'The Department of Logistics'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— In 1943. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker, secret lovers, ATA pilots, and members of Special Operations Executive, find themselves acting with agents of another secret British Government Department.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2017 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Warning:— There is a small amount of light swearing in this tale.
There was something strange, indeed very strange, about the Department of Logistics. For a start a permanent 'D' Notice covered its activities; which meant if any British newspaper had the temerity to refer to it by name, or discuss its doings, that editor and reporters responsible would find themselves in a dank cell in the Tower before they could plead the Fourth Estate; that get-out clause having no sway at all with the faceless mandarins of Logistics; particularly within that nasty sub-Division known as the '3 Months Committee'.
In the course of the War several new Ministries had been brought into operation, in order to oversee various aspects of Social Life and Public Safety in Great Britain during War conditions, under the aegis of the newly formed National Government; a firmer, more watchful, and more determined, overall governance needing to be put in place. Many were the off-shoots and unusual co-habitors which had been unexpectedly brought to life—somewhat akin to Mary Shelley's Monster, much against their will. The Dept of Logistics was not one such, having been in existence since the late 18th century; but, sensing the prospect of an even freer hand in the plum-pie of Society's doings than ever before, it now tended to take its duties a few unnecessary steps further than most of its newer and more restrained contemporaries.
The Department had always been, in and of itself, self-governing; responsible only to the Prime Minister of the day: and often to him only when and as the Department saw fit to define its activities in any particular area. At the present time, Friday, 3rd September, 1943, its attention was focussed on a particularly sensitive issue. It had recently come to the Departments' notice that a highly placed Minister close to, if not actually a member of, the Cabinet was a long-term traitor; passing information to the Nazi powers in Germany. They had no definitive evidence to pin the blame on any one individual; but had whittled the possibilities down to five men. Then the sub-Division responsible for field operations—the insipidly titled, but nevertheless extremely dangerous, '3 Months Committee',—had sprung into action; perfecting an intricate, indeed wholly Machiavellian, plan to expose the culprit. This necessitated sending all five Ministers, under cover of an important official inspection, to the barren wasteland at the top of the world known to all Naval personnel as Scapa Flow.
"And if we could just wrap a length of iron chain round his ankles when we've fingered his collar and quietly sink the b-st-rd in the Bring Deeps, I for one wouldn't cry." As an executive member of the '3 Months Committee' succinctly informed one of his fellow conspirators.
Ricky Mathews had few dislikes; but high on the list was working at night. To sleep through most of the day, only to rise in the darkness to stalk the earth like a vampire, as she cuttingly described their duties to her partner, was simply taking the piss, an' no mistake. Gabrielle Parker, on the other hand, was altogether more at peace with her world. If they had to rise from perfectly warm and cosy beds at an unforgiveable hour of the night; to wander round the chilly rainswept expanses of military Base J or even the narrow winding streets of Stromness or Kirkwall then, if it helped to hinder the Hun, it was alright by her.
This morning, for it was just after 1.30am, they sat in their Tilly pick-up in one of the winding streets of Stromness listening to the short sharp gusts of wind buffeting the vehicle and watching the raindrops running down the windscreen in squiggling lines. It was bitingly cold and both women sat ensconced in their sheepskin flying jackets, heavy gloves, thick trousers, and lined boots. This, of course, not in any way holding the New Zealander back from expressing her opinion of the situation.
"Dam' rain; dam' cold; dam' wind." She shivered dramatically, rubbing shoulders with her companion as she shuffled around in her seat. "God, there's a strong draft comin' in from somewhere round my ankles. G-dd-m it."
"Relax, sis." Gabrielle bared white teeth in a grin. "At least we ain't doin' the country run, along all those awful unmade tracks through the hills. Remember a month ago, when you ran the Tilly off the road axle deep into a bog, an' we had t'get a Matador t'pull us free? That was fun."
"Fun? I had t'trek over two miles t'find an army unit an' a phone." Ricky growled savagely in remembrance. "Even then we had'ta wait nearly another hour an' a half before the dam' truck arrived. An' the embarrassment; y'recall those goddam jokes the army boys insisted on spouting. I nearly clocked that dam' corporal."
"Yeah, I know." Gabrielle nodded sympathetically. "All the same, glad you didn't; it'd a meant a month in the glasshouse for sure. Anyways, what now? What's the time?"
"Nearly quarter to two," Ricky scrunched around, pulling the sleeve of her jacket back to reach her wristwatch. "just a couple of minutes short."
"Time t'head up to the Allington." Gabrielle sat forward, engaging the gears with their usual complaining screech, then hauling the wide steering-wheel round as she backed up to point the nose of the vehicle in the right direction. "God, these roads in the town are hardly more'n lanes, if that. Y'can barely get even this small van along 'em; an' the corners; well, y'can't see what's comin' round 'em, not if you tried ever so."
"Just take it easy." Ricky was in a cautious mood. "There'll be nothing but other military traffic at this time o' night; an' dam' little o'that."
It was not a long drive, to the almost new Moderne-styled Allington Hotel high on the side of Downie's Lane immediately behind and above the town. However, this morning, there were no less than three road check-points to negotiate before they could draw up on the tarmac covered forecourt; one at the exit from the town proper; one at the start of Downie's Lane; and the third barring access to the forecourt itself. But finally all checks of papers were complete and the women could climb out of their cramped van to enter the dimly lit foyer.
"Aarh, that's better." Ricky tugged her gloves off, flexing the muscles of her shoulders in the welcome freedom. "OK, what next?"
"Check in, then mosey along the corridors, makin' sure those dam' Special detectives are still awake." Gabrielle sniffed with some reserve. "An' remember, they're armed; so don't get cocky with 'em; they're the kind'a guys who'd shoot first, and dam' any questions."
"Well, we're armed too, ain't we?" Ricky snarled quietly as they waved at the receptionist, a young WAAF of all things, behind the counter and made their way to the flight of stairs leading to the upper floors. "This .45 Smith an' Wesson feels like a brick on my hip; I'm sure it's gon'na leave a blister."
"Quit complainin', will ya?" Gabrielle was leading the way to the third floor, where the group of recently arrived VIP's had been given berths. "OK, here's the Imperial Guard, so go easy lady. Hi'ya, how's things tonight?"
All five of the important visitors from London had been billeted in a sequential set of rooms on the third floor, guarded by no less than eight security personnel; who were, in fact, detectives from the Special Branch of Scotland Yard. "Only the Top Brass, for the Top Brass!", as Ricky had satirically mentioned to her better half on learning of these arrangements. There were also three grey anonymous mandarins from the Home Office; acting, apparently, as guides and mentors to the bigwigs—who were accommodated on the fourth floor, with an additional two detectives covering them. As Gabrielle told her loved significant other, 'It was all a dam' bore."
Sergeant Dickson, head of the group and one of the two on duty at the moment, twisted his lips into what he fondly thought of as a friendly smile. He was in his late twenties; five foot nine in height, and thin-featured; his normal expression being that of a suspicious hyena.
"All quiet." He glanced up at Ricky's face, then turned his attention to the more accessible blonde by her side. "What've you two been up to? Havin' a jaunt round the district? Anybody skulkin' in the town?"
"On a night like this, you got'ta be kiddin'." Gabrielle offered a wide smile, encompassing both members of the Constabulary. "Nothin' doing here, then? What, don't they even get up in the night t'visit the toilet?"
"They got en-suite fittings; don't need'ta leave their rooms." Dickson shrugged, with an air of contempt revealing itself in his thin tenor voice. "This here's some palatial pad, an' no mistake. I tell ya, when I was a kid, livin' at home in Bristol, we had to go to the end of the street to the toilet block that did for all the street residents. Victorian, it was; breezy, very public indeed, an' not even half-way hygenic. Jeez, now you got a toilet an' bathroom together in each room here, an' in a lot o'these new houses goin' up everywhere. Changed days, I tell ya."
"Yeah, well, That's modern life for you." Ricky moved her shoulders restlessly. "Right, if everything's hunky-dory here we'll just take a look upstairs, at the men from the Ministry. Who's on duty there?"
"Only MacGregor, at the moment." Dickson screwed his lips together in thought. "He'll be on till 2.30am, then Hopkins'll relieve him. I, an' Carter here, are on till 3.00am, if you're interested."
"Uurph, see ya tomorrow." Ricky wasted no more time in idle chit-chat, but gestured to Gabrielle by her side. "Come on. Let's see how the mandarins are doin'."
The fourth floor was carpeted in dark red thick wool, so footfalls were almost non-existent. The corridor ran along the front facade of the hotel, allowing a range of square windows to fill the space with daylight; when, of course, it was daytime. Now they were all hidden by thick heavy blackout curtains, and the few ceiling lights operating gave the long corridor an air of receding into distant shadows. Along towards the middle the women could see a figure standing outside one of the doors, and it was towards this goal they headed.
"MacGregor? How're things?" Ricky strode up to stand beside the tall man, a native of Scotland. "Any trouble?"
"Naw." His voice had a low rich twang that spoke of the Lowlands. "Ah'm thinkin' the chiel's are all weel asleep. An' yoursel's? Did ye have a richt fine run, oot in the drizzle?"
"I'm dam' glad we didn't need'ta get out an' walk anywhere in it, if that's what ya mean." Ricky laughed, liking the gentle sandy-haired man. "Not a soul movin' anywhere. A hour's run round the lanes an' backstreets, all t'no purpose. That's military life for ya. Never join the military if ya can help it, MacGregor."
The Scotsman's answer merely being a rolling burble deep in his throat that in his case did duty as a restrained chuckle, the women carried on to the end of the corridor where a small virtually unlit stairway led upwards.
"Why can't we go back an' use the main stair?" Gabrielle was always aware of the priorities when it came to comfort. "These tight twisting service stairs give me the willies; especially at night."
"God, woman, get a grip." Ricky growled low, pushing her partner ahead of her up the flight of uncarpeted stairs. "You know 'fine weel' as MacGregor would say, this leads direct to the roof door. Here, I'll turn the light on, for all the good it'll do; the bulb's about as strong as a day old lamb. We'll switch it off again at the top."
Finally reaching the corridor on the next floor they turned to the left and continued going upwards. After another two floors had come and gone they found themselves at the top of the flight, outside a large white-painted wooden door, supplied with a lock that looked as if it had recently done duty in the Bank of England. Ricky searched in her pocket for the key.
"God, they certainly don't want anyone t'open this door, do they?"
"It was replaced last week, so I'm told." Ricky finally found the item in question and dragged it forth into the dim light of Gabrielle's small torch. "Security for this bunch of characters who're interruptin' our beauty sleep. Nothin' too much trouble, apparently. Here, come on."
On opening the door they were instantly met by a flurry of slanting raindrops, assisted on their way by a following blustery breeze. Shutting the door they walked out onto the flat roof of the hotel. The space was rectangular; the whole building facing down the hill over the rooftops of Stromness and out over the water of the bay. Surrounded on all sides by a waist-high parapet, the only objects visible were a row of chimney stacks; marshalled like a squad of soldiers in line. They stretched along the near side of the roof; white-painted, about eight feet wide, and twelve feet in height, with six chimney-pots each. Otherwise nothing broke the smooth gravelly surface of the roof. Except, that is, for the small form of a human presence lurking in the lee of the third chimney stack to the left. This person, seeing their arrival, stepped out to meet them, extending a gloved hand.
"Hi, how's things in the metropolis?" Her voice was tenor, and trembling a little in the chilly air as she spoke through the upturned collar of her uniform greatcoat; the WAAF badge on her upper arm showing in the dim light of her torch. "God, it's dam' cold tonight."
"Hi, Susan." Ricky gripped the girl's hand, and shook it firmly. "Nothin' doin'. A washout, as usual. Had'ta come back early, Gabrielle here was complainin' about missin' her supper; y'know how she is about her food."
"That's not fair,—Hi, Susan. Don't believe a word; I can't take her anywhere, y'know." Gabrielle laughed, at ease with their friend. "She's such a chore, in this mood. So, seen any Hun planes tonight?"
The member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, Susan Camling, was all of twenty years of age and already a seasoned veteran of life at Scapa Flow; having been billeted there for the best part of a year. She was well used, by now, to the strange directives often emanating from the brasshats in command of operations in this highly sensitive area, so was in no way surprised to find herself on fire-watching duties on the roof of the hotel.
"Jerry, huh!" She pursed her lips in a sneer, shrugging her shoulders in the chill damp air. "I'm sure the last Jerry plane that overflew Scapa was a canvas-covered biplane, in 1912—and that was only because they'd lost their way t'Heligoland."
"Well, we're here t'relieve you now." Gabrielle grinned reassuringly. "Y'can head off to a warm cosy bed, an' leave Ricky an' me t'freeze for the next coupl'a hours. Who's on at four-thirty?"
"Think it'll be Francis Delaney."
"Oh, OK. See ya."
The door slammed shut behind the departing WAAF, leaving the two women sole proprietors of all they surveyed. The rising ground behind the hotel cut off all view in that direction; the women needing only to gaze skywards in front, over the rooftops of Stromness and the small part of the bay visible. Of course, all the mighty establishment of the multitudinous military bases, control towers, gun emplacements, balloon sites, and anti-aircraft guns were scattered wholesale across the rolling landscape—but, necessarily, at present invisible in the dark rainy night.
Ricky had taken control of Susan's binoculars as she left, and now spent a moment adjusting the lenses; not that there was much to focus on in the pitch darkness; the blackout being universal, and extremely strongly enforced around Scapa.
"Huh, not so much as the moon reflecting off a strolling cat's eye; not that there is a moon, anyway."
"Wha'd'ya expect; if anyone so much as allowed a sewing-needle ta prick their blackout curtain around here there'd be seventy ARP wardens on their backs before you could sneeze." Gabrielle sniffed contemptuously. "As if the Luftwaffe were gon'na send so much as a Storch reconnaissance plane t'have a shufti at things hereabouts. God, everybody, up to an' including ol' Göring, know three-quarters of the British military reserve's stationed on this damned island. They'd be idiots t'think of an air-raid."
"I'm with ya, sis." Ricky nodded in agreement. "Sometimes the Barrage Balloons are so numerous y'can hardly see the sky round here. Didn't know we had so many o'the dam' things."
"G-dd-m Balloons." Inadvertently a delicate spot in Gabrielle's armour had been touched. "Was it my fault I had'ta fly low over Kirkwall, three months ago? It was the following wind; I had'ta swing round into it, t'land. And then, as a result, I dam' near clipped the cable o'that Balloon on the outskirts. Dam' near crapped myself."
"I think I did, baby." Ricky wrinkled her lips in a sneer. "Please don't do that again. I can live without that kind'a surprise."
As the irate blonde paused to formulate a comprehensive reply there came, from under their feet, the faint tinkling of a sustained electric bell ringing continuously.
"What the Hell, that's the air-raid warning in the hotel." Ricky glanced at her partner in dismay, then raised the binoculars to her eyes and swept the horizon all round. "Nothing. No lights; no silhouettes; no noise. Can y'hear Jerry aircraft anywhere, Gabs?"
"No. Not a whimper."
"What the Hell's goin' on. We're supposed t'be the one's who give a warning." Ricky turned back to the door, in its rooftop shed. "We better get down t'the mandarins, an' ease their worries. Come on, let's see which idiot pressed the bell by mistake."
On re-entering the fourth floor corridor they found a hive of activity in progress, with all the lights now glaring blindingly. Many of the room doors were open; their irate occupiers milling around the corridor like a herd of lost sheep. MacGregor was visible in the thick of things, trying to instil some sense into the nervous men and women, many still in their night-attire or dressing-gowns.
"It's probably only an exercise, leddies an' gentlemen, but we have to tak it unco serious all the same, ye'll be understandin'." He waved his arms in the air some more, for emphasis. "Now, come along wi me. Ah'll be showin' ye all the way t'the doonstairs, an' the shelter in the basement. It's a bonnie shelter, an no mistake; ye'll all be as snug as bugs in a rug, mark me. Come alang, this way."
Some voices were raised in exasperated or sarcastic opposition; but with MacGregor now reinforced by another security officer, and Ricky and Gabrielle moving everyone down the corridor from their end, a long snaking line of sleepy, unhappy, raucous guests eventually made their slow way to the main stairs. Within a few minutes the corridor appeared to have been successfully evacuated; the women, though, still being able to hear the noise as guests from other floors milled around in the hall on the ground floor.
"This seems empty now, I hope." Gabrielle gave the corridor one last glance, as they stood at the stairhead. "Let's see what Sergeant Dickson's up to downstairs. Bet he's madder than a Hatter."
On the third floor they found a scene of curious silence and emptiness; the guests obviously having already been shepherded down to the shelter, leaving the corridor apparently devoid of life. That is, until the women took a few steps along; when Sergeant Dickson suddenly appeared from one of the now empty rooms halfway down. On sighting the approaching women he turned to address a remark to someone still out of sight in the room, then faced his visitors again.
"Ah-ha, thought you two might turn up." He nodded pleasantly, as if nothing in the world was out of kilter, then turned to the small neat man who came to the room door to stand behind him. "Let me introduce Mr Lamerock Gailles. You already know him by name and sight—but this is in the way o'being a more official introduction."
"Good evening, ladies."
Mr Gailles spoke in a neat light tenor, wholly befitting his appearance as a neutral unassuming member of the Whitehall brigade—a civil servant; than which, in Britain, there could be nothing more anonymous.
"—er, so, am I t'understand this air-raid warning's down t'you?" Ricky didn't like being made a fool of, and it showed in her voice. "There's military regulations an' laws against foolin' around with things like that; even for manda—civil servants, like you. Got any good reason for it?"
"I believe I can put your minds at rest on that point." He nodded happily, as if in full control of his actions. "Please come in to this room; the occupier, ahem, won't be back till the raid warning's called off; which won't be for some time yet."
Both Ricky and Gabrielle noted the room number as they strode through the door. Inside they found the usual anonymous hotel fitments; bed on one side, table and chair on the other; a window in the far wall, now hidden by thick blackout curtains. A couple of suitcases sat on the floor to one side; but the bed was at the moment covered with loose papers, apparently taken from the desk and being industriously sifted through by Dickson's partner, Carter.
"This's the room where Mr Hungerford's been billeted, ain't it." Ricky knew perfectly well her statement was true, but wanted to see what effect this knowledge had on the expressionless mandarin. "Don't much look as if he's given you permission. What is it? Something up Gabrielle an' I ough'ta know about?"
"Mr Hungerford is, as you know, a Member of Parliament, and also sits on the Energy Commission." Mr Gailles glanced at Carter, seemed to approve of the shuffling of papers going forward, and transferred his attention back to the point under discussion. "He also has the ear of the Cabinet. So one could reasonably say he had a fair amount of pull, in political terms. So do the other four Members of Parliament who make up this present Inspection Committee. However, we at Whitehall have found ourselves in recent weeks facing something of a conundrum."
As the insipid-looking man had paused, as if considering his options, Gabrielle took it upon herself to enter the fray.
"Looks like we've been kept in the dark, too." She glared at the man without warmth. "We're part of the military; that puts you in a delicate position. If you've kept this whole thing hidden from the Command of Base J, here on Orkney, you're in big trouble—your political shenanigans won't hold water in these present times, y'know."
"Hmm, it may certainly look that way." Mr Gailles nodded sagely, wholly undisturbed by the hazardous situation he was supposed to have placed himself in. "However, we have discussed the general outline of affairs with the, er, relevant authorities. Certain members of Command HQ here are in receipt of certain information pertaining to the situation presently going forward.—"
"Oh yeah? Prove it. Lem'me see some authority."
"Oh, I hardly think that is necessary." Mr Gailles smiled thinly, without any inflexion of pleasantness whatever. "You see, we have already also contacted Group-Captain Graham, 'Personnel Movements, Military', Room 23D, Somerset House, London. You both, I think, know the person to whom I allude?"
This was a shock both to Ricky and Gabrielle; for the officer named was their leader in the sub-department of SOE for whom they worked. Only the very highest in authority would know of their connection to this secret organisation; which, as the ladies realised, begged a whole new set of questions.
"Now things have gone from merely bein' a nuisance, t'somethin' very like treason." Ricky felt it time to stop mincing her words. "If you ain't got some form of official authority,—an' now it's gon'na have'ta be somethin' very official indeed,—then ya better start thinkin' about an approaching cold mornin', somewhere in the purlieus of the Tower, against a stone wall."
Mr Gailles remained undisturbed by this uncompromising outline of his possible future, glancing over at Sergeant Dickson and raising his eyebrows in query.
"You put through that call to London, Sergeant Dickson, as I asked?"
"Yessir. I was told the reply would be coming, as you requested, at two twenty-five a.m. precisely."
"Good, good." Mr Gailles looked at his wristwatch, raising his jacket sleeve with some care. "Nearly that now."
As if this had been heard over the ether the telephone on the small table by the bedside in the room began to ring peremptorily. Mr Gailles glanced meaningfully at Ricky.
"That, I believe, is for you, madam."
Crossing to the bedside, giving the Whitehall mandarin a frown of annoyance, Ricky picked the phone up and snapped into the mouthpiece; Gabrielle standing close so she too could hear.
"Who's this? What the Hell's goin' on. Who are ya?"
"Group-Captain Graham here, Officer Mathews." The man's voice sounded weak and tinny with distance. "Do you recognise my voice? Anyway, here's the password for the operation you'll be undertaking next week, as we discussed earlier—Greenfinch. OK?"
"Jeesus, what in Hell's goin' on, sir." Ricky was now flummoxed entirely. "We got us a real live mandarin from Whitehall here, who appears to be takin' over the runnin' o'the war all by himself. What's goin' on?"
"All you need to know is that he has full authority for his actions, from the very highest sources." Graham's voice held a note of terseness. "The very highest source of all, in fact. D'you understand?"
"Precisely." Graham now seemed to have a stronger hold on his emotions. "What you, and Officer Parker, have to do is follow Mr Gailles' instructions to the letter; as if they came straight from me. Got that?"
"—er, yessir." Ricky tried to extract some information, little though it might be. "Can you tell us what—"
"No, the whole thing's too secret for that." His voice began to fade, crackly noise sounding louder over the wire. "Take Mr Gailles' orders; and don't worry about anything; you won't be held to account on a personal level, whatever happens. Goodbye."
The women looked at each other; absorbing the tone of what they had just heard—then, as one, they turned back to scrutinise the man from Whitehall.
"Well, Mr Gailles, ya seem t'hold all the aces." Ricky shrugged non-committally. "So, what's the story. Somethin' dam' serious is obviously goin' on. Somethin' I don't think Gabrielle nor I are gon'na like much."
As they all stood in the small room Ricky saw, passing by in the corridor outside, the forms of two other Special Branch officers, clearly set on a definite destination and course of action. Mr Gailles also noticed them, glancing over his shoulder before moving smoothly to the door and closing it quietly.
"What we have in progress at the moment, ladies, is a detailed search of the rooms of all five Members of Parliament." He ran the fingers of his left hand over his thin sweptback brown hair; his high forehead giving an appearance of insipient baldness. "I'm telling you both the following facts because we find we are going to need your assistance, as matters unfold."
"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle favoured the man with a sour look. "And what would they be?"
"It may take some time to elucidate, I'm afraid." Mr Gailles looked all round with the air of being the room's proprietor. "I'm sorry I cannot offer you a chair; there don't seem to be many. And I do not want the bed disturbed more than is necessary. Ahem, so, the facts in the case—well, it can be described succinctly as treason. Spying, if you will."
"What? By all five politicians? That's coming it a bit thick, surely?" Ricky was unconvinced. "I've heard of fifth columnists; but that don't hold water for a moment."
"No, only one." Mr Gailles was a long-serving civil servant, in a Department where strange occupations were the order of the day, so was not put out by this lack of belief. "We have enough evidence to know with certainty that one of the five men, here now as members of the Inspection Committee, is spying for the Axis Powers. We just don't yet know which one."
"Oh, that's just dandy." Gabrielle's tone was as sardonic as Ricky's had been. "So you brought them all up here,—t'the sunny exotic shores of Scapa Flow; where no trees grow, an' sheets of ice have been known to stretch out from the shore in the middle of June,—just so you can play games with them t'find out which one's runnin' t'mama an' tellin' tales?"
"That is not an unjust description of our intentions, yes." Still Mr Gailles allowed a thin smile to contort his features; lacking in all humour, though it was. "We mean to unfold a series of, er, events, which we hope will eventually succeed in accomplishing our goal. And you two will be integral to the desired outcome."
"Oh God, alright, what d'ya want us t'do?" Ricky had realised that continued resistance was useless. "We're in the military; an' our Commander's ordered us to take orders from you; so, looks as if the scene's set, then, sir."
There was a faint, but noticeable, inflection in the last word which didn't escape the notice of the mandarin; but he chose to ignore it, merely glancing around once more at the progress Sergeant Dickson and Carter were making in their search.
"Doesn't look as if we are going to have much success here, I'm afraid." Mr Gailles addressed Dickson, with an appeal in his voice. "Any luck?'
"Damn all, sir." Dickson shook his head, glancing over to where Carter was nosing amongst the drawers of a low desk. "Nothing to the purpose at all, so far."
"How long have we left?'
"About another twenty minutes, sir. Then the inmates'll be released again."
"Hmm, just time enough." Mr Gailles returned his attention to the impatiently waiting women; seeming to notice their outdoor attire for the first time. "I approve your dress, ladies. I drove over here this afternoon in a military car which let the wind in at a multitude of places; rather like being accompanied by one's own personal gale, if you will excuse the pun."
"Sir, what about—" Gabrielle was losing the remnants of her never strong patience.
"Yes, yes, to get on with business, certainly." Gailles nodded agreeably, not disturbed at all. "Right, here's the thing—all sorts of top secret information has recently been making its way to destinations it has had no business to arrive at. By the nature of this information; its timing, and type; the methods the enemy have undertaken to, er, neutralise certain activities we had hoped to progress without incident; it soon became clear to us that it was all being directed thence from a single source. A source with its headwaters at a very high political level indeed. Our investigations finally led us to not only Members of Parliament, but the Cabinet itself."
"What?" Ricky spread her arms out in a gesture of amazement. "You got'ta—"
"No, there can be no doubt." Gailles shook his head steadfastly. "That is the level, the only level, from which the information could have been sourced. One of the Members of Parliament on this Inspection Committee is most definitely in the pay of the Nazis."
Both Ricky and Gabrielle knew that simply swearing fully and foully was of no use whatever; but this didn't hinder them from exercising their imaginations, and voices, over a significant period before Mr Gailles, powerfully impressed, called a halt.
"Remarkable; but ladies, if you will, I have only a set limit of time to discuss matters." He waved a hand, as if directing a conjuror's act on the stage. "There is clearly nothing incriminating here; and, as no officer has come through from the other rooms, I take it the same holds for those others. We shall have to call it a day, or night in fact, and go on to the next step. Tomorrow, or should I say later this morning, the general activities of the supposed Inspection will get underway. You two will escort one of the members on his tour round the sites on the island. I can here tell you it will be your duty to put some prepared questions to him; in a wholly innocent way, to try to elicit unguarded answers which may be of interest to us. Now, what you must do is the following—"
The Austin Tilly was, for once, running smoothly; and later that morning Gabrielle drove it with more care than usual, considering the passenger who sat beside her; Ricky, muttering under her breath, having been consigned to the low locker-seat in the canvas-roofed pick-up rear section of the van.
Mr Reginald Albright was the Minister for Supply & Demand (Produce); lately, because of the importance of his position, elevated to the Cabinet. In appearance he was a short individual, hailing from the Midlands. He, however, was not a scion of the working class, having been the son of a wealthy business-man. In age he was now in his early sixties, with thick, though greying, hair. His attitude was generally business-like; discovering what was required; going at it; and getting the job done. This manner of annoying all around had seen him swiftly rise through the political ranks to his present eminent station. He was, of course, a Labour member of Churchill's War Ministry, otherwise known as the National Government; an unstable mixture of the three main parties, Labour, Conservative, and Liberal. At the present moment he was complaining vociferously.
"Where in Hell did you say we were headed, young lady?" He straightened his legs, as much as was possible, while pressing against the side of the door with his arm. "I haven't been knocked about so much in a vehicle since I rode on the Fairground bumper-cars as a lad. Is this really necessary?"
"Sorry, sir." Gabrielle tried, more or less successfully, to hide her smile. "These roads aren't renowned for being well-made. Some o'them are only unsurfaced tracks. Afraid we'll be using one o'those in a few minutes. Just hang on; we'll soon be there."
"We're heading for HMS Skua." Ricky, from her position in the rear, took up the body of the discussion. "It's a small airfield on the south-eastern shore of Loch Swannay. It's wholly land-based aircraft, though. Mainly Hurricanes, Beauforts, an' a few Stirlings."
"Beauforts? What are they?"
"Medium torpedo-bombers." Gabrielle wriggled her nose in disgust at the mention of the type. "Awful things. About as much use as a child's kite. Everybody loathes 'em."
"Oh, I see." Mr Albright tried to look interested, but failed ignominiously. "How long,—ouch!—how long till we arrive?"
"About another twenty minutes, sir." Gabrielle was all efficiency, as she battled with the wide thin-rimmed steering-wheel. "It's right up in the north of the island, y'see. Just a matter of half a mile or so further and you come t'the ocean—the Atlantic, y'know. Next stop, Iceland; if you don't count the Faeroes, that is."
"Christ! I could've been nursing a brandy in the Reform Club right now, if I'd been sensible. Sorry, ladies."
"No worries, sir." Ricky grinned widely, as she held on for dear life herself. "Everybody swears something awful travellin' Orkney roads for the first time."
A few minutes later they crested the rise of a low incline to find spread out before them a long wide sheet of water. On this side, between the approaching visitors and the water, lay the airfield. It consisted of four concrete runways, laid out in an intersecting triangular plan. To one side sat the three-floored Observation Tower; to the left of which lay a string of large round-roofed hangars. On one of the runways a line of four twin-engined monoplane bombers sat with noses pointing in the air, as if sniffing for scents.
"Yep, Beauforts." Ricky nodded, as she hung onto a strap attached to the canvas top of the pick-up above her head. "Can't see out'ta them, for reconnaissance, 'cause the dam' engine-cowlings are in the way; can't bomb with 'em, 'cause they roll in flight like porpoises; can't fly fast, 'cause they're dammed underpowered; can't defend against fighters, 'cause their guns are hopeless; can't drop torpedoes t'any reasonable degree, 'cause they need to come in straight, low—about seventy feet, an' slow; drop their torpedo at a maximum of six hundred an' seventy yards, then fly right over their target at mast height. Y'can guess how many manage that successfully."
"Sounds like a dog. Why're they still operational, then?"
"Oh, they ain't." Ricky sniggered impolitely. "These are a mix of trainers; observation, for what that's worth; an' special op's,—don't ask."
As prophesied by Gabrielle the tarmac lane now degenerated into an earth and stone scattered track, with wholly foreseeable results to the truck's suspension. It bounced, even at slow speed, along the rutted ground till an approach runway appeared ahead, which Gabrielle lost no time in running onto, headed for the Observation Tower.
"God Almighty." Mr Albright shook his head in disbelief. "I never thought it was possible to be thrown about so much, an' not break something. Dam' glad this concrete runway's here—dam' the planes, I need it."
"Harh. Here's the reception committee waiting, sir." Gabrielle nodded at the line of uniformed men standing near the door of the Tower. "Very Moderne, the Tower, sir. Up-to-date, if nothing else."
"I hate Moderne." Ricky was still shuffling around in the rear, trying to find a leather case which had disappeared amongst the litter round her feet.
"Yeah, yeah, so you keep tellin' me." Gabrielle was unimpressed. "OK, sir. Give the door a good kick with your boot—at the bottom, there. It always sticks. That's right."
Group-Captain Stephen Dabney was twenty-eight; held a Degree in Archaeology from Cambridge; and would have given his eyeteeth to be in command of a fighting squadron. This backwater; where everything seemed to happen under mysterious secrecy at dead of night, was not his cup of tea at all—but needs' must, so he made the best of it.
"Hallo sir, hope you had a comfortable journey?" Perceiving immediately he had put his foot in it, he changed direction swiftly. "Thought I'd sort a line of our jalopies out for you t'inspect, if you didn't mind. They're just over here."
Thankful that at least he didn't seem to be expected to actually climb up into any of the ungainly lumpish-looking airplanes, Albright allowed himself to be taken off for the Grand Tour; Ricky and Gabrielle meanwhile standing by their van, pretending they weren't there.
"What d'you think?"
"Seems a straight kind'a guy, t'me." Ricky shrugged non-commitally. "Not t'say he ain't playin' for the other side, o'course. How'd you find him?"
"Open enough." Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. "Talks without appearing to be tryin' to hide anything. Isn't fishin' for tidbits; at least not so far. Suppose we'll need'ta give him some more time, though."
"Well, we can do that, an' maybe have more luck grilling him, at Professor MacDonald's house when we take him there for lunch." Ricky essayed a quick half-smile. "At least we'll have him to ourselves, instead of constantly shoving him off onto some brasshat's shoulders, like here."
"That's a Hurricane, over there in the other hangar." Gabrielle's attention was elsewhere. "Nice planes; fly easy. What's your opinion?"
"About Hurricanes? Yeah, good planes." The dark-haired woman shrugged, as if uninterested. "They're better than Spitfires. Everybody swoons over Spits; but the Hurricanes have a much better kill rate. I've flown a helluva lot o'them between airfields, in my time."
"God, you make yourself sound like the Old Man of the Woods." Gabrielle laughed, as she turned to survey the rest of the airfield. "There's room enough here for a lot of business to go forward, at any particular time. With these intersecting runways they could have Beauforts taking-off; an' Hurricanes landing; an' all sorts'a other to-ing's an' fro-ing's going on."
"Don't seem to be much goin' on right now. See they've hidden their pet Stirling away, in one o'the closed hangars." Ricky glanced around superciliously. "Bit of a backwater really, I think."
"Ah, you're forgettin' the nefarious night-time operations of our old pals, the S—er, those friends of ours."
"Keep a sock in it, ducks. Remind me; what does careless talk do?
"Yeah, I know, cost lives." Gabrielle groaned at this dig. "Sorry. Gettin' overawed by all this VIP'ery, an' brasshat'ery, an' goddam mandarin'ery. It's sappin' my vital juices."
"That's the best excuse I heard yet, baby." Ricky laughed, putting an arm round the petite blonde's shoulder for a moment. "Can I kiss your woes away; some time later tonight, maybe?"
"You bet, sis." Gabrielle returned the grin two-fold. "I'll look forward to it. Oh, look, here they come back."
"Captain Dabney's just going to escort me through the Control Tower, then take me off to his office, to discuss equipment chits and whatnot." Mr Albright seemed quite cheery now. "Perhaps you ladies might wish to go off to the canteen and spend an hour over a cup of tea. Quite so, see you later."
The VIP, escorted by the group of uniformed officers, headed in the direction of the tall white-painted concrete tower, leaving the women standing by the Tilly's bonnet.
"Well, that's us been fobbed off for the morning." Gabrielle curled an unimpressed lip. "What now?"
"NAAFI; tea; corned beef sandwich." Ricky punched her partner's arm lightly. "It's this way; that low shabby single-storey shed over there."
"Huh, well, you're payin', lady."
The fare provided for the hungry troops by the local branch of the NAAFI turned out to be quite palatable, after the women had settled down at a table to one side of the open-plan interior of the canteen, near the row of small windows.
"Glad the place's empty; gives us a chance t'talk privately." Gabrielle cast an enquiring glance all round, but found nothing to upset her sense of safety. "What's our next port of call, after this beano?"
"According to the agenda provided by Mr Gailles we drive Albright t'visit Professor MacDonald." Ricky shrugged her shoulders gloomily.
"Why is that, by the way?"
"Seems, from what Mr Gailles told me, Albright knew the Prof, back in their mutual University days." Ricky curled her lips censoriously. "Though what they could both have in common beats me."
"D'you think we might cross Albright off our list of Axis spies?"
"Begins t'look like we can." Ricky smiled thinly. "He's boring as hell; can't hold a conversation t'save his life; an' his social skills need addressing; but a spy, I think not."
The next few minutes were taken up in demolishing the plate of sandwiches set before them on the table, accompanied by two pots of strong tea. Eventually even Gabrielle allowed she could find space for nothing further, and they made their way back to the Tilly.
An hour later the small van ran up to the front of the old house inhabited by Professor MacDonald. The women had, during their further transporting of Mr Albright, suffered an almost constant diatribe against the state of the roads and lanes everywhere; and his unfailing complaints about bouncing around like a rubber ball in the confines of the small van were beginning to grate on both womens' nerves.
Professor MacDonald's house, when they reached it just after noon, sat quiet and unattended; as, indeed, it always did. To find the isolated dwelling the aspiring visitor had to take the main road north-west along the west side of Loch Hannay; then, near the loch's northern edge, turn off along a secondary road closer to the water which led more or less southerly again back down the west side of the loch. A few farms and single houses lay along this road, intersected by small lanes at wide intervals; one of which, not much more than a bare track, led to Professor MacDonald's chosen residence.
This was a large three-storied Victorian house with a dark grey slate roof and a flat façade with high windows. Inside, thankfully, the rooms were large, airy, warm and pleasant. Standing in the hall awaiting his visitors Professor MacDonald seemed in high spirits.
"Welcome, welcome, everyone." He stepped forward to grab Albright's hand in an iron grip. "Gods, it must be more'n twenty years since we last met, eh, Reggie? How're you doing these days? Heavens, you look like an accountant; keeping well, I hope. Here, follow me into the dining-room. There's a small, er, repast I've had put out ready. Come on, ladies, you're invited, too. Can't have you squeezin' round the kitchen table by yourselves. Reggie won't mind, will you, old lad?"
Prof MacDonald commonly had, in the servant line, only the services of a local lady who condescended to appear to cook his midday meal, and a younger girl who came on three days of the week to do her valiant best against the accumulated clutter, dust, and general mess thrown together over the years by MacDonald; he being something important in the British Museum and a respected archaeologist in his own right. In the course of his career, though having travelled widely, he had managed to remain steadfastly unmarried; probably as a result of which he had developed something of an eccentric personality.
"The Cabinet? You're in the Cabinet? Well, I'll be damned." MacDonald expressed sweetly innocent surprise at the social heights to which his old university pal had attained. "Nothin' like that ever crossed our minds back in the old Uni days, eh, Reggie? Too intent on impressing the ladies, eh. You'd not believe it, Miss Mathews, but in my hot youth I myself was something of a Byronic vision, if I say so who shouldn't."
"Professor, I can just see you swannin' through the lanes of Oxford; the ladies swoonin' at your feet as you passed by." Ricky laughed easily. "When would that have been? Oh, if I got my sums right, ya might have met Sherlock Holmes up some dark alley?"
"Ha, well it was actually Cambridge, as it happens." MacDonald put his listener right with a smile. "And as for Holmes, I could hardly be expected to bump into a fictional character, anywhere, I'm sorry to say; eh, Reggie?"
"Just so, just so." Albright looked less than at his ease, shifting constantly on his chair and wincing slightly now and again. "Very fine ham, MacDonald; couldn't get anything like this in Town, even at Morano's."
Gabrielle had been keeping her green eyes on their visitor, and had realised he was suffering from aches and pains in that part of his person most closely associated with the thinly-sprung passenger-seat of the Tilly. Concealing her smile she turned to cock an eye at her partner who, she realised, had also made this fine Holmesian deduction.
"Ha, haven't been there since before the Great War." MacDonald suddenly leaned forward, fixing his old friend with a stare worthy of the Medusa. "Cabinet, eh? I suppose y'have Churchill's ear, because of your position? Maybe y'can tell me the answer t'this, he's been—"
"Mr Albright's here on Government business, Prof." Gabrielle had early fallen into the habit of cutting off MacDonald's often alarmingly naive questions to people he met in her presence, before they led to unwished for revelations. "Secret, almost military, in fact. Hush-hush stuff. Walls have ears, an' all that, y'know."
"Oh-oh, I see. Sorry, old man." MacDonald was meekly apologetic for his gaff. "Excuse the query; I can never get used t'all this dammed top-secret flummery. A dam' sight too much of it around, if you ask me. But there, suppose y'have t'handle the war in your own way."
"Ahem, so, what're you up to, MacDonald, in this backwater of all places?" Albright in his turn went on the offensive, though obviously hoping for a simple straightforward reply. "Couldn't be further from the centre of society if you tried, what?"
"Oh, I fill up my time well enough." MacDonald put down his fork to laugh loudly, making the minister jump in his chair and wince once more. "Y'can't walk twenty yards in any direction anywhere on Orkney Mainland without tripping over some relic from the Neolithic, y'know. Dam' fine country for archaeology. What're you up to yourself? Some Government project that'll need the involvement of hundreds of troops and ships, eh? Oh, is that another no-no question? Sorry, if so."
"—er, Mr Albright, what's next on your agenda, today?" Gabrielle jumped in to head off what could have been a security faux pas of massive proportions. "Going t'meet the military Supply boffins in Kirkwall, are you? Mr Albright's the Minister for Supply an', er, somethin' else,—"
"What?" MacDonald turned his head to consider his visitor, at this cursory retort. "Demand what? Somethin' wrong with the boiled carrots?"
"No, no, MacDonald, do pull yourself together." Albright obviously believed his schoolfriend was still exhibiting many of the eccentricities of thought he had been renowned for in his youth. "Minister for Supply and Demand, (Produce). My position in Cabinet, y'know."
It was to the minister's credit he managed to pronounce the parentheses in this statement clearly and precisely, leaving his listeners in no doubt of the particular section over which he, like Ozymandias, ruled supreme.
"Helluva demand for just about everythin' these days, I imagine, ha." MacDonald shook his head censoriously, picking undecidedly at his own vegetables the while. "Never have liked carrots much, y'know; particularly boiled. So, y'here long? Anything I can do for you? Got a good billet? If not y'can bed down in an empty room here, anytime. Just need to get some blankets out of a cupboard somewhere, an' you'll be as cosy as a bedbug, what."
"Thank you, that will not be required." Albright brushed this kind offer aside with evident relief that here at least he was on safe ground. "The 'Allington' in Stromness fulfils all my requirements, thankfu—that is, as a matter of fact."
"While you're here, Albright, you might favour me with your views on Old Red, as distinguished from the underlying Moinian, if you'd care to." MacDonald put down his fork and glanced at his guest from under thick brows. "You were, as I remember, the geological hotshot at the University."
"Good God, man." Albright was less than pleased at this draw on his supposed expertise. "You're still mixing me up with that chap, Charles Fulbright; he was the dam' rock-man. God, what is it, nearly forty-five years, and you still haven't grasped the difference between geology and accounting. I despair for you, MacDonald."
A defensive retreat, led by Ricky and Gabrielle, to the nearby lounge allowed a cooling-off period for the minister to regain his composure. When they were seated in comfortable easy chairs round a peat fire; the men drawing on aromatic cigars with one of the two high windows partially open as a sop to ventilation, they all began to relax.
"Well, Albright, you've come a long way." MacDonald sounded more pacific, obviously doing his best to quell latent eruptions. "Cabinet minister, eh? How're you finding life in this, er, present set-up?"
"The war, you mean?" Albright always liked to meet and view any question head-on. "Made a dam' lot of difference to all sorts of social policies and standpoints. Would almost go so far as to say it might well constitute a form of quiet revolution, in the end. Wars', as we have found out for ourselves, MacDonald, tend to have that effect."
"How's that, Mr Albright?" Gabrielle jumped at this golden opportunity to get the minister talking halfway personally.
"Social whirlpools, ma'am." He puffed at his cigar, glancing at the blonde woman appraisingly. "Look at women before the Great War. Not in public service or jobs, to any particular degree. No vote; no power in society. They were beginning to make a name for themselves, certainly; suffragette activity, and that sort of thing—but it wasn't exactly leading to positive headlines in the papers."
"Yeah," Ricky growled sadly. "Chainin' yourself to the railings outside Parliament, or throwing bricks through windows, can only get you so far."
"Or gettin' yourself killed at the Derby horse race?" Gabrielle referring to perhaps the most famous tragedy involving the suffragette movement.
"Yes." Albright took another puff of his cigar. "I was there that day, y'know, amongst the crowd. Too far away to see any of the details; but I saw the aftermath, people tryin' t'help; puttin' coats over her; Emily Davison, her name was; taking her away on a stretcher: damn pathetic tragedy, all round. Don't believe they've found out to this day exactly what her motive was."
There was a quiet pause, as everyone thought in their own way about this social drama. Then the ongoing aspects of the Great War brought further details to Albright's memory.
"Of course the Kaiser's War changed all that." He nodded, as his reflections solidified into formative shape. "Before you could hardly throw your straw boater in the air, an' join up to fight the Hun, women were working as bus conductors; or in the blossoming shell factories, or aircraft assembly sheds; or as nurses or ambulance drivers, even at the Front; finally racing around on motor-cycles, as messengers. Whole new broad scope for them to work at. Changed days."
"Women did change, after that." MacDonald nodded wisely, though with a small smile. "Look at the Flappers, in the early twenties, and short skirts, an' all that. Quite a turnaround, I'd say."
"Not to mention the Vote." Gabrielle here thought it time to interject a modicum of seriousness into the anecdotes. "That'd be the most important change, I'd say. Eh, Mr Albright? I mean, where'd the Labour movement be today, without its vast female following an' support?"
"Quite so, oh yes, quite so." Albright nodded furiously. "Never denied it, never. Women the backbone of society, and the voting masses, too. No doubt of it. And mostly, I'm glad to say, on the side of the working ma—er, the working population as a whole. Socialism, y'know. Nothing t'beat it."
Here was what Ricky and Gabrielle had been waiting, and angling, for all day; the chance to hear Albright talking on the most delicate subject of interest to Mr Gailles and his shady minions.
"What's your opinion about socialism worldwide, Mr Albright?" Ricky, who had given up smoking in deference to her partner's entreaties, nibbled a dry biscuit and took a sip of her coffee. "The way it's done here, in Britain, is pretty different to say, Russia or Germany, for instance, ain't it?"
"Oh, entirely so, ma'am." Here Albright was on home ground, and could speak with all the expertise of the seasoned huckster at a public meeting. "There's a huge difference, morally speaking, between straight Socialism as employed here; and, say, Communism as understood by the Russians. And as for the brand of so-called National Socialism practiced today in Germany, well, the least said about that aberrant policy the better."
"So, present confrontations aside," Gabrielle took up the argument. "you have no truck with Herr Hitler's vision for the future of European society?"
"Good God, ma'am," Albright's brows rose in clearly unassumed horror. "Hitler's as mad as it is fairly possible for any individual to be; yet still allowing of their tying their own shoe-laces!"
"You are, therefore, absolutely assured Mr Albright isn't our man?"
"Yep, Mr Gailles." Gabrielle nodded, as they all three sat in the mandarin's private suite at the Allington later that evening. "We had what's called, I believe, a frank and open discussion on Socialist principles generally; with Professor MacDonald in attendance. Both Ricky an' I are certain he's a straight-up kind'a guy. Certainly not the spy you're lookin' for."
"You agree with your partner's evaluation, Miss Mathews?"
"All the way." Ricky nodded firmly. "We spoke to him; we listened to his answers; we were present when he discussed various topics with his old friend, Professor MacDonald: Albright ain't no spy. I don't say I actually warmed t'the guy at all; he ain't that sort'a person, if ya follow me. But he's working as hard as he knows how; an' it's for the country, not against it, that's for sure."
"Well, that seems to cross one suspect off the list, at any rate." Mr Gailles frowned silently for a minute, as he absorbed this information. "I may tell you we; that is myself and, er, associates, have not been ourselves unemployed while you took Mr Albright round the island. Of the further four ministers we have managed to eliminate two; er, merely from suspicion, that is. We just have to, umm, flannel the remaining two along tomorrow, to see what results these further examinations produce."
"Will we be involved, again?" Gabrielle raised an inquisitive eyebrow towards the seemingly innocuous Whitehall mandarin. "We still on your personal payroll for the next few days?"
"For a number of days yet, if necessary." Gailles smiled weakly at the women. "Though you need not look so, ha, underwhelmed by this news. I believe if we can give the two remaining ministers enough rope tomorrow, perhaps one will unsuspectingly manage to hang himself with it. We can only hope so."
"Who's our mark?" Ricky spoke coldly, not liking the situation at all.
"Ricky, you've been reading too much Edgar Wallace." Gabrielle turned to the small grey man with a short smile. "She means who's your choice for us to escort tomorrow."
"Ah, I see." Gailles nodded sagely, as if he fully understood this example of criminal idiom. "It's Mr Hungerford. He is, as you know, the Secretary of the Energy Commission; with a seat in Cabinet. Which, of course, places him at the heart of affairs. What I require is more or less what you have already accomplished with Mr Albright. Open him up on his personal attitude to the National Government; Socialism in general; and, if possible, his views on Germany. Any small item will be of interest. That, I think, is all for this evening. Good luck, tomorrow. Goodnight."
Next morning, as they headed from their cosy self-contained Nissen hut in Camp J towards the posh hotel above Stromness, the womens' conversation focussed on the previous day's entertainment during their transporting of Mr Albright around the island.
"God, glad t'be shot o'the gloomy old bore." Gabrielle rolled her head around, easing her tired neck muscles as she drove the Tilly on towards Stromness. "Nothing against him, mind. Just, he's so self-centred an' cold. I've seen fish with warmer personalities lying on a slab of ice in a fishmonger's window."
At the Allington they found their second customer comfortably awaiting them in the hotel lounge, smoking a large cigar as if he felt personally responsible for producing the entire island's smokescreen. Ricky, by now lacking the finer aspects of tender feeling, quickly put a stop to this.
"You'll have to lose your cigar, when you're in the pick-up, sir." She accompanied this edict with a wide smile. "Army regulations, sir. If a redcap saw you he'd have you on a charge straight off; even though you're who you are. Military base, sir, for miles around, y'know."
"Goddam, can't a man enjoy a perfectly innocent pleasure any more?" Mr Hungerford was not impressed. "Dam' war."
With a man of Mr Hungerford's size in the passenger seat—he not being fat, but just extremely large and broad-shouldered—the women had decided that Gabrielle should remain beside him as driver; Ricky being too large herself, with her long legs, to fit comfortably beside him—so once more she was relegated to the constricted space in the pick-up's rear compartment, where she spent most of the ensuing journey muttering exasperated curses under her breath, much to Gabrielle's amusement.
On entering the constrained space of the front driving compartment Hungerford took one sour glance at the less than welcoming interior and unceremoniously flicked his soft grey felt hat into the mess piled in the pick-up's rear.
"God, I didn't expect a bloody limousine—but this!"
"Necessity, sir." Gabrielle clambered in behind the steering wheel. "The roads an' lanes hereabouts ain't up to handling fancy cars."
"Oh-ho, they can handle bloody great army trucks though, without any trouble, as I've seen." The Secretary for Energy snarled contemptuously, as he settled as comfortably as possible. "They might at least have considered the idea. So, where the hell are we goin'? I was given a schedule yesterday evening, from that ass Gailles; but I've mislaid the dam' thing."
"Well, sir, seein' you're part of the Inspection Committee, it's been decided to split the duties evenly between you all; all five of you, that is." Ricky, now crouched in the pick-up's rear, could talk with the driver and passenger easily as there was no barrier between the front and rear of the small van. In fact now she was gripping the back of Hungerford's passenger seat for steadiness. "First off you'll be taken to Base J, on the shore of Scapa Flow. There the new Commander, Captain Bernard Fletcher, will give you a rundown of things as they are at the present time; then give ya a guided tour of the Camp."
"Humph! How long'll that take?"
"Probably around two hours." Gabrielle had manoeuvred the van onto Downie's Lane, and was now heading into Stromness itself. "Maybe a touch more."
"Lunch there, too?"
"No, sir." Ricky took up the burden again. "Lunch'll be at the second stop. That's gon'na be Loch Kirbister, some way east towards Kirkwall. It's a reservoir for the town, y'see."
"Oh. So, where's this Base of yours?"
"Just past Clestrain."
Gabrielle swung the short wheel-based pick-up onto the main road on the outskirts of Stromness; dashed, like a pirate, across the bows of a gigantic Matador army truck approaching from out of the town, and nipped in ahead of it with a gay wave of her hand which brought some visible, but thankfully unheard, repercussions from the uniformed driver.
"Just south of Clestrain, like I said, sir." The blonde driver picked up where she had left off without a pause. "Then Loch Kirbister is some miles further east. At the moment we're heading north, to Loch Stenness. We cross over its southern point, then head due south along the coast through Clestrain, to the base. The expanse of water you'll see on your right won't be the sea; it's Scapa Flow itself."
"You'll be able t'tell, by the Navy ships scattered all over it." Ricky put her tuppence-worth in, just for good measure.
Although he tried to hide it, both women were suddenly aware Hungerford had pricked up his ears and was showing signs of intense interest.
"Ah, the Navy, eh?" He made a rather poor pass at seeming only circumstantially interested, but the nervous flickering of his eyes told Gabrielle at least a different story. "Lots of ships, y'say? Perhaps we might stop, while I take a look. Interestin' sight, an' all that, y'know. Give me some real facts t'take back to the Cabinet next week, eh? Churchill'd be interested, I'm sure. No chance of photographs, I suppose?"
"Ha." Ricky knocked this on the head without mercy. "Try'n take a photo anywhere on Mainland, an' I guarantee you'll be shot inside three minutes. No questions; no 'That ain't allowed 'ere, y'know'; no 'lem'me see your papers'; just a bullet in the head, an' no questions asked, at all. I ain't exaggeratin', y'know."
However, they did stop the small pick-up on the side of the single-lane road going down the coast of Mainland, where a dramatic view of the hills on Hoy across the wide stretch of water, could be enjoyed—if that was your sort of thing; it, apparently, not being Mr Hungerford's; though the scattering of ships did interest him, highly.
"Goodness gracious, I had no idea the place was so,—so extensive." He stood on the tussocky grass by the water's edge, clearly hypnotised by the scene. "Destroyers everywhere; and cruisers; and—what are those—over there?"
"Supply ships." Ricky spoke shortly, trying not to look too openly at the man.
"Ah, and, goodness, that must be a battleship, in the far distance." Hungerford, though he tried to hide his feelings, was obviously overawed by the panorama of mighty power laid out before his view. "And what about all these strange white buildings I see scattered about the fields, almost in every direction, all along the coast here; and, yes, over on, what did you call it, Hoy?"
"They're Observation posts." Gabrielle waved a cursory arm in the direction of one a couple of fields away. "Or gun emplacements; wireless relay stations; or watch towers. All sorts'a things, in fact, associated with either the Army or Navy. All part of the general security around these parts."
"I see, I see. Most interesting." He looked across the wide sweep of water, taking in every littlest detail; combed the nearby coastline with sharp eyes, then turned to the women once more. "Well, must get on, I suppose. Remarkable place. Shall we go?"
"I think we've got us a live one, that's what I think."
"Yeah." Ricky nodded, as they stood beside the Tilly outside the Main Block of Camp J. "He's surely showing all the signs. Fallin' over himself t'get particulars of the ships out on the Flow. An' looked as if he'd have given his soul for a notebook t'draw a map of those observation posts, an' their localities."
"What d'we do now?" Gabrielle glanced at her partner curiously. "Go on with the day's schedule, or what?"
"Yeah, I suppose so." Ricky nodded. "We ain't got any, what you'd call real, proof yet as things stand; just our suspicions. I think they'll be enough for Mr Gailles, though."
The tour went off without problem; the Commanding Officer showing the politician everything which could safely be shown to a mere civilian, Government minister though he might be. Ricky and Gabrielle took this opportunity to return to their Nissen hut to have a private cup of tea, a wash and brush-up; a quick kiss in private; and take the Tilly to the nearest petrol-point to refill her tank. Just under an hour later they were once more on station outside the Main Block. Twenty minutes later Hungerford appeared, escorted by Captain Fletcher. Goodbyes' were said, more or less cordially on both sides, and the minister squeezed himself into the confined space of the small pick-up's passenger compartment. A minute later they were off again; Hungerford, judging by his unrestrained carping, appearing as unhappy with his transport as ever.
Loch Kirbister, on arrival, proved something of a let-down in the natural beauty stakes. Lying not far from the sea-coast—in fact a section of the sea could be seen not too far in the distance,—it was surrounded by low rolling hills, rising to slightly higher ridges not far off. The loch itself was just the usual flat grey expanse of water, though not being used for military purposes, because of its reservoir classification. On the flat ground to its southern tip a small camp, or central grouping of huts, could be seen laid out in a slightly haphazard manner.
"This is it?"
"Yep, Loch Kirbister." Ricky clambered out of the confined pick-up with relief, stopping to stretch luxuriously. "Home of Kirkwall's drinking water. These here buildings bein' the pumping station and, er, associated works. Ah, here comes the boss."
The usual formalities being observed the group moved off to take the requisite tour. There were a few soldiers present, but only in back-up, spear-carrier, mode—not as part of the main company working there, who were still mainly civilians. Mr Carmichael being the Head Technician.
"Glad to see you up here, Mr Hungerford." Carmichael was tall, fair, breezy of nature, and English to his fingertips. "Often thought the boffins down in London ought to come up here, t'see what's what. Never expected a Cabinet Minister t'take the bait, though."
"Well, here I am." Hungerford wrinkled his lips in what might, on a dark night, pass for a short smile. "That'll be the Pumping Room over there, eh?"
"—er, yes it is."
"Know all about these things m'self, y'know." Hungerford cocked a knowing eye at the technician. "Not the first time I've been drag—escorted on a tour of one of these places. So, what type of pumps are you using; what size are they, an' what's their capacity in gallons per minute; how much electricity is consumed; and what d'you do about sterilising the water? Come on, lets get the walk started."
In less than a minute the two women found themselves once more abandoned to their own devices, standing by the pick-up again.
"Once you've seen one pump, you've seen 'em all." Gabrielle tried to ignore their desertion by the toffs with an insouciant air, but Ricky could see it rankled. "Pity it ain't a whisky distillery; might've been offered a tot, in which case."
"Dam' few distilleries on Orkney. An', correct me if I'm wrong, they're all closed for the duration."
"Don't be so–so utilitarian." Gabrielle snorted in disgust. "It's a dream, is all."
Just over an hour and a half later the two women stood in the corridor outside Mr Gailles' room in the Allington. They cast glances at each other, then Ricky stepped forward to rap on the bare white panel.
Inside they found, not Gailles, but a much younger though still pin-striped individual. This obvious escapee from a kindergarten had thin fair hair; ridiculously aristocratic elongated features; and manners straight out of a 'Gentleman's Etiquette' manual.
"Ah, yes, you'll be Flying-officers Parker and Mathews." His voice held a high tenor ring; an accent reminiscent of one of the older more well-established universities; and an almost sneeringly superior tone. "Mr Gailles told me all about you. He's not quite ready, yet. Some business with other members of the Committee. So, perhaps you'd like to enlighten me about what you've found out about Mr Hungerford, during the course of the day?"
Ricky raised a dubious eyebrow in Gabrielle's direction, then directed a less than welcoming stare at this new, and unwelcome, proto-mandarin.
"Who're you? Didn't catch your name." Ricky's tone lacked any sense of politeness.
"An' what're you to us?" Gabrielle backed up her partner's lead with gusto, adding a cutting edge to her own questions. "What're you to Mr Gailles, come t'that?"
Caught off-guard by this rebellious and unexpected attitude the young man paused to stare at the two women in front of him. It was at this juncture he suddenly realised several things. One was that they were alone in the room; second the women were armed with what appeared to be examples of the larger calibres of automatics and revolvers; thirdly, that they were between him and the hotel room door. It dawned on even his usually egocentric nature that perhaps circumspection and politeness were in order.
"Ah, umm, I'm, umm, a Private Secretary to Mr Gailles." His tone had lost a great deal of its former grandeur, and his sharp censorious glance had foundered in a sea of apprehension; armed women with attitude having that effect on him. "He, ah, thought I could act as host until he was able to join us. He'll only be a few minutes, I believe."
"Actin' as host, an' actin' as interrogator are mutually exclusive standpoints." Gabrielle when riled could send visible sparks shooting from her grass-green eyes. "Perhaps you ought'ta spend some valuable time considerin' the differences; especially in a situation fraught with deep top-secret connotations like the present. We ain't never seen or heard of you before. Springin' a wild young bronco on us, out'ta the blue, is just as likely t'get our goat as anythin'. An', y'may have noticed, we're both armed. This here's a dam' secret operation; where's your clearances? I wan'na see signed documents an' passes, an' I wan'na see 'em now."
The blonde Harpy followed this by slowly, but ostentatiously, unbuttoning the flap of her waist holster and hauling into view her heavy Webley .455 service revolver, which she then quietly cocked and held barrel-down at her right side.
"That will not be necessary, thank you."
Turning round as one, the room's occupants saw, standing in the open doorway, its official resident.
"We seem to have reached what might almost qualify as a Mexican stand-off." Mr Gailles' tone was soft and relaxed, but quietly intense. "And all in the course of a conversation lasting less than three minutes. I hardly know whether to be impressed or disappointed. Thank you, Marling, that will be everything for this evening."
The youth so named looked sheepish; passed the women with averted gaze; nodded to his superior, and made a quick getaway; closing the door, with what was probably great relief, behind him.
"You may put away your firearm, Miss Parker." Gailles cocked an eye at the lady in question. "Rather a brusque reaction to poor Marling, I find; but not, perhaps, without due provocation. Mr Marling can be, um, somewhat acerbic on occasion. I must make a note to address the matter with him at a later date. So, what happened with Mr Hungerford?"
The women sat on chairs beside the small table in the room, while Mr Gailles sat, rather primly, on the bed facing them. Ricky started to give their report, it being brought to a conclusion by Gabrielle; they both being careful to leave nothing out.
"Remarkably interesting." Gailles nodded afterwards, with a tremor of the lips which might have been the forewarning of a weak smile. "I must say coming to Orkney has presented me with the solutions to several difficult aspects of the, er, problems associated with the matter in hand. We appear to have advanced with amazing speed, to what is certainly a most desirous conclusion. Without being too explicit I feel I can at least tell you both that I have had further details and evidence transmitted to me from Whitehall which, along with what you have just revealed, more or less provides the wished-for conclusion to the whole affair."
"Y'mean you've figured out who the traitor is?" Gabrielle leaned forward, putting a hand on her thigh. "So, who then?"
"Ah, I like your attitude, Miss Parker; almost the Nelson Touch, in fact." Gailles actually allowed himself a thin tight-lipped smile. "I admit I expected to be here for some considerable time—indeed, at least a week. But circumstances have proved more advantageous than I could have hoped for. My agents in Whitehall have not been idle while we have gone about our own investigative business here. They went through all the homes and offices of the members' of the Committee here with us; discreetly, of course. What they found, allied to your own reports of your close associations with two of these members, has allowed us to form a clear solution to our problem. I shall be returning to London this evening, along with the Committee members. Thank you for your sterling efforts, ladies."
"But who was the traitor, Mr Gailles?" Ricky, at least, couldn't hold back her curiosity. "I mean, after all our dam' work."
"Just so, ladies, just so." Gailles, rising to accompany the women to the door, shook his head knowingly. "Work which has not gone unnoticed, I assure you. Yes, most satisfactory, all round. Thank you, and goodbye. You'll find that you will be returning to your normal duties from tomorrow. You have my most felicitous congratulations on your excellent help. Goodnight."
"What on earth just happened back there?" Ricky held the door of their Nissen hut open for her companion to enter ahead of her. "I've never been fobbed-off with such courteous finality before."
Gabrielle threw her cap on the table; unbuckled her gunbelt and dumped it unceremoniously on her bed; then ran her hands through her blonde hair as she turned to Ricky.
"Gailles seems t'have come up trumps, by the look of it." The blonde sighed deeply. "It's been a long day, an' I'm tired. I don't care which boring grey mandarin was the culprit; let ol' Gailles keep his secrets; I have a strong suspicion we're well out'ta it. How does a cup'pa strong tea, with a dash of whisky, sound t'you?"
"Like the voice of an angel on a dark night, Gabrielle." Ricky laughed, and put her arm round the smaller woman's waist. "Lead me to it, darlin'."
"The four members of the Parliamentary Investigative Committee who arrived on Orkney Mainland two days ago will be leaving today to return to London, with valuable material which will strongly influence and strengthen Britain's ongoing opposition to the Axis Powers. In other news—"
"Yeah," Ricky looked up from the local newspaper from which she was reading aloud at breakfast the following morning, in their private Nissen hut. "looks like Gailles decided taking unnecessary baggage back to London was a waste of everyone's time."
"Jeesus! Can he do things like that?" Gabrielle frowned over her first cup of coffee of the day. "I thought at least there'd be a long public trial, or something."
"I think Gailles, an' his highly dubious associates, favour the more shadowy private methods of accomplishin' their evil deeds." Ricky shrugged, as she turned over to the photo-page where the latest events overseas were highlighted. "Anyway, nothin' t'do with us anymore. All we need'ta do is keep our mouths shut."
"Still, wonder who it was." Gabrielle hated mysteries, wrinkling her lips and brow together in contemplation of the enigma. "Was it Hu—"
"Not our problem any longer, Miss." Ricky smiled over at her loved partner. "Straighten your tie, its lop-sided. You know we're meeting Captain Fletcher later. An' you're on radio-coverage this week, ain't ya?"
"There's a red light flashing on the short-wave back there, that's all. Looks like Group-Captain Graham needs our assistance once again."
To be continued in the next story in the 'Mathews and Parker', series.