12. Polly starts to get an insight into the plot at last - but can she follow it through and get the information out without her cover being blown? - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
“The word,” a low voice said from outside the library’s partly open window, “is ‘Tranby Croft’.”
Polly shrank further back into the book-lined alcove. It was unlikely that either of the two men standing on the gravelled terrace a few feet below would look up, but she was learning not to take chances.
“Understood.” Mosley’s secretary’s voice was unmistakable, at least; there was something just a little too studied about his cut-glass tones. Not, Polly had diagnosed, self-consciously adopting the local idiom, ‘quite - quite’. Or did the formal perfection of his intonation betray a foreign origin?
Whichever, he was yet another of those athletic young men she had begun to notice about the place; suspiciously well-muscled for their ostensible jobs, in hard physical condition, their hair-cuts and overall turnout just a little too smart, almost military in their precision. Once one added up the grooms, game-keepers, chauffeurs, handymen and the like which the estate appeared to require it came to a respectably sized body-guard: almost, one might think, the nucleus of a private army.
“I’ll ensure the - ah - appropriate people are informed,” the secretary continued. “And - ah - prepare the billiard room for the reception.”
“I’m sure we can rely on your efficiency, as always.”
Polly had placed the other voice, now; and her pulse quickened with excitement. Here was someone she had not pegged as part of the Brethren; the egg-head young professor from Cambridge (Physics, was it, or Mathematics?) who’d arrived a couple of days ago and walked about the place with a secret sneer on his face, as though he had personally examined them all, and didn’t think any of them came up to his intellectual standards, including his host.
Stealthily, she gathered up her sheaf of notes. So far in her stay she had justified the hours spent in the library (this was not the first interesting snippet of conversation she had overheard drifting up from the terrace, which was a favourite spot for the men of the party to foregather for cigars and what, had they been female, would unquestionably have been described as ‘gossip’) by ‘research’ for a highly romanticised account of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ’45 which she was preparing for one of the American periodicals. Mosley had wholeheartedly approved the notion, becoming, for him, almost garrulous.
“Fifty percent of people - more, probably - will reject any idea out of hand if they think it’s new. Even in your country, which prides itself on being go-ahead. But you’re more than halfway there provided only you can persuade the idiot public to believe your idea is the next logical step in an established tradition - better yet, is the true direction that tradition must take, shaking off heresies and false accretions of the centuries - look at Italy if you want a model, reinvigorating itself with notions of some supposed great Roman virtues which died out a century or more before Christ, and weren’t more than a few orators’ humbugs in the first place -“
And he’d smiled at her; the cold, shark-like grin which never reached his eyes.
“Go for it, Polly. Fire up the good clubwomen of Topeka and Little Rock with the romance of the ’45. Make them feel they’re Flora McDonald, escaping over the sea with the true heir to the throne disguised as her lady’s maid, but destined to come again from out of exile to sweep away the smug usurper and all his self-serving ministerial cabals, and set up a brighter, cleaner, truer realm in its place.”
For a fraction of a second something like genuine emotion flickered behind the mocking tone, and, looking back, Polly realised that was the moment when she first began to have a true inkling of the scope - asked honestly later, she would have said ‘the madness’ - of what these people intended. And what stakes they were playing for.
She took care that her departure from the library was unobserved, and she retreated back to her own room with the silent delicacy of a cat. Only once there did she allow herself a small gleam of triumph.
For after all, she had now been handed the key that would unlock her route into the Inner Circle.
“Tranby Croft,” she murmured to herself, to fix it firmly in her mind. “Tranby Croft.”
Rothermere’s assertion that the Mosley dressing up box belonged, by rights, in the V&A was not, Polly decided, much of an exaggeration. The female half of the house-party, given first choice, descended on it like a flock of twittering birds, tossing garments this way and that, disappearing behind screens, bundles of clothes clutched protectively to their chests, emerging minutes later triumphant or disgruntled as the case might be.
She herself had already - given a few hours burning the midnight oil, and a lot of hard thought - laid her plans. Her hostess thought she was going as Florence Nightingale, did she? Well, let her. The more misdirection on that scope the better, and she had already taken the precaution of drawing the Scutari painting to the attention of that member of the house-party who came closest to her own height and build - a perpetually absent-minded young lady who answered to the name ‘Poppy’ for, Polly suspected, almost certainly discreditable reasons. Perhaps the seed would take.
Her own burrowings brought up pure gold. A long, severely plain brown stuff gown - a plaid shawl - a man’s wig of close-cropped red-gold curls, and a long blond one whose bleached artificiality was in the most eloquent of contrasts to her own natural fairness - and finally, most inspired of all, a black velvet knickerbocker suit, with a close fitted black jacket. Whether its long gone original owner had fancied himself as a Prince in the Tower, the defiant boy of When Did You Last See Your Father or as Bunthorne mattered not a jot. She tried it on - it fitted - and, more to the point, the brown stuff gown could be dropped over it in a trice, allowing her to switch outfits almost at will. And shawl and fichu between them would surely cover the expanse of neck and breast that the gown’s cut would normally reveal.
Bundling her loot together in an old bedsheet to deter the curious, she retired to her room, called for white cotton and thread (she’d always been a fairly adept needlewoman, which had saved her bacon in the early, cash-strapped New York days, when she’d had to skip lunch and save car fares by walking even in the worst of weather in order to afford the frocks to be seen in, though - thank all the stars - she’d not had to practise in years ) and, not without a pang of regret, sacrificed a white lawn lace-trimmed nightie to create the fichu, a mob cap and a Fauntleroy collar.
Masks were easy; Mosley had arranged to have a selection delivered to the house by a London theatrical constumier, and invited his guests to help themselves. Polly, interpreting the instruction liberally, pocketed two and hoped there was a sufficient surplus in the collection for the theft to pass unnoticed.
By 7.00pm when the dressing bell went for the house-guests to dress for dinner Polly was as confident as she possibly could be that all her preparations were made.
It only remained for her to hold her nerve through what might easily prove the most perilous evening she had ever spent.
Guests for the ball started to arrive at ten or so; first a trickle, then a flood, all announced by well-drilled footmen whose formal demeanour betrayed not a flicker of amusement at being required to announced the arriving guests as “Her Majesty, Marie Antoinette” “Monsewer Robspierre” “Mr Sherlock Holmes - and his Gigantic Hound” and a wide assortment of other improbable sobriquets.
Polly, stealing down the grand staircase from her room, having changed for the fancy-dress ball out of the oyster-satin bias-cut evening-dress in which she had endured the interminable stress of dinner, encountered Mosley on the stairs, unmistakable (despite the Stygian gloom which for Polly had become inextricably associated with the upper stories of the English country house) in the white-and-gold costume, topped with full periwig, of his Louis Quatorze costume.
“So,” he purred, catching her round her waist (for a moment she feared he might detect the doubled layer of fabric, and the betraying thickness of the soft velvet beneath - and how she wished now she was dressed that this particular country house was like Charlie Cook’s: completely foreign to the delights of central heating). “And whom do I have the pleasure of accosting?”
It was quite obvious he knew exactly who she was; he wanted her to state her identity for the purposes of this evening, clearly.
And she was prepared for this one. She bobbed a curtsey - awkward, unpractised, clumsy as a man in skirts.
“Betty Burke, so it please your honour,” she muttered, in a hybrid, high-pitched accent. Mosley brayed a laugh.
“Well, give my very best respects to - ah - your mistress, then. And may I wish you a safe journey and a safe and most importantly - ah - an early return.”
He planted a kiss upon her cheek; chaste enough, but with an underlying hint that if time and circumstances were only to permit, well, then - things might change -
Inwardly fuming, she watched him go on down the stairs ahead of her. And then, reluctantly, she smiled. A forefinger stole under the brown stuff cuff to surreptitiously stroke the black velvet concealed beneath it.
In this particular contest, indubitably, she had the upper hand.
It took a surprisingly long time for Polly to detect anything untoward happening. She circulated through the ball, nodding on the one hand to a Pocahontas, on the other to Queen Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. Not without a certain amusement, she noticed a dark-clad figure, her hair covered by a demure white veil, lugging behind her an enormous hurricane lantern Polly suspected she had unearthed from somewhere in the stables.
“So,” she murmured, “the Lady with the Lamp did come to the ball.”
The ball was getting more crowded by the second and once again Polly found herself applauding the Brethren’s strategy; assuredly no outsider, however close a watch he might be keeping, would be able to follow a suspect through this.
But eventually the ranks started to thin a little; prominent guests (a red-robed Cardinal Wolsey whose bulk and strong coarse features reminded Polly too strongly of Hanrahan for her to ignore the likeness, a Blondel - his harp slung across the back of his blue satin tabard - whom she had pegged as Mosley’s secretary from the first) were suddenly no longer visible.
It was time.
Her heart thumping, Polly stole quietly up the stairs to the nearest bathroom. She locked the door and unmasked. Then she paused, her hands gripping the rim of the washbasin for a few moments, taking deep breaths, getting herself under control. That achieved, she skinned rapidly out of the brown stuff gown, consigning it, the plaid shawl, the fichu and her old mask to a conveniently located laundry chest, and standing revealed - blissfully cool for the first time that evening, in her Lord Fauntleroy suit. She snatched off mob cap and red-gold wig together, thrusting them to the bottom of the chest. She gave her face, unmasked in the harsh light of the bathroom, a critical scrutiny in the looking glass. Her minimal makeup and the scraping back of her natural hair into a severe hairnet, to facilitate the rapid exchange of wigs, had stripped her features down to their essential lines; no disguise, no camouflage. Polly wasn’t entirely sure she liked the uncompromising person who stared back out of the looking glass at her. It was, in some respects, a hard face; one which betrayed single-mindedness in every lineament; the face of someone who could show an almost masculine ruthlessness in pursuit of her goals.
Uneasily, she wondered if others had ever seen her like that, too; the boys in High School, who’d openly gawped at her looks like a row of silly goldfish in class, but who somehow always found someone else to giggle and shriek with in the back row of the movies on Saturday night, or in the rows of cars parked under the trees, up by the lake, on the endless summer evenings. Perhaps even Joe - with his constant harping back to Nanjing, and that thrice-bedamned fuel-line, and his odd elusiveness over the months since their reconciliation on Totenkopf’s island - had seen it and been repelled too…
“Later, Perkins,” she admonished herself briskly. “Now you’ve got a job to do.”
From the chest’s recesses she extricated the little bag she had concealed there earlier in the day, and dropped the long blond wig over her head, arranging the artificial hair with a few deft strokes of a comb. The mask - black velvet to match the knickerbocker suit - was donned in half a second.
She took a last glance at herself in the looking glass, her hand already on the handle of the bathroom door.
Polly nodded, slowly, formally at her reflection, before ducking out into the passageway and down the stairs towards the billiard room.
“Room” was something of an understatement; a covered walkway lead from the main body of the house to a converted pinery which a previous owner, temperamentally inclined more towards gaming than gardening, had laid out with no less than four full sized tables, and an arrangement of little alcoves which offered every convenience by way of comfortable armchairs to rest between games, little mahogany tables with elaborate chess, draughts or back-gammon boards set into the veneer, or ingenious flaps which flipped down or pulled out to permit the odd hand of cards.
Polly had gambled on Mosley’s selection of the billiard room, which could undoubtedly hold a sizeable mob if put to it, and the careful distribution of the password in advance. Her guess was that the various members of the conspiracy not only didn’t know each other, but emphatically didn’t want to know each other, at least until they could tell that the conspiracy had been wholly successful. Deniability would be key at this stage of events - the ability to move among your neighbours and not risk betraying that you shared a dangerous secret with certain of them. Perhaps - she indulged a flight of fantasy - there was even the fear that it would be impossible to force the snobbish upper-class conspirators to work together if they knew enough to argue about their respective hierachies within the organisation. In any case, she had betted that she would not be asked to unmask as she passed through into the billiard room, nor would she be asked to give her name.
And so it proved. One of the anonymous, muscular young men, stationed at the entry to the billiard room, looked up as she stole in behind two backs which were blessedly unfamiliar to her, even under their heavy disguises as, respectively, Henry VIII and a swan. She muttered, in a self-consciously choked English accent, “Tranby Croft” and he nodded her through.
Her first reaction was shock, blended with massive disappointment and the fear of having made the most enormous idiot of herself. Green baize sheets had been draped over all four of the billiard tables, and chairs had been drawn up round them. There were roulette wheels on each table; piles of chips sitting ready on the baize and the guests who had arrived earlier placing their stakes and collecting their winnings with a sort of focussed intensity appropriate to hardened gamblers engaged in an evening’s play; a trifle illegal, possibly - not the kind of thing one might want to confess to the Lord Lieutenant or the MFH (though - who knew? - perhaps they might be placing their bets next to you, disguised as Rasputin, perhaps, or as the Red King. And that was, maybe, the whole thrill. For, Polly suddenly realised, conspirators as well as roulette players could have been initially ensnared by the twin cachets of social exclusivity and the thrill of the politely illegal).
And then she caught a glimpse of gold and white, flanked on one side by a solid block of scarlet and on the left by a slight figure in black, moving purposely through the throng. The chattering gamblers looked up from the table, and suddenly, without an overt signal, the roulette wheels ceased to spin.
Her stomach landed back in its proper position. Yes: assuredly she had guessed right. This was not a mere upper-crust gambling fling.
Mosley walked to the front of the room, and nodded towards the door. Two of the muscular young men leapt to fling the heavy doors shut. Heavy crimson plush curtains were already drawn, blocking any attempt to peer through the windows.
He tapped with a fork on the side of a wine glass for attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen. We meet in secret today, that others than we may meet freely in the future. But the day of our future triumph is by no means a foregone conclusion. I ask you to risk everything; position, wealth, freedom - your very lives. And on the very slenderest of chances, too! What madness! What larks!”
His teeth flashed white in a broad grin beneath his superbly crafted papier-maché mask, splendid with gilt paint, and flamboyant with the white eagle’s feathers that bedecked it. Somewhat nervously, the masked revellers tittered in response. Mosley, sure now of their attention, allowed the lines of his mouth to become serious, almost stern.
“Nevertheless, I see no alternative to the desperate course we are all pledged to. No alternative, that is, unless you are all willing to lay your necks, and those of your children, under the yoke of the mindless tyranny which the world thinks of as ‘democracy’.”
He turned towards them; his hands open.
“If that is something you would be happy with, then by all means feel free to take your departure now. We shall not keep you.”
He paused, and gestured. His secretary, a sardonic grin hovering about his lips, moved towards the door, his hand hovering suggestively over the handle as though poised to fling it wide to accommodate an expected stampede. One or two of the guests looked nervously towards each other, and towards the unspoken invitation of the door, but no-one moved.
Mosley’s grin got wider, his head went right back; his voice acquired a deeper, more compelling note.
“No-one? Does it mean, then, that carrying on as you have been carrying on - as it has never occurred to most of the people you have ever known not to carry on - strikes you as a fate only fit for fools and slaves; that you are prepared to take any chance, however slim, to win a better future for England; that you want the Empire to be something more than a name which does just as well for the picture palace where the little suburban typist goes to sit in the sixpenny seats to addle what passes for her brains with the latest pap from Hollywood?”
There was a subdued rumble of approval from the masked revellers; Mosley took it as assent, plainly. His fists rose high above his head in a clenched, prizefighter’s salute.
“You are with me? Then I ask you to step forward; to laugh at risk, to dare anything and everything. For with enough will, we can triumph. More; we will triumph. We must triumph.”
There was a collective, indrawn, enraptured breath from his audience, and a cold shiver ran down Polly’s spine. For her, living as she had in the house with him the last few days, she felt all the cold falsity of his rhetoric. She would as soon have trusted an alligator.
But he had them now; they would follow him wherever he led.
And his next words made it clear exactly where that would be. Polly had thought that she had become shock-proof; she had thought she had some inkling of where the Brethren’s plans were leading.
She had been wrong. Her wildest imaginings paled into nothingness before Mosley’s exposition. What he was describing - she gulped.
It would rock Britain to its foundations. Nothing like this had been seen since 1645 - the Glorious Revolution of 1688 , the Jacobite risings to which the Brethren self-consciously harked back seemed feeble, almost sophomoric efforts by comparison. Blood would flow in the streets. Race was to be set again race, religion against religion, worker against idler, man against woman. At every flashpoint which history, tradition, or evil ingenuity suggested there was a potential for strife riots would be stirred - stirred, too, by those whose duty lay with protecting the King’s peace and the safety of the realm.
For those present in the room represented merely the tip of the iceberg. The tentacles of the conspiracy stretched deep into the Armed Forces, into the Police, into the county militias, to the Magistrates Bench. The disaffected men who had heard Mosley and his shadowy paymasters’ siren song would be diligent about all things when the balloon went up - except their proper duty. Reinforcements to stress points would - inexplicably - fail to arrive, blunder as to their proper destination, fire on the wrong targets. Only when the British middle classes, terrified in the face of apparently uncontrollable public anarchy, were crying out for strong leadership at any price would the second limb of the plot be revealed: a King would appear, indeed, from over the water, and, magically order would, under his guiding hand, start to be restored.
And success in the matter of Britain would send a clear signal to the sister conspiracies who waited in the wings; in the disaffected countries of continental Europe, still, after two decades, nursing the stings and humiliations of their Great War defeats, and into the heart of her own America.
If this enterprise succeeded, the democratic governments of the world could topple like dominoes before its impetus.
The sheer boldness of the concept staggered her. Her fingers itched to scribble it down; names, places, crucial officials suborned, infrastructure undermined. But taking visible notes would be fatal to her cover.
And something nagged at her. The New Jacobite Order might be swallowing this whole - indeed, it seemed they were far more prepared for this than she - already arranged into districts, it seemed, the leaders of which were being given their specific instructions in low voices by the muscular young men who were moving through the throng in the billiards room. But Polly’s instincts told her that even this outstandingly bold plot was incomplete; that even this cadre of the faithful was not being told everything.
So, there was a plot within a plot, and that if this bold design to shake the very fabric of Britain back to the original warp and woof could be seen as a square - a design in two dimensions - then the real plot might best be seen as a cube. And even Polly’s honed reporter’s instincts - which could sense the shape of the conspiracy within the conspiracy - failed to tell her its true nature.
Nor was she any the wiser when Mosley, by the tapping of the fork on the wine-glass, intimated that the session was at an end, and the guests had best start making their unobtrusive way back to mingle with the rest of the guests.
She was almost back at the bathroom where she had concealed her Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-In-Disguise costume when two figures stepped out from an alcove in the corridor in front of her: Robespierre and Louis XIV in an improbable, anachronistic alliance. They dropped into step either side of her.
“We were beginning to get worried about you, Miss Perkins. Earlier this evening you seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth.” Mosley’s voice betrayed nothing except entirely proper concern for one of his guests. “And I was so hoping to introduce you to a particular friend of mine.” He gestured towards Robespierre, who acknowledged his gesture with a chopped nod, but who maintained a resolute silence. Mosley opened a door and held it for her to pass through. Polly swept through with her head held high; bluff was her only hope now, and her hand was desperately thin.
Blondel got to his feet as they entered. Mosley, divesting himself of his mask, tossed it to him.
“Thank you, Erikson. As you can see, your observation about the shoes proved a correct one. Consider yourself highly commended.”
“Please be so good as to accept mine, also,” Robespierre said. “Mask and congratulations, both. Regrettably few men would have taken note of the remarkable - congruity - between Miss Burke’s footwear, and that of the noble Lord Fauntleroy, and still fewer would have had drawn the appropriate conclusions. Attention to detail is a wonderful thing, is it not, Miss Perkins?”
He stripped off his own mask, and handed it to the secretary with a flourish. His voice had betrayed him before, though, and it was without surprise she recognised the features she had glimpsed a few short days ago.
“Good evening, Dr Fischer,” she said carelessly, dropping her own mask and holding out her hand towards him, avoiding the temptation to glance down at the soft black kid dancing pumps which had betrayed her. “How delightful to meet you at last. I’ve heard - so little about you.”
Fischer raised her hand to his lips, and brushed the back of her hand. “My dear Miss Perkins! Your sang-froid is everything I could have hoped. May I ask Erikson to relieve you of that remarkably unattractive wig, while he’s collecting our masks? After all, it has outgrown its original purpose, and I’m sure you’ll agree that there is a distinctly unappealing side to sailing under false colours?”
Still with that assumed carelessness she moved towards the mirror over the mantelpiece; discarded the Fauntleroy wig, pulled her own hair free of the confining net, and let it tumble about her shoulders. She held out her wig to Mosley’s secretary with all the disdain of the kitchen cat depositing a baby rabbit on the hearthrug, and forced a note of stinging contempt into her voice.
“False colours? That’s harsh, surely: I figured I was an invited guest? Why else did you go out of your way to ensure I had the password, Sir Oswald; why, for that matter allow me to know what was happening this evening at all? You can hardly expect any of us to believe that you could be so careless with a secret as hot as this one? You can’t surely expect me to believe you were dumb enough to let me find out all this - oh, and by all, I do mean all, not the abridged Ladies’ Home Circle version you spouted to your puppets back in there?”
Mosley’s face was suddenly the colour of whey; his voice a shadow of his formerly confident tones.
“Erikson, thank you. That will be everything. Make sure my guests have everything they require. If need be, give them my excuses: I may be - detained - some time. Miss Perkins, can I offer you a drink?”
She accepted the brandy-and-soda he proffered as the secretary with a cool, silent efficiency gathered together his papers and left.
Fischer turned towards her.
“You have been busy, have you not? And - inquisitive. And perspicacious. I am honoured - as they say - to make your acquaintance. Miss Perkins.”
He gave a brief, chopped, from-the-neck bow. Mechanically, she lifted her hand to brush away the flecks of spittle which had spattered her from his brief self-introduction (his dental plate, she thought in a detached sort of way, could not be of the best quality, no matter what the reputation German engineering might popularly have).
“The pleasure,” she lied, “is all mine. Anyway, isn’t that true, Sir Oswald? You let me find out about everything, because you need me?”
His face, momentarily, was irresolute; he was squarely upon the horns of the dilemma on which she had placed him. Admit to incompetence, or tacitly accept her bluff that she was here not as an interloper, but with permission? He prevaricated.
“Need you? For what, precisely, Miss Perkins?”
She spread her hands slowly. “Because I’m the best reporter in the business. I can make the readers believe that black is white, Joseph Stalin’s second cousin to the Archangel Gabriel and the Pope can be caught every Friday night at the Cotton Club playing sax with the boys. Oh, I can make them believe anything - provided I tell it right. It’s all in the telling, isn’t it, Sir Oswald? Because - why, we’re two of a kind, aren’t we? With us, it’s all about the words. We’d neither of us be anything without them.”
She gave him half a beat - no more - to digest that, and then went straight in with her next sally. If she could only string them along - keep them guessing - something, anything might happen - hell, they might even believe her. The adrenalin was flowing, and she was so strung up with her spiel that she almost felt she could have convinced herself.
“And, Sir Oswald, you’re going to need the best. You don’t realise just how much you’re going to need a nice, friendly reporter to keep people sweet until you’ve settled yourself in. I don’t believe you’ve a notion what you’re risking stirring up, you know. If you don’t want to find yourself strung up from some lamp-post one of these days, I suggest you start listening now, Sir Oswald. I’ve got something you need, and you can’t get it anywhere else.”
Yes - yes - it was working - there was a distinct shift in their body-language. They were listening - another few minutes, and she’d have them hooked -
Polly pressed on.
“You see, Sir Oswald, I know my readers. The good ladies of Topeka and Wichita and Madison - yes, the ones you were so keen I write the article for - won’t find regicide easy to stomach, you know. Just because we don’t want a king of our own doesn’t mean we can’t get remarkably sentimental about someone else’s. You’ll need to make quite, quite sure that the case against whomever you’re planning to blame is completely watertight, and that they can’t finger you for any carelessness, or neglect of duty in failing to save King George, you know. And I really, really don’t think there’s any force on earth that could dig you out of the pit they’ll dig for you if they ever find out you’ve planned to murder the little princesses - yes, in their white organdie dresses and the pink satin bows in their hair, too -“
The temperature of the room dropped, perceptibly.
Mosley almost sprang towards her, his arm being caught by Fischer a split second before he slapped her.
“You little bitch - how do you know -?”
Mosley stopped, awkwardly, at Fischer’s savage gesture. She smiled; the slow, patronising smile which she had practised for years.
“Know? Why, Sir Oswald, you just told me yourself,” she drawled.
His face was a dark purplish red with anger; veins stood out in his forehead. His hands worked as though he would like to break her neck on the spot. Involuntarily, and despite her resolve, she took half a step backwards. He gave a small gasp of triumph and pressed forward.
Once again, Dr Fischer restrained him.
“There is no need for - disorder,” the little man chided. “Miss Perkins is - as I said earlier - ingenious. And, my dear, there is no harm - strictly between these four walls - of admitting the accuracy of her suppositions. She is not, after all, going to be a position to share them with anyone. After tonight.”
And he emitted a little giggle, which terrified Polly more than all the overt anger of the other man.
But she was not going to let him have the satisfaction of knowing he had frightened her, even if he killed her on the spot. Anyway, there were protocols to be gone through.
“My friends,” she spat back defiantly,” know exactly where I am.”
He raised one eyebrow above those pince-nez. Behind the glass his eyes shone a pitiless blue.
“Your friends? Such as, perhaps, Mr Sullivan? But how ill-informed you are, my dear. Our friends shot him down into the channel more than a week ago. You struggle - you cry out - you deny? Ach. It would be as one expected. But there is evidence, you know.”
Suddenly, brutally, he spun a photograph across the table. A hunk of misshapen metal, showing pale and blurred out under floodlights and an exposure mistimed. But the white lettering along the edge of the dark bulk in the middle of the picture told its own story - hll- and then a broken off bit that might have been a U, might have been an O.
“We pulled that out of the Channel. A fishing boat, Miss Perkins, caught it in her nets. At a depth of some fathoms, I might add. I should not be so sanguine, Miss Perkins, that Mr Sullivan is in a position to care intimately for your well-being.”
His thin lips bared, and the small voice which she had always been aware of but which she had always forced to a deep hidden place within herself once she started to do daring work lifted its head and thought about giving tongue. And then he spoke, and the still small voice within her screamed on, and on unheeding; for the nightmare was suddenly upon her and inside her head - for even now she let no murmur escape to the outside world - she was crying out for help, and no-one was listening - and suddenly she was feeling weak at the knees, too - what had been in that brandy-and-soda?
And Fischer smiled, a hard cold smile that did not reach his eyes, and he was catching her round her shoulders, and holding out a soft, foul-smelling pad towards her nose and mouth, and he was bending over her, crushing her obscenely against his chest, and saying,
“You see, Miss Perkins, you have no friends. And a single woman without friends is so often a pathetic figure. You understand? But - we can find you friends. Oh yes, indeed. The purpose of the woman is for the recreation of the Warrior. You understand? Good. But, Miss Perkins, there is yet another reason why you are of interest to us. Why we desire to keep you alive.”
Whatever the drug was on the pad against her lips was taking her; she could fight no longer against its languorous seductive pull. As it whirled her down into the warm and pressing dark; as she fought against that pressure, the last thing she was conscious of was Fischer’s baby-clear skin and his piercing blue eyes behind the pince-nez.
And his voice, as he murmured,
“Miss Perkins; understand this.”
He had caught her chin forcibly and tipped it back at the precise moment when she was on the very edge of consciousness.
” Miss Perkins: we will protect you. Even against yourself. Trust us. We will protect you because you are infinitely valuable to us. For the Master Race.”
He paused; even now she could recognise the difference between mockery and truth. He was nothing but sincerity now.
“You are incalculably valuable, Miss Perkins. As breeding stock.”