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NIGEL HADN'T REALISED BEFORE how cinematic it was to crash a car. There was that moment of swerving and squealing brakes. The jolt of the impact and the sudden flipping upside down; a scraping of metal and a shattering of glass. And then voices in the darkness telling him to lie still and not move. Just like the cinema. It was almost gratifying to wipe his cuff-linked sleeve across his forehead and find it covered in blood.
Perhaps he'd been unconscious, perhaps not, but it seemed as though he saw the rotating red and blue lights of the police car flashing through his cracked windscreen almost immediately. Damned efficient, these Americans.
He envisaged himself in the Dawn Patrol, trapped in his inverted biplane, crash-landed on the fields of France. He fiddled with the seat belt, and finally snapped it free so that his body slumped down on his neck and squeezed him against the roof of the car.
A torch sprayed him in a beam of light.
`Don't move.' It was a woman's voice, kind and scared. The torch switched off. He saw the door on the passenger's side was a quarter of the way open and crushed into an irregular parallelogram. There was no glass left in the window. It was twinkling beyond in the moonlight, like frost on the cobbles at Sandhurst all those years ago.
He rested calmly in his awkward position. He heard tyres rolling slowly nearby, munching gravel, and scratchy, mechanical voices trading information over radiosreminding him of nothing so much as the urban equivalent of the squawking junglebirds in Katanga.
The passenger door was shoved open, scraping noisily along the tarmac. And somehow, in his muddled state he frankly didn't notice how, he was dragged from the car, strapped on a stretcher, and slid neatly into an ambulance.
It was odd, but the first thing he noticed was its cleanliness. He'd seen plenty of ambulances in less than perfect circumstances, but even given the advantages of peace, the Americans were a remarkably clean people, he thought.
And professional, too. One had grown used to the idea that the Americans were rather hysterical, given to mass panics and strange fears that they might never find the secret of eternal life. But the male nurse in the ambulance seemed quite friendly and calm as he put him through the usual preliminariestaking his blood pressure, shooting something into his veins, and wrapping a cloth brace around his neck.
When they snapped Nigel out of the ambulance and into the hospital, he was told he was going into some section reserved for non-emergency accident cases. He was not, evidently, in so very bad a shape as one might expect of a man who had recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday and survived a car wreck.
And it was a good thing he wasn't in bad shape, because once the nurses had laced him onto a flat, uncomfortable slab, and incarcerated him in a rather more severe neck brace than the one he'd had in the ambulance, he was left completely alone. He could hear the voices of nurses not far away, but they never came round to see him.
After about two hours, a young doctor with owlish glasses, a white smock, and tennis shoes wrapped in plastic carrier bags shuffled in to lecture him on the evils of drink, mysteriously noted something in the file at the foot of his slab, and wandered off again.
Good Lord, thought Nigelentertaining the pleasant idea that he'd been thrown from a horse rather than written off his car (a rent-a-car at that)have I ridden with Prince Rupert's right wing at Naseby only to fall wounded and a prisoner to the dreaded Roundheads? It certainly seemed that way, for his next visitor was a uniformed member of Cromwell's New Model Army, a large, suntanned young man with blond hair shaved close to his heada fine figure of the California Highway Patrol Regiment.
It seemed to Nigel that sometime in his career he had received training on how to handle interrogations when captured by the enemy. But never before had he been captured, and he couldn't remember the drill. Something to do, certainly, with name, rank, and serial number. After that, it was all rather vague.
He was shocked when he saw the Cromwellian Californian flipping through his wallet. How on earth did he get that?
`An Englishman, huh?' he said, looking vaguely and dangerously German, Nigel thought, with his chiselled Gothic face. His air was cocky and amused, as it might well be when one's opponent is chained to a mad scientist's operating table.
`Yes,' Nigel croaked. His throat was dry. He shifted uncomfortably under his bonds.
The officer nodded and puckered his lips a little before widening them into an arrogant grin.
`Kinda old for this sort of thing, aren'tch ya?' It was a question to which there was no answer; and Nigel gave none. The officer seemed disappointed.
`Technically,' he went on, shifting his weight in a manner that seemed to imply his sidearm was remarkably heavy, like a handheld Gatling gun, `you're under arrest for driving under the influence.' He ambled with the rolling gait of a western gunfighter to the foot of the bed and came back with a clipboard in his hand. He shook his head. `Man, your brain was fried.'
Nigel's mouth grimaced under his grey moustache. Insolent little puppy, he thought. Damned self-righteous, bronzed Puritan.
The officer stuck his tongue in his cheek. `But then again, you guys do drive on the wrong side of the road, don'tch ya?'
Nigel's grimace twisted itself into a forced, false rictus. Damned little whelp ...
`Well, anyway,' the officer said, turning businesslike, `you're technically under arrest, as I said, but you'll be free to go once they check you out of here. It'll be up to the D.A. whether to issue a warrant for your arrest. You live in England, right?'
Yes, an England whose crown we'll defend to the last man against you and all of your republican kin, you vile dogs, Nigel said to himself before he realised his imagination had got the better of him. To the officer he only nodded as best he could given the constraints of the neck brace.
`Well, as long as you're out of the States within a week or so, I don't think the D.A. will think it's worth the taxpayers' money to bring you back for trial. After all, nobody was hurt but you. And you're damn lucky about that. You drunk drivers usually always live. It's the people you hit that get killed.'
Oh, yes, yes, thank you very much, Carrie Nation. If only you knew why I was here. Doing a policeman's work myself and doing it a damned sight more considerately than you, you Levelling, surfing, Teutonic moron.
`I'll still have to file a report, of course,' the officer said, pulling out his notebook.
Yes, very big on reports, your kind, aren't they?
`Are you in the States for business or pleasure?'
`Pleasure seems a bit ironic now, but that's fair enough.'
`You're on vacation?'
Nigel grunted. No need to lie unnecessarily.
`Where exactly were you goingbefore you went off the road, that is?'
`To my hotel.'
`And which one is that?'
`Oh, you know, the big one with the French name.'
`Too drunk to know where he was going,' the officer said slowly, scribbling in his notebook. `Where'd you been drinking?'
`I believe you Californians call it a saloon.'
`A saloon,' the officer repeated, smirking. `And you don't remember the name, do you ...?'
`The "Billy the Kid" or something ...'
`... or who you were with?'
`With? I wasn't with anyone. I don't know anyone here.'
The officer nodded. `Suspect completely disoriented,' he said as he wrote. `I think the skid marks tell the rest of the story.' He put his notebook in his pocket. `You know, you totalled that rental. You even blew out all four tyres and bent the wheel stems. I hope you have insurance on it.'
`I have.' Nigel was enough of an old soldier to know the risks he was running on this mission, though he hadn't considered drink driving to be one of them.
`Good. That could have ruined your trip, otherwise.' He grinned again. `You know, my grandfather's been to England. He was there to bail you out during the war.'
`Was he really?' Nigel said in mock politeness, flat on his back and unable to move.
`Yeah. He thought it was cold. 'Cept the beerthat was warm.'
Nigel nodded thoughtfully. `Give him my apologies. But tell him it's been that way for quite some time.'
Cromwell's grinning constable took another look in Nigel's wallet, then flipped it closed. `I'll leave this with the nurses. You can pick it up when you leave.' He waved it at Nigel. `You'd better watch it, old man. Accidents can be gnarly.'
`Yes, can't they just,' Nigel said, his fake grin following the officer out of the room.
Well, he'd survived the interrogation, but now came the true torture that all captured soldiers risked. Torture was what they gave you after you refused to talk. He braced himself for it. In fact, strapped down as he was, he was already braced for it.
His first fright came when a nurse stopped by his bed to ask him about paymentalways an awkward question when one finds oneself unexpectedly in a foreign hospital, especially when the authorities have confiscated one's wallet. But he was relieved that his being a foreigner didn't seem to cause her any anguish. Like a true die-hard, anti-Reform Bill Tory back in 1832, Nigel had always distrusted the National Health Service at home. He'd been all of eight when Nye Bevan introduced the idea. He hadn't thought much of it then and he didn't think much of it now. But he also maintained his countrymen's common fear that an American hospital would either turn him away to die in an alley or take him by his countryman brogues and shake him down for everything he was worth.
Taking matters quickly into his own hands he got the nurse to wheel his bed to where the phone was mounted on the opposite wall. He dialled his bank in London, Messrs Coutts, announced himself, and handed her the receiver. (The nurse, he thought, was rather plain and decidedly craggy with age and he'd rather not have her face rubbing cheeks with his.) The clerk on the other end assured her that Nigel's account was in very good order. She rang off, and Nigel gave the nurse his address so he could be billed and granted her permission to copy down his bank card number as security. It was quite simple, if more mercenary than one would like from a medical establishment, which, one likes to assume, no doubt falsely, is a rather idealistic place, with Angels of Mercy floating silently through the wards like Nightingales. And of course, Nigel thought to himself, given that they already had his wallet in their custody, they could be gracious rather easily.
The next torture to be borne was more severe. This torture wasn't clever, like Chinese water torture. It was more neglectful, more modern, more bureaucratic; in fact, it was very much like the National Health Service. He was left strapped on his mad scientist's operating table, ignored, abandoned, and alone.
He lay on his rack for a good twelve hours in a position that rapidly became far more painful than the quick and irrevocable accident that had sent him there. Whenever he tried to move, the apparatus blocked him. It was like trying to roll over in bed, only to have Helga of the SS pin his shoulders back, saying, `You vill sleep on your back and you vill like it.'
It would be wrong to say that he was being kept under observation, for he was barely observed at all. And then it was only to wheel him in to be X-rayedwhich they did twice, because the first batch didn't come out properlyand to stitch up a cut near his eye.
Nigel hadn't been seriously injured before he entered the hospital, but by the time he leftwhen a doctor happened upon him and said, `Hmm, they haven't let you out yet. That's funny.'his spine felt as though it were about to snap.
When he was finally discharged and in receipt of his confiscated valuables, he stepped into the remarkably hot October suna portrait of elegant, unclimatic dishevelment: blood-spattered cavalry twill, a Frankenstein-monster scar on his forehead, and a swollen black eye that he tried to hide by giving his Panama a rakish tilt.
He knew he was not a pretty picture. And at his age he knew it would be a bit hard to claim it was all a result of a stirring round of fisticuffshis glory days as a pugilist for Eton were long behind him.
But it was a very pretty picture that had plunged him into this mess. A very pretty picture indeed. It was a leg, actually. Or rather, two pairs of legs, belonging to two young women who were the very embodiment of a `Come to California' tourist advertisement.
He remembered walking down a sunbaked street lined with flashy shops, coming to an outdoor café, where his eye was caught by the long, suntanned leg of a beautiful blonde whose face had what he assumed was called `an innocent, all-American look.'
Plan A, thought Nigel. Whenever, in his long and distinguished military career, he had had to do a recce up country, in darkest Katanga or the border country round Crossmaglen, he'd invariably enlist native support to help him catch his prey. There was Ngube Mboto, who'd led him to the Katanga rebels, whom he secretlyand rather dangerously for his career as a wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant and military observeradvised in their secessionist war against the Congo's communist government; and Paddy O'Rourke, who drank with the Provos. These two lovelies might well serve the same purpose. Except the objective now was not settling the borders of the Congo or keeping a close eye on the IRA, but recovering his own goddaughter. She was twentysomething; these girls were twenty-something. Perfect. Plan A.
As he passed the blonde, he touched his Panama in greeting. He then walked straight into a chair that was shoved in his way by a woman getting up at the next table.
Nigel remembered feeling momentarily quite proud that though he was stumbling in a strange, hopping, froglike sort of way, his hands skipping along the ground, propelling him forward if not upright, he hadn't yet fallen flat on his face.
He did, however, propel himself full force into an unoccupied table, bringing it crashing to the ground, its umbrella, a chair, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers, packets of sugar, and other odds and ends falling on top of him. A purple ceramic vase with a single colourful flower plopped on his lap. He quickly brushed it aside so that it shattered on the pavement into convenient shards for cutting his hands. And to his shame he saw that the vase's water had spilled out into a Rorschach ink blot on the crotch of his trousers, which quickly emitted a sheepish smell to match the sheepish look on his face.
He heard a woman say, `Oh my God' (it was the woman who had knocked him over), and he groaned a bit. He was much too old to be playing rugby with furniture on the pavement, his erstwhile fame as scrum half for Eton but a distant memory. Surely a few bones were broken. Perhaps he was paralysed.
He shut his eyes for a moment, making a quick mental catalogue of his pain before he decided to move. When he opened his eyes, he was surrounded by the sound of shoe leather scraping on the pavement and the umbrella being wrenched aside. The blonde siren knelt beside him and put her hand on his Panama. `Don't move,' she said to him. `Are you all right? Do you want me to call an ambulance?'
`No, no,' he said, half bravely, half in fear of causing even more of a scene. `I'm quite all right. Really, it's my own damn fault for not looking where I was going.'
`Are you sure?'
`You're sure nothing's broken?'
The blonde nodded to a very pretty brunette, and they each took an arm and helped him up. He came to a wavering upright position. They let his arms go slowly and stood by him, as though he were a babe who might tumble over. Plan A was working perfectly. Silly old limey duffer, completely out of his depth, needs help. He could practically read the advert in the local paper.
`Ah, there,' he said, feeling more unsteady than he wanted to let on. He spread his legs a bit to improve his balance.
The woman who'd broadsided him rushed towards him with profuse apologies. No wonder she'd capsized him. It was like a hippo ramming a puntthe latter might be elegant (like Nigel) but the laws of physics determined he was no match for Hermione the hippo's well-fed bulk.
`Yes, I'm fine. Please, I'm perfectly fine. I do it all the time. No peripheral vision at all. Always knocking things over. Really. Perfectly, perfectly fine.'
Roar as solicitously as she could, Nigel had no interest in pursuing a conversation with this emigrant from Lake Victoria, and bravely, if gently, brushed her aside, the way a daring crocodile might, and moved boldly to his original objectivethe blonde, who had retreated to her table with her friend.
An officer ought always to take the initiative, he thought. What was it Frederick the Great had said? `An officer awaiting an attack shall be cashiered.' This was especially true when on special operations. It was, after all, imperative to secure the loyalty of the locals.
`May I join you?' he asked, bowing slightly at the waist, interrupting the blonde and brunette, who had already fallen back into their pre-Nigel-falling-on-the-ground conversation.
The blonde nodded, her lazy, bedroom blue eyes lighting with apparent deep concern for Nigel's well-being. `Oh, yes.'
`I'm sorry about all this. But I think I need a bit of a rest.' He slowly lowered himself into a chair. He was pleased his bones didn't creak as he did so.
A young waiter with shiny black hair hurried to their table, his worried eyes watching a couple of Mexican busboys cleaning up the wreckage from Nigel's fall.
`Are you all right, sir? Shall I call a doctor?'
`No, no, I'm perfectly fine,' said Nigel, who couldn't help but consider the waiter a damned nuisance. He had a sun-drenched table with two beautiful young women. What the devil did he need with a pretty-boy waiter with slicked-back hair?
`Can I get you anything? A glass of water?'
`You can bring me a beer.' The waiter recited the dozen beers of the house. `A Bass will do me fine.' Nigel looked at his companions, but they were happy enough sipping their fizzy cola drinks, as Americans were wont to do.
Nigel felt fairly knowledgeable about Americans from his days cooperating with them ousting the Iraqis from Kuwait. Many were the hours he'd sat in the Pentagon with Schwarzkopf and Powell breaking pencil nubs and working out the finer points of the Mother of All Battles. He had to admit to being a little hurt when Stormin' Norman gave all the credit for the Gulf War to the tactics of Alexander the Great and not so much as a mention to Nigel the Pretty Good Really. But the last laugh was his now, wasn't it? While Schwarzkopf and Powell were reduced to attending old soldiers' reunions or dull, formal dinners with desiccated, boring foreign policy mandarins, here was Nigel enjoying the café life with two radiant, sun-kissed creatures.
`You must be from England,' said the brunette.
`Yes, yes I am.'
Apart from acknowledging her amazing powers of deduction, he also carefully noted her features: warm brown eyes, though brown eyes always reminded him of animals rather than peoplestill, hers seemed affectionate, beautiful doe eyes; a bright, welcoming smile; a walnut tan ...
`I'm April,' she said, `and this is Penelope.'
`I'm pleased to meet you both. My name is Nigel, Nigel Haversham.'
`Are you all right? That was quite a fall you had.'
`Oh, yes. I suppose I was rather blinded by the sun. In England, we usually have rain in Octoberand every other month of the year.'
`Would you like something to eat?' asked Penelope. `We haven't ordered yet.'
`Oh, haven't you?' he said, accepting the menu from her hand. He looked at it briefly and put it aside. Looking at Penelope was more interesting: tall, blonde, and beautiful, with pouting lips, and eyelids that rested half unfurled, reminding one of the joys of the long Norwegian winters. `It gets rather warm here in L.A., doesn't it?' he asked, easing his shirt collar.
`Yes,' she said, smiling politely.
Nigel shook with a violent cough.
`Are you sure you're all right?' she asked him.
`Yes, I think it's just the smog.' He coughed again in wrenching spasms. Good Lord, did I dislodge my intestines?