17. In his bid to save Polly, Dex finds that helping an old friend out of a spot of bother is the best way to kill two birds with one stone - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The first hawsers had barely been tightened round the bollards on the quayside before the crew were allowed to disembark. The passengers - chafing in frustration at their imprisonment within sight of land - might be unaware of it, but the workers on the dockside knew how much hard work had brought the liner safely into port, and how much unseen slaving it would take before she was fit for sea again, and they were not going to let the crew’s precious hours of leave be eroded by dockside bureaucracy if they could possibly help it.
No-one had cavilled at Dex’s presence as an honorary crew member, and the formalities were brief and perfunctory. He shouldered his cabin baggage, said his farewells to Tim and the rest of them, and strode out of the Customs shed into the thin, chill, wintry sunshine of the Saint John harbourside.
Almost before he had had time to get his bearings Milo greeted him with a huge, effusive bear-hug. As Dex broke free, somewhat winded, he spotted another couple of Legion men among the crowd of hangers-on. Doubtless there were others. NO MISTAKES POSSIBLE his telegram had stated and it seemed he had been taken at his word.
Milo’s presence emphasised that. Over his years in the Legion he’d made a speciality of getting hostages out of situations, snatching back kidnapping victims unharmed, and breaking prisoners out of jail. He earned the Legion a fortune from his skills, but it was not for that reason alone that so far as the Legion was concerned he walked on water. A little over three and a half years ago he’d earned a debt of gratitude that no subsequent misconduct - and his murderously incendiary temper was as notorious as his talents were celebrated - could ever extinguish.
“Details!” he said urgently now, snapping his fingers. “I gotta have details, Dex. Your telegram wasn’t worth a heap of sand. So tell me now. You saw her last. What state is she in? If we bust her out, do we need to calculate for carrying her, or will she be able to come out on her own feet? How many do they have on their side; backup, descriptions, armaments?”
Dex obliged as best he could; he could see from Milo’s disappointed mouth and the furrows in his brow that he regarded his intelligence as painfully inadequate.
Nevertheless, he darted off into the crowd, no doubt to ensure the word was spread. By the time he returned Dex had his own questions for him.
“So,” he said, “what have you brought?”
Milo gave a slow, satisfied smile: it made him look rather like a sealion which had just successfully bluffed its way into a fish market.
“Squad and a half of men; best ground combat guys I could beat up in a hurry. Coupla recce ‘planes. And as for heavy back-up, supposing we have to go in somewhere all guns blazing, well, we guessed it was just the job The Pig was designed for.”
Dex’s face must have shown his approval because Milo’s grin broadened. The Pig - indelibly christened from Joe’s succinct, profanity-garnished estimate of the Legion’s chances of ever getting it airborne when he’d first seen the designs on Dex’s drawing board - was ostensibly a cargo ‘plane, whose cavernous interior could carry anything from agricultural machinery up to a couple of medium-sized trucks. And she had, too; there were the cargo manifests to prove it. But Dex, drawing upon his reading about Naval Q ships, had turned her into something very much more than a handy beast of burden for Legion men and materiel. Her deceptive structure could pack in any weaponry up to and including battle cannon, and her auxiliary fuel capacity meant that while she would never achieve stunning prodigies of speed, her flying range was unparalled.
With that kind of firepower at their back the Legion could break Polly out of a fortress.
Always assuming that they didn’t manage to lose her trail amid the crowd on the dockside, that was.
Milo didn’t seem to be worrying. As the streams of passengers at last started to descend the Empress’s gang-planks he whisked Dex away to his car.
“They can manage without us for a while,” he said. “Anyhow, I don’t want to take the risk the bad guys see you with me and start doing some figuring on their own account. Besides, there’s someone you need to meet.”
They had gone a mile or more past the city limits when Milo pulled over into a diner. There wasn’t anything much around it; it was almost hidden among silver birches by the roadside. As he stepped out of the car Dex filled his lungs with the clean, spicy exhalation that he had grown to associate with the North, away from the cramped cities and the small meannesses of twentieth century civilisation.
There was only one car parked outside, and its driver was tucked into a corner of the diner, drinking coffee and making inroads into what must once had been a formidable stack of pancakes. He looked up as Dex entered and his face lit into a smile, almost, Dex thought, like some guy in the movies, seeing the Seventh Cavalry appear over the hill to the relief of the beleaguered fortress.
There was a sickening discontinuity about that thought, given that the other man was wearing the uniform of the RCMP.
Dex recognised him instantly, even though Petersen had mustered out of the Legion to marry his high school sweetheart less than six months after Dex had been recruited. And the big man’s help and encouragement during those first few bewildering days and weeks had been something he remembered still with gratitude.
He waved a hand in greeting. “Dearborn! Great to see you again. Life suiting you? You’re looking good.”
“You too,” Dex said. Petersen grimaced.
“Still as lousy a liar as ever, Dearborn.”
The protest died on his lips in the teeth of the big Canadian’s expression.
“I got a mirror, Dex,” Petersen said. “I know I look like a guy who can’t sleep and who spends the day looking back over his shoulder and trying not to jump at unexpected loud noises.”
“You wanted to see me looking well, you should have come through here six months ago.” He attacked the rest of the stack of pancakes with his fork. “But that was before I started to suspect my boss was on the take.”
Milo’s face looked like Dex was feeling.
“You’re not serious? On the take? In the Mounties?”
Dex could have echoed the note of dumbfounded surprise in Milo’s voice; in public legend the RCMP’s legendary persistence came in only a short neck ahead of their unassailable probity.
Petersen’s mouth twisted. “Oh, there’s bad apples in any barrel if you dig down far enough. We don’t advertise it, and I’d say the Force had fewer than most, but still - But true, six months ago I’d not have suspected something like this.”
He summoned the waitress who arrived with a fresh pot of coffee. Dex, who had breakfasted on board, and Milo, who had presumably grabbed something earlier, both declined offers of something more substantial. When the waitress had vanished again Petersen resumed his story; Dex could trace the relief from tension in the lines of his shoulders merely at being able to talk to someone he could trust about it.
“It happened like this,” he said abruptly, making stabbing motions down onto the polished table with a spare fork. “You guys aren’t greenhorns; you know the best way to deal with trouble is to watch where it might start and drop a pan of water on any sparks before they can ignite anything else. So - part of our brief is to keep an eye on undesirable aliens.”
Dex nodded. Petersen gestured again with his fork.
“It must have been early May - we thought we’d had the last of the winter, till a blizzard hit us a few days later - anyway, a wealthy American called Mrs Fraser showed up. Took a big house on the edge of city limits, on the way out to Fredricton.”
He pulled out a cigarette case, offered it round, lit one and inhaled deeply.
“She was on our list to check out, all right. According to her papers she was the widow of a well-off guy with a meat-packing business in Chicago; our information said different.”
The diner was quiet at that early hour; the waitress had retreated into somewhere at the back at some unobtrusive signal from Petersen. He continued.
“She’d run a string of establishments down along the lake shore there. Classy joints - as far as anything in that line can be - by all accounts.”
Petersen took a swig of coffee. “Looked as if she’d made her pile, and decided to settle down - retire to a nice quiet location, where she didn’t have to rub shoulders day in, day out with local worthies who she knew just that little too much about to make for good neighbourliness. So she’d picked Saint John. And, by and large, it is a quiet location. Like I said, Dex; you should have come through last summer. We could have invited you to a bonfire on the beach, maybe even a lobster boil.”
Dex ducked his head in brief acknowledgement; there was a febrile air about the big Canadian that disturbed him on a fundamental level. Petersen’s fingers picked unnoticed at the lapel of his uniform.
“Provided she’d really retired, we couldn’t do much about that. But we thought we ought to make her a semi-official visit. Think up some excuse to check out her papers. Just to tip her off we were keeping an eye, so to speak. In case she got bored and started to think about going back into business.”
For a moment a wintry smile threatened to break through Petersen’s facade; he looked ten years younger.
“It wasn’t difficult to find volunteers - her fame really had gone before her. And we don’t get that many wicked adventuresses in these parts. In the end, to avoid arguments, we drew cards. I drew the jack of diamonds and Superintendent MacMurtry drew the queen of spades, and so we duly went off to check her out.”
“Anyway, she was all sweetness and light, and her papers checked - the guys who see to that sort of thing at her sort of level do good work, and this was routine, not a serious shake-down - and that would most likely have been that if McMurtry hadn’t chosen to take a look down her bookshelves - he’s quite the amateur psychologist - and spotted a shelf of books on spiritualism.”
Petersen took a swig of coffee. “And that was when it all went pear-shaped. He’d lost someone in the Halifax explosion in ‘17, I gather. I never got the details straight, and I guess I never will. All the same, right inside that guy who was 99.99% a good cop was that tiny little will to believe. Just enough of a flaw to make himself vulnerable. And I guess when she saw him looking at that shelf of books on ‘Can the Dead Speak?’ she saw her chance, and she backed it with everything she had.”
He topped their coffee cups up again.
“From that day on, the Super was a different man. He was forever going up there, joining in the séances - nothing odd about that, you understand. Half of the best society in Saint John’s went wild for table-rapping this summer.”
There was a note in his voice that told Dex he was getting to the heart of his story.
“And then, there came the death. Guy walking his dog one morning found the body. She was lying out on the rocks down on the edge of the water. Nice middle-aged English woman, she’d been. One of the summer visitors, come up here to study migrating birds or some such. Taken a cottage out along the Fundy shore.”
He traced a pattern with his finger-tip in a patch of spilled coffee.
“It looked like an accident, all right. She got up early - who knows why? The rocks had weed on them; anyone might have slipped and banged their head. No reason for anyone to go poking their noses in, asking awkward questions. No reason whatsoever.”
His face was bitter.
“That was what my mistake was. I decided to go along to her cottage - I’d not got a lot on that morning, and I’d met her a couple of times and liked what I’d seen. And she’d died a long way from home - I guess I’d got some vague idea of finding out who the next of kin was; thought they’d appreciate a letter from someone who’d actually known her a little.”
He took an incautious mouthful of the coffee which had just been replenished by the waitress, and spluttered. When his mouth had cooled down he continued.
“She hadn’t locked up before going out - I’d expected that. What I hadn’t expected was the photographs there were around the place. Climbing groups. Chamonix, Norway, the Rockies. She must have been quite the Alpinist.”
Dex could see Milo was thinking the same as he was. Milo got his words out first.
“Sure, Petersen. But that’s not to say she couldn’t have put her foot on a patch of weed, anyway. That’s luck for you. We’ve all seen it. Remember Martiniuk? A dozen or more drop missions into enemy territory without a scratch and manages to kill himself when his step-ladder collapsed as he was changing a light bulb.”
Petersen nodded, slowly, gravely. Dex could see, in the lines of his mouth, that he’d had that exact same thought himself, over and over, no doubt in the still dark of the night. Doubtless he’d even thought it in that sunlit morning along the Fundy shore, months ago.
“True enough. I don’t suppose I’d have made a fuss about it.” He paused. “Until I thought to look inside her writing case, and found a half-finished letter to the British Psychical Society.”
The dead woman, he explained, had evidently been to a séance of Mrs Fraser’s, and not cared for what she’d seen. Others in her place would have simply not come again; she saw herself as having a duty to get to the bottom of what was going on, and expose it. She’d stuck around; planted hints of a fictitious lover lost long ago in Flanders’ mud. Her Sandy had duly appeared and given her various consoling messages. She’d pressed it further; Mrs Fraser had risen meretriciously to the occasion. The letter set out the deceits and subterfuges the writer had discovered, in damning detail.
The letter had given him pause for thought, and then, as he’d left the cottage, a neighbour had sidled up to him, and, before he could say anything, had eyed his uniform, and muttered,
“I guess you’ll be here to find out more about that terrible argument there was here last night, someone and that poor woman who was found dead on the shore going at it hammer and tongs?”
It hadn’t been, of course, but he was too good a policeman to pass up the opportunity. Three-quarters of an hour later he took his departure, having established that the two voices raised in argument had both been unquestionably female - regretfully, the neighbour confided her had been unable to distinguish any words - and that a minute or so after the sounds of the quarrel had ceased, he had heard a car start up and accelerate away, not towards town, as the neighbour had been expecting, but up the hill, as though the driver had been heading up towards Fredricton.
“I suppose,” Petersen said, “she’d told Mrs Fraser she planned to expose her as a fraud. She was that sort of woman; she’d not do anything behind anyone’s back.”
His suspicions thoroughly aroused he’d gone back to the station and made a full report to his superior. Asked to have a full crime-investigation team sent down to the shore. Suggested that they send a member of the Force to bring Mrs Fraser and her chauffeur in for questioning about their movements the previous night.
And found himself running up against a brick wall. Whether it was gratitude to Mrs Fraser for easing his bereavement, or whether he’d let something slip at a séance that she had been able to hold over him ever since, MacMurtry had killed the investigation stone-dead. Insisted the only possible verdict for the inquest was accidental death. Threatened - tempers were running high by that time - to have Petersen posted to the back end of the Yukon if he questioned his judgment on the matter further. And the Englishwoman had gone unavenged to her lonely grave by the Fundy shore, while Mrs Fraser continued to hold court for the select believers of Saint John in the big house along the highway out towards Fredericton. MacMurtry and Petersen, in their own way, were left to live with the summer’s ghosts, and the rusty knife-edges of their mutual suspicions and resentment. It was, Dex thought, small wonder Petersen looked so drawn and haggard; he’d not have swapped his own last few months, fraught as they’d been, for one half of what the Canadian must have been through.
He reached out his right hand and grasped Petersen’s wrist firmly.
“Look, just hang on in there, OK?” he said. “Whatever happens, you’re old Legion. We won’t let you down. We’ll sort our business here, and then be back to see what we can do about your difficulties.”
Petersen looked up gratefully, but whatever he might have been planning to say died on his lips as the waitress appeared from the back.
“Inspector Petersen? Phone call for you.”
He vanished into the back, but they hardly had time to do more than exchange glances before he emerged, his face ablaze with powerful emotions.
“Well, as if I hadn’t been pleased enough to see you already!”
He turned, swiftly, to look at Milo. “This girl you says been kidnapped - she’ll have come off the boat in a wheelchair?”
Before Milo could respond Dex was nodding. “Yes, pushed by a hefty nurse in uniform - she’d be drugged to the eyeballs, no doubt, and most likely wearing a silver-fox fur and a black-toque with a veil.”
Petersen snapped his fingers. “Bingo! That was my man down at the docks - I told you we kept an eye on suspicious aliens, didn’t I? The girl you suspect of having been snatched came through Customs less than ten minutes ago - exactly as you describe.”
He put both his palms flat on the table and leant over towards Dex.
“There was a car waiting for her and her nurse. A big Packard. Registered out of the US: Illinois plates to be precise.”
“Ill-” Dex began, but Milo was ahead of him.
“You mean, the car belonged to the Fraser broad?”
Petersen nodded. “And it was being driven by her chauffeur, my man says. Well, in the circumstance I can’t take official notice but - I take it you put a tail on it?”
Milo nodded. “And extra guys in reserve, in case they shake the first tail. But if you’d any idea where they might be going, that would help, too.”
Petersen blinked, and thought. “The car drove off out of town. Not the Fredricton highway - the other way. Out towards Rothesay.”
Dex pricked up his ears. “Rothesay? I recognise that - hang on a minute! That where that aeronautical genius lives - what’s his name, Turnbull? Guy who developed the variable pitch propeller - built a wind-tunnel in his workshop way back in ‘01 - Jeez, I wonder if there’s a chance I could meet him -“
Milo clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“Dex! This is not the time to go autograph-hunting, or whatever it is you’ve got in mind. Look, Petersen, cut to the chase. If there’s one thing I know about aeronautical geniuses -“
He looked expressively at Dex, and Petersen laughed.
“It’s that they don’t make do with a wind tunnel when there’s a test field available. I take it there a strip out Rothesay way?”
Petersen nodded. “And buoys for float-planes down in the cove, too. We’d not be able to service the remoter communities in the winter if we couldn’t fly in supplies. And some of the guys in the crate hiring business round here are pretty hand-to-mouth: doubt they’d ask any questions if someone with a pile of dollars needed a kite and a pilot for some business on the QT.”
Milo was up and heading towards the car. “We’d better radio the guys, warn them that the quarry’s likely to go airborne, tell LeFauve and Deacon to get ready to go up at a second’s notice.”
“Wait a moment.” Petersen, his face alive with all the energy of a man who’d been at last ordered into action after a long and morale sapping period of guard duty, pulled a map out of his case.
“Tell your guys that if they lose the tail once they get airborne, they could do worse than a sweep past here.” His finger stabbed down on a fiord which ran between two long headlands, up in the the North-west of the province.
“There’s some species of plant up here. Owned by a US company. Said to be for experimental wireless testing. No road access, but there’s a Mi’qmak settlement a couple of coves along. They live by fishing, trapping - and information.”
There was a gleam in his eyes; his balance had been restored and the assurance that his suspicions of Mrs Fraser were justified and nemesis was on her tail couldn’t have hurt either, Dex judged.
“After all, with you guys mismanaging the liquor business down South the way you’ve been doing all these years, if we didn’t find some way of keeping an eye on our remote bays and off-shore islands we’d fetch up as nothing more than the States’ unofficial liquor warehouse. Anyway, there’s a base up there which from time to time there are rumours gets used by rum-runners, though we’ve never caught anyone at it. But we got a tip off a couple of days ago that there’s been a lot of activity round there, recently. Planes coming in by night and being gone by morning - fishing boats with their lights out - the odd shot being fired at native fishing canoes that get too close -“
Milo grinned. “Now that’s intelligence worth its weight in gold. We’ll be seeing you, Petersen.”
He grinned back; a little of that lazy assurance which Dex remembered from the very first days he’d met him had come back into his expression.
“Don’t do anything I might have to take official notice of, will you? Or if you must, do it up to Legion standards, please? And if you get anything solid on Mrs Fraser -“
“You’ll be the first to know,” Dex promised.
And then they were out on the road, and the big car was flying down the hill, while Milo barked orders into the radio that Dex had had fitted as standard into Legion cars, and the whole powerful weight of the rescue mission swung into operation at last.