Sarah Jane opened the door to the young woman. She was dressed very tidily in a skirt suit with her hair in a pony tail and not too much make up. She showed her identification.
“Penny Carter. We talked on the phone…”
“Yes, come in,” Sarah Jane said. “Come through to the drawing room. It’s just the two of us. My son is out with his friends and my nephew.”
“Thank you,” Penny Carter said as she stepped into the hall and then into the said drawing room. “You have a very nice house, Miss Smith.”
“Thank you, Penny,” Sarah Jane answered. “But please, call me Sarah. Miss Smith… sounds like a secretary.”
“And you’ve never been anything so mundane, have you, Sarah?” Penny Carter replied as she sat down and took out her reporter’s notebook. Sarah Jane poured tea for her guest from a pot already prepared for the occasion. “I’ve done quite a bit of research on you before I called you, of course. You’ve been at the centre of some of the most remarkable journalist scoops of the past thirty years. Your investigative skills have helped uncover so many criminal organisations with plans that would have hurt ordinary people in extraordinary ways.”
“I am aware of your research,” Sarah Jane said. “That’s why I agreed to this interview. But I do hope you realise that much of my work – especially in the1970s – is subject to the Official Secrets Act.”
“Oh, indeed. But the 1970s are a long time ago, now. Under the Thirty Year Rule some amazing facts are now in the public domain. And your name comes up with remarkable regularity.”
“Even so, you should be aware that Military Intelligence will be examining any article you write as a result of this interview. And anything they don’t like will be struck out before it goes to print. If too much sensitive information is involved it won’t be printed at all.”
“I understand that,” Penny Carter answered. “I had a very long conversation with Brigadier Bennett of U.N.I.T. All the same, I think there is a story to be written here. Even if it can never be printed. I’ll take that chance. I just hope you can be fully open with me.”
“Very well,” Sarah Jane conceded. “Where do you want me to start?”
“1974,” Penny answered. “Am I correct – your first association with U.N.I.T. and their scientific advisor was during a crisis called Operation Egg Basket – in which U.N.I.T. were attempting to prevent Britain's top scientists from being kidnapped?”
“Yes,” Sarah Jane answered. “Yes. That’s correct. My late Aunt Lavinia WAS one of Britain's top scientists, so I had a vested interest. I used my connection with her to investigate the situation…”
“You used her identity to get into the U.N.I.T. complex where the scientists were being gathered for their own safety.”
“Good grief,” Sarah Jane thought. This girl HAS done her research.
“It was a storm in a teacup,” Sarah Jane said out loud. “The scientists who were taken – they were rescued, all relatively unharmed.”
“Thanks to you and the U.N.I.T. scientific advisor,” Penny said. “Rescued from an alien called a Sontaran who had kidnapped them?”
“What?” Sarah Jane was astonished. When she had agreed to this interview about her career as an investigative journalist she had expected to reiterate the official cover stories for most of her activities. Operation Egg Basket’s authorised version was communist sympathisers trying to make the scientists build a nuclear superbomb.
“Sontaran… that’s the correct pronunciation, I believe. The same aliens that caused the Atmos crisis last year.”
“Were they?” Sarah Jane was surprised. “I didn’t know that. I wasn’t involved in that. I didn’t even put the silly thing into my car.”
“Nevertheless…” Penny Carter watched Sarah Jane carefully. Sarah Jane watched Penny Carter equally carefully. “Cards on the table, Sarah. I know that aliens exist, they’re real. U.N.I.T. was formed nearly forty years ago to deal with them and you were involved with U.N.I.T. for many years. So let’s really stop pretending and talk about the truth beneath the cover stories.”
“If I do, you won’t be able to print any of this.”
“Nevertheless… let’s move on, shall we. Later in 1974 – you and U.N.I.T.’s scientific advisor were again involved in a strange situation. London was evacuated under peacetime emergency provisions. Again there was a cover story. A nuclear accident. In 1974, long before the internet, long before ordinary people started to question government or military, that sort of thing would be believed. But there were a few witnesses, people who were missed by the evacuation, and by the military sweep of the city. People who say that London was under attack by prehistoric creatures.”
“Penny, really,” Sarah Jane laughed, but perhaps not convincingly enough.
“An MP and a top scientist disappeared without trace and a senior government minister resigned. All were connected to Operation Golden Age....”
“Yes, but dinosaurs in London….”
“No stranger than the Loch Ness Monster in the Thames,” Penny countered. “That was a year later, wasn’t it? And you were involved.”
Sarah Jane sighed. “Yes, and you probably also know that the creature was sent back to the Loch to live in peace. I hope you haven’t been poking around up there. Leave it alone.”
“I’m a serious journalist, Sarah,” Penny Smith answered. “I really don’t have any reason to get involved with that. Let’s move on. There was a far more interesting incident. I refer, of course, to your expose of the neo-nazi leanings of the scientific organisation, ThinkTank. That really was magnificent work. You saved the British taxpayer millions that would otherwise have been invested in those crackpots and their schemes.”
“Oh, no, that I really am NOT going to talk about, Penny,” Sarah Jane said. “That lot caused so much trouble.”
“They still are, I believe. You knew, of course, that Hilda Winters, the self-styled leader of that organisation, escaped from jail three months ago.”
“I know she is at large,” Sarah Jane answered. “But it will only be a matter of time before she is put back in prison again. If she makes the slightest move against anyone who was involved in the fall of ThinkTank, she will be caught. You may rest assured of that. I certainly am.”
Actually, the knowledge that Hilda Winters was out there, somewhere, with a grudge against her and her family, seriously worried Sarah Jane. But she wasn’t going to admit that to a journalist who already knew far too much about her.
“You broke off your association with U.N.I.T. and its scientific advisor in 1976, I understand,” Penny Carter continued. After an incident involving a nuclear power station on the south coast.”
“Formal association, yes,” Sarah Jane answered. “Though I have maintained informal connections with U.N.I.T.”
“And the scientific advisor…”
“I…” Sarah Jane was lost for words. She ran back in her mind just how often the scientific advisor had been mentioned in the conversation.
“I believe he was known as The Doctor,” Penny Carter added. “You and him were close, I understand.”
“Close friends, yes,” Sarah Jane answered. “Nothing more…”
“No, of course not,” Penny Carter quickly assured her. “My interest is not in that direction, anyway. But The Doctor…”
“I’m not going to tell you anything about The Doctor. And I really am wondering just where this interview is going. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my career as a journalist…”
“That’s because your career as a journalist is a cover story in itself, Sarah Jane Smith,” Penny Carter answered. “A cover for the fact that you are the Earth liaison with the alien known as The Doctor – who was taken on by U.N.I.T. in order to combat other, more dangerous aliens. That’s the truth. And I know you have met up with him again, in recent years. You and him exposed the truth about a school whose results were being enhanced by an illegal additive in the school dinners…” She looked at Sarah Jane. “Or was there much more to that story than meets the eye, I wonder? Were there aliens involved?”
“You tell me,” Sarah Jane told her. “You seem to know so much.”
“I…” She seemed perturbed for the first time since she began. “I… Look… do you… I mean… do you mind very much if I use your bathroom. And perhaps we can resume this interview with a clearer mind afterwards. I really would like to continue…”
“Upstairs, middle landing, third on the left,” Sarah Jane replied. “But when you come back, I think this interview is over.”
Penny didn’t say anything. She left the room quietly. Sarah Jane heard her footsteps going up the stairs. She waited a few minutes and then followed her. She wasn’t at all surprised when she saw that the bathroom was empty. She carried on up to the top floor, the attic, and stepped inside. She stood and watched, in amusement, for a while, as Miss Penny Carter, investigative journalist, backed further and further away from K9. His tail was wagging in a friendly way, but Miss Penny Carter seemed to be scared of him. She was whimpering and pleading for him not to kill her.
“Would you like me to call for the relevant authorities, Sarah Jane,” asked Mr Smith. Miss Penny Carter nearly jumped out of her skin as the voice came from the computer behind her.
“No, thank you, Mr Smith. Not just yet, anyway. “I want to hear what she has to say for herself, first.” She stepped forward into the room. “K9, good dog. Heel.”
K9, as a rule, didn’t obey those kind of subservient dog commands, but he was playing the game along with Sarah Jane and he came to her side, his tail and ears both wagging enthusiastically.
“So.” Sarah Jane stepped closer to Miss Penny Carter as she stood, stock still, scared to move anywhere else. “What is this all about?”
“It’s about The Doctor. I just wanted to know more about him. I really wasn’t going to print any of the stuff about him. But I wanted to talk to somebody who knows him, who understands about him.”
“Because I met him,” she answered. “Just once. And I was really stupid and rude to him. And I realised afterwards that he probably saved my life. And the lives of hundreds, thousands of other people, too. And so I tried to find out about him. And he has known lots of people over the years. But you’re the most important one. And I just wanted to talk to you about him, and try to find out how I might get to see him again. Because he’s…”
“Yes, he is. He’s all of that. But I don’t think he’d appreciate a stalker. Especially not a nosy journalist one. That’s really what it was about? You’re not working for ThinkTank? Trying to get to me and my family?”
“No, nothing of the sort,” Penny assured her. “Honestly. It’s just about The Doctor - about wanting to meet The Doctor.”
“Mr Smith?” Sarah Jane queried, ignoring Penny’s bluster.
“My voice analysis suggests that she is telling the truth,” Sarah Jane. “I detect no attempt at subterfuge at this stage.”
“Ok, that’s good enough for me. Thank you, Mr Smith. I don’t think we need to worry about the authorities. I think Miss Carter is going to behave herself.”
“I really didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” she said. “I just want to meet him again.”
“Then you’ll just have to be patient,” Sarah Jane answered. “He is at nobody’s beck and call. Keep on investigating. Sooner or later your paths will cross. Only this time, don’t be rude to him. And maybe you’ll get your chance. Don’t even think of trying to interview him, though. On the planet where he comes from only academic failures become journalists, you know. He rates that profession lower than archaeology, and you should hear what he says about that.”
“Um… yes… er… Well, perhaps I’d better go,” Miss Penny Carter stammered. “If… you… if your dog… robot… thing…”
“K9 doesn’t bite. But he is very protective of me.” Sarah Jane stood aside and kept K9 close to her as Miss Penny Carter ran out of the attic. Her footsteps sounded on the stairs. Then the front door slammed. Sarah Jane looked out of the window and saw her running down the driveway to where she had left her car. As she did so, Sarah Jane’s own car turned into the drive. Brendan and Luke got out of the front, Maria and Clyde from the back seat. They all looked puzzled as they saw the other car drive away. Sarah Jane waited for them to come upstairs to the attic.
“Who was that woman?” Brendan asked. “And why was she running away?”
“Make the tea, and find the biscuits and I’ll tell you all about it,” Sarah Jane answered with a laugh.