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A Blackford Oakes Mystery
By William F. Buckley Jr.
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1986 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
Six hours a day were given over to physical exercise, and Blackford Oakes decided he might just as well take the training along with the Special Platoon, the name given to designate the commando group Blackford had been instructed to help prepare.
He had just spent a year in Germany helping to reconstruct a small private chapel. His real purpose in Germany had engaged him in the most heinous postwar assignment he had ever been given — the most heinous imaginable, he had told himself a dozen times during the past two months, waking at midnight in physical and moral sweat. His mind and spirit had had extensive exercise during these weeks, but not his body; so he thought what the hell he might as well get back into prime physical shape, and here was a way to do this in the company of commandos. At the age of twenty-eight he wasn't yet willing to defer to any presumptive physical preeminence in any group, never mind that over half of them were five years younger and that his sedentary months in Germany might show him up during the first few days. So what?
Actually they didn't. He found himself able to do the forced marches without strain, as also the night work under the barbed wire, the push-ups and the pull-ups, the bayonet work, the whole arduous business. He studied jujitsu for the first time, greatly admiring the resourceful instructor, an English sergeant who had spent the war as a prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya where he had learned the martial art from a fellow prisoner, an Oriental who had earned the black belt.
The commandos were a cheerful lot and the groaning they indulged in when suddenly awakened in the middle of the night to be given emergency drills in the chill and wet air of late winter in England was all ritual. They were, however young, all of them experienced, all of them veterans of combat, either in the late days of the war or subsequently in Korea. The men did not know what their mission was, only that it would be dangerous (they were volunteers), but they knew from the intensity of their exercises that it would take place soon.
The afternoons were devoted to specialised training. Six men, one each from the six squads, went to Demolition. Six men, again one each from the six squads, to Radio Communications. Six to Medical First Aid. Six to Special Weapons. The balance — the officers — went with their leader, known to them only as 'Henry,' into a single-chambered room within the heavily guarded compound.
From the outside the shed looked like an abandoned theatre. And indeed, inside the shed the two dozen chairs were arranged in theatrical dimension, forming a circle, the stage in the centre. The diameter of the arena was twenty-four feet, and they stared, every day under relentless instruction, at a doll-house version of the city of Tirana, the capital of the little country squatting west of Yugoslavia and above Greece, a million and a half wretched people so Stalinised by now 'as to make Stalin and Mao Tse-tung' (as the first lecturer on that first day put it) 'weep in jealousy.' Operation Tirana intended, no less, to liberate Albania, the little communist enclave in the Adriatic which, providentially, abutted against no other communist country, now that Tito had declared the independence of Yugoslavia. There were five Albanians, two of whom spoke fluently in English; the other three spoke it well enough to make themselves understood. They would disperse — one Albanian with each of the parachute drops to cope with problems of language, though the operation was designed to make this only a very brief problem — on the way to the sudden change in government. There would be no end of native Albanians at their disposal, the political trigger having been pulled.
One evening at the officers' club Henry sat down with Blackford Oakes at a table by the little bar sequestered for use by the Special Platoon. It was rather like a railroad car in shape. The bar bisected it two thirds of the way down its length, the larger section for the enlisted men, the smaller for the officers, the same barman serving the lot. Henry, though English, sent back his whisky and soda. 'Put more ice in that, old man,' he said to the barman, Angie, who had been brought out of retirement for brief and very special duty. And to Blackford, known at Camp Cromwell only as 'Ernie,' Henry said:
'I am aware, Ernie, that I am not to ask you anything about your background, and you are not to ask me anything about my background. Shall we practice?'
Blackford poured his beer into a glass and smiled at the large, rangy, weather-beaten, self-assured man in his thirties, with the black straight hair worn longer than commando style, with the teeth white, spasmodically visible given the cigarette he dangled from his tight lips.
'Yes,' Blackford responded. 'I don't suppose I should even tell you that I am practiced in deception?'
'You may. But you must remember that I am not to take for granted anything that is told me here, unless it is told me by Colonel Mac or Joe Louis.' Henry's voice was public school English with, as becomes the accent of a professional commando, a light varnish of Humphrey Bogart. 'Colonel Mac' was how the company addressed the Ulsterman in charge of the Special Platoon while at Camp Cromwell, the officer who presided over their administrative schedule and their physical training. Joe Louis, the second in command, was a huge West Indian major who was supposed to be addressed as 'Major Joe,' but cheerfully yielded to just plain Joe Louis when the similarity in appearance between him and the American champion was remarked, on the first day, by Henry. Joe Louis's brother, commando Isaac Abraham Ezra, couldn't, under the rules, fraternise with his older brother at the officers' end of the building, a problem they solved by taking their mugs of beer outside where, impervious to the cold notwithstanding their early life in the tropics, they sat together hour after hour, laughing, talking earnestly and, when the dinner gong sounded, walking together toward the mess hall, parting only at the bifurcation that separated the officers from the men.
'I suppose,' Blackford volunteered, 'I could talk to you about the stock market and you might believe I was not deceiving you?'
'The stock market? I say, what's that?' Henry asked, taking a gulp from his glass, stirring the ice with his index finger and rubbing the same finger thoughtfully up the cleft of his bristly chin (Henry was always about one day late in shaving). He reached now into his fatigue jacket and brought out a packet of cigarettes. It was empty. He leaned over to the bar and said to Angie in his distinctively peremptory style: 'A packet of Virginia Rounds.' He took the pack without comment. Angie knew better — after his initial experience six weeks earlier when he had presented the chit for Henry to sign — than to repeat a gesture that had got from Henry on that first day a frosty, 'You sign it. I have other things to do.' Henry now opened the packet and offered a cigarette to Blackford.
'Thanks, no ... Virginia Rounds! I'll be damned. My father smokes those things. Didn't know you could find them in this part of the world.'
'I'd kill for Virginia Rounds,' Henry said. 'On the other hand, that doesn't say very much, does it, since I kill as a matter of course.' He smiled his tight smile and then added, 'It's true you can't find them just anywhere, but they're about. I told Angie to lay in a store.'
Blackford: 'You were asking about the stock market? You don't know what it is? Well, the stock market is the instrument through which Wall Street dominates all life west of the Democratic Republic of Germany, and east of the People's Republic of China.'
'Funny,' Henry smiled, drawing on his cigarette, 'that under the circumstances I haven't heard of the stock market. Next time you run into it, say hello.'
They spent a relaxed hour talking about this and that, with that odd sense of total relaxation engendered by the knowledge of great tension directly ahead. Blackford was dealing, he soon knew, with a commando much experienced, whose conversation revealed traces of general knowledge not associated with bayonets or explosives. And, he saw, the commando chief was by nature impatient. But impatient men can, as his mentor Rufus once remarked, sublimate impatience into the kind of patience required of men engaged in clandestine activity. Someone impatient to find his prey is prepared to await his appearance patiently, hour after hour. When the dinner gong sounded, Henry in midsentence rose to its summons. They ate together, a dinner positively memorable (sole, steak, mince pies), Blackford commented to Henry after dessert, by military standards.
'Ha! I have you!' Henry said with mock excitement. 'How would you know it was memorable by military standards unless you had spent time in the military?'
Blackford laughed. He decided he could go autobiographically even a little further without endangering the operation. 'Yes. I was a fighter pilot. While I am at the business of divulging my past, I'll go further and say that this dinner is epicurean by comparison with what you poor English boys have to eat at your fashionable schools, and how do I know that? You guessed it, Henry, I was indentured in one.'
Blackford paused, but only briefly; security was security, but after three years he found himself worrying less about security than about being ridiculous in pursuit of security.
'I was in school here.' He was careful not to disclose that he had been at Greyburn. 'My parents divorced in 1941 and my mother was remarried, to an Englishman who took me and my education in charge just before Pearl Harbor.'
'So that's where the Japs hid you on the Day That Will Live in Infamy. Trust old Tojo. I mean, don't trust old Tojo. I mean, what do you say we take a walk?'
During those briskly cold weeks in January and February Blackford and Henry became friends. They followed the formal rules closely enough so that, under hypothetical torture, neither could reveal anything comprehensively identifying about the other. They experienced each other as professionals with a common cultural background. Henry, Blackford guessed, might have served in a prewar cavalry unit — certainly he had spent time on horseback. He was, oddly, an addict of American baseball who knew and loved more things about the New York Giants than interested Blackford. And he had a clear strategic sense of the importance of the forthcoming enterprise. He was diligently — on occasion brutally — insistent on quality performance from his men. No letting up. No unnecessary physical exposure. No compromise with the camouflage on their faces and hands. Late one afternoon Blackford came on him slapping with open hand and with full force first the right cheek, then the left cheek of one of the younger commandos whose performance had evidently dissatisfied Henry. He was administering corporal punishment, no less, and the junior commando was expected to submit without protest. Blackford's fleeting impression was that the discipline was being exerted with inappropriate gusto. But these were Brits, he reminded himself. And those of them who went to public schools were used to rough treatment and submissive behaviour. Though the episode was distasteful, Blackford accepted it rather as in the spirit of Sparta than of de Sade. He walked by without comment, and though Henry saw him later in the day as they met for a drink and supper, no mention was made of the episode.
Henry was in charge of forty men, each of whom would know exactly what was expected of him. The objective was plain. Within three hours of their landing they would control the communications ganglia of Tirana, 'execute' (would 'assassinate' have been the more correct word, Blackford wondered? Nice distinction, he thought, good for a post-cold war seminar someday) a half-dozen top officials of the government, most importantly Enver Hoxha, the bloody Stalinist dictator, declaring Hysni Shtylla, the exiled leader of the patriotic, liberal National Front, prime minister. All of this to be followed in rapid succession by recognition of the new government by the allied powers and, a month or two later, a genuinely democratic election. (Hoxha had a year earlier staged elections at which the vote in his favour had come in at a reassuring 99 per cent.) A bold and unorthadox stroke in that, using predominantly Western commandos, trained not in a foreign country but in the heart of Great Britain, it violated orthodox arrangements aimed at coups d'état. But Secretary Dulles had campaigned for the liberation of Eastern Europe. The relative independence of adjacent Yugoslavia and the relative geographical isolation from Bulgaria, the next-closest unswerving Soviet satellite, argued the military plausibility and the geopolitical excitement of a genuine Western salient in the cold war, instead of the tiresome, enervating, stultifying countersalients to which the West had become accustomed in Berlin, in China, in Korea — wherever. Don't push the Soviets, wait till they push, then counter-push. The liberation of Albania would be the dramatic turn in the cold war, the initiative, finally, returned to the West.
Henry and Blackford permitted themselves to fondle the subject, on which they were receiving briefings every day on Operation Tirana. Neither needed to be indiscreet, after all; certain aspects of the operation weren't discussed, for obvious reasons. Blackford was surprised when Henry asked him, 'Do you know when in fact we are due to take off?' Blackford could answer truthfully, 'Hell, no. I've never seen tighter security than on this one. I doubt Eisenhower has been told.'
That night he woke. He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. It was just after four. Blackford tended to sleep soundly, but when he did wake he made it a practice to let his mind wander wherever it chose — an amusement that had been the advice of his mother when he was a teenager. 'That way, darling, you will find out what it was that woke you up, then you can deal with it in your mind, and then you can go back to sleep.' A kind of one-man Ouija board — Blackford remembered the hours he and his mother, when he was a boy, would sit over the Ouija board and encourage a psychic something or other to move their talisman this way or that, the idea being that the psychic presence would propel the hand toward the correct answer to the questions crowding your mind. He was very much alarmed, on arriving at Greyburn College, to which his stepfather, Sir Alec Sharkey, had dispatched him at age fifteen, to hear the headmaster announce that the boys were forbidden to play Ouija. (Greyburn was affiliated with the Church of England.) A theologian who served as a trustee of Greyburn had declared at a meeting of the board of trustees that the surrender of one's mind to an impersonal force was immoral, arguably an invitation to the devil to take charge of the dispossessed mind. In the years since then Blackford had allowed himself to wonder whether that was the last dogmatic pronouncement ever made by the Church of England, which he had heard described, by one of Sir Alec's cynical old friends, as 'the last bastion of not very much.'
So he lay in bed and thought ... and soon his mind turned, naturally, to Sally. Sally Partridge, Yale (almost) Ph.D., specialty, nineteenth-century English Literature with emphasis on Jane Austen. My gal Sal, he had referred to her a few letters back, intending only to be affectionate. She had replied, '"My gal Sal" is entirely too proprietary for my taste, Blacky my boy (and how do you like "Blacky my boy"?). Are you aware that Jane Austen's principals referred to each other as, e.g., "Mr. Knightley" and "Miss Woodhouse" even after they were about to be engaged?' Blackford had replied that Miss Partridge certainly would not, he had to assume from their three-year, uh, friendship, wish to be bound by all the protocols that bound the characters in Emma — he was showing off here, as he wished her to know that he knew where Mr. Knightley and Miss Woodhouse had figured in Miss Austen's oeuvre. Thus they corresponded, she desiring above all things to complete her dissertation and receive her doctorate — but not, really (and why should it be necessary?), at the expense of losing the affection of her 'beautiful Blacky,' as she used to call him at Yale until he laid down a flat, uncompromising prohibition: 'You call me that one more time, Sally dear, and you will be the ex-girlfriend of your beautiful Blacky.' She had laughed; but she knew when to retreat, though sometimes in her correspondence even now she would tease him about his striking features and sculpted physique confident that by doing so she would irritate him. They were well matched to fence in their correspondence and they both enjoyed the sport, even though sometimes they hit below the belt. More often, they were satisfied merely with a caress to reach below it.
Excerpted from High Jinx by William F. Buckley Jr.. Copyright © 1986 William F. Buckley, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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