By Phineas Redux
Summary:— This story is set in Great Britain in 1944. Flying Officers Claire 'Ricky' Mathews and Gabrielle Parker—lovers, members of ATA, Air Transport Auxiliary, and the top secret SOE, Special Operations Executive,—are ordered to interrogate a captured German officer.
Warning:— There is some light swearing in this tale.
The eyrie on the third floor of Somerset House on the banks of the Thames, where Group-Captain Graham oversaw his secret SOE sub-department, was as dingy as ever. A small office, with one window looking out on the dull brown water of the great river; a desk, a filing-cabinet, two straight-backed chairs and two telephones, making up virtually the whole contents of the room. The air was dry and heavy, smelling continually of the particular brand of cigarettes the Captain favoured; some curious horribly cheap mixture conceived on the Government Utility standard, and showing all the lack of quality rapidly coming to be associated with this lifestyle choice.
"You'll both be wonderin' why I've dragged you away from the delights of Norfolk, ladies?"
"There ain't any delights there, sir." Gabrielle was quick to knock this irresponsible belief on the head. "North Norfolk is a wasteland, sir, heavily scattered over with airfields, army barracks and cocky Americans."
"Ha, well, that's as may be." Graham looked for an instant as if he was going to laugh, but regained control in the nick of time. "Got a bit o'work for you both, rather niggly sort of thing. Highly secret, could be of the greatest importance to the War effort, and might provide us, the Allies, with significant new information on the activities and thoughts of the German High Command, if not those, er, higher still."
"Y'mean,—the bloke at Berchtesgaden?" Claire raising a dark eyebrow.
"Just so, be interestin' t'get some close-up personal insight into his thoughts an' mental processes, eh?" Graham nodding contentedly, sparking match after match in an attempt to fire up one of his foul cigarettes.
"Not from my point of view, sir." Gabrielle showing her true colours. "We've been tryin', these last years, t'drop the heaviest bombs we've got on his goddam head, haven't we?"
"Yes, there's certainly that." Graham was forced to bow to reality, puffing away like a smokestack on fire. "But every little helps, y'know."
"Information, y'mean, sir?" Claire seeing where the conversation was heading.
"Just so, exactly." Graham smiling broadly now. "We've been fortunate enough to come across—well, to tell the truth, we had a stroke of luck. Three weeks ago a German Condor aircraft came down on the Wash; happily it was low-tide, so the machine skidded along a sandbank and came to rest in one piece. The coastal Authorities were quick off the mark and had the crew and passengers under arrest within half an hour. The passengers consisting of three sub-lieutenants and a colonel in the German Army. What are called, I believe, Oberleutnants and Oberst."
"And this Oberst's your man?" Claire cutting to the quick of the matter.
"Yes, exactly." Graham nodded again, his eyes lighting up. "Oberst Walther von Leist, to be exact. Age, thirty-eight, member of the Nazi Party, and a thoroughly bad egg, through and through."
"What was he doin', bouncing about in the Wash?"
"Plane's compasses gave trouble, packed up entirely, apparently." Graham shrugged, with an accompanying sneer. "German equipment not living up to its reputation. Two engines also started to act up; end result, shockingly off-course, run out of fuel, ditch in the Wash; ten minutes later our boys hove up in a MTB and ask them to kindly raise their hands, or have their collective balls blown off—they elected to raise their hands."
"So, here we are?" Claire, being philosophical.
"Yes, as you say, here we are." Graham sitting back in his leather chair, enjoying the moment.
"So, what's so important about von Leist?" Gabrielle, too, eager to get to the heart of the affair.
"Oh, simply, he is, or was, close to the Fuhrer; part of his personal bodyguard, in fact. Savvy to all the little man's secrets, it seems."
"Thought ol' H only liked to surround himself with SS officers?" Claire rubbing her chin thoughtfully.
"Not altogether," Graham imparting information in small doses, as was his wont. "He, the Fuhrer, was a soldier in the Great War; corporal, apparently, and still holds a sort of fondness for the ordinary Army officer. Anyway, for whatever reason, von Leist has been cutting along by the Fuhrer's side these last six months or so. All the usual places, the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, that Nuremburg playground of theirs, and, of course, his villa on that bloody big mountain in Berchtesgaden. The house has a name, I believe; but,—no, can't recall it to mind at the moment."
"Where is he now, sir?" Gabrielle looking for the nitty-gritty.
"Who, the Fuhrer? Dammed if I know. Berchtesgaden, probably; why, does it matter?"
"No sir, von Leist."
"Oh, yes, quite." Graham hid his confusion behind another cloud of expelled cigarette smoke. "God, these things are bloody awful; can't recommend 'em, I'm afraid; but y'have t'keep up morale before the troops; show willing, y'know."
"So, what's your plan, sir?" Gabrielle valiantly trying to bring her superior back on track.
Graham took a last drag, blew out the resulting smog-bank with evident relief at clearing his lungs, stubbed the smouldering remains to dust in a small much battered tin ashtray, and got down to business.
"Oberst Walther von Leist, personal information as earlier." He consulted a sheaf of loose papers on his desk. "Present position, part of the personal bodyguard unit protecting the Fuhrer; follows at his heels wherever he goes. Said to be honoured with the Fuhrer's confidence, hears all the tattle, an' most o' the tittle, too, apparently; to do with the Fuhrer's going's-on. Someone who most definitely has his finger knuckle deep in all the pies we, the Allies, most want to savour ourselves."
"He must'a provided some good stuff by now, sir." Claire gazing at her commander with a suspicious eye. "So where do we come in?"
"To date, Flying-Officer Mathews, the dammed ingrate hasn't so much as passed the time o' day with his interrogators. Clammed up like a, like a,—well, like a bloody clam. Nothing."
"Not very helpful of him." Claire nodded, seemingly having deduced just this outcome off her own bat. "And we, Gabrielle an' I, can do—what, to loosen his tongue, sir?"
"Ah well, yes, quite." Graham sounding more and more like old Colonel Blimp. "We sort of thought—pastures new, different atmosphere, change of surroundings, make him feel more at rest with himself and life in general, d'ye see?"
"No, sir, no." Gabrielle being truthful.
"Oh well, if you must have it in block capitals." Graham pouting and starting to mutter under his breath, a sure sign of his embarrassment. "Till now he's been kept under wraps at Station Carioca, in Gloucestershire."
"That dump, no wonder you couldn't get anything out'ta him." Claire wrinkled her lip in disgust. "I said before, that time you asked for our opinions on the place, sir, it wasn't gon'na get anywhere—not the British way, y'see."
A quiet pause ensued, Graham inwardly considering his past triumphs, and those nearer failures, of which this appeared to be the biggest to date. Then, like the soldier he was, he drew his shoulders up and faced the future with a sharp eye.
"As a direct result, Officer Mathews, the next step in his interrogation is under way." Graham shuffled the papers before him, selecting two pale yellow sheets which he passed over his desk to the waiting recipients. "Here are your travel and rail warrants. Take the LNER to County Durham, at Durham station you'll be issued with a—what are those small military vans called again?"
"Tilly's, sir?" Gabrielle coming up trumps.
"Yes, exactly." Graham nodded, as if he had brought the answer to light himself. "Take your Tilly to a place in the north of the county called Draighte House; you'll find it's one of these old decaying stately piles the hard-up owners have happily let the Government hijack for the duration. Oberst von Leist'll be awaiting you there."
"What do we do with him, when we all meet, sir?" Gabrielle frowning, slightly bewildered.
"Oh, this and that." Graham became suddenly wary. "The idea being to treat him with kid gloves; the iron fist having signally failed. Try to coax his secrets out of him with, er, with, umm, with—"
"With smiles and soap, sir?" Gabrielle here smiling winningly.
"—er, just a witticism, sir."
"Hummph." Graham clearly not impressed with the introduction of humour into the proceedings. "Well, anyway, there you are. Clear on the basics, are you? Yes? Good, goodbye, Time waits for no man—or, er, woman, of course."
"Goodbye, sir." Gabrielle rising with a troubled frown, seeing difficulties ahead.
"Goodbye, sir." Claire rising with an offhand nod to her superior officer which filled in admirably for everything left unspoken.
A few minutes later they had exited the huge building, crossed the nearby bridge over the Thames, and were heading up Whitehall.
"God, sounds like a right old balls-up t'me, dear." Gabrielle saying it like it was.
"Take it this Nazi character can speak English?" Claire pursuing a thought which had just occurred to her. "Dam' well should'a asked ol' Graham. Oh well, suppose he can, or Graham wouldn't have given us this task, eh?"
"Well, you know Graham, lover." Gabrielle could always see the dark cloud behind the silver lining. "Mad as a hatter most o' the time, and the rest o' the day, as crazy an' uncarin' as a loon. Jeesus."
"Yeah, Jeesus." Claire, a true-blue New Zealander, then asking for directions. "Say, where's this County Durham place? Never heard o' it."
"In the wild unconquered Fells o' the North, dear—y'won't like the place, take my word on it."
Draighte House lay in the centre of its own spreading estate, some miles west of the town of Bishop Auckland and some miles north of the town of Barnard's Castle. It was a three storey Georgian house, built around 1780 in the prevailing Italianate style, with a wide deep-roofed portico over the main entrance supported by six Ionic columns, one each side and four facing the wide drive leading to the front door. The roof was flat on the main central section—the wary observer up there being protected by a waist-high abutment—with inclined tiled roofs on the two wings. Presently it had been requisitioned by the military for War work, and the resident family unceremoniously turfed out into the wider plebian community.
Though the middle of March, 1944, the weather was overcast and gloomy when the two airwomen drove up to the imposing entrance in their small Tilly van. Standing by the main door, under the roofed portico, was a tall man in the uniform of an army Lieutenant, obviously anxiously awaiting their arrival.
"Now this's what I call a nice pad." Claire making no bones about her Society leanings.
"Har, if you'd had any sort'a entree here before, it'd have been as the under-scullery maid, dear. Get a grip." Gabrielle bursting balloons with great glee. "Oh look, a welcome party."
"Of one lieutenant, gal." Claire sneered as they clambered out of their vehicle. "Not exactly a Princely welcome. Hallo, Lieutenant, here we are."
"Hallo, ladies, dam' glad t'see you made it. Charles Mackerley, at your service." The Lieutenant stepped forward to shake hands with no attempt at false discipline. "Not the easiest place to find, on the map. Already got all the paperwork dealing with your arrival and purposes, so all's well there. It's a bit late in the day t'start anything properly; thought you'd both just like to settle in, find your rooms, an' have a cup of tea and a bit of supper in the dining-room, oh, about eight o'clock; that suit?"
It suited the women very well. In half an hour they had found their individual rooms, side by side on the second floor, facing the rear with a wide view of somewhat dilapidated but still beautiful gardens spreading out away from the House. There was an inter-connecting door between the rooms, so they could come and go as they pleased or, as Gabrielle was quick to point out, stay overnight with each other till the break of day at least; they not wanting to make their romantic preferences the basis of in-house gossip.
A wash and brush-up followed to clean the worst of the dust off their uniforms; they wearing their RAF jackets and trousers, though actually ATA/SOE members. Going downstairs—these being a fine wide sweeping waterfall of white marble steps—they found an old man waiting who, it appeared, was the original butler in person. Dressed in formal black coat and grey pinstripe trousers he had thinning grey hair, a narrow face with sharp chin, a sort of greyish complexion to match, and piercing black eyes which seemed to shoot right through anyone they focused on.
"Handley, ma'am, at your service." His voice creaked with age, as he extended a pointing hand down a wide corridor. "Dining-room first on the left, ma'am. Lieutenant Mackerley already there, if you please. Food on the sideboard, ma'am, please help yourselves—Lieutenant Mackerley expressly asking for privacy for you all, this evening. Thank you, ma'am."
With this oracular announcement he took a few paces to the left and seemed to suddenly disappear like a genie at a stage show.
"Where'd he go?" Gabrielle raising astonished eyebrows.
"Through that door, I think." Claire slightly more on the ball, as they started down the long corridor. "Must be another room there, don't know which. This must be it, let's see."
Entering the room they found it was indeed the fabled dining-room, with a large rectangular teak table filling its centre; a row of high windows, one a French window, running along one side, while on the other was a vast sideboard extending nearly the whole length of the room. On this were placed an interesting, even ostentatious, array of silver trays, covered platters, and cups and saucers. From some of the dishes, sitting on small kerosene burners, steam and tasty vapours rose to alert the hungry visitant to their contents. At the table, already digging into a plate of some kind of hash sat Lieutenant Mackerley, pausing just long enough to welcome the diners.
"Evenin', take what you fancy from the selection, fill your tea-cups, an' come an' join me." He smiled, waving a fork jovially. "Let's not talk business at first, just dig in an' whet your appetites."
The usual NAAFI rations dished out to one and all at Little Lanning RAF station being Spartan in the extreme, in both quality and cooking, the women fell on the laden sideboard with ill-concealed relish.
"Oh my God, Claire, look? Piping hot kedgeree. I'm in Heaven." Gabrielle grabbed the associated deep spoon by the large silver bowl and began ladling the yellow mixture onto her plate with glee, not to say abandon. "What're you havin'?"
"These devilled kidneys look scrumptious."
Claire acted with more restraint, though it was a close run thing between each lady who had the most heaped plate when they strolled over to take their places at the long table.
They found themselves on the French-window side, while Lieutenant Mackerley sat across the table, the half-paneled wall making a dark backdrop behind him.
"You'll be served the same, more or less, at breakfast tomorrow." Mackerley waved a hand in apology. "We only have Handley and Mrs Compton the cook, and they have an, er, set menu which they'd find hard to change at this late date, y'see."
"How'd ya get all this food, in the first place, Lieutenant?" Claire waving her knife over her shoulder at the packed sideboard. "Doesn't rationing count fer anything up here, then?"
"Ah, special dispensation, don't yer know." Mackerley nodded happily. "Because of our, er, particular circumstances, and the position of our, umm, guest. Those in authority felt it necessary to, ah, gild the lily without restraint, apparently. Well, I for one ain't complaining."
"Where's our guest, at the moment?" Gabrielle, pin-pointing the elephant not in the room, as was her nature. "Up to no good, or what?"
"Ha, curled up in his cosy bed in his room upstairs, as a matter of fact; he liking an early night, it seems." Mackerley nodded to himself once more. "Door firmly locked, of course. Can't have loose Nazis wanderin' around unchaperoned in the middle of the night, eh?"
After the meal they pushed their plates aside and sat relaxed and replete; the ladies enjoying cups of fine tea from a silver pot, while Mackerley sipped coffee and produced a cigarette packet which he leaned forward to offer to his guests. They, recognising the pale green and orange design immediately, passed on this chance; watching as he sparked up and started to blow clouds of evil-smelling smoke across the room from his 'Wild Woodbine', not a classic cigarette by any means.
"So, Lieutenant, what're we supposed t'do with your tame Nazi, tomorrow, then?" Claire coming to the crux of the matter. "Our, er, commander, seems to think we, Gabrielle an' I, have some chance of, um, softening the steely heart, as it were. Any chance o'that, d'ye think?"
Mackerley paused to inhale another lungful of poison gas, then exhaled with apparent content.
"Steely heart's right, ma'am." He nodded once again, this seeming to be an in-built characteristic of his. "Prussian through an' through, y'see. About as Germanic an Army officer as you could possibly hope to tumble over in the field. Hopelessly militaristic, in temperament as well as basic training. From the records I've skipped through he seems to have gone to a military school, followed by a military Academy, followed by immediate entrance into one of the more hidebound regiments; from which low beginnings he's risen to the glory and heights he now commands—if you can call being H's personal dogsbody glory, at all."
"What is he, exactly?" Gabrielle bringing this question up, as neither she nor Claire had been given much earlier background information on their prisoner. "I mean, what precise position does he hold, an' what's so important about him?"
Mackerley's cigarette had by this time created a sort of thin mist in the long room, several floating twists and wisps trailing across the table to catch acidically in the womens' throats; he, however, puffing away like a steam railway engine with the gripe the while. As he considered the question he took several more puffs, expelling a further fog-bank into the room before he replied.
"He's now an Oberst; a Colonel, in the Wehrmacht; the Army." Mackerley here paused to gaze at his guests with what might have been described as a small twinkle in his eye. "By the Geneva Convention, y'know, that means I, an' you also, ladies, must salute him as appropriate. Did you realise that?"
"Oh God, that'll complicate matters." Claire here giving vent to her disgust.
"Yes, quite, but there we are, nonetheless." Mackerley grinned boyishly. "Not that you have to make a career of it, at all; just on first meeting, and perhaps on leaving the exalted presence, will do. Nothing elaborate, at all. And, of course, such will keep the old boy happy; which, so I'm led to believe, is most of the reason behind our presence here, after all?"
"I've shot bloody Nazis face to face, I've depth-charged 'em; I've machine-gunned 'em; I've dropped bloody big bombs on 'em from great heights," Gabrielle on a roll. "an' now I have t'bloody salute the b-st-rds? F-ck that."
Mackerley looked as if he understood exactly where the young blonde was coming from, again nodded, this time in sympathy, it is supposed.
"Yes, well, quite right, quite right; but you'll get used to it; necessity of War, an' all that."
"So, what's the real reason for all this charm an' pamperin'?" Gabrielle, still not satisfied. "Goin' a bit far, ain't it? I mean, we could'a just left him to marinate at Camp Carioca, after all. They'd have brought the b-st-rd round to seein' reason, eventually."
Again Mackerley nodded sagely; then appeared to catch himself in the act.
"Aah, from the files I've been supplied with, from Carioca, it appears they wanted to squeeze him on the Fuhrer's state of mind—"
"Hah," Gabrielle snarling without restraint. "anybody'll tell you that, Lieutenant, fer the asking,—as mad as a f-ckin' Hatter. Next question—in fact, can we all go home now?"
"In general, there's no argument, I admit." Mackerley showing his diplomatic side. "But what are required are specifics, y'see. I've got extra copies of these reports from Carioca; here, you can take them with you, study up on what the bods' want to inveigle out of the ol' Colonel. Things like, what is the Fuhrer's present state of mind, what is he thinking about, vis-à-vis the War effort at the moment, how does he interact with people socially, what is his,—ahem, excuse me, ladies,—what is his sex life like. What's his physical condition? Does he take any medicines? If so, which, and how often? Is he, generally speaking, a happy individual, or is he showing signs of anxiety or psychosis of any sort—"
"Dear God," Claire butting in, passionately. "Doesn't take a bloody shrink t'answer that question. He's about as cracked as they come. He has, single-handedly, started a bloody World War, y'realise?"
"The fact hadn't escaped my attention, ma'am." Mackerley, standing on his dignity. "What we'd like to know is—why? Clarity, ma'am, clarity on his present mental state; that's what's wanted, above all else. And Colonel von Leist is the best chance we've had so far to perhaps discover answers, d'ye see?"
"Sorry," Claire retrenching rapidly. "got carried away; H gettin' ya thataway, y'know. Especially when you've had so much to do yourself with tryin' t'put a stop to his maniacal activities."
"Quite, Officer Mathews, quite." Mackerley accepting the apology with gentlemanly poise. "Well, shall we call it a night? Hope your rooms are comfy. There is a housemaid who potters around the old pile of a mornin'; she'll probably wake you with a mornin' cuppa around quarter to eight, or so. Reveille for your first meeting with the ol' Oberst nine-thirty ack-emma sharp, in the morning-room, just across the hall from here. G'night, ladies, then."
It was just after one o' clock in the morning; Claire knew this because a large ancient clock on the mantelpiece of her bedroom had just announced the fact in a chiming peal of low but penetrating bells which had gone on for far too long—she now wondering if she was going to get any sleep at all, if it kept that racket up every half-hour and hour. Indeed, she suspected it of harbouring a devious intent to continuously announce the appearance of the quarters as well, if given half a chance.
"Is there any way of switching this dam' timepiece off?"
"Come back t'bed, darlin'." Gabrielle threw the blankets aside, to her right, beckoning her partner over. "I need t'get warm somehow, y'know, an' you're it."
Abandoning the clock Claire, more or less undressed, wandered over to the partially open sash-window looking across the rear gardens of the huge country house. Leaning on the frame she gazed out, but there was nothing to see in the impenetrable darkness except for a faint silhouette of treetops against a dark sky. Nothing to be heard either, but for the quiet, somehow sinister, cry of a distant owl; accompanied at regular intervals by the crunch of gravel under Army-issue boots as an unseen sentry strolled slowly along the terrace below.
"Clocks that think they're Big bloody Ben." Claire finally headed to the wide antique four-poster, with its waiting attendant. "Owls that have nuthin' better t'do than screech all night; an' sentries who seem t'wear boots bigger than the bloody RMS Mauretania. God, y're feet are cold, gal."
"Quit whinin'." Gabrielle, easily able to handle recalcitrant lovers. "Cuddle-up, y'll soon get warm, darlin'. That's better; so, what d'you think of ol' Oberst von Leist? An' what're we gon'na do with him in the mornin'?"
"Oh, I don't know." Claire sniggered as she laid her head against the warm shoulder of her companion. "Maybe take him out to the terrace behind this pile, tomorrow; then, when no-one's lookin', shoot the b-st-rd, an' say he was tryin' t'escape. Well, it works fer me, doll."
Gabrielle lay quietly, or at least as quietly as she could with a hot-blooded New Zealander lying beside her brimful with intentions. "Hey, stop doin' that, will ya; I'm tryin' t'think."
"Har-har." Gabrielle slapped a straying hand into submission. "Later, OK? Later."
"Oh, alright, if'n ye insists." The Antipodean admitting defeat graciously. "What were ya sayin', agin?"
"von Leist; what, an' how; an' perhaps, why?"
"Yeah, yeah." Claire muttered these words quietly, then relapsed into silence.
A full minute went by, happily ignored by the clock on the mantelpiece; but not by Gabrielle.
"You asleep, lover?"
"Nah, jest cogitatin'."
"Oh, shall I get up an' find an aspirin for you?"
"Fool. You know what?"
"No, surprise me."
"I've been considering about this German Oberst, an' I've come up with a plan."
"Oh God; look, I will get up an' find that aspirin—"
"Clam up, lady, an' listen to a superior mind at work."
"Nuthin', lover of my life—please continue."
"Huumph." Claire, suspicious as all get-out, leaned over her partner, but could detect no outward sign of mutiny. "What I was thinkin' was, how about we try'n bluff him into thinkin' we're just, oh, ordinary secretaries; just there t'take some unimportant notes. Bluff him into lettin' free some secrets, or whatever?"
Gabrielle, lying in the dark, considered this plan for another minute.
"I harbour worries about your state of mind, never mind ol' H's." Gabrielle turned her head to regard the woman beside her. "That is the most imbecilic plan I have ever heard, bar none. Just sayin'."
"No, what I think is we should just be ourselves."
"Wha'd'ya mean, gal?"
"We're old hands in the fightin' game, ain't we?" Gabrielle now bright and sharp as a lark at break of day arising. "We know what's what; we're soldiers, ain't we? Well, we let him see that; perhaps let slip ourselves, some o'the things we've gotten up to. Just t'let him see he's up against salty ol' dogs, if you'll pardon the expression, darlin'. See what I'm gettin' at?"
Claire, in her turn, considered the offered plan.
"Ye-es, I think." She brushed a stray lock of black hair aside on the pillow. "Let him see we're professionals; people who can understand where he's coming from; maybe, as a result, get him to open up a bit more than he's done so far? Yeah, there's a possibility there, I'll give ya that, gal."
"We could tell him about all those times we've bombed the be-jeesus out'ta Stuttgart? Or somethin' about that time we depth-charged that U-boat, remember?
"We missed, youngster. D'you recall that minor detail?"
"Details, pah." Gabrielle showing her cold side. "He won't know that, will he? We just elaborate, is all."
"Oh, lies? Yeah, I can do lies alright, darlin'."
"What? Did I say anythin', lover? Surely not?" Gabrielle pressing the innocence button to its full potential. "So, we agreed, then?"
"Yeah, suppose so." Claire cuddling up once more; she being one to never give up hope. "It won't work, o'course; but I suppose a young gal's got'ta be given a chance, after all."
"You plannin' t'make headway in the lovin' line this dark night?"
"If so, y'might think about bein' a little more diplomatic, is all." Gabrielle, with the situation wholly in hand, like the trouper she was. "Here, come here, darlin'; there's miles o'space between us, on this dam' Victorian mattress—you not feelin' sociable, or what?"
Faced with this query Claire made the only appropriate response available.
"Oo-er, do that again, darlin'. Aaah, yes."
The morning dawned, as much as mornings in County Durham in early Spring ever could, bright and clear with a blue sky overarching the heavens. The distant owl had packed up its kit-bag and swanned-off home; the sentry on the terrace, no doubt suffering from bunions brought on by walking on gravel all night, had marched away to the nearest NAAFI; and even the clock on the mantelpiece, perhaps feeling it had indeed been a little too enthusiastic overnight, seemed to now be chiming in hushed slightly embarrassed tones. Gabrielle was first up, she needing to dash for her own room through the connecting door, before servants began appearing with cups of tea and offers to open the curtains.
The bathroom was at the end of the long corridor and, as was only to be expected, for all Gabrielle's fizz and sprightliness, it was Claire who proved triumphant in gaining first dibs with the bath and hot water, much to the blonde's indignation. Finally, once more having dressed in uniform of trousers and khaki shirt with short jerkins, the ladies made their appearance in the dining-room, gasping for sustenance.
There was no-one there, though the sideboard, as yesterday evening, was groaning under its cargo of aromatic breakfast dishes.
"All the more for us, ducks." Gabrielle taking charge of opening the lids on the silver platters and bowls. "Is there any more kedgeree? Yes, there is, yippee-kai-aai. What d'you want, lady?"
"A dry biscuit, an' a glass o' water'll do, thanks."
"Har, don't give me that, you're gasping for food, I can tell." Gabrielle not being taken in for an instant. "How about some o'what I'm havin' for my second course; bacon, fried eggs, fried tomatoes, boiled mushrooms and, is this?, yes, it is,—fried bread; I'll have a coupl'a slices o'that too, thanks; it'll all do as a base for the marmalade an' toast an' more tea, I'm gon'na finish with."
The next few minutes were taken up with perhaps the most important activity of the day—digging into breakfast like starving castaways freshly rescued from a desert island. It was only when her plate was cleared of all but grease stains, and not many of them; her heavy silver fork and knife placed genteelly on the bare china, and her fourth cup of tea pouring in a fragrant brown stream from the silver teapot's spout, that Gabrielle sat back to examine her surroundings.
"Still only us gals', dearest." She glanced at the door, which remained firmly closed. "Wonder what's keeping ol' Mackerley? What time's it, lassie?"
"Huh, lem'me see." Claire pulled her cuff up to consult her army-issue watch, always fifteen minutes slow. "Eight forty-five,—so it's around nine already."
"We'll be on duty, in the morning-room, in half an hour—to meet our German guest." Gabrielle gazing out the French-window, then back to the door. "Wonder what's keepin' him? Should we go an' explore?"
"Better not." Claire showing all her cautious nature. "Might stumble across secret activities, or somethin' equally dubious Mackerley'd rather we didn't. Better stay here till he shows up; he's the ringmaster, after all,—his show, an' all that."
It was, in fact, nine-twenty, and the ladies had finally risen to head for the dining-room door when Lieutenant Mackerley beat them to it by appearing like a rabbit from a hat.
"Oh, hallo, ladies, thought I'd find you here."
"Leavin' it a bit late fer breakfast, ain't yer?" Claire studying the young man with suspicion lending an inquiring tone to her features. "Or have ya already had it?"
"No,-no,-no; that is, no,-no."
"Lieutenant Mackerley, are you feelin' well?" Gabrielle cutting to the heart of the matter. "You're lookin' a mite pale, y'know."
The Army officer stood in front of the two women for a few seconds longer; clearly intent on weighing his options: then he burst forth with the news.
"Well, actually, a spot of bother with the payin' guests, y'know." He had made his way to the table and now picked up and began fiddling with a slice of toast Gabrielle had missed. "Oberst von Leist appears t'be playin' silly beggars this mornin'."
"In what way?" Claire already hot on the scent.
"Did I tell you last evening we lock the dam' reprobate in his bedroom of a night?" Mackerley looked glumly at the crumbling toast in his hand. "Purely for security reasons, y'understand. Don't want him thinkin' he's the Lord of the Manor, at all. Anyways, he's locked himself in, God knows quite how, an' refuses to come forth; that's the bones o'the thing. My key not workin' at all, in the way of openin' the dam' door-lock; don't know what he's done to it. Dam' annoyin'; thought him above such childish nonsense."
Gabrielle, sharp as a tack after her mighty repast, cottoned-on immediately.
"Perhaps you can give us the details on the way there." She gestured imperiously for Claire to follow in her wake as she made tracks for the corridor. "Which way,—this way? Right."
The corridor in question was on the second floor of the great mansion. The second floor going by British standards, that is; the third floor by American reckoning. Not that there were any Americans around to worry over this minor detail; the British War Department having more sense than to yet admit to their Allies they had secured such a Golden Apple, vis-à-vis the German High Command.
There were a series of doors on the left hand as the trio made their way along, with a row of tall sash windows on their right hand looking out on the main drive. The door in question lay nearly half-way along, made more obvious by the fact that the butler Handley, seeming more ancient than ever in the clear morning light, and two soldiers with rifles, stood guard outside it.
"Any action?" Mackerley addressed the corporal as they came up to the scene of action.
"Nuthin', sir." The corporal speaking in a broad almost impenetrable Newcastle accent. "Not a whimper, or movement o' any sort, sir. Jest silence."
Claire and Gabrielle stood to the left of the heavy-looking door, while Mackerley stood four-square in front of the offending barrier.
"Oh well, suppose I better try once more." He raised his hand, in a tight fist, and banged none too gently on the door. "Bloody thing would have t'be oak two hundred years old. Colonel? Colonel? Herr von Leist? Can you hear me? Please open the door; we have work to attend to, downstairs—and you haven't had your breakfast yet. You're holding the whole process up, y'know. Colonel?"
Answer came there none. Mackerley stepped back, examining the door as if it were attached to a castle, frowning the while. Then he turned to the women.
"Been at this for the last half-hour or so." He shrugged, returning his gaze to the door. "No sight or sound of the dam' ingrate at all. Well, there's only one thing left t'do; his windows, on the far side of this wing by the way, before you start askin', are far too high to get a ladder to from the outside. The only way in's through this bloody door."
"Well, what's stoppin' ya, Lieutenant?" Claire, facing the officer with a frank look. "Kick the thing in, an' let's get on with the day's work. Tell him he's lost any chance o'breakfast, an'll have t'wait fer lunch; serve him dam' well right, too."
"Not that simple, ma'am." Mackerley gesturing to the door with his left hand. "Made of solid oak; an' when I say solid, solid is precisely what I mean. Have you examined the doors on your own bedrooms?; two an' a half inches thick, set with three heavy hinges an' round-headed sunken screws. The door-locks are all mostly old Grant-Simpson deadbolts, too."
"Which is t'say, what, Lieutenant?" This from an interested Gabrielle.
"Made of brass half an inch thick, six inches long, four inches high; the whole object about two inches thick." Mackerley seemed an expert on the subject. "Your hair'd easily have sufficient time t'turn grey before you succeeded in picking it. Take a grenade or explosive t'make an impression."
"Gabrielle an' I have point four-five Webleys' in our luggage." Claire raising an eyebrow as she imparted these glad tidings. "An' you, I see, have your own Webley Service revolver to hand. What is it? A thirty-eight?"
"An' these handsome soldiers, here, have three-o'-three rifles." Gabrielle adding to the cheery atmosphere as she looked around. "With fire-power like this the door'll disintegrate, for sure. Let's do it. Hang on, will you, while Claire an' I fetch our bison-killers."
"Stop!" Mackerley nimbly stretching out a hand to grab the departing air-woman, halting her in her tracks. "Nice idea, but it won't work. Suppose I'll have to make a show of it, anyway. Just to let you see the difficulty. Stand back, I'm goin' t'pop off a few at the lock. Watch out for ricochets."
The soldiers took instant evasive action, as if well-used to the curious, and generally dangerous, thought-processes of their superiors; Claire and Gabrielle rather more reluctantly moving along the corridor a few feet, leaving the brave young Lieutenant sole possessor of the door and its environs. Glancing from side to side to make sure everyone was safely distant, he took his revolver from its holster and cocked his piece. Suddenly, looking down at the deadly weapon, he sighed, then put a hand in the pocket of his uniform jacket, glancing towards his female guests the while.
"Not loaded; never liked the idea of a loaded revolver sittin' on my hip,—always worried I might blow my bal—aahr, injure myself, don't-cher know. Hang on."
When he was finally ready he stood a couple of feet away from his target, at a slight angle, then fired with a two-handed grip. In the confined space the explosion sounded like a bomb going off, but the bullet missed the brass lock completely, hitting the oak door in a burst of dust and wooden shrapnel, then ricocheting as if from an armoured plate. The bullet then bounced off the opposite wall, zipping at shoulder height between the two female spectators, making them both dive for the floor as one, hands over their heads.
After the smoke had settled, and the lucky survivors risen to their shaking feet again, it could be seen the door was hardly scratched; just a small narrow cut in the oak where the .38 projectile had hit the door, which still stood firm and strong, regardless. Claire was looking daggers at the Lieutenant, while Gabrielle held firmly to her partner's elbow to prevent mutiny or worse breaking out.
"Ha, er, sorry about that." Mackerley considered the scene of wreckage and mayhem, like a JU-88 over its target, then sighed deeply once more. "Well, there you are. See what I mean? Don't know how we're gon'na get in the bloody bedroom, not without actually usin' a dam' grenade. We don't have any explosive here, y'know. Suppose we could search around in the greenhouses an' sheds in the gardens; see if there're any axes or suchlike."
"What? What?" Mackerley nonplussed at the quiet remark in the now dust-laden atmosphere of the narrow corridor. "Who's that?"
"Me, sir." Handley had stepped forward from whatever dark shadow had formed his place of retreat during the late action. "May I make a remark, sir?"
"Yes, what? I'm kind of occupied at the moment, Handley, if you hadn't noticed."
"This door, sir." The butler clearly being a man little used to long conversations with his betters.
"What about it, Handley?" Gabrielle here butting in, as by her nature bound. "Got any suggestions? The suggestion-box bein' open for business as we speak, y'know."
"If gaining entrance to the Oberst's bedroom is the point under discussion, perhaps I may offer a sug—something not, ah, inappropriate, sir?"
"Get on with it, Handley." Claire not having the patience of her better half. "If'n you have anythin' concrete regardin' the present situation, spit it out, laddie."
"Well, sir," Handley continuing to address the Lieutenant the while, as if he alone were honorary Master of the Household. "whilst it is a fact that every guest has their own key to their rooms; or you, sir, have control of those you require—I also, as butler, do you see, sir, have a set of duplicate keys, to every room in the building; and a skeleton key, useful for opening any one of the many separate locks in the whole house. I may put forward the hope, indeed near certainty, sir, that said skeleton key, presently residing on its hook in my pantry, may well open the door where your, er, ordinary key and, er, extra-ordinary purposes have failed in their, um, outcome, sir."
A long, long pause ensued; the dust in the crowded corridor gently settling or wafting in faint swirls in the disturbed air. Then Mackerley found his voice once more.
"Duplicates? To every room in the house?"
"Just so, sir."
"To,—to,—to this room, too?"
"You have a spare key, a skeleton key, to this room, and all you need do is go and get it, then we can just walk straight in? Is that what you're tellin' me, Handley?"
"Exactly so, sir. A most clear statement of the position, if I may say so, sir. It won't take me five minutes, sir."
It took the best efforts of both Claire and Gabrielle, standing on either side of the irate Lieutenant holding onto his arms for all their worth, to stop cold murder staining the till now innocent history of the old house. But, a minute later, Mackerley had regained his composure, or what tattered fragments remained of it. Taking a deep breath, he addressed the situation like the gentleman he was.
"Do so, Handley, at once; and, please, don't let the grass grow under your feet in the doing so, thank you."
The fabled skeleton key, on its production, was everything it had been touted as being; the lock clicking open with the first turn of Mackerley's quivering hand. But, after the first half-inch, the door again proved obstinate, stopping in its tracks with hardly an inch of clear space between its edge and the frame.
Gabrielle here bravely stepped up to the mark; gesturing the Lieutenant aside with a graceful wave, she then put her shoulder to the barrier and heaved like a good 'un.
"He's put a wedge against the hinge-frame inside, and on the floor too, I think." She stepped back, took a deep breath, and heaved forward again. "Auurth, one more."
With her third heave the door, as if tired of the game, snapped open sending Gabrielle reeling into the room, falling on her knees on the carpet.
Mackerley, closely followed by Claire and the soldiers, followed, like a wave of Amazons and Vikings on a raid, stepping around and over the fallen warrior as they went; only Claire stopping to render first-aid.
"You OK, dar—Gabrielle?"
"Yeah, yeah, just winded." Gabrielle, after being hauled to her feet by a gentle but strong hand, leaned down to brush her trousers free of dust, looking around as she did so. "Where's the bloody Oberst, then? I got a few words I wan'na exchange with him."
It was Mackerley, returning pale-faced from the small bathroom, who gave the sad news.
"He's just gone an' bloody topped himself, is all." He stopped, breathing deeply, looking as if he wanted to throw up. "Seems to have cut his throat, blood every-bloody-where. Here, don't go—"
But Claire and Gabrielle, ignoring this advice, advanced on the open bathroom door, determination glittering in their eyes. Standing at the entrance they could see the whole interior; huddled on the floor, by the white-enameled sink with its silvery taps, lay a twisted form. It was dressed in pale-blue striped pyjamas, facing away from the women, surrounded on the white-tiled floor by a spreading pool of dark crimson congealing blood; the sink itself seeming soaked in the same liquid. Of movement there was no sign. Curiously, it was Gabrielle who first stepped cautiously inside to kneel at the side of the motionless body. A quick examination being enough.
"Dead as a doornail; been so for hours, cold as ice, an' I think rigor mortis's settin' in. Cut his throat with somethin', certainly. Well, that's that."
"Hardly the conclusion we were hoping for, I must say."
Sitting behind his desk, a week later in the tiny almost squalid office on the third floor of Somerset House in London on the banks of the Thames, Group-Captain Graham took stock of the situation.
"Bit of a balls-up all round, apparently." He continued musing on the catastrophe, gloomily. "Can't say anybody's really to blame, nonetheless. Who'd have thought he'd take a silver table-knife to himself? Must have been determined not to give you, or Lieutenant Mackerley, the slightest chance to worm anything of importance out of him at all. Well, well."
"Did anyone get anything out'ta him, sir?" Claire, searching for any kind of silver lining. "Anything at all?"
"Not a sausage." Graham snorted angrily. "Didn't tell anyone anythin' of interest. Kept his mouth shut to the bitter end. Dam' Nazis. All seemingly mindlessly attached to that crackpot H., as if it were all that mattered in their warped world. Silly fools."
A pause enveloped the trio; Graham tapping a pencil on his desk like an automaton; Gabrielle studying a dead fly, lying on its back by the glass inkwell; Claire gazing upwards to the filthy ceiling with unfocussed eyes.
"Back to Little Lanning for us then, sir?" Gabrielle, attempting to grasp the frayed cords of reality once more. "Got anything for us, sir, in the way of bombing the Hell out'ta the German population once again?"
"Humph, don't make it sound like a nuisance, keeping you from your skiing holiday in the Alps." Graham waxing coldly sarcastic, as was his usual wont. "As it happens, I do have a little jape ready waiting on the slipway for you both. Here, take these files, you can study them on your way back to the airfield. Norfolk standing up to all your expectations, ladies?"
"Norfolk couldn't inject an expectation in anyone if it tried fer a century, sir." Claire letting rip with her whole soul. "Flat fields to the horizon in every direction; nasty airfields scattered everywhere; Dam' Americans, with their dam' B Seventeen's, gallivantin' all over the shop. Place's like the entrance to Tartarus, sir,—only sayin'."
Group-Captain Graham wasn't impressed.
"Huumph, well, next time you're in your cockpit in your Stirling, just sit back an' think of England, if you don't mind. Dismissed."
"Oh, I hope not, darlin'." Gabrielle trying to instil some backbone into her companion as they walked along Whitehall. "An' change the habits of a lifetime? What'd I do for an occupation, then?"
"Idiot,—but I loves yer t'bits, nonetheless."
"Thanks, doll; ditto, from me. Hey, is that an ABC tea-shop over on the corner?"
"You know dam' well it is, lady." Claire staring down at the blonde partner of her life. "What ya got planned? No, don't tell me; jam scones an' tea?"
"An' what's wrong with scrumptious cakes, may I ask?" Gabrielle holding Claire's hand as they crossed the road. "Even though they'll probably cost us the best part of a week's ration coupons."
"Nuthin', nuthin' at all, dear." Claire, on top of the situation as ever. "Who's payin' fer this sybaritic feast? You? I left my ration book back at Little Lanning."
"Oh, dam' it."
The next 'Mathews and Parker' story will appear shortly.