Shattered, p.13Dick Francis
I heard his wheezy voice behind me demanding my return, but by then I’d hurried halfway down one of the wings of the building and seen no human being at all, whether nurse, patient, doctor, cleaner, flower arranger or woman pushing a comforts cart. It wasn’t that there weren’t any beds in the rooms that lined the wing. In all the rooms there were beds, tray tables, armchairs and bathrooms, but no people. Each room had glass French doors opening to a well-swept area of garden tiles and parts of the glass roof were as wide open as they would go.
I stopped briefly at a room marked PHARMACY, which had an open skylight and a locked door of openwork grating to the passage. There was a host of visibly named pharmacy items inside, but still no people.
There had to be someone somewhere, I thought, and through the only closed door, at the end of the wing, I found a comparative beehive coming and going.
Twenty or more elderly men and women in thick white toweling bathrobes were contentedly taking part in comprehensive physical assessments, each test being brightly presented in play-school lettering, like “Your blood pressure measured here” and “Where does your cholesterol stand today?” A very old lady walked fast on a “jolly treadmill,” and on the wall of a separate hard-sided booth was the notice “X rays here. Please keep out unless asked to step in.”
Results were carefully written onto clipboards and then filed into computers at a central desk. An air of optimism prevailed.
My entrance brought to my side a nurse who’d been drawing curtains around a cubicle simply called UROLOGY. Squeaking across a polished floor on rubber soles, she smilingly told me I was late, and said only, “Oh dear,” when I mentioned that the good Doctor Force might be gasping his last.
“He often does have attacks when he has visitors,” the motherly nurse confided. “When you’ve gone, I expect he’ll lie down and sleep.”
The good Doctor Force was planning nothing of the sort. Registering annoyance like a steaming boiler, he wheezed to my side and pointed to a door coyly labeled “Here it is,” then “Way out too.” I explained as if harmlessly that I’d only come to find help for his asthma and he replied crossly that he didn’t need it. He walked towards me with a syringe in a metal dish, advancing until I could see it was almost full of liquid. He picked up the highly threatening syringe and then jabbed it towards me and the exit; and this time I thanked him for his attention and left.
The door out of the medical examination hall led past lavish changing rooms to a generous lobby, and from there to a forecourt outside.
Unexpectedly I found the Rover waiting there, Jim, my driver, nervously pacing up and down beside it. He held the door open for me while explaining that his concern for my welfare had overcome his natural instincts. I thanked him with true feeling.
Doctor Force followed me out and waited until I was in the car and went indoors only after I’d given him a cheerfully innocent farewell wave, which he did not return.
“Is that the guy you came to see?” asked Jim.
“Not very friendly, is he.”
I couldn’t identify exactly what was wrong with that place, and was little further enlightened when a large bus turned smoothly through the entrance gate and came to a gentle halt. The title AVON PARADISE TOURS read black and white on lilac along the coach’s sides, with smaller letters underneath giving an address in Clifton, Bristol.
Jim drove rapidly downhill until we had returned to, in his eyes, the supernatural safety of the town center. He did agree, though, subject to no further mention of things that go bump in the night, to drive around Lynton simply to enjoy it as a visitor.
Truth to tell, I was dissatisfied with myself on many counts and I wanted time to think before we left. I badly missed having my own car and the freedom it allowed; but there it was, I had indeed broken the speed limit often and got away with it before I’d been caught on the way to the dying gardener, and I could see that if Policewoman Catherine Dodd had a permanent toe in my future, I would have to ration my foot on the accelerator.
Meanwhile I persuaded Jim to stop in a side road. From there, Town Hall map in hand, I found my way to North Walk, a path around a seaward side of a grassy cliff, cold in the January wind and more or less deserted.
There were benches at intervals. I sat for a while on one and froze, and thought about the Adam Force who was color-blind, asthmatic, volatile and changeable in nature, and who visited an obscure nursing home only to do good. A minor practitioner, it seemed, though with a string of qualifications and a reputation for sparkling research. A man wasting his skills. A man who took a visitor outside to talk on a noticeably cold day and gave himself an asthmatic attack.
I trudged slowly around soaking up the spectacular views of the North Walk, wishing for summer. I thought of inconsequential things like coincidence and endurance and videotapes that were worth a million and could save the world. I also thought of the jewel I had made of glass and gold that not only looked truly old, but couldn’t be distinguished from a three-thousand-five-hundred-year-old original. A necklace worth a million ... but only one had that value, the genuine antiquity in a museum. The copy I had made once and could make again would be literally and only worth its weight in eighteen-carat gold, plus the cost of its colored glass components, and as much again, perhaps, for the knowledge and ability it took to make it.
Like many an artist of any sort, I found that it was to my own self alone that I could admit to the level I’d reached in my trade. It was also thanks to my uncle Ron’s embargo on arrogance that I let the things I made achieve birth without trumpets.
That the existence of the tape explaining how to make the necklace was in common knowledge among jockeys in the changing rooms didn’t trouble me. I’d made it myself. It had my voice and hands on it, describing and demonstrating step by step what to do. I’d recorded it the way my uncle Ron had taught me in my teens. The actual gold necklace I’d made was in my bank, where I normally kept the tape as well. I’d better check on that, I supposed. I’d lent the instruction tape to Martin and didn’t care if he’d shown it to anyone else, although I dearly wished he had returned it before it disappeared, along with all the others from his den.
I made a fairly brisk return to the end of the walk to find Jim striding up and down again and trying to warm his fingers. I thought perhaps he might not want to double the experience on the following day, but to my surprise, he agreed. “Tom Pigeon’ll set his dogs on me if I don‘t,” he said. “He phoned me just now in the car to check on you.”
I swallowed a laugh. I prized those bodyguards, not resented them.
Jim apologized for not being in the same class as Worthington and Tom at kickboxing.
“I can bash heads against walls,” he said.
I smiled and said that would do fine.
“I didn’t know anything about you when I picked you up,” Jim confessed. “I thought you were some useless sort of git. Then Tom tells me this and that on the phone and where Tom says he’ll put his fists, you can count on mine.”
“Well, thanks,” I said weakly.
“So where do we go tomorrow?”
I said, “How does Bristol grab you? A hospital area, best of all?”
He smiled broadly, transforming his face in one second from dour to delighted. He knew his way around Bristol. Up Horfield Road we would find a hospital, or on Commercial Road down by the river. No problem at all. He drove an ambulance there one year, he said.
Jim said to count him out when it came to fists or feet, but no one could catch him in a car. We shook hands on it, and I acquired bodyguard number three, one who could slide around corners faster than Formula One.
Jim took me home and, apparently on Tom Pigeon’s urging, came indoors with me and checked all ten rooms for uninvited occupants.
“You need a smaller pad,” he judged, finishing the inspection of the window locks. “Or...”—he looked sideways—“ a swarm of children.”
Catherine arrived at that mo
Much amused, the driver left. Catherine fussed over my fresher crop of trouble and said she’d been bored by the class reunion from registration to wrap.
I said, “Next time ditch the boredom and come home.”
The words slid out as if on their own. I hadn’t intended to say “home.” I’d been going simply to offer the house as a refuge, I explained. She nodded. It was later, holding her in bed, that I thought of Sigmund Freud and his tell-tale slip.
Bristol was wet with drizzle.
My driver—“Call me Jim”—was short and stout and pronounced himself shocked that I preferred quiet in the car to perpetual radio.
Quite reasonably he asked where we were going exactly in the city. To find a phone book, I replied, and in the yellow pages singled out Avon Paradise Tours without trouble. They advertised that they operated adventures throughout Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and all points to London.
Jim, with his ambulance memory, more useful than any paper map, drove us unerringly to their lilac headquarters and with a flamboyant gesture drew the busy bus depot to my attention like a rabbit from an abracadabra top hat.
Once they understood what I was asking, the women in the Avon Paradise Tours office were moderately helpful but reluctant to say too much in case they broke house rules.
I did understand, didn’t I?
They then opened the harmless floodgates and told me all.
On Tuesdays members of a Bristol area Health Clubs Association went on a scenic bus tour to the Hollerday Phoenix House nursing home in Lynton for medical checkups and advice on healthy living. Doctor Force, who ran the clinic because he lived in Lynton, was paid jointly by the health clubs and Avon Paradise Tours for his one day’s work per week. After extra consultation together, the office staff admitted they’d been told Doctor Force had been “let go” (given the sack, did I understand?) by the research lab he used to work for.
Which research lab? They didn’t know. They shook their heads in general, but one of them said she’d heard he’d been working on illnesses of the lungs.
Another phone book—listing all things medical—borrowed from the Avon Paradise ladies, had me trying all the remotely possible establishments, asking them via Paradise Tours phone if they knew a Doctor Force. Doctor Force? Unknown, unknown, unknown. The forever unknown Doctor Force had me looking out of the window at the distant sheen of the River Avon at high tide and wondering what to try next.
Illnesses of the lungs.
Check stubs. A lot of zeros. The payee ... Bellows. In Martin’s handwriting, it had meant nothing to Bon-Bon and nothing to me.
There wasn’t any listing for Bellows in the Bristol area phone book, nor had Directory Inquiries ever heard of it.
Martin, though, had written BELLOWS boldly in unmistakable capital letters.
Lungs were bellows, of course.
My mind drifted. Rain spattered on the window. The ladies began to fidget, implying I’d overstayed my time.
Well ... Maybe, why not?
Abruptly I asked if I might borrow their office telephone again and with their by-now rather grudging permission I spelled out Bellows in phone dial numbers, which resulted in 2355697. I punched them in carefully. There was nothing to lose.
After a long wait through maybe a dozen rings I was about to give up, when a brisk female voice hurriedly spoke, “Yes? Who is that?”
“Could I speak to Doctor Force, please,” I said.
A long silence ensued. I was again about to disconnect and call it a waste of time when another voice, deep and male, inquired if I were the person asking for Doctor Force.
“Yes,” I said. “Is he there?”
“Very sorry. No. He left several weeks ago. Can I have your name?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. I was beginning to learn caution. I said I would phone back very soon, and clicked off. To the Paradise ladies’ curiosity I offered only profound thanks and left promptly, taking Jim in tow.
“Where to?” he asked.
“A pub for lunch.”
Jim’s face lightened like a cloudless dawn. “You’re the sort of customer I can drive for all day.”
In the event he drank one half pint of cola, which was my idea of a good hired driver.
The pub had a pay phone. When we were on the point of leaving I dialed BELLOWS again and found the male voice answering me at once.
He said, “I’ve been talking to Avon Paradise Tours.”
I said, smiling, “I thought you might. You probably have this pub’s public phone booth’s number in front of your eyes at the moment. To save time, why don’t we meet? You suggest somewhere and I’ll turn up.”
I repeated to Jim the place suggested, and got a nod of recognition. “Thirty minutes,” Jim said, and twenty-two minutes later he stopped the car in a no-waiting zone near the gate of a wintry public park. Against the united teaching of Worthington, Tom Pigeon and Jim not to go anywhere unknown without one of them close, I got out of the car, waved Jim to drive on, and walked into the park on my own.
The drizzly rain slowly stopped.
The instructions for the meeting had been “Turn left, proceed to statue,” and along the path, by a prancing copper horse, I met a tall, civilized, sensible-looking man who established to his own satisfaction that I was the person he expected.
He spoke as if to himself. “He’s six feet tall, maybe an inch or two more. Brown hair. Dark eyes. Twenty-eight to thirty-four years, I’d say. Personable except for recent injury to right side of jaw which has been medically attended to and is healing.”
He was talking into a small microphone held in the palm of his hand. I let him see that I understood that he was describing me in case I attacked him in any fashion. The notion that I might do that would have made me laugh on any other day.
“He arrived in a gray Rover.” He repeated Jim’s registration number and then described my clothes.
When he stopped I said, “He’s a glassblower named Gerard Logan and can be found at Logan Glass, Broadway, Worcestershire. And who are you?”
He was the voice on the telephone. He laughed at my dry tone and stuffed the microphone away in a pocket. He gave himself a name, George Lawson-Young, and a title, Professor of Respiratory Medicine.
“And 2355697?” I asked. “Does it have an address?”
Even with modern technology he didn’t know how I’d found him.
“Old-fashioned perseverance and guesswork,” I said. “I’ll tell you later in return for the gen on Adam Force.”
I liked the professor immediately, feeling none of the reservations that had troubled me with Force. Professor Lawson-Young had no ill will that I could see, but on the contrary let his initial wariness slip away. My first impression of good-humored and solid sense progressively strengthened, so that when he asked what my interest in Adam Force was I told him straightforwardly about Martin’s promise to keep safe Doctor Force’s tape.
“Martin wanted me to keep it for him instead,” I said, “and when he died the tape came into my hands. Force followed me to Broadway and took his tape back again, and I don’t know where it is.”
Out on the road Jim in the gray Rover drove slowly by, his pale face through the window on watch on my behalf.
“I came with a bodyguard,” I said, waving reassurance to the road.
Professor Lawson-Young, amused, confessed he had only to yell down his microphone for assistance to arrive at once. He seemed as glad as I was that he would not have to use it. His tight muscles loosened. My own Worthington-Pigeon-driven alertness went to sleep.
The professor said, “How did you cut your face so deeply?”
I hesitated. What I’d done in the backyard of 19 Lorna Terrace sounded too foolish altogether. Because I didn’t reply Lawson-Young asked aga
He asked next what I’d been fighting about, and with whom, his voice full of the authority that he no doubt needed in his work.
Evading the whole truth, I gave him at least a part of it. “I wanted to find Doctor Force, and in the course of doing that I collided with a water tap. Clumsy, I’m afraid.”
He looked at me intently with his head on one side. “You’re lying to me, I’m sorry to say.”
“Why do you think so?”
“It’s unusual to fight a water tap.”
I gave him a half-strength grin. “OK then, I got hit with one that was still on a hose. It’s unimportant. I learned how to find Adam Force, and I talked to him yesterday in Lynton.”
“Where in Lynton? In that new nursing home?”
“Phoenix House.” I nodded. “Doctor Force’s clinic looks designed for children.”
“Not for children. For mentally handicapped patients. He does good work there with the elderly, I’m told.”
“They seemed pretty happy, it’s true.”
“So what’s your take-away opinion?”
I gave it without much hesitation. “Force is utterly charming when he wants to be, and he’s also a bit of a crook.”
“Only a bit?” The professor sighed. “Adam Force was in charge here of a project aimed at abolishing snoring by using fine optical fibers and microlasers....” He briefly stopped. “I don’t want to bore you....”
My own interest, however, had awoken sharply as in the past I’d designed and made glass equipment for that sort of inquiry. When I explained my involvement, the professor was in his turn astonished. He enlarged into detail the work that Force had been busy with and had stolen.
Shattered by Dick Francis / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes