Trouble with lichen, p.10
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.10

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘That was better, but unless it also occurs somewhere else altogether, there’s no doubt that the supply is quite limited. However, I was able to commission the locals for an annual collection of a standard quantity, and Mr McMurtie made arrangements by which it is taken down to Dairen, and eventually shipped here via Nagasaki. I did my best to work out a quantity which would not deplete it, but the Tertius is so slow growing, and there can’t be much margin. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any reliable way of finding out just how it’s holding up, short of going there to see. We can’t hope to increase the supply much unless we find some other sites, or discover some other species which will also yield lichenin.

  ‘In fact, I never did like the supply position at all. It’s worked all right so far – presumably because nobody but us has ever been interested. But any trouble in those parts might cut it off entirely. What’s more, not only is the stuff under Chinese control, but if the Russians were to hear of it and taken an interest in it, well, it’s in a sort of promontory of Manchuria, with the Russian frontier no more than two hundred miles away, in three directions….

  ‘I tell you this because I think someone ought to know. I have a feeling that the thing cannot be kept quiet much longer, but when it does come out, the real source of the supplies is one thing that must not in any circumstances be made public. I’m sure your father appreciates that as much as I do, but I’d like you to mention it to him. I’ve laid my own red herring trail. In fact, I’ve got quite a flock of red herrings for defence in depth. I very much hope he has, too. As for yourself, you’re only one of the subjects treated. If you are ever questioned; first, you don’t know anything about any lichens; second, you haven’t the least idea where it came from. It’s vitally important that the source shouldn’t be known; but it’s just about as important that knowledge of it shouldn’t be lost. I, or your father, or both of us, will be the chief targets, of course, and – you never can tell. It’ll be a matter of life and death, you know.’

  ‘I’m beginning to understand,’ said Zephanie.

  ‘Well, once that was fixed,’ Diana went on, ‘I came back here, and I went into business. – And,’ she added, looking round the room, and out at the little garden, ‘I’ve done pretty well at it. Why not?’

  Zephanie did not respond. She remained sunk in thought, blankly staring at a painting on the wall. Then she turned and looked at Diana.

  ‘I wish you’d not told me that – about the source of the lichen, I mean.’

  ‘If only you knew how often I’ve wished I’d never seen any lichen at all,’ said Diana.

  ‘No, it’s that I’m not to be trusted,’ Zephanie told her, and explained about Richard.

  Diana considered her thoughtfully.

  ‘You’d had a shock, of course, a considerable shock. I shouldn’t think it’s likely to happen a second time.’

  ‘No. I understand it better now. I was so muddled. It seemed as if I were all by myself then. Just me, trying to face it all alone. I was frightened, but now I know there are lots of us, it’s different. All the same there’s no excuse – I did let it out.’

  ‘Did he believe it – or did he just think you were being silly?’

  ‘I – I’m not sure. He must know there was something in it, I think.’

  Diana considered again.

  ‘This young man, Richard. What sort of a young man? Brains or beef?’

  ‘Both,’ said Zephanie.

  ‘Fortunate young man. Do you trust him?’

  ‘I’m going to marry him,’ Zephanie said sharply.

  ‘That’s no answer. Women are constantly marrying men they don’t trust. What’s his job?’

  ‘He’s a lawyer.’

  ‘He ought to have some idea of discretion then, at least. If you have confidence in him, take him down to see your father, and have it out. If you haven’t, tell me now.’

  ‘I have,’ Zephanie told her.

  ‘Very well. Then do that before he decides to start looking for the fire behind the smoke, on his own account.’

  ‘But –’

  ‘But what? Either you’ve got to let him know more, or shut him up.’

  ‘Yes,’ agreed Zephanie meekly.

  ‘Fine,’ said Diana, with an air of having settled that. ‘Now I want to know a bit more about you. What factor is your father using for you?’

  ‘What what?’

  ‘Factor. Is he increasing your time by three, four, five?’

  ‘Oh, I see. He said three, both Paul and me.’

  ‘I see. Cautious – of course he would be with you two. I’ll bet he’s using a bigger factor himself.’

  ‘You mean it can be longer still? I didn’t know that.’

  ‘I’m using five. It’s safe, but more detectable. The Nefertiti clients are mostly on two, or two and a half, to three.’

  ‘But how on earth can you do it at all without their knowing?’

  ‘Oh, it isn’t difficult. There are so many things an expensive place does in the cause of beauty – and who can sort out which results in what?… And who cares, as long as the consequences are to the good?’ Diana frowned.

  ‘The only thing that has really caused me anxiety is these wretched women who won’t tell us soon enough that they are going to have babies so that one can knock them off the lichenin injections in time to make little difference from normal. I’m always afraid that one day some of the doctors will put their heads together, and some busybody will produce a column of statistics showing that on an average it takes a Nefertiti client longer to have baby than it takes anyone else. That could be awkward, and pretty difficult to explain away harmlessly. However, it hasn’t happened yet….

  ‘In fact, we’ve managed wonderfully smoothly until we came up against this Mrs Wilberry and her damned allergy. That was bad luck. Genuine enough, poor thing. She swelled up quite alarmingly: vivid rash all over; asthmatic congestion causing painful difficulty in breathing. There’s no doubt she had a nasty time of it, but she’d have settled for a few hundreds, and have been glad to, if her lawyer hadn’t worked on her. Ten thousand, he put her up to claiming! Ten thousand – on the strength of a mild recurrence of symptoms whenever she eats mushrooms. Would you believe it! And the man stuck like a mule at five thousand – which is going to be quite trying enough when the news gets round. Mushrooms, my God!’

  Diana gloomed for some moments, but then threw the mood off.

  ‘Perhaps we’ll weather it yet,’ she said. ‘And if we don’t – well, anyway, there can’t be so much longer to run now….’

  7

  Paul’s secretary caught him as he was on the point of leaving the office.

  ‘Dr Saxover’s on the telephone, sir.’

  Paul turned back and picked up the receiver.

  ‘That you, Paul?’ Francis’s voice asked, without warmth.

  ‘Yes, Father.’

  ‘I had a visit from your wife this morning, Paul. I think you might at least have had the courtesy to tell me you had informed her.’

  ‘I did tell you I must tell her, Father. I explained the position as I saw it. And that’s the way I still see it.’

  ‘When did you tell her?’

  ‘The next morning.’

  ‘Five days ago, eh? Did she say anything about coming to see me?’

  ‘Well, yes, she did. But I wasn’t sure if she meant it. We – er – well, we said some rather heated things at the time. Then when she didn’t go down to Darr right away, I thought she might have changed her mind and decided to wait a bit.’

  ‘She didn’t wait very long.’

  ‘What did she want?’

  ‘Really, Paul! What do you think she wanted – demanded?’

  ‘Did you –?’

  ‘Yes, I did. I thought you’d better know.’

  There was a click as the receiver at the other end went down. Paul held his own instrument for some seconds and then put it back on the rest, slowly.

  Jane was not in when he got home
. It was past nine o’clock when she arrived. She went straight to the bedroom, and presently there was the sound of bathwater running. Half an hour later she came into the sitting-room clad in a quilted white dressing-gown. Paul, his third whisky beside him, looked at her with an unamiable expression that she did not bother to notice.

  ‘I’ve been down to Darr,’ she said, with an air of getting it in first.

  ‘So I’ve heard. Why didn’t you tell me you were going?’

  ‘I did.’

  ‘You didn’t tell me when.’

  ‘Would it have made any difference?’

  ‘There are ways and ways of doing things. I could have warned him to expect you.’

  ‘I didn’t want him warned. Why should he have time to think up more reasons for keeping me out of it – leaving me with a short life while the rest of you have long ones? I knew what I meant to get, and I got it.’

  ‘So I gathered. He was pretty terse about it on the telephone.’

  ‘I don’t suppose he liked it. How do you suppose I’ve liked his deliberately excluding me?’

  ‘It wasn’t deliberate – not in the way you mean. Won’t you understand that he’s got to be careful? He’s got to take every precaution against it leaking out. He’s thinking of the disorganization that will follow any hint of it. The responsibility – why look at me like that? This isn’t funny, Jane. It’s very far from funny.’

  ‘I think it is rather. Naïveté is, you know, and a little touching. Bless the boy, I think you really do believe anything your eminent father tells you, don’t you? Isn’t it about time you grew up a bit, my pet? – or does this stuff affect the mind, and keep that young, too?’

  Paul stared at her.

  ‘What on earth are you talking about?’

  ‘Your father, my dear – and his responsibility, and his conscience, and his duty to humanity. Would it surprise you to know that your distinguished father is also an accomplished hypocrite?’

  ‘Really, Jane, I won’t –’

  ‘Yes. I see it really does.’

  ‘Jane. I am not going to –’

  But Jane took no notice of his interruption. She went on:

  ‘You just took in all you were told, didn’t you? It didn’t even occur to you to inquire who this Diana Brackley is, and what she’s doing.’

  ‘I know what she’s doing. She runs Nefertiti Ltd.’

  Jane looked disconcerted for a moment.

  ‘You never told me that.’

  ‘Why should I?’

  She gazed at him hard.

  ‘I really think your father must have you hypnotized, or something. You knew that – and yet you never realized that she’s been acting as the outlet for this stuff for years. Oh, she doesn’t put it across as an antigerone. She simply runs an uncannily successful beauty business. She charges what she likes for her treatments – and gets it. That’s what’s really been happening to the secret which is too dangerous to make public. And a very nice thing they must have been making out of it between them, for years.’

  Paul went on staring at her.

  ‘I don’t believe it.’

  ‘Then why didn’t he deny it?’

  ‘He did to Zephanie. She asked if Diana was his agent. He denied it flatly.’

  ‘He didn’t to me.’

  ‘What did he say?’

  ‘He didn’t say anything much. It wouldn’t have been any good his denying it, anyway. Not once I’d found out.’

  ‘Yes, I’m beginning to understand why he might think that,’ Paul said slowly. ‘What did he do?’

  ‘He did as I asked.’ She put her right hand reminiscently on her left upper arm. ‘He couldn’t very well refuse, could he?’

  Paul went on looking at her, thinking.

  ‘I’d better ring him up,’ he said.

  ‘Why?’ she asked sharply. ‘He’ll just confirm what I told you.’

  Paul said: ‘I told you about this in confidence because I thought that as my wife you had a right to know about it as soon as I did. You knew I’d not leave it at that. You knew I’d see that he gave you this antigerone stuff in due course. Why on earth couldn’t you wait a few days longer instead of resorting to blackmail?’

  ‘Blackmail! Really, Paul –’

  ‘That’s what it was. You know it was. Now God knows what speculations your inquiries about Diana may have stirred up.’

  ‘I’m not altogether a fool, Paul.’

  ‘But you’ve made inquiries of someone, and your married name does happen to be Saxover. I’d better ring Darr.’

  ‘I’ve told you what happened. He was cold, barely polite – but he did it.’

  ‘You mean you think he did it. What I want to know is just what he did do.’

  ‘What do you mean?’ she said uneasily.

  ‘Well, if someone came to me making demands with threats I’m not at all sure I should do exactly as she asked – particularly if I knew that she could have no real way of checking for some time. It would be easy to substitute –’

  He broke off suddenly, disconcerted by the way she was staring at him, noticing that she had gone pale.

  ‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be anything harmful.’

  ‘How – how do I know?’ she said. ‘If he’d play a trick like that – But he didn’t have time. He didn’t know I was coming,’ she added, uncertainly.

  Paul got up.

  ‘At least we can tell whether it looks like the right kind of implant,’ he said. ‘Let me see the incision.’

  ‘No!’ she exclaimed, and in a tone that startled him. He frowned.

  ‘What’s the matter?’ he said. ‘Don’t you want to know whether he gave you the right stuff or not?’

  He reached a hand towards her. She pulled back into her chair.

  ‘No!’ she repeated. ‘Of course it’s all right. Get away from me! Leave me alone!’

  Paul paused, looking down on her curiously.

  ‘This isn’t making sense,’ he said slowly. ‘What are you afraid of?’

  ‘Afraid of? What do you mean?’ He still stood looking at her. She said: ‘I’m sick of this. I told you what happened, and I’m tired. Please get out of the way. I want to go to bed.’

  But Paul moved a short step closer.

  ‘Have you been lying about this, Jane? Wasn’t there an implantation at all?’

  ‘Of course there was.’

  ‘Then I’d like to see.’

  She shook her head.

  ‘Not now, I’m tired out.’

  Paul’s irritation got the better of him. He made a quick snatch and pulled the dressing-gown sleeve down over her left shoulder, far enough to show a neat white bandage round her upper arm. Paul looked at it.

  ‘I see,’ he said.

  ‘It’s a pity you can’t take my word for it,’ she said coldly.

  He shook his head slowly.

  ‘You aren’t making it easy to take your word,’ he told her. ‘I know very well how my father dresses the wound afterwards. That’s not his way of doing it.’

  ‘No,’ she agreed. ‘The blood soaked through. I had to put on a new one.’

  ‘And you managed that neat dressing single-handed? How clever of you.’ He paused, and then went on in a voice that had hardened. ‘Now, I’ve had about enough of this. What else have you been up to? What is it you’re trying to hide?’

  Jane attempted to recapture her earlier manner, but it was a poor imitation. She’d never known him to look at her with the expression he wore now, and her confidence in her ability to manage him was wilting.

  ‘Hide?’ she repeated, unconvincingly. ‘I don’t know what you mean. I’ve just told you…’

  ‘You’ve just told me that you held up my father with threats. What I want to know is what else you’ve been up to – and I intend to find out….’ Paul told her.

  ∗

  Up on the fifth floor of the deliberately unostentatious building off Curzon Street where Nefertiti Ltd carried out its m
ission the communicator on Diana’s desk gave a subdued buzz. She flipped a switch. The attenuated voice of her secretary said:

  ‘I have a Miss Brendon here from the second floor, Miss Brackley. She’s very anxious to see you. I have told her that the proper approach is through Miss Rollridge but she still insists that she must see you herself, on a personal matter. She has been up here twice already today.’

  ‘She’s with you now, Sarah?’

  ‘Yes, Miss Brackley.’

  Diana considered. She decided that even a third approach would not have got past Sarah Tallwyn unless there was a good reason.

  ‘Very well, then, Sarah. I’ll see her.’

  Miss Brendon was ushered in. She turned out to be a small, pretty, golden-haired girl; somewhat doll-like until you noticed the set of her chin, the line of her mouth, and the still-lingering light of battle in her blue eyes. Diana studied her, and she, with almost equal candour, studied Diana.

  ‘Why didn’t you put it through Miss Rollridge?’ Diana inquired.

  ‘I would have done, if it had been an administrative matter,’ the girl told her. ‘But you are my employer, and I thought you ought to know. Besides…’

  ‘Besides – what?’

  ‘Well, I thought it might be better if other people didn’t know.’

  ‘Even the director of your department?’

  Miss Brendon hesitated.

  ‘People talk such a lot in this place,’ she said.

  Diana nodded slowly.

  ‘Well now, what is it?’ she asked.

  The girl said:

  ‘I went to a party last night, Miss Brackley. Just a meal and dancing in a kind of club. There were six of us. The only one I knew was the man who invited me. While we were eating, they started talking about Mrs Wilberry. One of the men said he was interested in allergies, and wondered what could have caused hers. My friend who’d taken me said I worked at Nefertiti, so I ought to know. Of course, I said I didn’t, because I don’t. But this other man kept on talking about it, and kind of slipping in questions now and then. After a bit I began to have a feeling that the whole thing about Mrs Wilberry hadn’t come up by accident – I couldn’t say quite why. Well, this other man was very attentive to me during the evening, and in the end he invited me to come out with him tonight. I didn’t much want to, so I said I couldn’t. He suggested tomorrow night. So I said I’d let him know, thinking it would be easier to refuse over the telephone.’ She paused. ‘I suppose I look a bit green, but I’m not really. I wondered why he was turning on the charm, and I thought over the questions he’d been asking about Nefertiti. So I made some inquiries about him, and found out that he is a journalist, quite a well-known one, I think, called Marlin. He works for the Sunday Prole.’

 
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