Chapter 1 - Underground by A.J. Hall
Every light in the Tube carriage went out. The train’s speed increased, rocking wildly from side to side, plummeting onwards down the pitch-black tunnel. A pandemonium of sounds arose all around; Lois shoved her sleeve into her mouth to avoid adding her own screams to the medley.
So this is how the world ends.
She had been waiting for death for so long, sensing it in every shadow, every sip from a glass left momentarily unwatched, every stranger’s eye. Since that day when she had slipped another woman’s contact lenses into her eyes, and seen the world forever changed, her enemies had pursued her. To secure their safety, she must take her secrets to the grave.
Often, over the last few months, she had contemplated putting an end to this exhausting, agonising farce. Only some last flicker of defiance - an unspoken pledge, made to those who had not sought death but who had found it nonetheless – stayed her hand.
Now, it seemed, a Tube accident was about to frustrate the intentions of pursuer and pursued alike. A final violent shudder of the carriage flung her clean out of her seat. She slid across the carriage floor; her head collided with something solid and she came to a sickening stop.
“I said, how many fingers am I holding up?” The other woman’s voice had the less endearing qualities of a pneumatic drill. It seemed to be less than six inches from her left ear.
“’S dark,” Lois muttered resentfully.
A pause. Then the sudden arcing beam of light, stabbing into her pupils, and a dark, silhouetted shape of an outstretched hand against the glare.
“Two!” she gasped. The light flicked off.
“Got that mini-Maglite out of a cracker,” the woman said. “Fits on my key ring. You’d be surprised how often it comes in handy. Still, since we don’t know how long we’re likely to be stuck here, I s’pose I’d better save the battery. Feeling sick?”
“A bit.” Talking helped. Disconnectedly, Lois wondered how long it had been since she had last had a conversation.
“Mm. That was one hell of a bang you gave yourself. You were out for half a minute. Here, let’s have a look at the damage.”
Cool, slender fingers parted her hair, explored along her scalp.
“That where it hurts? Not surprised. It’s bleeding like a pig, and coming up in a lump already. Feels like something out of Tom and Jerry. Better get you round to casualty, when they finally get us out of here.”
Terror flooded back, viscous as treacle, almost choking her voice in her throat.
Don’t let them notice me – don’t do anything to attract attention.
“I’ll be fine –”
“Not with bloody concussion, you won’t. And I should know. I’ve been designated first-aider to more companies than I can shake a stick at, me. You need an X-ray, first, and then a day lying down in a darkened room.”
How could she lie immobile while the pursuit closed in? Annoyance at the woman’s lack of perception roughened her tone.
“I can’t take a day -”
“Who do you work for, Scrooge and Marley Holdings Inc.? Anyhow, we aren’t off this train, yet. Time to worry about that sort of thing when we’re back on the surface. And – yes – hang on tight! We’re off!”
With another bang and a succession of screeches the train started to move again. The lights came on, flickered, and then steadied. She looked across the carriage at the other woman; a tall, bony redhead with a determined expression, who stretched out a hand to pull her from the carriage floor.
“Donna Noble. No – don’t sit there; it’s what you bashed your head against. You’ll get your blood all over your skirt. Try next to me. For all their faults, you can’t accuse Transport for London of wasting money on rolling stock, can you? This carriage must be older than my Granddad. I temped at the Transport Museum in Covent Garden once – best lunchtime shopping I ever had – and they’d got one of these in for restoration then. Elm slats on a cast iron frame. You’ll have a headache tomorrow.”
The headache had already arrived; it spread out from the site of her injury, stalking like some fiery demon from the Pit down to the last extremity of her nerve endings.
Lois pressed her fist hard against her mouth and hoped the next station would arrive before she vomited her guts onto the – apparently antique – floor of the carriage.
“Hold on, kid. Can’t be much further now.”
She leaned against Donna’s supportive shoulder. Through the defensively shuttered slits of her tormented eyes the lights of a station showed ahead down the tunnel. The train shuddered to a halt – she heard distant shouts – doors opening – felt the cool draught on her own face –
“Oh, Christ, no.” Donna’s voice. Lois had heard intonations like that before. She had hoped never to hear them again.
Fighting the overwhelming presence of her headache, she muttered, “What?”
“The station. It can’t – well, look for yourself. At the name sign.”
Lois forced her eyes open. “British Museum? I don’t - is that a new one?”
“No.” Donna’s voice had the cold flatness of someone trying very, very hard not to scream. “Quite the reverse. “
“It’s a very old one. So old, it turned up its toes and joined the choir invisible, well before the war. Ties in with the carriage, doesn’t it? So – whatcha reckon? Are we dead, mad or back in 1932?”
“’S when this place closed. According to the Transport Museum records, anyway.”
Lois shook her head, and wished she hadn’t. Over the rising tide of pain she found herself saying, very steadily, “Can you see any cameras or mikes or anything?”
Donna exhaled, a juddering sound of relief. “Silly me. I hadn’t thought of that. That must be it. They’ll be filming an episode of Poirot, or something.”
But there were no cameras visible when they alighted from the platform. Furthermore, no-one who had been prey for as long as Lois had been could mistake the alert, hostile, dangerous expressions of the crowd through which they pushed towards the exit. Worse, the lecherous expressions on most of the men; even her perfectly undistinguished knee length skirt and scoop-necked top were shockingly revealing compared to the clothes worn by the handful of other women in sight.
The two of them were marked game. It was only a matter of seconds before the hunt would be up.
Donna gripped Lois’ upper arm tight, unobtrusively supporting her. Out of the corner of her mouth she hissed, “Head up, back straight. And smile.”
They made it to the lifts.
Just as the doors were closing a little man, with wispy grey hair, clutching an over-stuffed attaché case in his arms, squeezed into the lift with them. He eyed them both with alarm and then, tucking the attaché case under his left arm, punctiliously raised his hat with his right hand.
For one endless second it seemed he had got away with it. And then, in apparent slow motion, his attaché case slid down his body, crashed to the floor of the lift, split open, and they were enveloped in a blizzard of paper sheets.
Donna’s elbow hit a button on the lift panel; it creaked to a sudden stop. Both Lois and the little man looked at her in alarm; she beamed.
“Don’t want a mob of passengers rushing in and trampling your stuff, Professor, do we? They can wait five minutes. No – it’s simpler if you leave it to me.”
Something peculiar seemed to have happened to her accent; she now sounded as if she’d taught herself English from an ancient copy of Brief Encounter.
She pulled out the Maglite again and, with brisk efficiency, hunted down the escaped paperwork and reassembled it into an ordered bundle. She presented it back to the little man, who seemed somewhat dazed.
“There you are,” she said cheerily. “All present and correct. Though your publisher won’t love you for presenting him with a manuscript in longhand.”
The little man blinked at her. “Thank you. Thank you very much indeed. Ah – and who do I have the honour –?”
“The name’s Noble. Donna Noble. And my companion – ah – is ‘Miss Smith’.”
Although she didn’t do the finger-wiggling thing, the quotation marks were clearly audible. The little man blinked again.
“Hector Raeburn. May I invite you ladies to take tea with me to restore all our nerves? There’s a splendid little tea-shop round the corner from the Museum.”
“Spiffing idea. We’d be absolutely thrilled.” Donna hit the lift button and it creaked into life again.
The tea-shop had more pretensions than Lois expected; waitresses in sharp black uniforms and starched caps, potted plants in huge Benares brass bowls on the floor, and a string quartet in a little niche.
Raeburn – Doctor Raeburn? Professor? The symbols and formulae on his scattered paperwork certainly argued against his being a plain Mr – saw them seated at a secluded corner table.
“Order what you like, my dears. A pot of China tea and digestive biscuits for me. I’ll be back momentarily.” He bustled away, muttering something indistinct about alerting his publishers he’d been delayed in “that dreadful Tube business”.
“So there was a real railway accident,” Lois said, and then halted, arrested by the unexpected echo of her words from Donna, and by their time-smoothed familiarity on her tongue. A quotation, no doubt, but what the hell from?
“Seems like.” Donna waved at a waitress. “Full afternoon tea, please. All the trimmings. Ham sandwiches, egg-and-cress rolls, honey, crumpets and lashings of butter.”
“What? He said, and I bleeding well quote, ‘Order what you like’. And unless you’re a random numismatist carrying a stash of old shillings in your knickers, this could be the last chance at a decent meal either of us gets for the foreseeable future. So I, for one, am going to take advantage while it lasts.”
Lois gulped. Clearly the blow on the head had slowed her thinking down more than she’d bargained for. Thank God fate had thrown her into company with Donna, who clearly had street-smarts enough for two of them, and a finished ability to dissimulate. As to which –
“And about the ‘Miss Smith’ business -?” she enquired.
Donna shrugged. “Well, you hadn’t given me any other name I could introduce you with. And, anyway, don’t take this the wrong way, but –” She leant over the table. “You’re not exactly inconspicuous. And I wouldn’t reckon on the lot round here taking an enlightened view on race relations, either. Look at it this way. If we’d fetched up in Berlin rather than London, odds are we’d have tripped over Goebbels and Hitler planning their election strategy in some dodgy beer cellar by now. ”
Odd, how someone validating one’s own perceptions could make one feel so utterly terrified. Lois managed a small, tight nod and found she was clutching a teaspoon so tightly her knuckles were clamping.
“But still, why the name?” Her voice came out as a betraying squeak. Donna shrugged.
“Human nature, isn’t it? If you want to be treated as a human being, best make sure they think you’re a princess. And that they think they’ve worked it out for themselves.”
“‘Miss Smith.’” This time she did do the finger-waggle. “Roedean and Somerville College, travelling incognito by request of the Embassy and Special Branch. Looking into Western hospital and education projects, so she can introduce them in her own country when she marries her cousin and ascends the throne. Happens all the time in Poirot.”
“But someone’s bound to guess I’m an imposter –”
“Don’t see why. They never do in Agatha Christie – at least, not until Hercule Poirot shows up and says, ‘Ah! I applied ze leetle grey cells and I deduced from ze state of her knees zat she was in fact a French jewel thief!’”
“That’ll be helpful –”
“C’mon – how many Poirots do you meet walking around the streets on your average Thursday – or whatever day of the week it is here?”
“So, Sir Hector, are these the charmin’ ladies you mentioned?”
The speaker - a sardonic, yellow-haired young man with a monocle – was standing next to their host. Sir Hector gestured at him in a flustered way.
“Miss Noble – Miss Smith – may I introduce you to Lord Peter Wimsey? He’s been at the BM Reading Room collating a manuscript of Hermes Trismegistus. I happened to bump into him in the street and thought he might care to join us.”
Liar. From her body language, Lois could tell Donna had made the same judgment. The redhead’s smile became shark-like.
“What a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lord Peter. Though I’m afraid we’re not at our best, at present. ”
“So I can see.” He leant forward across the table. “Nasty lookin’ cut you’ve got there, Miss Smith. Should have it seen to. Can never tell how head wounds will turn out. Chap in my outfit in the war had his scalp creased by a bit of shrapnel – left his helmet off, the silly ass – and swore blind it hadn’t done him any harm. Might have believed him if he hadn’t kept asking the C/O whether there was any news of the relief force getting through to Mafeking. Always best to check. May I?”
A long-fingered white hand – dry and with a surprisingly firm grip – shot out to catch her chin.
“Miss – ah – Noble. Sir Hector tells me you’ve a useful sort of little electric torch in your bag, what? May I borrow it?”
Donna, plainly, restrained whatever she might have been planning to say with an effort. Tight-lipped, she passed the Maglite over and – after a preliminary fumble switching it on – Lord Peter shone it into each of Lois’ eyes in turn.
“Hm. Don’t like the look of those pupils at all. I’d say we should be getting you somewhere we can have you looked at properly.”
“I’m fine –”
“I’m not sure you are, you know. Try answering a simple question. Um – today’s date?”
Lois’ mouth dried up. “I – ah – that is – ”
“Thought so.” Lord Peter rose to his feet. “Sorry to deprive you of your tea, but I think we need to take you somewhere we can get you medical attention. My flat’s only a short taxi ride away. And my man can make up for any deficiencies on the crumpet front. Does splendid muffins. And there’s a Bradenham ham in the larder, if you’re in need of something more substantial. Sir Hector – I know your publishers will be pantin’ to see you. Can I take over the care of these ladies?”
The little man nodded, still looking rather bemused.
“Excellent. Well, lead kindly light.”
Lord Peter offered an arm to each of them and paraded them ceremonially towards the tea-shop door.
Lord Peter’s flat turned out to be an insanely generous acreage of book-lined space overlooking Green Park. He solicitously handed them to deep leather armchairs. A frostily efficient manservant brought warm water, soft flannels and iodine and made an efficient job of salving Lois’ head.
After the man had finished and withdrawn, Lord Peter nodded towards the sideboard. “Might I pour you a brandy? Good for shock.”
Donna sat very straight on the edge of her chair, as though daring its comfort to soften her resolve. “None of that, until we know what your game is. You pick us up in a tea-shop – for all I know you and this ”Sir Hector“ might be in it together – you bring us back to your flat – you offer us spirits – I don’t fancy waking up in steerage on a slow boat to Latin America, thank you very much. So if that’s your game, you can stuff it.”
Lord Peter looked amused. “A devotee of the News of the World, I see. But if that were my ”game“, as you call it, you’re hardly the ideal candidates –” He came to an abrupt halt and flushed, like a man who has very nearly committed an unpardonable gaffe. Donna gave him a very beady stare indeed.
He coughed. “Perhaps we should begin again from the beginning.” He stretched up a hand and pulled Who’s Who down from a shelf – the 1928 edition, Lois noted, glad of any chance of orienting herself. “Permit me. ”
The entry for Sir Hector Raeburn, FRS ran to a column and a half, the vast majority of it being taken up by learned societies and honorary degrees.
“As you can see, Sir Hector’s a formidable physicist. If – perhaps – a few of his recent theories concerning time and space have caused some of his colleagues to break out into the odd bit of tut-tuttery over the SCR port. But – ah – he is strictly a theory man. You bothered him, Miss Noble. So he came tearin’ across to the BM to see if I could help out on the practical side. Having had a bit to do with inventions on the secret list, one way and the other.”
“Inventions on the secret list? What?”
He nodded towards Donna’s bag. “Sir Hector, from his glance at that torch in the Underground lift, thought it might have been stolen from a top-secret research establishment. Once I got to look at it, though, I could tell nowhere in the country could have manufactured it – though there’s a place in Cardiff that might have found it - and if any of the Continental Powers are that far ahead of us, then we’re in more trouble than we thought. Disquietin’, very.”
“Must have been.” Donna pulled the mini-Maglite from her bag, and turned it over and over on her palm. Lord Peter watched her every move. Then he leaned forward in his chair, steepling his hands beneath his chin.
“One simple question, Miss Noble and Miss - ah – Smith. Are you spies, aliens or from the future?”
Lois gulped. The mention of Cardiff had been nerve-jangling enough – though surely it must be a coincidence? But this –
Donna’s voice cut through her thoughts. “Can I borrow a newspaper?”
Lord Peter nodded, unsurprised. “The Times do for you?”
“If you haven’t got anything decent, it’ll have to.”
He rose, walked over to a corner table, and picked up a newspaper, tossing it lightly across to her. She glanced at the front page and nodded. “3 September 1929.”
She glanced round the room, at the leather-bound volumes on the shelves, the paintings on the primrose-yellow walls.
“Rich man, aren’t you, Lord Peter?”
He ducked his head. “Revoltingly. Might even run to buns for tea.”
“You promised us muffins. To say nothing of ham. And, now I know you aren’t likely to slip a mickey in it, I’d prefer something a damn sight stronger than tea, while you’re at it. But leave that aside for a minute. Got any investments in America?”
He eyed her narrowly before answering. Then he nodded, slowly. “The odd one or two.”
“Well, if you want to stay rich, I advise you to liquidate them by the end of the month. That may not answer your question now, but just wait a few weeks.”
His eyebrows went up. Then he walked slowly over to a bureau and unlocked it. He pulled out a note and scanned it for a moment. Then he gave it to Donna.
“Advice from an old friend. Came only this morning.”
She pursed her lips, then read aloud, “The old US markets seem to be getting a bit overheated at the moment. On the strict q.t., we’re getting out of there for a couple of months, till we can see which way the cat jumps. You might want to consider doing the same. Fancy taking in a show and a spot of dinner some time? Freddy.”
“I’ve never known anyone scoop Freddy on a bit of City gossip. You’re not predicting it, you’re remembering it – no, don’t tell me the precise date. Or any other details. There’s a Buchan novel where it does people no end of bally harm to have a glimpse of the future.”
Lois concentrated hard to stop her voice trembling. “We’re not safe, are we? It’s not just – ” She stopped herself just in time from saying “Torchwood”. “It’s not just Cardiff who’d be interested.”
Lord Peter eyed her with cool dispassion. “You’re worth more than a brace of frigates to any of six separate foreign powers. And twice that to HM Government, who might well take the view that possession is nine parts of the law.”
She tensed. Lord Peter made a soothing gesture with those beautiful pale hands.
“However, as Miss Noble has pointed out, I am a very rich man. And even if I weren’t, traffickin’ in human flesh is wrong whether it’s putting young women on a cattle boat to Buenos Aires or into a secret research station in the depths of Wiltshire. Look here; I’ll square Sir Hector, and we’ll find somewhere you can keep your heads down while we work out what to do next. I’ve somewhere in mind but – I don’t suppose either of you happen to know anything about secretarial work?”
“I should jolly well think I - ” Donna began, but Lois raised a hand.
“My last engagement in that line was in Downing Street. Obviously in the circumstances I can’t give references –”
Not least because any honest reference would have to include “Smashed the Official Secrets Act into smithereens on her first day, implicated the entire Cabinet in class-based genocide and conspired to depose the Prime Minister.”
Though Lord Peter didn’t have to know that.By the time 2010 rolled round, he’d have been long dead.
Lord Peter blinked. “I understand,” he said, an odd note in his voice. “And doubtless Miss Noble has equally impressive credentials, what? I’ll drop my friend Miss Climpson a line directly. I’m quite certain she’ll be able to find a role for you both in her bureau.”
He rang the bell. “Bunter, a bottle of the Pol Roger. And four glasses.” As the manservant withdrew to fetch it, he added, “Not usually a champagne drinker. But the occasion seemed to call for it.”
The cork came out with a satisfying ‘pop’. Bunter poured; Lord Peter raised his glass high.
“To Miss Smith and Miss Noble.”
“To us,” Lois echoed. Donna’s eyes sparkled wickedly.
“To us – the best temps ’29 will ever see!”