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Eagle Chronicles 6: Alison

Title: 6. Alison
Series: The Eagle Chronicles
Word Count 4896
Summary Follows directly after "Inspector Hamilton". Steven befriends a young woman on the ship and helps her family in South Africa
Author's NoteSouth Africa must have been in the news when I wrote this--either that or I was interested in how a jewel thief would handle being so close to a diamond mine.




6. Alison

August 1940

Smiling, Steven headed back to his cabin to unpack. He had no dress clothes, so he hoped there would be no galas to attend. He knew a different alias was needed; the Yard would definitely contact the ship and tell them they had a jewel thief onboard going by the name of Sebastian Talbot. He didn't want to risk using his own name. Granted, he might never see any of these people again, but there always was that outside chance. He decided on Simon Townshend from Cambridge.

He went up on deck. Now that he could relax, he planned to enjoy himself. People were on the deck watching the shore go by. That would be the only land they'd be seeing for quite some time. There seemed to be quite a mix of passengers--English, Dutch, Indians, and South Africans. They were all older, in their late forties and fifties.

He had just about given up on any enjoyable company when he saw the girl on the deck chair. She had long brown hair pulled back with a yellow scarf. She was wearing light slacks, a blue blouse and a white sweater about her shoulders. He wanted to strike up a conversation but didn't want to sound like he was picking her up. He took up position on the deck chair next to hers and sat back as if relaxing. He looked over and saw that she was reading Voltaire--an intellectual. "Pretty deep reading for a vacation," he said.

"Mmm." What a start.

"I'm kinda partial to Montaigne myself."

She looked up from her book and he saw that her eyes were a deep, rich blue. "Oh, you read French, Mr.....?"

"Simon Townshend. I can if I have to. Not usually as a matter of enjoyment, however, Miss..."

"Alison Montclair. This isn't fully for enjoyment. It's for one of my classes."

"Oh? What holiday is this? I thought schools didn't let out for another month."

"They don't. I got called home because of --an emergency."

Steven noticed her hesitation. "Nothing serious, I hope."

"I really don't know."

He was quiet for a few moments, unsure of what to say, which was a rarity for him. "Um, I don't want to sound too forward or anything, Miss Montclair, considering we've just met and all, but would you join me for dinner tonight? We are of an age and would be good company for each other," he added hastily.

Alison contemplated his offer. "I'd be delighted, Mr. Townshend. As you said, we are close in age and would have more in common with each other than with the 'older set'."

Steven and Alison spent most of their waking time together. He was careful not to let her think that this was a shipboard romance. It was only a friendship they shared, nothing more. If the circumstances were different, however, he might have considered taking it further. He was curious as to how she felt, but didn't push it.

***********************************************************************

They arrived in Capetown after __ days at sea. "Is anyone meeting you?" asked Alison.

"No. I don't know a soul in Capetown--except you."

"Let me give you my phone number and maybe we can get together before you head back." She took a pen and some paper from her purse and jotted down her phone number. "If Dad answers, don't let him put you off. He can be a bit gruff at times."

"Oh, can I now? Are we telling tales?" Gordon Montclair was a bear of a man. He stood maybe a little over six-feet and had very broad shoulders. His deep, booming voice was tender as he greeted his daughter. "How are you, puss?"

"I'm fine, Daddy. I'd like you to meet Simon Townshend. We met on the ship."

"How do you do, sir?" Steven put out his hand and Montclair took it in a vise-like grip.

"Fine, lad. Fine." He looked at his watch. "Are you hungry?"

Steven didn't know if Gordon was talking to him or Alison. "A little bit."

"Good. You can join Alison and I for a bite."

"I don't want to impose. After all, you must have a lot to talk about."

"Nonsense." Mr. Montclair put an arm about Steven's shoulders and led him outside. Steven looked at Alison who only smiled and shrugged.

They had a light lunch of soup and sandwiches. Montclair had a very dry sense of humor and took a shine to Steven. Alison told him that he was the first of her friends that her father hadn't plagued with questions. Steven covertly watched her watch her father. He could tell that she sensed something was wrong. He could feel an undercurrent as well, but, being a stranger, he couldn't tell what it was.

"Where are you staying?"

"I don't know. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip," he answered. "Can you recommend any good hotels?"

"Why waste your time with a hotel? You can stay with us."

Both Steven and Alison were shocked. "You hardly know me. For all you know, I could be a thief or a murderer."

"You don't look the murdering type." Steven made to interrupt. "No excuses. You are going to see the real South Africa while you're here, not some paved city that you can see anywhere in the world."

"If you insist." Steven finished his beer. "I'm looking forward to it. You just let me pay for lunch."

************************************************************************

They drove out of Capetown and into the wilds. Steven marveled at the beauty of the country and at the beauty in the seat beside him as Alison pointed out the animals they passed on the way. She had her father stop the Rover when a pride of lions came in sight. They were resting in the shade of a large tree and the remains of lunch could just be seen in the distance. "This is amazing. Too bad I don't have a camera."

"We've got one at the house, I think," said Gordon. "I don't know if it has any film, though. You're welcome to use that."

"Thanks. Maybe I will."

The Montclair's house was a two-storeyed affair built in the traditional farmhouse-style. It was pale yellow with white trim and shutters. It also had a front porch that ran the length of the house and around one corner. Steven could picture them sitting there reading, talking, or just watching the sky. As the Rover pulled to a halt, he heard dogs barking from the backyard. "Do you run a kennel as a sideline, Mr. Montclair?"

"No," he laughed. "They keep me company when Alison's away."

"This is some place you have here," Steven remarked as he followed Alison into the house. "Is it just for the two of you?"

"Yep. Dad likes the wide, open spaces both inside and out." She started up the stairs. "Let me show you your room so you can get yourself settled."

They went up the wide staircase that was lined with nature prints. Upon reaching the top, she turned to the left. There were many doors and Steven guessed that most of the rooms weren't even used. "It's a good thing you're here. I'd probably turn into a wrong room."

"Yours is easy to find. It's on the corner." She stopped and opened the door then let Steven go in ahead of her. The room was painted in soft beige and had white curtains and a matching bedspread. "This is one of my favorite rooms," said Alison. "It has one of the best views." She walked to the window. "Sometimes you can see when the animals come to drink. There's a small stream that runs across the property in the back."

"This is great, much better than a hotel." He set the bag down on the foot of the bed and joined her at the window. "Has your father ever thought of renting rooms out for people on safaris or something?"

"Not that I know of. It's an idea. I could mention it to him."

They both stood there, looking out the window at the open landscape, neither wanting to move. Alison felt his presence and thought that if she moved, the spell would break. She finally brought herself back to reality. "Um, I'd better go check on Dad. The bathroom's down the hall. Come down when you're ready." She left.

Steven watched her go, a smile slowly spreading over his face. The situation couldn't be more perfect, even if he had planned it. He made it out of England by the seat of his pants, hardly any money in his wallet, and, here he was, sitting in a room in a private estate in South Africa, and he didn't have to worry about spending a cent. A pretty daughter was an added benefit.

Later that evening, Steven went down for dinner. He heard voices coming from the library and stopped just outside the door. "...So I'm just about broke," Gordon was saying. "That's why I had to bring you home, I couldn't afford your school anymore."

"You mean the mine is totally dried out? There's nothing left?"

"No, there's nothing worth digging for."

"Does anyone know?"

"I've been putting on a good front. John Sinclair still wants to buy it, but he won't once he discovers it's worthless."

Steven took his cue and entered the room. "I'm sure we can figure a way around that."

"You mean you'd help us?" asked Alison. Steven nodded. "Why?"

"Let's just say it's to pay for my keep."

"But how?" Gordon asked. "Do you know anything about diamond mines?"

"I'm considered something of an expert on the final product," he said with a smile.

Gordon hesitated. "C'mon, Dad. It couldn't hurt."

"If anything, it'll probably help."

Gordon relented. "Okay, what do we need to do?"

"I'll need to take a look at the mine. I need to see how it's set up so I can organize my plan around it."

"You already have a plan?"

"Not really a plan, more like a few ideas. I think this Sinclair fellow will play a major role."

************************************************************************

The next morning they drove to the mine. The way was bumpy and Steven held onto his borrowed hat. "Quite out of the way, isn't it?"

"You didn't expect it to be in the middle of the city, did you?" asked Gordon. "When I come--came out to dig, I usually brought some camping gear and stayed a night or two at a time."

In the distance, Steven could see machinery. "What's over there?"

"One of Sinclair's mines. He has them spread throughout the area. He's tough competition."

They got out of the Rover and stretched. Just inside the mouth of the mine, Gordon took three helmets off the wall and handed them to the others as he picked up some lights. "Watch your step. It's rough and uneven in some places."

Steven and Alison followed as Gordon as he led them deeper into the mine. Not being one for manual labor, Steven had a great admiration for Gordon and all the work he had done. It would be a shame if he had to lose it all. He stopped to look at the worked-out deposits. "It's hard to believe that something so beautiful as a diamond comes from something so dull like a lump of coal," he mused.

"Just one of the many miracles of nature," Gordon agreed.

"How can seeing the mine help you?" asked Alison. "There's nothing here."

"We have to make Sinclair think there is. We have to make him think he can't do without it. To put that part of the plan into action, I need an introduction to the man. From there, it depends on his reaction. Is there anything you can tell me about him that might help?"

Gordon thought about it. "He's rich, arrogant, and selfish. His two favorite subjects are himself and his mines."

"Sounds like a real nice guy. Is there anything I can work with?"

"The typical 'boy makes good' story. He was born into a poor family and worked his way up through odd jobs, saving his money all the way. Struck it rich and never looked back."

Steven smiled. He had his plan.

***********************************************************************************

The next day Steven borrowed the Rover and drove into town. Gordon told him that Sinclair always had lunch at the same place. He found the cafe without any trouble and sat at a table from which he could watch the road. Even though he had no idea what the man looked like, there was no mistaking how the waiters kow-towed to him.

Sinclair was tall, a little over six-foot, with brown hair that was starting to grey at the temples. He was broadly built and could have been an All-American tackle. He guessed him to be in his mid-forties.

He followed a nervous waiter to a table near Steven's. The waiter didn't even bother to give him a menu; he just poured him a mug of beer from a pitcher on the table before going inside to place the order.

Steven watched Sinclair as he read the paper; sports section first, then the financial, followed by the news. He decided to strike before lunch arrived. "Excuse me, but are you John Sinclair, the man with all the gold mines?"

Sinclair put down the paper and looked at him. "I don't give autographs."

"You mistake my motives, sir. The name's Sean Thomas, freelance journalist. I was doing some groundwork for an article about self-made men. Your name was on my list. Quote a stroke of luck, running into you."

Sinclair put down the paper and Steven could see the glint of interest in his eyes. "Please take a seat. Have you eaten yet?"

"No, I haven't."

"Good. I'll have them make two of my usual." He waved to a hovering waiter and placed the order. With this done, he turned back to Steven. "Now, where will the article of yours be published?"

"The Times in London and New York. Possibly some papers in Chicago and Los Angeles. Americans go for this type of thing."

"So I've heard. How did you hear about me?"

"I told a friend of mine who lives here about my article and he told me about you. I landed yesterday."

"Well, where do you want to start?"

"How did you get involved in mining?"

"My father worked them when I was a boy. When I was old enough, I started. I wasn't content to stay underground my whole life, so I go into the office. Once I knew enough, I left them and started my own operations in some of the richest land in the area. All the geological surveys say that somewhere near where I'm digging is the largest mother lode in South Africa."

"That would double, maybe triple your income," said Steven with true awe in his voice.

"You know, I'm going out there this afternoon. How would you like to join me?"

"That would be wonderful. A visit would definitely make the article."

"I've a few things to finish up at the office. I can come pick you up when I'm done." He glanced at his watch. "About 2:00?"

"I'm staying at the ______."

"Fine. I'll see you then."

**********************************************************************

For the second time in two days, Steven was driving out onto the veldt, to almost the identical spot. Sinclair cleared him into the office. Posted on one wall was a map of all his holdings in the area. Near the middle was a blank space. "What's this?"

Sinclair walked over and looked at where Steven was pointing. "Oh, that's Gordon Montclair's mine. He's a stubborn old mule. I've been trying to buy it from him for months now. He probably doesn't know what he's got."

"You think that's where the lode is?"

"Wouldn't be the least bit surprised." He headed for the door. "Let's see if we can find you some overalls so you don't get covered in dirt when we go in the mine."

Steven followed Sinclair out to the main shaft. He noticed some of the workers being searched as they came out. "Afraid of theft?"

"Can't be too careful. It's a great temptation. Sooner or later, they give into it."

They each put on a hard hat and entered the mine. Sinclair gave a little lecture on the mining process and on the diamonds themselves. In the course of the tour, Steven spotted some "samples" and pocketed them when no one was looking. He already had an idea how to get them past the search, but everything had to cooperate.

They rode of the lift with one of the shifts coming off for lunch. As he waited to be searched, Steven slipped the diamonds into Sinclair's pocket. They wouldn't search him, it was his mine. He passed through and returned to the office. He quickly took off his overalls and lent a hand to Sinclair. "Here, let me help you with that."

"There's no need, Mr. Thomas."

The phone rang and Steven thanked God for watching over him. "Give that to me while you answer that." Sinclair couldn't argue and handed Steven the overalls. When he was sure Sinclair wasn't looking, Steven took the diamonds out and put them in his own pocket before throwing the overalls in a laundry hamper. With this accomplished, he walked to the wall map and pretended to study it.

Sinclair hung up the phone. "I'm sorry, Mr. Thomas, but something's just come up and I won't be able to take you back to town. I think one of the office workers has some errands to do. I can see if he'll take you."

"I hope it won't be too much trouble."

"No, no trouble at all." Sinclair placed the call and the worker said he'd be glad for the company during the ride. If he didn't mind the wait, it would be about twenty minutes. Steven felt that the agony of the waiting would be worth seeing Sinclair's face when he discovered the mine was worthless.

**************************************************************************

Once back in Capetown, he headed for the Montclair's Rover and drove back to the house. Alison met him at the door. "How did it go?"

"Worked a charm. He believed I was a freelance journalist who would be selling his story to The Times in London and New York. He liked me so much, he took me into his mines which made a contingency plan unnecessary."

"What do you mean?"

"I got these lovelies the first time around." He held out the diamonds.

"They're gorgeous!"

Gordon nodded in agreement. "What's the next phase?"

"We plant a few of 'em in the mine and let him know you're willing to sell. Seeing those stones will cinch the deal."

"What if he becomes suspicious of my selling all of a sudden?"

"His greed will overpower that. If not, you can say that you're getting too old to do all the digging and that you have to think of Alison's future. He'll believe that. He thinks you're a stubborn, sentimental fool anyway."

"Why does he want the mine so badly?" asked Alison. "Doesn't he have enough?"

"He believes that you're mine is sitting on top of the largest mother lode in South Africa."

Gordon laughed. "The man's a dreamer. I've worked this mine for years and it's only been adequate--until now."

"Now, to put Phase Two into operation. Tomorrow, you start circulating the word that you're going to sell the mine and move to England. Sinclair will hear about it and come clamoring at your door. You then haggle a bit because you don't want to seem to eager to sell. You settle on a respectable price and off you go." He paused. "Do you know anyone who wants the house? You can't stay here once Sinclair learns the truth."

"I hadn't thought of that." Gordon looked around the room. "It'll be hard," he said at last, "but worth it."

********************************************************************************

The next morning, Steven and Alison went to plant the diamonds in the mine while Gordon stayed home and made phone calls. Steven sat in the passenger seat and watched Alison as she drove. She brushed back some loose-flying hairs that had escaped her scarf. She was aware that he was watching and smiled. Steven noticed the smile and looked away. He scolded himself for letting his mind wander. He had to concentrate on the job; he couldn't afford to relax his guard.

"Why are you helping us, Simon? You barely know us."

"I told you. It's to pay you back for letting me stay with you at no charge. You and your father are the ones who took the risk."

"I'm a pretty good judge of character and I know you're not the type to hurt anyone outright. There are certain things about you that puzzle me, though."

"Oh?"

"How do I know that you didn't make friends with me on the ship just to get at my father's mine?"

"I honestly had no idea who you were when I saw you. I just saw a pretty girl sitting by herself who looked like she could use the company. I had no designs on anyone's money when I came here. I want you to believe me."

"I do want to believe you. Just explain to me how you know what to do. You sound like such an expert."

Steven laughed. "I'm far from an expert. I guess I just watch many mystery movies. It's only working because Sinclair is so greedy." He looked at her. "Do you believe me now?"

She stopped the car and looked at him. "Yes, I do. But if you try to pull anything..."

They returned to the house two hours later just as Gordon was getting off the phone. "We're all set. "How're things here?"

"Good. I found someone who'll buy the house, dogs and all. He's been wanting it just about as long as Sinclair's wanted the mine. I've also booked us passage on a ship leaving tonight for England. I hope you don't mind, Simon?"

"No, I'm glad you did, thanks."

"Now we hook Sinclair and reel him in, right?" asked Alison.

"Now who's been watching too many movies?" She smiled. "Right. We head into town. I kept one of the diamonds for you to get it appraised. Sinclair's eyes'll pop when you tell him there are more like it." He looked at his watch. "What time does the boat leave?"

"7:00."

"Okay. That should give us time. Do you need help packing?"

"Not me," said Alison. "Most of my things are at school."

"I could use some," said Gordon. "I started making a list last night. Nice of you to offer."

Steven checked the list. It was mainly books and knickknacks; the furniture was staying. Alison took him up to the attic where he could find some packing boxes. They were done in only a few hours.

"Now, to tackle Sinclair."

********************************************************************************

Gordon drove them into town with Steven sitting in the back with the luggage. "Where to now?" he asked.

"The appraiser's. I'm sure Sinclair monitors what happens there. Then we wait for him to contact us."

"Do you think he will?"

"Seeing that diamond will make him think you've found the mother lode. He'll come, all right." I hope, he added to himself.

Gordon parked in front of the appraiser's and he and Alison went inside. Steven locked the car behind him and headed for the bar where they had agreed to meet. He was just opening the door when he heard his name--one of them--being called. It was Sinclair. "Mr. Thomas, how are you today? Did you get the information you needed?"

"Yes, thank you. And, please, call me Sean. 'Mr. Thomas' is so formal."

"Then you started it?"

"Last night. I'm just about done with the rough draft, but I can polish it up on the ship."

"You're leaving?"

"Yes, this evening. There's a gentleman in India I'm going to interview." Sinclair looked up, disappointed. "I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Sinclair, but I really need this interview."

"I understand. Let me buy you a drink to say good-bye."

"Thank you very much, Mr. Sinclair. I'd appreciate that."

Sinclair led him to a booth for privacy and sat facing the door. No one could sneak up on him that way. They talked of the war and politics. Steven was surprised; Sinclair didn't talk about himself. Halfway through his second beer, Steven noticed Sinclair stop, drink inches away from his lips, and stare at the door. The moment had come. "Of all the nerve..."

"What is it?"

"It's Montclair and his daughter. He's smiling, too. You have to watch out for him when he smiles like that."
.
Steven looked in the mirror behind Sinclair and watched as Gordon stepped up to the bar. "A drink for everyone, my good man. I'm feeling rich today." A cheer went up from the patrons.

Sinclair couldn't take it anymore. "What brought this on, Montclair?"

Gordon turned and saw them in the corner. "Sinclair. Just the man I'm looking for." He picked up his glass and cloth bag and headed over to the booth, Alison in tow. He saw Steven but hid his surprise. "The reason I'm feeling so generous, old boy, is this." He up-ended the bag and the diamonds rolled out.

Sinclair's hand reached out and snatched one. "They're magnificent!" he said, turning it in his hand.

"The appraiser just said that it was worth about 2,000." Sinclair's eyes widened. "There's more like it at the mine."

Sinclair brought his emotions into check. "You said you were looking for me. It wasn't just to gloat, I'm sure."

"Well, I've been thinking that I'm getting too old for this type of work and I really haven't had too much time to spend with Alison."

"Well?"

"I've been thinking about your offers. Of course, finding these raises the price."

"Name your price." He didn't even look up.

Gordon looked over at Steven who nodded slightly. "I was thinking about 100,000."

"What?" It sounded like he was choking. Steven couldn't tell if it was from anger or amazement. "You have to be joking."

"With other stones like these up at the mine, I think that's a real reasonable price."

"How do I know there are more diamonds at the mine? You could be just trying to con me."

""Why don't you go up to the mine and look for yourself?" said Steven. "Then maybe you can counter-offer."

"Good idea, Thomas. Why don't you come along? You might want to use this."

Driving out to the mine in his car, Sinclair laughed. "The man doesn't know what he has! I'm going to buy the mother lode for a song!"

"Isn't that a bit cold-blooded?"

"This is a tough business, Sean. I didn't get where I am by being a soft touch. If Montclair didn't get a proper survey, it's his loss."

Steven was glad they were conning him. He was one piece of dirty work!

Gordon and Alison were waiting for them outside the mine. "So, where is this terrific find?"

"Down in the back. I was just about to give up when I found them." Gordon shone the light along the walls so Sinclair could see the chisel marks from past excavations.

Sinclair's jaw dropped when the light hit the diamonds. Through the spectrums on his face, Steven could see the glitter of greed in his eyes. He knelt down and pulled one out from the dirt, dusted it off, and held it between his fingers. "You've got a deal," he said.

"Good." Gordon lent him a hand in standing. "We can drive back into town and sign the papers." He ushered Sinclair out of the mine.

Alison looked at Steven. "Are you coming?"

"What? Oh, yeah. Be there in a minute." He watched her leave. When she was out of sight, he turned back to the wall and pulled out the diamonds, pocketing them. They would help pay for his trip.

********************************************************************************

That night on the ship as he was dressing for dinner, there was a knock on the door. "Just a minute!" He checked himself in the mirror before opening the door. Alison was standing in the hall. "Come in. A bit early, aren't you?"

"I hope you don't mind. I wanted to thank you for all you've done for my father and I."

"I've told you that it was no trouble at all," he said, straightening his tie. "Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'll be just a few minutes more." Alison looked at the bed. Steven had all his clothes spread across it. "Just move it all aside. You won't hurt anything."

Alison pushed over his jacket and sat down. "You know, you remind me of the Saint." Steven raised one eyebrow. "He always comes to help people who are being bullied by crooked gangsters. He employed less than legal means, too."

Steven was becoming uncomfortable. "Really? I wonder if I should take that as a compliment."

"It was meant as one." She leaned against his jacket and felt something in one of the pockets, something like rocks. She smiled. "Why is it that men can never properly do bow ties? Let me do that for you." She turned him around and fixed his tie.

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