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?”

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