In the darkest days of World War II, Laura McGill and her sister, Diana, were willing to go behind enemy lines on behalf of Britain’s Special Operations Executive. They knew the risks and were willing to take them for king and country. What they did not expect was that their government would forget all about them once the war was over.
It is the spring of 1948, four years since Diana disappeared inside occupied France, and Laura is sick of being ignored—so sick that she is willing to kidnap the head clerk of the SOE at gunpoint in order to learn the name of the spy who ran her sister’s last mission. The name she gets, James Hadley Webb, will take Laura to Berlin, a divided city on the verge of being cut off from the Western world. Webb is on the front lines of a new kind of war, a shadow war of influence and intrigue—and losing. Laura’s arrival, unwelcome as it is, may be just what Webb needs to turn things around—and stop his agents from dying.
Dying Day is the 3rd book in the Post-War Trilogy, which also includes After Midnight and Last Sunrise.
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By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Robert Ryan
All rights reserved.
Laura McGill had never kidnapped anyone before. She wasn't even convinced of the best approach to the crime. She was too slight to use physical force, not without an accomplice, and she wasn't entirely sure how you recruited one of those. 'Fancy a bit of abduction, Thursday?' was not the kind of topic you raised over the bacon counter at Lipton's.
Still, she needed help of some description. Even though her target was in his fifties, he was still a man, and might be considerably stronger than her. It would be just her luck to choose an ex-Commando who could snap a neck with a flick of the wrist. Which meant she had to have an advantage. Such as a gun.
Which was how a pretty blonde in her mid-twenties came to be loitering on the south side of Piccadilly one spring evening with a Colt .32 in her handbag, pacing a few yards of pavement opposite Albany, the building where the target, a man called Rufus Napier, had his flat, or 'set', as she had heard them called. Napier controlled access to the files of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, and seemed determined to keep them to himself. Laura intended to wrest from him the details of her sister's last mission.
The aim was to intercept him before he made it to the main gate of his apartment block, which was protected by a couple of burly ex-Guardsmen. She had already followed him on several occasions, and knew his routine. Napier invariably left the Home Office in Whitehall at 5.30 p.m. on the dot and always walked home, along Pall Mall and Lower Regent Street, no matter what the weather. Picking him up in Whitehall was a possibility, but there always seemed to be policemen stationed outside the government buildings, and several roving foot patrols. Plus parking inconspicuously was difficult anywhere near Number Ten and the Houses of Parliament. It was better to catch him at Piccadilly where she could park for up to one hour, right outside the Royal Academy, and intercept him just when he was slowing his brisk pace, in sight of Albany, and home.
Part of her accepted that what she was about to do was very wrong, but they had left her no choice. She had little experience of violence, not since her days in the Service at least, but sometimes it was the only option. Laura had spent the last few months dashing herself against the most implacable, uncaring bureaucracy in the world, feeling the frustration build in her until, almost inevitably, she had snapped. She was about to abduct the man who had blocked her every request to discover what had become of Diana. And part of her was looking forward to it.
The weapon in her bag had been given to her in Calcutta by Force 136, the local name for the Special Operations Executive, for 'personal protection' during the food riots there, and she had neglected to turn it in at the end of hostilities. She had even ignored the 1946 War Trophy gun amnesty. Laura never knew why she had hung onto it: perhaps this was the reason.
She jumped as the London Evening News vendor behind her yelled something incomprehensible about the forthcoming Olympics. Ahead of schedule? Behind? He shouted a second mangled phrase, an elongated moan she deciphered as 'West End Final'. Laura moved out of earshot, past the Simpson department store, towards the newly re-erected statue of Eros.
Of course, she told herself, it wasn't really kidnapping. It was more an enforced meeting with an unwilling participant. And she wouldn't even produce the gun unless she had to. There would be no ransom demands, no furtive phone calls or notes to Scotland Yard. All she wanted was fifteen minutes of the man's time, face to face, and then she would let him go. After that, he could call the police if he wished. But then he'd have to admit that a mere slip of a woman had bested him in broad daylight. He'd also have to admit why, and he wouldn't like that.
Even through the crowds, she spotted the tall, bowler-hatted figure of Rufus Napier as he turned the corner right on schedule, swinging his brolly so the ferrule made a bright ringing sound on the pavement. He approached on her side of the street, as he had the other nights, aiming to cross at the zebra just before Albany. She waited until he was level before she fell in alongside him.
His eyes blinked rapidly, as if the sound of his own name had startled him. He took in a woman with a long but attractive face, a little thin perhaps, and with two dark crescents under her eyes, but quite striking nonetheless. 'Yes?'
He carried on, not breaking stride, forcing her to almost run alongside him as they passed St James's Church. 'Could I have a word?'
He stared down at her for a good few seconds, as if trying to place the face. 'I'm sorry—you are?'
They were on the crossing now and she had to be quick. 'Laura McGill.'
'Ah.' She could see him wracking his brains, as the metal ferrule alternately tapped on the black and white stripes. 'The name is familiar.'
'I've written to you several times. I need to talk to you about my sister. Diana McGill.'
They reached the north side of Piccadilly and he stopped suddenly, causing people still on the crossing to spill around them as they stepped onto the kerb. A bus honked its horn impatiently as the zebra took its time to clear. 'I'm sorry, Miss McGill. I can't respond to enquiries outside of office hours. You need to make an appointment.'
'I've tried,' she hissed.
'Well, if you'll just ring my secretary ...'
Now she felt her anger rise. She'd spoken to that damn woman a dozen times, had come to loathe her haughty, why-are-you-bothering-me tone. Before she knew it, the little automatic was in her hand, barely visible in the voluminous sleeve of her coat. She stepped in closer to obscure it further from public view. It was doubtful Napier had a good look at it, but when it hit the bottom of his ribs, he knew exactly what it was. She was so near now she could smell his peppermint-scented breath.
'Listen carefully to me,' she said. 'I'm pretty much at the end of my tether here.' She pressed the barrel harder into his chest and he moved away. 'Do you understand?'
When he didn't reply, Laura inclined her head in the direction of the Royal Academy. 'There is an Austin Ascot just along the street. See it? That black car.'
The Civil Servant nodded.
'We are going to get in it. You first, then me. Without any fuss or bother.'
Napier felt a burst of fear in his stomach. He had been the kind of spy who never moved beyond the shabby corridors and meeting rooms of St. James's, who had fought his war by sending coded messages and deciphering others' field reports, wielding nothing more deadly than green ink and mimeographs. Now that he'd been put out to grass at the Home Office, physical threats were the last thing he had anticipated. 'Are you insane?' he spluttered.
When she replied, her voice was small, but icy cold. 'Yes. You know, I rather think I am.'
Napier looked into her eyes for a second and, not liking what he saw in there one bit, moved obediently towards the waiting car.CHAPTER 2
James Hadley Webb had chosen the Goethe, a shabby café in the middle of Hahnestrasse, as the rendezvous point with his Objective. It was a desolate road of mostly ruined houses close to the imaginary line that marked the transition to the Russian zone. The southern end of the street was blocked by the rubble left from the demolition of a Flakturm, a massive anti-aircraft tower, once bristling with long-range 128mm guns, but blasted level by the Red Army in 1945. Gossip had it that hundreds of bodies were still entombed in the air-raid shelter below. This explained why it had always been low on the priorities of the Trümmerfrauen, the women who cleared Berlin's streets and bombsites. The neglected pyramids of brick, steel and concrete meant there was no through traffic on Hahnestrasse. A man could escape on foot over the dereliction, if he knew how. Jimmy Webb knew how.
He also knew that the café had a rear exit that led into the 1920s' tenements which had been hastily converted back into habitable units with tarpaulin and plywood. Again, prior knowledge was needed to navigate the stinking maze of alleys and ruined courtyards. Webb had practised the route twice, earlier in the day.
Almost satisfied with his preparations, Webb gripped Alan Towers's arm just as they were about to enter Café Goethe and pulled him back onto the street. The lad's eyes widened in an unspoken question and he pushed back a lock of his dark hair from his forehead. Webb sometimes thought Towers was just too handsome to be a spy. Whereas he himself was blessed with a perfectly acceptable but nondescript face, Towers in certain lights looked like an actor from the Rank stable of charming would-be leading men, with a hint of something dark and brooding, but in a non-threatening way. There was Spanish blood on the mother's side, so he'd heard.
'I think one of us should stay outside,' Webb said. 'No good both of us being in there.'
Towers wrinkled his nose, twisting those matinée looks. That was more like it, thought Webb. 'What, one of us should sit in the warmth, with Kaffee und Kuchen?'
'Yup. And it's my turn inside,' said Webb with a wink.
'When isn't it your turn inside?' Alan Towers shot back.
'When you get my job.'
'I was forgetting,' said Towers, the condensation of his breath streaming into the icy air. 'But I thought you skiers were used to the cold.'
Webb gave a peevish grunt. The very mention of skiing made him tetchy. At thirty-five, he was too old for the actual team, but a man of his experience should have been among the coaches for the British at the recent Olympics in St Moritz; however, he had been refused leave by London. It wasn't in the interests of national security to go gallivanting off, he was told. Well, what about national pride? The bloody French and Americans had taken most of the honours.
'Keep an eye out,' he said tersely now. 'Let me know when the Objective is in sight. Watch for a signal from the Sweepers, OK?'
'Righty-o,' Towers said, as jauntily as he could manage. He'd suspected this would happen; that was why he was wearing his thick Pesco thermal underwear.
Webb peered down the street and picked out the silhouette of one of Ernst Henkell's men. There was a team in place to act as 'Sweepers', designed to neutralise any tags that Otto, the Objective, might have acquired along the way. Otto was good, but it was worth double-checking that he was clean and unencumbered when he came across. The Sweepers were off-duty policemen, moonlighting for dollars, who could intercept any suspicious characters by flashing their papers and detaining them for an hour or two on some dubious pretext.
Satisfied the safety net was in place, Webb entered, nodded to the café owner and took his place in the corner, near the window, just where it met the smoke-stained wall, with its tatty cinema posters for American movies. Casablanca, Key Largo, Duel in the Sun. Webb hadn't seen any of them. He wracked his brains for the last time he had sat in the cinema. Two years ago, he decided. He'd gone with Olivia to see It's A Wonderful Life. It had been her idea to go and they had argued, of course. He could recall the details of the row—hardly surprising, since they were always the same—but not the film.
The Englishman ordered a coffee and took out his hip-flask, ready to perk up the beverage when it arrived. There were no other customers, probably due to the fact that the Goethe was like an outpost of the Arctic. The iron potbelly stove was cold to the touch and in all likelihood hadn't been lit for days.
The mug was thumped down on the table and Webb rubbed his hands together and asked the scarecrow of an owner if there was any heat to be had. The man shook his head sadly. 'It was last warm in here in April 1942. A Monday, I think.'
Webb laughed politely at the man's deadpanning and made a mental note to send one of his lads round with the offer of some NAAFI coal at a reasonable price. It was always worth cultivating a new rendezvous or potential dead-letter drop. The promise of warmth bought you a lot in this bone-chilled town. Once he had gone, Webb tipped the whisky into his drink and sipped.
Through the grimy window he could just about spot the darker outline of Towers in the shadows, hidden away from the yellow cone of feeble light emanating from the nearby streetlamp. At the request of the lad's father, an old friend who had coached the British bobsleigh team back in 1936, Webb had rescued Towers from a dreary existence listening in on Russian Air Traffic Control. Poor old Towers had joined SIS after the war thinking he was going to be a spy and then he'd been shunted to the new Electronic Intelligence section. Eavesdropping on aircraft movements wasn't espionage as far as Webb was concerned. This was proper spying—out at the sharp end. Even if the pleasure was a little blunted when your Objective was tardy.
Webb checked his watch. He could afford to give Otto some leeway. It was a long, perilous trip from Saxony and the Czech border back to Berlin. What were a couple of hours either way? He thought of the desolate, dangerous places Otto would have passed through: Aue, also known as the Gate of Tears, Schneeburg, Oberschlema, with its radium baths, and Johanngeorgenstadt. His cover as a Socialist Unity Party labour organiser, responsible for meeting the ever-growing quotas for mineworkers, was as good as it could be. That is, barely adequate if you met the wrong kind of Ivan. And there weren't many of the right kind.
'You want something to eat?' asked the owner.
'Not yet, thank you. Perhaps in a while.'
'There's not much anyway,' came the glum reply.
'Not much' would be sausage, or at least a tube of sawdust impersonating a sausage, perhaps some bread, and a soup of some description. Add homemade cakes if there was a Frau Café Owner which, looking around the cobwebbed corners of the ceiling, he doubted. Still, he shouldn't have anything to eat no matter what they could rustle up. Webb had managed to put a few pounds on these last few months thanks to a combination of stodgy canteen food and the inclement weather, which had disrupted his usual exercise routine. It wasn't much of a gain, but he sometimes imagined he could feel the extra ridge of fat on his midriff slowing him down. That wouldn't do at all.
The rap on the window made Webb start. A second rap followed. It meant: subject approaching, all clear. Webb took a larger gulp of the coffee and unbuttoned his coat. It would be no fast draw, but a Browning automatic was weighing down the inside pocket of his suit jacket, just in case.
The doorbell clacked as Otto entered, followed by a swirl of the dusty wind, which he quickly shut out. Webb rose to his feet to greet the German. His first impression was how much more lined the face was, how sallow the cheeks. But the eyes still burned bright. Otto had been in the U-Boat Command, trained to use miniature submarines in what amounted to suicide missions. He had survived only because the war ended before he could be sent to attack Allied shipping. Now, virulently anti-Communist, he was Webb's best source on what was happening in the mines. Otto was one of a group of agents—the other major asset being a stay-behind network known as Librarian—that kept his creaking Special Operations Branch organisation a player in the Berlin game.
Webb pumped the German's hand. 'Otto! Am I pleased to see you here.'
'I am pleased to see me here, too. My God, Jimmy, I can't do that again. I think I have aged twenty years.'
'Nonsense. You look hail and hearty,' he lied. Otto smiled at the platitude. 'Coffee? And a schnapps?'
Webb caught the familiar sour tang coming off the Objective. Otto was afraid. The smell of fear and agitation filled the room, as tangible as cigarette smoke. Well, it was to be expected. Webb's job was to reassure him, now he was home free.
Webb sat and swivelled in his chair towards the counter. The owner was nowhere to be seen. 'Hello! Service!'
'I went down a mine, Jimmy. My God. They are working people to death down there. Black marketeers, prostitutes, and intellectuals. That is their punishment. Three years in the Gate of Tears. Better they should shoot them.' The voice was full of horrors remembered, and for a moment Webb could see the dark, dank tunnels, taste air that was gritty with lethal particles of radioactive rock. 'I heard something, Jimmy. Something scary.'
Excerpted from Dying Day by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2007 Robert Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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