A captain in the British Army, Basil St. Florian has been tasked with a dangerous mission in the midst of World War II. He has been sent across the English Channel to find and photograph a manuscript that does not officially exist, one that may hold the key to a code that, if cracked, could prevent the deaths of millions. St. Florian’s mission presents him with one challenge after another, and it doesn’t help that the SS and the Abwehr are following his every move in a cat-and-mouse chase across occupied France. But St. Florian is willing to risk his life to get to the manuscript—even if the genius professor Alan Turing can’t guarantee he’ll be able to break the code.
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By Stephen Hunter
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2016 Stephen Hunter
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The Lysander took off in the pitch-dark of 0400 British Standard War Time, Pilot Officer Murphy using the prevailing south-southwest wind to gain atmospheric traction, even though the craft had a reputation for short takeoffs. He nudged it airborne, felt it surpass its amazingly low stall speed, held the stick gently back until he reached 150 meters, then commenced a wide left-hand bank to aim himself and his passenger toward Occupied France.
Murphy was a pro and had done many missions for his outfit, No. 138 (Special Duties Squadron), inserting and removing agents in coordination with the Resistance. But that didn't mean he was blasé, or without fear. No matter how many times you flew into Nazi territory, it was a first time. There was no predicting what might happen, and he could just as easily end up in a POW camp or against the executioner's wall as back in his quarters at RAF Newmarket.
The high-winged, single-engine plane hummed along just over the 150-meter notch on the altimeter to stay under both British and, twenty minutes on, German radar. It was a moonless night, as preferred, a bit chilly and damp, with ground temperature at about four degrees centigrade. It was early April 1943; the destination, still two hours ahead, was a meadow outside Sur-la-Gane, a village forty-eight kilometers east of Paris. There, God and the Luftwaffe willing, he would deviate from the track of a railroad, find four lights on the ground, and lay the plane down between them, knowing that they signified enough flatness and tree clearance for the airplane. He'd drop his passenger, the peasants of whichever Maquis group was receiving that night (he never knew) would turn the plane around, and in another forty seconds he'd be airborne, now headed west toward tea and jam. That was the ideal, at any rate.
He checked the compass at the apex of the Lysander's primitive instrument panel and double-checked his heading (148° ENE), his fuel (full), and his airspeed (175 mph), and saw through the Perspex windscreen, as expected, nothing. Nothing was good. He knew it was a rare off-night in the war and that no fleets of Lancasters filled the air and radio waves to and from targets deep in Germany, which meant that the Luftwaffe's night fighters, Me110s, wouldn't be up and about. No 110 had ever shot down a Lysander because they operated at such different altitudes and speeds, but there had to be a first time for everything.
Hunched behind him was an agent named Basil St. Florian, a captain in the army by official designation, commissioned in 1932 into the Horse Guards — not that he'd been on horseback in over a decade. Actually Basil, a ruddy-faced, ginger-haired brute who'd once sported a giant moustache, didn't know or care much about horses. Or the fabulous traditions of the Horse Guards, the cavalry, even the army. He'd only ended up there after a youth notorious for spectacular crack-ups, usually involving trysts with American actresses and fights with Argentine polo players. His father arranged the commission, as he had arranged so much else for Basil, who tended to leave debris wherever he went, but once in khaki Basil veered again toward glamorous self-extinction until a dour little chap from Intelligence invited him for a drink at Boodle's. When Basil learned he could do unusual things and get both paid and praised for it, he signed up. That was 1934, and Basil had never looked back.
As it turned out, he had a gift for languages and spoke French, German, and Spanish without a trace of accent. He could pass for any European nationality except Irish, though the latter was more on principle, because he despised the Irish in general terms. They were so loud.
He liked danger and wasn't particularly nonplussed by fear. He never panicked. He took pride in his considerable wit, and his bons mots were famous in his organization. He didn't mind fighting, with fist or knife, but much preferred shooting, because he was a superb pistol and rifle shot. He'd been on safari at fifteen, again at twenty-two, and a third time at twenty-seven; he was quite used to seeing large mammals die by gunshot, so it didn't particularly perturb him. He knew enough about trophy hunting to hope that he'd never end up on another man's wall.
He'd been in the agent trade a long time and had the nightmares to show for it, plus a drawerful of ribbons that someone must organize sooner or later, plus three bullet holes, a raggedy zigzag of scar tissue from a knife (don't ask, please, don't ever ask), as well as piebald burn smears on back and hips from a long session with a torturer. He finally talked, and the lies he told the man were among his finest memories. His other favorite memory: watching his torturer's eyes go eightball as Basil strangled him three days later. Jolly fun!
Basil was cold, shivering under an RAF sheepskin over an RAF aircrew jumpsuit over a black wool suit of shabby prewar French manufacture. He sat uncomfortably squashed on a parachute, which he hadn't bothered to put on. The wind beat against him, because on some adventure or another the Lysander's left window had been shot out and nobody had got around to replacing it. He felt vibrations as the unspectacular Bristol Mercury XII engine beat away against the cold air, its energy shuddering through all the spars, struts, and tightened canvas of the aircraft.
"Over Channel now, sir," came the crackle of a voice from the earphones he wore, since there was entirely too much noise for pilot and passenger to communicate without it. "Ten minutes to France."
"Got it, Murphy, thanks."
Inclining toward the intact window to his starboard, Basil could see the black surface of the Channel at high chop, the water seething and shifting under the powerful blast of cold early-spring winds. It somehow caught enough illumination from the stars to gleam a bit, though without romance or beauty. It simply reminded him of unpleasant things and his aversion to large bodies of the stuff, which to him had but three effects: it made you wet, it made you cold, or it made you dead. All three were to be avoided.
In time a dark mass protruded upon the scene, sliding in from beyond to meet the sea.
"I say, Murphy, is that France?"
"It is indeed, sir."
"You know, I didn't have a chance to look at the flight plan. What part of France?"
"Normandy, sir. Jerry's building forts there, to stop an invasion."
"If I recall, there's a peninsula to the west, and the city of Cherbourg at the tip?"
"Tell me, if you veered toward the west, you'd cross the peninsula, correct? With no deviation then, you'd come across coastline?"
"And from that coastline, knowing you were to the western lee of the Cherbourg peninsula, you could easily return home on dead reckoning, that is, without a compass, am I right?"
"Indeed, sir. But I have a compass. So why would —"
Basil leaned forward, holding his Browning .380 automatic pistol. He fired once, the pistol jumping, the flash filling the cockpit with a flare of illumination, the spent casing flying away, the noise terrific.
"Good Christ!" yelped Murphy. "What the bloody hell! Are you mad?"
"Quite the opposite, old man," said Basil. "Now do as I suggested — veer westerly, cross the peninsula, and find me coastline."
Murphy noted that the bullet had hit the compass bang on, shattered its glass, and blown its dial askew and its needle arm into the vapors.
A few days earlier
"Basil, how's the drinking?" the general asked.
"Excellent, sir," Basil replied. "I'm up to seven, sometimes eight whiskies a night."
"Splendid, Basil," said the general. "I knew you wouldn't let us down."
"See here," said another general. "I know this man has a reputation for wit, as it's called, but we are engaged in serious business, and the levity, perhaps appropriate to the officers' mess, is most assuredly inappropriate here. There should be no laughing here, gentlemen. This is the War Room."
Basil sat in a square, dull space far underground. A few dim bulbs illuminated it but showed little except a map of Europe pinned to the wall. Otherwise it was featureless. The table was large enough for at least a dozen generals, but there were only three of them — well, one was an admiral — and a civilian, all sitting across from Basil. It was rather like orals at Magdalen, had he bothered to attend them.
The room was buried beneath the Treasury in Whitehall, the most secret of secret installations in wartime Britain. Part of a warren of other rooms — some offices for administrative or logistical activities, a communications room, some sleeping or eating quarters — it was the only construction in England that might legitimately be called a lair. It belonged under a volcano, not a large office building. The prime minister would sit in this very place with his staff and make the decisions that would send thousands to their death in order to save tens of thousands. That was the theory, anyway. And that also is why it stank so brazenly of stale cigar.
"My dear sir," said the general with whom Basil had been discussing his drinking habits to the general who disapproved, "when one has been shot at for the benefit of crown and country as many times as Captain St. Florian, one has the right to set the tone of the meeting that will most certainly end up getting him shot at quite a bit more. Unless you survived the first day on the Somme, you cannot compete with him in that regard."
The other general muttered something, but Basil hardly noticed. It really did not matter, and since he believed himself doomed no matter what, he now no longer listened to those who did not matter.
The general who championed him turned to him, his opposition defeated. His name was Sir Colin Gubbins and he was head of the outfit to which Basil belonged, called by the rather dreary title Special Operations Executive. Its mandate was to Set Europe Ablaze, as the prime minister had said when he invented it and appointed General Gubbins as its leader. It was the sort of organization that would have welcomed Jack the Ripper to its ranks, possibly even promoted, certainly decorated him. It existed primarily to destroy — people, places, things, anything that could be destroyed. Whether all this was just mischief for the otherwise unemployable or long-term strategic wisdom was as yet undetermined. It was up for considerable debate among the other intelligence agencies, one of which was represented by the army general and the other by the naval admiral.
As for the civilian, he looked like a question on a quiz: Which one does not belong? He was a good thirty years younger than the two generals and the admiral, and hadn't, as they did, one of those heavy-jowled authoritarian faces. He was rather handsome in a weak sort of way, like the fellow who always plays Freddy in any production of Pygmalion, and he didn't radiate, as did the men of power. Yet here he was, a lad among the Neanderthals, and the others seemed in small ways to defer to him. Basil wondered who the devil he could be. But he realized he would find out sooner or later.
"You've all seen Captain St. Florian's record, highly classified as it is. He's one of our most capable men. If this thing can be done, he's the one who can do it. I'm sure before we proceed, the captain would entertain any questions of a general nature."
"I seem to remember your name from the cricket fields, St. Florian," said the admiral. "Were you not a batsman of some renown in the late twenties?
"I have warm recollections of good innings at both Eton and Magdalen," said Basil.
"Indeed," said the admiral. "I've always said that sportsmen make the best agents. The playing field accustoms them to arduous action, quick, clever thinking, and decisiveness."
"I hope, however," said the general, "you've left your sense of sporting fair play far behind. Jerry will use it against you, any chance he gets."
"I killed a Chinese gangster with a cricket bat, sir. Would that speak to the issue?"
"Eloquently," said the general.
"What did your people do, Captain?" asked the admiral.
"He manufactured something," said Basil. "It had to do with automobiles, as I recall."
"A bit hazy, are we?"
"It's all rather vague. I believe that I worked for him for a few months after coming down. My performance was rather disappointing. We parted on bad terms. He died before I righted myself."
"To what do you ascribe your failure to succeed in business and please your poor father?"
"I am too twitchy to sit behind a desk, sir. My bum, pardon the French, gets all buzzy if I am in one spot too long. Then I drink to kill the buzz and end up in the cheap papers."
"I seem to recall," the admiral said. "Something about an actress —'31, '32, was that it?"
"Lovely young lady," Basil said, "A pity I treated her so abominably. I always plucked the melons out of her fruit salad and she could not abide that."
"Hong Kong, Malaysia, Germany before and during Hitler, battle in Spain — shot at a bit there, eh, watching our Communists fight the generalissimo's Germans, eh?" asked the army chap. "Czecho, France again, Dieppe, you were there? So was I."
"Odd I didn't see you, sir," said Basil.
"I suppose you were way out front then. Point taken, Captain. All right, professionally, he seems capable. Let's get on with it, Sir Colin."
"Yes," said Sir Colin. "Where to begin, where to begin? It's rather complex, you see, and someone important has demanded that you be apprised of all the nuances before you decide to go."
"Sir, I could save us all a lot of time. I've decided to go. I hereby officially volunteer."
"See, there's a chap with spirit," said the admiral. "I like that."
"It's merely that his bum is twitchy," said the general.
"Not so fast, Basil. I insist that you hear us out," said Sir Colin, "and so does the young man at the end of the table. Is that not right, Professor?"
"It is," said the young fellow.
"All right, sir," said Basil.
"It's a rather complex, even arduous story. Please ignore the twitchy bum and any need you may have for whisky. Give us your best effort."
"I shall endeavor, sir."
"Excellent. Now, hmm, let me see ... oh, yes, I think this is how to start. Do you know the path to Jesus?"
The First Day (cont'd.)
Another half hour flew by, lost to the rattle of the plane, the howl of the wind, and the darkness of Occupied France below. At last Murphy said over the intercom, "Sir, the west coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula is just ahead. I can see it now."
"Excellent," said Basil. "Find someplace to put me down."
"Yes, what is it, Pilot Officer?"
"Sir, I can't just land, you see. The plane is too fragile — there may be wires, potholes, tree stumps, ditches, mud, God knows what. All of which could snarl or even wreck the plane. It's not so much me. I'm not that important. It's actually the plane. Jerry's been trying to get hold of a Lysander for some time now, to use against us. I can't give him one."
"Yes, I can see that. All right then, perhaps drop me in a river from a low altitude?"
"Sir, you'd hit the water at over 100 miles per hour and bounce like a billiard ball off the bumper. Every bone would shatter."
"On top of that, I'd lose my shoes. This is annoying. I suppose then it's the parachute for me?"
"Yes, sir. Have you had training?"
"Scheduled several times, but I always managed to come up with an excuse. I could see no sane reason for abandoning a perfectly fine airplane in flight. That was then, however, and now, alas, is now."
Basil shed himself of the RAF fleece, a heavy leather jacket lined with sheep's wool, and felt the coldness of the wind bite him hard. He shivered. He hated the cold. He struggled with the straps of the parachute upon which he was sitting. He found the going rather rough. It seemed he couldn't quite get the left shoulder strap buckled into what appeared to be the strap nexus, a circular lock-like device that was affixed to the right shoulder strap in the center of his chest. He passed on that and went right to the thigh straps, which seemed to click in admirably, but then noticed he had the two straps in the wrong slots, and he couldn't get the left one undone. He applied extra effort and was able to make the correction.
"I say, how long has this parachute been here? It's all rusty and stiff."
"Well, sir, these planes aren't designed for parachuting. Their brilliance is in the short takeoff and landing drills. Perfect for agent inserts and fetches. So, no, I'm afraid nobody has paid much attention to the parachute."
"Damned thing. I'd have thought you RAF buckos would have done better. Battle of Britain, the few, all that sort of thing."
Excerpted from Citadel by Stephen Hunter. Copyright © 2016 Stephen Hunter. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Loved it for a short story, kept me reading and wanting more.