4. McAllister, realising Dex is being pursued, decides to intervene - Book Two - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Every joint in Dex’s body ached. Each breath he took had to force its way past the steel bands that somehow seemed to have been wrapped around his chest. He dipped in and out of consciousness, and swirled intermittently off into fever dreams, where creatures of nightmare became flesh, the walls of his rooms bulged in around him and the cracked and discoloured plasterwork of the sloping ceiling pressed down upon him as though he had been entombed alive.
There was a noise outside from the landing; his landlady’s protesting voice and another, deeper one raised in argument. The sound beat upon his aching head like hammer-blows.
The door opened, and a shaft of light cut across the room. He was unable to suppress a whimper of discomfort as it assaulted his over-sensitive vision, stabbing red-hot skewers deep into the recesses of his skull. He turned over, trying to bury his head in his pillows, just praying that whatever it was would stop. Just stop. And leave him to carry on dying, and the sooner the better; good riddance to him.
He became, dimly, aware that someone was shaking him by the shoulder. With an enormous effort Dex cleared his vision enough to blink stupidly up from his nest amid the sweat-soaked sheets and recognise his employer. An emergency, then, at the workshop, and a serious one, too: McAllister was not one to roust a sick man out of bed except in the direst need. Dex would swear to that.
“Wha-? What’s up? What do you need me to do?” He started up in the bed, and flung back the bedclothes, preparatory to swinging his feet to the floor. McAllister clucked solicitously at him, and pulled the bedclothes back over him with a firm hand.
“Don’t be over-exerting yourself, laddie,” he admonished him. “You’re going to have need of all your strength in a wee bitty while. Just for the moment, though, you lie back and Mrs MacMillan will be getting you a cup of hot beef-tea, for you to be drinking while we talk.”
Mrs MacMillan, evidently within earshot from her position on the landing, delivered herself of a loud snort. McAllister continued to look steadily in her direction, until with a flounce she admitted defeat, turning on her heel and storming off down the bare boards of the last flight of stairs which led up to this attic room. It was not until she had returned with the beef-tea, McAllister had closed the door firmly behind her, and Dex was propping himself up against the iron bedframe, cupping his hands around the tepid, greasy brew that the older man spoke again.
“I’m no the man to pry into another’s affairs, but it occurs to me that you may have left those behind in America you’d not be willing to have find out where you might be at present, is that not right?”
It took a second for his words to sink in. And then they did, and Dex had no need to blame the influenza for the sudden irruption of the stuff of nightmare into his life. For how could the old Calvinist engineer possibly comprehend what he had done, and why? Had he even heard, in his narrow existence bounded by idealistic philosophy on the one hand, and his rigid moral rectitude on the other, of the kind of man Dex was? And McAllister had been so kind to him, when he had needed a quiet, unpresuming kindliness more than anything else on earth. Somehow the fear that McAllister might feel his kindness betrayed hurt more, even, than the certain humiliation of being unmasked.
He tried, abruptly, to stutter something - anything - some form of explanation, at least. His throat was too choked with emotion and illness combined to get anything intelligible through, it seemed. McAllister put a hand on his arm.
“I said, I’m no the man to pry, and I meant it. Whatever brought you here’s between you and your conscience, laddie. As for me, you come vouched for by a man I have a long regard for - aye, even when it seems there’s scarcely an idea me and Davey McPherson have in common these days - and I’ve made my own observations, these past few days, also. And as I’ve said before, there’s a level of truth at the very heart of engineering that I think you’d be hard pressed to find in any other field of human endeavour. And you’re the finest engineer I’ve ever met in half a century of practice in the field. It’s no for me to question Providence, ye understand, but I’d no lightly believe ye’d be counted among the reprobate.”
He got up, almost bumping his head on the ceiling where it sloped down to the window, beyond the foot of the bed.
“Anyway, that’s by the by. As I said, your safety was entrusted to me by a man I have a regard for. And I’m not about to shirk a duty.”
Dex gritted his teeth and tried to focus. That was the trouble with influenza; not only did it leave you weak, aching and weary but somehow it also had the power to turn your brain into cotton candy.
McPherson shrugged. “It seems there’s been a man asking after you. And from what we can gather, it doesn’t seem likely he’s the laddie to have your best interests at heart, either.”
Dex gave a quick, strangled gasp; his mind squirreled round. Could the photographs have found their way into the hands of the authorities? But surely the Vice cops would hardly have followed him so far; be glad, probably, that he’d taken himself and his perversions off to be Old Europe’s problem rather than theirs. It was, his reading over the last decade had taught him, something of a tradition - at least, for those with enough money to indulge it. Except - his heart lurched. The prototype. If the authorities were brought to connect the two - to believe that he had connived at its theft, because of the hold over him those photographs represented - they would presumably be pursuing him for treason, not merely immorality - which meant a capital charge - the humiliation of trial first, for him and all of his, and then of course the chair -
His nerves twitched, reflexively, as though already feeling the voltage jolting through them.
But there was no guarantee that it was the authorities who were pursuing him. Those shadowy figures who had stolen the prototype in the first place must by now have discovered all there was to discover about its utility in hostile - or at least, uninformed - hands. They would, in all likelihood, be out for revenge for that alone.
Dex shuddered. Either way, he was too dispirited to run, and too weak to fight.
McAllister looked sharply at him, but continued unbrokenly with what he had been saying before.
“Anyway, I’ve not met him myself, ye ken, but I’ve had discussions with those who have. Davey McPherson says he came into his office, bold as brass, with a letter of introduction he claimed was from a man who was kin to one of the company’s founders; as if he expected Davey McPherson to be soft enough not to know the man concerned has been all but a recluse since he was crippled a few years ago, poor body, and not likely to be writing letters of introduction for anyone, still less some flash laddie in a Yankee suit. And then Wee Tammie brought me his story. Now, there’s a lad with his wits about him: I must have a mind to him. It’s no his fault his lot fell on the stony ground, and the seed is good, it seems. Something ought to be done. Anyway, it would seem I was followed, this afternoon, from my meeting with Davey McPherson. I had a suspicion such was the case, and Tammie got a good view of the man, and it would seem to be the same as approached Davey McPherson. Wee Tammie took a scunner to him, ye ken. “Voice like the BBC, but no just truly the BBC,” was his opinion. By which I take it that the accent was no his natural voice. Tammie said he was spending money like water and asking questions he’d no right business asking.”
There was a grim smile on McPherson’s face. “I understand he’ll be doing so in the Duke of Argyll this very minute. And no cheaply, at that. I’ve sent a man along to try to deal with it, but I’d not care to speculate what may have been let slip before he gets there. And it’s no secret that you lodge with Catriona McMillan.”
He looked speculatively at Dex, who was curled round himself trying to take it all in.
“So; it would be best if I found you alternative lodging for the time being. And we’ve no overmuch time. And as you won’t, it seems, be able to get there under your own steam, I’ve taken the liberty of arranging transport for you. And it’s on its way, so I’d best be helping you pack.”
“What -? Where -?”
McAllister, casting his eyes about, detected Dex’s kitbag and started stuffing clothes into it before resuming speaking.
“Ye ken that rush job we were working on before you took sick? The repairs to the gate for the sea-lock at Ardrishaig?”
Dex nodded; there was a sudden spurt of anxiety. “Did the men cope, after all? There was some tricky machining -“
McAllister grinned. “My hands don’t have so much of the rheumatics about them, nor is my back so stiff that I can’t pick up an oxyacetylene cutter if the need drives, even these days. And being the boss, ye only have to get your hands dirty the once and the men fall over themselves to show they can outdo ye; in skill and speed, aye. Yes; we finished the job. And it’s on a truck on its way to meet the Annie Laurie this very evening. And ye’ll be travelling with it.”
Dex tried to make his dulled brain focus. ” The Annie Laurie?”
McAllister looked rather as though he was attempting to explain the ABC to a rather backward six-year old.
“The puffer, ye ken. Skipper McKechnie’s boat. The finest outside boat in the West Highlands. She’ll be off doun the watter on the evening ebb. And I keep a wee bothy a step above Otter Ferry. A simple enough place, but well set-up for my needs. Times I go there to catch up on reading, and thinking. It’s easy enough to lose the still small voice among the bustle of the city. And I’ve an arrangement with the housekeeper at the manse nearby; if I send her a telegram she’ll see the fires are lit, and the bothy provisioned, oh aye, and she’ll step up the track to keep an eye on ye once McKechnie drops you off there. Doubtless it’ll be no more than for a day or so. The flash laddie will lose interest in throwing his dirty money about when he finds my people are no so cheap to buy as he thinks at present. And it’s a grand place for a convalescence. The air itself will set you up, without anything else.”
He finished throwing the last of Dex’s few possessions into the kitbag, and cocked his head on one side. There was a distant rumble, as of wheels over rough cobbles. To Dex’s fevered mind they were reminiscent of the tumbrils in the movie he’d seen of Tale of Two Cities , approaching to bring him to the guillotine.
“Well, laddie, we’d best be on our way.”
Supporting - indeed, half-carrying - Dex against his shoulder, McAllister took him down the multiple flights of stairs to Mrs MacMillan’s back door.
Dex’s final, inconsequential thought was that he’d left the last package of his carefully hoarded gum in the top drawer of the dressing table. But it seemed too much effort, and almost churlish to mention it. And then the lorry was upon them, and it was all too late.