Books - Icelight

‘And no tales, Derek, no mean tricks on people you dislike, mm? No faffing around. Don’t be lazy. And don’t ever dream of hiding. Driver.’
*
The driver put the car in gear and drove off.
Ayrtoun sighed. ‘I’m not actually sure whether Derek can read,’ he said, ‘so I make allowances.’ He snorted, for Ayrtoun quite softly. ‘I do know we’re
awash with rice paper someone ordered. Do you want some?’
‘No thank you.’
Ayrtoun laughed. ‘Derek’s rather older than his boyish looks may suggest. He may even be as old as you. He’s utterly terrified of ageing, of course. He started as an
apprentice mechanic but acquired a taste for the life some of the car owners had. Soft cheeks, soft cashmere rugs and a hamper in the dickie seat. He was turned down for military service – “character defect”. Then, rather wittily, the police picked him up for trying to be a spiv rather than a rent-boy. Derek can be a very quick learner if he’s desperate. He dug around and shopped one or two bigger wide-boys and then we took him over.’
The Triumph had continued past Purley Cottage Hospital, a parade of mock-Tudor shops, and then swung right to get on to Purley Way. They were heading
back to London. There was a rise in the road. The sky up and ahead, the usual dull grey pall over London, had taken on faint tinges of tobacco brown and some touches
of faded sulphur yellow.
‘Looks like snow,’ said Ayrtoun.
Cotton thought it lacked pink.
‘You obviously don’t know London,’ said Ayrtoun. ‘Snow almost never lies in London. Too much coal, too many bodies.’
To the right of Purley Way were rows of light-engineering factories, warehouses and car showrooms and garages. Along on the left was the entrance to the white, half-Art Deco Croydon Airport and the similarly styled Airport Hotel. They turned in and parked.
‘Take my bags in, will you driver?’ said Ayrtoun.
The driver got out. Ayrtoun turned towards Cotton.
‘I’m sorry you’re on the Tinkerbell detail,’ he said. ‘But the Americans want you. And I agreed. Perhaps not for the same reasons. They think you’re honest and direct.’ Ayrtoun paused. ‘I have the impression they may even think you’re slightly prickly and puritanical – like woollen underwear. They’re quite frantic about traitors, fifth columnists, the enemy within, and they’re particularly frantic we’re not doing much about ours. They’re also brewing up a witch-hunt of their own, an unholy alliance of ambitious demagogues, politicians – you should see some of the crop just elected – unscrupulous newspapers, various evil-minded churches anxious to save their choirboys for themselves and, of course, any number of intelligence agencies.’
Ayrtoun paused and lit a cigarette. ‘Have you ever seen an American gangster film? They spray bullets, turn cars into a lot of holes with bits of metal round them? Sometimes there’s quite a lot of collateral damage. Shop windows shattering, passers-by going down.’ He shrugged. ‘These days if we riddle a queer instead of a
traitor, that’s aim enough for them.’ Ayrtoun stubbed out the cigarette. ‘You should also look at our own warlocks, of course. Did you know how long MI5 and Special Branch have been hunting pansies? Since 1939.’
Cotton frowned. ‘As part of our war effort?’ he said.
‘Quite,’ said Ayrtoun and opened his car door. ‘Let’s go in.’