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Authors: Barbara Cleverly

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BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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Zeman flashed a slim silver cigarette case from his pocket and held it open to them. ‘Russian cigarettes, I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘but supplies have been rather interrupted of late.’

‘Relief is at hand, Zeman,’ said James easily. ‘I’ve arranged for two hundred Players Medium to be brought out for you. We are as aware of melmastia and the sacred ties of hospitality as you are.’

Joe had a clear impression that in these few brief exchanges between two practised duellists they had covered an agenda which politicians would have wrangled over for a week.

‘Your charge, Dr Holbrook, is not expected until tomorrow, Zeman, so this will give you time to rest and recover from your journey and for us to enjoy your company. We hope that you and your aide,’ he smiled towards the officer escorting Zeman, ‘will consent to be our guests in the fort for the next two nights at least. We are expecting other guests to arrive with Dr Holbrook’s party and I’m sure you will be happy to meet them.’

‘My aide,’ Zeman said, waving a hand at the young Pathan at his side, ‘Muhammed Iskander Khan, and I will be delighted.’

Joe looked again at Iskander Khan. Watchful but not unfriendly green eyes looked back at him. He was a pale-skinned Pathan, one of the tribesmen who claim that their colouring comes from the ancient line of Alexander the Great whose Macedonian army had passed through these hills two thousand years before. His brown hair was bobbed and curled, wind-blown around his turban, his nose, like Zeman’s, was magnificent, but he was clean-shaven and lacking the luxuriant moustache.

‘Then come with us,’ said James, turning his horse. ‘Your men will be taken care of.’

He summoned a havildar who, though suspicious and wary, began with a formal bow to talk with the senior remaining Afghan.

Out of earshot, Joe leaned towards James and hissed, ‘You might have warned me! What shall I guess? Wellington and Sandhurst?’

James grinned. ‘No. As it happens – Rugby and Sandhurst. You’ll have a chance to get better acquainted over supper. His mother is an Afghan princess, Durrani tribe, royal blood, and his father is a chief, a Malik, of a branch of the Afridis who live this side of the border. Now he’s a nasty old brute! Hates the English but he’s not above using the large grants of English cash we give him to send his only son off to Europe for a military education. Nothing like learning how your enemy ticks from the inside, I suppose.’

‘So when Zeman sticks his dagger in my throat I may expect him to say, “Sorry about this, old chap! Nothing personal you understand,” in the best Sandhurst drawl?’

James considered for a moment. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘you’ve got it just about right. Don’t forget to lock your door tonight!’

The next morning Joe and James stood together on the roof of the fort, already uncomfortably hot by ten o’clock, binoculars sweeping the road up from Peshawar. They were joined by Zeman Khan. ‘When do we expect to see this so important delegation?’ he asked easily, seating himself on the parapet.

‘At any moment now,’ said James, offering him the binoculars.

With a smile Zeman waved them away and looked towards the Peshawar road. ‘At any moment now? Then unless I mistake, here they are.’

And a motorized convoy, an armoured car leading the way, began to appear, slowly making its way along the newly metalled road to the fort.

‘Do you recognize anybody?’ Joe asked.

‘Well,’ said James, ‘one of the men in the first car is in RAF uniform so that can only be Moore-Simpson.’

‘Moore-Simpson?’ said Zeman, suddenly alert. ‘I didn’t realize he was coming. What’s he coming for?’ His tone was suspicious.

‘Well, primarily,’ said James pacifically, ‘if he’s done what I asked, he’s got two hundred Players Medium Navy Cut fags on board for you. But, beyond that, it’s not for me to expound the motives of my lords and masters. And with him in the car, I note, there’s Sir Edwin Burroughs of the Indian Civil Service.’

‘That’s a funny pairing,’ said Zeman. ‘Moore-Simpson’s well known to be in favour of bombing the wicked tribesmen into submission and Sir Edwin is in favour of anything, including a British retreat from the frontier, that might save money! Ha! I should think they had an interesting journey together!’

James evidently thought the same but didn’t care to have British frontier policy explained to him from the other side of the tribal boundary.

‘Next car? That’s a Dodge, isn’t it?’

‘Buick, I think.’

‘Delage,’ said Zeman authoritatively.

‘Well, whatever the car, it seems to contain none other than the formidable Grace Holbrook. Yes, undoubtedly – motoring veil! That’s her all right.’

‘Who’s that in the car with her?’

‘That must be the Lord Rathmore, I’d guess. And opposite him and turning towards us . . .’ He spoke with studied calm. ‘Yes. It’s Betty. Do you see her, Joe?’

The first two cars were separated from the next two by a lorry full of Scouts infantry. A third car came in view.

‘Luggage,’ said Joe, staring. ‘Nothing but luggage. Any more to come? What’s the matter, James?’

‘Well,’ said James, ‘I’m looking for the member of this party for whom I have the greatest anxiety and I do not see her. Where the hell’s bloody little Miss Lily Coblenz got to, I’d like to know? Here comes another car . . . but there’s no one in it but the driver. And there’s the troop of Lancers bringing up the rear. That’s it. Now what? My orders were absolutely specific! She was to travel in the second car with my wife and Dr Holbrook. Ah, dammit! I should have gone down myself!’

‘Or maybe
I
should have gone down,’ Joe said. ‘Not sure when exactly my stewardship kicked in.’

Zeman eyed the two men in their manifest consternation with malicious amusement. ‘Dropped your heiress by the roadside, have they?’ he asked.

‘Don’t even mention such a thing!’ said James, biting his finger. ‘If such an awful thing could possibly have happened, that’s the end of
my
promising career! I’ll kill that bloody Monty Melville!’

Joe looked a question.

‘Monty Melville. Ninth Lancers. He was supposed to shepherd this convoy to us. There he is! Prancing about in front of the troop. What the hell have you done with her, Monty? I suppose the damned girl hasn’t travelled with the Scouts?’ he said, tracking back to the lorry-load of Scout infantry in the centre of the column.

All three men stared and said together, ‘She’s not there.’

‘Perhaps she changed her mind?’ said Joe hopefully. ‘Perhaps she’s stayed on to taste the delights of Peshawar?’

‘The only explanation and what a relief that’ll be!’ said James. ‘All the same, I’d have expected them to tell me that when they radioed they were about to set off, wouldn’t you?’

‘Probably changed her mind at the very last minute. Decided to go shopping or something. Didn’t much like the look of the other travellers . . . anything . . .’ suggested Joe.

Zeman had been sweeping the convoy with his hawk’s eyes. Suddenly he laughed. ‘This lady whose non-appearance causes you so much anxiety – would she be young and fair-haired, athletic, capricious? Yes? Then I fear I have bad news for you both!’

He pointed downwards to where the cavalry troop, partly obscured by a haze of dust, was coming more clearly into view. ‘I had heard,’ he said, ‘that we were to be honoured by the presence of a British cavalry regiment. Rare but not unknown in this part of the world, and here they are. But that’s not all! When I report back to the Amir do I tell him the red line is running so thin these days that the British are reduced to recruiting women?’ He began to laugh. ‘Hedged about in the centre of this martial array I think you’ll find what you’re looking for!’

James stared and stared. ‘Bloody hell!’ he said. ‘Bloody girl! How the hell did she get there? I’ll kill Melville when I catch up with him! How on earth could he have let this happen?’

‘I don’t think you need worry,’ said Joe. ‘I think she’s safe enough. I can’t think of anywhere more safe within the bounds of the Indian Empire. Either way, I’m going down to meet the damn girl.’

‘I think I’d better stay here with James,’ said Zeman, ‘though I must admit I am very curious to meet this paragon. She might be disconcerted to confront a hairy tribesman such as myself. I’m sure she must have been warned about “men like me”.’

‘If she has, she doesn’t seem to have heeded the warning.’

Indignantly, Joe clattered down to the courtyard, mounted the horse being held ready for him and set off through the gates of the fort. Pausing briefly in the garden and leaning low he picked two choice roses and tucked them into his epaulette. He cantered down the road to meet the oncoming convoy, passing each car in turn with something between a wave and a salute, acknowledging the lorry-load of armed Scouts and finally confronting the troop of Ninth Lancers led by Monty Melville. Carefully sunk in the protection of this force, pink, dishevelled and wearing a borrowed Lancer’s helmet, dark glasses pushed up on her damp forehead, riding firmly astride, his charge raised an excited face to him and he bore down upon her in wrath.

‘Just what,’ he said, hardly able to pick his words, ‘the hell do you think
you’re
doing?’ He crooked an imperious police forefinger at her and indicated that she should withdraw from the crowd and present herself.

‘Well, my!’ The voice could not have been more cheerful and unconcerned and could not have been more incongruously American. ‘I guess you must be my policeman, Commandant Sandilands!’ she said, easing her horse out of the mêlée. ‘Do you know – they tried to put me in a – what did they call it? – a staff car! I wasn’t going to do that. I haven’t come all the way from Chicago to drive about in a Delage! Gee! This is just great! This is the proper way to travel in this country!’ She beamed round her at the line of admiring British troopers.

‘Young lady did well!’ said the troop sergeant. ‘Could have been doing it all her life.’ And there was a murmuring of adoring agreement from the troop.

‘I’m sorry, sir!’ said Monty Melville. He turned a desperate face towards Joe and hissed, ‘I know what the orders were and I did my best but you might as well explain King’s regs to a langur monkey as get any sense into this blasted girl!’ He shot a sweating and indignant glance at Lily. ‘Especially as she seems to have got all my chaps on her side.’

‘I see,’ said Joe, turning a frosty glare on Lily, ‘that I’m going to have to explain the facts of life – the facts of frontier life, that is – and, not to put too fine a point on it, you can count yourself lucky you’re not put on the next “staff car” and sent back to Peshawar! If I had my way that’s just what would happen. I’m getting too old to play hide and seek with little girls.’

‘Aw!’ said Lily. ‘Don’t be like that! This is what I came for.’ She swept a complicitous glance around the troop and added, ‘Sir George warned me about
him
. But they say his bark’s worse than his bite! Is that right, Commandant?’

‘Can I explain that this is a dangerous part of the world? You’re not on a dude ranch here. You could get into serious trouble. I wouldn’t mind that myself but some good men might find themselves put into danger pulling you out of it. I’m responsible for your safety – problem enough if you do what you’re told, impossible if you don’t. Is that clear, I wonder?’

Lily’s reaction to this was to favour him with a cheeky salute copied, Joe supposed, from the convention of West Point.

Chapter Four

Dr Grace Holbrook was accustomed to come and go on the frontier protected only by her reputation and, accordingly, when she discovered that she was to form part of a well-armed and elaborately escorted convoy from Peshawar to the fort, she was not amused. She complained to her friend the High Commissioner. ‘It’s taken me nearly twenty years,’ she said, ‘to earn the trust of these people and I do so with difficulty all the time. It’s going to do me nothing but harm to appear with a military convoy.’

Sir John Deane did his best to smooth her ruffled plumes. ‘Nobody,’ he said, ‘is going to suspect you of all people of martial intent, Grace!’ He smiled at the short, middle-aged figure leaning angrily over his desk. In her divided skirt, white shirt and brown silk tie held in place with a gold pin, Grace Holbrook presented an image of perfect decorum. ‘They know you too well; they welcome you too warmly. Of course, it’s up to you to wait until the present convoy has returned but I didn’t imagine that would suit you either since it would involve holding up the Afghani end of this operation at the fort.’

‘It certainly wouldn’t suit me!’ said Grace indignantly. ‘I stick meticulously to any arrangements I may have made and I have arranged to be in Kabul in ten days’ time. You might have warned me, John, that there was going to be some sort of awful jamboree going on at the fort! Not my sort of thing as well you know!’

‘Well, you know how it is out here . . . nobody is told anything until the last second and that is an arrangement I would be the first to defend. Imagine the consequences of this guest list becoming general knowledge before the event! Blood runs cold when I think of it! An heiress, a trading empire nabob, top civil servant and RAF top brass! And all gathered together in Peshawar – the kidnapping capital of the western frontier! But I’ll tell you something, Grace – the only one of the party whose safety I really give a fig for is the one who’s trying to shrug aside the protective measures on offer.’

Never an easy subject for flattery, Grace opened her mouth to give a sharp retort and he hurried on, ‘Anyway, your professional services may well be called on during the journey.’ Pleased that he had awakened her curiosity he went on, ‘It’s Betty Lindsay, James’s wife. Yes, I hadn’t told you that either! She is to be of the party. I know it’s against all the rules but just this once I’m bending them! Fact is, Grace, she’s in a delicate condition, er . . . um . . .’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, John!’ Grace interrupted. ‘Did you imagine I didn’t know she was pregnant? I’ve been treating her for morning sickness for the past month! There’s nothing delicate about Betty! She’s a strong girl and doesn’t need me or anyone else to sit beside her with the smelling salts but, oh, all right . . .’ Grace gave him a surprisingly warm smile. ‘I’ll play chaperone. I’ll go along on condition that I sit next to Betty and as far as possible from that little Miss Coblenz whose acquaintance I was unlucky enough to make at your soirée yesterday.’

BOOK: The Damascened Blade
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