The M4 motorway is a seventy-mile-an-hour traffic jam snaking across southern England from London to West Country -- one of the web of radiating concrete-and-steel trachea through which the sprawling metropolitan organism inhales its morning intake of life-giving vehicular gas, each molecule carrying its quota of people-atoms to oxygenate and revivify the cells, and expels it again at the end of the day. The first ten miles of the M4 also form the principal road connection between Heathrow Airport and the western reaches of the city.
Fallon drove the silver-gray Mercedes at an unhurried pace, savoring the slow release of tension that came at the end of a successful job, and allowing the evening's home-bound neurotics to work off their frustrations in the fast lane. Presumably they needed this brush with reality on the way from eight make-work hours in an office to four comatose ones in front of a television. Fallon was happy to stay out of it. The last thing that his metabolism needed right now was an adrenaline trip. A big part of living life to the full, he sometimes thought, was to have escaped the necessity of escaping from it.
Past Hammersmith and Earl's Court Road, he turned north off Cromwell Road into the southern fringe of Kensington, where Kelso Close lay concealed in the maze of twisting streets, narrow mews, and cheerful urban anarchy that preceded the orderly rows of stucco Regency cliffs surrounding Queens Gate.
Number four Kelso Close was an architectural oddity, even for London, that shocked tradition and logic, while delighting the imagination. Part of the cellars and some sections of garden wall at the rear went back to a large farm or manor house that had occupied the spot in the days when Kensington was a village west of the city. That had burned down and been rebuilt as a Georgian squire's residence, part of which remained, altered and modernized, as the kitchen and dining room; later, various experiments in extension and demolition by successive waves of Victorians left behind a library, two formal sitting rooms, and a glazed turret with a spiral staircase leading to a guest suite on one side. When London finally arrived, it hid the resulting potpourri of styles behind a wall and shrubbery at the end of a cul-de-sac as if unsure of what to do with it, screened it behind imposing frontages all facing outward in their mild embarrassment, and flowed onward and around as if hoping that it might go away. Remodeling exercises since then had seen the introduction of a modern sunken lounge and living area, along with the creature comforts to be expected of the twentieth century, and since Fallon's acquisition of the place, a number of specialized adaptions connected with his work. The house also boated the priceless residential asset of crowded central London: its own basement garage.
He found Julia, his secretary and guardian of the home front, sorting through papers at the desk in the room that functioned as an office, four steps down from the library and angling off in an odd direction. There was also a computer terminal and printer on a side table, a photocopier, several steel filing cabinets, and almost a whole wall of shelves sagging under untidy loads of books, boxes, papers, and various items accumulated over years. It was the kind of office that had evolved into comfortable surroundings that people liked to work in, not the kind that was designed by designers to impress clients. A smaller room opening off the far end contained a console for an exterior closed-circuit-TV system and other security devises. Known as the "bridge," it was normally kept locked when any but a few special visitors were in the house.
Julia was in her late forties he guessed, having honored tradition despite their years of workings together by never having asked. Originally from somewhere near Boston, poised and punctilious in the kind of way the goes with afternoon tea and drawing-room plays, yet with an American stylishness that stopped short of tweed and cameos, she was New England come in search of the Old; a fugitive from the final triumph of matter over mind, returning to the wellspring of Western thought and tradition before its waning trickle ran dry. She had rich, wavy auburn hair curling up at shoulder length, a rounded figure, and a deep, dark, ever-inquiring eyes that interrogated everything around her with the curiosity of a cat in a new house. She was wearing a plain green, low-collared dress with a pearl necklace when Fallon sauntered in and tossed his Samsonite down no the desk.
Julia pushed the papers aside and sat back in the chair. "The wanderer returns."
"On the M4 at this time of day? You've got to be joking. You won't get much chance to wander far astray there."
"Was it bad?"
"The usual. It must be the longest, thinnest car park in the country. They've dug it up again at Heston."
"I don't think I've ever seen an English motorway in a continuous piece from one end to the other," Julia agreed.
"I've got a theory about it," Fallon murmured as he ran an eye over the desk. "Once upon a time they dug a hole, you see --"
"For reasons undisclosed?"
"For reasons known only to municipal authorities."
"And after the customary period of contemplation thereof, they filled it again. But they found they had a pile of dirt left over. So they decided to bury it ten miles father down the road. However, that left another pile to get rid of, and the hole has been propagating itself round the motorway system ever since, returning periodically to its point of origin like Halley's Comet in its orbit." He cocked a questioning eye at Julia. "What do you think?"
"Ingenious and plausible," she pronounced. "It meets the bureaucratic definition of common sense. The unions would like it too."
Fallon scanned the top sheets from a wad of printout on a shelf by the desk. "What've we got now, then?"
"Oscar has uncovered an urban redevelopment scam. The city officials are in collusion with developers to create depressed areas that can be bought up at bargain prices, then rezoned and rebuilt for selling off later. I got the idea from something I was reading about that's going on in Hollywood."
Oscar was a fictional character. Julia wrote thrillers under then pen name of John Clyde. In fact, John Clyde's was a quite a well-known name, conjuring up images in readers' minds of raciness, excitement, and glamour. Julia Clarrel's was not. She had wanted to write, not become a celebrity, and working ostensibly for Fallon suited her temperament and her taste. It was probably better for business, too, since it would no doubt have jaded many enthusiastic fans to learn that the John Clyde books were written by a hardly racy American female edging into later middle age.
"Hmm... Do you think that might be why the Soviets are being agreeable about scrapping some of their missiles?" Fallon asked, turning another sheet as he read. "They don't need them. Our own urban planners are devastating all our cities for them. We've wiped out more of London since the war than Goering ever dreamed of."
Julia nodded. It was a recurring theme of Fallon's. "And what's more, the victims pay. It's neat." She began scribbling a note in a pad. "I'll have to work that in somewhere."
Fallon sat down in an easy chair opposite the desk, crossing his legs in an attitude of exaggerated repose. "Anyway, you haven't asked me how things went with our friends at CES," he said. "Don't you want to know if we got Maurice's daughter out?"
"I already know that you did," Julia replied, still writing and not looking up. "Congratulations."
Fallon stared at her, frowning as he went over in his mind everything he'd said and done since entering the room. "Okay, you've got me," he conceded finally. "How?"
Julia glanced at him and inclined her head to indicate the navy blazer he was wearing. "Just above the pocket. And your nails."
Fallon looked down. There was a faint smudge of fine white powder on his right pocket. He turned over his hands and saw more traces of base of his cuticles. "Ah," he said, nodding. "The French chalk." He had used it to lubricate the insides of the surgical gloves.
"So presumably you handled the money, which CES wouldn't have parted with unless they had Felice back," Julia completed. She put down her pen and looked up. "How did the rest of it go?"
"Aniello's with the aniellos. And very probably three-C's bagman is being fitted for his wings, too, by now, so we should be hearing about some brotherly infighting across the water in the near future." Fallon braced his elbows back above the arms of the chair and stretched. "What else is new here? Anything?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. Perry surfaced again yesterday."
Fallon raised his eyebrows. "And how's he?"
Perry was a former officer in the Rhodesian security forces whom Fallon had known in his SAS days, and who reappeared from time to time. Much of Fallon's new business came through discreet personal referrals.
"What did he want?"
"He's been contacted by some people who are looking for Boris," Julia replied, meaning Boris Fugleman, which was the principal alias that Fallon operated under professionally. "It sounds as if somebody somewhere wants to raise a private army."
Fallon wrinkled his nose. "Mercenaries? Perry knows I'm not in that line."
"He knows. But he said he thought you might want to pickup if things were a bit slack."
"Or, really? The old sod. It sounds more to me like something he doesn't want to be bothered with himself."
Julia paused just long enough to convey the right shade of empathy. "Yes, I, ah . . . did rather get that impression."
"What else did he say about it?"
Fallon grunted and rubbed an eyebrow dubiously with a knuckle. "What do you think?"
"It can't do any harm to find out, I suppose."
"How are things otherwise?"
"Actually, a bit of slack."
"Hmm. . . . So what do we have?"
"Just a phone number and a name: Mr. Black. Call him to set up a rendezvous."
"Did you check it out with Martin?" They had a friend in the engineering department of the British Telecommunications Corporation, who could trace telephone numbers.
"Of course," Julia replied. "It's one of several ex-directory numbers assigned to the embassy of People's democratic Republic of Zugenda."
Fallon stopped rubbing his eyebrow and looked at her in surprise. Zugenda was one of the problem-plagued countries that had emerged from the confusion of post-colonial Africa. It was a relatively minor state located to the north of the central region and extending into the sub-Saharan belt. "I'm not sure I even know where their embassy is," he said.
"It's in Marylebone, not far from Regents Park," Julia said. "So it doesn't sound as if Boris is being tracked down by somebody with something to settle" -- which was always a thing to be wary of in Fallon's chosen line of business.
He pondered for a few moments longer, then nodded. "Okay. I'll see if I can set something up for tomorrow." With that he turned his attention back to the printout. "Is this what I've been busy with this weekend?"
He turned his attention back to the sheets and settled back to read.
For officially it was he and not she who was the author of the books. The same arrangement that afforded Julia the obscurity that she preferred also provided Fallon with his cover. The arrangement worked quite well. But it did mean that Fallon's picture never appeared on any of the books, and that nobody in the world at large knew what John Clyde looked like. His publisher complained despairingly of being saddled with what had to be the most publicity-shy writer in the business.