.”
She looked at him. And tapped the copy of the Chronicle which she was still holding.
“Look, Joe, don’t you think it’s slightly - odd - that he’s chosen to go on vacation right now? With everything that’s going on?”
His gut churned. If Polly started ferreting in that direction - and trying to make connections - goodness only knew what she’d turn up.
“Why do you say that?” he enquired cautiously. She held out the newspaper to him.
“Well; I was just thinking. Dex is so - well, outside his workshop and his comic books he’s so - well, innocent. Naive.”
With an effort, Joe kept his face immobile, politely interested.
She gestured with the newspaper. “There’s a feature today; about the profile of the sort of people the Communists specifically target. Look; it could have been written about Dex, Joe.”
She waved a hand to silence Joe’s automatic exclamation of protest.
“Our writer said the sort of guys they’re after are the sort of idealistic, brilliant types whose heads are always in the lab, and who aren’t really aware of what’s going on in the real world at all. He couldn’t name names, but he told me off the record that he knows there’s at least two Nobel laureates who’ve got tangled up in Trotskyite circles - not realising what they were getting into - and now of course they’re in too deep to get out, and they’re being terrorised into handing over all sorts of classified stuff. Look, Joe; surely it’s not a coincidence that Dex has gone off on this sudden holiday just as you’ve detected a leak of secrets from the base?”
His face hardened.
“Polly, are you seriously suggesting that Dex is a traitor?”
She flushed, and dropped her eyes from his direct gaze.
“Well,” she mumbled, “it might be he didn’t know what he was getting into until it was too late. Look, Joe; if someone who he trusted - someone he met at some eggheads’ get-together, say - fed him a line about the collaborating for the greater good of humanity - he might easily fall for it without even realising it was a Communist plot. After all, they don’t draw Reds as absent-minded professors in the comic books.”
With an effort, Joe suppressed his instinctive, furious defence of Dex. If Polly succeeded in drawing him out on those lines, who knew what he might find himself saying?
She, in turn, looked nervously up at him, as if conscious of having stepped over a line.
“I’m not saying he is: just that it’s a possibility you need to consider.”
He shrugged, non-committaly. As he did so his face must have caught the light; Polly’s head went up like a pointer dog scenting game. She caught his chin in his hand, and turned his face towards her. At the expression which came into her eyes he felt an inward shudder. He was already turning away when the open-handed slap caught him across the side of his mouth.
“Ugh?” he protested.
Polly’s voice rose shrilly.
“Joe! You lying, cheating swine! Who was she?”
“Who was who?” he enquired, though he had a suspicion that it was coming out through his rapidly swelling lip more like “Oogh was Oogh?”
Polly gesticulated dramatically.
“The tart who’s left her lipstick all over your face, that’s who! Oh, I should have realised there was something funny going on when you came back from that fight wearing a tuxedo. Oh, Joe! You just don’t alter, do you?”
Joe spread his hands.
“Look, Polly, really. It isn’t what you think -“
She tossed back her hair.
“Oh, don’t bother, Joe. I’m sick of your lying to me. I’m not even interested any more. Just let me go.”
Before he could protest that he was not actually impeding her departure she had stormed out of the Lair, slamming the door behind her.
Ruefully, Joe made his way to the bathroom, to inspect the damage in the mirror, and remove the last traces of Miss Kitty O’Farrell’s unfortunate outburst of patriotic enthusiasm.
After all; there was nothing now to stop his final interview of the evening proceeding, and he didn’t want to approach it from a disadvantage.