It is 1937, and the Antwerp Diamond Exchange is preparing for war. The Wehrmacht is hungry for industrial diamonds, without which it’s impossible to manufacture armor, radios, or guns. For Richard Hagen, a rare gentile jewelry dealer, business has never been better. But this quiet diamond expert is about to begin a war of his own.
On a business trip to Germany, Hagen attempts to sabotage Nazi efforts to secure the diamonds they need so desperately. Masquerading as a friend of the Reich, he sends home messages in a code based on Alice in Wonderland. The Antwerp Exchange is preparing to flee to London, but Hagen will remain in mainland Europe. As the Gestapo closes in, he will have to stay diamond-sharp to survive.
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About the Author
In 1992, Janes published Mayhem, the first in the long-running St-Cyr and Kohler series, for which he is best known. These police procedurals set in Nazi-occupied France have been praised for the author’s attention to historical detail, as well as their swift-moving plots. The thirteenth in the series, Bellringer, was published in 2012.
Read an Excerpt
The Alice Factor
By J. Robert Janes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 J. Robert Janes
All rights reserved.
A light rain fell, misting the windowpanes and giving the city of Antwerp its midsummer gray. In the street below, puddles had begun to form.
Hagen saw himself reflected in the glass against the rain. Rawboned, that untidy shock of sandy hair down over his brow again—he'd have to get it cut—a halfback in a gray business suit, a prospector, a salesman of industrial diamonds.
Alone, like himself, the Dutchman crossed the street, ignoring the traffic, the rain and the puddles. A portly, determined man of sixty, one so socked into things he'd forgotten his umbrella and rubbers.
Four floors below the office, the front door slammed. The lift began to rise. The tall, old buildings with their fine Flemish gables seemed to frown at Hagen with the cumulative emphasis of five hundred years of trust and tradition.
Condemned, he listened for the lift, knowing he shouldn't see the Dutchman, shouldn't even give him the time of day.
From the foyer came the alarm as Arlette Huysmans cried out, "Please, you cannot go in there, mijnheer!"
The Dutchman grunted something sharp and pushed his way past her. The rain got worse. The puddles began to grow. Like lead, the water outlined the cobblestones as it sought the open grille of a sewer.
Hagen spoke in Dutch. "Arlette, it's okay. I'll see him."
Transfixed, she stood in the doorway, fresh-faced and innocent, the color rising in her cheeks. "De Heer Wunsch ... Mijnheer Hagen, he has said ..."
Hagen grinned to ease her mind. "It's all right. Honest it is."
Klees tossed his briefcase onto a chair and sat down heavily. Dragging out a handkerchief, he mopped his brow and florid, fleshy cheeks. Tried to catch his breath.
Anger hardened the pale gray eyes. A redness rimmed them. "So, and why is your superior, de Heer Wunsch, not in the office? He and I both agreed to this meeting. It was made for today, at this time."
"Mijnheer Klees, if you'll permit me to ask, why do you come to us with your problem? Why not take it to someone in Amsterdam?"
Wheezing, the Dutchman unbuttoned his coat and held his chest. "The traders in Amsterdam are nervous."
"Bernard's in London on business."
The breath was forgotten. "London, ja, of course. And what is he doing there?" Another wheeze. A deep one.
"I can't say."
Klees stuffed the handkerchief away and leaned well over the corner of the desk that separated them. "Well, I can, my young friend. He is buying hope and maybe, too, a place for himself."
The man drew in a breath. "So I need someone to do the same for me."
The faded blond lashes flickered. The eyes swept over Hagen. The breath was held—begged for the oxygen it contained.
Hagen glanced uncertainly across the room toward the door, then lowered his voice. "You mean, you can't pass up what's happening. Come on, mijnheer, you know as well as I that refugees have been slipping out of the Reich at an alarming rate."
A wariness crept into the Dutchman's gaze. "The Jews have much to offer. Someone has to buy it."
Caution entered. "Buy what, mijnheer?"
"Jewelry. Diamonds. What else?"
"Small things, eh?"
"Yes, small things."
"And you'd like us to look after them for you?"
"Rough and cut stones then, no jewelry."
Startled, Klees grunted half in anger, half in surprise. "What do you want me to do? Destroy the pieces? My God ..."
"When the time comes, you may wish you had."
Klees heaved a sigh. "Very well. Rough and cut stones, no mountings." Would Hagen really go along with things?
The halfback's hands spread as if to catch a ball. "London might not be as safe as you think. America might be better. Why not take them there?"
It was a possibility—far better than London. Much safer ... Klees's laugh was humorless. "Can you see me carrying a suitcase full of stuff through their customs without a visa?"
"You've money. Buy yourself some papers."
The Dutchman's gaze narrowed. "You are naive. It is not so easy. Besides—"
"Besides, there's the matter of your record, mijnheer. One doesn't steal diamonds from a member of a bourse. One gets ostracized that way."
Damn him! "Please, I am only asking as ... as an old friend of de Heer Wunsch. You will tell him, ja? Here, I will give you a card where I can be reached. He will understand and do as I say. It is not much to ask. Just a vault beneath the streets of London."
Just someone to take the diamonds over. Someone who had the clearance to do so.
"How much are you willing to pay us?"
Must he continually be forced to beg? "Ten percent. Dillingham's need never know. It is business, ja? Just like during the Russian Revolution when the bear shed his coat only to let it grow back in again."
"How do you really come by the stones?"
"Friends, associates. I cannot say."
The Dutchman fished for a cigarillo. Hagen said, "The answer's no, mijnheer. It can never be anything else, and you're only too well aware of this."
Klees took a moment to study this salesman of industrial diamonds who had the reputation of his father. "Times change. Old friends should not be made to beg, Mijnheer Hagen. Just tell Bernard that I was in and ask him to allow me the courtesy of an answer from his own lips."
The coffee was black and strong; the deep brown eyes were wide and searching. An anxious frown still furrowed her brow.
"Has everyone gone?" he asked.
"Yes, all but de Heer Levin. He ... he has asked to see you, Mijnheer Hagen."
She was young, not quite twenty-three years old and at times so serious. "Arlette, please call me by my first name, at least after hours."
He had taken off his jacket and had rolled up his sleeves. The straps of the suspenders were broad, and where they met the shoulders the white shirt was creased.
"That man ... de Heer Wunsch, he has ... he has asked me to send him away. I ... I do not think it right of you to have ..."
She dropped her eyes, felt so foolish now.
Hagen set the cup and saucer down and waited for her to finish.
She blurted, "You are such a good man, Mijnheer Hagen. I did not want to see you get in trouble."
There, she had let him know how she felt about him and must now await the rebuff.
She'd never see the smile or know in it the kindness he felt. "Wait here, will you? Let me go and have a word with Lev, then I'll walk you to the tramcar after we lock the vault."
The shop was in the back of the building, on the same floor. Alone among the rows of benches, Ascher Lev was bent over his wheel, faceting a stone.
Hagen quietly cleared his throat. Lev let him have it but didn't take his eyes off the stone. "Is it right that you should keep an old man working like this? If you wish to spit, please do so outside."
Hagen chuckled. Lev continued to work. The sound of the grinding—diamond on diamond paste—rang in the empty air. With a thumb Lev applied a little more of the paste to the rapidly rotating scaife.
The diamond, cemented to its dop, was given a minute adjustment. "It is best we work, you and me. Richard, you are going to see our friends next week. Düsseldorf, Essen, Hanover, Hamburg—Kiel, no less and the shores of the Baltic—then Berlin, ah, Berlin. I should be so lucky. Did I ever tell you I used to go fishing on the Spree?
"There, I thought not. Yes, me, Ascher Levinski, now Levin—Lev to you and the others. Pretty soon they will shorten my name to nothing if I'm not careful."
The cutter swung the dop back, gave the stone a tiny squirt and squinted at it through his loupe.
Lev was nearly seventy. Kept on through the darkest years of the early thirties, he had watched with dismay as one by one his fellow employees and friends had had to be let go. No one had wanted diamonds then; only now, in the summer of 1937, was the business in gemstones beginning to reestablish itself.
Seven finishers worked in the shop under Lev's direction. Seven out of a possible fifty. Most worked with the industrial stones, shaping them to the varied needs of industry.
He looked tired and worried. "Go home. Leave that, will you? Tell me what you want. Is it about Rachel?"
"You know it is. You, too, have a conscience. Richard, this thing with the Nazis has been building for years. So I tell her—I, me, Ascher Levinski—Rachel, do not marry him."
"Love ... she says it is for love. She is thirty-eight years old, unmarried, and she talks of love? A bookseller, no less. A poet. A pauper. What is a father to do?"
Moisture clouded the sad blue eyes in that thin and angular face that was all chin, nose, high forehead and sunken cheeks.
"She is on the Motzstrasse, Richard, not far from the cathedral. Number 87. Upstairs, yes? On the fifth floor. You can't miss it. An easy walk, if you like to hike. Yes, at night. Here, I'll write it down for you."
Somehow he'd have to be told. "Lev, can't you trust me to remember the address?"
The cutter shut off the wheel and held his eyes a moment to ease the strain. "Yes. Yes, that would be best. You will memorize it and then my Rachel will be safe. If she and Moses won't come with you, then bring them by force."
"I'm going by train."
Lev took it in his stride. "So much the better. Tell them to leave everything. Tell them to tell our friends they are going for a holiday. Yes, that would be best. Perhaps if you were to ..."
"They'll have trouble at the border."
"Yes, trouble. Perhaps it is best if you just go and see them. Rachel makes a lovely honey cake."
"Lev, I'll do what I can. I promise. Now give me that thing and let me put it in the vault for you."
Unsettled by the cutter's request, coming as it had on the heels of the Dutchman, Hagen quietly returned to his office. Arlette was sitting in one of the leather armchairs over by the windows. Her long legs were crossed, she was staring pensively out into the gathering dusk, hadn't heard him at all.
"Arlette, what did de Heer Wunsch tell you about the Dutchman?"
She leapt, uncrossing her legs and getting to her feet in one swift but graceful motion. "Only that he was not to be trusted." Had Richard seen into her thoughts?
"And am I?"
"Yes. Yes, of course. Please, I ... I don't know what you mean."
She was still upset. "Does anyone else know that he was in there with me?"
"No, but ..."
A look of abject dismay swept over her and she turned from him toward the windows. "It is as I feared. You have been tempted."
"Not in the slightest. Now come on. Let's lock up and get out of here."
The vault, a walk-in safe with timers, alarms and a double combination-locking system, was across the foyer from her desk. He paused to check his office. Satisfied, he switched off the lights and locked the door. Then we went into the vault to put Lev's diamond away.
Arlette noted the time and wrote it down in the logbook, but Richard began opening drawers, now this one, now that one. When he found what he was looking for, he held the white paper packet open before her.
Ten emerald-green macles, the flat, cushioned-shaped triangular stones, these of from two to four carats in weight, lay in the palm of his hand. Their clarity was like that of ice. Even when uncut they had such fire.
He prodded the diamonds with a finger. "They're so very beautiful, aren't they? But they're flawed. They're not good enough to be cut into gems."
She knew that it was because of stones like these that de Heer Wunsch had been able to offer her a job nearly a year ago. But she didn't know where this discussion was leading, and it worried her to see Richard so intense.
"Arlette, listen to me. What de Heer Klees had in mind was nothing. Already the Germans are stockpiling chrome, manganese, copper, tin and zinc—you name it. These, too." Impulsively he crumpled the packet in a fist, then apologized and put it carefully back in the drawer.
Selecting a vial of crushing boart, the stones that would be made into grinding and polishing powders, he shook out a mass of the tiny cubes—some light yellow, some green, gray, white, pink, so many colors. "Gem diamonds are nothing, Arlette. Nothing! It's the industrials they'll need. If only we could stop the Nazis from getting them."
A salesman of diamonds? "What will you do?"
His shoulders lifted in a shrug she knew so well. The grin was there again, both to put her at ease and to laugh at himself, at fate. "I don't know. Go on selling to them until we have to stop, I guess. That's why de Heer Wunsch is in England. There's talk of moving the Antwerp diamond stocks to London."
They looked at each other, and a stunned silence crept over her as she realized he had trusted her with the secret. He had asked her to forget about the Dutchman. "It's getting late," she said, a whisper.
Hagen gently took hold of her by the wrist and emptied the vial into her hand. "When the time comes, Arlette, the Nazis will do almost anything to get these. What de Heer Klees is dealing in won't even matter because it can never be enough."
There was a binocular microscope on the grading table in the vault. Bringing some of the boart into focus, he asked her to look at it and tell him what she saw. "Don't be afraid. Just say what you think."
His left hand still cradled the base of the microscope. Her knee touched his and a tremor ran through her.
Hesitantly she began. "They are all of the same size but ... but there are many shapes."
Again he said, "Don't be afraid. Say what you think."
"There are cubes and modified cubes. Some of the faces have pyramids through them and beveled corners and edges."
The gentleness of his voice came to her. "Those are all poorly formed octahedra. The stones have been screened. That's why the sizes are all about the same."
"Some are rounded but all are ..."
"Trust yourself. Go on, say it. We'll make a sorter out of you yet."
A sorter ... "Their surfaces are dimpled. They look greasy."
"Good. Now take a look at these. Feast your eyes."
Hagen found the paper of macles and placed three of them in front of her. Looking down into them she was again struck by their clarity and depth of color, only more so. It was like diving into an emerald-green sea or an aspic of mint and she so small ...
Only then did Arlette notice the flaws, the inclusions of other minerals, the fine sunbursts of tiny cracks that made them unsuitable for cutting into gems.
Hagen slid a few small, clear white octahedra into view. Again she noted the inclusions, much more easily now. "Probably rutile, a titanium oxide," he said. "Concentrated along the cleavage planes in rows of tiny black dots as the crystals formed under very intense pressure and temperature."
If ever anyone was fascinated by diamonds, it was Richard. His whole life had been involved with them. "What are you trying to tell me?" she asked.
The dark auburn hair had spilled softly forward as she'd leaned over the microscope. The deep brown eyes gazed steadily at him.
Confronted by her, Hagen realized he had had to speak out to someone he could trust. A haunting beauty lingered. Something Spanish, something French and Dutch as well. The dusky eyes and long lashes were darker than her hair.
"Only that by looking at a rough diamond you can often tell where it came from. The Germans, Arlette ..." He glanced down at his hands. "Alternate sources—ones that are outside the normal trading channels. It's only a thought but if they should succeed in finding another source, the shape and look of the diamonds would tell us where they were getting them from."
He was really worried.
"Those cubes are all from the Congo, from Mbuji-Mayi, the largest deposit of crushing boart the world has ever seen. The Congo, Arlette. The Belgian government ..."
His voice trailed off as if he had said too much, but committed to telling her now, he gave a shrug. "The macles are from South Africa, the source of most tool diamonds. Without the boart, the Germans can't grind and mirror-polish the harder metals or sharpen the tungsten carbide tools they use to cut so much of their steel. Without the tool diamonds, they can't true their gun barrels, cut armor plate, precision optical glass, radio oscillators, high-temperature ceramics or draw wire. So many things, Arlette, so many uses."
The white blouse of fine Flemish lace rose gently. The fine dark brush of her eyebrows arched. "And the diamonds de Heer Klees would have you take to London for him?"
She wasn't the type to have listened. She'd have sat at her desk, worrying herself sick because the reputation of the firm and of himself would have been at stake.
Excerpted from The Alice Factor by J. Robert Janes. Copyright © 1991 J. Robert Janes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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