A Finger of Night © 2014 - Chapters 1 & 2
London, July, 1942.
He had always hated the month of July. In the shadow of Cave Hill, over the cranes and chimneys of Belfast, through the bustling docks and shipyards, across the lough, the beat of the Lambeg drum would fill the air. It was his earliest childhood memory; the footfall of the Orange Order, the banners, sashes and sectarian catcalls to that triumphant drum. The streets ran with blood every twelfth of July. It flowed down the narrow cobblestones of tightly packed choleric red brick slums where the Billy boys and Fenians collided and all the bonfires blazed. With a start he broke his reverie, jarring himself to the present. He stared out at the sandbags in passing windows and doorways, some boarded up, some missing; this wasn’t the England he had left, it was already a new and different country. London was cloaked in smoldering grime that permeated every pore. It smeared the windscreen. As the government car dashed past Regent’s Park, the dawn was breaking over the city; Section Chief Henry Chainbridge smoothed out the worn leather attaché case on his lap and smoked his umpteenth cigarette,
‘‘Bad week sir, the docks got it again last night. A couple of bombers got through; dropped all their incendiaries,’’ replied Knox, the uniformed M.T.C. driver from the front seat.
‘‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know.’’ Chainbridge leaned back and returned to his thoughts, his stomach hadn’t settled from his journey. A train out of Switzerland through occupied France, rowboat out of Normandy to the trawler that had landed him in Poole, Southern England and Lysander aircraft to the outer reaches of the city where Miss Knox was waiting. Thirty six hours of running on nerves and cold water shaves, dodging the Gestapo.
‘‘No thank you, sir, I’m on duty.’’ Chainbridge snapped the ornate Russian cigarette case closed. Knox turned the car smoothly up Baker Street to number 64; the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive, a featureless building of thirty windows stacked up neatly in rows of grey. Somewhere in the distance the gradual whine of air raid sirens increased to a howl.
‘‘Best get indoors sir.’’
Chainbridge was ushered by her into the dark, airless office of Intelligence Director Douglas Gageby; ‘‘DG’’. Beneath his pomaded hair and immaculate slate-coloured suit, Chainbridge knew he was all spit-shone top brass from top to toe, burnished from some distant tropical sun. It was the first time both men had met face-to-face. Gageby didn’t rise to meet him, merely looked up from a report garish yellow in the desk lamp light. He waved in the general direction of the chair in front of his rosewood desk. Chainbridge eased his exhausted lanky frame into the soft leather, it didn’t bother him in the slightest that he had to look up at the director from it.
‘‘Tea? Coffee? Or after your journey Henry, something stronger?’’
‘‘Tea, thank you.’’ a few moments later an aide brought in a tray, like the building, he gave off an air of exhaustion. Chainbridge sipped it, savoring the flavor of the leaves; he loosened his collar despite himself.
‘‘Black market out of Ireland,’’ Gageby looked up as he spoke, ‘‘fought them in ’22, don’t you know; now they keep the char flowing across the sea.’’ He finished the report and accepted the files from the attaché case manacled to Chainbridge’s wrist.
‘‘Have you slept?’’
‘‘Managed a few winks on the trawler. I don’t sleep much these days.’’
‘‘None of us does.’’ Gageby studied the man opposite him; tall and rake-thin with a shock of grey hair, hawkish features, unshaven, a thick woollen cardigan beneath his jacket, and the beginnings of a stoop. He appeared more of a crumpled professor of antiquities rather than a spy. Nevertheless, he had an energy that radiated from within. Both men smoked and drank for a few minutes in silence, Chainbridge tapping his ash into the cup’s delicate saucer placed at his feet on the rich Persian carpet. His shoes he noted were grimed and he needed a bath. He felt like the ragged end of nowhere. With a satisfied grunt, Gageby closed the files and spread his squat fingers flat out on the desk in thought. Chainbridge noted the man’s knuckles were covered in hair, his face streaked in places with razor burn, his expression broken only by a tic that sporadically danced below the left eyelid,
‘‘This report is good, very, very good Henry, the Norway operation was a success I see.’’
‘‘Thank you, but we lost a man. And Brandt’s lucky to be alive. It’s all there in detail.’’
‘‘Unfortunate, unfortunate, but anyway, the PM is very impressed with how your team prevented a catastrophe for this nation. In war, especially our kind of war Henry, casualties are inevitable as well you know. I’m sure your comrades understood the risk.’’ He re-opened the report to a particular page, delicately scanning down, and placing his finger onto the relevant passage,
‘‘Manfred Steiger’s residence, you believe it’s a viable safe house?’’ Chainbridge afforded a smile; the ‘house’ was a mansion in one of Zurich’s exclusive suburbs. Steiger, a Swiss national had been working privately for Hitler but had recently been forced to join the Allied cause at the expense of his liberty, his bank accounts, his contacts, his mansion and his genius with chemical formulae. He also owed Chainbridge his life.
‘‘Yes, I have a communications hub set up there and have been monitoring Germany’s communications both inside and outside her borders. As you can see, I believe a number of senior Nazi Party members are siphoning off plunder from the war into private bank accounts in Switzerland. I think this is an area we should examine more closely. It’s my feeling there may be a wider involvement. A paper trail may prove useful should we win the war. Also, as I’m here, I’d like to formally request that Jennings remain on with me; he’s been invaluable as a radio operator.’’
Gageby shuffled the papers absently,
‘‘We can look into it Henry, that’s all I can say for now, just don’t expect too much co-operation from either the Swiss banks or the authorities. Jennings can remain on with you, the where’s and how’s I’ll leave to your discretion. But I summoned you on a more pressing matter; the PM thinks your friends are in a unique position; they performed brilliantly in both Russia and Norway against their own – losses notwithstanding. If they can operate deep without being exposed, the PM thinks they can act as an assassination bureau against the enemy. He’s drawn up a number of high-value targets, one very special one, but wants to do a dry-run first. An off-the books operation Henry; the beauty is if they’re liquidated, we say we know nothing about it as they’re Jerries, then we set up another operation with either another European group or our own.’’
Chainbridge riled at the comment ‘‘Jerry’’ but let it pass. He wondered if he would get to meet his wife Meenagh before he left, he had requested it before his departure.
‘‘Russia and Norway were to settle a score; a matter of honour for them. A dry run?’’
‘‘Ah yes, the German officer corps, honor, duty and loyalty to the point of destruction; let’s see how far that will stretch shall we?’’
Gageby with a flourish handed over a decoded communiqué, printed below the cypher in pencil read – Peter de Witte found 72 /76-78 Berlin IIIF. Chainbridge exhaled slowly,
‘‘He was reported missing, snatched in New York on O.S.S.’s watch. How do we know he’s not lying in a ditch somewhere and this is misinformation to spare their blushes?’’
‘‘We received word from someone who has seen him; their intelligence is reliable and not routed through the usual channels. Admittedly, we have no idea of his condition, highly likely they’ve broken him.’’
‘‘He’s in the cells of the Abwehr H.Q., Tripitzufer, right under Canaris’s feet.’’
‘‘It’s a safe assumption; IIIF is the counter-intelligence section. How long is it since the report was received?’’
‘‘A week,’’ Chainbridge involuntarily swallowed; part of him delighted to hear his old comrade was alive, but knew the next sentence before it left Gageby’s thin pursed lips,
‘‘Your team is to go in and either retrieve him or execute him. In and out Henry, preferably without any fireworks or capture, it’s as simple as that.’’ Gageby pressed a button on his desk phone and a few moments later an army Quarter-master sergeant entered, saluting smartly. He placed a brown paper parcel on the desk and exited the room on his heel. Gageby slid the parcel across the desk to Chainbridge,
‘‘From our Station XV- forged Vichy vehicle plates and documents, travel permits, ID and prisoner transfer papers. Uniforms will be couriered to Zurich from Munich by our friends the Schulze-Boysen Harnack group over the next day or two. Can you provide the transport?’’ Steiger’s other forfeit for working for the Third Reich - his collection of luxury cars.
‘‘I can’t see a problem.’’
‘‘Next question, will your friends agree?’’
‘‘I will have to ask.’’
‘‘Persuade them Henry, do your best. Honour or not, they are our best chance on the foot of this information. Also remind them that both you and de Witte saved their lives in Russia. If we’re lucky, he hasn’t been handed over to Himmler and his butcher boys; giving us a chance to ensure what he knows stays inside his head. Inform me directly of your planned route and I’ll notify the Swiss authorities from here through the FO. They might come on board, but we may have to look at other options; perhaps with the communists. Thornely’s section inside the Reich will keep you appraised about the German Army border patrols.’’ Gageby began stacking the files brusquely; the meeting was over. Chainbridge placed the parcel inside the case. As he rose out of the chair he felt his knees grind and twinge; he was too old for all of this.
‘‘How’s your German?’’
‘‘Not as good as de Witte’s, I’m afraid.’’
‘‘Then Brandt will have to take the lead. How’s his English by the way?’’
‘‘He doesn’t speak it.’’
‘‘Get him speaking it Henry.’’ as Chainbridge turned to leave, Gageby leaned across the desk,
‘‘Henry, what happened in Berne with Sherman Harris?’’
‘‘Bloody Americans. Well the Ottowa Bureau has been secured thanks to you, so we’ll be able to operate out of there when dealing with Uncle Sam. If you’re still interested, Sherman Harris has popped up in Italy, keeping some very unsavory company. Have you anyone in the field?’’
‘‘Yes, I have just the person, on assignment in Italy.’’
‘‘We’ll set up a liaison for them, with local partisan groups. Thank you for risking your neck by coming here. Normally we’d use a female courier, but the PM wants this eyes-only level and only a select few in the know. If Roosevelt, or God-forbid, Stalin gets wind we have ex-Wehrmacht irregulars on our books there’d be hell to pay. Good luck Henry and bon voyage.’’
He was met by Miss Knox outside the room and escorted to the car. Chainbridge took her gently by the arm,
‘‘I’d like to see my wife; she’s in London this weekend.’’
‘‘I’m sorry sir - my orders are to get you to the airfield as soon as possible, the plane’s on standby. The Director was insistent on it.’’
‘‘He asked me to give you these,’’ she handed him a plain wooden case, flipping the lid it revealed phials and syringes and spare cyanide capsules snug in protective green felt. As on every journey out, Chainbridge fixed a capsule to the lapel of his twill jacket and pocketed the remainder. He tested his mouth’s reach to it, in case his arms were restrained. He noted her unease,
‘‘Thank you. Miss Knox.’’
‘‘Deborah, you can call me Deborah,’’
‘‘Deborah, may I ask a question?’’
She smiled uncertainly; she was prim and petite in her uniform but tilted her stubborn chin with the assurance of youth,
‘‘Yes, you may sir.’’
‘‘Are you enjoying the adventure?’’ her smile widened,
‘‘I am, sir; this war got me out of a mining town up North.’’
‘‘Me too.’’ he winked.
As he stepped into the back of the car, the distant boom and crack of anti-aircraft guns rolled in from the distance.
‘‘Think we’d better get going, sir.’’
Exhaustion overwhelmed him, Knox conscious of his silence, drove without comment. He thought of his old London book shop along a quiet mews, now empty and Meenagh now living in Cambridge wondering if he was ever coming home. He detected Gageby’s hand in him not seeing her, a petty man enjoying his authority, and a petty man sending a team of specialists into the lion’s den without any consideration for their safety.
‘‘Throwing lives around like snuff at a wake.’’ he murmured. Knox glanced up into the rear-view mirror, then back to the road.
Gageby enjoyed shedding blood from the comfort of his desk.
Within an hour they were beyond the drab city suburbs to the small airfield where he had landed, as the first of the day’s summer downpours began.
‘‘I’m sorry you couldn’t get to see your wife, sir.’’
‘‘Could you ensure she receives this Deborah?’’ he handed her a letter creased from being crammed into his inside pocket, a corner was stained by seawater. Knox smiled and nodded, she smoothed it tenderly out on her skirt.
‘‘I will, sir.’’ he suspected Miss Knox got a lot of love letters.
The Lysander was waiting, the pilots and ground crew running pre-flight checks; one held his hand up with fingers splayed – five minutes. Chainbridge opened his cigarette case and handed her a few.
‘‘For later, when you’re off duty.’’ she smiled and let him light one. They smoked quietly in companionable silence and then shook hands. Over the increased whine of the engines Chainbridge heard her shout as he climbed aboard,
‘‘Good luck, sir!’’
And then he was airborne back into the meat grinder of war torn Europe; his thoughts flicking between Peter de Witte, now in the hands of the Reich’s counter-intelligence interrogators, and Sherman Harris the Third. Harris was involved in the murder of five innocent people in Steiger’s mansion; which brought Chainbridge to the agent assigned to hunt him down.
The cool water swept over Eva Molenaar as she dived into the pool. Swimming strongly, she enjoyed the sensation of her limbs propelling her, driving her through the water. After seven lengths her thoughts focused purely on improving each stroke with every breath, each one better than the last, every limb and nerve ending thrilling to the exercise. She raised her head out of the water after her twelfth length and looked out over the mosaic encrusted rim. The Tuscan hills swept away from her in hues of purple and deep blues, the rich red soil shimmered in the summer heat as swallows flitted across the earth. Rolling gracefully, she set herself a stiff pace of backstrokes, pushing her muscles hard, the water blocking out every sound. The azure vault of August sky glided by and into her view at the pool’s edge appeared Count Maximilian Ambrose Orsini. He held two champagne flutes in his hands,
‘‘A little refreshment, my darling?’’
Eva smiled as she dipped below the surface and pushed her legs against the pool’s wall. She glided below the surface, exhaling slowly, rising midway and crawled through the water creating barely a ripple. One more length then she pushed towards the steps of the pool and stepped into the proffered towel that Orsini held. Her skin, the colour of burnt honey, gave her grey eyes an ice-cold intensity. She sipped the alcohol, enjoying the cold sweet taste on her tongue. Orsini admired her black swim suit cut high to reveal her long legs. Drying her shoulders tenderly he noted a smattering of freckles across her back accentuated by the deep cut of the suit’s design. It had cost a small fortune in Milan, but was worth every lira on this woman.
‘‘Thank you, Max.’’ she patted her hair with the towel as she walked with him back to the table where the champagne sat buried in ice. The Tuscan sun had bleached her wet auburn hair with streaks of yellow. Max smiled, his fifty-six years disappearing in the halo of perfect dentistry. He was in good physical shape and modest enough to have his slight paunch covered by a Japanese silk kimono. His expensive shorts were expertly cut and not too revealing, a man comfortable with, but also conscious of his age. His hair was thinning and dyed black, giving him an oddly funereal aspect, which jarred with his suave manner.
He reclined on the lounger as Eva took her seat. She patted the water from her calves and looked around. Deep in the Chianti region Orsini’s villa sprawled, the main building designed in the style of an opulent Roman Emperor’s retreat, set amid lush olive groves and vineyards. Stables, a small family chapel, servant’s quarters and the livery were situated discreetly beyond the expertly tended walled garden. He had accumulated enough wealth to build this Arcadian idyll in the middle of a world war -
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