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Fenlanding

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It would be lovely just to end the story there; but of course that would be too neat.  Reality isn’t so tidy.  The airfield at Fenland might still have a usable concrete runway from the war.  That didn’t mean that either the Flying Club or Tom’s charter firm had ever landed a plane the size of the DC4.  There was no ramp; and that was an absolute necessity if the horses were to be taken off, let alone that monstrosity of a case holding whatever-it-was that Yardman had been trying to smuggle out of Italy.

I did think of opening the forward door and using the telescopic ladder to climb down and explain.  (I surely owed Tom that much.)  When I moved to get up, though, my legs felt impossibly stiff; my side hurt rather more than I’d thought it would; and … well, it somehow seemed to be just too much bother to be worth the effort.

They could wait.  Even Tom.

I put my head down on my hands, and fell asleep.

 


 

Later, I heard something of what happened in the next couple of hours—mostly from Tom, when he was allowed to visit me. Above, the American fighters circled.  Someone, somewhere, was calling out reinforcements.  Meanwhile, from his perspective, a large mysterious airplane sat on the concrete, come from God knows where, having made an emergency landing for who-knew-what reason.

Eventually, he gave up shouting and went to find a ladder long enough to reach.  At the time the first police car arrived, he was apparently twenty feet up in the air banging on the back doors of the plane trying to rouse someone inside.  He had, of course, no idea who had landed it.  I’d told him little or nothing about my job at Yardman Transport, wanting to preserve my anonymity.  To him, I was simply “Harry”; and he’d never asked much more.  Meanwhile, seemingly without end, people continued to arrive down below him at ground level, all clamouring for answers that he couldn’t give.  It was not surprising that they found the situation less than satisfactory.  Shortly, he was summoned down to give such an account as he could; and his place up the ladder was taken by a uniformed constable with a head for heights.

Rous-Wheeler called out, unintelligibly through the hull; so at least they knew they weren’t dealing with an aerial Marie Celeste.  Still, he had trouble getting them to understand that he was tied up.  (The police may perhaps have interpreted this colloquially, which no doubt improved their tempers.)  Outside, apparently, there was talk of fetching an oxyacetylene torch and cutting through.  Tom was, not surprisingly, less than keen on the prospect, having a professional appreciation of the flammability of air fuel.

Somehow I managed to sleep through it all.

In the end, oddly enough, it was Patrick who staggered down the hull to the rear of the plane and unlatched the back doors.  I suppose he was coming up to full consciousness anyway, heard the noise, and responded on pure instinct.  When they started to question him, though, he couldn’t remember anything after our flight down to Milan.  In consequence, he assumed himself to be suffering from a hangover.  Once he grasped that we were back in England, he naturally also assumed he’d piloted the plane home.  Given the official consequences of flying under the influence, this sent him into a bewildered, incoherent panic.  Fortunately, around that point some observant soul spotted his head injury.

At that, of course, they pressed on inside.  There they found Rous-Wheeler wired up to the seat anchorage, discovered Mike’s body behind the cockpit and Bob dead in the copilot’s seat, and failed to get me fully awake.  They may at first have thought me equally dead for all I know.  At any rate, I have a vague memory of someone’s hand at my throat; and I’m fairly sure I roused in momentary alarm.  However, the sound of official voices must have been perversely reassuring for I only regained actual consciousness in a hospital bed in Lincoln.  A uniformed policeman sat stolidly by the bed.

Discovering myself handcuffed to the rails, I decided discretion was the better part of cooperation and asked for a lawyer.  What I got was the doctor on duty.  He addressed me by name, which didn't puzzle me at first, probably because I'd been put on some sort of pain medication.  Later, I concluded that the authorities must have gone through my pockets and found my passport.  At some point, my clothes had been removed and, under the sheet, I was in the usual hospital gown.  My free hand gingerly explored my side and found bandages.  

I suppose Rous-Wheeler must have been at the local nick helping with enquiries.  Or not, if he had any sense.  At any rate, an Inspector Andrews came to discuss sundry crimes with me, only a few of which I’d actually committed, and to none of which I confessed.  That I’d broken half the Air Ministry regulations in the book—well, that bird would come to roost sooner or later, at which point I might well find myself grounded for life.  Oddly, the Inspector was interested in other matters entirely, starting with my landing at Fenland without checking in first with either immigration or customs.  Also there was the matter of two corpses, though he didn’t quite clarify whether he was accusing me of murder or complaining about my failure to declare them upon entry.

Whether or not anyone passed along my request for a solicitor, the family had one on retainer.  It is possible that by that time events had hit the daily papers.  At any rate, he pried himself from the job of saving something of the estate from death duties, and turned up at the hospital in time to play British bulldog by the bedside.  The Inspector retreated; the uniformed bobby took up duties outside the door (possibly with his ear to the keyhole); and I did my best to summarize the last few weeks as succinctly as possible.  I expected incredulity; but the sort of solicitor patronized by the Creggans is trained to imperturbability from his first day in chambers.  How much did he take in?  His face gave no clue.

“As I see it,” I finished, “the real problem is the Air Control Board.  The rest of it can be sorted out easily enough.”

He ticked off the list.  “You flew a plane for which you don’t have a licence, without filing a flight plan, across several international borders, with no radio or instruments for navigation.  The plane did turn up on radar, I assume; but there was no way for anyone to identify it.  On the other hand, you uncovered an international smuggling ring, caught a defector, and kept some fancy new Italian technology from landing up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.”

“Pretty well.”

“And got yourself, you friend Patrick, the defector, and … four horses … all safely back home to England.”

I nodded.

“I seem to have heard of a certain old Chinese curse,” he said drily.  “Clearly, you’ve decided to make my life interesting.”  With that, he smiled unexpectedly, said “Leave it to me”, and left.

As the constable did not return to the room, I spent the rest of the day alone, apart from occasional checks by the nurse on duty.  I can't complain about the quality of medical service at the hospital; but white sheets and green-painted walls are boring company.  I was in a private room (and, being a private sort of person, I had no complaint about that); but I remained in isolation for far too long.  Visitors, I supposed, were barred.  Probably by the police, not the doctors.  If Tom came, they did not let him in.  Nor did any of my old pals from the Anglia Bloodstock Agency turn up.  At least my being under police guard kept the reporters away.  

For once, though, the family connections proved to be on my side.  Lady Alice Grey was harder to refuse.  On the following day, therefore, the barricade was lowered and I had my first real visitor.  My sister arrived with grapes and flowers, asked how I was feeling, and left after a half an hour with neither of us having said anything of importance. Tritely uneventful, in fact.  In the ordinary way I'd have been ungrateful; but, as it was, I was glad of the break in routine.  

In the afternoon, the Inspector turned up again.  I asked about Gabriella; but he seemed to know nothing, which was not especially surprising.  We went over everything for the umpteenth time; and, if I remembered a few more details, I certainly didn’t change the gist of my story.  Well, “story” was his word.

He wouldn't tell me how the case was progressing.  Towards the end, though, he unbent a little and told me that I’d caused everyone a “right nuisance” bringing the mares back with me.  They were apparently still on the plane, poor beasts.  Customs refused to let them onto British soil; the breeders were on tenterhooks that one of them would drop her foal early; and the owners back in Italy were “doing their nut”.  Arrangements had had to be made to have them properly cared for, even though the plane was still a crime scene.

“I dare say by tomorrow they’ll be in quarantine somewhere,” he finished.  “You were head travelling lad at Yardman Transport, my lord.  What happened to their paperwork?  We looked through your pockets….”

But on that last flight, Yardman himself had decided to come along, since we were short-handed.  (Or so he had told me.)  At any rate, he’d carried the documents himself.

“Are you in contact with the Italian police?” I asked.  But, of course, he wouldn’t say.  Into his silence, I read a negative:  I could quite see how, to the British police, this was a local case.  In such circumstances, there was no point in asking him to find out Gabriella’s fate.

Patrick was released from observation later that day, having recovered most of the missing hours of memory.  Before leaving the hospital, he came by to assure me that he’d backed up my version of events as far as possible.  He couldn’t remember being shot; but, as he’d piloted the plane to the final rendezvous after Mike and Bob were killed, he could at least point the police to the real killer.

“Not that they’ll catch him,” he opined with uncharacteristic gloominess.  “Yardman’ll never return to Britain; and by now his employers will have whisked him away to safe exile in Russia.”  (Which, indeed, proved true.  Some months later, Alf was extradited from Italy to England and eventually stood trial as an accomplice.  Unfairly, in my opinion.  They wanted a scapegoat, basically; and, with Billy dead and Yardman gone, he was all they could settle for.  He got five years.)

The next day, the atmosphere was much easier; and I assumed that, with Patrick’s testimony (and anything they’d got out of Rous-Wheeler), the police had at least decided that I wasn’t a mad murderer.  In the morning, my sister visited again, rather more inclined to talk.  Admittedly mostly about the necessity of my choosing a debutante to produce an heir to the title before I got myself killed in some other “mad prank”.  I stifled my response.  What I wanted, of course, was to get out of the hospital and get my life back.  However, she assured me that it would be better for everyone if I stayed as a private patient for as long as possible.   I rather got the impression that the family was finding the press a confounded nuisance.

That evening Tom came by, oddly awkward.  He brought a box of Quality Street, of all things.  Probably, his wife’s idea.  He didn’t bring a newspaper, unfortunately.  I would have liked to see one, if only to catch up on the rest of the world.    

There was, of course, no point in asking him about Gabriella.  I’d always kept my flying separate from my private life.  He would know nothing about her.

I broke the ice by asking about the DC4.  It had been taxied away, he told me, and parked down the old runway under police guard.  He relaxed, telling me his side of my arrival:  coping with police, security from the American base, immigration officials, MI5….

“No, I’m serious!” he said (not that I doubted him).  “MI5!  Not that they identified themselves, but I’m pretty sure that’s who they were. They wanted to talk to that Roose-Evers chap, but he kept pretty schtum once they got the wire off him.  He’s still not talking.”

I thought of saying that, with Yardman Transport obviously defunct, I was now out of work.  However, I still had no idea what whether I’d be able to take the job he’d offered.  There was no point in raising his hopes at this point.  Time enough to bring it up after my hearing.

In fact, when my case finally came up, our solicitor pointed out that, had I not flown the DC4 off the airfield in Italy, Patrick would have died. “Necessity”, I learned, is a legitimate legal defence.  My acquittal in the court of public opinion probably didn’t hurt, either.  Judges are human, too.  At any rate, I kept my licence.  I did not, however, take a job with Tom’s charter firm.  I continued to fly out of Fenland; so inevitably we ran into one another.  Still, although we chatted, the subject somehow never came up.  In the end, I saw that it was one thing for him to offer a job to Harry, and quite another to hire the Earl of Creggan.

Long before then, I learned about Gabriella.

As for my future employment … well, Julian got over his jaundice before the end of the season.  Long before then, I’d told his father that I wouldn’t be riding for him after that.  They only kept a few horses, after all, mostly for Julian to race; and, as I explained, if he was hors de combat in the future, I wouldn’t be available.

I had applied for a professional licence.