11. — And an even less welcome revelation. Various rich and famous men - most with aeronautical connections - are implicated in a sinister international conspiracy - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Dex cast a last frantic glance around the room as the bothy door opened. He had caught Joe’s initial exclamation - “Polly!” - it had been just outside the window, after all, and also he’d guessed Joe had been pitching his voice to be audible. Probably in the next county. So he’d known she would - in all probability - be invited in rather than shot, and sooner rather than otherwise. And had been scurrying manically around snatching up and concealing discarded garments ever since.
And then, as the door to the bothy started to swing open, with a heart-thumping shock he realised exactly what he’d overlooked.
Joe’s underpants; white and incriminating in the centre of the hearthrug. Where he could remember- all too vividly - having tossed them himself. Less than thirty minutes ago.
Just as Polly came forward into the bothy he back-heeled them with a despairing flick into the coal-scuttle, and turned to face her.
“Jeez, Polly. This sure is unexpected.”
“Hi, Dex.” She smiled at him. She dropped her sopping oilskin and sou-wester to the floor where she stood, obviously assuming that there would be minions to pick them up after her. “Any chance of a cup of coffee?”
Joe leaned over, a hard smile on his lips that did not reach his eyes.
“Sorry, Polly. You’re in Britain now. I expect we could manage tea?”
“Or whisky,” Dex suggested, keeping his body uneasily between the line of Polly’s gaze and the coal-scuttle. She pursed her lips; evidently in her world view Nice Girls should not be invited to consume hard liquor, even if they had had a long journey (and how had she got here, anyway?) through the kind of weather conditions which made Dex appreciate why the locals had decided to christen the stuff “water of life” in the first place.
“Just tea, please, Dex. It’ll warm me up. And I’ll make up the fire, shall I? Then we’ll be all nice and cosy.”
She dropped to her knees on the hearth-rug, reaching for poker and tongs. Dex snatched up the coal-scuttle before she could turn her attentions in that direction.
“Uh - then we’ll need to get more peats from the shed - we’re nearly out. Joe -“
He gestured frantically with the coal-scuttle in Joe’s direction. Joe, infuriatingly, didn’t seem to be cottoning on.
“More peats? But I filled it up only -“
To forestall him, Dex thrust the coal-scuttle bodily into his arms. He glanced down, and a most peculiar expression suffused his features. If things hadn’t been so desperate, Dex would have suspected him of throttling back a crippling attack of the giggles.
“Ah.” Joe said in a rather choked voice. “We must have been getting through fuel faster than I thought. Mind you, it is rather draughty in here, isn’t it? Even wearing all the thickest sweaters we’ve got. Dex, put the kettle on the Primus for Polly, and brew up, there’s a good boy, while I go and top up the scuttle.”
By the time Joe returned, with a coal-scuttle brimming with peats and absent any trace of underwear, the kettle was singing merrily, and Polly (retreating modestly behind the back of the chesterfield to perform the operation) had removed her shoes and stockings, and put them to dry in front of the fire.
“Anyway, Polly,” Joe said, having evidently had time to do some thinking out in the shed, “how did you actually find us? Because you were obviously editing a bit, earlier.”
“There are men in the Legion who’re happy enough to do me the odd favour. If I ask them nicely. I got the flight plan you’d filed out of them.”
Dex was abruptly conscious of Joe, beside him, suddenly going rigid with silent fury. Grogan’s treachery had cut deep, Dex guessed - it had gone deep enough with him, and for Joe these things had an even more personal edge; he felt every loss in the Legion as though it were family, and Polly’s casual chatter of confidences invited and betrayed must sting like vinegar on an open wound, even if she didn’t realise it.
“Did you? How interesting,” Joe breathed with an intonation so venomous to one who knew him that Dex quailed, and almost expected Polly to shrivel where she stood.
She smiled, acknowledging his acceptance of her point, and continued blithely on.
“Well, naturally once I knew where you’d made landfall in England deducing whom you might have been seeing wasn’t so difficult. With a bit of elimination. And then when my contacts at the aerodromes picked up your trail in Scotland again; well, drawing a line between the two became -“
She paused, and favoured them both with a glittering smile.
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Her laugh was high and silvery. “Especially once I got into - what’s his name? - McPherson’s - office, and got the chance to have a girly heart-to-heart over coffee and scones with that little typist you took to the flicks when you were last in Glasgow, Joe.”
For a split second Dex wondered if Joe was, actually, going to fly at Polly; so dangerous had his green eyes momentarily become. But then he coughed, leant back against the back of the chesterfield, and gave her his edgy, glass-splintered grin again.
“Helen Adamson? She’s some sort of cousin of Charlie Cook’s. Nice kid. He asked me to look her up, since I was going to be in town.”
Polly’s face relaxed, suddenly. “Ah? I’d guessed it had to be something like that. Bad boy, Joe; you obviously made quite an impression on her. Broke her little heart, I shouldn’t wonder. But I thought it didn’t sound like you, chasing after some homely brunette with no figure and a nose stuck resolutely in some book all the time.”
There was a speaking pause in the bothy.
Joe’s voice purred. “Actually, I found her remarkably good company. Not that it’s any of your business. As we agreed earlier. And anyway, you did promise to share your intelligence. If you would be so good -?”
He made a sweeping gesture.
Without more ado, Polly moved to the table and emptied the contents of her briefcase onto its scrubbed white planks.
“Here,” she said. “I started off by trying to get a line on those guys you took on at the warehouse. The ones who lit out with the prototype when the British sailors started to raise the shindig.”
Dex looked across in sudden alarm.
“Joe; you didn’t let them -?”
Joe made a Calm Down gesture with one hand. “Relax, Dex. Trust me. The security override circuit interlocks worked exactly like you told me they would. The guy who’d tried to power it up gave me his frank assessment of the results of his experiment. Most original command of the English language. Hadn’t heard anything like it since my little white-haired old grandmother tripped over the cat and took the heel off her elastic-sided ankle boot. What the bad guys went to all that trouble and expense to steal, Dex, is now a nice little heap of slagged-to-bare-metal components, thanks to some genius’s notion of introducing deliberate short circuits into the basic model, that you need to connect an add-on to overrride.”
Despite all his worries, Dex exhaled with sheer relief. “Jeez, Cap, that’s good to know.”
Polly’s expression lightened. “Oh, so that was what that was all about? I thought you’d taken leave of your senses when the four big guys were lugging the prototype out to the truck, and you chose to take off after the skinny ginger one.”
Joe’s smile had a feline edge. “Why, what did you think? That I’d decided I didn’t fancy the odds and was choosing the better part of valour?”
Her expression was cool and unruffled.
“Something like that, yes. Of course, it managed to make a whole lot more sense as soon as I found out about the microfilm -“
Dex’s brow furrowed in puzzlement. It sure seemed as if there were an awful lot of bits of the story that Joe hadn’t got round to telling him earlier. Mind you - presumably he’d other things on his mind.
He failed entirely to suppress a small, secret, reminiscent smile.
Joe’s lips curled in a sneer.
“Hah! So you were listening in on the extension in the other room when I called Franky to tell her I’d got it back.”
Polly shrugged, her expression completely indifferent. “Well, Joe; a girl’s got to look out for herself if she’s going to know where she stands round you.”
Dex practically choked. He took a sip of water, and to cover his confusion, stuttered hurriedly, “What microfilm?”
Polly stared across at him in absolute bewilderment, while Joe raised his eyes to the ceiling in an elaborately theatrical, everyone’s-an imbecile-but-me expression.
“I know you had a lot to think about that evening, but surely you can’t have forgotten that you told Franky about it yourself?”
Abruptly, humiliatingly, Dex cottoned on. His face flamed.
“Oh, that microfilm. Sorry, Cap. Still not over the flu, I guess.”
Polly sniffed. “Well, I trust that between the two of you you’ve got it safe now.”
Joe waved an airy hand. “Couldn’t be safer if we’d forwarded it special express delivery to Hell, and asked Satan to take care of it in person.”
Dex carefully avoided looking at the fireplace. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Joe giving him the faintest possible ghost of a wink. He ignored that, too. Joe’s grin got deeper.
Polly coughed. “Well? Aren’t you interested in what I found when I started ferreting around at the warehouse? After you’d all gone?”
Joe’s face was suddenly very proper, attentive. “Of course, Polly. Fire away.”
She dug into her handbag and, after a moment’s searching pulled out a diminutive silver matchbox, embossed with a device which showed an eagle, wings spread in flight, carrying a gigantic thistle in its talons, superimposed against a terrestial globe.
Joe raised an eyebrow. “And? Have you been able to get any sort of line on what that’s supposed to represent?”
This time Polly’s smile did look a trifle smug. To be fair, Dex could hardly blame her. For a woman who was completely confuzzled by an action as basic as replacing a fuse, he had to give her credit for being unsurpassed in her own field.
“Oh, there’s no mystery about it. Though it is very exclusive. Not at all the kind of little party favour you’d expect goons like that to keep in their pockets as a matter of course. Or even to be able to steal that readily, not having what you might call ready access to those kind of circles.” She drew breath.
“What that device is, is the symbol of the International Brotherhood of the New Jacobite Order.”
“Well,” Joe said, “I’m sure that’s peachy for it. Or it would be if I’d ever heard of the International Brotherhood of the - whatchemacallit. Come out with it, Polly. Who are they, and what do they stand for?”
She shrugged; the firelight glinted off her hair. She must have had a tough journey through the storm-swept countryside outside, but her coiffure showed it less than it might.
“Rich men’s drinking club? International philanthropic society? A voluntary pooling of the most talented men in America and Europe in a global crusade against petty nationalism, war, unemployment? Or a gigantic conspiracy to overthrow democracy and set up a string of dictatorships and puppet governments. You take your pick; I’ve heard all those explanations.”
She leaned forward towards Joe, her lovely face passionate, intent, on fire with the almost mesmeric concentration which always took possession of her when she was in pursuit of a story; or at least, Dex mentally corrected himself savagely, in pursuit of a story in the company of her beloved Sky Captain. He felt slightly ill; everything that had, or hadn’t happened immediately before Polly’s arrival seemed to have acquired a dream-like tinge, retreating into the world of fantasy before the vital reality of Polly’s presence, and all she represented. The normal. The acceptable. The enviable. The unquestionably desirable. He tried not to look at Joe; Polly was beaming so much concentrated eligibility at him from such close quarters it was almost obscene. It seemed impossible that he wouldn’t succumb.
Joe coughed, drily.
“I suggest you tell us about the last one of those. Given what I’ve come across so far, it’s the one I’m most inclined sit up and pay attention to at present. “
Polly smiled, and relaxed back in the chair.
“Really? Me too. You see, the men who gave me the first three didn’t wind up dead in a street accident two hours later. After phoning me to arrange a rendezvous, but before we could meet.”
One finger tapped down on a piece of lined paper torn from a cheap exercise book which sat at the top of the dossier.
“Fortunately, he’d had the presence of mind to mail this to me before he died. A list of people who he’d linked to the Brotherhood, somehow.”
Without consciously planning it that way, Joe and Dex moved simultaneously to the table, bending over the piece of paper, trying to decipher the scribbled list in the dimness of the bothy. Abruptly, Dex was conscious of just how close Joe was, of how he smelled - peat smoke, whisky, clean skin and soap - of how precisely sculptured the whorls of his left ear were, how the pulse looked as it throbbed in the hollow of his throat. Joe turned, some comment or other about the list dying in his throat as he caught sight of Dex’s expression and a fierce, hungry spark lit in answer in the depths of his green eyes.
Dex suddenly found it necessary to start working out a problem in differential calculus in his head right now. From what he could hear, Joe’s breathing had practically stopped.
“Yes,” Polly said with an air of intense satisfaction, “I thought you’d find that particularly interesting.”
Dex couldn’t imagine anything he could say.
Joe swallowed; possibly accidentally his knee brushed against Dex’s under the table.
“Yes. Indeed. Be a good girl, Polly, and bring over that oil lamp. This list might be fascinating, but it’s not that easy to read in this light.”
With the only light source sitting on the table the rest of the kitchen subsided into mercifully impenetrable gloom. In any event Polly hadn’t exaggerated; the list was sufficiently sensational to catch and hold their attention.
“Well. A lot of very, very wealthy men.”
Polly nodded. “Notice something else?”
“Hard to miss, isn’t it? An awful lot of those names are airmen. Either that, or those who build planes. Some do both.”
Dex looked down the list, trying to puzzle out the connections between the listed names.
“Not geographical,” he muttered aloud. “Some Americans, couple of Canadians, a Frenchman. Not political, or social. After all, what’s a British baronet going to have in common with a German from a manufacturing family?”
Polly leaned forward. “Which? Oh. Hermann Goering. Who -?”
“World War I ace.” Dex and Joe spoke together. There was an awkward pause. Joe gestured for Dex to continue. He did so rapidly, stumbling over his words a little. “Insisted on flying an all-white plane. It always got said : if the Armistice hadn’t been signed when it was, he’d have notched up more kills than both the brothers Von Richthoven combined.”
“Said? Mainly by Hermann Goering, I think.” Joe’s expressive face was twisted up in a way which suggested someone had put a semi-decayed dead cat under his nose. A story there. Dex made a mental note to ask him about it some time when they got a chance.
Polly tapped her propelling pencil thoughtfully against her front teeth. “Of course,” she said, “there’s no reason just because someone’s name’s on this list that they’re in it up to their necks - whatever it is. There’s probably only a tiny core of real conspirators. There’s going to be people in it who are just sleeping partners, maybe, just there to provide the finance; even, who knows, people who really believe the cover story, and are just being manipulated to give the whole thing credibility.”
Dex unwrapped a sliver of gum and started to chew on it, nervously.
“Cap: I really hope that he’s one of those last lot.” He pointed nervously to one of the Chronicle clippings in the dossier. The photograph was unmistakeable, but at the headline both Joe and Dex blenched.
“World-Famous Aviator Tours Legion Base: Comforts Metallic Monster Attack Survivors” the headline screamed. Below the photograph, which principally showed Lindbergh’s autocratic profile, was a demure by-line: Polly Perkins.
Joe and Dex Looked at her.
Under their withering, if unspoken criticism, she quailed.
“Look,” she said, “I thought I was doing the best for you. You needed the publicity. So; he came, he toured, he pontificated. What harm?”
“Well,” Joe said, “quite apart from anything else, I don’t suppose you’d care to have the girl who was the rich spoilt kid in your class, whose Daddy always paid for everything, who got where you wanted to get to without ever having to do anything to earn it, not even sign the cheques, coming round in her mink to commiserate the very day after you’d been burgled, now would you, Polly?”
He paused. She looked at him and shrugged, indifferently; analogy, it seemed, wasn’t a language she spoke. After a moment or so Joe gave in - was turning away - when Dex spotted something in the blurry background of the photograph. And gasped; not loud, but enough for Joe to notice. He turned back.
Dex’s finger stabbed down. “Him - “
“You recognise him?”
Dex’s voice choked up; he could barely stammer the words out. “Yes. It’s him. You know, from the - uh - microfilm -“
He prayed desperately Joe would be acute enough not to ask further questions. Not here, not now. Under the table, Joe’s leg brushed against his again; not at all accidentally, it would seem. The warm pressure was reassuring. Joe’s voice was matter-of-fact.
“Polly, do you remember this guy? From the visit? His name, even?”
Her forehead creased in thought. “Stillman? Something like that, anyway. He was some sort of gofer in the Lindbergh party.” There was a pause, as though a light was going on inside her head. “Actually, there was something - I remember now - he was the guy who got faint, touring the hangar, and had to go and lie down - we were having a couple days of Indian summer and it got real hot in there -“
“Where, Polly?” Joe’s voice was low and deadly. “Where did they put him to recover?”
Dex licked his lips nervously; to someone who knew the base as well as he did there was only one likely place. The worst possible in the circumstances he now suspected, especially since all the men who could make an excuse to do so would have been distracted by the shindig of the official party, and tagging along with them, rather than scattered all around the base, like they would have been on a normal day.
“Why, that little sick room on the hangar floor,” Polly said, just as he could have predicted. Joe’s face lit with a flash of savagery. The sickroom was tucked right under the flight of wooden stairs that led up to Joe’s own office - on the generally sensible basis that sick people needed peace and quiet, and if the close proximity of the Base Commander couldn’t ensure that, it was a pretty poor lookout all round.
“About how long would he have been there, Polly? And was anyone with him?”
She shook her head. “Someone got him a drink of water and an aspirin, I think, and then they just left him until the party was ready to go. I suppose, with one thing and another - perhaps an hour and a quarter? An hour and a half, tops.”
Joe looked at Dex, whose stomach was plummeting down towards his boots. He nodded in answer to the unspoken question in Joe’s face.
“Long enough, if he knew what he was about.”
Polly tapped her nail impatiently on the table. “Long enough for what?”
“To break into the office and crack the safe there,” Dex said bleakly. “If they knew to look there - once they worked out the prototype couldn’t be safely used without the security interlocks.”
“Grogan.” Joe almost spat the word. “He was hanging about after I’d had my first meeting with Davies. I remember now - he said something stupid to me, just as I was going up into my office. And I checked the safe straight away to see that no-one had touched the blue-prints and the security interlocks then - and perhaps he saw or heard me going to the safe. And when the prototype self-destructed, he worked out where the missing piece had to be. He was a bright class of lad, Grogan, for all he was a yellow traitor.”
Joe got to his feet. “There’s only one way to find out. I’m going to have to get to somewhere where I can send an encrypted transatlantic cable. I need to get someone I can trust to take a look at that safe, and see if it really has been forced. And what’s missing if it has. And do a dust for prints.” He was shrugging into his flying jacket as he spoke.
“I’m coming with you,” Polly said.
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Don’t be ridiculous. The weather’s twice as bad now as when I came over the Rest and Be Thankful the first time, and I didn’t have a pillion passenger then, and the locals still thought it was tantamount to suicide; you ask Dex.”
She pouted. “I don’t have to ride pillion; I hired a car in Glasgow when I set off after you yesterday afternoon. It’s down at the bottom of the track; I wasn’t at all sure I’d find anywhere I could turn round if I carried on uphill.”
“You wouldn’t have. It ends in a waterfall and a sheep-track about a hundred yards past the bothy.” He paused, and added pointedly, “The much-vaunted “seclusion from the unwelcome intrusion of everyday life” which was one of the key features that sold me on this little retreat. Given the number of visitors who’ve stumbled through today I feel rather like writing a stiff letter to The Times about Truth in Advertising. Anyway, you have a car? That’s good. Two-seater, I take it? You can give Dex a lift. There’s a guy in Glasgow he needs to talk to urgently.”
Joe turned to face him. “If the - International Brotherhood, or whatever they call themselves, has got the members they seem to have, then they aren’t going to be playing for peanuts. And I don’t suppose they’ve gone to all this trouble to steal the prototype if they just want an nice ornament for their mantelpiece, either. How long, do you reckon, in your professional judgment would it take them to build a usable weapon, given the interlocks and the real blue-prints?”
Dex bit his lip nervously.
“If it were me, without the background know-how - say a week? Ten days?”
“Hm.” Joe’s eyes narrowed in concentration. “And since we can assume that they’re able to pay for the best engineers they can get, I don’t think we can rely on more than three weeks or at best a month before they’ve got the weapon in their hands, then. And in that time we’ve got to try and work out what their target’s going to be. And - since this clearly isn’t Bolsheviks or the Red Menace, the authorities - whichever side of the Atlantic - are going to treat these gentry with kid gloves. We need all the help we can get. And McAllister’s a good man, with a lot of influence in odd places, and his ear to the ground. And he’s got a workshop at his disposal, too.”
Dex nodded; it made perfect sense, even if being driven back to Glasgow through a howling gale by Polly was not in the least how he’d have preferred to spend what remained of the evening. But Joe was right; the news that the safe might have been compromised (and, he thought fiercely, not through his own folly, thank God) changed everything; the personal was a luxury none of them had time for now.
“And what about me?”
Joe looked at Polly, and smiled. “Well, don’t you think it’s about time you started to investigate some of the names on this list? And since you’re on the right side of the Atlantic as it is, why don’t you start with -“
His finger landed squarely on the paper.
“Our friend the English baronet.”
Polly spread her hands helplessly. “And how do you suggest I go about that, then? “Hello, Sir Mosley, I’m just over from the States, and I wanted to interview you about this international conspiracy you seem to be part of?” Something like that?”
Joe’s smile had something devilish about it. “Not quite. You see, this particular baronet - and it’s “Sir Oswald” not “Sir Mosley”, Polly, you’ll have to mug up on that sort of thing if you’re going to be mixing in those sort of circles - just happens to have a distinguished war record. In the RFC. Which means while I don’t happen to know him myself, I most certainly know a man who will. As soon as I can put through a call to Leicestershire, I bet Charlie Cook will have an idea about how best to introduce you to him.”
He cast a quick impersonal glance over both of them. “Anyway, I’d best be on my way. See you two at the aerodrome.”
He was gone without a backwards glance, and the roar of the motorcycle soon faded into the noise of the storm. Polly stood by the table, tapping her heel impatiently, as Dex threw the mixed heap of clothes he’d been able to sweep up into his kitbag, doused the fire, and, before quenching the lamp, allowed himself a last, thorough, unobtrusive look around the bothy, as though every last whitewashed stone of the place would not be permanently imprinted on his memory for as long as he might live.