5. Dex receives some bad news, delivered in person by an unexpected messenger - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Dex tried to stifle a yawn. The smoky room was hot and stuffy, and the huge Sunday lunch he had just eaten was making him dull and sleepy. Also, he had not slept well. He had bad dreams - in the only one he could remember Polly had held out an issue of the Chronicle to him, folded open to show the announcement of her engagement to Joe, and when he had protested she’d smiled a sly, serpentine smile, and said, “Why, Dex! It must be true: it’s in the papers”. Furthermore, Catriona MacMillan’s idea of a comfortable bed might, perhaps, have been accepted as such by a medieval monk accustomed to scourgings and the mortification of the flesh for the better purification of the soul. For anyone else, it was hard and lumpy, its blankets thin and scratchy.
Although no-one could have accused Dex of being sybaritic in his tastes, one of the hardest things he had found since arriving in Scotland had been the niggling, day-to-day discomforts. Paradoxically, as his own personal worries had subsided, his consciousness had increased of the grim monotony of the environment he had found himself in, and the erosion of the human spirit to which life in such a place without hope of anything better often led.
Dex had no difficulty in understanding how such an environment might have produced a Geordie McGeown: it was a source of continuing amazement to him how the same barren soil produced so many different and much finer individuals.
Such as those in the room at present.
On his return from the bothy he had taken McAllister into his confidence about the shadowy conspiracy whose tendrils he could feel stirring and tightening as each day passed. McAllister had listened attentively. Since then he had taken the opportunity to introduce Dex to a wide selection of people who might have a role to play when the crunch came, and who needed to be - oh so carefully - identified and sounded out.
The current gathering was a good example; another of the odd little clubs to which McAllister mysteriously had the entrée.
They were, as MacAllister had taken care to warn him, a bunch of odd ducks; eccentric, wildly visionary, tramping in step with a drummer no-one else was able to hear. But Dex realised that they possessed passion and drive to look into the condition of their fellow men and not rest until that condition had been improved.
McAllister signalled him over. There was a thin, eager-faced young man, his neck swathed in a woolly muffler, who had been gesticulating excitably besides him.
“Robin here has an unco’ story to tell,” he observed. “It seems like there’s been someone stirring matters in the dockyard towns. His speaking takes him up and down the land, ye ken, and without doubt there’s always a lot of blethering to be heard. Specially when times are bad. But - I’ll let you tell him yourself, Robin.”
Robin needed no second prompting.
“It’s like they’ve all run mad,” he said. “Instead of looking to how to help themselves, it’s as if they’re pinning all their hopes on some saviour coming from outside; King Arthur or Bonnie Prince Charlie or Richard the Lionheart riding in from nowhere and sweeping all the bad government away before him and creating an earthly paradise in the blink of an eye. Bairns’ stories! Arrant nonsense, and lazy-minded with it, but they can no’ see it for themselves. But I’ve no doot there’s something at the back of it.”
Dex’s mind turned to the little match-box Polly had held out in the bothy; the eagle with the thistle in its claws, spreading its wing across the globe. A bunch of rich men playing with Jacobite insignia to add a little glamour to their lives, or a cloak for a power play on an unprecedented scale?
How much of that dare he even hint at?
“I think -” he began.
A small, excitable, ragged child burst into the room calling out,
“Meester McAllister! There’s a lassie here - she’s urgent need to speak to Yankee Mike, and would have me bring her here -“
Dex turned, expecting to see Helen Adamson. Joe had found time to drop her a line introducing Dex. Her honesty and intelligence, to say nothing of her family connections, had made bringing her in on the plot self-evidently the right thing to do. She had made a number of useful connections already.
Franky was outlined in the doorway. Dex’s stomach lurched. She was in full uniform, but the grim set of her lips would have alerted him as to her errand even had she been in mufti.
Her good eye locked on his face. She gave a curt jerk of her head, indicating he should join her outside. He turned to stammer some sort of excuse to McAllister, to find the older man making quick, shooing motions.
“Get away with ye. Maybe it’s come, what we spoke of. Let me know what comes of it, but don’t fret. If you’re needed elsewhere, we’ll manage in the shop somehow.”
Dex found himself abruptly outside, trying not to trot undignifiedly to keep up with Franky’s long stride as she steered him determinedly towards the long low car parked against the kerb.
It was not until they were powering westwards, out of the City, that either of them spoke.
“Is it -” Dex swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “Is it Joe?”
Franky gave a sharp, angry nod. “His plane’s overdue. Badly,”
“How late -?”
She interrupted him. “There’s more. A trawler got its nets tangled up around a chunk of wreckage. They brought it in for inspection. I’ve not seen it myself - when I left Simon was still angling to make sure he got his paws on it, against the RAF and Coastguard - but I gather there was part of a call-sign visible on it. And Dex - I’m sorry, but it tallied.”
She turned the car off the main road, heading towards Helensburgh.
Dex’s mind whirled. “Could he have ditched?”
It was clutching at straws, of course, whistling in the dark. A stricken pilot seldom had a chance to make good his escape from a crashing plane, and both of them knew it. Nevertheless -
“I got a couple of planes up and quartering the area as soon as the fog lifted. Two of my best reconnaissance spotters. They’ll find him if anyone can.”
Her voice was imbued with a determined optimism, but Dex had caught the one word which gave her confidence the lie.
If Joe had ditched over water, in fog - then the chances of his being recovered alive before he drowned or hypothermia took him must be very, very small indeed.
And that assumed he’d managed to ditch successfully in the first place.
Dex turned, resting his head against the passenger-side window, deliberately trying to recall every single second of those minutes in the bothy, in the store at the drome. If his fears were fulfilled he would have to live on those memories for a very, very long time.
Franky left him to himself. When he turned his head forward again she was taking the car fast down a long, tree-lined drive at the far end of which Dex could dimly glimpse a big, grey collonaded mansion. She turned off before they reached the house, swinging the car round the curve of an ornamental lake, and down towards a flat broad swathe of grass, which stretched out into the far distance. There were a couple of single seater planes drawn up at the side of it, and, a little way away, an arrogant black warbird twice their size, looking like a peregrine falcon mewed up in a domestic pigeon coop.
Dex gulped. He gestured vaguely towards the shrouded bulk of the house, on the far side of the lake.
“Who - ?”
Franky shrugged. “It belongs to sort of cousins of mine. But they aren’t here at the moment. They’ve never minded me using the airstrip, and I didn’t want to go through official channels. In the circumstances.”
She climbed onto the wing and flipped up the canopy. “Get in,” she said crisply. “And I hope you’re wearing your knitted silk long johns, because there’s a hell of a storm brewing. I had the wind in my teeth the whole way up.”
Dully, Dex scrambled in behind her. One gloved hand reached out with a sure touch to the controls. The propeller swung, whirred to life, and they lurched bumpily down the grass strip until the plane made the leap into her proper element, and they soared.
They came down from the North on the wings of the storm, Franky riding the turbulence like a Valkryie. They set down with finicky precision on the Albion’s flight deck.
There were people clustering about her as Franky scrambled out of the cockpit, but she waved them impatiently away. Dex trotted after her, down into the bowels of the ship. She swung open a heavy steel door, and beckoned him in after her.
The space inside had the air of having been hastily cleared; a weapons storage area, Dex guessed. The chunk of wrecked plane - he gulped - was in the centre of it, under the harsh white glare of some hastily rigged spotlights. A slight, dark-haired man was bent over it: he straightened as Franky and Dex entered.
“Simon. You got it, then.”
The dark man nodded, unsmiling. “And this must be Mr Dearborn.” He extended a hand. “The name’s Davies. I’m hoping you may be able to shed some light on this lot. Tell me what tools you need, and I’ll arrange to have them sent down.”
Dex nodded. He couldn’t have spoken, his throat was too choked. Davies’s apparent callousness was too much.
Franky wandered casually over, and put a hand on Davies’s arm.
“Simon. Ease up. What’s happened?”
The small man’s reptilian eyes blinked, coldly, in the glare.
“That is what’s puzzling me.”
He stabbed a finger accusingly down at the wrecked fuselage.
“You see, we have a Boy Scout. Up near the coastguard station, on the cliffs above the Needles, on the Solent side. Out with his father’s borrowed Zeisses, and trying to score points for his Birdspotter’s badge, I gather.”
He turned to fix Dex with an intense gaze.
“And being a fourteen-year old boy, and a Boy Scout, and having the benefit of field glasses, I think we can assume his aircraft observations are reliable.”
Dex passed his tongue over his dry lips.
“And he saw?”
The small reptilian man hesitated. Dex repeated the question.
“And he saw?”
Dex had not thought his voice could sound so uncompromisingly demanding. The dark man blinked, and looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time.
“He saw? Now that is something of a mystery. What he says he saw is as follows. He says he saw two planes come out of the West. Over from Poole way. One hard on the heels of the other.”
Dex wasn’t giving any ground here. He stood four-square; perhaps a little absurdly, it occurred to him, but nevertheless he had no intention of budging. Davies, it seemed, recognised that, too. He nodded, briefly, in acknowledgement.
“Well. Yes. The leading plane was the Warhawk. They’ve recently been featured on the Woodbine’s cards, and our observer had no difficulty in recognising the profile. But, to be fair, he didn’t have any problem recognising the plane on his tail, either. Which was one of the new Avro fighters.”
Dex gave a quick, indrawn breath. Avro had aggressively poached some of the best designers over the last few years, and their designs now were good; very good. He had - half jokingly, and, given the response, unrepeatably - suggested to Joe that perhaps they might be the next place to look at, to replace the Warhawk.
Davies nodded his head. “Yes. Our observer didn’t hear any gunfire, but - well. Yes. Anyway, according to the Boy Scout the Warhawk flipped itself on its beam-ends - threaded the Needles - the Avro tried to follow - and missed. Caught itself between the cliffs, and blew up.”
There was a brief inhalation of breath from Franky.
“Yes - I see -“
Dex might as well have been hearing a foreign language. Maybe he was.
Franky was quick on the uptake. She always had been.
“Joe took his crate through a gap between two narrow rocks. His pursuer died following him. Without firing a shot, apparently. So: what brought about that wreckage, then?”
Grasping unseen hands clutched close against Dex’s thorax, choking the breath out of his body. His brain and lungs were disassociated. He gulped, pawed, reaching up feebly.
“Joe came through the gap?”
Davies nodded. “At least as far as Alum Bay. And without a bullet in him. At least, so far as we can tell.”
He was suddenly precise; scientific. But Dex was a scientist too, and they spoke the same language.
“How can you tell?”
Davies looked at him, and shrugged.
“I can’t. But I hope, with your knowledge of Joe’s plane, you might be able to assist me. Starting with this.”
His fingers had been curled over something concealed in the palm of his hand. Now he opened his hand, holding the little piece of distorted metal out to Dex.
“You see,” he added conversationally, “I’ve had the backroom boys pulling techspecs ever since I dug it out of the fuselage. And I sent off some boys in a fast launch to take a look at that Avro, and I can tell you this bullet didn’t come from his guns, whatever. So: have you any suggestions?”
Dex looked at it, looked again, and gulped.
“You recognise it?” Davies’s voice was sharp. Dex nodded. Davies exhaled.
Dex shrugged. “It’s a custom alloy. We - I - um - it’s supposed to deliver a faster rate of fire with less risk of firing jams. All the tests on the ranges bear that out. But it hasn’t been tried in actual combat -” His voice trailed off as his shock-dulled brain suddenly caught and made a connection. He whirled round to look Davies straight in the eye.
“Where did you say you found it?”
Davies smiled, and jerked his thumb at the hunk of fuselage, just below the raggedly broken edge which cut short the black painted call-sign.
“Just about - yes - there.”
Franky looked at the fuselage, and whistled. Davies’s smile got more saturnine.
“Which poses quite a conundrum, doesn’t it? Shooting oneself in the side of one’s cockpit with one’s own guns would require - to put it mildly - no common degree of technical ingenuity. And an equally uncommon level of sheer stupidity.”
Franky leant back against the chunk of wreckage, crossing her booted feet at the ankle, and pulled a cigarette case from inside her uniform jacket, offered it to both Davies and Dex, both of whom declined, and then lit a Sobranie for herself.
“I’ve had middies inflicted on me who almost qualified on both counts,” she observed. Davies grinned at her.
“Indeed. But having met Sullivan, while I’ll concede him the technical ingenuity - almost - I’d certainly say he came nowhere near qualifying on the stupidity.”
Dex looked up. “Get me the full technical specs on the Warhawk. And a decent tool-kit, not that kid’s toy one you’ve got there. I’m taking this heap of metal apart. I’m going to find out exactly what this mess is, and where it came from.”
Davies’s face registered shock - belatedly it occurred to Dex that ordering a brace of Royal Navy officers about between the decks of their own vessel was hardly the most tactful thing he could have done. Franky, however, merely grinned: out of the corner of his eye he spotted her wandering to the cabin door and barking orders to some minion out in the corridor, out of his line of sight. But it barely registered; the complexities of the problem and what it needed from him were already fully engaging the surface of his brain, and beneath that surface a distracting hope whose very existence he dared not even acknowledge bubbled away.
He slipped a sliver of gum between his lips, and reached for the smallest of the spanners.
There was no night or day in the airless cabin, only the pitiless unchanging glare of the spotlights. Dex worked on, cocooned in a bubble of intense concentration. From time to time someone thrust mugs of coffee into his hand, and once soup and a hunk of bread. But still he worked on; drawing conclusions, breaking a code, piecing together piece by infinitesimal piece what must have happened yesterday over the fog-shrouded sea.
Eventually he drew breath and looked up, trying to subdue a tremor in hands that had barely put down his tools except for snatched seconds during the last eight or ten hours.
Davies was looking intently across at him, from a perch on a stool he had occupied much of the night except for a few hours when, Dex presumed, his official duties had taken him elsewhere.
The door swung quietly open; Franky, alerted by who-knew-what telepathy, was here; her uniform crisply pressed, no sign of fatigue allowed to sully her official, authoritative carapace.
He looked at them both, and began, without preamble.
“Whoever’s plane that was, it wasn’t Joe’s. I’ve found five or six more bullets embedded in the fuselage in a grouping that covers less than the span of a palm print, and if they aren’t from Cap’s armament then I’ll undertake to eat them. Next, there’s this.”
He picked up a six inch section of fuel line and waved it.
“There ought to have been fireproofed lagging all alone that line; it’s a mod I installed myself, to reduce the fire hazards if the line itself gets severed. Not a trace. And finally -“
He reached out for another bit of metalwork he had cut with infinite care out of the wrecked fuselage, and stabbed his finger down once, accusingly.
“I certainly didn’t tighten this union joint. And if I thought anyone on my team might have done, I’d shoot them first and me after.”
Davies leant back, accepting, this time, the cigarette Franky offered him.
“So. We have a mysterious third plane on the scene. Uncannily designed to duplicate Sullivan’s own crate. Suggesting - it would appear - that the other pilot was intending to bring something off which he was planning to stick your Legion with the blame for. The question is; who shot him down?”
“Joe,” Dex said definitively. Davies raised his eyebrows and then nodded.
“Most likely. But in that case, where is he?”
Dex paused, suddenly stricken. The last few hours had occupied his mind so effectively and his triumph as it became increasingly apparent that he was not working on Joe’s plane so comprehensive that he had succeeded in overlooking the one key point in the whole matter.
Joe. Overdue. Badly. No contact.
He opened his mouth to say something - and before he could do so there came a tentative knock at the door. Franky opened it.
“This came through to the signals room, ma’am,” someone said from outside, and slid a thin piece of paper through to her. She looked at it, and whistled. And then laughed out loud. Davies turned to face her.
“Telegram. Signed by my big brother. Apparently some horse has thrown him off and then stamped on him.”
Her dark eyes were dancing; she couldn’t have looked more excited if she’d just been given a diamond bracelet. Or the opportunity to test fly a faster-than-sound plane. Dex thought Davies’s expression looked almost as helplessly bewildered as he felt.
She registered both of their expressions, and her own became even more recklessly hilarious.
“Except, of course, that this telegram summoning me to attend on his bed of pain - if I can get leave, of course, which he confidently assumes I can and will - happens to be addressed to ‘Franks’.”
She dropped it to the deck, paced five reckless paces, turned and gestured eloquently.
“Piffle! My ever-loving brother hasn’t addressed either of his sisters by any variant of her given name since Edward VII ascended the throne. If he’d really been worried about his health and wanted to have me there he’d have called me what he always does.”
She turned, opened the door and shouted out into the corridor,
“Get my launch ready.” She turned back. “Simon - if I can’t get the time through channels you’ll write me a chitty for a couple of days sick, won’t you?”
Davies reached out and caught her arm; his face was steady and serious.
“Look; the Admirality code book is compromised. The base is missing a signal lieutenant; he went off watch shortly after clearing Sullivan’s flight plan, and he’s been AWOL ever since. We’ve had Sullivan - possibly - shot down by someone who knew enough about his Warhawk to disguise another bird sufficiently well that it took his own engineer eight hours to tell the difference. Ought you really to be going dashing off to the bedside of someone just because he claims to be your brother, when he doesn’t even know your family nickname?”
Franky turned to face him, the light suddenly doused in her face.
“That’s a thought.” She turned out to the corridor and barked, “Get me a trunk call to Leicestershire, linked through the WT, pronto.”
She turned back. “I’ll call Rhys. If there’s anything wrong I’ll know from him. Still: Dex, I know you’ve been up all night. But - assuming things are OK - would you mind being my driver?”
He gaped; she gestured impatiently.
“You see; my brother never called me ‘Franks’ in his whole life. Neither did anyone else I could ever think of. Except one.”
And the look in her eyes suddenly told Dex what her cryptic words could not, and he caught at the edge of the wreckage to keep him upright under the wave of relief and exhilaration which threatened to overwhelm him.
Out of the roaring of blood in his ears he made himself intelligble.
“Sure, Franky. I’d be honored to.”