Knaves over queens, p.17
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.17

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘They’re jokers, you mean?’

  Foxton just spreads his hands, sorry. Charlie wants to say something, but his own issues here really have nothing to do with this horrible little panto. He’s gained, he supposes, a measure of fellow feeling for those with the wild card virus since everyone started to think he was one of them.

  ‘That’s it, then.’ Suddenly, David is smiling, broad and empty. He stands and sticks out a hand towards Foxton, stiff and meaningless. ‘Take care of yourself, Sebastian.’ Suddenly, he himself is playing a part.

  Foxton looks panicked, but, especially with Charlie present, feels he can’t say anything. He watches David go back to his band, slapping their shoulders and bursting out laughing. ‘It’s … for the best,’ he concludes at last.

  ‘I’d say so. You couldn’t take them to Hollywood, could you? You have been having adventures down here.’

  ‘I’m a supporter of the jokers, you can’t come down here and—’ He suddenly stops himself, takes a drink. ‘Oh, what’s the bloody point?’

  ‘If it’s any consolation,’ Charlie says, ‘he doesn’t seem the type to support any cause after it stops suiting him.’

  ‘Still, he felt he could afford more compassion than I think he can.’ Foxton looks grimly at Charlie. ‘Why are you here? Really?’ The hangers-on no longer want to be near their table, but have given them the respect of a certain distance now, as friends of David’s. They can talk freely.


  ‘Oh. And I thought I could get away from the office for one night. Are you here on orders?’

  Charlie just raises an eyebrow.

  Foxton sighs. ‘What do you want to know?’

  Charlie wants to ask why they were breaking into a cavalry captain’s house in the first place, but the DG would already know that, and would have briefed him. ‘Go over it again for me. What happened inside the flat?’

  ‘I was watching from the park across the road. We had no idea the owner was home: the place was dark. Not that it mattered, Ruskin’s good at his job. He should have been able to get in, do it, and get out without waking anyone. Two minutes into the operation, I saw the bastard enter the front room. Ruskin had left the curtains open, on orders. There he is, framed in the door, suddenly, right behind Ruskin, who’s still rifling through the desk. He hadn’t even switched the light on, and Ruskin hadn’t heard him enter. I gave the bird call for “get out”. But like a shot, the man grabs Ruskin, puts him in an arm lock.’

  ‘And then he zapped him?’

  ‘That’s the strange thing. I’m about to get out of there and call it in, but then the target lets Ruskin go. Ruskin is talking to him, saying something, maybe trying to distract him long enough to get out of the window, so I stay: I have to be ready with the car. Only then the target starts talking at some length himself. He looks desperate, it looks like he’s trying to persuade Ruskin of something. He’s marching around the room, making big gestures. Ruskin could have got out of the window, but he doesn’t, he’s just standing there, listening, and he looks amazed.’

  ‘Does Ruskin know why he’s there? I mean, the case background?’

  ‘Of course not. He’s just a dog. What sort of amateur do you think I am? Anyhow, this insane conversation continues, until suddenly the target seems to realize something. He starts to shout and point at Ruskin, as if only now is he angry at him. Ruskin jumps for the window and … pow.’ Foxton shivers visibly at the memory. ‘The thunder shattered the window. The light … it was like I was looking into an arc lamp. I was stumbling about. I thought I’d been blinded. But slowly some vision returned, and I could see what had happened. Ruskin was lying half in and half out of the window. He was burned all over. There was smoke coming off him. I went and called it in. That’s it.’

  Charlie believes him. He finishes his drink, and watches as the tension drains from Foxton, as he feels absolved. Charlie isn’t sure how he feels about that. He gets up and looks back to see that David is surrounded by his joker friends. Foxton is looking over at them as if he’s aching to say something that he now can’t, that he never will.

  Charlie leaves them to it. He salutes the bouncer at the door, and the joker wishes him a good night.

  He’s got a long walk ahead of him, maybe even as far as Bank Station if he can’t find a stray cab. The night bus, the stop for which is a mile away upriver, isn’t due for another hour. So he uses the little compass in his wallet to find north and starts idly picking his way through the streets, considering that conversation. What would a petty criminal and a cavalry officer find to talk about, particularly in those circumstances?

  But here, what was this, approaching down the middle of the high-sided street, its engine echoing loud enough to wake the kiddies? There actually is a night bus that comes down here, one he hasn’t heard about. And there’s a stop for it too. It’s a welcome sight. Charlie heads for the stop and hails the bus.

  The stop somehow turns towards him and suddenly Charlie has a knife at his throat. Then there’s a bag over his head. He can hear a bunch of people around him now, as if they appeared out of nowhere. Did they get off the bus? ‘Hoi!’ he shouts. ‘I’m not fighting you! Leave it out!’

  He’s lifted off his feet, and a second later is winded by landing on a cold metal surface. Did nobody in the bus see all this? Did he just get ambushed by a … pirate bus? But the floor of a bus would be smooth, wouldn’t it? This is more like a van. And the engine sound has altered too. Yeah, suddenly he’s in a van. He tries to sit up, and strong hands help him with that. He’s shifted to sit straight against the side. He lets them do it. He appreciates the lack of punching.

  The journey takes about half an hour. He tries to strike up a conversation, but whoever’s in here with him doesn’t respond. He’s pretty sure that if this were someone playing for the other side, he’d have been drugged already. Also, all this would be an enormous risk to take for a small fish like him. He’s been briefed on how to resist torture. For a couple of days at most. He pushes that thought aside. The sounds outside indicate they’re heading back to Central London. Then the sounds change, as if they’ve gone underground, maybe into a garage. An embassy? No, don’t leap to conclusions that make your stomach lurch, Charlie. The van stops, he’s pulled out and marched along, his hands held in one firm grip. They get into a lift, then get out and he’s dropped, with reasonable gentleness, into a plush armchair. He hears the door close and a moment later the bag is pulled from his head.

  Charlie finds himself looking into the literally stony face of Brigadier Sir Kenneth Foxworthy, commonly known as Captain Flint. The brigadier does not look best pleased. Charlie isn’t all that pleased himself. ‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he says, allowing a tinge of sarcasm to be audible, ‘but I’m with Box. I know exactly where we are.’ Which is in Foxworthy’s office in the MI7 building near Regent’s Park. ‘So, can I ask, sir, was the bag really necessary?’

  ‘It’s not about where you are, Soper. It’s about who brought you here and how.’ Foxworthy’s voice, so often heard on radio and TV, and so well imitated by Peter Cook, always made Charlie think of the sound from a stylus on a record before the music started playing. As if he hadn’t seen the briefs on all the members of the Silver Helix as they were updated. As if his lot didn’t keep a close eye on their lot.

  ‘I’ve signed the Act, sir.’

  ‘Silver Helix operations are UK eyes ultra, and well you know it, lad. Drink?’

  ‘Glass of milk, please, sir.’

  ‘You’ll take a brandy and like it.’

  Foxworthy shoves an appropriate glass into his hand and when Charlie sees the label on the bottle a moment later he decides this is probably the best idea after all. He tries and fails to stop his hand shaking. He finds a line from Roger Moore. ‘I take it you wanted to see me, sir?’ Being in a small room with the bulk of this man is quite unnerving. It’s like sharing a loo with a bit of Stonehenge. And the man’s reputation adds another level of nervousness. Stone
henge isn’t about to rip your ears off for looking at it in a funny way.

  ‘Obviously. What were you doing at the Prospect of Norway?’

  ‘I went for the music, sir.’

  ‘The music was over by the time you got there.’

  ‘Unlike yourself, sir, I was misinformed.’ So they were watching Foxton that closely? Why? What did the Silver Helix have to do with all of this?

  Foxworthy puts a large granite hand on Charlie’s shoulder. ‘Let’s get straight to the point, shall we? You are a meaningless little apparatchik. What is your interest in Foxton?’

  Charlie throws back his brandy. He’s decided that he’s going to need every bit of Dutch courage he can get. Because this bloke has now irked him. ‘You first, chum.’

  Foxworthy stares at him. He can’t have been talked to like that, Charlie thinks, in a very long time. ‘You will call me—’

  ‘You just said I was an apparatchik, like we’re already living like that lot in Eastern Europe. I didn’t appreciate that. I’m a duly appointed civil servant, answerable to my guvnor, who’s answerable to Her Majesty’s government. I do my best to act like a professional, within what’s allowed in a free country. I don’t go about abducting people. If you think that increases your authority rather than diminishes it, mate, we’re on the way to a dictatorship.’

  ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Foxworthy seems suddenly amused. At least he’s interested to hear the answer. Charlie thinks he’s got his measure now. Here’s one of these blokes who has to be above it all, who can’t lower himself to sustained anger at Charlie. He’s thinking he’ll hear him out, then surprise him with some considered, civilized violence. So right now is a bit of a test of how right Charlie is about the way the country’s going, and, like a witch underwater, if he’s correct that he’s right up the creek.

  ‘We all hear the mutterings about old colonels having conferences with skinheads and Blackshirts and the press barons. They’re starting to feel they’ve got Winston’s nod about “taking back control”. And depending on the time of night and how much he’s been at the –’ Charlie mimes throwing a drink back from a bottle, ‘they might get it and all. I’d say it’s time for those of us who move in professional circles to remain strictly within the rule of law. What do you reckon? Sir.’

  As he looks into the face of the White Cliffs of Dover, Charlie reckons his time might be up. ‘We have ways of making you talk, you know.’

  ‘Watch a lot of old war movies, do we, sir?’ Which is when Foxworthy finally snaps, and throws back an arm, ready to knock his block off. So Charlie says something else. Very quickly. ‘Trouble is, I don’t bleeding know anything. Not yet.’

  Foxworthy visibly restrains himself. He lowers his arm. He gives Charlie the slightest of nods. They understand each other now. Foxworthy has received an assurance from Charlie that he’ll also learn what Charlie learns. Which, thank Christ, turns out to have been the point of this kidnapping. Foxworthy turns to talk to a lampshade standing nearby. ‘Get rid of him.’

  Charlie has a good idea of just who all these obedient inanimate objects are, but that doesn’t mean he can spot them. He grabs for the brandy but misses as something is on him from behind, and the bag goes over his head again. He just hopes that this lot have an implicit understanding with their boss about precisely what ‘get rid of’ means.

  One very speedy and uncomfortable trip downstairs later, Charlie finds himself thrown bodily outside into the cold air of the freezing hours. He lands on the pavement. The door slams behind him.

  He takes off the bag and looks around, wondering if there is any clue to the presence of the tail he’ll presumably have from now on.

  He turns to look back up at the nondescript official building, where no lights are now on. They’re showing a wonderful commitment to saving energy. What does this all add up to? He hopes it’s worth the bruises.

  Charlie decides it’s too late to head home to the suburbs, and elects to walk back to work, where at least he’ll get a few hours’ kip under his desk.

  In the end, he gets only a couple of hours of blissful blankness before the noise of the cleaners disturbs him. Down here in the registers, the Hoovers make a fearful row. He hauls himself up and feels his bruises. Light is streaming through the high, dusty windows. It occurs to him that here is, of course, one further source of information about this whole business, and he just happens to be in the perfect place to find out about him.

  He heads to the night office, where Tom Pullman is just standing up and looking at his watch, ready to pass over guardianship of the red and black phones to the day officer as soon as you like, thanks very much. He looks up as Charlie approaches and smirks. ‘Look what the cat dragged in. One can only hope there actually was pussy involved.’

  ‘Meow,’ replies Charlie, bitchily. ‘Is Mavis in yet?’

  ‘’Course she is. Doesn’t sleep much at her age.’ Pullman indicates the door behind which the senior analyst keeps her office.

  Charlie knocks and obeys the call to enter. Mavis is at her desk, empty teacups stacked around her, possibly, given the size of her habit, only this morning’s. She’s got her head down over a red folder, a magnifying glass in her hand. One hand rises as if of its own accord, flaps to indicate that Charlie should sit. Charlie does her a small service in clearing a space to do so.

  At last she looks up. ‘I should make the time to get myself glasses,’ she sighs. ‘Left eye is short-sighted, right’s long. Fine for walking. But present me with dense text, and it is rare that I am not so presented, and I become an owl. Now. You’re in early. You’ve been out late. You’ve been up to mischief, dear heart. Speak.’

  ‘I’m interested in Captain Peter Faulkner of the Household Cavalry.’

  ‘Ah, Captain Lightning.’

  ‘Does he use an ace name?’

  ‘No, that’s my little noodle nickname for him. I have one for every ace we know of.’ And probably not one for me, thinks Charlie, because she’ll have realized exactly how the DG is making use of me. ‘He is at the centre of many people’s thoughts as we speak. Why yours?’

  Charlie decides to push his luck. If we’re in a climate now where the Silver Helix feel they can kidnap British citizens, why shouldn’t the DG be employing his own little fixer, above and beyond the terms which Mavis will have heard about? ‘I’m doing a bit of looking into, Mavis. You know.’ And he casts his eyes upwards in a gesture he can entirely deny the import of if push comes to shove.

  ‘Perhaps.’ And perhaps not. But she decides to be kind to him. Mavis has always had a soft spot for Charlie. Charlie thinks he might know where that is and all. ‘What do you wish to discover?’

  ‘What his habits are when he’s outside of barracks. His home life and all that.’

  ‘We keep a file. As we do on all aces and knaves and jokers of note. You’ll have been into the stacks already?’

  ‘Actually, Mavis, I gave in to my baser nature and came to you first.’

  She breaks into a smile, allows it to stay on her face. Mavis may have a feeling for him, but she’s not the sort to let that influence her. She’s just enjoying him now, in the moment. In another moment, she might well call the DG and ask under just whose authority Charlie is working. ‘A most kind affirmation, dear heart. And it has saved you a journey. Because Captain Lightning is not in the stacks. His file has been placed in the Special Pile.’

  The Special Pile was Mavis’s withering term for a locked cabinet at the end of the personnel section in which were kept files that had been deemed too sensitive for anyone with a security clearance of any kind to look at. The only person with a key was the DG, this being a system he himself had put in place. It was designed, he had said, to assist in mole hunts from above and at the same time shut down internecine investigations. It was a matter of legend that included in the SP were files the mere existence of which would be a matter of amazement to journalists. Box weren’t above keeping tabs on anyone, but did they really have
suspicious information concerning, say, Churchill himself? There’d definitely be a file on Harold Wilson in there. But this system allowed the DG to meet with both the PM and the Leader of the Opposition and say of course Box didn’t involve itself in party politics. ‘Ah. Out of bounds, then.’

  ‘’Fraid so.’

  Charlie gives her a look he’s practised in front of the mirror, heaves a sigh, and leaves, pausing at the threshold for maximum dramatic effect. But no, there’s nothing left he can say. The Special Pile is a dead end, but one that’s indicative. A sensible fellow would step away now, before he’s done anything incriminating. Is Charlie a sensible fellow?

  He spends the day at work, keeping his head down, thinking it over. At the end of the day he pops down the Dog and Duck, not a service pub, which is why he likes it, and spends a few pounds on the fruit machine while chatting up Ferdinanda, the barmaid with the unlikely name. She knows nothing of relevance, and he talks to her as if he is a sublimely free office clerk who’s looking forward to his holidays. With a few pints of Watney’s Red Barrel, it’s a sublime palate cleanser.

  Which is why, perhaps, Charlie finds himself across the road from a certain house in Kensington. It shows no sign of burglary. Box only hires the best. What’s he hoping to achieve here? He’s not entirely sure, until he sees the door open. Charlie has taken the course the Watchers run on basic surveillance. He doesn’t look away, just lazily steps forward as if he’d been walking along and had happened to look in that direction. It’s not late enough that the presence of a person on this pavement would be notable. His face remains a mask.

  The target, and this must be Captain Peter Faulkner, is too worried to pay any notice to his surroundings. He hasn’t taken the same course. He’s still pulling on a heavy mac, leather gloves on his hands, blond hair cut as short as you like, just a hint of sideburn in the military way. Then he’s off down the street, clop-clop-clop on those shiny shoes. He hasn’t taken a cab, so he’s going somewhere local. No riding the bus for this sort of man. Charlie lets his training move him and follows lazily, looking around normally then looking back. In the role he is now playing in his head, he is wandering home from the pub (which is not so far from the truth), dawdling to make sure the wife’s in bed when he gets there (which is).

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