19. On the flight home to the Legion’s base Polly realises there is more to Dex than meets the eye, and determines for the first time to put her cards on the table - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
She roused herself eventually; sticky and creased from sleeping in her clothes, and with a crick in her neck. She had slept, though: the monotonous throbbing of the great engines through the night had its own soporific quality. She found she had been resting her head on Dex’s shoulder, which was embarrassing; not that he was the sort to try anything on, of course, not Dex, but the strange other men in the big stripped interior of the plane might not understand that, might draw conclusions about her -
Dex’s eyes blinked open as she started to stir; unfairly, he seemed better at coming to himself of a morning after sleeping in strange places at uncovenanted angles. He blinked, once, stretched his eyes, and leaned casually across her to gaze out of the plane window. What he saw was evidently satisfactory; he turned, gave a thumbs-up sign at the nearest of the hulking crew, and turned back towards Polly, displaying a face which revealed not a care in the world.
“Where are we?” she snapped. The rest of the crew, though they were, in this cramped space, all within earshot, left it for Dex to respond. She noted that, in some far part of her brain and it became, in itself a further teeth-grinding moment. He smiled at her.
“Just over upstate New York. I guess we missed the Thousand Islands. But we should be landing in three-quarters of an hour or so. Give or take.”
He looked at her as though taking in the full wreckage of her appearance for the first time. She’d found a clean pair of jeans and a sweater which more-or-less fitted on the base, and contrived a wash, but the best she could manage with the hair was to plait it, and God only knew what had happened to her makeup bag and the rest of her luggage. She quailed inwardly, fearing his assessment of her vulnerability, and the contempt which must follow when he sensed it. However, his voice, when he spoke, was very gentle.
“There’ll be people to look after you properly at the base. You’ll feel different once again when you’ve had a medical check-over; pancakes and proper coffee, and a bath -“
The inferred intimacy - after all she had gone through - was intolerable.
Without her apparently being able to control it, a crisp, haughty edge insisted on imposing itself on her words. She spat them out with a cold, hating detachment.
“How - thorough. And how sweet of the Legion. Why: it sounds almost as if you had a procedure for handling someone newly released from a prison camp.”
The silence in the aircraft as the echoes of her comment died away had a quality all its own; a concentrated venom that chilled her blood. None of the men looked at her, but their focussed hostility was as obvious as if they had stared. It would, she thought wildly and irrationally as the truly horrific nature of her gaffe penetrated her consciousness, take little for them to open the hatch of the transport plane, and precipitate her abruptly and without a parachute to the thick woodland passing below.
Dex’s voice was studiedly restrained - he did not quite meet her eyes - but she noted that his right hand had spread out horizontally, where the other men could see it, and he was making a small, tamping down gesture: cool it, guys.
“Well, it has happened before, so - I guess the answer to that would be yes; we have developed SOPs for the situation.” He paused. “Part of which is not taking anything released prisoners might say any too personally until we’ve given them breathing space enough to get their heads straight.”
The crew exhaled, as if they had been wound up to fever pitch, and then - stood down. They - she realised now and too late - trusted Dex, respected him, knew him on a level she could never hope to reach. She had seen him as irrelevant - not even cared enough to despise him - a mere mechanic, someone who got his hands dirty, and so made sure her transport worked -
Abruptly it occurred to her she’d never looked behind the competence, to see if it was a man or a machine fulfilling that function so efficiently.
Suddenly she found herself ashamed; simply, desperately, ashamed of who she was, and of how she had betrayed who she could have been.
Polly turned towards Dex, buried her face in his shoulder, and - as she had not throughout the whole nightmare of the last ten days - broke down into a howling storm of weeping, while he patted her back nervously, and managed somehow to find a white handkerchief the size of a young bedsheet into which she could absorb her ungainly sniffles.
She found a still place in the midst of the storm, and willed her voice to be steady. She looked up.
“Dex; I need to tell you what’s been going on. If Joe - I mean, I - if you get the chance -“
She was shaking, hiccupping with stress, and the awkwardness of it all, but he was still muttering at her reassuringly, and, to her surprise, stroking his hand in soothing sweeps along her spine, no longer nervously. Part of her brain - the inquisitive part which never actually slept - registered that, contrary to expectations, there was obviously a girlfriend of Dex’s out there somewhere who was one lucky, lucky lady - there was nothing inappropriate about the gesture, but it denoted a matter-of-fact confidence about the giving and receiving of physical comfort which she would, previously, have betted was completely foreign to him.
“Go on. If it’s that important - and given what they did to you, it must be - I’ll undertake to get the news out tonight. Provided we keep this weather window, one of the guys can fly me back the short-hop route via Gander. And I’ll airmail the key bits, coded, as back up before we fly. So - come on. Spill.”
She looked up at him; thought about exclusives - about scoops - about gratitude - about fates worth than death, and made up her mind.
“Look, Dex; it’s like this. Here’s what I think they’ve been planning -“
From time to time he interrupted her with questions, or asked her to repeat something. But by and large he was the best of listeners; taking her wholly seriously - his expression showed as much, giving her time to express herself, not diving in with suggestions when she hesitated over the right word or so. His face was grim when she finished, as well it might be.
“Jeez! They’re planning on taking out the British Royal Family with my weapon! Are they insane?”
Her face was furrowed with concentration. “Insane, possibly, but not stupid. I mean, there was a lot of stuff about how people felt about the Abdication a few years ago that got kept out of the Press, even in the States. A lot of people thought the Duke of Windsor had been treated pretty shabbily. Or that it was a slap in the face for the Aristocracy in general, I suppose, that the Prime Minister could tell the King who he could and couldn’t marry. Whatever the excuse, there’s a lot of highly placed people tied up in this one. I don’t suppose even the conspirators know who’s in and who’s out - well, except for the inner circle.”
She drew a deep breath. “Once the rioting started no-one would know who to trust - it’d be anarchy. Law and order completely breaking down. And then Mosley’s crew would propose they brought back the Duke as the only legitimate King the country had, and the one man who could reconcile the warring factions. It sounds insane, Dex, but they could bring it off. They really could. If only we knew when it was going to happen!”
Dex chewed thoughtfully on a sliver of gum. “Well,” he said, “they’d pretty much stripped this base clean. And from what the few goons they’d left behind had to say, they’d been pretty much using this place as the main R&D facility up until a couple of days ago. So I’d say whatever they were planning can’t be too far in the future. In fact, it’d probably make sense if it was the next time the family were sure to be together - when they meet up for Christmas at Sandringham, or something.”
“But they aren’t going to be at Sandringham - the drains are up -” Her voice tailed off as a memory from what felt like years ago hit her - Mosley’s face as Lord Peter had casually dropped a titbit of seemingly inconsequential Royal gossip. Not anger at not being in the inner circles, then. Fury at having to revise a long-cherished plan at short notice. Dex had caught her expression, he was waiting for her to speak.
“It is Christmas. And it’s Balmoral. It fits - it fits perfectly. But how are they ever going to get at them? I mean - it’s a castle - and right in the Scottish highlands. They’d need an army even to get past the outer walls of the estate, and they couldn’t avoid being spotted -“
Dex was rummaging through the bundle of papers he’d collected from the office at the base, a jumble of things he’d found interesting, worth taking for further analysis. He pulled out a ledger - it looked like a supply record - flipped it open to a particular page and stabbed down with a stubby forefinger.
“Look here. There’s your answer. All these gas cylinders - hundreds of them. We didn’t see any on the base; they must have been shipped out. What’s the betting that they’re on their way to Europe at the moment? And just look what’s in them!”
Polly puzzled out the cramped writing.
“Helium? What - ? What does helium do?”
Dex’s lips curved in a smile that had no mirth in it whatsoever.
“Absolutely nothing. It’s one of the least reactive substances in the universe.” He paused. “Which is what makes it one hell of a sight safer than hydrogen to use in a lighter-than-air craft. Particularly one you’re going to be taking into battle.” His mouth twisted. “The bastards! They’re going to mount the weapon on an airship. That’s how they’ll take out Balmoral. That’s why the conspiracy has so many ex-fighter aces in it, too. They’ll need to make sure they can convoy the blimp into position, even if the RAF does manage to scramble anything by way of defence.”
She nodded. It all made perfect sense. “So you do have to get back to Joe tonight, and tell him.”
“No two ways about it. I’d a lot to do here - but I guess I’ll just have to pack a fortnight’s work into six hours.”
Dex’s voice sounded infinitely weary, but then he grinned at her, straightening his shoulders and sitting more upright.
“So, no change there, then.”
The note of the engines changed; they were beginning to descend towards the Legion’s base. He looked at her. “What about you?”
She had been making up her mind over the last few minutes, and though recalling the events of the last couple of weeks made her guts turn to water the enemy could not fracture her resolve to defeat them. In fact, if she needed anything to stiffen her nerve, she could always summon up the obscene gloating in Fischer’s face the last time she had seen it. She would live to drive her elegant heel into that face - be it only metaphorically - and she would never surrender.
“I’m going to work on the US end of the conspiracy. There’s got to be a whole lot coming out of that - ” she nodded towards the heap of paperwork, “that I can tie up with the other stuff I know. That company who own the base in Canada, for example. Who they were getting the helium from - I suppose it isn’t the sort of stuff you can buy over the counter in your local drug-store? I can start trying to tie that up with the names I know. F’ristance, what do you know about a Miss O’Farrell?”
The question had caught him off-balance - more than she had expected, actually. His face looked suddenly shuttered. “Why do you ask?”
A brief flicker of her earlier resentment surfaced. There were secrets here, were there? Well, let him deal with this. She made her face bland and unemotional, as though she were talking of nothing more than whether she wanted cream in her coffee.
“Because she’s the one who gave the order to have Joe shot down.”
Dex’s face convulsed in a fury so intense that involuntarily she jerked back from him. His hands clenched into fists, and it was obvious that whatever it was he was forcibly preventing himself from saying was hardly fit for mixed company.
After a few seconds, and in a voice whose rigidly level tone spoke of the depth of the fury he was repressing more than if he had shouted, he said, “She was Grogan’s girl. She sings at a joint called O’Donnells. And plays politics. Sees herself as some sort of Irish-American Boadicea.” He looked rather as though he would have liked to spit. “Unfortunately, a lot of other people see her that way, too. I suppose that’s how she managed to get back at Joe. Joe had - you see, Grogan had got something we needed to get back, and he’d given it to Kitty O’Farrell to look after. And Joe - well, he had to pretend to go along with the Irish stuff, so as - so as -“
“So as to charm it out of her?” Her voice dripped sarcasm. “I see. I see a lot. What was it she’d got - the micro-film?”
Dex looked up at her. There was something wounded and infinitely vulnerable in his face. For a moment she wanted to put her arms round him - which was absurd, of course, and would probably have had him leaping out of the ‘plane in sheer shock to boot.
“Well - in a manner of speaking.” He looked round the interior of the plane. The other men were all at their landing stations, engrossed in the task of bringing the Pig down onto the Legion’s base. “Uh, well actually Joe was covering for me there. It wasn’t microfilm. Grogan had managed to get hold of - uh - well, anyway, his lot were trying to blackmail me.”
“Blackmail you?” Her voice must have risen with the shock; Dex cast another frantic glance towards the other men on the plane, but the increased roar of the engines as the ‘plane came down to land successfully shielded their conversation. “What about?” The words were barely out of her mouth - she could see the shock and shame in Dex’s face, but even as her curiosity went into overdrive other feelings were surfacing. She put out a hand and patted his arm. “No, I’m sorry. None of my business. Forget I said anything. Well. She doesn’t sound like a nice young lady at all. I shall enjoy talking to her, I think.”
They were down on the ground at last, taxiing to a stop. Dex - still looking rather shaky - managed a grin. “More than she will, I expect.”
And then it was all a whirl of medical checks, and debriefings, frantic telephoning, arguing, and calling in favours. Much later, as she stood on the concrete apron once again waiting to say goodbye to Dex, a thought occurred to her.
“What do you think I should do, if you don’t manage to stop it?”
He was dressed for a winter crossing of the Atlantic; thick sheepskin jacket, padded gauntlets, thick trousers and boots. Between the upturned collar and the close-fitting helmet nothing could be seen of his face except his eyes. They looked surprised, perhaps at her asking for advice at all, and then calculating.
“Take everything you’ve found by then, and by hook or crook get it to the President, and convince him to do something. There’s no-one else you can risk talking to. This conspiracy has gone too deep.” His eyes crinkled up - he was grinning at her behind the upturned collar of his flying jacket. “Mind you, there’s no-one I’d be happier to bet on getting into the White House, either. Or talking him into doing what you want. No matter what the enemy throws at you to stop you.”
That took her aback.
“Tell the President to go to war? Me?”
Dex’s voice sounded relaxed; almost as though he were her kid brother and he was teasing her over something that wasn’t worth a cent.
“Not thinking of passing on your chance of a scoop like that one, Polly?”
He knew her too well, blast him! Even as the sheer audacity of the suggestion had hit her, she’d been mentally composing the paragraph in which she’d describe being in the Oval Office on the cusp of history to the Chronicle’s readers. She snorted. “Heck of a way to expect him to have to start the first month of his first term, isn’t it?”
Dex’s face - the little she could see of it - looked dumbfounded. “Jeez! I’d completely forgotten about the election - how wrapped up in yourself do you have to be to forget something like that? I’d guess I’d just gotten so used to thinking of Roosevelt in the White House - seems like the guys been there forever. So, you’re the journalist. How do you think President Kennedy’s going to take it, if you have to tell him?”
Polly paused. She was not one of the Chronicle’s political stars - Paley had other people he used for that, and the briefing rooms and political clubs of New York and Washington were still too much of an all-male preserve for her talents to shine there. But she kept her ears open - one always did - and there were some things she did know.
“It’s not good, Dex. I’m not so sure he’d be willing to intervene in Britain - not unless whatever happened there was a direct threat to US interests, anyway. And he’d take a lot of convincing that was true - The Irish angle would give him big problems, if nothing else. He’d not have got in without the Irish-American vote - we were surprised he won anyway, being a substitute candidate and all -“
Her voice tailed off. Given what she now knew, had that car crash back in August which had robbed the Democrats of the well-connected, Europhile, heir-apparent to Roosevelt’s presidency been the tragic accident it seemed? How far did the conspiracy reach, after all?
“Anyway, you aren’t going to fail,” she said, emphasising every word as though she could make them true by sheer force of determination.
The propellers were whirling - the pilot was signalling to Dex to climb aboard. He turned towards her. He almost had to shout to make himself heard.
“That other thing - you know? You asked about it when we were on the Pig? I’ve been thinking. Maybe it isn’t fair to keep you in the dark. Look - I’ll tell you about it when I get back. At least - what I can. If we both get out of this OK. “
There was not time for more. He turned, pulling his goggles down over his eyes as he did so, starting to climb over the ‘plane’s wing into the observer’s seat. She reached up, caught his shoulder, and as he turned, looking back down, kissed him quickly on the cheek.
“Look after yourself,” she said. He must have said something, but it was lost in the wind - the weather was deteriorating, she hoped the pilot knew what he was up to - and in the noise of the engines. They dropped the canopy down, and taxied away from her.
Some time in the middle of the night she woke after a confused dream, and it occurred to her that perhaps she ought to have sent a message to Joe. But it was too late, and in any event she couldn’t think of precisely what it was she had wanted to say to him. Eventually, still puzzling away at it, she turned over and slept again.