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Authors: Anthony Price

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The Labyrinth Makers

BOOK: The Labyrinth Makers
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I

Every August 14 for twenty-three years Mrs Steerforth put the same In Memoriam notice in the
Daily Telegraph:

STEERFORTH
, John Adair Steerforth, Flt Lieut, DFC, RAFVR. Lost at sea, September 1945. On this, his birthday, not forgotten
.

–Mother.

It was not Mrs Steerforth's fault that the notice was inaccurate. She had spent a whole week composing it, adding words and then subtracting them, until in the end she decided that brevity was the soul of dignity.

The words 'not forgotten' were her only concession to sentiment, and they were the direct result of the inaccuracy. It was the thought of the cold and restless sea that made her heart ache; she was resigned to her son's death, but not to his lack of a known grave.

So for Mrs Steerforth the draining of the lake brought a sort of happiness: she was able to bury her son at last.

By the time Audley became involved with them, the lake, the aircraft and the man had parted company.

The lake no longer existed and the aircraft was spread out over the floor of a hangar at Farnborough. The man had been collected and taken away in a large cardboard box and later reassembled with unnecessary care in a much larger wooden one.

Audley never actually saw any of them, except in photographs. There would have been no point in his doing so, even had it been possible. The reports were clear and adequate; he wouldn't have found anything more of value, for there had been nothing of value to find.

Yet he saw that lost lake many times in his mind's eye. Not as it had become, a marshy puddle in a muddy wasteland. And not, perhaps, as it had been on the day it had closed over Steerforth. The overhanging trees grew taller in his vision, the enveloping weed was thicker and the water more rank. He saw it as the remote and secret place it was, a drowner of small adventurous boys which had lost its reason for existing when the mansion on the hillside above it had burned a century earlier.

Then Steerforth had given it back a new reason for being there, a secret of its very own.

But it was not the moment of impact he saw. He could never even decide whether it was skill or chance that slipped the plane so exactly between the random beeches and set it down so precisely. Chance more likely, for in that torrential downpour a frantic pilot could have seen little. And luck could be so cruel, certainly.

It was the long decay afterwards which he saw, and the slow journey to nowhere.

He saw Steerforth changing into a horror, and a gorgeous windfall for millions of tiny, hungry eaters; and then into a mere framework, Icarus turned Yorick. And in that framework generations of pond life in turn lived and died, untroubled except for the small upheavals of bones and buckles, buttons and fastenings, each settling into its natural resting place.

And he saw the night when that well-ordered world ended.

The lake did not die in one spectacular cataract, but slowly and without fuss. In the darkness no one saw the streams rise further down the valley; and no one heard the slither and splash as matted balls of weed slid down the fuselage and engine cowlings, scouring the mud to reveal the faded khaki drab beneath.

Yet by dawn the Dakota had ceased for ever to be part of the ecology of the pond. It had regained its shape as an intruder, squatting in a shallow pool surrounded by mud flats.

No going back now; John Steerforth, loving son, not-so-loving husband, sometime hero, sometime villain, had surfaced at long last. A man who had left the footprints of trouble behind him–and time had just not quite succeeded in obliterating them.

A few more years, and his reappearance wouldn't have mattered: a natural statute of limitations would have neutralized him for ever. But now he was waiting for the unwitting causes of his resurrection.

Audley saw them lumping up the track beside the muddy scar of the natural gas pipeline–the track which their machines had gouged across the lower edge of the lake with such disastrous results. Sour-stomached after a weekend's drinking, the sons and natural sons of a long line of canal-cutting, railway-laying, tunnel-digging Irishmen.

First they saw the flooded pipe-trench, some stolidly, some gleefully, only the foreman aghast. And then one of them looked up the valley …

Audley's vision always faded at that precise point, where the official records began. First the navvies, then the police. After the police, in a welter of garbled air disaster messages, an ambulance which would have been too late almost a quarter of a century earlier.

Then, in the exhaust of the ambulance, the first journalist had arrived, exulting in a fine off-beat story which had broken in time for the midday editions.

And last of all, an RAF crash crew, baffled at finding a plane they hadn't lost.

It was the RAF who eventually stirred the dusty files and set them on the move towards Audley. But it was the journalists who first introduced him to Steerforth. In
The Times
the introduction was brief and formal: Wartime RAF/ wreck is/discovered; with more panache, however, the
Daily Mirror
splashed ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT is FOUND above a superb photograph.

Both introductions were incomplete, for the first facts were vague. It was as yet simply an echo of a supposedly wartime tragedy, with names withheld. But it was the picture and not the text that stirred Audley's imagination in any case. It reminded him of another picture he had seen years before of the barnacle-covered bones of a Lancaster bomber which had appeared briefly on a North Sea sandbank during an exceptionally low tide. The Dakota in the lake shared the same atmosphere of loneliness and loss, which not even the self-conscious airmen in gumboots posed beside-it could altogether dissolve.

But where Audley had looked and read, and then had turned to another page, there were others who had read between the lines — painstaking, unimaginative men chosen for their retentive memories, whose job it was never to forget names and faces. Steerforth and his Dakota had been on their lists as long as any of them could remember, unremarked until tracked down at long last. Even then it was not their business to ask questions; to take the appropriate action had always been the limit of their satisfaction.

Yet that in the end was enough to make Steerforth's resurrection certain and to set Audley's phone ringing before dawn just one week later.

As a child Audley had feared and hated the telephone bell. At the first ring he was off like a jack-rabbit in search of cover, desperate to avoid being sent to answer it. When cornered he was always too nervous to listen properly, but stood sweating and tongue-tied until the exasperated caller rang off. 'Is the boy deaf or just plain stupid?' he remembered his father ask rhetorically.

Long since he had taken the measure of the beast, but his hatred remained. He would not have it beside his bed, and even the Department now accepted that no one should phone him at home except in the direst emergency.

That knowledge, and the looseness of his pyjama cord, filled his half-awake mind as he shuffled unhappily through the house, fumbling, blinking and grunting as he switched on each light in turn. Only in the direst emergency …

It was one of Fred's middlemen. Disarmingly apologetic, deferential, precise–and leaving not a millimetre for argument.

He replaced the receiver and settled his glasses firmly on his nose. To be hauled out of his warm soft bed at such an hour was bad enough. To be then summoned to London at the same hour was worse: it suggested that someone had been caught with his trousers down, or his pyjama trousers even.

But to be required in addition to dress for a funeral–that was utterly ridiculous!

Funerals meant going outside, into the field, among strangers. And he was not a field man, never had been and never wanted to be. The back room among the files and the reports was his field. It was far more interesting there, more rewarding and infinitely more comfortable. And it was the only place he was any good.

He sat at his desk, staring into the night outside. No one he knew had died recently. He focused on the darkness and his mind wandered away into it. Two hours to dawn maybe; the dying time now, when those who had fought hardest in their hospital beds suddenly gave up the struggle. This hour, this blackness, suddenly reminded him of long-forgotten boarding school ends-of-term. The boys with the furthest to go got up now, all excitement, to catch the earliest trains. He had caught a much later train, with no particular joy.

Methodically he switched on the tea machine, showered, drank the tea. The Israelis were certainly not up to anything. Shapiro could be relied on there at least. And the Russian ships were in the wrong place for the Arabs to try anything important.

Uncalled for and long forgotten end-of-term memories intruded. He remembered the boy in the next bed for the first time in over twenty years. Which was interesting: it meant that the right key unlocked a whole set of memories, and then one could recall and clarify the past, flexing the memory like the muscles.

Whose funeral? Half-dressed, trailing a faint smell of mothballs and fumbling with his ancient black tie, Audley decided he was hungry. But there was no time and his funereal suit reminded him that he had to watch his weight now. Where once the trousers had needed braces, now they were self-supporting.

He opened the safe and removed the files on which he had been working. Ever since May '67 they had expected marvels from him. And that had been no miracle, but mere exasperation and lurking sympathy for the Israelis. They had ignored it, anyway, just as they had ignored the Lebanese report and the Libyan one before it.

Audley sighed. It was not Fred's fault, he thought. Fred was good. Perhaps it was his own fault, a defect in presentation. The difficult thing is not the answer, he reflected, but the working.

The light grew as he drove. No rain today, but a cold, unseasonable wind, just right for a funeral to cull the weaker mourners. The countryside was only just waking up, but the towers of London were already ablaze with light, and there was much more traffic than he expected. Every year it started earlier and ended later, and one day the start and the end would be indistinguishable. I must retire early, he thought. To Cambridge.

With malicious pleasure he parked in one of the habitual early birds' places, near the entrance. Here there were fewer lighted windows, surprisingly–except for a row high up, with one blank window in the middle. So that's my room, Audley thought.

Inside the sergeant's eyebrows raised fractionally as he passed. But it gave him no pleasure. Only by order, routine and unchanging habit could the hostile world be kept at bay. Even the presence of Mrs Harlin in her usual place–Mrs Harlin certainly represented all those virtues–could not turn 6 a.m. into 10.

But it was simple common sense not to take his irritation and disquiet out on Mrs Harlin. She was the source of certain simple comforts, and in any case secretarial staff were taboo. In his limited experience Audley had observed that those who took advantage of secretaries, either mentally or physically, usually lived to regret it.

He could not bring himself to wish her a good morning, however, but only the tortured semblance of a smile. And she rewarded him by editing her welcome to a stately and sympathetic nod.

'Dr Audley–Sir Frederick wishes me to tell you that there is a file on your desk. If you would let him have your observations on it in the conference room at 7 o'clock he would be most grateful. The regular records staff is not available yet, so if you require anything else perhaps you could ask me?'

Audley blinked and nodded.

'And I am just about to prepare a pot of tea for Sir Frederick. May I bring you a cup?'

'That would be very kind, Mrs Harlin.'

The world was upside down, and he, the last man right way up, had to go along with it. Even his own familiar room seemed in the circumstances unfamiliar, with darkness outside, but without the atmosphere of a day's work done.

His only comfort lay in the file itself, which was not too thick and freshly photo-copied. Sixty minutes allowed, and he no longer felt any disquiet, only that old examination thrill. He extracted a red biro from his breast pocket and a fresh notebook from his stationery drawer.

BOOK: The Labyrinth Makers
3.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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