Southern France, 1944: Ex-Boston cop and wartime military investigator Billy Boyle is given a dangerous assignment—to extract a British Special Operations Executive officer from Crete and take him to France to serve on a security detail to identify fascist sympathizers. The mission gets even more complicated when Billy realizes how many enemies the officer he must protect has accrued. In the aftermath of the failed, and costly, Vercors uprising, tensions among Resistance groups are running high, and the mission turns far deadlier than expected.
On the quest to weed out Vichy collaborators, Billy takes up an independent investigation to exonerate an innocent comrade of murder. In the process, he crosses paths with the legendary SOE agent Christine Granville and the heroic 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Nisei soldiers who are already on their way to becoming the most decorated unit in the history of the US Army.
With sacrifice and subterfuge afoot, Billy doesn’t know who he can trust, or how close to death this case may bring him.
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THE MEDITERR ANEAN
The sea wanted to swallow me whole. I wouldn’t have minded if it had been quick.
Wave after wave crashed over the side of the fishing boat, water sluicing across the deck and soaking me as I clung to a knotted rope strung along the gunwale. Crewmen of the small caïque shouted to each other, and the captain hung on to the tiller, trying to keep the thirty-foot craft on course.
I’d ceased to care where we were headed, as long as it wasn’t underwater. I was flat on my rear, snug against the hull, hoping and praying that the next wave wouldn’t wash me overboard. This was supposed to be the sunny Mediterranean, but it felt more like a nor’easter off Gloucester when the November winds blew hard and cold.
Two days ago, I was in Cairo, relaxing at the bar in Shepheard’s Hotel, enjoying a bit of rest, hardly suspecting what was coming around the corner. Now I was listening to my chattering teeth and the British skipper ordering his five-man crew—two Greeks, two Englishmen, and one silent, swarthy fellow of uncertain nationality—to hold on tight.
He didn’t need to tell me twice.
I saw the skipper bracing himself, the tiller hard to starboard as he maneuvered the wooden fishing boat to avoid being sideswiped by a giant roller. The problem was, that left us with only one alternative.
Head straight into the wave.
Time seemed to slow down. The wave kept coming, growing larger, the crest towering over our mast with its furled sails. The long, sharp bow bit into the trough as the frothing breaker spat foamy white and encompassed the small boat.
I felt weightless, floating in air, tethered only by a length of rough hemp rope twisted around my wrist. I was standing upright in the wave itself, pieces of ship’s gear floating around me, the world either silent or so filled with this deafening downpour that every other sound was flattened into oblivion.
I hit the deck hard, sliding toward the bowsprit as the caïque came through the wave and dropped to the churning surface. The rope held, stopping me before I crashed into the bow, nearly breaking my wrist in the process.
But I was alive, on the right side of rough water, and the next wave wasn’t higher than our mast. Lucky me.
A crewman, one of the Greeks, came forward to check the rigging.
“Hey English, you still here?” he said, pulling at the forestay line.
“American,” I said, pulling myself up. “Where is here, anyway? Are we getting close?”
“Close, yes,” he said. “To windward shore. Wind not so bad, waves not so bad. Relax, English, we have you there soon. After dark.”
“American,” I said again. Not that he could tell from my uniform. I wore sun-bleached khakis that could have been standard issue from any army in the Med, along with a dark civilian jacket. Aside from my captain’s bars and dog tags, there was nothing to identify me as US Army. The idea was to escape notice by the Germans but still have enough of a uniform to not be shot as a spy.
“Sure, sure. American, English, all the same to me. I am Erasmos Papadakis,” he said, extending his hand.
“Billy Boyle,” I said as we shook.
“Bill-lee Boyle. Strange name, but okay. I am your guide tonight. I take you ashore,” Erasmos said. Before I could ask any questions, he moved on with his steady seaman’s gait, leaving me to lurch about as the boat crested another wave and its bow slammed down, over and over.
I managed to stay upright, grasping the rigging as I gazed at the horizon. A thin line appeared and soon developed into hills fronted by jagged cliffs.
Crete. Home to thousands of German occupation troops, a few hundred thousand Greeks, or Kritikoi, as the natives of this island were known. And a handful of British Special Operations Executive teams who were busy arming the resistance fighters and keeping the Germans busy burying their dead.
So why add one American to the mix? For some damn reason, one of the Brits couldn’t be located, and the brass wanted him brought out for some SOE business in the south of France. That’s all I was told because that’s all I needed to know. Need to know is a big thing in this war, a concept I never much liked. As I gazed out over the unwelcoming shore while we rolled on the dying swells, I would have preferred to know why I was risking my neck. Or maybe not. Finding him might be nothing more than the whim of some senior officer heading off for cocktails right about now.
The warm air began to dry my clothes as I stood in the bow, thankful that the mountains of Crete had finally blocked the hard winds coming out of the northwest. It was the first bit of luck since I’d been plucked from the hotel bar in Cairo and given this job by my boss, Colonel Samuel Harding. He said the orders had come from on high, which must’ve been damned high since Harding worked for General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force.
But SOE had plenty of strings to pull, and Cairo was a long way from London. All Harding could tell me was that a British colonel from SOE headquarters in Algiers was behind the mission. So here I was, ready to be taken ashore to locate Captain Richard Thorne, who had unaccountably stopped responding to radio messages. Which meant I was dependent on Erasmos to help me find him. And get him out. Well, I’d survived the trip here from Tobruk, despite the storm that had brewed up a few hours after we’d left Libya, so I figured the return trip couldn’t be worse.
I’d take what luck I found, I told myself as I strolled back to the skipper, Lieutenant Marchant, still at the stern. It was nice to be able to take a step without the deck rising or falling four feet.
“If I’d known about that blow, I wouldn’t have set sail,” he said. “But we’re through it, so all’s well. They brew up out of the north sometimes with no warning.”
“You sound used to it,” I said, looking at his hands in the fading light, white-knuckled on the wooden tiller.
“All in a day’s work for the Levant Schooner Flotilla,” Marchant said. “Glad to help.”
The Levant Schooner Flotilla was one of those small, semisecret organizations the Brits operated with flair, using volunteers who scrounged, stole, or requisitioned caïques and other small vessels to smuggle agents and commandos on missions in the eastern Mediterranean. They refitted fishing boats with engines pulled from British tanks and radios from American fighter planes. Marchant had been a yachtsman before the war and looked like he was enjoying himself despite the heavy weather.
“How do we get ashore?” I asked. The sea was calmer, but I didn’t want to take a swim in it.
“We’ll be in the Gulf of Loutro soon,” he said. “Nice anchorage. Erasmos will paddle you ashore in a dinghy, along with some supplies. Food for the villagers, mostly.”
“It is good to bring gifts,” Erasmos said as he joined us. “Food and bullets.”
“The villagers will help us locate Thorne?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Erasmos said. “But these people are Sfakian.”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“It means you’d better hope they take a liking to you,” Marchant said. “Otherwise—”
He took one hand off the tiller long enough to draw it across his throat.
C H A P T E R TWO
The light of a half-moon still makes for a dark night, especially when you’re going over the side of a boat into an inflatable raft. We were within the calm waters of the Gulf of Loutro, the sea an inky black splashed with shimmering moonlight, the stars above putting on a splendid show.
I climbed down the rope ladder as Erasmos steadied the raft. Crew members handed over containers of food and ammunition. Plenty of .303 cartridges for the Lee-Enfield rifles the British were dropping to the SOE groups, along with a decent supply of 7.9 mm Mauser rounds to be used with captured German rifles. Not to mention the tins of bully beef and biscuits. Once all that was aboard, our tiny craft was awfully low in the water.
“See you tomorrow night,” the skipper said in a hushed voice from the caïque. “Good luck.”
“We’ll need luck to reach the shore before going under,” I said, pushing off and digging in with my oar. I could hear Marchant laugh like a pirate watching some poor slob walking the plank.
“Just row, Bill-lee,” Erasmos said. “It will be good to have gifts for the Sfakians. Best to keep them happy.”
Erasmos and the skipper had filled me in on the people of this mountainous region. They lived a harsh and rugged life amidst the gorges and mountains of the interior or in small villages along the coast, none of which were connected by roads. The Sfakians were renowned as rebels, fighting the Venetians and the Turks long before they turned against the German invaders.
“Paddle harder, English,” Erasmos said. “To starboard. See the lights?”
“Okay,” I said, noticing that we’d drifted off course. Tiny, soft lights came into focus. Not electrical lighting, but oil lamps or candles illuminating the cluster of whitewashed houses glowing in the faint moonlight. The buildings hugged the terrain, blending into the folds of the ground, tight against the cliffs rising behind them.
“No roads?” I said, gasping between strokes. I couldn’t help wondering if the Germans ever sent out patrols to enforce a blackout.
“No roads,” Erasmos said, his breathing a lot steadier than mine. “Paths through the gorges. Trails for goats and sheep. Germans only come, never leave.”
“Killed by the Sfakians?”
“After some time, yes,” Erasmos said. I didn’t press for details or ask exactly what he meant.
The surf demanded our attention as we came close to shore. Rocks jutted out amidst the churning water and we zigzagged around them until a rolling wave lifted the dinghy and deposited us on the pebbly beach, pretty as you please.
We dragged the cargo-laden craft up the beach, past the tide line, and I readied the Thompson submachine gun I’d slung behind my back. I didn’t think anyone could have heard us with the pounding of the surf and the tumbling beach stones, but I didn’t want any surprises.
“No, English,” Erasmos said, patting me on the shoulder as he sat on the prow of the dinghy. “We will be honored guests of the Sfakians, God willing. No need for that.”
A pebble rolled downhill and bounced off my foot. Then another. I looked up and made out a half-dozen forms silhouetted against the gauzy yellow light of the closest windows. Men with rifles.
Aimed at us.
I slung my tommy gun and stood, arms outstretched, figuring I’d let Erasmos do the talking. He did plenty, unleashing a torrent of Greek that I hoped contained many friendly greetings and news of the gifts we’d brought.
The villagers descended a rocky path, sure-footed even in the dark. None of them spoke in answer to Erasmos’s cascade of words.
“I think they heard you,” I said to Erasmos. I could see he was nervous, maybe more nervous than he should have been. Had he recognized one of the villagers? He slowed down, the last few words sputtering out into the dark, disregarded by the men who gathered around. Their rifles were no longer pointed directly at us, but they held them at the ready. Several men looked up and down the beach, satisfying themselves we were the only visitors.
Erasmos began jabbering at them again, probably telling them over and over what they’d already figured out.
“It’s okay, Erasmos,” I said, watching the men watch us. They wore black boots. Sashes tied around their waists were topped with knives and cartridge belts. They seemed very much at ease, as if they normally lazed around the house fully armed, waiting for intruders by land or sea. Thick beards were the order of the day, a few of the men sporting twirled mustaches.
I could understand Erasmos being jumpy. I wasn’t exactly calm, but I did a better job of hiding my nerves than he did.
“Erasmos Papadakis, I am surprised to see you again,” said one of the men, pointing with his rifle. “We do not need another SOE agent. We need guns.” His English was clipped and precise, as if he thought carefully about every word. I hoped he gave as much consideration to the pressure his finger was exerting on the trigger.
“He is not SOE,” Erasmos said. “American. He comes to take an SOE man out.”
“I’m Captain Billy Boyle, United States Army,” I said, trying to make sense of what was going on. I waited for someone to take notice or introduce themselves, but all eyes were on Erasmos.
“Which Englishman?” asked the Kritikos.
“Thorne. Do you know where he is?” Erasmos said. “Can you take us?”
“What is in the raft?”
“Food and ammunition,” Erasmos said. “For the villagers. For you.”
“Who is this guy?” I said, looking at Erasmos as I stepped closer to the fellow doing the talking. “You know him?”
“We know each other all too well, my American friend. I am Solon. Follow me.” He snapped his fingers, and men grabbed the supplies before herding Erasmos and me up to the village. I wanted to quiz Erasmos on whatever beef he and Solon had going, but they kept us apart on the narrow path.