"As historical detective series go, this one is extremely well tended by an author who clearly dotes on his hero. As do we."—The New York Times
Just days after the Liberation of Paris, US Army Detective Billy Boyle and Lieutenant Kazimierz are brought to Saint Albans Convalescent Hospital in the English countryside. Kaz has been diagnosed with a heart condition, and Billy is dealing with emotional exhaustion and his recent methamphetamine abuse. Meanwhile, Billy’s love, Diana Seaton, has been taken to Ravensbrück, the Nazi concentration camp for women, and Kaz’s sister, Angelika, who he recently learned was alive and working with the Polish Underground, has also been captured and transported to the same camp.
This news is brought by British Major Cosgrove, who asks Billy for help, unofficially, in solving what he thinks was the murder of a British agent recuperating at Saint Albans. The convalescent hospital is really a secret installation for those in the world of clandestine warfare to recover from wounds, physical and emotional. Some are allowed to leave; others are deemed security risks and are detained there. When a second body is found, it is evident that a killer is at work in this high-security enclave. Now Billy must carry out his covert investigation while maintaining his tenuous recovery, shielding his actions from suspicious hospital authorities, and dodging the unknown murderer.
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Something was wrong.
The wind bit at the back of my neck, and I hunched my shoulders as gray clouds scudded across the sky, outpacing me as I trudged along the gravel path. I stuffed my hands into my pockets, thankful for the warmth.
Thankful I could hide the tremor in my right hand.
Because they were watching.
I couldn’t let them see how bad it had gotten.
My boots scrunched on crushed stone, the wide walkway stretching out before me. It looked like a straightaway, but the low wrought iron fence on either side curved slightly to the left. It was a circle. A long circle, but all the same, circles lead nowhere.
Which was where I was, evidently.
I don’t know why. I haven’t figured it out yet. All I know is that beyond the ornate fence, painted a gleaming jet black and hardly higher than my hip, there is another fence. In the woods, about ten yards in. A serious fence. Ten feet high and topped with coils of barbed wire. Patrolled by British soldiers who watched from the other side, silently staring me down.
I pushed on, trying not to attract their attention as they moved through the shadows beyond the wire. Two days ago, they’d let me outside. Not the soldiers, but the doctors, or nurses, or orderlies, or whatever they were. They said I could walk, that it might help me sleep.
But I can’t sleep a wink. Maybe that’s why I’m a little confused. Sometimes it feels like I can’t stay awake, either. Or move, for that matter. I didn’t want to go outside, but they insisted, so I started walking.
Two days I’ve been walking this circuit. My eyes are gritty with fatigue, but every time I stop to sit on a bench, my lids stay open. There’s a haze over everything—the woods, the guards, the massive stone structure constantly off to my left, its towers and turrets visible above the treetops and across the lush green lawns. My memory is hazy too. I don’t remember how I got here, although I recall waking up in an ambulance.
Before that, all I remember is France. Paris, to be exact. But everything is jumbled up, like in a dream, where things look familiar but nothing makes sense. I know this place isn’t a dream, because nothing looks familiar and nothing makes the slightest bit of sense.
It isn’t a dream or a nightmare. No, it’s worse.
The answer to that one was coming up ahead. The gravel walkway sloped downhill as it curved around the rear of the scattered buildings. I hadn’t even counted them all. There was the main building, four stories of sandstone set down in front of a green lawn, with a tall clock tower at the center. Wings extended off either end at right angles, like giant arms, encompassing a smattering of smaller buildings, all covered in the same sooty stone, soiled by the chimneys spouting coal smoke into the gray skies.
A service road cut across the path ahead. The gate was set in the woods, part of the security fence guarded by soldiers. I’d caught a glimpse of them a few times as they opened the gate to let in trucks bringing supplies. Their forest-green berets marked them as elite Commandos. I didn’t look in their direction anymore. They might think I was planning an escape.
Which might not be a bad idea if I knew where to go.
I quickened my pace as I passed the stone pillars that once had marked the entrance to the grounds. I could see the old metal sign that had greeted visitors; it was rusted and pitted by age, but still clear enough to announce what this place was.
Saint Albans Pauper Lunatic Asylum.
I was sure I’d been here before. I hadn’t seen the sign back then, but I’d driven through a back entrance to visit a British major. I hadn’t stayed long, but I knew this was the same joint. Except everything was different. Maybe because they’d let me leave that last time.
So, I know I’m at Saint Albans. About an hour outside London, if I remember correctly, not that my memory’s all that good right now. I do know I’m not a pauper. But there are some strange people here, and the place is surrounded by barbed wire and guards, so I guess it is some sort of asylum.
Lunatic? As I walked the path, I eyed the other residents. Or patients, probably. I tried not to make eye contact, not being up for a friendly chat. I saw the whistling man, an American who strolled the circuit regularly as he whistled a tune. The same tune. All the time. We passed each other, his eyes focused straight ahead and a little toward the sky, as if he were waiting for angels to swoop down and take him away.
I came to a Brit sitting on a bench. His wool cap was pulled down, covering his eyes. His arms were crossed and his legs jittered, boot heels keeping time. I’d seen him around. He was one of the mutes. Never spoke. There were a few of them here, all wearing the British battle dress uniform.
But that was all I could tell about them. Everyone was in uniform, but the rule at Saint Albans was no rank or unit patches. No identification, except for the color of your uniform. Last names only. It made sense, in a way. If the place was full of lunatics, it wouldn’t do for a crazy colonel to start issuing orders to loony lieutenants.
I picked up the pace as the path took me closer to the south wing. That was the medical area where people wore pajamas, bandages, and casts. They spent their time in bed, rolling around in wheelchairs, or limping about on crutches. I hadn’t run into any mutes or whistlers among them.
But I hadn’t been in the south wing in a couple of days.
I couldn’t handle seeing Kaz.
Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, that is. Kaz and I work together. We had some trouble in Paris and ended up here. I’m walking around and he’s not.
Bad heart. Really bad. My brain is sort of scrambled, but his ticker is shaky. He always had some sort of problem with it, which is why he ended up as a translator working in General Eisenhower’s headquarters. Kaz had been given a commission in the Polish Armed Forces based on his brains, not his brawn. But he’d built himself up, strengthening his body and using his brilliant mind as part of Ike’s Office of Special Investigations.
Everything had fallen apart in Paris. Kaz’s heart, my mind, and, well, something else.
I can’t think about that now.
I pressed on, head down, not looking at the medical ward windows for fear I’d see Kaz looking at me. Wondering. Worried about his future and my sanity. I didn’t want to think about that either. Or that other thing clawing at the edges of my mind.
I walked faster, staring at the facade of the main hall now that I’d turned the corner. A few faces gazed out at me from the offices at the front of the massive building. Bored typists, doctors in their white coats, a few uniformed honchos, Yanks and Brits who gave the orders around here.
I made for the entrance, glancing up at the tall clock tower dead center. Ten minutes of five, but that time was only right twice a day. The thing was busted.
I stopped, uncertain if I wanted to go inside or take another tour of the estate. I stood there, rooted to the spot, paralyzed by the simple task of deciding if I wanted to go indoors. This sort of thing was happening all the time, and I didn’t like it much. Like I said, something was wrong.
I stood still, unable decide which way to go.
Which is why I saw the two men up in the clock tower. The door to the tower was usually locked and off-limits. They were nothing but blurs of brown uniform, heads and shoulders barely visible above the crenellated stonework as they scurried around, circling the white flagpole with the British Union Jack flapping at the top.
Then there was only one man, and he was flying.