Read an Excerpt
April 23, 1944
I knew I was in trouble when the coroner wheeled in the body, encased in a rubber sack, on a wobbly gurney with one wheel that wanted to go in any direction but straight.
Police surgeon, I should say, instead of coroner, since this is England, not the States. I’m happy to tell you more, if only to put off thinking about that smell. It’s still coating the back of my throat and clinging to my skin, so here you go.
I’d been sent to Kingsbridge, a nice little town by the southwest coast of England. Picturesque, actually, despite the thousands of GIs everywhere, camped in fields, housed in barracks and barns, marching in every direction, whistling at girls, and tossing chewing gum to kids who trailed in their wake. The roar of trucks and tanks tore through the peace and quiet of this seaside town, as it did in plenty others like it.
Allied forces were here waiting for word to invade occupied Europe. Everyone knew the invasion was around the corner. Not the exact time or place, but with all these soldiers, sailors, and airmen here, the anticipation was building up to a fever pitch. They had to go somewhere, and soon, or else the pressure and the stress of waiting would break even the strongest. Me, I was here because some poor slob got himself washed up on the shore near Slapton, a small seaside town not far from Kingsbridge. It would have passed unnoticed if the beach, Slapton Sands, wasn’t being used to practice amphibious landings: the kind of landings that would soon be happening across the Channel, in France.
I work for a guy who’s paid to get nervous about stuff like that, who sees conspiracies and danger in every unexplained event. Why did the corpse end up on this particular beach? Was he a German spy, a drunken fisherman, or a downed pilot? How come no one had reported him missing, no civil or military authority? Colonel Samuel Harding is an intelligence officer with Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, and unanswered questions bother him, so here I am in Kingsbridge to fill in the blanks. I work at SHAEF as well. I have the flaming sword patch on my shoulder to prove it, not to mention orders signed by General Eisenhower himself giving me the authority to go anywhere and question anyone as part of this investigation. Helpful, if some senior officer wants to push a mere captain around.
That’s what led me to Dr. Verniquet and his mortuary. The questions and the corpse. The smell was already overpowering, even though the bag was zipped up tight. The antiseptic smell of the tiled basement room, painted bright white, faded under the onslaught of decay. Think of a slab of beef left out in the sun for a couple of days, then add a dash of metallic odor and a tinge of vomit.
“Are you ready, Captain Boyle?” Dr. Verniquet said. He was short, with a shock of white hair sticking out behind his ears, marking the last stand ofa receded hairline. He wore a stained white coat, and a lit cigarette dangled from his lips, probably to help mask the odor of decomposition, although in this case it might take an entire pack.
“Sure,” I said, aiming for a nonchalant tone. I’d seen plenty of corpses, even fished a few ripe ones out of Boston Harbor back when I was a cop, before the war, and before my personal count of dead bodies skyrocketed. I’d witnessed a few autopsies as well, and even though I’d retched bile in the hall midway through my first, no one had seen me slip out. I’d managed to keep it togetherafter that. Cops are supposed to always be in control, and that extended to the morgue. It was part of the job, a duty to the dead, and everyone expected you to get it done without putting your last meal on display. Especially my dad. He was a homicide detective, and he’d told me when I was a rookie not to disgrace myself when I got around to my first autopsy. That was easy. I simply hadn’t eaten a thing that day.
“He’s been in cold storage waiting for you to arrive,” the elderly doctor said. “No one has claimed the body.” He gripped the zipper and glanced at me. I nodded.
As he pulled the zipper open, waves of putrid stench washed over me, each worse than the last. I tried to breathe, but my body revolted at drawing in more of the rancid air. I blinked, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Dark, bloated flesh, marked by pockets of greyish-white growth on the cheeks and belly. No eyes, no lips. Teeth bared in a hideous grimace.
“Show me the bullet wounds,” I said, unable to focus my watering eyes, trying for quick, shallow breaths.
“Here,” Dr. Verniquet said, pointing to a bicep, seemingly immune to the smell. “The bullet went through his arm. A minor wound.” He tapped a pencil against a puckered hole on blackened skin, then drew on his cigarette and blew the smoke out his nostrils. I had never taken up the habit, but it looked like a good move. “He was killed by this shot to the head. Note the angle.” He tapped his pencil again, first on an entry wound high on the forehead, right side, then on the exit wound above the left ear. Or where the ear would have been.
“He was shot in the arm while standing up,” I said, trying to block out the barrage of odors attacking my senses. I forced myself to study the body, wishing I could simply bolt for the clean air outdoors. The arm wound was on a straight line. “Judging from the position of the head shot, the killer was above him when he fired the second shot.”
“Yes. The victim may have turned away at the last second,” Dr. Verniquet said as ash dropped from his cigarette. He turned his own head upward and to the left, this time using the pencil to demonstrate the trajectory of the bullet. “He was almost certainly killed in the water, or thrown in immediately after death.”
“Because of the grave wax?” I asked. I instinctively held my hand over my nose, not that it helped much.
“Adipocere,” Dr. Verniquet said, nodding. “The fatty deposits turn into a white, waxy substance when the body is immersed in water, as has occurred in this unfortunate fellow. But it never happens in the presence of insect life, so we can assume that he went into the water immediately.”
The corpse’s gut and cheeks were covered in the stuff, which looked like homemade soap mixed with candle drippings. It wasn’t pretty, but all it told me was that he wasn’t skinny when he was killed. The bottom of the rubber sack was awash in fluids I didn’t want to think about. I pulled back the edges and studied the rest of the body. One foot was missing, the other without toes. His fingers were stubs.
“Fish food?” I asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Probably happened close to the shore, before he went out with the tide. Or came in with it. As you can see, there’s nothing much left of the soft tissue on his fingers, so there’s no hope of fingerprints. I’d put his age at about thirty. Five foot eleven inches in height.”
That looked about right. What was left of him seemed to be in good shape, too. His chest was broad, and he had a full head of brown hair, darker in some spots. I ran two fingers through the hair and sniffed, trying to block out the overwhelming stench of decomposition and concentrate on what was in his hair.
“Oil?” I asked.
“Yes, he was covered in petroleum. He may have floated through an oil slick from a sunken ship. Could have happened at any point. Anything else?”
“No,” I said, desperate for the sound of the zipper going in reverse. Dr. Verniquet obliged as I gripped the edge of a table to keep from fainting. “I didn’t see any clothing,” I managed.
“There wasn’t much. It was all in shreds. Nothing as substantial as a belt or lifejacket. As you saw, the fish had been at him, and between being banged about on the rocks and exposure to salt water and sunlight, his clothing did not hold up well. What we took off was as decayed as he is.” The doctor took a flat box from the bottom of the gurney and set it on a table as he trundled off, the broken wheel clacking in protest.
There were shreds of cloth, the colors of which had been bleached and stained to a dull reddish-brown hue. A uniform? Perhaps. Or workingman’s garments. They had a rough feel, probably wool. Not a dressy kind of guy. No labels or telltale stitching where insignia might have been. Useless.
“I have been informed that I must list the cause of death as ‘killed in action,’” Dr. Verniquet said a few minutes later as we sat in his office. There was a fresh cigarette in his mouth and an open window, which helped, even though the fragrance of decay still hung on my uniform and cloyed my nostrils. “By the highest authority, or so they said.”
“If they were English, it must be MI5,” I said. Killed in action meant an end to questions, at least officially.
“They were. You’re the first Yank who’s shown up to take a look. At least now I can put the poor chap in the ground.”
“In an unmarked grave,” I said.
“Certainly,” Dr. Verniquet said. “I have no idea if he’s German, French, or one of ours.”
“How long was he in the water?” I asked.
“It’s hard to say precisely,” Dr. Verniquet said, grinding out his cigarette. “Minimum of a month, perhaps as long as three or four.”
“Have other bodies washed ashore since the start of the war?”
“We’ve had our share,” he said. “Especially in summer 1940, when Jerry attacked the Channel shipping. We had sailors and airmen alike. But then they focused on the London area, and we saw less of the war in the air this far west.”
“Did any of them look like our guy?”
“Not a one,” Dr. Verniquet said firmly. “None were badly decomposed, and all had their uniforms relatively intact. Some were still in life belts. And their wounds were horrible. When a few twenty-millimeter rounds or a machine-gun burst strikes the human body, the flesh rips apart. This man was shot at close range with a pistol of some sort, mark my words.”
I walked outside and breathed in the fresh air, happy for each cleansing lungful. The mortuary was on a side street near the police station, where Kaz waited for me in the jeep. His head was tilted back, his eyes closed as he made the mostof the warm April weather and the low, slanting sun.
“I hope you haven’t worn yourself out talking to the constable,” I said, dropping myself into the driver’s seat. Kaz smiled, then wrinkled his nose as he opened one eye.
“Billy, you smell horrible!”
“You would too if you’d spent time poking a decayed corpse.” I filled Kaz in on what I’d learned—or had not learned from the police surgeon and asked what he’d come up with.
“Nothing, really,” Kaz said. “I had tea with Constable Miller, who had no idea where the corpse might have come from.”
“Tea? You had tea while I looked at a guy sloshing around in a rubber sack?”
“It wasn’t very good, Billy. Day-old teabags, I daresay.” For Kaz, that was roughing it. He was used to the finer and more expensive things in life. “Constable Miller is beyond retirement age and is staying on for the duration. He is a good man, and diligent in his own way, but he is not at the forefront of criminal investigation.”
“Great,” I said, noticing that Kaz was hanging half out of the jeep. “Is it that bad?”
“Perhaps we should drive. The wind may help,” Kaz said. “In any case, the body was found on Slapton Sands, which is not in the good constable’s jurisdiction. It is part of the army’s Assault Training Center, and the soldiers who found him brought the body here to the mortuary.”
“Constable Miller had no leads?”
“He said he took one whiff and decided it was an army matter. The military police declined, declaring that it was obviously not an American soldier, and that he’d been in the water long before they arrived in this area. The constable did refer me to Inspector Grange at the Dartmouth headquarters of the Devon Constabulary, who is in charge of the investigation, such as it is.”
“No one wants a smelly corpse,” I said, and started the jeep. I headed down Fore Street, the main thoroughfare in Kingsbridge. It was a narrow lane, hemmed in on each side by low, grey granite buildings, each one lower than the last as the road meandered down to the waterfront from the wooded heights above. We waited at an intersection as a long column of GIs marched by at a quick pace, heavy packs and rifles slung over their shoulders. Some were kids, maybe nineteen or twenty tops. I wondered how many of them would end up floating facedown in the Channel before too long. Youthful life could so easily be swallowed by the charnel house of war. I wanted to wash the stench of death away, but I knew it would return. It was all around us, waiting around each corner. Waiting for the invasion, across that cold English Channel.
The column passed, the tramp of boots on cobblestones echoing in the distance.
I drove on. Kingsbridge was at the head of a broad estuary that brought tidal waters up from the Channel a couple of miles to the south, providing a natural safe harbor for small boats. I’d noticed the fishing vessels when we drove in, all of them moored and resting on the muddy flats along the quayside. The smell of low tide and rotting fish guts wafted on the breeze.
“Ah, camouflage,” Kaz said, working to keep a straight face. Kaz enjoyed a good laugh at my expense. And I didn’t mind. Kaz was a good pal, the best. He’d been through hard times and lived through tremendous losses. The kind of losses that would have sent many tough guys to their knees. So anything that brought a smile to his face was okay by me.
Kaz, or rather Lieutenant—and sometimes Baron—Piotr Augustus Kazimierz, was Polish and had joined the Polish Army in exile when I was still in blue back in Boston. But he was a small, skinny guy, with a heart defect to boot, and the only work he could get was as a translator at the US Army headquarters in London. He spoke half a dozen European languages fluently, and was generally the smartest guy in the room, having won all sorts of honors at Oxford. But Kaz had always wanted to do more, and when I came along, he and I became a team. But that’s a long story. Suffice it to say he’s a Pole in a British uniform and I’m Boston Irish in Uncle Sam’s brown. Kaz’s uniform is tailor-made and mine needs a good ironing to look half as good.
Did I mention the scar?
I’ve gotten to where I don’t even think about it. But when someone first meets Kaz, their eyes either linger on the scar or look away quickly, as if they’d glimpsed the price of war and found it too painful to bear. It goes from his right eye down the side of his face, courtesy of a killer who tried to take him out of the picture. He almost succeeded, too, but that’s yet another long and complicated story. Kaz carries that jagged scar on his face, his wound visible to the world. A memory he will never shake loose.
Did I mention the Webley?
For a thin guy with glasses and a bum ticker, Kaz is a damn good shot. He wears a Webley break-top revolver and has used it to save my neck more than once. He’s easy to underestimate at first glance, but that would be a fatal mistake. Has been, for some.
Did I mention Kaz came close to killing himself?
No, I didn’t. Too much to get into right now.
“Let’s talk to the fishermen,” I said, pulling the jeep to the side of the road. Fishermen knew tides and currents, and we needed to know where this body had come from. I saw that Kaz understood. Like I said, Kaz is smart in six languages. He reached into the musette bag we kept in the jeep for emergencies. It was filled with chocolate bars, cigarettes, and other goodies from the PX. A little gentle bribery went a long way when all you wanted was information from guys suspicious of outsiders. We decided to deploy the Lucky Strikes.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I said, approaching a group of fishermen perching on a variety of tubs and crates near a row of a half-dozen fishing craft, keels in the mud of the estuary, lines tied snug to stanchions on the quay. On their laps was a confusion of nets being sewn or mended or whatever fishermen did with them. I got a couple of nods, but most didn’t bother to look up. Yanks were tupppence a dozen along the southwest coast.
“Sorry to interrupt your labors,” Kaz said, handing packs of Luckies around. That got their attention. “But we need your expertise.”
“Those cigarettes would buy you a lot more than that, laddie,” the oldest of the bunch said, with a wide grin that could have used a few more teeth.
“But not from us, eh, Alfie?” This from another grey-haired fisherman. It got a round of laughs.
“I wanted to ask about the tides and currents,” I said. Before I could say more, Alfie beckoned me closer and raised his head, sniffing the air.
“Either you fell in a dung heap,” Alfie said, “or you’ve been to see
Doc Verniquet. Which means you’re here about the body.” He pocketed his smokes and grinned. “Ain’t that right?”
“Dead on, Alfie,” I said, which earned me a chuckle. Bringing a bloated, stinking corpse into town must have been hard to keep secret.
As the others lit up, Alfie studied me. “Think he was one of yours?”
“Too soon to tell,” I said. “What I’d like to know is where he might have floated in from. You fellows must know the tides and currents better than anyone.”
“Aye. But why should we help you?” one of the other fishermen said, blowing smoke from one of the twenty reasons. He was younger than Alfie, but not young enough for military service. In his forties maybe, or maybe his weathered skin and thick stubble had just aged him. “Your lot has shut down all the good fishing west of here, not to mention taken homes away from good people.”
“Now hang on, George,” Alfie said. “It was our lot who took over the South Hams, not the Yanks. And between E-boats and the Luftwaffe, the Germans have had as much to do with keeping us clear of those waters.”
“Yeah, but we could still have stayed close to the shore,” George said, “if it wasn’t for the Yanks blowing up our homes.”
“I’m sorry, fellows,” I said. “But I don’t know what you’re talking about. We just got here from London to look into the body they brought in.”
“The government evacuated the whole area. Our government, that is,” Alfie said, with a hard look to George. “Right before Christmas, it was. Hard on everyone, especially the older folks. Some had never been more than one village away from home their whole lives.”
“An old fellow from my village hung himself in his barn,” George said. “He’d never been outside of Blackawton, said he’d die there rather than leave.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “That must have been hard.”
“It was,” Alfie said with a nod. “But most of us feel we had to do our part. If it helps to get your lads ready for the invasion, it’s the least we can do. The government gave us money, after all. It’s not like we were bombed out sudden like. We had a month to pack up and leave, more time than many had after the Luftwaffe come over.”
“More than three thousand people, I understand,” Kaz said. “Nearly two hundred farms spread out over six parishes.”
“Polish, eh?” Alfie said, pointing to Kaz’s shoulder patch. “You know what it’s like to lose everything to the war. Our complaints must seem petty.”
“Loss is loss,” Kaz said, with a sad smile. He looked away, studying the muddy riverbed. Kaz had lost more to this war than most people.
“Sorry,” George said, after another glare from Alfie. “I know lots of folk have it worse. But I can’t help missing it. We lived in Beesands all our lives, the wife and I. Fished out of there and made a good living, too. Plenty of crab and plaice out on the Skerries and beyond.”
“The Skerries?” I said.
“Sand bank out in Start Bay,” Alfie explained. “Off limits now, strictly for the navy.”
“Aye,” George said. “Ours and theirs. Jerry sticks his nose up this way now and then. The E-boats go out at night, looking for transports.”
“They ever attack you?” I asked.
“No,” Alfie said. “We skirt the coast and head west into the wider waters. Jerry likes to stay in the Channel, where he can run back to Cherbourg if things get too hot.”
“You men know these waters,” I said, getting back on track. “Any ideas about where the body could have come from? France maybe?”
“Naw,” George said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The currents don’t carry north or south. East or west, depending on the tide.”
“The Channel’s like a sleeve,” Alfie said. “Water goes in every day, like a man’s arm into his shirt. At the narrow parts, it’s a surge. Less so as the Channel widens, into the Atlantic or the North Sea. Here, it’s strong, as you can see.” He gestured toward their fishing boats stuck in the mud. “Two hours from now the tide’ll come in, and in three we’ll be heading out in deep water.”
“In and out, four times a day,” George said. “The inshore currents run about two or three knots an hour. More if the winds are favorable.”
“Which means a body washed up at Slapton Sands could have gone into the water twenty or so miles in either direction and been stuck in the tidal currents until he washed ashore,” I said. I figured the tides ran six hours apart, and at three or maybe four knots an hour, the currents could have carried him back and forth for quite a while.
“Could be,” Alfie said, glancing at the other fishermen, who nodded their assent. “The winds have kicked up since last week, enough to bring him ashore.”
“You haven’t heard of any fishermen missing? Boats that didn’t come back from the Channel?”
“No. If a man was missing, everyone within miles’d know if it. Of course, a body could have gone in right here, from the embankment,” George said. “The estuary goes on for three miles before it reaches the Channel. He could have floated out with the tide and got caught up in the currents, washing up and down the coast until the wind took pity on him and returned him to dry land.”
“Here, or anywhere up the River Dart to the east,” Alfie said. “We’re not much help, I’m afraid.”
I thanked them for their assistance, such as it was. As we left, I took stock of their clothing. Corduroy or wool, plain browns mostly. A month or so in the drink and they’d look like the shreds Doc Verniquet had taken off his body.