Supercell - II
Dorian did not call Orobelle out of her card until he was across a bridge and three streets down.
The first words out of the Duchess' mouth as she sprang out in a swirl of hair and skirts were, “Good! Now we must go to Bletchley.”
“Bletchley?” he replied. They had begun down along the river, pitch black like the night sky it mirrored, and swishing secretively.
“It's a centre for breaking code. It must have the means for transmitting our messages. But we shall require funds to get there, no doubt.”
“How about the gems from your spoiled dresses, my duchess?” he suggested. Over the bollards, the streetlamps shimmered on the rumbling water. “Surely they would sell decently here as well as at home.”
Orobelle’s cheek clenched at the memory of the dresses, but she shook it out of her thoughts. “We shan’t have the time to find out how to sell them until we have delivered our messages. We shall obtain it by...other means.”
“Theft?” Dorian replied at once.
“Shush. It belongs to me anyway,” she answered, lifting a hand. “I am the reason any of this exists.”
It was a more elaborate setup than it had to be. When the sun had risen well past the spires, they made landing at a “fish and potato slice” shop.
The shop's tables were filled to the brim except for one, and it was clearly understaffed, one woman managing to juggle both the kitchen and the cash register by scurrying back and forth, though the sweat on her brow evidenced her exhaustion.
“You sir,” she called out as Dorian strode in past the counter. She cleared her throat. “You with the long hair. Here to dine?”
He turned. “Yes, good lady.”
She smiled oddly, before stepping out from behind the tubs of oil, waving him towards the only empty table in the facility, with a tiny square top and two rickety chairs. As he entered, he reached out and dropped Orobelle by the open boxes of coins and notes, keeping his gaze trained on the variety of fish hanging on hooks over the kitchen counter.
As soon as he was seated, the shop owner materialised beside him, a board in hand. “What would you like?” she asked.
“I would be delighted to try your best fish, and potato slices,” he said in a neutral tone.
Again, an odd look. “Our battered cod is excellent this time of year.”
“I would like that.”
She scribbled the order on her board. “And how would you like the chips done?”
Dorian stared back. “Ah, I would like them...to taste good.”
Now the keeper was grinning. “That's the only kind we serve here,” she said. She sailed over to the bubbling tub of oil by the counter and plucked a fish from a hook, beginning to gut it. Meanwhile, from a corner of his eye, Dorian glimpsed the young Duchess pilfering a minor fortune out of the trays.
It was about a minute before a look of satisfaction came to her face, and she finally scurried, crouched, from behind the counter. The man turned his gaze resolutely back to the rest of the clientele.
“There you are!” she announced as she appeared by Dorian’s table, dropping into the chair opposite him.Several heads turned, including the cook’s, who waved at her and simpered, as one did at a toddler. The Duchess gaped back for a moment. “Don’t patronise me!” she growled, offering a hard glare that the cook answered with a shrug, before carrying on.
Orobelle and Dorian left the shop a hundred pounds richer, and Dorian feeling better fed than he had in years.
“My duchess,” he asked as they resumed down the street outside. Orobelle did not answer. “Is there a reason the Diamond Palace does not deal in food?”
It had occurred to him midway through wolfing down the meal that this was the first solid food he had had in months. The last had been a small bowl, a gift from the market from a man who had not been in the Duchy long, who had not known of its preference for liquids of satiation and joy.
“Dirty,” answered Orobelle without looking. “Unsafe, unpredictable, generally grotesque to the taste.”
“That…is perfectly fair, my duchess,” he replied, as they passed beneath a stand of trees in a corner park. The first flowers bloomed, and every now and then, one heard a cascade of birdsong. Here in the heart of London, one could barely tell there was a war being waged beyond it.
“Hm, I do not feel like walking,” Orobelle said then. Before he knew it, she was a card in the air, which he snatched before it could brush the ground.
The heat lay thick on the city as Dorian wove towards the rumble of carts and engines. At the junction of two roads he stopped, watching the carriages whiz past in rapid succession. He drew many stares; perhaps it was his attiring, or perhaps they simply knew a foreigner when they saw one.
“My good madam,” he called out to a lady beside him with his hand on his heart.
She lowered her cigarette and met his eye with a bewildered blink. “May I help you?” she rasped.
“How should I go to Bletchley Park?” he replied.
“Not from around here?” she replied. “Bletchley is fifty miles up north. You’re not trying to steal government secrets, are you?” She chuckled. Glancing about, she waved a finger in the direction of a dark vehicle stopped at the next junction across the road. “The black cabs don’t usually go that far, but offer him twenty pounds and he’ll take you there, I know their type.”
“Thank you, good madam,” Dorian said smartly. Without a word of warning, he sprang across the road and through a gap between the oncoming carriages, the lady on the roadside yelling after him. Carriages screamed as they hastened to a stop, but he cleared the distance before any could touch him.
Leaving several gaping pedestrians in his wake, he sprinted the rest of the way to the waiting black carriage, waving at its owner who slouched against its door. “You’re in a hurry, sir,” the portly, rosy-faced driver exclaimed at his sudden appearance, opening the door as Dorian slowed to a halt. He only came up to Dorian's shoulder. “Where to?”
“Bletchley Park,” Dorian replied, already slinging the luggage bag off his shoulder.
“Bletchley?” he exclaimed. “No, sir, I don’t go that far, sorry.” He held out a hand to shield him from proceeding.
“For twenty pounds?”
“Twenty!” His arm dipped back to his side. “You can do better.”
“Thirty,” Dorian replied, already reaching into the bag.
Now the driver was on the same page as he: he had returned to his seat by the time Dorian had entered his vehicle.
“Perry. Pleased to meet you,” the driver said, the engine grumbling to life.
“Haste,” Dorian replied as he produced the thirty pounds, keeping them just out of reach.
“Mister Haste, eh?”
“My name is Dorian.”
Perry laughed. With a puttering start, the carriage swerved out of its spot and entered the traffic as the sky burned blue.
“So, are you in theatre? TV?” was the first of Perry’s flaccid offerings of conversation as they left the growling afternoon traffic of the city. “Street theatre, perhaps? ‘All the world’s a stage and men are but players’?” He chuckled at himself, but Dorian did not answer. “No? What’s your work?”
“I’m a bodyguard,” he replied solemnly, thinking for a moment that he should lie, but wondering what sort of lie he would tell, if he did.
“Taking time off?”
“I am always at work, if I can help,” he answered.
“You and I both,” Perry laughed. Dorian did not laugh. The driver pulled back in his seat and nodded, bringing his eyes back to the green horizon as the buildings and their criss-crossing spires pulled away.
Dorian watched the faraway fields sweep closer, just a sliver between the last of the town houses. Everything here was much squarer than it should be, and much too closely packed, like stacks of boxes channelling the tiny automata of carriages between them.
Two years at the duchy had not taken the desert plains and soaring mountains out of him, he realised as he stared past them at the grass beyond. The closeness of the walls of the city made his lungs feel tight.
“Do you like this land?” Dorian asked, offhandedly.
“This land…England?” Perry replied. Dorian nodded. “What can I say, all of London reeks of bilge, and the rats are here eternal…but God forbid it ever be lost. Bless the men shouldering the weight of our country on the frontlines.”
“And the women?” he offered.
“Ye…yes, it’s a figure of speech,” he replied, irritated. “Of course there are women. Engineers. Perhaps soldiers, too, I don’t know.”
“I know there are,” he replied.
And with that, the stumbling conversation dropped dead. Not a word crossed the air between them until the vehicle bumped up Sherwood Drive in the greying afternoon, through wild green thickets of trees, and rumbled to a stop in the fabled Bletchley Park with its quaint turrets and domes.
Here between a lawn and small palatial residence, Dorian counted out thirty pounds with Perry's eager help. Then he alighted, the man's black carriage happily zooming away before could even receive Dorian's thanks.
Swinging the luggage bag back over his shoulder, he was left admiring the strange and quaint arches of the mansion before him. As he did, he produced Orobelle from his pocket, lifting the card up so she could study it as well.
“Tacky,” was her muttered verdict. “Take me to the entrance.” As instructed, he walked by several windows, towards an ornamented archway topped by a curved bay window. At the end of the short hall that the arch opened into, there stood a grand pair of doors. “There it is. Get us inside.”
Stepping into the shelter of the arched corridor, Dorian walked to the door at the end, and bowed to flick her through the gap under it. Then, backing away to take a running start, he dove and skidded towards the same gap, turning into a card halfway.
When the bearded receptionist came down to the entrance, he discovered two cards lying by the door, an Ace and a Two of Diamonds, ornately patterned, a face smiling out of the ace’s lone diamond. He stooped to pick them up, squinted at them, and took them to the counter. “Someone expecting…two playing cards?” he bellowed through the corridors. “This isn’t a piece of code, now, is it?”
Orobelle and Dorian soon heard a clatter of footsteps from beyond the reception table. The ceiling flashed over them, and a new face came into view, frizzled brown hair framing her face, the glasses clipped to her nose so thick they distorted her eyes.
“How unusual…” She spoke with a furrowed brow, as if trying to discern the meaning of her own words. “And they were slipped under the door?”
“The very one,” the receptionist replied.
She nodded. “I’m taking these.”
And then, a blur of ceilings later, they were inside a cryptanalysis room.
The lady laid them lovingly on a desk at the head of a carpeted hall, along whose walls stood a gallery of clattering machines and desks, dials gleaming like eyes. About these milled the dozen-odd scientists in buttoned shirts, who alone bore the knowledge of their inner workings.
Their adopter had the courtesy to place them at an angle, bragging about their beauty as she did, to few replies. From their vantage, they had a view of half the room, of the countless whirring wheels behind the toilers, all tapping away at levers and buttons in coats and eyepieces that harkened to the scientists of the Queendom universities.
Orobelle laid the next plans as she took in the hall with a camera lens’ stillness. Without the ability to swivel her eyes, the scene lay before her undivided, to be filtered in her mind.
Windows let light stream in from outside, lighting squares on the floor. Through the window she saw the grass and trees, blurred through dust.
She noted the map of an unfamiliar continent, spanning half the wall. She listened to them write and chatter about some “difficult Russian encoding”, watched them crank machines, receivers chattering, every now and then tapping out some form of rhythmic code with a button. Levers and receivers stood on their tabletops.
“Hand that to the Don R tomorrow morning!” she caught one snatch of frantic conversation, from a man handing an envelope to someone else: the bespectacled brunette who had taken them inside. “On to the next, Marijk, the war doesn’t wait!”
Accepting the envelope, Marijk brought it to the desk where she had left the cards, and flicked it into a turquoise rectangular basket beside them.
“Thank you,” whispered Orobelle.
Night fell on the grounds outside, but the alien lights stayed lit. The guard of workers ebbed and flowed, thinning gradually till only Marijk was left. She was writing, head bowed, nodding off every few seconds before shaking herself awake again.
At last, the cryptanalyst lifted her head from her current job. She tapped her chin with her pen, and then tossed it onto the tabletop. Rising with a kick of her chair, she shuffled to the exit and left. The door clicked shut behind her.
At once, Orobelle leapt out of her card, brandishing her glass. She landedwith a dull thud on the carpet. “Dorian, pass me the documents,” she whispered, throwing his card into the air.
He sprang out and landed with a bow, swinging the luggage onto the tabletop before him. Unbuttoning the flap on her bag, he swept the stacks of sheets out, holding them out so she could take them.
Then she motioned to the door with her head. “Go make sure she doesn’t come back until I’m done,” she said.
He nodded, and opened the door with only the slightest creak of its hinge. Orobelle heard it shut with a metallic latching sound.
Now, she stood alone amid the click-clack of the machines, and she could set the last leg of her plan in action. Light on her feet, Orobelle went up to the wall map, the translation glass to her eye. As she approached, the map exploded into copious detail, and the words and lines suddenly seemed more dauntingly numerous. Britain was clearly marked for her with pins and tape; she spent a minute searching around it with her glass, until she found the town of Dunkirk, on the tip of a land called France.
She swept the translation glass over the map again. As it passed over a demarcated box of symbols in the corner, the phrase “air field” caught her eye. The symbol beside the pair of words, shaped like a strange seabird, told her its meaning. Her mind raced. The Field Marshal had said they could fly soldiers. Was this how they flew?
Air field. The closest air field…her glass went back to Dunkirk. The closest air field was Saint-Inglevert.
Marijk’s unfinished work lay on her desk: a translucent blue pen, an unmarked envelope, a half-finished letter. Orobelle had spent enough time examining the other addresses to know how it worked. She had not thought upon how she would ascertain her letter’s arrival at its destination—but she remembered the street name. Rue Victor Hugo. And that meant she could write an address.
In a drawer under the tabletop, she found a stack of blank sheets, and plucked one off the top. With Marijk’s pen she began to draft a message, switching her cross-referencing her letters with those of Field Marshal Alexander.
“Your army’s presence is required in Kalocsa, Hungary, on the first day of the fifth month…”
She screwed up her face as she fought to keep her pen steady. Write with confidence, she could hear her mother’s voice around her, inside her, like a ghost, as she laid the foreign marks across the page. Let not your pen dally nor the ink pool—
A shrill alarm wail erupted across the room, making her drop the pen as her eyes darted around, heart pounding. Then it struck her that this had to be Dorian’s doing.
“Not like this!” she muttered under her breath. The sound echoed on the grounds outside, and she heard a single set of footsteps dash through the hallway, their owner shouting about a fire.
Orobelle swallowed, clenching her jaw at the screech of the alarm. She flipped Marijk's envelope over. In an imitation of Howard’s own letters, she wrote her best approximation of the Dunkirk camp’s address on the back. 1 Rue Victor Hugo. Dunkirk. France.
Once, twice, she rehearsed the Field Marshal’s signature on a blank sheet. Without moving her hand, she slipped the perfectly-forged letter below it, and scrawled his signature at the bottom. Besides a stray ink spot, it was a perfect likeness.
Blowing upon the fresh ink, Orobelle folded the letter up the same way the other documents were folded, into thirds, and shoved it into Marijk's envelope.
Sealed, it was identical to the one that the lady had left in the turquoise basket from the front. Breathless with the thought that she had almost succeeded, Orobelle scurried back to the basket.
The letters were switched, brown for innocuous brown, and none were the wiser.
When Marijk returned half an hour later, hair in tangles and stinking of smoke, the only thing she noticed was that the cards were no longer there.