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Murder on the Titanic

Murder on the Titanic

 

Evelyn Weiss

 

Contents

Author’s statement

Principal fictional characters

1. Ghosts, made of ice

2. Voices of terror

3. The dead of the Titanic

4. Rooftops in darkness

5. An inspector calls

6. A list of suspects

7. The labyrinth

8. Embarkation

9. From scandal to murder

10. The last lifeboat

11. Icebergs

12. The Third-Class Smoking Room

13. Among the slaughterhouses

14. At the Hotel Metropole

15. The man from the maze

16. Night in New York

17. Empires and rivalries

18. Fear and trembling

19. Into the woods

20. A young lady in a state of undress

21. Flight plans

22. Blue water, blue sky

23. At Chelsea Piers

24. A volley of gunfire

25. Secrets under hypnosis

26. A council of war

27. Shame and jealousy

28. Lethally dangerous

29. Shots in the dark

30. In Hades

31. Simple logic

32. The fifth person

33. Death on the poop deck

34. Sunshine

 

 

To my Family

 

Copyright © 2016 Evelyn Weiss

Author’s statement

 

I’m Evelyn Weiss – spouse, parent, explorer, mountaineer and painter. My interests include history, science, art and philosophy.

 

This book is copyright © by Evelyn Weiss. I assert all my legal rights as the author of this book Murder on the Titanic, including my right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the book’s author. I reserve all legal rights to myself. No part of this book Murder on the Titanic may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or distributed or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without my prior permission.

 

Murder on the Titanic is the first of Agnes Frocester’s many adventures – I’ve provided, as the final element of this e-volume, a taster of her second adventure, Murder on the Western Front, set in 1915.

 

I dedicate Murder on the Titanic to my family, and I thank them for their support. I’m also grateful to all those individuals and families whose lives were torn apart by the Titanic disaster, but whose grief, loss and heroism were recording in one way or another. Their stories have helped, one hundred years later, to inform this fictional adventure story.

 

Murder on the Titanic is a work of fiction: subject to the exceptions described below, the story and all names and characters portrayed are fictitious. No identification with actual persons living or dead is intended or should be inferred. The exceptions are, firstly, some named historical persons who take no active part in the story, and secondly three exceptions as follows: aboard the RMS Olympic, Captain Herbert James Haddock, and aboard the RMS Titanic, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe and Junior Wireless Operator Harold Bride. I have given these three persons fictional roles in this story in keeping with their historically documented leadership and courage. For example, the actions of Harold Lowe in ensuring the safe loading of Lifeboat No.14 and his leading of the rescue of survivors in the water are well-documented. I merely add my grain of sand to the mountain of factual and fictional accounts of his heroism.

Principal fictional characters

 

Agnes Frocester, American: a survivor of the Titanic

 

Viscount Percy Spence, British: murdered aboard the Titanic

 

Professor Felix Axelson, Swedish: a private detective and hypnotist

 

Kitty Murray, British: a survivor of the Titanic

 

Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar, British: employer of Kitty, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Inspector Trench, British: a Scotland Yard police detective

 

Calvin Gilmour, American: a successful businessman, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Gwyneth Gilmour, American: Calvin’s wife, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Colette Morgan, American: an FBI agent, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Rufus du Pavey, British: a racing driver and pioneer pilot, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Daniel Carver, a survivor of the Titanic

 

Douglas Freshing, American: a survivor of the Titanic

 

Lord Buttermere, British: a passenger aboard the Olympic

 

James Nolan, Irish-American: a New York ‘businessman’

 

Lieutenant Bouchard, American: a New York police officer on the Titanic

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Ghosts, made of ice

 

“What can you see?”

“Darkness everywhere. Cries in the night. Thousands of voices, crying for their lives.”

“Look. Concentrate on the darkness. Tell me what you see there.”

“I see… white shapes on the black. Ghosts, made of ice.” The girl’s voice shakes in fear: I can hear the saliva rattle in her throat. “Please, please. I’m scared. I don’t want to look any more.”

“Look at the white shapes. Tell me about them.” But the man’s demands are cut off by a scream. And a different voice speaks.

“For God’s sake, Axelson. Stop this now. Get her out of this.”

 

Listening at keyholes is not one of my more ladylike traits. And, as Lady Blanche Lockesley sometimes reminds me, a lady’s companion needs to be ladylike. But – when the world-famous Professor Axelson is in the house, and solving the century’s most mysterious murder by hypnosis – wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away. My curiosity has led me to sneak up here, to listen at the door: now, the scream pierces me. Standing alone, here in the shadows, I’m taken back into the blackness of the Atlantic night: the churning waters, the vicious cold, the flickering lights, the voices…

Kitty’s cries finally die down. Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar – Blanche’s brother, in whose London home we are – has succeeded in stopping the hypnosis. I can hear Kitty’s sobs as he comforts her. “Calm yourself, my dear. You were rescued, you’re safe. You survived the Titanic.”

“The girl could have told us more, Chisholm. I’m sure she holds the key to the murder of Viscount Spence. Yes, she was distressed – but a patient’s fear can unlock hidden memories.” Professor Axelson speaks as if Kitty isn’t there with them. “Where a witness such as Miss Kitty has seen horrors, his or her conscious mind often cannot face them. But under my hypnosis, the terrible things that a witness has seen can surface again and be used as criminal evidence. My paper to the Royal Society proves it…”

“Frankly, I’d settle for fewer hidden memories, Axelson, if obtaining them means a young woman’s terror. Good God, I’ve not seen distress like it, not since –”

“Her suffering is very temporary. After all, she’s only a servant.”

“Well she’s my servant, Axelson. And while she’s under my roof, she’s not going through that ordeal again.”

 

Although only in his mid-thirties, Chisholm Strathfarrar is widely respected. Formerly a British Army captain who fought in the South African Boer War, he now holds a senior position in the government’s Home Office. As we sit for dinner, he glances across to me, a faint smile beneath his mustache, before speaking to the butler.

“Baxter – Kitty’s not in the kitchen, is she? I told Mrs Sharp that she should be excused from all duties this evening. She needs to rest.”

“That’s correct, Sir.”

“Thank you, Baxter. You may serve dinner.” I hear, as well as the Scots edge to Chisholm’s educated accent, a hint of concern in his voice. As the first course is served, I think: he’s worried about that girl. Kitty is not recovering from her ordeal on the Titanic.

It’s now been ten months since Chisholm, Blanche and I, accompanied by Kitty, set out on that voyage where so many were destined to die. Every single second of that night of 15th April 1912 is etched in my blood: but I keep those images, those sounds, in parts of my mind that I never visit. I simply say to myself: ‘Agnes, you need to move on with your life: you can’t afford to dwell on nightmares.’ Because in truth, I’m afraid that if I think back to the Titanic, to what actually happened to me, the terror that I felt that night would take hold of me again, suck me down into darkness.

However, one thing about that night is clear in my mind. In the final terrible hours, those moments when I felt that I was touching the very gates of Hell, Kitty could not be found. I believed that she had died in those black waters. But when we reached New York, Chisholm searched for her and found her, in a hospital in Harlem. As soon as she was well enough to travel, he brought her back to London with us. She still suffers nightmares. Truth to tell, we all do. But for her, it’s worse. Every time I look into her face, I see a tremble in her lip, fear in her eyes: I sense barely suppressed panic. I think: she’s still trapped. In her mind, Kitty is still aboard the Titanic.

A soft clatter: the first course of dinner is cleared away. The servants move silently, gathering up our plates. The cutlery is the ancient family silver, brought here to Chisholm’s London house from the Strathfarrars’ ancestral home, Glenlui Castle in Scotland. As we sit here the gaslights give a soft glow to our faces, the folds of our clothes, the paintings hung round the walls, depicting generations of Strathfarrars through the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I can almost taste the history. Like most New Englanders, I’m interested in the past – and Connecticut families, mine included, love to emphasize their long lineage. But the Strathfarrars take their ancestral heritage for granted.

Blanche and I have been staying with Chisholm for two weeks. She likes to get away from her married home in rural Sussex (and, truth be told, away from her husband) and see her friends in London. We always stay here at Chisholm’s town house in Grafton Square, near Kensington Palace. So over the last two years of my employment by Blanche, I’ve seen Chisholm often, and got to know him well, even though his work often keeps him away from home.

As the main course is served, Blanche, Chisholm and I discuss Professor Axelson’s recent lecture tour of Europe. But despite the professor’s current investigation, and Kitty’s hypnosis, none of the three of us mention what we ourselves suffered on the Titanic. It’s as if we are all pretending that what we went through that night was a story, or something that happened to other people. Since coming to England, I’ve realized that this is the way people talk here: the ‘stiff upper lip’. It’s the British way, I think. But, like me, our dinner guest Professor Felix Axelson isn’t British. And though I first met him only two days ago, on his first visit to see Kitty, I know his forthright manner already. As the last of the servants leaves the room, he clears his throat: he’s about to say something important.

“Chisholm, we need to question Miss Kitty again. That girl is our key witness. It was she who found –”

Even though Axelson is outspoken, he stops, fork half-way to his mouth, when he sees the look in his host’s eyes. Chisholm speaks calmly but firmly. “Perhaps, Axelson, you and I could discuss this after dinner? I’m sure the ladies present don’t want to hear…”

But the professor doesn’t give up. He carries on eating for a minute more, then looks across the table at me. “Miss Frocester. You’re fascinated by this mystery, aren’t you?” He’s not bound by English politeness, and his Swedish voice is measured but bold. His gray, deep-seeing eyes gaze directly into mine: he hardly blinks, and I feel he’s looking at my soul. Gazing into his face, I can understand his mesmeric effect on patients.

“Yes, sir. I am fascinated.” I sense Blanche’s disapproval, but I reply boldly, hearing perhaps more of a Yankee twang in my voice than usual. “I don’t understand hypnosis – but I agree that the human mind is, in truth, the last unexplored space. People have traveled all over the earth, even the Arctic wastes. We’ve now been to both poles of the globe: we push at every frontier. Yet we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the origins of our own thoughts and feelings.”

Blanche doesn’t want this conversation to develop. “As my brother says, dinner is a time for civilized conversation. You gentlemen can discuss this afterwards. The billiard-room, cigars, Scotch whisky – that’s the setting for your decisions about Kitty. But I’ve noticed that her work seems scatty and careless. If the hypnosis upsets her further and you have to let her go, Chisholm, it will be little loss to you.”

“I make all decisions about my own staff, Blanche, and there is no question of me dismissing Kitty from her job. Right now, her emotional problems mean that she will struggle to get another position – and I’m hardly going to put her out on the streets.”

Chisholm’s rebuke annoys Blanche: she fires a glance at me, as if I’m somehow to blame for this turn in the conversation. But although I’m dependent on her favor, I decide, just this once, to ignore her mood. I want to know more.

“Professor Axelson, how does hypnosis work?”

“You seem a well-educated young woman, Miss Frocester. So I won’t mince my words. You have heard, I guess, of Charles Darwin?”

Blanche’s polite smile thinly veils her scorn. “That man who says we’re related to monkeys?”

“Indeed. Do you know that every branch of science has now proved his theories, beyond dispute? But it is not just the human body that has evolved from the apes. Large parts of the workings of our brains evolved millions of years ago, before we were human.” Axelson, I notice, is now speaking solely to me: he doesn’t bother to catch Blanche’s eye at all. “Our rational mind is a recent product of evolution. But there is also a large part of our mind that doesn’t act rationally. You probably can think of examples from your own experience.”

For some reason, an incident from my childhood pops into my mind. “I went to open the front door once, when no-one had knocked. I had no idea why I did it. But it was funny – there was actually a visitor there: Mrs Rosenblum had come to see my mother. She was standing there, on the front porch, just about to knock.”

“A perfect example, Miss Frocester. You acted because something in your mind recognized that visitor’s presence outside your door – unconsciously.”

“So – one part of my mind knew Mrs Rosenblum was at the door, but at the same time I wasn’t consciously aware of it?”

“Exactly so. The vast majority of our mental activity is unconscious and instinctive: deep down, we still have the mind of a wild beast. Like the deep ocean, with its own tides and currents. All we see is the surface, the superficial: reason, logic, language. Our conscious minds are like a thin layer of white foam on a wild, savage sea. The ocean is infinitely strong, untamed and unknown. We don’t understand it. But we feel its power.”

I feel myself drawn in: his eyes hold mine. The room, Blanche, even Chisholm – they’re a dim background now. This conversation, this moment, is just Professor Axelson and myself.

“So, Miss Frocester.”

“Please call me Agnes.”

“Miss Agnes. You sit there, your dark hair round your face, your wide, green eyes. You are an object of my politeness, my respectful regard. But beneath that – my unconscious mind sees you, looks at you, quite differently.”

I’m not sure where this conversation is going. So I ask him again.

“How does hypnosis work?”

“We can – if we are careful – brush away the surface foam. And if we can calm the breeze – the ruffling of the surface ceases, the ripples subside and vanish, turbulent waters can become still and clear. The water can become like glass: like looking into a deep, clear pool.”

“So you can see what’s down there?”

“Exactly. We can see, maybe, the creatures that dwell in the deep. Would you like?…”

“Hypnosis? No, thank you. I’ve no desire to look at my pond life.”

“Agnes is quite right, Axelson.” Chisholm cuts in on Alexson’s hold over our conversation. “None of us around the table have any need…” I look over to Blanche, and I see the relief in her face as Axelson is stopped in his tracks. But despite Chisholm’s interruption, the professor carries on speaking.

“You all misunderstand me. I was not proposing to hypnotize Miss Agnes herself. No. What I need – what justice needs – is that Miss Kitty Murray is put under my Fluence, my hypnotic power, again. I must take her back to that night on the Titanic, to the sinking – and to the death of Percy Spence. To what she saw, what she did, how she felt. Because, I am certain, she saw what happened. She knows the truth about the Viscount’s murder.”

Chisholm looks doubtfully at the professor. “So how does that relate to Agnes?”

“ I suggest, Chisholm, that – in order to avoid extreme trauma, and to provide a female companion for Miss Kitty – that Miss Agnes joins us, in conducting our investigations. We will have another session, tomorrow evening. Using my Hypnotic-Forensic Method, we will take Miss Kitty back into her hidden memories, to her last night on the Titanic. But this time, I will carry out the hypnosis with Miss Agnes present.”

“I’d love to.”

Blanche looks annoyed. “Agnes, I can’t agree to this. You are employed by me: your first duty is to me.”

“But Blanche, dear – Agnes may be your employee, but she still has a mind, a life of her own.” Chisholm looks at his sister calmly but coldly. What Blanche allows me to do or not do is really none of his business – but I can sense Chisholm’s will overriding that of his sister. If I want to take part in the professor’s inquiry, then I have Chisholm’s permission.

But whether Chisholm is allowing it because he thinks it will help Professor Axelson’s investigation, or to keep Kitty safe from another hour of terror, or merely to humor me, because I’m so plainly fascinated by this business – that, I don’t know. Yet.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Voices of terror

 

The lamps are being lit on Grafton Square: they glow softly in the damp February evening. Today’s rain has finally cleared, leaving a chill, moonlit night. I gaze out of the window at the shining wet cobbles of the square, and I see a Hackney carriage slowing to a halt in front of the house. Axelson’s stocky figure steps down from the cab, and he turns to pay the cabbie. Moments later, I hear Baxter opening the door and welcoming the professor into the house. “Come straight this way, Professor Axelson. Sir Chisholm wishes to speak to you in private.” I wait in the drawing-room for over an hour: eventually Baxter comes to see me, and asks me to go along to Chisholm’s study.

I open the study door, and I’m surprised. Neither Chisholm nor Professor Axelson is there. But Kitty is.

“Miss Agnes – Mr Baxter told me to come along to Sir Chisholm’s study, so here I am. I’ve only been here a minute. But I’m so glad you’re here, Miss Agnes! Look at this.” She points to papers strewn across the carpet. “They were on Sir Chisholm’s desk, all laid out in order. I’m so clumsy these days, I knocked them off. They fell on the floor and they’re all mixed up…”

I smile reassuringly at her. “I’m sure you and I can work together and put them back in the right order.”

I calm Kitty’s nerves as we sort the papers. It’s an easy job – they’re just bills, a letter from a Mr Laurie on the Glenlui estate, and a sheet covered in handwritten numbers, estate accounts probably. But as we sort them, Kitty is shaking.

“What’s wrong?”

“These scattered papers. It reminds me of something, of somewhere else, but I can’t remember where… I don’t know why, but looking at those sheets of paper all across the floor, it made me feel scared.”

I hear a tremor in Kitty’s voice, and I see her hands shaking. Will there be any value in trying to hypnotize her in this state?

“I’m glad that you’re going to stay with me this time, Miss Agnes. I felt so afraid last time – like, when it was just the gentlemen, you know…”

“This time, everything will be fine, Kitty.” She smiles nervously at me, and I’m glad to see that she’s no longer trembling. I ask her “Where are the gentlemen?”

“I don’t know, Miss Agnes. I thought they would be here by now.”

As she speaks, the study door opens. “Kitty. Agnes. Please accept our apologies: sorry to keep you both waiting.” Chisholm, followed by the professor, comes in just as I’m putting the papers back on the desk. “And Kitty – well done for having another go. Brave girl.”

In contrast to Chisholm’s encouraging smile, the professor’s face is serious, almost stern. “We will see, Miss Kitty, whether you are ‘brave’ as Sir Chisholm calls it. Are you willing to go under my Fluence, as you were before? To go back, in your mind, onto the Titanic?”

“I am, Professor. I hope that…”

“You hope that the hypnosis will help us find the killer of Viscount Percy Spence. But you also hope that it will help you.”

“Yes, Sir. I’m so troubled. Especially my breathing. I sometimes wake in the night, short of breath. As if there’s a weight on my chest, and I can’t shift it.”

“Do you have nightmares?”

“No – not exactly. But I’ve got sense, somehow, of something in my dreams. Like a locked door. A place I dare not enter.”

“Perhaps, when that door is opened, you will feel better. Perhaps the weight you feel will disappear, and you may be able to breathe more easily. I hope so. But – mark my words – I do not guarantee it.”

Despite the professor’s warning, Kitty looks gratefully at him. She sits passively, awaiting what will happen.

“Let us proceed. As we did before, Miss Kitty – please make yourself comfortable in your chair. As soon as you feel completely relaxed, look steadily at me. Breathe deeply and smoothly. Miss Agnes, could you slowly dim the gaslamps? We need to simulate the gradual onset of twilight. As if the logical, rational mind is gently going to sleep.”

As I dim the lamps, Professor Axelson is speaking to Kitty. His voice is slow, deep, every syllable measured. “You can feel calmness. It is like water. Imagine you are stepping down white, marble steps into a pool: into still, clear water. The marble steps are cool on your toes, on the soles of your feet. You take another step, and another. Every movement is calm, slow, relaxed.

Now one foot enters the water, then the other. The water feels soft, cool, silky on your skin. Your feet, your lower limbs, your abdomen, is sinking into the water, like a deep relaxation flooding through your body.” I wonder at the imagery he’s using: is all this talk of rising water really the way to calm her? But the shakes that Kitty had five minutes ago have gone: she breathes more slowly: deeply, evenly. Her mild brown eyes stare fixedly ahead, but the lines in her forehead, the tension in her neck, visibly eases and leaves her.

“The water is at your chest. It laps your neck, touches your chin. You feel suspended in the cool fluid, every muscle relaxed. Now, the water reaches your mouth. It pours in, flooding you with a feeling of perfect relief, perfect peacefulness. It touches your nose, and you breathe it in, a deep, deep serenity. You can feel the surface of the water lapping your cheeks, your eyelashes, creeping up the lenses of your open eyes.” Kitty blinks, like a twitch, but her breathing now is deep and strong, like the roll of the sea.

“The water of calm, the water of peace, it enters your brain. It floods every thought you have, dissolving every little sensation. You think nothing. You feel only the deepest peace, a slow, slow bliss.” She sighs, and even I’m feeling the calming effects of the professor’s hypnotic voice. I look across at Chisholm, but he’s not affected: his eyes are still bright, alert, intent.

“The water that dissolved your thoughts is now dissolving every feeling you have, except this deep calm… every muscle, every nerve in your body is fading, blurring into this deep, smooth water. You are becoming one with the ocean. As I count down, your physical body blends with the water. Five. You have no thoughts. Four. You are drifting into nothingness. Three. Your mind, your body, is blending into the water. Two. You are the ocean – the waters of the ocean, the deep, deep sea. One. Deep, deep calm. Now.”

I look, and Kitty’s eyelids are shut. She sits, breathes. She is silent, placid, unmoving, like a tailor’s dummy. As if to test his success, Axelson takes one of her hands. It’s totally pliable in his fingers, as if she is unaware of us, or of where she is. Unaware of her own body.

“Miss Kitty, can you hear me?”

“Yes. You are Professor Axelson, the Swedish scientist.”

“Where are you, Miss Kitty?”

“I am on a ship. Me and many others, we are sailing across an endless sea. A big, big, ship. So huge, so full of lights. Like a palace, but it moves itself along, steering its way across the water. We’re moving fast. I’m on the deck, I can feel the breeze of the sea, the smell of salt as we drive into the wind, into the sun.”

“Do you like the ship, Miss Kitty?”

“Yes. The ocean is huge, but our ship is so, so strong. I feel safe here, safe from the wild sea. Like our ship has tamed the waters and made them safe for me. I enjoy the swell of the waves, our ship driving through them. It’s like I can feel the deep humming and throbbing of the engines, pushing us along, slicing the waters open ahead of us. It’s so – exciting.”

“Do you have any friends on this ship?”

“I am with a very good family – a brother and sister. I serve them. I am employed by Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar. With him on the voyage is his sister, Lady Blanche Lockesley. Sir Chisholm has asked me to accompany them on their journey, so that I can act as Lady Blanche’s maid. Also with us is Miss Agnes Frocester, a young lady who came over to England from America two years ago. She is Lady Locksley’s companion. She is friendly to me, and Sir Chisholm is kind.”

“Do you have any other friends on the voyage?”

“Yes. I have met a very fine gentleman. Finer features than Sir Chisholm, so elegant, and – such a voice. Viscount Percy Spence. A charming, charming gentleman. He compliments me. I blushed the other day, he told me what a pretty girl I was. And he asked me –”

“He asked you what?”

“He whispered in my ear – he said, wouldn’t it be nice if he and I could go up to the Palm Court Room, dance there. A secret dance, when the Palm Court Room is empty. I’d love to dance, for just once in my life. To dance, feeling the swell of the waves on the ship, up through the deck, into my feet. How I’d love to dance.”

“Have you danced with him, Miss Kitty?”

“I’m dancing now. He’s so handsome, dashing. Perfect manners. I’m nervous, in case anyone comes in, but it’s late in the evening, we are the only people in the Palm Court Room, and we’re waltzing, waltzing to the rhythm of the sea. I can hear music in my mind. An orchestra – the sound of a waltz, like they dance in Vienna. The music is only in my mind, it’s not real, but it sounds so sweet, so beautiful. And I know this happiness can’t last, but this moment – I look into his eyes. I’m in heaven.”

“And when the dancing stops?…”

“The music in my mind – it’s quieter now. I’m straining to listen to it, that magical melody, but it’s fading, getting harder to hear. It’s drowned out by some other noise… voices. Many, many voices. They get louder, shouts and commands. They sound – alarmed. Percy says we mustn’t be afraid, we must go to his cabin.

We open the door and go out, onto the Promenade Deck. And we’re high up on the ship, I can see people, hundreds of people, all struggling along, all going one way. A tide of bodies. Percy says we must go against the tide, we must get to his cabin. It’s on the next deck below us, we’ll have to go down the Grand Staircase.

We’re trying to go down the stairs, but there are so many people. They’re all going up the staircase, they push and shove. So many faces, so many white, scared faces. We’re trying to get down the stairs to Percy’s cabin, but this mass of people is surging upwards. They’re not only scared, they’re angry – angry with us. They’re shouting at us, they say that we are getting in their way. They seem to think we’re mad to be going down the stairs, not up. At last, we’re past all the people and Percy and I are alone together, we’re in the corridor leading to his cabin. The electric lights are flickering all down the corridor: some of them have gone out.

We get to the cabin. And Percy’s telling me to be calm, telling me that I’m safe with him, and I know something terrible is happening. The ship is sinking and we’re going to die. And Percy says, drink some of the water that I have with my wine, it’s in the carafe there. If we have to go into a lifeboat, Kitty, who knows when you will next get to drink water – so drink it now. He tells me that I must drink it all, every last drop. And he takes up another carafe, his wine. I can see the red glinting in the glass of the carafe, like a ruby. And he drinks. He offers it to me, but I say ‘No, no. I am not allowed to drink wine. You drink it all, Percy.’”

“This is very important, Miss Kitty. You can see Percy Spence drinking wine?”

“Yes, straight from his carafe. I’m seeing him, now, holding it. His head tilts back as he drinks. There’s a flag and star, engraved on the side of the carafe, and the red of the wine shines through them.”

Axelson whispers to us. “The branded carafes of the White Star Line, used in the first-class cabins.” Both Chisholm and I, of course, remember the carafes well: we saw them aboard the Titanic. Then the professor’s gaze returns to Kitty.

“Percy Spence drinks the wine: what does he do then?”

“He puts down the carafe, there’s only the dregs left in it. Then he goes over to the desk in the corner of the cabin. He has a little key, I see the brass catching the light and glinting, and he unlocks the drawer and gets papers out of it. He’s taking lots of pieces of paper out of the drawer. He folds a letter, putting it in inside the breast pocket of his suit jacket, then he gathers the rest of the papers into a bundle. I’m afraid, but I feel glad that I’m with Percy. He’s very calm and organized, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The ship lurches. Like an earthquake. I start to feel scared again, but Percy looks at me, his eyes look into mine. He says ‘Kitty, you’re a good girl. Whatever happens to us both tonight – thank you. Thank you for being with me tonight.’ And I can hear voices of terror outside the cabin, cries and screams, and crashing and breaking noises: metal grinding, wood smashing. And we turn to escape from the cabin, we go to the door and I try to open it, but I can’t.”

“Why can’t you open the door?”

“I’m pushing against the door, trying to open it. I push and push, but it’s jammed.” I notice that her hands are tensed now, they twist and clutch each other. Suddenly, her eyes are wide open: a blank, mindless stare.

“Miss Kitty, look back at Percy. Tell me: what is he doing?”

“He’s holding all his papers, the ones from the desk. Sheets and sheets of paper. He’s holding the bundle out to me – all these papers. But the papers flutter and shake in his fingers. His hands are shaking. It’s not fear that makes them shake – something else is happening to him, he seems to be trembling all over. I can see beads of sweat all over his face.”

“Are you sure that something is wrong with him?”

“Yes. He’s ill, badly ill. His hands shake more, and the papers, they’re falling through his fingers… It’s going dark in the cabin, the lights are fading. I hear a wheezing, panting noise. It’s Percy, he’s struggling to breathe. His head is jerking back, and he’s gasping for air, clutching his throat, desperate, desperate –”

Her breath, just like Spence’s in her description, has changed: it’s sharp, harsh, shallow. I can see her eyes start in their sockets, she’s blinking frantically, as if even this dim light is too much for her. The professor continues talking, still slow, still controlled.

“Breathe slowly and deeply. Tell me what is happening.”

“The lights in the cabin are flickering – they’ve gone out! Darkness, darkness. I can see nothing. I hear the horrible gasping, it goes on and on. Rattling in his throat, like his bones are shaking. But above the gasping, I hear cries in the dark. Piteous, piteous. People are dying, these noises are their death screams – Percy – he’s stopped breathing! Percy, Percy –”

She starts to twitch uncontrollably. Axelson looks across at me, signals with his eyes. He doesn’t want to hold down a woman by force. But he wants me to.

Her body convulses as if with electric shock: I take hold of her upper arms to try to keep her still in her chair, but I’m not strong enough: these shakes that rack her thin frame are far stronger than any woman: there is a power in her body that seems – not human. Her eyes open again, stare emptily, then roll horribly in her head. She reaches her hands together across her chest, her nails dig into the fabric of her chemise and she rips the cotton. “Can’t – can’t breathe! Can’t breathe!” Chisholm and the professor look away as a flash of white-skinned chest is revealed.

“Axelson. Stop this. Now.”

“I can’t.”

Kitty stiffens, rigid like iron, arches her back, and a hideous screech comes from her lips. Then, in a moment, she’s limp in my arms.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The dead of the Titanic

 

The professor and I are sitting in the study. Mrs Sharp has taken Kitty up to her own room: she seemed to be sleep-walking as she went. Chisholm has gone to see Blanche and the other household staff, and calm them after the terrifying screams that echoed through the house.

“Now you see, Miss Agnes?”

“See what, Professor Axelson?”

“The power. The power that hypnotism can unleash, can set free from the chains of reason and good manners that we wear in order to live in our polite, controlled society. Underneath – we are wild beasts. You felt her strength, Miss Agnes. Did you know than an ape is five times stronger than a man?”

Then why ask me to hold her down, I think to myself. But I don’t say it. I ask something else.

“Professor – is it perhaps possible, that Kitty’s reaction isn’t because of some hidden wild beast in her? That it’s simply because she saw something so terrifying – perhaps she’s pretending to herself it never happened – and now she’s recalling it? Like you could decide to block off a bad memory, never think about it – but then under the hypnosis, it comes back to you vividly?…” I trail off uncertainly: I know nothing of the professor’s science.

“Of course. Your suggestion, Miss Agnes, is correct – and it fits perfectly with my Hypnotic-Forensic Method. You see, Miss Kitty’s reason, her logical mind, tells her that this horror, this evil – it was in the past. Every moment of her waking life, her rational brain is telling her that she needs to forget what happened on the Titanic, to concentrate on being a good servant, to work hard, perform her duties, ignore these emotions. Emotions that are so strong that she has to clamp the lid down on them – as you yourself said, to pretend to herself that it never happened. But the uncontrolled, deep mind – it saw. It witnessed. It knows what happened to Percy Spence. Almost certainly, it knows who murdered him.”

The door opens and Chisholm comes in, wiping his brow; he’s finally succeeded in quieting the household. I sense that he feels responsible for Kitty’s ordeal. But Axelson goes on speaking. “We need to try again: to hypnotize her one last time. In fact, we need to go much deeper into her mind. So far, she has still been controlling what she tells us.”

“What do you mean, Axelson?” Chisholm sits down opposite us.

“Miss Kitty has been lying to us.”

Chisholm’s face hardens. “She’s an impressionable girl, Axelson. But she’s not –”

“I do not mean deliberate lies, as if she plans to deceive us. I mean simply that her unconscious mind, the animal nature in her, has seen terrible things. My Hypnotic-Forensic Method has opened chambers in her brain. But she is still keeping some places locked away from us. She is telling us what she thinks we want to hear. Instead of what actually happened.”

“How in God’s name do you know that, Axelson?”

“Because the facts contradict her, Chisholm. You yourself were on the Titanic. I was not, of course – but I have checked details closely. The door of Viscount Spence’s cabin could not have been blocked in the way Miss Kitty described to us. She said she was pushing the cabin door to try to get out of the room, but that can’t be true. Because of a very simple fact: all passenger cabin doors on the Titanic opened inwards.”

“So – if she is still holding back from telling us everything – what can we do?”

“Go deeper. The lie she has told us about the cabin door – it is itself a metaphor for her resistance. It shows that she is holding the final door in her brain shut. One more Hypnotic-Forensic session will reveal the whole truth. Miss Kitty will have one hour of rest, and then I will hypnotize her again.”

“If Kitty feels able to…”

Professor Axelson interrupts. “It has to happen sometime, Chisholm, and it’s better for us, and for Miss Kitty herself, if she tells us everything now. You yourself are concerned for her happiness – so, let me help her. She is carrying an awful burden, and the hypnosis, the revelation of the secrets she has carried for so long, may be able to free her from that burden. We need to act now. The complete, final truth of Percy Spence’s murder will be revealed to us tonight.”

“Maybe you’re right. But while we wait for an hour – Axelson, could you explain to Agnes how you came to be involved in this case?”

“Of course. In order to understand how to best assist us, Miss Agnes, you should know how this all came about. My investigations into this strange matter began on the 18th April 1912, shortly after the night of terror that you and the Strathfarrar family experienced on the Titanic.

I was in Halifax, the principal settlement of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, on business which need not concern us now. I received a message at my hotel from a local surgeon, Dr Finch. The message did not give any details, but it asked me to go to the doctor’s surgery, next to the Halifax city hospital, on a matter of the utmost importance. Dr Finch’s message said that it seemed like Divine Providence, that fate had cast a mystery at his door, and at the same time, had placed there, in the wilds of forgotten Nova Scotia, the one man in the world with the talent to solve the mystery.”

I don’t know whether he’s quoting Dr Finch word for word, but Professor Axelson speaks without any sense of modesty.

“Despite the time – it was nearly midnight – I went over to Dr Finch’s surgery. He seemed utterly relieved to see me. But he would not say what the issue was, the question that had driven him to contact me with such urgency. Instead, he asked me to accompany him to the building next door. It was the Halifax city mortuary attached to the hospital.

As you can imagine, the mortuary was deserted and unlit at that time of night. We carried lanterns as we made our way into the darkness, past stacks of makeshift pinewood boxes, each containing a corpse. These were the bodies found in the ocean, by the four ships sent by the White Star Line on the grim errand of recovering the dead.

Dr Finch paused at a coffin with a chalk scrawl on its rough-hewn pine planks. One word – ‘Spence’. I looked into the doctor’s eyes, almost in disbelief.

‘Yes, Professor Axelson. This is the body of Viscount Percy Spence, one of England’s richest aristocrats.’

‘Not just one of the richest, Dr Finch. We both know him to be the most flamboyant and glamorous figure in Europe. Notorious, even.’

‘As a single gentleman, an automobile racer and recently, an aviator – his appeal to – how can I put it – to the fairer sex, is well known.’

‘As I said, Dr Finch. Notorious. So – this is he?’

‘Indeed. His identity is confirmed by his wallet, and I have also heard about the Viscount from one of the Titanic survivors – one of those who was unfortunate enough to share a lifeboat with him in his last hour.’

‘Unfortunate? They were the lucky ones – those who got into the lifeboats. They survived when so many others perished. And there is another thing I don’t understand, Dr Finch. The newspapers say that everyone in the lifeboats was taken on the SS Carpathia to New York. Whereas, all these bodies brought to Halifax – they have been recovered from the Atlantic Ocean.’

‘I will explain shortly, Professor Axelson. But come, I have not called you here in order to simply show you a wooden box.’

Dr Finch took a crowbar and levered off the planks, one by one. The first plank was the leftmost, and it revealed one of Percy Spence’s hands, the fingers grotesquely clawed. I was reminded of Matthias Grünewald’s famous Crucifixion altarpiece, and the agony of execution by that method.

The second and third planks were lifted, and I looked into a face that had once been handsome and full of life. Now, it bore the visage of a gargoyle. The famous aquiline nose and profile of Percy Spence were transformed into a beak-like grimace. The mouth was fixedly open, as if gasping for air, and a distended tongue lolled over the lower lip like a serpent peering from its lair.”

Professor Axelson’s normally measured tone of voice is getting quieter. As if even he does not quite want to say what is coming next.

“The greatest horror, though, was around his eyes. It was as if the eyelids of the corpse had already shriveled to nothing, leaving the white eyeballs naked in their empty sockets. The stare was so fixed, so filled with terror, that it was as if this man, in his last moments, was truly gazing into Hell.”

The professor’s voice is now almost a whisper. As always with Professor Axelson, I’m drawn in by the slow, even speech, the hushed rasp of his words. Sitting in the civilized haven of Chisholm’s study, I’m suddenly taken there – I’m standing, with Professor Axelson and Dr Finch, in the freezing cold of the Halifax mortuary, surrounded by the dead of the Titanic, gazing with horrid fascination at a face frozen in unspeakable agony.

The professor carries on with his tale.

“Dr Finch spoke quietly to me. ‘Your diagnosis, Professor Axelson?’

‘From a clothed body and a contorted face? I am renowned, Dr Finch – but even so, without a proper examination, I can only offer a guess.’

‘I trust your guess, Professor Axelson. Let us see if it matches my own diagnosis.’

‘Then I would say – from the level of pain shown in this face, these hands – that this man was poisoned. Strychnine.’

‘In which case…’

‘Yes. Your surmise is correct, Dr Finch. I understand now why you have called me here. All these’ – I gestured to the boxes surrounding us, the many victims of the disaster – ‘are tragedies, every single one of them. But this is more. In looking at this face of horror, you and I, we are looking at – murder.’

Dr Finch closed the lid of the box, and we returned to his surgery, where I looked though his report and the results of the tests he had carried out on the cadaver. It was clear that the Viscount had been poisoned.

As I closed the report, Dr Finch spoke again. ‘You see now, Professor Axelson, why I described his companions aboard the lifeboat as unfortunate. He lay helpless on the floor of the boat, survivors crowded all around him, and they witnessed his slow excruciating asphyxiation, while they were unable to help in any way. Even amid the terrors and anguish of that night, this was an appalling thing for them to witness.’

‘So – you have spoken to the witnesses, Dr Finch?’

‘I have heard from one who was on that boat. When he heard that bodies were being recovered from the ocean, he wired the mortuary at Halifax to enquire if the body of Percy Spence had been identified among the dead, saying that he had witnessed the Viscount’s death, and had reason to believe that it was suspicious. I had already identified Spence’s body, and realized from the appearance of the corpse that his death looked unnatural – so I wired the gentleman back, asking for all details. I received this.’ Dr Finch handed me a telegram, and I read –

 

‘I Harold Lowe and four others put Viscount Spence’s dead body out of Lifeboat 14 and into the water Stop To make room for a woman we saw in the water who we rescued Stop After the sinking of RMS Titanic Viscount Spence had been on floor of lifeboat dying very slow in Extreme Agony and unable to speak Stop Lifeboat 14 launched from Titanic just before sinking and a servant girl had dragged Viscount into lifeboat just before launch and was with him on floor of boat trying to offer succour to him until his last breath Stop Do not know servant girl and we did not see her again on RMS Carpathia or at disembarkation at New York Stop’.

 

I looked at Dr Finch, and I asked the obvious question. ‘Does anyone else know of her, Dr Finch? This servant girl?’

‘I am here in Halifax, Professor; I know nothing about those who sailed in the Carpathia to New York. But all the survivors – they would be looking out for themselves and their families; a friendless servant girl would be invisible, as it were, among them. I fear that it may be impossible to trace her.’”

 

Axelson looks at me, then at Chisholm. “In fact, finding Miss Kitty turned out to be surprisingly easy. You, Chisholm, did it for me.”

Chisholm is about to say something – but the professor looks briefly at his watch, and speaks decisively. “It’s time, now. We must proceed with the final session of hypnosis. I feel sure that she saw, not just the effects of the poison on Spence, but the person who put that poison into his wine. She can name the killer. Despite her violent reactions, we must take Miss Kitty back one last time to that fateful night. Back to her most terrifying moments aboard the Titanic.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Rooftops in darkness

 

The professor pauses. I feel he’s assessing my reaction, my desire for involvement in this grim business. After a few minutes he speaks again. “You now know enough about Percy Spence’s murder, Miss Agnes. So – are you ready to be with Miss Kitty again, in a final hypnotic session? For the revelation that we shall hear from her lips?”

“Yes indeed, professor, I am. In fact I’m more intrigued than ever. I’ll go up to Kitty’s room and see if she’s awake.”

The servants’ quarters are four floors above us, in the eaves of the house. Up here, the stairs are dimly lit, the carpet thin. I hear the creak of the boards on the stairs and the landing, the tread of my own feet. Then, in the near-darkness, I hear the sound of my own knock on Kitty’s door. The noise echoes along the gloomy corridor, but I hear nothing from within the room.

I knock a little louder.

Maybe thirty seconds pass before I knock again. Then I try the handle: the door flies open. I’m looking at a blank square of window, open against the moonlit sky. The narrow bed is unoccupied. The wind blows into the empty room.

I shout down the stairs. Within seconds I hear Chisholm’s footsteps on the ground-floor staircase. But there isn’t a moment to lose. I go to the window. It’s a dormer window built into the roof of this block of terraced town houses fronting out onto Grafton Square: beyond the sill, I look out onto a roof of gently sloping slate tiles. In the moonlight, dark silhouettes of chimneys rise above me, their shadows stretching out across the wet slates like black fingers. Kitty is out there somewhere. I lift my leg over the sill; my skirt hitches on the window catch, but I pull it free. I feel slates beneath my feet. I’m out in the night: I hear voices behind me, and answer.

“Kitty’s gone, Chisholm! She’s not in her room: she must have climbed out of the window.”

“Come back in, Agnes. It’s dangerous out there. Axelson and I will look for her.”

“We can all look for her. I’ll go left; you gentlemen go right. The rooftop stretches much further over to the right.”

Indeed, to my left, I take only a few careful steps, making sure of the grip of my shoes on the slippery slates, before I come to the parapet that surrounds the roof of our block of houses. I look over the parapet and see Grafton Square fifty feet below me. I shiver: I’m reminded of looking over the rail of an ocean liner. The cobbles of the square, shining in the lamplight, are like a pattern of ripples on a black ocean. The Titanic is vivid in my mind: I’m looking far, far down, as if down the side of a ship into dark, threatening waters. I feel faint, like everything is reeling, circling me. My feet struggle to get a safe grip on the slates, but I hold the parapet. Focus, Agnes, and keep your head clear. I look at my hands, gripping the stonework. And I see something, caught on a rough edge of brick. A tiny piece of white thread. Cotton, like Kitty’s chemise. I reach out my hand and feel it with my fingertips. It’s dry – so, it was left here after today’s rain.

“Here! Chisholm, Professor Axelson – she came this way.”

I can see the men, moving towards me across the roof. But Kitty – has she fallen from here? Did she escape her room with the thought of jumping, dying? Despite the anguish I’ve seen so often in her face these last few months, I can’t believe that she would take her own life. No, there is some other explanation.

I look along the line of the parapet to where it turns a corner. Maybe forty paces further along, it adjoins the next block of town houses, a terrace like our own: all the best streets in Kensington are laid out this way. What’s unusual is that, at this corner of Grafton Square, there is no road separating the blocks. Our block practically touches the next. Within a minute I’m at the corner, and looking at the gap. It’s lit starkly in the vivid moonlight. Maybe four feet wide.

“Agnes. What the hell are you up to?”

That’s Chisholm calling from the dark behind me. And I can tell, he must be frightened: I’ve never heard such language from his lips before. The two men are still maybe twenty yards behind me. I look down into the deep, narrow gap between our block and the next: my head spins like a fairground carousel. But we must find Kitty: every moment counts. I tense for one second, then spring forward over the void.

The stonework on the far side hits my face, my elbow. I feel a scratch on my nose, taste blood on my lips. But I’m holding on firmly. I look over this new parapet. As before, wet slates, shiny in the moonlight, march off into the unseen distance. I see nothing else. Kitty has gone. Our search is hopeless.

I feel utterly bewildered. I can make no sense of what has happened tonight. I hear the force of Chisholm’s landing behind me: he found the leap easy. He’s standing beside me.

“That leap, Agnes – truly dangerous.”

“You’ve just done it too.”

“I’m not wearing a full-length skirt. Take care. I don’t want to lose two members of my household tonight.” He looks across the rooftops for any sight of Kitty, but there’s no-one there. After two minutes he looks back at me, grimly. “She’s gone, Agnes. There is nothing more for us to do here.”

Chisholm takes my hand. As if to reassure me – but then, I realize he’s helping me get back across the gap. This time, I don’t look down at the drop below me. I just do it. A few seconds later we’re both standing safely on the parapet of our own block of houses. I’m still looking around, as if Kitty might suddenly reappear.

“What’s going on, Chisholm? Why has Kitty escaped?”

I see Chisholm’s face outlined in the moonlight: he’s still scanning the rooftops. “I’m mystified, Agnes. Do you think the hypnosis was all too much for her? Maybe she’s – lost her mind.”

 

Tracing our way back to Kitty’s window is easy: the moon is behind us, illuminating our way across the sloping slates. The white-painted casement of the window glows like silver. As I lift my foot to climb over it, I notice something caught between the sliding sash and the window frame. Something that flutters gently, white in the light of the moon. I reach out my hand to hold it still.

“I’ve found something, Chisholm. A piece of paper, I think.” I climb back over into the room. Axelson is already inside, peering at Kitty’s few belongings as if they might speak and tell him where she’s gone. I turn back to the window, and I carefully prise the paper out from where it’s wedged in the window frame.

“I found this, Professor Axelson. Wedged between the window frame and the sash.”

The three of us stand at the window, and I hold out the paper to catch the moonlight so that we can look at it. It’s a letter, crumpled and scuffed. The professor points at the writing, which is an illegible spidery scrawl.

“Chisholm – is this Kitty’s handwriting?”

“No. It’s totally unlike hers.”

The professor’s face is serious. “Despite her reactions to the hypnosis, Miss Kitty does not strike me as the sort of girl to run away. Nor, to foolishly harm herself.”

Again I see the outline of Chisholm’s face in the moonlight. He’s thinking as he speaks. “I agree, Professor. We must reckon on the possibility that she has been –”

The professor says the word. “Kidnapped.”

“In which case, we must alert the police immediately. My God, that this should happen to one of my staff…”

I look at the piece of paper in my hands. “So – this letter. If Kitty was taken away from her room by force, then how did it get here? Did the kidnappers struggle with her at this window, maybe she grabbed at their pockets? Perhaps she even took it from them and wedged it there, to leave us a clue?”

Chisholm looks at me grimly. “I think our first action must be to notify the police. Let’s see if they can make sense of it.”

Despite his words, I continue to look at the letter. In the moonlight I can make out only one word “Black” at the end. There’s one more word after that, perhaps a surname. Those two words are at the bottom of the page, like a signature. I say my thoughts out loud.

“It’s a letter from someone? – signing themselves as Black Something?”

The professor’s voice is calm, logical. “Yes, I think you may be right, Miss Agnes. We have to at least consider the possibility that Miss Kitty has been abducted, and that this letter may provide a clue. We must contact the police, as you say, Chisholm – but in the meantime, there may be more that you and I can do out there on the roof. There may be more clues.”

“Yes, of course, you’re right, Professor – we’ll look out on the rooftops again. Agnes, could you go downstairs, telephone the police, and speak to Blanche? And, could you take that letter with you?”

In a moment they’re back outside, in the night. Through the window I watch their two silhouettes move away across the rooftops: Chisholm tall, strong-looking: Axelson a smaller outline, moving more awkwardly. Then I turn and leave Kitty’s room.

At the foot of the stairs I bump into Blanche. I tell her what’s happened, and see the shock register in her face. Then I telephone the police.

Fifteen minutes pass: fifteen minutes of commotion in the house: Baxter’s commanding voice rings out above Blanche’s shrill tones and the panicked voices of the servants. Chisholm and Axelson are still not back from the roof. Blanche bombards me with inane questions. In my hand I still hold the creased letter – hardly a letter at all: just a scribbled note really. But someone went to the bother of signing it. I look at the letter again, and I peer closely at the word after ‘Black’. Unlike the body of the letter, the word is neatly written, but I still can’t make it out.

Suddenly there are different noises among the high-pitched hubbub. A door bangs, and I hear deep voices. I turn round, and see Chisholm and Axelson enter the room.

“Did you find anything else up there on the roof?”

“Yes, we did. We found what may be an important clue.” I can hear an edge of satisfaction coloring Axelson’s voice. “Not far from where you found the cotton thread, Miss Agnes, I spotted a boot print, in some dirt that was on a ledge. I have inspected it carefully by flashlight, although of course I haven’t touched it. It is large – definitely a man’s boot print. It’s also very recent – it was made since the rain stopped. Unless there was some other reason for a man to be up on the roof within the last four hours, this is evidence that we are indeed dealing with a kidnapping.”

I breathe in sharply. Up to now I had somehow clung onto the hope that there was some other explanation for Kitty’s disappearance. The professor carries on speaking.

“The police will be able to use the boot print, I am sure. There is a very distinctive stitching on the sole. Three lines of stitches. Very unusual. Shoes like that – I have not seen them in London before.”

I look at the professor in mild surprise. “Do you really go around taking note of people’s boot soles?”

“I do indeed. Miss Agnes, you may know that although I am qualified as a doctor, I specialized from very early on in psychiatry – the unseen workings of the human mind. But my chair at the University of Dresden is as Professor of Forensics: the science of evidence, of criminal investigation. I have developed my Hypnotic-Forensic Method through working with many police forces across Europe. And in doing so, I have picked up much expertise regarding physical forensic evidence – ‘clues’ as they are popularly called. This boot sole stitching, it is like a fingerprint. We find the man with these boots, we find our kidnapper.”

Chisholm looks down at the paper in my hands. “What about the letter, Axelson?”

“Yes. Again, the science of the mind connects to many things. A person’s character – it can be shown in their handwriting. To me, a piece of writing is like your English phrase ‘an open book’. Let me look at this letter.”

I put the paper down on the table: the three of us stand round and peer at it. But after two minutes, Chisholm curses softly. “God damn it, where are the police? They should be here by now.”

“Don’t worry, Chisholm.” Axelson’s voice remains low and calm. “Only twenty-five minutes have in fact passed since Miss Agnes found that Miss Kitty was gone. Let’s do what we can do: concentrate on this letter.”

The scrawl is extraordinary. I can make out no words whatsoever, and despite Professor Axelson’s boasts about handwriting, he says nothing more, and I conclude that he is at a loss too. I look again at the signature.

“After Black – is that a V?”

“I think you are right, Miss Agnes.” Axelson looks closely. “I think, in fact, this signature, it is not any name we would recognize. It is a code name. Two colors – ‘Black Violet’.”

I look at the second word. It doesn’t really look like Violet.

“It is unusual, don’t you think, Chisholm? I have never seen a letter or a note like it. Because the worst-written part of any letter – always, it is the signature. In most letters, the signature is a scrawl, almost a throw of the pen. But here, the letter is unreadable, even to me – but the signature is moderately clear.”

“Which means?…”

“I don’t know what it means. Very, very unusual. Anyway, we will give it to the police.” He suddenly picks up the letter and, to my surprise, folds it and puts it in his inside breast pocket, then carries on speaking. “We will also, of course, show the police the boot print, and point out the triple stitching to them. Clues for them to follow.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. An inspector calls

 

We wait for the police in the drawing-room. Chisholm glances at his watch, but Axelson seems curiously relaxed. After a few moments, he smiles at me.

“Miss Agnes, I will take the opportunity to explain to you what I have discovered, since I left Nova Scotia. Because as you know, the Percy Spence case is now in newspapers across the world – because of the Titanic disaster, because of the fame of the victim, and, if I may say so, because of the fame of the investigator.”

The professor pauses for a moment, but I prompt him to continue. “So how did you begin your enquiries, Professor?”

“I traveled from Nova Scotia to New York, and my first action there was to find you, Sir Chisholm. At the end of our first meeting, you generously offered your support. I have been fortunate indeed that your military and government experience has equipped you so well to assist me. And you have given financial support to the enquiry. I could not have had a better supporter – and friend – in undertaking this most baffling of all my investigations.”

“That’s appreciated. And I must admit, I am intrigued by your methods, Axelson. Your ‘Hypnotic-Forensic’ technique is extraordinary: the hypnotized subject seems to be re-live, through all their senses, the exact experiences they had – for example, aboard the Titanic.”

“Thank you, Chisholm. I have refined the Method through my investigations of crimes across Europe over the last ten years. Police forces across the continent have benefited from my unique approach.”

I interrupt the professor. “But I don’t quite understand, Professor. Of all the survivors of the Titanic, what made you seek out Chisholm?”

“Percy Spence was poisoned, we know, in his cabin aboard the Titanic. So Sir Chisholm was a natural first choice to interview. Because the quarters occupied by the Strathfarrar family, Miss Kitty and yourself, Miss Agnes, were next door to those of the Viscount.”

I look at the professor, my eyes wide. He smiles at me.

“You knew that, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t.” I shudder inside, thinking back to that night, and I see our rooms in my mind’s eye. Our ‘Parlor’ cabin was opulently furnished – ‘Louis XIV style’ we were told – but cramped. I’d have liked a little less rococo decoration and a little more space. But then, it was hardly my choice. The cabin was designed for two first-class travelers with up to four servants. Blanche had the double bed in the main cabin, an extravagantly carved four-poster, and there were two bare, tiny cell-like rooms, designed for the first-class passengers’ male and female servants. Kitty and I had bunks in one of them, Chisholm used one of the bunks in the other. In addition to the sleeping accommodation, there was a bathroom, next to the door onto the corridor. The main cabin held not only Blanche’s bed but the sitting-area: Chisholm and I would play chess at the little table there, in the later part of the evenings after dinner, when Blanche would habitually complain of sea-sickness or headache and retire to rest, drawing the drapes around the bed. And I remember the carafes, exactly as Kitty described: one of water, one of wine. So, I think: that night, Chisholm and I were playing chess, just a few feet away from a murder.

But also, there’s another incident which now comes alive in my memory. Early in the voyage, I opened our cabin door, stepped out into the corridor, and bumped bodily into the man from the next room. It was only a moment – but I saw the confident eyes, the fine lines of his nose and his brows. An aristocratic face, refined yet bold. I’m no follower of fashion, but the fine quality and cut of his clothes were evident at a glance: he was a man of taste and discrimination, a man who cared about his appearance. I saw the amusement in his face as I backed away from him, embarrassed. I blurted clumsily at him.

“Excuse me, sir. I didn’t look where I was going.”

“Consider yourself very much excused, madam. Charmed to meet you, even if by means of collision rather than formal introduction.”

So that was him: Viscount Percy Spence. The man in the next cabin. He had a cheerful lightness of manner: his smile seemed to dissolve my embarrassment. I recall his exact words – “I hope, madam, that we ‘bump’ into each other again on this voyage. And if I don’t see you again, have a pleasant journey.” But he didn’t ask to be introduced, or tell me his name. He simply raised his top hat and walked away. The only time that I saw him.

The professor continues his story. “When Chisholm and I first met at the Hotel Metropole in New York, I learned from him that he was engaged in a search for an employee of his, Kitty Murray, who had disappeared when the Titanic sank. Chisholm had already begun his enquiries, and he told me that he had heard of a young woman among the Titanic survivors who had disembarked alone from the RMS Carpathia at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan. Officials at the Piers had noticed that she seemed ill and mentally confused, and they had called for medical assistance. It was believed that this woman had been taken to one of the charity medical facilities in New York. By the time that I met Chisholm for a second time in New York, he had found Miss Kitty.”

“Yes – I tracked her down to the Harlem Hospital in Manhattan. The hospital staff told me that she was in tolerable physical health, but that she was suffering from recurring screaming fits. Because of that, they had strongly sedated her.”

“Indeed. When you first took me to the hospital to meet her, Chisholm, she was able to stand and walk. But, Miss Agnes, she had the appearance of what the voodoo people of Latin America and the Caribbean call a Zombie. She had no speech, stared blankly ahead and appeared not to notice other people. All her actions, her movement, appeared automatic, not controlled by any conscious mind. She did not recognize Chisholm, and was unable to respond to human voices.”

“It was awful to see her there, Agnes. But although she did not recognize me, and was unable to hold a conversation, she was still my employee. I decided there and then to take her along with the rest of us back to London. My business in the United States was finished, Blanche was eager to return home, and you, Agnes, had concluded your family visit to Connecticut.”

“Yes, Chisholm – back in Connecticut, it was good to see my family again, but I had no real capacity to enjoy anything. I found it hard to answer my parents’ questions about our ordeal. I wanted to talk to them about normal things, enjoy the time with them, but I felt like I was struck dumb. My young brother Abe, he’s only sixteen, but he understood somehow, he asked me no questions. I was grateful for that. But nothing felt quite right – I felt like I wanted to start my whole visit to them all over again, maybe in a few months’ time after I could put the Titanic behind me. It was almost a relief to get back to New York and prepare for the return voyage. I trembled when I first saw our homeward ship – but in fact I was glad to get aboard, to take the next step towards normality, to return to our life here in England, even if it did mean crossing that ocean again.

On the voyage back to Southampton, I tried several times to talk to Kitty. But she seemed like she was not aware of other people, like she was sleep-walking all the time. She hardly spoke to me on that return journey. In fact, she hardly spoke at all, to anyone.”

Axelson nods at me. “I knew – by an intertwined combination of logic and intuition – that Miss Kitty was indeed one and the same as the young woman who had dragged Viscount Spence into the lifeboat. Your cabin being next door to Spence’s made it likely – but once I saw her, I knew that it must be she. I recognized in her the symptoms of someone who has witnessed not just disaster, but murder. And her breathing problems – they come not from her body, but from her mind. She is mimicking the asphyxiation that happens when strychnine paralyses the victim’s chest. There is an unconscious part of her brain that is constantly reliving, through her own body, Spence’s awful death.”

 

Finally, we hear the awaited knock at the front door. Without a word, we all gather in the hall. Baxter opens the door to reveal a thin man in a long gray overcoat. Behind him, two uniformed policemen fill the doorway. As the man enters the hall, he pulls off the bowler hat which is crammed down over his brows, to reveal wisps of gray hair on an almost-bald head. He’s maybe sixty, and he speaks quietly and slowly.

“I’m Inspector Trench, Scotland Yard. I’m pleased to meet you, but I’m sorry about these circumstances. The report that was given to me states that a young lady has vanished.”

“Been forcibly abducted.” Chisholm is speaking. “We found a man’s boot print on a ledge which can be reached across the rooftops from Kitty Murray’s window. The window was wide open, and we also found a handwritten note, jammed in the frame of the window that she was taken through.”

“Well, I suggest that I take statements from each of you, separately, in turn. If we begin with? –” he turns to me.

“I’m Agnes Frocester.”

“I’ll begin by conducting my interview with Miss Frocester. Then, she can retire to bed first. It’s already well past midnight. Then I’ll interview you two gentlemen in turn.”

Chisholm smiles, for the first time since Kitty’s disappearance. “Thank you very much, Inspector. We’re truly grateful to you. While you are carrying out your interview with Agnes, is there anything more we can do to help?”

“Indeed there is, Sir Chisholm. While I am speaking to Miss Frocester, if one of you gentlemen could show my officers the young lady’s room, and the way out onto the rooftops, and we’ll take a plaster cast of that boot print.”

 

The servants have kept the fire going in Chisholm’s study. The room is warm, slightly stuffy, and I yawn as I enter it with Inspector Trench.

“I’m sorry, Inspector. I will try to keep awake and attentive.”

“It’s normal to yawn after exertion. Or excitement. Don’t worry, I’m sure you will be a perfect witness.” We sit down in the two easy chairs that occupy a corner of the study, and Baxter brings us tea as the Inspector’s sober face shows me a slow, thin smile. He’s trying to put me at ease.

He gets out a leather-bound notebook. “I can tell, you are not a native of this country. So, begin at the very beginning. Tell me how you came to England, and how you entered Lady Lockesley’s employment.”

“Well, those two stories are actually the same…” I tell him about growing up in Putnam, my hometown. I talk about my family, my schooling, my search for a job, my travel to England, my employment with the Lockesleys in Sussex, our visits to Chisholm’s house in London, the Titanic, Professor Axelson and the Spence case, Kitty. Everything. The Inspector’s speedy note-taking, effortlessly keeping pace with my narrative, contrasts with his ponderous manner. After listening carefully for over an hour he says “Just as I knew it would be. A perfect account. Sir Chisholm and the professor may add some details, but I have the gist here. Thank you.” After saying that he sits quietly, notebook open.

“I hope I’ve told you everything you need, Inspector.”

“Yes.” Again the wintry smile, and he makes no move to go. I sip the last of my tea. I wonder: have we finished?

“You seem a trustworthy young woman, Miss Frocester. I can understand Sir Chisholm and Professor Axelson placing their reliance in you to assist with their investigation.”

“Thank you. Although my role was purely to provide female company and reassurance to Kitty while she was hypnotized. So after what has happened this evening, I think that’s the end of my involvement in the case.” And then I add “I’m don’t think Lady Blanche – who is, after all, my employer – was happy about me using my time to help Professor Axelson.”

“I sense, Miss Frocester, that although your future life may have challenges, it will also have much greater scope than simply being a companion to Lady Lockesley. You’re not content with your current position, are you?”

“How did you know that?” But he doesn’t answer: he simply smiles, as if to himself. I look into his level, steady eyes. A long face, full of vertical lines and wrinkles, but kindly. He quietly thanks me for my time, and tells me that I can go to bed.

But for an hour I lie awake, thinking. Selfishly, my thoughts are not all about Kitty: many of them are in fact about Blanche, and the two years I’ve spent with her. At first she liked me: I think my accent and homespun American small-town-girl manners amused her. But then she found out that I had my own thoughts and opinions. She thinks I’m outspoken – perhaps insolent. And she seemed annoyed and jealous to find me speaking in German to a visitor from Berlin, even though the job advertisement had required that candidates speak French, and I know both languages equally. Then, there’s her husband, Sir Edward Lockesley. He’s extremely rich: he inherited the fortune his father made in business. His wealth was such that he received a knighthood; since then, he’s embraced country life in Sussex. He bought the Flimwell Manor estate, and he loves local society, especially the hunting. Oscar Wilde’s description of fox-hunting – ‘The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable’ – runs through my mind every time I see the man’s fat, red face. And I sense that Blanche and he are unhappy together, and that she’s embarrassed by him. Three weeks ago he came home from a hunt meeting horribly drunk, swearing at the servants. Of course I said nothing, but Blanche saw the curl of my lip, my silent judging of his behavior and character. I sense that she can’t forgive me for what she and I share. She and I share the knowledge that her husband is a weak and cowardly bully.

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A list of suspects

 

It’s exactly one month since Kitty vanished, and we’re hurrying through the thronging crowds of London to catch our train. The shouts of newsboys and traders ring out in the entrance of Liverpool Street Station entrance, replaced by the calls of porters as we pass through the ticket barrier. Then as we walk along the platform we hear the station master’s voice echoing among the hissing engines and the noise of whistles. “Five-fifteen to Cambridge.” Our first-class carriage is at the far end, nearest the engine. I see the gleam of the locomotive’s wheels and pistons, and the distinctive deep blue engine livery of the Great Eastern Railway.

“Here’s our compartment.” Chisholm opens the door for me, and once inside the compartment, he lifts my bag into the netting above my head. “We should arrive at Cambridge station in good time to catch the seven o’clock branch line service to Fen Dutton. Professor, you said that the Spence family’s carriage will be waiting for us at?…”

“At half-past seven, at Fen Dutton Halt. Then, the drive in the carriage from Fen Dutton to Sweynsey Hall takes about twenty minutes. Mordaunt – Spence’s secretary – has arranged dinner for us at eight-thirty.”

The guard’s flag falls, the whistle blows. Looking out of the window I see clouds of steam blowing past us, and then the platform slides away from my view as we start to move. I hear the train gathering speed, the chuntering of the engine. There is nothing more for us to do in London for the moment – blind and almost clueless, we have left the investigation of Kitty’s kidnapping to Scotland Yard.

So we are going to meet Ernest Mordaunt, at Viscount Spence’s ancestral home in East Anglia. Mordaunt was not with Spence on the Titanic, and he has not agreed to hypnosis. However, as the train sets off, Professor Axelson explains to Chisholm and I that Mordaunt has agreed to be as helpful as he can in telling us about any matters that may be relevant to our investigation. Mordaunt told the professor that Spence’s aunt, who has inherited the estate, has granted him full freedom to show us all Spence’s papers and documents. We have just two nights and one full day at Sweynsey Hall – then, when we return, we must pack and leave again, for a much longer journey across the Atlantic. The professor’s plan for our trip to America is to meet, and hypnotize, other key witnesses that he has identified in the month since Kitty was kidnapped.

I’m tired, and I gaze blankly out of the window. The prospect of so much travel might feel exciting – or daunting – but for the moment I feel only one simple thing: cold. The English winter has returned, just as hopes of spring seemed be rising. No snow, and only a slight frost – but we are shrouded in an impenetrable blanket of lifeless fog. I feel the chill of the moist air as if it is seeping into my marrow, and wrap my shawl closer around me.

Chisholm smiles at me. “So, Agnes, will you miss country life in Sussex for the next month?”

“A little. But I do wonder…”

“You mean, you wonder that my sister was happy to agree to my request that you assist our investigations. She will have to cope without your services for several weeks. Perhaps you worry that on your return, she may have decided that she doesn’t need you?”

I’m surprised by Chisholm’s frankness. The topic is new to Axelson, who says

“Miss Agnes, you need not fear. I believe if you have to change employment, your abilities are such that it may be an advancement. Besides, two years ago you were bold enough to apply for employment on the other side of the Atlantic. That bravery will serve you well again.” His words are kindly meant, but of course he has no idea of the difficulties that face a lone woman seeking to make her own way in the world. He changes the subject.

“Chisholm, thank you for booking our tickets to New York on the RMS Olympic. I hope that you and Miss Agnes are looking forward to a voyage that will undoubtedly be as safe as – travelling by train, for example.”

Chisholm smiles. “Well, it’s good to know that the Titanic’s sister ship has been fully refitted. I think we’re all glad to hear of the installation of additional lifeboats.”

“I think a lot has been learnt from the tragedy. We will be able to relax and enjoy the voyage. But in fact, the voyage on the Olympic will itself be invaluable for our investigations. Because I now have confirmation of the rumors that I had heard. I now know that both Gilmour and du Pavey will also be travelling to New York on the Olympic.”

I look across at the professor. “Those names sound familiar… can you explain, Professor?”

“I have not had the opportunity until now, Miss Agnes, to update you on the progress of my enquiries. Since Miss Kitty’s kidnapping, I have been looking into other aspects of the case, assembling facts. And now – I have a list.”

“A list of what?”

“Names. Names of people who were aboard the Titanic. After that fateful night, it is as if they are –” the professor gestures with his hands.

Chisholm smiles. “Scattered to the four winds, is what Axelson means.”

“Who are these people, Professor?”

Even though we have a compartment to ourselves, the professor leans across towards me and lowers his voice. His gray eyes look directly into mine. “In total confidence I tell you, Miss Agnes. In addition to Miss Kitty, five people hold the key to understanding Percy Spence’s death. And I am absolutely certain that one of those five is the murderer.”

“You can tell Agnes, Axelson. I’d trust her with my life.”

I hear the assurance and conviction in Chisholm’s voice. As the train rattles on through the fog, Professor Axelson clears his throat, as if readying himself for the importance of what he is about to say.

“First on my list is Calvin Gilmour, the American industrialist. One of the world’s richest men. He was aboard the Titanic, and his was the cabin next door to Viscount Spence’s, on the other side from yours. And, he and his wife were in the same lifeboat as Miss Kitty and the dying Viscount Spence.”

I breathe sharply. That’s why I’ve heard of the name Gilmour: Calvin Gilmour of New York is a household name. For his legendary wealth, and even more for his patronage of education and the arts. I look at the professor.

“The philanthropist? He’s known as one of the most forward-thinking men in America. And he’s a byword for generosity. You think he might be a murderer?”

“Gilmour is indeed, as you say, a generous patron of good causes. But he is also a man. And men are prone to jealousy. Especially when a gentleman as notorious as Viscount Spence pays attentions to his wife. Gwyneth Gilmour and Percy Spence had been seen together, in London and, especially, on the voyage of the Titanic.”

The professor has touched on a subject that I’m interested in: society gossip is one of my guilty pleasures. The train’s whistle blows as it rattles along, but I raise my voice over the top of it. “But Professor, perhaps we can’t conclude too much from gossip about Spence and Gwyneth Gilmour being seen together. I understand, from reading the society papers, that Percy Spence had been seen in the company of many different ladies. Every edition of The High Life used to carry a new story and a new photograph of him.”

“Sir Chisholm and I are both men of the world, Miss Agnes. We both understand something that you may not. When a man has a reputation for meeting many ladies – then as a husband, to find that same man paying particular attention to your own wife – it tends to worry your suspicions, rather than soothe them.”

“But – to go as far as murder?”

“Before her marriage to Calvin, Gwyneth Ogilvie, as she was then, was beset with suitors. That’s not surprising – she is known as one of the beauties of American society, and heiress of the richest family in Virginia. Seemingly in defiance of her family traditions, she reached the age of thirty without close involvement with any man. Some said she would never marry. Then out of the blue, she marries a man twenty years her senior, fabulously rich but with humble origins. Calvin Gilmour is a self-made man. His business expansion was not only spectacular: it was ruthless. Despite his reputation for generosity and progressive thinking, I believe he could be ruthless again.”

“So, if Gilmour had motive, how would he have gone about poisoning Spence? If Kitty’s description is to be believed, it sounds like Spence’s wine was poisoned. Did Gilmour bribe a cabin steward to spike Spence’s wine?”

Chisholm glances across the compartment at the professor. “The layout of the cabins, Axelson…”

“Indeed, Chisholm. You see, Miss Agnes, some of the first-class Parlor cabins on the Titanic were linked by interconnecting doors. That allows families who can afford it, and who need the space, to occupy two adjoining cabins and make them into larger suite of rooms. Spence’s cabin was linked by one such interconnecting door – not to your cabin, Miss Agnes, but to the Gilmours’.”

“So are you saying that Gilmour had access to Spence’s room?”

“In normal circumstances, there would be no access. Any interconnecting doors which were not in use would have been locked by the Titanic’s staff for the duration of the voyage. But of course, it is possible that Gilmour could have bribed a cabin steward to lend him the key.”

“But Professor – if Gilmour could have bribed a cabin steward to give him the key, he could equally have bribed a wine waiter to put something in Spence’s wine.”

“Yes, I guess that is so. In either event, we will never find out. Most of the Titanic’s cabin staff are dead.”

“But what I’m saying is this, Professor Axelson: any one of hundreds of passengers could have bribed a wine waiter, regardless of whether or not that passenger’s cabin was near to Spence’s.”

“Yes. That’s logical.”

“So in itself, Professor, the interconnecting door between the Gilmours’ cabin and Spence’s doesn’t prove anything.”

“A good point, Miss Agnes. I see you are thinking carefully about the evidence: well done. But despite what you say, I still feel that, for Calvin Gilmour, the motive, means and opportunity for murder were all within his grasp. He remains on my list of suspects. Even if he is innocent, questioning him is one of my priorities, because he was in the same lifeboat as Spence and Miss Kitty. My Hypnotic-Forensic Method will enable Calvin Gilmour to relive that experience, and give us a detailed account of Spence’s final moments alive.”

The whistle blows again, and I feel the train slowing into a station. Twilight is advancing into night: a single lamp illuminates the words ‘Bishop’s Stortford’ on the station sign as the train draws to a halt. Outside our compartment window, station buildings loom like dim shadows in the fog, but when I look out onto the platform, I see no-one getting off the train, no-one getting on it. I turn back to the professor.

“So – who else is on your list, Professor Axelson?”

“Another survivor of the Titanic is a woman who was travelling under the name Maria Jones, but we believe that her real name is Colette Morgan.”

As the train starts to move again, Chisholm raises his brows, looks sharply at the professor. “I thought – you were not going to mention her? Of the names on your list, I thought you had said to me that hers would be unspoken.”

“You misunderstood me, Chisholm. Yes, I said that one name would be unspoken – but not that that name was Colette Morgan. I will indeed tell Miss Agnes, and you, only four of the names on my list.”

Chisholm looks puzzled, but the professor continues. “The fifth name is known only to me – until a time when it is safe to reveal it. Now Chisholm, regarding the name of Colette Morgan – do you or do you not trust Miss Agnes?”

“I trust her. But I also trusted you, Axelson.”

“And you will continue to do so, Chisholm. You know that I can read any character like an open book. I have now seen Miss Agnes on three occasions – twice at your home, and today. But I am completely confident in my diagnosis of her moral character.”

I’m trying not to laugh at the professor’s pompous claims, but I keep a straight face. After all, he’s praising me. He carries on. “Miss Agnes has a keen mind – but another of her traits is absolute loyalty of character. Chisholm, you yourself said, only moments ago ‘I’d trust her with my life’. So I will be completely open. Colette Morgan works for a newly-formed and very special police force – the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

I’m intrigued. “A woman police officer?”

“No. She does not wear a uniform, or carry a truncheon! Colette Morgan works covertly, on her own initiative, obtaining information and sending it in secret to the Bureau. Some of her reports have been of great interest to not only to the American government and police forces, but to the British government, too. That is why Chisholm is hesitant about me telling you about Miss Morgan. He is, after all, a British Home Office official. Civil servants tend to be very touchy when it comes to risks to the nation’s security.”

“I don’t really understand, Professor.”

The professor explains to me. “As you know, Miss Agnes, this is an age of spies. Here in Britain, we have anarchists, republicans, agents of the Kaiser, and those who would use violence to gain the independence of their homelands from British rule. In the United States, there are likewise enemy spies, and revolutionaries – you will recall, of course, the murder of President McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.”

“I do indeed. I was only nine years old at the time, but I recall the news, clear as day. Everyone was so shocked.”

“Well, in the time since then, in both Britain and the United States, the level of risk has increased. It seems that everyone these days wants to take power into their own hands – by force if necessary. Some of these revolutionaries and spies are allied to criminal gangs who operate across state boundaries. Colette Morgan is – how can I put it with delicacy – a lady who befriends men, about whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation needs to know more, if you understand my meaning. Such men often – in intimate moments – tell her things that they would otherwise keep secret.”

“Like you’re telling me, now.”

I sense the men are smiling inwardly at my innocence.

“Not exactly, no, Miss Agnes. But all you need to know, right now, is that Percy Spence, as a trusted friend of many senior British statesmen, was given the mission of contacting Miss Morgan, in secret, while both were travelling on the Titanic. The British Secret Intelligence Bureau and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation had agreed that Spence and Morgan were to exchange information regarding a criminal plot. The plot has some of its roots in New York, but its aim is to cause some kind of large-scale terrorist attack on London.”

“That seems – extraordinary.”

“Indeed. But I do have definite evidence that such a plot exists – even if at the moment I have no idea of its nature or of who may be involved in it. Nor do I have any idea of what form the terror attack may take.”

“But professor, I still don’t understand. If the United States Government and this Federal Bureau organization rely on Colette Morgan to provide secret information, and swap intelligence with Percy Spence, then surely she must be very highly trusted. So – is she likely to be a murderer?”

“Colette is one of two people on my list whose location I cannot trace, despite every effort. It is as if she has disappeared from the face of the earth. We know that she survived the Titanic disaster, and I believe that she was living – again under the name Maria Jones – for a few months in Manhattan. Under that name, she sent four more reports to the Bureau, all of them very detailed, but they have no idea of her exact whereabouts. Some agents at the Bureau believe that this disappearance is deliberate. They believe that over the past two years, Colette has fallen for the charms of one of the revolutionary leaders – a Mr Jimmy Nolan. Nolan is originally from Dublin, but he now resides, we believe, in New York, where he has extensive criminal connections. Colette Morgan may well be there with him, as his mistress. Now, if she has indeed betrayed the US Government and the Bureau to Nolan, she may have supplied him and his criminal network with untold amounts of American and British secret intelligence. In which case –”

“Colette would have cause to murder Spence?”

“Very much so. It is possible that Spence met Colette Morgan on the Titanic, as planned, to swap information. But then he realized her treachery: perhaps he confronted her with it.”

Chisholm buts in. “And he may have paid for that confrontation with his life.”

“Indeed, Chisholm. Colette Morgan may have realized that if Spence survived the Titanic’s voyage, she would be facing the electric chair. So, like Gilmour, Colette Morgan had motive, and probably means and opportunity too, for murder.”

I look at Axelson. “I guess the problem is, Professor, that there seems to be very little solid information about this woman.”

“Have faith in me, Miss Agnes. My investigations into Colette Morgan are only just beginning. But also, her name is not the end of my list. There are other suspects too.”

“So, who else is there?”

“Another person with means, opportunity and motive is Rufus du Pavey. He too was aboard the Titanic, and was a close friend of Spence.”

“I have to confess, Professor, that I know far too much about the gossip in the society papers. I’ve heard of du Pavey: the second son of the Marquis of Breckland. A very colorful character, apparently. I know that he was Spence’s automobile racing co-driver – and his co-pilot, for Spence’s flying ventures.”

Chisholm nods. “Yes. They were a well-known team.”

I carry on. “You say, Professor, that the real reason for Spence’s voyage on the Titanic may have been to swap information with Colette Morgan. But there was a publicly known reason for Spence and du Pavey to be travelling to North America on the Titanic. The purpose of their voyage was to attempt a record-breaking airplane flight across Lake Ontario, from Canada to the United States. Toronto to Niagara Falls, I recall. After the Titanic disaster and Spence’s death, the flight attempt was cancelled, of course. Since then, du Pavey has continued motor racing and aviation – but his reputation was built through his partnership with Spence. They were a celebrated pair. So why on earth would Rufus du Pavey want to kill Percy Spence?”

This time, Chisholm answers. “Du Pavey has deep financial problems. His lifestyle is extravagant, with rumors of gambling, and bad company. One example: Axelson and I know that at a recent stay at the new Ritz Hotel in London, he caused a hundred pounds’ worth of damage to his hotel suite, while under the influence of alcohol. In fact, we know that he owes money to all the major London hotels, and some in New York too. His own funds have run out, and now his family refuse to help him further. The professor and I have heard that he is within an ace of the Carey Street bankruptcy court.”

“So – how does all that make him a murder suspect?”

“We suspect, Agnes, that he may have resorted to blackmailing Percy Spence, in order to get money to pay off his debts.”

“Blackmailing about what?”

The professor speaks again, “We don’t know, unfortunately. At the moment I have found only circumstantial evidence. But that evidence all points one way. I am confident that we will find proof that du Pavey is a hardened blackmailer and extortionist.”

“So Professor, du Pavey is your third suspect. And your fourth is? –”

“Yes. The fourth suspect – who is, of course, the last one whose name I will tell you. A man who was definitely aboard the Titanic. A Mr Carver. That’s all I have: a name. I have checked every possible record, and there is nothing else. A total blank: a mystery, a cipher.”

“So why do you know nothing about him? And why is he a suspect?”

“It’s our very lack of knowledge that makes him a suspect. As I say, I have made an exhaustive search. And apart from his appearing in the Titanic passenger list – this Mr Carver, he does not exist.”

 

Out of the window I can see only a blank darkness as we travel across the flat country towards Cambridge, except occasional trees looming up, their skeletal winter branches like bony arms in the mist. At Cambridge station, the fog is even thicker, and a half-hour delay is announced to our branch line journey. Well, at least the service is still running, I tell myself as we eventually board our small, shabby, empty train. Finally, the whistle blows for our departure. It’s nearly half-past eight by the time the little train pulls up in dense mist at a forlorn, unlit trackside halt. There are no houses near the station, none at all, and in the light from the train I see that the wooden station sign “Fen Dutton Halt” is faded, almost invisible. The only other things I can make out in the fog are two dim black shapes: the silhouettes of a waiting horse and carriage. I look at the professor as we step down from the train.

“I’m amazed this service stops here. Does anyone ever use this station?”

“Someone else is using it now.” I glance behind us, but in the thick mist I can see only the vaguest outline of a solitary figure stepping from the rear of our train. The figure doesn’t walk, but simply stands at the far end of the platform, still as a post. I shiver in the damp cold, and we walk towards our waiting carriage. The driver’s only welcome to us is a silent nod. We open the carriage door, tell him that we are sorry for keeping him waiting, and step up into the black interior. He pulls the reins, and the horse begins to move.

As we trot along, I peer out into the murk. We seem to be on a kind of causeway, and through the fog I can see water on both sides of us, with maybe a crinkle of ice in places. The black water reminds me of things I’d rather not think about. Chisholm notices my mood, and speaks to break the silence.

“The Cambridgeshire Fens. This is a particularly low-lying part of Fenland: many of these fields are actually below sea level. In ancient times this area was a primeval swamp, like a colder version of the Florida Everglades. But from the time of Queen Elizabeth, Dutch engineers were paid to build a system of drainage dykes here. So in the summer, the dykes drain the fens enough for them to be used as farmland. But in winter it’s often too wet, and the fields are flooded, for months on end.”

The professor looks out of the window too. “It’s true, isn’t it, Chisholm, that every winter at least one unfortunate person loses his or her way, and drowns, out in these fields? That sometimes, the bodies are not recovered until the spring?”

Chisholm forces a smile at me, to counter the professor’s remark. I smile back at him, but inside, I’m laughing at the professor’s doom-laden words. I say briskly “Well, we’re not going to drown, are we?”

Chisholm replies. “No indeed. And, Sweynsey Hall itself is surrounded by especially deep drainage dykes. In its four-hundred year history, it has never been known to flood.”

The carriage sweeps across a long, low bridge. As we reach the far side I sense, through the fog, protective stone walls stretching out to left and right, dividing the neat lawns and gardens of the hall from the swampy fenlands. I hope we are close to the house, but the carriage doesn’t slow its speed, and the lawns go on and on in the darkness. How far is it? Suddenly we’re in a black grove of yew trees. Another one, two minutes, then the yews open out and we’re on the graveled sweep in front of Sweynsey Hall. I can make out the fretted outline of its Tudor battlements against the foggy sky, the diamond-leaded lattices of the windows, the dark arch of the main entrance.

A serious-faced man steps out of the gloom and greets us. “Good to meet you. I’m sorry that your train seems to have been delayed. I imagine that the fog was the cause? I’m Ernest Mordaunt.”

We go inside, but I’m too tired to take part in the discussions over dinner, which is a meager, poorly-cooked affair anyway. The oak-paneled dining room, with its faded tapestries and ornate but cracked plasterwork ceiling, feels chill and musty, unused and unloved. The conversation is hardly cheerful: Mordaunt tells us that since Spence’s death, there has only been a skeleton staff at the Hall, and their future employment is uncertain. He says that Spence’s aunt, whom he refers to as the Dowager, has inherited the estate. Chisholm looks over his meal at Mordaunt. “So – what will happen now?”

“Under Viscount Spence, the Hall was well looked after. Despite his busy life, the Viscount took a keen interest in Sweynsey: he was born here and spent his boyhood here, and he still regarded it as his true home. He stayed here whenever he could find time. For example, he always made sure he was here over Christmas. But the Dowager lives entirely in London, and she has not even visited Sweynsey for twenty years. I think she is unlikely to start taking an interest in the place now. I suspect that she will decide to sell the Hall and its contents. So it will pass out of the Spence family’s hands for the first time in its history. In the meantime, she’s unwilling to spend money on upkeep. And of course, it’s known locally that we are poorly staffed. Two weeks ago there was an attempted break-in.”

Axelson is sawing at his beef and appears oblivious, but Chisholm is instantly alerted. “What happened?”

“It was a minor incident, really. I heard a noise in the night. My room is immediately above the study. I came down, but went first into the Great Hall, where most of the valuables are kept. For instance there’s a Hans Holbein portrait of the first Viscount Spence, painted in 1537 at the court of Henry VIII: it alone is worth a fortune. But nothing in the Great Hall had been disturbed. I looked in a couple of other rooms too, then I went into the Viscount’s study. It was then that I saw that the study window had been forced open. But nothing was taken from the room. The intruder had fled. I concluded that he had heard me looking around the ground floor of the house, and so he made his escape, before he had the chance to take anything.”

“The study window – is it secure now?”

“Of course. I asked Willis – he’s the handyman from the village – to repair it the next day. There have been no attempts since then to burgle the Hall.”

Despite our tiring journey, Chisholm’s eyes are sharp and intent as he thinks over what Mordaunt has told us. He looks across the table at the professor. “I think it is interesting – don’t you, Axelson? – that of all the rooms in the house, an intruder targets the study. A burglar, looking for valuables, would not make that his first choice.”

Axelson barely replies: like me, he appears very tired. After dinner Chisholm, the only one of us who seems wide awake, asks Mordaunt to show him Spence’s study, but I – and the professor – retire for the night. My room is cold, the fire unlit, and I gather extra blankets from the wardrobe before huddling in bed. Sleep would be good, but my mattress is the worst I’ve ever slept on.

 

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The labyrinth

 

The next morning, I feel more cheerful. A wintry sun is trying to break through the fog, and after breakfast we go into the study and settle to our work. Mordaunt reminds us that we have the Dowager’s permission to look at any papers and documents we wish. He leaves us to start our search, and tells us that Mrs Thwaite, the housekeeper, will bring coffee for us shortly.

Like last night, it’s Chisholm who takes the initiative. “Let’s make a start then. Axelson, are you happy to look through these files? Agnes, perhaps you could take a look at the writing-desk?”

The writing-desk is a pretty, French-looking affair with spindly legs: it contrasts with the heavy dark-oak masculinity of the rest of the study. The desk is near the window: wan sunlight filters through the mist and shines on its polished lacquer. I open a drawer: it’s nearly empty except for a few sheets of paper and a small rosewood box. The papers are meaningless to me, just rows of numbers – accounts for Sweynsey Hall, I guess. But they’re written in a fine, strong hand and a distinctive dark ink. I immediately open the wooden box – and give a slight gasp. Rarely is a functional thing like a fountain-pen an object of such beauty – a simple silver shaft so finely polished that it looks liquid. For some reason it – or, maybe the bold strokes of its writing on those pages – seems to set off a memory in my mind, but I can’t recall a place or a time. Like a fragrance unexpectedly smelt, rousing a memory that is vivid yet elusive… I pick the pen up and look closer. It’s delicately monogrammed. Chisholm comes over, admires it.

“What a fine piece. What does the monogram say?”

“It looks like – B – V.”

I realize what I’m looking at. The initials BV don’t connect to any family or other connection of Spence’s that I am aware of.

Chisholm raises an eyebrow. “B – V. The same as the signature we saw on the letter in Kitty’s window, Agnes? Black Violet?”

Axelson comes over to look at what I’ve found. I put the pen into his hand: he peers at it, then looks up at us. “It’s a modern pen, but absolutely the finest workmanship. Let me look at it closely.” He examines it carefully. “Ah, this is interesting. I would say – but in this field I am no expert – that judging by its quality, this pen was probably made to order. Pens like this are not just bought in a shop.”

I point at the B – V initials. Again the professor peers, then looks up at us. “Now, this is of especial interest. The pen was made, I would guess, within the last ten years, so it was probably made for Percy Spence himself. But this monogram – this was added later.”

Chisholm looks at Axelson. “But added at Spence’s instruction, presumably?”

“That, I cannot of course say.”

Chisholm rings the bell. “I’ll ask about it.” Mordaunt comes into the room, and Chisholm shows him the pen. Mordaunt knows nothing about the monogram, but he confirms that the pen belonged to Percy Spence. “He used to sign all his legal papers with it.”

The rest of the morning yields nothing. Outside, the pale sun fades and the fog steadily thickens again, as if to reflect the cluelessness of our searching. The three of us leaf though files and folders, pore over dusty documents. All the papers in the study are dull as ditch-water: estate records and contracts, and other legal documents relating to the Spence family lands. His personal life, if documented at all, must be elsewhere.

“Axelson, we need to talk to Mordaunt.” I can sense the frustration in Chisholm’s voice.

“I agree, Chisholm: all this searching is telling us nothing. But perhaps there are other papers, elsewhere. It may be that, out of embarrassment, Mordaunt has removed Spence’s personal letters from the study. Correspondence, for instance, with a number of ladies.”

“I guess that if that is the case, Axelson, we may need to talk to Mordaunt man to man. After lunch, Agnes, perhaps you could leave us for an hour or so, while the professor and I speak to Mr Mordaunt?”

Lunch is cold game pie, served in the equally cold dining room. I pick over my food listlessly, leave scraps on my plate. Then the three gentlemen go into the study. After such a bad night’s sleep, and a long morning spent peering at dreary legal papers, I have a headache. I feel like the fog’s got inside my mind. It’s maybe two o’clock, but it feels like evening. Despite the deepening gloom outside, I decide to take a turn in the gardens. I speak to Mrs Thwaite as she clears the table.

“Yes Miss, of course, you get some fresh air. If you go out of the main entrance, across the lawns, you’ll see the formal gardens. There’s an Elizabethan knot garden, it’s beautiful in summer. But very bare, this time of year. And there’s the labyrinth, too.”

“What’s that?”

“Fancy name for a maze. It’s just a normal maze, really, but I’ve been told it’s one of the biggest in England. Made of yew bushes – very thick, dark hedges. Like solid green walls.”

“That sounds interesting.”

She looks at me and says sincerely “I wouldn’t go in there, Miss. You might not find your way out.”

I hold back from laughing out loud at her.

“I might just have a look at it. It can’t do any harm, can it, to take a look.”

“Well Miss, where you walk is your own choice. But I’ve never been into the labyrinth, not in thirty years of working here at the Hall. I don’t like things like that. The Viscount, he used to go into the labyrinth, right into the middle, when he had something difficult to think about. But then the Viscount, bless his soul, he did have a very good sense of direction.” I hear a slight sniff. I look closer: there’s a tear in Mrs Thwaite’s eye.

I walk down the steps of the Hall onto the lawn. The mist is so thick that after a few paces, when I turn round, the house is just a gray blur on a gray background. Even the lawn looks gray: thick with whitish dew, but in this strange twilight-afternoon, nothing seems to reflect any light. It’s as if the mist absorbs every ray of illumination. I look behind me again and I do see a line of color, on the ground: the green of the grass, where my footprints have brushed the dewdrops away. I speak to myself –but for some reason, I say it out loud.

“Well if I do get lost in the maze, I’ll just follow my footsteps back out again.”

I step forward, further out onto the lawn. I can’t see the maze yet, but then a dim shape looms up. A high, solid hedge.

It’s so still in the mist that I can hear voices speaking indoors: Professor Axelson, low and insistent: Chisholm’s forthright voice, and Mordaunt, talking together, as if the sound somehow carries further in this moist air. There’s something odd in Mordaunt’s voice, I think: magnified, almost, by the invisible cloak of the mist. Yes, I can hear a catch in his throat, as if he’s nervous. Almost as if he’s lying, and afraid of being found out. I stride towards the hedge, and the dim voices fade entirely. It’s so silent that I can hear my own breath.

The hedge looms up like a wall. I turn and walk alongside it. Although I’m close enough to reach out and touch the yew needles, in this thick mist I walk halfway past the entrance before I realize it’s there. Inside the entrance, I can see nothing but gray. I step into the blankness, and six paces in I feel the cold needles pushing into my outstretched fingers: another hedge, right in front of me. Out of instinct I turn right, following the other side of the hedge that I’ve just walked along. Then there’s another hedge in front of me, so I have to turn left, in towards the heart of the maze – or ‘the labyrinth’ – how pretentious! Was it clever Ariadne that gave Theseus the ball of wool to unwind as he penetrated the Minotaur’s lair, so that he could retrace his way back out of the maze? I half-recall the Greek legend from my school lessons, as I walk along, following the twists and turns. After a few minutes I have the instinctive feeling that I’m near the centre of the maze.

“Miss Frocester! I’ve made you some coffee!”

It’s Mrs Thwaite, of course, calling from the house. I hear her voice behind me. It seems hardly five minutes since I left her – she must have put the coffee on immediately I left the house. How long did she expect me to be? I’m mildly annoyed at her sense of timing. But also, I feel chilled in this damp air: yes, coffee would be nice. Like Theseus, I can easily find my way back: I just need to follow my footsteps in the dew.

“Miss Frocester!”

This time, the voice seems to be coming from ahead of me. Have I taken a turn that I didn’t notice? Then I look at the grass behind me, and I realize: my footsteps, which I thought I was following, have disappeared.

I turn around again: there are the footprints, in front of me. Of course, I must have got distracted by Mrs Thwaite. This is easy: all I need to do is follow the footprints out of the maze. I walk along, and each turning, each hedge that looms up, looks strange to me – but of course, retracing my steps, I’m seeing it all from an unfamiliar angle.

I feel a rush of memory. Where before have I been like this, not able to see the way, turns and twists and blockages in my path? Suddenly I’m not in the English fog any more. I’m in the blackness of the corridors of a sinking ship.

This is nonsense, I tell myself. Stop, think, and follow your footsteps in the dew. So I stop for a moment, clear my head of these silly thoughts – visions of darkness in the corridors of the Titanic, feelings of blind horror. Voices in the dark, and a fear – no, a certainty – that my life is about to be swept away from me by the black, roiling waters of the Atlantic.

I stand in the mist: again I sense the total stillness of the air, an atmosphere that will carry sounds. Again I can hear my own breathing.

But it doesn’t sound quite right.

I stand still: listen. And I’m not mistaken, and I’m not dreaming. There’s someone else breathing too.

Someone is here in the maze with me.

Unlike the Titanic, I tell myself, I’m hardly staring Death in the face. I say to myself: there is another person here, another human being. This is a perfectly ordinary situation: anyone can come into a maze. But none of those reasonable thoughts count for anything. I feel a shuddering in my chest – a total, animal panic. I clutch at myself, and my knees buckle. I nearly fall, there on the wet dew.

Stand very, very still. And listen.

The man – and despite nothing but the sound of breaths, I’m sure it’s a man – is close. He too is standing still, listening.

Very slowly, as if my life depended on it, I kneel, put my hands on the dewy ground, bend until my face nearly touches the grass. I do this one inch at a time to avoid my dress rustling. I turn my head to the left, hardly daring to see what I already know I will see though the base of the hedge, where it’s thinner, just inches above the ground. And then I do see.

 

Yes, it’s real. This is no dream. A pair of men’s shoes, maybe four feet from me, on the other side of the hedge.

Even though I want to gasp in terror, I’m trying to keep logical, useful thoughts in my mind. I look at the shoes, and though I can’t of course see the soles, I think of the boot print that Chisholm found on the rooftops. Crouched here in my somber dress, a black shape on the floor of the maze, I’m thinking. Can the stranger tell that I’m crouched down, that I’m watching him? And most important of all, how far is it around the corner of this hedge, the distance that this unknown man has to step to move from where he is, to where I am?

Inch-by-inch again, I stand up. I’m shaking, but I know what I’m going to do. Just like before, I’m going to follow my dewy footprints out of this maze. I look at the ground, and although the grass around me is flattened by my turning and bending, I can see my own footprints, two steps away, back the way I’ve come. Silently, slowly, I step that way.

The stranger steps too, almost inaudibly. He doesn’t want me to hear him. Perhaps he thinks I am still unaware of him. He doesn’t want me to know that he is here with me, aware of me – pursuing me?

It’s tempting to run. I feel I am holding every single one of my animal instincts back, clutching them with my strongest grip. Holding on to reason. Reason tells me: follow my own footprints.

Ahead of me, the maze bends to the right. I can’t tell if the hedge continues to the right, or if it ends. If it ends, the other pathway, where the stranger is, will join onto mine. But my only option is to move. I walk to the turning. I send up a silent prayer of thanks. The hedge continues, keeping me safe from meeting the stranger, and I realize now that I’m not far from the entrance. Yes, I remember. If I now walk straight ahead, maybe ten yards along this pathway, there’s a gap in the hedge on the left. I need to go through the gap, then walk straight ahead, and I’m out.

I stop and listen: I can no longer hear the stranger’s footsteps, or his breath. And I feel more afraid than ever: I know what this silence means. He has realized I’m close to leaving the maze, and he’s moved fast, ahead of me, to find the way out. He wants to find me before I leave the maze.

The fog is denser than ever. I step forward along the pathway, five, eight yards, and I realize that I can’t see my footprints any more. But I’m close to that gap on the left – I must be. A few paces more in the mist… and a solid wall of hedge appears in front of me. There’s hedges all around: to my left, and my right. I’ve walked into a dead end.

That’s why my footsteps disappeared: I didn’t come this way. I must have missed the gap in the hedge. I’m in a blind alley. A trap.

I’m suddenly aware that I can hear the breathing and the footfall again, slowed almost to standstill. It seems like the stranger is closer than ever. But this time, I smell something: something I remember from a visit to the dentist. Chloroform.

I now know what the stranger wants to do to me. And he seems so close, he must be standing right behind me.

Logic says: he can’t be behind me. He’s on a different pathway, I tell myself. I turn slowly around, gaze into the murk. I can see nothing, but I walk forwards, back to where the gap must be. Three, seven, nine yards. As I walk, I hold my hand right out to my side, brushing the yew needles, feeling for the gap. Drops of water fall as my fingers touch the foliage; they’re the loudest sound in this silent gray world.

And then my outstretched hand feels: nothing. Cold air touches my fingertips. It’s the gap. I step forwards into the blank space: straight ahead is the way out.

I can’t resist, I start to step quickly. My dress rustles, my feet slip on the dew, but I’m breaking into a run. I can hear the noise of running behind me: heavier feet; stronger, faster legs.

I’m out of the maze, my heart is like a hammer, and I’m running like an arrow across the wet lawns. I hear pounding footsteps behind me: bigger strides than mine. I smell the chloroform again. I can’t see the house but I know it must be straight ahead. I’m running blind, as hard as I can. I’m half-aware of something looming ahead of me, a blurred figure standing up in front of me like a dark sentinel.

Impact: I run straight into a solid human body.

“My goodness! You’ve knocked the breath right out of me, Miss.”

“Mrs Thwaite! I am so, so sorry.”

“Gave me such a fright. Why are you running, my dear? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Embarkation

 

A black wall, limitlessly high, looms above me. It’s the hull of the RMS Olympic. The iron plates and endless rows of rivets glisten in the cold sunshine that rakes along the ship’s flank. I look out across the hats and heads of masses of people, all waiting to board at the third-class passenger level – one of the White Star Line’s main claims is that they don’t do ‘steerage class’. The noise, the sights and smells take me back vividly to our boarding of the Titanic: even the cold, bright early-April weather is the same; across the quay are cast long, sharp shadows of the cranes and the forest of funnels and masts. The combined sound of so many voices, everyone full of anticipation and excitement at their voyage, is like a steady ocean roar. Above the voices, I hear the horns, the whistles, the drum-beat of ships’ engines out in the Solent, the thump of cargo bales loaded onto the deck of the Olympic. A hand-wagon trundles past us, its toppling load of ship’s laundry nearly brushing my face, and I step back, colliding with a pile of suitcases and trunks. I look round at the cases, and I’m intrigued by their travelling-address labels. As an East Coast American, the labels are exotic to me: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle – and there are ones for even further afield: Havana, Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii. I feel the flutter, the thrill, of travel and faraway destinations, exactly as I felt one year ago. Don’t the psychiatrists call this ‘déjà vu’? I feel as if everything that is happening to me here and now, at the start of our voyage across the Atlantic, has all happened to me before. On the Titanic.

“How do you feel, Agnes?” Chisholm notes my wistful gaze, perhaps a tremble in my lip. I tell him I’m fine. But then, his attention is called away: a porter I asking him about our luggage. Chisholm goes over to talk to him, and Professor Axelson joins their discussion.

I’m ready to go up to the first-class boarding area, and there is a line of people behind me: ladies in hats, long gowns and furs; gentlemen in suits and top hats. Chisholm said that he would come and see me once I was settled into my cabin, and I have my own boarding pass: should I wait here, or just walk up onto the ship? I look at the stairs which lead up inside the boarding-tower. Resembling a medieval siege engine, its legs ending in wheels like the castors of a gigantic chair, the movable tower has been maneuvered into place alongside the Olympic. The gangway is lowered as a high bridge between the top of the tower and an upper deck of the ship, so that us first-class passengers can cross directly onto the higher decks without mixing with the hordes of people below. I’m wondering whether to go up, or to give up my place in the queue. I hear a voice from behind me.

“Take my arm, if you wish, for assistance when climbing the steps of the boarding-tower. A young lady should not be unaccompanied when boarding a great ocean liner.”

The voice is unfamiliar. I turn to see a ruddy, fresh-faced young man. Tall and broad, like a sportsman of some kind. A brown tweed suit adds to his informal appearance. But his manner has an air of the drawing-room rather than the playing-field.

“I’m fine, thank you sir. I can board by myself: some young ladies have to get used to travelling alone. Although fortunately, at present, I am not one of them. My companions are engaged, speaking to the porters.”

“Well if your friends are engaged elsewhere, then you are – disengaged, at least for the moment. So you could take my arm? It would be a pleasure to walk on board with you – you wouldn’t deny me that, would you? Ahead of me is a lonely journey across the Atlantic: no friends are travelling with me.” He gazes at me, holds my attention. “I’m Rufus du Pavey, by the way.” A proffered hand: I shake it. “I’m Agnes Frocester.”

“And Miss Frocester, are you travelling for business, or for pleasure?”

“Business. My own business, thank you.” As soon as the words are out of my mouth I wish I hadn’t said them: I sound unfriendly, even rude. And I might as well chat to this man, find out what I can about one of Professor Axelson’s ‘suspects’. As if to make amends to du Pavey for my rudeness, I take his arm and walk up the boarding-tower steps with him. We’re four flights of steps up, high alongside the ship and level with the first-class cabins on B deck. We look out from the boarding-tower along the gangway which extends, like a drawbridge, from the tower to the ship. The gangway has a wooden floor and rails, and canvas panels are stretched along its sides below the rails, like drapes, as if to shield the skirts of the first-class ladies from the gaze of the crowds below. The gangway is such a flimsy-looking thing, I think, to put so many people aboard this iron monster. We step onto the planking of the gangway and a sea breeze blows into my nostrils: I smell the salt tang of the waves, and I hear the cries of the seagulls. I look straight down over the rail at the jostling heads and shoulders of the third-class passengers. The hordes of people look like ants, all migrating towards a huge anthill.

“So, Mr du Pavey – your own voyage? Business or pleasure?”

“In my life, business and pleasure are always mixed, Miss Frocester. I’d like, by the way, to call you Agnes. A demure name. It suits you well.”

“I’ve never thought of myself as either demure or otherwise, Mr du Pavey. When I finished my schooling I wanted to earn my own way in the world. I like to support myself, not to be dependent on others. I became a teacher’s assistant in my hometown, then I got a job in Sussex, England, as a paid lady’s companion. I traveled to England” – I point downwards from the gangway towards the crowds “as one of the masses. A third-class passenger with a one-way ticket.”

“Well, I’ll take that as a Yes to my request – so from now on I’ll call you Agnes. And you – please do call me Rufus. I’ll be hurt if you don’t.” He holds my hand as if he’s pleading with me: I’m reminded of a ham actor on the stage. I suppress a smile at his ridiculous manners. But this behavior – it means something. His blatant efforts to charm me must have an ulterior motive. What could it be? As I look for one last time out over the crowds boarding the Olympic, I think: he’s found out about our investigation. I cast a glance across at his seemingly innocent face, and think: I already know one thing about you, Mr du Pavey. Our meeting at the foot of the boarding-tower was not coincidence. You looked for me, sought me out.

We step from wood to iron: from the gangway onto the Olympic. The first-class entrance is a kind of lobby, with a lectern standing to one side: a steward stands behind it.

“I’ll just check your boarding pass, Madam – and Sir.”

“We’re not together.” I speak hastily, embarrassed by the steward’s assumption. As he examines du Pavey’s pass, I think further about this man who has attached himself to me. How did du Pavey single me out? He can’t have recognized me; I’ve never seen him before. So, he must have recognized Axelson or Chisholm, and noticed that I was with them. My guess is that he spotted Axelson, because the professor’s picture has been in the newspapers –a brief article in The Times – ‘Titanic Sinking: Hypnotist to probe Viscount’s Mystery Death’.

The steward is still looking at du Pavey’s boarding pass. As I wait for him I think: du Pavey must have been hanging around among the first-class boarders at the foot of the tower, for the sole purpose of looking out for our party. He must be very interested indeed in our enquiry. Perhaps what we are doing worries him? And if he is worried by us, then perhaps he has something to hide. I think again about what Chisholm and the professor said about this man. Can I find out more about him, if I play along with his charade?

The steward is letting du Pavey pass now, and he rejoins me, shaking off a look of annoyance. “Such a lot of bureaucratic nonsense. That man told me he had a note saying I’d not paid in full for my ticket.”

“And – did you? Pay in full?”

“My ticket is paid for – somehow. I can’t remember exactly. It’s hard for me to keep track of all these petty details. Anyway, shall I help you find your cabin, my dear new friend Agnes?” Ahead of du Pavey and me is the Grand Staircase: the sight of it takes me straight back, more strongly than ever, to the Titanic. The glass dome above, the wood paneling, the gilding on the wrought ironwork, the elegant curves of the balustrade: it’s like I’m seeing everything again, just exactly as I did one year ago. But I need to answer du Pavey’s question.

“I’d be delighted if you would help me find my cabin, thank you. It’s on C deck. But first, I want to take a stroll up on the Boat Deck: I need some fresh air.”

“I’ll accompany you to the Boat Deck, then. We can look at all these extra new lifeboats they’ve put in, since – ahem – what happened last year.”

“That would be nice, if you’d like to come up and take the air with me. Thank you. I have heard of you, you know. I’ve read the name ‘Rufus du Pavey’ often – in The High Life, and other publications too. You’re famous, especially among younger people. I understand that you are a motorist and an aviator?”

“‘Motorist’ sounds rather…”

“Pedestrian?”

He smiles at my feeble joke as we ascend the Grand Staircase. The sound of the ship’s silver band greets us as we walk out onto the Boat Deck: in the April sunlight, the polished decking reflects the gleaming shimmer of the instruments. As if to tell passengers that this is a brave new start for the White Star Line after the Titanic disaster, the band is playing the cheerful, optimistic strains of Johann Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube’. We look out over the rails. I see the crowds again, the lines of third-class passengers shuffling to board the ship. As I look at them I have the odd illusion that they are all moving in time to the waltzing rhythm of the music. We’re on the very top deck of the ship here, and the Olympic dwarfs most of the port buildings: we look out over the roofs of the warehouses and dock buildings to the streets and houses of the town and, beyond them, the green fields of rural Hampshire. Du Pavey glances out at the distant scene, and then turns to me. “‘Olympic’ is well named. You and I, we are like the gods of Olympus here, looking down on the human race from a lofty mountain top.”

I smile to myself again at his pretentious language. “By ‘the human race’, I guess you mean Southampton.”

“I’m sure the town offers human tragedy and comedy aplenty for us gods and goddesses to observe and laugh at. I can be Mars: will you be Venus?”

“You’ll have noticed my accent: I’m American. Freedom, democracy and the rights of man. And the rights of woman, too. So I’m not a believer in pagan deities.”

As if on cue, the band switches to a new tune: Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’. A playful smile is on du Pavey’s lips: I feel he’s about to tease me, but he sees my warning glance, and reverts to our earlier topic. “To answer your question about motoring – yes. I’m a racing driver, Agnes. Quite a successful one, if I may say. A second son who won’t inherit the family estate has to do something. I daresay I’m a disappointment to my father, and I’m the opposite of my elder brother, who will become the next Marquis of Breckland. In fact, my brother sickens me: he seems like an old man already, and spends his time being sensible and talking about the family estate. He’s constantly in meetings with his tenant farmers, you know. What a frightful waste of time.”

“So you don’t spend your time ‘being sensible’, Rufus?”

“It’s possible to be successful without being sensible, Agnes. I happen to be a risk-taker, a daredevil if you will. My motor racing prizewinnings are substantial enough for me to explore the new world of flight, which is what really excites me.”

Now that Rufus is saying things that may help our investigation, I make an effort to smile at him encouragingly. “I have heard a rumor that you are to attempt a virgin flight. Across Lake Ontario, from Canada to the United States. That must be nearly a hundred miles?”

“Hundred-mile flights are no longer news, Agnes. What I’m doing is something rather more dramatic than that. You see, it’s actually a passenger flight.”

“Like a passenger on a ship?”

“Exactly. Aviation has advanced so much now that – I believe – we are on the threshold of scheduled, passenger flights, just like ships or trains.”

“Can that really be viable? Like a business, you mean, not just for show.”

“It indeed can be viable. For example, you can imagine a passenger service across the English Channel. Imagine that you are a pilot who flies across the Channel, just like Blériot did – but, you run the service every day. You carry paying passengers for whom time is money: who want to get from London to Paris, fast. And the same type of service could operate across the Great Lakes, linking the USA and Canada. I want to prove that this can be done by making the first flight from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Two passengers will accompany me on the flight. Originally there was to be just one, but I have full confidence in the engine power of my airplane: it can carry a pilot and two other people in complete safety. Actually, I’ve not yet put forward my idea of the extra passenger to my financial backers – but I’m sure they’ll say yes. I’ve named the airplane ‘Empire State’ to appeal to them. You see, my principal sponsor also happens to have agreed to be my passenger for the flight…”

“And your second passenger?”

“Well, as I say, that’s all a bit hazy at the moment. But once I’ve successfully crossed Lake Ontario, I expect my sponsor to invest much more in me and my ideas.”

“Unless you give him – or her – a fright, when you’re both in the air.”

“Oh, there’s no risk of that. It’s perfectly safe. And, when the flight succeeds, other investors will follow too. The news and excitement surrounding the flight guarantees huge public interest in my venture. So within a few months I’ll have people queuing up, to pay me for the privilege of flying with me. Every single flight will be hugely profitable. I’ll lead the world’s first large-scale air passenger service. An air-line.”

“Like a shipping line.” I muse over this novel idea.

The flickering smile again. “So, shall we find this cabin of yours?”

“Yes, thank you: it will be nice to get settled. And then, Rufus, I’m sure you’ll be glad to get to your own cabin.” We descend the staircase to “C” deck, into corridors lined with first-class cabins. Some of these are large Parlor suites like the one we had on the Titanic, but others are smaller, including a few single cabins. Chisholm insisted that I travel first-class on the Olympic, and he said that the cost was part of the murder investigation fund. I argued about that, but not too strongly; truth be told, it would be nice to try a little luxury for myself. Most of all, I’m looking forward to having a cabin to myself: on the Mauretania I shared with five other women. And, as we leave the staircase and step into the central first-class lobby of C deck, I recall my journey on the Titanic: I traveled, effectively, as Blanche’s genteel servant, and she rarely let me have time to myself.

“So, Agnes, is the purpose of your voyage to visit family in America? But then, you did mention that you were travelling for ‘business’?…”

He clearly enjoys talking about himself – so, is it politeness or curiosity that makes him turn the conversation to me? “I do hope to see my family, yes, Rufus. They’re out in Connecticut. By the way, I think my cabin will be along that corridor.”

“Ah yes, I should have guessed – a New England accent. But I’d guess you’ve lived in Britain for some years? You sound very educated…”

“I’ve lived in England for two years. Sussex and London. And as for your assumptions about my education – well, we have every bit as much education in New England as in old England, Mr du Pavey… Rufus. In fact, we probably have more. Schooling for all has been compulsory in Connecticut for well over sixty years. I got all my book-learning at the Israel Putnam High School in my hometown. Plus, I knew both German and French-Canadian émigré families, so I picked up a couple of languages from them. I also used to work Saturday mornings for some pin-money at Babikov’s Tailors, across the road from my father’s shop, so I got to learn a smattering of Russian, too.”

“Very clever of you. School work and all that was never my strong point –”

“Nor was it mine, Rufus. I’m not clever at all – but like I say, I got lucky with the languages. Apart from that, I was an average student. But I was keen to get into some kind of employment that might broaden my horizons. Then, an opportunity turned up unexpectedly, on your side of the Atlantic. Paradoxically, for me, England is the New World.” We’re now in one of the first class corridors: the electric lighting looks odd, yellowy, after the daylight. I catch Rufus’s eye. “I’d like to see your flight.”

“Maybe you will. I guess it’s unlikely, but might you be in the Niagara Falls area during your stay in America?…”

“I don’t know – but if I can, I will come and see it. What is your plan for the flight?”

“I’ll be setting off from Scarborough, on the shore of Lake Ontario near Toronto. Then I’ll fly southwards, to where the Niagara River flows into the lake. There’ll be thousands of people in Niagara Falls State Park to watch me flying over the Falls with my passengers. Entry to the parkland is free for all – but they are selling tickets for the reception pavilion, on the American riverbank above the Falls, where they will greet me after the flight. I’ve heard they are even thinking of presenting some kind of trophy. If you were interested… I could ensure you got a ticket for the reception event. I could even get you a place at the top table, where I’ll stand to make my speech. It will be a moment in history, you know.”

“I’ve very impressed, Rufus. It’s exciting. Dashing, if I might be so bold as say so. You must be quite a favorite among young women who admire such feats of daring.” I can’t believe I’m talking such nonsense. But he seems to be swallowing it.

“I’d rather have the attention of just one young lady like you, rather than a crowd.” The smirk with which he says this makes me want to burst out laughing. “And – I believe this is your cabin.” Without a word he takes the key which I hold in my hand, unlocks and opens the door for me. I step in, and he steps in too, uninvited.

My cabin is small, but exquisitely furnished in mahogany, in the Georgian style of Thomas Sheraton. A carved dressing-table sits beside my bed, and there’s a small occasional table.

“I see they have left you tea to greet you, Agnes.” And indeed someone has set out a tea tray on the table. Dainty bone china cups decorated in rose and green. Most seafaring crockery is robust rather than elegant, but this delicate set is designed for a ship so huge that it can absorb the buffeting of the waves. Chisholm will have ordered this tea as a little surprise for me, I think. A wisp of steam rises from the teapot spout: it must be piping hot. I wonder at the work, the organization, to do this for the Olympic’s passengers at the very moment of embarkation, when every member of staff and crew must be at their busiest. But I try to concentrate all my efforts on Rufus.

“You’re most welcome to share my tea with me.”

“Thank you.” He seems to genuinely appreciate my offer: perhaps he really is lonely, I think. We sit either side of the little table, and he lifts a teacup to his lips: it looks tiny against that broad face. I look into bright, brown eyes: I notice that his cheeks are pink, boyish: his smile is like a schoolboy’s. Despite his silly boasting, I almost like him. But then I think of what Professor Axelson and Chisholm said about him.

“I’ve heard, Rufus, that you used to fly with Viscount Spence?”

“I was lucky to survive the Titanic: Percy Spence was not. Give me hours in the air – even if the ‘plane is struggling – rather than one second in that lifeboat, hearing the cries of those in the water.”

“I know. I was there too.”

He’s surprised to hear that. I feel him taking my hand, as if to comfort me, the warmth of his fingers on mine. I look at him again, and think about the experience we both had. It is as if we share a kind of – intimacy.

“So you see, Rufus, I know about the loss of your co-pilot the Viscount. You must feel it as a personal loss – but also, in terms of your flying. You must miss him as a fellow aviator that you know and can trust on your flights. I would guess that trust is vital, when you are co-piloting a plane?”

“Absolutely vital. Although I will now be piloting my airplane, the Empire State, solo. I won’t have to share the glory: it will be a triumph for me alone. But all the same, the Lake Ontario flight seems wrong, somehow, without Percy. He was a great pilot, and a true friend. A friend such as one might meet only once in a lifetime. I miss him every day.”

The look in his eyes appears sincere. Despite the seeming evidence, I do wonder, as he and I sip tea together, whether Axelson and Chisholm have made the right judgment about the character of Rufus du Pavey.

I’ve left my cabin door open. I realize my unconscious reason for doing that: to show people that nothing improper is going on. I don’t want a cabin steward or the professor coming along and having to open the door, to see Rufus and myself sitting here in seclusion. Especially, I realize, I don’t want Chisholm to see me here with Rufus, behind a shut door.

“So do you like your cabin, Agnes?”

“No – yes – a little –” I’ve been distracted by something seemingly trivial: a shadow across the floor. Past the doorway, shadows have come and gone: passengers heading along the corridor to their cabins. But this shadow, looming in from the doorway, is stationary. It’s the shape of a man. I can’t help calling out. “Chisholm?”

The shadow moves slightly, but no voice responds. I bend over towards Rufus and speak low and quietly. “I think there’s a man loitering outside my door. A stranger.”

“Impertinent fellow. Hoi, you there!” Rufus goes to the door, pokes his head out. Then he steps outside as if to peer along the corridor. After a few seconds, he comes back in.

“There’s no-one there. The corridor’s deserted – you must have been mistaken. Although… there’s a gentleman just walked into my view now. He’s coming this way.”

A moment later, Chisholm’s figure fills the frame of the door.

“Agnes, I missed you, getting on to the ship. I was wondering if you’d found your cabin.” He suddenly sees Rufus. “I’m sorry to intrude. I didn’t realize you had company.”

“Let me introduce Mr Rufus du Pavey. He helped me to my cabin, so I offered him tea. Did you order this tea tray for me, Chisholm? It was so thoughtful.”

Chisholm stands over Rufus, extends his hand. They shake, but I can tell what Chisholm thinks of this man. And what, I wonder, does Rufus think of, know about, him?

 

After they both leave me in my cabin, thoughts come back to me. Putnam, and my schooling. Our house is on the edge of town, overlooking meadows. My father runs the town pharmacy, and every weekday I would walk into town with him and help him open up the shop. Then, I’d walk on to school. I recall as a tiny child, looking up at the curled writing on the façade: ‘Frocester’s for Drugs’. “That’s me” I would say, pointing at the writing. “I’m Frocester”. The gold lettering with its grand scrolls and flourishes seemed full of hopeful glory, a kind of promise of a future life. When I finished my grades, the school was happy to retain me as an unpaid teaching assistant, and of course I carried on helping out in the drugstore. But I wanted to do more. I began my applications for salaried employment, first in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, then the rest of New England, then New York State, New Jersey. Even Canada. None were successful. I filled my days in the classroom, my evenings writing letters of application.

Then one day, an English visitor to the school left behind his newspaper. I pored over it, eager for news of the outside world. And then I saw this.

 

“Lady’s companion sought. Must be accomplished in conversation, well-educated and familiar with the manners and etiquette of good society. The position is appropriate for a young lady of good moral upbringing, with a modest demeanour and deportment. Abilities in music, art and French are a decided advantage. Prospective applicants should write to Sir Edward Lockesley, Flimwell Manor, Wadhurst, Sussex; letters of application to be received by 1 December 1910.”

 

The date was 15 November. I took a pen and began to write. An hour later I walked down to the town post office. And the following March, after receiving a favorable response, I packed my small travelling-case, took the New York, Westchester and Putnam railroad to Manhattan, and boarded the Mauretania. The ship was the biggest thing I had ever seen.

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p<>{color:#000;}. From scandal to murder

 

The Olympic’s A La Carte restaurant is a fairyland of chandeliers and glittering mirrors: I’m reminded of pictures I’ve seen of the Palace of Versailles. Crystal lamps glow on every one of the small, intimate tables scattered across the richly-carpeted floor, and there’s a sparkle from the jewels which adorn the necks and fingers of so many of the ladies. Even the gilded combs that decorate their hair glitter like stars. Their brightly colored dresses seem to glow even more richly in contrast to their consorts’ black dinner jackets. The musicians of the silver band that I heard on the Boat Deck perform here as a stringed ensemble, but a woman in a silk kimono stands among them. She’s singing one of my favorite pieces: Un bel dì vedremo from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

We are shown to a quiet corner table where a man sits. He’s massive, white-haired – but his eyes, the lines in his face, and indeed even his ponderous frame, are full of life and energy. His masculine figure contrasts with the cut-glass vase of pink roses on his table, and the porcelain coffee-cup that he’s holding looks as small as a child’s toy. When he sees us he stands in welcome. Despite Calvin Gilmour’s smoking-jacket, his bow tie and his faultlessly crisp attire, the hand that Professor Axelson shakes is robust and weathered. The hand of a strong working man.

“Good to meet you. I’ve just finished dinner. Now, you Europeans will forgive my American manners. We tend to be more direct in my country. I’m a believer in openness and honesty. So let’s get straight to the point, gentlemen. And lady, of course. By the way, I’m pleased to hear a Yankee tone in the voice of one member of this inquisitorial party.” He nods to me, a blue twinkle under those heavy, crinkled eyelids.

Axelson explains. “The basic facts are as you will have read in my letter. We’re grateful for your prompt response, Mr Gilmour. We hope that you accept the evidence I set out in that letter: it is beyond dispute that Percy Spence was murdered. However, because of the circumstances of the Titanic disaster, the apparently endless list of possible murderers, most of whom are dead, of course – the police have limited resources to investigate. They have therefore entrusted me with eliciting the truth by my unique Hypnotic-Forensic Method.

But at the same time, Mr Gilmour, I must give you advance warning about my hypnosis. If you agree to undergo it, it will take you back vividly to the night of the Titanic’s sinking. You will not only see again what you saw that night – you will experience it, in its awful fullness. You will feel exactly as you felt when the Titanic went down. Do you understand that?”

“I’m not afraid of the hypnosis, if that’s what you mean. I’m not a man to be easily scared. Nor are your methods unknown to me. I have seen hypnotism in the theatre, often.”

“But you should be aware, Mr Gilmour. This is no quack or vaudeville mesmerism. The Hypnotic-Forensic Method is a proven, respected tool of criminal investigation. I have worked with police forces across Europe, and I hold the Chair of Forensics at the University of Dresden.”

Gilmour smiles. “Like I said, let’s get to the point. You think I murdered Percy Spence.”

Chisholm buts in. “We’re serious investigators, Mr Gilmour. We consider evidence, not rumors and innuendo. We don’t believe tittle-tattle.”

“By ‘tittle-tattle’ you mean this.” Gilmour pulls out a newspaper, I see the crude masthead and sensational headlines of The High Life. The paper ignores international affairs, the European arms race, the suffrage movement, the Balkan crisis, the calls for Irish independence. It concerns itself with only one topic: gossip about the richest members of English and American society. Every kind of scandal, intrigue and affair appears in its pages. And I have to admit, I love reading it. But Gilmour’s scorn for the newspaper is obvious. “One issue of this rag gave that stupid story a few column inches. From scandal to murder, there’s nothing that The High Life won’t invent if they think it might boost circulation. But in terms of facts – of course, they had nothing further to say, no actual evidence, so the story was a one-off article. They gave up on me.”

Chisholm glances at the newspaper, then back at Gilmour. “Did you not think of suing them for libel?”

“I think the hack journalists at The High Life hoped I would launch a lawsuit against them, because if I’d done that, it would have given them extra publicity. They also knew, as I did, that if I took them to court, I’d lose the case, because the article doesn’t actually accuse me of murder. All it does is speculate about absurd questions. I’ve nothing to hide, but despite that I’ve had to deal with a lot of nonsense in my life. And I always deal with it in the same way: ignore it and carry on doing what I do best.”

“You mean, you disregard the gossip, and concentrate solely on your business affairs?”

“That’s exactly what I do. If you worry about what other people think of you, you’ll never risk your little finger. And I have made my fortune by chancing my whole arm.” He looks at us as if he genuinely doesn’t care about The High Life’s speculations. But somehow, I feel that Calvin Gilmour protests too much about his honesty and openness. As if he’s acting a part.

Chisholm holds the newspaper in his hands, and reads aloud to us.

“Murdered!! Rumor has it that Viscount Percy Spence was poisoned while the Titanic foundered.

A crime too horrible to imagine? And is the perpetrator one of the hundreds who died? Or, one of the hundreds who survived?

The High Life has gained exclusive information that links Viscount Spence with Gwyneth Gilmour, née Ogilvie, the glamorous bride of New York and Ohio plutocrat Calvin Gilmour.

Twenty years younger than Calvin, she was seen several times in the Viscount’s company during the American couple’s visit to England last year. Spence and Mrs Gilmour were spotted dining together alone in some of London’s most fashionable hotels. And The High Life can exclusively reveal that, blind to the catastrophe approaching them, they also spent time in each other’s company on the fated Atlantic crossing of the Titanic. One witness says ‘I saw them together, talking quietly and intimately, many times on the ship. They seemed inseparable, like a love-struck courting couple.’

Did jealousy motivate the all-powerful American to a desperate solution to his predicament?…”

Chisholm stops reading. Gilmour, meanwhile, has almost a smile on his lips at the absurdity of the highly-colored language and the baseless insinuations. He speaks, choosing every word.

“The opinions of people who are silly enough to believe that story cannot hurt me. But unfortunately, that scrap of newspaper has managed to cause me some trouble. You’re probably aware that Gwyneth’s father is Jefferson Ogilvie. Now, the shipbuilding yards he owns in Newport News are booming. In the last three years, their business has doubled. It’s public knowledge that they have major commissions from the United States Navy. You’ll be aware that Britain and Germany are not the only countries engaged in a naval arms race right now. In fact, the United States is currently building two new battleships every year. Rival navies are developing around the whole world: Russia, Japan, Brazil, Argentina. The United States government has decided that our country needs a navy with global capability. So, all in all, it’s a huge commercial opportunity for a steel manufacturer.”

Chisholm and Axelson nod in agreement: Gilmour continues. “You may also know that although I’m originally from New York, many of my industrial holdings are in Ohio, and I am now expanding my portfolio to other locations too. I own the Cuyahoga steelworks in Cleveland, and I’ve recently acquired its highly profitable sister steel plant – the Chesapeake works near Norfolk, Virginia.”

Axelson has done his homework on Gilmour’s business background. “The Chesapeake works are the principal suppliers of steel to Ogilvie’s shipyards.”

“You see my point, gentlemen. This ridiculous gossip about Gwyneth and Viscount Spence – it has reached Jefferson Ogilvie, and has caused a rift between father and daughter. I’m concerned for my wife, of course. But there’s more. The family rift now threatens our business co-operation. If relations between me and Ogilvie broke down – that might impact more than just the profitability of my Chesapeake steelworks. If we end up losing the contract with the Ogilvie shipyards, that might seriously damage confidence in Gilmour Holdings. I care nothing for public opinion. But I care totally for the business reputation, and the fortunes, of Gilmour Holdings.”

I look around the table, and I see the professor and Chisholm nodding appreciatively.

“So you can now understand why I was more than willing to meet you. I’m interested in what I can do for you – but even more interested in what you can do for me.”

Axelson leans forward. “Tell us, Mr Gilmour, how you think we can help you.”

“It’s very simple. My wife is a modern woman. She has an independent life, but she and I have a marriage based on trust. I don’t need to live with her in my pocket. Jealousy is an emotion that I know little of.

Now, Jefferson Ogilvie is a respectable man. His family is one of the oldest – and richest – in Virginia. He cares a lot for reputation, and for morality – hence the problems I’ve described to you. But at the same time, he’s not some anti-progress Bible-basher. Like me, he openly embraces the advances of science, including this new science of hypnosis.”

The professor looks gratified. “I’m glad to hear that, Mr Gilmour.”

Gilmour carries on. “But the point I’m making, Professor Axelson, is that both Gwyneth and my father-in-law would be very interested to read a report – which you could prepare, Professor – which would record exactly what I say when I am under your hypnosis. Because I know that what I say will show that I had nothing to fear from Percy Spence, and no reason to wish him harm. If you made such a report, it could preserve my good relationship with Jefferson Ogilvie.”

“Why would it do that, Mr Gilmour?”

“Because your report would show that there is indeed no foundation to these ridiculous rumors. It would reveal the truth. Because I have heard that, when hypnotized, a subject cannot lie.”

“That is true, Mr Gilmour. A patient under the Fluence of my Hypnotic-Forensic Method cannot lie – if the hypnosis penetrates the patient down to the deepest level. But at a more shallow, conscious level, lies are possible. The subject may hold back something of himself or herself. Such a subject will often speak, under the Fluence, of locked doors, of places where they cannot go. A metaphor for the patient’s concealment of the truth.”

“Well, whatever the finer points of the theory, I get the general idea. Like I said, I have nothing to hide.”

“Indeed, Mr Gilmour. As you say, the guiding principle of your character is openness. And, you are saying very clearly to me that you are unafraid of opening yourself up to the full power of the Hypnotic-Forensic Method. You are ready to face going back to the night of terror, aboard the Titanic.”

“After I’ve finished my coffee, then. Let’s do it.”

 

The Gilmours’ Parlor Suite on the Olympic is truly palatial. Every Parlor Suite on the ship is decorated in an individual design: this one is decked out in English Regency style, with satinwood table and chairs, paintings in gilded frames, and even bas-relief neoclassical columns in its corners. Every indication that we are at sea has been erased, and the fluted plasterwork of the pillars gives me the odd sensation that we are somehow on a theatre stage set. A Greek tragedy. And, centre stage, we’re greeted by a vision: waves of blonde hair, tresses fashionably down over her shoulders. I see a flowing, cream-colored gown that would befit a Roman goddess; clearsighted brown eyes, like deep pools, and skin like the petals of a white rose.

“Welcome to our cabins. I’m Gwyneth Gilmour. And I hope you can help my husband.” Almost a trill in her voice, and a trace of old Plantation Virginia in her polished accents. I think: she’s the closest we come to aristocracy in America. Gwyneth Gilmour is a world away from the working roots I sense in Calvin’s every word and gesture. But all the same, he’s not struck me as the sort of man to simply want a woman on his arm as a showpiece: and she is clearly too intelligent to submit to that sort of relationship. As a couple, I can’t quite make them out… But, I guess, opposites attract.

“I’m Chisholm Strathfarrar, and this is Professor Felix Axelson, and Miss Agnes Frocester. We’re delighted that both you and your husband are –”

“Open? About Professor Axelson and his methods? Yes indeed, both he and I are very open. Because we want this business cleared.”

“Mrs Gilmour.” Axelson speaks at last: he’s been thinking during the exchange of introductions. “Hypnosis penetrates the unconscious mind, reveals hidden truths. But some truths sit plain and simple on the surface. Are you able to state, here in front of us all, the nature of your relationship with Percy Spence?”

She laughs, and I hear the trill again, like a silver bell. “You’re very direct, Professor. Some might call it impertinence, but I like it, so I’ll tell you straight. Percy was a gentleman, and a very charming one. I’m grief-stricken that he’s gone.” She suddenly looks serious – almost fierce. “I’ll tell you three things that will answer your question. Firstly, by birth, I’m an Ogilvie: that means family tradition, standards of conduct and behavior. I love my husband and would never exchange any fondness with another man. Secondly, Calvin knows all that – and he trusts me completely. He knows that he had no cause to be jealous of Percy Spence.”

I sense the weight of family history behind her: yes, what she is saying rings true. She has too much assurance, too much self-respect, to risk her good name in illicit affairs.

The professor is about to speak, but Gwyneth carries on. “And thirdly – Percy Spence’s so-called reputation for ladies’ society. It meant solely that – their society. Nothing more. I’ve read nonsense in the gutter press, calling him absurd names – a lecher, a Casanova, a Lothario. Just before he died, an article in The High Life was entitled “Viscount Percival Spence: the twentieth century’s Don Juan?” Horrible slurs against a decent man. He regarded women – and himself – too highly to ever behave like that. As far as I know, he never behaved improperly with any of the women whose names were linked with his by so-called newspapers such as The High Life.”

I see the anger in her eyes, as the professor speaks again. “Thank you for confirming that, Mrs Gilmour. All that is very useful for us to know. We do not judge people’s personal lives: we seek only to establish the facts.”

Calvin stands by her side. I sense his impatience. “Are we going to get on with it now?”

“Yes, of course, Mr Gilmour. Let us proceed to the hypnosis. Could you begin to breathe deeply and evenly, and relax your mind, while Sir Chisholm and I arrange the furniture?”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The last lifeboat

 

Professor Axelson may feel that stage hypnosis devalues the seriousness of his science, but right now there is a strong element of the theatrical. We – Gwyneth Gilmour, Chisholm and myself – sit in a semi-circle of chairs, like a private audience. In contrast to our dimly-lit seats, the professor stands under a shaded lamp, his high forehead and large nose catching the edges of the light, but most of his face is silhouetted. He’s speaking in that calm, low voice that he uses as part of his ‘Method’. The individual words he’s saying seem hardly to matter: the sounds and cadences of his speech are repetitive, insistent, like the deep, heavy beat of a tribal drum. My own breathing is now in time with the rhythm of the professor’s utterances, and I feel the same is true for all of us sitting here, as if we are governed by a single pulse.

Alongside the professor, but seated, is the central figure of the drama: Calvin Gilmour, his heavy brows and strong cheekbones lit in stark relief by the lighting from above. His snowy hair looks like the white cap of a mountain. Despite Gilmour’s seated posture and the relaxing effect of the professor’s words, I sense a restless energy. Gilmour’s foot taps on the floor, but then he stops the movement, deliberately. The muscles of his arms are tense, as if he’s holding himself down in the chair. His eyes, too, rather than looking dimly into the middle distance, dart flashes of blue fire around the room. I don’t see how such a subject – so much the master of himself, and so used to activity of both body and mind – can be made to relax into a trance.

The professor continues to speak, calmly, evenly, rhythmically.

The restless eyes still their movement. The eyelids slide gradually down over the pupils, and the huge muscular hands lose their grip on the armchair. I hear deep, regular breathing.

“Now, Mr Gilmour. You are entering a state of deep, deep rest. Tell me – how do you feel? What can you see?”

“There’s no light, but I feel fine. This darkness – it’s cozy, secure.”

“Can you see me?”

“I can see nothing.”

“What can you hear?”

“A beat. A steady, even beat. I feel nothing but warmth. I hear nothing but the beat.”

Axelson turns to us – and again, that touch of theatre: a hand raised to his mouth, a stage whisper to us. “You see. He is feeling exactly as he did in his mother’s womb, hearing his mother’s heartbeat. My Hypnotic-Forensic Method has put this strong, independent man into a state of total childlike dependence, the deepest level of hypnosis. He is now totally open to my Fluence, my powers of suggestion, which I will use to take him back to his most vivid and painful experiences aboard the Titanic.”

The professor glances back to Gilmour, checking that the man is breathing deeply, eyes closed. Then he looks back at us again. “You will now see the power of my Fluence. A music-hall mesmerist would use this infantile state in Gilmour’s mind to suggest actions to him: to make him perform ludicrous deeds in order to entertain an audience. My aims are utterly different. I use this state of extreme vulnerability to discover the truth.” He turns his back on us again, looks into Gilmour’s face, where those craggy features are softened, almost childlike, under the lamplight.

“Mr Gilmour. Tell me about yourself and Gwyneth.”

“Gwyneth. She is beautiful. I love Gwyneth. I want Gwyneth – always.”

“Do you feel relaxed when you are with her?”

“Yes. I trust her. Gwyneth has her own concerns and her own life, she will go her own way at times, but she will never hurt me, never truly leave me.”

“Mr Gilmour, you are aboard the Titanic. You are travelling home, after concluding your business in England. On the voyage, have you seen Gwyneth in the company of Viscount Percy Spence?”

“Yes. The Viscount’s aboard the ship, and I’ve seen them chatting. I don’t know him well, and I have little to say to him. He is so different from me. He’s a dandy, a peacock, one of the English leisured classes. I’ve noticed him on the voyage, flirting with a dozen ladies: he exists only to enjoy himself. Gwyneth finds him – fun. Fun to be with. She enjoys chatting to him. I can see her smiling, laughing. But then she comes back to me. She would never do anything improper.”

“Are you afraid? Afraid that Percy Spence will take Gwyneth away?”

“What, him?” Even though Calvin’s transformed face looks young, guileless, there is amused scorn in the laughing noise he makes. “I don’t fear him. A mastiff is not afraid of a lap-dog. But –”

“But?”

“I fear for him. Viscount Percy Spence – I can see him clearly now. This time, he is alone, and his face is troubled.”

“You can see him standing alone? Where are you, Mr Gilmour?”

“It’s early morning, just before breakfast, and I’m up on the Boat Deck. I didn’t sleep very well last night, so I’ve come up here to get some of the sea air. I can feel the wind in my face, it makes me feel – young again. Smoke blows from the funnels, but the ocean air is fresh. And I see Spence, standing alone, gazing out over the rail. He turns to face me.”

“Mr Gilmour, as you say, Viscount Spence is leaning on the rail, and facing you. What else can you see, when you look at him?”

“I see – fear, in his eyes. A haunted look. The look of a man who knows he is doomed.” Suddenly, Gilmour starts speaking – not in his low, even tone but with an urgency, a sudden animation in his voice. It’s as if he has total recall of a situation, and is re-saying the lines exactly as he did then.

“Spence! As you probably know, I’m Calvin Gilmour. You and I, we’ve never been formally introduced. But I thought I would take this opportunity to talk to you. Because on this voyage, I’ve noticed you. You seemed cheerful enough when we departed Southampton. But at dinner last night, when you dined alone, and now, up here on the Boat Deck – something’s wrong with you. Badly wrong. I don’t really know you well – I have to admit, I hardly even like you. But I can’t stand by and see a fellow suffer.”

A different voice comes from Gilmour’s lips. Refined and utterly English.

“Mr Gilmour. Are you taking the ocean air, like me? A brisk wind this morning. By the way, I’m sorry you and I have not had the opportunity to chat yet on this voyage. As you will no doubt have observed, I’ve become well acquainted with your wife. And I saw you at a table not far from me, at dinner last night – but of course, I’m also aware that you and Mrs Gilmour are in the cabin next door to mine. So you and I, we are temporary neighbors – but we’ve not yet spoken. Shall we take a stroll along towards the bridge?”

“Of course, Spence, let’s walk. But I didn’t come over to speak to you for mere social chit-chat. Tell me, Spence, what’s wrong, man-to-man. Because just now, the way you looked when I saw you leaning on that rail, I would not have been surprised to see you climb over it and jump into the ocean.”

“Thank you for your concern, Mr Gilmour. It’s appreciated, it really is. Truly decent of you. So I won’t pretend, or lie to you: yes, I have troubles. Troubles that are deep and serious. A matter of life and death, one might say. My problems can’t be solved, I’m afraid – there is nothing that you can help me with. But as you know, Gwyneth and I – we are friends. If anything should happen to me – you’ll support her, won’t you?”

The gruff American voice again. “I’m sorry to hear you’re in trouble. Is there nothing I can do?”

“To be honest, Mr Gilmour, I have enemies. They are cunning and deadly. I believe at least one of them is aboard this ship.”

“Do you think you are in danger of actual harm, then?”

“Yes. Very much so, in fact.”

“Well look, if you need a bodyguard… my man, aboard this boat. He keeps a discreet distance from me, but wherever I am, in New York, or London, or even on the goddamned Titanic in the middle of the ocean – he watches out for me. I could assign him to you.”

The English voice again. “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. But, since you do have a man who is an expert in personal security, you could ask him a simple favor. To keep his eyes and ears open for anything suspicious taking place on board the Titanic. Because, to be honest, I don’t expect to survive this voyage. There is a man aboard this ship. Some know him as Daniel Carver, but he has many names.”

“What else do you know about him? Can you give me a description?”

“Unfortunately, I have only the name. I’ve never met him, and I have no idea what he looks like. He could be any one of a thousand men aboard this ship.”

“By the way, Spence. Let’s walk back towards your cabin. There was a man – back there – I got an impression he was listening to us.”

“I didn’t see anyone. But as I say, I have no description of this Mr Carver, and I expect he may be using a false name anyway. Unfortunately for me, I am completely in the dark about the man.”

“Why do you fear him?”

“That, I am not at liberty to say. Except I can tell you this: there are others, conspirators, behind him. He will act, but on their instructions. He is the sharp end of the wedge, the tip of the iceberg. And I believe that he has received instructions to kill me before the Titanic’s voyage is over.”

“Money troubles? Or a woman?”

“If only it were that innocent…”

“Well, you can be goddamned cryptic if you like, Viscount – but my offer stands. I’ll ask my man to keep his ears open for information about Daniel Carver.”

“Thank you. And you could ask Gwyneth? It’s possible that Carver may be connected to a matter that she knows about. She may be able to tell you more.”

“Gwyneth knows of this?” I hear a catch in Gilmour’s throat.

“It’s very unlikely that she knows Carver. But those who stand behind him…”

“What, some kind of conspiracy? What do you mean, man?”

“Don’t you know your own wife, Mr Gilmour? Don’t you?” The upper-class English voice, so strange coming from those heavy American lips, begins to break up: Gilmour’s breathing becomes troubled. Suddenly his eyes stare wide open, and I’m reminded of Kitty. But instead of Kitty’s passive panic, Gilmour moves – and his huge figure stiffens, his hands grip the chair, and he pushes himself up, standing, towering over the professor. His limbs look as strong as a gorilla’s. Chisholm stands too, ready to restrain him if Axelson loses control of the hypnosis. But then I hear the professor’s voice.

“Mr Gilmour, there’s no need to stand. Sit: let your knees flex, your shoulders soften, your back bend, your arms rest. Feel a sense of restfulness breathe through your body, like a breeze through the leaves of a tree. And as your muscles relax, let your mind relax too. There’s nothing to fear, nothing to worry about.”

Ten seconds pass: Gilmour’s breathing has become more regular again, but still he stands. But the professor doesn’t seem worried. He remains calm, and simply repeats his usual phrases, speaking slowly but firmly, rhythmically, like a wizard casting a spell. I see the tension ease in Gilmour’s neck and the lines of his face. Gradually, the tensed shoulders drop, and then Gilmour bends his knees. He sits in the chair again.

Axelson continues to repeat his words. “Nothing to fear, nothing to worry about.” Then, the professor becomes silent, as if he is giving space and time for Gilmour to respond to him.

The silence goes on. After a long time, I hear Gilmour’s own voice speaking again. It’s been five minutes or more since Axelson last spoke – yet Gilmour seems to be responding to the professor’s last statement.

“And yet, I do fear.”

“Fear what?”

“The ship is sinking.”

Gilmour’s eyes are open, but despite the hypnotic trance, I feel he is staring straight into my own eyes, a gaze of recognition. Like his soul is somehow connecting with mine. Then his glance flickers, rests on Chisholm, then Gwyneth. The memory, the shared experience we all have, of the Titanic. I think: the professor is the only person in this room who doesn’t know from personal experience how Gilmour feels.

I hear a loud, utterly different voice.

“Women and children first! Gentlemen, hold back, please. Women and children first!” This time, Gilmour’s voice is strong but rich: the robust but strangely musical tones of a seaman. Like a powerful tenor voice. Chisholm whispers to me. “A Welsh accent. The voice is that of Fifth Officer on the Titanic, Harold Lowe. Along with Second Officer Lightoller, he was responsible for loading the port side lifeboats, and he was then put in command of Lifeboat 14 after it was launched.”

I feel a tremor run through me as the voice’s Celtic tones echo in the Gilmours’ cabin. “Gentlemen, for God’s sake, please hold back. This lifeboat is for women and children only. It is also completely full. Any more bodies in it will cause it to sink.”

Gilmour reverts to his own voice. “Officer! You said women and children. Is there room in the boat? Room for my wife?”

“Yes sir, there is just room for one more lady. Madam – no hesitation – be quick now, get aboard. Within thirty seconds, the crew need to lower the lifeboat.”

“Gwyneth, you go. Look, you’re the last woman here. Get in the boat.”

Officer Lowe’s voice comes again from Gilmour’s lips, a booming cadence, shaking me in my seat. “Did you not hear me? Get back, sirs! All of you! Don’t crowd around this lifeboat. The crew need to do their work and lower the lifeboat safely.” There’s a pause, and then the voice comes again, with deadly emphasis.

“In God’s name I say to you, sirs: if this lifeboat is swamped with bodies, it will tip over here in front of our eyes, and everyone in it will die.”

There’s a pause, a dead silence in the Gilmours’ cabin. The lamplight shines down on Calvin Gilmour: all else is darkness. One minute passes, and then I see the lips move yet again, and again I hear Officer Lowe’s voice, clear like a deep, clanging bell.

“I mean what I say, gentlemen! As you won’t respond to reason, I tell you: I have a pistol, and for the sake of these women in the lifeboat, I will shoot any man who attempts to climb into it.”

Gilmour’s eyes are opened wide, staring at unseen things. His breathing is becoming labored again, and even in the dim light I see that his face is turning pale. It’s as if he truly is back on the Titanic: that he is realizing, in front of our eyes, that the lifeboat is going to leave without him, and he is going to die. He reverts again to his own voice, but this time he seems to be speaking to himself, as if he is talking himself through everything he’s seeing and feeling. In that craggy but chalk-white face, his lips move and speak with a life of their own.

“There’s a huge crowd of men behind Gwyneth and me, shoving and pushing towards the boat. The ones at the front can’t hold back because of those pushing behind. There are hundreds of them. They’re like a tide, pressing towards the boat. They have all now realized the awful truth: this lifeboat in front of them is their only chance of survival. And the officer standing up there is taking that one chance away from them. Maybe some of them are thinking: he’s one man; we are hundreds. There’s another surge of bodies.

Crack! The officer fires his pistol, out along the side of the ship where it can’t hit anyone. It’s a signal that he’s totally serious. I see in his face that he is ready to kill, if necessary. The gunshot is like an electric shock pulsing through the crowd: men are shaking, stumbling, a wild mass of movement. The sound of shouts and yells from the men is deafening. The officer is gesturing to them amid the noise.

I step forward to one of the sailors who is handling the ropes for the lifeboat. ‘Can I put my wife into the boat?’ He nods. Gwyneth is trying to step into the lifeboat but suddenly, there’s a shock like an earthquake: the whole of the Titanic shakes. The lifeboat is swaying wildly to and fro, like a child’s swing. It comes towards us again, nearly hitting us, and I look straight over the side of the boat at its occupants, women with white, terrified faces. I’m looking into the face of a tiny child on the boat, held tight in her mother’s arms. I look into the little girl’s wide blue eyes: she’s open-mouthed, struck dumb with utter bewilderment. Her face, and the golden curls of her hair, are inches from mine. Then the boat swings away again.

The officer is standing up in the lifeboat, silhouetted against the sky above us, the gun held high in the air, and I can hear, from behind him, the shouting and yelling: it’s worse than ever. He looks into the wild eyes of the men pressing towards the boat, he holds his arm aloft and fires the gun again, away from the crowd, out into the night. Crack! There’s a huge shout from the men, I see terror in the eyes of the ones at the front. The officer fires a third time – Crack! The crowd pulls back, just a little. The officer is standing, looking at the crowd, telling them to back off. And this time, they do. They take a single step back, away from the boat. The officer is staring at them, it’s like he is pushing them back with his gaze. And, while he’s looking at them…”

“What? What happened next?”

“I hear the officer’s voice booming. He’s thanking the crowd for backing away. No-one is looking at Gwyneth and I. The boat swings towards us again, like a pendulum, and Gwyneth steps into it, and… I follow her. Hand-in-hand with her, I step across the gap. I fall down among the bodies on the lifeboat.”

“Mr Gilmour, you’re on the boat?”

“Yes. I’m in the lifeboat. The officer’s seen me, but I’m just one man, and he’s too busy to deal with me. Time has run out. He’s barking orders at the sailors, we’re starting to lower, he stands at the end of the lifeboat, his hands on the ropes, trying to steady the swinging of the boat. But then, the officer calls out again: the loudest shout yet. He has seen one more woman in the crowds on the Titanic.

‘Come here, madam! Now! Be quick!’

And a young woman, dressed like a servant, is there among the hundreds of men. She steps forward, falls towards the boat, but she’s not alone, with both her hands she drags behind her a body, a man. They can’t separate her from this man’s body. Hands reach out from our lifeboat to help her, grasping her firmly, they save her, pull her into the boat; but she won’t let go of the body, and the man is dragged into the lifeboat too. He’s well-dressed, a first class passenger: now, I can see his face. My God, it’s Spence.

The rest of the crowd is standing back, their eyes fixed on the officer who fired the gun, who is still shouting orders to the sailors. The sailors are following his instructions, they’re winding the winches now, down we go. All the terrified, angry faces on the ship slide out of our view, we’re below the Boat Deck now, going down the side of the Titanic, an endless black wall.

The officer is standing up like a sentry on duty, at the very end of the boat. He’s watching the lifeboat as it slides downwards, but he keeps glancing up at the winching, checking that everything is working. The lifeboat is sliding and rubbing against the iron plates, all the way down the side of the ship. We can feel the boat shaking as it grinds against the Titanic. The friction against the hull is tipping the lifeboat. The side of the boat that is catching against the Titanic’s side goes up, the other side of the boat goes down, We’re all looking over the outside of the lifeboat as it tilts away below us, tilting, tilting… we’re staring straight down into the water. Are we all going to fall?

The officer is still shouting instructions. ‘Oars! Get oars and push us away from the ship’s hull!’ I see four women standing up, holding their oars, pushing them against the side of the Titanic to lever us away from the side of the ship. The oars grind and splinter on the iron, but we’re lowering more easily now, I look up, I see the sailors winching down, faster and faster. Falling. The boat hits the water, hard. The ocean splashes us like ice. We’re cowering and shivering, bodies packed like sardines in the deathly cold. The officer is still standing, guardian of his boat, he looks out at all of us, huddled together, but he avoids my eyes. I look down at my knees. I feel shame, I’ve disobeyed the orders – ‘women and children first’. But I’m glad, so glad, that I’m not going to die aboard the Titanic.”

“Who is aboard the lifeboat?”

“Mostly people I don’t know. I think they are all women and children, except the officer who fired the gun, who is now steering the boat, and the body of Spence that the servant girl dragged in – and, there’s one other man, who has somehow got aboard the lifeboat. That third man sits and says nothing. I realize that he’s soaking wet, the splash when the lifeboat hit the water must have caught him badly. He’s shivering like a trembling leaf, and his eyes stare, not blinking, like a dead man’s. But – there’s something strange… oddly familiar.”

“Familiar, Mr Gilmour?”

“Yes. This quivering, half-dead man, he looks familiar. I think I’ve seen him with my legal people. In fact I recognize him: his name is Freshing. I invited him and Mr Sorensen, my lawyer, to join me at dinner on the first night of the voyage. He’s in the lifeboat next to Spence… and Spence is reaching out to him. A twisted, agonized hand is extended, stretched out towards Freshing’s face. Freshing is shaking his head, he doesn’t want to be involved in this horror. But somehow, he’s compelled. He leans close in to Spence.”

“What are they doing? What are Spence and Mr Freshing doing?”

“I can’t see. There are so many people, we’re all squeezed together like rats in a barrel, so many heads blocking my view. I’m choking with cold: the impact when we hit the water has splashed my clothes, too. My skin feels like ice, but I’m in better shape than that fellow Freshing. Gwyneth looks frozen with cold too, but her face is strong and determined.”

“Can you hear anything, Mr Gilmour? Any voices?”

“I hear the officer’s voice, telling those of us who are near the oars to take an oar and row. We need to get away from the ship before it sinks. I must do something to help. I’m a coward, a yellow-belly – the officer knows that. But, I’ll make myself useful now. Yes, I can reach an oar. I listen to the officer’s calls. He calls and calls, commanding us. I pull on my oar. Row, pull the oar. The lights of the Titanic are dim on the horizon now, like a line of little stars, and the freezing sea stretches all around us, black like oil. And –”

“And what?”

“Suddenly all the lights go out. Our boat is far from the wreck now. The Titanic is going down into the ocean. Sliding into her grave.”

Gilmour’s voice is dream-like, seemingly detached from his feelings. The terrible intensity that he had earlier has faded, like the noise of thunder as a storm recedes, growing ever fainter. Little by little the color is returning to his face, his features begin to relax, and he starts to mumble to himself. The sound of his voice is like a childish burble, and after a while I can make out distinct words and a sing-song tone.

 

“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

Life is but a dream.”

 

I hear the professor speak again.

“Mr Gilmour, you are coming back to yourself. Coming up out of the deep darkness of your mind. You are rising from the depths of a black dream, from fathomless, ink-dark ocean waters. You feel yourself floating up towards the surface: it gets nearer every moment. Now you can see the blue above you, the sun shining down on the waves, the blue of the sky, the rays of daylight shining through the liquid water. You’re touching the surface now, into the light. Your eyes are opening, you can see the horizon all around you, you feel the warmth of sunshine on your face, you are shaking your head, shaking drops of water from your skin. You are breathing dry air. Up here on the surface, it’s a beautiful day, Mr Gilmour. Open your eyes fully: look around the room: see us, your friends.”

Gilmour shuffles and shifts in his chair, stretching his shoulders as if waking from sleep. He seems surprised to see us all.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Icebergs

 

It’s a bright, calm day; the gray weather of the eastern Atlantic has given way to blue skies as the Olympic steers a line south of Newfoundland. The sunshine is warm through the windows of the First-Class Dining Saloon as we breakfast. Axelson must have risen late today: a rare chance for Chisholm and I to talk together.

“I’ve appreciated your kindness, this voyage. Little things, like that tea you ordered for me on arrival.”

“It’s a pleasure, Agnes. I count you as a friend – a dear friend.”

“Were you shocked when we first got on the ship, and you saw me sharing tea in my cabin with Rufus du Pavey?”

“Of course not. In fact, I thought ‘Clever girl. That’s the way to get that rascal to make a slip: a woman being friendly to him.’”

“I’m sure he’s aware of what we’re doing, Chisholm. He singled me out, approached me in the boarding-tower while you were talking to that porter about our cases.”

“I have rather a daring suggestion. I think we may get du Pavey to agree to the professor’s hypnosis – if you were to ask him, Agnes.”

“You mean – I might succeed where a frank man-to-man request might not?”

“Exactly that.”

“Exactly what?” The professor has finally arrived: a waiter pulls his chair out from the table for him as he sits for breakfast.

“We are talking about Rufus du Pavey.”

“Well that’s a coincidence. Because I have already met du Pavey, this morning, in the corridor. That was what delayed me getting to breakfast this morning. He said that he recognized me from my photographs in the newspapers – and introduced himself. Of course, that is nothing new to me: my fame means that many people introduce themselves to me.”

I cast a glance around the dining saloon in case du Pavey himself is coming in for breakfast. But he’s nowhere to be seen. I look at the professor and tell him what I think.

“From my meeting with him when we boarded the Olympic, I’d say that du Pavey knows what we’re doing, and that’s why he’s sniffing around us. That’s why he approached you in the corridor just now, Professor.”

“Indeed, Miss Agnes. But, with only a few minutes’ conversation in the corridor, I myself have got much further with our investigation of du Pavey. I found him surprisingly friendly.”

“So did I.”

The professor carries on speaking. “Du Pavey said that he has read in the newspapers of my Hypnotic-Forensic Method. He told me that he is fascinated by my theories, and full of admiration for my achievements. He was even aware that I am Chair of Forensics at Dresden University. So, the man may be on my list of suspects, but he is no fool.”

“And how did you progress our investigations with him?”

“Sometimes, the direct approach is the best. I simply asked him if he would be willing to undergo hypnosis, in relation to the events on the Titanic and the murder of Viscount Spence.”

Chisholm and I look at each other. “What was his response?”

“He says he would very much like to see my Method in action, with himself as my patient. He claims that Spence was his dearest friend, that he fervently hopes the killer will be found, and that he would do anything to help with our investigation. In short, he is completely willing to be hypnotized – but then, he said he was indisposed at present with sea-sickness. Despite his automobile racing and his flying, he is, ironically, a poor sailor. He will send word to us, when he is feeling better.”

“I have a hunch that he won’t feel better until the Olympic is docking in New York.” Chisholm says that mostly to me, with a little smile. The professor is oblivious to Chisholm’s expression, and answers him directly.

“Oh no, Chisholm. The human body gets used to the motion of the ship within a few days at most, and du Pavey is young and vigorous. I’m sure we will be able to interview him before we reach New York. This investigation is proceeding very well. We found out a lot from Calvin Gilmour: I suspect that a Hypnotic-Forensic session with du Pavey will be even more revealing.”

I suppress a grin at the professor’s conceit, but he carries on speaking. “And I have other good news, too. After my session with Calvin Gilmour, I sent a telegram to New York to enquire about the gentleman that Gilmour told us about, the man in the lifeboat – Mr Freshing. Last night I received a response.”

“Was it informative?”

“Very. It seems that Mr Douglas Freshing is a well-known member of New York’s thriving business and legal community. He works as a scrivener, copying legal documents and making technical notes of lawyers’ meetings. Ideal skills for an effective witness, don’t you think?”

“Where is this Mr Freshing? In Manhattan?”

“Unfortunately, his ordeal aboard the Titanic and in the lifeboat led to him contracting pleurisy. His recovery has been slow, and he is taking an extended stay at a health spa in the country, in order to regain his strength. But that need not prevent me visiting him, hypnotizing him and finding out the truth. He was there when Spence took his last breath. In his final moments, a victim is likely to name his attacker: I suspect that Spence told Freshing the killer’s name.”

I look at the professor. “So you think – that’s what was going on, when Mr Freshing was leaning over towards Spence in the lifeboat?”

“I am totally confident of it. As you know, I have my list of five names. I feel sure that I will hear the name of one of those five, from the lips of Mr Freshing.”

 

Breakfast over, I take a stroll up on the deck. I’m even brave enough to walk towards the rear of the ship, towards the poop. This is the third-class Promenade Deck, but in my plain black dress and simply arranged hair, I don’t stand out from the crowds. I traveled steerage to England on the Mauretania, and I was surprised at the cleanliness and high standard of the cabins and the public rooms. Here on the White Star Line, they like to claim their third class is as good as Cunard’s second class – and, looking around at my fellow passengers on the Promenade Deck, I certainly don’t feel out of place. In a way it’s a welcome change from the ship’s state rooms. A group of young men touch their caps as I walk by, and I smile at them. I overhear them earnestly discussing their hopes of employment in New York as they pass around a single cigarette: the smoke mingles with the cindery soot from the ship’s funnels. Then, salty air from the ocean blows into my face as I notice three young women, soberly dressed, sitting on a bench and chatting quietly: they remind me of myself when I set out on my first journey across the seas. Families are taking a stroll on the deck. A little girl toddles along, excitedly chasing a hoop with a stick. The clothes I see around me are shabby, sometimes threadbare, but spotlessly clean. Everywhere, I see faces full of anticipation of a new world, a new life ahead of them. But despite the smiles and laughter, there’s something in the lines of the deck, the curves of the rails, the steps up onto the poop… an unwelcome memory begins to surface in my mind. Like a recurring dream, it won’t go away. This place, out on the stern of the ship – as the Titanic sank, this deck, crowded with terrified people, was the last to hit the water. The final plunge into the ocean: the screams, the bodies in the water, the dead faces… I try to block out the unwanted thoughts, the insistent voices and noises in my mind. This is a different ship, I tell myself: it just looks like somewhere I once saw, in the dark, in a bad dream. Today is different: the noises I hear around me sound full of hope and happiness. It’s full daylight, the sun is shining, the sky is bright. As far as the eye can see, the sea is illuminated, like blue glass: waves glitter, gleaming with the sunlight, enough to hurt my eyes.

And then I see them.

Ice.

The bergs line the horizon, like a battalion of white warriors. Silent: waiting.

I feel faint. We’ve sailed near to the ice line, where the eastbound Gulf Stream waters meet the chill west-flowing Labrador Current, bringing its spring crop of bergs from Baffin Bay. The icebergs calved from the Greenland ice-cap, and they’ve floated round in the Arctic waters, sometimes for years. But each spring, the ocean melt frees up the bergs, and brings another batch of them down into the Atlantic, carried on the cold currents. The change in the ocean waters from the warm Gulf Stream to the polar temperatures of the Labrador Current is an abrupt one. The icebergs line up where the two bodies of water meet, like a row of jagged teeth in the mouth of a shark. I remember something I read years ago in a magazine, an interview with Captain Edward John Smith who died aboard the Titanic. His prophetic words in that magazine article were often quoted in the wake of the disaster. “The big icebergs that drift into warmer water melt much more rapidly on the surface, and sometimes a sharp, low reef of ice extending two or three hundred feet beneath the sea is formed. If a vessel should run on one of these reefs, half her bottom might be torn away.”

The third-class passengers have all noticed the icebergs now. They crowd against the starboard rail of the Promenade Deck to gaze at the ocean, and a child cries out “I can see the North Pole!” People seem excited, not alarmed. But I dare not look again. When will I stop being haunted by these memories, so strong they seem to transport me physically back to that night? Again I feel I’m among dark, swirling waters: I recall what Kitty said, under hypnosis: “White shapes on the black. Ghosts, made of ice.” Did she mean the bergs? – or was she talking about something else she saw, that night?

My knees, my legs, feel wobbly, unsafe. And a feeling of near-panic, utterly irrational, is choking me. For a moment it is as if everything is swirling round me, like a whirlpool. I have to get off the Promenade Deck, inside the ship, out of the sight of the bergs. I walk unsteadily along the deck and open the door. I’m already feeling relieved as I close it behind me. I descend the stairs, the cast-iron treads ringing under my feet.

I’ve come down one flight of stairs when I realize: this wasn’t the door, the stairs, that I used a few minutes ago to go out to the deck. I’ve come back inside the ship through the wrong door. But of course, this staircase and the correct one must connect below decks. I can get back to the First-Class Dining Saloon without going outside again, without having to look again at those white shapes along the horizon. I descend the second flight of steps, but there is no corridor, no door. Just more stairs, going down and down. This part of the ship seems utterly deserted. I think: of course, the different sections of the ship are separated by solid bulkheads. I’m in a different section: I’ll have to go back up. At least my dizziness has gone. I turn around and start up the stairs again, steeling my resolve. Yes, I will go out on deck: I will walk steadily, and I’ll look straight ahead, keeping my eyes away from those deathly phantoms covering the sea.

I notice a shadow on the stair treads. It’s cast down from the flight of steps above. I look up, and I realize that the figure of a man is standing on the stairs above me.

Maybe it’s the icebergs, the cold shock of remembrance. Maybe it’s a more recent memory: the maze at Sweynsey Hall. But unlike in the maze, I don’t hesitate, and I don’t think. My limbs are moving before I’m even aware of it: I race pell-mell down flight after flight of stairs, away from the silent, dark form on the staircase. I’m choking for breath as my feet ring on endless metal treads, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the ship. My mind has only one thought: to get away from that shadow. And despite the clatter of my descent, I’m listening, and I can hear it clear and plain: the sound of heavy feet running, following me down the stairs.

Suddenly I see a corridor ahead of me. Thank God, I breathe to myself. I stagger breathlessly along. The corridor is dimly lit, a narrow passageway lined with steel doors on both sides. The footsteps are coming behind me: I hear them reach the bottom of the steps. Desperately I try each door in turn. Locked, locked, locked. I’m at the end of the corridor, in an open square space with more doors around me. In front of me is an unusually heavy steel door, with a massive brass lever as its handle. I try it, and manage with effort to push the lever downwards. Relief floods my body as the door opens. I step through it and pull it shut behind me: a heavy, leaden slam. I’m in utter darkness.

Instantly, my skin feels chill. Why is it so cold down here? I guess my adrenalin and exertion has stopped me noticing the cold, until now. I’m panting with relief at my temporary escape from the unseen stranger, my heart is thumping like a drum. It’s a few moments before I start to wonder: where am I? I extend my arms in the blackness, hands stretched out ready to feel my way. But immediately, I touch something on my right. It’s just a few inches beyond my shoulder. My fingertips shrivel and recoil with the shock of freezing cold. I’ve touched a smooth, icy surface, and although it was only for a second, I felt the unmistakable curved shape of a body. There’s cold, dead flesh, right next to me.

What is this horror, in the blackness next to me? For a moment I stand still, unable to move, as if frozen myself. Then, fearfully, I reach out again. This time I’m prepared for the cold. I run my fingertips up and down the frozen surface. It has exactly the touch, the texture of naked skin, but turned to ice. Yes, it’s a body. Your first touch told you the truth, Agnes: you’re standing next to a frozen corpse.

For a moment I’m so terrified that my head jerks back involuntarily: I feel vomit rising in my throat. I try to calm myself: my discovery is grisly but not actually dangerous to me. The ship must have a mortuary, and I’m in it. I guess passengers sometimes die: it happens. But I don’t want to stay in here, even for a moment: I turn back towards the door – but only then do I remember the man who waits for me, the other side of it. It’s horrible, but I will have to wait here in the dark. Wait and listen, until I’m sure it is quiet outside the door, until I’m confident that the stranger is gone.

Then another thought occurs to me. If this is a mortuary, maybe the door can only be opened from the outside? The thought of being locked in here… I can’t help saying it to myself: ‘I’ll freeze to death’.

My mind runs through possibilities and likelihoods. Beyond the door, it’s silent: I wish I could try the door right now, but I don’t dare in case the man is still there, quietly waiting for me. I decide that I will wait ten minutes. Then something else occurs to me. I feel up and down the cold metal edges that surround the door. Yes, I was right. My fingers touch an electrical switch.

Moments later, an Edison electric light-bulb illuminates my surroundings. To my right are, indeed, corpses: half a pig hangs on a meathook next to my shoulder, and the grinning snouts of other pigs appear beyond it.

Through the door, I hear a familiar voice calling to me.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The Third-Class Smoking Room

 

“Miss Frocester!” Behind the heavy door, the voice is muffled – but I recognize it well. I’m laughing at myself as I grip the handle, which can indeed, I see, be operated from this side. Not only have I mistaken a dead pig for a dead man. I’ve also mistaken a friend for an enemy. As the door swings open, I see a face that I’ve seen only once before – and yet, I’m familiar with every crease and wrinkle.

“Inspector Trench.”

“Indeed. Miss Frocester, I’m very pleased to meet you again.” Despite the cold, I can tell that my face is flushed red with embarrassment.

“I’d be interested to know, Miss Frocester, what made you decide to urgently investigate the ship’s refrigeration unit? The cold store is very impressive – a technical marvel: they preserve food and provisions for thousands of people, enough to give us fresh meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy produce all the way across the Atlantic. But if you’re looking for something to eat, I’ve found that it’s easier to use the dining room.” He smiles, and I do too.

I step out of the cold store. “I – I – was afraid.”

“Clearly. You must have been terrified, to try to hide in there.” He pushes the door back into place behind me, lifts the brass lever. We go along the corridor with its locked doors: food stores, I now realize. Inspector Trench leads the way towards the staircase. “Let’s get you back up to civilization, as it were. We need to climb back up out of this place. Did you realize that you’ve descended five decks?”

“I just ran down the stairs without thinking. Sorry – I’m not feeling quite myself.”

“Take my arm. I’ll get you back to the first-class areas of the ship. You look deathly pale. Perhaps it’s the cold in the refrigeration unit – but perhaps not. More likely, you’ve just had a serious shock.”

“Like I’ve seen a ghost?” I try a smile, remembering suddenly the words of Mrs Thwaite in the mists at Sweynsey.

“Something’s frightened you, badly. It wasn’t me, was it?”

“It was you, actually. Well, not you. I got scared looking out at the sea, when I saw the icebergs and I remembered – bad things. For a moment I literally felt I was aboard the Titanic again, although I know that’s not rational. I felt dizzy, I went through a door and down the stairs to get away from the open deck. Then I saw you on the steps above me. What I mean is: I saw a male figure, and I panicked.”

“Why?” He looks into my eyes. “No – don’t answer that question, yet. Let’s get back up those stairs.”

I’m young and fit, but I feel breathless, and I find it hard work climbing back up the stairs. At the top, the door leads out onto the deck. Inspector Trench is about to hold it open for me, but then he looks at my pale face, hesitates, and speaks. “Miss Frocester. You’ve had a shock. Maybe sitting down for a few minutes would help? Or, a brandy might steady your nerves?”

I realize: yes, I really need to sit down. “You’re right, Inspector. It’s ridiculous, but my little adventures this morning have left me feeling faint.”

“Come in here.” The inspector holds a different door open, labeled “Third-Class Smoking Room.” Inside, a long teak-wood bar runs the length of the far wall of a cavernous, white-walled space. Behind the bar are shelves holding sets of glasses, bottled beers and a few larger bottles: spirits, I guess. The furniture is plain and basic: slatted wooden benches and tables. The only occupants of the room are a couple of shabbily-dressed men who lean against the bar, smoking cigarettes, and the bar steward, who sees us and steps over towards us.

“Excuse me, sir, madam – but it’s Gentlemen Only in here, I’m afraid. Ladies aren’t allowed in the Smoking Room. You could go into the General Room next door…”

Inspector Trench looks at the bartender. “The lady is a first-class passenger who came out on the poop deck for a stroll. She feels faint, I’m afraid, and a brandy would greatly help.”

“Of course. No problem at all, sir. But –”

“Don’t worry. If the senior steward sees us, I’ll explain the situation fully to him. And I’ll tell him how helpful you’ve been. So – a brandy for the lady, please. Nothing else.” We sit at a table, watched with curiosity by the two men who loiter by the bar. The men continue to watch us as the bartender puts a scratched glass of brown liquid on the table in front of me. Then the men seem to lose interest in us, and resume their conversation. Over the smell of cigarette smoke, I notice another odor, one that seems out of place at sea. The room is newly painted, and colorful White Star Line posters adorn the walls, but in my nostrils is a musty smell, the smell of neglect.

“This bar is little used, Miss Frocester. A quiet place to sit. The higher circles of society like to portray the poorer classes as drunken wastrels. But on the transatlantic liners, nothing could be further from the truth. Hardly any of the third-class passengers waste their very limited money on alcohol. Every one of them is saving every penny, keeping it for their new life in the New World. In the evening, some of the men come in here to play cards and smoke the odd cigarette, but in the daytime it’s very quiet here. So we won’t be disturbed.”

“Would we be better off in the General Room that the bartender mentioned?”

The Inspector gestures to the wall behind us. I hear the hum of many voices, punctuated by shouts and shrill shrieks. “Unlike the Smoking Room, the third-class General Room is a busy spot, Miss Frocester. Mostly families: effectively, it is the nursery of the ship. It’s probably the busiest and noisiest spot on the Olympic, bar the engine rooms. So I think you’re better off here. Besides, that brandy wouldn’t be allowed in there. Now, if you’d like to, you can tell me – about your fright. About your alarm at seeing a strange man on the stairs.”

“It’s – silly, really. I first felt afraid like this at Sweynsey Hall, Cambridgeshire. Since our visit there, I’ve had dreams: bad dreams. Then, when I first boarded the Olympic, it was like the dream had come back: I saw what I thought was the shadow of a man, outside my cabin door. But when we looked, there was no-one there. And now… I must admit, I went into a panic, for no real reason. But all the same, I want you to know, Inspector. I’m not some hysterical girl. I’m level-headed and sensible. Sudden panics are not usually in my character.”

“I agree with your description of yourself. That’s one of my reasons for wanting to speak to you. Because you are the sort of person who is invaluable in a case like this: someone that I can rely on to tell me facts, not fancies. Perhaps you could update me on the progress of Professor Axelson’s investigation? Have you found out much, since you and I last met?”

“Before I answer that, I have a question for you, Inspector. Have you made any progress towards finding Kitty?”

“No developments to speak of, unfortunately, Miss Frocester. Which is why, once more, I need your assistance. So – what about you, and the professor’s investigations?”

I look at him, and tell him everything that’s happened. Another narrative like the one I gave him back at Grafton Square – but this time, he doesn’t use his notebook. He simply lets me carry on talking until I run out of words. Then he smiles that slow smile again, and looks into my eyes.

“Sweynsey Hall. The ancestral home of the Spence family. Where, I understand, a burglary had taken place two weeks before.”

“That’s right. You know about that?”

“I know that nothing was stolen, which seems unusual, doesn’t it? A ruffian breaks into a house full of treasures, and simply climbs back out of the study window again?”

“But why should that burglary concern you? Does Scotland Yard know about every burglary in England?”

“Of course not. I will be completely honest with you, Miss Frocester.” He glances round. The bartender is chatting to the two smokers, and apart from them, we’re alone. “You see, there may be a difference between the public position of the British police and what we in fact do.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let’s go over the basic facts again, and perhaps things will become a little clearer. Viscount Percy Spence’s body is recovered from the sea and taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian police are contacted by a local medic, Dr Finch, who has taken on the grim work of examining the bodies recovered from the ocean. Dr Finch shows the police a telegram he has received from New York, from Harold Lowe, Fifth Officer of the Titanic. Officer Lowe was in charge of one of the Titanic’s lifeboats, and his telegram states that a servant girl dragged the Viscount into the boat. Spence then died on the floor of the lifeboat, in a way that appeared unnatural. The police in Halifax then speak further to Dr Finch, who confirms that the Viscount’s body contains strychnine. The witness account from Harold Lowe and Dr Finch’s medical report corroborate each other: it seems beyond doubt that the Viscount was poisoned. Suicide, or murder.”

“Surely it’s the latter.”

“Of course it is. The Canadian police know that this case does not relate to Canada at all. The parties to this murder – their involvement must trace to either Britain, or the United States.”

“Well, I guess you may have concluded all that from what you heard when you came to Grafton Square, after Kitty was kidnapped.”

“No. I knew it long before. And that is why, when we heard the news of Kitty’s kidnap, it was me that Scotland Yard sent to Sir Chisholm’s home. I think I should tell you, in the strictest confidence, that despite our apparent lack of interest in Spence’s death, the British police have this case as our top priority – but, in secret. Publically, our position is that the investigation is too difficult to conduct, and a waste of our very limited resources.”

“So are you working with Professor Axelson?”

“No. You see, I am not allowed to.”

“Why not? His methods are new, untried maybe, but….”

“Miss Frocester.” That wintry smile again, like a father to his daughter. “You are young but, I suspect, not entirely unaware of the political factors that can sometimes hinder police work. There is something about Professor Axelson which neither he not I can change, but which prevents me from joining forces with him. It is a great pity, but it is unavoidable.”

“What? Do you suspect him? Apart from the fact he wasn’t even on the Titanic, he’s also the most unlikely person in the whole world to commit a murder.” I’m suddenly alarmed, and loyally defensive of the self-important but sincere Scandinavian academic who I’ve grown to respect and even like.

“Oh no, of course not. He’s not a suspect, by any means. There is a different reason why I can’t work with him.”

The penny drops.

“Because he’s – Swedish?”

“He’s not British, and that is a key factor. As you will know, the British public are in a state of hysteria about German secret agents. Any person with a North European accent is treated with suspicion, as if every one of them spends all their time snooping around British military bases and writing letters of information to the Kaiser.”

“But that’s popular, stupid prejudice. There are the most outrageous stories of foreigners and espionage in the newspapers – but surely Scotland Yard doesn’t think like that. The police must see that the professor is the last person to…”

“Unfortunately, suspicions about spies are not just baseless rumors. There is a climate of extreme suspicion among the higher ranks of the police. Even among my own superiors. The concern about German agents is genuine. The only difference between the police and the public is that we understand that the Kaiser’s agents probably do not go around calling themselves Herr Schmidt and wearing braces and Tyrolean hats. In reality, a German spy is more likely to speak to you with a faultless English accent, and tell you that he was born in London.”

“So – this case may involve German secret agents?”

The inspector doesn’t answer that, but looks at me steadily, his eyes tired but bright.

“So, Miss Frocester, perhaps now you understand why I suggested we discuss the matter here in the third-class smoking-room, where we are unlikely to be overheard. Let’s just say that I would not be surprised to find that there are foreign agents aboard this ship.”

“Let me get this straight, Inspector. You are telling me that the Spence case could be about – ?”

“Yes, Miss Frocester. The murder of Percy Spence is tangled up with espionage. And in the last few years, espionage has changed. It’s no longer the gentleman’s spying game that we played in the nineteenth century. It’s a murderous secret war between Britain and Germany. And so, sadly, I can’t work with the professor, because he is a foreign national.”

“So am I.”

“Let’s say that there are certain matters that Britain and the United States are working on very closely together. Basically, me and my colleagues suspect everyone at the moment, except Americans.” There’s a twinkle in his eye. “Besides, the chances of you being a spy are astronomical. As far as I know, the Kaiser has few friends in Connecticut.”

I smile at his little joke, but he carries on. “Whereas Axelson – he began his studies is Uppsala, but he has spent half his life at the leading German university cities: Heidelberg, Tübingen, Berlin, Leipzig. He’s worked closely on a number of cases – civilian cases, admittedly – with the German police force. And of course his professorship in Forensics, you know, was –”

“Conferred at Dresden. He’s told me about it many times, Inspector.” I grin at him. “To be honest, Inspector, I think that our dear Professor is a bit too boastful to be an effective spy.”

The Inspector’s chuckles. “I have to agree there. But seriously, you see my problem. If I confided in Axelson – and then things went wrong…”

“You’d be blamed.”

“Exactly. Now you understand me. So I am forced to steer clear of the professor, even though I personally believe that he is above suspicion, and that his unusual methods might cast light on this case. And I’d be glad of light – any light. Because this is beyond question the most baffling I’ve ever dealt with – but also, the most important. I am not understating it when I say that the future of Europe may depend on us solving this case.”

In my mind I’m making connections. I know what the Inspector is going to say next. So I say it for him.

“Colette Morgan.”

He doesn’t seem surprised. “The professor, I guess, will have told you that name. Like all my colleagues, I have never met Miss Morgan: she works undercover, in the United States. But we have received valuable intelligence from her over a number of years, via the United States Secret Service, and latterly the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She works independently, using her own methods in order to supply information to the American security services. To keep them informed about the activities of people who threaten the safety of civil society and democracy, both in America and in Britain.”

“I’m aware that so-called security services in both Britain and America gather information about many people. For example, they gather information about people I personally admire: members of the suffragette movement. You use the word ‘democracy’ lightly, Inspector, even though you probably regard women protesting for the right to vote as a ‘threat to safety’.”

Some cheers break out among the voices coming from the General Room next door. Then, I hear someone call out to the whole room, as if introducing an act onto the stage, but the words are muffled. There’s another round of cheering: the performer being introduced to the assembled passengers must be very popular.

“My job, Miss Frocester, is not to judge the moral rights and wrongs of the threats, merely the level of risk that they pose. But this matter has nothing to do with the suffragette movement. However, it does relate to a different crisis that the British government currently faces.”

I hear a strong, fine tenor voice start up in the General Room.

 

“When boyhood’s fire was in my blood

I read of ancient freemen,

And then I prayed I yet might see

Our fetters rent in twain,

And Ireland, long a province, be

A nation once again!”

 

Through the wall, I hear the passion behind the lyrics as an almost physical sensation. The singer’s voice is flooded with feeling, and at each chorus his tones rise to an emotional crescendo. Then I hear the entire audience joining in with the final reprise of the refrain, the mingled voices of men, women and children. The song comes to an end with a fervored cheer, shouts of approval, the thump of feet on the floorboards and the pounding of fists on tables. I glance at the Inspector, and there is understanding between us.

“Yes, Miss Frocester. The conspiracy that Colette Morgan infiltrated involves citizens of the United States who will never forget the land of their birth. Residents of New York and other American cities, who are working – illegally – for the independence of Ireland from the British Empire.”

“And as with women’s suffrage, is that so wrong? You and I both heard the song – and the audience’s response. A fairly typical response, I’d guess. Most Irish men and women would like to throw off the yoke of British government. Including those who have been forced through poverty to leave their native country to emigrate to America. British rule in Ireland has been shameful. And Irish emigrants’ homeland is no less dear to them, even if they have been forced to leave it. I’d say that Irish-Americans have good reason to work for Irish independence.”

“Morally, I can’t disagree with you. But practically, there are proper ways and means. Ireland may indeed achieve independence, but it will be a delicate, longwinded process of negotiation, done in government offices and meeting-rooms by politicians, civil servants and lawyers. That process is too slow for many in Ireland. Some of them want to take action into their own hands. They believe that the only way to achieve their aims is to bring terror to the streets of Dublin. Or, better still, London.”

“A terrorist attack?”

“ Yes. Some kind of terror attack, on a scale never seen before. We don’t know what form it will take. But the conspiracy to carry out this attack is tangled up with Percy Spence’s murder.

You see, Miss Frocester, there are, walking the streets of English cities, two unseen groups of people: Irish revolutionaries and German spies. What if they were to work together? They are utterly different but with the same aim: both groups would be delighted to see a terrorist attack on London, and chaos across the British Isles. If the reports that Colette Morgan, for example, used to send us are to be believed, the plotters’ tentacles reach very far – and, they are poised to strike.”

Used to send you. You mean, she’s stopped communicating?”

“No, she still sends reports. But while the Federal Bureau of Investigation continue to pass Colette’s reports over to us, they have warned us that they may no longer be reliable. To be plain: many at the Bureau suspect that she has joined the plotters. They think that she now sends the Bureau not information, but misinformation, to deliberately cause confusion. And, to be absolutely honest with you, Agnes, I have personally no idea at all whether Colette’s intelligence is true, or whether it’s a pack of lies.”

“This Federal Bureau organization that you speak of – why do they suspect her?”

“I think she has been involved with one activist in particular, a Mr Nolan. Those at the Bureau who still trust Colette say that she has rightly focused on him, because he is by far the most powerful and dangerous supporter of the Irish terror plot. And they do have a point, because Nolan’s criminal connections extend right across New York: he is, as it were, a king among gangsters. But those who don’t believe Colette – they say that she has become Nolan’s mistress, and that she now serves him, not us. That point of view also makes sense: what better way for Nolan to outwit us, than to deliberately send us misleading information via one of our own agents? So both theories about Colette Morgan are plausible. I don’t know which is true.”

Several men enter the smoking room. They’re in good spirits: I hear their Irish accents, joking with each other. But I feel that a cloud of suspicion has descended across everyone I see.

“Why are you telling me all these secrets, Inspector, if I can’t use them? If I can’t speak of them to the professor or anyone?”

“I didn’t say that, Miss Frocester. It is only Professor Axelson who must not be involved. I did not say that you could not tell another gentleman. A prominent gentleman.”

Another penny drops. “So I can tell Chisholm, then?”

“You understand my meaning perfectly. As you know, he holds a position of some responsibility at the Home Office. So he may be in a position to do something. In fact, I would be really grateful if you could let him know that I and Scotland Yard are seriously investigating this case. Ideally, I would seek him out myself. I have to travel to New York anyway, but then I received intelligence that the three of you were all travelling on this sailing of the Olympic. So I hoped to speak to Chisholm on the voyage, so that we could share information. I planned to go and talk to him on the first day of the voyage. But I haven’t. Because since boarding the ship, I know that I am being watched.”

“By whom?”

“I don’t know. It is just a feeling – a feeling of someone behind my back. I’ve had that feeling before, many times, in my investigations over the years. A sense of presence, something behind my shoulder. But whoever this person is, he is more skilled that any other criminal or spy that I’ve dealt with during my career. I turn, I look – but I never see anyone. Just a crowd of people, going about their own business and enjoying the voyage. But I know that this person is there, and because of him, I’ve avoided making my presence known to Sir Chisholm. A prominent and trusted member of society – and, of course, he is employed at the Home Office. So it’s possible that foreign agents are watching Sir Chisholm, too. I cannot afford to be seen communicating directly with him. But you can, Miss Frocester. Speak to him. I trust you with this.”

“Thank you.”

“I was sounding you out, of course, that night that Kitty disappeared. And then, I was pleased to hear that Chisholm, the professor and yourself were taking this voyage and picking up your investigations in America, because that is where I also am going, in order to seek the answers to this puzzle. The mystery of Percy Spence’s murder aboard the Titanic, Miss Agnes, it is like a photograph or a drawing, torn in two. You, Chisholm and the professor are finding out about one half. I am finding out about the other. When we can put the two halves together, we will solve the mystery.”

“What you mean is, Inspector, you’d prefer to talk to Chisholm, but you dare not approach him, so you’ve had to settle for second best. Me.” I give him a lopsided smile, to show him I’m joking.

“Well, that’s one way of putting it! But joking aside, Miss Frocester, you could look at it from another angle. I’m placing great trust in you.”

“I can see that. Thank you.”

“When I saw you walking alone on the third-class Promenade Deck this morning, I saw my chance. There was no-one suspicious about. For the first time on this voyage, I was certain that I was unobserved. So it occurred to me that I could approach you, ask you to be my go-between. A role I knew you’d be fitted perfectly for. As long as you’re happy with it?…”

“Yes, I am. I don’t understand this mystery that I’ve gotten into – but although I get scared at times, I don’t regret it. I’m glad you sought me out, Inspector.” I smile at him. “I’m glad, too, of this brandy. Thank you. My nerves are steadying now.”

The group of Irishmen have left, and the bar is nearly deserted again. Inspector Trench goes over to the bar, orders a second brandy. He pours it into a small metal flask. “Keep this flask, Agnes. You might need it.”

“Thank you.” I have no idea what to do with it: I put into the breast-pocket of my travelling-jacket. As I do, a shadow falls across our little table.

I look up.

“Inspector. Nice to see that you have company, although the Third-Class Smoking-Room is an odd place to bring a young lady.”

It’s an educated, faultless English accent. The man is slight and thin, below middle-height, yet he seems to loom over us. His eyes are sharp and shrewd, his figure delicate, almost feminine, in his elegant suit. His graying hair is exquisitely groomed.

“Lord Buttermere. I’m sorry, I should introduce Miss Agnes Frocester. She is accompanying Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar and Professor Axelson on their voyage to New York.”

“A charming companion for two travelling men. Delighted to meet you, Miss Frocester; if I can offer you any service?…” His manner is smooth and assured. But instantly, he turns to the Inspector, and speaks more briskly. “A word, in private.”

“Of course. However, Miss Frocester does need someone to accompany her back to the first-class sections of the ship…”

“Very well. Instead, then, I’ll speak to you first, Miss Frocester. Because I have sometime to tell you, too.”

His words take me totally by surprise. What on earth could this man, a stranger to me, want to say to me? Lord Buttermere looks into my eyes, holding me in his even, measured gaze. I have absolutely no idea what he’s thinking. His voice continues: a voice like silk.

“You see, Miss Frocester, the Inspector has already spoken to me about you. I can’t do anything to prevent you working with Sir Chisholm and the Swedish professor in a private investigation.”

I try to answer. “Yes. That’s what we are doing. A private investigation.” I blink: it’s hard to look into this man’s eyes.

“Miss Frocester, there are certain things which the three of you may discover – may already have discovered.” His smile is like the Cheshire Cat: I don’t know lies behind it. His eyes track smoothly across to the Inspector, then back to me. “It will be better for all concerned if you and your companions disregard those findings. They are unrelated to the death of Percy Spence, which was undoubtedly caused by some unfortunate connection in his personal life.”

“You are very cryptic, Lord Buttermere.”

“And you, Miss Frocester, are good at puzzles. So if I am cryptic, I’m confident that you can decipher my message.” The sly smile again, as if he is sharing a confidence with an old friend. “You see, Agnes – if I may call you that? – Inspector Trench here, he is a policemen. Over his long professional career, one of the tactics he has developed is to share confidential – but useless – information with people. Such people then feel that the Inspector trusts them. And so, they trust him in return. And so they become unguarded and open with him. After a while, they find that they are telling him things that they shouldn’t. It’s a sound police method – but not ideal for all circumstances.”

“The Inspector has told me nothing…”

“Of course. He has told you nothing at all. By the way, Miss Frocester, I hope you will have time to visit your family and friends in Putnam while you are in the United States. I hope Frocester’s Drugstore is still flourishing, and that your parents are well. Do they still buy all their groceries at Mundy’s store? And of course I know about your brother Abe’s hopes of entering the United States Army and becoming an officer. West Point would suit him. If he gets the opportunity, that is.”

The gaze is unblinking. The voice carries on.

“I hope also that you bear your family and your brother’s intended career in mind when you speak to Sir Chisholm and Professor Axelson. It is imperative that no-one – including people that you trust – become aware that I am aboard this ship. The consequences if anyone finds out that I am here could be – unforeseen.”

He says these words with deadly emphasis, but the smile continues. He knows everything about me, and yet I know nothing about him. Right now, he’s judging my reactions and gauging whether I’ll do as I’m told. And he seems to have reached his conclusions.

“I’ll leave you now, Agnes. Inspector – you and I can have that chat later. I have business to attend to now. You are free to stay here – and, you can help Miss Frocester find her way back to more congenial surroundings. I’m sure she doesn’t feel quite at home here.”

 

He’s gone. Despite the man’s small stature, the smoking room now feels bigger, and the air seems clearer, if I’ve been holding my breath until now. Inspector Trench looks at me, his face more than usually weary. I read a signal in his eyes which says: neither of us will speak of what’s just happened.

“Well, time to go, I think. But before we go – I just wanted to reaffirm what we were saying earlier. I do understand you, Miss Frocester. You’re a bright young woman, but you have a heart too. Your main interest in this case – in suspending your employment and taking this journey – it is not the thrill of intrigue, or the avenging of Percy Spence, or achieving justice.”

“No. You’re right.”

“It’s Kitty Murray, isn’t it, Agnes? You want to find her – or find out what happened to her.”

“You’ve read me like a book. Yes – I’m really disappointed you’ve not been able to make any progress on Kitty’s abduction. It’s too horrible, the thought of what has happened to her. That open window in the moonlight – the moment I stood there, realizing she’d gone. And then – to discover that she’d not gone willingly – that some man, or men, had taken her away by force. The terror she must have felt. Most of us are unlucky if we have to go through such feelings once in our lives, but she had endured the Titanic.”

“As you did.”

“Yes, and it haunts me still. I realized today, when I saw those icebergs, that it will haunt me for the rest of my life. You’re the first person I’ve told that to.”

His eyes are sympathetic, fatherly. Although I know it’s time to go, I carry on talking. “But Kitty – I daren’t think about what she has suffered. I want to find her – to rescue her. That’s what I really care about, that’s why I agreed to come on this trip, to the annoyance of Lady Lockesley. And, to face my fears by crossing this ocean again.”

As I look into his face, I think of the cases he’s investigated, his long experience that seems to show in the lines of his skin. I ask the question.

“Do you think Kitty is still alive?”

“I don’t know, Miss Frocester. I have, literally, no clue at all.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Among the slaughterhouses

 

Hundreds of people are on the deck of the Olympic. For a moment, I feel like I’m back in the darkness: I hear shouts of fear, I sense panic – but I push those thoughts aside. Because I’m standing in the early morning sunshine, and all these people are cheering. We’re looking at the Statue of Liberty.

“Back to your homeland once more, Miss Agnes.” Another hour has now passed: we’ve breakfasted, and are now ready to disembark. We’re at Chelsea Piers, and Professor Axelson and I stand side-by-side at the rail of the Boat Deck, looking down as the gangways are lowered. I remember our arrival here one year ago: disembarking from the Carpathia, after our rescue following the wreck of the Titanic. As we left the ship, press reporters and photographers crowded round us, a shouting frenzy of voices and bodies. Chisholm’s strong arms shielded Blanche and me from the flashes of the cameras and the jabber of questions. I shut the memory out, and bring my thoughts back to the present moment.

“I understand you are to leave Chisholm and me, Professor?”

“I am travelling immediately on to Glen Springs Sanitarium in upstate New York, to see Mr Freshing, our eye-witness to the moment of Spence’s death. I have allowed myself three days to speak to him, because of his poor health. His nerves are still not good, and it may take some time and conversation before I gain his trust enough for him to undergo the hypnosis. But in four days’ time I will rejoin you here.”

 

Chisholm and I are staying at the Hotel Metropole on West 43rd Street. Times Square – the busiest place in the world, they say – is just around the corner. By eleven a.m., I’m in my hotel room: a quiet haven after the hustle and hubbub of Manhattan outside. But after only an hour’s quiet rest, I hear a knock on the door.

“I’ve got a surprise for you.” Chisholm is at my door, holding a suitcase. “In here, you’ll find clothes.”

“What sort of clothes?”

“Clothes – for you to wear. Because, you see, we’re going to do some investigating of our own. I have an idea – which the professor pooh-poohs – but let’s see, shall we?”

Chisholm leaves me, and as he shuts my door, I open the suitcase. Inside is a rough woolen plaid skirt, a simple linen blouse and a shawl. There’s also a photograph, of a woman wearing a similar costume. I study how she has tied the shawl. As soon as I’m sure that the style of my dress matches the woman in the photograph, I descend the stairs to Chisholm’s room and knock at the door.

The door opens, and the figure of a tall, strong man fills the frame. He’s a man that anyone would take for a laborer. Rough trousers and waistcoat. Even his face seems different: I notice the corrugated brows, the work-worn creases round his eyes.

“What on earth is this, Chisholm? A fancy dress party?”

“Not quite! We need to leave the hotel: just come with me, and I’ll explain as we go along.”

My first instinct is: what will people think of us, as they see us leaving the hotel? And indeed we do get glances, even stares, as we cross the lobby towards the main entrance: I see a mixture of scorn and pity in peoples’ eyes. They must all think we’re a jobless couple who have come to the hotel looking for work – and that the hotel manager has sent us on our way.

Out on the sidewalk, the sun feels surprisingly warm, and the shawl feels itchy round my hair. I hear Chisholm’s voice.

“We’re going somewhere where these clothes will help us fit in. Trust me, Agnes – and above all, don’t speak. Where we are going, don’t open your mouth.”

The cab journey from Chelsea Piers to the Hotel Metropole was a blur: only now am I starting to take in my surroundings. I’ve seen New York only twice, fleetingly. The first time I stayed here only one night, before my voyage to England. The second time was after the Titanic, and I only left the hotel to take the train to Connecticut and then return. Right now, the noise and brashness is, as it was before, a shock. Brighter, louder, faster than London. Automobiles whiz by along 43rd Street, trams clang and jostle. But it’s the sounds that are so different: shouts, calls – American voices, the accents so cheerful, so strong, youthful, vigorous. Strangely, I’m reminded of the playground back in my schooldays. The riot of noises rings in my ears as we walk through the thronging streets to where 43rd Street crosses Eighth Avenue.

Chisholm looks at the traffic. “We need to cross the road here” he says, but Eighth Avenue is a like a river: an relentless flow of automobiles and wagons. There seems to be no crossing-place. We spot a gap in the stream of traffic and step off the pavement. As we reach the other side of Eighth Avenue, Chisholm turns to me and says “Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen.”

I’m surrounded by filthy, ragged children: they swarm like flies around Chisholm and me. First I notice the stench from them, and their rags of clothing. Then I notice the hands. Dirty little fingers are everywhere: reaching out, touching my arms, pulling at my skirt. There are mangy, wild-looking dogs, too: mouths open, slavering. They look at me as if I might be carrying something for them to eat. I guess if I did have food, the children and dogs would fight over it. “Walk” says Chisholm. I step forward into the throng of street urchins, and they move aside to let us pass. “See, they’re just trying it on.” Chisholm says to me, as we walk down a sunless, slot-like street, the sky above blotted out by rows of washing strung across between the blocks of frowsy, dark-stained buildings.

London is known for sudden changes of neighborhood, but this is something beyond any experience of mine. It’s a different world from central Manhattan across Eighth Avenue. The very air here is grimy: I’m breathing ash and dust. The street is strewn with dog-gnawed bones. “From the slaughterhouses.” says Chisholm. “Some of those who work there are part-paid in kind: they’re allowed to take a share of the bones and offal home.” And yes – through the gritty air I can smell boiling flesh, and the sharp chemical reek that comes from tanneries. And all along the alley, loitering around dark doorways, are little gangs – in threes and fours, groups of men, of women and of children. Every single face has a stare. Looking at me. Hostile? Or just curious? I thought that my clothes were supposed to help me fit in – but every one of these silent stares says to me: here’s an outsider, she doesn’t belong here.

At the end of the block is another busy road. Chisholm says just two words. “Ninth Avenue”. This road is different: it’s in deep shadow, overhung by the huge metal frames of an elevated railway. There are no cars along this road: in the darkness beneath the forest of iron girders supporting the El tracks, I see horses pulling wagons. Some of the wagons are filled with scrap metal, others are piled high with animal carcasses. Plodding alongside the wagons are crowds of rag-clad pedestrians: men, women and children, all moving as if in time. Every head is down, every face looks blank. They look like a column of fleeing refugees. We cross the road, watching carefully, but the hordes of people seem oblivious to us: a crowd of walking dead. I hear the rumbling approach of an El train above us: a strange, metallic rattle that sets my teeth on edge. It gets louder and louder, and the girders of the railway structure seem to shake. Then, as the sound of the train dies away again, I hear a different noise; one that I first heard five minutes ago, in the alley. Short, low coughs from many of the pedestrians. The telltale sign of tuberculosis. It’s a relief to get to the other side of Ninth Avenue, but then we enter a second alley of slums, as ruinous and festering as the first.

We turn another corner, and I hear a chorus of women’s voices from overhead.

I look up. Every window in the tenement block above us is wide open, and from every one peers a female face, rouged, pouting. Bare arms wave from the windows. The voices are calling to Chisholm.

“Hey, good-looking fella!”

“Give us the time of day, man.”

“It’s your lucky day, boyo! Just ask at the door there for Moll.”

I’m shocked, most of all, by Chisholm’s behavior. He stops walking and looks up at the girls. He smiles and waves back at them, and the chorus of voices calling to him increases. I’m stunned by his behavior: I would never have thought it of him. He seems pleased, excited even: taken up into the attention of the girls. As he grins at the faces above us, I hear a movement, below and behind us. I turn to see a shadowy shape move up to us, soundlessly, like a ghost.

I’m looking at the cold glint of sunlight on a cheap, ragged-edged knife. Held to Chisholm’s throat. The blade grazes his Adam’s apple.

“Give me every cent you’ve got.”

As if choreographed, all the girls disappear. We’re alone on the street with our attacker. Chisholm doesn’t speak. I can’t believe he’s brought us to this den of horrors – and now, he’s been taken in by this trick. Five, ten seconds pass: Chisholm does nothing, says nothing, and I see the stranger’s grip tighten, his knuckles white as he presses the knife against the skin. A dull-red stain on the blade must, I guess, be dried blood: I can even see, in the grime of the handle, what look like strands of torn sinew.

I hear a totally unfamiliar voice come from Chisholm’s lips. A broad, friendly Irish brogue.

“Hands off, you daft lad. Put the knife down. Jimmy Nolan would skin your soft hide off your flesh like a carcass down at Tom’s Tannery, if he knew what you were doing to a brother.”

The attacker’s grip eases, his eyes stare. He releases Chisholm, takes a step back. There’s almost an apology in his face. But he’s still the one holding the knife. Chisholm smiles, speaks easily to him in that utterly unexpected accent.

“Today’s password, by the way, is Monaghan. See, you should learn a trick or two and use a better knife. You’ve been butchering bones for Jimmy’s dogs with this one.” Chisholm holds out his hand, flat. Like a child, the man places the knife gently in the palm. Chisholm speaks like he’s giving a fatherly lesson. “A good workman looks after his tools. Sharpen this, and keep it clean. I’d have thought better of a Gopher.”

The Gophers. Even I’ve heard that name: the most notorious and powerful gang in all New York. In bars across America, there are whispers about their fearful deeds. But I’ve also heard that they do more to help the poor Irish of the city than every charity and soup kitchen in Manhattan put together. Chisholm’s smile is now a warm, wide grin, and his Irish accent continues.

“You’ll have to get up earlier in the morning, before you try jumping the likes of me. I saw you hiding there, clear as day: that’s why I looked up at the girls. Whores calling out to grab the attention of a guy, so some punk can jump him – it’s the oldest trick in the book. So I looked up at the girls, deliberate like, so as to give you the chance. And when you put the knife to me, I didn’t react for a minute or so, just so as to test you out. You see, if you’d been some trash from The Gorillas or The Parlor Mob, and I was standing there and not giving you my cash, you’d have tried sticking the knife to the lady’s neck, see if that would make me cough up some money. But us Gophers are gentlemen, we don’t go around slitting ladies’ throats. We don’t need to. So when you left my girl alone, I knew you were a Gopher.”

The man stand silent, humbled. Embarrassed. Chisholm speaks again.

“So come along with us, son. You see, I’m over from the old country, and I’ve some words to have with Jimmy. I guess he’s in the usual spot?”

“I’ll take you there right now. By the way, my name’s Malone. It’s good to meet you.” Now, the stranger is eager to please: almost fawning on Chisholm as we leave the street and follow a black slit of an alley. The sky is a thin blue line above us. After a minute, the brick walls of the alley give way to sheets of corrugated iron, which seem to press in on us from both sides. But what’s so strange are the sounds, which grow as we go deeper into the alley. The noises are almost human – groan and moans of unease, distress, fear. The ghastly sounds get louder, echo all around me, filling my ears. What do these noises remind me of? I feel a chill in my heart as I recall reading in a newspaper the words of another Titanic survivor, describing what she heard while huddled in a lifeboat. “A dismal moaning sound which I won’t ever forget; it came from those poor people who were floating around, calling for help. It was horrifying, mysterious, supernatural.”

In the near-darkness of the alley I see glints of red light on the ground. They’re wet and shiny. I realize that we’re stepping among glistening pools of blood.

“Watch your step; we’re among the slaughterhouses here. In places like this, the blood sometimes spills over from their drains and runs out along the alleys.” says Chisholm to me, again in the unfamiliar voice. “Those are the animals you can hear.”

I feel physically sick. Living creatures, waiting to be killed… the noises, this hateful place. But worst of all is Chisholm’s behavior, his strange accent. I realize that there is a hidden side to him. Right now, I have no idea at all why he is behaving like this, or why he has brought me here. I realize that I no longer trust Chisholm. In fact, right now, I fear him.

But despite all that, I remember my panic on the Olympic when I saw the icebergs. Panic doesn’t help. The feeling now is worse – but I can’t give in to it. Hold on, Agnes, keep it together. Keep stepping carefully, avoid the puddles of blood.

And suddenly we’re out of the alley, onto a broader street. It feels good to be back in the sunlight again. The neighborhood is still grim: directly ahead of us I see yet another crumbling tenement. But its ground floor is different from the others: I see a line of grimy, cracked bar-room windows. Above the bar’s doorway is a crude painting of a glass of dark, white-frothed Irish porter. Written above the painting are the words “The Black Velvet.”

We step inside. The floor is covered with dirty sawdust and the walls are gray with grime. The bar-room’s only occupant is a man who sits on the only chair, at the only table. I’m startled to see what covers that table. Dollar bills: hundreds of them. A fortune in cash, just sitting there on the table. The seated man is thumbing through the bills. Malone, our would-be attacker, nods a welcome to the seated man. Apart from these two men, the place is deserted: there’s no bartender. But then, Malone steps behind the empty bar. “On the house: it will be a pleasure. Would you like a whisky, sir, and a weak stout, for the lady?” Chisholm nods. A minute passes in silence while our drinks appear on the bar. I don’t touch mine, but then Chisholm gives me a glance, and I sip the white foam. I feel like it’s leaving a frothy mustache on my upper lip. Chisholm drinks the whisky, slowly and deliberately. Then he motions with his head towards the solitary man with his piles of money.

“Takings good this week?”

The man at the table speaks without looking up. “Pretty good, thanks. The Rhodes Boys.”

“I heard the Rhodes Boys wanted to go it alone for a while. Silly lads. Some pressure had to be applied, I heard.”

“You heard right.” But the man is concentrating on careful counting: he returns to thumbing through the dollar bills. We sit with our drinks looking across at Malone, who smiles, as if we’re now all friends together. I still have absolutely no idea what is going on. Then, after a pause, I hear Chisholm’s strange Irish voice again, asking, off-hand. “So, are you going to take me through to Jimmy? I guess he’ll be in the back room, as usual?”

Malone is torn, I can tell. He wants to please Chisholm, but at the same time he’s scared to disturb his boss. But all the same, he goes over to another door, behind the bar. He knocks on it timidly, like a child.

Two minutes pass, and Malone reappears, beckoning to us. Moments later, we are in a private room behind the bar, and Chisholm is shaking the hand of a smooth-faced man in his thirties. The room is as dirty and neglected as the bar was – but its occupant is younger, better-looking, than I would have expected for a gangland boss, and his business-like air contrasts with the sordid surroundings. His suit and groomed hair would not be out of place on Wall Street. But the bulging, ugly gold signet ring on his index finger, a display of ill-gotten wealth, would look too showy in polite society.

“OK Malone. You can leave us to talk now.” The door closes behind us, and as we sit at a table the man’s dark eyes flick between me and Chisholm: quick, intent, like the movement of a knife. He seems to be looking right through us. I feel afraid.

“Well thanks for calling in, fresh across from the old country. I hope all’s well there. But we’re not here to pass the time of day, are we?”

“I’ve a message, Mr Nolan, from over the water.”

The sharp gaze bores into Chisholm. Nolan’s silence is a command to tell all. Chisholm speaks.

“My message is from Black Velvet.”

A sharp intake of breath: a suspicious flash of those eyes. “From the grave, you mean? Black Velvet is dead.”

“That’s right. And he knew he might die. He told me that, if anything happened to him, he would like me to finish the job. So from now on, Mr Nolan, you might as well call me Black Velvet.”

“Well now, why would I believe that? You come in here, you make out you’re connected to the Gophers, you seem to be a supporter of the Cause, you know today’s password…”

“Yes. I do. I know every day’s password.” Chisholm’s blue eyes sparkle confidence: Nolan returns a gimlet stare, as if to test who will blink first. Then he sneers.

“Every day’s password, indeed. A cop could have put a gun to the head of one of our boys this morning and got that password out of him. So you’ll see why I’m a little wary of you, with your tales of Black Velvet. See, I heard that Black Velvet didn’t drown when the big ship went down. The rumor is, he died because he drank something that disagreed with him. Maybe the cops – or the British – killed him. Maybe they’re trying to infiltrate us. Infiltrate us right now, right here. And a man who tried to do that – we’ll know, we’ll find him out, he’d spend his last hours praying that he’d never been born. So – why should I trust you? Who’s to say that you’re not an Englishman, putting on a emerald voice? Or worse, some Ulster Protestant who’d like to see every true Irishman hung?”

There’s a tense pause. Then Nolan fires two more words. “So – you.”

I realize. He’s talking to me.

“Yes you, Miss. Raven hair, and eyes green as jealousy. White skin like fine Irish milk. Lips that I’d enjoy kissing. A County Clare girl, I’d say, by the look of you. Speak, colleen. Let’s hear your voice match your face.”

I feel Chisholm gripping my hand under the table. I don’t open my mouth.

“Well, Missie?”

Chisholm reaches into his pocket. Even now, he speaks off hand, casually. “Black Velvet gave me this.”

Something rolls onto the table, and Nolan picks it up. With a shock I see that he’s looking that the pen that I found at Sweynsey Hall. The pen’s monogrammed BV glints in his hands, and I see the surprise in those hawk-like eyes. He turns the pen around in his fingers, looking and thinking. But Chisholm keeps talking, in that relaxed tone, like he’s discussing the weather. “You see, Mr Nolan, I know that you have a shipment, which is due to be loaded onto a ship for England. I know that you now have the cargo ready to load, because Black Velvet asked me to contact you about it. The letter you received was from me.”

Nolan puts the pen down on the table in front of him. He looks up at Chisholm, showing his teeth as he smiles. “Now why would I be shipping a mystery cargo to England? I’m a New York businessman.”

“All you need to know, Mr Nolan, is that Black Velvet trusted me as his right hand. He knew the English spies were onto him. So he said to me, when he got aboard the Titanic, that if anything happened to him, I was to carry on with our work. You’ve kindly obtained a cargo of supplies for us. That cargo now needs to be loaded onto an England-bound passenger steamer, in secret. Because if it were loaded onto a cargo ship, in the usual way, someone might think to check what’s inside the packing cases.”

“And the contents of these packing cases are?…”

“Well now, you know that already – because it’s your own people who have got the goods together for us, Mr Nolan. You’ve used your contacts within construction firms in Manhattan in order to get hold of these goods. Well done: it’s good to see so much support for the Cause.”

Nolan is listening carefully, as Chisholm carries on.

“Now, Black Velvet trusted you – so, I trust you. I trust you to organize the Gophers to pack up the shipment, and do all the necessary bribing of various officials and suchlike, down at the docks, so that no-one sees these cases being loaded. And I see in the room out there that you have the cash ready to make those bribes – the Rhodes Boys have paid their debts to you, like the nice lads they are.”

Nolan’s eyes half-close, like he’s shutting out his sight so that he can think. I hear a clock ticking, and the shouts of kids playing in an alley outside. And at long last, there’s a slow, slow smile.

“OK, Mister Black Velvet. I believe you. Let’s shake hands. But you can see why I doubted you. English spies – and New York cops – are everywhere. Can’t be too careful, can we?”

“I agree. Careful’s the word. Which is why I’ll need to know that the loading of the ship is being done. Leave a message for me at the New Amsterdam Hotel, telling me which ship is being loaded, and when. Then, I can arrange the unloading back in England. The name to leave the message for is a Mr Jack Corr.”

“Very well, Mr Jack Corr. We have a deal. Shake on it.”

As they shake hands, I see Nolan smiling in self-satisfaction. As he draws his hand away, he twists the signet ring round his finger, as if he likes to feel the gold rubbing on his skin: I can tell that it’s a mannerism he does often. Somehow, Chisholm has fooled him, and the Gophers will do exactly what Chisholm says. But how did Chisholm get us here, talking to this gangster king? Sitting in this room, at the back of this bar, I feel we’re in the central circle of Hell.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. At the Hotel Metropole

 

Another room, another table, another bar. But it’s a world away from the slums and tenements: Chisholm and I are sitting in leather easy chairs beneath the ornately coffered ceiling of Billie Considine’s luxury bar at the Hotel Metropole. There’s a chatter of voices: two groups stand near us, talking: the men earnestly discuss shipping: the women talk about a recent fashion show. A waiter weaves his way through them and comes over to take our order.

“Brandy, Madam?”

“No thank you.” I recall the drink I had with the Inspector. Right now, I need to think clearly. I feel totally confused, and I need to understand the extraordinary game that Chisholm has been playing. I look at the waiter. “Do you have any Coca-Cola?”

“Of course.” The waiter brings me a glass, empty except for two chunks of ice, and the familiar shaped bottle. Chisholm looks at it and smiles fondly. He himself has a brandy: he takes a sip, then puts in down on the table in front of us. But he doesn’t say anything.

I look into his eyes for answers to all the questions I have. But still, he says nothing. I realize that I’m burning with anger against him. For all the secrets that he’s kept from me.

“Well, Chisholm?”

“Well indeed, Agnes. Sorry to put you in at the deep end. But it was the only way, really. I couldn’t risk you knowing anything, saying anything.”

“Knowing what, exactly? I’m furious with you, Chisholm. I’ve never been angrier in my life. What on earth are we into here?”

“This is a journey that you yourself started, Agnes, when you agreed to sit in on Kitty’s hypnosis. You could have gone your whole life without knowing about me. Like Blanche.”

“You mean – she doesn’t know? Whatever secret it is that you have?”

“No. She knows that I was a soldier, and that when I left the Army I became a Home Office official. She knows the external, the public face, of Chisholm Strathfarrar. She doesn’t know what my Home Office work actually involves. Although strictly speaking, I don’t work for the Home Office. My office is indeed in Whitehall, and I do work in central government. But my work is for a secret branch of the British War Office: the Secret Intelligence Bureau.”

“Well – the simple truth is, you’ve been lying to me. Your involvement in this business is not amateur: it’s professional.”

“Let me explain, Agnes. I didn’t want to betray your trust – I’ve found the last few weeks very difficult.”

“So have I. But the most difficult part of all, for me, has been the last three hours.”

“Let me start at the beginning, Agnes. My work – my real work, that is – involves infiltrating secret organizations. Organizations that the British Secret Intelligence Bureau believe may pose a threat to public safety. Terrorists, to put it plainly.”

“You work undercover?”

“Yes. Inspector Trench has led the legitimate, police side of operations against a terrorist plot. He and I have never met, except that one time when he came to Grafton Square. But I’m aware of his work. I lead the other, covert side of the same operation: infiltrating the terrorist organization in Ireland, in order to discover their secrets.”

Chisholm’s voice is low but I worry about us being overheard, despite the loud chatter. I guess he knows this type of situation, and whether there is a risk of someone hearing a snatch of our conversation. But despite the people all around, I’m glad Chisholm and I are talking about this: some of the things that Inspector Trench said to me aboard the Olympic are starting to make sense. And I realize why the inspector was so keen to be able to get messages to Chisholm, why he asked me to be his go-between. I recall the inspector’s words in the smoking room – “This case is like a photograph torn in two. You are finding out about one half: me, the other. When we can put the two halves together, we will solve the mystery.’

Thinking about Inspector Trench, I realize that there is a question that I must ask. I feel a sudden stab of fear – but I must speak. I ask my question.

“Do you know Lord Buttermere?”

This time, it is Chisholm who’s surprised. I see his eyes widen as he looks at me. Then he looks down at the table, thoughtfully. He finishes his glass of brandy before he replies. But he doesn’t answer my question: he asks a question of his own.

“How do you know that name, Agnes?”

“Lord Buttermere introduced himself to me. On the Olympic. He warned me off the case. And he warned Inspector Trench too, about confiding in me.”

Chisholm gives a low whistle. I can tell that he’s considering his answer carefully. “Like me, Lord Buttermere works for British Secret Intelligence. He’s my commanding officer. My boss.”

“I don’t like him.” The words spill out of my mouth before I can stop them.

“It’s not part of Buttermere’s job to be likeable, Agnes. I have had some disagreements with him myself. But he has achieved a lot. For example, it was his influence that led to the British Parliament passing the Official Secrets Act. As you know, the Act has been an invaluable tool in combating both German spies and Irish revolutionaries.”

“Well as you’re telling me all this hush-hush stuff now, tell me what Lord Buttermere actually does. What is his role?”

“He controls communications between the two sections of British Secret Intelligence – there is a Home Section, dealing with domestic plots and terrorism, and a Foreign Section, dealing with overseas espionage. For instance, Buttermere requires all messages between the two Sections, however seemingly trivial, to sent in coded form to him, so that enemies cannot decipher them. He decodes the messages, and gives each Section the information that they need to know.”

“If he controls all the messages, then I guess Lord Buttermere might have an overview of the situation that no-one else has?”

“Yes – you’re right. Effectively, Buttermere can see everything that goes on. But it surprises me to hear that he is taking such a personal interest in the Spence case. I didn’t know, for example, that he was actually aboard the Olympic, or that he was personally in touch with Inspector Trench. And I suppose he must now be here in New York, but I have no idea at all why. Very strange. Most of all, I wonder why he spoke directly to you, Agnes?”

“It was difficult to tell what Lord Buttermere wanted from me, Chisholm. But I got the impression that he would rather that our investigation of Spence’s death found nothing, rather than that it opened…”

“A can of worms. Yes, Buttermere is certainly good at preventing information leaking. As I said, he was a driving force behind the Official Secrets Act.”

“So if that’s what Lord Buttermere does – what do you do, Chisholm? Tell me.” I sip my Coca-Cola, and carry on listening as Chisholm explains.

“For two years, Agnes, I have been working, undercover at times, both in England and in Ireland, investigating a person who we knew of, at first, only as Black Velvet. Black Velvet wanted an independent Ireland, and he believed that it was worth killing for. His organization – which grows stronger by the day – intends to carry out a major terrorist attack in central London. They hope that the attack will bring our government to its knees, force it to cave in to the separatists.”

Peals of laughter break out among the women. As if to pretend to be a normal guest at this hotel, I pick up the brightly-colored issue of Vogue that lies on our table and pretend to be half-listening to Chisholm, half-reading. As I gaze at the glamorous illustration on the magazine cover, I question him in a low voice.

“This leader of the conspiracy is called, you say, Black Velvet. The name of that bar… where we went earlier?”

“The bar appears to be named after the dark stout beers, such as Guinness of Dublin, which are popular among Irish communities on both sides of the Atlantic. But that sign ‘The Black Velvet’ above the door of the bar is actually a coded message, understood by those sympathetic to the Irish independence cause.”

“How is it a coded message?”

“Because what you may not know, Agnes, is that in secret, some Catholics in Scotland and Ireland still drink a toast to ‘The Gentleman in Black Velvet.’ They drink that toast because King William III of England, who defeated the Irish Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne, was killed afterwards, in a riding accident.”

“I know about King William III. You and I looked at his statue, which shows him riding on horseback. Remember, when Blanche, you and I went for a walk around Kensington Gardens? The statue is in front of Kensington Palace.”

“Well, if you remember the statue, you’ll also remember, Agnes, that in that statue, below the horse’s hooves, is a molehill. That’s how William III died. His horse tripped on a molehill.”

“So – a little mole killed an English king. And the mole – he is the Gentleman in Black Velvet?”

“Precisely, Agnes. And now, a new Black Velvet wants to topple England’s leadership from its horse.”

“That gangster – Jimmy Nolan – he said ‘Black Velvet died because he drank something that disagreed with him.’ So are you saying that this Black Velvet, the leader of this conspiracy, was, in fact Percy Spence?”

“Indeed. It’s true. Society’s darling, the glamorous pilot and racing driver Percy Spence, was in fact Black Velvet. You yourself saw the BV monogram on the pen that you found at his house. But you also saw the letter signed by Black Velvet – not ‘Black Violet’ as Professor Axelson thought – that you found in Kitty’s window. Obviously, that letter was written long after Spence’s death. Therefore Black Velvet remains as the code name for the leader of the conspiracy, whoever he now is. Someone in charge of the plot is still very much alive, and they are carrying on Spence’s work.”

“So why did you tell Jimmy Nolan that he could call you Black Velvet?”

“I pretended to Nolan to be that person in charge – that I had inherited Spence’s leadership. And as you saw, I managed to fool him. It wasn’t too difficult: I’ve had plenty of practice at pretending to be Irish over the last two years.”

“Let me get this straight in my head, Chisholm. Percy Spence was a – traitor?”

“Or, he was a true friend to Irish patriots. One man’s traitor is another man’s hero. Everything depends which side of the fence you’re on. But from the British point of view, Black Velvet – Spence – is the very worst sort of criminal. Under English law, ‘High Treason’ has always been the most serious of all crimes. If Spence hadn’t been poisoned, it would have been my duty – and Inspector Trench’s – to ensure that he faced the noose.”

 

A silence has settled on the two of us, still sitting here at our table. I look around at the ornately furnished bar, I hear the chatter of the other guests, but I’m thinking hard. I realize that despite what Chisholm has said, I still feel unhappy. I’m still angry, because I felt that the professor, Chisholm and I were a team. But all along, one member of that team has had a secret agenda. Again, I have to ask a question.

“So if you’re operating so secretly, why are you working with Professor Axelson?”

“As you know, Agnes, I met him the professor here in New York, after the Titanic disaster. He came here to investigate the Spence case, and he approached me. Of course, neither he nor the Canadian police, who he was working with at that time, knew of the espionage. But in other respects he seemed very well-informed, and was already making good progress.”

“Had you ever met him before?”

“No. But I did know of him by reputation. I was aware that he has solved some of the most difficult criminal cases in Europe over the last ten years. Meeting the professor was a golden opportunity.”

“So – you decided to work with Axelson?”

“Yes. I felt that we had to make use of his expertise, to find Spence’s murderer. Because I felt sure that Spence was killed because of his involvement in the plot. If we could find his killer, we would discover more about the Black Velvet plot.”

“But you didn’t share your knowledge about Spence’s treachery with the professor.”

“I wired Lord Buttermere in London. I asked him if I could work with Axelson. My telegram to Buttermere said ‘We have the opportunity to use the expertise of a hypnotist who is a highly successful criminal investigator. May I work with him?’

Lord Buttermere’s reply was crystal clear. He said that I could work with the professor and make use of his expertise. But I was not to pass any secret information at all to him, even if it might appear to help the professor’s investigation. So I could not tell the professor what I knew about Spence’s treachery. I could not even touch on the name Black Velvet.”

“So your hands were tied?”

“Indeed. I didn’t enjoy lying to Axelson, and I felt that it would hamper our investigation. But Lord Buttermere said in his reply to me that, if Professor Axelson’s detective work went well, then the professor himself would come to the correct conclusions about Spence. The truth would become clear to him, through the evidence that he and I would unearth. So you see, Agnes, that I have been forced to play a false part.”

“I understand that now, Chisholm. I see that you were in a difficult position. But I’m still confused about something else. One of the professor’s theories is that Spence was killed because of involvement in a terrorist plot. But the professor thinks Spence was on our side – that is, the British and American – side, and he was killed by one of the plotters. Colette Morgan, maybe.”

“Yes. As you say, one of Axelson’s theories about Spence’s death is that Colette Morgan killed Spence. The professor thinks that Colette murdered Spence because she was a traitor, while he was a loyal British agent. However, I have known all along that Spence was not a loyal British agent.”

“But where does this leave the professor’s suspicions about Colette Morgan? Is she friend or foe? Could she have killed Spence?”

“We still don’t know. She remains a mystery. As for Spence: he was clever – and complex. He seems to have fooled everyone into thinking he was a loyal British subject. He was very good at gaining people’s trust, their confidence. He had a charm, almost a kind of animal magnetism of personality. And of course his position in society put him in contact with a great many of our current figures of influence. For instance, he was known as a close associate of both the bullish young Conservative, Winston Churchill, and the Liberal Svengali, David Lloyd George.”

“But if Spence was acting not for us, but for the plotters – who would have a motive to murder him?”

“It could be a different rebel faction: they are renowned for infighting. Or it could very well be du Pavey or Gilmour, as the professor thinks.”

“This whole spying business – is it possible, do you think, that either du Pavey or Gilmour might be involved in that?”

I suddenly lower my voice. The crowd of women is moving towards the bar, and a gap among the gowns and furs reveals a face within the group that I hadn’t seen before. The unmistakable gold tresses and pearl-like complexion of Gwyneth Gilmour. She’s laughing at some joke: all the women are. I signal with my eyes to Chisholm. He nods.

“I’ve noticed her too, Agnes. Yes, Gwyneth Gilmour is there, and she’s recognized us. But from where she’s standing, she can’t hear a word of what we’re saying. And she’s not interested in us. To her, you and I are just two unimportant people that she saw on the Olympic.”

“I have one last question, Chisholm. You’re now telling me all this confidential information. So, what’s happened now to all your cloak-and-dagger secrecy?”

“Yes – it is a sudden change, I admit. The reason is that on the last day of our voyage on the Olympic, I received a coded telegram from British Secret Intelligence. The telegram instructs me to be more open with you and with the professor. I will tell Axelson everything too, when I next see him.”

“Why? What’s changed?”

“The situation has altered. This shipment, that Nolan is arranging – it means the plotters are close to striking. Things are going to start moving very fast, Agnes. Axelson and I need to work together with Inspector Trench, and without secrets between us, if we are to stand a chance of stopping them. You see, the telegram also contained further intelligence about the Gophers’ activities. They have been systematically bribing – or threatening – building contractors.”

“Why building contractors?”

“This city, Agnes, it keeps reinventing itself: half of Manhattan is a building site. Towering new ‘sky-scrapers’ are growing like a forest. Such rapid development can only be achieved through the demolition of the old buildings, which has to be done quickly. You can guess how the builders do that.”

“Explosives.”

“Exactly. Almost every building firm in Manhattan uses explosives. A few dollars of bribery here, a threat to a man’s family there, and errors appear in building companies’ inventories. Supplies of dynamite go missing. The intelligence I’ve received suggests that the Gophers now have enough high explosives to blow up half of central London.”

More laughter breaks out among the women, but they’re getting ready to move on from the Metropole now: they are going to a theatre or a restaurant, I guess. A couple of the men come over and take the arms of two of the ladies. I glance up to confirm to myself that Calvin Gilmour is not among the men. The whole group leaves: the bar is empty except for Chisholm and I. It’s the mid-afternoon quiet time in here, I guess, and the bartender’s occupied, gathering and cleaning empty glasses, but I still speak in a near-whisper.

“So what you’re saying, Chisholm, is that the plot is ready to carry out their attack.”

“Nearly ready – but not quite. Their only problem is how to get the explosives from New York to London. Clearly, they have to be loaded on a ship, without anyone knowing. Which is why I did my bit of play-acting to Jimmy Nolan.”

“So the reason for our visit to Nolan was for you to pretend to be Black Velvet, and tell him that the shipment should be sent.”

“Exactly. A few days from now Nolan will send a message to a Mr Jack Corr at the New Amsterdam Hotel, with full details of the loading of the shipment. Nolan thinks Jack Corr is me, Black Velvet, but in fact Jack Corr at the New Amsterdam Hotel will be Inspector Trench. He will pass information to the New York Police Department, who will carry out an operation to stop that shipment going through. There are likely to be multiple arrests, and possibly some kind of armed struggle, at the docks. The Gophers will not go down without a fight.”

“Won’t it be very dangerous? A fight – over a cargo of explosives. Wouldn’t it be safer all round to stop the Gophers before they get to the docks?”

“It’s only when loading them onto a ship that all the explosives will be brought together. The New York police need to get hold of every single stick of dynamite – and arrest as many Gophers as possible.”

“If there is a fight – if people get killed – won’t the secrecy of the operation be exposed?”

“No. The Police Department will simply tell the newspapers: this was action against a criminal gang. There will be no mention of Ireland, independence, politics, Percy Spence’s death, the Titanic.”

“Or the explosives, I guess.”

“Newspaper stories about cases of explosives being smuggled through the streets and docklands of New York would not be good news, no. We want to avoid panic, and avoid drawing attention to our actions. But if we’re successful, the operation will lead to the arrest of all the key Irish rebel supporters here in the States. From them, we will gain information about their operatives in Ireland and England. In a few days’ time, we will break the power of the Black Velvet organization.”

For some reason, I recall Chisholm’s home in London: his long hours of work, his sudden trips away from home. The succession of men who have called at Grafton Square, to see him in private. Every time, I was told that they were ‘ex-Army acquaintances’. I realize – yes: what’s happening right now is true, it’s real.

I’m talking to a secret agent.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The man from the maze

 

“Agnes?”

“Sorry, yes? I was thinking.”

It’s just moments later, but I’m understanding now what’s happening. Every day, I become more aware that this is not just a private investigation of a murder, or even a search for Kitty. I’m in a web. In fact, I’m part of the web. Lord Buttermere is aware of my existence, to the extent that he felt the need to threaten me. Worst of all, if the Gophers realize that Chisholm isn’t who he told them he was, then they know not just his face, but mine too.

“I want to give you this.” Chisholm passes a small paper card to me. I look at it. It’s a first-class railroad ticket for the New York, Westchester and Putnam line.

“Get out now, Agnes. Leave this city, leave everything. Forget all that I’ve said, every bit of your involvement. Go back to your hometown and live like none of this had ever happened. This is your chance, Agnes. I’ll give you time to think about it, because I have to leave you for a while. I have to send a telegram to our offices in Whitehall. And although I can’t risk meeting Inspector Trench, I am going to telephone him from the hotel office. And I’ll speak to the City of New York Police Department too.”

“Thank you, Chisholm. Yes, an hour for me to think everything over would be good. I’m just – taking all this in. I’ll sit here for a while.”

“You’ve got deeper into this than you should have, Agnes. Get out now, that’s my advice.”

 

I sit quietly, alone. I ponder everything that I’ve heard from Chisholm. And most of all, I look at the railroad ticket. I think: I could be at home this evening.

It’s funny: I realize that I’m enjoying my first taste of Coca-Cola for a year. I run my fingers over the textured lettering on the bottle, and I enjoy that too. Because right here, right now, my main feeling is: I’m glad to be alive. I could so easily have died, this time last year. Being here, now, seems like an unexpected gift.

I look up. A man is standing at the bar. I can’t see his face.

He’s talking to the bartender, an English accent but with a strange edge to it, something I can’t quite place. I can’t help listening, as he speaks to the bartender. I can’t hear the words he’s saying, but I realize what’s odd: the accent is perfectly normal, but I catch the phrasing, the pauses, they’re not quite right.

The man and the bartender are just chatting, but something here in this bar has changed. I feel a coldness in the pit of my stomach.

The man glances round the room. He’s young, maybe only a few years older than me: tall, blonde hair, fit physique. The movement of his head is casual, but I can tell that it’s just an act. He’s looking carefully around the bar, taking note of everything. I pretend to be looking down, but I glance under my brows at his figure, the way he stands. In this situation, I think, Professor Axelson would doubtless spot an identifying detail, a clue. But I don’t need to. I simply know it.

It’s the man from the maze at Sweynsey Hall.

I glance timidly at his face, and I see a glint of white teeth. He’s showing me a charming smile, and he catches my eyes. Again, he’s pretending to act naturally, casually. The man moves easily away from the bar and steps towards me. Almost a saunter. He stands over me as I sit in the leather easy chair, and I hear his voice again.

“I see you’ve no companion, Miss. This city can be a lonely place, even in a hotel as welcoming as the Metropole. Would you do me the honor of allowing me to buy you a drink?”

Every nerve in my body wants to run.

“That would be lovely. Thank you. Another Coca-Cola.”

The man returns to the bar, and a few moments later, he’s back. He takes a seat: he and I are facing each other across the low table. The waiter brings me another glass of cola, but I don’t touch it. As if to shield myself, I hold the Vogue issue in front of me, look at him over the top of it. Again I see the smiling curve of teeth: the casual movement, the pretended friendliness. Then the man leans forward, and speaks soft and low.

“Miss, you’re mixed up in something you don’t understand. You see, I know that one year ago, you were a survivor. After the sinking of the Titanic, you were one of those who were rescued. So you know.”

My throat feels tight, but I manage to respond. “Know what?”

“You know what it feels like to realize that Agnes Frocester might be dead. Oh yes, the possibility of death is something you understand all too well. In fact, I think that is exactly what you’ve been thinking about, while you’ve been sitting here alone.”

Again I hear the odd edge in his English accent. The gleaming smile goes on, and I see a shake of his head as if he’s made a joke. The bartender carries on cleaning glasses, and although the bar is still empty, I hear movement and happy voices through the door from the hotel lobby. But I’m utterly alone, here with this man.

“You see, Miss Frocester, I don’t want to kill a woman. Although I work with others who have no such scruples. But I’ll do you if needed.”

I’m taking it in, understanding his unfamiliar, horrible phrase. “I’ll do you.” But he’s speaking again now.

“You see, I know you won’t be able to stop Chisholm and that quack professor trying to investigate this business. Because – I know what Chisholm really is. A British agent.”

“So – what do you want from me? Have you come here to warn me off?”

“We’re far beyond warnings, Miss Frocester. This isn’t a message: it’s an interrogation. What you’re going to do, right now, is tell me everything that you and Chisholm Strathfarrar have found out about Percy Spence’s death and Black Velvet. Every single thing. Otherwise, you will live for only a few hours, maybe a few days at most. This is your only opportunity to tell me: there will be no second chances. If you don’t tell me everything you know, then – when you least expect it, both you and Chisholm will be killed.”

I’m silent: thinking. I have no doubts: what this man says, it will happen. But I’m not going to give in. I realize that what happens next depends on what I say. So the initiative, right now, is with me.

So, I ask a question.

“Where’s Kitty?”

I’m reading a face. And I see several things in that face. His eyes blink once, unwillingly. He holds the smile – but with effort. Yes, he knows who I’m talking about. I know it, for sure: I’m speaking to the man who took Kitty from her room in Grafton Square. But – he works for others. This is the errand-boy, not the storekeeper.

And the other thing I see in his face is a sense I can hardly put into words. Like someone who’s holding a good hand of cards. He’s holding something to bargain with. If Kitty was dead – if this man had killed her, or seen her killed – then his face would have a different expression.

I know it. Kitty is still alive.

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?” Another voice is speaking: a woman’s voice, gentle but strong.

“It’s nice to see you’ve already made a friend in this city, Agnes.” A hand extends towards the seated man. “I’m Mrs Gwyneth Gilmour. And you are?…”

“Carver. Ah – Mr Daniel Carver. At your service, Madam.”

“You sound English. I don’t suppose you’ve just come over to New York on the Olympic, by any chance? I hope you’ll stay, chat to us? I have a couple of things to talk to Agnes about, but we’d be delighted if you could join us…”

“No, I have to go now. Thank you anyway, Mrs Gilmour.”

“Such a pity. Nice to meet you, Mr Carver.” And he’s already stepping away. I see him retreating, he leaves the bar: his receding figure gets smaller and he’s at the hotel entrance now. One moment more and he’s gone, out into the street.

I breathe.

“Who was that dreadful man, Agnes? You’re as white as a sheet, darling!”

I’m shaking. The bartender looks over at us, but Gwyneth looks at him, and his glances stop. She holds my hand and looks into my eyes.

“Something’s not right, is it?”

And I can’t help it. Hell’s Kitchen, Chisholm’s revelations, that evil man… it’s just all too much for me. I simply ask her not to breathe a word to anyone: then, like a child, I tell her.

Everything.

It’s an hour later. As the evening approaches, the bar has filled up with people and chatter, and at last I see a well-built figure appear in the doorway, coming in from the room where you can use the telephone. I can see the disappointment in Chisholm’s face: he knows that I’ve told our story to Gwyneth Gilmour. But could he really expect me to keep it all secret? I hope he forgives me, I think, as he comes over. He speaks to Gwyneth.

“I see Agnes has been telling you about us. I don’t know how much she’s said, but I can’t overstate the importance of secrecy. But – I do trust you, Mrs Gilmour.”

“Call me Gwyneth. And yes, you can trust me. More, in fact, than you might imagine. But in the last hour there’s been a further development that you don’t know about. Right now, Chisholm, you are in extreme danger.” She looks round; everyone else is having their own conversations, no-one is overhearing us.

“Gwyneth – I’m a man who is used to – difficult situations.”

“Yes – Agnes has told me about you. And you may be used to dealing with Irish revolutionaries. You may even be able to sustain a cover story for a couple of hours in Hell’s Kitchen. But you don’t really understand New York City. Manhattan is, in fact, a war. The gangs and the police wrestle daily for control. Some gangs kill who they like, where they like. You’re not safe anywhere in this city. For example, do you know where the last major gangland shooting happened?”

Chisholm nods, but I say “I’ve no idea, Gwyneth.”

“There.” She points, and I follow the line of her index finger out to the lobby and onto the sidewalk beyond. “Right there, about ten yards from where we’re sitting. Harry Horowitz and his Lenox Avenue gang gunned a man down right there on the steps of this hotel, which as you know is one of the most exclusive in New York. And after what Agnes has told me, it seems to me that your enemies are just as ruthless.”

Chisholm looks at me. “So, Agnes. You told her about everything, including our visit to Hell’s Kitchen?”

“I told Gwyneth, because – that man was here. He came into this bar, spoke to me, threatened me. The man who calls himself Daniel Carver. He scares the life out of me. And whatever secrets you have, it was your choice, Chisholm, to share them with me. Unlike you, I’ve not signed any Official Secrets Act.”

I see the apology in Chisholm’s face. “You’re right, Agnes. This is my fault. As I said before – I suggest you use your ticket. Go home to Putnam, to your parents. Get out of here. Please.”

“Getting out of the Hotel Metropole may not be that easy, Chisholm.” Gwyneth, I can tell, is speaking sense. “From what Agnes has told me, we have to draw two conclusions. First of all, this man, this Daniel Carver, he must be connected to the Gophers gang, and to this Black Velvet plot, right?”

“Yes. He must be, although right now I’m not sure what the connection is.”

“Secondly, the fact that Carver comes in here, threatening Agnes, means that your cover is blown. In the time since your visit to Hell’s Kitchen this morning, Jimmy Nolan has found out that you’re no Black Velvet: you’re a British Secret Intelligence infiltrator.”

“Yes. He must have found out – how he did it, I have no idea.”

“At the moment, how he found out is not important. What is important is that the Gophers can call on pretty much limitless manpower. If they need to, they can watch every street corner in central Manhattan, all day. If they are able to send Daniel Carver straight into the hotel bar, and he can pick out Agnes from all the other guests, then the Gophers know you’re in here, and they know what you look like. The main entrance of the hotel will certainly be watched. If you leave the Metropole, either together or singly, you’ll be recognized. And followed. And probably killed.”

I venture a suggestion. “Suppose we called a cab to come to the hotel entrance right now, and asked the hotel staff to accompany us out to the cab. The Gophers wouldn’t dare, if other people were around, to shoot us right outside the door.”

Gwyneth looks at me. “That’s precisely what Mr Rosenthal thought. He was the man that the Lenox Avenue gang shot on the hotel steps. So Agnes, you’re wrong: the Gophers would dare to kill you right here at the Metropole. Trust me on this: your only chance of safety is to find a different way out of this hotel.”

“She’s right, Agnes. Somehow we must get away from here secretly, and take a train out of New York. If we go to Ohio – Mr Gilmour has agreed to talk to us again, we can talk to him there, at the Cuyahoga Steelworks offices in Cleveland.”

Gwyneth speaks again. “Even if you do manage to take a cab safely, they are bound to trail you to the station and follow any train journey that you make. They will follow you and choose their moment. They will come upon you when there is no-one around to help you.”

“So, how do you propose we get out of this?”

“I’ll drive you to Cleveland.”

Gwyneth Gilmour is speaking, but I’m not believing her. I find my own voice.

“Thank you. That’s an incredibly kind offer. But how on earth can an automobile be driven half way across the continent?”

“The world is changing fast, Agnes. There are already good roads almost all the way across between here and Ohio. Red paint markers show the way; an Auto Trail, they call it. We’ll simply use the car that Gilmour and I keep here in New York.”

Chisholm shakes his head. “You can’t involve yourself in danger, Gwyneth. This is our problem – nothing to do with you.”

“You’re not in a position for gallant gestures, Chisholm. And you must have already set those fine English scruples aside, when you involved this young woman here. As for myself, I choose to help you. So what I suggest is this…”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Night in New York

 

After our conversation, Gwyneth left the hotel, and Chisholm went to make further telephone calls to update Inspector Trench and the New York police. I tried to sleep in my room, unsuccessfully. It’s now nine o’clock in the evening: Chisholm and I have finished dining in the Metropole’s restaurant, and I’m back in my room. For the second time today, I’m changing from my own clothes into the plain skirt and shawl.

Just as I’m finishing, there’s a knock at the door: it’s a porter. “Madam, I understand you have a case for me?” I pack the last of my own clothes into my suitcase, and the porter takes it away. Somehow, I feel that the old Agnes, myself, has been taken away in that suitcase along with all my clothes. She’s leaving, being taken away from me. Who knows when I will see her again?

There’s a second knock on my door. Chisholm appears, dressed as before in working clothes, and without a word I go out into the corridor and follow him. We go along the corridor, turn a corner, and Chisholm pushes open a door. Suddenly we’re out of the grandness of the hotel’s public spaces and into a shabbier world: a narrow passageway lined with brooms, mops, buckets and cleaning kit. Ahead of us is something that looks like a small, doorless cupboard. It’s the shaft for the laundry service elevator. This is what the hotel staff use to ensure pressed, crisp sheets appear on every bed in the hotel. The elevator entrance has no safety grille: nothing to stop you falling right down the shaft. Chisholm presses the button to call the elevator. The rickety contraption slides up towards us, and stops in line with the floor.

We get in and it descends, rattling and clanking. A minute later we’re down on the ground floor. The elevator opens into a large room like a factory: above us, belts and wheels spin manically. Metal levers, shunting like steam engines, connect the wheels to churning metal drums that line the floor: the noise is deafening, and the air is fiercely hot. The far end of the room is stacked high with piles of bedsheets and tablecloths. We’re looking into twenty pairs of tired eyes, twenty downcast female faces.

Chisholm speaks in a loud, Irish voice.

“This is the hotel laundry, yes? The hotel manager – he sent us here, he said that there might be a job for my colleen.”

Two minutes later the laundry manager, still shouting abuse at us, pushes us roughly out of the back entrance of the hotel, into a vacant lot. We’re surrounded by tall buildings, all of them turning their backs on this empty space. In the brightly-lit city, this blank square is dark and deserted. We walk amid piles of rubbish towards the black slot of an alley. We’re near Times Square, and I think again of its description ‘the busiest place on earth’. But in this vacant lot, there’s not a soul around.

The alley, too, is deserted. At the far end of it is a wide street. We cross, avoiding the pools of light from the street lamps on the sidewalks. Across from us is another alley, and again we go down it. This second alley turns a corner to the left. We sneak along it in the dark, until we reach another left turn. It’s like we’re going in circles. I keep glancing around. No-one appears to be following us.

“Where are we going, Chisholm?”

“You’ll see, in a moment.” We step out of the alley onto another street, and I realize where we are. We’ve turned all the way back on ourselves, and now we’ve come out on 43rd Street. In fact, we’re standing at the same spot where we crossed Eighth Avenue this morning, when we first entered Hell’s Kitchen. Of all the options available, why in the world has Chisholm chosen this route?

He answers my unspoken question. “There’ll be Gopher lookouts posted all around the Times Square district. Gwyneth and I agreed that the best chance of escape for you and me is to go to the one place that Jimmy Nolan would never expect us to go. The one place that he might not have posted a lookout is this junction of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. From here, we’re going right back into the Gophers’ own territory. We need to follow the same route that we used this morning, but for one block only.”

It’s strange, but I’m feeling a sense of relief. Not at the route we are taking, but just a sensation that some weight has been lifted from my shoulders. The faces, the eyes that stared at us this morning have all gone: the narrow street through the tenements is gloomy but quiet. Why do I suddenly feel so much better? I realize that ever since the maze at Sweynsey, I’ve developed a kind of alarm system: a sense of when someone is watching me, following me. Right now, I know for a fact that we’re unobserved: no eyes are upon us. That’s why I feel better. Somehow, I feel safe. I breathe freely.

At the end of the street, it’s utterly dark: there’s no light from above, not even moonlight, because the elevated railway covers the night sky above us like a roof. Chisholm says quietly. “Ninth Avenue El. Our escape route. The 42nd Street station is just down there.” I look down Ninth Avenue, and in the distance I see steps rising to a grimy platform alongside the tracks.

“We’re taking the elevated railway out of here? Where are we going to?”

“The El line runs to Upper Manhattan. 155th Street station. Then it’s only a hundred yards’ walk to the Polo Grounds. Home of the New York Giants.”

“But that’s still Manhattan. I thought we were trying to get out of New York.”

“There’s a very good reason why we’re heading there. Calvin Gilmour is a baseball nut. A Giants fanatic. He and Gwyneth keep an automobile near the stadium.”

As we approach the foot of the steps which zigzag their way up the El’s iron legs to the station, I notice a strange sight: for a moment I’m right back in the Metropole laundry, gazing at piles of sheets. But these huddled blankets and sheets covering the ground under the station are gray and filthy: I sense the shapes of human bodies under each covering, and a vile smell hits me like a brick wall. The stench of ages-old, unwashed sweat and dirt. Chisholm looks grimly at me. “Give me your tired, you poor, your huddled masses, and we’ll stick them all under the Ninth Avenue El.”

We start climbing: the iron steps ring out under our feet, and we’re soon high above the stinking street. As Chisholm buys our tickets, I look out from the El platform over Hell’s Kitchen. The lights of central New York are bright on the horizon, but the nearby skyline is a crazy mess of ruinous slums. There are broken chimneys, tileless roofs where the joists look like empty ribcages. Trees grow from the neglected gables and parapets of the tenement blocks. Below me is darkness, a web of black alleys.

In the distance, I hear the distinctive metallic rattle that I heard this morning.

“Here comes the train.”

I see a row of lights moving towards us: they seem to float across the rooftops, getting bigger and closer. It’s a small train: only two carriages. As it slows to a shaking halt in front of our faces, I look carefully around the poorly-lit station platform, and yes, I’m sure: no-one else is boarding this train. This time, the feeling of safety and relief is even better: it’s like a flood through my body.

We step onto the first carriage of the train. Inside, there’s only a scatter of people, but I need air: we go out onto the outdoor observation platform at the end of the carriage. The train is coupled so that the observation platforms of the two carriages face each other above the coupling: the people standing on the observation platform of the second carriage, only a few feet away, smile across at us. As the train sets off I feel the wind, the movement. Even the reek of boiling animal flesh, rising from below as the El rattles along above the tanneries, doesn’t bother me any more. We’re escaping, and we’ve not been followed. This moment is very, very sweet.

I’m not quite used to New York manners. Of the four people on the other observation platform, all maybe only twenty years old, three are men; they all grin flirtatiously at me. I even get a wink from the man who is holding the hand of the one woman in the group. Another of the men chews a toothpick, but a sly smile is still there in his face, even as his mouth and cheeks twist. I don’t want to appear rude: I smile briefly at them all, but then I turn to look at Chisholm. He and I don’t need to speak: I’m enjoying the passing sights, the glitter of lights from the towering buildings, the distant glimpses of the dark lawns and trees of Central Park. Even the tinny rattle of the train sounds good right now.

The man with the toothpick is still grinning at me.

I glance at him, then away again. Then I look back, to re-check, for sure, what I think I’ve just seen. Yes, I’m right.

For the first time in my life, I’m looking at a gun.

Maybe only four feet away from me is a revolver, its barrel covered by a coat over the man’s arm so that no-one around him can see it. It’s pointing over the top of the guardrail of the observation platform, across the gap between the two carriages, straight at me and Chisholm. The muzzle gleams dully in the flickering lights as we rumble along the tracks. I look at Chisholm, and although he hardly risks a glance at me, I see it in his eyes. He’s spotted the gun too.

The train is slowing down: we’re approaching a station. As the brakes take hold and our carriage shudders to a stop, I have this ridiculous hope that the man holding the gun will get off the train, but of course he doesn’t. Neither do the other three people on the observation platform. The man with the gun just stands there, chewing, the slit of his mouth sliding around as he munches on the toothpick. His eyes are expressionless, like blank windows under his low brows. He says nothing, and we say nothing. The train pulls away from the station.

We’re high up here, maybe seventy feet in the air above Ninth Avenue. For a moment I pretend this terror isn’t happening: I look absently at the passing buildings, the squares of the lit windows of the tenements, whizzing by on either side of us. I can see traffic below us, the headlights of cars, the honk of horns, the shouts from the streets, the plodding horse-drawn wagons. ‘The city that never sleeps.’ We cross a major road junction: then the train slows into yet another station, and again no-one moves. Again I occupy my eyes by looking at a building alongside us. At a lit window I notice a woman standing, wearing only the thinnest of nightdresses: her hands grip the sill, her bony frame silhouetted against the light from her room. For just one second I catch her eyes, then we’re on the move again. I glance back at the gun, as if to make sure it’s real. Oh yes: I wasn’t dreaming.

At the next station, two of the people on the other observation platform – the woman, and the man who was holding her hand – leave the train.

I look at Chisholm again. As the train rumbles on in the darkness, an unsaid signal passes between us: we now understand the situation. We both know that the other people on the platform are strangers to the gunman. While there were three of them standing there with him, he dared not shoot us. But now, only one of those people is left. If we attempt to leave the train, or to draw anyone’s attention to the gun, then the odds are that the gunman will shoot us there and then, despite the other man standing next to him. So we stand here on the platform of the carriage, doing nothing.

But in fact, we’re just standing waiting to be killed anyway, because the moment that his unwitting companion leaves the observation platform, the man will shoot us. I glance back into our carriage: there’s perhaps twenty people in there, and another twenty in the gunman’s carriage. All of them oblivious to the murder that’s about to happen.

The El line bends abruptly, shifting onto the line of a different street. As its wheels grip and grind against the curves of the rails, the train shakes like it’s in an earthquake, but the man holds the gun steadily: not for one moment does he lose aim or concentration. Beneath the concealing shadow of his coat, I see that his finger already grips the trigger. I realize that if the train rattles too much, it’s more likely to fire the gun, rather than to give us a chance to escape. We’re powerless to do anything: Chisholm knows it too, and we stand here, flying along in the air through the New York night, hoping desperately for something unexpected to happen: something to change the balance between us and the man who is going to kill us.

Most of all, we’re hoping that the one other remaining young man, the one who smiled at me first when we stepped onto the train, doesn’t leave the observation platform, leaving us alone here with this killer.

The train shakes like fury as we round another curve in the rails. I smile again at the second young man, who has pulled out a newspaper and is trying to read it: it flutters in his hand as the train vibrates. He shuts the paper with an air of mild frustration, and he glances across at our carriage. He sees my smile.

“Reading the paper?” I shout across the noise of the train.

“Trying to, Miss. The way this train rattles there’s not much point trying though. And there’s no news worth reading today.”

“Me and my brother” I pull Chisholm’s arm “we ain’t bothered about the news. The news is always bad, anyway.”

“It sure is. I’m Henry, by the way.”

“And I’m Nancy. Nice to meet you, Henry.”

Once again I feel the brakes gripping, the vibration grinding through the floor of the carriage. How many stations are there on this line? Henry smiles again. “Well here we are. 155th Street, end of the line.” He pauses, then glances at me again. “I guess you two don’t have far to walk home from here.”

“Oh, me and my brother, we live in different neighborhoods.”

“It’s dark round here, late at night. Are you walking her home?” Our new friend looks at Chisholm.

“No. I’ve got a meeting to go to…”

“No problem. Nancy, I could…”

“Oh yes – if you wouldn’t mind just walking me to my door, it’s not far – I’d be delighted, Henry. What a gentleman, my knight in shining armor. Thank you. If all three of us leave the station together?…”

The train is pulling to a halt alongside the station platform. I keep my eyes steadily on the barrel of the gun, but I reach my arm out, take the handle of the door that leads back into the carriage. I step towards the door, and Chisholm follows. The gun barrel tracks our every movement. But it doesn’t fire.

The train stops: people in the carriage behind us are getting up, gathering hats and coats. I look back onto the other observation platform: I see Henry turning to the man with the gun.

“Bye, mac.”

A muttered “Bye.” I glimpse the frustration in the gunman’s eyes: a moment later, Henry is shaking our hands in greeting on the station platform. Across from us, their roofs level with the station, I see the stands of the Polo Grounds baseball stadium. They seem so close you could reach out and touch them. We turn away from the train: the three of us descend the endless steps down to street level. But of course, we’ve not escaped yet. I glance behind me: the man with the toothpick is following us down the steps. And yes, under that coat over his arm, he’s still pointing the gun straight at us. We’ve evaded him on the train, but I realize that we won’t evade him on the street. And if I leave Chisholm and go with Henry, then the man will follow Chisholm, and without a doubt, he’ll shoot him. What on earth can we do?

Here we are: the final flight of steps down to the sidewalk. The street is dark, empty, deserted: there’s no-one around to see what’s going to happen to us. I glance back again, and I know this is the gunman’s chance. There’s nothing Chisholm or I can do. I can’t help it, I look back again, and I see that the man is now only a few feet behind us now, as close as he was to us on the observation platforms. Like he did on the train, he catches my eye. Is that what you do, I wonder, if you’re a killer? Look into the eyes of someone you’re about to shoot?

I’m just about to tell Henry to run away, to tell him we’ll deal with the man behind us, when I hear a voice calling to us from the foot of the steps. And then I see a sleek, gleaming shape of shining paintwork. An automobile, like no automobile I’ve ever seen, is pulled up by the edge of the sidewalk opposite the bottom of the stairs.

“I hope you like the car.” It’s Gwyneth’s voice: she sits in the driver’s seat, holding the steering wheel with one hand. I hear a new noise, a deep purring, and I realize that she already has the engine running.

I hear another voice speaking, with a tone of surprise. It’s Henry, and he’s staring at the car in disbelief. “Is she a friend of yours?” He looks again from Gwyneth’s car to us: my peasant shawl, my homespun skirt, Chisholm’s working jacket and worn trousers. He seems lost for words.

“Sorry, Henry. Yes, she’s my friend: and it looks like she will give me and my brother a lift home. Thanks anyway: it was nice to meet you.”

“Okay. Go carefully now, Nancy.” He looks disappointed, crestfallen. But I glance back one last time at the gunman, and I realize with utter relief that there’s nothing now he can do. He’d get in one shot, but there are too many witnesses here now. If he fires that gun, he’s headed straight for the electric chair. I glance back at him once more, and I see him putting the gun inside his jacket. We’re safe – but oddly, my main feeling is a desire to apologize to our new, unknowing friend. I wave. “Bye, Henry.”

Chisholm and I get into the car, leaving leave the two very different men on the sidewalk: as we drive away we see them going their separate ways. Walking along, our would-be killer looks like any other man, strolling along a darkened New York street. As Gwyneth’s car speeds away and the streetlights whiz by, Chisholm looks at me. “That was touch-and-go there on that train. I must admit, I thought it might be the end of us.”

“We should thank my new friend Henry.” I start to laugh hysterically.

Gwyneth glances round from the driver’s seat with a smile. “Been having adventures, you two?”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Empires and rivalries

 

Glen Springs Sanitarium is known as the foremost residential health spa in the United States. We drive along a private gravel road through a vast parkland of manicured lawns and scattered pines, and I glimpse it ahead of us. In the late afternoon sun it glows: a huge, palatial building, with white-walled wings stretching out from a great central tower. The layers of balconies on the tall, tapering structure give it the air of a pagoda or an Eastern temple.

It’s less than twenty-four hours since our escape from the man on the El, but New York seems a lifetime away. After Gwyneth picked us up, we drove over Macombs Dam Swing Bridge into the Bronx, and by midnight we’d reached Westchester County, where we stopped at a hotel. I was glad to collapse into bed, but Chisholm stayed up, using the hotel telephone to contact Inspector Trench and update him on our escape from New York. He also telephoned ahead to the Sanitarium: despite the late hour of his call, they were happy to book us for a stay.

After a few hours of snatched sleep, we got up at dawn. One thing was nice: to get dressed in my own clothes again: Gwyneth had our suitcases in the car. After a hasty breakfast at the hotel, our journey today to the Sanitarium has felt endless. How Gwyneth has kept her concentration all this way, I don’t know. We drove up the highway through Poughkeepsie towards Albany, where we stopped briefly for lunch. I thought we’d have to take a ferry across the Hudson, but there’s a new, ugly bridge from Troy to Waterford, just above the river’s confluence with the Mohawk, and from there we followed the red paint splashes of the ‘Auto Trail’, just as Gwyneth had said we could, across to Binghampton and, Elmira. Finally a small, winding local road led us through the little town of Watkins Glen to the gates of the Sanitarium’s parklands.

We pull up at the entrance to the towering building, and a familiar figure descends the steps to greet us.

“Professor! How have you been enjoying Glen Springs?”

“Greatly enjoying it, thank you. I think your English phrase is ‘the lap of luxury’. The staff here gave me your message that you were coming here, and staying tonight.” Axelson looks at our car, with obvious interest. He greets Gwyneth.

“Mrs Gilmour, it’s good that you have joined us. And acted a taxi driver too. This looks like an extraordinary automobile.” His face is full of admiration: he seems entranced with the vehicle.

“Thanks, professor. It’s a K-D Tourer, and its come straight from wowing the crowds at the Boston Automobile Show. Calvin bought it at the show. Women designers, too: K-D: K stands for Margaret Knight and D stands for Anna Davidson.”

Chisholm helps me take my cases into the lobby of the spa, while Gwyneth shows the professor all the features of the car. The reception desk staff check our reservation, and all is fine: yes, a note was made late last night of Chisholm’s telephone call, and we’re booked in for dinner and an overnight stay. But before going up to our rooms, I wait in the lobby for Gwyneth and the professor, while Chisholm goes back to help Gwyneth with her luggage. I look around me at well-dressed people passing through the lobby, in little groups of twos and threes, all talking softly.

There’s a scatter of easy chairs; I sit in one of them and pick up the brochure which lies in front of me on a low table. I read ‘Glen Springs stands 300 feet above Seneca Lake, surrounded by acres of woodlands and lawns. Within the park are bowling alleys, tennis courts, croquet grounds and golf links.’

Chisholm comes in carrying a suitcase, but Gwyneth and the professor aren’t with him. He grins at me. “They’re still admiring the car.”

“I’ve been looking through the Glen Springs brochure. It reads like something for a five-star hotel. I thought this was supposed to be a convalescent home?”

“It is – but you don’t have to be ill to stay here. It’s a health spa, and that means fitness and leisure as well as illness. Apart from the central New York hotels, this is the place to be seen in American society.”

I look up, and see that Gwyneth and Axelson are finally joining us in the lobby. We agree to meet for dinner before heading our separate ways to our rooms. Joy of joys, my room has its own bathroom with a bath.

 

The Glen Springs dining room is every bit as sumptuous at that on the Olympic, with chandeliers lighting fifty tables, at least. The men wear Garment District tailored dinner jackets, and every woman is a mass of silk, furs and jewels. The menu is extraordinary: bewildered by the choice, I choose the simplest-looking dishes I can see. The professor is clearly enjoying the luxury, and Gwyneth and Chisholm, too, look very much at home. I feel like the specter at the feast in my plain black dress.

Waiters come and go, silently and efficiently, and both Axelson and Chisholm seem confident that we won’t be overheard. Chisholm doesn’t hesitate: he tells the professor everything that has happened. I feel a kind of relief that, at last, we all have the same facts in front of us. Looking round at their faces, seeing the common understanding between us, I have the feeling that, in some way, the four of us are a team. But Chisholm needs to make an apology.

“I must, Professor Axelson, say sorry to you. You will understand now why I was so cagey about Colette Morgan and her possible part in Spence’s murder. And especially, I must apologize that I let you carry on believing that Spence may have been killed because he unearthed a dangerous terrorist plot, when in fact he himself was the leader of that plot.”

“It’s nothing, Chisholm. Please don’t feel any need to apologize. First, these revelations about you don’t change the person that I have worked with, and whom I trust. Secondly, I would not have done anything differently if I had had this information about Spence. The priorities remain: to discover Spence’s killer, and – if she is still alive – to release Miss Kitty from her captivity. We have simply added another priority to that: to assist in any way we can in preventing the shipment of explosives to England. Which, it appears, you already have in hand, Chisholm.”

Chisholm nods, but I can see the stress behind his face. I guess that he has concluded that after what happened at the Metropole and on the El, Jimmy Nolan wants him dead. So Chisholm’s cover must be blown, and the planned police operation against the Gophers may be compromised.

But the professor is pleased to see us, and he’s fascinated by Chisholm’s new revelations, and by the adventures that we’ve had. He’s enjoying it all too much to notice Chisholm’s tense expression, and he goes on talking. “Most of all, it is now imperative, Chisholm, that we solve the Spence case, because the future of Europe may be at stake. Agnes – you said that Inspector Trench implied that there might be some kind of collaboration between Irish revolutionaries and German spies. If so, Spence was clearly at the centre of it.”

“Agreed, professor. Our work is more urgent than ever.” Chisholm glances over at me, then at Gwyneth, whom we are trusting with all this knowledge. The professor answers.

“Besides, I should tell you all that I, Felix Axelson, now have a very personal interest in the case. We Swedes hardly want terrorism, chaos and rebellion in Britain and Ireland – or worse still, a European war.”

I look across the table at the professor. “I’ve hear it said that a European war would suit some neutral powers. You make a lot of steel in Sweden: you could sell armaments to both sides.” I’m surprised at the sarcastic tone in my voice. I smile to show him I’m joking.

“You may laugh, Miss Agnes. It’s nice to see you’ve not lost your sense of humor after your adventures in New York City. But your little joke about my country – you have a serious point. So I’ll remind you that I – and the government of my native land – prefer peace and justice to power and wealth. Long ago, we Swedes were an imperial power: for hundreds of years we fought the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, and lorded it over all the little nations around the Baltic. Eight years ago, we happily let the last remnant of that empire go, when we permitted a referendum in Norway. They voted for independence, and we were happy to let them go their own way. Agnes, you would be pleased to hear how we conducted that referendum: although women were not permitted to vote, we took account of the views of 250,000 Norwegian women who signed a petition for independence.”

“It’s still not quite the same as a right to vote, though, is it? Also, I heard that years ago, some women did have the right vote in Sweden, but then your government took it away again. “

The professor doesn’t answer me: he just carries on speaking. “My country is – how shall I put it – a grown-up adult. Empires and rivalries no longer interest us. We have grown too old and sensible for childish nonsense. We no longer need to boast that we are the biggest bully in the schoolyard.”

I smile: despite him ignoring my last remark, I realize that I like the Professor’s odd, deeply-hidden sense of humor. Gwyneth smiles too. “It’s a shame, professor, that other countries don’t take the same approach.”

“I agree. Including you British, Chisholm, with your empire across the globe. And Mrs Gilmour and Miss Agnes, I haven’t forgotten you Americans too – you have played the liberator, driving the Spanish out of the Philippines, but now you’ve decided that you want the islands as a colony for yourselves. So you too have become empire-builders. Every country wants to pretend it is the ‘top dog’ as you would say in English. But the Kaiser – he is the worst. He is a ruler who really has not grown up. He has industry on a grand scale, his nation dominates the economy of Europe. But it’s not enough for him: he still feels jealous of the other children’s toys. He wants to be an imperial Power like Britain and France. ‘Our place in the sun’ he calls it. Indeed there are times when I wonder if he looks acquisitively at my native land too. Maybe he plans that the Baltic Sea will become a German lake, a little pond where he can amuse himself by sailing German battleships. He is a foolish and infinitely dangerous man.”

Chisholm asks another question that’s been on all our minds. “Professor, how have you got on with hypnotizing Mr Freshing?”

“I have met Mr Freshing, and he has told me about the elaborate regime of treatment that the Glen Springs medical staff have devised to treat his physical and nervous ailments. But that is all.”

“You’ve not done any hypnosis, then?”

“Unfortunately, no. Miss Agnes and Mrs Gilmour – your America, it is a land of lawyers. You see, Chisholm, the doctors at Glen Springs will not allow me to use my Hypnotic-Forensic Method on Mr Freshing until he has signed a formal legal statement.”

“A statement of what?”

“A declaration, to the effect that the Sanitarium has no legal liability for any harm that the hypnosis may do to Mr Freshing’s health. A waiver, they call it. I think the doctors are only asking for the statement so that they cannot be blamed, if he does not like the hypnosis.”

“And, this waiver – when will it be done?”

“A lawyer comes here tomorrow morning, and Mr Freshing must sign the document in the presence of a witness. Which I guess he will be used to doing, from his line of work. So, it will be the afternoon before I can proceed to the hypnosis. And then – we will learn of the very final moments of Percy Spence.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Fear and trembling

 

It’s the following afternoon. The professor, Chisholm and I are out on a balcony overlooking wide, perfectly mown lawns surrounded by groves of pines. Apparently the long-term residents of Glen Springs spend much of their time on these balconies, looking out at the peaceful scenery and inhaling the benefits of fresh air. And it’s very fresh – chill, in fact: despite some pale sunshine today, spring temperatures have not yet arrived in upper New York State. We’ve all got blankets wrapped around us to keep warm. The fourth person with us, Mr Freshing, sits in a wicker-backed chair. He’s a smooth-faced, olive-eyed gentleman, maybe in his early forties. It seems odd to see his dark business suit and stand-up collar wrapped in a New England biscuit quilt like I used to sleep under when I was a child. His black hair, carefully styled, gives him a Spanish air, and there’s a Hispanic old-fashioned politeness to his manner. He reaches out from under his quilt to shake my hand, and I sense a tremble in his arm.

“Miss Frocester. Delighted meet you too, and I hope I can be of service.” Despite his Mediterranean looks, his voice is pure Yankee. But there’s a quaver in it. And I notice a pallor beneath his Latin skin. He continues.

“Although, in my present state of health, any service I can offer you might be limited. Pleurisy, followed by prolonged pneumonia, you see.” He coughs behind one hand.

Professor Axelson regards him. “I understand, from our previous conversations, that there is also a nervous element to your condition?”

Mr Freshing coughs again: a repeating noise for about a minute, before he answers the professor’s question. “The ordeal of the Titanic – it can never quite leave me, I fear. But that does not affect my appetite to resume my work. It is only my physical health that keeps me a prisoner here. So, I spend my time trying to recover my strength and vitality. Total rest was advised by my doctors, and the curative effect of the calcium chloride salts in the Glen Springs waters.”

Dr Axelson smiles sympathetically. “You work, I understand, as a confidential legal secretary?”

“Yes. I am employed by a number of attorneys in New York. I work as a scrivener, copying legal documents, and also as the taker of minutes and detailed technical notes of legal and business meetings. I’m not a lawyer myself, but I have secured a reputation for exact accuracy of work. That, together with my own personal probity of character, is an absolute necessity in my line of employment.”

I do wonder at how such work – which I guess would be respectably but not lavishly paid – can cover the cost of an extended residence at this most expensive of health resorts. I look at perfect line of his collar, the almost chrome-like gleam on his narrow shoes, and under the quilt I glimpse the somber but beautiful weave of a superbly tailored woolen suit. This man, I think, has money. Work gives his life a purpose, but it is not a living necessity to him. I wonder if the professor is thinking the same thing.

“You and I have already spoken, Mr Freshing, about my Hypnotic-Forensic Method. And, of the need to go back to the night the Titanic sank. The night that Viscount Percy Spence died in Lifeboat 14.”

“Indeed, Professor. My professional work – it is all about accurate, faithful recording. The whole truth and nothing but the truth, as they say in the courtroom. So, I do hope that under the hypnosis I will be able to give you a good account. For, to speak plainly, I am troubled by blank patches in my memory of that night. I would like to have a more perfect recall.”

Despite the chill air, sounds of spring birdsong waft to us from the nearby trees. In the distance, far below us through the pines, I see patches of steely blue: Seneca Lake. I hear the professor’s intonations, low but insistent. As with Kitty, and Calvin Gilmour, I also begin to hear Mr Freshing’s breathing: deep and regular.

“Mr Freshing, you are tired. Exhausted in body and mind. But as we sit here, you need think about nothing, except what you see before your eyes right now: this balcony, this view of the trees and the lake. Look at the sunlight falling on the lawns, the green of the grass: hear the birds, and the breeze in the pines. Every muscle you have is exhausted, in need of deep, deep rest. Let the breeze take that exhaustion, blow it gently, through the pines, blow it across the waters of the lake, take it far, far away.”

Freshing’s eyes are closed.

“This time, your rest will be so deep that it will bring true relief, true recovery. So relax into this state of profound rest. Your breathing is slowing, the tense muscles in your neck and your chest are relaxing. Like a breeze in springtime, a gentle slow peace blows over you. You feel it like a calming balm. Peace, peace.”

The professor’s words continue, accompanied by the sound of slow, relaxed breathing. “You feel this peace throughout your body. Feel that relaxation, like a bliss throughout your body. Only your head, now, Mr Freshing, is not fully immersed in a deep, cool quietude. Only your head can still think. Your head is not yet relaxed: it feels stuffed full of the ideas, the thoughts, the worries, that dwell inside your mind.

Now, one by one, let go of every single thought that you have. Take each thought and let it drift up, away from your brain, like a balloon floating away from you. One by one, the balloons glide up into the air, and your head is emptier and emptier. And now, you are holding only the string of the very last balloon, the balloon of your last thought. Your grasp on the string gets weaker and weaker, the balloon sways in the breeze. And now – it is gone.”

All tension has left Freshing’s face. I’m surprised to see a healthy coloring returning to his cheeks. Almost as if the man is regaining something of his former health and strength, before our eyes.

“Who are you?”

“I am Douglas Freshing, legal secretary and scrivener.”

“Can you feel the gentle breeze of springtime?”

“Yes.”

“It wafts into your nostrils, bringing new smells, new feelings. An ocean breeze blows in your face. You feel an undertow of waves, a gently moving deck below your feet. The movement, and the smell of the salt sea, make you feel enlivened, invigorated. You feel wide awake and totally alive, Mr Freshing. But tell me: where are you?”

“I am on the deck of a ship, in the middle of the Atlantic. I am on board the RMS Titanic.”

“Why are you travelling aboard this ship?”

“We are returning to New York from England. I have been undertaking a confidential piece of work in London. No-one must know.”

“Who is this work for?”

“Mr Sorensen. Of Sorensen & Baker, attorneys, New York.” Despite his mention of confidentiality, in this trance-like state he talks freely. He carries on. “I accompanied Mr Sorensen in order to record his meetings with Strutt, Jacobs & Pettifer. An English law firm. We had a series of meetings with them at their offices in London. Now we are returning home.”

“Sorensen & Baker, I understand, act as attorneys and legal advisers to Gilmour Holdings?”

For a moment, I see a slight sense of alarm in Freshing’s eyes: his pupils dilate, as if his secrecy is being violated. But then the calm, blank look returns. Axelson’s questions continue.

“Have you met Mr Gilmour?”

“Yes. Only once, on this voyage on the Titanic. On the first evening, Mr Gilmour invited Mr Sorensen and myself to join his table in the first-class dining saloon. He wanted to thank us for the good work that Sorensen & Baker did in London for Gilmour Holdings.”

“So, when Mr Sorensen met the English law firm, Mr Sorensen was acting as attorney for Gilmour Holdings?…”

“Yes. That was the reason for our voyage to England. Mr Gilmour employs Sorensen & Baker to draft Gilmour Holdings’ business contracts.”

“And what was your role?”

“I was employed by Mr Sorensen. My job was to make notes about the contracts at the lawyers’ meetings, and, once the lawyers had reached agreement, I copied identical versions of the final contract for the parties’ signatures.”

“Was Mr Gilmour at these meetings?”

“No. I didn’t meet Mr Gilmour in London at all. I only met him that one time, aboard the Titanic. Mr Gilmour did not attend the meetings with the London lawyers, because he had other matters that he was busy with. Mr Sorensen was at all the meetings, and acted as his representative. Mr Gilmour put his entire trust in Mr Sorensen – and in myself, of course.”

“So, after the contracts had been drafted by the lawyers, how were they signed by the actual parties to the agreement?”

“The final versions of the contracts were sent by courier to Claridge’s Hotel, where Mr Gilmour was staying, for him to sign.”

All this time, Chisholm has been scribbling something on a piece of paper. Now he hands it to the professor. I catch a glimpse of Chisholm’s writing in the professor’s hands. It says ‘Strutt, Jacobs & Pettifer of London – law firm – their principal clients are the British Army.’

“Mr Freshing. Do you know Viscount Percy Spence?”

“I know the name. I hear it spoken in the darkness.”

“You’re in the darkness, Mr Freshing? Is there anything at all you can see?”

“I’m in a lifeboat. It’s being prepared for launching, from the Titanic. I can’t see – and I can’t move. A press of human bodies. We’re all crowded together, I feel the lifeboat swaying on its ropes. I feel sick. Oh my God, so sick, so sick. One woman is screaming, I can’t stand the noise. I almost wish that she would fall out of the boat, down there into the icy water far below us. Men’s voices are calling commands. A child is crying ‘Mama, Mama’. Please, someone make it stop. My nerves have gone: all I can feel is fear. We’re going to die, aren’t we? We’re going to die.”

“Tell me, who is crowded around you in the darkness?”

“Others – other passengers. Women, hysterical voices and faces. There’s no room for more people in this boat. But I’m hearing a voice, shrill but strong. A woman’s voice. She’s struggling desperately, trying to haul a man’s body into our midst.”

His eyes remain closed, but I can see the movement of the pupils twitching and circling beneath the lids. His eyebrows and lips are trembling.

“Hands reach out and help her, and she pulls the body into the boat. The body… it’s on the floor of the boat. We all look down at it. The body is writhing like a worm, it’s making noises, gasping and rattling in its throat. It’s not dead. Dear Christ, dear Christ!”

A rasping sound is growing in Freshing’s breathing. I can see beads of sweat on his forehead, his cheeks. The pallor has returned beneath his skin: a deathly greenish-white. For a moment I think: he’s going to vomit.

“A man’s voice shouts. Loud, like a foghorn. He’s shouting commands at everyone. Does he need to shout so loud? My ears are in pain with the noise, and this horrible dead-alive body is moving on the floor of the boat. We’re in the torments of Hell. Our lifeboat is lowering now, the ropes are extending, we’re going down towards the water, sliding down the side of the Titanic, deck after deck. Too fast, too fast! We hit the water, hard. It’s the end, this is the end. This is oblivion. I close my eyes.

But then… moments pass. My eyes are closed tight shut, but I still hear noises. I open my eyes, and I can still see.”

“What can you see, Mr Freshing?”

There’s no reply. The sound of birdsong drifts up to our balcony, a strange counterpoint to the harsh, fearful breathing of our patient. After a few minutes he speaks, with effort.

“I can see a hand. Quivering in front of my eyes. Paper.”
“Paper?”

“Paper. A piece of folded paper, grasped in the dying man’s hand. He’s trying to look at me, and I understand what he wants from me. Keep it safe, that’s what he wants me to do. He can’t speak, his throat is closed up in the agony of death, but he signals to me with his eyes. Pleading eyes, at the very limits of pain. He’s telling me: please, please, keep this paper safe.”

“Be sure what you are saying, Mr Freshing. The dying man is giving you a piece of paper?”

“Yes. Paper – to keep safe. He needs me to look after the paper for him.”

“Mr Freshing, where is it now? Where’s the paper now?”

“Safe.”

“Yes – you’ve done as he asked, you’ve kept it safe, but where?…”

“Safe.”

I touch Axelson’s hand to gain his attention. “Safe. Maybe Mr Freshing means: a safe?” Axelson looks round at me, and his eyes acknowledge his thanks to me. Then, the professor resumes his hypnotic voice.

“Mr Freshing. I need you to tell me about your room, here at Glen Springs. Do you have a safe in your room? And, what is its combination?”

The answer comes without hesitation. “Four – seven – two – eight.”

I whisper to them: “I’ll go”. I take Freshing’s room key from the table. As I leave the balcony, I hear, again accompanied by the birds singing in the trees, a panting, racked voice, as Freshing speaks again, telling them horrible details of Spence’s last moments. I think: his breathing, his voice, is mimicking the sounds in the throat of the dying man. I close the door behind me: I don’t want to hear any more.

A minute later, I’m opening the door of one of the best long-stay suites at Glen Springs. But despite the high-quality furnishings, I’m struck by the utter plainness of Mr Freshing’s room: the lack of any personal possessions, any sense of his personality in the room. The cast-iron safe sits there in the corner. I turn the dial: four –seven – two – eight. A pull on the brass handle. I look in, and I’m surprised.

I had thought to see some evidence, here at least, of Mr Freshing’s identity, of his life. But it’s just a hollow space: there is nothing inside the safe except a couple of sheets of paper, folded up together. The moment I read the first line of the first page, I close the safe, and take the papers straight back to the balcony.

 

All is quiet as I open the door out onto the balcony. I see the professor and Chisholm; I see Freshing’s head, turning towards me. His eyes are open: the whites of his eyes are a sickly yellow in that death’s-head face.

The eyes open wider: he’s staring in utter dismay. He sprawls back in his chair, as if he’s been punched in the face. His arms move helplessly under the quilt: he seems to have lost all control of his body. A horrible choking sound comes from his throat. The professor speaks. “Chisholm, get the staff quickly. He’s stopped breathing.”

I yell for a nurse. Chisholm stands in the balcony doorway and shouts: his deeper, stronger voice echoes through the corridors of the Sanitarium, calling desperately for help. I look back onto the balcony, and I see, wrapped in the biscuit quilt, Freshing’s face. It’s now turning purple.

But the fixed stare in those yellow-white eyeballs remains. It’s as if his doom has come upon him, and he is looking Death in the face. What is he staring at, that has brought such horror upon him?

He’s staring at me.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Into the woods

 

Two nurses and a doctor are with Mr Freshing. Their faces are worried, but angry too: we have done this to one of their patients. Then another doctor arrives and starts questioning Axelson. The professor seems stubbornly defiant that we have done nothing wrong. The doctor’s voice is accusing and shrill. The voices rise: they are both shouting now, and neither of them is listening to the other. Then I hear a deeper voice.

“Come on, Agnes. Who is to blame isn’t important. What is important is that Mr Freshing gets the medical attention he needs. We can’t help here: we must leave that to the Sanitarium staff. You and I have other things that we need to do.”

“What do we need to do, Chisholm?”

“I need to telephone Inspector Trench. I need an update from the Inspector, on what he and the New York Police Department know about the Gophers. Most of all, I need to know whether the shipment of the explosives is still going ahead. In the meantime, Agnes, why don’t you start looking at those papers that you brought to the balcony. Because it was seeing those papers, in your hand, that brought on Mr Freshing’s fit.”

“But if he was so horrified to see those papers – it makes no sense. It was him who told us about those papers, and said to us that they were in his safe. He even told us the safe’s combination numbers.”

“Who knows what makes sense to a man under hypnosis? We have no idea what happens in someone’s brain when they are under the Fluence, as the professor calls it. Perhaps Mr Freshing’s conscious, un-hypnotized mind hid those papers away, because he never wanted to look at them again. But then, under hypnosis, he co-operated with us and told us about them. We have no idea what passed through his brain. But one thing is certain: seeing those papers in your hand, it terrified him.”

Chisholm and I descend the stairs into the lobby of the Sanitarium. Chisholm leaves me, and I sit in one of the easy chairs, next to a low mahogany table. I unfold the papers, and begin to read.

 

“Pay me the ten thousand that I need, or the secret you have kept for so long will become public knowledge. I will break the news immediately after the Lake Ontario flight, unless I have the money. Rufus du Pavey.”

 

So. It is the very blackmail that the professor spoke of. As I read the note, I think of Spence reading it. What suffering a little piece of paper can cause.

Folded inside the letter is a second, very different sheet of paper. It’s a large Imperial-size sheet of heavy paper, folded several times. I realize, as I open its stiff folds, that it is some kind of legal document, signed at the bottom. But I can also tell that it’s not a whole document. There must be other pages preceding it, that are now missing, because the first line opens in the middle of a sentence. I try to read it, but I can make no sense of it. The language is the obscurest lawyer-speak, and there are continuing references to ‘3-inch M1902’. I’ll have to show it to Chisholm, see if he can make anything of it. I ask at the reception desk for pen and paper, and, while I wait, I copy out the words of both papers. Time passes by: through the windows, I can see that afternoon is turning towards evening. I finish writing. I’m just about to fold the papers up again, when something occurs to me. I look at the signatures at the bottom of the legal document. There are three of them.

One signature is clearly legible ‘John Stephen Cowans, Quartermaster-General to the British Forces’. So this is a contract with someone – a ‘Quartermaster-General’ I suppose, must be responsible for British military supplies. Therefore, the other party to the contract will be supplying something, I guess, to the British Army. That makes sense, I think, in the light of the note about the London lawyers that Chisholm passed to the professor during Freshing’s hypnosis.

Below it, I see two other signatures, side-by-side, and I can read one of them easily: a strong, clear hand. Calvin Gilmour. But what is the other signature? I realize: it’s probably Gwyneth’s. Calvin Gilmour is known not only a philanthropist, but as a truly forward-thinking man. He’s a believer in the equality of the sexes and he publically supports women’s suffrage. Axelson told me that Gilmour employs many female workers in his administrative offices, and that he pays them the same rates as the men. I wonder: has Calvin made Gwyneth the co-owner of Gilmour Holdings?

The late afternoon sun slants through the windows of the lobby, casting a golden light across my hands as I hold the document. As I stare at it, trying to make out ‘Gwyneth Gilmour’ in the loops of ink, something nags me. Like I’ve done a thousand times, I think: Black Velvet. Not the name though, this time. Rather, just the signature ‘Black Velvet’ on that letter I found in Kitty’s window. It’s funny, that signature was legible even though the letter wasn’t.

This time, what’s troubling me is a different sort of puzzle. I carry on looking closely at the second signature on this contract. I can see that it’s a typical signature: it’s illegible, like most signatures are. But something’s odd. I hold the paper in my hands, peer again at the writing. It’s all curls and swirls, but I can make out that two of the letters are bigger. They must be the initial capitals of the Christian name and surname. I look and look, and I’m sure of one thing. Those two letters are different from each other.

Gwyneth Gilmour. G – G. People scrawl the letters of their names when writing their signatures, but the scrawls for each letter do tend to be the same. Here, the second capital letter, the first letter of the surname, might well be a G, although it could be C or even some other letter. But there is one thing it definitely isn’t. It is not the same letter as the first capital. These capitals are not G – G for Gwyneth Gilmour.

My thoughts are interrupted: Chisholm is back.

“I’ve got news, Agnes. Mr Freshing is recovering. He’s regained consciousness, and he’s out of danger. But, I’m afraid that you, I and the professor are not.”

“Not – out of danger? What do you mean?”

“Along with the good news about Mr Freshing, there comes some bad news for us. When I phoned from that hotel in Westchester, I gave the New York Police Department a description of that man aboard the El. They have just told me on the telephone now that an automobile was reported stolen that night, from near 155th Street station. The time of the theft was shortly after we left the Polo Grounds with Gwyneth.”

“It has to be coincidence, doesn’t it?”

“I’m afraid not. The owner saw the man taking his car. The thief answers the description of our gunman that I gave to the police. The police took it very seriously: they believe that the gunman from the El is coming after us.”

“Even if he did steal a car, he surely couldn’t have followed us right out of New York City and all the way here. We were travelling for hours that evening, and all day yesterday. All that time, we didn’t spot any following car behind us on the road.”

“But – could anyone have overheard you at the Metropole, when you were talking to Gwyneth? Did you tell her that Professor Axelson was at Glen Springs?”

“No, I didn’t. Why do you ask?”

“Because, Agnes, there’s even more bad news. Inspector Trench realized the significance of the theft and advised the upstate police in towns near here to look out for the stolen car in this area. A car of that description was seen an hour ago in Binghampton.”

“How on earth do they know where we are?…” I trail off, because I’m recalling my conversation with Professor Axelson on the rail of the Olympic, when we docked in New York. I hear the professor’s voice in my head. ‘I am travelling on to Glen Springs Sanitarium in upstate New York, to see Mr Freshing. I have allowed three days to speak to him.’ Someone must have been listening to us. I tell Chisholm.

“That must be the explanation. The sighting of the stolen car in Binghampton shows that they know that we’re all here – you, I and Axelson.”

“But the Gophers wouldn’t try coming into the Glen Springs spa itself, would they? We must be safe here.”

“Remember what Gwyneth said about the recent murder at the Hotel Metropole. New York gangs are ruthless and daring. So I think, Agnes, that we’re not at all safe here. Come to think of it, we’re not very popular here, either.” He motions with his head towards the corridor behind the reception desk, where I can now make out several raised voices. Among the voices I hear the professor’s, still insisting loudly that the hypnosis could not possibly have caused Mr Freshing’s seizure.

Chisholm’s low voice as he speaks to me is calm, but rapid and insistent.

“Agnes, can you find Gwyneth and tell her to pack all her things and go the car and wait for us. Then pack you own things and go to the car too. I’m going to rescue the professor from this mess. We’ll meet you ladies at the car. The only problem is Freshing’s papers – they’ve vital clues, we need to study them. But they don’t belong to us: by rights we should leave them here…”

“I’ve copied them out. Here.”

Chisholm’s delight is such that I almost think he’s going to embrace me. But he just says three words. “Thank you, Agnes.”

 

It’s twenty minutes later, and Gwyneth and I are getting into her automobile on the driveway in front of the Glen Springs entrance. I thought she and I would have to wait at the car, but as I get into the back seat I see Chisholm, carrying two suitcases, hurrying the professor down the steps of the Sanitarium.

“Professor, get in the back with Agnes. I’ll drive, Gwyneth.”

“No you won’t, Chisholm. I know this car, and I know the roads of New York State.”

It’s clear that she won’t move from the driving seat. Chisholm gets into the front passenger seat beside her. “I’ll navigate, then. Back down the drive, then turn right towards Watkins Glen.”

The moon is rising as we drive through the neat little town. In just a few minutes, we’re passing the lakeshore and the pier. We see the church with its tall stone English-looking spire, the neat frontages of the shops and the sidewalk cafés. Then, we drive past houses, set well back from the road in large gardens. After a few minutes the houses become more scattered, and there are more trees. The road begins to dip and wind among woods. As we leave the last of the houses, I glance backwards. Last time I looked, the road behind us was deserted – and, it is again. I breathe a sigh of thankfulness. We drive deeper among the trees. But something makes me take one final look behind us. And this time, I see that the distant trees behind us are momentarily lit, as if illuminated by the passing headlamps of a car.

“There may be something behind us, Gwyneth.”

“Don’t worry. This automobile is one of the fastest and most powerful in America. We can outrun them, I’m sure.”

Ten minutes later, I think: it was a false alarm. I’ve not seen anything more on the road behind us. The twilight is deepening into night. We pass a lonely farm, and then there are no more houses, no signs of human life. The road is rough, it’s made of dirt and stones, but Gwyneth’s driving is assured and confident. Despite the bumps and shakes, we’re making fast progress. If someone is pursuing us, then they can’t possibly find us, I think, in the deepest backcountry of New York State. Thick, gloomy woodlands stretch endlessly around us, and the deserted road winds on and on in the growing darkness. As we drive ever deeper into the woods, I have the strange feeling that we’re the last humans left on Earth. I ask the obvious question.

“Where are we going?”

Gwyneth keeps her eyes fixed ahead on the road as she answers me. “Somewhere where we’ll be safe. I’m taking us to my husband’s fishing lodge at Olcott, on Lake Ontario. Not far from Niagara Falls. I managed to speak to Calvin on the telephone before I left Glen Springs. By fortunate coincidence, he’s staying at the lodge himself. He understands our situation, and he’s very happy for us all to go there.”

I interrupt her. “There’s a car behind us.”

I’m sure of it now: it is so dark in this forest that even the faraway lights of a car, several hundred yards behind us, can be made out, glowing and dimming as it drives among the trunks of the endless trees. I hold my breath, and say silent prayers as we drive on in the darkness.

“It’s odd.” says Axelson, fifteen minutes later. “It’s like they’re tailing us at a distance, rather than trying to catch us.”

“Maybe it’s not them, after all.”

Another five minutes pass, in which growing relief that we’re not being followed is countered by alarm at the increasing roughness of the road. Lumpy rocks have replaced stones and gravel, and every few seconds our tires plunge into deep potholes. The powerful headlamps light our path like beacons in the black night, but it must be so hard for Gwyneth to see and anticipate each twist of the road, the ruts and dips and bumps along its surface. As we jolt over the potholes, I hold onto Chisholm’s seat in front of me to lessen the shaking.

Suddenly there’s a bigger jolt. I’m thrown sideways: Gwyneth has wrenched the steering wheel right across. I see a fallen tree, huge in our headlights, lying across the road as we swerve left, then a squeal of straining brakes as she brings the car to a standstill. We stare at the massive trunk and its splayed branches, crushed and crumpled by its fall. The road is completely blocked.

Gwyneth looks round at us all. “I’m going to turn the car round. We’ve got to go back. There’s no way around this tree.”

“But the car behind us…”

“Chances are, they’re not pursuing us. But if they are, then if we stay here, this tree across the road means they’ll catch us anyway. We’re rats in a trap here.”

Gwyneth pulls the car into reverse and turns it around in the road. We start to head back along the road again. I’m starting to hate this place, this lonely road, these unending, silent trees, the now-familiar judder of the rocks and the sudden jolts of the potholes. We’re still moving fast: Gwyneth is handling the car superbly, but then she accelerates still faster. I glimpse light ahead of us: it’s the other car. Her plan, I see, is to take them by surprise: to race past them on the road before they can react to us. Then, if they are indeed our enemies, they will have to take time to turn their car round to follow us. In the meantime, Gwyneth will be able to outrun them on the road back to Watkins Glen. It’s a clever idea: we’ll be safer among the streets and houses of the little town than out here in the wilderness. Maybe we can take refuge in a hotel, I think…

The car races faster and faster: the jolts in the road shake us like a jackhammer, and I can feel the acceleration in the pit of my stomach. A blur of tree trunks ahead, then a sudden dazzle: I see the other car’s headlights straight ahead of us, bigger and bigger. We swerve to avoid them – but they swerve too. Quite deliberately, they are swerving towards us.

I see the twist of the other car’s wheels in the road: then, the cars collide. I feel like I’ve been punched: the sudden impact takes the breath from my body as our car slews round in the road, reeling from the hit. It leans sideways, more and more. For a moment I think: we’re going to topple over. The car lurches, sways like a ship in a storm. I hit my head on the roof; there’s a jolt in my jaw like the impact of a boxer’s upper-cut, banging all my teeth together.

But the car doesn’t fall over. The next moment, I’m shaken again as our tires hit back onto the road. We’re still upright. Both cars, battered, engines smoking, stand silently on the empty road in the dark.

The man I saw on the El train gets out of his car. Another man gets out of the passenger seat. I see guns in their hands.

“Now we wouldn’t want any trouble, would we? Especially not with you two ladies present. So, you pretty pair, you get out of that automobile. Move over there.”

I’m not surprised to hear Irish-American accents. We do as they say. The gun barrels are pointing at our heads. Are they going to shoot Gwyneth and me, right here? Like a gramophone recording, a line I heard in Hell’s Kitchen replays in my mind – “Us Gophers are gentlemen, we don’t go around slitting ladies’ throats.” But somehow I sense that that rule doesn’t apply here. These men, they are here to do a job, and it involves killing. There’s a deep, black ditch alongside the road, and I’m standing on the edge of it. Like a grave.

“If either of you women move, you’re dead. Both of you, stand there as still as stuffed dummies in a Fifth Avenue shop window.”

One gun is still trained on us. The other gun now points at our car. “Now, you gentlemen. Get out of the car, stand in the light of our headlamps so we can get a good look at you.”

Chisholm steps from the car, but Axelson’s door is twisted and he can’t open it. I see him moving over to get out of my passenger door. But the two men hardly give him a glance. They’re looking at Chisholm, and both guns are pointing at him now.

“You, sir. The night before last, I saw you on the Ninth Avenue El train. I was looking out for you because your face looks exactly like a description we’ve been given, of a man calling himself by the very fancy name of Black Velvet.”

“Suppose your description’s wrong?” Chisholm speaks calmly. “Think about that: you’re in the process of attacking four innocent people. Already, you’ve done enough to go to prison for years. On the basis of a ‘description’ you’ve been given, by someone who wants you to do his dirty work for him.”

The man completely ignores what Chisholm is saying. “So, Mister Black Velvet. After we’ve finished with our business here, when we return to New York, we’ll be able to inform Jimmy Nolan that the man who came down to Hell’s Kitchen and talked big about the Irish cause and a shipment of explosives is, in fact, an Englishman. An English spy, to be exact. So Jimmy might be pleased, if we were to tell him that this so-called Black Velvet got killed.”

Chisholm looks utterly impassive. Five, ten seconds pass. Then he speaks.

“Well, if I’m your spy, then you might as well let these others go. I think our car still works: let them drive on their way. I’m the only one you want. I’ll tell you all you need to know.”

I can’t help it; I gasp. I know he will die if he stays with these men. Horrible thoughts run through my mind. Will they torture him before they kill him, to find out what they want to know?

“I’m not sure, Mister, about letting these other folks go. Witnesses, they can be very inconvenient things to have around. But yes, we’d be very interested in what you’ve got to say for yourself. You see, even for us to be able to tell Jimmy your real name – even that one little bit of information would be nice for him to hear. But I’m sure, before we’re done with you, that you’re going to tell us a whole lot more than just your name.”

I’m right. The gangsters want to extract information from Chisholm. The man carries on speaking.

“We’re looking forward to every single thing that you’re going to tell us. And you are going to tell us every single thing – whether you want to or not. So – come over here. If you don’t move, then I’ll shoot one of these two ladies, right now. And maybe the other one later. Just for my own amusement. So – move. Arms in the air.”

Slowly, slowly, Chisholm does as the man says. He takes one, two steps towards the two figures. The men are on either side of him now. And then – he moves like lightning. I see his arms move down, his hands grasp the throats of both men. I hear choking, and the scuffling of feet: the three figures struggle in the light of the headlamps. Chisholm stands between the two men, they writhe and shake in his grasp like snakes gripped in his hands. He’s stronger… but there are two of them. I take a step towards them: I’m going to help Chisholm –

“Missy, are you as stupid as you look? I told you not to move. So why have you stepped forward? Take a second step, and you’re dead.”

It’s the voice of the man from the El. He’s got free from Chisholm’s grip. The other man wrestles helplessly in Chisholm’s grasp – but I hear a dull click, as the free man cocks his gun. He’s going to shoot Chisholm.

I can’t help myself. I take a second step forward.

I hear a loud crack echo through the air, but I don’t feel the impact of my fall, because something far harder has hit me in the chest. I can see stars: I’m lying on my back in dirt, at the bottom of the ditch, looking straight up through the branches of the trees, a network of black lines against the indigo night sky. Between the branches, the stars sparkle, more brightly than I’ve ever seen them since my childhood. I gaze at the stars, so bright, so far away. I’m no longer a grown woman: I’m a little girl again, on a warm summer night, long ago. In the long June evenings, I would sometimes lie out in the back field behind my home, watching the sky turn peacock-blue, then velvet-purple, as stars came out, one by one. Now and then I would see fireflies too. When the fireflies came, I felt that the stars had come down on the earth, all around me. I’d stay there as long as I could, counting stars, until Mama called me home.

I don’t know why I feel that I’m in the back field at home, with Mama calling, because I know that in fact I’m lying on my back in a ditch, in a lonely forest miles from anywhere, and awful things are happening. But my mind is telling me not to worry about those bad things, and not to try to make sense of anything. Everything is all right: I’m seven years old again, lying under a warm summer evening sky, and I feel strangely happy, except for this feeling in my ribs. The strangest feeling in the world. As if my chest is empty space inside my ribcage. I’m not breathing, and ridiculously I think: of course I’m not breathing. I no longer have lungs.

I see two black figures standing up against the sky, outlined against the glittering stars. They’re looking down at me. One of them steps down into the ditch, crouches next to me. It’s the oddest thing: he’s feeling the material of my dress, over my bosom.

“She’s soaked in blood. Good work. She’s gone, good and proper.”

The figures disappear. The two men have gone back to their car. Is this what it’s like, to be dying? To still be able to see, to hear, to try to make sense of things, as your own life ebbs away?

I hear the men’s car start up. Chisholm is dead too, I guess. And the professor, and Gwyneth? I’m finding it hard to think now, my brain is shutting down. One by one, the stars disappear above me. Yes, this is the end. And I remember stories about people who nearly died, but then were brought back to life, and they spoke of what had happened to them: they all talked about seeing a light, going into the light.

Light there is. But not a gentle glow. Suddenly everything is lit as if by the noonday sun, and I hear a stupendous roar, like the heavens are being ripped wide open. And I feel cold, like my bones are frozen.

But stranger than that, I feel snow falling on me. Flakes of snow drift down, oddly gray-colored in the lurid light above me.

So this is death, I think. Heaven or hell?

I hear laughing.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A young lady in a state of undress

 

Heaven, I’ve decided. Maybe I did something good, when I was a little girl.

I seem to be in a dim room, but suffused with a gentle brightness. Like sunshine through white drapes. It must be heaven that I’m in, because I can see two angels. Elegant, human-like shapes dressed in white, looking down at me. My guardian angels. I sense kindliness in their figures, their faces. And then, they’re gone.

I’m lying down, I realize, and I find that I can move. First I move my fingers, then my arms. My chest feels tender, like it’s kept a memory of the bullet that sent me to this place. I seem to be wearing a kind of loose, white nightgown, like I’ve become an angel myself. I reach up, touch the sorest place, under my left breast. I feel firm, intact skin.

I sit up. I’m in a bed. There is sunshine, and it is coming through drapes. I don’t hesitate. I’m on my feet, and drawing the drapes back.

If this is heaven – which I’m beginning to doubt – it certainly is beautiful. In the view from my window, a cloudless azure sky looks down on endless, calm water. The light and the warmth of the air feels like bliss, and the scent of flowers drifts to me. I think: the first day of spring.

There’s a knock at the door behind me, and I remember my guardian angels.

“Come in.” It sounds so strange, to hear my own voice.

“Agnes, dear. Get back into bed.”

The angel’s voice is that of Gwyneth Gilmour.

“Gwyneth! Where am I?”

“Like I told you. Gilmour Lodge, Olcott. That’s Lake Ontario you’re looking at.”

“I had this mad idea that I was dead. Gone to –

“Gone?… Never mind going to the afterlife darling; you’ve not even traveled out of New York State.”

“And – the others?”

“They’re all alive and well. And, by the way, do you know you’ve been asleep a whole day and a night? We didn’t disturb you yesterday, when each of us was giving our statements to the police. After hearing what had happened, the officers agreed that you should be left to rest.”

“Thank God. I can hardly believe we’re all alive. I really believed that I’d been shot.”

“You were shot. After a manner of speaking.”

“What happened?”

“Well, you’ll remember those hoodlums.”

“Of course.”

“Chisholm took them by surprise. He moved incredibly fast, and the professor and I thought that he had them both. But one of them broke free and fired a shot at you. He took careful aim, you fell like a stone. I thought – we all thought – you were dead. Shot through the heart, that’s what I thought. Chisholm was still wrestling with the other man. Then the man who’d shot you hit Chisholm on the head with the butt of the gun. Chisholm fell, and the other man pointed the gun at me. I thought: I’m for it next.

But then the two men came over, looked into the trench you’d fallen into. Both guns were reloaded by then: one pointed at me, the other at Axelson. So the professor and I – I’m sorry, but we just stood still. If we moved…”

“I can hardly blame you.”

“One of the men stepped down into the ditch, he was looking closely at you. He said something like “Soaked in blood, she’s gone.” Then he turned to go back to the car. They started up the engine, all the while pointing the guns at us. I knew in my bones that they were going to shoot us too, before they drove off. By that stage, all I was doing was praying that they might miss me.

I only understand what happened next because Chisholm told me afterwards. You see, when they were at the ditch, looking at you, he’d managed to crawl round to the back of their car, and unscrewed the cap of the gasoline tank. He had his lighter in his pocket, and he struck it. The moment they were both inside the car, Chisholm dropped his lighter into the tank –”

“So that was the deafening noise I heard.”

“Indeed. We were lucky, I guess, that none of us were hurt by the blast. After the explosion, the car blazed like hell-fire. I heard screams from inside it, for about a minute. Despite what those men had done to us, it was horrible to hear. The blaze lit up the forest, and ash rained down on us. Chisholm staggered to his feet. I called the professor, and we clambered down into the ditch. It’s funny what sticks in one’s mind: I remember seeing flakes of ash, all over your face. The professor was examining you for signs of life. Suddenly, he laughed.

“I heard a laugh. That’s the last thing I remember.”

“Well, I started laughing too. Because Axelson held out his hand and said ‘smell that’. It was wet, on his fingers, where he had been examining you.”

“And?”

“I smelt it. Brandy.”

“Of course…”

“I never had you down as a secret drinker, Agnes.”

“The little metal flask. I kept it in my travelling-jacket. I’d almost forgotten it, or maybe I’d got used to feeling it there. Inspector Trench gave it to me…”

“Saved your life.”

 

There’s a knock at the door. “Would you like some coffee, Miss Frocester?” The woman who enters is, I realize, my other angel. She’s tall and graceful, but not young: fifty maybe, and her black face smiles at me as if she’s known me all her life. Her eyes flash not just kindliness, but powerful intelligence and sensitivity. I realize, without being told, that she too has been informed of everything about this business.

“I’m Unity Lloyd. Mr Gilmour’s housekeeper. Thought I’d see how you were doing. So was it coffee, or have these English folk got you into their tea-drinking ways? Also, Miss Frocester, you have a gentleman who wants to see you. May I show him in?”

I nod in agreement, and the professor steps through the door.

“Thank you for seeing me, Miss Agnes. Miss Lloyd is a formidable character – but she was, I think, joking when she said I was wishing to see a young lady in a state of undress…”

“Yes, I think I was joking, professor.” Unity Lloyd raises an eyebrow: I sense that she’s already used to the professor’s seriousness, and enjoys taking a rise out of it. She carries on. “Well, Professor, Mrs Gilmour and I will leave you and Miss Agnes to talk. Un-chaperoned.”

They both leave the room. The professor didn’t quite understand Unity’s banter: he says to me “Miss Agnes, it is quite proper for you and I to talk here alone. As you know, my initial training was as a medical doctor.”

“Of course, professor. I’m not in the least embarrassed. But we all need to talk. Go and get Chisholm too, if he’s free. And bring the copies I made of Freshing’s papers.”

I’m sitting up in bed; Chisholm and Axelson occupy chairs on either side. Miss Lloyd has brought coffee for all three of us, taking the opportunity to laugh again at the gentlemen in this unusual situation. On the counterpane are spread the copies that I made at Glen Springs of Freshing’s two papers. The professor speaks first.

“One thing at least is perfectly clear. These two papers are unrelated. Their only connection is that Mr Freshing folded them up together. But they were objects of horror to him. Why?”

I play devil’s advocate. “The two papers were folded together. So maybe they do belong together.”

Chisholm, looks at both of us. “Spence can’t have given Freshing both papers, together. Because one of them, the letter, is clearly the hard evidence of the blackmail we have suspected all along. The other, the contract document, has nothing to do with the blackmail. But it clearly has a lot to do with Calvin Gilmour, who was sitting in that very same lifeboat as Spence and Freshing. And of course, Freshing’s job on their trip to England was to copy contract documents for Gilmour.”

“Let me try a little logical thought.” The professor speaks slowly, talking the problem through as his mind tries to unpick the puzzle. “Why does Freshing keep these two unrelated pieces of paper in a safe? It is like the human mind: a secret, locked chamber that he does not want to open. Only under the Hypnotic-Forensic Method can the chamber – both the mental one, and the physical one – be opened.”

“What do you mean, professor?”

“He has locked both papers away because he cannot face them. The note that Percy Spence gave him, he has locked that away, because it would recall the horror of that night. The other paper – this contract document– it is another thing that Mr Freshing cannot face up to. But, for a different reason. A reason that we do not know – yet.”

I speak once more. “But – the fact is, both papers were folded together. If they were unrelated, why didn’t Freshing simply leave them one on top of the other in the safe? There was plenty of room: apart from those two sheets, the safe was completely empty.”

Chisholm is thinking. He picks up my written notes of the Gilmour contract, and reads something out. “Supply of Two Hundred 3-inch M1902.”

I look at him. “Three inches?”

“Guns, Agnes. A three-inch M1902 is an army field cannon. It’s so called because it fires a shell that is three inches in diameter. This document is a contract between Gilmour and the British Army for the supply of artillery.”

“So – the contract would be of great interest to a German spy.”

Chisholm looks intently at the professor, then at me. “But there’s more, Agnes. Much more. Why would Calvin Gilmour have these cannons?”

“Gilmour deals in steel. Cannons contain steel?”

“Exactly.”

I don’t understand what Chisholm is driving at. He carries on explaining.

“This cannon, the three-inch M1902, is outdated, Agnes. The United States Field Artillery Branch no longer uses them. So, my guess is that they are scrapping them. I think that they have sold the cannons to Gilmour to be melted down, the steel re-used. That’s why a steel magnate owns two hundred military field cannon.”

The professor nods at Chisholm. “Your reasoning is correct, I think. That’s why Gilmour has all these military cannons. But under this contract, he is not scrapping the cannons. He’s selling them.”

I’m starting to realize. “The contract negotiated by Sorensen & Baker in London… the British Army’s lawyers… I understand now. Gilmour was selling the cannons to the British. But I still don’t understand. If the cannons are outmoded… why is the British Army buying them?”

Chisholm looks grim. “My guess, Agnes, is that there has been a change of policy. The British Army buying out-of-date American field cannon can only mean one thing. We have run out of time to build new artillery ourselves.”

Axelson looks at me. “Do you see, Miss Agnes, what Chisholm is saying? The gravity of the situation – it is almost beyond words.”

Maybe I’ve not properly recovered yet, because I still don’t grasp the real importance of what the two men are saying. Until Chisholm spells it out to me, word-by-word. “The urgent purchase of these mothballed old field guns is a desperate measure by the British Army. Playing at empires is over: we are now in the endgame. Britain is preparing for immediate war with Germany.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Flight plans

 

It’s good to be up and dressed again. I feel chilled by Chisholm’s deduction, but all the same, I’m going to enjoy dinner tonight. It’s six o’clock now, and the lunch that Unity Lloyd brought for me in bed seems ages ago.

Unity and I are sitting in the wood-paneled parlor of the fishing lodge. The head and antlers of a stuffed moose look down on the sofa where she and I are sitting: she’s been chatting to me, asking me about my life in Connecticut, and in England. She has worked for Calvin Gilmour for twenty-five years. She’s modest about her own achievements – but I can tell that Mr Gilmour trusts her to run every aspect of his and Gwyneth’s domestic life.

There’s a knock at the front door. I hear the maid answer it, and her voice announces a name.

“Mr Gilmour, you have a visitor. A Mr Rufus du Pavey.”

Unity looks at me. “Miss Agnes, I’ll leave you: I’m going to ask the servants to put on some coffee for Mr du Pavey. Perhaps he’ll want to stay to dinner, too.”

Within moments, she’s left the room. Out in the hallway, I hear Calvin Gilmour’s gruff voice.

“Du Pavey. I got your latest note. What do you want now, dammit?”

“Perhaps we could talk somewhere – in private?”

“The parlor. Come right in. Whatever you’ve got to say shouldn’t take long.”

I’m a guest in this house – ‘be on your best behavior’ my Mama would say – but all the same, I’ve got the opportunity to listen to two key suspects. I notice a woven curtain hanging across the whole width of one wall. It looks like some kind of mock-medieval tapestry with a hunting scene on it, as if to make the place look like a hunting lodge in Tudor England. I stand up and feel behind the tapestry: yes, there’s room to conceal myself there. As I stand behind the woven curtain, I think: this was how I got into this whole business in the first place. Eavesdropping.

I hear the door opening and the two men come in. Rufus speaks first.

“You know my proposition makes sense. Please be reasonable, Calvin.”

“You’ve very informal, Mr du Pavey, in using my Christian name, when strictly speaking I’m not even your business partner – yet.”

“I like to think we are partners. You’ve kindly provided me with some funding, and you will benefit greatly from the publicity of my Lake Ontario flight.”

I can hear in Gilmour’s voice that he is no mood to negotiate. “Look, du Pavey. I’ve read your latest telegram. I know what you’re planning, and I’ve had to take a hard decision. I can’t back you further. I’ve funded this venture so far. Even Miss Lloyd took time from her own duties to contact organizers for your so-called reception ceremony after the flight. That alone has snowballed into an event of itself – catering, funfairs, sideshows.”

“Well, that’s not really my fault. It simply stems from my popularity: the public have high expectations of me. I’ve caught people’s imagination.”

“Let’s leave imagination to one side for the moment, and consider the facts. Here’s one fact for you: the local police contacted me yesterday, to say that they will need to deploy practically their whole force in Niagara Falls State Park on the day of the flight, purely for crowd control. Now, here’s the reason for their call. They told me they had no more funds. They asked me if I could lend financial support to pay for police officers’ overtime. I’m a rich man, but I’m not a fool.”

“No-one said you were. Any money you spend now, it will repay itself many times over…”

“You’re right, I’m no fool. But then, you’d know all about fools. Because, Mr du Pavey, your own life is rather like being in the circus. Your latest trick isn’t a crowd-pleaser though. Your telegram said that one passenger on the Lake Ontario flight isn’t enough, that you want two people on that airplane in order to prove the viability of a passenger service. A husband-and-wife team, indeed! You want both me and Gwyneth to risk our lives by going into the air with you. That engine and that airframe have not yet been tested with the weight of three people. Trying the extra weight out for the first time, on a long flight, is madness.”

“A nearly identical aircraft, another Wright Model B, has carried three people easily.”

“Nearly identical. I’m supposed to trust a ‘nearly’ am I? You’re a chancer, and I’m not backing you further. After this latest idea of yours, I wouldn’t get in that kite with you just by myself, let alone risk Gwyneth’s life too.”

“But I’ve made a public statement that I will take two passengers. That news will appear in all the newspapers tomorrow, and I can’t change that. So everyone will be expecting it. As you know, the flight is taking place the day after tomorrow.”

“Well, I don’t know a whole lot about circuses – but how business works is this. You put money into a venture on the basis of trust.” Gilmour pauses, as if for dramatic effect. “I’ll say that word again: trust. And I don’t trust you, Mr du Pavey.”

Silence.

“I know all about your debts: you told me, two years ago, that they are the natural lot of a second son. You claim that your talent shouldn’t be held back by simple lack of funding: that you can achieve great things, if you have the financial backing. But in America, sir, a young man in your position would work day and night to make his mark, however humbly. He wouldn’t come along with a begging-bowl, like you’ve done to me over the past two years.”

“Sir. You’ve committed to the Lake Ontario flight. To refuse to fly with me will waste everything that you’ve invested. You’re not scared of the flight, are you?”

I think: Rufus, that was the worst thing you could have said. I hear a harsh anger in Gilmour’s voice.

“What sticks in my craw, Mr du Pavey, is that I’ve given support to a man like you. A man whose public face is so much at variance with a sordid private life that would, if brought into the wholesome light of day, create quite a stink.”

There’s silence again, and I can tell that Rufus is stunned. Up to now the two men have been standing, but now I hear the springs of the sofa. One of the men is sitting down, as if he’s had a shock. Now, one of the voices comes from lower down in the room. The sitter is speaking: there’s a quaver in his voice, but an edge of anger too.

“I’d appreciate the truth, Mr Gilmour, rather than shadowy hints.”

From behind this tapestry I can see nothing, and somehow that seems to sharpen my hearing, my reading of the tones and nuances in this conversation. What do I sense, in Rufus’ voice? A sense of hurt, yes, at the vague accusation that Gilmour has flung. But something more than that. I sense that Rufus feels injustice and outrage: that he feels that Gilmour has unfairly turned the tables on him. It’s like Rufus has caught Gilmour cheating at a game of cards – but something in the situation means that Rufus can’t openly speak up and object to it.

Gilmour speaks again, with an air of crushing factuality. “As you know, Mr du Pavey, I have a man who manages my security arrangements. He accompanies me whenever I have to travel – including my voyages to England. You will also be aware that a few days ago, both you and I were in London, before my return here on the Olympic. I already had doubts about your Lake Ontario flight, but I had also heard rumors – to be frank, rumors about your private life. So, when I was in England, I asked my man to watch out for you, track you if he could. He searched certain haunts in the West End of London. He was indeed able to spot you at one of the new hotels in Piccadilly, a place called the Ritz. Later that evening, he followed you. You left the Ritz and took a hansom cab to a very different neighborhood. To Soho. The Sin City of England.”

“That means nothing. I went there to meet a friend.”

“Here in America, we’re more direct. We call a spade a spade. We don’t call a night out in Soho ‘meeting a friend’. We call it whoring.”

“No.”

“Oh yes. The bars you went to, the times you were observed going through private doors into back rooms – they make it clear that you were enjoying more than just a few glasses of cheap gin. So – my security man, he asked around, talked to a lot of people. And he found out that, up until a year ago, you and Percy Spence were the darling boys of several of the worst sort of bars in that locality. Apparently, you and he were their most reliable regulars. So – you’re not a man, du Pavey. A real man can control his animal instincts – and settle down with a decent girl.”

“Like you did.” Again I can hear every shade of speech: there’s a strange tone in Rufus’s voice.

“Indeed. No honest man ever had need of a whore. Indeed, it’s always seemed to me, that if men could set their instincts right, then women would not be forced into vice. You disgust me, Mr Rufus du Pavey.”

There’s yet another silence. Gilmour’s voice is coming from high up, almost bouncing off the ceiling, and I sense that he’s standing over Rufus, hectoring him.

“So, here’s the deal, Mr Poverty-Stricken Second Son. You find other passengers for your flight, or you fly alone. Either way, neither Gwyneth nor I get into that airplane with you. But you can go ahead, attempt your flight. See if you can cross the lake and fly over Niagara Falls without crashing. Then, if you succeed, I’ll look into the business potential of your so-called air-line. Should I really like what I see, I might consider it as a commercial venture. But if that does happen, then any contract I make with you will ensure that from now on, I make all the decisions. Now get on your way, sir.”

Gilmour’s tone tells me: the conversation is closed. Rufus is no longer welcome in this house. But at that point I heard the door open.

“Mr du Pavey, how lovely to see you! Are you staying for dinner?” It’s Gwyneth’s voice.

“I’d hate to inconvenience…”

“Not at all. Miss Lloyd and I have just been talking about this evening’s meal and the numbers of us dining. There are a few guests here already, you see. Calvin was out on the lake yesterday, he caught some fine fish. There’s more than enough for an extra guest. What do you think, Calvin?”

 

It’s five minutes later. I’m on the way to my room, when I notice Chisholm’s door open. I see him standing there in his room. He’s just finished dressing for dinner: a black jacket and bow tie on his tall, erect frame. Now and then, I see him and it’s as if I’ve forgotten what a dashing figure he cuts.

“Agnes? Do you have a moment?”

I step into the room. Although it’s simply a guest room in the fishing lodge, the scatter of belongings from his suitcase seem to have printed Chisholm’s masculine presence in every corner.

“You know, don’t you Chisholm? Rufus du Pavey is here for dinner with us.” I tell him about my eavesdropping, and the argument that I heard in the parlor.

“So Agnes, what you’ve overheard – it shows that du Pavey is indeed desperate for money.”

“Yes. It helps us make sense of some things. The blackmail of Spence – there would be a cause for that, maybe, if Spence and du Pavey did visit…”

“Ladies of the night? I don’t buy it. Spence was a womanizer – but in the ballroom, not the gutter. Du Pavey might have slung some mud, but it would never have stuck. If du Pavey had tried blackmail on that basis, Spence would have laughed in his face, brazened it out. No. I think there’s something more sinister.”

“Which is?”

“As I told you, Spence was a traitor.”

“The papers… that document. Yes, Chisholm – I can see that that contract is clear evidence that Britain is desperately arming for war. It would be of huge interest to German spies, and I guess of huge interest to Spence too, if he was working with those spies.”

“Maybe du Pavey had evidence that would prove Spence’s treason. Now that would be cause for blackmail. Like anyone, Spence would rather pay over his whole fortune to du Pavey, rather than face the noose.”

“Yes… but the one thing I don’t understand is Mr Freshing’s part in this.”

“Mr Freshing was horrified to see the papers. Now, as we established, du Pavey’s blackmail letter and the contract are unconnected.”

“Which means?…”

“You see, Agnes? It wasn’t seeing the blackmail note in your hands that upset Mr Freshing: it was seeing the contract document. Freshing was horrified because he himself had committed treachery. He was in a position to give Spence the contract, in betrayal of the position of trust he held.”

“But… isn’t it just too much of a coincidence? That a note from du Pavey, blackmailing Spence for his treason, should end up, by sheerest chance, folded up in the same safe as a contract document stolen by Freshing, which he intended to sell to Spence?”

Chisholm pauses, and ponders what I’ve said. “You’re right, Agnes. It’s a tangle, I admit.”

“I wonder, if you looked at it all from a completely different angle, then the tangle might make sense.”

“Maybe. But there’s something there, isn’t there? Du Pavey – he’s in on this too. Somehow.”

“I agree – if it is a tangle, then Rufus is certainly there somewhere in the spider’s web. And we don’t know his own story yet: where he was, what he was doing, on the night that Spence was murdered and the Titanic sank.”

“When we were sailing on the Olympic, du Pavey agreed to Axelson’s proposal of hypnosis. After the Lake Ontario flight, maybe…”

“But Chisholm, there’s one other thing that you should know. I sense something else, something very different. Just now in the parlor – it was the way Rufus spoke – and, the way he hesitated – when Gilmour accused him of a duplicitous personal life. I can’t put it any other way, except I had the overwhelming feeling that Rufus wanted to fling the accusation of a secret life straight back into his – Gilmour’s – face.”

“We’ll work on it, Agnes. Sometimes, when you worry away at these tiny details – I feel you’re the real brains of our team. I’m just the brawn.”

“Oh no. You’re never just that. But – come on, we’ll be late for dinner.”

 

Gwyneth was right: the fish is delicious, and there is plenty for all. Rufus has been seated next to me, away from Calvin.

“We meet again, Agnes. You look radiantly beautiful tonight.”

“You’re too kind, Rufus. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as beautiful. And certainly never ‘radiant’. So – thank you.”

“How have your adventures in America been so far?”

“Oh, I’m not very adventurous, you know. We’re staying here, it is a lovely setting. I hope to see more of Lake Ontario. Perhaps even the Canadian shore. After that, I guess I’ll get back to good old Connecticut to see my family.”

“You and I could take a look at the lake later. Perhaps we could take a turn on the jetty together? The moon is very clear tonight, high over the lake. A perfect early spring evening.”

“Perhaps.” I don’t want to go out there with him. Would he try to touch me, to kiss me?… On the other hand, I might find out something. I recall what Chisholm and Axelson said about our mystery suspect, Colette Morgan. Befriending men, becoming intimate with them, in order to find out facts about them. I remember a nasty word that I can’t quite forget. ‘Whoring’.

My thoughts are interrupted. Chisholm’s speaking.

“I’ll do it.”

Have I missed something? I ask “Do what?’”

“I’ll be Rufus’s passenger on his Lake Ontario flight. It seems that he needs a passenger – in fact ideally he’d have preferred to have two – to show that it’s a realistic commercial idea to carry people around by air. I’d be more than delighted – I’d be honored – to have the opportunity…”

“Well – that would be marvelous Chis – thank you.” Du Pavey is delighted – but also, I suspect, he may use this opportunity to try to find out more about our investigation. I look at the two men, the interplay of their glances, the angles of their heads, the little gestures between them. Is Rufus playing Chisholm, or is Chisholm playing him? The professor watches them impassively. Like me, he’s following every single word they say. As dinner draws to a close, Rufus says “Chis, old boy, let’s you and I take some coffee in the parlor, if Mr Gilmour will permit? I’ll tell you more, show you the plans. We’ve got heaps to talk about. If you and I take ourselves away for the rest of the evening, we can stop boring all our fellow guests with talk about ailerons and airspeed.”

Half an hour later, I’m on the way to my bed. A yawn escapes me. So much for a moonlight walk with a romantically inclined Rufus. I’m not attracted to him in the least – but all the same, it’s a dent to one’s confidence. The first man ever to make a pass at me loses all interest, the moment he gets a chance to talk about airplanes instead.

I stop in the corridor on my way to my room. I knock at a door.

“Agnes. Sorry, we’re engrossed in flight plans here, but you’re welcome to join us…”

“I want to come with you. I’ll be your second passenger, Rufus.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Blue water, blue sky

 

“Welcome to Canada.”

Voices are calling to me. We’re on a lakeside promenade: our accents and clothes mark out Chisholm, Rufus and me as foreigners, tourists from the other side of the lake. Only the three of us have made this journey, brought across Lake Ontario by Calvin’s private boat. The next time I see the rest of our party will be at the ceremony in the reception tent in Niagara Falls State Park.

I’m jostled in dense crowds: it seems that every family in Toronto has come to Scarborough Beach Park for this fine spring Saturday, although they’re all wrapped up warmly against the Canadian winter that has hardly ended. Noises from the fairground rides blare at me, I see signs ‘Whirl of Pleasure’ ‘Bump the Bumps’: a swirl of garish colors, moving machinery, shrieking people enjoying their chance of a holiday. I also notice a large cinema poster: in huge lettering it announces – ‘Showing Now – A Movie of the Ultimate Terror: Titanic Sinks!!!’ We shuffle past the cinema in the dense throng, and I try not to look at the lurid poster, with its overdrawn faces of cartoon horror, limbs writhing and flailing as human bodies are crushed by a massive falling iceberg. Next to the cinema is an extraordinary scene: under a sign ‘Kept Alive by A Medical Miracle’ there’s a row of tiny babies, pitifully thin and frail, lying listlessly in a row of glass incubator tanks fronting onto the promenade. Rufus says “You can pay a nickel to go in there, gawp more closely at those unfortunate infants, even touch them.”

Five minutes later, we reach a quieter part of the promenade: the lake laps quietly on a sandy, near-deserted beach, and a small hotel is the only sign of tourist development. Rufus greets two men in boiler suits who meet us at the doors of a large shed fronting out onto the beach. I had expected to see a field from which the airplane would take off, but behind the shed, wooded bluffs rise steeply above the shoreline.

Rufus swings the doors open.

I’ve never seen an airplane in my life. Photographs of them, that’s all. The thing in front of me fills the shed, but it looks absurdly frail and insubstantial. Strings, wood, stretched canvas. It seems to be nothing but a network of lines – more like a spider’s web than a piece of engineering. I say to myself: ‘This thing’s made of emptiness. Of air.’

“Lady – and gentlemen – I present to you: the Empire State.”

Rufus’s upper-class English accent sits strangely with his showman’s theatrical manner as he talks us round the machine, pointing out this new feature, that design improvement, facts and figures spilling from his mouth. I notice something, and ask a question.

“Why has it got skis? For Canadian snow?”

“They’re not skis, Agnes. They’re floats. The Empire State will take off from – and land on – water. Lake Ontario itself is our airfield. And the Niagara River, above the Falls, will be our landing ground.”

 

It’s fifteen hours later, and the morning sun is rising higher over Lake Ontario. Last night, after dinner at the Rosedene Hotel, and too much conversation from the over-animated Rufus, I slept fitfully: the spindly frame of the aircraft, straining to hoist itself from the surface of the water, occurred and recurred in my dreams. I awoke early and could not get back to sleep. So at six o’clock this morning I came down here to the hotel lobby and sat quietly, watching the dawn light creep up the sky, mirrored in the lake. That was over an hour ago now. Rufus appears: his laughing face is unnaturally excited. He holds a bottle of Coca-Cola and in a single gulp he drinks the entire contents, straight from the bottle like a kid. His voice booms at me. “Ready to fly, Agnes? I went up to your room – it wasn’t locked, so I opened the door and popped in: I found it empty. ‘My bird has flown’, I thought. So I guessed I’d find you down here. Come on, let’s get breakfast.” His head jerks as he talks, and his animation is almost manic. Most of all, I’m annoyed at the thought of him going uninvited into my room, among my things – but I just smile and nod politely. There’s no point having an argument with him right now: in just one hour’s time, my life will be in his hands.

We go into the dining room and sit down: the staff serve us, and bring a breakfast for Chisholm too, but there’s no sign of him. Rufus tucks in hungrily to rashers of bacon, swollen sausages and a mountain of toast, dripping with butter. He keeps talking with his mouth full: the sight of mashed food in his mouth, and the sheen of grease on the meat piled on his plate, nearly turns my stomach. I find that I’ve no appetite for the plate of food in front of me. I make my excuses to Rufus and go to look for Chisholm. As soon as I leave the dining room, I see him, striding towards me in the lobby.

“Agnes, I’ve just been handed a telegram: Inspector Trench sent it to this hotel. Jimmy Nolan sent a message to the New Amsterdam Hotel in New York, exactly as he and I agreed when we met him in Hell’s Kitchen.”

“Really? I thought that your cover was blown. Surely that’s why the Gophers have been pursuing us and trying to kill you?”

“Inspector Trench’s telegram also says that he has some important new evidence, and it changes everything.”

“And it is?…”

“He wouldn’t say what the evidence is. He said that he needs to show it to me, rather than tell me about it. Nor does he say which ship is being used for the shipment – but he did say that the loading is planned for the early hours of tomorrow morning, at Chelsea Piers. So, the inspector would like you and I to get back to New York, for tonight. Apparently the police want you and me in attendance at Chelsea Piers, to identify Nolan after they’ve arrested him.”

I’m about to speak, but Rufus appears.

“Come on Chis old boy, you’ll need some food inside you before this little jaunt.” We all head back into the dining room, although all I can face is coffee. I try to put the Gophers out of my mind, and concentrate on what is ahead of me this morning. A different sort of fear.

 

Although I volunteered for this flight, the truth is, I’m terrified: the moments pass like I’m watching myself in a movie at the cinema. I see myself walking with Chisholm and Rufus out to the lakeshore, sun glinting on the water. Rufus is talking to us, telling us about the flight, but again it’s like the movies: I see his lips moving, but I hear nothing. And I feel I’m a spectator, that I have left my real self back there on the shore, standing and watching, as a rowing-boat takes the three of us out to where the Empire State waits for us on the surface of the lake. Maybe it’s the fear, but I can’t help bursting out laughing at it. It looks like a duck, sitting on the water. This is a proud moment for Rufus: my laugh provokes a serious glance from him. “Twelve men carried it out to this position.” he says earnestly, as the boat pulls up at the front of the flimsy contraption. The boat wobbles in the water as Chisholm helps me step up onto a kind of wooden bench, bolted onto the top of lower wing of the airplane. There’s also a thin metal rail for our feet to rest on, below and in front of the edge of the wing. As I sidle onto the bench, I hear Rufus instructing me.

“Agnes, you sit in the middle of the bench. You’re the lightest of the three of us, you see. For balance, Chisholm and I will sit either side of you, as his and my weights will be similar.”

I feel like I’m sitting on a park bench. My feet are on the rail, my legs and skirt stick out over the water, and I think for a moment: as we fly along in the wind, my dress will blow right up over my head. I picture the crowds in Niagara, watching us landing – and getting an eyeful of my legs. I should feel concerned, I guess, but probably because I’m so scared of the flight, I just start laughing hysterically again.

Rufus ignores my giggles. His voice is brisk and firm. “Put your safety belt on. It’s got a horizontal strap that goes around your waist, and a vertical one between your legs.” Aha, I see. The straps are designed for men, but they bundle my skirts up around my legs and protect my dignity as well as my safety. I fasten the buckle: it’s fiddly and awkward. Rufus passes some leather goggles up to me. “Fix these around your head, Agnes.” As I put them on, Rufus climbs up too and sits on my left-hand side, and glances at me again: he’s all smiles again. He grasps two long sticks that poke up just in front of him. “These are my pilot’s controls. By the way, you look like a real aviatrix sitting there, Agnes. Maybe tonight we can take that moonlight walk?”

“Perhaps you find a girl more attractive when she’s wearing aviation goggles?”

He doesn’t answer that. I’m glad: I don’t want the effort of speaking further. I know we’re just seconds from taking off: a choking, breathless feeling has come from nowhere, rising and pushing inside my chest. Chisholm is climbing up too now, sitting on my right-hand side. The three of us are squeezed together on the tiny bench. The pressure in my chest feels like it must burst: to distract myself from it, I look around and behind me. Just behind where Chisholm and I are sitting, and connected by belts to the two propellers behind the wing, is the gasoline-powered engine. It looks like a kind of kit toy, lots of odd metal parts fitted together. Somehow, it will power us up into the skies. It looks hardly big enough to lift a kitten.

But then it starts. A raw roar fills my ears.

I expect us to set off with a jerk, but nothing happens. We’re not moving at all. The roaring goes on, we sit and wait, I gaze ahead at the glittering waters stretching into infinity.

The tone of the roaring rises to an almost unbearable pitch: it’s unbelievable that a little metal box can generate such sound. And yes – I have a slight, almost imperceptible feeling of movement. We’re sliding, inch-by-inch, forwards, over the water. The little waves on the surface of the lake start slipping past the outline of my shoes: first one-by-one, then a few at a time, and then the waves below my feet move faster, they start to blend into a blur of blue water. I see spray rising from the fronts of the skis that stick out in front of us. We seem to be skimming the crests of the waves, scudding along: water sprays up, wetting my face, but it’s only for a moment: the spray lessens. The skis are no longer touching the surface of the lake: they’re flying over the top of the water. The rush of air gets faster and faster. I can feel the wind hitting the glass of my goggles. There’s a sense of breaking free from something. From gravity. And I look down at my shoes again, and the crests of the waves have become mere tiny glitters on the blue, far below me. I’m detached from them. Floating.

The wind in my face is strong, like being in a car with no windscreen. We climb higher, and the horizon widens every second. I can no longer see the ruffles of the waves on the surface of the lake: it looks like a flat blue plate. I can see the curve of the shoreline, trees and houses. Soon, I can make out whole towns, strung out along the bay. The airplane rises and turns. Away from Canada, towards the USA.

The moments pass, like a dream, in an endless azure infinity. The lake below, the sky above and around. Despite the furious wind in my face, the sense of effortless floating somehow feels like a deep, deep pleasure: the choking and breathlessness are all forgotten now. Breathing this blue air feels like a heavenly ecstasy. Either side of me, we’re passing fluffy, cotton-wool clouds. I gasp as one cloud passes below us. Then we see another cloud straight ahead, a white, blurry ball. We hit the cloud and we’re plunged into chill damp grayness, but a moment later the blue of the sky and the lake bursts on my sight again. The wind remains fearfully cold, but the sun is warm on my face. I see ships below us. Then I see that we’re flying directly above a ferry, and I can see people on the deck. Like little dolls on a toy boat. We must be a thousand feet in the air.

The ferry disappears behind us and we fly on, for several minutes maybe. I’m not sure how long: I’ve lost all sense of time. Blue below, blue above. On the next boat that passes below us, I can see the upturned heads of the crew. I guess that – like me, until now – they have never seen an airplane. And to see one for the first time, out here on the lake, must seem to them like a wonder of the world. I see them pointing and gesturing to each other, and I can even make out the amazed expressions on their faces: the boat must be closer to us than the previous one, as if we’re now flying a little lower. I have no idea where we are or how long we’ve been flying. Are we near the end, or not yet half-way? Maybe near the end: we’re flying even lower now. As that boat too disappears behind us, I notice that the surface of the lake looks quite close. I can see the crests of waves again, and white shapes: they’re seagulls, sitting on the water.

Chisholm shouts in my ear “We seem quite low.”

I guess Rufus knows what he’s doing. But then Chisholm shouts “Ask him.”

I tap Rufus on the shoulder to get his attention. He doesn’t react: I guess he’s concentrating. Then I shake his shoulder. He doesn’t answer, or turn round: he just keeps looking straight ahead. I hear Chisholm in my ear.

“Try again, Agnes. We seem to be flying even lower now.”

I shake Rufus’s shoulder again, hard. He shakes under my grip, then rolls towards me, lolling like a rag doll on the bench. If it weren’t for his safety belt he would slide off and fall… His face twists up towards mine: his mouth is open. Behind the goggles, I can see that his eyes are shut.

Some things scare me, make me feel faint. But here and now, my brain says: there’s no time for that. You need to deal with this situation, Agnes.

I show Rufus’s inert face to Chisholm, then I feel the wrist for a pulse: I can’t tell if there’s one or not. I pull his goggles off and hold them over his mouth: if they mist up, he’s still breathing. But if there is breath coming from his mouth, the wind takes it away. I glance round at the blue of the lake, closer again now. I’ve spent thirty seconds already just trying to find out if he’s alive. We’re heading for the water. If another thirty seconds pass without me doing anything, all three of us will be dead.

I shout to Chisholm. “When you two talked – did he tell you anything about flying?”

“Yes. I can pilot this, maybe, if…”

Somehow, all three of us must change places so that Chisholm can reach the controls. I’m already unbuckling my safety belt, then Rufus’s. I stand up from the bench, putting all my weight on the frail-looking foot rail, and turn around to face the unconscious body. My skirts flap around me, but I just focus on what I have to do: I must drag Rufus into my own place in the middle of the bench. It’s horribly awkward: like moving a heavy sack of potatoes, and with each movement I think: he’s going to slide forward towards me, off the edge of the bench. I grab onto the waistband of his trousers in my struggle to move him sideways, and I can feel the thin metal of the foot rail bending. The airplane dips, climbs, then dips again, more steeply now.

I strain every fiber of my muscles to move Rufus, and I glance down at my feet on the foot rail: it’s bent, but it holds. The wind gusts round me like a hurricane. The water races below my shoes, the plane tilts crazily, but I have to ignore everything. All that matters is that I move Rufus out of the way, so that Chisholm can get into the pilot’s seat and reach the controls.

Rufus is in the middle now. All Chisholm has to do is sidle across his lap, into the pilot’s seat.

But as I look at Chisholm, it seems like time is standing still. He doesn’t move, not one inch. Below his goggles, I see a wry smile forming on his lips, like a brave man going to his death because of a trivial twist of fate, and laughing about it. He shouts a few simple words at me.

“Agnes. My safety belt’s stuck.”

It’s like some horrible joke. I hold one of the wooden struts to steady myself as I reach over to the buckle of Chisholm’s belt. My fingers are more delicate and nimble than his. But the thing is clamped shut.

The airplane is swaying and slewing a few feet above the water now. At this speed – maybe sixty miles an hour – I can tell what will happen next. One of the wildly dipping wingtips will catch the surface of the waves, and the drag on the water will instantly rip the whole airplane over into the lake. The engine and propeller will keep spinning. Unconscious Rufus, and Chisholm, strapped helplessly in place, will die as the engine goes through their backs. I may be able to leap free.

And then, the fate that I cheated on the Titanic will catch up with me. Hypothermia. The winter ice has not long melted on this lake. I’ll part drown, part freeze.

“Chisholm, I’ll get into Rufus’s seat. I’ve not a clue what to do, but –”

“I’ll shout you instructions.”

A moment later, I’m back on the bench, in Rufus’s place. The airplane continues to dip and weave like a dragonfly over a pond. Water scuds below my feet. Chisholm yells hoarsely over the wind.

“Hold the two sticks.”

They’re just like wooden walking sticks: curved ends as handles. I listen for instructions. Chisholm yells above the din of the engine.

“The left stick controls the elevators. Pull it back – very slowly.”

I grasp the stick and try to move it gently. Nothing happens. Is it stuck? I try again, firmly but gradually.

We lurch upwards and I feel the air resistance buffeting the entire structure; the engine seems to stutter. The craft trembles in its flight, then shakes as if it’s going to fall apart. Suddenly I feel sick in the pit of my stomach: we seem to fall in the air. Like an autumn leaf dropping down from a tree. We’re just above the water now.

“We’re losing airspeed, Agnes! The plane’s about to stall.”

“What shall I do?”

“You’ve pulled the stick back too far. Move it forward a fraction.”

To me, it seems like I had hardly moved the stick at all. But I try to move it forwards again – so, so slightly. Two, three seconds pass. The stuttering lessens, then ceases, and the plane levels off. The engines roar, the speed quickens again. I say a silent prayer of thankfulness. But I can’t waste a moment. Although we’re under control again, and flying almost level, the surface of the lake is still horribly close, racing past me and under me. A wave grazes the skis, and I’m splashed in the face. I feel like my mouth is filled with ice, I choke and spit. And try – so, so subtly – to move the stick backwards again.

Nothing happens.

Pull the stick back!

I’ve moved it already, I think. So fractionally… but yes – I did feel it shift. Should I listen to Chisholm, pull it again? And now another wave hits the plane, this time splashing over all the lower wings. We have to gain some height, right now. But I remember what happened a few seconds ago when I pulled the stick too much. I hold my nerve. I don’t move the stick.

Another wave comes towards us, bigger this time.

And misses us. Just inches below the wingtips. We’re holding a straight, controlled course in the air. It’s almost imperceptible, but we’re climbing. Straight ahead, I see blue sky and the disk of the sun.

“Good work.”

Seemingly, we’re leveled out now: I keep both sticks rigidly in position: we’re maybe fifty feet above the water, and ahead of me, above the lake, is a dark line. It moves towards us, getting bigger and clearer. The coast of New York State.

Almost before I can believe it, the wild rapids of the Niagara River are below us. I have no idea how to land this thing – but first, I have to steer it to our landing place, up-river from the Falls. I shout as loudly as I can.

“Chisholm, how do I steer?”

“What?”

“How do I change direction?”

“The right stick. Gentle movements, like before.”

But there’s no time to think carefully about what to do. In the blink of an eye, a white wall of falling water appears in front of us. But not just in front of us: above us, too. We’re still far too low: below the top of Niagara Falls.

I control my instinct to jerk the left stick back. I move it gently, but we’re not climbing. We’re heading straight for the base of the Falls.

Maybe we could steer out of the way? I move the right stick, gently. Nothing happens except the airplane tilts over to one side. The white wall is closer now, and above the roar of the engines, I hear another, deeper roar. Thousands of tons of water, falling.

“Steer more, Agnes! Bank and climb!”

I have no idea what bank means, but I pull the right stick over more. The tilt increases and yes, we start to slew over to the left-hand side. The tilt is horrible, I look down to my left and I see the swirling river just below me, like the plane is tipping over, and I wonder if Rufus will slide from his seat.

We’re fractionally higher now, and curving up to our left. But it’s not enough. Even if we miss the water, we’ll smash into the cliffs on Niagara’s American shore. I try easing the left stick a bit more, to try to climb above the falls. Can we climb, just a fraction?

Nothing happens.

And suddenly the roar is deafening and I can see nothing: we’re flying through clouds of mist, an almost solid wall of spray. We’re going to hit the Falls.

Everything around me turns white. Even though we’re crashing into the face of the Falls, I grip the sticks. Hold firm.

Seconds pass in a torrent of whiteness. And then I see something, like a light at the end of a white tunnel. Blue.

The sky.

“Agnes! Look straight ahead! We’ve caught the updraft from the Falls!”

We have, too. Like a feather blown on the breeze, the force of air rising above the colossal turbulence below the Falls has tossed the airplane upwards, carried us up over the lip of the cataract. The plane levels out, and I see flat water ahead of us.

Have I dreamt this? The roar of the engine was lost in the noise of the Falls – but now we’ve passed the edge, I still can’t hear the airplane’s motor. Except for the wind in my face, there’s silence. And I see crowds of people along the bank of the river. There’s ropes in the water ahead, a moored boat, flags, and I understand: that’s our landing place.

“Agnes. I’ve cut the engine. We’re gliding now. So we can descend.”

I wonder how Chisholm’s done that. I can already feel the loss of power. I keep the sticks firmly in position, and we drift down, peacefully, like a bird gently gliding to a halt. I can’t believe it’s this easy…

We hit the water like a brick wall. The skis bounce like billiard balls on the surface, and I’m thrown forwards, but fortunately I’ve fastened my safety belt. Chisholm holds the inert mass of Rufus’s body from being jerked from his seat. And we’re slowing. We hit a rope tied across the river between the moored boat and the shore. The rope is being reeled out to us, I see, by men on the boat. But there’s still enough tension in the rope to slow us gradually to a halt.

Chisholm looks at me, and holds up two ends of a severed pipe. They drip gasoline. I see what he’s done to stop the engine. He holds up a little knife too.

“Good thing I always carry a pocket knife. Last night Rufus explained to me how to steer an airplane – but not how to switch the damned thing off.”

My smile is short lived. We’re moving again – backwards this time. The rope has stopped our forward movement, but now the tremendous current of the river is carrying the airplane back, towards the Falls. Has no-one thought how stupid it is, to land on a moving current of water?

A second rope rises out of the water behind us and is pulled taut. The airplane drifts back and catches firmly on it.

Ah. I understand.

“The safety rope, Agnes. It will hold the airplane while we get out.”

I see another boat, coming towards us. I see waving hands, signaling triumph and joy. It’s all a blur because every nerve in my brain is still focused hard on staying alive, but somehow, within moments, men are holding my hands, helpful arms are pulling us into the boat, I see smiles, I hear hurrahs of congratulation. Only a few seconds pass, and I’m sitting in a wooden seat in the boat. Chisholm is helping the men lift Rufus’s body from the airplane. We’re safe, we’re safe.

“What the bloody hell happened?”

It’s Rufus’s voice. His face is the color of chalk, his bloodshot eyes are like red circles drawn on a death-mask. He’s promptly, and copiously, sick over the side of the boat.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. At Chelsea Piers

 

I look out of the window of our first-class compartment. The train is pulling away from Syracuse: we’ve already traveled a good part of our journey back to New York. It’s now four hours since we managed to slip away from the reporters and photographers who swarmed around Rufus, and rejoined Professor Axelson at Niagara Falls railway station.

“So, Miss Agnes and Chisholm. Neither of you wanted to step forward and take any credit for the flight?”

I smile wryly. “All those men with cameras and notebooks went straight to Rufus, and immediately he started saying what a successful flight it had been. He was telling them such a fine heroic tale – all completely made up, of course, because he’d been unconscious most of the flight and couldn’t remember a thing. It seemed a pity to spoil his story, even if it was total fiction. And I guess he did successfully occupy the pilot’s seat, with two passengers, most of the way across Lake Ontario.”

Chisholm looks at Axelson. “Besides, professor – if the press knew what had really happened, that would hardly give people confidence in air travel. Which would be wrong, because of course the problems were nothing to do with the airplane or the flight: they were purely down to Rufus being ill.”

“Well you two – you are both, like the good old English phrase, ‘hiding your light under a bushel’. And you do that, even though it gives more credit to a blackmailer and possibly a murderer.”

“It’s unfortunate, but necessary.” Chisholm explains further. “Du Pavey is keen to sell his story now, and use it as a springboard for launching his commercial air-line idea. If we disagreed with him, it would be our word against his. It would just look like we were slinging mud at him. An unseemly dispute between us and him would not add credibility to our case later on, if we do need to seek his arrest, Professor.”

“There is only one thing that you say that I disagree with, Chisholm.”

“What’s that, Axelson?”

“You tell me that du Pavey was ill, as if it was an unfortunate accident. Given what has happened to us all so far, we have to consider that his loss of consciousness aboard the airplane could have been caused by foul play.”

“You mean, he could have been poisoned?”

“We know nothing at the moment, Chisholm. But we must keep that possibility in mind.”

The train is slowing to a halt at the platform at Utica, where the new, imposing Union Station is being built. I catch a glimpse of marble Italianate columns and arches among the scaffolding, as Chisholm speaks again.

“Professor, there are other things you must know too. Most important of all, the Gophers shipment is to be loaded at Chelsea Piers, in the small hours of tomorrow morning.”

“Loaded onto which ship, Chisholm? Not the Olympic, surely? We would not want the sailing delayed, for example if the police decide to conduct a search of the ship.” Earlier, Axelson was updating us on the news they had received at Olcott Lodge while Chisholm and I were in Canada. Like us, Gilmour and Gwyneth were booked to return to England on the next White Star liner for Southampton – the Adriatic, in five days’ time. However, Calvin Gilmour had received news that the Olympic’s departure from New York, which should have taken place three days after its arrival, had been delayed due to an engine repair.

So, the Olympic now sails at six o’clock tomorrow evening, and Gilmour, Gwyneth, and Unity Lloyd who is accompanying them, immediately changed their booking so as to sail on the Olympic. The professor took the liberty of doing the same for himself, me and Chisholm. So we depart America tomorrow evening: I won’t be seeing my family, after all. I’ve told the professor what I think of this sudden change of plan – but there’s no arguing with him. The situation, he says, is one of ‘extraordinary urgency’.

Chisholm answers the professor’s question. “I’m sorry, Axelson. I don’t know which ship that they are planning to use to smuggle their cargo. Inspector Trench picked up the Gophers’ message at the New Amsterdam Hotel, so he may know – but he didn’t mention it in his telegram. But if by unlikely chance it is the Olympic that the Gophers are using, I’m sure the police operation will stop them, long before they get near the ship.”

I see Chisholm smile at the professor in reassurance, but I’m already half-asleep: the regular movement of the train is lulling me, my head nods back against the seat cushions, and I drift off to sleep. Which I desperately need. When I awake, it’s nearly midnight, and the train is pulling into New York’s Central Station.

 

Chelsea Piers at night is a different world from the daytime bustle of embarkation and arrival. Our cab pulls up at the deserted sidewalk of Eleventh Avenue, and we step out into a quiet stillness. All along the sidewalk, stretching out into the distance, is the monumental stonework of the Piers’ façade. The pink granite has a rosy glow in the streetlamps: somehow, I’m reminded of the eternal silence of a ruined Egyptian temple. It’s two in the morning, and as the cab pulls away from us we look around: there’s not a soul anywhere. But then we see one solitary figure. A gaunt, lean man in a gray overcoat stands next to a small side door, well away from the main passenger gates. He waves, signaling to us, then turns his back to us as he unlocks the door. We step forward towards him, and he stands silently aside, ushering us into a small, unlit room. We enter, stand in the blackness, and hear him closing the door behind us. Only then does he switch on a flashlight, and I hear his voice.

“Good to see you all.” Inspector Trench sounds tired, hoarse: he takes a slight, stiff bow, like a formal greeting. “Miss Frocester, I trust you are well. Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar – you and I, of course, know of each other’s work, even though the only time we’ve actually met was when I came to your home in Kensington to investigate Kitty Murray’s disappearance. And it’s good to meet you again too, Professor Axelson. I’m sorry that I’ve not had the honor of working with you.”

“And likewise: I’m honored to be working with you too. It’s good that we are now able, at last, to join forces. And you have my word that I will maintain the secrecy of your operations.”

The inspector nods in appreciation. “I just wish that this meeting of the four of us didn’t have to be in the middle of a secret police operation. It would have been better to discuss the case at greater leisure and in greater comfort.”

I see Chisholm’s smile in the dim light. “If by ‘greater comfort’ you mean places such as hotels in New York, or Canada, then personally I’m glad we’re here. Someone may have tried another murder attempt at the Rosedene Hotel in Scarborough, Ontario this morning: du Pavey was, we suspect, poisoned – just before he piloted his airplane. It appears to be yet another attempt to kill him, Agnes and myself. So compared to other places we’ve been, I feel pretty safe here, thank you.”

“It sounds like you have done well to survive, all of you. Someone is both very ruthless and very powerful, if they can organize a poisoning faraway in Canada.”

Chisholm nods. “Inspector – we are all keen to know the plan for tonight – but, first of all, I want all four of us to be on the same page. We all need to have exactly the same level of knowledge of the case before this operation kicks off. So – when I spoke to you on the telephone, you said you had some new evidence?”

“I do indeed, Sir Chisholm. But it’s easier for me to show you, than to tell you.”

The inspector reaches into the inside pocket of his overcoat. After a moment he pulls out a piece of satiny, sepia-colored paper. A photograph. Or rather, half a photograph: one half is missing, torn away. It’s so strange: I recall what Inspector Trench said on the Olympic, and now as if by magic here it is: a photograph torn in two. But at the same time, I notice that the professor is glancing anxiously out of the single, square window of the room. Then he looks back at us. “How long do we have, Inspector?”

“Just under one hour. Us four, we are the advance party. Others are arriving shortly. I asked you to come here at 2 o’clock in order to give us a few minutes before the rest of the team arrive. In order that the four of us have time to talk.” He puts the picture down on a small table, and we all gather around it. He holds the flashlight directly above it, a pool of light over the figure in the photograph.

The photograph, I see with a shock, is Gwyneth Gilmour. She’s sitting in a room which I recognize: it’s Billie Considine’s bar at the Hotel Metropole. Two cocktails are in front of her on a low table, and she’s looking sideways, smiling at someone who would have appeared on the other half of the photo – if it hadn’t been ripped off.

I look again, and, with a sharp intake of breath, I notice something. At the torn edge of the photo, part of a man’s hand is visible. The shock is: Gwyneth is holding the man’s hand – and on one finger of that hand is an ugly, bulky signet ring.

I’m speechless. We all are.

After one minute, Inspector Trench speaks. “From the account you’ve given me, Chisholm, this is the signet ring that Jimmy Nolan wears. I have concluded that there is some connection, unknown to us, between Gwyneth Gilmour and Jimmy Nolan. I think that all of you must agree with that?”

“Must we?” The words are out of my mouth before I meant to say them.

The inspector doesn’t answer my question. Fair enough, I think: I blurted out because I don’t want to think ill of Gwyneth. Because I like her.

Inspector Trench carries on speaking. “So – we can see that Calvin Gilmour’s trust in his wife may be very much misplaced.”

“Clearly.” says Chisholm. “But more than that – this photograph casts a different light on very many things.”

“Tell me your thoughts, Chisholm. Let’s see if our speculations agree.” Inspector Trench looks across at Chisholm through the downward beam of the flashlight.

“My thoughts are these, Inspector. Suppose that Gwyneth Gilmour has an affair with Jimmy Nolan. It seems strange – but then, she is much younger than her husband, she likes to live her own life… Now, let us imagine that Gwyneth and Nolan quarrel.”

Professor Axelson looks at Chisholm. “You mean, that love turns to hate?”

Chisholm nods. “Indeed. And if that happened… Jimmy Nolan is not a man to forgive and forget. Now, let’s consider recent events. Five days ago, Agnes and I were escaping from New York. A man with a gun came onto the El train, trailed us to 155th Street station. Which is where we met Gwyneth Gilmour. That man then stole a car, and the following evening he and another man, both armed, caught up with Gwyneth’s car, and shot Agnes. As we know, by sheerest fortune, she survived. But maybe, in the confusion and darkness, they intended to shoot the other woman in the group? Now, those men would have killed me, too, except I got in there first and tackled them. I gather, Inspector, that the New York state police are still trying to identify the bodies; but undoubtedly, our attackers were members of the Gophers gang.

Finally, Gwyneth Gilmour is scheduled to fly with Rufus du Pavey over Lake Ontario, yesterday morning. Du Pavey is given a sleeping drug of some kind, with the clear aim that he crashes, and that he and his passengers are killed.”

The inspector looks at Chisholm, then around the table at all of us. “You are indeed thinking exactly the same thoughts as me, Sir Chisholm. The real target of all those actions…”

“Yes.” I see Chisholm’s finger stretched out over the photograph, pointing at the face of Gwyneth. Inspector Trench continues speaking.

“Of course, Chisholm, if we consider jealousy as a motive, it might not necessarily be Nolan who wants to kill Gwyneth. It could conceivably be Calvin Gilmour behind this. On the Titanic, he could have murdered Spence, out of jealousy, because of an affair between Spence and Gwyneth. Then, when he found out about her second affair, with Nolan, Gilmour decided to go straight for the jugular and just kill her. He could easily pay some of New York’s underworld plenty of money to carry out the operation. But none of that really rings true, does it?”

“No.” Chisholm is still peering at the photograph: I am too. I keep searching with my eyes, as if I might spot some clue of Gwyneth’s innocence in the gray, torn image. But of course, I don’t. The inspector continues.

“What does ring true is this: Nolan and Gwyneth have a passionate affair, then they fall out. That in fact it is Nolan who is the jealous one. He’s trying to kill her, and he may have organized Spence’s murder too. It would be no surprise if the Gophers’ powers of bribery extended to the wine waiters aboard the Titanic. This could be the explanation of everything.”

“You are both wrong.”

The professor speaks quietly, but with immense assurance. “Gentlemen, I will ask the opinion of someone I deeply respect.” Like a formal gesture, he turns to me. “Miss Agnes, what is your view? Do you think that Jimmy Nolan is trying to kill Mrs Gilmour?”

“Somehow, I don’t think so. I agree that it would be a neat explanation of a lot of things that have happened since we disembarked in New York, but…”

“As you say, neat.” The professor looks at Trench and Chisholm. “Too neat to be true, perhaps?” There’s a brief silence, and I can tell that Chisholm is about to say something. But at that very moment, my heart leaps into my mouth.

Without warning, someone is opening the door.

 

“Inspector Trench – and colleagues. Good to meet you. I’m Lieutenant Bouchard: City of New York Police Department. NYPD, for short.” We’re looking at a well-built man, just below middle age. Blond hair, edging to gray, cropped close. He wears no hat, and no uniform under his overcoat, merely a dark suit. His bold eyes shine like blue lamps, and his voice is like a sudden, harsh light in this tiny chamber: I want to blink at the sound.

In turn, we introduce ourselves to him, but he pays little attention to our names or our faces. I can see his mind working: he’s deciding exactly what to tell us.

“Thanks for the intelligence about the Gophers that you’ve provided. But of course, your information is only one of our many sources. Policing this city would be darn night impossible without our network of informers.”

“And how are your informers relevant for what we are doing tonight?” Professor Axelson looks curiously at the newcomer.

“Simple. NYPD know that illicit goods are smuggled on the ocean liners all the time. When we take action against the criminals, we use informers that know all about the Chelsea Piers staff. Because we know that some of those staff take Gopher bribes.”

“So have the Gophers bribed staff in this case?”

“Indeed they have. Our informers told us that money was handed over by the Gophers yesterday – and in return, the gate for Pier 59 will be open tonight. The ship to be loaded is the Olympic.” His finger indicates the tiny window, a gray square in the black. None of us say anything, so he carries on talking.

“We’re next to Pier 59, and there’s our ship. Look out of the window.”

I peer out into the gloom. My eyes are adjusted to the darkness now, and I see an extraordinary skyline. Twenty funnels, the smokestacks of five ocean liners, rise into the looming sky like the pillars of a Greek temple. Beneath them, I can dimly see the Piers, line after line, stretching away into the blackness. The huge black wedge cutting into the sky above us must be the Olympic: the gigantic prow looms overhead, and I can make out the silhouette of the bridge and the funnels, and in the distance the curve of the stern. In the daytime, this is one of the busiest spots in the whole world: passengers, cargo, ships coming and going. Now, it’s silent as the grave.

Lieutenant Bouchard speaks again. “Another bribe has been handed out by the Gophers, too. The night-watchman for the Piers. He’s being paid twenty dollars not to come along Pier 59 tonight.”

I sense that the lieutenant is laying down a marker: showing us that he knows the true facts, and that he’s the one in charge. He’s talking to us again, and I get the odd feeling that he regards us all as under his command.

“I’ve already stationed my officers all along Pier 59. We expect the gangsters to enter by the main gate of the Pier, the one that the passengers use in the daytime. As I’ve explained, the gate has been left unlocked. The shipment consists of six large packing cases, which the Gophers will carry onto the ship. In addition to their other bribes, the Gophers have paid off the door guards aboard the ship. The guards took the Gophers’ money – but then they came to us, and told us all about it. So we know which door of the ship they Gophers will be using for the loading, and the majority of my men are posted on the pier at the foot of that gangway. It’s the main third-class entrance on E Deck, right away there at the far end of the ship.”

Chisholm asks “How many men do you have on this operation?”

“You don’t need to know that.”

“But just so we’re all clear about what’s happening, what is your role?”

“Well, I planned on staying here in this storeroom with you, to watch out of the window for the Gophers arriving. Once the Gophers are here, I’ll let my men know. Now, Miss Frocester. On any normal occasion, if I saw a lady here, I’d send her straight home. What will happen here tonight – it’ll be no place for a woman. But we need you to stay. Like Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar here, you’ve met Nolan: your corroboration of his identity will be invaluable.”

“I don’t mind at all, Lieutenant. But surely, your suspect is a well-known figure. You’ll know when you have the real Jimmy Nolan.”

“We will indeed know. But independent witness testimony to properly identify him is still useful. That’s why you’re here. I gather that all you four people are returning to England – but before you sail tomorrow, we need a written affidavit from both Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar and Miss Frocester to state that one of the bodies from tonight’s action is, beyond reasonable doubt, James Nolan, who you met at the Black Velvet Tavern, Hell’s Kitchen.”

“What on earth do you mean, bodies? I thought you were planning to arrest Nolan, not shoot him!” I’m horrified, and as I look around, I see Chisholm, the professor and Inspector Trench are equally alarmed too: there’s a ring of surprised, unhappy faces surrounding Lieutenant Bouchard. He sounds defensive as he replies.

“Listen, all of you. And please, calm down. The aim is to capture Nolan alive. I just wanted the young lady there to be aware that, if there is any necessary violence, once it’s all over she might just have to prepare herself to come and look under a sheet, and identify the face of a corpse. It’s a fact of life that people get shot from time to time in New York, and it might just happen again tonight. Now, Miss. Will you be able to make an identification of Nolan – alive or dead?”

“Yes.”

Silence resumes. Time ticks by: surely it must be three in the morning by now? I look into the darkness, but I see nothing but the twenty funnels lined against the night sky.

There’s the faintest noise. The sound of gates being pushed open.

We’re all at the window now. In the gloom we can dimly make out the outlines of two men moving from the gate towards Pier 59. Between them, they carry a large packing-case on ropes. It looks like a coffin: maybe six feet long. I can see from their outlines as they strain to carry it that it must be extremely heavy. Now that I actually see the shipment, I’m shocked: how much explosives do they have?

Then, another two men appear at the gate, and again I see the effort in their figures as they struggle to carry a second coffin shape. Soon, there’s a crowd: a forest of male heads against the night sky, and below them the faintly outlined shapes of a half-a-dozen of the long, sinister packing cases. The group is standing, gathering together: one by one they put down their cases, as if they’re resting for a moment from carrying such heavy loads.

Lieutenant Bouchard whispers to us. “The Gophers will now carry the shipment along Pier 59 to the gangway onto the ship. My men are waiting on the pier, near the foot of the gangway. Our team can move completely silently, surround them without them noticing, take them totally by surprise.”

But nothing happens. The silhouettes of twelve men stand alongside the silhouettes of six packing cases. None of them is moving, but I can tell by the inclination of their heads that they are all talking to each other. Nothing else is happening, and the moments go by.

The moments turn into minutes. I look across at Bouchard, who is watching the men’s every move. I hear him making a clicking sound, as if in annoyance or frustration. But perhaps he’s just clearing his throat.

Several more minutes tick by, and although the silhouetted men just stand there, I’m feeling the tension increasing, every moment. Why is nothing happening? I’m just about to whisper to Chisholm – then I see one, then several, of the men’s heads bend down, then rise again. As if they are looking at the packing cases and having some sort of discussion. And then again, nothing happens, and five more minutes pass.

I look at Bouchard, and I can tell. He did not expect this.

I hear Chisholm’s voice whispering to him. “What are you going to do?”

I see the lieutenant whispering back to Trench and Chisholm, but I can’t catch the words. I glance back at the group of men standing out there in the night, and then back to Bouchard. But he’s gone. He’s slipped away, as silent as a cat.

“What’s happening?”

Chisholm looks at me, concern in his eyes. “The Gophers must have some kind of problem. We don’t know why they’ve stopped: by now, they should have carried those packing cases onto the ship. So Bouchard is going to get his team to come down here and arrest the men where they stand.”

I glance down the pier, alongside the full length of the Olympic. In the distance, I can maybe make out tiny movements. The police are coming down the pier. I whisper to Chisholm.

“Won’t the Gophers see them coming?”

“Hopefully, they won’t be looking. They seem to be entirely taken up with a problem with those cases.”

I look out of the window again, and I see gestures, some kind of conversation, and more bending to look the boxes, which look for all the world like six coffins laid out at an undertaker’s parlor. It feels like a shadow-play: a silent, silhouetted pantomime. Then I look back down the pier, and I see the outlines of the police officers, closer now. I can see the large head and strong profile of Lieutenant Bouchard among the policemen. Silent and unnoticed, they surround the group of unsuspecting men.

The sudden glare of a flashlight.

“Hands up! All of you!”

There’s no resistance, and practically no noise. As if they are one body, the group of men raise their hands. They’re young, some of them almost boys – but their faces in the glare of the flashlight are haggard and worn. They blink stupidly in the light.

“Sir Chisholm! Miss Frocester! Could you come over here, please, and identify Mr James Nolan?”

We step out from the room onto Pier 59. Several flashlights now illuminate twelve young men. All their hands are raised in the air, but their heads are slumped, they’re dressed in rags, and they stand passively, defeated, surrounded by police officers.

Chisholm and I step forward among the men. I see his eyes taking them in. He whispers in my ear.

“Agnes, something’s wrong.”

Bouchard steps forward, barks loudly. “You men. Who’s in charge here?”

A mumble of voices. “No-one.”

Bouchard looks at us. “Sir Chisholm, Miss Frocester. Can you see Jimmy Nolan among these men?”

A lamp is held aloft, and in its harsh light I survey each face: pale, tired, hopeless. Most of them, in fact, look undernourished, perhaps ill. I don’t recognize a single one of them. One of them coughs, low and harsh, and I recall the tubercular coughing that I heard under the Ninth Avenue El. Then another of them, with a pitifully young face, sniffs. He’s holding back a sob. Who are these men?

I hear Chisholm speak, sharp and brisk.

“Look in the packing cases! Look now!”

Two police officers move forward with crowbars and get to work on one of the cases. The lid splinters, then lifts off. I see closely-packed straw, yellow in the lamplight. Inspector Trench steps forward and begins to pull the straw aside. He bends down and begins to read from some writing he can see among the straw.

“Gold Medals and Diplomas: St Louis, Missouri, 1904: Liege, Belgium, 1905. Has the endorsement of the Medical Profession.”

Bouchard’s face shows utter confusion. The inspector carries on reading.

“Your father, your grandfather and his father drank it: Jack Daniel’s Old No.7 Sour Mash Whiskey.” His hand reaches into the straw, and he lifts out a bottle of Bourbon.

The lieutenant comes to life again, looking fury at the twelve silent men. “So this is what you’re smuggling?”

The men nod quietly.

Trench and Chisholm look at Bouchard. Chisholm says what we’re all thinking. “We’ve been fooled.”

The lieutenant looks back at the group of men, and I can see blazing anger in his eyes. He barks a sudden order to our captives. “Drop your guns, every one of you.”

No one moves. Then one, bolder than the rest, speaks up. “We’ve no guns, honestly, sir. No weapons at all. We were just told to load six boxes onto a ship, sir. We were told that the gate to Pier 59 would be open…”

“I know what you were told. And I bet you’re being paid handsomely for this little stunt. The men who paid you: they told you, did they, that you were smuggling whiskey?”

“Yes, of course that’s what they said. What else could it be? We weren’t told anything else, except that we were to pick up the packages from a truck parked off Eleventh Avenue, bring them across the road to Chelsea Piers, come through the gate, bring the boxes through onto the pier, and then wait on this spot here. They said someone would come along to guide us onto the ship. That’s why we’ve been waiting here. But no-one’s come.”

Bouchard doesn’t bother speaking again to the group of men. He’s already giving orders to his officers, co-coordinating, re-grouping. I hear him telling two of his officers to take the arrested men and put them in the room we were in, keep them under guard. Then under his breath, I hear the lieutenant say to himself “I’m goddamned tempted to just let these men go, save ourselves the bother of looking after them. But there’s just a chance that they might be useful as witnesses.”

Then, he turns to the professor and me. “Professor Axelson and Miss Frocester. You must follow my instructions now. Follow these two officers and the men we’ve arrested. Professor, while my officers guard them, can you please question them? Find out anything you can. And although we’ve not yet caught Nolan, you must go along with my officers and the captives too, Miss. That’s an order. I’m telling you for the sake of your own safety.”

I look at Bouchard, and perhaps he sees the defiance in my eyes. He speaks again.

“If I’m right, the real Gophers – who paid this bunch of goons to carry out this charade – may at this very moment be stowing the explosives aboard the Olympic. In which case, we’ll get them as they come back down the gangway. There may be a fight.” Then he starts barking orders again. “Back to your original positions alongside the Olympic, men. We’ll get these scum, if we have to work all night at it.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A volley of gunfire

 

The storeroom seemed tiny before, with five people in it. As the professor and I follow the police officers and their prisoners towards it, we can see that it’s now mayhem. The two policemen are trying to push their captives, all bunched together, through the door. The police are shoving roughly to make the men go inside – but once in there, there’s no light, and I hear noises from inside the room: the prisoners are falling over cases and tables, uttering shouts and curses. The professor can’t help it: he challenges the police officers. “Don’t push them like that; can’t you see it’s crowded in there? Let them go in quietly, one by one.”

One of the policemen turns and gives him a sharp reply, and then keeps on pushing at the remaining captives, forcing them into the storeroom. I whisper “It’s hopeless, Professor. Let’s leave them to it.”

“No. They will gain nothing from treating these men like this. These men are petty criminals at worst, not gangsters. The police are treating them worse than cattle!” He turns to rejoin his argument with the two officers, and I step away, trying to feel a moment’s peace in my brain. I blank out the dispute going on behind me, the professor’s stubborn voice as he continues to dispute with the officers. I leave them to their argument, and instead I look along the side of the Olympic: the million rivets in her black hull catch the faint light, like lines of tiny jewels. Alongside the ship’s flank runs the flat stonework of Pier 59, and I can see, like ants, the figures of Bouchard and his men, Chisholm and Trench as they walk towards where a white gangway descends from one of the lower decks near the stern of the ship down onto the pier. Beyond the men’s tiny silhouettes, I see flickering lights out on the Hudson, cargo ships and coasters, moving ceaselessly in the unsleeping night.

I’m peering down the full length of the pier in anxious fascination, wondering how Bouchard’s team will regroup after the mistake. I wonder if the rest of his officers share the lieutenant’s anger, frustration and, I guess, embarrassment. I see the policemen separating from each other, fanning out in a sort of semi-circle around the base of the gangway. Each of them takes up a position in the cover of the packs and bales that line the pier: within a minute, none of them is visible. They’ve disappeared, as if they were never here. I think: each will have his gun ready to fire, and each gun will be pointed at the gangway.

No movement is visible. The scene is oddly peaceful: no different from every other night the Olympic spends in port, sitting silently and serenely alongside the quay. Straining my eyes in the blackness, I watch for the slightest sign of movement from the door at the top of the gangway.

I feel a cold line across my throat. A knife.

“Well well, Missie. So Jimmy’s suspicions were right after all. I never trusted you, or that fancy man of yours. I should have slit both your throats back in Hell’s Kitchen.”

I recognize the voice. It’s Malone who jumped Chisholm and I that first day in New York. His other arm is around my chest now, a grip like iron. He carries on talking. “See, I was put down here to watch what happened to our stooges there with the whiskey. To see that they played their part right. I was worried that the cops might catch me, when they came back down here. But it was easy enough to sneak away in the dark. Sadly for me, all our boys are aboard the ship now, so I haven’t had the chance to warn them that the police are here – and armed. Armed to the teeth, in fact. I think your cop friends want a fight.”

“What – are you – going to do with me?”

“Well, I think that first of all, you and me should just move along there now, away from that storeroom and all your police chums.” He pushes me along, my feet scuff on the flagstones of the pier. We’re near the edge of the pier, where the stonework goes straight down into the deep gap between the pier and the Olympic’s hull. He pushes me again, and to my left I can look over the edge. I’m gazing down into a huge slot, walled by stone on one side and iron on the other, and so deep that no light penetrates it: it looks bottomless. But I know of course that down there are the black waters of the Hudson. Is he going to push me over the edge?

“Now then Missie, you and me are going to walk straight ahead. You may as well walk, rather than try to fight me. We’re going along the pier.” Ahead of me I see, beyond the cases and bales of cargo, the slanting white line of the gangway near the stern of the ship. I guess that’s where he’s taking me, but I don’t want to make it easy for him. The blade keeps grazing my throat, I can feel its sharpness, but in response to his pushing I move as slowly as I safely can. I can sense him getting angry with me, but perhaps that’s good. If he gets cross, perhaps he’ll make a mistake.

We’re closer now, the last of the Olympic’s four funnels towers into the sky above us, and the gangway, its canvas sides glowing white in the gloom, suddenly seems much closer. There’s a big square object next to the foot of the gangway. For a moment I think: it’s the explosives. But it’s a single big wooden packing case, the size of an automobile. Obviously, the Gophers haven’t carried that from Eleventh Avenue; it’s been sitting there all night. I hear Malone’s voice whisper harshly to me again.

“You and I are going behind this packing case, and we’ll get as close to the gangway as we can.”

“Are you trying to take me onto the ship?” It’s a struggle to get any words out at all, but I guess if I talk to him, it might make him less willing to slit my throat. And indeed, Malone answers me: we’re having a conversation.

“No, my darling girl. We’re not going aboard the ship. We’re going to wait, out of sight, down here. Jimmy and the boys will likely be coming down the gangway soon. My guess is that your friends are planning to ambush them. But if the cops see you and me, and maybe the flash of this knife on your pretty white neck, then they might strike a bargain. To let us Gophers get away without a gunfight.”

“But you haven’t got a hope. They will never do a deal with you. The arrest of your gang – it’s too important.”

“We’ll see about that. Gophers don’t like to kill a woman – and even New York cops won’t want to watch an innocent woman die. Not on one of their own operations.”

All this time he’s forcing me along behind the packing case, edging to near the foot of the gangway. Some movement overhead makes me look up. I see a dark figure at the top of the gangway, then maybe ten or so other men behind him. In silence, they start to step down the sloping ramp towards us.

Instantly the figures descending the gangway are lit by a blinding light. The cops have had this ready all along: it’s like a stage-set at a theatre. The powerful beam of a spotlight shines on the gangway, illuminating a bright circle, like the disc of the sun, on the ship’s side: at its centre is the black square of the E Deck door, the white wood and canvas of the gangway, and a cluster of men’s faces, shielding their eyes and blinking in shock. Standing there in the spotlight, the massed faces, ranked in tiers down the slope of the gangway, remind me of a looking at a choir in a church.

I hear the now-familiar voice of Lieutenant Bouchard. “Everyone here is under arrest. Put your hands up, surrender to us now.”

There’s a pause, and I see the shoulders of one of the Gophers move, as if he is about to put his hands into the air. I can see fear in all their eyes, and I’m close enough to hear a whisper from one of them. “The game’s up. We’d better do as the cops say.” But they’re hesitant, uncertain.

Bouchard’s shout comes again. “Like I say, hands up!”

A deafening yell rings from behind my ear. “No. Look what I’ve got here.”

The knife is pushing into the skin of my neck, and I’m shoved forward, out into the beam of the spotlight. Malone pushes me to the foot of the gangway, in full view of the hidden police.

“See, I’ll slit this girl’s throat in front of your eyes. Unless you let every one of us go, right now.”

In a moment I’m surrounded by the rest of the Gopher gang. They’ve all come down the gangway, and they group behind me, using me as a shield against the cops’ guns. I try to glance behind me: I glimpse faces lit harshly by the light, grim and focused. But the knife pushes against my throat, I turn to face forward again.

I’m facing directly into the spotlight, blinded by the whiteness, but I try to keep looking, keep thinking. I hear the clicks of the Gophers’ revolvers being readied, all around me.

I hear a voice. An English accent, with a hint of Scots.

“I suggest a swap.”

A voice rings out from behind me. “What?”

“A swap. No-one wants a woman to be hurt. I’ll take her place.” Chisholm steps forward. The spotlight is behind him, silhouetting him in sharp relief. He hails us again. “I’ll come up to you, and then you must let her go.”

I keep thinking through the possibilities that might happen. One thing I do know: Chisholm’s effort to help me is not going to work. The Gophers hold the cards here. They’re not going to let me go until Chisholm steps onto the gangway; then they’ll grab him. Both of us will end up as hostages. Although the blade is digging into me, I shout.

“Chisholm! Stay there! Don’t come up to them.”

Chisholm stops. He looks Malone in the eye. “Yes, you can have me, as a swap for the girl. Here I am, and I’ve got no gun, no weapon of any kind. But there’s just one thing. I don’t want anyone slipping, no nasty accidents. I’m no intention of swapping myself for a dead girl. So can you just move that knife away from her throat?”

The knife’s still there against my skin, but I feel less pressure from its edge. Then I look down at my chest, and I see the blade moving into my line of sight, below my chin. It’s still firmly in Malone’s hand, but it’s now at least six inches from my neck. Chisholm takes another step. He’s two yards away. I can feel the men around me, their bodies tense, ready to grab him.

Suddenly Chisholm reaches forward, grasps my hands. Malone is off-guard and I’m pulled forward; the knife slips from Malone’s hand, it tumbles through the air, clatters onto the ground. Chisholm pulls me hard, straight forward, down below the foot of the gangway. My face and chest hit the stone flags of the pier, the breath is knocked out of me, and I’m stretched out flat on the floor. But I hardly notice my pain, because of the demonic din I hear. The air is full of savage crackling, bursting explosions of noise around my ears. A volley of gunfire has opened up all around me.

I’m lying face-down at the foot of the gangway: Chisholm lies ahead of me, holding my hands. He’s stretched out on the stonework too, not moving. But I glance to my side and I see Malone, no longer hidden behind me, falling, a dead weight. He crumples to the ground as if his body’s been broken. His face is a sea of red, and a finger of blood slowly traces a line down, across the middle of his open, naked eyeball. I realize: he’s dead.

More shots ring out. The Gophers have rallied and are returning the cops’ fire. The staccato crackle of gunfire echoes along the pier. Another body falls across me: a blow like a hammer.

Sharpness in my nostrils.

Smelling salts. I’m feeling woozy, coming round from unconsciousness. I must have fainted. A blurred view gradually comes into focus: the side of the Olympic, its paintwork catching the first rays of the early dawn light.

Everything looks blurry round the edges of my vision. I turn my head, and see, at the foot of the wall, the E Deck door and the gangway. I can see police there, moving and lifting sacks. Bulging, awkward to carry, and every one of them stained red.

They’re not sacks.

“Oh my dear Christ! It looks like a massacre.”

“It was, Agnes. And we were so nearly part of it. But I reckoned that, if I pulled you down on the floor… we’d both be below all the lines of fire. The Gophers would be firing from chest or head height, and the police would be aiming at chest or head height. All the bullets went over us.”

I’m relieved to hear Chisholm’s voice, to know that he’s unhurt. I notice a dark, moving blur: a figure striding towards us. Then I see him clearly; it’s Lieutenant Bouchard. There’s almost a smile on his face.

“Great idea Chisholm, to pull the girl down out of the way, and then we could get clear shots at them all. Distracted the Gophers, too. I reckon only about six of them managed to return any fire at all. No police officers were hit. Perfect, just perfect.”

I start speaking.

“This is horrific. I can’t believe…”

“We just need to clean this mess up – and make up some story to tell the newspapers, of course. One of our boys back at the office will be able to invent something. In fact I’m looking forward to reading it.”

I see two policeman carrying something that was once a man. They hold his arms and feet, in just the same way as last night we saw the decoys carrying the coffin-like packing cases. The man’s body looks like he’s been shot several times: bloodstains cover almost every inch of his clothes. A stream of blood is pouring from one end of their grim load, and I realize that half his head is missing. I turn me eyes away from the sight, but as I swivel my head round, I’m confronted by a network of red streams flowing down the gangway towards me.

Among this scene of butchery, I hear the most surprising thing. Like a skylark in the air, I hear the sound of a man’s voice singing.

 

“But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,

The West’s awake! the West’s awake!

Sing, Oh! hurrah! let England quake,

We’ll watch till death for Erin’s sake.”

 

I realize: one man is still alive. I can see him further up the gangway: his shirt and legs are red with blood, he lies sprawled on the floor, but his mouth moves, and the voice – haunting, plaintive, but somehow full of hope – drifts from it.

A police officer steps up the gangway. I see him taking a pistol from his holster.

“NO!” I scream – strong arms hold me, but I push them away. “No, No!” But other hands grip me and drag me down. As my face is held down, my nose scraping against the stone flags of the quay, I hear the crack of a single shot.

I feel I’m dissolved in horror, and though the hands still hold me down, and I can see nothing, I hear a voice speaking. The voice of Lieutenant Bouchard. He sounds like a parent explaining something slowly and patiently to a child. “Miss, that man was dying: we did him a favor. But I guess you may feel upset, after what you’ve seen tonight. This was not a place for a lady to be. But for New York City, this is one of the sweetest dawns we’ve ever seen. The city will sleep better tonight than it’s done for twenty years. In the next few months we’ll close down half the brothels and gambling dens in the city. And by Christmas, every small shop in Manhattan will be twenty-five per cent richer, thanks to the protection money they’ll no longer have to pay to that pile of moldering scum.” He gestures across to the bodies that the police are now loading onto a cart. As if they were bags of rubbish.

I’m no longer being held down: I move, sit up, and look the lieutenant in the face. I’m barely able to put my words together. But I hold onto my few thoughts, and I speak.

“Maybe I am in shock, Lieutenant Bouchard. But I don’t agree with you. If you’d been alert to the Gophers’ trick with the fake packing cases, maybe you could have arrested these men, instead of slaughtering them.”

“I guess you’re entitled to your opinion, Miss. But most of these twelve would have ended up in the chair anyway. We’ve saved the New York courts a whole lot of time and money. Saved some electricity, too.”

I ignore his callous joke. Instead I say “Have you counted the bodies?”

“Yeah, there’s a dozen.”

“Well, there shouldn’t be. Malone, the man who had me with the knife, plus six teams of two to carry the cases, equals thirteen.”

“Look, Miss – you object to us shooting at armed men who are known criminals. Men who would have killed us all – including you – without a second thought. Now, you’re telling me there’s not enough dead men? Would you have liked to see even more corpses? I’d say you’re over-wrought and confused. But then I guess some women are prone to hysteria. Chisholm, can you please take her arm, take her away from here, and go and calm her down somewhere?”

I find myself agreeing with Lieutenant Bouchard. “Yes please Chisholm. Can you take me away from here, can we go back down Pier 59? Perhaps that storeroom…”

Bouchard interrupts loudly. “Yes, you and Sir Chisholm can go, Miss. Not just back down the pier, but right back your fancy hotel or wherever you’re staying. We don’t need you here. But before you go, I need you to understand two things. Firstly, nothing happened here last night. We’ll put out this news, in our own way.” He looks at Chisholm. “Sir, you and I both know that women do too much talking and not enough thinking. If the little lady doesn’t understand the need for secrecy, can you make sure she keeps her mouth shut?”

“ Lieutenant, you told us to remember two things.” I maintain eye contact, stare him down.

“The second one is, I’m told that both of you, and Inspector Trench, are sailing on this ship this evening. Six o’clock. That sailing is going ahead, as normal. This mess here will be cleaned up without a trace in an hour’s time. Like I said, nothing happened here last night.”

It’s an effort to speak, but I do. “But… I thought you needed us here at Chelsea Piers, to identify Jimmy Nolan. What about the inquest? The evidence?”

“There’s no need to identify Nolan, and I’ll handle the inquest. That’s all you need to know. Now goodbye to you. Take her away from here, Chisholm, and I’ll be grateful if you can control that wagging tongue of hers.”

There’s silence as we walk away from the scene of carnage. Every nerve of my body feels numb, maybe because of what happened on the gangway. Or maybe because of Lieutenant Bouchard. Finally, as we stand on the sidewalk of Eleventh Avenue and Chisholm hails an early-morning cab to take us back to the hotel, I find my voice.

“You were silent, Chisholm. All the time, while that horrible man was crowing over what he’s done, you said nothing to challenge him. I thought both our nations were founded on the rule of law.”

“I agree – in general terms, Agnes. But there are times when I have had to operate outside the rule of law – for the greater good. It’s not ideal, but it’s necessary. These are dark times. We are fighting monsters, Agnes.”

“And if we don’t fight fair, then we become the monsters.”

“It’s a war, Agnes. I’ve seen war – in South Africa. That war happened because we let the situation get out of hand, and suddenly in order to win the fight against the Boers, we had to end up putting not just men but women and children in concentration camps. Our ‘great’ British empire ended up carrying out acts worthy of Caligula or Nero.”

I’m the silent one now, as he carries on. “Agnes, the horrors that I saw in South Africa – they made what we’ve just seen look half-way civilized.”

I feel a chill as I realize he’s speaking from the heart. What has he seen, that was so unspeakable? He carries on.

“Inspector Trench, Lord Buttermere, myself – we are fighting a secret war. And so, on his own patch, is Lieutenant Bouchard. A secret war is a horrible thing. But it is better to fight it – and win – than to let the secret war become a public war. Sometimes you have to use the revolver. It’s preferable to having to use the machine-gun later.”

“Do you carry one? A revolver?”

“Sometimes. I took a small concealed hand-gun when we went into Hell’s Kitchen. Secret Intelligence Bureau standard issue, to be carried only when necessary. But believe me, Agnes, I prefer it when I don’t have to carry one.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Secrets under hypnosis

 

A few days ago, I saw the icebergs here. Now the ocean is a deep blue, stretching to a clear horizon in the fresh morning light.

A gloved hand grasps the rail of the ship next to me. I turn and smile at the face next to me. What I see is unexpected, but welcome. It’s Gwyneth Gilmour. But as I greet her, I picture to myself the torn photograph that the professor showed me. In my mind’s eye, I see the face of Jimmy Nolan.

“Agnes, I missed you at the Niagara Falls reception!”

“Well – I’m glad to see you here. The professor told me that you’d rearranged your travel plans for this sailing of the Olympic, as he did for our party.”

“Yes, we need to get back to Europe, very quickly. Calvin is in the midst of some important business deals in London. Important – and time-consuming. But I’m sorry you missed the reception – well done for completing your passenger flight. I saw Rufus’s airplane dipping and rising over Niagara Falls, it looked utterly thrilling. I wish now that Calvin and I had been his passengers…”

I realize that Rufus has not told even the Gilmours about what happened on the flight. “Yes – it was spectacular. So, you and he were the original planned passengers, weren’t you?”

“Calvin’s been disappointed with his own decision about not flying with Rufus, because the flight was such a success. He’s a natural risk-taker: if it hadn’t been for that quarrel with Rufus, he’d have gone through with it. We’d have enjoyed the experience – but also, if Calvin and I were known as the passengers, it would have helped expansion of the business. Because since the flight, Calvin’s re-kindled his interest in Rufus’s ‘air-line’ idea. He’s even saying that a bigger plane, with more fuel, could carry passengers across the Atlantic one day. New York to London and Paris. By the time you and I are old, Agnes, maybe ships like this will be a thing of the past.”

I smile at such a fanciful idea. Gwyneth carries on talking. “Anyway, this is not a chance meeting. I was sent to look for you. Because he’s on board, too.”

“Who?”

“Rufus, of course. He and Calvin have made up their little tiff about airplanes. He’s in the cabin next to Calvin, Unity and me.”

“Unity’s on this trip too?”

“Calvin likes her to travel with us, when it’s possible. He sometimes says ‘I’d call her my right-hand man – but she’s better than any man.’ But, what I’ve come up here to tell you is that your Professor Axelson, he met Rufus at breakfast, and Rufus agreed to be hypnotized. Right now. As Rufus’s cabin is next door to us, I’ll take you down there. Rufus seems very keen to do it – to go back and relive what happened, that night on the Titanic.”

As we leave the Boat Deck and start to descend the Grand Staircase, a loudspeaker crackles and we hear the morning news announcement. The second item is this.

 

“Twelve members of New York’s Gophers Gang were found shot dead last night in an alleyway near Ninth Avenue, Manhattan. This killing, in the heart of the gang’s own territory, the so-called Hell’s Kitchen, is thought to be the work of the equally infamous Rhodes Boys. A gangland war is thought to be the cause of this shocking mass shooting.”

 

Gwyneth says nothing, but I’m thinking. As I tried to explain to Lieutenant Bouchard, if you counted Malone, there should have been thirteen corpses.

 

We knock and wait in the corridor outside Rufus’s cabin. After a few seconds his pink face appears at the door, and he welcomes me in. Gwyneth, however excuses herself and leaves, saying that she would only disrupt the hypnosis. I step into the cabin, but I notice no sign of the second-son poverty that Rufus is always talking about. He has one of the most luxurious Parlor Suites on the Olympic: it must have cost him a fortune. Five bottles of champagne, two opened, stand on the table in the centre of the room. There’s also an odd fishy whiff. Then I notice an empty plate: Rufus has just finished eating oysters.

“Good to meet you again, Agnes. You and I never did take that moonlit walk, did we?”

His smirk is over-familiar, impudent. And I notice that his lips aren’t quite clean. Looking into his alcohol-reddened face, I wonder that I ever found him likeable. The phrase ‘flushed with success’ runs through my mind. He grins again.

“Would you like some champagne?”

“No thank you.”

He walks over to the table and pours himself another glass. He doesn’t speak again, and indeed seems to have forgotten I’m in the room. I guess that to a charmer like him, a woman of moderate appearance sometimes doesn’t seem worth the effort. I see him putting the glass to his lips and tipping it back, his eyes looking vaguely into the middle distance, as if he’s daydreaming. I’m relieved when there’s a knock at the door. Rufus remains seated, and I open it. It’s Professor Axelson, and he is alone.

Rufus grins at his new visitor. “So, you’re here for this Fluence lark, are you, Prof? And where’s my dear chum Chis?”

“He’ll only be a moment, Mr du Pavey. Meanwhile, try to relax, to get in the frame of mind for hypnosis. You will remember that I told you that the hypnosis can only work with a willing patient…”

The professor’s speech trails off. He has just noticed the open champagne bottles on the table, and the now half-empty glass in Rufus’ hand. “Not drinking, sir, at this hour of the morning?”

“Of course I am. I believe it’s called a champagne breakfast. Very much deserved in my case. I’ve just become the most famous aviator in the world, so I’m entitled to celebrate. Do you have any problem with that?”

“Some say: in vino, veritas. But I have found that, when a hypnotic subject has had alcohol, the effects of the Hypnotic-Forensic Method can be – unpredictable.”

Rufus smiles. “I’m willing to undergo this mesmerism, Axelson. Maybe I believe in your Hypnotic Whatnot Method. Or maybe I don’t believe in it – and therefore feel I’ve got nothing to fear. Either way, I’ll sit in the chair, and you do your special talking, and I’ll go into a funny trance, and start saying things. Maybe I’ll tell you all my secrets under hypnosis. But probably, I’ll just talk gibberish. I don’t know whether you’ll believe the nonsense I come out with, or if you won’t believe it. That’s for you to work out, Prof.”

He half-walks, half-stumbles, across the room and slumps into a chair again. I feel frustrated, almost angry. I can tell that the professor is furious.

There’s a third knock on the door. For some random reason I recall that time back at home, long ago, when I went to the door even though there was no knock. And Mrs Rosenblum was standing there, just about to knock on the door. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a premonition.

Rufus shouts towards the cabin door. “You too, whoever you are, just open the door and come in. I’m holding an open house here, the more the merrier. Leave the door open behind you, and then the whole damned ship’s crew can come in here if they like.”

The door opens and Chisholm comes in. He smiles at me, but his smile fades as the professor raises an eyebrow at him, and says in guarded tones “We can proceed with the hypnosis. Despite the – aha – debris in the room.”

Chisholm looks at the bottles: he understands us perfectly.

Professor Axelson speaks loudly to attract the attention of our host, who is staring blankly out of a porthole.

“Mr du Pavey… when you’re ready?…”

 

It’s five minutes later. Rufus sits in an easy chair, Chisholm and I sit on either side of him. The professor sits opposite him, looking serious and purposeful.

“Mr du Pavey. Rufus. You feel calm, relaxed. Every care you ever had is fading away, every problem is disappearing.”

“Well my problems bloody well should be disappearing. I’ve just shown that I’m the best pilot in the world. I’m going to be the richest, too.” A childish grin plays across his lips.

“Mr du Pavey, we’re going somewhere different now. I am going to take your mind, your imagination, your memory, somewhere else. Somewhere long ago.”

“Fire away. And by the way, Chis, can you ring the bell for a waiter? He can open another bottle of my 1900 Grand Vintage for us. You and Agnes were my Lake Ontario passengers, after all: we should celebrate together.”

“We’ll begin by imagining your mind is a flower, Rufus. A tightly closed rosebud. You are fragrant, beautiful, but closed up.”

“Yes, I’ve got you. A rosebud. Very nice.”

“Now, you are hiding there, inside the petals. Although you are inside the rose petals, you can sense the sunshine outside. There’s a blue sky above you. You know it’s there, just beyond your petals, but you can’t see it. But then – a petal opens. You see a glimpse of blue.”

“Blue…”

“Another petal opens, and another, and another. And the sunshine is pouring down on you, you’re drinking it in. You’re open to the light, the warmth. Let it pour down on you. The more open you are, the more light, the more warmth. Open every petal, let the sun pour down and immerse you in a golden glow of light.”

Rufus is silent now. His restless limbs have become relaxed, his shoulders still, his head erect. And although his eyes are shut, his face looks forward, listening to the professor’s voice, taking in each word.

“How old are you, Rufus?”

“Twenty-eight.”

“I want you to count. Count backwards, from twenty-eight.”

“Twenty-seven, twenty-six…”

When Rufus reaches thirteen, the professor says, slowly but firmly “Stop.”

Rufus’s face is still intent, but it looks somehow less controlled. He’s listening to the professor’s words, drinking them in. Axelson speaks again. “You’re no longer aged twenty-eight. You’re thirteen years old, Rufus. Today is your thirteenth birthday.”

“Yes. I’m thirteen years old today.”

“Do you like your birthday?”

I look across at the ruddy complexion. I see the faintest tremble, shaking those fleshy lips and nose.

“My birthday’s in September.”

“Yes, September. The start of the fall. Colder weather, chilly mornings, darker nights. Leaves turn yellow, don’t they, Rufus?”

Rufus’s breathing is slowed now, deep and heavy. Again I hear the mastery of Axelson’s voice, speaking to Rufus’s memories.

“Trees, woods, the changing seasons. Do you like this time of year, Rufus? Do you like your birthday?”

Rufus’s breaths themselves are like a woodland in fall, swaying slowly in the breeze. Deep and slow, but somehow uneasy. His voice seems to come from far away.

“No.”

“But – what boy doesn’t like his birthday? Presents, games, celebrations?”

Rufus makes no reply, but the breathing goes on, a little too loud, a little too deep. As if he needs the air.

“School. I’m back at school.”

“Your school was far from home, wasn’t it, Rufus? Far away, and surrounded by trees. English autumn woods and yellowing, falling leaves. When you try to sleep at night, you can hear the trees, can’t you? They move and sigh in the autumn winds.”

“Yes. I can hear them. I hear them every night. I hold the pillow over my ears. I can’t sleep.”

“You’re lying in your bed, in the school dormitory. Summer’s turned to fall: shorter days, cooler days: longer nights, colder nights. It’s your birthday: your first night as a thirteen-year old boy. Are you happy, Rufus?”

Again I glance across Rufus’s face. And I see the glint of a tear in his eye.

“I’m scared.”

“Scared? What are you afraid of, Rufus? You’re at school. You’re with all your friends. All boys together. What do your friends say about you, Rufus?”

Another tear.

“They say unkind things. They say I can’t control my bladder, my water-works. And they say that’s because there’s something wrong with me. Something wrong – down there. In my trousers.”

“Wrong, Rufus?”

“Something wrong with my feelings. They laugh at me. They say, Rufus will never be a man. He doesn’t want to join the Army, or hunt, or shoot, or ride. He’d rather stay at home. And play with dolls, and dress up. Because he’s not really a boy at all. More like a girl.”

The breathing is broken now. A sob catches in his throat, but his voice is hoarse, harsher, louder. A jeering tone runs through it.

“A girl that’s gone wrong – that’s what you are, Rufus. Say it. Say it now ‘Ruthy, Ruthy du Pavey. Ruthy’s a naughty little girl that’s gone wrong, and needs to be taught a lesson. Say it! ‘I’m Ruthy du Pavey, a naughty little girl who needs to be punished.’ Say it!’”

“Relax, Rufus. Don’t listen to those voices. Listen to the breeze in the trees. You’re not panicking, are you?”

“Not tonight. Please, please, don’t do it to me tonight.”

“Relax, Rufus. Breath deep and slow, deep and slow, air flowing through you, calm, quiet, peace. Everything is peaceful, and you’re not thirteen any more. You’re a man now, aren’t you? You’re not bullied any more. You drive fast cars, you fly airplanes. No-one can make you scared now. You’re not scared of anything, are you? Because those nasty boys, they’ve all gone. The boys are all gone, gone far away into the woods to play their silly boyish games. There are girls around you now, and you feel happy. These girls, they all admire you. Pretty dresses and pretty smiles. They look into your eyes, hang on your every word.”

The breathing slows, but the tears keep coming.

“Look into the face of each and every girl. What does she want?”

“I know what she wants. She wants me to kiss her. Every one of them, they all feel the same, look at me the same.”

“Where are you, Rufus?”

“I’m in a dining room. I can see chandeliers, waiters. I hear music: an orchestra is playing for us. And all these girls – they’re at my table. We’re in the first-class dining room of the Titanic.”

“Can you see the girls’ faces? Around your table?”

“I’m looking. I’m looking around the table. I see every girl smile at me. Every day I see those smiles, those eyes, welcoming me, wanting to be with me. The waiter is pouring champagne for us, it’s fizzing in every glass, there’s a toast, a chink of glasses. Hands raised, holding the glasses, smiles all round. ‘To Aviation!’ I hear the laughter. Too shrill.”

“Why do you keep looking, Rufus? Looking from face to face? As if you are searching for something you can’t see?”

“I’m looking for someone I can’t see. I’m looking… for him.”

“For whom, Rufus?”

“Percy. Why has he gone?”

“How do you feel, Rufus? What are you going to do?”

“I feel – like I did, years ago, at school. Too many faces, too many voices, laughing. Laughing at me. Percy doesn’t laugh at me. I need to find Percy.”

“Percy’s on the Titanic too, isn’t he?”

“Yes. I need to go to him. I need him to talk to me, to tell me what to do. I must find him, right now. I’m getting up from this table, I’m going away from all the pretty girls.”

The strangest thing happens. Rufus’s large, unconscious frame moves, rises, stands. The cabin is large, but he seems to fill it. But unlike Calvin Gilmour when he rose from the chair under hypnosis, there is a strange powerlessness in Rufus’s limbs. He’s like a puppet, pulled up by strings.

“You’re going to find Percy, aren’t you, Rufus?”

“I’m going to his cabin. I knock on the door. And I see him standing there. I see his face, his eyes, his lips. I see red wine, too. A carafe of wine, on the table. I need a drink for my nerves. I want him to welcome me, to give me wine.”

“What is he saying to you, Rufus?”

“He’s saying ‘Rufus, you can’t have the wine, you’ve had too much to drink tonight. Go to your cabin and rest. Wait until morning, and you will feel better. Because I know that you have an idea, a very silly plan, and you mustn’t do it.’ I’m trying to talk to Percy, but all my words are coming out wrong. I can’t talk sense, but Percy – he is talking, and what he says, it makes sense. Percy is always so wise. He’s saying ‘I know exactly what you’re thinking of doing, Rufus, and it’s the worst idea you could possibly have. Don’t spoil everything that you’ve worked for. Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.’”

“The goose?…”

“The man with the gold. The man with the money.” Despite his size, the standing figure in front of us seems curiously frail: the motion of the Olympic through the waves in this cabin is very slight, yet Rufus is swaying along with it, like a sapling blowing in a storm.

“Does Percy say anything else?”

“He’s speaking now, pleading with me, persuading me. ‘Rufus, listen to me. You mustn’t do this. So – hand it over to me. You trust me, don’t you? You know that you can always trust me. Trust my judgment. Put it in my hand, now. For safekeeping, with me. Let me look after it. Because I’m going to look after everything for you, Rufus. I will take care of everything. I’ll look after you, my darling, darling Rufus.’”

The swaying is worse now, but neither I not the professor is prepared for what happens next. The knees buckle: the figure crumples lifelessly, falls heavily, knocking the table and champagne bottles flying across the room. For the second time, Rufus du Pavey is violently sick in front of me.

 

I look round the room for Chisholm. But he’s not there: he must have slipped away while du Pavey was under the hypnosis. And then, just as before, Chisholm appears in the doorway.

“Sorry, I had to go for five minutes. I have some important news.”

Something in his tone commands me, and the professor, to step over towards him. Rufus lies in his vomit on the floor, but I can tell that we have something more urgent to attend to.

Chisholm holds a telegram, and reads it out to us.

 

“From New York Police Department Stop as a safeguard two NYPD sharpshooters are aboard Olympic and detailed to report to Inspector Trench Stop Lord Buttermere also aboard Stop he is your command and his instructions MUST repeat MUST be followed without question Stop criminals bodies at Chelsea Piers identified and James Nolan not among the dead Stop due to time constraint and need for ship to embark and belief that all the gang were dead there was not a full search of ship Stop explosives believed to be aboard.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. A council of war

The Captain’s Sitting Room on the Olympic is somewhere I never expected to see. Nor did I ever expect to be sitting at the same table as Captain Herbert James Haddock, the master of this ship.

Because of the secrecy of this meeting, we’re crowded around a small table in the Captain’s private quarters, tucked in behind the Olympic’s bridge and wheelhouse. There is only just room for the chairs pulled up around the table, and for the odd assortment of people gathered here to discuss the crisis. The Captain sits at one end of the table, and to his right is Lord Buttermere. He and the Captain are perhaps the same age, but the two men could hardly be more different. Haddock’s uniform and his sea-hardened visage and Victorian mutton-chop sideburns contrast with Buttermere’s elegant suit and his clean-shaven, smooth demeanor.

On the other side of the captain sit Calvin and Gwyneth Gilmour. Gilmour, Haddock, Buttermere: these three men: all-powerful in their own spheres: leaders, used to giving orders and to receiving obedience from others. How will they get along together?

Professor Axelson sits next to Gwyneth. More than ever tonight, he exudes an air of wisdom. The three men at the head of the table each look at him, then at each other. They will be listening to his opinions, relying on his judgments, in the discussion to come.

I’m sitting opposite the professor, and Chisholm sits between Lord Buttermere and me. I am by far the youngest person at this gathering, but I look at each face in turn, and no-one here seems surprised at my presence. I sense that I will be expected to contribute my views too, and that they’ll be listened to. All the same, it is a daunting thought, that I may be expected to give opinions on which Captain Haddock or Lord Buttermere might rely. And then something unexpected happens. Under the table, Chisholm gives my hand an encouraging squeeze.

Opposite the captain, and between me and the professor, at the foot of the table, are four empty chairs. We are all silent, waiting for their occupants. The door opens and three men enter silently. Somber figures: Inspector Trench and two quiet-looking men in long coats. Two men you might pass in the street and never notice.

The captain speaks. “Ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for postponing your lunches in order to join me here. I have called this meeting in agreement with Lord Buttermere. I have received a telegram today from New York with alarming news. Following that, I have received a second telegram, this time from the Communications Office of the British Secret Intelligence Bureau, part of the British War Office – effectively, the British Crown. Like the telegram from New York, it asks me to extend my full co-operation and support to Lord Buttermere, which I unhesitatingly do.” He looks around the room, checking that we all understand the importance of what he’s saying, before continuing.

“This ship, isolated far from land in the middle of the Atlantic, is the focus of both American and British intelligence and security services. The few people in this room carry, I’m afraid, a huge burden of responsibility. And we have a great and very dangerous task ahead of us. I will inform other crew members only if and when it becomes absolutely necessary – but, for the moment, it is imperative that this meeting remains secret from all other passengers and crew.”

Lord Buttermere looks around the room, and then at the captain. “Of course, I agree with Captain Haddock. Only those within these four walls must know of this news. We are like a secret council of war, here in this room. But Captain, perhaps you could explain why such secrecy is needed – from a purely seafaring point of view, of course?…”

The captain nods in agreement at Lord Buttermere, and continues. “You see, ladies and gentlemen, I have noticed, time and again in the last year, a certain fear – almost a potential for hysteria – among passengers whenever there is even a slight problem with the ship. We know that the Titanic catastrophe is in everyone’s minds. You can imagine the panic that might erupt if the Olympic’s passengers were to find out the truth. The truth being, of course, that there are enough explosives aboard this ship to cause a disaster worse than the one that happened exactly one year ago.”

I see a raised finger from Calvin Gilmour. “You say passengers, Captain. Now I’m a paying passenger: paying darned well, too, for the privilege of sailing on this goddamned boat. In fact, most of us around this table are passengers. Civilian passengers, many of us. But how many, exactly?”

Captain Haddock looks at Gilmour. “Your point is, sir?”

Gilmour continues. ““My point is addressed at Lord Buttermere and the other secret agents at this table. Drop the cloak and the dagger, gentlemen. If we’re to trust each other, I demand that every single person around this table tells all of us, honestly and openly, who they really are.”

The captain and Lord Buttermere glance at each other. Again I contrast the two men. For some reason I think of home, of my own father, the simple truths and values that he would tell me and my brother. I wonder to myself, almost dreamily: would I be proud if Captain Haddock were my father? Yes. Would I be proud if Lord Buttermere were my father?

A voice at my side calls me back to the present moment. “I’ll start, if it will answer Mr Gilmour’s concerns, and get this meeting moving. Because the sooner we start and finish this discussion, the sooner we can begin the search for the explosives. So: I am Chisholm Strathfarrar. Publicly, I am one of the many advisers to the Home Secretary in Whitehall. But in practice, I work for the Home Section of the British Secret Intelligence Bureau. Over the last few years, I have infiltrated extremist revolutionary groups in England and, especially, Ireland, with the aim of preventing a terrorist attack in London. We have established that the aim of smuggling these explosives aboard the Olympic is to transport them to England, to try to cause huge loss of life in London, and perhaps destabilize the British Government.

But my involvement in this matter stems from another, related reason too. My mission one year ago, aboard the Titanic, was to follow and observe Viscount Percy Spence, another and very senior British agent, who was suspected of treason. Before his murder, I was trying to uncover evidence which would show him to be the ringleader of the conspiracy to cause an explosion in London. So, I am now seeking to find Spence’s killer, who I believe is also involved in the terrorist plot.”

I hear my own voice speaking. “I’m Agnes Frocester, American citizen. Like Sir Chisholm, I was a passenger on the Titanic. I came on this trip to help the professor and Sir Chisholm. And I’ll confess that my main motive in being involved is not to find a killer, or stop a plot, but to find Kitty Murray, an innocent servant girl who was abducted from under our noses while we were trying to discover who murdered Percy Spence.”

It’s a relief to finish speaking. Another familiar voice starts to talk.

“I’m Inspector Trench, and I’ll speak for these two men too, officers Bass and McMorrow, who work for the NYPD but are, as it were, on loan to me. Both are trained marksmen. They are instructed that, if they catch sight of James Nolan, or any other person suspected in this plot, they may fire at will. I am a British policeman, and I am handling the policing element of the same operation that Sir Chisholm has described. I am also, perhaps, best placed to explain how we find ourselves in this situation. In a way, it is my fault.”

All eyes look at Inspector Trench.

“When in New York, I was told to co-operate with Lieutenant Bouchard of the New York Police Department on an operation. Unfortunately, I was unfamiliar with Lieutenant Bouchard’s style of communication: he told me very little, and kept all the plans to himself. The result was that I witnessed a surprise armed attack by the police on the Gophers gang. In the aftermath of that attack, two police officers escorted me away from the scene. I then found myself unable to have further discussion with Lieutenant Bouchard. Effectively, he ran his own show, and I’m sorry to say that I let him do that. I now find that no effective search was made for the explosives, and that the counting of dead bodies was not properly carried out: they expected twelve dead men, and did not allow for a thirteenth member of the Gophers group. I now realize that Lieutenant Bouchard and his men were not interested in making a careful count: they were simply in a hurry to move the bodies and dump them in an alley in Manhattan, so as to give the appearance of a gangland battle.

The missing thirteenth member of the Gophers group is, of course, Jimmy Nolan, the man that has now stowed away, we think, somewhere on this ship. He is the man who poses such a danger to us all. All in all, the operation at Chelsea Piers was very badly handled, and I have to take a large part of the blame for that.”

The two men sitting with the inspector are silent: they feel that he’s done their introduction for them. The professor realizes that it’s his turn to introduce himself.

“I am Professor Axelson, Swedish national, scientist, hypnotist and independent detective. I am investigating the mystery of Spence’s murder. In particular, I use my Hypnotic-Forensic Method to obtain witnesses’ recall of the evidence that – ahem – sank with the Titanic. Co-incidence, good fortune, or maybe a simple convergence of paths meant that I have ended up working with Sir Chisholm, and latterly, Inspector Trench too. And I must say that although neither the inspector, or myself, would want to be absolved from all blame for what happened at Chelsea Piers, I do believe that both he and I were tricked. Lieutenant Bouchard had a strategy, from the beginning of the operation, to separate us and sideline us.”

There’s a noise at the door.

Two things happen at once. The first is that in an instant, Bass and McMorrow stand up and point two gleaming revolver barrels at the door.

The second is that the door swings slowly open, and a young but serious face peers in on us.

“Sorry to disturb you, ladies and gentlemen. I was told you were all meeting in here.”

Captain Haddock speaks. “May I introduce Harold Bride, wireless operator on the Olympic. I have entrusted him with co-coordinating our communications. When you are carrying out the search, as soon as you discover anything, please go up to the wireless room on the bridge, and tell Officer Bride anything you find. He will relay your message immediately to myself and Lord Buttermere.”

As Bride quietly takes the last seat in the room, I hear Calvin’s solid voice again. “Well, thanks for introductions, and for everyone’s honesty. I do appreciate it, and it gives us civilians around the table here confidence in you ‘professionals’. So Captain, Lord Buttermere – where do we go from here? Are we to organize a search of the ship?”

Captain Haddock looks around the table at each of our faces. “Yes, that’s perfectly correct. But it must be a planned search. Certain hiding-places are far more likely than others, so we need to be organized, searching the most likely places first, and then on to the less likely, in this way…”

Calvin buts in. “How d’you mean, less and more likely? A good hiding place might be the least expected one.”

Is the captain annoyed at Gilmour’s interruptions? His face is impassive and patient. “I’ll explain myself a little more, Mr Gilmour, if I may. The way that the explosives were smuggled aboard involved bribing the crew member who was guarding the third-class entrance on E Deck. So, there may be other members of the Olympic’s crew – or passengers aboard this ship – who are open to bribery. That fact adds to the importance of keeping our activities secret, as I’m sure you’ll all appreciate. But it also makes some hiding places more likely than others.”

I look round the room and see all heads nodding, except Calvin’s, who still looks puzzled. I must admit, I’m puzzled too. The captain continues. “Now, if I were to hide a cargo secretly on the Olympic, I would do so with the aid of an accomplice on board the ship. I would avoid the main storage areas, which are accessible to large numbers of the ship’s crew. I would also want to stow the cargo on a deck near to where I boarded the ship, so as to save time when loading and unloading. Because the inside of this ship is a labyrinth.”

Calvin has yet another question. “You mean, Captain, that the explosives are likely hidden near the gangway hatch for the third-class passengers? Now I understand that there’s no storerooms round there. It’s all passenger cabins near that entrance.”

“Exactly so, Mr Gilmour. In line with what I’ve already said, let’s try out a scenario. All of you, imagine that you are a New Yorker travelling to England, perhaps to find work.”

Gilmour interrupts again, “People generally travel in the opposite direction for that purpose.”

I speak up. “I didn’t. I traveled to England two years ago on the Mauretania to take up employment in England.”

The captain gives me a slight smile across the table, before carrying on. “So – let each of us, around this table, imagine ourselves to be a person travelling on the Olympic to England. Before you leave New York, you find yourself approached by gangsters. By threats or bribery, they get you to agree that, when you travel, you will find in your cabin some packing cases. Perhaps you are told, like the troop of men who acted as decoys at Chelsea Piers, that it is merely contraband whiskey. You are told to say nothing to the crew and to keep the packages concealed. You are also told that, when the ship arrives at Southampton, all you need to do is leave your cabin and disembark, and you need never hear any more of the matter.”

Calvin shakes his head. “Makes no sense to me. How would the Gopher gang know that they could trust the traveler to not spill the beans?”

Chisholm looks at the captain. “Shall I explain?”

“Yes please, Sir Chisholm. Because we need to move quickly now from discussion to action.”

“As I mentioned, my work for British Secret Intelligence has involved infiltration of a network that stretches from London to Dublin to New York. I am familiar with a lot of names of conspirators and sympathizers. This imaginary traveler that Captain Haddock describes – he or she can be relied on by the Gophers, either because they are already known to the Gophers and sympathetic to the revolutionary cause, or because the Gophers have a hold over their family and loved ones. My work over the last few years means that I hold a list of such individuals. So, most of us around this table should begin the search immediately – but the captain and I will not join you at first. He and I will sit down and go through the passenger list, and see if any passenger names coincide with my list.”

“Exactly so” says Captain Haddock. “each of us must start to search. In order to cover the ship quickly, we will each go out alone. But I am hoping that within an hour or two, Sir Chisholm and I will have checked our lists and be able to target the search and find the cabin in which –”

The captain is interrupted yet again. He’s a gentleman: he allows the other speaker to carry on.

“The search” begins Lord Buttermere “must be done with the utmost secrecy and delicacy. The importance of preventing panic…”

This time it’s Calvin Gilmour who buts in. “We can’t avoid going into passengers’ cabins and nosing around. The occupants will want to know what the hell we’re doing. What do we say to them?”

Lord Buttermere suddenly looks tired. I can tell that he’s used to giving commands and having them acted on, without question. He’s not used to having to explain all his reasons. He seems to come to a decision, and I see a steely look in his eyes. He speaks with crushing emphasis.

“When we search for the explosives, secrecy is paramount. That is not only to prevent panic among the passengers. I have decided to tell you all: there is another, more important reason why no-one outside this room must know what we are doing.”

Now, every eye looks at Lord Buttermere. So far, he has hardly spoken in this meeting, but now he has the attention of the whole room. He pauses, and then speaks again, very slowly, to let the impact of what he is saying sink in.

“I tell you all now: there are reasons of international importance, which dictate that it might be better for this ship to sink without trace, and without survivors, than for certain matters to become public knowledge.”

We all look at each other. Did he just say that? Lord Buttermere looks around at every one of our shocked faces; despite his small stature and mild features, it is clear that he is the one truly in command here, and that he will brook no disagreement. He carries on. “One thing is vitally important. Inspector Trench’s two companions must, like all of us, be unarmed. Only moments ago when Mr Bride came to the door, they showed us that they can take a life in the blink of an eye. That might suit the streets of New York – for example, the unfortunate manner in which Lieutenant Bouchard acted at Chelsea Piers. But it does not suit British Secret Intelligence. It would be most regrettable if James Nolan, or any other enemy aboard this ship, were to die. Our ideal outcome from this business is for us to dock in Southampton with a prisoner that we can interrogate.”

“Our ideal outcome, Buttermere, is for us to dock in Southampton. Anything else is a bonus.” Chisholm’s voice never sounded stronger. He might be the subordinate, and Buttermere the commanding officer. But I sense approval for Chisholm’s words around the room, and Calvin speaks out.

“Here here. The man talks sense. When your enemy holds a lighted fuse, you’re better off shooting first. Let’s leave the delicate political questioning for when we’re safe on dry land again.”

The professor backs them up. “In the interests of humanity, Sir Chisholm must be right. There can be no sense in exposing over two thousand innocent passengers and crew to any risk that might be avoided. It makes sense for the two New York police officers to be armed. They are trained in dealing with dangerous criminals. We have the police officers: let’s make use of them if we need to.”

I’d add my own agreement to these voices – but I don’t. I’m too busy thinking. Something is going on in this room, something I don’t understand. I feel that Lord Buttermere has a different aim, a different agenda, that we have not yet grasped.

There’s a silence, now, as Lord Buttermere looks at the faces around the table. I sense anger behind that smooth face, as he speaks. “Despite everything I have said, ladies and gentlemen, you have not yet comprehended the gravity of this situation. I will make it perfectly clear for you. Captain Haddock, please read out the telegram you received.”

“Which one? The one from New York, or the one from London?”

“I think we all know the contents of the New York telegram. Read the one from London, please. Read the whole thing.”

I hear the captain’s voice, reading.

 

“Transmission to Captain H J Haddock of the RMS Olympic Stop from his Britannic Majesty King George Emperor of India Stop you have aboard a Lord Buttermere to whom is granted power of force majeure under British and international maritime law Stop full cooperation with Lord Buttermeres instructions is necessary Stop failure to cooperate in any way will be punished as High Treason Stop code four two seven one Stop five eight –”

 

“Shut up.”

Captain Haddock looks across at Lord Buttermere, who rasps harshly at him. “Don’t tell them the coding.”

The captain’s voice remains polite and controlled. “You asked me to read it all, sir. I was merely fulfilling your request.”

“I did say read it. But I didn’t mean read out the coding as well. Right now, in this room, we must act as a team – as if everyone around this table is on our side. But I must also reckon on the remote possibility that one or more persons in this room may in fact be the very enemy who has planned all this. So, Captain, you should not have read the coding.”

I can read the level, steady look in Captain Haddock’ eyes. I’m thinking what he’s thinking. Excepting force majeure, a captain’s word is law on his ship. The number of times in history that a captain has been told to shut up in his own cabin could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Lord Buttermere continues. “I had not intended to say this – but, I will explain a little further, just in order that everyone here understands the extreme importance of capturing Nolan alive. Our belief is that someone high up in British Secret Intelligence had used his position to foster the explosives plot. We know now that it was in fact Viscount Spence who did that. But he did much more, too. The explosives are, in a sense, is a sideshow. The leader of the plot was known to the New York and Irish plotters as “Black Velvet”. That is an established fact. But we also suspect that he was also known as “BV” to a number of British secret agents. Agents whose identities we do not know, but about whom we know one thing: they are, in fact, working not for Britain, but for Germany.

We believe that the German penetration of British Secret Intelligence is so deep that, if war were to happen, all our preparations, all our plans, would be transmitted instantly to Berlin by these traitor agents. We do not know the names of any of these agents – only Spence knew that. But in order that the explosives would be transferred once they arrived in England, and that the German double agents could work with the Irish revolutionaries, we believe that Black Velvet, who we now know to be Spence, gave the names of all these traitors to Nolan. You can now understand the vital importance of questioning Nolan.”

Lord Buttermere looks around the room. Every person is quiet. Very slowly, he says one more thing.

“We must get the names of these German agents from Nolan. Because I believe that the German infiltration of British Secret Intelligence is now so complete that, were a European war to start tomorrow, Great Britain would be utterly defeated within days. Within two weeks, the Kaiser’s troops would occupy both Paris and London.”

 

Amid the stunned silence around the room, I find my voice. “Captain Haddock, perhaps you can advise me. It seems that we must all obey Lord Buttermere: we have no choice. But we are all alone here in the middle of the Atlantic, two thousand people whose lives now depend on the handful of individuals in this room. So when we receive such strange orders as this telegram, then we must ask about the telegram itself, and its authenticity. Who sent it, authorized it? You’re not telling me it was King George himself.”

The captain looks back at me, and although his mouth is stern, I again see that trace of a smile in his eyes. “You are correct, Miss Frocester. The coding, which Lord Buttermere rightly stopped me from reading out, confirms the authenticity of the message. I have checked it. When we receive a message with that coding, we know that the message is genuinely issued by British Secret Intelligence. The words at the beginning about King George and all that is a formal flourish; the key thing is the coding. With the coding, we can be sure it’s genuine and must be obeyed.”

“Unless – the coding has already fallen into someone else’s hands.”

As soon as I say that, Lord Buttermere looks at me as if I’ve already committed treason. So what, I think. I’m not even a British citizen. Nor are half the people in this room. Buttermere begins to speak to me, slowly, as if I’m stupid.

“Young lady. The coding – it is authenticated by secure processes, which I cannot divulge. The message was issued, as Captain Haddock has explained, by British Secret Intelligence.”

“Thank you for the clarification, Lord Buttermere. But, one more question, so we can all feel that we do actually trust what is going on here. Who is responsible for communications from British Secret Intelligence?”

“Arthur Compton, acting Chief of Communications at the Secret Intelligence Bureau. He will have personally authorized that message.”

I look round the room. Every pair of eyes looks the same: every single one of us is beginning to understand the situation. Each of us must deal with our own feelings about it.

All this time, Chisholm has been watching Buttermere’s eyes. Now, he rises to his feet, looking down on us all. He puts our worries into words, speaking slowly and firmly.

“Lord Buttermere, as Mr Gilmour has said, we all need to trust each other. We need to be fully open with each other about ourselves and this situation.”

“So?” I hear a dark tone in Buttermere’s voice.

“What you mean, Lord Buttermere, is that Arthur Compton is ‘acting’ Chief of Communications. He’s ‘acting’ because it’s not his usual job. He is standing in for a colleague who is absent, and he is following, in exact detail, the instructions given to him by that colleague.”

Lord Buttermere is looking daggers at Chisholm. “Well, what of it? Whether ‘acting’ or not, Arthur Compton still has authority.”

Chisholm refuses to be intimidated. “I’ll make it crystal clear, to you and to everyone here. You are British Secret Intelligence’s Chief of Communications. Arthur Compton is standing in for you. That telegram – effectively, you sent it yourself.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Shame and jealousy

 

I’m climbing a staircase in the bowels of the Olympic. In my hands I clutch a piece of typed paper, signed by Captain Haddock. It says that I am a sanitary inspector and I have authority to ‘inspect’ cabins. ‘Passengers are to give Miss Frocester their full co-operation’. I’ve been assigned to search the cabins of the eight female passengers who are travelling alone, and I’ve already visited each of them. Each was very co-operative, and I saw in their eyes the same lonely courage that I had myself two years ago when I sailed to England to take up my job. Now I’m heading back up to the upper decks to search the ship’s First Class Reading and Writing Room. An unlikely hiding place, I think. But then I suspect that my duties in this search have been designed mainly to keep me away from trouble and danger.

There is only one person in the Reading and Writing Room; an over-dressed middle-aged woman. Better, I think, for me to pretend to be looking on the bookshelves for something to read, than to talk to her and try to convince her that I’m checking the hygiene of the room. There are four bookshelves, mostly popular novels and magazines, with the inscription ‘Library’ carved in the mahogany frontage above them. Looking at the ‘Library’ I can see that the books are shelved in such a way that it might be possible to conceal single sticks of dynamite behind them. But if explosives were hidden there, any passenger looking for something to read might chance upon them. It seems unlikely that the Gophers or their accomplices would be so foolish as to use it for a hiding place.

I pull out a book from the shelf, peer behind it. Of course there’s nothing, and nothing behind the next book either. The woman is now watching my odd behavior. When I pull out a third book she sighs with annoyance, stands up and leaves.

I do what anyone would do. I go over to the table and look at the book she was reading.

It’s not a book, it’s a Macy’s catalogue. I look at the pages, remembering the excitement of reading one of these, looking at the glamorous illustrations, long ago back in Putnam. I can’t help it: I leaf through the pages.

The volume falls open at a section on men’s shoes. And suddenly I’m reading something, with a sharp intake of breath.

“Newly imported from Pirmasens, Germany’s shoe town! Astounding quality and construction using the finest quality Rhineland leather and the unique Pirmasens triple-stitched sole…”

I hear a voice.

“Are you – busy?”

I look up. Standing in the library doorway is Rufus du Pavey.

“Hello.” I look at him: something has changed in his face, his eyes, even the way he stands.

“Agnes. May I sit down?”

“Of course. In fact I’m glad to see you, because I didn’t get a chance to say how sorry I was, that the hypnosis made you so ill.”

“I seem to have developed a habit of getting ill and making a damned fool of myself at key moments in my life. Moments when you happen to be around too, Agnes. So – I just wanted to say sorry.”

“I agree, you need to apologize to me.” I grin at him to show him I’m joking. “After all, you went uninvited into my room at the Rosedene Hotel, didn’t you?”

“That’s funny, that you should think of that. Yes I did. The morning of the flight – I went over to your room. I don’t know why I just walked into a young lady’s room like that. I was feeling – over-excited. Pumped up. If my must know, it would have felt like a boost to my ego: thought you might let me in, talk to me before you’d dressed for the day.”

“Flirt with you, in my nightclothes – that’s what you mean, isn’t it? I’m not that sort of girl, Rufus.” I keep smiling, hold his eyes in mine to let him know I am not judging him. “But then, from what I think I know now of Rufus du Pavey, when you go to a young woman’s room – which you’ve done before: I know I’m not the first – you would be doing that purely to bolster your sense of being attractive to women. Not because you wanted to take things further. You’re an incorrigible flirt because you like to be able to tell yourself that you’re irresistible. It makes you feel good about yourself.”

“Yes.”

“And, most of all, it’s a good way of distracting people from the truth about your personal feelings. Your romantic feelings about women – and men.”

“Yes. That too. Again, you see right through me.” He’s avoiding my eyes now, looking down. We both know what I’m talking about – but to even refer to it feels almost physically shocking. I’m only aware of it because of whispers in the schoolyard. It’s the one thing that, in our society, is never spoken of.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Rufus. I was a little cross about you going into my room, because you acted like a child. But we all do that at times.”

His face is in his hands.

“But the other thing that I now know about you – about, as I put it, your romantic feelings – that doesn’t bother me, in the least. I don’t know much about these matters, but I don’t judge people. Who am I, to say that how you feel is wrong? If I did, I would be no better than those bullies at your old school.”

His hands still cover his face. But I sense that he’s listening to me.

“Rufus –you used to know someone else who was like you, someone who liked to play the flirt with women. Although I sense that he was more subtle – how can I put it? – more controlled, than you are. Because his main aim was quite coldly calculated: to give the world the false impression he was a womanizer, a kind of aristocratic Lothario. Antics to draw attention from the obvious question: why is such an eligible man forever a bachelor? But the whole thing was an act, a smokescreen: the truth was very different. For example, when you and that man visited Soho, the last thing on your minds was to spend time with women.”

“You’re right again, Miss Agnes. Percy and I – “

“You can say it, Rufus. You loved Percy Spence. And he loved you. Since he died, you’ve been grieving for a terrible, terrible loss. I might be a quiet New England girl. But when I read my Bible as a little girl, the one story that I always remember was the woman at the well. The woman taken in adultery, although I had no idea at the time what that meant. The Pharisees wanted to stone her to death. When he stopped them, Jesus said ‘let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Seems to me to be a good motto for the way to live life, Rufus.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s fine. Everything is fine, Rufus. Really, really, it is. I hope you have a happy life. I think it’s a shame for you, because the law, and public prejudice, mean that you’ll have to live much of your life in secret.”

“Thank you.”

“But there is something I need to know. About the letter you wrote. You wrote a blackmail letter, didn’t you?”

“I’m not like that. I’m not a blackmailer, not at heart. I was desperate, I…”

“I believe you. Because you never sent the blackmail letter, did you? It was another bit of childish, selfish foolishness. Percy found out about it, didn’t he? I think he talked you out of sending it.”

“He always was so much wiser than me…”

“He took the letter from you, didn’t he?”

“Yes. He took the letter from me, he said ‘Don’t be silly, Rufus. We can sort this out another way.’ That was the last time I saw Percy Spence. Except for…”

“Except for what?”

“Later that night. I went back to his cabin. I wanted to thank him, and – to spend some time with him. I wanted –”

“What happened?”

“I approached his cabin. I’d been drinking with some admirers – female admirers, of course. Playing up to my usual part: flirting, as you describe it. But inside I felt desperate, and all I could think about was what Percy would be thinking about me, now that he knew that I had written such a letter. He knew that I would stoop to blackmail… Had I lost his good opinion forever? I was so scared, terrified that his feelings about me might have changed.”

“So – you approached Percy’s cabin.”

“I went down the Grand Staircase. Percy’s cabin was along the corridor immediately beyond the staircase. I stood on the stairs, gathering my nerves. And then I saw something that I didn’t expect. Percy had opened his door, he’d come out and was talking in the corridor to a tall, blond young man. This young man – he had an air – it’s hard to say. An air of utter confidence. The thing I’ve never had but always pretended to have.”

“Had you seen him before, this young man?”

“I didn’t recognize him at all. But you can imagine what I concluded… about him, and Percy. I hesitated on the staircase. Percy came out of his cabin, and he and the man walked together along the corridor, towards the staircase, towards me. I went down one flight of steps to avoid them seeing me. I could just about hear the noise of them talking in whispers, but I couldn’t make out any words at all. I was desperately trying to overheard them, but without being seen. After a while, the whispers died away, and I concluded they’d both gone back to Percy’s cabin. That they’d gone in there – together. Then, I just became overwhelmed with shame and jealousy. I ran away to my own cabin.”

“Would you recognize him again? This man?”

“Oh yes, definitely. In fact, I know that he’s on this sailing of the Olympic. I’ve seen him this morning, taking a stroll on the Boat Deck.”

 

I have to let the other members of the search party know. For no reason I can name, I find it more chilling that Daniel Carver is aboard, than that somewhere on the Olympic is Nolan and enough explosives to kill us all. As I did at the New York Metropole I see the blond hair, the strong forehead and nose, the calm eyes: so assured, such an air of easy superiority. He looked at me like I was a plaything. Like a willful boy who would break a toy, just for fun.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Lethally dangerous

 

I step into the wireless room. Harold Bride is surrounded by telegraphic equipment. I tell him that I’ve a message for Captain Haddock and the others, and I see him nod his head at a very young-looking man – a boy, almost – who is standing there with him. The youth runs off with the message. I smile at Bride.

“He looks like a cabin boy, from the days of sailing ships.”

“Indeed. But he’s sixteen – old enough to go to sea. I’m using him as a runner for messages, because we can’t use the ship’s address system. Confidentiality, you see.”

“I do see. And, I wanted to say something else. To thank you. For your part in helping me and others survive the Titanic.”

“I only did my duty, Miss Frocester. Everyone that night simply did the best they could. Such a strange night, like something that happened in someone else’s life.”

“I recall you on the Carpathia, they said you were a hero.”

“I remember being brought up from the lifeboats onto the Carpathia. At that point I still thought that I was going to die: the effects of freezing for so long.”

“You had been in the ocean, hadn’t you?”

“Yes. After we had sent our last radio signal, Captain Smith came and told us our duties were done, and that we should seek to save ourselves. All the lifeboats had gone, of course, but Jack Phillips, the Senior Wireless Operator and I and some of the officers found one of the collapsible lifeboats, which was stowed upside down on the roof of the officers’ quarters. At this point the Titanic was beginning to tilt more steeply into the water, and the wires holding the forward funnel into place began to snap. The wires were shooting towards us like metal whips, and handling the lifeboat was a horrendous struggle. In the end we managed to rig up a makeshift ramp from oars, and slid the lifeboat onto the Boat Deck, but it broke through the end of the ramp and landed upside-down in the ocean, with us clinging to it. I went into the water, and there was just blackness, and the awful freezing sea. I was just wondering how I would die – from cold, or drowning, of the falling of the funnel which was about to crash down on us.”

“But you did survive.”

“I could feel the cold right through to my bones. I don’t know what happened for a few seconds. I even wondered if I’d died: or perhaps I’d gone blind, because I could see nothing at all. But then I realized that I was breathing air. Then I understood: I was inside an air pocket, trapped under the upside-down collapsible boat, now floating on the ocean. I managed to swim out from under the boat and climb onto it. There were maybe thirty of us on the collapsible boat, and after a time a lifeboat came alongside and we climbed into it, and so we were rescued when the Carpathia came along.” He looks at me. “So – Miss Frocester. What happened to you?”

“What happened when?”

“That night, of course.”

I pause. In my mind I see in front of me, as if it’s real and solid, a locked door. A place I dare not go.

“I – can’t remember. No, that’s not quite true. My mind chooses not to remember. I just try to live like it never happened.” I change the subject. “But you – as I say, one of the heroes of the disaster. I heard that even on the Carpathia, despite the effects of the freezing ocean on you, you helped send telegrams.”

“I did – although in fact I was much less busy with telegrams, compared to the messages that we had to send before the sinking.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well you see, on the 14th April, the day before we hit the iceberg, the wireless equipment wasn’t working for a while. Once we got it working, there was the backlog of messages to send, plus incoming messages warning us about the ice. And in the middle of all that, there was a gentleman wanting to take over the entire wireless transmission, with the longest message I’ve ever seen. I told him No, it would have to wait until the next morning when the backlog was cleared.”

“Who was that, then? The gentleman with the message?”

“I don’t recall his name, but he was a very aristocratic gentleman, very refined face. Long nose, high cheekbones. Piercing eyes. But when I saw the size of the message he wanted to send, I had to tell him that it wouldn’t be possible, not on the 14th, anyway. He was holding pages and pages in his hands – it would have taken hours. I told him that I could send it for him the next day.”

“What did he say when you refused?”

“He just said, ‘Oh, well, I guess it can wait until tomorrow morning. The message is of extreme importance – but it will keep until tomorrow. It’s not as urgent as keeping the lines open to receive information about the icebergs.’ You see, a telegram warning us of ice had just come in from the United States Hydrographic Office in Washington. The gentleman saw the transcript of the Hydrographic Office telegram on my desk, and he realized that there were risks to our safety, and that I had urgent work to do. So he went away, and took his papers with him. I never saw him again.”

 

I sense someone behind me, and turn round: Chisholm and the professor are at the door of the wireless room.

“News. Gwyneth has found the cabin where the explosives were kept.”

Were kept? You mean, they’ve gone?”

“We’ll explain later. Right now, we need to get there and assist Gwyneth.” We’re heading towards the stern of the ship, and now we’re hurrying down stairs, descending to the lower decks. We reach a doorway into a corridor, and I smell an awful whiff. Chisholm whispers to me.

“E Deck: that smell is the third-class lavatories. And down that corridor is the doorway that the Gophers came out of onto the gangway at Chelsea Piers.” It’s noticeably less well illuminated down here, and I notice, with a slight sense of disgust, that the room opposite the toilets is labeled “Potato Store”. We turn along a different corridor, pass through a heavy metal door, and then carry on. Off to the right is an even narrower and more dimly-lit corridor. I see a tall, white figure in the gloom, like an angel standing in the dark. Gwyneth stands in the doorway of a third-class cabin. She calls out to us.

“Thank you: well done for getting here so quickly. Is Inspector Trench coming too?”

“We’ve left word with the wireless operator, to call the inspector urgently.”

I sense another person’s shadow behind me. I turn in the narrow corridor, and look into the sharp eyes of Lord Buttermere.

Gwyneth’s voice rings out. “Lord Buttermere. You wanted to be able to question people. Well, I’ve found one for you to interrogate.”

Buttermere steps past me, and we all follow behind his shoulder, peering through the narrow door into the cell-like cabin. I can see that the bunks have been removed – unscrewed, dismantled and stacked against one wall – in order to make an empty space along three walls of the tiny two-person cabin. Against the far wall, a portly middle-aged man, white-faced with shock, stands. His face reminds me of a scared rabbit.

Gwyneth speaks. “Mr Sullivan. Tell these people exactly what you told me.”

“It’s nothing to do with me. Honest, honest. I’m travelling to London – sales samples.” He glances towards a bulky suitcase on the floor of the cabin.

“Samples?”

“Yes… to show, in shops, in London. I go to the shops, Liberty, Harrods, Selfridge & Co and so on. I ask to see the sales manager, I show him our products. That’s all I do. A travelling salesman.”

“And what happened? Before you embarked on the Olympic?”

“I was over in Brooklyn, seeing my parents, the night before the Olympic sailed. A little farewell supper, we have them every time I travel to Europe. There was a knock on the door: a man came to my parents’ house. I’d never seen him before, but he said he knew my father. He stood on the doorstep, he wouldn’t go away. After a while, my father admitted that he and this man, they came over to America together, many years ago, from Ireland.”

“And?”

“The man asked to come in. We weren’t really happy for him to be interrupting our farewell supper, but he made a big play of my father and him being old acquaintances, I think my father felt guilty. But all the same it seemed strange, we were uneasy… anyway, he came into our parlor, where our supper was laid out, half-eaten. He looked at the food and the crockery, and then he wandered around the room, looking at our furniture and our pictures and ornaments and so on. He said ‘Nice life you’ve made for yourselves, since leaving Ireland. I bet you’ve forgotten all about the old country. But some of us haven’t.’ And then, after he said that, he took a knife from his pocket, and very deliberately, he pulled the tablecloth up, spilling everything on the floor, and he slashed the cloth with the knife. And then he spat on it. ‘Looks like filthy Ulster Protestant linen’ he said.”

“What happened then?” Gwyneth is urging him to get to the point.

“The man – he told us that there would be a fire. My parents’ house would be burnt down, they might be killed, if I didn’t co-operate.”

“So he threatened you.”

“Threatened me and my parents. I know, I know. We should have gone straight to the police, but we were all scared.”

“So you did what the man wanted.”

“Yes. The man said ‘Mr Sullivan, we know that you’re travelling to London aboard the Olympic. You have a booked a bunk in a third-class two-bunk cabin. We’ve also heard that there’s no-one sharing that cabin with you. Is all that true?’ And I told him yes, everything he’d said was correct. Then he said ‘Now, when you are aboard the Olympic, you find some crates hidden in your cabin. You see, we need to smuggle some American Bourbon to England. The crates will be full of whiskey. It’s harmless, we’re just avoiding some English taxes.’”

Chisholm interrupts. “Mr Sullivan. We’ll send an immediate wire to New York. To ensure that your parents are moved to somewhere safe.”

Lord Buttermere looks angrily at Chisholm. I can tell that Buttermere wants this man Sullivan to be as scared as possible, perhaps because he thinks it might make him talk more. But as before, it is Gwyneth who asks the next question.

“So, when you got to your cabin?…”

“The packing cases were already here…”

“And – there were six of them? This is important: you are sure there were six?”

“Yes. There were definitely six cases in total. They filled my cabin. Each one was huge. You can see, even my bed was dismantled, I had to sleep on the floor. Not that I could get much sleep, worrying about being mixed up in this smuggling, and about my parents back in Brooklyn.”

Gwyneth looks almost pityingly at him. But she continues the questioning. “Mr Sullivan, now please, listen and answer carefully. This is the most important question of all. Where are the packing cases now?”

“A man knocked on my cabin door – last night, in the dead of the night. It woke me with a fright, it was such a shock to my nerves. At first I thought maybe it was the ship’s staff, I was scared, I thought cabin stewards had found out about the smuggling and had come to search for the cases. So I didn’t answer it. But the knocking carried on and on, and in the end I opened the door. It was a man, I don’t know his name, anything. He just told me: we must move these crates. Just the two of us. Each one weighed a ton.”

“Where did you take them?”

“Along that corridor, then through a door… down. Stairs and stairs. It was exhausting. He led the way… I can’t describe it.”

“Can you show us?”

The man nods. But before he can step towards us, Lord Buttermere speaks.

“Not so fast, please. First, that suitcase.”

“I’ll open it. May I?” Gwyneth asks the man.

Mr Sullivan, still white-faced, nods. Gwyneth bends, unclips the frail clasps of the case. From behind I see the outline of her face: her cheek swells in a smile, and I hear a quiet laugh.

She turns and smiles saucily. “Lethally dangerous, Lord Buttermere. I’m sure London will explode when these arrive.” She’s holding up a white shape of frills and flounces: a pair of ladies’ knickers.

Chisholm laughs, Axelson guffaws, but Buttermere doesn’t crack a smile. “Lead on, then, Mr Sullivan. Show us where you took the crates.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Shots in the dark

 

We’re clattering down flight after flight of iron steps. It’s like the ship is bottomless. Even that first time, when I ran from Inspector Trench, I didn’t descend this far. I notice a humming sound, too: it gets stronger with almost every rung of the stairs. I think of the timid Mr Sullivan and Jimmy Nolan, working together, shifting heavy crates, the size of coffins, down these iron staircases. To where?

Finally, Sullivan has stopped, and he’s pointing. “Here.”

There’s no lighting except the professor’s and Chisholm’s flashlights as, one by one, we step through a hatch in the floor and descend a small ladder. Two minutes later, we’re all standing at the foot of the ladder, crammed in blackness in a tiny, airless room. I have the strange sensation that this huge ship is playing an evil game with us: teasing us, leading us on, as if it is a living labyrinth, boxing us into smaller and smaller spaces. Riveted iron walls seem to press in on us from all sides. The humming sound is now so strong I can physically feel it: the room seems to reverberate and I feel the shaking penetrate my flesh, as if my very bones are vibrating. With the noise, the darkness, the shaking, and the lack of air – the tiny room feels like a place from a nightmare: a trap.

But there is one other way out: the smallest door I’ve yet seen is straight in front of us. Axelson and Chisholm glance at each other grimly: they must know what this place is. I hear under Chisholm’s breath “Oh hell. Anywhere, anywhere but here.”

“Open the door.” Lord Buttermere is speaking to Sullivan.

Sullivan’s trembling hand grips the handle, pushes the door open inch by inch. In front of us appears a dark tunnel. In the beam of the flashlights, it stretches away into unseen distances.

The professor speaks. “The shaft tunnel.”

Chisholm whispers to me. “One of the tunnels where the ship’s propeller shafts run from the engines out to the back of the ship. The shafts needs oiling to keep them turning smoothly. So usually the tunnels are lit and manned, but at the moment this one seems to be deserted. Of course, the shaft tunnels are narrow, and they stick out from the body of the ship: they’re almost surrounded by sea-water. If there was an explosion here, half the back of the ship would come off.”

“Where is the propeller shaft itself?”

And then I see it: a shiny steel cylinder, maybe a yard in width, catching the beam of light. It’s endlessly long, disappearing away from us into the blackness.

I hear Sullivan’s quavering voice again.

“Below… the shaft. That’s where we put the packing cases. It was terrifying to do.”

Gwyneth speaks again. “Let’s take a look then. Show us.”

The humming and vibrating has increased again. My brain seems to shake inside my skull. I hear Axelson’s voice, explaining the situation to us all.

“The steel shaft rotates with enough power to push a fifty-thousand ton ship through the water. It spins at a phenomenal speed. Touch it – and if you’re lucky, the friction will take your skin off. If you’re unlucky, the force will pull you off the gangway and wrap you round the shaft.”

My teeth chatter with the vibration, my limbs shake, as one by one we squeeze through the tiny door, shuffle along in the darkness, into the tunnel. We now stand right alongside the whirling, thrumming shaft.

The flashlight beam shines down, and yes: there they are. Six coffin-like crates, laid out end-to-end in a line, beneath the turning metal cylinder. But then I notice: the lid of one crate is askew. It’s been opened.

We’re all standing in a line on a narrow metal gangway that runs alongside the shaft. I’m at the back. Chisholm is in front of me, then Buttermere, Gwyneth, Axelson and finally Sullivan at the front. It feels horribly precarious: there is no handrail. Just a few feet of air between us and the spinning steel.

“Stop right there.”

The voice echoes eerily along the tunnel, the sound bouncing off the metal walls. With the echoes and the humming, I can’t even tell if it’s coming from ahead of us or behind us. But I recognize the accent, all too well.

Chisholm shouts into the darkness. “Who’s there?”

“Well, I think you know the answer to that question, Mr so-called Black Velvet. And if you don’t all leave this tunnel, right now, I’ll blow us all to Kingdom Come.”

I realize: Jimmy Nolan’s voice is coming from behind us. In fact, he’s speaking from close behind me: I can feel his breath on my neck. I turn to look behind me, and I gaze into a desperate, almost wild face, lit by the glare of the flashlights. In one hand, the hand with the signet ring, Nolan holds a cigarette lighter: in the other, a stick of dynamite. A single inch of fuse protrudes from it: its frayed end catches the flashlight beam.

Buttermere’s voice is icily calm. “Mr Nolan, put down the dynamite. You can’t win here. Even if you have given up on bombing London and now plan simply to sink the Olympic, your plans are exposed. You’re finished.”

“Well if I’m finished, then how come I’m the one holding the means to kill us all? Because you haven’t even got a hand-gun among you. So, ladies and gentlemen, you are all going to walk past me, out of the tunnel, up the stairs, and back up to the sunshine.”

“No.” That’s Chisholm. “There’s no room to squeeze past you. If any of us touch the shaft, we’re dead. So – before all these people can leave the tunnel, you must go out first.”

“I think you’ve forgotten that I’m the one holding the dynamite. Even if you hold your own lives cheap, you know what will happen if I light this. This stick will kills us all – but it might not be enough by itself to explode the shaft tunnel. But of course, it will detonate all that.” He nods towards the six crates. “And then there will be no shaft tunnel and no Olympic. So, all you fine dandy people, you have no choice.”

I can see that Buttermere, Axelson and Chisholm are all calculating the odds. To leave this man down here with six cases of dynamite is madness. But at least we might be able to give the alarm and start the evacuation of the ship.

Nolan is speaking again. “Now we’re going to test my idea – that you leave, one by one. First in the queue to leave, at the back of your group, is this young lady.” A single finger points between my eyes. “Green eyes. I recall she came to visit me in Hell’s Kitchen. And maybe I glimpsed her at Chelsea Piers, too, when I peeped out from the ship’s door and saw my men slaughtered in cold blood by the guns of New York cops. So – you, Miss Butter-Wouldn’t-Melt. Gather up those pretty skirts and slide past me. You might have to squeeze up close to me. You never know, Missie: you might enjoy it.”

There’s nothing else to do. I will have to maneuver round him: dynamite on one side, the shaft on the other. I wonder what will happen, I think, if the material of my dress catches in the spinning shaft. Then I blank that out of my mind and take a step towards Nolan. A second step and I can feel the moisture in his breath. A third, and I place one foot in the narrow gap between his shoes. I press up against him as I squeeze my other leg past his knees, foot down onto the gangway. I breathe again. I’m past him, and only two steps to the doorway. But I don’t feel any better. Even if we all leave the shaft tunnel safely, what is Nolan going to do down here? Sit in the dark alongside six crates of explosives, and await the Olympic’s arrival in Southampton: his arrest, his trial, his execution? Or will he simply blow the ship apart?

I’m past Nolan, and his attention is focused on the group ahead of him. In the midst of the tension, an odd thought occurs to me. Despite the darkness, Nolan recognizes me, and Chisholm. But he’s not said anything to Gwyneth at all. Which is strange, given the photo that we saw with her holding that hand, the hand wearing that signet ring.

Nolan continues to look ahead, and I take another step. I’m at the door that leads back into that tiny room. But I don’t go through the door. Instead, I squeeze myself into the dark corner between the doorway and the side of the tunnel, away from the shaft. I’m invisible here, and Nolan seems to have forgotten my existence.

“Now you. Move along the gangway.” He points at Chisholm.

Chisholm takes a step forward. His shoulders are slumped, he looks resigned to settling for temporary escape. He’s now one step away from Nolan. He turns to the others behind him.

“We’re leaving. But we are leaving this man with the power to kill us all, at any time. So when we get out of here, we speak to Captain Haddock. He will give the order to abandon ship.”

“No.” That’s Buttermere. His smooth voice is the loudest I’ve ever heard him speak: it echoes down the tunnel. “James Nolan. Your suppositions about our party are correct. All of us here are unarmed and defenseless. But even if you kill us, you can’t escape. A sensible man, like you, will listen to me. It is very important that you understand this: I’m not here to arrest you. I’m here to offer you an arrangement.”

“What sort of arrangement?”

“For you – freedom. Permanent immunity from prosecution for this incident, and also for all your crimes in New York. I’m sure my opposite numbers in the US Government, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NYPD will agree with me. You can have a new identity, if you want one. And we’ll even throw in a thousand pounds to start your new life. Australia, if you want, Mr Nolan.”

“Promises come easy to you, when you’re looking Death in the face. My guess is that breaking promises also comes easy to a man like you – once you’re safe back on dry land.”

“Mr Nolan, all I’m asking in return for my offer is some information. That information is far more important to us than any petty nonsense about trying to punish you for your crimes. I’m a practical man, Mr Nolan. You and I will talk. These other people here – they don’t fully understand the situation, and they will not be involved in our discussions. They will leave the shaft tunnel, and you and I can come to a mutual understanding.”

I’m hiding behind the opened door, looking back into the tunnel, at Nolan’s body silhouetted by the torchlight. Something in his figure strengthens. In the dark shape of his outlined frame I sense satisfaction, even triumph. I don’t understand what’s going on here, but I sense that there’s more at stake here even that the survival of the Olympic.

But whatever is going on, I can’t understand how Buttermere proposes to parley with a man who holds a stick of dynamite.

I think about what to do. If I don’t move, and hide here silently behind the door, then, if everyone else does leave the tunnel one by one, and then Nolan goes through the door, I can slam it. Knock him over. The dynamite might slip from his grasp: I or someone else could grab it. It’s the slimmest of chances, but it seems to me better than trusting the whole of the Olympic to the whims of Nolan and a stick of dynamite.

Chisholm takes one more step along the narrow gangway. The sound of the spinning shaft seems louder than ever. Chisholm’s now standing shoulder to shoulder with Nolan, the two men’s faces are silhouetted by the flashlights behind them. Absurdly, it looks as if they are dancing together. I see a curve in Nolan’s lip, the start of a smile. His voice echoes down the tunnel.

“Seems like you ladies and gentleman are seeing sense. That man there, the one with the so-smooth voice. Listen to him, he’s the only one of you that talks sense. Now you –” he points a finger in Chisholm’s face “– step past me gently. A sudden move means sudden death, sonny.” I see Nolan’s arms lifted up, again the odd illusion of a dance. The lighter in one hand, the dynamite in the other.

A gunshot rings out.

Where did that come from? I think it came from behind me, not from the huddled group of terrified people beyond Chisholm and Nolan. Everyone’s confounded: Buttermere stares, Sullivan screams. Looking out from my hiding place, I see, in the light of the flashlights, the white shape of Gwyneth’s dress; as before, I’m reminded of an angel in the dark. Gwyneth slides, falls into Professor Axelson’s arms. I see a spreading mass of red against the white.

I hear a strange silence above the purring, whirring noise of the shaft.

Even now, Chisholm stands firmly. He says nothing, but takes a final step, putting his foot between Nolan’s shoes, just as I did. As if the dance is carrying on.

The crack of a second shot. And this time I see Nolan’s silhouette again, but it convulses, his arm reaches up as if to clutch his chest. I see Chisholm’s arm reach out for the dynamite.

The second shot must have wounded Nolan, but his reactions are like lightning. He holds the dynamite aloft: Chisholm reaches for it. Two struggling hands grasp the stick. I see the two figures swaying, twisting. Leaning out over the murderously spinning shaft. I also see Axelson, attempting to step round Gwyneth’s prone body in an effort to help Chisholm.

I want to step forward, to try to help, but then I think. ‘Stay back, Agnes. If you try to help, we may all hit the shaft.’ The two figures are wrestling, agonized, just inches above the smooth, deadly curve of gleaming, whirling metal. Even as I see the two figures writhing as if in a death struggle, I think: why is there no third shot? And who, who on earth could be shooting?

Chisholm’s back is arched just inches above the spinning steel. But even now, his hand reaches up once more, grasps the dynamite. Nolan attempts to hold it out of his way, but Chisholm’s reach is longer, and something in the angle of their swaying arms affects whatever wound Nolan has: he gasps in pain as he tries to press Chisholm into the shaft. But Nolan’s grip slips. Chisholm rises away from the shaft. Both men are now standing face to face, wrestling for control of the dynamite. Four hands now grasp the stick: Nolan still holds the lighter, wedged between his fingers, but holding onto the dynamite stick this way, he can’t maneuver it to light the fuse.

Lord Buttermere’s voice echoes down the tunnel.

“Chisholm. If you’ve had enough of these antics, then let Mr Nolan go. You’ve not only risked the lives of every one of us: you’ve also acted against my express orders. In fact, every one of us here must now let Mr Nolan go on his way.”

“Let him go – with the dynamite? Lord Buttermere, this is madness.” Axelson speaks the feeling we all have: that Nolan cannot be allowed to escape aboard the ship. “And – we need a doctor. For Mrs Gilmour.”

“You all forget something.” Lord Buttermere’s voice remains level and controlled. “In here, that stick of dynamite can kill two thousand people. In the rest of the ship, it can’t cause as much harm.”

“Your smooth talker has been right about a few things. But I wouldn’t be so sure about his latest claim.” I can hear the sneer in the echo of Nolan’s voice. Chisholm has released him; again Nolan holds the dynamite in one hand, the lighter in the other, and he steps towards me, towards the door leading out of the tunnel. Despite the darkness, he sees me. I guess my white face looks like a ghost in this gloom. He casts a brief smirk at me as he passes me.

Two seconds later, he’s disappeared through the door.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. In Hades

 

The moment Nolan is gone, I see the professor attempting to lift Gwyneth’s supine figure. He speaks to the man who is cowering against the wall, his face in his hands. “Mr Sullivan. Can you make yourself useful and help me?”

“Is she dead?”

“No. The bullet has just grazed her side, I think. But the loss of blood – we need to get her out of here, safely, as quickly as we can.” Axelson glances towards the still-spinning shaft. “I suggest, Lord Buttermere, that you and Chisholm lead the search for Nolan, while Mr Sullivan and I try to carry Mrs Gilmour out of here. Miss Agnes, can you alert the wireless and the ship’s doctor?”

Lord Buttermere’s voice is clear and decisive. “The two shots that were fired. They came from the doorway. So, whoever was trying to kill us – or rather, kill one or more among us – may still be out there. We must proceed with great caution. Also, Sir Chisholm, following your insubordinate actions, you are relieved of any further duties in this operation. I cannot rely on you.”

“You need my help, Buttermere. Do what you like afterwards, but right now, you need me. Now – we’re wasting time. Where would Nolan have gone?”

I can hear the Professor speaking up again as he struggles with Gwyneth’s body. “Did you hear the last thing Nolan said? That he thinks he can still sink the Olympic? There is one place where he might believe that he can still destroy this whole ship using only a single stick of dynamite.”

“The engine-room?”

“No. He could indeed cause terrible damage there – or if he threw the stick into the boiler furnaces. But while causing immense destruction, the explosion would not be enough to sink the ship. No, I would guess that he is thinking of the coal bunkers. You have heard, perhaps, of ships’ coal-bunker explosions. One was reported in the newspapers very recently. They are similar to some mine explosions. Even a spark has been known to trigger an explosion of the coal dust particles. It is like a chain reaction: it has torn ships apart. But…”

“OK. That’s enough to know about.” Lord Buttermere and Chisholm are already with me, at the door leading out of the tunnel: we go on through.

“Gentlemen! I need to tell you more!”

“Axelson, tell us later. We’re heading for the coal bunkers.”

From the tiny room beyond the shaft, Chisholm and Buttermere open another door: they are heading along the very bottom of the ship towards the engine rooms, the boilers, the bunkers. I turn to run up the stairs. And, like the last time I ran on the stairs in this ship, I bump straight into a thin, gray-clad figure. Inspector Trench. Behind him stand the two NYPD officers.

“That way. Nolan went that way…” I pant, trying to give the inspector the information he needs. “One stick of dynamite… coal bunkers. Gwyneth Gilmour – shot. By someone, we have no idea who. Was it you shooting, trying to kill Nolan?”

The two officers shake their heads. “Lord Buttermere’s orders, madam. We’re not carrying firearms.” Inspector Trench, meanwhile, takes my arm.

“As they are denied their firearms, I think the best use of my officers McMorrow and Bass is to get Mrs Gilmour up to safety, and to work with the wireless operator and Captain Haddock to co-ordinate. That gentleman there – he too can help my officers move Mrs Gilmour.” He points towards Sullivan, whose fat bottom is slowly coming into view through the door from the shaft tunnel. A moment later I can now see the rest of Mr Sullivan: in his grasp are Gwyneth’s feet, but he’s stumbling and slipping. He’s genuinely trying to help, but he’s at the end of his tether. I look at Inspector Trench.

“If the police officers can carry Mrs Gilmour – then, I’m coming with you, Inspector. We’ve got to find Nolan. By the way, I must let you know: Nolan is wounded too.” We leave the men with Gwyneth’s body, and we hurry, by the light of the inspector’s flashlight, through dark, twisted corridors that run along the very bottom of the ship.

“So you’ve no idea who fired the shots?”

“None at all, Inspector. It’s the oddest thing in all this odd business. But look!”

The inspector’s gaze follows my pointing hand. There’s blood on the riveted iron plates of the floor: a trail, leading us to Nolan. I speak my thoughts. “I hope Chisholm and Lord Buttermere saw that.”

The air feels warm, and I see a glow ahead. A red glare in the blackness, like a Bible illustration of the fires of Hell.

Suddenly the corridors open out: we’re in a cavernous gulf at the heart of the ship. I feel as if we are standing inside the burning crater of a volcano. Above us there’s no ceiling, just a shadow-blackness reaching up endlessly above us. A wave of heat and light comes from straight ahead of us: from the gaping mouths of boiler-furnaces, and I see the bared, sweaty arms and backs of the stokers. I also see Lord Buttermere, his elegant figure and coiffed hair looking bizarrely out of place in this dirty, elemental cavern. Chisholm stands beside Buttermere, his eyes glinting scarlet in the glare. Both of them are speaking – but not to the stokers. They are talking across the open space of the boiler-room, to unseen people – a group of men who are hidden from our gaze by a steel wall, black with coal-dust, on our right. I hear Chisholm’s voice ring out, speaking to the unseen group.

“Move back, there. Don’t try to tackle him, it’s too risky. Give the man room.”

Inspector Trench and I take a step forward, and now we can see around to the other side of the steel wall. Our view opens out. It’s like a scene on the stage of a theatre: there’s a kind of stand-off across the floor of the boiler-room. On one side, as the inspector and I saw when we entered the boiler-room, are Chisholm, Buttermere and a group of stokers. In the stokers’ blackened faces, the whites of their eyes stand out, regarding with horror the man who stands opposite them. It’s Nolan, of course, still holding the dynamite. Around him, backing away, are a second group of men, as coal-stained as the stokers.

“The trimmers.” Inspector Trench says. “Their job is to get the coal out of the bunkers and pass it to the stokers.”

“So – that’s a coal bunker. Professor Axelson was right: this is the place that Nolan was heading to.” I point behind Nolan to the black gaping mouth of an open hatch. Piles of coal glisten inside it, but there’s enough of a gap to see, above the coal, a huge empty space, stretching away and up out of view. The inside of the coal bunker. The place, I guess, where innumerable particles of coal dust hang in the air: every one of them is a tiny spark, waiting to explode.

“Hello everyone. Nice for you two to join us too. A regular party down here.” Nolan fingers the stick of dynamite as he looks across at the Inspector and me.

Lord Buttermere glances grimly across at Inspector Trench. I can tell what the inspector is thinking. If we had our armed marksmen here – Nolan would be dead, and the dynamite would be dropped harmlessly on the floor. But if that thought is also in Buttermere’s mind right now, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he’s coolly talking to Nolan again.

“I’ll repeat my offer once more, Mr Nolan. I offered you a deal back there in the shaft tunnel, and I now put that deal before you again. Accept it, and you will have complete immunity from prosecution, and cash to start a new life.”

“What a nice, neat idea. But there’s one tiny little fly in that ointment. A little fly called ‘Don’t trust the English’. Yes see, I know, sure as sweet Jesus, that if I put down the dynamite, I’ll be grabbed, held down, manhandled, mistreated. Maybe you’ll torture me until I tell you and your English spies everything you want to know. Only while I hold this stick of explosives do I have bargaining power.”

“My offer will be a written agreement, Mr Nolan. I’ll have pen and paper brought down here. I’ll sign it myself.”

Despite the situation, I have to stifle a laugh. A written agreement seems like a joke in this standoff. I picture it in my mind: the absurdity, the pantomime, of Buttermere producing a pen and a piece of paper, a tiny fragile white shape, in this Satanic hell-hole. It would look like a little ghost, in Hades.

Something’s occurred to me. I think of what Kitty said, when she first spoke under hypnosis of the Titanic, and Spence’s death. “White shapes, like ghosts.” But I’m called back to the present moment by Lord Buttermere’s voice.

“Mr Nolan, do you accept our terms? As I’ve said, a binding, written agreement, signed by me.”

“You could sign it in your own blood, Englishman, and I wouldn’t give a fig. Your type has betrayed the Irish people for a thousand years, so I hardly expect you to change now. I’ve had enough of your speeches.”

He looks at us, and I see a bravery in his face, a determination: almost, a sense of satisfaction. He flicks the cigarette lighter.

Chisholm moves forward, and two of the trimmers move too. They have one second to stop Nolan.

The flame catches the fuse, spluttering and sparking.

As in the shaft tunnel, Chisholm’s hand reaches for the dynamite. I know why he’s taking this chance: if the stick falls to the floor, it will explode, and everyone in the boiler room will die – but the Olympic will survive. But there’s a sudden movement of Nolan’s wrist, and Chisholm’s hand falls short. The dynamite disappears into the black mouth of the coal bunker. The trimmers step back in horror: they know what’s about to happen.

There’s a stupendous detonation. A noise like the end of the world.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Simple logic

 

I see eyes. Gray, calming eyes. The face of Professor Axelson is looking into mine. Around and behind the face, I see only an endless blackness, like the night sky. If it weren’t for the professor’s face, I would think I was blinded. I try to make sense of where I am, and I realize: I’m lying flat on my back on a cold iron floor.

Cold?

My face feels like it’s burning, and I’m horribly thirsty. The floor is cold – but the air around me is a stifling blanket of fiery heat. I look again. Yes, I’m still in the boiler-room, looking straight up towards the black void of its ceiling.

“What happened, Professor?”

“I reached the boiler room just in time to witness the explosion and its effects. Firstly, Mr Nolan: he is dead. The blast flung him away from the coal-bunker and onto the wall of the boilers with tremendous force, as if he had been hit by an express train. A very ugly sight: I would not look that way if I were you, Miss Agnes. As for Sir Chisholm, he caught the blast only a little, but it knocked him off his feet. He has a banged head, maybe concussion. It is a long time since I have practised as a medical doctor, but my opinion is that in time he will be fine. As for the crew of trimmers, they stood either side, away from the blast, and were safe. Two of the stokers, standing across from the coal-bunkers, have a few cuts and bruises. Lord Buttermere” – I detect scorn in the professor’s voice – “appears to be completely uninjured.”

“There was – an incredible explosion.”

“A single stick of dynamite causes a massive blast, Miss Agnes. Especially in a confined space like a coal bunker. But fortunately the force of the blast could escape – though the coal-hatch. It killed Nolan, but he was the only person in a direct line with it. Inside the bunker, of course, the coal was thrown about, like straw inside a tornado. But then, those battered broken lumps of coal just fell back down to the bottom of the bunker. There may be some damage to the bunker walls. A few bits of sheet metal that can be repaired when we reach Southampton.”

“But – the coal dust? I thought it would explode, destroy the whole ship?”

“Ah yes, the coal-dust – I wanted to explain to you, but you all raced away, you did not stay for my explanation, which I’ll give you now. You see, coal-dust explosions at sea are indeed deadly, but they are also much rarer than non-sailors – people such as Jimmy Nolan, for instance – think. In most ships, including this one, the coal bunkers sit on the very bottom of the ship. Apart from a few sheets of iron, the coal is effectively in contact with the ocean waters. Which are intensely cold. Feel the floor.”

I reach out my hand. It’s just as I felt before: despite the heat in the air, the iron floor feels like ice.

“That cold, on the floor of the bunker, produces condensation. It spreads through the whole space of the coal bunker. Water molecules stick to the surface of every speck of coal dust. It is only in the rare circumstances where such condensation does not happen that a coal-dust explosion is able to occur. Think about it: if a ship’s coal were not slightly damp, there would always be a danger of ignition from the nearby boiler-fires.”

“I don’t think, if we’d have stayed to listen to you rather than chasing Nolan, that it would have altered what we did. We just had to find him, fast. After all, he still held a stick of dynamite.”

“Yes. We needed to act fast. And although we are now safe from Nolan, harm has already been done. Mrs Gilmour is injured. Coal-dust explosion or not, that is a situation that could have been avoided had Inspector Trench’s marksmen been given a free hand to find and deal with Nolan, rather than a few unarmed people descending to the shaft tunnel without even informing the rest of the search party.”

“I agree, professor. The handling of this whole matter…”

“Well, what’s done is done. Lord Buttermere is very different from you and I, and no doubt he has his reasons. But now, I’m going to get you and Chisholm to the upper decks. My own medical knowledge is out of date: I want the ship’s doctor, who is treating Mrs Gilmour, to check you over too. You yourself may have concussion, Miss Agnes.”

We climb the stairs to the upper decks. The steel rails, the iron rungs of the steps, the dimly lit corridors… again I have that odd sense that I am not aboard the Olympic at all, but the Titanic. I feel I’m not living in the present moment: I’m living the moments of my own life that happened exactly one year ago. Maybe I do have concussion. We knock at the door of the Gilmours’ Parlor Suite.

Gwyneth lies on the bed. I draw breath sharply: she looks dead.

“Doctor?”

“A shame you have to see your friend like this. But don’t worry, she’s going to be fine. I’m Dr Emerson, by the way.” It’s good to hear a New England accent. A bearded young man with mild, intelligent eyes looks round at us, smiles.

I extend a hand. “I’m Agnes Frocester. This is Professor Axelson.”

“I’ve heard of you, Professor. I have huge respect for your work.”

“Thank you. But – Mrs Gilmour?”

“I’ve given her a sedative, just to put her out of pain for a while. She’ll be unconscious for another hour, maybe two. But the wound is just a graze, on the side of the ribcage. It’s painful though – there’s been a lot of bleeding, and severe bruising. Two ribs may also be cracked, but they’ll recover.”

“Thank you, Dr Emerson. But where is Mr Gilmour?”

“Captain Haddock has told me all about this matter. He had to. It does rather demand explanation, when a first-class woman passenger on an ocean liner is brought in with a gunshot wound. Captain Haddock explained that some of you formed a search party to locate a dangerous person aboard. Mr Gilmour isn’t here yet. He was assigned the job of searching cabins on one of the lower decks, near the bow of the ship: the area where there are a lot of single male third-class passengers – the sort of people who might hide a stowaway or a contraband cargo. A message has been sent to him, so he should be back soon.”

The door opens. But it’s not Gilmour: it’s Unity Lloyd. At the first sight of Gwyneth, her hands go to her face in shock. Dr Emerson explains to her.

“Miss Lloyd. Mrs Gilmour will be fine. I was just telling…”

But Unity steps towards the bed, gasps in stunned silence. She takes one of Gwyneth’s hands. “My dear, dear friend.”

Unity’s eyes look urgently at Dr Emerson. “Can she hear me?”

“She’s sedated: unconscious. But she may be aware of your voice.”

She kneels by the bedside: her dark lips kiss the white cheek. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. Calvin and I will take care of you.” She looks up again.

“Where’s Calvin?”

“A message has been sent. He will be – “

Again the door opens. Gilmour appears: his face is curiously impassive, his lips compressed. I sense in that rugged visage, a strong sense of controlled, focused anger. But not the dismay and grief you would expect, when a husband sees his wife injured.

“Who did this?”

“We don’t know. Someone was shooting at us, after we found Nolan. Nolan is dead, but whoever fired this shot disappeared.”

Gilmour steps forward, slowly, a hand extended. “Doctor Emerson. Good to meet you: thank you for your work. And thank you, too, for the message to alert me. The message said her life is not in danger. Is that correct?”

Dr Emerson is about to speak, but I see that Calvin is staring down at the bed. He sees the flow of tears, hears Unity crying. He doesn’t wait for Emerson’s response. I hear him speaking. “Darling, darling.”

He bends by Unity’s side: I hear his deep voice speak softly. “Darling. Gwyneth’s going to be all right, she’ll be all right…”

I forget myself. I blurt out what I’ve been thinking for a few days now.

“Mrs Gilmour – Mrs Unity Gilmour. Your friend Gwyneth – she’s going to make a full recovery, you know.”

Calvin doesn’t even look up. His arm is round Unity’s shoulders as her sobs shake her. He comforts his wife, in her distress for their friend.

We’re back in the Captain’s Sitting Room, although this time there are only four of us gathered here. We’re waiting for others to join us: Captain Haddock has asked us to wait here, so that we can have a second discussion as to how to handle the crisis. The dynamite has been moved out of the shaft tunnel to a safe storeroom – but we’re all aware that there is still an unknown, armed man aboard the ship. I look at Chisholm: there’s a shining bruise on his forehead but otherwise, he’s unhurt.

Professor Axelson begins with a question.

“So, Agnes, you have found out the real nature of du Pavey’s blackmail? And you say that there is no longer any reason to suspect him in relation to the murder of Percy Spence?”

“Yes. It first occurred to me when we were at Glen Springs, when we were discussing the papers found in Freshing’s safe. I have the copies I made then with me: here they are. Despite what you said, Professor, it seemed to me possible that Percy Spence, as he was dying aboard the lifeboat, might have papers in his pocket which were not actually his own business. Occasionally, anyone might, in the ordinary course of events, have in their pocket a letter belonging to someone else.”

“Agreed.”

“It seemed to me possible that the blackmail letter was not aimed at Spence. A unlikely possibility – but, more likely than that two unrelated papers which connect to Spence could end up, by sheer coincidence, in the same safe at Glen Springs Sanitarium.”

“Again, I have to agree with you, Miss Agnes. Simple logic, but it did not occur to me at the time. Could you pass me those copies you made?”

“Here they are, Professor. I think that these two papers, the letter and the page of the contract, were already folded together, when Spence gave them to Freshing.”

Chisholm looks puzzled. “But Freshing worked for Gilmour – at least, he worked for Gilmour’s lawyers, Sorensen & Baker. So, Agnes, it does make sense for Freshing to have a page from Gilmour’s contract.”

“Not if you maintain the standards of confidentiality which Mr Freshing upholds. The man is clearly rich: he doesn’t need a job because of financial need. I think that Mr Freshing loves his work: it’s what he lives for. So, nothing could induce him to steal a page from a contract he was working on. It would make no sense at all: it would be utterly out of character for him to act unethically, and financially he has no need of a payoff from spies.”

“But it’s still possible…”

“No. Think about it. If you don’t believe me about Freshing’s personal ethics, then look at it in purely practical terms. If Freshing were to decide to steal military information – why would he take a single page from a contract? If he wanted to pass the contract over to enemies, then he would have used his position of trust to steal the whole thing.”

Chisholm nods. “Yes. You’re right, Agnes. A very good point. So – what did happen, then?”

“Rufus was desperate for money. He didn’t want to ask his lover, Percy Spence. Perhaps Spence had helped him out enough already. Now, as we know, Rufus and Calvin Gilmour have had dealings with each other for some time, Rufus wheedling away at Gilmour, trying to get him to support his aviation ventures. So, I think it happened like this. We know that, while the British Army contract was being negotiated, Gilmour was staying at Claridge’s Hotel in London. One day, Rufus visited Gilmour’s rooms at the hotel, probably trying to beg for money. He saw a contract document lying on Gilmour’s desk – the contract under which Gilmour had agreed to sell 200 field cannon to the British Army. It was lying there after being signed by Gilmour. Gilmour left the room for a moment – and Rufus looked on the desk. He read the contract. And he stole the last page.”

Chisholm looks at me in surprise. “You can’t possibly mean that du Pavey is our spy?”

“No. He’s not interested in the content of the contract. Like me, he probably couldn’t even understand it. No, Rufus is interested in the signatures. That’s why he only took the last page. Professor, hold up the copy that I made.”

I look at Chisholm as I trace my finger over the carefully-copied second signature. “This person is signing alongside Calvin Gilmour. They are the co-signatory for Gilmour Holdings. Now, look at the writing, the way the letters are formed. That first word can’t possibly be Gwyneth. But it could be, and in fact it is, Unity.” Chisholm looks at me, and the penny drops.

“You mean, du Pavey looked at the signatures, and he realized that Gilmour wasn’t married to Gwyneth at all: he was married to Unity?”

“Just so, yes. Rufus had visited Gilmour, he’d been around Calvin and Unity, he’d met Gwyneth. Maybe he’d already picked up an impression of how those three acted around each other. So when he saw the signatures, it maybe wasn’t too hard for him to work out the truth. One of America’s richest men has a secret marriage to a black woman. He covers it with a pretended alliance to a highly eligible white lady. That’s Gilmour’s secret, and it makes him a target for blackmail.”

The professor, too, is nodding. “Yes, Miss Agnes. I can see that Gilmour, to whom a million dollars is small change, might be made to hand over ten thousand dollars to protect a secret like that.”

I carry on. “So, du Pavey wrote the blackmail letter, and folded it up with the page of the contract, which is his proof that Calvin is married not to Gwyneth but to Unity. He intended to deliver it to Gilmour on the Titanic, which he knew that both he and Gilmour would be sailing on. But I think that, despite his faults, he couldn’t bring himself to do such a despicable thing. I know little about these things, but perhaps he had seen other bachelor gentlemen such as himself blackmailed: gentlemen who share his emotional inclinations are, I would guess, easy targets for the cruelest extortioners. Rufus dreamed of blackmail and money, but he balked at actually doing it.”

The professor nods. “So in short, Miss Agnes, you are saying that du Pavey’s letter was intended not for Spence, but for Gilmour. As you said ‘it seemed to me more likely that Spence might have papers in his pocket which are not actually his own business’…”

Chisholm is nodding too. “But I’ve not fully understood yet. How did Rufus’s letter, and the contract, end up with Spence?”

“Simple. Rufus was in an anguish of indecision on the voyage: he went to ask Spence’s advice. Spence said no, don’t send this letter. As a precaution, Spence took it away from Rufus. By taking the letter, he was intending to protect Rufus from himself.”

The professor is pondering. “To save du Pavey from his own stupidity – it sounds like a kindly act. A generous action for Spence, who as we know was a traitor and a spy.”

Chisholm cuts in. “To us, Spence is a traitor. But I do think he believed he was acting rightly. Acting for what he believed – mistakenly – was the greater good. We have to fight, and defeat, his plot. But the strength of that plot lies in the fact that its conspirators genuinely believe they are working for good.”

I look at Chisholm. Despite Nolan’s death, my fears are worse than ever. The shots that were fired in the shaft tunnel – and the knowledge that Daniel Carver is aboard the ship… I have to ask the question. “Chisholm, do you believe Lord Buttermere? When he says that German spies have completely penetrated our secret services, and that it will lead to certain German victory in any war?”

“I don’t believe or disbelieve Lord Buttermere. That’s not my role. No-one at British Secret Intelligence has the full picture, we are all working in the dark. But I guess this is true: if Spence was in league with German spies, then perhaps we can understand his actions better. We all know that war is nearly inevitable. Ultimately, that is due to only one, very simple fact: Britain and France both fear Germany’s growing dominance of Europe.”

The professor looks grave. “If it happens, Agnes, that war may be horrible beyond our worst imagination. More than half a million men died in your own American Civil War. But do you know that when it started, people thought that it would be over in a few days? The battle of Manassas…”

“Bull Run, us Yankees call it.”

“Indeed. The battle took place, as you know, in northern Virginia, just a few miles south of Washington. The gentlefolk of the city drove out, in carriages, to picnic, while they watched the battle in the sunshine. It was a society event: the ladies and gentleman all dressed in their Sunday finery. People expected a victory celebration. They did not reckon on Stonewall Jackson, or to see the Bull Run Creek run red with human blood.”

Chisholm takes up the theme. “Agnes, the professor is right. Like the Union and the Confederacy, we stand on the brink of a horror we can’t imagine. Britain and Germany are strong foes: if they fight, they will fight to the death. Unless one side has a quick victory. I’m a spy, so I have to understand the mentality of our enemies. And I’m a realist, so I know it is no use to simply regard them as demons. They believe they are acting for good. They believe that it would be better if Britain, its empire, its outmoded traditions, stepped aside and let Germany, which they see as a truly modern, industrial nation, take the lead in Europe. One continent, one major power: just as the United States has taken the lead in the New World. And if Britain won’t step aside willingly – then, I think that Spence believed that it must be made to.”

“That seems – unpatriotic, at the very least.”

“From Spence’s point of view, he may have been intending to sacrifice the few to save the many. The professor himself, you’ll recall, spoke of Mr Darwin on your very first meeting, at that dinner at my home in Kensington. The law of nature is the survival of the fittest… Spence may have believed that Europe would be a better place if Germany won a quick, near-bloodless victory over Britain and France.”

“Well, even if he did think that… I believe he still must have been guided by self-interest.” I smile. “Perhaps he hoped the Kaiser would reward him by making him governor of the German empire’s Großbritannien province.”

Axelson interrupts me. “I guess we will never really understand Spence’s motives, Miss Agnes. Please – finish your explanation.”

“Sorry – I’ll get back to the point. What happened on the Titanic was this: Spence took the letter and the contract from du Pavey, and he put them in his pocket. He took them with him, too, when the Titanic was sinking. Do you remember, Kitty said ‘he folds a letter, putting it in inside the breast pocket of his suit jacket’? Then, when Spence was in the lifeboat, he realized that he was going to die. His last thoughts were of the man he loved: Rufus. He realized that the letter and the contract will be found on his body, and that they will incriminate Rufus: they will show that Rufus was planning to blackmail Gilmour. So, Spence tried to speak or gesture to Freshing to take the papers, to throw them into the sea or tear them up. But Spence couldn’t speak, and his attempts at gestures didn’t make any sense to Freshing. So Freshing took the papers, but he simply kept them. At Glen Springs Sanitarium he put them in his safe, saying nothing to anyone about them. By sheer habit: after all, he is a confidential secretary.”

Chisholm’s nodding. “The one thing I still don’t understand though, Agnes, is Freshing’s horrified reaction when he saw those papers. Professor, do you understand that?”

“I understand Freshing’s actions perfectly – both his storing the documents in the safe, and his reaction when he saw them in Miss Agnes’s hand. Psychologically, it is the simplest piece of this whole puzzle. At the most frightening moment of his life, Freshing receives those papers into his hand from the agonized, dying Spence. Can you imagine the impression that made on him? Later, he reads what Spence has given him. He is utterly startled to find that someone was intending to blackmail Calvin Gilmour, using as evidence a contract which he, Freshing, had dealt with. Freshing is a sensitive man: he felt somehow responsible, even though of course it was du Pavey, not himself, who stole the contract. He couldn’t face those papers: he locked them away and tried not to the think of them.

The sense of responsibility combined in Freshing’s mind with the horrors of the Titanic’s sinking and the death of Percy Spence. Horrors which he was reliving at the precise moment when he saw those papers in Agnes’s hand. A total emotional crisis which manifested itself as a physical seizure.”

Chisholm looks at the professor and me: he understands. “So, what we conclude from all this is that the blackmail letter is irrelevant to the murder of Percy Spence – and that Unity, not Gwyneth, is Gilmour’s wife. Which is where we come to you, Gwyneth.”

The fourth person in the room has been silent throughout our discussion. She sits in the corner, and although wrapped in an invalid’s blanket, covering the bandages which staunch her side, her eyes are bright. She seems almost relieved that we now know at least part of the truth about her.

“Yes, you are correct. I am not Gwyneth Gilmour: I am Gwyneth Ogilvie – which is my maiden name.”

I ask Gwyneth a question that has been in my mind a long time. “Are you also known as Colette Morgan?”

Gwyneth laughs. “Yes. Of course I am.”

 

She smiles at me, Chisholm and the professor in turn. But there’s no chance for any of us to reply. Because we hear a knock at the door, then it opens immediately, without waiting for our response. We stare in surprise as four men enter the room. Inspector Trench is followed by the two NYPD officers. I notice the hang of their jackets: they are carrying guns again.

Behind them, Lord Buttermere enters, and closes the door. He looks at us, and there is ice in his eyes.

“This is all very cozy. But I’m afraid this little party has to be broken up.” He glances across, like a signal, to the two police officers. They move to stand side by side behind Chisholm’s chair.

“Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar. As you know, we received a telegram ordering your complete obedience to me, on pain of a charge of treason.”

Chisholm looks up. He’s silent and calm. Lord Buttermere’s voice carries on.

“Unfortunately, your deliberate disregard of my orders nearly led to the destruction of this ship and the loss of every life on board. Even as it stands, Mrs Gilmour was shot during a violent struggle that you initiated. I have no alternative but to ask Inspector Trench to place you under arrest, for the crime of treason. Treason on the high seas, in fact.” He turns his head, and speaks more softly. “Inspector, will you say the necessary words, and then take Sir Chisholm to the ship’s cell?”

Inspector Trench’s dour pallor looks even grayer than usual. He says the arresting speech without expression, but I hear every word sticking in his throat. I can tell that he’s deeply unhappy with the actions that he’s involved in. After the inspector has spoken, no one does anything. The inspector and the two police officers don’t move: they just stand there, looking embarrassed, even ashamed.

Chisholm seems resigned. He speaks wearily, like someone who feels compelled to point out niggling details even though he knows that no-one will pay any attention. “Two small but important points, Lord Buttermere. Firstly, I didn’t disobey your orders. Nolan was the one giving all the orders in the shaft tunnel. The only instruction you gave to us was that once we had escaped from Nolan, we should hold back from telling Captain Haddock, in order to give you time to do some kind of deal with Nolan. I disagreed with that course of action – but I didn’t do anything you had forbidden.

And secondly, you’ve got the sequence of events wrong. Gwyneth was shot before my struggle with Nolan. But I guess those two facts don’t really matter to you, do they? You’re determined to arrest me.”

Lord Buttermere doesn’t even both to answer. He simply looks at the police officers. “Well, get on with it. Take him to the cells.”

For some reason, the only question that I’m able to bring to my lips is the least important one. “And what will you say to the passengers and crew, Lord Buttermere, about the explosion in the coal bunker? It must have been heard throughout the ship.”

“An announcement is just about to be made on the loudspeaker system. The announcement will say that there has been a minor problem with the engines, but that it has now been fixed.”

I want to say more, do more, but I feel paralyzed. But Professor Axelson stands up and looks Buttermere in the eye. I’ve never seen the professor like this before. I see a flinch in the English lord’s face as the professor smiles: the grimmest smile I’ve ever seen. But it’s Buttermere who speaks first.

“Professor Axelson – please understand: this is a warning to you too. This investigation is closed. Our priority now is to avoid alarm aboard this ship and prevent any news of recent events becoming known by the mass of passengers and crew. So you must stop all activity. Again, I will regard any insubordination as treason.”

The professor’s face is impassive, and he speaks calmly, like the voice of reason.

“Lord Buttermere. So far, I have gone along with the way you’ve run this operation. But I am a Swedish citizen, and while under maritime law Captain Haddock may have jurisdiction over me, you don’t. Not even your King George could command me. You British are so used to ruling a quarter of the globe, you forget that there are other countries, other laws. I think that both Miss Agnes and Mrs Gilmour here will feel the same. None of us are your King’s subjects. You speak of treason and insubordination, yet in truth you have no power over me. All that I, or in fact any of us, Chisholm included, have done is to dare to have a different opinion from you. In fact I will go further, Lord Buttermere. Not only do I have different opinions from you: I don’t have a good opinion of you.”

“How is that relevant?”

“I don’t trust you. So far, you’ve run this operation with an equal combination of arrogance and incompetence. But worst of all, you could not give us a satisfactory answer to the questions that Miss Agnes and Sir Chisholm raised about the provenance of the telegram from London. Nolan used dynamite to try to hold this ship hostage, and failed. But you have succeeded in hold us hostage to your wishes, by means of an unverified coded message.”

Buttermere’s mouth is the thinnest of lines. I realize what I should have guessed all along: his assured exterior is a sham. I see the veins moving in his neck. He’s under severe strain, and deeply worried.

The professor carries on speaking. “In short, Lord Buttermere. I’m not convinced that you have told us the truth. But the good news is, I don’t – yet – condemn you as a total liar either. I simply reserve judgment on that question.” He smiles genially. “After all, every good scientist is a natural skeptic.”

Lord Buttermere looks like he would like to arrest all of us. I can almost see that thought running through his brain: he’s working the problem through in his mind, looking for the most effective solution. He realizes that to lock us all up would escalate the problem rather than solving it. But the professor is still speaking.

“I see your dilemma, Lord Buttermere. You now want this whole business hushed up, as if it never happened. Well, we all – you included – wanted a safe conclusion to this business, and if possible to expose whatever this strange conspiracy is, and solve the mystery of Spence’s death. But in your case, you thought that the case could only be solved if you caught Nolan alive. You placed that objective above the safety of this ship. But now you’ve failed to catch Nolan alive. So, you think that your next best option is to sweep everything under the carpet.”

“It’s better that way, professor. Despite your investigations, there are deeper matters that you know nothing about. But I do know. And, under the authority of the telegram, I am responsible for safety aboard this ship. My first priority now is to prevent panic. To prevent rumor spreading.”

“I would agree with you – if it were a matter of preventing false rumors. But we are not dealing with rumors: we have clear facts. You can’t pretend about the two shots that were fired in the shaft tunnel. Despite Nolan’s death, an unknown person remains aboard this ship, armed and ready to kill. Unless we all continue to act together as a team – there will be more deaths aboard the Olympic.”

The two men’s eyes are locked. Lord Buttermere has formal authority on his side, but I sense the feelings of everyone in the room, as the professor concludes. “For all our sakes, please – let Sir Chisholm go free.”

As if by an act of will, Buttermere ignores him. His cultured face is rigid and stony as he speaks directly to the police officers. “Take Sir Chisholm to the cells. Explain to the Petty Warrant Officer that under maritime law you, officers Bass and McMorrow, have assumed authority for the safekeeping of the prisoner. Then, bring me the keys to the cell. From then on, I need you both to take turns. One of you at a time must guard Sir Chisholm in his cell: the other must watch Professor Axelson and prevent him speaking further to the other persons in this room, or to anyone else on board the Olympic. As for you two ladies, I request that you go to your cabins and remain there for the rest of the voyage. I will arrange for your meals to be brought to you.”

I find my voice. “I notice your word ‘request’, Lord Buttermere. Both Gwyneth and I are American citizens, and, like Professor Axelson, you have no power to compel us. We’ll act according to our conscience. You agree, don’t you, Gwyneth?”

“No.”

“Gwyneth! What do you mean?”

“I mean this, Agnes. The professor may feel he needs scientific proof of Lord Buttermere’s authority. But Captain Haddock yielded to that authority. Which means – so should we. Until we have clear evidence to the contrary, we should act as if Lord Buttermere’s telegram is genuine. We should follow Lord Buttermere’s instructions.”

“I can’t believe this, Gwyneth! It was Buttermere’s idea to go down to that shaft tunnel unarmed. That led to you being shot. And yet you’re supporting him…”

Gwyneth doesn’t answer, and her face is impassive. McMorrow and Bass grip Chisholm’s arms. I rise from my chair: I’ve got to fight this. But Inspector Trench himself holds my arms, gently but firmly, and Chisholm is frog-marched from the room. Ten minutes tick by: the police officers return. The professor shrugs his shoulders as the two men accompany him to his cabin. I hear the Inspector’s voice, bidding me to go to my own cabin. Like a sheep, I just obey.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. The fifth person

 

The carved, polished wood of my cabin doesn’t stop it feeling like a prison cell. I think of Chisholm. What can I do?

There’s a knock at the door.

A panic grips my chest. The gunman. I see Daniel Carver’s face in my mind. But all the same, I call out.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Gwyneth.”

“What do you want? If you want to justify Lord Buttermere and his actions to me – then, don’t. Just go away, please.”

“Let me in.”

As I turn the handle to open the door, a new thought occurs to me: perhaps Carver is with her, perhaps he’s holding a gun to her head to make her speak to me, to ask me to open the door. Perhaps we’ll both be killed… but my hands move faster than my mind. The door’s open, Gwyneth’s face looks into mine. And she’s alone.

“Let me in, quickly. I don’t want anyone to see me.”

I decide to take the risk. Because I have some questions of my own for Gwyneth, and I need to know that I can truly trust her. I let her in: she steps into my cabin, with a furtive glance back into the corridor. She sits on my easy chair, and I sit on the side of my bed.

‘Shall I pour some water for you, Gwyneth? And, by the way, I noticed, you know. I noticed that you never spoke.”

“When?”

‘When we had the first meeting in the Captain’s Sitting Room, and Calvin – your pretend husband – said he wanted everyone to put their cards on the table. We went round the table in turn, each of us telling everyone our secrets. Chisholm, Inspector Trench, Lord Buttermere – they all spoke about their secret service activities. But you never said what I hoped you’d say.”

“And what did you hope I’d say?”

“‘I’m Gwyneth Ogilvie, an agent of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although, because of the nature of my work, I have many other names, including Gwyneth Gilmour, and Colette Morgan, to name just two of them.’”

‘Yes. You’ve worked me out, Agnes. That’s exactly what I should have said, but I managed to dodge that one. Unlike that bullet.”

“But I have a second question, Gwyneth. Jimmy Nolan. The torn photograph of you and him together in the bar at the Hotel Metropole.”

“The thought of that photograph – it still makes me laugh! I’ll go back to the beginning, Agnes, and explain.”

“Yes please. I think you owe us all an explanation. So, you can start by telling me.”

“Maybe you’ll understand, once you hear my story. I grew up as a very privileged young woman, Agnes. Which I do appreciate – I’m ridiculously lucky, I know. But all the same, by the time I was twenty-five years old, I was bored witless by fashion, gossip, parties, and most of all by men who were making it their mission to ingratiate themselves with me and my family. With a view to marriage, of course. I know it sounds like every girl’s dream – but it’s a hollow, shallow place, Agnes. My brain craved stimulation and independence, neither of which were possible, in the position I had in society.”

“I can understand that, yes.”

“I got into this whole espionage business five years ago, when my father was expanding his shipyards at Newport News. There were those among the workforce who objected to his employment of black workers alongside white. I spoke to my father about it, I told him I wanted to do something to help. I’m still impressed with him, that he said yes. Maybe he saw the desperate boredom in my eyes… Anyway, when we looked into it, both he and I began to suspect that the so-called union, who were protesting against the employment of black workers, were linked to extortion and bribery – and to the ill-treatment of the black community in Newport News. So, I went around, I talked to people, I asked lots of questions. The streets of Newport News are a world away from the Virginia society scene: no-one recognized me as Jefferson Ogilvie’s daughter. In fact I went around dressed very much like you do, Agnes. A lot of black and gray: very sober and sensible. I was very surprised when I found that some people did open up to me: they trusted me with their secrets. I found out some very interesting facts, and two rather horrible men ended up going to jail. And the black workers got their jobs. But although it was in a good cause, it was the nature of the task that fascinated me. The asking questions, the snooping, the sleuthing – I was using my brain, and I was responsible for my own actions. I loved it.

Now when you’re an Ogilvie, you have connections. It may not be perfectly ethical, but I pulled a few strings and I got myself a meeting in Washington with some senior people at the United States Secret Service. They told me that they were in the process of putting together a new organization which could fight organized crime across state boundaries. The FBI, they were calling it. I asked if I could work for them. I showed them the case documents from the work I’d done for my father.

I was amazed; they agreed with me that I could help them. They told me that the FBI was tackling a particularly difficult case in New York, New Jersey and along the eastern seaboard, from Baltimore to Boston. A network of Irish-American gangs in the major cities were siphoning off some of their money from protection rackets, prostitution and illegal alcohol and gambling, and using it to fund political causes and possibly terrorism in Ireland. Like you, Agnes, I’m sympathetic to the Irish cause, but I’m not sympathetic to blowing people up in order to get what you want. I could see the vital importance of the work, and I jumped at the chance. The FBI asked me to work for them. They asked me to infiltrate these gangs, find out what I could, and send my information through to Washington. I was thrilled.

My first assignment was to meet a man at a bar in New York. The bar was at the Hotel Metropole, and the man was Jimmy Nolan. And they told me that there would be a concealed photographer, and that I was to be very friendly to Mr Nolan. A honey trap.”

“A honey trap is?…”

“A trap for bees, I guess. Or bears, maybe. Or in the FBI’s case, a woman giving a man the impression – sometimes more than the impression – that she’ll be his lover. Sweet-talking secrets out of him.”

“Were you happy to do that?”

“I most certainly was not. I went through with their ridiculous set-up, and it got me nowhere. Jimmy Nolan is – was – an intelligent man. If you’re a gangster, and a pretty woman comes up to you in a bar and makes love to you with her eyes, you’re going to suspect something, aren’t you?”

“What happened, then?”

‘Well, I did the meeting, and the photographer got his photo, and after an hour chatting in the bar with Jimmy Nolan, I told him that I was going to the bathroom. I did go to the bathroom – and then I walked straight out of that hotel and never went back to him. I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but the man was a vile egomaniac and I couldn’t stand his company. Instead I went and told that photographer, who had taken the picture from a concealed alcove behind a curtain, that this was utter nonsense and that it would never get us the evidence needed to arrest Jimmy Nolan. He wouldn’t give me the photograph, though. Years later, after it had gotten torn somehow, the photographer sent it to the FBI, maybe to try to cause trouble for me. Unfortunately, not everyone at the FBI trusted me, at that time. Someone at the FBI then sent the photograph on to Inspector Trench.”

“So that’s why Jimmy Nolan didn’t recognize you in the shaft tunnel. He’d forgotten you.”

‘Exactly. I met him once, for an hour, two years ago. Anyway, after that farcical start, I decided to use my own methods to investigate the Gophers. I talked to a lot of people: people who’d been threatened, people who paid protection money. Members of the Rhodes Boys Gang, and former Gophers, too, who had fallen out with Nolan. And occasionally, bankers and lawyers too. Because some of New York’s pillars of the establishment had been threatened by Nolan to do things for him: move some illegal money between bank accounts, or defend one of the Gophers in court. All of these people had reason to hate Jimmy Nolan. I would just get a meeting arranged, normally in a café or bar, then listen to what the person had to say.

And I also met Percy Spence on the Titanic. I’d met him before, but this time we were to swap a significant amount of intelligence. I had a double cover for that journey: I booked a third-class ticket, which of course I never used, under the name Maria Jones, a name I was using at that time for some of my FBI reports.

I liked Spence from the outset: he and I seemed like kindred spirits. I was utterly mistaken though: I thought he was a loyal British agent. My instincts were wrong, there – but I think that was my only real mistake. I kept sending my reports to the Bureau, both before and after the sinking of the Titanic. The FBI agreed that they were darned good evidence, that they proved the Gophers’ support for an Irish terrorist plot. In fact, they were such good evidence that half the FBI thought I’d obtained all my information in Jimmy Nolan’s bed.”

“And the other half of the FBI?”

“Oh, they were worse. They concluded that I was madly in love with Jimmy Nolan and was making up nonsense on his behalf, so as to mislead them.”

“So – did they ever use all that information that you sent them?”

‘Oh yes indeed. Although they used it in a way that you didn’t like. You see, I was able to establish that Jimmy Nolan only trusted a small inner circle of his henchmen when it came to the gathering of the explosives and the shipment to London. So when Chisholm went to Nolan and pretended to be Black Velvet, Jimmy gave the work of loading the Olympic only to that trusted inner circle. The leaders. The FBI passed that information to the NYPD. Lieutenant Bouchard realized that the entire Gophers leadership would be at Chelsea Piers in a single group.”

“I see…”

“So, you have me to thank for that massacre, Agnes. I don’t agree with what Lieutenant Bouchard did. But although I couldn’t have behaved like Bouchard, I can understand his actions. It’s a grim world, Agnes. I know you’d have liked to see a fair trial, justice and all that. But I also know that every one of those men had done things that would make your blood run cold. And if those men had been arrested, and put on trial, the Gophers would have threatened every lawyer, witness and juror in New York State to ensure that their leaders escaped justice. I’m not defending Bouchard, but I know that sometimes you have to disregard the rule book. Like I did, an hour ago.”

“What, when you didn’t stick up for Chisholm?”

“Yes. I lied. In the Captain’s Sitting-Room an hour ago, when Lord Buttermere was being Lord Pompous. Of course I don’t agree with what’s going on. Lord Buttermere is acting as if he’s God, yet his handling of this whole business has been completely incompetent.”

“So why did you cave in to with him?”

“Well let’s look at what happens when you don’t cave in to Lord Buttermere. Look at what Professor Axelson did. By challenging Buttermere and standing up to him, the professor just got himself into more trouble, and now he’s got an armed guard standing outside his cabin. So I thought we should try a different way.”

“What sort of way?”

“My way of doing things is this: let’s pretend to go along with Buttermere’s orders; then, we may get the chance to disobey them.”

“But – how will we disobey his orders? I’ve no idea what we are tackling. I’ve ended up here on the Olympic because of something else: a servant girl who, I think, is still alive, a prisoner somewhere. But I think she’s in the power of a man who’s aboard this ship, and those who work with him. I also feel sure that he is the man who fired those shots, who wounded you.”

“Then follow your instincts, Agnes. Either several unconnected things are going on all around us, or there’s one single web.”

“There is too much going on for these events to be coincidence, Gwyneth. So I believe that there is one single web.”

“Well then, if there is one web, then one spider wove it. That spider sits right in the middle and pulls all the strings. Now if all these things aren’t connected, then nothing we do can save Kitty, or get Chisholm released, or find out who killed Viscount Spence. But if they are all woven together… you’re a Connecticut girl, Agnes. You northerners love your knitting. Pull one thread of a garment in the right way… and…”

“…it will all come undone.”

“Exactly. I don’t know what will happen if we take action – but something is better than nothing. We might even catch your mystery gunman. I do have a grudge against him myself, you know.”

“You’re right, Gwyneth. Taking a chance is better than giving up.” I hold my head in my hands, I’m thinking so hard it hurts. And I recall something, something that I realized in the Olympic’s wireless room, when I was talking to Harold Bride.

“Gwyneth. I know what we need to do. I need to see Harold Bride, the Olympic’s wireless operator. And then, we need to get to Professor Axelson.”

“Not much chance of getting to see the professor. Like I said, there’s an armed guard outside his cabin. Better to search the ship for the gunman. By ourselves.”

“No. There’s only one thing that we need to find: one thing that will give us the key to this case.”

“And where’s that thing hidden, Agnes? It’s not kept in Axelson’s cabin, for sure.”

“No, it’s not kept in his cabin. Nor anywhere aboard this ship. And the key is not a person, or a thing. The key is a memory.” I look at her, and tap my forehead. “The key is here, Gwyneth. Inside my head.”

 

Compared to my last visit, the Olympic’s wireless room is quiet, almost a haven of calm.

“Mr Bride. It’s me again. And I don’t think you’ve been properly introduced to my friend, Gwyneth Gilmour.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Gilmour. I saw you at the meeting in the Captain’s Sitting Room. And I’ve met your husband – I sent a message to him, when you were injured. Are you making a good recovery?”

“Very much so. You’re probably aware that it was a gunshot wound, but in effect it was just a kind of nasty scratch, really. It will take a lot more than that to stop Gwyneth Gilmour. But it’s Miss Frocester who has come to ask you a favor.”

“Ask away, Miss Frocester.”

“Mr Bride, I want to send three telegrams, one to New York, one to Canada, and one to Great Britain.”

“The same message to each?”

“Oh no. Quite different messages to each – and each one is an urgent request for information. I’ll write the messages on a piece of paper for you…”

 

I recognize the man standing outside the professor’s cabin: one of the NYPD officers. I’m not quite sure if he is Bass, or McMorrow: I get their names mixed up. As always, the officer’s face is impassive. I have no idea how we will approach this situation, but Gwyneth’s voice rings out in the corridor.

“Officer! We need to see Professor Axelson!”

“That won’t be possible, madam. We have clear orders…”

“You were there, weren’t you? In the Captain’s Sitting-Room, when you arrested Sir Chisholm. You heard what I said: I agreed totally with Lord Buttermere. Now I don’t want to undermine your duties. But I’ve been talking, just now, to Lord Buttermere – and he says, it is fine for us to go in, speak with the professor. As long as you come in with us. We all know you’re armed, you know. As for me, I’ve been shot once already on this voyage, so you don’t scare me.” I can hear the tone of teasing sarcasm in her voice.

The officer looks doubtfully at her. “Did Lord Buttermere genuinely authorize this?”

“Of course he did.” A dazzling smile accompanies this statement.

The man hesitates, thinking, silent. Gwyneth reads his doubts: she’s already guessed that he would act like this.

“Officer Bass, you can go and ask Lord Buttermere, if you doubt his instructions.”

“Well I can’t exactly go, can I madam? I was told to stay here and not to move. So, I’ll stay here until I’m relieved by Officer McMorrow. After that happens, I might decide to help you out and check what you’re allowed and not allowed to do.” I sense that Officer Bass, as I now realize he is, is trying to reassert his authority over the situation.

“Very well, Officer. I’ll go and explain this problem to Lord Buttermere. He did tell me that you would be immediately co-operative… but… oh well. We’ll be back in ten minutes.”

The man’s mouth moves silently as he thinks it through. “Mrs Gilmour… yes, I heard what you said, in the Captain’s Sitting-Room. Unlike the professor, you did state that you agreed with Lord Buttermere. But – she didn’t.” He points at me.

“Miss Frocester? Look at her, Officer. She’s as harmless as a mouse. Come on, just let us in, as Lord Buttermere requested.”

I can see Bass’s face changing: he’s decided to go along with us. He opens the cabin door. We enter, and I sense him nearby, immediately behind me. He too comes into the room, and shuts the door behind us.

The professor’s face lights up. “Miss Agnes! Mrs Gilmour! I did not expect to see you until Southampton. Where Lord Buttermere will doubtless clap me in irons and lock me up in the Tower of London.”

Gwyneth’s manner is breezy. “Officer Bass has kindly let us join you.”

“Well – I’m surprised. But very pleased, of course. So, what do we do now, ladies? We know that Lord Buttermere has failed in his attempt to discover the German double agents who may precipitate immediate war across Europe. The world is on the brink of disaster – but so are we. We have an armed gunman roaming the Olympic, and Chisholm is unable to help us, locked in the ship’s cells. We need to do something.”

He talks as if he’s oblivious to the presence of our silent, somber guard, and so does Gwyneth.

“Well, Agnes here seems to think that you should hypnotize her.”

“Hypnosis? My Hypnotic-Forensic Method can do many things. But our current difficulties are practical and physical, not mental.”

I decide to speak plainly. “Professor, ever since this investigation started, back at Chisholm’s house in Kensington, I’ve been fascinated by your approach – but scared of it, too. Scared for myself. Because, of course – I was there, that night, on the Titanic. I was in the next-door cabin to Spence’s. Suppose that I myself saw something, heard something?…”

“A good point, Miss Agnes. In fact, I have been waiting, a long time, for you to speak like this. Because if anyone exists who witnessed what happened that night – you could well be that witness. Do you recall our conversation in England, on the train to Cambridge, when I explained the Spence case to you?”

“You said that five people hold the key to this case.”

“I did. What else did I say?”

“Professor – it was what you didn’t say. You would not name one of the five people.”

“Indeed. And now, two of those five people are in this room. You, Mrs Gilmour. You were one of my suspects, under the name of Colette Morgan, as we now know. And you, Miss Agnes. You yourself were the unnamed fifth person.”

“I – hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“So, you now understand why I was so delighted to involve you in the case. To work alongside you, to get to know your beliefs, your actions. For me, it was a great stroke of luck.”

“So – I was one of your suspects?”

“No. While you may hold the key, you were the only one of the five who I did not suspect of the murder itself. Of course, according to my methods, I begin by suspecting everyone. But you could hardly have left your cabin – occupied by Chisholm and Lady Lockesley – unobserved. Nor could you, again unobserved, have entered the Viscount’s cabin and put strychnine in his wine. And that’s apart from the obvious issue of lack of motive. So from the beginning, I knew that it was impossible for you to have committed the murder. I named you among my five because Chisholm himself recommended you. He could vouch for you being in his cabin all that evening – but he also told me that he had been impressed, since he first met you, with your powers of observation. He thought that you might have noticed some clue that night, something that he missed. So, you became one of my five key witnesses. But not a suspect, oh no.”

“Well that’s nice to know, I guess.”

“Do you still trust me, Miss Agnes? Do you trust my Hypnotic-Forensic Method?”

I stand there, and the professor stands too, waiting for my answer. I’m thinking. And I realize that from the beginning, I’ve been able to keep a level head in this case because I felt was looking in from the outside. I felt that Spence’s murder, and even Kitty’s abduction, was not my own problem. I thought of myself as part of the solution, not part of the problem itself. But I was lying to myself. Because I was scared. I’m terrified beyond terror by the thought of going back to what really happened to me on the night of 15th April 1912.

The professor is still waiting for my answer: I give it. “Yes, Professor Axelson. I trust you.”

“Thank you, Agnes. I trust you too: I always have. But – I must warn you. If you go under my Fluence, your experience will go far beyond simply recalling something that you saw and have forgotten, or suppressed in your unconscious mind. Remember: you saw Miss Kitty hypnotized. You will be in her place now. You are about to recall every emotion you experienced that night as if you were actually there. Not just pictures or vivid memories. Instead, you will feel, in its full intensity and utter freshness, the living, real fear of that night one year ago. You will be facing Death itself.”

“It needs to be done. So I’ll do it.”

“Then, let us begin.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Death on the poop deck

 

The oddest thing is Officer Bass, our guard: he remains in the room. standing silently against the wall, as Gwyneth props up some pillows, and I lie on Axelson’s bed. The professor sits in a chair by my side, and Gwyneth takes another chair, at the foot of the bed. The professor acts as if our guard is part of our team, too.

“Officer Bass. Can you switch off the electric light?”

The whole cabin is in blackness. I realize that night has fallen outside: the porthole is a dim blue circle. Yet this darkness, it is calming, somehow. Try hard to relax, I think. But then I realize: no. Don’t try to relax. Don’t try to do anything. Just listen to the voice.

“Miss Agnes.”

“Just call me Agnes.”

“Agnes. How are you feeling?”

“Terrified.”

“How does that terror feel?”

“Like – it’s inside my chest. Like it’s rising from below, pressing my lungs, my heart.”

“What shape is it, Agnes?”

“Like – a boulder. A big stone inside me, and it’s pressing, pressing me from the inside out.”

“A stone. Tell me all about this stone. What are its surfaces like?”

“Rough. It’s round, but its surface is rugged. Completely unyielding. A big ball of granite. Like I carry it around with me, all the time, and try to pretend it isn’t there. But it always is there.”

“A granite boulder, Agnes. Do you like carrying it around with you?”

“No. I hate it. I’m carrying it on a long, lonely road, I’ve come many miles, and there are many miles to go. In fact, I don’t know where my destination is. But I have to keep walking, and carrying this weight inside of me.”

“Put it down.”

“Put… it down? I can’t.”

“Just do it, Miss Agnes. Take the boulder out of your chest and put it down, by the side of your lonely road. Then walk away from it.”

I look ahead of me, and I’m back in Putnam, over on Greenacres Farm where I used to walk, picking wild flowers as I went along. I’m leaving the farm now, and walking back into Putnam. The lane going back into town is long, but the sun is shining, it’s a warm summer’s morning, the fields around me are a vivid green, the sky blue like a domed sapphire. Birds are singing everywhere. Everything is perfect, it’s like my hometown has become Heaven. Everything is perfect – except for the familiar feeling in my chest. The weight I carry around with me. And then, I find I’m holding a lump of ugly, dense granite in my hands. Black granite. I even see the twinkle of the tiny crystals of mica as I grip the boulder, move it out, away from my bosom. I look down and see the soft material of my blouse. The rough surface of the rock scratches on the cotton.

“Put it down.”

I bend and lay the boulder in the thick green grass by the side of the track. I hear the sound of crickets among the grass, and the birdsong is louder than ever. Then I stand, and I find it’s easy now to stand up straight, to move my body, to walk. Everywhere looks even more glorious than before. I take a step. I’m walking away from the boulder.

“How do you feel now, Agnes?”

“Better. So much better. Stronger, but more relaxed too. It is like I can breathe and move again. I was suffocated by that stone inside me…”

“Don’t think about it being there. Forget it now, as if it never existed. You can step, strongly but lightly, forwards along your road. Where does your road lead, Agnes?”

“To Putnam. My hometown. I’m going home to see Mama and Papa. It’s time for lunch.”

“Putnam, Connecticut?”

“Yes. And it’s a lovely summer day, and I’m walking along the lane that I know so well.”

“And after Putnam – where does the lane lead then?”

“It leads – through all the green fields, to the other side of the hills. To Pomfret. And eventually, to Hartford.”

“And after Hartford?”

“On and on. It’s leading me, my feet want to step along it, every step of the way. It’s leading me – to England. Flimwell Manor, Sussex.”

“Ah yes. England. Your job as Lady Lockesley’s companion. And of course, the travel that comes with it. What are you and Lady Lockesley doing?”

“We’re – on a gangway. Walking up onto a ship.”

“What is the name of the ship?”

There’s a word that I can’t say. But then I hear my voice speaking it, clearly, easily, happily.

“Titanic.”

“The Titanic. The great ship. The ship that some people have called unsinkable. How do you feel, Agnes?”

“Very excited. Even the Mauretania seems tiny, compared to this vast vessel. It’s the greatest engineering triumph in the world. But more than that. I’m going home.”

“Home?”

“To Connecticut. Just to visit. But I feel it’s a turning point in my life. Because when I left home, I was a girl. Now, I return to my parents as a traveled, independent person. The visit home – it means that I’ve grown up. I’m a woman.”

“And that feels good?”

“Very, very good.”

“What is your cabin like, aboard the Titanic?”

“I’m in a Parlor Suite with Lady Blanche Lockesley. She has the four-poster bed in the main room. I share a servants’ twin room with Kitty Murray. We have bunks.”

“How do you spend your evenings?”

“Very quietly. We go to the first-class dining room for dinner, then we return to the cabin by nine or ten o’clock. I read to Blanche: she had headaches a lot, and she suffers from sea-sickness too. Sometimes she needs to lie on the bed and I read to her. Or, Chisholm and I play chess or cribbage, if Blanche is tired or has a headache.”

“Agnes. It’s the evening of the 14th of April. Do you come back to the cabin, immediately after dinner?”

“Yes. We come straight back here, to our cabin. Blanche was complaining throughout the meal: she doesn’t like mutton. She says it has given her another headache.”

“Do you see, or hear, anything else?”

“Yes. I hear the growlers.”

“Tell me about the growlers. What are they?”

“Like dogs – wolves, even. Growling, along the side of the ship. The growlers are little gray floats of ice, hundreds of them, each only a few feet across. They are specks in the vast ocean, and they are flat and low: they hardly rise above the surface of the water. But sometimes, they scrape along the side of the ship. The friction, the movement, it makes this wolf-noise. Sinister, like being out in the woods on a moonlit night and hearing wolves growling. I don’t like it, but I tell myself it’s nothing. ‘It’s nothing’ Chisholm says. He looks across the cabin at Blanche. ‘Blanche, why don’t you lie down, it will help your headache. Agnes and I will play chess.’

‘I don’t want to lie down, Chisholm. I feel uneasy, not right. Mutton never agrees with me, you know that. But I’ll try lying down, just to show you. I’ll lie down, for half an hour.’”

“Agnes, where is Kitty Murray?”

“Blanche doesn’t need her, and Chisholm has given her the evening off. She’s amusing herself, somewhere on the ship. She loves it, it all seems like such a big adventure to her.”

“So there are just the three of you in the room. Blanche is lying on the bed, and you and Chisholm are playing chess?”

“Yes. We’re playing chess now. Chisholm has just captured my knight. He makes some joke, and we’re both laughing, and I knock a pawn off the board with my elbow. I bend to pick it up, and he does too. And we bang heads under the table, and we laugh again. And I sense that Blanche wouldn’t approve, but I think she’s gone to sleep on the bed.”

“What are you drinking?”

“There’s some water in a carafe. The cabin stewards have put a carafe of wine for us, too, but I never touch it. Chisholm pours me another glass of water.”

“So you sit at the table, and play chess, all evening.”

“Yes. I’ve put Chisholm in check now, and I’m smiling. I take another drink of water, and Chisholm refills my glass. And I need to use the bathroom, only for a moment. I say ‘Excuse me’ to Chisholm.

I go into the bathroom of our suite. It’s next to the door out onto the corridor. And as I shut the door, and fiddle with my clothes, I hear our cabin door opening, and a voice outside in the corridor.

A faultless English accent. ‘Excuse me, sir. Is this the cabin of Viscount Percy Spence?’

I hear Chisholm’s voice, replying. ‘I’m sorry, sir, it isn’t. I believe that the Viscount’s cabin is that one, next door.’ Then I hear nothing more. I finish my business in the bathroom and return to the chess table. It’s late, and Chisholm and I decide to call it a draw. We put the pieces away, and I say goodnight to Chisholm and go into my little room.

I’m lying in bed. I hear the growlers again in my dreams, mixed up with the voice of the stranger at our door, and Chisholm’s voice, answering him. And I’m half-awake now, and half-asleep, and I turn over in bed, and the noises and the voices carry on, all together, talking and growling. They voices seem cross with each other, like an argument starting. Nasty sounds – scraping, rumbling, juddering outside the cabin and all along the side of the ship. Like someone’s running a cheese-grater down the side of the Titanic, catching on every rivet, on all the metal plates. Snagging and tearing. And then – it’s completely quiet.

Silent as the grave.”

 

“I’m waking, Chisholm is in our cabin, he’s saying get dressed, we need to leave the cabin, something is happening. He waits in his room while Blanche and I dress hurriedly. At the last moment I pull my warm travelling coat from its hook and wrap it around me as we open the cabin door. But we can’t even get out of the cabin. In the corridor outside our cabin are crowds of people: scared faces. Many are wearing lifebelts. Then the crowd moves, and we step out into the corridor. As we follow the people, Chisholm is explaining to us. ‘The ship is damaged. We’ve been told that we need to go to the lifeboats.’

I look into his and Blanche’s faces. I hear my own voice.

‘Where’s Kitty?’

‘We don’t know.’

‘I’m going to go back and find her.’

Chisholm is firm. ‘No. We must all stay together.’

As we reach the Grand Staircase, I argue back at him. ‘Yes. We must all stay together. ‘We’ includes Kitty.’

Now, I see Blanche’s lips moving. Angrily. ‘Kitty’s a servant. Leave her, we must stick together.’

‘Well, I guess I’m a kind of servant too. So, I’m going to find Kitty. I’ll see you on the Boat Deck in two minutes. If I don’t come back, you both get into the nearest lifeboat, and I’ll get into a different one.’”

 

I see the professor’s face, and Gwyneth’s, and the professor’s cabin, and Officer Bass standing there, leaning against the wall. They’re lit only by a flashlight that the professor has switched on. The professor is speaking to me, but it’s Chisholm’s voice that I’m hearing, and the professor’s cabin looks dim and faint, not quite real, as if I’m looking at it through glass. But here, on my side of the glass, I feel crushed by crowds, there are people all around me, pale, breathless, anxious to climb the Grand Staircase, to reach the Boat Deck. And now I see Gwyneth opening her mouth to speak, but it’s Blanche’s voice I hear, saying ‘Leave her. Forget about Kitty, stay with us Agnes, you foolish girl.’

I’m going to look for Kitty. I start to get up from the bed.

 

I hear a voice, and I’ve no idea who’s speaking. “Stay with us. Please, stay with us.” My eyes are wide open, and I see Professor Axelson, his eyes, his lips moving. But his voice, his manner, is Chisholm’s – strong and tall among the crowds as we step out at last onto the Boat Deck. And I see Gwyneth too, her hand is on my shoulder, holding me from rising from the bed and going to search for Kitty. Gwyneth opens her mouth to speak again, but the air is cut with the shrill edge of Blanche’s voice.

‘Chisholm! We must get onto a lifeboat, now. Look at the queues. People are starting to jostle and fight.’

‘Don’t panic, my dear. Keep calm. Let’s just get in line, we will get aboard one of these boats alright.’

We all hear a voice ring out like a church bell. ‘Women and children only into this lifeboat! You men, can you please hold back!’

I see Gwyneth’s face, but again the voice is Blanche’s. ‘Chisholm. Take me to the lifeboats. Now.’

Chisholm pushes into the crowd, his strong arms push the bodies aside, creating a space for Blanche and I to follow him. Blanche clings close behind him. There are shouts of fear now, and I hear one woman screaming in terror. But amid the press of pushing humanity, and the tangible smell of fear that comes from each body, each face, each open mouth, I hear a still, calm voice.

“In this hypnotic state, it is safer for Miss Agnes if we let her get up. She may walk about the room if she wills it. Let her go, Gwyneth.”

 

I’ve got up from the bed, I’m standing now, and I take a step forward. I’ve got to find Kitty. My hand is gripping the handle of the professor’s cabin door.

“Officer Bass, can you go with Miss Frocester if she needs to leave the cabin? Keep her safe: in this state, she may not properly see obstacles: she may trip and fall.”

“I can’t do that, sir. My orders are to stay with you.” But I’m turning the handle, the door is opening onto the corridor. I hear the voice again. “Well let me go with Miss Frocester then, to look after her. To make sure she doesn’t fall. Just for one minute.”

Was that Axelson or Chisholm speaking?

‘No, Chisholm! You’re my brother! Stay here with me, you beastly coward. Take me to the boats, now. Let Agnes go if she must, the foolish girl.’

Like a half-remembered dream or a distant echo in a cave, I can hear the professor and Gwyneth, arguing with Bass that someone must accompany me along the corridor. And Bass is refusing to help, and I have a vague sense that he is holding the professor back from following me. I can see right across the Boat Deck, and an officer, one of the ship’s officers, is holding crowds of men back. ‘Please, gentlemen! Woman and children only!’ Through a sea of heads and a wall of shouts and screams I see a lifeboat staring to be lowered towards the sea. I see Chisholm’s outstretched arms helping Blanche into the moving lifeboat as it sways. Her white dress moves around her, crumples, settles into the boat. Somehow the scene is peaceful, like when you drop a handkerchief and it floats down to the floor.

Blanche has not released Chisholm’s hand. The boat drops another foot and Chisholm is bent right over the rail. I hear a voice ‘There is room for one in the lifeboat, sir. Go with the lady.’

Chisholm drops heavily into the lifeboat, and a moment later it slides down the ropes, over the side of the ship and out of my view. I can see hardly anything: all around me are tall men, shunting me along. I’m level with their shoulders: elbows bruise my chest and one arm slaps across my face. Most of the men are wearing lifebelts, which crush around my chest and my back. A heavy boot steps on my ankle, I winch in pain and stumble. Another elbow strikes my back like a heavy punch, and I slip, I’m lying on the deck, surrounded by a forest of legs, all moving, jostling. No-one even notices me. I see another boot coming down towards my face: I slide across the varnished decking, away from the lethal press of struggling limbs. Sliding along, here and there, through scuffling boots – while above me, I hear cries, shouts, voices in terror. I keep pushing along the deck.

At last, it’s a little quieter, away from the throng, and I hear, like a half-forgotten sound, Officer Bass shutting the door behind me. I’m alone in the corridor. I step forwards, and I see the Grand Staircase, but I don’t go up it. I need to look for Kitty. I go straight ahead, corridor after corridor, twists and turns. A maze.

There’s more space now. I’ve left the crowds and the corridors behind. I’m by myself, and the shouting on the Boat Deck is less, it seems to come from far away. I see an expanse of starlight and glittering water. The coldest, most beautiful night.

I know that Chisholm and Blanche are safe. I will make one last effort to find Kitty, then I will rejoin that awful melee to try to get into a lifeboat. I realize that I’m on the poop, the third-class Promenade Deck. And for the first time I see that the deck is tilting. I hear a distant sound: a booming voice carrying across the distant space like a bell. “Gentlemen! You have nothing to gain by crowding for this last lifeboat. The boat is full, and if any more people board it, it will sink and everyone will be lost. Please let it get safely into the water! Stay on the ship, and seek to save yourselves!”

I hear another sound, too. The Titanic’s band is playing. The tune is Sarah Flower Adams’ hymn – ‘Nearer my God to Thee.’ There is no singing, of course, only instruments: but the words run through my mind, as if I’m singing them myself.

 

“Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,

Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;

Yet in my dreams I’d be

Nearer, my God, to thee;

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!”

 

I’m still curiously alone, and my fingers grip the cold ship’s rail, my eyes look blankly out across the ocean. The sea seems to have a phosphorescent, spectral glow in the unearthly starlight. I breathe air so cold I can taste it. A dead taste: the air of the Arctic wastes.

Cold. A cold hardness against my neck. I glance down, and I see a steely, dull shine in the starlight. A gun is held to my neck.

The hymn is in my ears now, and I feel the music running through my body. The final verse, I realize, are words of death: the singer is dying and being taken up to Heaven.

 

“There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;

All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;

Angels to beckon me

Nearer, my God, to thee;

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!”

But among the words of the hymn, I also hear a rasping, insistent voice, as if a devil sits on my shoulder and pours his words into my ear. “Miss Frocester. This time, you will not escape from me. You will come with me, to the stern of the ship.”

The deck is tilted more now, and ahead of me, there are more crowds. But these people are not shouting and fighting: they’re standing, resigned to their fate, like an army of specters. If they struggle, it is only to maintain their footing on the sloping deck. I call out, and voices greet me. The accents are new to my ears: Irish, Italian, Greek, Polish. The poor third-class passengers have come up from the lower decks and are gathering on the very stern of the ship, as the Titanic begins to tilt down into the water.

I’m slipping and sliding on the tilted, varnished decking. Hands reach out for me, helping me, and as my feet scuff and slide on the smooth surface, my hands and arms are gripped and held. I’m pulled up into the mass of people who are clinging on here, holding on to the ship’s rail, to each other. The whites of their eyes shine in the moonlight. One man holds my arm, and as I slip again another holds me around the waist. I look down and I see water. The ship is vanishing below us: the waves are coming up, faster now.

The gun is still at my throat, shining in the moonlight. And we’re at the rail now on the very stern of the ship, looking down at the churning waters. I hear the voice again. A faultless English accent.

“Just below us are the propellers. You have been in the shaft tunnel, Miss Frocester. You have seen the steel shaft spinning at incredible speed. So you know how fast the ship’s propellers spin, like giant blades in the water.” I gasp, and I feel strong, merciless hands pushing me over the rail.

 

The waters are coming up towards us now. There are perhaps a hundred of us here, the last people alive aboard the Titanic, clinging on like a ball of ants to the stern rail of the ship, trying desperately not to slide down the steepening deck. And then one, two, several people slide. They hit the black water and disappear. And suddenly we’re all moving, a seething ball of tangled bodies, rolling and sliding. The stern of the ship is slipping straight down into the ocean. I’m sliding down the deck, and I hit the water, hard.

Blackness. I feel the cold going right into my bones.

 

I can still see. I’m looking out across a flat space. It’s the poop deck of the ship – but the ship has sunk. I must be seeing it in a dream. There’s a figure far away out there, a man, but he’s moving fast towards me. And the gun is still at my throat, and I’m being held in an iron grip by Daniel Carver, and he’s pushing me over the rail. I push back again him, but he’s too strong. I want him to shoot me, so someone at least will hear the shot, but his grip on my body is like iron. I’m going over the edge, into the water, and the propellers will slice me up.

In the distance, far away across the deck, I see the running figure, and behind it, two other, tiny figures, like black ants in the darkness. But the moving figure – it is closer now, running like an express train towards me and Carver. And the figure’s hands reach out, they take hold of Carver. I see the profile of Chisholm’s face in the starlight. Carver and Chisholm struggle and wrestle. We’re all leaning right over the side of the ship, crushed against the rail, looking down into the swirling waters around the propellers. Chisholm’s got Carver by the throat, and Carver’s gun is there, between them, and it’s moving up, into Chisholm’s face. They struggle, the gun barrel catching the light. And then the shining metal is gone, it falls, a dull thud on the planks, it slides across the deck. And something falls, like a heavy sack, down, down into the churning waters.

 

In the black water, in the darkness all around me, there are voices. Like me, they are dying. My skin burns with the cold. The wind is like knives in my face, and there’s something hard and cold below me. I can see nothing, but …if I can feel the wind in my face?… My face must be above the water. I feel around me: everything is wet and utterly cold, cold beyond death, but yet… yes, there’s something hard below me. The hard thing too is freezing cold. It makes no sense: there are waves all around me. Yet, I’m breathing.

I feel below me again. And then I realize that I’m lying on a tiny piece of ice. One of the growlers, the little low reefs of ice that are scattered across the ocean. The voices around me are less now, and I see human arms, backs, faces in the water, waving lifelessly in the flow of the ocean. All these people, I can now see, are dead. I’m utterly alone. The stars shine down on me, like they did when I was a little girl, out in the meadow with the fireflies. I’m seven years old.

‘There’s one in the water over here! Row this way! Over here! There’s a survivor in the water! A woman!’

The voice sounds familiar. I’ve heard it before – a booming voice, like a clanging bell. I heard it among the lifeboats. Looking up, I see arms reaching out for me. I’m looking into the face of the Titanic’s Fifth Officer, Harold Lowe.

 

I look round, and the other figures on the deck of the Olympic have come over to us now. I can see Professor Axelson, and Inspector Trench. They are here, at the stern of the ship, with Chisholm and me. I hear the Inspector’s voice.

“You escaped your imprisonment, Chisholm.”

“The Olympic’s Petty Warrant Officer wasn’t impressed by Lord Buttermere’s orders to imprison me, Inspector. As soon as I got free, I went to Agnes’ cabin. But she wasn’t there – and some instinct made me come up here to look for her.”

“Well, you’ve saved her this time, for sure. Are you all right, Agnes?”

“Yes. That man – Carver.”

“We saw him wrestling with you, Chisholm. He had a gun. But in the struggle – he fell over the side. He didn’t stand a chance – the propellers…”

Chisholm is still breathing heavily. “Yes. A terrific struggle. Thank God you’re safe, Agnes.”

Inspector Trench looks at Chisholm. “Well, there is one thing I can do for you right now, Chisholm, to reward you for rescuing Agnes from that man. I can release you from the terms of this absurd arrest.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Inspector. Better late than never.”

I turn and face them: Chisholm, Professor Axelson, Inspector Trench. I ask a question.

“Inspector, can I ask you one thing? A favor?”

“Of course, Miss Frocester.”

“Can you – not terminate Chisholm’s arrest? Continue it, for just a few hours longer?”

Chisholm looks at the Inspector. “Agnes is in shock. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.” All three men are silently looking at me as if I’ve gone mad. Out here in the starlight at the stern of the Olympic, each moment is slowed to stillness, like time is frozen. Seconds pass in silence, as if they are hours. Then the Inspector speaks.

“I can’t arrest Sir Chisholm. There isn’t a shred of evidence on which I could arrest him.”

“I’m not asking you to arrest him. I’m just asking you to – not un-arrest him. I’m asking you to do nothing. Not release him – yet – from the arrest you made earlier. Because I do agree – right now, there isn’t a shred of evidence.”

Inspector Trench looks utterly confused. “Evidence – of what?”

Chisholm looks me, and then at the inspector. He shrugs his shoulders. “Well this is nonsense, isn’t it? She’s just speaking at random. Confused – over-wrought. After everything that’s happened to her – her nerves are gone. Female hysteria. You agree, Axelson?”

But the professor is silent. In that silence, I speak again.

“Can you please just wait a few hours before terminating the arrest? Wait until a telegram arrives?”

“What telegram?”

“A few hours ago, I went to Harold Bride and asked him to send three telegrams. All of them asked for an urgent response. Even if we get a response to one of the three…”

Professor Axelson speaks. “Now this is interesting, gentlemen. We should listen to what Miss Agnes has to say. What are the three telegrams that Harold Bride sent for you?”

“One was to the Harlem Hospital in New York. Another was to the Rosedene Hotel, Scarborough, Ontario. And the third was to the police station at Fort Augustus in Scotland, asking them to find and contact a Mr Laurie, of Inverness-shire.”

Inspector Trench speaks slowly, carefully. “Yes, in theory I could continue Chisholm’s arrest. But it’s not right and proper to do so. Because whatever information the responses to those telegrams bring us, right now there is no evidence that he has done anything wrong.”

I look into the Inspector’s face. “There’s no evidence now – because, there was only one witness who knew everything. And he is dead.”

Chisholm’s face is changing. For the first time, I see a glint of fear in those calm blue eyes that shine in the light of the stars. But he speaks scornfully to me.

“This witness of yours, who is now dead. You mean Percy Spence himself, Agnes?”

“No.”

The fear is still there in the blue eyes. But now, Chisholm laughs – a short, low laugh, without humor. There’s a sneer in his voice as he asks me again.

“So – this mysterious witness of yours. Who is he?”

“I don’t know his real name.”

This time the laugh from Chisholm is loud and bold, and there’s undisguised contempt in his voice. “Well your imaginary witness really is a man of total mystery, isn’t he? You know nothing about him. So – when did your mystery witness die?”

“I know exactly when he died, Chisholm. We all do. Because all of us here on this deck saw him die. Moments ago – right here, right now. When, in front of us all, you murdered him.”

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Sunshine

 

The water stretches in front of us like blue glass. It mirrors an azure sky, except where a light breeze ruffles the waters, causing tiny waves that twinkle like a million stars. The waves are tiny, because this isn’t the Atlantic. My skin is warm in the May sunshine; the air is so fresh that it feels alive. We are walking along a country track in the heart of the Scottish Highlands, and ahead of us are the waters of Loch Lui. Either side of the track is fresh green grass, and violets peep from among the new shoots. Ahead of us are mountains, still holding spots of winter snow high on their purple shoulders. The peaks slope down with sun-dappled flanks towards the woodlands of birch, alder and rugged Scots pine that surround the lake.

“See, Agnes. We are in Sweden I think.” The professor grins at his own little joke: his face is genial in the sunshine.

The space, the sense of freshness, is almost intoxicating. But I barely glance at the scenery. I’m looking at something that cheers me far more.

A broad, happy smile. In the face of Kitty Murray.

I smile back at her. “Kitty – thank you for coming out to the station to meet us.” Half an hour ago, we stepped from the one train of the day to call at lonely Lui Station. Kitty was the only person on the tiny railway platform, waiting for our arrival. She’s walked with us since then, leading us along this track that winds through the meadows and scattered woodlands of the glen, past occasional crofters’ cottages and small farms. Five minutes ago, we caught our first sight of the loch through the trees, but I see no trace yet of our destination. I ask her. “So how far is it from here?”

“The lake – sorry, loch they call it here – it’s nine miles long. There’s a rough track along the shore, which the locals use, but the easiest way to the other end is by rowing boat. Fraser, he’s the ghillie – gamekeeper we’d call him in England – will meet us on the shore, and row us. Glenlui Castle is at the far end of the loch. Like a tower in a fairytale it looks, on a little hill with trees all around it. I never knew that places like this existed, Miss Agnes! And the castle has a beautiful walled garden, too. I’ve walked there each day this spring, watching the snowdrops, then the primroses, then the bluebells appear. But now, I’ve become busy again. Two weeks ago Mrs McDonald the housekeeper gave me a job: general maid and under-cook at the Castle. I’m really enjoying it.”

“You have been a captive, taken far away from everything you know, Miss Kitty.” The professor smiles again. “So I’m glad to hear that your captivity has had some compensations.”

Silhouetted against the sparkling waters of the lake, a strong, tall young man stands before us. He extends a hand to greet us.

“Miss Frocester and Professor Axelson? I’m Fraser Laurie. Ghillie of the Glenlui estate, and your oarsman for today.” His Highland voice is softer than I expected, and I notice that Kitty regards him with undisguised admiration. His glance at her lingers too, with warmth in his eyes.

The little wooden boat that we step into is smaller, more frail, than the lifeboat that Harold Lowe dragged me into, that black night thirteen months ago. But right now, all those dark memories seem far and dim, like a nightmare that fades at daybreak. The swish of the oars is strong and rhythmic; waves ripple out in long lines, catching the sunshine.

The professor looks across the sunlit waters, then turns and smiles at Kitty and me. “So, Miss Agnes. In addition to those of us in this boat, I gather you have made some other new friends along the way, in this investigation of ours?”

“The Gilmours – Calvin and Unity, that is – have been all kindness. I guess that they’re also grateful for my discretion about their real marital situation. And I parted on good terms with Rufus du Pavey, too.”

“I was thinking more of someone who seems to have become a particular friend of yours. The person who still likes to be known – incorrectly – as Gwyneth Gilmour.”

“Yes. Gwyneth and I are going to write to each other. Once I get my training plans settled, she’s going to come to visit me. I’m unsure yet whether to train in New York, or in London.”

“And you are still determined on nursing as a career, Miss Agnes?”

“Very much so. What I’ve been through – both on the Titanic, and over the last couple of months – has made me aware that there will always be a need in the world for nurses. Perhaps in the near future there will be more of a need than ever, although I hope not. And of course, I’m a drugstore keeper’s daughter. Rolling pills and mixing potions is in my blood, you know.” I give him an arch smile.

 

That’s what I tell the professor, and Kitty, and Fraser, as the boat scuds across Loch Lui. But there’s one little thing that I don’t mention.

It happened at the end of the voyage, before Gwyneth and I parted. The Olympic had docked in Southampton, and Gwyneth and I were looking over the rail, down at the quay below us, and I heard Calvin and Unity calling her, and she turned to go. Then suddenly she swung back on her heel and looked me in the eyes.

“Agnes. Please, please, keep in touch. I feel that you and I – we’re friends. I don’t want to lose touch with you. You never know, one day we might get to solve some other mystery together.”

I smiled at her, but I still had one unanswered question about Gwyneth. And although I didn’t want to keep Calvin’s party waiting, this was my chance to find out. “I’d love to keep in touch with you. But if you and I are friends, then can you tell me one more thing before you go, Gwyneth?”

“What, about the FBI? I probably won’t be able to answer you, you know.”

“No. Something completely different. What intrigues me most of all is this: why the sham marriage? I can see that it’s a good cover story for your work for the Bureau – and it works for Calvin and Unity too – but wouldn’t it be a problem, if you ever happened to meet a man you did actually want to marry? He’d get the wrong idea from the start, and…”

“That won’t happen, Agnes. Not a snowball’s chance in a boiler room.” She said those words with a wry smile, as if she was laughing at an unsaid joke. But I didn’t get the joke.

“Why, Gwyneth?… You must be one of the most eligible…”

“Oh you innocent Connecticut girl! Rufus du Pavey isn’t the only one, you know…” She paused and looked out over the crowds on the quayside who were leaving the ship. “I know one thing for sure, Agnes: I will never meet a man who can make me happy.”

I stood still there at the ship’s rail, quietly taking in this information. I’d never thought about such a thing in my life before. Men, yes… there’s always sly gossip, winks, sniggering about men who are ‘effeminate’ as they say. The rumors, prejudices and lies that, sadly, men like Rufus have to live with. But it had never occurred to me about women… Then I gave Gwyneth a sudden hard stare.

“You’re not wanting to be my friend because of?… – Because I may as well tell you now, I’m not that way inclined. To be honest, the thought had never crossed my mind.”

“Don’t worry. Darling.” She placed a hand on my wrist. “You’re perfectly safe from my wicked ways. I simply don’t fancy you, you know. You’re an attractive woman, Agnes. But not to me. You and I – we’re friends. Good friends, I hope.”

She kissed my cheek, and she was gone.

 

My reverie about Gwyneth is interrupted. As the regular strokes of the oars continue, Professor Axelson begins to speak.

“So, Miss Kitty, we have Miss Agnes to thank for finding you here in this unexpected place, in the heart of the Highlands of Scotland.”

“I like it here. I’ve never been happier in my life.” Again I see Kitty glance at Fraser Laurie. And she looks in glowing health – much better, even, that before the Titanic. I feel glad that after everything she has been through, things have turned out well for Kitty. The professor, however, carries on talking.

“It is odd, Miss Kitty – but in a strange way, the beauty of this place is one of the reasons that led, by a long chain of events, to your kidnapping. But, Miss Agnes solved the case, so perhaps she should be the one to explain that to you.”

“You tell her, Professor. Or at least, you start the explanation.”

The professor looks at Kitty. “Very well – I will explain. And I’ll start my story with the beauty of this place, Glenlui. I believe there is a painting, Miss Kitty, in Glenlui Castle, of Chisholm’s ancestor, Cameron Strathfarrar?”

“Yes, it’s on the main staircase. Mrs McDonald pointed it out to me. I can show it to you when we get there.”

“The Glenlui Estate, with all its little farms and crofts, is an idyllic place – but many other Highland glens now stand desolate and unpopulated. The clans of the Scottish Highlands were ruthlessly suppressed by the English Army, after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat in 1746. Then, ownership of many Scottish estates passed to absentee landlords whose only interest was money. So, over the hundred years that followed, the little villages and crofts of the Highlands were ‘cleared’. People were driven by force from their homes, and in desperation they crowded onto ships sailing for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Nova Scotia – ‘New Scotland’ – where my involvement in the Spence case began, was one of the principal destinations. Many died on those Atlantic crossings, in a strange prefiguring of the Titanic disaster.

But none of those terrible things happened on the Glenlui Estate. Cameron Strathfarrar was a good landlord to his tenant farmers, as were his successors. But, you see, he had understood what was coming. From the beginning of those dark times, Cameron Strathfarrar sided not with Bonnie Prince Charlie, but with King George II of England. By doing so he avoided trouble for both himself and his clan.

Now, we come back to the twentieth century. As a young man, Chisholm admired his ancestor Cameron. And then, he became a British Army officer. He took the oath – ‘For Queen and Country’. But, he saw with his own eyes how the Army behaved in the Boer War. His British patriotism was destroyed when he saw the South African concentration camps into which the Army had herded men, women and children – deeds every bit as brutal as the clearances of the Scottish Highlands.

“I asked him once about the Boer War. He wouldn’t speak of it.”

“Indeed. But also, Chisholm knew that a European war was coming. Now, the lesson that Chisholm had learnt from Cameron Strathfarrar was this: identify the winning side, and join it. What if modern, progressive Germany won a swift victory over the outmoded British Empire? Chisholm very nearly said it to us himself at one point: that a quick decisive war would save the lives of perhaps millions of soldiers, as well as avoiding the civilian horrors of war that Chisholm had witnessed in Africa. He had an independent, humane mind, and the thought of betraying his country grew from tiny seeds. But he was also decisive, even ruthless, when necessary. He recognized that some might have to die in the short term, for what he saw as the longer term greater good.

Among Chisholm’s ruthless actions was your own kidnapping, Miss Kitty. So I’m glad that you like Glenlui, after the way that you were brought here. We know now that Chisholm instructed his agent Dieter Kühn – whom we know, and may as well continue referring to, as Daniel Carver – to abduct you from your room at Grafton Square. Chisholm then had you sent up here to the Highlands – and he told Mrs McDonald, the housekeeper at Glenlui Castle, that you were feeble-minded and confused. He said that you were permanently traumatized by the horrors you had suffered when the Titanic sank. He told his staff at the castle that they should look after you, and keep you safely here, a prisoner in a gilded cage. Fortunately, Mrs McDonald at the Castle, after seeing you over some months, has realized that you are an intelligent and capable girl.

Chisholm decided to have you abducted, rather than killed, for only one reason: because he did not truly feel in danger from you, Miss Kitty. He genuinely believed, you see, that you would never dare tell us everything that you saw on the night that the Titanic sank. Likewise, he did not fear my powers to reveal the truth through my Hypnotic-Forensic Method. Despite all his claims to support me, he didn’t actually believe in the Method, or in my theories. Which, for me, is a little annoying.”

A shadow passes over Kitty’s face. “That man – Carver. He came in through my window, with a gun. I thought he was going to kill me. I was terrified…”

“And we were all very afraid for you. But then, when we searched for you, Miss Agnes found a clue. A false clue, though.”

“A false clue? What do you mean?”

The professor smiles at Kitty and me, and I tell her what happened. “When you were taken away, Kitty, I climbed out of your window and looked for you on the rooftops. Then, when I returned to your bedroom window, I saw something that I’d not seen when I climbed out of it. I hadn’t seen it when I climbed out – because it hadn’t been there, at that time. A letter, placed there by Chisholm after you were taken away by Carver, and after I had climbed out onto the roof.”

“So Sir Chisholm left the letter there deliberately, for you to find?”

“Exactly, Kitty. To set us off on a false trail. The writing in the letter was illegible, but it was meant to be, because it was just meaningless scribble. Like when actors in the theatre say ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ to simulate background conversation while the main characters talk. The only thing that Chisholm wanted us to read in that letter was what looked like a signature – ‘Black Velvet’.

That was the first in a trail of false clues that Chisholm laid for us. The second was the silver pen that I found in the writing-desk at Sweynsey Hall. It was indeed Percy Spence’s pen, which Chisholm took from Spence’s cabin on the Titanic at the same time that he was leaving the carafe of poisoned wine for Spence to drink. But although it was Spence’s own pen, he never knew of those initials “BV” that were carved on it. He never even saw them, because they were engraved after his death, on Chisholm’s instructions, after he had brought the pen back to England. And the pen was then returned to Sweynsey Hall by Daniel Carver. Who broke into the Hall not to steal anything, but for the sole purpose of leaving the pen there in that drawer of Spence’s writing-desk. He left it there in order that we might find it, and connect ‘Black Velvet’ in the fake letter with ‘BV’ engraved on the pen. Chisholm did all this to make us associate Percy Spence with the name Black Velvet. We were being led –”

“‘Led up the garden path’ is your English phrase. Led on a false trail.”

“Exactly. You’ll recall, Professor, how much Chisholm took charge of us all when we were at Sweynsey, directing us and telling us what to do. It was essential for Chisholm’s plan that we find that pen.”

“But why, Miss Agnes?” Kitty is trying to make sense of it. “Why was he laying a trail of fake clues?”

I explain. “It was Chisholm, not Spence, who was Black Velvet. Percy Spence was in fact a loyal British agent. It was Chisholm who was the traitor, and it was Chisholm who led the plot to infiltrate British Secret Intelligence with agents who were actually working for Germany. Chisholm knew that Percy Spence suspected a plot. He realized that Spence was drawing up a list of possible traitors, and intended to send the list to Lord Buttermere.

On the Titanic, Chisholm decided that the only way to save himself and protect his network of German agents was to murder Percy Spence. But he realized that, if Spence was killed, Lord Buttermere would investigate the death very thoroughly, and that investigation itself might well uncover Chisholm’s role as a double agent.

So, Chisholm decided to leave a false trail of clues indicating that the double agent was not himself, but Spence. The deception was fairly easy to do – because, of course, Spence was not alive to defend himself.”

Kitty looks puzzled. “But if Black Velvet, this traitor, was in fact Sir Chisholm, then what about what happened when you were all in New York? Didn’t Sir Chisholm act as a patriot there? He did expose the Irish element of the plot. And I heard that he saved you, Miss Agnes, at Chelsea Piers, and he worked with Inspector Trench. And then on the Olympic, he tackled Jimmy Nolan. He did do all that, didn’t he?”

I answer her. “Yes. He did indeed do all those things.” It seems strange, unreal almost, in this wholesome bright sunshine and the simple beauty of Loch Lui and its surroundings, to speak of such a cynical and self-interested level of treachery as Chisholm showed. I try to explain.

“Kitty, Chisholm deliberately betrayed his fellow conspirators, the Gophers, to the New York Police Department. You see, I think that from the very start of his deal with the Gophers he realized that, if a risk of being detected arose, he could protect himself and his German spy network by making it appear that the plot centered not on German spies, but on an Irish terrorist attack, supposedly being organized and led by Percy Spence.

So, if the Irish terrorist attack happened, then it would weaken Britain, and that might be useful in the event of a British-German war. But it was not essential to Chisholm’s plans. He believed that, thanks to his spies, Germany could easily defeat Britain in a war, with or without the help of an Irish terror plot.”

Kitty’s beginning to understand. “So Sir Chisholm didn’t really care about the Irish plot at all?”

“That’s right. He worked with them, and made Black Velvet his own codename, with the intention of having a cover plan. He was perfectly happy to support their terrorist attack in London – if it could be done without risk to himself or his spy network. But, if discovery threatened, he would kill Percy Spence, and then portray the dead man as Black Velvet. If necessary, he would sacrifice the Gophers too, in order to draw attention away from himself and his principal plans.”

The professor smiles grimly. “Like a lizard will shed its own wriggling tail, to distract a predator’s attention while it escapes.”

I carry on. “So, Kitty, while trying to cover his own tracks regarding Percy Spence, Chisholm steered our investigation towards the Gophers and the shipment of explosives. Firstly, with the Black Velvet clues he laid out for us. Secondly, by visiting the Gophers in Hell’s Kitchen so as to get the final details of the shipment. It was easy for Chisholm to penetrate their defenses, because to them, he was indeed their co-conspirator, Black Velvet.

But to the Inspector Trench, and even to Lord Buttermere, things looked different. Chisholm’s exposing of the Gophers’ plot, and his heroic rescue of me at Chelsea Piers, appeared to prove Chisholm’s own loyalty as a British agent, beyond any possible doubt. Even when Lord Buttermere had Chisholm arrested, it was because Buttermere thought he was an unpredictable maverick: not because he was a traitor.”

The professor looks at Kitty. “So you see, now, don’t you, what a deceitful and ruthless man Chisholm actually was.”

“I do indeed. I don’t really like to think about it too much, Professor.”

“At least in respect of you, Miss Kitty, he gave orders that you should not be harmed. But Chisholm did not extend the same gallantry to you, Miss Agnes. Your life was in danger from the moment he realized that you were beginning to understand the truth of this case.”

For the briefest moment, a scent of chloroform seems to touch the warm spring air around me.

“Yes, professor. I didn’t understand what I had found there, in the writing-desk at Sweynsey Hall – but, I sensed in some vague way that it was significant, because it was the one thing that was oddly familiar. The real clue in the writing-desk was not the pen: it was what had been written with the pen. There was a piece of paper there, which I guess Carver never noticed when he put the pen in the drawer. The paper had a list of numbers on it. When I opened the drawer and looked at those rows of figures, I thought they were Sweynsey Hall estate accounts. It was almost a nothing in my mind – just a vague, strange feeling that I was looking at something I had seen before.”

“Where did you see them before, Miss Agnes?”

“Well it’s funny, but you yourself were there, Kitty. The evening that you were – taken. Before the hypnosis session, you and I waited in Chisholm’s study.”

Kitty smiles. “I remember it well, Miss Agnes. I knocked over some papers.”

“Indeed, Kitty. And I told you not to worry about them, and we both picked them up. One of those papers looked like a boring set of accounts figures. I guessed they were something to do with the Glenlui Castle estate. But then, when I was at Sweynsey Hall, and looked at what I thought were other sheets of estate accounts, I felt I’d seen something almost identical before. In fact both sets of papers were written by Percy Spence, using that selfsame silver pen.”

The professor interjects. “When he and I came into his study that night, Chisholm saw that you had the paper with the figures on it in your hand, Miss Agnes. You were just putting it back down on his desk. He was, of course, sensitive about that paper, partly because it was so important, and partly because he knew how he had acquired it. He had stolen it, along with the pen, from Percy Spence’s cabin on the Titanic. So, when he saw you looking with apparent interest at a nearly identical sheet of figures at Sweynsey Hall…”

“Exactly, Professor. The paper meant a lot to Chisholm, and virtually nothing to me. But because I was looking at it, Chisholm made a simple error – an error we all make, from time to time. He credited me with more understanding than I actually had: he credited me with his own level of understanding. He thought that I had understood the connection between the two papers: the one that was on his desk at Grafton Square, and the one that I found in the writing-desk at Sweynsey Hall. But in fact I hadn’t made any connection. All I had, at that stage, was a vague sense of familiarity.”

The professor carries on. “At that very moment, when he saw that paper at Sweynsey Hall – and you looking at it with such interest, Miss Agnes – he decided that you had to be kidnapped too. Carver was already nearby: Chisholm had contacted him and asked him to stay near Sweynsey Hall, in case he was needed. I believe we may even have seen Carver stepping down from the same train as us, at Fen Dutton Halt, in the mist. Chisholm’s ruthlessness was total: soon after he saw you looking at the paper in the writing-desk, he telephoned Daniel Carver and asked him to abduct you as soon as the opportunity presented itself, just as he had done with you, Kitty.

On a pretext, Chisholm sought to ensure that, that afternoon, he, I and Matthew Mordaunt would be engaged together, leaving Miss Agnes alone. He also knew that there were hardly any staff employed at the Hall since Spence’s death. Mrs Thwaite was there – but at such short notice, not every aspect of Chisholm’s plan could be made perfect. So, Daniel Carver came to the Hall that afternoon with a cotton wool wad of chloroform, and I guess that he was prowling around the grounds that afternoon, looking for a way into the Hall that would not appear like a burglary. I guess that Carver could not believe his luck at seeing you, Miss Agnes, leaving the house, going into the garden and walking towards the maze.”

“I think you are right, Professor.” I think back to that cold, misty day. “I think it was a great chance for him – and he would have caught me, if Mrs Thwaite hadn’t come out onto the steps of the Hall to call me for coffee.

But having failed to have me kidnapped, Chisholm then took a different approach. When we arrived in New York, he made a great play of including me in his trip to Hell’s Kitchen. As Chisholm intended, I was confused and frightened, and angry with him. Then, back at the Metropole, he could pretend to confess, to come clean about all his secrets and explain all his actions to me. So at the Metropole, I believed exactly what he wanted me to believe: that now, he was telling me the real truth about himself. He had me completely fooled.

After I had heard his story, I was of course set up as a witness who would testify, if needed, that Chisholm was a loyal British agent who had infiltrated Spence’s Black Velvet plot. And as such a witness, Chisholm now wanted to keep me alive. So he tried to tempt me to head back home to Putnam, safe and sound. Ready to be recalled, if Chisholm ever needed a witness.”

“But what about Daniel Carver at the Hotel Metropole, Miss Agnes? I don’t quite understand that.”

I answer Kitty’s question. “There was one thing that still worried Chisholm: his original concern about me. He knew that I had seen the coded paper in his study, and the same style of handwriting and coding on a paper at Sweynsey Hall. He was still worried that I might tell the professor, or Inspector Trench, or even Lord Buttermere about the coded papers, and that one of them would put two and two together.

So Chisholm felt that, before I went home to Putnam, he had to check out exactly what I actually knew. He told Carver to accost me in the bar at the Metropole. He thought I would be terrified, and tell Carver everything that I knew. His plan would have succeeded, except for unlucky timing.

Because that the moment, Gwyneth saw me and came over to my table. Thankfully for me, she sent Carver on his way. But, being an FBI agent who had been investigating the Gophers, she realized immediately the nature of the business I was mixed up in. I told her what had happened to me, and she concluded, quite naturally, that Daniel Carver must be part of the Gophers’ set-up. She warned us that the Gophers were likely to be watching the hotel.

But in fact, Carver had no connection at all to the Gophers. His only contact in New York was Chisholm. Nor were the Gophers watching the hotel: they were completely unaware that anything was wrong. They were simply carrying on with the plan for the shipment of explosives that Jimmy Nolan and Chisholm had agreed.

Gwyneth decided that she must help us get out of New York City. Having failed to discover whether or not I understood the significance of the coded papers, Chisholm knew he had to act quickly. He contacted a couple of members of another Irish-American gang, the Rhodes Boys. We now know that these two men were called Dixon and Farrell. Chisholm had met them on his previous visit to New York, after the Titanic.

Now, the Gophers had gained control over the Rhodes Boys gang. Dixon and Farrell hated being told what to do by the Gophers, they hated the Gophers taking what they saw as their money, and they would very happily shoot a woman on Chisholm’s instructions, if the blame would be laid onto Jimmy Nolan. We’ll never know if, or what, Chisholm paid those two.

Chisholm told Dixon that we’d be getting onto the Ninth Avenue El. When that attempt to kill me failed, Dixon stole a car near the Polo Grounds. Then Chisholm telephoned them, first from the hotel in Westchester and then from Glen Springs Sanitarium, and they devised a new plan.

I gather that the New York State Police have confirmed that the tree across the road near Watkins Glen was deliberately cut down in order to block the road. Dixon and Farrell were to ambush our car at the fallen tree, and find some pretext to shoot me. Only me, nobody else. Chisholm’s fight with Dixon and Farrell was all staged, all planned between them. Really, it was just an elaborate piece of theatre. A fake ambush to cover the carefully planned murder of just one person – me.

But of course, there was one part of Chisholm’s plan that he didn’t tell Dixon and Farrell. That part of his plan was that, once I was dead, and Chisholm had no further use for Dixon and Farrell, he was going to kill both of them in such a way that few clues would be left about them. Everyone would assume that they were working for Jimmy Nolan.”

The professor cuts in. “Ruthless – but highly risky, too. He could easily have been killed himself, lighting the car’s gasoline tank like that.”

“Yes. Chisholm took a risk blowing the car up – but to him, it was a necessary one. I think Dixon himself said, that night among the trees, that witnesses are inconvenient things to have around. That’s certainly a principle that Chisholm believed in.”

 

My attention is suddenly drawn: we’re right out in the middle of the water, and we see a flash of bronze and gold in the blue sky above us: a bird of prey flies over the loch, right above the boat. It’s high above us, but its huge size is obvious. Kitty points it out to us instantly. “A golden eagle. Fraser, you took me up the hillside to see the nest, didn’t you?”

Fraser doesn’t pause in his rowing. “That’s right. The eagle pair have got a chick this year. They’ll be hunting now, to feed it.”

“You have sharp eyes, Miss Kitty.” Axelson shades his eyes as he looks into the sky, and we watch the eagle as it circles and then floats away in the direction of the woods. The professor turns to me. “So, much to Chisholm’s disappointment, Miss Agnes, you survived the second attempt to shoot you.”

“Yes. Again, my luck held up. So after that, at the Rosedene Hotel in Scarborough, Chisholm changed tack. He tried to drug me instead. He probably used some ordinary sleeping pills that he bought from a corner drugstore in Scarborough, because by that time he was running out of options.

Knowing that I like Coca-Cola, he ordered a bottle of Coke, early on the morning of the Empire State’s flight. A waitress at the hotel took the Coke to Chisholm’s room, he put the powdered sleeping pills or whatever they were into it, and then he asked the waitress to take it to my room. I was meant to think that Chisholm had organized a little treat for me, a bottle of Coca-Cola in my room, on the morning of our flight over Lake Ontario.

You see, that was the first of the three responses I received to my telegrams from the Olympic. The Rosedene Hotel telegraphed back and confirmed that on the night that the three of us stayed there, a Sir Chisholm Strathfarrar had ordered a Coca-Cola to be sent up, early in the morning, to his room – then he had asked the waitress to wait. While she waited, of course, he added the drug to the bottle. Finally, he asked the waitress to take the bottle through to the room of another guest, Agnes Frocester.

However, two things went wrong with Chisholm’s plan. The first thing was that I slept badly that night, then I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was restless and nervous, I got up early, before the Coke was brought to my room, and I went down to the lobby. So I never saw the Coke bottle in my room. Secondly, Chisholm didn’t reckon on Rufus du Pavey’s craving for attention, or his child-like impetuousness and appetite. Rufus went into my room at breakfast time, hoping for an opportunity to flirt with me. Rufus was disappointed that I wasn’t there, but like the overgrown child that he is, his disappointment was easily consoled: he saw the Coke bottle, took it and drank it. He had a lot of breakfast to soak up the effects of the drug, and he’s a big man, but even so, aboard the airplane, the substance that Chisholm had put in that Coca-Cola sent Rufus into a deep sleep for half an hour or so.

Now, Chisholm had discussed the airplane and its layout with Rufus. Chisholm knew that Rufus, he and I would travel on the plane sitting on a low bench, side by side. His aim was that I would fall asleep on the flight, then, while Rufus was concentrating on flying the plane, Chisholm could undo my safety belt and push me off the bench, and then act all horrified. ‘She must have failed to fasten her belt properly’ he would have said to Rufus. The drug was a mild one: I would die not from it, but from drowning. But if and when my body would finally be recovered from Lake Ontario, the need for an autopsy would be the last thing anyone would think of. No-one would ever know that I’d been drugged.

In the days that followed the Lake Ontario flight, I thought about what had happened in that airplane. Hardly anyone knew we were staying at the Rosedene Hotel: in fact, hardly anyone knew that the three of us were in Canada. So I concluded that, if it was indeed a deliberate poisoning, then the poisoner was most unlikely to be someone outside our own party. It had to be one of the three of us staying at the Rosedene Hotel, trying to drug another member of our party. Most obviously it could have been Rufus trying to drug Chisholm, but then making a mistake and taking the drug himself. But when we were back on the Olympic sailing to England, I learnt a lot more about Rufus, and I realized that he’s no murderer.

So I thought long and hard. Of the three of us, it couldn’t be Chisholm trying to drug Rufus – Rufus was the pilot, so that would be suicidal. Unlikely as it seemed, I had to consider the only possibility that was left. That Chisholm was trying to drug me – but that he got Rufus by mistake. In the light of that idea, the things that happened to me at Watkins Glen, on the Ninth Avenue El, and even back at Sweynsey Hall, could begin to make sense.”

The professor nods in acknowledgement. “And the next incident, which you were the first to understand, Miss Agnes, was the shooting of Gwyneth Gilmour and Jimmy Nolan in the shaft tunnel.”

“Gwyneth was shot by accident. Nolan, on the other hand, was shot deliberately. The gunman was, of course, Daniel Carver. With both shots he was trying to kill Nolan, in order to protect Chisholm.”

“Yes – despite his brutality, Carver showed more loyalty than Chisholm himself showed.”

“That’s right. On the poop deck of the Olympic, Chisholm realized that he would have to do one last piece of theatre to save himself and his plot. To appear, once again, as the loyal British agent. This time he sacrificed his co-conspirator Daniel Carver, in the same way he had already sacrificed Dixon and Farrell, and the Gophers. Again, he played the part of the hero, and at the same time disposed of someone who, if arrested, might have confessed the whole German spy plot, including Chisholm’s own leadership of it, to Lord Buttermere.”

 

We’re well over halfway along the loch now, and Fraser continues rowing, steadily, evenly. The shorelines on either side of the water curve gently towards the head of the glen. I look ahead, hoping for my first glimpse of Glenlui Castle, and I tell a little more of the story.

“Percy Spence had done a good job of investigating the German spy plot. He’d recorded his findings in code: sequences of numbers, all on sheets of papers. When decoded, those numbers would translate into the name of every double agent he’d identified in the British Secret Intelligence Bureau, including Chisholm, of course.

Spence wanted to telegraph those numbers from the Titanic on the 14th April. He went along to the wireless room and asked Harold Bride, who told him that he and Jack Phillips were very busy with messages. Bride told Spence that his message would have to wait until morning. A morning that never came, of course.

But Kitty, here’s where you came in. When Spence realized the ship was sinking, he went back to his cabin and gathered the papers. That was when, unfortunately, he drank from the carafe of wine. He quickly realized that he was ill – maybe he understood that he’d been poisoned. From what Calvin Gilmour said under hypnosis, it sounds like Spence was aware of a threat to his life, and aware of the name – but not the face – of Daniel Carver.

So, when he first felt the effects of the strychnine, he knew that it might be poison, and that he might die. So he gave the papers to you, Kitty.”

“He did indeed. He made it clear to me that every single sheet of paper was vitally important. But he was shaking so badly as he held then out to me: just like in Sir Chisholm’s study that night before I was hypnotized, the papers fell all over the floor. White shapes. And Percy was struggling to breathe, it was so horrible to hear, and I could hear bangs and crashes from outside the cabin, and the lights kept dimming and flickering. Under those flickering lights in the cabin, the papers looked like ghosts. I kept trying to gather them up, I was so scared, so frantic. But in the end, I managed to gather up every single sheet. Then, I knew we had to get out of that cabin. The first time I tried to open the door, I was so scared and confused, I pushed against it. Silly me – I knew, of course, that all the passenger cabin doors on the Titanic opened inwards. So then I pulled the door, and somehow I got Percy out of the room. And to keep them safe I put all the papers down inside my chemise, next to my skin. I kept them safe there, all through the escape from the Titanic, and on the lifeboat, and then when we were rescued by the Carpathia.

When we got to New York, I collapsed at Chelsea Piers. I was taken to the Harlem Hospital in Manhattan. I don’t remember being taken to the hospital – but I do remember waking up there. I struggled to speak, but eventually I explained to the nurses about the papers. And they said they’d look after the papers for me, and keep them there safely.”

Axelson looks at me. “Another of your telegrams, Miss Agnes.”

“Yes, Professor. That was my second telegram from the Olympic. From what Kitty had said under hypnosis, it seemed clear to me that Spence wanted to entrust Kitty with important papers. She had survived the Titanic, and she was in the Harlem Hospital. There was a chance that she had taken the papers there with her. So, I asked the hospital to confirm that a Miss Kitty Murray had been nursed by them last year, and my telegram also asked about an unlikely hope I had. I asked if by any chance the hospital was looking after a set of papers for this Kitty Murray.

The Harlem Hospital received my message, and I was in luck. In fact, as I requested, someone at the hospital kindly transcribed all the figures on those papers into a telegram, and telegraphed the numbers both to Lord Buttermere aboard the Olympic, and to Buttermere’s deputy Arthur Compton at his office in Whitehall. The latter acted very swiftly: Lord Buttermere had briefed Compton what to do if Spence’s information finally arrived. Because, of course, Lord Buttermere had been expecting to get that information, from Jimmy Nolan.

So, by the time the Olympic docked in Southampton, every double agent had already been arrested. From something Lord Buttermere said when he thanked me – which he did very graciously, by the way – I think the traitors number nearly one hundred, and many of them held key positions.”

Kitty asks a question. “So were they all people like Sir Chisholm? How could there be so many of them?”

The professor explains. “There are many admirers of Germany, you know, among England’s educated classes. The British Secret Intelligence Bureau is largely staffed by idealistic, university-educated men who have been shocked by the British Empire’s shameful behavior in Ireland and South Africa. Men like Chisholm. They look at Germany and see a progressive nation. But unlike me, most of these men have never actually lived in Germany. They do not realize that despite all its science and education, Germany is in effect a police state, and that the Kaiser is a war-obsessed despot. And these men seem blissfully unaware of the worst of all the horrors of our modern age – the systematic atrocities committed by the German Army against the native people of South-West Africa. Did you know that entire tribes have been secretly murdered, in the sands of the Namib Desert? The Kaiser’s ‘place in the sun’ is built on a foundation of human blood.”

Kitty’s face has changed; yes, she finally understands Chisholm’s thinking. That a man who is decent in some ways can, in other ways, behave like a monster. “So – Sir Chisholm and his network – they did indeed control much of British Secret Intelligence?”

“They did. They were in a position to totally confuse and misinform every military decision, in the event of war. The information that Spence had gathered, when it finally came through, confirmed Lord Buttermere’s worst fears. If the British Empire were to have gone to war with Germany in March or early April this year, Britain would have been utterly defeated. Right now, a German flag would be flying above London.”

The professor smiles. “And so, you have indeed saved us all, Agnes, from being ruled by a pan-European tyrant. Freedom and democracy would have died.”

“You forget, professor. Kitty and I are women. You speak of the ‘death’ of democracy. But for Kitty and I, democracy has not yet been born.”

“But it will be born, Miss Agnes. Changes, good changes, are coming in America – and they will come all across Europe, too – if we can stop the Kaiser in his tracks. But there is more than that.” The professor looks thoughtful.

“What, Professor?”

“It’s minor, in the great scheme of things. But I think that I myself have changed. Over the course of this case, I have learnt a lot. I greatly respect the courage and intelligence of both of you.” He looks across at Kitty and me – and I think: yes, he has changed. Over the last two months, the superior, patronizing manner that the professor had at that first hypnosis session with Kitty has, little by little, disappeared.

 

The pointed roof of Glenlui Castle’s highest tower is now plainly visible above the pinewoods that loom darkly ahead of us: we have maybe a mile to go along Loch Lui before our landfall. We’ve been silent for a moment, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery. But the professor bring up one last topic of conversation.

“There is one final thing you have not told us, Miss Agnes. How you concluded that Chisholm was indeed the murderer of Percy Spence – and, how he managed to carry out the murder.”

“Well, this is how, I think, he did it. On the evening before the Titanic sank, after dinner, Chisholm and I played chess. So, I was his alibi. Such a clear alibi that, of all the people aboard the ship, Chisholm was the one person that no-one suspected.

Now, how do you leave an occupied room without being noticed, and enter another room, also occupied, and again without being noticed? Professor, I recall you saying it was impossible, and that’s why you had ruled me out from your list of suspects. But in fact it can be done very easily, if you have two things. Perfect timing, and an accomplice.

As soon as Carver reported to Chisholm that he had overheard a conversation between Percy Spence and Calvin Gilmour, Chisholm knew that he would have the opportunity to kill Spence. Because, Carver told Chisholm that he had heard Spence and Calvin Gilmour talk about two things. The first thing was that Spence did not know what Carver looked like. The second thing was that Gilmour had offered his personal bodyguard to act as a security guard for Spence.

So, Chisholm set his plans in motion. He instructed Carver to pretend to be Gilmour’s bodyguard. Carver approach Spence, saying that his boss Gilmour had told him that Spence was in danger. Carver promised Spence that, as an experienced security guard, he would keep his eyes and ears open for signs of risk. Spence believed him: why shouldn’t he? With that one conversation, everything was set up for the murder.

Now Blanche suffered from headaches, as we know, and she liked to lie down in the evening after dinner. Chisholm knew that this would happen on at least one evening on the voyage. On the night of the 14th April, the headache duly happened, so Blanche was lying down on the four-poster bed, dozing, with the bed-drapes drawn. Chisholm told Kitty that she could have the evening off. So Chisholm and I were left in our cabin, playing chess.

Chisholm knew that at some point in the evening, I would need to use the bathroom. Indeed, thinking back, he kept plying me with water from the carafe. To speak crudely, he was putting pressure on my bladder. But though I drank lots of water, neither he nor I touched the carafe of wine. He knew that I don’t drink it. I prefer water, or Coca-Cola, although I’ve recently acquired a taste for brandy.”

The professor guffaws to himself at my little joke. He’s recalling the brandy flask back in the woods at Watkins Glen, but I carry on with my story.

“As soon as I went into our cabin’s bathroom, Chisholm opened our cabin door onto the corridor. The opening of the door was a pre-arranged signal to Carver, who had been waiting outside in the corridor all evening. In case the opening of the door was overheard by me or Blanche, Chisholm then had a brief mock conversation with Carver, to the effect that Carver had come to our door, but was looking for the wrong cabin.

Of course, to complete the sound effects, Chisholm himself should have knocked on our cabin door before he opened it. But he forgot, or he didn’t think of it. Do you remember, Professor, that long ago I said to you – ‘I went to open the front door once, when no-one had knocked. I had no idea why I did that. But it was funny – there was actually someone there, just about to knock.’”

“I do remember that, indeed. Your neighbor Mrs Rosenblum, I recall.”

“This time, too, there was someone there, waiting outside but not knocking. Daniel Carver. But of course, there isn’t really a supernatural intuition which makes us go to the door before a visitor knocks. Carver hadn’t arrived at that moment at the door: he’d been waiting outside in the corridor all evening. Waiting for the pre-arranged signal: Chisholm opening the door.

So, in the bathroom, I heard no knock, but I did hear a door opening and a brief conversation between Chisholm and a man who appears to have come to the wrong cabin. Then, Carver knocked on Spence’s door. Spence opened the door and recognized Carver as Gilmour’s bodyguard. Carver told Spence that he was not meaning to interfere, but he had spotted something suspicious and would like to talk to Spence about it. Carver suggested that they both walk along the corridor for a moment: perhaps he told Spence that he had something to point out to him, maybe on the Grand Staircase or nearby. When they walked towards the staircase, they were seen by Rufus du Pavey, who concluded that Carver was his rival for Spence’s affections.

So, Spence and Carver were now away from Spence’s door, and I was still in the bathroom. It only needed to be for one minute. But for that minute, no-one in our cabin could see Chisholm. And there was an open door by which to leave our cabin, and an open door by which to enter Spence’s cabin. Chisholm took our wine carafe into Spence’s cabin and swapped it for Spence’s. But at that point, two things happened which he did not anticipate.

One of them was simple. Chisholm saw a sheet of paper on Spence’s desk which he recognized as British Secret Intelligence code. A sensible man would have left it there. But no-one is sensible all the time, and Chisholm was anxious to discover how much Spence knew. He made a split-second decision and took the paper, and Spence’s silver pen as well. But he missed many other sheets of paper, all of them full of coded information, which were locked inside the drawer of Spence’s desk.

The other thing that happened was much more unexpected. Chisholm saw you, Kitty, in Spence’s room.”

“I was so embarrassed, I could have sunk through the floor in shame, Miss Agnes.”

“And I can guess what Chisholm said, Kitty. He said to you ‘I won’t tell anyone you’re in here, Kitty. Your secret is safe with me.’ He acted as if he was doing nothing wrong: as if you were the one who had been discovered doing mischief.”

“That’s right. I just felt so ashamed. Up to then – being with Percy, it had all been – fun, and exciting. Suddenly it seemed dirty and nasty.”

“What happened then, Kitty?”

“Sir Chisholm went back to the door of Percy’s cabin, saying again that he would never tell anyone what I’d been doing with the Viscount. I hardly noticed him swapping the carafes of wine: I had no idea what he was doing. If I thought about that at all, I guessed he’d agreed the swap with Percy… but really, all I remember was feeling so horribly, horribly ashamed. And then Sir Chisholm was gone… and Percy came back. He was as charming and kind as ever. Nothing improper happened, Miss Agnes. We just went up to the Palm Court Room, and danced.”

“And then later, Kitty – after the dancing, and the announcement to go along to the lifeboats, you both came back to Percy’s cabin, you saw him drink the wine – and the effect it had on him. Did you recall the carafes at that point, did you think that maybe Chisholm had something to do with Percy’s sudden illness?”

“I think I did, yes. But, Miss Agnes, there was something in my mind that couldn’t face up to it. My generous, kind employer – that he had done something that had killed Percy – it wasn’t possible. My brain just made some kind of decision for me, to pretend it never happened. I said to myself that I never, ever saw Sir Chisholm with that carafe of wine.”

“And then after the Titanic, in New York –”

“Sir Chisholm came and found me at the Harlem Hospital, he was kinder than ever, he brought me home. On full pay, even though of course I couldn’t do any work for him. And he made sure the ship’s doctor looked after me.”

Axelson nods. “That’s because Chisholm was a kind man. A kind man with a fatal flaw. The most dangerous sort of man in the world.”

I nod back at him. “What was strange, professor, was that Chisholm dared let Kitty be hypnotized by you.”

“As I mentioned, Miss Agnes, I have had to conclude, sadly, that Chisholm regarded me as a harmless quack. I think that’s why he wanted to work with me on the Spence case. He thought my investigations had no hope of discovering the real facts of Spence’s murder. I think that he felt we were on – your English phrase – a ‘wild goose chase’. He deliberately supported my investigation because he thought it would lead away from, not towards, the truth. In one way, I am slightly disappointed that such an intelligent man could not understand my Hypnotic-Forensic Method. But I console myself by thinking: that intelligent man was also a murderer and a traitor.”

I look at Axelson. “Chisholm didn’t believe in you at the beginning, Professor. But Kitty – when you began talking under hypnosis, he realized that the hypnosis was having some effect. That you were beginning to reveal secrets. Chisholm became afraid that you would mention that you had seen him with the carafe in Spence’s cabin. After the second hypnosis session, he realized that the risk was such that he needed to contact Carver and get him to abduct you immediately.

Once the possibility occurred to me that Chisholm might have murdered Spence, and that he might have organized your kidnap, Kitty, it occurred to me: perhaps he sent you to Glenlui. It is, after all, in the middle of nowhere, and rarely in contact with the outside world. My problem was how to contact Glenlui from the Olympic.” I look across at our strong-armed rower. “But then, Fraser, I recalled your letter, that I saw among Chisholm’s papers on his desk at Grafton Square. I remembered the name ‘Mr Laurie’, and I sent my third telegram. I asked the Inverness-shire police to trace you, Fraser, and make contact with you. I asked the police to ask you if you knew a Kitty Murray, a young servant girl who had recently arrived at Glenlui Castle. Thank you for responding to me.”

The voice comes from behind the oars. “That’s all right, Miss Frocester. I’m glad to have been able to help.”

Kitty has the last words about her former employer. She looks at Fraser as he rows, and I sense the bond between the two of them as he smiles back at her. Then she murmurs, as if to herself. “Sir Chisholm may have been a traitor. But he was kind to me, at least in the beginning. And his plans very nearly succeeded.”

 

Loch Lui’s shores are closer, greener now: I see an azure mist of bluebells in the dappled sunshine beneath the trees. The castle, like an illustration from a book of fairytales, looms up above us, and the sound of the water slipping over the oars is in my ears. I look back across the sparkling waters of the loch. The blueness of the waves and of the clear, pure sky is almost dizzying. The serenity of this place seems eternal: older than the lush meadows looming under the woods, spangled with flowers like a green sky of stars; older than the jutting headland of gnarled Scots pines that nod their branches in the breeze, in time with their own reflections that nod back at them in the water. Older even than the towering mountains, their purple flanks patterned bright, then dark, then bright again by the moving shadows of the drifting clouds above. It feels like we have always been here, and we always will be here – the sunshine, the swish of the oars, the smiles.

And yet in my mind is the professor’s prediction of impending war. Right here, right now, in this place of peace and happiness, I have a sense that our whole world is about to change.

Violently.

 

The End

 

In preparation

Murder on the Western Front

(taster extract below)

 

Also by Evelyn Weiss

The Outcall

 

 

 

Murder on the Western Front

 

1.Wipers

 

I feel faint. Looking down, I see that my hands are bathed in bright arterial blood.

“Frocester! You’re wanted. Major Jardine needs to speak to you. Now.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” I’m gripping the blood-soaked dressing with both hands, pulling it tight in an attempt to seal the arteries. The soldier’s knee is a mangled mess. All I can do for him right now is to stop the blood ebbing away: I’m getting him ready so he can be transferred to the Casualty Clearing Station. He lies quietly, murmuring like a child talking to himself, on the stretcher that they brought him in on ten minutes ago.

“Go, Agnes. I can finish this. I wonder what the chief wants with you?”

“Thank you, Nurse Carstairs.”

 

Our makeshift hospital is, in fact, the ground floor of what was once a hotel. The treatment room is the former dining room, which used to look out over the medieval square at the centre of the Belgian market town of Ypres. But there is no view out of our windows any more. The blasts of the German shells raining down on the town have destroyed every pane of glass, so we have covered the windows with cotton sheets, shading our patients from the bright sunshine. Outside, it’s a gorgeous spring day: April 22nd, 1915. It’s early evening. One window is uncovered, and a single shaft of sunlight penetrates the room and shines on the floor, showing a surface of dull red: dried blood.

My shoes go clack-clack as I hurry across the tiles of the reception lobby to what used to be the hotel manager’s office. Although I’m hurrying, I can’t help noticing a severe-faced woman, dressed in black, standing at the lobby’s reception desk, as if waiting for something or someone. As I knock nervously at the office door, the black-clad woman watches me, but there is no human warmth in her glance, and no greeting. She simply watches me.

I hear a shout from inside the office “Come”. I open the door, and step inside.

The gaunt, khaki-clad man sitting at the desk doesn’t even glance up from his papers. “Ah, Volunteer Auxiliary Frocester.” He continues reading, his eyes nervously scanning the pages as he speaks to me. “I just need you to know that tomorrow, you must be ready to leave here, at a moment’s notice.” Finally, he looks up at me. Although he and I only met for the first time three days ago, I notice that the haunted look in Major Jardine’s eyes is visibly worse. Eyes that are ringed by the dark circles of many sleepless nights.

“Of course, I’ll be ready, sir.” There’s a pause of a few seconds. As he doesn’t add any further information, I ask the obvious question.

“Am I being transferred back to Poperinghe, sir?”

Three days ago, five of us – Military Surgeon Green, three regular military nurses, and myself, a mere volunteer Red Cross auxiliary, were dispatched from the main Casualty Clearing Station at Poperinghe. We were sent to Ypres, close to the battle lines of the Western Front, and ordered to report to Major Jardine. Among his many duties here is the running of the improvized Main Dressing Station. The need for more medical staff at Ypres is horribly obvious, even in the Major’s office: in this room too, the windows are empty holes, and everything is covered in the fine dust generated by shell explosions. The German bombardment of the town started five days ago, and it was decided to send us into Ypres, to reinforce its overloaded medical facilities. Every day there are fresh casualties, both military and civilian. Mostly, all we can do for them is stop them losing blood, bandage them up until they’re fit to travel, and then send them on to Poperinghe, where they can be properly diagnosed, given initial treatment and sent on again to a Stationary Hospital. But until we arrived here, soldiers and civilians were dying of blood loss on their journey between Ypres and Poperinghe. Or “Wipers” and “Pops” as everyone in the British Army calls them.

But today, there’s a difference: there are no more civilians among our casualties. Yesterday the decision was taken: Ypres is a death-trap, and all Belgian inhabitants must evacuate. From dawn to dusk yesterday we witnessed a procession of despairing women, old men and children leaving the town, all with their few movable belongings piled in handcarts. No-one has any idea where they are going.

Moments pass by, and I wait for a response from the Major. My simple question about where I am to be sent seems to have unsettled him. Finally he looks up. “Not necessarily back to Poperinghe, Frocester. You’ll have noticed the silence.”

“Yes sir.” And, now he mentions it, I have indeed noticed it. A strange period of calm. Since I arrived here, the German bombardment has been intermittent. Typically, an hour or so goes by, punctuated every few minutes by the noise of shells exploding in and around the town, then there’s a short quiet period. We’re in one of the lulls right now. But this time, the silence has lasted much longer: several hours.

I look into the Major’s face, searching for an answer to my original question.

“The silence is for a reason, Volunteer Frocester. As you will know, Ypres is at the centre of a bulge in the Western Front. This town and the surrounding area held by British and French troops – it sticks out into the German battle lines, like a sore thumb.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The shape of the bulge means that there are German troops to the north, east and south of us. Well, I’ve received a number of dispatches this afternoon indicating that a German regiment two miles north of us has begun an advance against the French Army’s North African divisions, who are holding that section of our lines.”

“That sounds bad, sir.”

“Yes. But for us here in Ypres, it means that the Germans are no longer using their heavy guns, because they are preparing to move them. They expect to move the guns into the areas which they are, at this very moment, capturing from the French.”

“I see, sir.” I stand and wait, hoping he’ll explain more.

“So, Frocester – we believe that the current German attack on the French colonials – Moroccan and Algerian troops, for the most part – is only the first phase of a series of assaults against our allied forces. The Germans would like to capture the entire bulge, including Ypres town itself. Further attacks on our troops are very likely. We think their plan is to, ah –”

“Cut the thumb off, sir?”

“Exactly.” He nods wearily at me. “So, Frocester, in anticipation of more German attacks, we have moved troops into the area alongside the Moroccans. Our new and totally inexperienced Canadian Division. It’s unfortunate, but they are all that we can spare at the moment. If the Germans do attack the Canadian troops, we can expect a very large number of casualties. Their medical staff will need support. So we may need to send you there – at short notice, as I mentioned.”

Major Jardine finishes speaking, and he’s looking down again at the papers in front of him. I’m wondering why he’s using his valuable time to speak to me at all: amid the scale of what’s happening, the dispatch of one Red Cross volunteer to another Station hardly merits calling me away from the treatment room. But I already have an uneasy feeling about this conversation. Amid all the dust and mess of this so-called office, and the Major’s extreme stress and exhaustion, I sense something unexpected, a strangeness in the atmosphere. Maybe it’s the catch I hear in his voice. I have the odd feeling that Major Jardine is lying to me. Or at least, he’s concealing something. There’s something else, something important, that he’s not told me.

“Very well, sir. I’ll be ready whenever needed.” He’s looking at his papers again, and I hesitate before bothering him with yet another question. “Will there be any facilities at my new Station?… what will I need to take with me?”

“We have an Advance Dressing Station near the village of St Julien, around which our Canadian troops are now based. I’m sending further medical supplies there now. And I should also introduce Dr Bernard.” The Major looks down at his papers again, but then suddenly he rises from his chair, walks round from behind the desk and opens the office door. There, standing in the doorframe, is the woman I saw in the lobby earlier. Again I notice her colourless complexion, her pale eyes and hair contrasting with her coal-black dress. Most of all, I notice her steady, judgmental gaze. She looks unimpressed with both Major Jardine and myself.

“Dr Bernard, may I introduce Volunteer Auxiliary Frocester? She will be assisting you this evening. And as I mentioned, she may be able to accompany you tomorrow if you are required at the Advance Dressing Station at St Julien.”

Dr Bernard’s eyes move between the Major and me. I’m suprized to hear an almost German accent come from her lips. “Miss Frocester. I am Dr Bernard, surgeon. A Swiss citizen, but I have volunteered my services with the Red Cross.”

Major Jardine motions towards the red cross hand-sewn onto my sleeve. “Volunteer Frocester is also with the Red Cross, and she too is a foreigner to this conflict. A citizen of another neutral country: she is American. I think that you two will work well together.”

Dr Bernard looks at the major coldly. “Thank you for your opinion, Major. But I will judge this volunteer’s performance for myself. May I meet the other staff now?”

“Of course, Dr Bernard. I’ll call Military Nurse Carstairs, and she will show you the treatment room and get you a suitable uniform. Frocester, you’d better get straight back to looking after the patients.”

I turn on my heel and go. But as I re-enter the lobby on my way back to the treatment room, I ponder these strange orders I’ve been given. I’ve been in France only a month now, so I’ve little experience to judge by – but the major’s instructions are completely outside my experience. Firstly, I’ve never had a direct order given to me by one of the officers: I’m at the bottom of the hierarchy, the most junior of all medical staff. Until now, all my instructions have come through the military nurses. Secondly, because I’m a menial assistant, all my orders are simple instructions: bind that wound, wash those bandages, make those beds. No-one has ever explained a situation to me, or informed me about the state of battle: that’s the sort of information you only get from whispered rumours, or from the mouths of injured soldiers. Why was Major Jardine telling me about the fighting which, if he is correct, must right now be raging immediately to the north of Ypres between France’s North African regiments and the attacking Germans? It’s as if he feared me asking questions, and was giving me all those details as an explanation, an excuse. Perhaps, a smokescreen.

Most of all, I realise that Major Jardine’s distracted manner, his avoidance of my eyes, was evasive – furtive, even. What is it, about the orders he has given me, that he is not telling me?

But as I cross the lobby, all these thoughts are stopped utterly dead. The hotels’ doorway is darkened by human figures, two stretcher-bearers and a casualty. But it’s the noise that grips me: the strangest sound I’ve ever heard fills my ears. Half-scream, half-burble. Like a cry of agony, blown through bubbles.

 

  • 2.Cowardice*

On the stretcher, the patient’s back is arched. His head is thrown right back: I see the black outline of his bearded chin. I rush over, as does Dr Bernard. The soldier’s elegant, Arabic features make the blank, unseeing stare in his eyes even more shocking, but I see no blood, no obvious wound. Looking into those sightless wide-open eyes, I see that they are weeping: a flood of tears tracks down his cheeks. His head jerks, his mouth gasps for air, and his back arches further: it’s as if his spine is being deliberately bent to breaking point by some superhuman strength.

“Nurse! Nurse! I need a solution of bicarbonate of soda, most immediately.” Dr Bernard’s sharp accent cuts through the patient’s horrible gurgling. But then the bubbling noise increases again, and a spasm like an earthquake passes through the man’s body. This time his back straightens, rigid like an iron rod. I see Dr Bernard putting her lips to those of the patient. A kiss. I stand by helplessly as the doctor breathes deeply into the patient’s open mouth.

I hear Nurse Carstairs’ voice. “Here it is. A solution of bicarbonate of soda, as you asked for, doctor.” Even Carstairs’ normally calm tones sound shaken – frightened, almost. Dr Bernard stands erect again, and holds the man’s mouth open as she pours from a beaker between the trembling lips. I have no idea what we are dealing with here: neither does Nurse Carstairs.

The two soldier stretcher-bearers are still holding each end of the stretcher, as if keeping watch over the man. I’m standing too, doing nothing. We all look down at the pulsating lips and the appalled, glassy-staring eyes.

The last drops of the bicarbonate solution pour from the beaker. Five seconds pass. Then, like a bursting geyser, the man’s mouth erupts, spewing a fountain of yellow froth over the stretcher and into my face, the faces of the stretcher-bearers and Dr Bernard and Nurse Carstairs. Our clothes, our hands, the floor – everything is covered in sticky foam. I smell an utterly strange, metallic smell.

I hear Dr Bernard’s voice. “This froth – it is from his lungs. Hydrochloric acid is filling this man’s lungs, preventing him breathing. We need more bicarbonate: he is drowning in acid.”

I can’t help it: my legs just move themselves: they run. I have to get out of sight of this victim: I simply can’t face it. I scamper towards the lobby reception desk: behind it, a doorway leads into a corridor where we keep the supplies: cupboards full of bandages, sheets, drugs… I fall onto the floor next to a pile of blankets, sit with my back to the wall, draw my knees up to my face. My eyes close. I need to see nothing, to hear silence, to look into blackness. I feel my own flesh quivering like jelly.

Moments pass. In the dark, a random memory appears in my mind: the very first case I dealt with, one month ago, back at Poperinghe. A wounded hand, the skin hanging from it like a glove. After treating it, I went into the bathroom, vomited copiously. I’m not hardened yet to the seeing men’s injuries: every other day, at least, on pretence of needing to relieve myself, I escape from the treatment room, hang my head over a basin, and evacuate the contents of my stomach.

Crouching here, hidden away, it’s almost comforting, thinking about those other incidents where I’ve funked. I’m a coward, afraid of the sight of blood, and I know that – I’m familiar with it. But what I have just seen in the lobby goes beyond my experience, beyond the worst I can imagine. I’m in Hell, I think. All of us are. Jardine, Dr Bernard, Nurse Carstairs, that poor, poor North African soldier… we are damned souls in some infernal darkness. But some of us have courage: my comrades-in-arms are coping with it, getting through each day, helping each other. I, on the other hand, am not.

 

Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes pass in silence. I try to get up. I say, out loud to myself ‘Stop wallowing in self-loathing. Get back there, now.’ But then, I hear my name spoken. By a man’s voice.

“Frocester?”

“She’s rubbish, sir. Near-useless. I suppose some of these Red Cross volunteers might help us a little, when they are doing simple tasks back at the Stationary Hospitals. Even at a Casualty Clearing Station they might be of use, if they are properly supervised. But near the front line they are a liability. And Frocester’s the worst: she’s incompetent at even the simplest of tasks.”

“As you say, Jardine, most of the Red Cross nursing auxiliaries are unqualified, so they’re kept well away from the front lines. They spend their time cooking and cleaning at the Stationary Hospitals. However, Frocester is different: she trained as a nurse – at the Radcliffe in Oxford. But rather than going into a hospital when she qualified, she volunteered with the Red Cross. That’s why they decided not to keep her back with the other volunteers: instead they sent her to Poperinghe.”

“Sir, I have to be honest with you. If Frocester trained at the Radcliffe, it doesn’t show in her work. She’s a joke, sir: she needs basic training in how to make a bed, let alone dress a serious wound. And she’s as nervous as a scared rabbit. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that she’d forged that nursing certificate. But then she’s not even British, isn’t she? This is not her war. I think she wanted to see it, to take a closer look at the horrors. A kind of hysterical female voyeur. That’s why I strongly recommend to you that we don’t use her for this.”

“I hear what you’re saying, Jardine. But this is no time for debate. It’s time for action.”

“Of course, sir. I don’t mean to appear insubordinate. I have followed your orders to the letter. As you asked, half an hour ago I gave Frocester notice that she may be needed with the Canadians at St Julien tomorrow. So she’s ready to go.”

The voices, I realise, are coming through the cracked walls of Major Jardine’s office. He is giving his candid opinion of me to another, superior officer. But I can’t stay to listen: I must get back to my duties. I start to get up: my legs are wobbly, my knees weak. My head spins: the corridor, the piles of supplies, seem to whirl around me in a blur. I hear Jardine’s voice again.

“In my opinion, the same goes for Dr Bernard as for Volunteer Frocester. The battlefield is no place for women, sir. Too emotional and unstable. I’ve heard that at Poperinge another female – a military nurse, not a volunteer – fell in love with a Frenchman and just walked away with him, leaving men dying in their beds. I’ve even heard a rumour that a female note-taker at central command has recently deserted her work, despite the messages that need to be sent hourly to the front. Put bluntly, sir – war is no place for women.”

“Needs must when the Devil drives, Jardine. All males who can must fight: women must take on every possible task, to support them. It’s modern war.”

“But – with Dr Bernard and Frocester – the risks are not just due to their sex and their temperament. To speak plainly sir, I don’t like taking responsibility for these foreign nationals. An American Red Cross volunteer – and now a damned Switzer. The Swiss are half-German, aren’t they? Excuse my language sir, but given what you have told me, the security and secrecy of this operation is…”

“…the security and secrecy of this operation is so paramount that it is better to use medical staff who know absolutely nothing, Major Jardine. And, as you have seen, Dr Bernard is exactly what we need. She saved the Moroccan soldier’s life just now.”

“I would rather trust British medical staff.”

“And I wouldn’t. Not for this particular job. Neither would Field Marshal Sir John French, or General Douglas Haig, both of whom have given a specific mandate to use foreign Red Cross medical personnel for this mission. I’ll remind you: this operation could be the key to victory. Victory, Jardine.”

The unknown voice pauses for a few seconds, as if for effect. Then he speaks with crushing emphasis. “But if we get this operation wrong – both you and I know the consequences.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We will lose the war.”

“Yes, sir. I do understand.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Neither of us want to see the Kaiser parade in victory past Buckingham Palace, do we?”

“No, sir.”

“Now, Jardine, you know that, as well as the medical staff, the Field Marshal has also mandated the special armed unit that I told you about. Have you recruited them yet?”

“I have, sir. I followed your instructions exactly. The unit is already out at the front, with the Canadians.”

“Good work. And –” There’s another dramatic pause, as if the mystery speaker is delivering a speech. “– think about it, Jardine. We may be within weeks of ending this war, if we get this operation right. But – you saw the Moroccan they brought in on a stretcher. You know how the Germans did that to him, don’t you?

“Yes sir. The rumours – they must be true. The German Army has started using poison gas against us. Chlorine, probably.”

“They gassed him, Jardine. Barbaric. And this latest German atrocity follows on from what everyone is calling the Rape of Belgium. Thousands of civilians, including women and children, massacred in Belgian villages by the German hordes. We’ve been fighting only a few months, but the Kaiser’s troops have already broken every single rule of civilised warfare. We can’t let them win, Jardine, whatever the cost.”

“No sir.”

“You see what I’m saying, don’t you? Getting this operation right is the most important thing either you or I will ever do. I can see your nerves are bad, Jardine. But please – hold it together, for just a few weeks more.”

“Of course, Colonel Hampshire. You can depend on me, sir.”

I’m standing up, at last. I take a single unsteady step: my sight feels blurred, my head reels, but I realise that I have to open the corridor door, cross the lobby, go back in the treatment room again. I must apologize, and offer to do whatever the nurses need me to do. ‘They need me. Do it now’ I say to myself. As I grasp the door handle I hear a jeering voice in my mind, calling out names. ‘Cowardy-custard Agnes. Cowardy, cowardy-custard’ the voice says, and I see again in my mind the custard-like yellow froth erupting, splattering over me. That froth, I realise, has now become dried, part-bleached stains on my uniform. I open the door, step forward, and enter the treatment room.

 

3.The General’s instructions

 

A hand is shaking my shoulder, waking me from sleep.

“Miss Frocester. Please wake, dress and be ready to accompany me in five minutes.”

The voice is Dr Bernard’s. A few minutes later, I’m waiting in the lobby of the hotel. It’s now April 24th, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, but every few minutes the night is cut by a scream of agony from one of the twenty-seven North African soldiers now occupying almost every bed in the treatment room. After that first casualty, another was brought in that evening. We treated both with the bicarbonate, and put them in a sitting position in the hope that at least the upper parts of their lungs might drain of fluid and continue to function. Then the following morning a stream of others arrived in ones and twos. All through yesterday, Dr Bernard, the other staff and I worked to treat them all, and I collapsed into bed about nine o’clock: a single military nurse remains on duty overnight. We’ve now run out of bicarbonate, but each of the gassed soldiers is now sitting up in bed, and they are breathing more easily. But their pain is still extraordinary.

I look out through the entrance into the moonlit town square, its cobbled surface covered with fragments of brick and broken glass. Yet something makes me glance back at the reception desk. Yes, there’s a figure standing there, exactly where Dr Bernard stood the day before yesterday, when she watched me cross the lobby.

“Hello?”

“Hello.” A voice speaks from the shadows, then a man’s figure emerges towards me. “Good to meet you. You’re Volunteer Frocester, I guess? I’m Colonel Hampshire.”

“Good to meet you too, Colonel.” He’s several inches taller then me. The light from the entrance catches on the buttons of his uniform, and his eyes shine too, looking at me with curious interest. He seems remarkably young for a colonel – perhaps only a few years older than me: in war, I guess, promotions come quickly.

“You’re American. Your country is, happily, at peace. What made you come here, to the most hellish place on earth?” In the gloom, I sense a slight smile on his lips and a warmth in his voice.

“If you mean what made me come to Ypres – I was sent here, Colonel. If you mean why I’m involved in the Great War, then the reason is: I was in England already, and I wanted to help. To do something of use.”

“A noble motivation. If I were you, I would have been tempted to head back to Connecticut. You could work in a civilian hospital, or better still nurse some rich old lady for a fat salary.”

“Well, I’m here now, so I may as well do my best. I’m being sent to the St Julien Dressing Station. But I have a question for you, Colonel, if it’s permitted.”

“Ask away.”

“How do you know I’m from Connecticut?”

“I – happened to see something. Something about you. You are highly recommended, you know. Most Volunteer Auxiliaries have no medical background.”

“Training is one thing: being able to cope on the Western Front is another. I think the jury is still out as to whether I can do the latter.”

“Have confidence, Miss Frocester. I’m sure you’ll be invaluable at St Julien.” And then, the most unexpected thing in the world happens. The Colonel looks down at me from under his cap and in the dim light I see his mustache curving in a smile. He stands close to me and takes both my hands. His fingers caress my palms – gently, but I sense the strength in his hands. As he continues to hold on to me, his lips move, close to my face, and his words are even odder than his actions.

“Come back safe – Agnes.”

“I will, Colonel.” As I speak, I pull my hands gently from his grasp. I take a step back, but I smile at him: I don’t want him to think I’m offended. I just don’t want anything personal to happen. I’ve never been kissed in my life, and I’d like the first time to be with someone I know enough to trust.

As I pull back from Colonel Hampshire, I hear a very different voice in my ears.

“Miss Frocester! Come with me. As you’ve been told, only you and I are involved in this mission to St Julien. I will be driving us.”

The voice barks from behind me: I turn to see Dr Bernard’s mannish figure silhouetted in the hotel entrance. I smile my goodbyes at Colonel Hampshire, and Dr Bernard and I descend the hotel steps to the town square. In front of us is a motor-ambulance. In the moonlight I see the large red cross painted on its side. I open the passenger door and climb into the cab. Dr Bernard gives the starting-handle a few turns: the engine jerks into life. She steps up into the driver’s seat.

“Thank you, Miss Frocester. You have had a few hours’ sleep?”

“Yes.”

“Good. All staff here must get some sleep, or they will start to make mistakes. And I have had to leave detailed written instructions for the other medical staff, even though I am no expert in this gas poisoning. I have no idea whether any of those soldiers lying in the hospital are destined to live or to die.”

She puts the ambulance into gear, and we start to move off through the deserted streets. Ypres is a ghost town: the dead bones of a once living community. Every building is ruined: piles of brick, stone and wreckage are lit like skeletons by the stark moonlight. The main road out of town is completely blocked by a collapsed house, and we turn down a side street.

“So we are going to the St Julien Advance Dressing Station?”

“Yes. Just you, me, and this motor-ambulance. I have checked inside the back of the vehicle. It’s nearly empty of medical supplies, but I hope there will be proper supplies at St Julien. That spineless idiot Jardine told me he had ordered a dispatch of medical equipment to the Advance Dressing Station.”

“I don’t really understand…”

“I feel exactly the same, Miss Frocester. You and I, we volunteered for this stupid foreign war, in order to treat the sick. But now, we have both been ordered away from a ward of dying men, in the middle of the night. What greater priority could there be, than trying to save those men’s lives? I have no idea why we are being sent away, or what the British Army expects us to do in St Julien.”

“Neither do I. Except –” I hesitate. I realise that I dare not tell the Swiss doctor about the overheard conversation between Jardine and Hampshire. Dr Bernard continues.

“I did not know what to expect when volunteering my services to the British Red Cross. I tried to be ready for whatever the war might throw at me. But I did not expect this. From the start, I have been kept utterly in the dark about what I am supposed to be doing. But that is the way that the British Army seems to operate. They have told me literally nothing, except this.”

Her fingers on the steering wheel point to a piece of paper stuck onto the dashboard. It’s a map of the roads around Ypres, marking the location of the St Julien Advance Dressing Station. We’re rejoined the main road, and I look ahead of us: the headlamps of our ambulance shine feebly in the gloom as we leave the ruins of the town behind. The road is now barely visible, a darkened dirt track across open fields. We judder along over bumps and ruts in the blackness. Despite Dr Bernard at my side, I feel desolate and utterly alone. I think about the whispered rumours of the Rape of Belgium: horrors beyond imagination. I suddenly feel a huge pang of longing for my home in Putnam, Connecticut: my parents, my brother, my friends and family, my neighbourhood. In my mind I see a troop of soldiers coming into Putnam. They go into every home, take the men outside into the village square, and ready their rifles. Now the soldiers are coming into our drugstore, they take hold of my father. They are taking him out into the village square too. My mother clings to him, screaming, but a soldier pulls her away, and starts, almost methodically, to tear her clothes apart. She shrieks, but an officer stands in the middle of our shop, pointing his revolver at her face. He pulls the trigger.

 

Dr Bernard drives differently from anyone else I’ve seen. She hunches over the wheel and her head is in constant movement, checking the road ahead, the mirrors behind. The calm assurance she has when dealing with patients is replaced by a nervous energy; her eyes dart about, scanning the road ahead. The road is uneven and covered with mud, but fortunately seems free from shell craters. Suddenly we jolt to a halt.

“Miss Frocester. There’s a hole in the road.”

She opens her door and gets out, and I do the same. She switches on a flashlight. She’s right: on the verge of the road there’s a pothole, and one of our wheels is in it: easily avoidable in normal conditions, but I guess in this mud we must have slid across to the edge of the road. I make a suggestion.

“How about if I push while you drive?”

She looks at me, as if assessing my physical strength.

“No. Your arms look thin and weak. I will do it: you drive.”

“I don’t really know how to, but I guess it’s easy.” I think to myself: you’ve tried untried things before, Agnes: let’s give it a go. I step up into the cab, Dr Bernard shows me what to do, and as the engine roars I let the clutch out slowly. I can feel the motor ambulance straining its way out of the pothole, but then in the mud it slips back down again. I push the clutch in again to stop the wheels spinning in the mud.

“Agh!” I hear the frustration in her cry as she pushes. But then I see something else. A light in the gloom ahead of us, like a tiny moving glow-worm. Out here, in the loneliness of the night and the knowledge that the battle lines are close, and my only company this harsh, critical woman, I peer at the moving light and feel a stab of fear.

“Dr Bernard! There’s a light out there. Someone is coming towards us.”

“What of it? Probably a farmer. Operate the clutch again, Miss Frocester.” I think to myself: we’re near a battlefield: there are no farmers left around here. But I follow her instructions, and I can hear, above the engine, Dr Bernard’s strained gasps of effort. The ambulance gives a jolt and moves forward.

“We’re on the road again! Miss Frocester, push the clutch back in. And – well done.” A moment later I see her face looking at mine in the cab window. There is almost a smile in her eyes. “I’ll take over the driving again.”

As she settles into the driver’s seat, we both look forward at the road, lit by our headlamps. The spot of light is closer and clearer now. Then two feet, thickly clagged with mud, come into the lowered beam of our lights: then two legs, then the body of a uniformed figure, spattered everywhere with dirt. In one hand the figure holds a dim, shaded lamp. Moments later, our headlights shine whitely onto the dirty, haggard face of a man. He stands in the road in front of us, blocking the way, and calls to us.

“Ahoy there! Are you medical staff?”

“Yes. Red Cross.”

The man steps forward and comes up to the side window of the cab. “You’ve been sent from Ypres?”

Dr Bernard looks into the man’s eyes, which, I see, are not just tired but bloodshot. His face is not only dirty, but scuffed and grazed: there are spots of blood under the mud.

“We have indeed been dispatched from Ypres.” Her words are curt, with an edge of doubt – even fear, maybe. She looks doubtfully at the soldier.

“Do you have identification, young man?”

“Yes of course.” Then he adds “Ma’am.” He fishes some papers out of a pocket, hands them to the doctor. She looks at him, her eyes still shaded with suspicion.

“Corporal Tasker. So, why do you come alone, to accost us on this road in the middle of the night?”

“I came here, ma’am, to find you.”

“You will guide us to St Julien?”

“More than that, Dr –”

“Bernard. My name is Bernard. This is Miss Frocester, a volunteer auxiliary.”

“Dr Bernard. I came to find you. I have been instructed to give the medical staff this.”

The soldier holds out an envelope, sealed like an old-fashioned letter with a blob of wax. It looks like a love-letter from a Victorian novel. The rectangle of white paper looks oddly small and out of place in this lonely darkness.

Dr Bernard opens the envelope and reads aloud.

 

“Classified: Top Secret

 

Issuing office: British Army central command, Chateau Niobe, Flanders

 

To the chief of medical staff, St Julien Advance Dressing Station:

 

You will be given these instructions by one of our regular troops. Please accompany him. He will lead you to your casualty.

Please treat the casualty with your utmost care and skill. It is strictly forbidden to speak to the casualty. The extent of his injuries is not known and he may appear to be perfectly well. Please give him, and only him, your medical attention, even if others are severely injured.

Your only tasks are to make sure the casualty is well enough to travel, and to transport him to Essex Farm Casualty Clearing Station on the Diksmuide road north of Ypres. At Essex Farm you must ask for a Professor Felix Axelson, and the casualty must be transferred to his care. Ensure you personally hand the casualty to Professor Axelson, who will conduct the initial interrogation of the casualty.

A pass contained in the glove compartment of the dashboard of your motor ambulance will enable you to pass all military checkpoints.

You must proceed with all haste.

 

General Douglas Haig.”

 

While she’s been reading, Dr Bernard’s face has been changing: from puzzlement to surprise, and now, to rage. She looks at the soldier as if she would like to hit him.

“What on earth, Corporal, is this?”

“I don’t know, ma’am. I was given that sealed envelope this afternoon and told to give it to the medical staff, when they arrived.”

“Who gave it to you?”

“A dispatch courier, ma’am. He said he was not at liberty to say who had instructed him.”

“I can’t obey this, Corporal. It goes against my Hippocratic oath to follow these absurd instructions. According to this, we are to treat only one person at St Julien, this so-called ‘casualty’. What if scores of men are badly injured? Do we leave them to die, and simply drive to the Essex Farm Clearing Station with a single soldier? This must be a joke, Corporal.”

“I’m afraid it can be no joke, ma’am. You’ll see that that is General Haig’s signature, and – see this stamp here. This has been issued by British Army central command. You must follow these instructions.”

“Well I won’t. We won’t.” She glances at me. “I’m not a British citizen, and neither is my assistant. Most of all, I make my own medical judgements. I’m a doctor, not some mindless foot soldier. Now, stop this nonsense, and let us go on our way to St Julien. We can offer you a lift there in the ambulance, if you wish.” She smiles faintly, as if to show Corporal Tasker that her anger isn’t personal against him. But he ignores her expression, and carries on explaining.

“You can’t get to St Julien, ma’am. Shell craters in the road, a hundred yards further on. You must leave the ambulance here, I’m afraid, and accompany me on foot. Our troops are not in the village of St Julien, you see. We are dug into defensive positions, about two hundred yards’ walk from here.”

“No. Absolutely not. This is wrong, Corporal! I will complain to your stupid General Haig, if necessary.”

“Ma’am, please – you don’t understand the situation. You have no choice. The road ahead is blocked, so you must leave the ambulance here and walk with me to our position over there.” He points to the horizon, and in the moonlight I see, like a low black reef, a patch of rough woodland standing up against the sky. Corporal Tasker looks back into Dr Bernard’s face. “Your only other option, ma’am, is to drive back to Ypres, and explain your actions to Major Jardine.”

There’s a pause. I sense that Dr Bernard is realising that we indeed have no choice.

“Despite what you say, the instructions are nonsense. We can’t carry them out. How would we identify this single ‘casualty’?”

“There’s no need to identify him, ma’am. We’ve already captured him.”

Against the night sky, Dr Bernard’s face is white, her eyes wide and confused.

“Captured?”

“Yes, ma’am. We captured him. The casualty referred to in General Haig’s orders is Oberleutnant Walther Seydlitz, Prussian Guards. A German soldier.”

 

4.Into the trenches

 

Tonight I’ve done two things for the first time. I’ve driven a motor vehicle, even if only for a yard or so. And now, I’m carrying a military haversack. It’s full of medical supplies: I gathered every single item that was in the back of the poorly-equipped ambulance. I glance back along the rough track at our vehicle, sitting there in the moonlight. And I think: after only one month in France, I’m nearing an actual battlefield. I recall my reassuring letters to my parents. ‘I will see nothing of the War, of course: the Stationary Hospitals are miles behind the front lines.’

I try to concentrate on each step. My shoes are hopelessly unsuitable: they’ll be ruined. Such a trivial thought – but it’s something to focus on, stepping along in the darkness and the deepening mire.

“Here”. Tasker indicates a set of muddy, descending steps, carved in the earth beside us. They lead down into a grave-like slot in the soil. My feet slip on slimy surfaces as I step down into blackness. After the last step down, the sides of the trench are well above my head: the moonlit night that was all around us is replaced by utter darkness, except for Tasker’s shaded lamp, which lights only his immediate footsteps. We walk along for two, three minutes. Then, in the light of the lamp, I see his hand raised.

“Halt here.” He turns around, whispers to us.

“Yesterday morning, we occupied these trenches. We’re in a supply trench running directly towards our front line. It’s like the stem of a letter T. Ahead of us, the front line trench branches out to either side. These are not well constructed trenches: they were dug some months ago by French troops who used them only occasionally. Dr Bernard – and Miss Frocester, especially – please do not go along to the trench leading off to the right. When the French captured this area a few months ago, the German casualties from that fighting were stacked there, and have not been buried.”

I’m hardly believing what I’m hearing. I hold my tongue, with effort: I want to protest in horror at the thought of dead bodies lying unburied, for months. The remains of men who had mothers, wives, children: left to decompose without a shred of human dignity. I glance at the right-hand trench branching away from us into the blackness, and shudder.

“Along the trench to the left is our casualty. Now, I must explain the situation to you. As you may know, German troops to the north of us attacked on a broad front the day before yesterday. They used poison gas, and the French troops defending that area ran away from the attack.”

“We treated those soldiers, Corporal Tasker. We saw what had been done to them.”

“Yes. Our lines were broken – however, luckily, the Germans did not advance as fast as we expected. Now, we have regrouped and we are holding a line of sorts against the Germans. Just over twenty-four hours ago, the Canadian 10th Battalion, who have newly arrived in this area, made a counter-attack against the Germans. There was very fierce fighting all through that night. The Canadians followed their orders to the letter: they captured Kitchener’s Wood, the trees of which you can see on the skyline ahead of us. We – a small team of myself and three other specially dispatched British soldiers – accompanied the Canadians.”

Dr Bernard looks hard at him, the beads of her eyes catching the faint light. “Four British soldiers, accompanying a Canadian battalion. I’m no military expert but this seems very odd to me. Are you four men some kind of special team?”

“Our mission, ma’am, was to accompany the Canadians into Kitchener’s Wood – and to find our casualty. In the centre of the wood the Canadians came across an abandoned gun battery surrounded by bodies. We followed them. Among those bodies, we found our casualty.”

“So – why are we not going into the woods too?”

“The woods are not easy to defend. So early this morning the 10th Battalion regrouped in these abandoned trenches on the edge of the woods. We came back here with the Canadians, and brought the casualty – Oberleutnant Seydlitz – with us. We are all lot safer here than in the woods.”

“And what’s happened since yesterday morning?”

“During daylight yesterday, the Germans advanced again. They are now gathered inside the forest. We are dug in tonight, and we expect a massed German attack tomorrow morning. That is, in a few hours’ time.”

I’m silent, taking in this information. But Dr Bernard is bridling again at the orders in General Haig’s letter. “This ‘casualty’ – this Seydlitz person that the note speaks of. Just one man. Now, how many Canadians lie injured after this fighting?”

“Ah – we believe many, ma’am. In fact it appears that only a small remnant of the 10th Battalion remains. Unfortunately, there may be many fallen Canadians still alive within the woods. When we retreated to these trenches, there was no time to locate all the injured men.”

There’s a silence as Dr Bernard and I make sense of what Tasker is saying. The blackness in this trench feels tangible, like the depths of Hades. A gentle breeze wafts through the trench from the north, soughing through the woods. On the wind I hear a cry.

“Maman. Maman.”

It’s a young boy’s voice. The cry is low, repetitive. Not loud: I sense that the injured soldier out there in the woods has little strength left. The cry goes on, repeating and repeating. Tasker looks at us.

“That voice is, we think, a Québécois. A young French Canadian soldier. There’s nothing we can do for him, or any of the others in there. A rescue party would be massacred by the Germans.”

We could try, Corporal.”

“No. It’s very simple, ma’am. We can’t try. Everything depends on following the orders, Dr Bernard. Now please, accompany me down the left-hand trench.”

I look at Dr Bernard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her try to climb up out of the trench and attempt a rescue herself, but we follow the corporal. I feel numb and cold inside, as if I can feel my own heart dying within me at the inhumanity of our situation. We stumble along behind the feeble glow of Corporal Tasker’s lamp. Although it’s the front line, this trench seems shallower, less well dug in. Its sides are rough, sloping dirt. And now we’re turning a corner, and ahead of me I can make out a row of silent, standing figures. All the heads are bent forward, arms clutching rifles, leaning their weight forward against the front wall of the trench. A low parapet has been made with sandbags, and between every sandbag the moonlight catches a long metal barrel, pointing into the woods. One of the faces, smeared with dirt for night camouflage, turns towards us: his rifle points towards us like a fencer’s sword. Involuntarily, I take a step back.

“Who goes there?” A strong Toronto accent.

“It’s Corporal Tasker, sir.”

The Canadian voice speaks again. “Thank God it’s you and not the enemy.”

“I’ve brought the medical team for the casualty. Dr Bernard and Miss Frocester – may I introduce Sergeant Bowers.”

“Pleased to meet you both. The rifle drops and a hand is extended towards us. I find myself shaking it in the dark. Sergeant Bowers speaks plainly and directly. “Dr Bernard. We have several injured men who are losing blood, fast.”

“And, I have orders not to treat them. Miss Frocester and I are here on specific orders from the British Army’s central command. We are to treat a single patient, ensure that he is well, and take him back to a Dressing Station north of Ypres.” I see the whites of the Canadian’s eyes widen in the dark, but Dr Bernard carries on. “However, we have maybe three hours until dawn?”

“Four hours until sunrise. But until first light, yes there is just over three hours.”

“Well then, show us your worst cases. Despite our orders, we will do everything we can. We have some medical kit here.”

“Thank you. The bandages alone will be useful. Our supply ran out yesterday: several men’s wounds are bound with torn uniforms.”

I hear Sergeant Bowers speaking orders to the other soldiers, low but firm. “Every man who is uninjured, remain at your post. Those of you who are injured, please, one at a time, step back from the parapet and let these medics attend to you.”

I see one of the dark figures move back from his position towards us. He turns, and in the darkness I can make out his movements, like a dance. It’s a odd moment of comedy, here in the blackness of the trench. He’s hopping.

“Shot in the foot, Doctor.” His voice is a gruff whisper.

“Show me the wound.” Like a puppet when its strings are released, he slouches in a heap at our feet, one leg stretched out, pointing shreds of flesh and glimpses of bone towards us.

 

5.The German soldier

 

Lit by shaded flashlights, Dr Bernard and I have now treated about twenty injured men. Practically no words are said, except by the soldiers, each of whom in turn points us to this hand, this leg, this shoulder. Every one the same: identify the wound, splash antiseptic over it, accompanies by gasps of shock from the man, and then bind the wound as tight as possible. Each time I pull the knots tight until the soldier grins with the pain. Mostly I’ve done the tourniquets, while Dr Bernard directs: she has tied one or two, but her knots are slipshod and messy. She remains calm and confident – but when it comes to bandaging, I can tell that she is more used to diagnosing patients in a Swiss consulting room than tying bloodied limbs in pitch-blackness. I just use what limited skills I have, and work fast.

None of the men have injuries to their major organs: I guess all those with such wounds are still lying where they fell in the undergrowth of Kitchener’s Wood. They lay there all day yesterday in the sunshine, and now they are dying slowly in the darkness. I try not to think about it. The Québécois boy’s cries from the wood stopped a few minutes ago, and I know that we won’t hear them again.

I see Corporal Tasker coming towards us, checking his watch and looking at us anxiously. “Dr Bernard. Have you dealt with all the worst cases? It’s now nearly first light.”

“I think there are a few more, but none life-threatening. I agree, we need to get away before the sun comes up and the Germans can see the motor-ambulance. Bring me your so-called casualty.”

“Here he is, Dr Bernard.”

I look up, and in the flashlight I see a young man standing next to Corporal Tasker. His hair is fair and his cheeks freckled: he looks like a boy I remember from one of the farms in Putnam. I expected to see the spiked helmet of a German officer, but his head is bare and there’s a warm smile on his face. He speaks in fluent English.

“I understand you are my medical assistance. You are here to take me to? –”

“To a British field hospital, Oberleutnant Seydlitz.” Dr Bernard and I look at the young man: I thought that he would be tied or restrained him in some way, but I see that his hands and feet are free. Dr Bernard appears to be sizing up the situation.

“Corporal Tasker, can you accompany us to the ambulance?”

“Indeed, ma’am. The casualty has no reason to run away, but we can ensure that he is safely inside the ambulance.”

Tasker’s voice is interrupted; Sergeant Bowers rejoins us.

“So, you’re leaving us now. Thank you both, for everything you’ve done.”

Dr Bernard looks at him. “Before we go, Sergeant Bowers – as a doctor, I must warn you. Are you aware that the day before yesterday the Germans attacked with chlorine gas?”

“I am. We were all told about it. Before we attacked Kitchener’s Wood, we were issued with these.” From the pocket of his greatcoat he pulls out a small wadded white square.

“And how does this help you, Sergeant?”

“We’re to use them as masks, so we don’t inhale the fumes.”

“A wad of cotton wool? Is that all?”

“Well – we have our instructions, too.” Dr Bernard looks at the sergeant, unimpressed. He carries on explaining to her, with a air of embarrassment. “Ah… ammonia. Ammonia neutralises the fumes. If we see gas coming towards us, the soldiers relieve themselves…”

“I understand you, sergeant. A soldier sees gas coming. So he gets out his penis, urinates on the cotton wool, and then puts the wool over his face. This is your British Army answer to chemical warfare?”

The sergeant is surprised at the language coming from Dr Bernard’s mouth. “Yes, ma’am. It’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid.”

“You defend yourselves with your own piss, Sergeant! I am heartily sorry for you.”

Sergeant Bowers is silent: I can tell that he feels as if the Army has abandoned him and his men to their fate. Dr Bernard continues. “I can do nothing for you here, but I solemnly say: when I get back to Ypres, I will write to your generals, with extreme urgency. If you do not have more effective measures against the poison gas, the Germans will annihilate the British forces.”

A dim light has been growing for the past few minutes: the outlines of the uniforms and the sandbags along the parapet seem to glow in the gloom. Dr Bernard turns to Oberleutnant Seydlitz. “It’s time to be going. Come along with us.”

Corporal Tasker leads us back along the trench. I follow him in the dark, our captive walks along behind me, then Dr Bernard. Behind her walks another British soldier, one of Tasker’s team. I don’t know his name and I can’t see his face in the blackness. I realise that I’ve not seen the other two members of the team at all. We carry on along the trench, wading again through sludge, and then I see the squat outline of the ambulance against a lightening sky.

“Miss Frocester.” Dr Bernard turns to look at me. “You will go in the back of the ambulance, with Oberleutnant Seydlitz. I will lock you both in. It is foolish nonsense – but, if I lock the ambulance door, then General Haig can’t say that we gave this so-called casualty an opportunity to escape.”

I step up into the back of the ambulance. There’s a wooden bench along one side, and Walther Seydlitz steps up too and sits beside me. Dr Bernard shuts the door and I hear a key turn in the lock. I hear her saying goodbye to Corporal Tasker and his silent companion, and then climbing up into the cab and shutting the door. The engine starts up. As we start to move, Seydlitz speaks.

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m following orders, I don’t understand what I’m doing here.”

“But I must thank you, all the same. Because you’ve rescued me, after a manner of speaking. You’ve saved something: something very important to me.”

I’m puzzled at his strange words. “Saved something, Oberleutnant Seydlitz?”

“Yes. You and the doctor – and Corporal Tasker and his men. You have all saved my conscience. Whether I live or die, I can know from now on that I have indeed acted rightly. Indeed, I feel that you’ve saved even more than my conscience. You have saved my soul.”

It’s pitch-black in the ambulance, but all the same I stare, as if to see his face in the dark. “What do you mean?”

But there’s no answer, because another jolt in the road throws us from our seats. I hear Dr Bernard cursing in the driver’s cab.

“Bloody, bloody craters! This road is now blocked too! We can’t get back to Ypres.”

I hear her coming round to the back door and unlocking it. As she does, she gestures frantically to us, beckoning us out of the ambulance. “Come out and see. What in God’s name can we do now?”

A moment later the three of us are standing alongside the van. The front wheels are over the edge of a crater, its rim of broken earth lit by the growing light around us. But despite what Dr Bernard says, it’s obvious what we have to do: the three of us bend our shoulders and, bit by bit, we push the ambulance backwards, until its wheels are out of the hole. Then I speak.

“It’s getting light, Dr Bernard. We have to get back to Ypres. There was another road, just a few yards back there, branching off to the left.”

We look back along the road, and across the desolate landscape all around us. The sun is not yet up, but the pre-dawn light reveals a flat country of open, hedgeless fields: bare, brown earth: no crops are growing yet, and I guess none have been sown, or will be sown, this year. Here and there a broken edge of soil shows the outline of a crater. Away to our right, I see a line of sandbags and here and there dark dots: the heads of soldiers, crouched behind the low parapet, awaiting the German attack.

“Miss Frocester, you are correct. I will turn the ambulance around and try to get onto that other road. It should lead us southwards, and then we can look for another road leading west, back into Ypres. Please sit in the cab with me and help me look out at the road, warn me of any obstacles you see. Oberleutnant, I can hardly think you want to escape us. So I won’t bother to lock the back door of the ambulance.”

Turning the ambulance in the road takes several tries, but eventually we set off again, back along the road we came on, then left along the other road, through the empty fields. At least we’re heading away from the front lines, I think. But rather than turning west towards Ypres, this road – a mere track through the farmland, really – curves further south, then east. Soon we are heading straight east, towards the lightest part of the dawning sky. We pass an abandoned farm, silhouetted black against the sky, and then we see a crazy outline of shattered ruins, the remains of a village, directly ahead of us. I can tell that as well as concentrating on the road, Dr Bernard is pondering our situation. She speaks, as if thinking aloud.

“We are heading straight into the village of St Julien. We will have to take Seydlitz to the Advance Dressing Station there, and then send communication to Major Jardine that we have been delayed. Perhaps they can send some troops out to accompany us on foot back to Ypres. If we are lucky, Volunteer Frocester, the troops could take Seydlitz, without you and I. Then, we can do some useful medical work at St Julien, where we will be away from Major Jardine and the rest of them, and their ridiculous orders.”

Her voice sounds almost hopeful. But I look to the right of the ruined village, and all along the horizon there I see low, broken silhouettes, shapes and dots against the early morning sky. I can guess what those shapes and dots are. Trenches, fortifications, and the helmets of soldiers. We’ve crossed the width of the bulge, the ‘thumb’. Now, all around to the east and south of us is the front line. The soldiers that we can see must be the other battalions of the Canadian Division. As we drive along towards St Julien, I gaze at the long line of trenches, stretching southwards as far as the eye can see. I forget for a moment to look at the road immediately in front of me. I hear Dr Bernard’s voice, swearing yet again.

“Another –damned – crater.” I look out of the side window of the cab. One wheel has gone right down into a muddy hole. I hear Seydlitz’s voice from the back.

“Why have we stopped? Are we there yet?”

Dr Bernard’s voice is almost playful. “You sound like a child on a family outing, Oberleutnant. No, we are not even near ‘there’. We are stuck in another crater, and nowhere near Ypres. Can you get out and help us push?”

Although this crater is much smaller than the last one, our pushing seems to have no effect this time, and after just one minute Dr Bernard pauses. “Miss Frocester, please get up into the cab again. Let’s try with the engine, like we did last night.”

I get up into the cab. Ahead of us, through the windscreen, I gaze into a blaze of light: the sun is coming up, like a Turner sunrise. It looks extraordinary: a ball of orange fire rising above strange green mists that hang all along the horizon, beyond the Canadian trenches.

I let the clutch out, slowly. But even so, the ambulance doesn’t move: I can sense the wheels spinning in the mud.

“Try again!”

I try a second time. Slowly, slowly. As I let the clutch out again, something else, something completely different, is registering dimly in my brain. Again the wheels spin: we’re still stuck. Dr Bernard shouts furiously. But I’m not listening, because I’m realising what has been disturbing my thoughts. Long ago when I was a little girl, I got up early one morning and the sun was rising. The orange disk was too bright to look at, but somehow I sensed something was unusual. I got a coloured glass bottle and looked through it at the rising sun, and there was a big bite out of it. An eclipse.

But this time, it’s not the sun itself that looks wrong: it’s the mist.

A mist that was not there five minutes ago. And I notice a brisk, steady breeze, blowing towards us from the direction of the rising sun.

“Dr Bernard! Oberleutnant Seydlitz! I think there is gas. Poison gas, coming at us from the east.”

Dr Bernard steps up into the cab alongside me and looks out. “Where?”

“That line of mist.” And indeed we can now see wisps and skeins of yellow-green fumes, weaving like blurry serpents into the lines of the Canadian trenches.

“Oh Christ. Oh dear Christ, Miss Frocester. We have to get away from here. Try the engine again.” She shouts back to Seydlitz. “Get into the back of the ambulance. Your weight there might tip the balance, help us pull out of the crater. It’s worth trying. Hurry.”

The engine is still running. I start to let the clutch out again, and as I do I see movement all along the horizon, like ants scattering. The Canadian troops are abandoning their trenches in a desperate effort to escape the torture of the gas. And I also see, among them, other figures. Dark uniforms: strange, heavy helmets. Their faces are masked in white, but with black circles for eyes. For all the world they look like an army of skeletons rising from the earth.

I let the clutch out a little further, feel the bite of the transmission.

Crash! The windscreen shatters in my face, glass flying into my eyes. What’s happening now?

I open my eyes again, and I realise I can still see. I can feel fragments of glass sticking here and there into my face. I see a blur of blood colouring my vision, in the corner of one eye.

“Frocester! We’re being shot at!!!”

I see Dr Bernard’s face at the side window of the cab. “Try once more, for God’s sake, Frocester.”

“How about reverse?”

“Yes, yes. Anything.”

So this time I try the reverse gear. I lift my foot very, very slowly off the clutch pedal. And then my ears explode, with the sound of another rifle shot.

I see Dr Bernard’s face again at the window of the cab. But this time, she’s standing a couple of feet back from the ambulance, and I see her shoulders, her arms. The whole lower left arm is drenched in red.

I must concentrate: clutch pedal. But I look up, and I see an extraordinary, utterly unexpected sight. I see, in the field to the right of us, two British Army uniforms: two soldiers, crouched maybe fifty yards from us. I realise that I recognise the face of one: Corporal Tasker. I can’t see the other one. Both have their rifles out and pointing at us.

“Dr Bernard! Get back into the back of the ambulance. They’re shooting at us. British soldiers are shooting at us.”

Then I hear the crack of a third shot.

“Oh God! Oh God, Frocester!”

I let the clutch pedal out fully, and I feel the gears biting, the movement of the ambulance – backwards. The front wheel is out of the crater, and we’re moving backwards, away from the gas and the advancing Germans.

I can hear Dr Bernard opening the door at the back of the ambulance so that she can see where we are going, as we start to trundle backwards.

“Left a bit, Frocester!”

Your left? Or my left?”

“My left.” I’ve never driven, and steering a vehicle backwards feels weird, counter-intuitive. I need clear instructions. But at the same time I glance across into the field, at Tasker and the other soldier: we’re moving fast now, and they are just tiny khaki dots against the brown expanse of the field. It’s harder to hit a moving target, I think. I concentrate on processing the instructions from Dr Bernard, turning the steering wheel to the left, then to the right, then to the left again as we back along the twisting lane. No more shots have been fired. But as I turn the wheel again, I sense my tongue pushing against the roof of my mouth, involuntarily. An utterly strange, metallic, taste, and I feel a choking sensation in my throat.

Keep going. My hands grip the wheel, and I attend to Dr Bernard’s shouts. “Left! A bit more, left! Now right!” My eyes smart, blink, then I shut them as I feel a hot, jabbing sensation in my eyeballs. I blink, I look behind us again, and I see a dim greenish mist creeping along the ground, skeins and tendrils wrapping around the stones and clumps of earth.

“Right a little!” I listen for instructions, move the wheel. I might as well keep my eyes shut, I think. All I can do is grip the wheel, hold my breath, and listen to Dr Bernard’s instructions. We’re still moving, still reversing down the lane, and I just keep listening and steering, listening and steering. There’s a massive jolt: if we’ve hit a crater, we’re finished. But no, we carry on moving. I’m still holding my breath: can I inhale yet? I try to half-open my eyes to look, but the stinging is like fire, my sight is blurred with fluid, and I daren’t open them further. I hold my mouth shut as long as I can, but now I have to take a breath. This time it’s like a flame searing the inside of my mouth and nose: the pain explodes inside my head and I shake like a leaf. But I must keep gripping the wheel.

“Right! Now left, left!”

White-hot pain: never, ever did I imagine anything could feel as bad as this. I just must keep control of my arms, that’s all that matters. Right, now left, left. I feel my whole head and chest are incandescent, but I hold that one thing: keep control of my hands, my grip on the steering wheel, and I process Dr Bernard’s instructions. “Left”. Another bump in the road, and yet another, a bigger one, and I think this must be the end, this is the end of me, Agnes Frocester. Eyes shut, blind, nothing but black agony. An image appears among the pain: my Mama and Papa, getting the news that I’m dead, gassed to death, a horror they will live with for the rest of their lives. But I keep my grip on the wheel, I hear “Keep straight now!” and we’re moving faster. It must be a straighter stretch of road. I can’t look, I can’t see anything, I keep listening. But now I have to take another breath, and thank God in Heaven, it’s slightly easier. I breathe again, more deeply, and keep listening for Dr Bernard’s instructions. And now I can hear other voices, Canadian accents again.

“Nurse! Nurse! You there, driving the van! Stop, stop. We’ll help you.”

I still can’t open my eyes, but I think: whoever is speaking to me, they can see, they can use their eyes. I want to carry on driving, carry on moving to escape the gas, but I bring the ambulance to a halt.

“Thanks, Nurse. We’re escaping the gas.”

“I can’t see you.”

“Yes you can. Open your eyes.”

I blink: the stinging in my eyeballs is still fierce, but yes, I can make out the shapes of men, three of them, standing around the ambulance. I blink again, and I see Dr Bernard.

“Miss Frocester. These soldiers will help us turn the ambulance around. One of them can drive it. So, we can all drive back to Ypres, if we can find the way. The gas is still moving this way. There’s less of it, now, but we need to get back to Ypres. Because we are in the middle of a full-scale retreat.”

I start coughing and spluttering. “Miss Frocester, take my hand, step down from the cab. I’m afraid I have some more bad news.”

Everything suddenly seems strangely calm: there’s a silence, and Dr Bernard leads me past the soldiers to the back door of the ambulance. I can hear Dr Bernard speaking.

“Those British soldiers back there…”

“Yes, Dr Bernard. They were shooting at us.”

“I know. Now look.”

I blink again, and I see blood, the red shadow all down Dr Bernard’s arm. Even now I don’t understand what has happened, but with her other arm, Dr Bernard is pointing at the door, and my gaze follows her fingers. Through the stinging in my eyes, I can see into the interior of the ambulance. Everywhere – sides, floor, ceiling, is splattered with red, crimson drops: they are scattered evenly, almost deliberately, like a polka-dot pattern. The pattern radiates from a single point, and I gaze at a blackened hole, the size of a bullet, in the forehead of the fair, freckled face of Walther Seydlitz.

 


Murder on the Titanic

As the Titanic sinks, a notorious playboy aristocrat is hideously murdered. To find the killer, Professor Axelson and his assistant Agnes question the survivors under hypnosis. As eyewitnesses vividly relive the horror of the sinking, a dark conspiracy is revealed among the most powerful nations on earth. The quest becomes a breakneck life-and-death chase across an ocean and two continents... ...and Agnes finds, as the whole world stands on the brink of war, that she alone has the power to save it. Or destroy it.

  • Author: Evelyn Weiss
  • Published: 2017-03-15 21:20:23
  • Words: 134276
Murder on the Titanic Murder on the Titanic