6. Trying not to allow himself the treacherous luxury of hope, Dex drives Franky to her brother’s house in Leicestershire - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Franky caught at the bell pull, and gave it everything she had; Dex almost expected to see it come away in her hand. Scarcely before the last echoes of the pealing had died away, the door fell open, and a formidably starched housekeeper was revealed. Her face broke into a broad grin on spotting Franky.
“Miss Francesca! Oh, thank goodness you’ve come! The master’s been fretting so - it’s been all we could do to make sure he stayed under doctor’s orders, and wasn’t roaming all over the house, doing a mischief to himself. Now, what can I get you? Tea? Coffee? Soup? If I don’t mind my saying so, Miss Francesca, you’re looking peaked; I’m sure I don’t know what they feed you in that Navy of yours. The master, he ordered dinner for seven thirty, but I could bring it forwards if you wanted -“
With a brisk swing of her shoulders Franky doffed her uniform great-coat, and handed it off to the housekeeper. She pulled off her black leather gloves and dropped them onto the hall chair.
“Nothing, thanks, Cattsy. Not until after I’ve seen Charlie. And where is he?”
The housekeeper sighed in a resigned sort of way.
“In his room, Miss Francesca. And a terrible job we’ve had keeping him there, for all this is the first day he’s been allowed out of bed. But -“
Her final words were lost on the wind, as Franky, her booted legs taking the stairs two at a time, was already off up to the upper reaches of the house. Dex, faintly bewildered, belatedly realised that the housekeeper was waiting, holding out her hand for his own coat. Fumbling with cold hands at the buttons he shed it, and was in the process of handing it to her when Franky’s head appeared over the balustrade from an upper landing.
“Dex! What on earth are you dawdling for, man? Come on up. Third door on the left.”
The housekeeper looked at him, with the air of one who seeks to make an unsuitable tool carry out a delicate but necessary job.
“If you could, sir, I’d be obliged if you could see what you can do to keep Miss Francesca from tiring the master too much. She doesn’t realise, sir, how much these last few years have taken it out of him, and of course, he’ll not show it in front of her.”
Dex shrugged, helplessly.
“I’ll try but - you know - Franky -“
The housekeeper’s face softened.
“I do, sir. Known her since she was three years old, bless her. Might as well try and stop the wind as stop her once she gets an idea in her head. Anyway, I’ll not be keeping you, sir.”
The curved elegance of the double-staircase might as well have been Everest. Hope and terror warred within Dex as he ascended to the upper stories of the house. If Franky had been wrong -
The bedroom door was shut, but there was a brief hum of conversation from within it. He pushed it gently open to see a framed tableau of three figures: Franky, leaning easily against the wall and two men sitting in the alcove formed by the big bay window, a half-finished chess game on an inlaid wood table between them. The thin-faced, dark-haired man wearing baggy flannels and an open-necked shirt under a blue cable-knit sweater could only be Franky’s brother, the resemblance was so striking. And across from him, in pyjamas and dressing-gown was Joe; his face a mass of bruises and scratches, but his eyes suddenly lighting with a shock of pleasure as he caught sight of Dex, framed in the doorway and having surreptitiously to catch at the edge of the doorframe to hold himself up, his knees having suddenly gone so weak.
Words burst unstoppably out.
“Joe! What in hell happened to you?”
Franky and her brother exchanged a quick glance, and Franky moved over to close the door behind them before anyone spoke again.
Joe’s voice was deadpan, but there was still that wicked gleam in his dancing eyes.
“For official purposes, I died.”
And almost for every other purpose, it looks like, too..
Dex kept his thought out of his face as best he might, but there was a sudden intensity about Joe’s expression which suggested he might not have been wholly successful.
Franky’s brother rose, limped over to Dex and extended a hand.
“Charles Cook. So you must be the engineering wizard I’ve been hearing so much about.”
Taken aback - what could Joe possibly have been saying? - Dex mumbled something incoherent. Cook made an expansive gesture towards a wad of papers, bundled onto the window-sill, presumably to make room on the table for the chess set.
“There are a few designs me and a young cousin of mine have been playing about with - we could benefit from your expert views, if you could spare a moment -“
“Pongo!” Franky interrupted. “Do have some consideration. Dex has been on the go for the last thirty hours solid, last time I reckoned it up. You might have the decency to offer the poor guy a drink and a chance to sit down before you start trying to pick his brains.”
Charlie Cook looked somewhat shame-faced.
“Sorry, old chap. Hadn’t thought. There’s decanters and a siphon on that sideboard, Piglet, if you don’t mind doing the honours.”
“So,” Joe said, since it was plain from Franky’s expression that any commentary by either of them on her nickname would not be entirely healthy, “what have you been up to?”
“In Dex’s case,” Franky said briskly, as she busied herself with glasses, “taking a lump of crashed Warhawk apart molecule by molecule to find out if by any chance there were any bits of you tangled up in it.”
Joe’s face darkened. He half turned towards Dex, his voice suddenly with a slightly lost note in it.
“I - ah - oh. Yes. That was a complication I hadn’t banked on. You found my evil twin, then, I take it.”
“Well, bits of him,” Franky said, raising the whisky decanter. “Say when, Dex. Dredged up by a trawler somewhere south of Portland Bill. And as we hadn’t heard anything from you since you’d left we’ve spent the best part of the last two days trying to decide whether you’d prefer white lilies or just a nice bunch of bindweed at the funeral.”
Joe, momentarily, looked disconcerted. “I’m sorry. But given by that stage it was obvious that base must be leaking like a sieve, I could hardly get in touch with you, Franks. And the same goes for you, Dex. I did risk an anonymous wire with a Kipling quote to McAllister, but I suppose you must have left Glasgow by the time he’d puzzled it out.”
Dex gave him a tight nod, not risking his voice. Franky shot him a quick glance, and passed Dex a tumbler with three fingers of liquor in it. More to cover his confusion than anything else, he took a hefty swallow and then suppressed a sudden fit of spluttering. The whisky was all-but neat; evidently Franky thought he was in sore need of a stiffener. As it made its way down into his stomach and its warmth started to relax the tension that had gripped him for the last two days he could hardly say she was wrong, either.
“So,” Franky said, once drinks had been distributed, “give, Joe. What happened?”
Joe succintly recounted the ambush by the two strange fighters - they had, it seemed, managed to deduce most of that part pretty accurately for themselves - his realisation that his fuel line was leaking, and his long unpowered glide towards land, and safety.
“Well,” he concluded, “as you’ve probably worked out, it wasn’t exactly a text book landing.”
“Oh, Joe! How badly did you mess up the kite?”
Dex’s voice in enquiring about the plane, he realised a second or so too late, contained all the distress he had conscientiously held back in the face of Joe’s all too evident injury.
But these three were, thank God, fliers. For them, planes were people, and being concerned for their welfare was an ordinary human response.
Joe grimaced. “Um. Well. She’s still got both her wings, and that’s something. You can take a look at her tomorrow; she’s stabled in a hangar half-way between here and Oxford. Anyway, I’ll get on to that bit in a moment. As I said, I got down on a patch of downland on the top of the cliffs somehow or other - and there were one hell of a lot of gorse-bushes when I jumped out, I can tell you. Of course, the fog was getting pretty thick by then, too. Fortunately, I’d taken a rough bearing on the nearest church spire as I was heading in towards the coast, and it was a pretty godforsaken bit of territory I’d managed to land on, so once I was sure the fog was thick enough to screen the kite I took the hand-held compass, and headed off down to the nearest village. It was fairly rough walking for the first three-quarters of an hour or so, and I fell in a couple of ditches and so forth, but eventually I hit a road of sorts, and about half an hour later I made it in to the village. Well, thank all the stars I managed to get to the local hostelry before afternoon closing time, and pitched the landlord a yarn about car trouble up on the downs. I managed to get a meal while I was waiting for the trunk call I’d booked, and then got on to Charlie who told me to get back to the kite, and he’d send someone along to bale me out. So I made my way back to the plane, by guess and by God, and settled down to sit out the wait.”
Joe’s attitude was nonchalant and his tone light, but Dex caught beneath it all the worries there must have been, sitting by the grounded plane in the gathering dusk, unable to tell whether the next passer-by would be friend or foe.
“Anyway, after an hour or two I heard the sound of a motor - sound travels a heck of a way in fog, and I hadn’t had anything else to listen to, barring the odd sheep, for a good while. Also, since as I said, the downland was pretty rough terrain whoever was driving wasn’t having the easiest time getting the bus along, and if they were trying to be quiet about it they weren’t managing it. So, not being entirely sure that whoever it was had my best interests at heart, I baled out of the cockpit, where I’d been sitting to keep warm, and took cover behind some sort of sheep pen or something of that sort, to see what transpired.”
Joe took a sip of his drink.
“Well, the car or whatever it was came to a stop, and I could hear someone start casting around through the gorse bushes, clearly looking for something. And naturally pretty soon they stumbled across the kite. At which point the oddest thing happened.”
Dex leaned forwards.
“The other guy suddenly started whistling. Not just any old tune, either. It was something I’d last heard in a Paris nightclub the best part of five years ago. And bearing in mind who’d been part of the crowd last time I heard it, given that he was more than a little sweet on the chanteuse concerned -“
Franky’s brother grinned, broadly.
“Not the only one, as I recall. Though fortunately for our bank balances, we were both outbid by a french vicomte with two chateaux and a string of racehorses. They tell me she’s the French ambassadress to Washington these days. Brings an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘diplomatic relations’.”
Joe coughed, pointedly.
“Anyway, I reckoned it was a fairly safe bet that this was my lift home arriving. So I bobbed up to make myself known, and was no end surprised to find this college kid I didn’t know from Adam -“
“Young Paul Shuttleworth,” Charlie said explanatorily to his sister. “I gathered via an indirect route that he wasn’t finding a complete outlet for his talents at Oxford, so I thought he’d jump at a chance to let off steam in a good cause.”
Joe ignored the interruption.
“Anyway, even better, the vehicle I’d heard earlier turned out to be a tradesman’s van he’d commandeered from somewhere, stuffed to the gunwales with every tool and spare you could care to mention, and a brace of hefty mechanics to boot. So, with the help of all three of them - useful sort of lad with a spanner, your cousin: wasted on Oxford, in my opinion -“
“And his,” Charlie said. “Unfortunately, Uncle Henry has set his heart on having an Oxford MA to succeed him as chairman of the Board when they finally drag him off it, and young Paul isn’t going to risk getting cut off without a shilling, so he’s just having to grin and bear it.”
“As you so conspicuously didn’t,” Franky observed. Charlie shrugged.
“That was different. I had a war as an excuse for getting me out of Magdalen. Paul doesn’t.”
“He easily might have, if we aren’t careful,” Joe said grimly. “These guys we’re up against aren’t lacking in money or clout. And they’re playing for keeps. You aren’t telling me the secret Admiralty signals book is the sort of thing you can pick up in the nearest five and dime. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after a lot of hard work and some truly sensational cannibalising of spares - oh, don’t look at me like that, Dex; it had to be done and you’ll get your chance to put it right - anyway, we managed to bypass the damaged section of fuel line, and then all four of us somehow contrived to pull the bird out of the patch of gorse bushes where she’d been nesting, and manhandle her onto a flattish patch, and as soon as it was light enough and the fog had cleared a bit I took off, and nursed her along to a private airfield young Shuttleworth had given me the directions to - and very nicely set up it all was, too: tell me, if you can bear discussing anything so vulgar, Charlie, just how much money does that family have?”
“Lots and lots and lots,” Franky said, briskly wielding the soda siphon as she refreshed her glass. “When father decided to follow the flag instead of going into the family firm his father sold his shares at par to his business partner, and then when the War came Shuttleworths never looked back. Hence the poverty to which you find us reduced.”
She gestured expansively but hardly convincingly around the large, high-ceilinged room, with its ugly but opulent-looking mahogany furniture.
Joe snorted. “Anyway, young Shuttleworth had had to push off in the van back to Oxford, I gather to make a rendezvous with his tutor at nine ack emma, to which he was conspicuously not looking forward, and it’s to be hoped that his tutor didn’t bother to enquire what he was doing reeking of aviation fuel and engine oil at that hour in the morning -“
“If he’s who I think he is, he’s one of the most noxious pipe smokers in Oxford, so I hope for everyone’s sake Paul got a chance to wash off the inflammables before he went anywhere near him or that’ll be another Oxford college he’ll have on what passes for his conscience,” Charlie muttered.
This remark, being incomprehensible to all of them, passed without comment. Joe waved a hand, airily.
“Anyway, much to my relief, given that my various scrapes and bruises were definitely insisting on making themselves felt by then, Charlie had sent a car and a driver round to collect me, and had a doctor on hand when I got back, and made sure practically no-one got to see me and even fewer spot who I was - his housekeeper has been acting her socks off for the benefit of all and sundry, she really should go on the halls - while he put about this story that he was confined to bed after a riding accident, in case the presence of the doctor caused comment, you know.”
Having finished his story, he took a long pull at his drink, and sat back, looking faintly exhausted. There were drawn lines of pain about his mouth, and Dex was fairly sure that his injuries extended substantially beyond the “scrapes and bruises” he had airily dismissed them as. It wasn’t just Joe’s kite that he itched to get his fingers on - purely to ascertain the full extent of the damage, naturally.
“So,” Charlie said, “we decided it was much more sensible all round if we let the bad guys assume they’d succeeded in getting Joe on the first attempt, rather than giving them a chance to make a second one. Unfortunately that does still leave us with one problem.”
“Which is?” Franky asked.
Joe’s expression was virtually unreadable.
Franky muttered something under her breath; Dex thought it sounded rather like, “And why am I not surprised?”
Whatever it was, Joe and her brother ignored it.
“You see,” Joe said, addressing himself primarily to Dex, “She’d managed to insinuate herself into our baronet’s house-party - quite successfully, it seems -“
“He was all over her at the Hunt Ball,” Charlie put in. His sister wrinkled her nose as if she detected a bad smell under it.
“He would be. I hope she remembered to pack her biggest and most idiotic hats.”
“Hats?” Dex hazarded. “Why hats?”
Franky smiled, sphinx-like. “Hat pins. A girl’s ever-present help in time of trouble.”
Charlie looked pained. “I doubt that having to deter the randy baronet from getting fresh with her is Polly’s biggest problem at this precise moment, you know. After all, the cover story she went in there with was that she might be able to act as a bridge to talk Joe into lining his Legion up with the New Jacobite Brotherhood, or whatever they call themselves. If they were sending planes to take him down before she’d had time to unpack her case, it hardly looks as if they’d bought into that one, now, does it?”
Dex felt a pang of guilt, almost as though he had ever wished her dead himself, though he hadn’t, not truly - just extremely successful, and incredibly rich and mind-bogglingly famous, and a very, very long way away from Joe -
He chose his next words with considerable care.
“You mean, Polly’s life might actually be in danger?”
“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Joe said soberly. “If they suspect she might be a plant - well, who knows?”
“An accident would be so easy to arrange,” Charlie added. “A loosened girth - a thorn in the saddle-lining -“
His sister looked at him as though he had temporarily taken leave of his senses, which took a load off Dex’s mind, since it hardly seemed gentlemanly to question the sanity of a host to whom he had only just been introduced.
“Pongo, are you completely bonkers? You have met Polly, haven’t you? It may be a hunting party she’s joined, but if you seriously think she’s going to do anything more with any quad than teeter down to the stables in those preposterous shoes of hers, expecting every male in sight gallantly to throw his coat across every puddle or patch of horse-droppings in her path, and gingerly pat the nose of whichever one of her host’s horses she thinks sets off her outfit best, then you must be completely crazy.”
“There are other sorts of accidents,” Joe pointed out grimly. Franky snorted.
“There are. And there are other sorts of stupidity, too. Look, both of you - whatever I may have said about the woman in the past, do give her credit for some intelligence. She’s been at the top of a very dirty and very tough profession for a few years now. I may not like what she does, or how she goes about it, but she is bloody good at it. And if you think she hasn’t worked out what the risks are, and how to dodge them, then I suggest you start cultivating white rabbits, because you’re certainly living in Wonderland. If being the honest broker who can bring you into the fold has turned into a liability, she’ll be reinventing herself as official court correspondent to the New Jacobite inner circle. You’ll see.”
Dex could tell that neither Joe nor Charlie shared Franky’s confidence, but they seemed unwilling to pursue the topic in front of her. And the relief after so much strain, and his last unbroken day and a half, and, yes, surely the whisky too were getting to him, so that he wanted nothing more than to lean his head back against the wall, and doze -
Franky was shaking him firmly but not ungently by the shoulder.
“Come on,” she said, in what Joe had once dubbed her “quarter-deck” voice. “Cattsy will have made up one of the spare rooms for you by now. Come on, Dex. You’ll be all the better for a couple of hours sleep before dinner. As, Joe, would you. Don’t bother telling me the quack even told you that you were allowed to get out of bed today. If he did, he deserves shooting. And anyway, Charlie, I need to have a quick family pow-wow with you, since I’m here.”
From the glazed expressions on the faces of the other two, Dex guessed that they, like he, had neither the energy nor the hardihood to resist in the face of Franky’s determination. And anyway, the chance to lie down would be so nice - he could hardly remember when he’d last had the chance to sleep -
He suffered himself to be propelled from the room.