2. Joe meets a brick wall in his search for Dex, and enlists an engagingly frank young lady to help him undermine it - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
“I dinna care,” the fierce old Scotsman said, jutting his chin out. “For all I know you may be -“
One arthritic finger reached out and tapped down on Charlie’s carefully-phrased letter of introduction.
“You may be a friend of the Squadron-Leader. No doubt. Aye, and doubtless you know the Commander, also. No doubt.”
His tone belied his words. He stared fiercely across his blotter at Joe.
“Nonetheless; I’m sorry that I find myself unable to assist you. For one thing, were I to have the information you were seeking - which I’m no admitting, ye ken - it would have been given to me in confidence, and I’m no the man to betray a confidence. And if ye’ve a regard for the Commander, then ye’ll no ask me to.”
There was, when all was said and done, no real answer to that. Joe leaned back in his chair; his face must be betraying his bafflement. With the hint of a grim smile McPherson brought the heel of his hand down on the brass bell on his desk.
A dark head poked nervously round the oak door; the secretary who had, a scant ten minutes ago, ushered him in.
“Miss Adamson,” McPherson said, “kindly show Mr Sullivan out.”
Once the door was safely closed behind them Miss Adamson risked a shy, ruefully friendly smile at him.
“Did he growl at you?” she enquired. “I was rather afraid he might. It’s the east wind, you know. I’m pretty certain it sets off his rheumatism, though of course he’d never admit he’s a sufferer. My Uncle Henry was just the same.”
Joe smiled back at her. Miss Adamson’s wide-set brown eyes, high broad forehead and general air of cheerfully agog interest in the world around her reminded him powerfully of a half-grown Labrador puppy.
“He growled,” he confirmed. “Something fierce.”
She looked sympathetic. “Oh, dear. I suppose that means he didn’t listen to your pitch, either.”
Joe raised an eyebrow. “Pitch?”
Miss Adamson’s hand went guiltily to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I must sound most awfully nosy. And my old headmistress would tick me off for using slang, too. I just guessed - well, you looked so disappointed when you came out of Mr McPherson’s office, I thought you must have been trying to get the Company to back you for something, and been turned down. We do get quite a few of them, you know. Usually it’s for quite dull things like patented reduction gears and suchlike, but we did get someone in last month who was trying to get sponsorship for an overland trek to Samarkand.”
She looked speculatively at Joe. He grinned at her.
“Not me. I was there week before last. Not somewhere I’m planning to go back to in a hurry. Not nearly as romantic as it’s cracked up to be. And absolutely not walking either. Have you seen those hills?”
Miss Adamson’s brow furrowed up, making her look even more like a Labrador puppy.
“Now you’re teasing me.”
He made his eyes wide and guileless.
“If you’ll take pity on me, since I’m all on my own in town this evening, and come with me to the movies I’ll tell you about it in the interval.”
Propriety warred with wistfulness in her expression. She looked shyly at him.
“I - ah - um -“
Joe’s smile was disarming.
“Please? It really would be a kindness. And despite appearances I am quite respectable, you know. Even Mr McPherson acknowledged that.”
She paused, and then, rather like a diver about to launch herself off the high board, gulped, grinned at him, and nodded. And then there was the sound of a door opening along the corridor. She made quick shooing gestures with her hands.
“Get going. If Mr McPherson finds you still here he’ll kill me. See you later. 6 o’clock at the Paramount in Renfield Street?”
Belatedly, as she whisked back into whatever cubby hole they kept her in during working hours, it occurred to Joe that she had been remarkably unforthcoming on how actually he was to find the cinema, and he wondered whether she was testing him; he had, after all. asserted his ability to find his way around the wilder corners of the Earth, and so she might reasonably assume that if he was as good as he claimed that finding a large cinema in the centre of Glasgow would be child’s-play to him.
It was, actually.
Miss Adamson (her name was Helen, she confided, when, vaguely mindful of the fact that he’d not actually got round to introducing himself earlier, he started to go belatedly through the formalities) was waiting for him, looking slightly apprehensive, as though she hadn’t been entirely sure whether he was going to turn up or not, and now he had wasn’t sure if to be pleased or anxious.
“I hope you haven’t seen this one before,” she said. “If you have, we could always try the Rialto - “
Joe reassured her. “Provided it isn’t wall-to-wall Mickey Mouse I’ll be happy.” His brows narrowed together. “Or women diving into swimming pools and making flower patterns in groups with their legs in the air. But other than that I’m easy.”
Helen giggled. “Actually, now you come to mention it I think that is what’s on at the Rialto. So this one had better be all right, I suppose.”
It was, actually; a enjoyably outrageous Gothic taradiddle, involving atmospheric thunderstorms, secret passages, multiple misunderstandings, plotters whose villainous convolutions owed nothing to any discernable rational motivations and a heroine who adhered rigidly to the Had I But Known school of thriller conventions. This, together with her refusal to trust anyone else in the entire movie with the notable exception of anyone who chose to telephone her anonymously to propose that she should meet him on her own at midnight in a remote place, led to her being involved in a seemingly unending sequence of concussions, kidnappings and life-threatening situations, from all of which the hero had to extricate her, at considerable personal risk and inconvenience and for no discernable payback in terms of gratitude.
Joe enjoyed it thoroughly.
Helen, too, presented a refreshing change from the women he was accustomed to taking to the movies. For one thing, she actually seemed to think that the object of the evening was seeing the film. She sat in rapt attention from the opening sequence to the final credits, occasionally turning to share a quick smile at one of the more far-fetched convolutions of the plot, but neither interrupting with irrelevancies or assuming that he might have his attention fixed on her presence, as opposed to whatever was happening on the screen.
In fact, it occurred to him about half-way through that it was, in some respects, reassuringly like going to a movie with Dex. Except that presumably Helen Adamson wasn’t sitting there busily working out how to recreate relevant special effects in real time within the limitations imposed by the laws of physics and without the benefit of discreetly hidden wires behind the scenes which could be edited out in the final cut.
Given that his major motive behind the evening was get Helen to answer the question, “Where does your boss keep his secrets and can you suggest the best way I can burgle it?” without her spotting that he’d asked it, he had not actually expected to enjoy himself.
And it was not just because he had yet to receive an answer to his unspoken question that he suggested she might like to join him for dinner at Rogano’s after the film.
Over dinner, the floodgates of her chatter opened. She had, she confided, been rather disappointed that the expedition to Samarkand had failed to gain approval; she had rather hoped to volunteer if it had got off the ground with Company support.
“Mind you,” Helen said, put her head on one side and looking at him with amused self-deprecation, “I expect I’d have had difficulty convincing the organisers that shorthand/typing were skills they absolutely couldn’t live without in the Central Asian Republics.”
Joe, from his experience superintending logistics and supply for several hundred men and a couple of squadrons of planes in a Far East war-zone, felt at liberty to disagree. And did so. Strongly.
“And what’s more,” he added, “next time I’m planning anything major in that neck of the woods, I’ll certainly bear you in mind.”
“Now you’re just being polite,” Helen said in a resigned sort of way. “Anyway, I’m not absolutely sure shorthand/typing is actually my forte. And I know the McGinty - sorry, she’s our office battle-axe, she superintends all the girls - doesn’t think so, either. And definitely not filing.”
Joe intimated that given what he knew about the Company in general, and Mr McPherson in particular, he hardly thought she’d be holding the position she did if her opinion of her talents was anything like justified.
She shrugged. “It’s nice of you to say so. But actually I don’t think I’d be here at all if I wasn’t some sort of third cousin twice removed of the founder of the Company.”
“Really?” Joe raised his eyebrows. “You’re related to Charlie and Franky Cook, then?”
Helen looked faintly surprised at his knowledge. “Well, pretty distantly, really. I don’t suppose I’ve seen either of them more than twice in my life. We don’t exactly move in the same circles, you know.”
She made meditative patterns in the white linen of the table-cloth with the tines of her fork.
“You see,” she said, “there were three sisters back in the 1860s or something. And the eldest married a man called Shuttleworth, and the next one married his business partner, who was a man called Cook. And the youngest one got in a panic about being left on the shelf, I think, and ended up running off with a penniless schoolteacher called Adamson who was unbelievably Worthy. And the Shuttleworths went in for being merchant princes and great inventors and making lots and lots of lolly - they’re the only ones still involved in the Company, these days. And then the Cooks went all death-or-glory and went off and all became admirals and generals and things and won VCs by the cart-load. And what did the Adamsons do? Settled down in a small town in Hampshire and concentrated on being gloomily respectable, and not risking their life savings by aping their betters and never owing a farthing to anyone and being proud to say no-one in the family had ever got in the newspapers except three times in their lives when they were born, married or died, that’s what. Huh!”
As she appeared sunk in gloom at the thought, Joe took the opportunity of topping up her wineglass.
She looked at it dubiously, but took a swig anyway. He briefly considered posing his burglary request directly, but rejected the idea. The Cook tendency to be fiercely loyal to their own might well inhibit her from acting directly against her employer, and he had gained enough respect for Helen Adamson’s brains over his brief acquaintance with her not to relish any prospect of turning her into an active enemy.
Skirting around the subject, he said lightly, “Anyway, I haven’t given up on McPherson yet. Tell me, how’s the best way of approach him when his rheumatism isn’t troubling him? Does he have any hobbies? What about golf?”
She looked faintly surprised. “You know, up to about a couple of weeks ago I’d have said he hadn’t an interest outside the Company. But you know what? He’s suddenly taken up Art, with a capital A, completely out of the blue.”
Joe’s pulse quickened. Two weeks ago - yes, the timing was too close for coincidence, surely. And if the dour McPherson had suddenly turned into an aesthete, then he, Joe, was a Dutchman.
“Art?” he said, with just the right blend of stunned disbelief and piqued interest in his voice. Helen nodded eagerly.
“I know; you really wouldn’t think it, would you? I’d have betted that he thought The Monarch of the Glen was the high watermark of Western art and culture. But a couple of weeks ago - Saturday afternoon - I went to the museum in Kelvingrove - it’s a jolly good place to spend Saturday, actually, if you’re at loose ends and want somewhere warm to go which doesn’t cost anything - and I spotted him going through the exhibition - really doing it slowly and making notes about the pictures and everything. I dodged him, naturally. I mean; I hardly wanted to have to make small talk with the boss on my afternoon off. But I thought at the time it was a bit out of character. And then, only this afternoon - after you’d gone - he had me run out and get him the catalogue for this touring exhibition of German painters that’s opening tomorrow at the Art School; that very avant-garde one the papers have had such a lot of fun being rude about - you know: women with green faces and too many - um, rather peculiar figures, and so forth - and made me send it to some friend of his, with a note saying that he hoped it might be of interest, and perhaps they could see each other there. And he’s actually taking the afternoon off, tomorrow!”
The tone in which she dropped this bombshell told its own story. McPherson had, presumably, taken a half day for the Armistice, and perhaps for the Coronation, but Joe had no doubt whatsoever that if he was taking half a day to inspect some collection of ghastly daubs which probably looked equally bad upside down as the right way up, as if anyone including the original artists themselves were able to tell the difference, that he must have a thumping good reason for it. And Joe was determined to find out what that reason was.
“Um,” he said thoughtfully, “art. Well, I’ll have to think about it. Perhaps I could try bumping into him accidentally-on-purpose there, and see if he was less sticky out of the office. Where did you say the exhibition was, again?”
She told him, together with the time of its opening. And then Joe casually allowed the conversation to drift onto other subjects. He enjoyed the rest of the evening, too. It was only when he had seen her safely home and retraced his steps to his own hotel that he allowed himself a fierce, exultant flicker of triumph. Despite Franky and McPherson’s best efforts to baffle him, he was sure he had picked up Dex’s trail. And he was not, if he knew anything about it, going to let it grow cold.