January, 1970, and the final chapter in the Blackwood history appears to have closed with the murder in Cyprus of Lt. Colonel Mike Blackwood. His son Ross is featured in this last book of the series.
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By Douglas Reeman
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.
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"Are there any further bids, gentlemen?" The auctioneer's gavel hovered momentarily above the table. "Thank you, Mr Roberts." It sounded loud after the sudden stillness. The end of a long two days. It was over, until the next time.
John Masterman, senior partner of the company which bore his name, closed the leather folder around his papers and a well-thumbed catalogue. He felt tired. Drained, perhaps more than usual, but would not admit it. The faded lettering on the folder said it all. Masterman International Valuers and Auctioneers. Established 1802.
He glanced through the nearest window. It was only noon, but it looked like dusk in the dull grey light. The new year of 1970 was just three weeks old, and it felt like it, he thought. He was sixty and then some, and his junior partners, especially, often hinted that he should think about retiring. He half smiled. And do what?
The big room was emptying. A lot of the faces he knew; some were strangers, hoping for a rare bargain, or here out of curiosity. His assistants were removing the last item, an old campaign chest from the Crimean period, while outside, lining the drive, the vans awaited instructions. Like undertakers ... A few dealers were already collecting in little groups, taking their own bids now that the main event was over.
He touched the date on the leather folder. 1802. Just a few weeks ago he had been at another auction in another fine old house. There had been some plates from the Horatia Service made by Chamberlains of Worcester and commissioned by Lord Nelson at that same time, three years before the little admiral had fallen at Trafalgar. They had gone under the hammer for far more than he would have dreamed possible.
He looked at the lines of tall trees, stark and leafless against the surrounding fields. Would they, like this old house, be destroyed when the new road came through?
Hawks Hill was heavy with memories, overlaid with them, like some of the paintings and furniture which had changed hands here today. Originally a fortified Tudor farmhouse, it had been bought and enlarged by old Major-General Samuel Blackwood, described as "the last soldier." After him, all the other Blackwoods had entered the Corps of Royal Marines.
But like so many country houses, it had outlived its time in a modern world of austerity and recovery. During the Great War it had been used as a hospital for officers blinded in the hell of Flanders and the Somme. During the last war it had served in a similar capacity, while the estate had been worked by the Women's Land Army and Italian prisoners of war, the only men of military age available. Twenty miles north of Portsmouth, and some seven miles from Winchester, it had remained almost isolated but for the nearby village of Alresford.
Masterman thought suddenly of Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Blackwood. He had been due to retire from the Corps; perhaps in some ways he had been coming to terms with it, if not accepting it completely. He had intended to convert the old stable block into a smaller but more practical home for the Blackwood family. Masterman looked at the walls, the pale rectangles where so many pictures had marked the years, the triumphs and the tragedies.
Some of the vans were moving off now; cars too, probably down to the local pub.
He wondered where Joanna, the colonel's wife, was at this moment. One last appointment, they had told Michael Blackwood, to visit two separate bases where the Royal Marines, his commandos, were carrying out peacekeeping duties, in Cyprus and in Northern Ireland. Blackwood had been in a lot of tight corners since the war — Korea, Suez, Aden — but as one marine had said, he had the touch. The lads looked to him when the going got rough.
It had happened the day he had been due to leave Cyprus and return to England. A booby-trapped car, they said later. Both he and his driver had been killed instantly.
It was a new kind of warfare. He frowned, angry with himself. It was plain murder. What must Joanna Blackwood be thinking today? They had a son, Ross, and a daughter. Ross was in the Corps, carrying on the tradition.
"I can clear up, Mr Masterman." It was his assistant. New and eager, waiting for him to leave.
"I'll just hang on until ..." He stared past the remaining handful of dealers, and his clerk, checking the invoices.
A young man was standing by one of the makeshift benches where a pile of silver frames were awaiting collection. They had been marked down to a jeweller and silversmith in Winchester, a man who often appeared at estate auctions.
Masterman said, "Sorry, but that lot's all taken." The young man had picked up one of the frames and was holding it. A stranger, yet somehow familiar. I must be getting past it. "The buyer is over there by the fireplace. You could make him an offer." He reached out. "You have good taste, anyway. That's an Asprey frame, as I recall."
But the young man held onto the frame and shook his head. "I don't give a damn about that. It's the photo. I wanted to ..." He broke off, but did not resist as Masterman took the frame from his grip. Despair, anger, defiance, it was all of those.
He thought the photograph had probably been taken in this very room, by the window. The same trees were in the background, recognizable, but in leaf. The subject was in WRNS uniform, her cap with its Royal Marine Globe and Laurel badge perched on her knee.
It was like opening a door, or hearing something shouted on the wind.
"Diane Blackwood, the colonel's sister. Lovely girl, I understand. Never married ... died in a car accident just after the war. I believe it nearly finished her brother."
The eyes were watching him steadily as Masterman unfastened the frame, and removed the photograph. "I told them to make sure these were all empty." He hesitated. "Did you know her?" Ridiculous; he was too young. How could he have known her?
The other man said nothing. Instead, he pulled a wallet from inside his raincoat and opened it with care, taking out a photograph, which he held up, still without comment. It was worn and carefully repaired, as if someone had tried to rip it in half, but the same photo. The girl named Diane, who had never married.
Like studying documents, or going through someone's effects before a sale; it was vague one moment, vividly clear the next. There had been a scandal of some kind; the family had closed ranks. Like the Corps.
Masterman said, "Take the picture. It's between us, right?"
Their eyes met, and he was surprised that he had not realized before, or seen it immediately. The same features in some of the paintings ... or the face of the man who had been killed by a terrorist bomb in Cyprus.
He held out his hand. "If there's any way I can help ..." He got no further.
"You just did, sir." The mouth smiled, but it barely reached the eyes. The handshake was hard. "I'll not forget."
Then he was gone, and Masterman stood gazing at the empty frame, trying to remember every moment.
His new assistant asked brightly, "Someone from the past, sir?"
Masterman bit back a sharp retort, and said, "From the future, I suspect."
The morning was bitterly cold, and yet the sky was surprisingly clear after overnight rain. A washed-out blue, enough to chill your bones to the marrow.
Lieutenant Ross Blackwood raised himself very slightly on his elbows, teeth gritted against the pain of loose stones, his uniform denims clinging to his legs. Cold, wet, impatient. He should be used to it by now. He was not.
Why did the army, and for that matter his Corps, the Royal Marines, choose such godforsaken places for their training exercises? He covered his mouth with one hand while he took stock of the immediate area. On the edge of Dartmoor, this was now a waste of fallen buildings, walls starred with rifle and machine gun fire or scattered by every kind of lethal device. Even in the hands of skilled marksmen and eager instructors, the bullets were often too close for comfort. Or overconfidence.
There had been a small, private flying club here once. Taken over and enlarged for a fighter squadron during the last war, it had become derelict in the uneasy years following Germany's surrender. There was a village of some kind, too. Now only crumbling shells where men had tended the land and children had played at being soldiers.
When he moved his hand he saw the breath from his lips, like steam. The instinctive warning ... He lifted his binoculars, small and powerful, and scanned the nearest cottages: eyeless ruins, shelled, burned, and stripped by the countless drills and exercises this wasteland had seen.
He thought of the previous week. Or had it been longer? Hawks Hill, the gaping strangers, the expressionless auctioneer, and the silent exchange of signals. Money changing hands, deals settled. Like conspirators. Vandals.
He tensed. A shadow, dead leaves moving in the bitter air? It was Boyes, his sergeant. Too experienced to make mistakes on an exercise; he had seen and done too much of the real thing. A true Royal Marine. Ross's mind lingered on the old house, as it had once been, and the life he had grown up to accept. His life. His future. Sergeant Boyes had served with his father, and had been at the memorial service. With many others, young and old, some wearing their medals, from campaigns he could only imagine.
Hawks Hill ... Soon it would be demolished. Where, then, would go all the memories and ghosts?
He pictured his mother, strong and beautiful amidst the sadness and the well-intentioned sympathy, which must have torn her apart. Afterwards they had walked through the echoing house together, past the bare walls and the packing cases, and some officials from the local council, already making notes. She had stood looking up at the one remaining portrait in the empty study, where, as a boy, Ross had first discovered an old photo album with some of the faded prints of the Great War. Groups of officers, sitting cross-legged and self-conscious, at some Corps function or other. Others, grim-faced in steel helmets; and one print of a battlefield, craters brimming with rain and mud. No trees. Nothing. Somebody, perhaps his grandfather, had written beneath that torn landscape, Where no birds sing. Ross had never forgotten it.
His mother had slipped her hand through his arm and said quietly, "Your father would be so proud of you, Ross."
As she had done, he had looked at the portrait. She was taking it to her friend's house in London, while she was getting her bearings. What would she do without him? Your father would be so proud of you. That was almost the worst part. Thinking back, he must always have been in awe of his father. The colonel. Out of reach.
He lowered the glasses and wiped the lenses with a piece of tissue. Even that was wet.
Ross had just returned from Northern Ireland when the news of his father's murder had broken. He had had it all prepared. In his thoughts, he had heard himself coming out with it. His father was leaving the Corps, with pride and with honour. There was no point in pretending, making any more excuses.
Your father would have been so proud of you.
How would his father have taken it? Reacted to being told that his only son was going to quit the Corps? Break with tradition. The last of the Blackwoods.
He watched the cottage on the end of the row. Empty windows, a fragment of tattered curtain still clinging to a splintered frame. Where people must have seen the enemy bombers, and the tiny fighters cutting the sky with their vapour trails as they went after them. The high hopes and the setbacks. Korea, Suez, Cyprus, and Malaya, and the Royal Marines were always there, often when it was already too late. The end of empire, some called it.
But men died because of it. And women, too.
Tough veterans had seen it all and made light of it. In the Corps, like the navy, the response was always the same. Maybe it had to be. If you can't take a joke, you shouldn't have joined!
What had changed him? He heard a far-off crackle of machine gun fire, blanks or otherwise. He often wondered how many men had been killed in bleak places like this one, by accident, by ammunition that was intended to make it a little too real.
He remembered the street in Belfast. Almost peaceful after the initial hostility. Backing up the local police, facing the threats and the bricks from the back of the crowd. And the petrol bombs. And there had been kindness too, like a bridge.
The police had cleared the street; hot drinks and some doorstep-like sandwiches had appeared. The marines had relaxed.
There had been a young marine named Jack, new to the commandos, who was always being ragged by his comrades because of his strong Birmingham accent. He had been the only one to see the danger, but had not recognized it. "Th' kids'll be comin' back soon, sir. My grandad used to play one of them things. He'd never leave it lyin' about to be nicked!"
The "thing" was a barrel organ. Ross could see it now. Outside a boarded-up shop, with two ragged puppets propped on the top as if waiting for an audience. Before anyone could do anything Jack from Brum, as they had nicknamed him, had crossed the street to have a closer look. Ross could not recall the explosion. More of a sensation than a sound. Like a shock, and a blinding white flash.
He twisted round on one elbow, his nerves like hot wires. But it was only Sergeant Boyes. A big man, who could move like a cat when necessary.
Boyes said casually, "There's one of 'em in that second window. Not as smart as he thinks. Saw the sun flash on some-thin'— lookin' at his watch, most likely."
He might have been watching me.
Was that what Boyes was thinking? Wondering about his lieutenant, doubting him? He had been there too, that day in the street in Belfast, when the carefully set booby-trap had exploded. Where children would have come to play.
There had been nothing left of the young marine to bury.
He heard himself say, "Use the grenade. We'll move in now!" Like someone else.
He saw Boyes nod. Approval, relief, who could say? He loosened his holster and rose slowly onto his knees.
The stun grenade exploded, and some of his men were already converging on the row of ruined cottages. Whistles blew, and an officer had appeared waving a flag. The exercise was over. The pros and cons would be debated later.
Ross realized that he had half-drawn his pistol, although he did not remember doing so. Like that day when the bomb had exploded. The police had said that no one else had been killed or injured. Not like some they had faced.
All Ross recalled was that they had caught the man responsible, and somebody had been gripping his wrist, Boyes or one of the others, he was never certain. Like now, today, on a piece of Devon moorland, the gun in his hand.
I would have killed him. I wanted to.
He thought of his mother's hand on his arm in that deserted study at Hawks Hill, sharing the moment. And the portrait of his father.
Proud? I wonder.
* * *
Lieutenant-Colonel Leslie De Lisle glanced at the cup of tea on the desk where a well-meaning orderly had placed it, and frowned. Something stronger would have been more welcome. He half-listened to the regular tramp of boots, the occasional bark of commands, a tannoy speaker calling someone's name. It was sometimes hard to remember what it had been like in those far-off days.
He was suddenly on his feet at one of the big windows that overlooked the barracks square. A grey January forenoon, the square still shining from the last rainfall. He shivered despite his usual self-control. Winter in Plymouth: Stonehouse Barracks. Less than a week ago he had been sweltering in Singapore.
He opened the window very slightly and braced himself against the keen air. As assistant to the Chief of Special Operations he was far removed from the mysteries facing those marching ranks of Royal Marines, raw recruits for the most part. As we all were.
"At the halt ... On th' right ... foooorm ... squad!" It could have been the same sergeant.
He saw some other marines marching easily past the square, their green berets marking them out as commandos. The recruits would be watching them with envy and perhaps awe, dreaming of the day when they, too, might number among the elite.
De Lisle turned away as another bellow of commands snapped them back to reality. He caught sight of his reflection in the glass. Self-contained, austere, with the neat moustache favoured by many senior officers in the Corps. A splash of colour on his uniform; for gallantry, the citations had said. Not a cloth-carrier like some he had known. And still knew.
Excerpted from Knife Edge by Douglas Reeman. Copyright © 2004 Bolitho Maritime Productions Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read most of Reeman's books, including all of the Alexander Kent series. I can't believe that this book was written by the same person. It is disjointed and without any storyline or flow. His sentences often make no sense or seem to be out of place. Maybe Reeman is having problems of some type...but I can't understand where the editors were on this one. If you are a Reeman fan...don't read this one it will disappoint you greatly.