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Authors: Susan Cooper

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Mandrake

BOOK: Mandrake
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Penguin Science Fiction 2491

Mandrake

 

 

Susan Cooper was born in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, in 1935 and educated at Slough High School and Somerville College, Oxford. She was the first woman editor of the undergraduate newspaper,
Cherwell
, and later became a reporter and feature-writer for the
Sunday Times
in London. In 1963 she left its staff to marry an American, and now lives in the United States, though still writing principally for British readers.

Her first novel was Mandrake and her most recent
Behind the Golden Curtain,
a commentary on American life. Susan Cooper has also written a book for children,
Over Sea, Under Stone
, and was a contributor to
Age of Austerity
: 1945-51 (published by Penguins).

 

the characters in this book are entirely imaginary and bear no relation to any living person

 

 

Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth,

Middlesex, England

Penguin Books Pty Ltd, Ringwood,

Victoria, Australia

 

First published by Hodder & Stoughton 1964

Published in Penguin Books 1966

Copyright © Susan Cooper 1964

 

Made and printed in Great Britain by

Cox & Wyman Ltd, London, Reading and Fakenham

Set in Monotype Baskerville

 

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

 

Time will say nothing but I told you so

W. H. Auden

 

Table of Contents
Part One

Queston was never quite sure afterwards whether he really heard the shot. Probably it was the noise of the bullet smacking into the concrete wall three feet behind his head; the small crunching thwack that made him turn and notice the white scar in the blue paint, and the white grains still floating in the air. Then the shouts came, farther away, high and shrill over the boom of the amplifiers’ voice still tolling: ‘Pan American Flight 201 to London, passengers to Gate Six, please…’

There were confused shouts, from a struggling knot of figures behind the immigration barrier. He turned back, buffeted by the crowd, and caught sight briefly of the man held there by police. A thin face, twisted with yelling, stared up from a body bent double by the law’s willingly expert blue-shirted arm. The scream came suddenly clear as the man vanished, dragged out of sight: ‘Murderer! Murderer…!’ It was an English voice.

‘What gives?’

‘What’s going on?’

‘Someone took a pot shot at a guy—’

Queston was taller than most of the other passengers; they bubbled under his gaze in a quacking sea. Tailored American matrons with blue hair, two small blonde English girls with jaws like horses, round bald men in grey suits. A big mid-Westerner near him, impassive between crew cut and bow-tie, said loudly, public and important: ‘He was trying to get that guy over there. The dark one with the cops. I saw him. Fired one shot before they grabbed him—real nutty-looking character, missed by a mile…’

‘Jeeze, we might have been killed—’

‘Who was it? Who’s the guy he shot at?’

‘Hey, I think I’ve seen him before—isn’t he a film star or something?’

Like smiling sheepdogs the airline stewardesses came persuading them to move on down the long corridor, reciting gently, ‘Flight 201, please,’ as if nothing had broken the airport’s scampering routine. Queston side-stepped an imperturbable sweet-threatening blonde for long enough to stare at the man the mid-Westerner had indicated. He saw a small group of men by the barrier, talking to the immigration officer who had put him through so peculiarly searching an interrogation five minutes before. Among the uniforms and the holsters there were several men in dark suits, with the indefinable self-contained look of travellers. One, the tallest, stood clearly the focus of the group—youngish, dark-haired, with a face at once foxy and strong. He was talking quickly, one clenched hand frozen hard against the palm of the other; it was the attitude of a man suppressing some large emotion he did not want others to see released.

Not surprising, Queston thought, if he’s been shot at. As he watched the man an echo of memory flicked into his mind and away again, to twitch irritatingly behind his thoughts as he let the stewardess turn him finally towards the plane. ‘Flight 201, sir?
This
way…’ Somewhere he too had seen that face, sometime during the last five years. But a film star? No—something very different…

Outside, the aircraft lay, a dull grey cylinder patched red, yellow, green by the heat of Mach 3 speed; the huge engines nestled at its tail and the nose pointed, menacing, like a needle-sharp horn. He thought: They should call it Unicorn. But instead they called it 1010: ten-ten; he had travelled in his first only the day before, on the way to New York. In the territory where he had spent the last five years, there was no use for anything but the older subsonic planes.

Inside the cabin, subtly transported from high summer to a cooler, gentler artificial sunlight, he settled back to let the music from the hidden amplifiers lull him gently half-asleep. It wafted him through the mild prickle of air pressure; through the small lurch of take-off, the sudden change of element that somehow was still there to be felt even without windows to show the ground falling away. He had always liked the
frisson
of freedom which that release gave.

The seat beside him was empty; on these midday flights there was always space, they had told him, even in tourist class. So when the touch on his arm came he thought it was the blonde stewardess, and looked up with the beginning of a smile into the face of a strange man: dark reddish cheeks and pale lashless eyes. Hastily he dropped the smile, but saw a broader one on the stranger’s face: a grin, almost a grimace, of wide welcoming teeth.

‘Dr Queston?’

‘Yes,’ Queston said warily.

‘David Queston? The anthropologist?’

‘Yes. But I’m sorry, I don’t think I—’

‘Brunner,’ the man said. ‘Klaus Brunner. You and I have met several years ago, Dr Queston, I think in 1970. Before you left to bury yourself—if you will forgive me—so wastefully in Brazil. Or perhaps it has not been a waste. At any rate I am glad to see you coming home. You remember me, perhaps? ’ He sat, still smiling, on the arm of the empty seat.

And then Queston did remember him; and remembered in the same moment the face of the man attacked at Kennedy; and knew suddenly what was coming next.

‘I am travelling with the Minister,’ Brunner said. He gave the word an obsequious sound; a Teutonic reverence for office. ‘We have been on a brief mission in the United States—most successfully, I am glad to say. The Minister would very much like to meet you—he was delighted to find your name on the passenger list. He sends me to ask if you will give him the pleasure of your company during the flight. You are not busy, I hope?’

Queston said non-committally: ‘I imagine you’re travelling first class.’

Brunner chuckled. ‘We are—and no one else. There is therefore plenty of room. And anyone who is with the Minister… Please?’

‘Why not? ’ He stood up, unfolding himself from the narrow seat, and followed the stocky little German down the aisle. At the barrier leading into the first-class cabin the stewardess, smiling respectfully, held back the door to let them through.

Against the padded head-rest of the seat where Brunner stopped, Queston saw the lean dark head of the man who had been in the centre of the group he watched at Kennedy; the man at whom the shot had been fired. He realized now that it was in the few newspapers to have come his way in Brazil that he had seen this face, pictured from Britain: young, bland, tough, always inscrutable, with no expression but confidence behind the large dark eyes. The face seemed thinner than it had done in the pictures, looking calculatingly up at him now.

Brunner said stiffly: ‘Minister, may I introduce David Queston. Queston, this is Mr Mandrake.’

 

He had been away from England for a long time then, too, on the day he had first met Klaus Brunner. He had not known what had been going on. Not that there had been any reason, then, to look for sinister motives at work on the country. Perhaps there was still no reason now. Well.

It was in Oxford. On each of his few trips back to Britain in the last fifteen wandering years he had come there, briefly. He had few friends, and fewer that he cared to seek out; but James Thorp-Gudgeon was always an entertainment. Fat and imperturbable, he sat in his comfortable set of college rooms like an amiable Buddha, dispensing high-pitched paternalism to a new set of disciples every year. Queston liked to go back to be amused: and perhaps to be reminded, through Thorp-Gudgeon’s malicious prattle, of the reasons why he would always prefer another long remote expedition in a joyless climate to settling down in the British academic life.

He had arrived at Oxford by train, to find an unaccountable peace in the streets.

‘James,’ he said, across the book-strewn table and peeling leather chairs, ‘what on earth’s happened to the traffic? I saw hardly anything but bicycles on the way from the hotel.’

Thorp-Gudgeon emerged from a cupboard with a decanter of port, his broad moon-face slightly flushed by the effort. ‘Bliss, dear boy. Absolute bliss. Didn’t you know we’d solved our problems? It must be nearly a year now. They tried to build that ridiculous road through Christ Church meadow again, and Oxford made such a fuss that the P.M. re-created the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. Not before time, I must say. The result is that we have virtually a walled-off city. Free of through traffic, at any rate. Delightful.’ He eased himself into an armchair, and stretched his little legs out in front of him comfortably.

‘Pretty well free of trains too. I had the dickens of a job getting here.’

‘If you’d come by car,’ Thorp-Gudgeon said, ‘you’d have found yourself stopped on the perimeter. Only essential traffic is allowed in. Eventually we shall have roundabouts built at every exit, to save the congestion while the police turn people away. The roundabouts will be blind, d’you see, on the Oxford side. We shall leave one road open to the north and south, at St Aldate’s and St Giles’s, to let inside traffic out—with permits, of course. But that will be all.’

Queston blinked at him. ‘You need a permit to get
out
?’

‘O yes,’ Thorp-Gudgeon nodded placidly, and sipped his port. ‘If one has a car, that is. Few people have, now. But of course, dear David, you are always some years behind with the news.’ He radiated geniality across the fireplace. Twenty years earlier he had been Queston’s tutor at Birmingham University—a brief and unwilling sojourn of which he preferred not to be reminded—and had been treating him like a favoured and precocious pupil ever since. But while Queston roamed the Far East and South America, on research projects for a dozen assorted universities, James Thorp-Gudgeon had chosen to put down roots: and within weeks of his appointment at Oxford he was a fat panjandrum, dispensing aphorisms, anthropology and Chablis in equal quantities, and caught in as tight an emotional bond to Oxford as if he had held a chair there for fifty years. Queston, who had no parents, wondered sometimes in lighter moments if he thought of Thorp-Gudgeon as his mother.

He said, grinning, ‘Well, I hope you’re happy now. The reactionaries have won at last.’

‘Not at all. This is highly progressive. The Minister—’ There was a knock at the door.

‘Ah,’ Thorp-Gudgeon said. He heaved himself out of the chair, looking down with an oddly sly smile. ‘This is someone I wanted you to meet, David.’ He called. ‘Come!’

The man at the door was chunky, square-shouldered, with dark hair cut flat and short across his head. The only startling thing about him was his face: two patches of red glowed high on each cheekbone, spreading to meet across his nose, and although his eyebrows were heavy there were no lashes to his eyes. He had a reptilian look. Queston tried not to stare.

BOOK: Mandrake
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