It is a fact not generally known that in 1940 the prime minister secretly arranged for Britain's entire gold reserves to be transported through U-boat-infested waters to America, in five ships. Travis works as a banker: he is also a Nazi spy. To uncover details of the shipment he sets out to attract the attentions of Claire, a bank official. When his relationship with the vulnerable Claire becomes more complicated he ends up on the run with knowledge that could win the war for Germany. Can Travis alert Berlin in time to sink the treasure ships? And can Claire find the strength to kill the man she has grown to love? In this taut thriller, Alexander Lindsay combines fact and fiction to devastating effect.
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By Alexander Lindsay
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 Alexander Lindsay
All rights reserved.
London, spring 1940
Any minute now, any second even, he would drop the question....
The barber shook the dead hair from his sheet with the eloquence of a matador. A knowing smile, a mincing motion to the till and back.
Here it comes, any minute, any sec....
'Something for the weekend, sir?' A conspiratorial wink from the barber, little more than the flutter of an eyelid. 'Packet of three, sir, or ...?'
'Tell you what, make it an even three dozen. That is if the War Office hasn't requisitioned all the rubber for truck tyres.' He returned the wink with a laugh.
'My word, sir, we are going to be busy, aren't we?'
The man smiled, to himself this time . If only you knew how busy, pal. If only you knew.
The barber made an indulgence of wrapping the three dozen Durex contraceptives in plain brown paper, neatly tapering the folds and pleats of the package. Smoothing, stroking, fussing. The way he cut hair.
The man offered a white five pound note, took the change. Outside, he joined the throng of London's homeward bound, smiling inwardly at the quaint British ritual that necessitated a haircut as a precursor to sex. The street was uncommonly busy with traffic, considering the restrictions on petrol and travel imposed by the war. He took the underground to the suburbs, walked 400 yards to a pleasing little terraced house in a row just off Hampstead Heath, let himself in.
The living-room was comfortably furnished, solidly British, not too opulent, not too busy, which together with the desirable location of the house marked him as a man of some means. There was a rich mahogany cocktail cabinet well stocked with whisky, gin, brandy, port, sherry and liqueurs. This, in these days of crippling shortages, marked him as a man with connections.
He picked up the telephone, dialled; spoke in a neutral, educated American accent.
'Michael Travis here. About the car battery ... You did? ... Good. Fresh acid in it too? Good. Look, could you possibly drop it round now? I'm anxious to get the car going. Sick friend in Eastbourne. Bang goes my petrol allowance for the month, eh? ... Yeah, well I suppose you're right. I guess I am lucky to have an allowance at all these days ... Ten minutes? Splendid, I'll watch for you coming.'
He sprinted up the stairs, two at a time, entered the bathroom. Over the wash basin he unwrapped three of the Durex, stretched them and held them up to the light.
The doorbell rang. He skipped back down the stairs, two at a time, opened the front door to the garage men.
'We'll put the battery in the car for you, Mr Travis, only the garage door is locked.'
'No problem, I'll take it here. God, it's heavy!'
'Careful you don't tip it over, Mr Travis. That sulphuric acid can make an almighty mess.'
'I'll be all right, thanks.'
'It'll only take a minute to fit it in the car, sir.'
'It's OK, honest,' he insisted, closing the door on them with his foot. Anyways, I don't even possess a car, he muttered to himself after they had gone.
Tall and muscular as he was, he had to haul the heavy battery up the stairs one careful step at a time. In the bathroom he rummaged in the cupboard under the sink and pulled out three measuring jars, the kind used by photographers for mixing developers. From a top cupboard he took a long glass tube with a rubber bulb at one end – a hydrometer, for testing the strength of battery acid. He dipped the tubed end into the battery and squeezed the rubber bulb, extracting a sample of the acid. He held the glass tube up to the light.
Clicking his tongue, he muttered absently, 'Strength one-point-two-five. Spot on. Now comes the tricky bit.'
From his back pocket he took a folded piece of paper and consulted a table of hand-written figures, said 'Hmmm.'
He squeezed a carefully-measured amount of acid into one of the jars. In another, he measured out an exact portion of water. Squinting at the jar against the light, he carefully poured the water into the acid. He repeated the process three times in separate jars, varying the amount of water slightly each time. Then he forced open the neck of each contraceptive and poured his various mixtures into it. In the cupboard under the sink he hung the three Durex on a wire, securing each with a clothes peg and sliding a deep tin tray under them.
He checked his watch, marked the time and date in his diary, and stole out of the bathroom like a father leaving a sleeping child.
'Farewell, my beauties,' he said in mock loving tones. 'See you in a couple of days.'
On the flickering screen, history was slowly unfolding in dreary, one-dimensional black and white. The beams from the projector sliced a crazy tic-tac through the fug of cigarette smoke like a demented battery of searchlights. Up on the screen, the scene was no less crazy. A comical rag-bag of boats was ploughing through a sorrowful sea. Some of the vessels were the obvious engines of war; dull grey and officially numbered, guns jutting from their hulls with porcupine menace. Most, though, were gay and bright, toy-like, fun-like; boats that spoke of more carefree times. Their names gave away their happy provenance ... Skylark ... Gay Crusader ... Jovial ... Chanticleer. Any other time, any other place, they would have been bringers of joy.
Today, they were harbingers of doom. The newsreel spun on, now focusing on individual craft: here a shot of a fluttering Red Ensign, there a slow pan across platoons of weary-eyed soldiers packed on to every square inch of deck, now a close-up of a grinning Tommy giving the thumbs-up. Was there something vainglorious and unconvincing about that grin? The news commentator rattled on in the champagne upbeat manner that only Pathe News men could muster. Like the singer with a giggle in her voice, these men had optimism in their adenoids. '... and the heroic British Expeditionary Force leaves Dunkirk, regaining the shores of Blighty to fight another day. Watch out, Jerry, they're saying – you haven't heard the last of us!' And to its rousing signature tune, the Pathe cockerel strutted and crowed its challenge to the world.
'Heroic, my arse!' Charles Flinders stood up and impatiently signalled to the projectionist to cease. 'It was pathetic. A bloody shambles.' He stabbed the last half-inch of cigarette into a jam-jar lid that, through wartime necessity, had begun a new life as an ashtray. His fingers were stained a rich mahogany with nicotine. He knew it was unsightly, but nowadays every smoker suffered the same affliction, brought on by sucking scarce cigarettes down to the last hot gasp. Of course, he could have avoided the staining by using a cigarette holder, as did many of his colleagues. But he always thought that was a bit Noel Coward. Anyway, such a camp device would not sit easily with his bulldog neck and lunar-crater skin. Nor with his position as a tough high flyer in the shadier regions of the British security services. He turned to the man in the grey double-breasted worsted suit on his left and nodded towards the now dark screen of the private viewing suite deep in the bowels of Whitehall.
'That's the version of events the Great British Public will see,' he said. 'Jolly hockey sticks, keep a straight bat and we'll all go sailing forward to glory. The sun will never set on the British Empire, eh? Well, I don't mind telling you it's getting bloody dark out there.' He gave a shudder, a deliberate, exaggerated stage shudder. 'That fiasco at Dunkirk has driven home just how vulnerable this nation is. If we were to tell them the truth of it there would be blind panic in the streets. The truth of it, the painful, awful, truth of it, is that the full might of the Third Reich, which has just swept through Europe knocking down crack armies like cardboard cut-outs, is now poised to kick down our front door.' He paused, stagily again. A born actor was Charles Flinders. 'And we have nothing left to fight them with.'
The other man, Sandy Gregory, his second in command, a placid, less stage-struck individual, simply raised one eyebrow in reply, which served to annoy Flinders momentarily and threw him off his stride. However, the old trouper swiftly regained his pace and fixed Sandy with a meaningful gaze. 'And that is why we – that is you, I, and all our devious little bedfellows – are about to be involved in the biggest single gamble this nation has ever taken.' He nodded at the chunky black telephone lying on the room's only desk. 'Any moment now I expect to hear from Him up There whether it's on or off. You won't find any memos or communiqués. This is so hush-hush that nothing has been written down, and nothing will ever be written down either. Make sure your people have that engraved on their hearts. If I find as much as a piece of blotting paper with back to front words on it there will be almighty hell to pay. The code name is Operation Fish.'
The telephone rang. Flinders stood looking at it, letting it ring several times for reasons best known to himself. Then he said, 'That'll be him. I recognize his ring. It's rude.'
Flinders picked up the receiver and held it to his ear, wincing. His companion could hear the sound of the other party, obviously loud and animated, at the other end. He strained to eavesdrop on the conversation, but even though Flinders edged the receiver away from his head slightly to reduce the ear bashing, the only sound that carried across the room was an unintelligible squawking, like a midget singing inside a biscuit tin.
'Yes, sir,' said Flinders. 'Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Understood.' He slowly replaced the receiver.
His companion raised an eyebrow in question. Could that be Winston Churchill himself on the other end? he wondered. Flinders chose to ignore him. Instead, he stared at the floor, made a steeple of his fingers and touched it to his lips in studied rumination. One second ... two seconds ... three seconds ... four seconds ... don't overdo it now, a dramatic pause is like a soufflé, it can be ruined by the teeniest overcooking. ... He fixed his companion in the eye again and declaimed with Shakespearean portent: 'It appears we are about to fry ourselves some fish....'CHAPTER 2
Claire Woodcote was the only woman in the room inside the Treasury to which she and a select group of her sober-suited male colleagues from the Bank of England had been summoned. She shifted uneasily in her seat – the pain in her back from where Robert had kicked her last night was still chewing at her. Robert, her ever-loving husband. It was nothing new, the insane rage, the furious beating. She just had to live with it. Nevertheless, she cast the pain from her mind as she listened to the man now addressing the roomful of people. She could not believe what she was hearing. The man was Charles Flinders, who had just stunned the bankers with the words:
'We are going to ship the remaining wealth of Britain across the Atlantic in one convoy of five ships.'
The room came alive with gasps, splutterings, and mutterings. Legs that were casually crossed were suddenly straightened as the excitement turned to anticipation.
'Please, please!' Flinders held up his hands. 'There will be time for questions later. Right now, I want to emphasize the need for total secrecy. You have all been carefully vetted for security, or you would not be here. Security protocols will be revealed to you at a later date. Stick to them. I know you are bankers, and not secret agents, but let's face it – as far as keeping your mouths shut about people's private affairs goes, you probably outrank even Roman Catholic priests.'
A ripple of uncertain laughter.
'So. To Operation Fish, as it will be known. Winston himself has made this decision, as you have probably guessed by the sheer audacity of it. It is one enormous gamble, which if it goes wrong means the end of Britain. And probably the end of the free world too, as we keep trying to impress on our American cousins who mistakenly think they are safe from the advance of the Third Reich. We need to trade the entire wealth of this country for dollars if we are to stand up to the might of Germany. Every ounce of gold in the country's coffers will be shipped to Canada. A massive undertaking, and a vast amount of gold, which we haven't even got as far as valuing properly yet. But even more important than the gold are the bits of paper. We are also gathering up every negotiable security held by everyone in Britain – from the biggest corporation to the widow with five bob's worth of shares in Woolworth's. They will also be shipped to Canada and secretly traded in the US to raise dollars.'
Gasps of disbelief broke out among the bankers.
One of them could not contain himself any longer. He challenged Flinders: 'But how on earth are you going to get the public to agree to that? They'll never allow it.'
'Quite simple,' said Flinders, summoning up his most mischievous smile. 'They won't be told.'
Flinders held up his hands for order. 'Yes, yes, gentlemen. It may well be all of those things. But there is another word you can add to your list ... necessary! I assure you the War Cabinet has the constitutional power to do it. You will not be lending your hands and your expertise to anything illegal. You are all men and women of finance. I'll let you into a secret: it's not soldiers and guns that win wars. It's gold. Throughout history, every warlord from Genghis Khan right up to dear old Adolf Hitler has needed a war chest. Britain needs her war chest too. Unfortunately, at the present moment, the chest just happens to be in the wrong place. We have got to get that wealth across the Atlantic.'
'But in one convoy? All your eggs in one basket? Sounds extremely hazardous to me,' said one podgy man with half-moon glasses.
'Hazardous is putting it mildly. Make no mistake – this is the biggest single gamble of the war. But we have no choice. Time is against us. We need those dollars and we need them yesterday.'
'But the U-boats ...,' said a white-haired, gaunt man in his late sixties.
'Yes, the U-boat menace.' Flinders indulged himself with a sigh and a pause. 'It has been a difficult decision, but the Prime Minister has ruled it is worth the risk. We will have to run a dangerous gauntlet, but there is no choice. Besides, there is another aspect which necessitates the utmost speed. France is within an ace of surrender. We are holding vast amounts of her gold for safety in the Bank of England. We want it across the Atlantic before they start clamouring for it back – if it gets to France it will eventually end up in the clutches of the Nazis.'
'That's theft!' the man in the half moon glasses again.
'That's war!' Flinders rode over the protest. 'Do you think Hitler would have any compunction about seizing it from the French if we were daft enough to hand it back?
'It would take all of our war factories a year working flat out – which they've been doing anyway since God only knows when – to replace the vast amounts of armaments and supplies abandoned on the beaches of Dunkirk.'
'We do not have a year, gentlemen ... Oh, beg pardon ... and lady.' Flinders directed an elaborate bow towards Claire. 'We have no time at all. We desperately need supplies not only to replace what we left on the beaches of France, but also to continue the war against Germany on our own. France is finished, forget anything you may have heard about her fighting on to the death. We expect her to surrender at any time. So it's us and us alone. To stand even the slightest chance, we need tanks, guns, planes, fuel, chemicals ... the list is endless, I won't bore you with it here. And the only place we can get them is America, and for that we need dollars. Our dollar reserves in the US are already pitifully low because of the vast sums we have already spent on war supplies.
'Some of you are already privy to the information that we have been secretly shipping gold across the Atlantic at great risk for some months now, through U-boat infested waters. Incredibly, we have got away with it so far. We have shipped millions upon millions of pounds in a series of one-off runs, and mercifully not lost a single ounce. But that, lady and gentlemen, is a spit in the ocean, if you'll pardon the pun, compared to what we are about to do. The evacuation of the nation's wealth will go ahead, and very soon at that. Your task will be to collect it, value it, document it, and make sure it gets to those ships. You will receive instructions via the War Office representative who will make himself known to you. If you have any serious problems, please feel free to bring them to me via him. My name is Peter Robinson. Thank you for your time.'
Excerpted from Dollar by Alexander Lindsay. Copyright © 2012 Alexander Lindsay. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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