November, 1943. Weary of his deskbound status in the Royal Navy, intelligence officer Ian Fleming spends his spare time spinning stories in his head that are much more exciting than his own life…until the critical Tehran Conference, when Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin meet to finalize the D-Day invasion.
With the Big Three in one place, Fleming is tipped off that Hitler’s top assassin has infiltrated the conference. Seizing his chance to play a part in a real-life action story, Fleming goes undercover to stop the Nazi killer. Between martinis with beautiful women, he survives brutal attacks and meets a seductive Soviet spy who may know more than Fleming realizes. As he works to uncover the truth and unmask the assassin, Fleming is forced to accept that betrayal sometimes comes from the most unexpected quarters—and that one’s literary creations may prove eerily close to one’s own life.
Brilliantly inventive, utterly gripping and suspenseful, Too Bad to Die is Francine Mathews’s best novel yet, and confirms her place as a master of historical fiction.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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MAY 22, 1917
He learned about Mokie the day the new boy arrived.
May was utterly the wrong time of year for new boys, of course. There were only a few weeks left before the Long Vac. Which meant there was probably something very wrong with this one, some reason he’d been shifted to Durnford so late in the term, an infraction so unspeakable he’d been booted out on his nine-year-old arse from the last obscure refuge that had agreed to raise him.
The new boy was bony and slight, a pale-faced number with springy tufts of brown hair all over his knobby skull. He had a sharp chin and wide cheekbones, and this, combined with the tuftiness of his head, suggested a young hawk fresh from its shell. The boy’s eyes were hawkish as well, winkingly bright, the color of cold pond water. They studied Ian as he stood, ramrod straight and miserable, before the Head’s closed study door.
Crikey, Ian thought. A Yank.
“Are you up for a beating, too?” The boy slouched over, hands shoved in his pockets. “What does he use? Cane or slipper?”
“On how bad you are?”
Ian nodded warily. He had no time for Yanks who appeared without explanation in late May. His heart was racing as it always did when he faced Tom Pellat’s door, awaiting his turn, the methodical swack of a plimsoll on a padded bottom filtering thickly to his ears. TP usually slippered his boys, but he’d been very angry this morning when Ian’s Latin grammar was pulled foul and dripping from the privy. Ian hadn’t tossed it there, but he knew that if he told who had, his head would be stuffed in the privy next. He was afraid TP would cane him. Canings drew blood. His face would crumple and he would disgrace himself.
The Yank thrust his shoulders against the wall. “I try to get a beating the first day at every school. It helps me size up the Enemy. Figure out what he’s made of.”
“TP’s a good sort, really,” Ian said. “He doesn’t beat us for fun. It’s for the Greater Good of England.”
The Yank snorted. “I don’t give a darn about that. How often does he do it?”
“Well . . .” Ian shifted uncomfortably. “Three or four times a week. But then, I’m very bad. How many schools have you been to?”
The Yank jingled a few coins in his pocket. “One at home, when I was little. Then two in Switzerland—I had to leave both of those. And then, in Vienna? Gosh—I lost count.”
“Vienna? You mean—Austria?”
He grinned. “Good ol’ Hapsburg Empire.”
“You’ve moved rather a lot,” Ian observed curiously.
“My dad’s with the embassy.”
“My father’s at the Front,” Ian said. “He’s a major of Hussars.”
Ian scowled. “A cavalry officer. Don’t you know anything?”
“Not about England.” The Yank stuck out his hand. “I’m Hudson, by the way. What’s your name?”
“Fleming.” Although mostly he was called Phlegm. With a particularly disgusting gob of spittle attached, when most people said it. He shook Hudson’s hand and hoped his own was not too damp.
“Wait a sec—” Hudson stared at him. “You’re not the grind? The Fancy-Pants everybody’s in love with?”
“That’s my brother. Peter. Only he’s been sent home. Tonsils. He’s eleven.”
The Yank whistled through his front teeth. “I don’t know how you stand it. I just got here, and all I’ve heard is ‘Fleming says . . .’ and ‘Fleming thinks . . .’ If I had a brother like yours, I’d slug him. Or change my name.”
Ian bit his lip. His name was Mokie’s name and he wouldn’t change it for worlds. “Peter’s not so very grand, really. Mamma says he’s delicate. He has to have flannels on his chest and drink nasty tonics. He shall probably be Taken, Mamma says, because he’s too good to live.”
“Grinds always are.”
“I shall live forever,” Ian said gloomily.
The plimsoll sounds had died away in TP’s office. He fancied he heard sniffling, a wet admission of inferiority. It would be his turn next. He closed his eyes and saw a length of rattan hissing through the tobacco fug of TP’s rooms.
Nobody would dare to stuff Peter’s Latin in the privy. Peter would never be caned in his life.
“My mother was too good to live,” Hudson said suddenly. “There was a baby, too, but it didn’t live, either.”
“I expect it was a girl, then,” Ian offered.
“Dad didn’t say. He just packed us up and made tracks for England.”
Ian listened for TP’s footsteps across the worn wooden floor. The brass knob would turn with a metallic screech and there would be TP’s face, purple with the outrage of Ian’s grammar.
“We buried my mom there. In Vienna.” Hudson’s voice was a bit shaky and his knees were buckling. He slid slowly to the ground. “Dad said we had to. Her family’s Austrian.”
Ian whistled. “You mean you’re related to Huns?”
“Not after this war.”
Ian rocked uneasily on his heels, too well trained to sit on the floor. It must be terrible to be a Yank with a father who didn’t fight and a mother who was too good to live but was still the wrong sort, after all. Hudson was taking a chance, telling Ian about himself. He clearly lived in an appalling state of innocence that would get him killed at Durnford School within the week. Ian thought, suddenly, that he would have to be Hudson’s friend now, whether he liked it or not. He would call him Hudders and show him the best places for tiffin in the village, and the best spots for plover’s eggs anywhere on the Isle of Purbeck.
The door behind him opened. A small boy sidled out, his hands to his backside. His nose was streaming.
“Ah. Fleming.” To Ian’s surprise, TP was not grim and furious. He wore a tender expression Ian had never seen before, and the strangeness of it was terrifying.
Peter, he thought. Taken. His stomach twisted and he was afraid he might be sick.
“Come inside; there’s a stout lad.” TP scowled at the pile of loose limbs that was Hudson. “Get off the floor, boy. I won’t be wanting you today.”
THE HEADMASTER moved a pile of letters from an aged club chair and suggested Ian sit on it. He pulled up a hard-backed one himself, his large hands dangling between his knees. TP was beloved for the way he bellowed “Nell!” whenever he misplaced his wife, for his magnificent mustache and spectacles, for his ancient tweeds and his willingness to dive with the boys off Dancing Ledge into the frigid English Channel. He had Tennyson by heart. He was less well versed in tragedy.
“There’s been a telegram,” he said.
“Afraid so, old man.” TP cleared his throat with a noise like gargling. “You must be proud, Fleming. Very proud. He died for King and Country.”
Peter. With his throat bound up and his special treats. Ian hadn’t known it was for England. A buzzing began in his ears and TP’s face blurred at the edges. The buzzing grew louder, and behind it the thud of his heart, as he glimpsed the thought at the edge of his brain, the words he must never say. Not Peter. Somebody else. TP was still talking, the same tender look on his face. Ian was going to scream.
“. . . a hero, Fleming. We must all wish for such a glorious end. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
Ian sat rigidly in his chair while the Latin washed over him. He would not think of Mokie. Who, if he once walked into Ian’s brain, would be killed absolutely and forever.
“. . . mortar attack,” TP was saying. “Near St. Quentin. Your father meant to take the trench. He’ll be mentioned in dispatches, I expect. Perhaps even in the Times. You must do your best to be worthy of him, Fleming.”
Ian felt his throat constrict, his air cut off. He tried to swallow.
The Headmaster grunted. “Good man. Now stand up and take your punishment.”
Ian got to his feet. He bent over.
Six of the best, from his own plimsoll. He didn’t care, this time, how hard he cried.
“I GUESS HE WAS TOO GOOD TO LIVE,” Hudders whispered from his cot after Lights Out that evening.
Ian did not reply. He’d cadged a candle from Commons and wedged it in a crack in the floorboards. His head dangled from the side of his bunk; the copybook was on the floor and his fingers gripped a bit of pencil painfully.
. . . the wistling sound of shells acrost the muddy grownd.
Forard! cried the stern Majer. He razed his arm and advanst there was a birst of light and . . .
“What are you doing?” Hudders asked.
Ian kicked out with his legs.
“You’re writing? What is it? Let me see.”
“Shhhhhh,” Ian hissed. Writing was his secret, his way of flying through the unheated rooms and grimy windows of Durnford School and back to London, or maybe Arnisdale, where the dogs were, and Cook let you sit on a stool by the kitchen stove on wet days, eating lamb pies with drippings. He kept the copybook under his mattress, along with his Bear, and he never took either of them out until the deep sound of breathing throughout the dormitory assured him that he was safe.
“I play the violin,” Hudders whispered.
“Crikey.” Ian looked at him. “Don’t tell anyone, understand? They’ll think you’re wet.”
There was a silence. Ian closed his copybook and blew out his candle stub. He shoved it and the copybook under the far side of the mattress, where Hudders wouldn’t think to look.
“Did they make you learn to play?” he asked. “Your parents, I mean?”
“Didn’t have to. I like music. Everyone does in Vienna.”
“Well, you’re not there anymore.” Ian pulled up his blanket. He felt queer inside. Hudders had done it again—he’d told him something he should never have said out loud.
“I play the piano, too,” Hudders said.
“Shut up,” Ian whispered fiercely. And then, in a silent voice inside his head, the words he would utter before bed until the day he died—
Please, dear God, help me to grow up to be more like Mokie.
He lay there in the dark feeling awful. He had wanted to write about Mokie as a Hero—the sort of father who would die for King and Country. But the words had come out like a Rider Haggard story. Nell, TP’s wife, read King Solomon’s Mines to the boys at night. It was a cracking good adventure, but it wasn’t real. Mokie, dead, was horribly real.
He tried to remember what his father looked like. The sound of his voice. He wondered if it hurt terribly to die, and whether Mokie was watching him, now, from somewhere. Ian closed his eyes so as not to see his father’s face among the cobwebs in the dormitory ceiling.
Mokie had come home from the Front for Christmas, and they had all gone up to the lodge at Arnisdale for a few days. Mokie was very tired and Mamma had talked nonsense more than usual, because his father spent all his time out on the Scottish moors with his pack of bassets, stalking things instead of going to parties. Ian had followed the scent of pipe tobacco to the stables. Mokie’s face was pressed into his polo pony’s neck. His fingers were knotted in its mane. The smell of horse and tobacco mingled with the sound of his father’s sobbing. Ian had felt sick. Just like today, when he’d thought it was Peter who’d died.
“I’m to be worthy of him,” he muttered to Hudders. “Only I don’t know how.”
“Your dad wouldn’t care, I bet. You were his pal, weren’t you?”
Ian shrugged in the dark. “There are four of us boys. Everyone likes Peter best.”
“Did your dad give you a pet name? You know—one that only he used?”
“He called me Johnnie. That means Ian in English.”
There was a pause as Hudders worked this out. “I thought Ian was English,” he said cautiously.
Crikey. He didn’t know anything.
“Still.” Hudders’s whisper was triumphant. “That means you were his pal. Even though you’re beaten three times a week. I bet your dad liked you much more than your old grind of a brother, with his tonsils cut out.”
Ian curled in a ball and thought about it. He thought about Peter, who could cry in Mamma’s bed with Michael and Richard because Mokie was killed. They would feel special because they were sad—not like him, blubbing because he’d been slippered. He would never be a Hero. He was glad that Hudders at least was lying there, between him and death.
“Let’s have a club,” Ian whispered. “Just you and me.”
“What kind of club?”
“For people who are too bad to die. And if any of the others are bad enough, we shall allow them to join.”
Hudders sat up. “But if they’re good, we won’t tell them a thing. Even if they pull out our toenails.”
“Agreed. And violins, or writing, shall always be allowed. It doesn’t matter whether they’re wet.”
Ian offered his hand. Hudders shook it.
“The Too Bad Club,” he said. “For guys like us, who are forced to live.”
NOVEMBER 25, 1943
For nearly four thousand years the Great Pyramid of Giza had flung its shadow like a massive shroud across the desert and silenced those who gazed upon it. Before the forging of steel, it was the tallest man-made structure on earth; and even after steel dwarfed it, the stones remained terrifying in their bulk. Their blind faces. Their inspiration of dread.
The pyramid was a Wonder in an age that had outgrown them, or thought it had, and people were more desperate to see it when its size was no longer the point. They liked to believe that in surpassing the Great Pyramid, the Modern World had conquered what it represented.
Which was Death.
The founders of Giza’s Mena House Hotel knew good value when they saw it. They were English, and understood that travelers paid more for a view. They bought Khedive Ismael’s old hunting lodge in Giza and added balconies to every room, expecting their guests to sit on them and gaze at the pyramid in the fading desert light. For decades, most of the guests did. They were grateful and blessed as they drank their gin. They talked of hiring camels and crawling through tunnels to the burial chamber of Khufu.
The Great Pyramid filled the windows of her father-in-law’s rented villa, a stone’s throw from Mena House. Pamela might have hurled a book at it, or perhaps an empty champagne bottle. One of her strappy dancing shoes. But she drew her curtains instead, and blocked out the sight.
The pyramids—Great and Small—sickened her with their stillness. The flat, impenetrable stones devoured light and exhaled darkness. They sat like God at her elbow, assuring her that she was tiny and mortal, and she hated them for it. In the rare moments when she was alone like this, Pamela could feel a grave beneath her toes, and it frightened her. She was waltzing on the edge.
She turned her back to the window—her gorgeous, supple, peach-flushed back—and stared at herself in the mirror. Like everything Pamela possessed, her evening gown was far too expensive for war. It informed the world that she had powerful friends. And that they gave her things.
Her hair glowed like warm brass. Her dark blue eyes were restless. She wanted a good time tonight, because in two days they would all fly to Tehran, and Averell would be there. She would drink deep and seduce every man within reach. She had a talent for it.
Pamela leaned toward the mirror. Smoothed her lipstick with the tip of a finger. It was a deep red Guerlain shade from New York; Ave had brought her several of the special green-topped lipsticks the last time he visited his wife. Which of the men, she wondered, would want to kiss her tonight? And give her power over him—for as long as she liked?
Moody, dangerous Ian—or his piano-playing friend?
She smiled at her reflection. Pamela Digby Churchill was very like a mirror. A hard and beautiful surface few things could crack.
THE MAN IN THE WHEELCHAIR found the bulk of the Great Pyramid a comforting presence in his sitting-room window. He was smoking a cheroot near the open casement, unconcerned by the desert’s dropping temperature at dusk. It had taken him nearly two weeks to reach Egypt, first by naval vessel and then by air, and he felt drained. The constant effort to pretend otherwise—to appear strong and sharp and to stand upright for the cameras, even if it meant supporting his useless lower frame with his whitened knuckles pressed hard against a desk’s surface—was growing tedious. He wanted time and space to think. These brief moments in the shadow of vast stones were precious, like a deep breath drawn at high altitude.
“Sam,” he said, removing the cheroot from his mouth, “is there some kind of threat I should know about?”
“You mean besides the Germans, Mr. President?”
“Rommel turned tail a year ago. You know that.”
Sam Schwartz, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secret Service chief, peered out the window. The villa placed at their disposal belonged to Alexander Kirk, the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. It sat within spitting distance of the Mena House Hotel, where this conference was taking place. Roosevelt found the villa comfortable and airy; Kirk was a flamboyant man who spent his cash well. The food was better than the White House’s. His son Elliott and his daughter Anna’s husband, John, were both traveling with him, and they seemed to be having a high old time. Nobody’d mentioned security. But Schwartz would be acutely aware of it: he’d prepped Kirk’s villa for this visit, installing wheelchair ramps and making sure the Signals equipment was specially wired. Roosevelt had glimpsed Schwartz’s men at strategic spots, indoors and out, with a startling number of Thompson submachine guns. One of the smaller hotel dining rooms had even been doctored with a false ceiling and soundproof walls, so that no hint of high-level discussions could reach Cairo—where any number of spies would love to pay for it. When he and Churchill sat down to talk, Roosevelt thought, the whole world tried to listen. Their chats determined who would live and die.
“The State cables are clear, sir. Nobody outside of Egypt even knows we’re here,” Schwartz said. As though Franklin were a small child who needed soothing. Or a cripple, trapped in a rolling chair.
After twenty years, Roosevelt was used to the numbness in his legs—but he’d never learned to accept his vulnerability. If an attack came, he’d be unable to run from the whistling bombs or the sudden hailstorm of machine-gun fire. What galled him most was the idea that somebody else might die in a crisis because they’d turned back to save him. But from the moment of landing on the dirt airstrip at Giza a few days before, he’d known there was no safer place in North Africa. Mena House was an armed camp. Acres of gardens, stables and chicken coops, a languid pool terrace, and a golf course were cordoned off with barbed wire and a brigade of British infantry. Five hundred anti-aircraft guns were pointed at the sky. The hotel’s guests had been dismissed the previous week, and the entire staff was offered a vacation with pay. Enlisted men now worked as Mena House waiters. A tent city filled with soldiers from all over the U.S. and the British Empire stretched behind the hotel. They had overrun Alex Kirk’s villa, too. The transformation blared to the world: Stand back or die.
“Why do you ask?” Schwartz persisted.
Roosevelt drew a lungful of smoke. “There’s an RAF observation post on the summit of the Great Pyramid. Wasn’t there yesterday.”
The Secret Service chief smiled faintly. “That must’ve ticked off a few pit diggers.”
“And see the snipers? Positioned at intervals on the rest of the pyramids? Winston’s got wind of something.”
Schwartz’s smile faded. His eyes strayed from the snipers to a single telephone, connecting Churchill’s villa with their own.
“Fleming,” Roosevelt said thoughtfully. “Young Hudson’s friend. He’ll know.”
MAY-LING WAS drinking tea in the drawing room of the Royal Suite, shoes kicked off and her slim legs tucked beneath her. Unlike the Western potentates, she and her husband were lodged in Mena House itself. They commanded a drawing room, several bedchambers and baths, quarters for their personal servants, a private dining room, and a kitchen, where she could prepare her husband’s opium pipe at night. No one but the two of them knew she did this. There was a dressing room filled with Western and Chinese clothes where her personal maid presided over several Louis Vuitton trunks—one just for hats, another for shoes. She had brought twelve handbags and thirty pairs of gloves to Cairo. The dust, she’d heard, was terrible.
During the past year, May-ling had toured the length and breadth of the United States, which was like her second home. Correction. Her only real home. And she had shopped well. Only the most elegant and exquisite clothing adorned her body, because she was the face of a civilization.
Madame Chiang. The uncrowned empress of China.
While the Generalissimo fought his own people and the Japanese—months of losses, of vicious and brutal death—she had addressed both Houses of Congress. She had raised her glass to well-meaning patrons in Poughkeepsie and Detroit and Sioux Falls and Menlo Park. Americans hated the Japanese after Pearl Harbor and were desperate to find an Asian they could trust. May-ling spoke English with a southern accent. Her brief childhood was misspent among the mosquitos and missionaries of Georgia. Unlike her Buddhist husband, she was a Methodist, and a graduate of Wellesley College. Americans were fascinated by her exotic beauty and her obvious smarts. She’d collected millions of dollars for the Kuomintang cause.
“And what have you spent it on?” she demanded, as her husband fitted a cigarette to his lighter and crossed one perfectly creased trouser leg over another. “Payoffs to your cronies. Rivals whose loyalty you have to buy. And women, of course. There are always women.”
“Just as, I understand, there have been men.”
She did not answer him; he had the best possible sources and he was uninterested in protest or denial. She merely held his gaze and refused to think of what might incriminate her.
“You will sit next to Churchill tonight,” he instructed. “Distract him. Bring his daughter into the conversation. She watches me too closely for my taste.”
“If you knew anything about women, you’d realize Sarah is unimportant,” May-ling flung back at him. “When the old man wants something, he trots out the other one. Pamela.” She uttered the English name with distaste. Her husband had danced with the girl last night and enjoyed it. He was a connoisseur of women, but Round Eyes with red hair and pillowy breasts were rare in his experience.
“The Golden Devil is a fool,” Chiang Kai-shek said mildly. “And you are jealous.”
“You are a fool.” She took a delicate sip of tea. They had found green leaves for the celebrated guests and her maid had brewed the pot herself; still, the result was disappointing. “Wasting the Americans’ money. What will you say when they ask what you’ve done with it?”
“Tell them I need more.” He gazed at her through his cigarette smoke, amused. “That’s how these things work. That’s why we’re here, to demand that Roosevelt bomb the Japanese from bases in China he’ll pay us to build. With materials he will provide. And American engineers. The bombs will be American, too, and so will the planes and pilots. We’ll let the Round Eyes defeat our enemies—and pay us for the privilege.”
“And if Roosevelt refuses?”
He rose and crossed the room to her. Sank down on the sofa where she was perched. Gripped her chin with the strength of a vise. The other hand held his burning cigarette close to her perfect cheek. He had ordered the death of millions with those hands during the White Terror. He called the victims Communists, but some of them, she knew, he’d once called friends.
“Never question my methods. American money keeps you alive, darling.”
She’d taught him the English word, the only one he knew, when he’d divorced his chief wife and three concubines. She’d thought then it was because he loved her. Wanted her. She knew now that the only thing he wanted was power. Her sister was Sun Yat-sen’s widow; Chiang was Sun’s political heir. He’d married May-ling for her family.
The glowing end of his cigarette wavered near her eye.
“It’s too bad you’re not invited to Tehran,” she said, defying her danger. “That’s where the real decisions will be made. This conference means nothing. These lords give you money to keep you quiet—like scraps of meat thrown to a dog. But they expect you to bite Japan’s neck. And then what use is the vicious beast to them? You’re a cur they can’t trust. A cur they will put down. You’re the one being used, Kai.”
“You will sit next to Churchill,” Chiang said softly. “You will find out why he’s afraid. I can smell the fear coming off his skin like rancid fat. Find out what he wants from this conference in Tehran, darling. For China.”
“For you, you mean.”
“I am China.” He released her. “England’s enemies pay highly. And China wants something to sell.”
“GOD, SHE MAKES ME FEEL FILTHY,” Sarah Churchill Oliver muttered as she wrapped her kimono around her slim body and quietly closed the bedroom door. “Just the look in her eyes. Smug. And knowing. She guessed you were in here.”
“Probably knocked on my door first.” Gil Winant’s mouth lifted in a smile. “What’d she want?”
“Said there was a wire for Commander Fleming, and did I know where he was? I suppose she’s after poor Ian now. One more tame tiger on Pamela’s leash. I told her to go up to the hotel. Somebody’ll buy her a drink.”
“I was surprised to see her on the plane, frankly. Diplomatic missions aren’t her style.”
“Father wanted her to come.” Sarah sounded forlorn. “She plays bezique with him when he can’t sleep. His nights are getting worse and worse, Gil, and this flu isn’t helping.”
“Well, if a game of cards with a doting daughter-in-law can win the war for Britain . . .” Winant rolled off the bed and reached for his jacket. “I’m sorry you have to put up with her, Sal. I thought we’d seen the last of her once she got her own place in Grosvenor Square.”
“Not a chance, Mr. Ambassador. Our Pammie has her claws in the Prime Minister of Great Britain. She’s borne his grandson, for God’s sake. And named him Winston. She’ll never let us go. She can call herself a Churchill until she dies—even if she does divorce my brother, Randolph, one of these days.” Sarah leaned against the bedroom door and studied Gil coolly. “Did you know she sleeps in the War Rooms sometimes? In the top bunk, right over Father? He won’t hear a word against her. No matter how many men she bags.”
The list was growing, as they both knew. Averell Harriman, possibly the wealthiest American in the world and Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, was quietly paying for Pamela’s new apartment and most of her expenses by a circuitous banking route from Moscow; but now that he’d left England, she was frequently seen around London with everyone from Jock Whitney to Bill Paley and his famous reporter, Edward R. Murrow. Pamela liked acquiring Americans, but she wasn’t exclusive; Lord Beaverbrook, the British press baron, supported her infant son and his nanny at Cherkley Court, the Beaverbrook estate in Surrey. A complement of variously starred generals supplied Pamela with the necessities of life. Fresh beef. Silk stockings. Trifles studded with diamonds and emeralds. Emeralds were particularly striking with her titian hair.
“She probably gets a lot out of her men,” Winant said thoughtfully. “And I don’t mean money. She learns things, Sal. And passes them on. I bet your dad finds that damned useful. Love Pam or hate her, she’s got the makings of a great political courtesan.”
He was right, of course. They both knew Pamela Digby had won Churchill’s heart from the moment she sailed into the family and took Randolph off their hands. As a child, Sarah’s brother had been difficult; as an adult, he was a hard drinker, a hopeless gambler, and a bruiser with an uncontrolled temper. For a few months, Pamela had seemed like a God-given answer. A steadying influence. A good woman whose love could save even Randolph. The fact that Pamela was neither steady nor good was apparently beside the point. Randolph’s abandonment—and Pam’s determination to ignore it—had only ranged his parents more firmly on his wife’s side.
It occurred to Sarah that Gil was right. Her father appreciated the courtesan in Pamela. Used it, even, in a way he would never appreciate or use any of his own daughters. Sarah felt suddenly like weeping. She had spent much of her youth trying to escape the Churchill name, the Churchill madness—running away to the stage and an unhappy marriage with a showman who was too cheap and too old for her—and now, in the midst of this bloody war and her father’s visible decline, she wanted nothing so much as to belong to him. One of the most brilliant and demanding personalities on earth.
Gil didn’t have to be told any of this. He seemed to understand everything important about Sarah and her troublesome family. Not because he was one of Roosevelt’s trusted men or had twice been governor of New Hampshire or because he had raised two sons himself. Gil was a philosopher and a lover of poetry, a quiet and inward-looking man whose simplest pronouncements rang with existential truth. He hated to speak in public, but he’d won British hearts by risking his life in bombing raids and promising far more help than America would ever give. Sarah suspected he’d gladly die if it would save her country from annihilation—and he’d do it in a heartbeat to save her. Which meant that she’d already destroyed something precious in Gil Winant. Because the man with more integrity than anybody in England had left a wife behind in the United States.
She was no better than Pamela after all, Sarah thought. An adulteress who took her happiness in both hands. But unlike Pamela, she was strangling it with guilt.
“Ever had turkey?” Gil asked her now.
She shook her head.
“It’s dry. Go for the stuffing instead.” He kissed her cheek. “See you at dinner.”
He glanced down the villa’s empty hall, then slipped noiselessly from her room on stocking feet. Sweet of him, but Sarah wondered why he bothered to tiptoe. If Pamela knew they were lovers, so did the entire British delegation.
“I LOATHE and abominate that sly dog of a Chiang,” the Minister for War Transport, Lord Leathers, was saying petulantly as he sipped his whiskey. His short legs were stuck straight out on the wool carpet, as though discarded by his round body. “He wants to bugger our understanding with President Roosevelt. Nattering on, in his slit-eyed way, about Colonials. Playing up the democratic bit. Deploring our nasty British ambitions. Our postwar plans to buy and sell them all, from Shanghai to . . . to . . .”
Leathers’s knowledge of the world momentarily failed him; he had left school at fifteen. A shipping magnate with a shrewd and canny sense of sea lanes, certainly, but no Public School education. That was what Ian was for.
“Guangzhou?” Ian suggested delicately.
“Indeed!” Leathers grunted, and raised his glass.
Ian topped it off. “I’d like the name of his tailor. Fellow’s extraordinarily well dressed.”
“Blasted Orientals,” Leathers continued, swallowing. “You’d think enough of our sort had died in that Boxer business to satisfy the bloodlust of ’em all. But no. Our yellow friends would rather the Japanese raped their women from here to there and sideways than we turned an honest pound selling tea. I ask you, Ian—”
“Don’t,” he interrupted, pouring out three fingers of Scotch and handing it to Michael Hudson. “Ask Hudders. He’s the one who’s got the President’s ear. Does Roosevelt give a damn what Chiang Kai-shek wants, Michael? Or is he just throwing the Chinese a bone?”
The three men had met in one of the hotel’s side lounges to brace themselves before dinner, which would be a protracted and formal affair—Roosevelt was hosting the American celebration of Thanksgiving tonight. He’d brought twenty-two turkeys to Egypt, along with his aide Harry Hopkins, a few generals, and assorted hangers-on like Michael Hudson.
Hudson had flown uncomfortably into Egypt in the cargo plane carrying Roosevelt’s car. His job was something vaguely to do with Lend-Lease, the American program that allowed Britain to borrow everything from old ships to new hospital beds. Hence his chumminess with Lord Leathers—who had negotiated the British end of that deal. His chumminess with Ian Fleming had long since been explained. It was their chiefs’ sixth bilateral meeting in two years, and the sight of Hudders and Flem clinking glasses in various conference rooms was old hat by now.
Ian knew that Hudson’s title was simply cover for far more interesting work: he was one of Wild Bill Donovan’s handpicked aides—a spymaster in the Office of Strategic Services. Ian had helped draft the blueprint for the OSS a few years back, during an official visit to New York. He’d probably gotten Hudders his job.
“A Yale man,” he’d suggested, “by way of Eton and Durnford. You can’t possibly find a better liaison, Bill. He already knows how the English think.”
Ian was personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, a deeply conventional and unimaginative sailor by the name of Rushbrooke. He did not like Rushbrooke much; he thought his mind small and his courage stillborn. As a consequence, Ian spent a lot of the war ignoring Rushbrooke’s instructions and issuing his own. Liaising, when possible, with his American friends.
He was still whispering to Hudders in the companionable dark, plotting the ruin of their enemies. The Too Bad Club was alive and well.
“Of course FDR cares,” Hudson said now. “Our boys are dying every day in the Pacific. Chiang’s fighting the Japs. We need him just as much as you Brits need us.”
“But does America need England anymore?” Ian threw himself into a chair by the carved sandstone fireplace; coal was burning feebly in its depths. “The PM’s beginning to wonder. A few months ago it felt like a marriage made in heaven, Churchill and FDR. But the starch is off the bedsheets, the bloom is off the rose. Admit it, Hudders—we Brits bore you. We talk too much and haven’t a fiver between us.”
“Hear, hear,” Leathers intoned.
There was an uncomfortable silence. The truth usually shut people up, Ian thought. He’d planned the Cairo meeting as he’d planned all the others between Churchill and Roosevelt, and he knew the Chinese were only a sideshow. Cairo was just the first stop on a far trickier journey ending in Tehran—where Roosevelt would meet Joseph Stalin for the first time.
Uncle Joe, as the American press admiringly called him.
Stalin had been keeping Hitler busy for years now, tossing cannon fodder at his guns on the Eastern Front. He’d tried to use the Nazi war machine to his own ends, but he’d been stabbed in the back and lost millions of people to starvation and siege. The Soviet strongman wanted only one thing from his allies in Tehran: Overlord. Their promise to invade Europe. As soon as possible. So that Hitler would turn around. So that Hitler would go home.
Talk of invasion made Churchill nervous. He didn’t think his army was ready to attack Hitler in France, and he wanted Roosevelt’s support for a simpler approach. A series of lightning raids, maybe, from various parts of the Mediterranean. More time, perhaps, to train for a brutal amphibious landing across the unpredictable Channel. Stalin would pressure them in Tehran for a date and a detailed plan, anything that would guarantee him a pitched battle on Hitler’s Western Front within six months. But Churchill was stalling. A commitment to Overlord meant concentrating all his military effort on one terrible stroke; and if Overlord failed, it would take England down with it.
Churchill was deathly afraid of putting his head into a noose of Stalin’s making. It was vitally important that he explain his position to Roosevelt, here in Cairo, before their joint delegation arrived in Tehran. He and Roosevelt had to stand together—present a unified front against Stalin’s demands.
But Roosevelt was playing hard to get.
THE PRESIDENT had been polite but distant to his British friends since his plane had touched down three days before. He’d seized every opportunity to draw Chiang Kai-shek aside, instead, and to talk Broadway shows with his stunning wife. So far, Churchill hadn’t been able to get a word in edgewise. And they were flying to Tehran in thirty-six hours.
Hudson lifted his glass in salute. “Hey. No England, no Scotch. How in the hell did you find this bottle in Cairo, Johnnie?”
“Brought it with me on Leathers’s plane.” The Scotch was Ian’s personal poison, a single-malt bottled in secrecy on the remote Scottish island of Islay. The Laphroaig distillery had been converted to a military depot since the start of the war, but precious bottles could still be found. Ian’s family was Scots. One of his bottles had smashed during a rough patch of turbulence over Rabat. Leathers’s plane cabin smelled like caramel and peat.
The Minister for War Transport snorted. “Needn’t have bothered,” he said. “The PM has flown in enough drink to flood the Nile.”
“Let’s hope he can swim, then.”
“That’s why he brought me,” said a voice from the doorway. “Keep his head above water and floating in the right direction.”
She was a mirage of gold and turquoise, a perfect hourglass in shimmering silk. Her smile was aloof and enigmatic. Ian had seen that feline look before, lit by flaring torches, on the wall of a pharaoh’s tomb.
But Pamela was the sort of woman who bored him silly. The kind who might as well be a pet, something fed and cosseted and groomed. Played with when she demanded it. Never an equal. Never anything but owned.
“Mrs. Randolph.” Leathers harrumphed and struggled to his feet.
“Pamela,” Ian murmured.
Michael merely saluted with his drink. She had the ability to strike him dumb.
She fixed her glowing gaze on Ian. “I’ve got something for you, Commander. A telegram. Passion by post, direct from the PM’s private wireless. A penny says it’s Ann!”
A faint line furrowed Ian’s brow. He set down his Scotch and held out his hand. “Give,” he said quietly.
“You might offer a girl a drink.”
“Hudders, the girl wants a drink.”
Michael rose hurriedly to his feet. “We’ve got whiskey here, but I’m sure you’d prefer—”
“Champagne,” she murmured. On Pamela’s lips, the word was a bauble. Something to toss in the air and catch in the teeth. Michael was mesmerized. He held out his arm. She took it.
“Pamela,” Ian said wearily. “The telegram?”
She drew it from her bodice like a harem girl of old. Still warm from her skin when she handed it to him. He noticed Leathers almost try to touch it.
“If you’ll excuse me,” he said.
And left the Minister for War Transport in possession of the Laphroaig.
THE TELEGRAM was not from Ann O’Neill, of course. Ian’s latest flirt could hardly gain access to Churchill’s private commo network.
It was from Alan Turing, an eccentric and solitary man who lived out his days in Hut 8 at a place called Bletchley Park, working for something known affectionately as the Golf, Cheese, and Chess Society—the Government Code and Cypher School. Turing was an odd fish in most people’s estimation, but Ian had learned long ago to ignore most people.
He strolled out onto the Mena House terrace. The Great Pyramid’s hulking silhouette blotted out a few stars. A November chill was rising from the desert; he was completely alone for the first time in days. He tore open the telegram.
The Fencer’s in town. He’s brought a girlfriend with him.
Ian’s fingers tightened, briefly, on the paper. Then he reached into his jacket for his gold cigarette lighter and burned Turing’s words to ash.
The Prof, as Alan Turing’s friends called him, was an indisputable mathematics genius, with degrees from Cambridge and Princeton and a mind that shook up the world like a kaleidoscope, rearranging it in unexpected and intricately beautiful ways. He saw the war as waged not by Fascists or heroes, tanks or bombers, but by bits of information reeled out into the ether in a code so complex and constantly mutating it was virtually impossible to break: the German Enigma encryption.
Ian didn’t understand Turing’s mathematical world in the slightest. Codes, and breaking them, were games he’d played with Hudders in their public school days. But the Enigma problem was urgent—the German naval cyphers, in particular, were the most complex encrypted communications known to man, and they told submarines where to sink Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Thousands of tons of cargo Britain desperately needed were torpedoed daily. Countless lives were lost. Breaking the codes was critical to survival—not just for the men drowning in the frigid Atlantic seas, but for all of Europe going under.
Turing had set up a series of “bombes,” as he called them, at Bletchley. These were electromechanical machines that mimicked the rotor and plugboard settings of an actual Enigma encoder, sifting through millions of variations in those settings for the one correct combination that could translate gobbledygook into plain German text. Ian had no idea how the bombes worked. Turing had tried to explain it to his layman’s mind in terms he would understand. But the Prof spoke in stuttering, truncated words that seemed to reel off his own rotors. Snatches of code, opaque in meaning.
“Expect the world to make sense. Certain co-co-co-herence. Isn’t the key. Not to codes. Not to life. Co-co-herence hides meaning. Seas hide a shark. Ha! Contradic-ic-ic-tion’s what matters. Fin on the sea’s surface. Tells you the shark’s there. Contradiction gives up the gh-gh-ghost.”
From a single contradiction, Ian translated, you can deduce everything.
The Enigma’s contradiction was that no letter could ever be encyphered as itself. If the bombe’s trial settings produced that result for an intercepted German message, the combination was instantly discarded. Which meant one less set of variables in the cipher universe. And so on, and so on, for days and hours, disproving every incorrect combination of settings until only the right one remained. The combination that broke the code.
Ian had met Turing two years ago, in the old loft of the converted stable that was Bletchley Park’s Hut 8, where the Enigma naval ciphers were parsed by Turing and his team. The mathematician never met another person’s eyes and avoided physical contact; he winched lunch baskets up into the loft with a block and tackle and sent requests back down on slips of paper with his dirty plates.
“C-c-could learn heaps from a single Enigma r-r-rotor,” he’d said when Ian climbed up the treacherous ladder and introduced himself. “Or a c-c-codeb-b-book. German bits left b-b-b-behind when there’s a raid.”
What he was saying, Ian figured out, was that they needed the right sort of men on the ground after an enemy rout. The sort who knew how to spot treasure among the wreckage of German Signals equipment or torpedoed ships, and pocket it for analysis at Bletchley. It would save Turing time. But nobody was actually looking for such things in the heat of battle; anything haphazardly salvaged appeared in Hut 8 like a bit of the True Cross.
The Prof’s words had lingered in Ian’s mind. Like everybody in Naval Intelligence, he tried to do whatever Alan Turing asked. On the train back to London, Ian scribbled down a few words: Special unit. Targeted collection. Intelligence support. Rushbrooke’s predecessor at Naval Intelligence, Sir John Godfrey, was enthusiastic about the idea.
“It must be a small group of fellows,” he warned. “Thoroughly trained in survival techniques. Nontraditional warfare. Commandos, we’ll call them. Churchill will like that name.”
“I want to volunteer, sir,” Ian had said, with the first real pulse of excitement he’d felt since the beginning of his war.
But no, Godfrey replied with a regretful shake of the head. Ian was too valuable. Too creative in the deception operations he’d unleashed against the Germans over the years. He knew far too much about the inner workings of Naval Intelligence. They could not risk his capture in the field.
A year later, Rushbrooke said the same.
And so it was Peter Fleming who’d volunteered for Commando training in the wilds of Scotland instead . . .
The closest Ian came to action was the deck of a landing boat off Dieppe, when his Red Indians, as the intelligence commandos were called, had gone in on a raid. Ian’s heroics that night were limited to comforting an eighteen-year-old kid under fire for the first time. He might look like a hero—tall, broad-shouldered, Byronically handsome, with a broken nose women swooned over—but he was denied all opportunity to prove himself. Ian was a planner. The brains of every operation.
And his desk job was driving him mad.
He’d taken to writing down the wild ideas in his head, lately—improbable contests with a sinister enemy—just to vent his frustration. It was King Solomon’s Mines all over again. Cracking good stories, none of them real.
What would Mokie think of him now?
He pocketed the lighter and dusted ash from his fingertips. The Fencer’s in town . . .
He needed more information than Turing would give in a one-line telegram. And, unfortunately, that meant grappling with Grace. She’d assume he’d invented a reason to see her, when in fact he wanted nothing less. But it couldn’t be helped.
He stepped off the terrace and made for one of the sanded paths that led directly from the hotel to the Prime Minister’s villa.
“NO EVENING GOWN FOR GRACIE?”
“Ian!” She glanced over her shoulder, a distracted look in her gray eyes, and snatched irritably at the earphones she was wearing. They’d muffled the sound of his approach to the Signals Room, and Grace would resent the fact. A security breach, she’d say. In the future he should expect a cordon of alarms to herald his approach, if not a locked door.
It could be a metaphor, Ian thought, for his entire history with Grace Cowles.
She was an expert Signals operator, a composed and efficient twenty-six-year-old from Lambeth who was cannier than her education and more vital to the British war effort than most people knew. Grace served as General Lord Ismay’s right arm—and Ismay was chief of Churchill’s military staff. Since Ian coordinated intelligence and Grace disseminated it all over the British field, they’d been thrown together for years. Ismay could not function without her.
Only last week, Grace had flown to Moscow; a few months before, she’d worked the Quebec conference; and before that, she’d shared a silent cab with Ian down Pennsylvania Avenue. There’d been a time in London last summer when they’d shared dinners and films, too—The Thin Man, he remembered. Grace probably didn’t. She’d embarked on a ruthless campaign to forget his existence. And she was the kind of woman who took no prisoners.
He ran his eyes over her elegant figure, the way her dark hair coiled sleekly behind her ears. He’d known the hollow at the base of her neck and the scent of her skin. He’d taken her to bed on nights when the blitz shuddered and screamed in the air around them and hadn’t cared, then, if they’d died in the act. But her eyes were hard and flat tonight; the windows to her soul, a brick wall. Her fingers twisted impatiently on her earphones. In a few seconds she’d throw him out.
“You’re on duty,” he said.
“Obviously. And you should be with the Americans.”
“They might have let you try the President’s turkey.”
“Choke on it, more like,” she retorted, “watching poor old Pug swallow the bloody insult Roosevelt’s offered him. The President’s demanding we agree on a chief to coordinate American and British bombing—a Yank, no doubt. With about as much experience of real war as Eisenhower. Pug’s furious. Could barely knot his tie, poor lamb. I expect he’ll have a stroke before dinner’s out.”
Ismay was Pug to his friends, although Ian doubted Gracie called him that to his face.
“You took down the cable from Bletchley?” he asked.
“Yes.” Her mouth pursed. “Don’t fret, Ian. I won’t talk about your Fencer and his girlfriend. I’m not that interested in your social life.”
“I didn’t think you were. But I need to reach Turing. As soon as possible.”
She picked up a pad and pencil. “Fire away.”
Ian shook his head. “It’s urgent. I’d like to place a trunk call to Bletchley on the Secraphone.”
Her eyes strayed to a black Bakelite telephone with a bright green handle. The nondescript box beside it was filled with something that scrambled voice frequencies. A similar box on Turing’s end would unscramble them.
“You’re not supposed to know it exists.”
“But I do.” He stepped toward her desk, that safe barrier, willing all his charm into his voice, caressing rather than challenging her. “It’s absolutely vital that I use it. You’re my only hope, Grace.”
“I’ve heard that lie before.” Her eyes narrowed. “Is this to do with the stray Dornier?”
“What stray Dornier?”
She brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “Spotted over Tunis. Possibly zeroing in on us. Pug ordered snipers in the heights and an RAF post on the top of the pyramid on the strength of it. He doesn’t want this conference to end in a blaze of German glory.”
Ian’s hands were propped on Grace’s desk and his body yearned toward her. It was she who’d ended things between them, and he’d never quite gotten her out of his system. He suspected she knew that and enjoyed having the upper hand. Enjoyed denying him. He was intoxicated by her closeness, the fold of her mouth when she smiled, and his mind was only dimly processing the fact of the Dornier, which would be the 217 model, not the lighter and older 17, a reconnaissance plane and bomber that could outrun most defending fighter craft. Certainly most fighter planes the RAF could throw at it. Particularly in North Africa. The gun site on the Great Pyramid suddenly made sense.
“Do you know,” he murmured, “that your left eye has a green cast in the iris?”
She swatted his head, hard, with her steno pad.
“For the love of God. Romancing the bloody secretaries again?”
Gracie came to attention, her eyes fixed on the door; Ian spun around. “Prime Minister.”
WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL was nursing a foul bout of bronchitis with cigar smoke, whiskey, and petulance. He was frowning now, a portrait in annoyance and white tie.
“Val Fleming’s boy,” he muttered. “Peter, is it?”
“Ian, Prime Minister. Peter’s my brother.”
“Ah, yes. Splendid chap. Commando. Read his book on Brazil.”
Everyone had. Ian said only: “That will give him the greatest pleasure, sir.”
“I didn’t say I enjoyed it,” Churchill barked. “Knew your father once upon a time. Excellent fellow. We shall not see his like again.”
What People are Saying About This
In this complex, remarkable and suspenseful novel, Francine Mathews combines the genius of Ian Fleming with the drama of World War II and concocts a stunning tale of intrigue and deceit.
“Absolutely marvelous! This novel masterfully weaves fact and fiction into a high-pitched thriller that keeps us spellbound from the very first pages. Great plotting, exotic locales and historical characters who positively come alive on the page, with some delightful sly winks along the way.”
“In this complex, remarkable and suspenseful novel, Francine Mathews combines the genius of Ian Fleming with the drama of World War II and concocts a stunning tale of intrigue and deceit.”
“[Ian] Fleming is a complex character with an active imagination and a store of hidden courage. Replete with recognizable characters from history, this look at a crucial period of World War II will satisfy history buffs and mystery lovers alike.”
Praise for Jack 1939
“The pace is so propulsive that you’ll read every word…Mathews’s ability to weave fact into her tale is nothing short of remarkable…there are precious few entertainments this captivating.”
—The Washington Post
“One of the most deliciously high-concept thrillers imaginable.”
—The New Yorker
“A brisk thriller that defies the odds…It’s no small feat to take a historic figure who looms as large in real life as John F. Kennedy, place him in an improbable fantasy, and not strain credulity. But in this case, Mathews has accomplished her mission.”
Absolutely marvelous! This novel masterfully weaves fact and fiction into a high-pitched thriller that keeps us spellbound from the very first pages. Great plotting, exotic locales and historical characters who positively come alive on the page, with some delightful sly winks along the way. --Jeffery Deaver