Monday, 30 March 2015

L'escargot français 3

Sixty years on…
Magda was sitting on the upper deck of a bus in the traffic jam that called itself Wandsworth Road when her phone beeped three times.  She sighed, then felt slightly guilty about it.  She’d agreed to work these hours – hell she’d signed the contract and understood what she was getting into! – but right now when she was wishing she had some alternative route home just wasn’t the right time for work to be calling.  She pulled the phone out of the inside pocket of her Snow&Rock padded jacket and double-tapped the home button.  It beeped again as custom software intercepted the phone’s usual behaviour and a pin pad screen appeared.  She tapped in a code number and then a second one when the screen told her that the first one was incorrect.  Only then did the phone unlock and allow her access to her secure mail.
Come back in, read the message.  There’s been a development.
Of course there was.  It was seven in the evening, she was in a traffic jam trying to get home and maybe, if she was lucky, find that her flatmate hadn’t eaten all of last night’s casserole, and now work wanted her to turn around and go back because there’d been a development.  That couldn’t wait until eight o’clock tomorrow morning.  She stood up and stomped along the bus to the stairs, ignoring the cold looks the other passengers gave her, and went down.
She went to the exit doors and flipped the little plastic cover in the ceiling up, twisted the manual door-open switch there and stepped off the bus as the doors hissed open.  She could hear the beeping as the driver tried to close them again, but two other people got off and onto the pavement before they were all closed again.  Ridiculous really, to keep people trapped on the bus when it was going nowhere, but she’d read somewhere that the insurance rules required the drivers to only let people on and off at officially marked stops.  She looked at the road, wondering if there was any chance of a taxi, and then started walking back to Vauxhall.  It would definitely be faster.
She pass-carded her way into the foyer of the building where the security guard sat behind the desk watching television.  He put the fingerprint scanner up onto the counter without even looking at her, so she returned the favour while she placed her index finger on the little pad.  It beeped, an LED flashing green, and he pressed a button to allow her through the turnstile.  On the other side there was another gate that needed pass-carding, and beyond that the elevators that also needed pass-carding.  Inside the lift there was a panel of twenty-four buttons, none of which were marked in anyway.  She pressed a pattern of them, and the doors closed and the lift glided to its destination.
All of this was, she knew, security theatre.  It satisfied the people who came in to audit her organisation and make sure that they were keeping to the conditions of the PPP – Public Private Partnership, or how the government out-sourced various functions that were either too sensitive for politicians to have oversight of, or were too necessary for politicians to be allowed to fight over.
The lift doors slid open and there was nothing but darkness in front of her.  Despite that she did this at least once every working day she still felt a sense of dread and had to concentrate to force herself to step out of the lift and into the darkness.  As she did so she could swear that she could hear crickets chirping, and then a moment later the darkness was gone as though it had never been there.  Behind her, if she’d looked, the lift was clearly visible and closing its doors again; around her was the anodyne furnishing of a modern office; low partitions walls, glass offices arrayed around the outside of the floor, large sealed windows and the low hum of air conditioning.
Catherine appeared around a corner and nodded at her.
“This way,” she said.  “We’ll use Casino Royale.”
The meeting rooms were all named after Ian Fleming novels, apparently a condition of the PPP, though Magda found that slightly hard to believe.  Casino Royale was on the LDAP as being appropriate for up to ten people and having both a telephone and VC facilities.  It was on the side of the office overlooking the tangle of roads around Vauxhall bus station and the lights came on automatically as they walked in.  The chairs were scattered around the room, most some distance away from the collection of tables in the middle.
“I think Gerard had one of his meetings in here last,” said Catherine, pulling a black, stretchy-fabric-over-steel-tubing chair to one side of the table.  Magda followed suit, choosing to sit on the adjacent side, ninety degrees to her boss.  “His group never want to sit anywhere near each other.  I don’t know what he does to them.”
“You probably don’t want to know what he does to them,” said Magda with only a hint of joviality in her voice.  Gerard was an Architect and his group were mostly considered dysfunctional by the rest of the office.
“Probably,” said Catherine.  “Right, looks, thanks for coming back in.  I guess you’d gone home already.”
It wasn’t a question but Magda answered it anyway.  “I was on the bus going nowhere fast,” she said.  “I’ll probably get back faster for coming back here and then going out again.  The traffic is ridiculous on that road.”
“You could walk, couldn’t you?”
“Well, yes, but that’s not the point.”  Magda felt uncomfortably warm and realised she’d not had time to take her jacket off and leave it at her desk.  She took it off now, and Catherine waited until she’d draped it over the back of the chair.
“Magda, you were assigned to the Chartwell House group when you were promoted.” Magda nodded.  “There’s been a development with one of those cases.”
“Really?”  Her voice cracked with shock.  “They’re all over fifty years old, how could any of them have a development?”
“Fifty years isn’t that long,” said Catherine.  “That is not dead, and all that.”
“Well yes,” said Magda, her thoughts racing now as she tried to remember the details of the files.  She’d not paid a lot of attention to them as they all seemed pretty much dead and done.  “But even so, I think I’ve got Jack the Ripper in one of them….”
“Well that one probably is dead,” said Christine.  “At least, if it isn’t then it’s going to be interesting, in the Chinese sense of the word, when it comes up again.”
“And messy I should think,” said Magda.  “Do we have anyone up on containments at the moment?”
“No,” said Christine.  “And that’s not the only area we’ve not got enough coverage in either.  And that might be an issue.”
“Freddy Stanley just turned up.  And I mean that literally; one minute he wasn’t there, the next minute he was.”
“Where?” Magda’s thought jumped at the name, but she couldn’t think what the connection was.  She groped after it, still listening to Christine.
“Weatherwood House.  They were carrying out the morning register and they found they had an extra patient.  And an extra bed for that matter, the ward he was on was supposed to be full.  They’ve checked and rechecked and they’re sure they’ve not lost anyone, but they’ve no idea where he came from, or even when except for ‘overnight’.”
Magda tapped her fingers on the table, still unable to place the name.  “Weatherwood House is the funny-farm?” she asked.
“Employee recuperative facility, yes,” said Christine, but there was no reproach in her voice.  She allowed herself a smile.  “Oddly appropriate, really; we’ve decided to keep him there.  We’ve moved him to his own room though.”
“Freddy Stanley,” said Magda.  “The name rings a bell, something to do with France?  Snails?”

L’escargot français,” said Christine.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

L'escargot français 2

Fifteen years later….
The building had gone up four years earlier, on a bomb-site.  They’d cleared bodies, as Freddy understood it, that had been missed in the original clearup.  Mostly bones and tatters of cloth by the time the work began, it had held up progress for nearly four months while they tried to find the families.  Some of the bones had ended up in the nearby Church of Seven Martyrs because no-one had come forward to claim them.  Now there was a concrete block stood where there had once been housing, part of the symbols of modern London.  There was a dark line running down the front of the building where water was leaking from somewhere; it was ugly but it still seemed to add character somehow.  Freddy looked over the building and shook his head, wondering if it would ever look any less brutal.
He flipped the collar of his mackintosh up, a long beige coat that was waterproof when the rain wasn’t too heavy, and crossed the road away from the shelter of the bus-stop.  There wasn’t much traffic this morning.  As he approached the building a doorman stepped out of a shelter like a soldier’s pillar-box and blocked his way.
“Hi Geoff,” said Freddy, not expecting a response.  He stuck his hand in his trouser pocket to find his pass: a stiff piece of pasteboard with his photograph on one side and some hieroglyphics on the other.  He presented it, and Geoff looked at it, comparing the photograph with him  and then checking the symbols on the reverse.
“Hi Freddy,” said Geoff at last.  “Mr. Landon says you’re to go and see him.  He’s on the third floor today.”
Freddy put the pasteboard back in his pocket and walked into the concrete building.
The lobby was cold and impersonal with just the doors to the lift at the far end.  Concrete pillars, left deliberately rough, supported the ceiling and possibly the whole building.  Freddy’s footsteps clicked loudly with a faint echo as he walked through; the noise annoyed him and he found himself trying to step more quietly and avoid making a noise altogether.  There was a single button for the lift, and when the doors opened and he stepped inside there was only a keyhole visible; no numbers for any floor.  Freddy searched through the loose change in his other trouser pocket until he found a small key; when he slotted that into the keyhole the doors slid shut and the numbers 1 to 5 lit up around the keyhole.  He twisted until the key pointed at 3, and then waited as it took him up.
When the doors opened again it was onto a long corridor with thin walls that partitioned the floor into various rooms and spaces.  Each wall had windows from the mid-height to the ceiling to let the light through, though many of the windows were frosted to prevent people outside from seeing what was going on inside.  Freddy walked along until the end of the corridor, where it turned left, and knocked on the door there.  Landon’s voice called out “Come in,” almost immediately.
“Ah Freddy,” said Landon as Freddy opened the door.  “I was hoping you might be in early this morning.”  The office was on the edge of the building and the windows here had a view across landscaped gardens to the river.  Even in the grey light brought on by the rain the room seemed spacious and airy.  Landon, a middle-aged man with a spreading waistline, was sat behind a modest desk and in front of several grey-steel filing cabinets.  Across the desk were two chairs, both hard-backed and uncomfortable, but over to the left were some easy chairs around a coffee-table. 
“Mrs. Fancroft?” said Landon, pressing a button on the black-and-ivory intercom system that took up much of the right-hand side of his desk.  “Tea for two, please.”  He looked at Freddy.  “Unless you’d like coffee?”
“How very American,” said Freddy.  “Are they getting to you, old boy?  Should I be reporting you to the Witchfinder General?”
Landon smiled, and gestured to the easy chairs. “You shouldn’t call him that,” he said.  “Percy’s got a job to do, just like the rest of us.  And he’s no McCarthy either.”
“There’s a man to watch,” said Freddy.  “I can see trouble there, you know.”
“We all can,” said Landon.  “But we have to bide our time, I think.  If we play our hand too early… well, it’s not that strong really.  Just between you and me.”
“Between you and me we need something extra if we’re going to play at all.”  Freddy sat in the easy chair and the cushions seemed to fold around him.  He struggled to sit up straighter, and ended up perched on the edge of the chair.  Landon sat opposite him, and set a manila envelope down on the table.
“How’s Martha?” he asked.
“Still dead,” said Freddy, reaching for the envelope.  “I can’t see that changing, old boy, no matter how much you ask.”  He upended the envelopes and shook out two photographs on A4-sized paper and three sheets of paper clipped together.  He whistled.  “That’s Florian Aachen.  Must have been taken ten years ago though, he’s not so good-looking now.”
“Fifteen,” said Landon, his voice quiet now.  “Michael thinks it was taken just before… well, you know.”
“I thought Michael was in Rome,” said Freddy picking up the other picture.  This showed the same man as the first, but now his face was wrinkled down one side and smooth and shiny down the other as though burned.  One eye was missing, but the other still looked at the camera, and there was a sense of foreboding about the picture, as though the man in it knew he was doomed.
“That’s what we put about,” said Landon.  “He was… in Europe at least, checking out these pictures.  The pages are his report.”
“Why am I looking at Florian Aachen?” said Freddy.  He picked up the pages, glancing at the typescript on them.  He skimmed the first page and then the second, stopping a paragraph from the bottom.  “Ah no,” he said.
“It would be reconnaissance,” said Landon.
“It always is,” said Freddy.  “At first.  Then you’re the man on the ground.  Or rather, I am.”
“We’re putting together a team for this one though,” said Landon.  “You won’t be going alone.”
L’escargot,” said Freddy.  “It’s not like I even really know what it is, just that it was there in the war and then it wasn’t.  And that Florian Aachen might, or might not, have had something to do with that.”
“You’re our expert,” said Landon.
There was a rap on the door, and then it opened.  Mrs. Fancroft came in carrying a melamine tray on which two mugs of tea and a teaspoon rattled as she walked.  She set it down on the coffee table, saying nothing, and left again.”
“Out of biscuits, old boy?” asked Freddy.
“Not before eleven,” said Landon.
“New rules?”
“Mrs. Fancroft disapproves.”
“Hah.  I wonder what she’d make of the Snail?”
“I sincerely hope I never have to find out.”  There was a moment’s silence.  “Are you going to do this, then?”

Freddy sighed.  “Do I have a choice?”

Saturday, 28 March 2015

L'escargot français

They parked the tank in the square as a show of who was in charge.  It had been in the desert previously and they’d not bothered to repaint it for occupation of a small town, so it was beige and sandy, an eyesore against the muted green of the fig trees and the dark burgundy of old brickwork.  An elderly woman came out of her house, staggering under the weight of the wet washing in her basket, came up to the tank and started to hang the clothes out on it.  Children nearby laughed and pointed, and the other adults carefully didn’t notice  so as not to annoy the soldiers.  It made little difference; the Captain, a young man with a thin moustache on his upper lip, a prominent adam’s-apple that bobbed when he swallowed, and a dress uniform tailored for a man a good four inches taller than him, came out of the bar and swayed a little as he took the scene in.  Then he called two soldiers over from where they’d been standing a poor guard outside the bar and gave them orders.  Magritte, who was closest, turned white and scurried away, her head down, hoping that they’d not realised she’d understood what they’d said.  Her shoes scuffed the flagstones of the square as she ran, and her headscarf fluttered madly in the breeze, finally pulling free and drifting to the ground behind her where it was a blazon of blue on the ground.
Two shots rang out, as both guards had fired.  The elderly woman, Beatrice, slumped over the front of the tank onto her washing and didn’t move.  The children’s laughter was cut short, and in the silence that followed the soldiers walked over to her and hauled her off the tank.  The Captain turned on his heel and went back into the bar, while the soldier dropped the body beneath a fig tree and swept the bloodstained linen from the tank and mounded it up over it.
Inside the bar it was dark; the shutters were closed outside the window and blackout cloths were drawn inside.  A single oil lantern was burning in front of a brass mirror above the bottle behind the bar, but it seemed only to intensify the shadows and darkness; nothing was distinguished in the dark.  The Captain collided first with a table and then with a chair, each scrape of wood on stone met with a slight gasp.  He kicked the chair when he hit it, and as it toppled over he realised that he might now fall over it again and had to stoop, comically sweeping his hand in front of him as he advanced, until he found it and threw it out of his way.  It hit something, possibly a soldier, a little way away, but elicited only a grunt.
Past the bar were stairs, and he went up them with each hand on a wall, his feet stepping carefully up and checking for the next step, never assuming.  At the top he probed delicately in case there was a landing and more steps, but then turned down the hallway and stopped at the first doorway.
“I heard the shots,” said a voice from inside the room.  It was breathy and feminine, and after it had stopped speaking there was a sudden breath of warm air smelling of violets from the room.  The Captain swallowed, his adam’s-apple bobbing in his throat.
“We are not a joke,” he said.  “They need to remember that.”
“I’m sure Beatrice won’t,” said the voice.  When the Captain didn’t reply it continued, “Beatrice was the name of the woman you ordered shot.  She was eighty-five and had lived here her entire life.  Her parents walked here from Rennes eight years before she was born, fleeing accusations of witchcraft.”
“How do you know?” The Captain didn’t sound curious, he sounded terrified.  His voice wobbled a little as he spoke, and was higher than his normal contralto.  “She’s dead.  I ordered her shot.”
“Indeed you did, little Faustschen,” said the voice.  “And am I not Mephistopheles for you?  Shouldn’t I know these things?”
The Captain turned on one heel of his well-polished boots and hurried away down the corridor and back to the stairs where he felt his way down again, sweat running icy-cold down his spine, unable to shake the conviction that he was being watched all the way.
Inside the room the owner of the voice paused from her activities for a moment to allow Beatrice’s memories a moment to settle.  Like butterflies descending on a flowering bush they gathered around her and she welcomed them in, riffling through them as though they were magazine pages, marking ones that interested her, and pushing others of no interest to one side.  When she felt that she had them under control she returned to drawing on the floor in wet, sticky fluids, quietly muttering words of binding and power as each line completed.
The Captain sat at the bar alone.  Around the room were his men, but they were either comatose or dead and he didn’t want to shake any of them to find out which they were.  The woman upstairs, the Snail, had stated her requirements and he had received the letter from headquarters instructing him on the actions he was to take to fulfil them.  His hands had shaken as he’d poured shot-glasses of sparkling liquids into the bottles of wine that he’d then served to the tables himself, and for a moment he’d wondered if he shouldn’t drink with them and lessen the burden somehow.  But when he’d gone to fetch another glass from the bar she’d been standing there, misshapen and cold, and he’d dropped the glass on the floor in shock.
“Clean that up,” she’d said, the breath of violets coming a moment after she’d spoken.
He knocked back a tumbler of whiskey and shook as it burned its way down his throat, fighting the urge to throw up.  He stared at the dark wood of the bar counter, unable in the gloom to make out any details, and then lifted his head up to stare behind the bar.  What was the point of being here when abominations like the Snail were allowed to do as they please?  Why did he have to shoot old women who protested by hanging out their washing on a tank that would be a target for any aircraft that flew overhead?  Surely she’d been doing him a favour by camouflaging it.
His eyes rested on a shape in the gloom, and slowly his brain teased out the detail: a salt pig.
They call her the Snail, he thought, slowly, muzzily.  L’escargot français, but I thought that escargot was masculine.  Perhaps she won’t like the salt either.

Quietly, listening to his heart pound in his chest as though it were the parade’s drum, he stood up and went behind the bar again.  The salt pig was quite full, and he spread the salt liberally around on the bottom three stairs.  Probably it was just a waste of salt, but who knew?  Perhaps the Escargot would take after her namesake.