At breakfast, Elizabeth mildly surprised Vic by announcing, “I went out drinking with your friend, Joan, last night.”
“Did you have a good time?”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point. She thinks she may be able to get me into America. My question for you is whether you think she could really do that.”
“She and Swede do have influence. And I don’t think she’d promise anything she couldn’t fulfill. But I’d pay close attention to her exact words and not expect anything beyond that.”
“I think I did get a little carried away. And I haven’t told her about my Nazi connections. I only hinted at a difficult past.”
“That might not bother them. But they’d want something in return.”
“That was made clear. There is a plan, but I wouldn’t be required to do anything violent or illegal.”
“Wherever Swede is involved, it’s good to be told that there won’t be any violence.”
“I got the impression that he isn’t that much involved.”
“I think he’d always be ready to intervene if called on.”
“Anyway, it looks as if this may be my only chance to get to America.”
“I thought it was automatic that a wife can join her husband.”
“It usually is. But, apart from my past, we were only married a month before Bob left. That, in itself, may be suspect. Anyhow, if I can’t get there, I’m sure Bob won’t come here.”
“Well, it was a bit of a slapdash marriage, with, I think, some calculation on both sides. Bob isn’t exactly glamorous, and I need to get out of Europe. But I thought we could get along well. I still think so. If it can be managed.”
Vic nodded, but fell silent for a bit. He wasn’t exactly a romantic fool, but this sounded really depressing.
There wasn’t much more that could usefully be said to Elizabeth, and, in any case, she said that she had some shopping to do. As Vic trudged upstairs to his room, he wondered about Joan. Did she ever meet anyone without fitting them into some grand plan? Was even her marriage to Swede part of her plan? Or did Swede have one of his own that intersected hers? Having met originally on an outdoor cement basketball court, had they gradually discovered that they could fit one another into their plans?
Billy Penderby was a bit of a relief. He was going on about a customer, a rich lady, who wanted him to make an arched door that would exactly fit into an opening in a stone wall between her garden and the street. “The ground’s sunk so’s there ain’t a right angle anywhere, besides which the arch at the top is skewed.”
After a little more complaining, Vic got the picture. The woman wouldn’t realize how difficult the project was, and would be willing to pay only for an ordinary door. As Billy put it, “She ain’t never tried to do nothin, so she don’t know nothin about nothin.”
The logic of that statement, part joke that it was, was amazing. Vic counted six negations. Did it have something to do with Cockney rhyming slang? Anyhow, it did make sense. Vic was reminded of people who thought the four-color problem in mathematics could be easily solved because they had never tried to prove anything.
Having expressed his class outrage, Billy got down to cases. “I’ve been given a new and excitin mission for you, Mr. Vic. On your next visit to Upper Heyford, you’re to take two ladies with you and introduce em to all and sundry.”
“Huh? What ladies?”
“Haven’t met em. One’s named Elizabeth, the other Kathleen, or some such.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“Best ask Mr. Hanson. He might tell you. Or he might tell you what he thinks it best for you to believe.”
“Have you met Mrs. Hanson?”
“He brought her around one day. A nice American lady. Very polite. Not like the local bitches and whores.”
It turned out that Joan had been interested in their tenants, and had wanted to know about each. Vic guessed that Billy had given her colorful descriptions, and she would certainly have been a good audience. As Vic was about to leave, Billy said, “Now, don’t you go solicitin for these ladies. That’s a criminal offence in this country.”
Vic feigned surprise at that news, but promised to be good.
At the Hansons’ residence, Vic was confronted by the housekeeper, a lady much like his own Mrs. Bramble. She said,
“Mrs. Hanson won’t be back until tonight, if then. Mr. Hanson has just acquired a walking stick, and is out walking around dangerously with it.”
Vic headed for the center of town with walking sticks much on his mind. He had been told that a Grenadier or Coldstream Guards officer in civilian dress had a ritual in which, with one step, the stick came out horizontally in front. With the next, it would whip back to a horizontal position in back, thereby imperiling the genital area of anyone behind him.
More dangerous still, was a pin-striped bowler hatted gentleman in a movie Vic had recently seen. He was a professional murderer whose assignment was to kill a squat, much less than beautiful, woman who worked in a government department. He waited until she had gone to a crowded underground station, and was close to the edge of the platform, craning her neck to see if a train was coming. The gentleman assassin, some distance behind her, maneuvered his stick unobtrusively between several people to poke her in the rear as the train arrived. There was a satisfying shriek, and he, with a self-satisfied air, dropped a shilling into the cup of a beggar.
Swede was visible in the crowd around Carfax from a good distance away. His walking stick looked hardly more substantial than a toothpick relative to his bulk. While not nearly as lethal as the guardsman or the assassin, he was indeed waving it dangerously as he ambled along, apparently occupied with his thoughts. He nevertheless greeted Vic with his usual good humor. When Vic asked about his next mission, Swede replied, “I was trying to reach you. You’re to take Elizabeth and Princess Katarina to Upper Heyford. You point Elizabeth at the house of the air base protesters, and arrange to meet her later. You take Katarina to the houseboat of the American pilot and his wife, and introduce her as working for me, and also hoping to come to America. You can give the impression that she’s your girl friend.”
“Does she want to go to America?”
“Apparently. Anyhow, Elizabeth thinks she shouldn’t stay with the prince any longer.”
“How do I pry her away from the prince long enough to get her to Upper Heyford?
“Elizabeth will do that. The point is that Katarina will have lots of questions about America to ask the American lady, who you say is lonely.”
“I certainly got that impression.”
“Then, she and Katarina will become friends. That’s all we want at the moment.”
The prying away of Katrina from the prince had already occurred when Vic met both she and Elizabeth at the railway station. Both ladies were somewhat euphoric at the prospect of getting to America. Vic was a little more reserved, but he did believe that Swede and Joan would make good on whatever promises they may have made. There was, indeed, some basis for this in a letter that Elizabeth had just received from Seth in Washington. He liked his job there, but he had yet to discover anyone who had wanted to hire him. The offer, a very good one, had come from some higher source, and, happy though he was that it had come, it made him wonder. Vic suspected strongly that Joan and Swede had wanted a clever person who had influence over Elizabeth out of the way. If they had the power to produce such an offer, they should be able to get the two young ladies to America. In Elizabeth’s case, the Nazi background would be offset by some service to America. After all, the Nazi rocket scientists were now in Huntsville, Alabama.
As Vic had already discovered, the trip ‘down the locks’, by rail and foot, was a sojourn, not only into an almost motionless idyll, but also into an area that hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. Elizabeth said, “I bet the people around here are more upset by the intrusion of the modern world in the shape of jet aircraft than by the prospects of war.”
Just then, they heard the muffled roar of a bomber taking off some miles away, and Katarina said, “It destroys both the peace of solitude and the peace of mind.”
That was true in a way, but it was, again, the sort of thing that the prince said. Vic wondered if she would miss him more than she realized. He also remembered something Seth Kennedy had said: “Both the prince and Katarina have real intelligence. But, where she’s had a good education, he tends to go off in intellectually perverted directions.”
Elizabeth’s frown suggested that she agreed with Seth, and thought that the prince’s influence on Katarina was harmful.
It was necessary only to take Elizabeth to the main street and point out the house rented by the protesters. That left Vic with Katarina. She smiled, twirled with her full skirt wrapping around her, and gave him the kind of look he wasn’t used to. He liked it, but it made him nervous.
On the other hand, there was an air of mischief about Katarina. It was as if they were two children, and, now that the adult had departed, they could play. It wasn’t clear whether the play would consist in sexual activity or ring-around-a-rosy.
Since they were in the middle of the village high street, either of these activities would have drawn unwelcome attention to their mission. But what about later?
Vic had been told, surprisingly by Billy Penderby’s lady friend, that he should loosen up and have some fun. This thought, expressed in front of Billy in his workshop, had been somewhat seconded by that gentleman, but with the condition, “He may’ve waited too long. We don’t want no atomic explosion.”
With this in mind, it occurred to Vic that he was afraid of what he might involve himself in if Katarina’s playfulness pushed the right buttons.