London 1935: With the cooperation of a top-ranking scientist, Tom Langton and Robert Darnley are sent in as bait for a gang that uses blackmail to steal industrial secrets. The two men are friends, but they each have secrets – and they're well aware that homosexuality is illegal. Living in close quarters, having to portray a gay relationship, adds tensions to an already dangerous situation.
As Sloane had known he would be, Rob was the first to become restless, impatient. Tom remained impassive. Neither man spoke.
Sloane nodded, a silent assent to the question he had been asking himself since Harvey's visit.
"Sir Owen Bellamy," he said, taking a photograph out of a file and putting it in front of them. They stared at the image, a grim-faced man in his late fifties, white hair thinning, a bushy white moustache above thin lips and an obstinate chin. "Edmond Bellamy." A second photo joined it, a young man, short dark hair combed from a side parting, and pale eyes scowled at the camera. The face was handsome, but marked with a sullen nervousness, skin sallow, eye sockets dark-ringed, jaw jutting with an inherited obduracy.
"Looks familiar," said Tom, "Do we know him?"READ MORE
"No." Sloane's smile was entirely mirthless. "He bears a marked resemblance to Darnley. Change Darnley's hairstyle to match and they could be a twin."
"What? Not bloody likely! He doesn't look a bit like me."
"I see what you mean," Tom said thoughtfully. "Sending him in as a ringer, sir?"
"Yes. Pay attention, Darnley. Sir Owen is an old friend of mine, we went to school together. So too is John Harvey." He produced a third photograph; another man in his late fifties, brown hair greying at the temples, styled straight back from a high forehead. "John had been meaning to look me up for some time with a problem of his own, but was not sure if it was IRD material or not. After a meeting with Sir Owen and a comparing of notes, they decided their two problems could well be one.
"Sir Owen is the head of the Montfort Research Laboratories at Oxford. Last month, his chief assistant's son was caught going through his father's notes. They had a row, the boy ran out. The next morning he was found hanging in the orchard. Suicide. He left a note which Sir Owen kept from the police. It is somewhat ambiguous and seems to have been written under the influence of drugs, and certainly heroin was found in the boy's system at the post mortem. However, it does tie in with some of the things he'd shouted at his father during their quarrel.
"The boy was under pressure from an unidentified person or persons to obtain information on the Research Laboratories' current project, refining a new underwater detection device to be used by submarines. The lever being blackmail with some unspecified photographs, and the lad's addiction to cocaine. He had been an habitué of some rather expensive London nightclubs, and this is where the two problems become one. John is the leader of a dance band that plays alternate nights at two of these clubs. He served with me in Intelligence during the war, and he is convinced that one of the clubs is being used for some kind of underhand activity. He thought drugs, but it could also be blackmail."
"Does it link in with any other security leaks, sir?" Tom asked.
"Possibly. We've no concrete proof, but what we could have here is a gang who specialise in industrial espionage, using inside contacts through blackmail. There have been a number of cases over the last year that could fit this pattern. Even more worrying, there is rumoured to be a link with the Baumann-Klein gang in Germany, who are known to be funded by the Nazis. The relevant files are here for your perusal. I intend to put a stop to their activities, and have come to an arrangement with Sir Owen and John. And Edmond Bellamy." He frowned at Rob, daring him to speak out of turn. "He is Sir Owen's only child, and is something of a black sheep. He's spent the last six years in New York, living a somewhat bohemian life, and has been estranged from his family since he was sent down from Oxford. The official reason was drug-taking.
"What was not general knowledge was that he had also been caught in a compromising situation with his History don. His time in New York reflects the same indulgences; drugs and a series of homosexual liaisons." He broke off, the better to appreciate Rob's expression of dumbfounded and outraged horror. Tom, his face contorted with suppressed laughter, leaned over and patted Rob's knee.
"Never mind, sweetheart," he snickered. "It couldn't happen to a nicer girl."
Rob took several deep breaths, and controlled himself with an obvious effort. "I see, sir," he said through gritted teeth. "I'm supposed to stroll into this bloody club, pick up a feller and get myself blackmailed. Right?"
"Not quite, but close," Sloane acknowledged. "Bellamy has been shipped back to this country and is safely stowed away in our care. Sir Owen will let it be known that he is anxious to be reconciled with his son, providing he gives up his rackety lifestyle and settles down to a respectable job with a respectable girl who'll become a respectable wife. In the meantime, Edmond Bellamy will appear in London under another name, attached in some way to John Harvey's band. Do you play an instrument, Darnley?"
"Triangle," Tom supplied, delighted.
"Guitar," Rob snapped. "And piano. But I've never played in a regular band, just a jazz group occasionally."
"There's a first time for everything," Sloane said. "John has just gained a pianist."
"Who," Rob snarled, "do I pick up, sir? Anybody?"
"No. A casual liaison is out of the question. There would have to be a lot more at stake, more to pressurize Bellamy." His gaze moved to Tom, whose wide grin faded to wall-eyed wariness.
"Oh, no. Not me."
"Yes," said Sloane.
"He's not my type!" Rob protested, his own amusement growing as rapidly as Tom's disappeared. "Far too manly and hairy."
"He won't be by the time we've finished with him," Sloane said grimly.
"Now wait a minute!" Tom yelped. "Sir—"
"Oh, yes, sunshine!" Rob interrupted. "If I'm going to be made the laughing stock of IRD, there is no way I'm going to leave you on the outside to stir up more bad jokes at my expense. You're going to be right in there with me!"
"Exactly," said Sloane. "Langton, can you sing?"
"'Course he can sing, sir," Rob cut in. "Pour enough alcohol into him and the trick is to stop him. No one knows more verses of Eskimo Nell than he does."
"No," snapped Tom. "I can't."
"Then you're going to have to learn. I want you, as one Jeremy Collins, to be a visible part of the Harvey outfit. John is prepared to stretch a point and let you take over his own vocal spot. If you're good enough. If not, we'll have to think of something else."
Tom heaved a sigh, glowering and sullen in his chair. "Yes, sir," he muttered. "I take it you've got it all worked out, sir?"
"I have. Gentlemen, we all know the law, and public perceptions of homosexuals. I think we also know human nature and cold reality. The situations of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, for example, though they are hardly contemporaries, are in stark contrast to each other. While Mr Coward receives a certain amount of approbation from some quarters, others are willing to turn a blind eye to his proclivities. So I expect you both to conduct yourselves discreetly but in such a way that the relationship between Bailey and Collins is beyond doubt."
Tom and Rob glanced at each other, then they turned to Sloane.
"Yes, sir," they said in unison.
Satisfied, Sloane nodded. "Darnley, make a start on these files. That one is Edmond Bellamy from birth to this morning. Memorize every last word. Langton, come with me. They're waiting for you in the basement."
"Oh, God," Tom moaned. "The things I do for my country." Rob laughed and blew him a kiss as he trailed out of the office.COLLAPSE
Rainbow Awards Honourable Mention (2015)
Length: 53,000 words/204 pages