9. Charlie meets a long-lost relative, and realises how he may be able to rescue Polly from the clutches of Mosley and his gang - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
The Commissionaire was accustomed to summing up visitors with a practised eye. Indeed, had his education taken more of a classical turn (rather than the severely practical bent imposed by a lifetime avoiding the missiles first flung at him by a drunken and brutish father, and later, rather more skillfully, by a selection of the Empire’s enemies across the globe) he might have likened himself to Cereberus; guarding the entrance to his employer’s preserves with unsleeping vigilance.
He pegged the thin, dark man whom the unostentatiously expensive car dropped at the front door as a former officer - though he hesitated momentarily about which branch of the Services - even before he had finished extricating himself from the rear seat. That being so, the stiffness of his walk and the fact that an elegant ebony cane was taking most of his weight as he climbed laboriously up the four shallow steps that led to the front door explained themselves.
The Commissionaire drew himself up with the proper air of respect towards one who had been wounded in the King’s service. Then he caught a better glimpse of those strong, sallow features and braced to attention with the rigid alacrity and severe precision that he had last assumed for the benefit of Lord Kitchener; no-one, in his opinion, having warranted that much respect since. The visitor acknowledged him with a brief, unsmiling nod, and passed on through the imposing entrance and into the panelled foyer.
The Commissionaire knew that foyer well: he supervised the daily ceremony of waxing the heavy oak panelling and the polishing of every scrap of brass in the room to a high lustre. He prided himself that if the Victorian founders of the building could step down from the portraits which were the first thing which struck any visitor who entered, they would find nothing lacking which elbow grease and attention to detail could provide to keep the prestige of the Company as it entered its tenth decade as high as it had ever stood.
And the gentleman who had just arrived, the Commissioner recognized, lacked only the whiskers and stiff collar of a bygone day to have been the original of one of those portraits.
“Good,” Charles Cook said, supporting himself with one hand on the mahogany table as he rose to his feet. “That’s settled, then.”
McPherson eyed him severely. “Imph. Well. I’m no saying it canna be done - nor that we canna do it in the time - though ye’ll have to bear in mind that the price will have to take into account that the design was no the Company’s, and so we cannot guarantee to make it without the costs of a redesign.”
He tapped the blueprint on the table.
“That is, should your initial design no prove feasible in practice.”
Cook’s voice was blandly non-committal.
“I don’t think you need be worried about that. After all; I talked my young cousin Paul into drawing about three-quarters of it, so I hardly think in the circumstances you complain about its pedigree. “
The apparently casual reference to the Chairman’s son and heir was not, of course, accidental. McPherson, however, had been carrying out tougher negotiations since the man across the desk had been a little boy in a sailor suit, tagging around the works after his grandfather.
He coughed, drily. “I’m no saying anything against young Mr Shuttleworth. I don’t doubt that when the time comes he’ll do the Company credit. But you’ll surely concede that natural engineering skill is nothing without the practical experience to balance it. And he’s only just setting out on the path to acquire that.”
He paused, and then deployed his own salvo.
“Likewise, doubtless ye’ll allow that a man born without the aptitude will have no more idea than a babe in arms about how a design fits together; no, not if he worries away at it until the Day of Judgment. And you can never tell who the Lord chooses to give the talent to; it goes by favour and not by birth. A man might miss it completely, notwithstanding his grandfather was one of the finest engineers that ever walked down Sauciehall Street. By which, I hope you’ll forgive me the liberty of asking ye where the other quarter of that design came from?”
For a moment, as Charles Cook’s face remained a icy, well-bred blank, McPherson suffered a stab of apprehension. Within this building - within large parts of this city, come to think of it - this man was royalty, albeit from a cadet branch, and royalty was not noted for its tolerance of impertinence from commoners. And then Cook grinned, and McPherson recognised at last the cheeky little boy he had once known.
“Not me, if that’s where your worries about feasibility are coming from. I know where my talents lie. I got the notion to see if it could be done, but then I went to the two best people I could find to work out the details. An American chap m’sister introduced me to was the other one. Given what I’ve heard about him, I doubt you’d need to worry about his aptitude or his experience.”
McPherson’s eyebrows went up. “I take it that would be the laddie Andrew McAllister had running his shopfloor for a few weeks? Man, from all I’ve heard about him, then I’m prepared to shave the design contingency in the price; I’m no expecting in that case we’ll be needing more of a redesign than just fine tuning, maybe.”
He picked up his pen, dipped it in the ink-well, and scratched out a figure on the draft estimate they had been poring over for the last hour, substituting another for it. Cook reached his hand across the desk, and shook McPherson’s firmly.
“I’m glad to see we could reach agreement,” he said. “No doubt you’ll be contacting me in a day or so when your accounts department has had a chance to pull together the formal paperwork and got me a contract to sign.”
McPherson, agreeing that indeed, it would have to be so, and opining that the modern mania for documenting every last comma of what should be an agreement between gentlemen was a sad reflection on the age, but unfortuately a necessary evil, saw his unexpected visitor all the way to the front entrance, and waited with him, making inconsequential small talk, while the Commissionaire summoned up his car from whatever place Cook’s chauffeur had found to wait out the time of Cook’s visit. That courtesy performed, McPherson returned to his desk, remembering the little boy who had once run everywhere at twice the speed anyone else found necessary, and sighed inwardly over the pity and waste of war. Andrew McAllister had no doubt been right to choose a modest living where he would be able to sell the fruits of his brain and hands where he would, and decline to sell them as his conscience moved him, rather than being bound to the service of an implacable monster that churned out endless iron engines of death, and sold them with pitiless impartiality to those who had the money to pay for them, without sympathy for those who fell victim to their bite.
He roused himself from his reverie; it was, after all, not proper to indulge in such thoughts. Not on the Company’s time. At least the current project was one which had brought animation to the Squadron-Leader’s sallow face, and a living gleam of interest to his pain-dulled eyes. And that of course made it worth while in itself.
He pulled the blueprint towards him, and started to jot down notes for the specification to include in the contract. It would never do not to have that ready when the Squadron-Leader called again in two days time.
But it was not, in fact, two days but rather less than two hours before McPherson was called upon to speak to the Squadron-Leader. The telephone on his desk rang, brassily, and when he picked up the handset he heard Cook’s clipped tones - with an odd note of hesitancy, almost huskiness about them. McPherson listened for a few minutes, interjecting the odd comment, trying to keep the note of surprise out of his voice. After Cook had rung off he paused for a moment in thought, and then hit the brass bell on his desk. A dimunitive messenger boy appeared.
“My compliments to Miss McGinty,” he said, “And would she do me the courtesy of stepping across for a word at her convenience?”
As he had expected, Miss McGinty’s convenience suited his own within rather less than two minutes. He rapidly outlined the request that Charles Cook had just made. As he might have predicted, her thick brows drew down in thunderous disapproval.
“He asked for what?”
“Mr Cook -” consciously, McPherson found himself stressing the surname, “requested that we second a member of staff to him to act as liasion between the Works and himself during the term of the project. You can no’ say the request is an unreasonable one, especially given as he is situated. And he stresses he is quite prepared to allow the Company to include the costs on the overhead and charge that to the project at a very fair rate. Per diem.”
Miss McGinty drew herself up, and uttered a snort which in its sonorousness and volume could have substituted without effort for the foghorn on an Atlantic liner.
“Mister McPherson! What this young man is asking for is one of my gels!”
“He’s no so young as all that,” McPherson observed mildly. “He’ll no see forty again.”
Miss McGinty shook her head dismissively.
“His age, as you very well know, Mr McPherson, has nothing to do with it. In my experience, men will be men, only provided they’re given the opportunity.”
“Maybe, then, in the circumstances, I should be sending out for a chaperon,” McPherson observed. “I shouldna care to think I’d risked compromising your reputation, Miss McGinty.”
Miss McGinty treated this levity with the contempt it deserved. She stuck doggedly to the main point. “I’ll no have it said the Company is no better than white slave traders.”
McPherson blinked. “Come now, Miss McGinty. You no think you’re maybe overstating the case?”
She looked narrowly at him over the top of her steel-rimmed glasses.
“You’ll be bearing in mind that given the circumstances the lassie will be spending much of her time staying in his house? And him an unmarried man, and not even his mother or a sister at home keeping house for him -“
He sighed. “Times have changed, Miss McGinty, since our young days. And maybe for the better, at that. After all -“
It was daring, but perhaps, after all, it was worth it.
“No matter what the rules were in our young days, I’m sure we can all remember that those who wanted to, managed to get round them without trouble. Indeed - perhaps it gave them a bit more fun.”
Miss McGinty’s face looked thunderous again; he pressed on before she could get a word in edgeways.
“After all, you’ll please bear in mind that the lassie is Mr Cook’s cousin, of sorts. Whatever his intentions may be, I’ve no doot he could put them into effect at a great deal less inconvenience and cost to himself than by any shennaigans around this contract.” He took a deep breath and pressed on. “Unless you have reason to believe the lassie’s flightier than most?”
Miss McGinty pursed her lips. But, as surely as McPherson could rely on her instinctive disapproval of anything novel, he could also rely on her sense of justice. Reluctantly, she shook her head.
“No. She’s hot-headed and maybe opens her mouth when she’d do better to keep it shut, but she’s no fast. And she’s a head on her; and maybe it’s wasted where she is. I’ve more than a suspicion she’s better suited for figures than for filing; had the Dear chosen to have her born a boy she’d no doubt have been more of a credit to the Company than some of the bright sparks in the drawing office.”
McPherson looked up, sharply. Miss McGinty, realising a little too late that she had, perhaps, said a little too much, permitted her face to relax into a wintry smile.
“Aye, well, The Dear works in mysterious ways. And no-one can doubt she’s a clever lassie, and likely to do the Company credit if Mr Cook gives her fair opportunity, and if it is her brains he wants from her.” She rose to her feet. “I’ll arrange to have her sent in, shall I?”
He nodded, a little stunned at the speed with which her resistance had collapsed. Once her black-crepe back had vanished through the door to his office he even allowed himself a small smile. He took care, however, to erase all traces of it before a small tap at the door announced the arrival of Helen Adamson.
Charlie Cook had no intention, as he finished his interview with McPherson, of taking any girl out to lunch; still less someone he vaguely remembered from a family funeral years ago as a gawky adolescent; with visible safety pins holding her together and a general air of resentment at the world in general. Even if Dex had chosen to confide in her about the conspiracy. And notwithstanding Joe had endorsed Dex’s decision, and added the rider that he also thought she was “fun”. Which had caused Charlie to blink a bit; the Helen Adamson he remembered looked as though she didn’t know what fun meant, and as if she’d have been more than likely to plant a punch on any man who showed any inclination to demonstrate. Which , for any normal man, Charlie Cook considered would be shortly before Hell froze.
His car arrived; McPherson, muttering some final nothings - he liked the old man, but God! did he go on! - had bowed civilly back inside the colonnaded façade of the Company (briefly, it occurred to Charlie to wonder how his life might have altered had he succumbed to his grandfather’s golden promises, and dedicated his life to the iron machine within). He was in the process of inserting himself into the rear compartment when a vicious little squall swept across the City, driving passers-by into doorways, brushing in waves over the suddenly empty street. The weather added an infuriating extra dimension, meaning he had to struggle to manage his stick and coat, while somehow at the same time clinging onto his hat. The chauffeur was already in the driving seat, his head bent over the controls; no help there. And then, with one particularly vicious gust, it all fell apart. His gaberdine, caught by the gusting wind, blew up around his head, knocking his hat sideways. His despairing grab proved futile; the hat, eluding his snatching fingers, went bowling merrily away down the road. Furthermore, his reckless move had put too much weight on his artificial leg.
Charlie went over into a heap in the gutter. The papers he had been clutching blew away in a wild snowstorm, flapping into puddles, wrapping themselves around lamp-posts.
The chauffeur, finally aware of his master’s plight, scurried round from the driver’s side, making clucking noises and attempting to pull him to his feet in a way that managed to combine the maximum of ineffectiveness, humiliation, and - since his artificial leg was now buckled beneath him - acute pain.
Charlie’s patience snapped. He threw off the chauffeur’s helping hand, grabbed hold of the edge of the car-door frame, dragged himself up to a standing position, and, still breathing heavily from the exertion, abandoned the habit of a lifetime and launched into a torrent of scathing invective. The chauffeur reeled back under the onslaught, and Charlie felt a pang of guilt; it washardly sporting to take it out on a man whose position prevented his answering back.
And then, a brightly interested voice at his elbow caused his face to flame.
“Golly! I haven’t heard language like that since I stopped running the Guide troop in our village back home. And I don’t think you repeated yourself once. That’s jolly impressive, you know.”
He turned, stammering apologies - what could he possibly have been thinking of, even to take the most outside chance of using those expressions in the presence of a lady?
He found a hat full of pieces of damp rescued paperwork being held out to him.
“I’m pretty certain I collected all of it. At least; there may be the odd sheet under the car that I’ve missed, but otherwise I don’t think you ought to have lost much.”
She grinned cheerfully across at him. Her hair was either plastered across her forehead or hung in dripping rat tails down her back. She was coatless: she must have gambled on the Glasgow weather holding during her lunch hour.
The gamble had misfired; a blouse which might once have been a pale blue was darkly sodden, and the cardigan clung around her like seaweed.
But her eyes sparkled with a grand indifference to her currently bedraggled state. And she had saved his paperwork. And his hat.
Blood, after all, was supposed to be thicker than water. And, even without the safety-pins and the sulky expression, it was quite clear who she was.
“Get in, Helen,” he said, holding the door open for her. “You can’t possibly go back to the office looking like an Irish water-spaniel after a hard day’s snipe shooting. I’m taking you back to my hotel and I’m going to ask the staff to towel you down and find you a blouse that looks more like a piece of clothing than a sponge. And when they’ve made you presentable, you can join me in the dining room for lunch.”
She lifted her eyebrows with faint surprise, but made no demur as she hopped into the back of the car.
“I hadn’t expected you’d recognise me,” she said. He shrugged.
“I knew you were up here. Aunt Catherine was at Iphegenia’s wedding, and she said that you’d taken a job with the Company to fill in time before you got married.”
Helen’s snort was prolonged and startlingly unladylike. Charlie couldn’t imagine even Franky emitting such a sound.
“Honestly! I keep telling and telling Mummy not to keep coming out with such nonsense.” She turned, and looked him straight in the face. “No: I am not filling in time here till I can find someone to marry me. I’m filling in time here until I can find someone to take me to Samarkand. Actually.”
He laughed aloud - but cut it short when he caught sight of her hurt expression. He made his voice more gentle.
“You know, it isn’t nearly as romantic as it’s cracked up to be -“
Helen glared at him. “That’s exactly what Joe said. Look; does it occur to either of you that I might want to go and see for myself?” She turned her head away, looking out through the rain-streaked car window. “Men!” she hissed at no-one in particular, but there was a slight shake in her voice. Charlie felt a sudden flash of sympathy - he remembered long-ago voices telling him that flying machines were an interesting novelty but a wealthy young man, with a plurality of more serious concerns, had no occasion to dabble in such frivolities. And with sympathy came inspiration.
“Look - Helen -“
She turned at the sound of her name.
“I can’t offer you Samarkand, but there is a job I can think of you would be just right for. But I’m afraid it might be a bit risky -“
As he had expected, the word “risky” worked on her rather as the whiff of prime sirloin might have done on the spaniel he had compared her to. Her eyes were alight with interest.
“Do you remember that American journalist friend of Joe’s? He said you’d met her?”
Her brow furrowed in thought. “Patty? Philly? Something like that. Yes; I remember. The blonde one with the shoes - I can’t imagine how she walks on them without turning her ankle, can you? Fabulous clothes and very chic, and all that, but a bit silly, I thought. What about her?”
Charlie leant over to check that the glass partition between the rear compartment and the driver’s seat was properly closed. He trusted his staff, of course, but only up to a point. given what was at stake, this particular point was not very far away at all.
“Well, I can’t go into a lot of detail at the moment. But she’s gone on an undercover investigation and - well, the situation has changed, and she may not be aware of it, so we’re worried about her. And it isn’t as if Joe or I can go in and alert her to the risks; that would put the fat in the fire, and no mistake. But I’ve just thought. You could get in there. “
“How?” She leaned forward. But they were drawing up to the hotel front door, and he grinned at her.
“Tell you when you’ve been dried out. See you in the dining room.”
Mindful of the proprieties, he dived into the little varnished wood cubicle in the hotel lobby as soon as she had been escorted upstairs.
“Is that Shuttleworths? Charles Cook here. I was just speaking to Mr McPherson. I’m ringing to confirm -“
In a short interval he managed to convince the pliant female on the line - who was clearly filling in for some more perceptive dragon currently away from the offfice - of the fact that Miss Helen Adamson was currently in a meeting. And, therefore, not to have her whereabouts questioned.
It was, he noted with approval, with commendable promptness that she reappeared. He mentally composed a note of congratulation to the hotel staff; she was now wearing a navy-blue silk blouse cut with a severe elegance, and someone who knew what was what had taken curling tongs to her hair.
Charlie smiled at her. “I thought, as you were running late as it is, I’d better order for you. But they can always change it if I guessed wrong. Soup and steak OK for you?”
She nodded. And then, as the soup arrived, he expanded upon the flash of inspiration which had come over him in the car.
“You know Great-Aunt Georgiana?”
Helen blinked; her brow furrowed in thought.
“The - um - eccentric one with the - um - exciting past?”
He snorted with amusement. “Helen, you don’t think you need to tone down anything for the benefit of my delicate sensibilities, do you? Yes; I do mean the barmy old coot who had a string of highly placed lovers back in the ’70s and ’80s - don’t tell me that Aunt Catherine has never gossiped about that to one of her cronies when you were in earshot -“
Helen smiled. “Well; always on a pas devant les enfants basis, natch. But Mummy’s French isn’t as good as she thinks it is, and mine’s better - How will Great Aunt Georgiana help?”
He gestured over the soup dishes.
“Great Aunt Georgiana is - I’m given to understand by Iphegenia - writing her Memoirs. White-haired old gentlemen are no doubt being carted bodily out of clubs where they have had apoplexy at the very thought of it. Probably in two minds about whether it would be worse to feature in them or not to be mentioned at all. Not that it’s likely to happen; first, she’s got to finish them, and secondly she’s got to find a publisher who doesn’t think they’re too hot to handle. Anyway, she has to have a secretary-companion, to help out with the memoirs, and, because of - um - her other little foibles -“
Helen glanced around the dining room of the hotel. Spotting no waiters within earshot, she leaned over, and enquired, hesitantly,
“You mean the kleptomania?”
Charlie blinked. He had always suspected from the brief hints he’d picked up over the years that his Aunt Catherine’s intelligence network - albeit mostly limited to small town gossip - was formidable, but this was more detailed than he had expected.
“Well, that among other things,” he said, cautiously. “Anyway, I don’t doubt there’s a vacancy for her secretary-companion at the moment.”
Helen looked at him with a cool scepticism that, he suddenly thought, he’d not experienced since he’d been invalided out of the RAF.
“And why would that be?” she enquired.
He gulped. He had heard that tone of not-in-the-least respectful enquiry from his best NCOs on the eve of some of his toughest battles. For after all, being one of the officer class merely meant that one’s name got associated with the disaster in dispatches, not that one had some supernatural ability to avoid it. And he had certainly never wanted to command men who were thick enough to believe anything different.
“Ah. You want to know why I think Aunt Georgiana will have a vacancy for a secretary-companion at this precise moment?”
Helen nodded. And there was, really, no help for it but the truth. He dropped his head towards his soup plate.
“Probably because she treats them in the way that would cause adverse comment in the mate of a Black Ball Line clipper, in the days of the Cape Horn trade, I expect,” he confessed.
Unexpectedly, she grinned at him across the mulligatawny.
“I like it that you aren’t trying to soften the hazards for my benefit. Anyway, even if she does need a companion, why would she take me?”
Charlie eyed Helen cautiously, as a deft waiter removed the soup plates, and another substituted steak.
“Um - impoverished relative in reduced circumstances?” he hazarded. She snorted again, but her head was still cocked at an interested angle; she was listening, at any event. He ploughed on.
“Anyway, if you wrote and asked if a job were going, you might get it. Then it only needs her to take it into her head to visit the Mosleys - and that shouldn’t be too difficult - she’s a distant cousin of the Redesdales anyway, on her mother’s side, and the Mosleys are only about twenty miles away from her place in Northamptonshire, and keep a notoriously excellent cook -“
“Fond of her food, is she?” Helen enquired, keeping up admirably with the pace of a plot which was unfolding before him in all its shining glory, getting more rounded and plausible each second. He grinned.
“According to Iphigenia, she’s known as “the Hunger Marcher” in certain circles. Anyway, all you have to do is go along with her when she chooses to pay her visit, find out how Polly’s getting on, and report back. Nothing simpler.”
And he leaned back in his chair and beamed at her across the steak. Helen’s brown creased.
“Yes; I see all that. But aren’t you forgetting one thing? I’ve got a job. It’s not as if I’ve a lady to leisure, to go gallivanting all round the country. And I used all my holiday in August. And I can’t just go AWOL; the McGinty would have my hide, and Mr McPherson would sack me on the spot.”
That, of course, was a facer. But his brain, it appeared, was working overtime today. Inspiration struck once more. Charlie looked at his watch.
“Look; I’ll order the car to take you back to the office. After all, no point in putting any black marks on your record yet. But would you be game, if I could square old McPherson?”
Wordlessly, she nodded, and then took a look at her own watch, gave a squeak of horror, and almost scurried out of the dining room.
Charlie summoned a waiter to take a message to his driver, finished his steak at leisure, savoured a black coffee afterwards, and then made his way to the nearest phone, whistling slightly.