فصل 06

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فصل 06

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CHAPTER SIX

A bad son-in-law?

I rang Ogilvie and told him that Ashton and Benson had disappeared, and I read him Ashton’s letter.

‘A bad son-in-law?’ said Ogilvie. ‘What the hell does he mean?’

‘I think he’s saying that he’s getting away from Penny in order to protect her,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t do what he wanted marry her at once and take her away from him - so he’s taken himself away from her. He must think she’s in danger if she’s with him.’

‘I suppose you could be right, but it seems a bloody strange way to protect his daughter. Does she know?’ asked Ogilvie.

‘Not yet. She’s on her way back from the hospital now. Ashton’s left a note for her, too. If there’s anything important in it, I’ll let you know.’

‘Think she’ll tell you?’ he asked.

‘Yes. The funny thing is, sir, that last night I did ask her to marry me, and she accepted. She was going to tell Ashton when she got home, but he’d already gone to bed. Maybe he’d already left. If he’d only waited another couple of hours, he might have decided not to go.

‘Well, don’t blame yourself for that.’ There was a pause. ‘Does Penelope know about your work for the Department?’

‘No,’ I replied.

‘Well, she has to know, and now’s the time to tell her. What I want you to do is to search the house very carefully. See it you can find anything that might show where Ashton has gone. If there’s anything you don’t understand, bring it back to the office. I think there’s going to be a lot of trouble over this.’

I didn’t look forward to explaining to Penny about my work and why we wanted to search her father’s house. I had a feeling that our relationship was about to change for the worse.

Just then I heard Penny’s Aston-Martin sports car coming up the drive to the house. I met her as she ran to the door. Jack Brent’s car was now coming up the drive.

‘There’s a man following me!’ Penny cried, and then she noticed Larry Godwin in the hall.

‘What’s happening? Malcolm, who are these men? What’s happened to Daddy?’

‘As far as I know he’s all right,’ I said and took her into her father’s study. I picked up the letter. ‘You’d better read this.’

As she read the note, her face turned pale. ‘But I don’t… I don’t understand.’

‘What does he say?’ She gave me the letter and went over to the window while I read.

My dearest Penny,

For reasons which I cannot explain I must go away for a while. I am not a criminal, and I have done nothing wrong. I do not know how long I shall be away, but please do not try to find me and do not bring the police into this. My reasons are private. I shall be quite safe because my old friend, Benson, will be looking after me. It would make me very happy if you would marry Malcolm as soon as possible. I know that you love him and I think he is a very good man. I am sure that the two of you will be very happy together, and I am equally sure that you will both look after Gillian. Please forgive me for my sudden departure, but it is in the best interests of all of us.

Your loving father George

I looked up. ‘I’m sorry. Penny.’

‘But I don’t understand,’ she cried. ‘Oh, Malcolm, what’s happened to him?’

She came into my arms and I held her close. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but we’ll find out.’

She was still for a while, but pushed me away as two cars arrived quickly. ‘Malcolm, who are all these men? Have you told the police? Daddy said not to.’

‘No, I haven’t told the police,’ I said quietly. ‘Sit down, Penny. I have a lot to tell you.’ I hesitated, not knowing best where to begin.

‘I told you I work for a company called McCulloch and Ross, and that’s perfectly true. We do the work I told you about - and we do it very well. But the company is also a sort of secret government department which deals with economic and industrial information if it is important to the state.’

‘You mean you’re some kind of spy.’

‘No, not a spy.’

‘But you were watching my father like a common spy,’ she said angrily. ‘And was I just a means to an end? Did you get close to me just to learn more about my father?’

‘No!’ I looked her straight in the eyes. ‘I didn’t know anything at all about your father until yesterday. And I don’t know much more now.’

She looked at me coldly. ‘And these men in the hall - are they from your department too?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I’d like to talk to the man in charge. I knew something was worrying Daddy. Now I know where it was coming from.’

‘You’re talking to the man in charge, and you’re wrong about your father,’ I said carefully.

That stopped her, and she sat down suddenly. ‘ You are in charge?’

‘That’s right.’

‘And you don’t know what you are doing?’ she said with a laugh of disbelief.

‘I know what I’m doing, but I don’t know why. It’s become very complicated. Let me tell you how I got into this.’

So I told her everything. I told her about Nellie the computer and the secret colour levels. I told her about Ogilvie and Cregar. I told her much more than I should have told her. I told her how, after the acid attack on Gillian, I was told to watch and protect her father.

‘I’ve not done a very good job so far,’ I said. ‘Bur I’ll find him.’

‘You’re not going after him? He said in his letter…’

I interrupted her. ‘All I know is that your father is considered by some people to be a very important man. I don’t know why. But he could be going into danger without realizing it. My job is still to find him and protect him. He’s not in a position to do that properly himself.’

She started to cry, quietly at first, and the tears ran down her face. Then she began to tremble, as if she was suddenly very cold, and I put my arm around her. She held on to me tightly. When your safe, comfortable world seems to be falling apart, you need to hold on to somebody.

‘Oh, Malcolm, what am I to do?’

‘You must do what you think best. If you trust me, you’ll help me to find him, but I couldn’t blame you if you refuse. I haven’t been open and honest with you - I should have told you all this yesterday.’

‘But you couldn’t - you weren’t allowed to. Malcolm, what are your men waiting for?’

‘For your decision. I want to search the house, and I can’t do that without your permission.’

She came back to the desk and read her father’s letter again.

‘He wrote to me, too,’ I said, and gave her my letter.

She read it slowly, then gave it back to me.

‘Bring in your men,’ she said, in a voice which had no expression or feeling in it.

We found a number of surprising things in that house, but none of them seemed to be of any use to us. There was no clue to tell us where Ashton could have gone. In the cellar there was a very well-equipped laboratory, but none of us had any idea what sort of work Ashton had done there. Hidden behind a cupboard in Ashton’s bedroom, was a heavy steel door with the sort of lock you usually see only in banks. By measuring the walls, outside and inside the house, we discovered that there was a small, secret strong-room there - so secret that not even Penny knew about it.

While the other men were searching the house, Penny and I talked about her father’s life. I asked her how long Benson had worked for the family.

‘He’s been with us since before I was born,’ she replied. ‘He used to work in one of Daddy’s factories, but he visited us at least once a week. Then when we came to live in this big house, he came to live here and work as Daddy’s personal servant.’

We were still talking when Peter Michaelis, one of my searchers, came in to report that they had found nothing useful, but that in a room upstairs there was the biggest model railway he had ever seen. I didn’t believe him, and forgot all about it, because Ogilvie rang to tell me to come back to the office as quickly as possible. I explained about the secret strong-room and the laboratory, and he promised to send some experts immediately to examine everything.

Before I left I looked for Michaelis and found him with the model railway.

‘You haven’t time to play with that,’ I said angrily. ‘We’re here on business - to find out about Ashton.’

Michaelis smiled. ‘This is business. To search this place thoroughly we’ll have to look inside every piece of this railway set. The whole thing is so big that we have to use the controls to bring everything back to this central point.”

I looked at the railway more carefully. It was very big, and very complicated - all controlled from a central desk. There must have been about two kilometres of railway line, but Michaelis seemed to know how to work the controls, so I left him to search the thousand different pieces of equipment, and went downstairs.

Penny was waiting for me, her eyes flashing with anger. ‘Someone has been searching my room.’

‘I know,’ I replied. ‘All the rooms in the house have been searched.’

‘I think you could have trusted me,’ she said icily.

‘It’s not a question of trust,’ I tried to explain. ‘I do my job in the way I was taught. I have to go by the book.’

‘Then it’s not the kind of book I’d want to read,’ she exploded, and we had our first big quarrel.

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