16. Dex is alerted to Polly’s danger, and finds himself looking into the dark places in his own soul - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Dex hesitated before the door of the Pig and Whistle. Joe’s telegram, handed to him less than half an hour ago, crackled in his pocket. Its message had been more than disconcerting. Conveying emotional nuances in a coded telegram was not easy, but Dex detected an air of diffidence about this one. Polly was in trouble, and Dex was best placed to rescue her, and he would do so, of course, that was an understood thing - Joe had placed the full resources of the Legion at his disposal to use as he thought fit in the endeavour - but Dex detected a sense of awkwardness, almost as if, since the relationship had shifted between them, Joe was holding back from giving him orders: particularly, given the complex tangle Polly had presented for them both in the past, in the present case. Belatedly, it occurred to him that Joe’s awkward phrasing was intended to convey both that Joe would understand if he felt jealous and resentful in the instant situation, and to reassure him that there was no need.
He smiled slightly as he concealed the telegram in an inner jacket pocket. He and Joe were going to have to thrash out their ground rules in some detail once he got back to England and the current crisis was less compelling. But for now -
It had not been difficult to stop by the Purser’s Office, lay his hands on a passenger lis and ascertain that, yes, a Miss P. Perkins was officially aboard. Trying to catch a glimpse of her was more difficult. Tourist and First were rigidly segregated, unless he could contrive an invitation from a First Class passenger to wander into their hallowed domain. In any event, did he really want to risk coming face to face with her? If she were an imposter, as Joe evidently suspected, she might nonetheless be capable of recognising him, and would in any event be on the lookout for any signs of untoward interest from anybody. And she might, of course, not be alone -
But, thanks to that dramatic introduction first night out (the kid was doing well; he’d been to see him a couple of times in sick bay) he did have sources of information to which no other passenger had access.
The off-duty mess was half-full, and, thank goodness, two of his particular friends were in; the radio operator and one of the assistant engineers. A third man was with them; dark and dapper. They spotted Dex and hailed him with enthusiasm.
“We were needing a fourth,” Tim, the radio operator, said enthusiastically. “You play whist, don’t you, Dex?”
Dex shrugged. “Well, I prefer poker -“
The dark man laughed. “One thing I learned at my grandad’s knee before I went in my first ship. Don’t play poker with Yankees you don’t know -“
A small stab of apprehension went through Dex. “Canadian, actually. From Toronto.”
The dapper man looked beadily at him. “Really? Well, it’s not often my ear gets fooled. I’ve been on the transatlantic runs since I was fourteen years old, and I wouldn’t have placed your accent much north of New Jersey.”
Fighting internal panic - who was the dapper man? Crew, or a Mosley plant? - he assumed an indifferent tone, and said, “Well, I’ve worked all over. Funny what accents stick and what don’t.”
“Aye, you have the right of it,” George, the engineer, said. “Remember that Sudanese stoker we shipped three voyages ago, Tim? Skin black as the odds of hell, but with an Aberdonian accent even I had trouble understanding, and I’m no just from Pittenweem myself.”
The dark man nodded, “Yes, it’s an odd business. There was Charis Delahaye, three years ago, was it? On her outward voyage she was your original cockney sparrow; on the return crossing three months later when she’d conquered Broadway and got herself engaged to that railway magnate the only way you could tell her accent from the two Duchesses we had on board was that it was a trifle more classy.”
“Well, I suppose you see all that sort of thing in First Class, Harold,” Tim said. “At the beck and call of every dowager and her poodle. Sooner you than me.”
Dex pricked up his ears. If the dark man was indeed a steward in First Class then he might be the key to his current problems.
He extended a hand. “Michael Newnham. And yes; I’d be happy to make a fourth for your card game.”
The dapper man shook hands. “Harold Pearse. Pleased to meet you.”
It was comparatively simple, once the game was in full swing, to engage him in conversation about the foibles of his passengers. Harold had, it seemed, seen them all in his time; princes and con-men, film stars and great financiers. Tim and George, whose jobs kept them far away from the paying passengers in the normal way of things, were at least fascinated enough to keep Harold primed with suitable questions at odd intervals as time and the intervals of the game dictated. And as the evening wore on Dex could slide his own unobtrusive enquiries into the conversation.
This trip was disappointing, it seemed. Not only was First Class unexpectedly half-empty, but the quality of the guests was not, Harold intimated, what he was used to. Dex presumed that the opportunity to do favours for the bored and well-connected formed a significant part of his income and that the current trip had offered few pickings.
“For instance,” Harold said,”there’s a sick lady travelling with her nurse. Taken one of the best suites on the starboard side. Now I’ve had a lot of experience with invalids on board, and I like to think no-one knows as much as I do about making them comfortable at sea. It’s the little things that make all the difference. But have I been allowed to get inside her cabin? I have not. Nor the stewardesses neither.”
He shook his head sadly, and collected the cards in front of him, adding another to the small pile of tricks he was amassing.
“I’ve seen enough of the nurse all right; but she will insist on doing everything herself - well, with just the help of a manservant they’ve brought with them. Claims the patient’s ‘nervous’ and ‘mustn’t be bothered by strangers’. Heaven knows how anyone can think being cooped up in a stuffy cabin with no fresh air for four days on end can do anyone any good, but of course ‘Nurse knows best’. “
Dex pricked up his ears. He remembered the swathed figure being brought on board - surely there couldn’t be two? - and the Nurse proclaiming loudly the benefits of sea air for her charge. And now it seemed she had never been allowed to leave her cabin after all. And it was now the fourth day out, and the passage one of the calmest Dex had known; even the most seasick of his fellow travellers had ventured on deck by now.
“Sounds more like a wardress than a nurse,” Tim said lightly.
Harold tapped the side of his nose knowingly. “Well, I was wondering if there was something of that. One of the stewardesses heard some disturbance, night before last, coming from the cabin. She knocked, asked if there was anything she could do, and the nurse came out after a bit, and was quite short with her. Said her patient was having a nightmare, and she’d just managed to get her back to sleep, and wasn’t having her disturbed. But Heather told me that it sounded like a regular attack of the horrors, not a normal nightmare at all.”
He shuffled the cards and dealt the next hand.
“Still,” he said philosophically, “so long as this Miss Perkins doesn’t start going after her pink mice or whatever with a revolver, like the Earl of Drummore.”
Tim and George laughed; the reference was obviously known to both of them. They were obviously expecting Dex to ask about it, which he did, dutifully, but the details of the recital of the Earl’s DTs which had enlivened a previous voyage was lost on him as his brain whirled.
If Polly was on board then she was there as a prisoner. The news that she was capable of a sustained burst of screaming was heartening. His heart went out to her, picturing her as the longed for help from the stewardess arrived, only to be deflected by a few bland words from her guard.
The nurse and the manservant were the known enemy, then. There could be others; looking after any prisoner twenty-four hours a day would take some doing, and doubly so if that prisoner was Polly.
What could he do? Invoke the authority of the Captain to search the cabin? Hardly; he was travelling on false papers and his own position was equivocal enough. The Mosley crowd had pull; doubtless they had chosen their boat wisely. There would be a director of the Line, no doubt, or some other influential high-up who would have intervened to ensure that his “relative” with “nervous trouble” had a perfectly cocooned passage across the Atlantic. Or the Captain would have been made privy to another plausible cover story. Or, worst of all, the woman in the cabin would not be Polly, but an imposter travelling on her passport, and cultivating a reputation for being a recluse. In which case the real Polly might be anywhere.
Including a shallow grave in some remote British wood.
Bile rose in his throat at the thought. Not just for her sake - though that was bad enough - but for Joe, who had finally confessed to him, the night before he sailed, that his frantic criss-crossing of the globe during the six months following the end of the Totenkopf affair had been, more than anything, in an effort to rid himself of Polly, but by natural attrition rather than with the brutality which he knew he would have to use to convince her that they had no future together. But not that it should end like this, never like this - Joe would never forgive himself -
He became aware of the others’ surprised looks: he must, it seemed, have committed some cardinal breach of the rules of whist. Furthermore, they were half-way through a hand, and he hadn’t the foggiest idea what were trumps.
He shrugged, and forced a laugh. “Sorry, guys, I guess I was wool-gathering.”
He played on for an hour or so, and then, when Tim had to go on watch, took the opportunity of leaving too. The Chief Engineering officer, whom he had bumped into on his last visit to the kid in sickbay, had lent him a book, and now, he felt, was a good time to return it. Those layout diagrams of the ship’s interior which decorated the Chief Engineer’s cabin were giving him an inspiration.
It was indeed a good time. Simmons was in an expansive mood. A casual remark by Dex on some point of excellence in the ship’s design had him jumping up from his seat to demonstrate, by reference to the plans, how it had been achieved. With very little further prodding the Chief Engineer’s exposition turned into a virtual tour of the ship. Dex stored useful facts, relationships and proximities away. By the time he returned to his cabin a quarter of an hour later his initial glimmerings of an idea had become a beacon.
He knelt down by his bed and flicked up the hasps on his cabin trunk. Joe had teased him, watching him pack the tools he personally thought of as “Wanted on Voyage”, that he obviously believed in travelling with an entire spare ship on board. And asserted boldly that no doubt Dex would get from one end of the voyage to the next without, doubtless, having to lay hand on any of them. And then Dex had delved into the trunk on the first evening out, to make a minor modification to the hasp of the door, which had been annoying him, and found Joe’s blaster gun, the one he had made for him last year, wrapped in a note whose affectionate jokiness was merely a thin veneer over a deep concern for his safety which had brought a lump to his throat.
Say it with weapons -
Blaster and note together were now encased in the secret compartment that had defeated a dozen previous customs inspections. Dex did not disturb the compartment’s hidden catch; ingenuity would serve him this evening, not brute force.
It took a little less than an hour to contrive what he wanted, ruthlessly sacrificing his travel alarm to provide the timer mechanism. Outside the noises of the ship began to be hushed, as all but the night owls among the passengers turned in, and the unsleeping staff muted the sounds of their duties as the big vessel steered a razor-sharp track across the glassy ocean on the last leg of her voyage.
The corridor he had selected for deploying the device was, thankfully, deserted when he arrived, and it was the work of seconds to secure it, prime it, and stroll down the nearest companionway, along the network of passages which led to the starboard side of the vessel. The Tourist class smoking saloon lay immediately below where the ship schematics showed Polly’s suite to be.
The steward on duty was not one of his particular friends, but he was greeted with an alacrity almost bordering on relief, and rapidly supplied with a whisky and soda. On casting a quick look around he discovered the reason; the only other inhabitant of the smoking room was Henderson, who was sipping port and smoking a powerful Havana cigar.
Dex grinned inwardly. Henderson - as he had discovered at dinner on the first night, when the fortunes of the sea had thrown them together - would be odds-on favourite in any Bore World Series. And he was pathologically incapable of not starting a conversation with anyone within range, and harder to escape from than the Ancient Mariner. For the purposes of establishing an alibi the current situation could hardly be bettered.
As Dex had suspected, he had scarcely ensconced himself into an armchair with his whisky and soda before Henderson had got up from his own seat, his nose sniffing the air like a mole emerging at dusk. He drifted across the smoking room, glass in hand, ostensibly in search of the latest copy of Fortune magazine which was lying on the occasional table next to Dex’s seat. Having secured it, rather than resume his original seat, he flopped down into the opposite armchair.
“So, you’re crossing to attend a hearing at the US Patent Office, hey?”
Dex acknowledged this opening salvo with a bare nod. His cover story would stand up to any amount of scrutiny from the likes of Henderson.
“I’ve got an invention, you know, myself,” Henderson said, leaning over. From behind the bar, where he was polishing a glass, the steward shot Dex a sympathetic glance and muttered something. Dex, whose lip-reading had been honed over years of detecting people’s comments over the thunder of machinery and the roar of plane engines, could detect his muttered, “Bear up, mate. With any luck the mucking ship might hit an iceberg.”
You have no idea how close you are
He grinned back, and took a swig of whisky and soda, turning politely towards Henderson.
“You mentioned something about that, at dinner, the first night? If it’s not betraying any trade secrets, would you like to tell me more about it?”
Henderson had barely started his exposition - he could hardly have been half-an-hour in - when the ship’s peace was torn apart by the howl of sirens. Both Henderson and Dex sprang to their feet.
The steward, disciplined in the crisis, opened a locker, and handed out two cork-ballasted Boddy flotation jackets.
“Please put them on, gentlemen,” he directed. “Your assembly point is on the upper boat deck, up the companionway stairs just here. You shouldn’t go back to your cabins until one of the ship’s officers has confirmed it’s safe, though.”
Henderson set off up the companionway at a determined galumph. Dex followed in his wake.
The background shudder of the great engines, so constant a background since they had come on board that they had become like breath or heartbeat, only perceptible if you made the effort to listen for them, suddenly became shockingly intrusive, as their note changed and the boat slowed to a stop.
Up on the boat-deck all was pandemonium. First, Tourist and Third mixed promiscuously without concern for caste distinctions. Passengers in every state of dress or undress from full evening wear to pyjamas (but all set off by the ubiquitous Boddy jackets) milled around, catching at the arms of anyone in uniform who passed, in the hope of gleaning some idea of what was going on. Whispers and rumours - there was a fire in the bunker - no, someone from Third class had been seen to throw himself over the rail - someone had caught the sight of a lifeboat from a foundered craft in the reflected glow of the deck lights - spread through the mob like fitful breezes rippling through ripe barley.
The crew, grim-faced but calm, were trying to check names against lists, quell incipient panic and - as Dex knew, none better - project an air of calm omniscience about the causes of the alarm and the prognosis for restarting the engines when they could have no clue whatsoever what was going on.
From further along the boat deck there came the sound of a strident female voice upraised in indignant remonstrance with someone else, someone whose voice he recognised. The direction was right, at least -
“But I’ve only just given the poor dear her injection! She’s sleeping like a baby - wouldn’t wake if it was the Last Trump -“
“In her cabin! Nurse, believe me, no-one could be as concerned for Miss Perkins’s well-being as I am. But we must get her to the boat-station.”
“The boat-station! Up on deck, chilling her to the bone, poor lamb, so far out and in this dreadful climate, and with all those strange people around too, so that if she did come to herself, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it weren’t to set off one of her funny turns, and then we’d never hear the last of it.”
The stout, blue-uniformed person in the nurse’s veil came into view at that moment. Dex turned slightly away, taking a step backwards so as to throw his face into shadow.
“And anyway, I haven’t seen hide or hair of Sam, and how can I get her up on deck without anyone to help me?”
The nurse’s voice had a note of unassailable triumph. In turn, Harold’s voice was that of a man forced back against the wall.
“Well, on that, I’m sure we can - But Nurse - I have to insist - if - not that I’m saying it’s at all likely, of course - but in the remote contingency that we might have to abandon, those extra few minutes might mean the difference between life and death, and not just for Miss Perkins.”
“Abandon! But that’s pure alarmism, surely? I can feel nothing wrong - “
Dex could hear Harold’s carefully refined tones beginning to fray at the edges against the granite of the nurse’s resolve.
“Nurse! I can assure you when I was on the Atalanta, that went down off Malta in ‘15, the first few minutes before she started to list were even quieter than this.”
A fluffy, kittenish girl (she had confided to Dex at dinner a couple of nights ago that she was on her way out to Winnipeg to marry her fiancé) must have overheard; she broke out into panicked, hiccupping sobs. The crew member who had been taking the roster at the boat station shot Harold a filthy look.
Dex decided it was high time he intervened. “Need a hand, Pearse?” he enquired. As Harold turned towards him Dex favoured him with a broad wink. Harold’s tense expression relaxed slightly. Here, at last, it seemed, was someone who appreciated at least some of the unspoken and unspeakable nuances of the current position.
“I’d be most obliged, sir. Nurse Brittain is concerned - very reasonably - about her patient -“
“I heard. I’d be glad to give you a hand helping her up on deck, ma’am. I see you’re in a difficulty with your man missing. At his own boat station, no doubt. I’ll help carry your Miss Perkins. This way, is it?”
Before she knew what was happening to her, he had caught her arm and was bustling her back along the deck. Pearse, realising the nurse was still radiating resistance, bobbed behind at his elbow.
The fluffy-faced girl caught them up before they had gone ten strides.
“Can I help?”
His face must have shown his shock, because she added, with a slight access of dignity, “I - um - well, I’d feel better if I had something to do, to take my mind off things.”
He could see the truth of that in her face. He smiled, nodding encouragingly, and she nodded back, recognising his encouragement in her turn.
“Well - I thought Miss - um - Perkins might find it less of a shock if she - um, well, if there was another lady there. In her cabin, I mean. If she were to wake up.”
There was a response ready on his lips. But Harold was there before him.
“Miss - Austen, isn’t it? Well, that’s very helpful of you. Very helpful indeed. I’m sure Nurse Brittain will be very glad indeed of your help.”
From what he could catch in his sidelong glance Nurse Brittain was, in Dex’s humble opinion, anything but: she looked as though she’d happily tip them over the side herself. But Harold Pearse knew his passengers and he knew his psychology, evidently: Miss Alison Austen might be a little fluff-head, but she was, by all standards applied by the British middle-class, a lady, and Nurse Brittain was merely the hired help. So once Miss Austen had chosen to Do Her Duty and Take An Interest nothing whatsoever could stand in her way.
Short of outright war, of course.
For a prolonged cold moment on the boat deck as Dex took in the full hostility of the nurse’s expression and her tense posture he regretted not bringing the blaster pistol after all. But then her shoulders relaxed; she, too, had accepted the fait accompli
His life had been shaped, one way and another, by forces of convention too strong to be deflected; it was ironic in some ways to see that social opinion could work with him as well as against him.
“She’s not decent,” the nurse said, fighting a last defence as she turned at the cabin door, still braving them down like at Roncesvalles or Thermopylae, Dex thought, if either of them had been in such a dirty cause - and perhaps the dirty causes still had their own Roncesvalles and Thermopylaes - that was a thought, and maybe Nurse Brittain thought so, too -
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Alison Austen said brightly. “All girls together, aren’t we, Nurse? We’ll soon have her straight. Just you stay outside until I whistle, Mr Newnham.”
The air was frosty. Beneath the salt tang of the sea, Dex could sense the deep exhalation of the pine forests lining the shores of the dark unseen continent down to port, a few hours voyage away. When Alison whistled Dex had already become chilled, leaning against the ship’s rail, chewing gum as another man might have been smoking.
The cabin was neat; bare, rather, to Dex’s trained eye. He had lived in variants on barracks for well over a third of his life now, and knew the difference between “well-ordered” and “unoccupied”.
The patient had somehow been got into the wheel chair in his absence. She had Polly’s silver-fox cloak thrown across her, concealing all but her eyes and forehead. Dex, who had heard all the ructions about that silver-fox from both sides (including the strident reflections on people who flitted off to Moscow like other people went to Cincinnati, so why on earth couldn’t they bring back sable while they were about it?) gulped. He went forward nervously to take the handles of the chair. The incomparable hair spreading out before him was unmistakeable, as was the tiny scar at the nape of the neck, courtesy of the struggle they had all had to free themselves from Totenkopf’s lair.
“Just a moment,” the nurse said fussily. She had a black toque with veil in her hand. “Miss Perkins’s eyes will be sensitive to the light, when we get up on deck.”
Polly’s head lolled back, suddenly, before the nurse could get to her with the disguising hat. She was - just - recognisable as herself. Her eyes were rolled back in her head; the pupils the tiniest of pin-pricks. Her lips - though still immaculately lipsticked - were slack, and flecks of dribble spattered them. Whatever drug they had given her must be powerful, Dex thought automatically, before other thoughts caught up with him, and he wondered with a certain sick fascination if he was more relieved or disappointed that Joe hadn’t seen her like this; no longer beautiful, a hideous travesty - in a sense, a preview of how she might appear when old and senile.
Alison Austen emitted a quick sharp sound of revulsion. It brought him to himself.
“Quite right, Nurse,” he said sharply. “I can see Miss Perkins isn’t herself at the moment.” He helped her adjust the hat and veil. “Lead on, Macduff.”
His mind blazed with self-lacerating fury. Joe had been right, it seemed, to be wary of the corrosive effects of jealousy (Dex realised, suddenly and for reasons not entirely disassociated from silver fox fur, that he had no doubt had a belly-full of it in the past). He lead the way to the boat-deck, manoeuvring the wheel-chair as delicately though it contained Ming porcelain jars, filled with nitro-glycerine.
They had an hour or so more waiting on the boat deck; the chill boredom edged with apprehension before the relieved, weary crew received some signal to stand down, and they were released. He took the same care to return Polly to her quarters as he had used to bring her there - he had made a point of standing across the corner of the boat deck the nurse had colonised, so that no-one had come up to disturb them. The nurse had thanked him for his tact. Alison Austen had spent most of the interim period sobbing quietly in a corner and flinching away from Polly as though she was contagious. Polly had shown no signs of recognising her surroundings, breathing stertorously and occasionally jerking convulsively, like a dog chasing rabbits while asleep. If she had shown signs of consciousness he might have risked the Captain, false papers and all, but her captors had planned even for a risk like this. With the benefit of the respectable Miss Austen’s testimony no-one would doubt that Polly was a society lady with a regrettable weakness and, that being so, no-one would be more than conventionally concerned about her welfare.
Once he returned Polly to her cabin he made tracks for the radio room. Especially given the recent excitement he had no doubt that Tim would be still on watch.
He was. He turned, initially wary and apprehensive as Dex came in, and then grinned.
“God! I’ll never call a crossing dull again until I’m tied up safe at one end or the other. Fun on the boat decks? Have a jar?”
He indicated the teapot which was steaming to one side of him. Dex accepted gratefully.
“So,” he said, assuming a casualness he was far from feeling, “any idea what that was all about?”
In the darkness of the radio room, his face lit only by the glows of his various readouts and the glowing tip of a cigarette - it moved like a glow-worm as he gestured - Tim grinned.
“Short-circuit in a junction box gets you five. Prank by two Harvard kids coming back from a season in Europe their families thought might ‘settle them down’ and who think setting off the sirens for their own amusement gets you ten. If their respective Daddies didn’t own ten percent of the Line, and if the Old Man had had a shred more proof I fancy he’d have tipped them straight over the side on spec - Anyway, what can I do for you, apart from the tea?”
Dex reached out with a piece of paper on which he had scribbled half a page of hasty code.
“Can you send that for me, please? I guess they’ll have heard on the other side we’ve been held up some, and the USPTO hearing’s scheduled for day after tomorrow. It’d set a few minds at rest if I let them know we’re on our way again. Also, they said when I set out that if it looked like we were going to be delayed at all they’d send a plane for me, rather than wait for me to get to Washington on the train. Make sure I’d plenty of time to be briefed by the company attorney.”
Tim looked faintly taken aback.
“That’s going to cost someone a packet.”
Dex shrugged. “Not compared to what it’s cost the company if they don’t win this one. Royalty of not less than 10% on ten million units at five dollars apiece. You figure the math for yourself. Anyway, they’ve got the dough, and it’s not for the likes of me to tell them how not to spend it.”
Tim raised an eyebrow. “Who did you say you worked for again?”
Dex hadn’t; it’d been thought safer so. But back in England he and Joe had discussed the pros and cons at length, and he had his answer ready.
The Empress was Clydeside-built. Tim let out a faintly awed whistle. He held out his hand for the telegram script.
“I’d best be having that, then. Be through within the next ten minutes. Also, when we dock, it’ll save you an hour or so if you come out with the crew; dodge that messing around with Customs?”
Dex blinked, and then smiled.
It seemed that the wheel of fortune was turning once more, and that this time his luck was coming uppermost.
He thanked Tim, finished the tea, and made his way unobtrusively back to his berth.