8. In search of answers, Joe pays a visit to a lady - Book One - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
He spotted Davies as soon as he arrived in the hotel lobby, sitting at a little mahogany table behind a potted palm reading the latest PG Wodehouse. Franky’s intelligence officer had no doubt noted him, too. Neither of them acknowledged the other’s existence. Joe collected his room key, was informed that his luggage had arrived and already been sent up to his room; and headed upstairs.
He showered, and had reached the stage of wrestling with the studs of his stiff white shirt front when he heard the expected pattern of knocks on the door.
He let Davies in and gestured towards the envelope he’d tossed onto the bed.
“Prints on Legion paper. We were right.”
Davies gave a quick snort of satisfaction.
“Good.” His smile had a touch of the vulpine. He reached inside his own jacket, and dropped another envelope onto the bed.
Joe raised an eyebrow. “You got something?”
“There’s a plain, conscientious, hardworking girl up in Boston, with a knack for matching patterns and linking obscure connections. The sort of girl who thinks in double-acrostics, who never gets a date because the men all think she’s ‘too serious to know what fun means.’ If she knows of you at all, it’s from the newspaper columns, and from Gaumont British or Pathe News at the flicks. And when we hire her, she thinks she’s being hired by a daft old buffer of a Doctor so-and-so with a German name, and a magnum opus which may never see the light of day and if it does it will be read by three mad Professors and the particularly intelligent cat belonging to the Master of Trinity.”
“Nevertheless: her unique skills have probably been worth at least a cruiser and two destroyers to the British Empire, over the last five years. But don’t tell her. She might ask for a pay rise.”
His eyes on Joe were needle-bright.
“And also: she may just have saved your Legion. She’s spent the last three days fossicking in the Massachussetts Records Office. On our instructions. And she’s turned up pure gold. Here.”
Davie pushed the envelope across to him, and grinned.
“Not that I’m going to tell her that, obviously. Security. To say nothing of Treasury.”
In turn, Davies looked down at the envelope containing the photographs.
“Want me to take charge of those, in case you get into another rough-house this evening? After all, it’s not as if it’s the sort of thing you want to mislay in a hurry.”
Despite himself, Joe felt his face twist in a wry, bitter grimace.
“No. I’d say not.”
Davies shot him a sidelong look, and then reached inside his jacket again, this time producing a hip-flask. With a series of precise, almost fussy movements he located a couple of tooth-mugs, and poured a generous slug into each of them, pushing one of them across to Joe.
“Here,” he said.
The fumes of neat brandy rose powerfully from the tooth-mug. Joe raised it in a toast.
“Thanks. To law-breaking, and confusion to the Eighteenth Amendment!”
Davies’ brows rose. “I can assure you, Mr Sullivan, that as an officer of His Majesty’s Navy the last thing I could feel able to do would be to commit or sanction a breach of local law on the sovereign territory of a friendly Power.”
He patted his pocket. “I am, of course, as a fully qualified medical practitioner quite entitled to prescribe spirits where in my professional judgment I consider them to be therapeutically indicated. I’ll write you out the prescription in full if you’re troubled in your conscience.”
His expression changed. His bantering tone turned to something wholly serious, with a note of driving urgency.
“Which, leaving social and political convenience apart for once, I as a matter of fact do. That is, you young idiot, I haven’t failed to notice that over the last few days your world’s been radically overturned, with enormous pressure on you to cope, and the severest imaginable consequences of failure, while at the very same time you have been faced with the unexpected deprivation of vital elements of your normal support structure.”
He gave a dry cough, and took a sip of his own brandy, but Joe was too busy gaping at him to get a word in edgeways. Davies waved a hand dismissively; he had obviously got into his lecture-room stride. His voice dripped irony.
“And you are, of course, coping admirably.”
He drew a breath. “That is; exactly as someone who’s earned the soubriquet “Sky Captain” might be expected to do. Namely, by pretending nothing out of the ordinary has occurred at all. Naturally. Anything else would betray the tradition of the stiff upper lip.”
Davies took another swallow of his brandy. It might have been the spirit which caused his voice to become abruptly impassioned.
“In 20 years experience of acting as a medical advisor to people of your type, I never cease to be amazed by the sheer number and variety of downstream psychosomatic effects which result from compliance with that peculiarly malignant fallacy.”
Joe thought it was high time to hit back.
“So; in your considered medical judgment hitting the bottle is the solution?”
Davies looked at him, quellingly.
“No, Mr Sullivan. Merely an acknowledgment of the existence of the problem. Which is, after all, in and of itself a start.”
“Anyway don’t let my ramblings keep you. You haven’t a lot of time. The first house begins at 9pm.”
Joe nodded, gulped down the rest of his brandy, shrugged on his tuxedo jacket and deployed the Tiffany box, the envelope Davies had brought, and his gun about his person.
“Better be going. Can you lock up here?”
Davies nodded. Joe caught up his raincoat, and went. The bell-hop ordered a cab; his destination was no more than a few minutes away. He arrived in ample time for the first house.
O’Donnell’s it seemed had aimed for a calculated blend of the sophisticated and the folksy. Judging by the opulence of the limosines dropping patrons at its doors, and the Chanels and Schiaparellis among the throng at the little tables in the blue-hazed nightclub, the blend had been calculated exactly right.
Perhaps getting a table might have been more of a problem had the maitre d’ not abruptly recognised his face. He found himself, incongrously, blessing Polly as he was led without question to a table on the edge of the small dance-floor, not thirty feet from the stage.
It was then 8.47pm.
The blue velvet curtains were chastely shut. Joe ordered a ginger-ale, and waited.
At 9.00pm precisely the band began to play, building towards a frantic crescendo, the curtains swung back, the band segued into a frantically triumphant swing beat, and the cabaret dancers hit the stage.
In Joe’s (broad) experience they struck him as too clothed for Shanghai, too unsubtle for Paris, and too unambiguous for Berlin.
They were, however, very definitely within normally acceptable tolerances of female pulchritude. There were whoops and howls from the darkness of the back.
They finished their routine, hoofing off the small stage sideways. The cabaret was enveloped in darkness. The curtains swung back together.
A frosted spot suddenly came out of the blackness to feature stage centre. From the wings, a tuxedo-clad figure strode across the stage.
“And now - ladies and gentlemen - the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - Kathleen - no, she tells me she’s Kitty to her friends, and that those of you here tonight who haven’t been here before aren’t strangers - she thinks of you as the friends she hasn’t met yet. So, ladies and gentlemen: I give you - the internationally renowned - the remarkable - the adorable - the fantastic - Kitty O’Farrell, the sweet colleen from Ballinaslough!”
The orchestra drummed; the curtains parted.
There was a moment of dead silence in O’Donnell’s.
And a fragile figure in a blue satin evening dress that clung and draped in ways that were intended to convince one that dressmaking was one of the Dark Arts (and almost succeeded) stepped out into the frosted spot, to the very edge of the stage, and began to sing.
The voice had the sweetness of honey, and the roughness of honey, too: there was no artificial refinement here. And her top notes opened doors onto wild wildernesses where Ancient Powers held sway, and under the primeval moonlight Cuchulainn met Fergus at the ford, and the three sons of Ulster went down by the betrayer’s hand into the dark.
There were audible sniffs and sobs into the darkness. It was possible, Joe thought, the audience had simultaneously worked out exactly what the shadowy owners of O’Donnell’s were currently charging them for ginger-ale, a sum which was, in his not-unbiased opinion, something it was quite reasonable to cry over. Nevertheless,he thought not.
Somehow Miss Kitty O’Farrell had hit upon that rarest of gifts; striking a shared nerve. She radiated sincerity from the tips of her tiny toes to the ends of her golden hair.
Joe had not, previously, had much truck with nostalgia, but he could watch, in the half glimpsed faces around the cabaret floor, the burning compulsion of the myths of the Lone Shieling, and the Auld Grey Hame in The West, along with the Forty Shades of Green.
Even though he’d be willing to bet that less than one in a hundred had ever been anywhere near the Emerald Isle, and that the remaining one percent had gone to considerable pains to put several thousand miles of ocean between them and it.
When the lights went up, he summoned the waiter.
“Would you be so good as to take a message from me to Miss O’Farrell?” he enquired. He slid the Tiffany box onto the waiter’s tray as he spoke. He also took care to add a five dollar bill. “Ask her if she’d kindly do me the favour of allowing me to buy her a drink between shows.”
He waited. And then she came.
The passage of Miss O’Farrell through the night-club was that of royalty through worshipping peasantry. She had none of the haughtiness of royalty, though: she acknowledged her subjects’ adoration with shy smiles, quick, gentle words, and a bashful ducking of her head.
And as she arrived at Joe’s table and he stood to help her into her chair he felt the concentrated jealous loathing of half an hundred red-blooded men focussed intensely upon him. He grinned serenely, and resumed his own seat.
Miss O’Farrell was, he noticed, wearing the Tiffany bangle. And he’d guessed right, too, about the sapphires; they caught and emphasised the intense blue of her eyes. But he’d been wrong about the rest, he realised. Her impassioned invocation of a mythical Celtic past was not merely part of the calculated stage persona of an ordinary little gold-digger, using her voice and her looks to claw her way up from the slums to the heights.
She radiated absolute, unquestioned belief: that was what captured her audience and set her apart from the others.
Give her the right opportunity, and she would throw herself into her cause with all the lack of regard for self of a latter-day Joan of Arc.
He changed his approach.
“Miss O’Farrell. Sean tasked me with coming out to see you, to bring his apologies, when he got tied up at the base this evening. He asked me to do him a favour: I had no idea what a pleasure it would turn into.”
His eye dropped to the thin band of gold that encircled her alabaster wrist. “Oh; and Sean also asked me to make sure that that got to the right place. Promise to tell him I did the job, will you, Miss O’Farrell? After all, I can’t think of anywhere it ought to be that could conceivably be better than where it is.”
And he threw everything he could summon up into his smile.
She turned her bangle round on her wrist, to look at the little cluster of sapphires.
“I’m so glad,” she murmured. “You see, I was a little afraid when it arrived that perhaps you - had misunderstood my position. Some men do, you know.” Her eyes dropped to the bangle again. “And it’s so pretty. It would have broken my heart to have had to tell you I couldn’t possibly keep it.”
Joe smiled, and made an acknowledging nod.
“Perhaps, when we get a chance to know one another better, you’ll let me buy you the earrings that match it? In the meantime, may I have the pleasure of a dance, Miss O’Farrell?”
She turned in her seat, her eyes melting up at him. Her voice was husky.
“The pleasure would be all mine - Sky Captain.”
He took her hand as with infinite grace she rose to her feet.
“And please,” she breathed as they took the floor, “please call me Kitty.”
They revolved round the floor with an ease and grace that made it look as though they had practised daily for years.
As the orchestra started to play a slow number he leaned over Kitty’s flawless bare shoulder and breathed into her ear,
“There was another errand Sean entrusted to me tonight, you know.”
She turned, her lovely eyes puzzled. Joe leaned closer.
“Only this errand isn’t for Sean himself. He asked me to ask you this in the name of the Shan Van Voght.”
She twisted in his arms, her eyes darkening with shock.
“So you’re with us after all? Sean said he could never be sure of you - of whether you were really for the Cause or not.”
He summoned up into his face all the naked sincerity that had ever helped him get away with a bare-faced lie in his entire career to date.
“Sure, and what to the contrary might you raisonably expect from a man of the surname of Sullivan?” he enquired in an outrageous brogue, drawing upon his memories of Father Nolan, the bane of his childhood life, and of his vernacular appeals to his down-at-heel West London constituency.
Kitty let out a peal of laughter, and he felt himself relaxing; he always knew that he was in with a better-than-evens chance if he could make them laugh on that particular note.
He pressed home his advantage.
“That - um - thing - that you’re looking after for Sean -?”
From her involuntary twitch of shock in his arms, that meant something. His nerves sang with the nearness of victory.
They executed a flawless double-chassėe before she found her voice.
“We need it. For the Cause. Tonight.”
She broke away for him momentarily, her hand going to her lips.
“Holy Mother of God! It begins so soon?”
He made a brief, non-committal shrug. She took it as she had hoped.
“After this dance, I have to go back to change for the second house anyway. Give me five minutes, and then go backstage, to my dressing room. I’ll give them orders to let you through. I’ll give it to you there.”
He nodded. And then the music stopped.
Backstage was a squalid warren, harshly lit and smelling vaguely of dry rot, drains, and damp. Kitty’s dressing room, tiny though it was, was a haven of scent, light and comfort.
She was at a cubby-hole concealed in the wall as he knocked and was admitted, and she spun on the spot, holding out to him an yellow envelope sealed with a now-familiar red blob of sealing wax.
Cautiously, he broke the seal and verified the contents.
His three point fix had, indeed, steered him in to a safe landfall.
He was giddy with relief. He was going out now, and if he could find a booky to take his bet, he was going to bet large on the wildest speculation at the longest odds he could find. For tonight, Lady Luck was sitting on his shoulder, and he knew himself to be invincible.
He turned to Kitty, and realised from her reaction that his emotions must be blazing in his face.
“Sweet Jesus! It was that important to the Cause? Sean never said - he just asked me to look after it for him - it was that important?”
He nodded, momentarily hating himself even as for once this evening he told nothing more that the precise and exact truth.
“It was that important. In the wrong hands, the contents of that envelope could have destroyed more people than you could possibly have imagined. Thank you for discharging your trust as you have.”
That, clearly, was not enough for Kitty. She caught him passionately in her arms.
“No. Thank you. And may God go with you. In the name of the Cause, and of Kathleen Mavoureen, for whom I was named.”
She kissed him violently on the lips. Much to his relief, he heard the callboy in the distance, warning the performers for the second house.
“Goodbye. Thank you. And believe me -“
He flung all his sincerity into his eyes again.
“Believe me, Ireland will one day rejoice for what you’ve done tonight.”
As he made his escape out through the stage door he consoled his uneasy conscience with the thought that so far as he could see here, the bad guys were trying to play poker with the fate of nations and if, as was all too probable, he would shortly be called upon to save the world, then the saving of the fledgling Republic of Ireland would, as it were, come up with the rations.