4. Joe receives some unexpected news and then finds himself in deadly danger - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe pushed aside his plate and grinned across the breakfast table at Davies, who was still dismembering his bloater with the skill of a trained anatomist.
“Didn’t they feed you at sea?”
Davies snorted. “There was food enough; what I didn’t get was time to eat it. What with the three-day storm that blew up before we were six hours out of port, and all the smashed limbs and contusions that followed from that, and then a more extensive crop than normal of the usual shore-leave complaints - tell me, Sullivan, would it hurt your Yankee bootleggers to invest a few dollars of their bloated profits and get just one or two competent chemists on their staff? If the men didn’t most of them have the livers of rhinoceroses I’d have lost a couple on the way back. DTs go into an entirely different dimension when it’s wood alcohol fuelling them. I begin to suspect where that writer fellow - I forget the name - Lovecraft, was it? - got his ideas from. Anyway, I handed them all over to the base hospital when we docked yesterday, wrote up my case-notes and made my escape, leaving the Old Lady still working her way through piles of requisitions and exceptions, and swearing by every god or devil I’ve heard of as well as a few I hadn’t that if they surprise us with a full inventory check - which they did, last time we docked in Portland - that we’ll be able to present for inspection every last paper-clip their Lords of the Admiralty expect us to have, even if it takes outright highway robbery to make our stores up to complement. “
He finished with the bloater, took up his coffee cup, and favoured Joe with a sharp, beady-eyed look.
“Anyway, you’re lucky I’ve had any time to spend on your concerns at all. And what I have done, I’ve had to do by proxy. They found your suspect, you know. I got a wire confirming that, this morning. Went by the name of Silverman. Most recently, that is. By other names, earlier. Fingerprints, fortunately, are less easy to change than names.”
Joe raised his eyebrows. “He had a record?”
Davies nodded. “Started as a ragged-school kid, practically from the slums, but ingenious and good with his hands, apparently. Got a break - apprenticed to a locksmith in a good way of business - did well - until he got picked up by the police with a gang of jewel thieves. Presumably they found his talents useful. He got a light sentence - young man, first offence, over-persuaded by the leader of the gang (who seems to have been a plausible, charismatic rogue), every likelihood of his doing well at a legitimate career if he was given a second chance - his lawyer made a good job of it. It appeared he’d learned his lesson. At least -“
Davies’ face twisted up in a grimace.
“At least he’s never been caught since.”
Joe chose his words with care. “And - have the authorities managed to get hold of him now?”
That was the danger point. Silverman might have valuable information about the plot, but once he started to talk - as he must, to save his skin - he could still ruin Dex.
Davies’ smile was grim.
“In a manner of speaking. The City Morgue has him. Found dead on the tracks outside Grand Central Station two days ago. Official cause of death: suicide. Injuries not entirely consistent with said verdict. No record by any of the train drivers of a compatible incident. Yes. Well. Our friends don’t waste time or sympathy if they have a leak to plug.”
Joe inhaled sharply.
“It seems it was a bright idea of Franky’s to get Dex out of the country and hide him as well as she did.”
Davies nodded. “Hm, yes. But. equally, it was just as well he had the gumption to come straight to the Old Lady in the first place. As soon as you sent through that list of names I got my Bostonian pattern-matcher working on them. There’s been a string of suicides and strange accidents connected with some of them over recent years. Blackmail’s no novelty either, it seems. Nor is eliminating anyone who resists. Anyway, what do you plan now?”
Joe tapped the telegram which the hotel waiter had brought in with the breakfast. FILLYS MAIDEN OUTING EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS STOP STARTS TODAY LEICESTER STOP GREAT HOPES it informed him.
He devoutly hoped that Charlie would never enlighten Polly about the nature of the code they had agreed to ensure he was kept posted about her progress. He rather thought that his jaw might not survive the revelation that for these purposes she had been coded as a novice racehorse in training.
“Well,” he said, “look’s like Polly’s doing well at getting close to one of the suspects. She’d be better off without my interference. And I ought to bring Dex up to speed about what you’ve found out. We need to work out what to do about the Legion: how I can be sure we’ve cleaned out the traitors. I’ll be heading up to Glasgow as soon as they’ve refuelled and prepared my plane.”
Davies looked up at him, an unreadable expression under his hooded lids. Joe tried - apparently successfully - to stop himself flushing. There were perfectly valid reasons why he needed to confer with the Legion’s acknowledged engineering genius at this precise moment. There was certainly no reason for Davies to look so - inscrutable - about it all. Inscrutable was such a fundamentally insulting quality to project. If Davies had only had the decency to come out with outright disapproval, then there would have been things Joe could have done; things he could have said.
Inscrutable, on the other hand, was just plain unfair. And disturbing. And, not coincidentally, calculated to provoke guilt.
Joe allowed himself a small, strictly private flash of humour. Davies - formidable intelligence agent as he was - was not actually telepathic. That being so, he could hardly be privy to what Joe had planned for what he had privately dubbed the “less formal” part of his urgent debriefing session with Dex.
The doctor picked up his cup and wandered over towards the window. “North,” he said meditatively, looking out over the hotel garden to the blue-green expanse of the English Channel, where the little waves danced and glittered in the low autumn sunlight. “Right direction, anyway. This won’t last, and there’s fog behind it. Wind behind the fog, too, or I’m no judge. You’d best be going if you want to make the most of the good flying conditions.
Joe finished his own coffee in a swift couple of gulps. “Well,” he said brightly, “looks like Franky won’t get out from under the paperwork mountain until after I’ve gone. Give her my love.”
Davies smiled. “Of course. I’ll try to remember to mention it this evening.”
Joe’s face must have registered surprise, because he could see the echo of it reflected in the faintly mocking curve of Davies’s lips.
“Over dinner, you know. The Old Lady promised she’d find time to squeeze in a bite to eat however bad the paperwork got. I gather the food in this hotel is quite good, so I’ve booked us a table for eight pm.”
And that was when Joe became aware that a crack had appeared in the inscrutability of Davies’s expression; indeed, that under the sardonic surface there was a strange air of self-consciousness, tinged with both pride and embarrassment, but also with wariness. Abruptly, light dawned.
He had, he supposed, something of a reputation in certain circles of being a dangerous man. Dangerous men, if their pride and jealousy had been aroused, were - reputedly - unsafe.
It struck him that Charlie had been right; he was better at picking them up than putting them down. At least in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Inappropriate hilarity bubbled up within him. He regretted that the situation was so complicated he couldn’t share his amusement with Davies, whose qualities he had come to value, or indeed reveal exactly why he had only simple and sincere good wishes for Davies’ tête-à-tête dinner with Franky that evening.
He said goodbye, paid his hotel bill and collected his scanty luggage. The faintly unreal sense of hilarity continued as he collected the plane, checked her briskly over, filed his flight-plan with the control tower, and arrowed her into the air, setting in a straight course towards the Clyde, and what he knew awaited him there.
It might have been a timely nudge from his preternaturally overworked guardian angel. Or perhaps a sixth sense; it was rumoured in the Legion that Joe had an extra pair of eyes conveniently situated between his shoulder blades.
Or maybe it was nothing more than that the sun was low in the sky and his course put it directly behind him, and no pilot who had seen combat could be on anything other than on heightened alert when those conditions prevailed.
Without conscious direction from Joe’s brain, his hands abruptly jinked the plane out of her direct course, and pushed her nose downwards towards the smooth turf of the Southern chalk uplands, losing a couple of hundred feet in height. As he levelled out of the dive he throttled back, hard.
A pursuing aircraft, of whose existence he had not until then consciously been aware, shot forward into view above and to the left of him. It launched its opening salvo into a patch of clear air that an instant before had been occupied by Joe’s plane.
Before the enemy’s gins had finished firing, Joe had flipped his plane round in a hard, tight curve. He headed back south, towards the sea, away from this populated country where villages nestled behind folds in the chalk hills and lichened slate roofs on the hillsides showed farms and dairies. Blazing wreckage falling out of a clear autumn sky could rip the heart out of those little hamlets, bring horror to homes which had slept in the shadow of the chalk escarpments since the Domesday surveyors passed that way.
The other pilot was good. Joe’s change of direction non-plussed him for no more than a split second. He banked, turned, and came back in hectic pursuit. Joe took the Warhawk down as low as he dared, backing its enhanced manoeuvrability at low altitudes against the other’s formidable speed, weaving a fast, twisting course down the steep-sides wooded coombes which cut their way down through the chalk uplands towards the sea. His assailant matched his every move with grim precision, holding his nerve, waiting for the chance of engaging him with best advantage.
Poole Harbour - a ragged-edged bite out of the south coast - went past in an eye-blink. The sandy-grey waters between Hengistbury Head and the Isle of Wight were too shallow for what he had in mind.
Many years ago, back in the sunlit years before Nanjing, a laughing young RAF flier he’d bumped into in some jazz-club in Soho had dragged him down through the dawn to the Hamble riverside, to fill in at short notice for his sister’s missing crew in the Round the Island Race. Odd to remember Franky, the first time he’d seen her; young and ferocious as a caged falcon, and with two good eyes in that peerlessly sculpted face.
In every sense of the word, they had made a great team.
Especially when, defying fate, and common sense, and the imprecations of those who had chosen to sail deeper draught vessels, Franky had opted to thread the Needles, taking the inside passage between the chalk stacks that trailed from the Western edge of the Isle of Wight to save precious minutes.
Minutes, only, but enough to win their race.
Joe headed towards the Needles, flying hard and fast straight at the white rocks, tall as five storey buildings, the incoming tide foaming around their base. At the last possible moment before impact he flipped the plane through ninety degrees and took her sideways through the impossible gap between the bulk of the island and the most landward of its trailing stacks.
Hard on his tail, his opponent copied the manoeuvre.
Almost precisely enough.
The edge of a wing or some part of the fuselage brushed the unforgiving chalk and the pursuing plane went up in flames.
Joe swept back round the curve of Alum Bay, the adrenaline still spiking through his system, checking the situation from a cautious distance. The broken wreckage of the crashed plane was sending up a thick plume of dark smoke from between the rocks. As he turned he heard the dull “crump” of a maroon going off in the distance, to alert the coastguard.
Which, he supposed, absolved him of any obligation to hang around to see if by some miracle the pilot had managed to struggle alive from the wreckage.
He turned his plane round again and considered his next move as he puttered gently northwards. His attacker must have known the flight plan he had filed. There was no other reasonable explanation for how and when the ambush had occurred.
Given he had been cleared from a Royal Naval base using the daily codes from the Admiralty code book, that was more worrying than he could say.
Franky had to know just how close to the top the tendrils of this conspiracy must reach.
It was, however, hardly as if he could fly back to Portland. Nor was heplanning to continue his journey to Scotland - regrettable as that thought was.
The question was, what options did he now have?
Davies had been right; the fog was now rolling in steadily in from seawards. It was encroaching fast upon the land, too: even St Catherine’s Point, seven miles to the south-east, was not as clear as it had been five minutes ago.
It was as Joe peered into the up-channel murk and gave the plane more altitude to rise above the rolling fog, that the wholly familiar outline of another Warhawk came powering down from the east towards him, homing in like an arrow and clearly hell-bent on combat.
Not just any Warhawk, either; as they manoeuvred around each other in the gathering gloom, trying to gain positional advantage, firing ranging salvos the hairs rose on the back of Joe’s neck. For it was a tailored death he faced, one planned and crafted with him alone in mind.
Every marking on the enemy plane mirrored his own; even down to the call-sign and the victory insignia.
Most fliers were superstituous, swapping stories of jinxes and premonitions in late-night messes from Calgary to Kandahar. Had Joe been one of those, this duel above the fog-bound, unseen sea could have been lost in the first second of the other plane’s appearance. He had grown up in a predominantly Irish neighbourhood of West London. Of course he had heard the legend of the fetch, the dark familiar who appears in the likeness of a doomed man in the minutes before his death.
A man of a different stamp would have gone into that combat knowing himself to be already fated to lose it.
Joe, however, was swept forward on a lava-flow of white-hot rage, which cleared rather than fogged his brain, lending a deadly, surgical precision to the aim of his weapons.
There was not even the shadow of a question in his mind. He would emerge the victor, come what may.
He knew whose hand had reached out from beyond the grave to steal a part of his own being and turn it into the engine of his destruction. The same Celtic traditions had shaped them both.
And though he had been unable to take his personal vengeance on the traitor Grogan, he would take it in full measure on his substitute, the shadowy figure in the cockpit of the other Warhawk.
They twisted and turned around each other in a maelstrom of flying bullets, lines of fire carving their way across the dull skies.
The tendrils of the fog crept up around them as they battled. The dogfight spilled across the shrouded Channel, and the bark of Joe’s weapons was answered in the same vicious coinage from his assailant.
Joe had been flying this plane for so long he knew her capabilities to the nearest fraction. He called up her best speed - felt her answer to his gentling hand - turned, snarling, and gave the usurper everything he could dredge up from the seething pit of bone-deep anger he discovered within himself as the planes tumbled and manoeuvred, their guns barked and spat.
The other plane faltered - broke - and tumbled in flaming fragments through the curtain of the fog below them.
Without pausing, Joe turned the crate round and headed North, as though instinct had caught his hands and his feet, and seized the compass for him, to boot.
He had gone a scant few hundred yards before he became aware of the nauseously unctuous smell permeating the cockpit. A quick glance and a brief check of instruments confirmed his worst fears; one of his opponent’s rounds must have punctured his fuel system and raw fuel must be dripping perilously close to the super-heated metal of the engine. And if that happened -
Briefly he considered ditching, but one glance at the thick white fog below him ruled that out. The ships down in that murk - and they were some of the busiest waters in the world below - would be hard pressed to see and avoid each other. A lone castaway would stand little or no chance of being spotted and picked up. More of being run down, his cries lost in the murk.
There was only one thing he could do, desperately risky as it was, and slender as were his chances of success.
Joe cut his fuel supply, and set the Warhawk into an unpowered, shallow glide towards the remote dark brush-stroke that was the coast of England, beyond the lapping white waves of the encroaching fog.