Trouble with lichen, p.14
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.14

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘My dear Diana, you, of all people, ought to be aware of an imitation when you see one. That’s what used to puzzle me so much about you. I do my imitation because I married into circumstances which require it. But why, I used to ask myself, does Diana do hers? And I couldn’t find an answer.’

  ‘Used to?’ Diana repeated. ‘Don’t you now?’

  ‘Well, a continuously unanswered question can grow tedious, can’t it?’ Janet Tewley said evasively. ‘However, you’ll want to know what I came about.’

  Diana nodded.

  ‘I’m afraid it isn’t very pleasant,’ Janet went on. ‘Our rather chic and expensive set is about as full of monotonously dirty washing as a laundry on Mondays, as you can scarcely fail to know.’

  ‘In a general way, yes,’ Diana admitted.

  ‘That’s what I admire about you, Diana. I imagine that practically every member of your staff knows every sordid detail, and you just don’t bother with them.’

  ‘Should I?’

  ‘Well, considering that you preside over this gossip-exchange… Anyway, I take it you won’t have heard about my affair with a Mr Smelton yet?’

  Diana shook her head.

  Janet rummaged in the bag that exactly matched her suit. Presently she produced a flexible gold bracelet set with diamonds, and placed it on Diana’s desk, where it twinkled lustrously.

  ‘Nice, isn’t it – Horace Smelton gave it me for my birthday. It’s what fishermen call a spinner, I think – or do I mean a spoon? Anyway, one of those things one is supposed to gobble up…’ She regarded it reflectively. ‘The funny thing is,’ she went on, ‘that although it was Horace who gave it to me, it was my husband who bought it. I just happened to find that out. And it was my husband who introduced Horace to me about a couple of months ago…

  ‘I don’t want to make a long saga of this, but your staff probably know, if you don’t, that my husband and I have been on, well, just formal terms for nearly three years now. We put up a show in public, but that’s about all. So what, I wondered, was going on?

  ‘At first glance one might think he wanted to land me in a mess for purposes of divorce. He isn’t a very nice man, you know. But when I thought it over, there were several reasons why that wouldn’t do. So I decided to try to discover the real reason. It seemed to me that there must be something he wanted to find out, but since we are practically not on speaking terms in private, it wasn’t much good his asking me anything directly. Well, Horace is quite an attractive man, even if he is a snake in the grass, so I played along – not too much encouragement, but no definite repulse.’

  Janet Tewley dropped the end of her cigarette into the ash-tray, and lit another.

  ‘To cut it short,’ she resumed, ‘I noticed that Nefertiti seemed to be cropping up in our conversations now and then. Oh, Horace is quite subtle, but I was watching for any recurring theme, so I tried a ploy or two, and praised the results of your seaweed discovery. He played it gently. He didn’t immediately say that the stuff about seaweed was sheer eyewash; he just let that come out later. In due course, we got around to a proposition. If we could get hold of specimens of all the various things you use in Nefertiti, particularly anything that is injected, he knew of people who would be willing to give a good price for them. If I could induce one of your girls to tell me anything about your raw materials, that would be valuable, too. If she could get me a little, even a small fragment, of a particular raw material, one that would very likely look like a bit of lichen, they would pay a very good price indeed.

  ‘When I thought that over, I remembered that Alec, my husband, has a very old friend who is a director of Sandworth Chemical Products, Limited.’

  Janet paused again, and shook her head gently.

  ‘In fact, Diana, I have an impression that the jig is very nearly up.’

  Diana looked at her steadily.

  ‘The jig?’ she inquired.

  ‘My dear,’ said Janet. ‘I have known you now for ten years. In all that time both of us have changed quite remarkably little, don’t you think? Besides, I did do four years of medicine, you remember. I’m possibly the only client of yours who has. Interesting. In fact, I rather think that if what I am thinking is right, I might take it up again. It’s nice to have nice clothes and so on, but the cost of this kind of life is rather higher than I care for. Besides, it would be so boring for any length of time, don’t you think?’

  Diana kept her gaze level and steady.

  ‘How long have you been thinking what you think, Janet?’

  Lady Tewley shrugged.

  ‘It is difficult to say, my dear, partly because it is so difficult to accept. The best I can tell you is that my suspicions solidified into a conviction about three years ago.’

  ‘But you didn’t tell anyone?’

  ‘No. I was fascinated. I wanted to see what would happen. After all, if I was right, I had plenty of time to wait; if I was wrong, it didn’t matter, anyway. I know you, Diana. I trust you. There was no real reason for me to interfere – until now. Now that I have, I’m bursting with questions, of course.’

  Diana looked at her. Janet Tewley had accommodated her manner to her environment too successfully to display anything but a graceful lassitude. Diana smiled, and glanced at her clock.

  ‘Very well,’ she agreed, ‘but only half an hour, now.’

  ‘A cardinal one first, then,’ said Janet. ‘Is the retarding action followed by a corresponding acceleration of deterioration if the treatment is discontinued?’

  ‘No,’ Diana told her. ‘Metabolism merely returns to normal.’

  ‘That’s a relief. I’ve been a bit haunted by the idea that one day I might have to go from middle-age to senility in about five minutes. Now, about secondary effects, and response to stimuli. I’ve wondered whether I haven’t detected…?

  The questions continued for more than half an hour until they were interrupted by a ringing of the telephone. Diana picked it up. Miss Tallwyn’s voice said:

  ‘I’m sorry, Miss Brackley. I know you didn’t want to be disturbed, but Miss Saxover is on the line, for the third time. She says it is very urgent and important.’

  ‘Very well, Sarah. Put her through.’

  Diana waved down Lady Tewley who was preparing to leave.

  ‘Hullo, Zephanie. What is it?’

  ‘It’s about Darr, Diana,’ Zephanie’s voice told her. ‘Daddy thought it wiser not to ring you himself.’

  ‘What’s happened?’

  ‘There’s been a fire. The living wing is practically burnt out. Daddy had a narrow escape.’

  ‘But he’s all right?’ Diana asked, anxiously.

  ‘Oh yes. He was able to get up on the roof of the wing, and across to the main building. They managed to confine the fire to the wing, but what he’s anxious for you to know is that the police are quite sure the fire was started deliberately.’

  ‘But who would want to do that? There’d be no object –’

  ‘He says the police think it was very likely that there was an attempt at burglary first, and the fire was started afterwards to cover up. They say they’ve found traces of that. It’s impossible, of course, to know what they may have taken. But I’m to tell you not to worry about you-know-what. There was nothing there that had anything to do with that.’

  ‘I see, Zephanie, that’s good. But your father. You are perfectly sure he’s not hurt?’

  ‘No, really, Diana. He says all that happened to him was that he grazed one knee, and ruined his pyjamas.’

  ‘Thank goodness for that,’ Diana said.

  After a few more sentences she put back the receiver with a hand that shook slightly. For nearly half a minute she stared blankly at the opposite wall until a movement by Janet Tewley recalled her.

  ‘There are too many of them getting too close,’ she said, half to herself. ‘It’s time to move – No, don’t go, Janet. I’ll have a job for you. Just a minute…’

  She picked up the telephone again.

/>   ‘Sarah. You know that parcel in the corner of the big safe? – yes, that’s it. You’ll find it’s full of letters. They’re already addressed and stamped. Please see that they are put in the post straight away. They must go off tonight.’

  She turned back to Janet Tewley.

  ‘This,’ she said, ‘is where we take the lid off. Those letters are invitations to all my clients, and to some of the Press, to attend a meeting next Wednesday afternoon – more than a thousand altogether. I’ve tried to make them seem important and urgent, but unfortunately they have to be a circular letter – which means that some people will disregard them, and others will think them some kind of publicity stuff. Now, you know quite a lot of the clients socially. What I’d like you to do is start a rumour going that will back up the letter, and fetch them here. I shall get the girls down below to help, too. But if you’ll spread it from outside it will carry more weight.’

  ‘Very well,’ Janet agreed. ‘But what’s the rumour? You won’t want the real thing out before the meeting, will you?’

  ‘Oh, certainly not. No, we’d better keep to the seaweed for the moment. What about all our work here being threatened, our clients in danger of being deprived of our services, because the Irish are fixing the duty on our essential kind of seaweed so high that the Board of Trade refuses to sanction payments at these extortionate rates? This will be a protest meeting against a discriminatory ruling which is backed by rival concerns, and aimed at depriving Nefertiti clients of their special benefits. Do you think something along those lines?’

  Janet nodded. ‘I think so. There’s room for embroidery. Suggestions that the Board of Trade, or the Bank of England, or something, has been got at by rival interests. It’s all part of a dark takeover plot by people who don’t give a damn what happens to your clients as long as they gain control of Nefertiti Ltd, and your trade secrets. Yes, I think it ought to stir up quite a sense of injustice.’

  ‘All right then, Janet. You set that going. I’ll arrange a leak to the staff here – it’s much more effective than telling them anything directly – and we’ll hope for a good full hall on Wednesday.’

  10

  A black saloon car tore past them, and cut in ahead. A panel bearing the word ‘Police’ flashed on. An arm protruding from the driver’s window waved them down.

  ‘What the devil –?’ said Richard, as he slowed.

  ‘But we weren’t doing anything, were we?’ Zephanie asked, in bewilderment.

  A moment after they had stopped another vehicle drew up alongside, a small van with no lettering on it. The nearside door of the van opened, and a man got out. He looked to the rear.

  ‘Right, Charlie?’ he called.

  ‘Okay,’ said a voice.

  The man put his hand in his pocket. At the same time he jerked open the door beside Richard, and held up a pistol.

  ‘Out!’ he said.

  The door on the other side opened just as suddenly. Another man said ‘Out!’ to Zephanie.

  ‘Into the van,’ he added, thrusting forward his pistol.

  Zephanie opened her mouth to speak.

  ‘Shut up. Get in,’ he told her.

  There was a sharp crack from a pistol on Richard’s side of the car.

  ‘See? It works. Come on now,’ said the first man.

  Richard and Zephanie, each with a pistol pressing their backs, were shepherded to the rear, and into the van. The two men climbed in after them and shut the door. It was all over inside half a minute.

  ∗

  The room was large. The furniture was old-fashioned, comfortable, but shabby. The man who sat behind the leather-topped desk had turned the lamp so that it shone in Zephanie’s eyes, and left his own face a pale blur in the shadow. She stood a little to his right, with one of the men from the van close behind her. Richard stood a little to the left, his hands bound behind him, a piece of plaster across his mouth, and the other man watchfully beside him.

  ‘There is no malice in this, Miss Saxover,’ said the man behind the desk. ‘I simply want some information from you, and I intend to get it. It will be much pleasanter for everybody if you answer my questions truthfully straight off.’ He paused, the half-seen splodge of pale face still turned towards her. ‘Now,’ he went on, ‘your father has made a very remarkable discovery. I am sure you know what I mean.’

  ‘My father has made a lot of important discoveries,’ Zephanie said.

  The man’s left hand tapped the desk…. The man standing beside Richard clenched his fist, and made a short powerful jab at Richard’s stomach. Richard gave a muffled gasp, and folded forward.

  ‘Let’s not waste time,’ said the man at the desk. ‘You tell me which discovery I mean.’

  Zephanie looked round helplessly. She made to move, but two hands from behind grasped her upper arms firmly. She kicked back with her heel. The man promptly stamped agonizing on her other foot. Before she could recover he had pulled off both her shoes, and thrown them away.

  The man at the desk tapped his left hand again. A fist thudded against Richard’s head.

  ‘We have no wish to harm you if it can be helped, Miss Saxover,’ said the man at the desk, ‘but we don’t much mind how far we have to go with your friend here. However, if you don’t much mind that either, it will be very unpleasant for him, and we shall have to proceed to direct methods with you, yourself. And if you are obstinate we shall have to persuade your father to tell us. Do you think that if he were to receive that ring of yours – with your finger still inside it, of course – he would be willing to cooperate?’ He paused again. ‘Now, Miss Saxover, you were about to tell me which discovery I mean.’

  Zephanie set her teeth, and shook her head. There was another thud on her right, and a groan. She trembled. Another thud.

  ‘Oh, God! Oh, stop it!’ she cried.

  ‘It’s in your hands,’ said the man at the desk.

  ‘You mean – living longer….’ she said, wretchedly.

  ‘That’s better,’ he told her. ‘And the drug used is an extract of… what? Please don’t say seaweed. You’ll only hurt your friend.’

  Zephane hesitated wretchedly. She saw the fingers of his left hand rise to tap.

  ‘Lichen. It’s lichen,’ she told him.

  ‘Quite right, Miss Saxover. You do know the answers, you see. Now, this particular lichen, what is it called?’

  ‘I can’t tell you,’ she said. ‘No, no, don’t hit him. I can’t tell you. It hasn’t got a proper name. It isn’t classified.’

  The man at the desk considered, and decided to accept that.

  ‘What does it look like? Describe it.’

  ‘I can’t,’ she told him. ‘I’ve never seen it.’ She shuddered at the sound of another blow. ‘Oh, don’t – don’t. I can’t tell you. Oh, stop him. You must believe me. I don’t know!’

  The man held up his left hand. The thuds stopped, and there was only the sound of groans from Richard, and of his half-strangled breathing. Zephanie dared not look at him. She faced the desk with tears running down her cheeks. The man behind it opened a drawer, and took out a card. It had specimens of a dozen or more kinds of lichen glued to it.

  ‘Which of these classes does it most closely resemble?’ he asked.

  Zephanie shook her head helplessly.

  ‘I don’t know. I tell you, I’ve never seen it. I can’t tell. Oh, Richard. Oh, God! Stop it, stop it! He said it was an imperfectus. That’s all I can tell you.’

  ‘There are hundreds of lichens imperfecti.’

  ‘I know. But that’s all I can tell you. I swear it is.’

  ‘Very well, we’ll leave that for the moment, and turn to another question. I’d like you, bearing in mind that you don’t quite know how much I know and the unpleasant consequences that lies will bring to your friend here, I’d like you to tell me where your father gets the lichen from…?’

  ∗

  ‘No, she’s all right – physically. They didn’t harm her,’ Francis’s voice said. ‘
But, of course, she’s badly shocked and distressed.’

  ‘Poor Zephanie, I should think so,’ Diana said into the telephone. ‘How’s the young man – Richard?’

  ‘Pretty badly knocked about, I’m afraid. Zephanie says when she came round they were lying on the grass verge beside the car which was still where they’d stopped. It was just getting light and poor Richard looked a frightful mess. A farmhand came along, and they got him into the car between them, and she took him to hospital. They said there that it looked worse than it was. He’s lost a few teeth, but there’s no serious injury, as far as they could tell without an X-ray. So she came on here to Darr by herself. The chief trouble is that she’s in such a state about it. But what could she do? She didn’t know when they were trapping her into a lie, and when they genuinely didn’t know the answer. And each time she lied he suffered. I’ve no doubt they’d have beaten her up, too, if she’d held out.’

  ‘Poor child. How much did she tell them?’ Diana asked.

  ‘Pretty much everything she knew, I think – except that your side of it was never raised at all.’

  ‘But they know where we get it now?’

  ‘Yes. I’m afraid they do.’

  ‘Oh, dear. That’s my fault. I should never have told her. I hope it doesn’t start serious trouble. Still, it can’t be helped. Do try to reassure her as much as you can. I suppose you’ve no idea who this lot could be?’

  ‘No way of telling,’ Francis said.

  ‘They can scarcely be your daughter-in-law’s friends, could they? My name would be almost bound to have cropped up if they were. It could be anybody. There seem to be half-a-dozen on the scent now, not counting the newspapers and the police. I’m telling the clients and the Press at the meeting on Wednesday, you know. It doesn’t look as if it would hold up more than a few days, anyway.’

  There was silence at the other end of the telephone.

  ‘You’re still there?’ Diana asked.

  ‘Yes,’ said Francis’s voice.

  ‘Look Francis, I don’t want to hog this. You know that. We both worked it out. Won’t you let me tell them so?’

 
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