August 10, 1944 — 02:00
She knew it from the moment she left the curb, by the headlights in her rear view mirror. It was too late for unauthorised road traffic on the blacked-out London streets, and the stalker’s intent was entirely unambiguous. Natalie Falls had turned and turned again, accelerating where possible, relying on her Jaguar’s speed and turning prowess, even on the wet streets, but the headlights remained in the mirror. The Navy dockyard was more than a mile away, and she was being forced further in the wrong direction.
Falls had already taken the automatic pistol from her satchel and was now accelerating along Whitechapel Road at speed. Her pursuer’s car was as fast as hers and he was an expert driver. The chase had to end; where and how was up to her.
Turning right onto a nameless narrow lane, she braked past the intersection. The Jag slid on the wet pavement, grazed a hoarding and stopped at a ninety angle, blocking the road. Opening the door she stepped out and took aim with her handgun. The car behind had taken the turn hard, and swerved onto the sidewalk to avoid impact with Falls automobile. It stopped short of colliding with a lamppost.
Her car was positioned so that its headlights shone into the other car. She’d a clear shot, if she wished to take it. The driver, a grim looking man, stared and smiled out of the widow.
“You’re chasing the wrong woman, mister,” said Falls, holding her aim. “I’m not the sort of person people question when she kills a man.”
Then spinning his tires, the grim man drove off down the sidewalk and onto the road. A pre-war MG Roadster. Red with Black fenders and spoke wheels. The number plates, unreadable.
The chase had ended in front of a block of row houses. A second floor window opened and she saw the dim glow of a single candle.
“You on the road,” a man called down, “you alright?”
Now she heard other windows opening. “Yes fine.” She pocketed her pistol.
“What’s all the noise?” said another voice. “Why you parked like that?”
“An unexplainable event,” Falls replied.
“Woman driver, if you ask me.”
“No one asked you, Norman,” a woman said.
“Where’s the coppers?”
Squadron Officer Natalie Falls wondered that too. She got back into her car, and started the engine.
“Hey, you can’t leave.”
She might be late for her appointment, but the war would carry on nonetheless.
* * * * * *
She drove slowly up to a barricade, and handed her identification to a guard. He consulted a clipboard. No salute passed between them; she was in civilian clothing. The guard handed back the ID.
“Pin this on your lapel, mum,” he said, handing her an official visitor pass. “Now, left at the next intersection and onto the wharf. Ultra will be at the end, on your right.”
He spoke in a low voice, as though the existence of the Royal Dockyards was a secret.
The barricade arm rose, and she drove on.
Falls had been told that the HMS Ultra was a small submarine, that its small size was its greatest asset. As she approached, however, it seemed impossibly large. Its profile was too high, its deck gun too obvious in silhouette. This was meant to be a covert mission. Natalie Falls parked her car a few yards away from the dimly lit gangplank, and got out.
“You there, on the wharf,” a man called from above, “state your business.”
Falls looked up at the conning tower. A pale faced man in a pea coat looked down at her.
“Squadron Officer Natalie Falls of the Special Operations Executive, to see Captain Findlay.”
“He’s asleep, miss.”
“It’s Ma’am not miss, if you please.” Falls checked her wristwatch. “Our appointment is at 02:15.”
“But it’s only 02:10.”
“Look, it’s bad enough that I have to keep to Navy time. Please wake him, and tell him I’m here.”
“Oh he won’t like that, miss.”
Fall called up, “Name and rank, sailor.”
“Seaman Quinten Kennedy, miss. But it won’t change nothin’.”
“Well, Seaman Quinten Kennedy, do whatever you must to summon your Captain, immediately. And since I out rank you by some considerable amount, I suggest you refrain from calling me miss. Now scramble your arse.”
“Don’t look like no Squadron Officer to me,” Kennedy mumbled, as he keyed the intercom. “Is the Fin about down there?”
“He’s in the mess with a cuppa cocoa,” a voice crackled back.
“Someone’s here for ‘im.”
“He just woke up. Says to keep an eye open for some SOE bird, whatever the SOE is. Probably some crusty old maid.”
“That might be who this is, says so anyway.”
“I tell ya mate, I just can’t keep up with all this SOE and SACE malarkey.”
“I can’t help there. I’m just tellin’ ya she’s here.”
There was a brief silence. Then—
“Officer on deck says send her aboard. Don’t know why we’d have a scrubber on board, though. It ain’t right. Nothing’s right no more.”
Seaman Kennedy looked a little sheepish, as he keyed off.
He called down, “Permission to come aboard, miss.”
As Natalie Falls stepped into the full light of the gangway, the Seaman noticed for the first time that the Squadron Officer was indeed no old maid.
“Ain’t you somethin’ for sore eyes,” he said, and nearly whistled.
“I said please proceed with caution up the gangplank, miss.”
The interior of the sub was warm, close and smelled like it needed a bath. It was a tunnel of pipes and brass gauges, of bulkheads and oily hatches. The untidy sailors were sallow in the low yellow light. A Lieutenant greeted her as she came aboard. He asked to see her identification.
“We don’t get many ladies down here,” he said, examining her credentials.
“I imagine you get none at all,” said Falls.
Captain Findlay sat in the mess with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He was reading logs, and sat back as Falls entered.
“Sit,” he said.
A Midshipman stood nearby.
“Coffee?” said the Captain.
“That would be very nice.”
“Coffee for our guest, Billy.”
The Midshipman waited a moment.
“Black,” said Falls.
“You have something for me?” Findlay said. “Orders? Or does SOE issue orders by conventional means? Perhaps I should listen for them in Morse code, tapped on the hull.”
“Official paperwork would be inconvenient in this case.” She took an unmarked file folder from her satchel, and placed it on the table.
“What’s this, then?”
“A plan—time line, rendezvous coordinates, passenger manifest.”
“Anything else?” the Captain said. “An explanation? Something to motivate me?”
“It’s top secret,” Falls said. “You don’t need to know anything other than what’s in the folder.” Then she took a book from her satchel and placed it on the table. “You’ll be within radio distance throughout the mission. You’ll receive instructions along the way, based on outcomes. These are your codes.”
“So, you expect me to place my men and my boat in jeopardy, without official orders.” He opened the folder, and read the single page it contained. “This is very unusual. Some would say that it’s a mutinous act, to sail without orders.”
“You can be assured that I’ll protect you from any of that.” Falls couldn’t mention Churchill or the petty conspiracy that had led to his involvement, and therefore couldn’t mention that the operation would take place with the Prime Minister’s blessing.
“Reassuring,” Findlay said, closing the file. “But you’ve nothing else?”
“I have one thing to add.”
“On the evening of Monday June 10th, 1940,” Falls said, “you were approached by a man in a pub in London. It was when you were still a Lieutenant Commander. He was a fat, bearded man, and identified himself as a Mr Finch. Do you remember?”
“Maybe.” He lit his cigarette.
“He sat at your side at the bar,” Falls continued, “and drank three shots of Jameson whiskey. You’ll recall that he struck up an odd conversation with you in which he said that as an officer in the Submarine Service you may be approached one day in the future, and asked to participate in a clandestine operation. He said that he didn’t know when or where, or under what conditions, or that there was any certainty that it would ever even happen. But if it did, you were to ask for a certain phrase. A code phrase that would confirm the validity of the request—that it was of the utmost importance and that it came from the highest echelons.
“You thought it nonsense, of course, but you could never forget that code phrase. It repeats itself in your head, over and over. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake, and it’s the last thing you think of before you go to sleep. That’s how it works—implanting a phase code in this way comes with some unfortunate psychological side effects. The process isn’t perfect.”
The Midshipman placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of Natalie Falls, and exited the mess.
“You’re mistaken,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” said Falls, and began to recite: “Chrome colour lights spectral colour spectral colour the dark.”
The Captain looked startled, then severe. A switch had been thrown. How could she know? He barely remembered meeting Finch, but the phrase had repeated again and again inside of his head every day since. It was maddening at times. He realised now that he’d been made a puppet, long ago and without his consent. He felt rage. “I’m not a fucking errand boy,” he said.
“No,” said Falls. “You’re an asset, and an Officer in the Royal Navy. Sworn to serve.”
“Am I the only one, or are there others you’ve done this to? Good men made robots, waiting to be activated.”
Falls sipped her coffee, and made a face. “This is dreadful.”
“That fat bastard, Finch,” Findlay said, “he didn’t pay his bar bill. I had to pay it. He just walked away when he was done with me. I’m owed half a crown.”
Falls took some coins from her satchel and placed them on the table.
“These two passengers,” she said, placing her hand on the folder, “they’re precious cargo. You and your crew will be put on furlough until further notice, but it won’t be long. You’re to remain in London. We want you nearby, not out at sea when the moment comes. Tell the crew no drinking, no shore leave violence or melodrama. And there’s certain information in this envelope you must memorise by morning. Then it must be destroyed. The paper dissolves in water. Flush it down an onboard toilet.”
Paris, August 10, 1944 14:45
The dwarf sat at the foot of la columna Vendôme, and nodded in appreciation as passersby tossed coins. He played his small guitar surprisingly well, in the style of Django, in spite of the arthritis that gnarled fingers. Crispin Dench approached and dropped a franc into the small man’s hat. Benoît Le Géant, an agent in La Résistance française, stopped playing and smiled broadly.
“Ah, Dillinger,” he said. “That is very generous.”
“I know it,” said Dench. He was dressed in a dark tailored suit and fedora.
The two men spoke freely in the bustle of Place Vendôme.
“I thought that you and the lovely Trudy Parr were at work elsewhere,” the dwarf said.
“We thought so too, but we were called back. We thought Trudy had put the fear of castration into Becker, that he would disappeared. Now we believe that he never left the city.”
“No, he has not,” said Le Géant, “and he is close to closing a deal with the Russians.”
“London’s annoyed. Trudy should have gutted him when she had the chance, but she and Becker have a romantic history. I should have intervened, but I’m getting tired of all this. I just want to go home and sit on the fire escape, listen to the radio. But now we have to finish the job.”
“I don’t know,” Dench said. He dropped his cigarette into the gutter. “I’m not sure she’d survive peacetime, if it ever comes. They never should have sent her here. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll let her go home.”
“That is war, my friend.”
“Tell me where Becker is.”
“Everywhere,” said Le Géant, with a shrug. “He thinks it’s better than going underground, and he may be correct. You may even see Becker on the street, chasing the ladies. Perhaps he’s watching us now.
“The Nazis know they’ve lost control of Paris. Their discipline is breaking down, but they just won’t admit it. That makes them dangerous in ways they never were before. Many of them hate Hitler. Some are looting, and others are lining up their cyanide capsules. Either way Becker’s no longer a priority. But if I were you, I’d check an apartment above 12 Place d’Italie.”
“What about the Russians?” Dench said.
“There is talk of diamonds, payment for plans to the something called the Manhattan Project, whatever that is. Naturally, those holding the diamonds would rather keep them, kill Becker, and obtain the Manhattan information without paying. Interesting, no?”
Dench checked his wristwatch.
“Where is she?” said Le Géant.
“I don’t know,” Dench said. “But we’re supposed meet at Hôtel Meurice in an hour.”
* * * * *
She sipped coffee in the hotel lounge, reading Les Cloches de Bâle. A shabby string quartet played Beethoven on a small stage. Turning a page, she looked up and saw him standing there.
“Good afternoon, my dear,” Becker said.
Trudy Parr put down her book.
“You’re as good as dead,” she said, smiling politely. “You played me for a square. No one does that.”
“Well, then this should be an interesting ending to our war.”
“I’m calling you out right now,” she said. “Let’s step outside. We’ll go out back, through the kitchen.”
“You’re not indestructible,” Becker said. Once again, he was amazed at the rage so tightly coiled in her slender body.
“Then finish me off.”
“Come in on this with me, Trudy,” said Becker. “I need a sly little tough guy like you. In a couple of weeks, we can be in Brazil. With all of the money in the world.”
“King and country, correct? The Maple Leaf Forever.” The latter he said in a flat tone. “You know that when this all over, people like you and I are going to be shit out the other end. Can you imagine going back to that little backwater, what’s it called?”
“Vancouver.” She spoke too fast. She shouldn’t have spoken at all.
“Vancouver, that’s it. What are they going to do with you there?”
“I look forward to finding out,” she said. “But now we have something to finish.”
“That’ll have to wait.” He nodded toward two men looking out of place in the threadbare-elegant surroundings, the Maître d’ looking very worried. “My Russian gorilla entourage,” said Becker. “They have an interest in keeping me alive, for now.”
“So the deals not done.”
“That gives me time, then,” Trudy Parr said. “This will be our last gracious exchange, Mr Chicago. Next time we meet, it’s fatal.”