Read an Excerpt
Late December 1943
Everyone was happy. The sky was a vibrant, vivid blue,
clear in every direction. The breeze out of the north felt crisp and cool at
our backs. Sunlight warmed our faces as it cast long, thin shadows across
the gray decks of the destroyer. I stood close to Diana, our hands clasped
discreetly amid the folds of my flapping trench coat. We were on duty
with the boss, but this was light duty, an excursion out of Naples harbor
to the island of Capri, twenty miles due south. Nobody was paying us
any mind, so we stood together at the rail, close, touching when we could,
making believe it was a holiday outing. Diana and I had been through a
lot, separately and together, the terrible and the wonderful. For the last
two days we’d enjoyed each other’s company as never before, as if all the
burdens and terrors of the past had decided to take a holiday as well. We
were together, neither of us in danger, and we had time alone. Nights, as
well as days.
I heard Kay Summersby laugh. She and the general were huddled in
the lee of the deck gun, sheltered from the wind. He leaned in to speak
to her, their heads touching. She laughed again and laid her hand on his
arm briefly, before she glanced at the naval officers grouped around them.
It was a passel of navy brass, all shiny braid, big grins, and ready with a
light whenever Uncle Ike pulled a cigarette from the pack in his coat
pocket. They reminded me of doormen at the Copley Plaza the week
I could tell Uncle Ike was happy. He looked relaxed, and his smile
was natural, not the posed face he used for politicians and photographers.
Hell, he had just been told by the president of the United States himself
that he’d been picked as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary
Force. Uncle Ike had been expecting to be sent back home, or to watch
the big show from the Mediterranean. Instead, he’d beat out his own boss,
General Marshall, and gotten the top job, along with a handshake from
FDR. Add blue skies and a beautiful woman to the mix and you had all
the wartime happiness any man could handle. This was his last day in
Italy, and he’d wanted to see the famous Isle of Capri, which he had
ordered turned into a rest center for combat troops on leave. He’d made
this cruise into a treat for the HQ staff, his family of secretaries and aides
who worked long hours, seven days a week, keeping the paperwork, and
the war, moving along.
Kay was happy, too. She’d just received her orders to accompany
the general to London, along with most of his core staff. Not that
anyone thought she wouldn’t, but she’d been on pins and needles for
a while, especially when odds were that he was headed back to the
States. Kay, a British citizen, would have been left behind. When he
got the Supreme Commander job, I’d almost asked Uncle Ike if Aunt
Mamie would move to London, but fortunately thought better of it.
He was my relative, of a distant sort, but he was also the highestranking
general this side of the Charles River, and I was a dime-adozen
lieutenant. And I liked Kay, whatever was going on between
them. Maybe nothing, maybe something. Who was I to judge? There
was a war on.
I sneaked a kiss, tasting the salt from the sea spray on Diana’s lips.
Kay saw us and raised her eyebrows in mock horror. Diana laughed, and
put her arm through mine, as loose strands of her golden hair caressed
my face. We were in love, Diana Seaton and I. It had been rocky for a
while, but right now we were walking on air. I had a week’s leave, and it
would be ten days before she departed for wherever the Special Operations
Executive was sending her. It seemed like we had forever.
“Look,” Diana said, pointing to Mount Vesuvius off the port bow.
“That’s all we need,” I said. The night before, a thin trail of lava had
snaked down the mountain. The locals said it happened all the time, and
there was nothing to worry about, unless the mountain exploded. Then
worrying would be of little help, so why bother? I felt the same way about
the war, so I understood.
“Let’s hike up there, Billy,” Diana said. “I want to see the crater.”
I leaned in to whisper to her. “Diana, in ten days you’ll be jumping
out of an airplane. How about we take it easy until then?”
“I never said anything about an airplane, Billy Boyle,” she said, jabbing
her elbow into my ribs. “You’re not afraid of a dormant volcano, are
you? Or of being beat to the top by a woman?”
“That thing belches molten lava! But you’re probably in better shape
than I am, I’ll admit it. I haven’t had much to do since Ireland, while
you’ve been busy with training exercises.”
“I promise to go slowly. We’ll pack some food in the morning, and
have a picnic.”
“On a volcano.”
“It does sum things up fairly well.”
I didn’t argue the point. I was happy, too. Yesterday Uncle Ike had
pinned the silver bars of a first lieutenant on me, along with the Purple
Heart for a wounded arm that still ached. It was a step up from a second
louie, finally. He’d apologized for taking so long, explaining that he didn’t
want headquarters staff getting more than their fair share of promotions.
I didn’t quibble, even though Purple Hearts are pretty rare around typewriters
and filing cabinets. Now I was looking forward to celebrating the
new year with Diana in Naples, wearing my best Class A uniform, silver
bars polished and sparkling in the candlelight of the fanciest restaurant
I could get us into.
I watched Diana gaze at the smoldering, distant mountain and wished
there could be a medal for her. She wore a British uniform without any
insignia, and few people would ever learn how she’d served. I knew about
her first mission, since we’d stumbled into each other in Algiers. But this
time, there wasn’t much to go on. Of course, she wouldn’t tell me a thing,
but I had noticed her practicing her Italian, speaking with any Neapolitan
who would spend time with her. Since most were starving, the extra
rations she passed around insured a steady stream of chatterboxes. So I
figured Italy, somewhere north of the Volturno River, which left a lot of
territory—all in German hands—where the British might want to plant
“It’s Rome, isn’t it?” I asked, keeping up the playful banter.
We’d almost called it quits over her working with the Special
Operations Executive, until I decided it was crazy to lose her because I
was worried about losing her. I’d taken a bullet through the arm not too
long ago, and that brush with death made me think things over. Maybe
we would both survive this war, maybe one of us, perhaps neither. So why
not make the best of the time we had together? I’d decided if the choice
was to be happy or be miserable, why not go for happy? If either of us
ended up dead, at least we’d have had our day in the sun. And today it
was as if happiness were contagious. Smiles all around, a beautiful day,
nothing to worry about for the moment, if you ignored the fitful plumes
of smoke rising from the volcano off the port bow.
“You’re the detective, you figure it out,” she said, jabbing her finger
at my chest.
“Italian lessons, that’s a major clue.”
“We are in Italy, Billy. You know I enjoy languages. What better
“Hmm. OK, let me think.” I studied her, trying to summon up any
hint of an unusual remark or interest. The wind freshened, and she held
her collar up, shielding her face. I followed her to the bow. Fine mist blew
into our faces as the destroyer cut through the calm, pale blue waters. Diana
turned away from the spray, leaning against me, pressing her body against
mine. I put my arms around her, thinking of last night and the night before
in her room at the Hotel Vesuvio. It was difficult not to caress her, kiss her
lips again, envelop her as droplets of water cascaded over us. I resisted, and
returned to the guessing game at hand.
Church. She’d gone to church with me on Sunday. I had written my
mother, telling her I went to Mass whenever I could. Knowing she’d ask
about it in her next letter, I made sure to go at least once in Naples. Diana
came too, which surprised me. She’s not Catholic, not even close. Church
of England, minor aristocracy, stiff upper lip. Everything the Boyles are
not. We yell, holler, cross ourselves, curse God, and beg the saints for
forgiveness. Diana had asked me about confession, communion, being
an altar boy, and all the other rituals of the Catholic faith as practiced at
the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
“Turn around,” I said. She did, her service cap pulled down tight on
her forehead, her stiff wool collar held against her cheeks as protection
against the wind. It was a familiar look, her face framed by a uniform.
“Who was that nun you were talking with after Mass? When you left
me with that gasbag colonel, remember?”
“Sister Justina? She’s from Brindisi, as it turned out. She knew about
the twelfth-century mosaics in the cathedral there. We had a nice
“Oh,” I said. Diana had been to Brindisi several times. The SOE had
a station there. It was a good location, easy access by sea and air to
Yugoslavia, Greece, Crete, and Italy north of our lines. It was also the
seat of Italian government, at least the one now allied with us. “How was
“Poor. We spoke Italian. Why?”
“No reason, just curious. Could you understand her? I thought they
spoke some sort of dialect down there.”
“Salentino, I believe it’s called. Yes, it sounded a bit different, probably
much like the Sicilian you’ve heard. But anyone who speaks Italian
can understand it, even if the words sound a bit different. Why the sudden
“I’m interested in whatever you’re interested in.”
“I’m interested in climbing Mount Vesuvius with you, and enjoying
the whole week ahead of us.”
“Me, too,” I said, keeping my thoughts to myself. I wanted nothing
more than to spend the few days ahead with Diana, climbing
volcanoes if need be. But another part of me couldn’t stop trying to
figure out what she was up to, and I wasn’t smart enough to listen to
that distant, small voice in the back of my mind, telling me to leave
well enough alone.
I didn’t. Brindisi was well south of our lines, a safe place for an SOE
agent to claim to be from. It made sense that Diana would want to pick
up some local dialect, to solidify her cover. Her Italian was fluent, but it
was classroom Italian, and she’d want to sound like a native when she
spoke it. It was only when I saw her face framed as it would be in a nun’s
habit that her trip to church with me made sense. She was going as a
nun, a sister from Brindisi. Maybe she’d even taken the name Justina, if
they hadn’t picked one out for her yet. There were nuns all over Italy,
but there was only one place the SOE was likely to send an agent disguised
“The Vatican,” I whispered to her. “You’re going as a nun.”
Her eyes widened for a moment, and then anger narrowed them.
She moved away from me, gripping the rail with both hands. Her
knuckles went white.
“It isn’t a game, Billy. You should know that.”
“You said I should figure it out, Diana.”
“Yes, let’s see how smart Billy Boyle is. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t
it?” With that, she stalked off, heading into a gaggle of naval officers,
surrounding herself with them, sealing me off behind a wall of white hats
and gold braid.
I’d gotten it wrong. Well, I’d gotten it right, but that was the problem.
It wasn’t a guessing game, it was life or death. And something beyond
that for Diana. It was what she needed to do to prove herself worthy of
living. So many people had died around her that she needed to face death
all over again to understand why it hadn’t taken her. I shouldn’t have
cheapened that with my guess. But I had to know where she was going,
in case she needed me. Knowing might allow me to pretend, at least to
myself, that I could protect her. Things got complicated when it came to
women; I wasn’t good at complicated.
I walked back toward the bridge, where the newly promoted Colonel
Sam Harding was installed, monitoring radio traffic from headquarters
at Caserta, in case a communication needed the general’s attention.
Harding was another one of the joyous crowd today, having received his
promotion along with me yesterday. He was now a lieutenant colonel,
and I knew he was happy about it because he hadn’t frowned once all day.
That was riotous joy for Sam Harding, regular army, West Pointer, and
my immediate boss.
Before I came to the bridge, I joined Uncle Ike and Kay as the destroyer
changed course to starboard and the craggy white cliffs of Capri came into
view. The sun sparkled on the dolomite rock formations and the villas dotting
the beaches and hills. Kay pointed to one of the largest homes, blinding
white with an orange roof, remarking on its stark beauty.
“Whose villa is that?” Uncle Ike asked of a naval aide at his side.
“Why, that’s your villa, General,” the aide said. “Captain Butcher
assigned it to you.”
The general lost his smile. He stepped away from Kay and pointed
to an even larger villa. “And that one?”
“General Spaatz, sir.”
“Damn it, that’s not my villa! And that’s not General Spaatz’s villa!”
Uncle Ike exploded, turning on the naval aide and forcing him back a
step. His face was red with anger. “None of those will belong to any
general as long as I’m boss around here. This is supposed to be a rest
center for combat men, not a playground for the brass.”
“All the other villas on Capri have been requisitioned by the Army
Air Force, sir, orders of General Spaatz. General Clark reserved Sorrento
for army officers.”
“And what does that leave for the GIs coming off the line? The gutters
of Naples, goddamn it?”
“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir,” the navy officer said, backpedaling as fast as
he could. He looked like he’d enjoyed spilling the dirt on air force and army
brass, but both barrels of Uncle Ike’s anger were still pointed at him.
“Kay!” Uncle Ike barked sharply. “Get ahold of Captain Butcher. Tell
him to contact General Spaatz immediately and clear his officers out of
there. His action was contrary to my policy. It must cease at once.”
“Yes, General,” Kay said. “I can call him at Caserta when we get
“Now, damn it. Right now!” Kay stood alone, the clutch of officers
staring at her, each thankful he’d kept his mouth shut. No one offered
the general a light. Kay lifted a hand to her mouth, for a second. Then
she was all business again, the general’s faithful secretary off to do his
The deck became quiet. Uncle Ike drew on his cigarette as if it might
calm him. He exhaled a long plume of blue smoke into the wind and
caught my eye. “William, sometimes you’d be surprised how hard it is to
get something done, no matter how much authority you have. Jesus Christ
on the mountain, you’d think it would be common sense to give the fighting
men a decent place to rest up.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, moving to his side. We watched the magnificent
coastline drift by. Sometimes my job was to be someone Uncle Ike could
blow off steam with. We were actually related to Aunt Mamie through
my mother’s family. But he was an older guy, and when we were in private,
sometimes I’d call him Uncle Ike. Today wasn’t one of those days. He
flicked his butt into the water and turned up his collar. Colonel Harding
climbed down from the bridge and joined us. If he’d taken in any of the
drama on deck, he didn’t show it.
“General,” Harding said, handing him a teletype. “Message from
Uncle Ike read it and glanced at Harding. “Confirmed?”
“William, we are going to have to send you on to London ahead of
schedule. Colonel Harding will give you the details.” With that, Uncle
Ike went to the bow and stood alone.
“Colonel, I have a week’s leave—”
“Consider it canceled. Sorry, I know you and Miss Seaton had plans,
“I know. There’s a war on. I’ve heard.” Harding let that pass.
“A Soviet officer has been found murdered in London. Red Air Force
Captain Gennady Egorov. Except we have reason to believe he was actually
a senior lieutenant of state security. With the NKVD.”
“Is that their secret police?”
“They call it the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, but the
answer is yes.”
“What was he doing in London?”
“Getting a bullet in the back of the head. This may involve the Poles.
See Lieutenant Kazimierz as soon as you can and find out what he knows.
You leave as soon as we dock in Naples.”
I hadn’t seen Kaz in a couple of months, since he was called back to
London from his liaison duties by the Polish Government in Exile. Once
I got over missing my leave and saying good-bye to Diana, I’d be glad to
see him. A couple of majors were vying to impress her. She’d watched
Harding bring the message and observed the expression on my face. Now
she brushed by the two majors and embraced me, oblivious to the spit-andpolish
brass all around us. Her fingers pulled at the fabric of my coat as she
pressed her face against mine. We didn’t speak, we didn’t have to; neither
of us had words to match the touch of warm skin in the cold air.
Everyone had been so happy.
“Welcome back to the Dorchester, Lieutenant Boyle.”
“It’s good to be back . . . Walter, isn’t it? I’m sorry, but I’ve been gone
more than a year.”
“Yes, sir. Walter it is. This is yours.” He handed me a room key. It
was for Kaz’s suite.
“How did you know I was coming?”
“I didn’t, sir. Lieutenant Kazimierz left instructions that a key be left
for your use. He furnished the staff with a photograph so they would recognize
you. I did not find it necessary, since I recall your first visit here.”
“Thanks. Is he in?”
“No, but the lieutenant asked to be informed of your arrival. I will
telephone the Rubens Hotel and let him know.”
“He’s at another hotel?”
“The Free Polish government is headquartered there. It is a fine
hotel, of course, but as you know Lieutenant Kazimierz prefers the
I knew that, and I knew the reason why. I thanked Walter and took
the elevator up, remembering my first day in London, and my first sight
of the Dorchester. I had been nervous, and working hard not to let it
show. Walter had thanked me for coming, and it took me a moment to
realize he hadn’t meant to the hotel. A year ago, things had looked
darker than they did now. Back then, Italy was still in the war, and along
with the Vichy French, the Axis had held all of North Africa. Now Italy
had been knocked out, we’d cleared North Africa, and were slowly
working our way to Rome. The sandbags were still stacked in front of the
hotel, but they seemed to be from another era. It had been months since
a bomb had fallen on London. The Germans weren’t exactly on the run,
but now neither were we.
I unlocked the door and stood for a moment in the hallway. The
wood paneling glowed in sunlight streaming through the windows, and
sparkling colors refracted from the prisms of the crystal chandelier. It
was quite a place for a kid from South Boston to bunk in. It was the
only home Kaz had now, and it was filled with ghosts. His parents had
visited him in England before the war, when he had been a student.
They’d celebrated Christmas 1938 in this very room, the last time they’d
all been together. Now everyone but Kaz was dead. When I got here in
1942, Daphne Seaton, Diana’s sister, had been living with him. She’d
been killed soon after that. Then I moved in, after Kaz gave up caring
if he lived or died. We’d stuck together, through North Africa and Sicily,
until the Polish Government in Exile called him back to London.
His father had been wise enough to deposit his considerable fortune
in Swiss banks before the Germans invaded Poland, which allowed Kaz
to keep this suite permanently available. His family had been rich, really
rich, and he was actually a baron of some sort. Lieutenant Baron Piotr
Augustus Kazimierz. It was only his connections that got him a military
commission in the first place, since he had a bad heart, poor eyesight, and
a physique like the kid who got sand kicked in his face at the beach. Uncle
Ike had taken him on as a translator, since he understood most European
languages. Turned out, Kaz was as good with a gun as he was with paperwork,
and there had been times I was damned glad of it.
I’d missed him, and as I emptied my duffel bag, I thought I should
head right over to the Rubens Hotel, which wasn’t far. It was still early
afternoon, and he probably couldn’t get away until late. But then I took
off my shoes and lay down to rest my eyes for a minute. It had been a
long trip, first waiting for a flight out of Naples, then cooling my heels
in Casablanca for a day before the roundabout flight to avoid German
fighter planes. New Year’s Eve had come and gone, toasted with a bottle
of bourbon passed hand to hand while we bounced around inside the
fuselage of a C-54 transport twenty thousand feet above the Atlantic
Ocean. A catnap seemed to be in order.
I heard a noise, and lifted one eyelid. The room was darker than it
had been a minute ago. The noise came again, a muted thump. I got up
quietly and dug out my .45 automatic from the duffel bag, found a
magazine, and loaded as I listened to heavy, labored breathing. It sounded
like a quiet struggle, or someone searching for something. Occasional
grunts and rasping gasps carried in the still, darkened room. I glanced at
the clock. I’d been out cold for three hours.
I pushed my door open with the muzzle of the automatic. The
hinges creaked, and I froze. There was no one in the living room. The
glow of sunset lit the park outside, and the sounds of traffic drifted up
from the street. I felt my palms go sweaty and my heart slamming against
my chest. A crack of light showed at the door to Kaz’s bedroom, and I
edged around the furniture toward it. Another grunt, this one louder and
more anguished. There was no time to lose. I kicked the door and spun
sideways, presenting the narrowest target I could, pistol leveled, cupped
in my left hand, exactly as Dad had taught me. “Don’t give them any
advantage, and take even the smallest for yourself. And be ready to pull
the trigger.” I was.
I didn’t. Instead I stared into Kaz’s wide eyes as he lifted a dumbbell
in each hand, then let them down slowly. His teeth were clenched and
his neck muscles tightened as he began again.
“You . . . looked . . . like . . . you needed . . . to sleep,” he said, as he
finished a final repetition and set the dumbbells down on the plush carpet.
“Kaz?” It was all I could say. He was in his skivvies, and there were
ropy muscles on his arms. Not massive, beefy biceps, but real muscle where
before there had been skin and bone. And I swear he actually had a chest
that broadened above his rib cage, instead of caving in on it.
“Who did you expect, Betty Grable?” He took off his horn-rimmed
glasses and wiped sweat out of his eyes. Kaz was a skinny guy, but now
he was packing some muscle onto his frame. I could tell he was enjoying
this exhibition. “One minute, Billy, and I will be done.”
He dropped and did twenty push-ups. The last few were pretty shaky,
and I figured he had gone beyond his usual quota to impress me. It
“What gives, Kaz?” I said as I collapsed into a chair. “You turning
yourself into a pug?” Kaz liked American slang, and I was sure I hadn’t
taught him this one.
“A dog?” He toweled himself off and sat on the edge of the bed. “That
can’t be right.”
“A boxer, or maybe somebody good with his fists.”
“Ah, pug. Excellent,” he said, savoring the new word. “It is good to
see you, Billy.”
“Same here, Kaz. Are you sure you should be doing this? With your
“Billy, after seriously considering the alternatives, I have decided life
is to be lived. Fully.” He got up and took a drink of water, setting the glass
down hard, the noise clear and sharp. It fit the new Kaz before me. In his
eyes I saw the first acknowledgment of his penchant for taunting death.
He looked in the mirror on the table next to me, his gaze lingering there.
He touched his scar absentmindedly, drawing his finger from his eye
down his cheek, tracing it as if it were a map to lost fortune.
“In this war, one must be strong,” he said, moving away from the
mirror. “I have decided to strengthen myself. There once was room for a
weak, studious man in the world I used to know. That is why my father
decided I should come to England to study, that a quiet life with books
would be the best for me. But he is gone, and so is that studious boy, who
lived for words. I believe that is why I was careless of my own life, because
I felt so adrift from everything. Family, country, and finally even the
woman I loved.”
“I think about Daphne all the time,” I said. “I half expect her to walk
through that door.”
“Yes, I know,” Kaz said. He sat on the bed again, unable to keep his
gaze from the entrance to the room. He was sad, but didn’t look as hopeless
as he once had. “Daphne is gone, my family is gone, all dead, everything
ruined by this war. Even my face.”
We sat for a while in the quiet, the rumble of traffic a faint reminder
of the great city around us. The sun was setting, and Kaz stood to draw
the curtains. All over London, people were doing the same, shutting in
the light, trying to live with the blackout and the threat of death, the
reality of it.
After a minute of silence I said, “You were never that good-looking
in the first place.”
Kaz laughed. “Billy, that is one reason why I missed you! You remind
me not to take things too seriously.”
“Glad to help, buddy. It’s good to see you smile. So you’re lifting
weights, doing push-ups, what else?”
“The army won’t let me train, because they know of my heart condition.
So I do what I can here. I’ve started to jump rope, which is very
challenging. And I walk in the park at a fast pace, whenever I have time.
The only thing I have left—besides you, my good friend—is the hope of
a return to my country when the war is over. It will take more than scholars
to accomplish that, I believe.”
I glanced at the pile of books on Kaz’s nightstand. He hadn’t exactly
given up on his studies; there were several tomes in foreign languages
among the foot-high stack of books and reports. With whatever the Polish
Government in Exile had him doing, and his workout routine, I doubted
he’d been having any fun.
“Why don’t we both get cleaned up and go out? We can catch up over
“We can go down to the dining room or have room service bring
something up if you’re too tired.”
“No, I want to stretch my legs and take a look around.”
“Very well. You’ll see London has changed since you were last here.
There hasn’t been a Luftwaffe raid in months.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.