'The Troopship Murders'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the top secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—board a troopship heading into the Southern Approaches in order to solve a murder, but matters unexpectedly escalate.
Note 1:— The Shipping Line referred to in this story was real, but the individual vessel is fictional.
Note 2:— FANY—First Aid Nursing Yeomanry. Ostensibly a British Military Nursing organisation, though also involved with security activities. In WW2 a small division of this group served as a parent unit for many women who undertook espionage work for the Special Operations Executive; including female members dropped into Occupied Europe as spies.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The SS Damastor was originally a mainstay of the cargo-passenger Blue Funnel Line; like all its sister ships enjoying a name derived from Greek mythology. Now, however, under the authoritarian hand of the War Department, it operated in somewhat grotesque multi-colour Dazzle paint, using the WD sobriquet BF 73.
Dazzle paint, first employed in the Great War and now brought to a pitch of, if not exactly perfection, at least panoramic breadth, had a lot going for it, but also more not so. It was meant to break up the outline of any vessel, so that enemy ships, especially submarines, found it difficult to gauge its length and general shape and size; they supposedly finding it particularly hard to determine where the bows or stern ended—thus making it problematical where to precisely aim shot or torpedo. Whether this outrageous paint scheme actually fulfilled its purpose in any positive manner was a subject up for debate; but here it was, and the crew, officers, and astounded public would, willy-nilly, just have to put up with it.
"Makes it dam' easy t'spot from the air, anyway."
Claire Mathews, ATA/SOE pilot, here spoke aloud the similar thoughts of her co-pilot in the cockpit of the huge Sunderland flying-boat as they neared their target, far out on the dark, gloomy Atlantic wastes of the Southern Approaches to Great Britain.
"Which sort'a militates against its being really as much use as camouflage as the boffins keep tellin' us."
Gabrielle Parker—ditto relevant rank and capacities as her partner—never one to keep a personal opinion private, here gave of her best; top lip curling sarcastically, though entirely unseen under her close-fitting flying-helmet and radio-mask, and therefore, one would have thought, wholly wasted on her close neighbour and secret lover.
"Well, let's hope it keeps its end up over the next hour or so, anyway. Hope t'God there aren't any dam' Jerry subs around." Claire put the flying-boat's port wing down, horizon curving at a crazy angle for a few seconds, as she lined up her approach. "At least the sea's calm, more or less. She's slowed down, hasn't she?"
Gabrielle leaned over to glance down through her side window at the long shape slicing through the waves a couple of thousand feet below.
"Yeah, nearly at a standstill; y'can take the old crate down now."
Landing a Short Sunderland was never a piece of cake at the best of times, mostly because of the flying-boat's huge size and weight. If the pilot was a few miles an hour out in approach speed it usually felt like hitting a brick wall when the curved underside met the waves. But, like her co-pilot, Claire was an expert with many hours flying time under her belt in these monsters of the air; and, calm sea helping, it was only a matter of ten minutes or so before she and Gabrielle were climbing up the loose rope ladder thrown down for them and were standing on the main deck of the large ship. Awaiting their arrival with every sign of interest was a young man in the uniform of a lieutenant of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve—the Wavy Navy, so-called by members of the more professional branch of the service.
"Good morning, ladies." He stood to attention with a crisp salute which would have done his instructor's heart good to witness. "Lieutenant Gordon Challing at your service. Will you follow me, and I'll introduce you to Captain Kaimes right away. This way, please."
He led the women into the depths of the central superstructure, proceeding along several narrow corridors and up at least three flights of steep stairs, before ending outside a door in a short corridor. He gave a tap and immediately, without waiting for a reply, opened it and stood back to allow his guests to enter ahead of him.
The room they found themselves in was small and square, with two large portholes on the left-hand side while another door on the far side led into some other private room, probably the Captain's bedroom. Captain Kaimes, standing four-square in the middle of the carpetless room, eyed the women through gimlet grey sharp eyes.
"Glad t'meet you both. Take a couple of chairs an' I'll get right down t'business." He glanced at his lieutenant with a nod. "Put your head out the door an' yell for Jamieson, will you? Tea an' biscuits suit you both?"
"Oh yes, thanks."
"Lovely. We both need warming up, Captain."
"It is a little crisp today, I admit."
Kaimes sat behind his desk, pushed a couple of sheets of typewritten paper out of his way, leaned his elbows on the stained surface and again eyed his visitors with intense interest.
"Unusual for women to be involved in this sort of thing, what?" Suddenly noting the expressions this statement had brought forth he rapidly reversed his position. "Not that I find it at all, er, noteworthy. Women in all sorts of places and stations these days. Necessity of war, an' all that, eh? So, have you—ah, Jamieson, just give my guests a mug of tea an' a couple of Bath Olivers each, will you."
There was a pause while the steward, obviously a hangover from the ship's original function, passed cups and plates around; he disappearing afterwards with the same supreme calm efficiency as shown in his first silent appearance.
"Good man, Jamieson, don't know what we'd do without him." Kaimes nodded vaguely, then returned to business. "So, what do you both know of our, umm, difficulties?"
"We'll look to you, Captain, to fill in the details." Gabrielle took the initiative, as was her wont in such matters. "But, generally speaking at least, two people on board have apparently been murdered, it seems. Unusual sort of thing to happen in such a, hmmph, restricted environment, wouldn't you say?"
"Are ya sure the two victims were actually murdered?" Claire gave voice to her more conservative outlook. "I mean, what's the evidence for such, rather than some sort of accident?"
"Challing?" Captain Kaimes looked to his lieutenant to clarify matters.
"First victim, lance-bombardier George Jones, knocked on the head by a blunt instrument and left in a corridor several decks below the waterline." The lieutenant had all the details at hand from memory. "Second victim, two days later—the day before yesterday,—corporal Thomas Fields, found stabbed to death in his bunk in his cabin. He being a relief signalman—radio operator, that is."
"Any known reason why?" Claire raised an eyebrow, covering both men. "Were they involved in any sort of Black Market chicanery aboard ship, or what?"
"As far as preliminary investigation goes no known involvement together in anything out of the ordinary." Challing rubbed his nose with two fingers. "We've tightened security on the radio-room, just to be safe. Though we don't know if communications has anything to do with either's death as yet."
"That, finally, is why I sent a signal to the WD in Whitehall." Captain Kaimes took up the tale from here. "All sorts of difficulties come to the surface, as a result of something like this. Deaths aboard ship always cause worry and confusion; especially as it is a kind of a closed shop. No-one can get off the ship, if they feel anxious, you see. Makes the more nervous type begin to worry they may be next, what."
Gabrielle had been taking copious notes, while Claire leaned back on her chair gazing from one speaker to the other through eyes narrowed by deep thought.
"How many people on board at present, Captain?" Claire now took the pragmatic course; seeking only, like Mr Gradgrind before her, solid facts.
"Sixty-four crew, and three thousand two hundred and twenty troops, ma'am."
"No lack of suspects, then." Gabrielle made this redundant statement in a hushed voice.
"You may well say so, Miss Parker." Kaimes shrugged his shoulders. "Another reason for my calling the War Department for assistance. Needs a professional to dig for the truth in this quagmire. —er, are you both, by any chance, experts? I mean, investigators or whatever?"
Gabrielle effortlessly batted this daisy-cutter out into the long grass.
"Let's just say we both have prior experience of a nature that chimes with the present situation pretty well. 'nuff said; security an' loose talk, an' all that; eh, Captain?"
"Oh, yes, quite so." Kaimes sat back, well-knowing when he had been told to keep his nose out of matters which didn't concern him. "Well, shall we leave you to carry on? Challing will show you to a suite on C Deck set aside for you. A large sitting-room cum office, and bedroom. Well, carry on, and good luck—preferably as soon as you can make it."
The suite of rooms turned out to be something along the lines of a stateroom; all oak paneling and solid furniture, the majority of items screwed to the floor as was only to be expected. Gabrielle was enchanted.
"Whoopee, we've fallen on our feet an' no mistake." She had taken a swift gleeful turn around the set of rooms, like a schoolgirl set free from a convent. "Wow, a monster-double in the bedroom, that's the way to live."
In the meantime Claire had crossed to one of the two portholes and gazed out across the open sea.
"Hear that? Carter's taking the ol' Sunderland back up."
"He's a good pilot, won't take him long to return to Blighty." Gabrielle sighed gloomily. "Which leaves us here on our tod, to do what, lover?"
"To come to the aid of all good men and true, of course." Claire sniggered, as she stood in the doorway of the bedroom contemplating the large object therein. "Yeah, this'll do nicely, thanks."
"Kindly keep your thoughts on matters that, er, matter, darling." Gabrielle tried to look coy and innocent; a position doomed from the first. "Do we need to go an' cast an eye over the relicts of the present drama, do you suppose? Might offer some clue or other, with any luck."
Claire turned back from viewing the bedroom interior to contemplate her partner.
"Ye-es, might have some significance; if we're gon'na start anywhere, that's as good as another." She paused to consider her lover again. "What d'ya think we might gain from studyin' two dead bodies, days old? Not as if they were still in situ; been moved from pillar to post, in the meantime. Anybody thought of taking fingerprints, by the way?"
"Shouldn't have thought so." Gabrielle grasped her large duffel-bag, containing all her worldly goods. "I bags the starboard side o'the bed, you can make do with the port, OK?"
"Jeez, what a gal."
The refrigeration room on the ship, usually given over to preserving the more delicate items of food, had now taken on the cloak of a morgue—at least, one far corner of the chilly chamber had been set aside by a large curtain suspended from the ceiling with a series of small steel rings; the whole expanse of material now hard as concrete and white and freezing to the touch. Both womens' breath came out in clouds of white steam as they spoke; their host being the ships' doctor, FANY officer Captain Helen McInnes, MD; a 28 year old Londoner. In the secrecy of the cold enclosed room she lost no time in coming to grips with the important nub of their newly-formed partnership.
"It's alright, we can talk privately in here, walls are solid metal and thick oak." She glanced from Claire to Gabrielle with a slight frown. "Better start with the password, eh? 'Reason's Daylight shows ye at your meat'—."
"—'Asses at thistles, bleeding as ye eat'." Gabrielle had the correct response ready and waiting. "So, you're our SOE contact?"
"Just that, and nothing more, ladies." Helen nodded, shrugging her shoulders to gain some warmth, though all three were enveloped in heavy duffel-coats and thick gloves. "Better tell you at once looking is all you're gon'na be able to do at the moment, with our two gentlemen friends. This place is meant to freeze food over long periods, and it only works on one set temperature."
"So?" Gabrielle was all ears.
"So, George and Tom are both frozen solid as we speak; like as in the Arctic." Helen wriggled her shoulders once more as they moved across to the white curtain. "Not a chance of any medical examination—post-mortem to you—until they thaw out; and that'll take at least two, maybe three, days at normal room temperature."
She put out a gloved hand and pulled the white curtain aside. There was a crackling noise and a thin cloud of ice crystals sprayed out as the material slid to one side. This revealed two low trestle tables with long forms lying on top of each, these concealed by white sheets covering them from head to foot. Helen again pulled these down on each inmate of the temporary morgue to show their chests and faces; she having previously removed their clothing, so the head wounds suffered by George Jones, and the stab wounds inflicted on Thomas Fields, were clearly on show.
"And there we have it." Gabrielle glanced from one corpse to the other with a raised eyebrow. "I know neither's in their original position, as found, but is it quite certain about the murder theory?"
"Jones, found at the end of a fairly unused corridor in the bowels of the boat." Helen nodded sadly, recalling the details. "Head summarily bashed in, lots of blood over the corridor floor and wall, but no sign of the instrument used to achieve said effect. Fields, again, found dead in his bunk; seven deep stab wounds on his chest, blood every dam' where, but no sign of a knife, machete, sword, or whatever. Conclusion, murder by person or persons unknown. And that, ladies, is where you come in."
"Oh, thanks." Gabrielle invested these two words with a plethora of meaning.
"Has any connection been found that links the two together, for any reason?" Claire was still searching for logical direction in the affair. "I mean, I know there was a pause of, what, two days between the murders? But there must be some kind'a connection, all the same."
"I'm just a Doctor; I leave it up to you."
"But that's not entirely correct is it, Helen?" Gabrielle turned an emerald green eye on the woman. "You're a FANY member; but Claire and I both know you're also a Special Operations Executive member, too. That makes what you are doing aboard this ship, and whatever contact or connection you had with the deceased, of paramount importance."
"So what say we adjourn to your cabin, an' chew the cud over just what in Hell's goin' on aboard this tub? How's that sound, Helen?"
Helen looked from one to the other of her inquisitors; saw they were in cold hard earnest, and gave in graciously.
"OK, OK. There is something a little, er, dubious hangin' in the wind as far as this voyage goes. Come on, an' I'll tell you both as much as I know—or, at least, as much as I can without breaking the Official Secrets Act. Right, let's get out'ta here, I never did like Winter."
In the warmth and comfort of Helen's cabin the three women settled down to a detailed discussion of the whole subject. Claire airing her concerns first.
"Spies? Black Marketeers? Spivs? Gangsters out t'make a buck? Who?"
"Hah, and you want me to give a short concise answer to that, do you?" Helen came as close to sneering as politeness would allow. "I boarded this vessel in South Africa, longer ago now than I care to remember. I had a message from that dam' eyrie in Somerset House—"
"Group Captain Graham?" Gabrielle nodded sourly from her chair. "We've had lots of experience of his little peccadilloes ourselves, haven't we, Claire?"
"Too dam' true." Claire examined the FANY officer with interest. "What tomfoolery did he dump on ya this time?"
Helen settled herself in her chair, smiling ruefully.
"He told me there was a suspicion a group of Fifth Columnists had boarded the ship at Durban, on their way to Blighty." She reached across to a small table by her chair, opening and holding out a small flat silver box. "Cigarette? I smoke like a bloody chimney myself. No, oh well, mind if I spark one up? Thanks."
"That means these people must be part of the ship's crew, I take it?" Claire was still pursuing the facts in the case.
"Well, er, not necessarily." Helen shook her head. "The troops mostly boarded at Port Elizabeth. They're from a motley bunch of war-weary units and battalions, going home for some well-earned leave and re-grouping. Lots of unassigned groups from platoons which no longer exist or have been badly eroded by wounded and so on. Captain Graham said he thought it likely some men could have taken the place of lost squaddies; blending in with their newly formed temporary units. No-one'll have the slightest idea of their real antecedents."
"God, that's what Claire and I were worrying would be the case." Gabrielle groaned in despair. "Instead of sixty-odd crew, we're faced with thousands of basically anonymous troops. Where in Hell d'we start?"
Claire still had the cold hard facts in her sights, like a hyena harassing an injured deer.
"Any ideas about the two victims?" She frowned at the Doctor, now only partially visible through a cloud of evil-smelling smoke. "God, what in hell are those fags, they stink?"
"Sudanese, a bit niffy, I agree, but I'm developing rather a taste for the awful things as time goes by." Helen shrugged, taking another long drag. "The men, well, corporal Fields was my man—that's to say, I had him placed in the radio-room for my own fell purposes. Seems he acquired some knowledge someone else thought he shouldn't have."
"You got any suspicions about exactly who might be involved?" Gabrielle having decided the fewer suspects on her interrogation list the better. "We can't grill everyone on board; that'd take bloody months. You must have some notion of who's up to monkey business, surely?"
A quiet peace descended on the small cabin, as the quotient of oxygen to noxious tobacco smoke decreased rapidly, then Helen shrugged once more.
"There're a few I've got my doubts about—"
A notebook and pencil were in Gabrielle's hand in a flash so fast the human eye couldn't follow the action.
"Tell, every detail is important." The blonde bared white teeth in something resembling a snarl of triumph. "Names, ranks, but f-ck the numbers, unless it's really necessary."
"Well, it's all ordinary ranks, no officers." Helen nodded sagely. "Obviously they think impersonating officers is too much of a chancy business. Down below, on F Deck, there's a group of miscellaneous men from various broken-up units. They've been put in a temporary unit till they reach Portsmouth. It's those I've got my eye on most of all."
"Sounds good; let's have some names." Claire too was warming to the task.
"First, corporal David Stuart." The Doctor rubbed her chin with a hand whose fingertips showed dull yellow with nicotine stains. "All the suspects are British, by the way.—"
"Ummph." This from Gabrielle, in a disdainful tone.
"—he's one of those know-it-all platoon lawyers." Helen shifted nervously in her chair. "You know the sort, always quoting King's Regulations, and causing strife and unhappiness wherever they go."
"A good Sergeant-Major'd have his entrails fer sausages in the blink of an eye." This from an outraged Claire, who loathed that sort of character, especially in wartime.
"Then there's private Eric Staines." The Doctor paused to consider this person through half-closed eyes. "Big man, bullying sort; likes t'pick a fight, then pound his opponent to pulp. I've had three run-in's with him so far. Been thinking about asking Captain Kaimes to put the b-st-rd in irons for the rest of the voyage—but imagine it's too late now."
"And who else?" Gabrielle's pencil was flying over her page.
"Two more; private Harry Knowles, a thin ferret-like creature—nasty all the way through, like Brighton rock." She had clearly developed a distinct distaste for this particular soldier. "Wouldn't trust him to bring a round of beer from the bar to the table without flogging at least three of the pints on the Black Market en route."
"Ha." This tickling Claire no end.
"Finally there's private John Renier." Helen mused over her last suspect for a few seconds. "Can't place him, exactly. Definitely the brightest of the bunch; but what he's hiding under his tin hat's anyone's guess. That's the lot. There may well be more; I just haven't had the time to run 'em to earth."
Claire and Gabrielle rose, not at all unthankful for a reason to evacuate the cabin before they choked in the thick pall of stinking cigarette smoke rapidly encroaching on what was left of the original atmosphere.
"They'll do nicely, to be goin' on with." Claire opened the cabin door with unnecessary haste, Gabrielle pushing at her heels. "Thanks for the info; we'll get right on the investigation. Oh, by the way, better keep your own head down for the present."
"Yeah, watch your back." Gabrielle gave this advice from the outer deck, gasping in lungfuls of fresh air like a stranded cod. "OK, Claire, let's go; we got work t'do. This way? Right."
There was nothing Spartan about the fittings in the cabin the women had been allocated; oak furniture, cane chairs, chintz-covered armchairs, and a fine watercolour painting on the opposite wall. This luxury tickling Gabrielle's taste-buds from the off.
"God, wish I could live here for ever. What a palace."
"Hiirph, three or four days an' we'll be back in the luxurious setting of our jolly ol' Nissen hut on Little Lanning airfield, don't worry." Claire always liked to burst the bubble, when available. "What's your take on what we know so far then, Gabs?"
They sat on the long soft sofa against one wall, Gabrielle resting her notebook on one RAF issue trouser-clad knee, before getting down to business.
"Well, not much, dear." Gabrielle always liked to be cautious in these matters. "We'll know more when we've had these bozos up in front of us an' given them all the evil eye at least once. You can start there, lover, you're good at that."
"Ha, thanks." Claire grinned, thumping her partner gently on the shoulder. "The day's still fresh; what say we send a steward to fetch these guys one by one? We can start with the tough, what's his name, again?"
"Right, him first."
On arrival Staines showed all the brazen contempt for authority the women had suspected he might. They being female he obviously thought he'd start in a manner in which he fondly hoped to continue.
The steward, Hopes by name if not by nature, showed him into the cabin then exited swiftly himself, obviously knowing the type.
"Hoh, nice pad." Staines affected a showy cockiness towards the two women standing watching him. "I likes a good bint, an' two're allus better'n one, eh? What'cha feel like then, gals?"
In one smooth motion Claire crossed to his side; grabbed his left arm in her two fists then, with an easy twist of her grip, sent the big man crashing to the floor. Claire stuck her boot firmly in his face and, like a Valkyrie triumphing over her defeated opponent, raised one of his arms high, locked in a painful hold.
"Aargh. Aayiee. Lem'me go, ya b-tch."
This remark only gaining him a further twist of the arm which reduced him to a nearly wordless gibbering.
"Any time ya wan'na change your tune, jest lem'me know, big boy." Claire was in her element. "Y'can go on with your bully act, in which case I dam' well will break your bloody arm; or y'can see sense, stand easy, an' answer our bloody questions. So, which is it t'be, ya big ape?"
"OK, OK. Lem'me go, fer pity's sake; y're wrenching my f-ckin' arm off."
Once order had thus been re-imposed over the beaten man,—who clutched his arm, still groaning under his breath, while sending evil glances towards both women that boded no good to either if he ever caught them late at night in a dark alley down Wapping way—Claire took up the order of investigation while he stood hunched in front of them.
"Right, first off, who the hell are ya?" The tall New Zealander raised a threatening hand, making Staines take an involuntary pace backwards. "An' don't come the fancy dan with some concocted story—I can smell a lie at forty feet, buster, an' if I do it'll be the worse fer you. OK, what'ya got?"
It was like pulling teeth from a particularly unwilling customer at a dentist; but finally the two women managed to extract the pith of the situation from the still groaning soldier.
"What're ya up to on this here ol' tub?" Claire giving him no space to think about his answers.
"We're running a nice little line in baccy an' fags, is all."
"Who's we?" Gabrielle eyed the man disdainfully, and she could be very disdainful when riled.
"Oh, jes' me an' a coupl'a other guys."
This being by no means the sort of detailed fact-based information Claire was searching for she faced the pale man, grinning savagely.
"Listen, bozo, we want names, so quit beatin' about the bloody bush an' start answering. Or d'ya want me t'massage your arm some more?"
"OK, OK, jeez." Staines shrugged unhappily and finally started talking for real. "There's me, an' a handful o'others. Davy Stuart, fer one. He got me in'ta this whole set-up; said there'd be great profits t'be made from all these dupes aboard ship. Then there's Harry Knowles, out'ta Limehouse he is. Very snappy character, though a bit quick with the ol' razor when the opportunity offers. I'd watch yer step with 'im, if'n yer ever talks t'him—don't trust 'im a bloody step's my advice."
"Thanks awfully." Claire curled a lip, eyeing the man with more than a little contempt. "Wonderful people you choose t'surround yourself with—everybody else not stupid enough t'join up with deadbeats like you?"
"Get on with it—who else?"
"John Renier, he's the leader; he knows where t'lay his hands on the baccy an' fags." Thinking the more he told these dangerous women the faster he might be able to retreat in something resembling good order, Staines gave of his best; which, of course, was his worst. "Must have a right stash o'the goods hidden somewhere aboard; maybe in one o'the secondary holds. I don't know; anyway, he's loaded."
"Is he indeed." Claire considered this for a few seconds, then returned to the situation at hand. "Well, Staines, you'll no doubt be underwhelmed to know you're gon'na be held in durance vile fer the next few days."
"What? Yer can't do that. Who in hell'r ya, anyway? What've I ever don—."
"Plenty, I'd imagine." Gabrielle took up the strain of the duet, shaking her head sorrowfully. "Anyways, by prior arrangement with the management—Captain Kaimes to you—there's a nice comfortable cell downstairs, er, I mean below decks, where we can keep you away from evil influences—your old mates, that is. Things are hotting up around here, y'know, an' you don't wan'na be one of the twigs on the bonfire, do you now?"
"Just that, ol' son, just that." Claire picked up the telephone on the small side-table near her arm and rang a number. "That you, Purser Black? Yeah? Right, Staines is ready fer incarceration, y'can come an' take him whenever. OK."
"Sweet dreams, Staines." Gabrielle always willing to end her conversations with people on a polite note.
"What did we learn from that, lover?"
Before answering her partner Claire took a turn around the main cabin, thinking things over.
"He could be tellin' more or less the truth, I suppose." She came over again to the still seated blonde who was the epicentre of her world. "Maybe all that's goin' on here is just a Black Market operation, run by a bunch of low-lifes from the East End."
"Maybe, maybe." Gabrielle was more dubious. "Wouldn't call it true Black Market, though; just a small back street spiv operation, t'my eyes."
"Yeah, could be jest that."
"Which means where does that leave Doctor McInnes' take on the whole affair?" Gabrielle had not lost sight of the underlying concern which had activated the SOE's interest. "If Captain Graham thought it necessary to send us out into the wastes of the Atlantic t'intercept this bloody tub he must have cogent reason, don't you think?"
"Well, one certainly hopes so."
"Listen Gabs, let's ferget about this Dave Stuart bozo fer the present; I've a strong feeling he's so peripheral t'the matter in hand we can give him the air fer the time being, OK? We'll take this little foul excrescence Harry Knowles next, right." Claire glanced at her lover with real concern. "Y'got your forty-five handy?"
"Yep, in my handbag here. What's your plan?"
"Take it out, check it's loaded, an' put it under that side cushion beside ya." Claire had the situation at her fingertips. "Like Staines said, we better not take any chances with this character. If he shows any propensity t'come it the physical, put a dam' bullet in him, anywhere ya choose—but be quick about it, too. OK?"
"Sounds reasonable to me, sis." Gabrielle nodded her agreement, producing the firearm in question as she spoke—a deadly looking Webley .45 five-shot revolver. "One bullet should be enough, eh?"
When the man entered the cabin the women were not in any way impressed by his deportment. While Staines had started off with a show of misplaced bravado Knowles presented an altogether different image. He stood all of five feet five inches in a rather shabby Army uniform, was as thin as the animal most people remembered him by, and strolled through life with an habitual expression similar to a dead codfish on a fishmonger's marble slab, though still holding a gripe against the world. His retreating brownish hair was thin, oily, and by its very lack seemed to accentuate the narrow sharpness of his skull. His eyes were a pale washed-out grey, like his soul; the probable likelihood being he had never had a close bosom friend in his life.
"—'ere, you're RAF types; wha'cha' want wiv me?"
"We're officers." Gabrielle, from her seat, tried again. "You call us ma'am; it's discipline, y'understand."
Knowles gave the suggestion some thought, wriggling his thin lips in a nasty manner, one hand hovering by his left trouser pocket as if that was its natural habitat.
"Wot is this—ma'am? I ain't done nuthin'."
"That's a matter of opinion." Claire nailed the falsity with grim accuracy. "Does that statement cover your activities aboard this ship, too?"
"Wha'd'yer mean?" Knowles eyed his questioner like a Chicago gangster wishing he hadn't forgotten his Tommy-gun. "I ain't done nuthin' on this here boat. Prove it, if I has. An' what kind'a authority has yer fer givin' me the third degree, anyways? Ain't I got rights, or what?—ma'am."
His left hand was again making twitching movements close to his pocket. Gabrielle noticed.
"You got something in that pocket you're really attached to?" With quiet deadliness she slid her hand out from under the cushion by her side, revealing her armament. "Or should I just use this, on the off-chance you don't like me? Put your hand in the pocket and take out what y'got easy like, very easy. I will use this if I have to."
Taken aback, if not wholly non-plussed, by the sharp turn of events Knowles gazed fascinated at the large revolver so obviously targeted on himself. His mouth opened and shut several times, his tongue ran over dry lips, while he glanced from one woman to the other, before hypnotically returning to Gabrielle and her Webley.
"Y'ain't,—y'ain't gon'na use that bloody cannon?"
"Whatever gave you that notion?" Claire joined in the conversation with a wide grin. "My colleague here has already shot several people in the course of her various investigations. Don't see any reason why you shouldn't join the throng. Do as she says, ape."
Realising he was in an impossible position Knowles reluctantly slid his hand into his trouser pocket and brought out a folded single razor, the handle a dark wood. Having nothing better to do with it he held it in the palm of his hand for inspection.
"Well, well, if the sarn't-major found that on you at inspection he'd have you in the slammer double-quick." Gabrielle gently waved the menacing barrel of her gun in Knowles' general direction. "Drop it at your feet; that's right, an' step back a couple of paces. Great, much better. Always at hand whenever you feel the need for a quick shave, eh?"
"Why'd ya go around armed t'the teeth with a cut-throat razor?" Claire was rapidly running out of polite small-talk. "I don't like that, gives me the idea you might have thoughts of using it for ulterior purposes."
"Operating on people's throats, other than your own," Gabrielle clarified the matter for the man. "Know why we're here? Know why you're there, right now?"
"Nah, I don't. An' yer can't hold havin' that bloody razor agin—"
"Shut up, an' listen, bozo." Claire had finally reached the end of her tether. "There're two dead men aboard this dam' ship; one with the back of his head caved in, the other stabbed more times than a Singer sewing-machine tryin' t'do double-stitch. An' who do we find in ownership of a deadly edged weapon capable of being used fer illegal purposes? Why, is that a dagger I see before me on the floor, there?"
"Knowles, your needle's stuck, and it's beginning t'irritate me—an' I'm the one with the loaded forty-five, an' an itchy trigger-finger." Gabrielle showed her teeth, like a leopard just sighting a nice juicy okapi across the veldt. "Where'll I put the first round? Or don't you mind—I'm easy?"
Knowles was a man of a deeply entrenched evil nature, and when someone made any suggestion of an imminent physical assault about to originate from them he, bearing in mind his own propensities, tended to take them at their word. In short he rather thought Gabrielle did have every intention of shooting him, even if he didn't quite understand why at the moment. He therefore fell back on his default position in such circumstances—craven cowardice.
"Now look 'ere, er, ma'am. I ain't done anybody in; certainly not on this here bloody boat." He clasped and unclasped his fingers, as if missing the comfort of his favourite weapon. "Y'can't pin knockin' that bloke on the head on me, 'cause I weren't bloody there. An' y'can't likewise pin stabbin' that other bloke in his bed on me neither; 'cause, er, 'cause—"
" 'cause you weren't there, either?" Claire curled a lip in derision.
"That's right ma'am." Knowles nodded enthusiastically, happy the women understood his defence. "The God's own truth, strike me pink if it ain't."
"Not a sight I'd like t'witness." Gabrielle, for one, finding the idea rather sickly. "Here's the rub, d-ckhead, I'm the one sitting here with a forty-five full'a bullets—dum-dums, if you're interested—but pretty soon I'm gon'na be sittin' here with an revolver missing a few of same, while you'll be standin' there with some extra bodily weight—lead weight. Are you, by any remote chance, getting my drift?"
Not a man of deep philosophical thought, the rat-like soldier did at least understand this threat clearly—the fact he thoroughly believed it making it all the more menacing in his eyes.
"All ya got'ta do, to avoid said fate, is answer the nice lady's questions." Claire turned her most deadly deep growl loose, the sound reverberating in the small cabin. "Take it away, Gabrielle."
"First off, are you just a blowhard, or do you actually have concrete alibis for the times of the two murders?" Gabrielle had her pre-arranged questions filed in her memory for instant use. "Don't bother with the sordid details now, just answer yes or no."
"Both times?" Claire seeking certainty on the matter.
"—umm, yeah, I got mates who were with me, or knew where I was, for both evenings." Knowles nodded, not taking his eyes off the barrel of the gun pointed in his direction, if not exactly straight at him.
"Bully, that's fine. We can all be friends, in that case." Gabrielle gently laid her weapon on the sofa beside her. "Next question; think carefully now, you don't want to disappoint me—who did kill those men?"
Knowles, coming from a London Borough State School, had no notion of what was meant in being caught between Scylla and Charybdis; but if the concept had been explained he would instantly have recognised the feelings undergone by those unlucky enough to have experienced the real thing. He started gulping for air once more, head jerking from side to side as if in search of a handy escape.
"—erm, umm, ahh—"
"You're not tellin' me what I want t'hear, laddie." Gabrielle hissed these words through narrowed lips, making a slow movement towards her trusty Webley again.
"It was—I mean, he was—that is—ah."
"Get a grip, fer God's sake." Claire had now lost all patience, never holding a large reserve of same. "If ya know,—an' we'll both cotton on if ya lie, scumbag,— then tell us—now."
Defeated, neck and crop, Knowles gave up the good fight and sang like a canary.
"It was Renier, John Renier. He did fer both."
"Your needle's stuck again." Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "D'you know for sure Renier killed both men? Have you proof he did the evil deeds?"
"Well, no; but I knows he's responsible, all the same."
"Oh Gods," Claire glowered at the shaking man. "why d'ya think he did it? Come on, speak up, we ain't got all day."
Knowles had'nt any great experience in carrying on a conversational argument or discussion on a particular subject. His idea of general communication being, if the person opposite didn't like what he was being told, then Knowles hauled out the razor, blackjack, or brass knuckles as required, spat on his hands, and got down to really convincing his victim. This present mental give and take simply rapidly exhausting his, certainly low, capabilities therein.
"I mean he as much as told me he did it, both times." The thin soldier shrugged, as if this met all concerns. "Harry, 'e sez, Harry, that dam' bombardier had it comin'; an' he copped it, good an' proper. That's what happens when blokes cross me, see? So I jest nodded, an' kept my bloody mouth shut not bein' a complete fool."
Claire and Gabrielle exchanged glances, both quite certain this rang true.
"And the radio-man?" Claire encouraged the soldier with a raised eyebrow.
"Fields?" Knowles shrugged again. "I don't know the in's an' out's o'that debacle, straight up. S'far as I know Fields wasn't in with us on the fags an' tinned baccy lark. A nice little earner that's turned out t'be, mind you—er, that is,—"
"Can it." Gabrielle had her sights still set on the mastermind behind all this chicanery. "So Renier professed t'killing Fields, too?"
"Yeah. Seemed quite pleased with himself, as it happens."
"Huh, and proof?" Gabrielle gave the soldier her meanest glance.
"Well, as t'actual proof, jest what he told me, agin." Knowles obviously felt the inadequacy of this reply. "I mean, what more can I tell yer? He said—well, he more or less said he did it. Said he was chuffed ever so the bloody radio-man was dead, anyway. So I took it he did the deed, wouldn't you? That's all I got, I gives yer my oath on it."
Gabrielle, keeping a bead on Knowles with the revolver in her right hand, picked up the telephone receiver in her left.
"Purser Black? Yeah, could you—what's that? Yeah, that's right, we must be filling your cells t'overflowing—an' there's more t'come yet. Can you send a couple of ratings t'collar our latest acquisition, Knowles by name. Good, thanks."
"It's the brig for you for the rest of the voyage, my lad." Claire couldn't keep a note of satisfaction out of her voice. "Ever been in the Scrubs?"
"F-ckin' twice, dam' yer both."
"Hey, don't go gettin' hoity-toity with us, ars-h-le." Gabrielle was having none of this mutinous attitude at such a late stage in the proceedings. "Looks as if you're gon'na make your hat-trick, then."
The cabin was once more quiet as Claire and Gabrielle considered their achievements so far.
"Kind'a clears up the Black Market aspect, I admit." Claire rubbed her chin reflectively. "But as t'the Fifth Column thing, nada. You got anything on it, dear?"
"Baccy and fags are all those two clowns are capable of organising." Gabrielle nodded her agreement. "Neither're capable of gettin' into spywork; don't have the brains."
"Knowles said he didn't think Fields, the radioman, was mixed up with the fag n'baccy rip-off, anyway."
"Yeah, so he did." The blonde reflected for a moment. "Which brings up the question—"
"—what did Fields discover, that got on Renier's nerves so much he found it necessary t'kill the guy?"
"You got it, sis." Gabrielle tapped her fingers on the table for a few seconds. "A large part of being a spy must be to relay your information back to base, don't you think?"
"Indubitably, dear, indub—oh, I see where y're goin'." Claire clasped a hand on her partner's shoulder. "Yeah, messages, that's the connection."
"But Fields was one of Captain McInnes' own men." Gabrielle cited the obvious difficulty. "So he wasn't in with Renier, as such."
Another period of silence pervaded the cabin; the women sitting on the long sofa again. The situation needed some careful thought, and both were not stingy in giving of their best.
"Here, wait a minute."
"Fields is-was-the radioman, right?"
"That's what the solicitors call incontestable, yeah—so?"
"And being a spy necessarily needs a radio of some sort to transmit a spy's stock in trade, right?"
"Keep goin', gal."
"So maybe Renier was using some form of short-wave radio he's got hidden somewhere aboard." The more Gabrielle thought about it the more she liked this idea. "Fields, up in his radio-room, perhaps came across one of those transmissions accidentally, while he was scanning his own equipment. He's not quite sure of what's goin' on; starts to investigate off his own bat; crosses trails with Renier at the wrong place and time; endgame for Fields. How's that sound?"
For the third time the cabin echoed to a reverberating silence. Gabrielle musing over the details of her brainwave, whilst Claire also thereby put two and two together to make E=MC2.
"That must be the way things panned out fer Fields." Claire patted Gabrielle's shoulder, grinning widely. "Covers all the needed details, an' comes to the correct finale. I like it."
"Only question is, how do we actually pin the thing on Renier?"
"There's that, there's certainly that, gal."
Another pause, the fourth, ensued while this aspect took up their exclusive attention.
"What kind'a hold can we exert over Renier?"
"Hold? What d'you mean?" Gabrielle could see no answer to this question. "He's a fifth Columnist, a spy—in wartime. Once caught, which he's as good as at the moment, there'll hardly be a trial at all. Just a quick outing, one cold dawn, to a high stone wall within the Tower of London, and a short meeting with a firing squad. No hold for us there, baby."
"And, if he keeps stum, there's a faint chance he'll get away with it; whereas if he talks, that's the end fer him, eh?"
"In a nutshell, dear." Gabrielle slowly ran a finger over her right eyebrow. "Unless—"
"What? What? Unless what?"
"Unless we come to an agreement with Captain McInnes."
"Care t'enlighten me, ducks?"
"Spies are spies; but there're also, what are they called again? Double-agents." Gabrielle saw the whole answer crystallizing in her mind. "We argue Helen into offering Renier the chance t'turn on his former associates, and so escape his appointment with the Tower."
Claire looked at her lover as this idea worked its magic on her judgement, then she nodded.
"It's worth a go." She gave her partner a hand as they rose from the sofa. "Let's go an' beard her in her den right away. D'ya think Renier's the sort t'cop t'bein' turned on his own kind?"
"Being a live double-agent's better than being a dead spy, after all." Gabrielle was wholly pragmatic about this consideration. "If he's a fool, thoroughly indoctrinated with ol' Goebbels' mindless garbage, then he'll dance a merry jig t'the firing squad; if, on the other hand, he has any sense of his own safety at all—and I rather think he has—then it'll be the only viable escape clause open to him. You know the way to Miss McInnes' cabin, dear? I'm lost in this shipboard maze."
"Ha, come on, gal, follow me." Claire was well used to her lover's lack of a sense of place. "Take my hand an' I'll lead ya t'the Well at the World's End, don't worry."
"There's a pub in North London called that." Gabrielle, as always, was capable of grasping an offer at the least opportunity. "Is that a definite date? 'cause mine's a double brandy, if so."
"God, what a gal; but I loves ya all the same—God knows why, sometimes. Come on, this way."
Helen McInnes, in her tight little cabin, placed the three tea-cups on her small table and sat beside her guests.
"Sorry about the lack of sugar, but you know how it is these days."
"Don't worry, we're both off the stuff, anyway." Gabrielle exerting all her famous charm. "Wonderful what a really good war, and rationing, can do for one's figure."
"So, what's this, umm, unscheduled visit in aid of, then? I didn't expect any results on your part for, er, some time yet."
Claire and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then Claire took up the cudgels.
"It's apropos this dam' Black Market thing—"
"—spies, Fifth Columnists, really, is what I'm primarily interested in.—"
"Yeah, that's what I mean." Claire sipped her tea, planning her campaign. "We've had it out with Knowles an' Staines, in our own way—"
"The basic Laws of the Land, not to mention King's Regulations, out the window, eh?"
"—er, you might put it that way." Gabrielle entered the discussion, aiding her lover in a tight spot. "But the end result is, we've struck both of them off the spy list—they neither of them have enough brains to hardly tie their shoelaces of a morning without help; spying's way beyond their capability."
Helen was ahead of the game; smiling, while still frowning slightly, at the women sitting opposite.
"Which leaves His Highness John Renier." She glanced from Claire to Gabrielle. "You got something on him, already? Something I can actually use?"
"Well, we got suppositions, and suspicions—" Gabrielle started out.
"—much the same, aren't they? In present circumstances, anyway." Helen acting the Devil's Advocate, as needed.
"—let's call 'em certainties, then." Gabrielle continued, determined to keep the line of reasoning in her argument open and clear. "Renier is a spy; he has a shortwave radio buried deep in the bowels of this leaking tub somewhere; he's used it at least a couple of times already; and Fields heard one of those messages over his own radio-room machine."
"Ah-ha. I begin to get your drift. Keep going."
"Fields took it on his shoulders to do some preliminary investigations before coming to you with his finds." Gabrielle now had the bit between her teeth. "But he stumbled over Renier—or more accurately, Renier stumbled over him in the doing so—and a few hours later Renier slipped into Fields' cabin and did for him permanently."
"I see." Helen thought this over, then looked across at her guests. "You think this is enough to have it out with Renier, right now?"
"We can certainly haul him in fer questioning." Claire took up the kernel of the discussion, teeth slightly parted in an incipient snarl. "We, Gabrielle an' I, can work him over—we know how—until he sees the error of his ways, an' comes clean."
Helen glanced over at Gabrielle, silently giving her the chance to offer her opinion.
"I'm with Claire." Gabrielle nodded, staring Helen in the eyes with a clear open gaze. "We can blind Renier with our suspicions—which we can easily make out to be certainties backed up with some kind of proof we're keeping back from him. Given the nature of his position, and the way things are building up dramatically, especially for him, there's every certainty he'll break. And that brings us to the main deal—"
"Oh yes, what might that be?"
"We think he'll see the impossible position he's in much faster and come clean with everything he knows—and be far more useful to you as a result—if we can offer him the chance to turn on his late comrades—become a double-agent, in fact. How does that grab you?"
Helen placed her cup back on the table, considering Gabrielle through narrowed eyes; then unexpectedly clapped her hands together with a broad smile.
"Just what I wanted." She smiled her approval at her bemused guests. "We at the SOE—well, I should actually say Group Captain Graham—had this possibility in mind from the get-go. I know the usual route in these matters would have been a short walk to the firing squad; but Captain Graham made it known, in his communications to me at the start of this thing, that turning Renier—if indeed it could be proved he was a bona fide spy—was the favoured course of action. So I approve wholeheartedly. What's your next move going to be, if I may ask?"
A silence permeated the cabin for a few seconds while Claire and Gabrielle came to terms with Helen's quick surrender on the matter; Group Captain Graham's dubious involvement seeming, to both women, only what might have been duly expected. Then Claire leaned forward over her empty teacup.
"Gabrielle an' I have a plan all worked out—"
D Deck, the first below the main deck on the SS Damastor, ran to a series of corridors connecting with lines of cabins; all interspersed with what had originally been saloons for the passengers, but had now been turned into relaxation rooms for multitudes of soldiers. These now using the wide airy spaces for drill, and cleaning and inspecting their multifarious equipment and arms; so each former saloon had its quotient of lines of rifles, a few revolvers, and a sprinkling of Bren guns, all in various states of repair including being partially dismantled. Even while walking along the cabin corridors Claire and Gabrielle were aware of the loud noise normally accompanying such hordes of men, all at work or play in a confined space.
"Sounds like we're inside a football stadium, coming through to the stands round the pitch." Gabrielle had a vivid imagination. "This the corridor where Renier has his palatial residence?"
"Yep, cabin D-42." Helen had elected to join the two women, one hand in the pocket of her white coat clutching a spare Webley .45. "And here we are, just round this last corner; his'll be the third on the left, your side, Miss Mathews."
The women paused as they came up to the corner, the secondary corridor continuing on to the left of the main one they presently occupied. Claire jumped quickly across the gap to stand by the far side while Gabrielle held her position beside Helen; each woman now holding their revolvers openly in their hands, it having been decided that as few chances as possible would be taken.
"You go first, Gabrielle." Claire motioned with her free hand. "Keep t'the side wall, an' don't—oh sh-t."
A cabin door had opened some way down the corridor, and the tall form of a soldier had appeared, dressed in regulation uniform. Unfortunately he was headed in the direction of those coming to apprehend him. Renier took one look at the heavily armed trio and came to the correct conclusion. With a swift movement he drew his own revolver from a capacious pocket and opened fire without any pretence of being an innocent bystander.
One bullet smashed into the far wall behind the women, another whipped past Gabrielle so closely she always held afterwards she had felt it tickle her right ear. She crouched down and opened up herself with a couple of shots, both of which missed their target; then she felt a strong arm clutch her waist, drag her off her feet into the air, and pull her to safety back round the corridor corner again.
"God, thanks, Claire; that was bloody close."
"Sh-t, he's coming this way." Helen had chanced a quick glance round the edge of the corridor wall.
"He must think we' ain't all that well armed." Claire had the situation under control. "Open up on the bastard, let him see his bloody mistake; it's him or us, now."
As one body working together the three leaned out to get a clear view of their approaching enemy, still twenty yards or so off, and let fly together. Their aim, as was only to be expected, was not of an Army rifle range, never mind Bisley, accuracy; but the bullets thudding into the walls to either hand, or whistling past his own ears now, had the required result; Renier crouched low, then turned and ran back along the corridor away from his attackers.
"Come on, he's on the run; let's get the hell after him." Gabrielle set out as if intent on winning a hundred-yard sprint, Claire on her heels and Helen bringing up the rear. "God, there's one of those packed bloody saloons ahead, hope no-one gets injured; watch out how you shoot when we get there, maybe he'll run straight through the dam' place."
Renier entered the saloon, thickly inhabited by a seething crowd of soldiers who had all woken up at the loud nearby shooting match going forward. He ran a few paces into the crowded room, turned and let fly at the three women again, who had appeared in his rear; they firing for all they were worth at their prey, though also with all due concern for the packed soldiers.
It was quite clear to these mustered observers that the three women, obviously official in rank and status, were in hot pursuit of an armed felon of murderous tendencies. Quick to take note of any ongoing warfare in his immediate surroundings Sergeant-Major Hemsworth, a veteran of the North-West Frontier, had meanwhile in the preceding minute and a half swiftly improvised, as the sound of action came nearer and nearer along the connecting corridor, a defensive line provided by his squad. It took only a further few seconds for him to comprehend the nature of the whole ongoing situation; where-at he gave his orders concisely to the fifteen men by his side armed with fully loaded .303 rifles.
Renier had met his firing squad, after all.
"So, that's that." Gabrielle relaxed on the sofa back in their cabin, two hours later. "Bit of a dog's dinner, though, don't you think?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say so." Claire brought over the two small glasses, filled to the brim with illicit liquor from the half-bottle she had smuggled aboard, placing one down carefully in front of her lover. "Take a snort o'that, ducks; put you back on your feet in no time."
A happy pause ensued, while both renewed their fuel reserves; then Claire pursued the main topic of interest.
"Helen didn't get her double-agent—"
"Group Captain Graham'll be miffed at that."
"Ha, poor soul that he is; are we cryin' fer him, though?"
"I should cocoa." Gabrielle grunted mirthlessly; the person in question having provided them both with far too many scary moments in their lives for them to hold many charitable thoughts in return. "So, we stopped a Black Market con in its tracks, and did for an incipient Fifth Column gang; seems a good day's work."
"Yeah, seems that way." Claire sniggered, as she curled up close to Gabrielle's side. "Reckon we'll get medals fer it, lady?"
"Huh, you know full well the SOE doesn't believe in medals." Gabrielle put her glass down, the better to pull Claire closer. "Probably only get a snappy message from ol' Graham tellin' us t'do better in future."
"Say, doll, you in the running for kissing someone who badly needs kissing?"
Claire, suiting the word to the action, leaned over and gently gave of her best.
"Mmmmph, lovely; got any more?"
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will follow shortly.