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Authors: Robert Ryan

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BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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Not that there was much to find out. Most of the work had been suspended following . . . The Incident. That was what it had become officially known as: The Incident. Eight men down, seven of them dead. Just the one survivor. And he wasn’t talking. Might never talk again, judging by the state of the poor chap.

In the aftermath, Swinton, the lieutenant-colonel in charge of the camp, had managed to avoid a damaging mutiny by reassuring his men that the suspension would last until they got to the bottom of the deaths. So, for the moment, all was quiet apart from routine maintenance – normally the little cottage shook day and night and the sound of birds was drowned out by the thrum of heavy machinery.

But what would Ross think when the noises began again? Booth glanced up at the evacuated zone, marked in red on the wall map. Perhaps they should have cleared Snarewold and the other villages too. Anything within earshot.

And what of Miss Pillbody?

Well,
she
was no threat. Might be of some use, in fact. There was precious little in the way of entertainment at the camp. Now that the earl had decamped to Hyde Park Corner, taking his family and most of the staff with him, the only women left were a housekeeper, cook and four maids, all of whom were forbidden to leave the immediate grounds without escort, as well as a nurse, who, while attractive, was well beyond thirty. Flinty, too, by all accounts.

Miss Pillbody was not unattractive and he was certain there was more to her than met the eye. Beneath that placid surface, he suspected, lay something a little sparkier. Like a liquor chocolate, a bland exterior concealing a sharp surprise within. He had felt it at the schoolhouse. It was why he had sought her out with flowers. He could imagine passing time with her, peeling away her layers. A picnic. A bicycle ride. Tea in town. A sherry in Thetford. She would, he was certain, be flattered by his attentions, an officer five or more years her junior, a man with prospects once this part of the project was complete. And along the way he might find out if he was right about her being a tiger masquerading as a tabby cat.

Not that it would go further than a summer courtship. There was Sally back in Bath, the youngest daughter of the local MP. Not quite as easy on the eye as Miss Pillbody, perhaps, but a far more suitable match, socially at least. But it was going to be a good few months until his work was done here and in the meantime he needed some light relief. He knew he had a relaxed charm, when it was required; it was what had landed him the job as Heavy Branch intelligence officer in the first place. That and his father, who was one of the authors of the Government’s War Book, which, in 1910, had laid down the minutiae of the country’s response to any conflict, from deployment of forces to the censorship of mail.

He countersigned the order on his desk, shipping one of the men – who had tried to leave the camp three times without permission – to ‘a secure and safe location’, where he would be held incommunicado until the secret of Elveden was out.

The clock struck seven and Booth realized he was hungry. He stacked his papers, locked them in the safe and prepared to vacate his office. There was rap at the door and one of the signal corporals handed him a telegram. He expected it to be about Ross, but instead it was from the Supply Committee at the War Office.

‘Has Colonel Swinton seen this news?’ Booth asked the corporal.

‘No, sir. You said to show all messages from that sender to you first.’

‘Yes. Good man.’ His stomach rumbled, but dinner would have to wait. As would thoughts of Ross and Miss Pillbody. Only one thing mattered now.
What the hell was Winston Churchill playing at?

TEN

 

Churchill ushered Watson into a long drawing room, furnished with gilt fixtures and fittings that the Sun King might have considered a little ostentatious: a multi-branched chandelier appeared to have been looted from a château, its proportions certainly excessive for the space; a chaise longue glistened with golden threads and tassels; a table of marble sat on elaborately cast legs.
Hideous
, thought Watson.

‘Oh, this place isn’t mine,’ laughed Churchill when he saw Watson taking in the swagged red curtains. ‘Like a bloody brothel. It belongs to Harry Clifford; lets me use it when we don’t want to do our business in public.’

Churchill then noticed Watson admiring a large oil painting of a sailing ship on a storm-tossed sea, which was still managing to fire a broadside. ‘It’s called the
Scourge of Malice
,’ Churchill said. ‘The Earl of Cumberland’s ship. Bit of artistic licence there; not sure you could hit a country in that swell. But the
Scourge
was the largest vessel constructed in England at that time. Thirty-eight guns. Struck terror into the enemy. Clifford, the earl, was a privateer, of course, but he gave the Spanish hell in the Caribbean. Drink?’

Without waiting for an answer, the politician poured two glasses of vermouth from a pitcher on a side table, and handed one to Watson.

Watson took it but didn’t drink. A privateer. Yes, he could see why Churchill might have a soft spot for the master of the
Scourge,
a man working for his country but not playing by conventional rules.

‘Didn’t Clifford make a fortune from his buccaneering?’ Watson asked.

‘And lost it all on horses and jousting,’ said Churchill. ‘We shouldn’t take an analogy too far, eh? But it is relevant in one sense. We intend to strike terror into the enemy in ways they could never have dreamed of. Which is why you are here, Watson. Now, I apologize about all the subterfuge—’

‘I have one question first.’

Churchill, who had already drawn breath, ready for one of his legendary orations, albeit to an audience of one, squinted at him. ‘What is it?’

From his inside pocket, Watson drew the summons from Holmes. ‘Why are you sending me letters purporting to be from Sherlock Holmes?’ he said, unable to keep the anger from his voice.

‘Purporting?’ Churchill repeated cagily.

Watson held up the summons. ‘This, Mr Churchill, is a blatant forgery.’

Donal Coyle knew his days as an agent of the British Crown were numbered. He had always been an anomaly in the Bureau, a mongrel, tossed into its ranks because no respectable gentleman would want to become a spy. The SSB/MI5 took what it could get, even if it was a disillusioned Fenian. But those days were over. Gentlemen willingly embarked on all kinds of underhand pursuits now in the defence of the realm. And with events in Ireland taking place, more than ever he was suspect, simply because of his accent.

Coyle knew where his loyalty lay. Well, it lay mainly with his friend Harry Gibson, but also to the department that had given him a home. And to England?

He was no longer so sure.

The Irishman lit a cigarette and leaned against the wall, next to the Purdey shop and just at the rear of the parked Deasy. He stood out here in these streets, with his rough suit and cheap hat. Spies rarely worked in Mayfair. He was dressed for the gutter. It was where he did his best work. There were others, like Langdale Pike, who patrolled the upper echelons for Kell and Co.

Of course, it wasn’t just the uprising that had caused him to reassess his position. There had been the letter from his ma, sent through to the secure PO box the service used, telling him that her eyes were going: ‘I had to get Marie Coughlan to read your last one to me. They say it’s the cataracts . . .’

Perhaps the prodigal son ought to return and help out, see if there was something they could do. His brother was away in America, his sister married and in Cork, and now his mother was relying on neighbours like Marie Coughlan. The cataracts. Her world must be fogging.

Coyle scanned the street, casually watching each car and wagon drive by, while at the same time noting the occupants. So far, nothing had come by twice. Not that there was any reason to expect any trouble. Which was when he expected it most.

He was armed with two pistols. The largest was in his belt

one advantage of a sloppily cut jacket was that it hid a multitude of sins – the other was a small revolver, good enough for close work, in a special leather contraption in his sock. Experience had told him that it was the easiest, fastest positioning for a pistol when driving or as a passenger in a car. It had saved his life twice.

How would he break the news of his return to Ireland to Harry? They had been together for four years now. And they made a very good team. The oldest in the SSB. But Coyle thought it was time to go home and be among his own people. The ripples from the uprising were still spreading out, agitating the populace. Even those who didn’t believe in the armed struggle felt the subsequent executions were cruel and arbitrary. There might be a way to harness that unrest in a more peaceful way than armed insurrection. True, there were people back there who might want him dead but he knew that at least three of them had themselves left this world. He had sent out a few tentative overtures, through his Uncle Sean and—

Black four-seat Shelsey on a Crossley chassis.

The phrase popped into his head, even before he realized what he was looking at.

Puttering beyond the horse-drawn delivery van making its way along the street was a black four-seat Shelsey on a Crossley chassis. A very nice car. Warland Dual detachable rims, too. Probably the 25 HP model. Three occupants, none of them a chauffeur. Smartly dressed, two with dark oiled hair, one fair-haired. One of the former wearing spectacles.

Seen it before, haven’t we? But where? Not here, not in Mayfair.

At the hospital. When we fetched Watson. Only driver and one passenger then. The blond one. They’ve added an extra pair of hands since.

Coyle examined the scene in his mind’s eye, almost as if he were watching a Vitascope. It was a trick he had. The Shelsey had driven off before he, Gibson and Watson had. Which meant what? That there had been no chance for these men to act there, which was true. Watson, Coyle and Gibson had exited the hospital cloaked by a phalanx of nurses changing shift, guiding them all the way to the car. If they had picked Coyle up en route and followed him, they must be good at what they did. Damned good.

Then, as sometimes happened when he knew he had to act, his thumbs prickled. It was a strange sensation, almost like the chilblains he used to get as a kid. And, experience told him, it didn’t do to ignore his thumbs. Coyle waited until the car had gone by, peeled himself off the wall and ditched the cigarette. He looked back up the street at the mansion block where Gibson was waiting. He had to warn him that Watson’s life in danger.

He had taken four steps when he glanced over his shoulder again, to see the Shelsey had turned and was coming back towards him. He unbuttoned his jacket, all thoughts of leaving the Bureau banished.

ELEVEN

 

Winston Churchill barely glanced at the letter Watson was holding. ‘Would you have come for anyone else?’

‘Possibly not, but you could have tried first.’

‘I don’t have time for “trying”,’ the MP growled, tossing back the vermouth and heading for a refill. ‘How did you know it was a fake? The signature is bloody good. I got it copied from one of his letters.’

Watson had to laugh at that. ‘Let me count the ways. The paper is wrong. The typewriter too new. The phrasing—’

‘All right, all right. Spare me the smart aleck analysis. Save that for your books.’ Churchill’s lisp was suddenly very pronounced. He picked up a cigar, abandoned in an ashtray, and puffed it back to life. ‘You’re here now. It did the job.’

‘And Holmes?’

‘He’s a difficult man.’

Watson tried to make sure the alarm he felt at this didn’t show on his face. The fact that Churchill had stooped to forging a letter suggested Holmes was either indisposed or refusing to help the politician. ‘He is a very singular man.’

‘I think they say that about me, when they are trying to be polite. We have tried to engage him on several projects, including this one. Anyway, it was you we wanted. Well,
I
wanted.’

‘I wish I could say I was flattered.’

Churchill studied Watson for a few moments, his face clenched like a pugilist’s fist. ‘There have been two great secrets in this war so far,’ the politician began. ‘One was the plan to get the soldiers off the beaches of Gallipoli without alerting the Turks to what was going on. That was a success, if you can call a retreat from such slaughter a success. And then there is the
Scourge of Malice.’
He pointed again at the painting. ‘We are, in a manner of speaking, building our own
Scourge.’

‘To strike terror, you said. Is it some form of ship?’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Your background. First Lord of the Admiralty.’

‘Hmm.’ Churchill gave a flicker of a smile.

‘I would imagine you are developing some manner of new water-borne weapon.’

‘You’re close enough. But for the moment I can’t tell you what it is.’

‘Then why am I here?’ Watson relented and finally took a sip of warm vermouth.

‘Our
Scourge
had a malfunction. It killed seven men. Our own men. An eighth survived. Only he can tell us what happened. Until we know for certain what occurred, progress on the device is suspended.’

‘Killed how?’

‘Well, first they all went insane.’

‘Insane?’ Watson repeated.

‘Yes. Deranged, gibbering wrecks. I know for a fact that you have come across something similar before. A sudden, unexplained insanity.’

‘Yes,’ said Watson, recalling the affair at Poldhu Bay when the wicked Mortimer Tregennis had used a poison to murder his sister and drive his brother insane.

‘But this is of a different nature altogether. There is evidence that they tried to destroy the
Scourge
in some kind of . . .’

Churchill struggled for the word

‘. . . frenzy.’

‘Could it be sabotage by an enemy agent? If this really is a wonder weapon.’

BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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