On a crisp autumn night in the twenty-first century, a car is pulled from the depths of an Austrian lake. A skeleton grips the wheel. Finally, an answer: William Grover-Williams, the premier English race-car driver of his generation and a hero of the French Resistance, met his end at the bottom of a mountain lake.
Or did he?
In the Roaring Twenties, Grover-Williams and Frenchman Robert Benoist were teammates and rivals on the Bugatti racing team. Locked in a fierce competition for the world championship, they also raced to win the heart of the gorgeous Eve Aubicq. Then the war changed everything—and nothing. As members of the British Special Operations Executive, Grover-Williams and Benoist dashed across France in support of the Resistance, but it wasn’t just the Nazis they had to watch out for. Double agents were everywhere, and friendship—or love, for that matter—was no guarantee of loyalty. Every morning, Will, Robert, and Eve had to look in the mirror and ask: Whom can I trust today? The wrong answer might just have spelled their doom.
Early One Morning is the 1st book in the Secret War Trilogy, which also includes Blue Noon and Night Crossing.
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Early One Morning
By Robert Ryan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Robert Ryan
All rights reserved.
Austria, October 2001
John Deakin glances across at his passenger and wonders when she is going to speak. The old woman is sitting stock still and upright, the bony hands crossed on her lap, staring out at the backdrop of Alpine scenery. For a moment he thinks she must have fallen asleep, but he catches a movement as she blinks, a long slow stroke of a blue-veined eyelid across watery, opaque eyes. The old lady has barely said a word since Salzburg where he picked her up off the plane, other than a thank you when he helped her into the hired Mercedes.
He sees the sign for the lake and makes the right, carefully feeding through the Autobahn traffic heading east towards Linz. Habit makes him check for a tail, but nobody else pulls off and there is nothing ahead on the road snaking up into the high glacial valley where the lake sits. They have the route to themselves. At this time of year, after the summer walkers have gone, the cows brought down from pasture and before the first snows fall, the mountains and lakes get a little peace. Except for Lake Senlitz. It will not have any for a few months yet.
Not for the first time that day he wonders about the old woman next to him. Fly out to Salzburg and await instructions he was told. He'd barely been there a day when the message came from the Consulate that he was to pick up one Dame Rose Miller. Extra-VIP. Deakin hadn't argued. The phone call that followed from Sir Charles, no less, was very clear. She deserves our respect and our thanks and she won't be with us much longer. Indulge her this once.
And, if he was honest, it was nice to be back in the old firm, even if this time it was a UDA. Ten thousand for a week's work. Pretty good money. Better than he got organising security at corporate events. It had been four years since they had said, sorry, Deakin, too many spies, not enough enemies. Not a bad severance package, but he'd been only thirty-eight. Hardly the age he had expected to be put out to grass.
Deakin has asked around, made some discreet calls, trying to get some operational background but the truth about his elderly passenger came from well before even his time. Fifties, possibly sixties, about the time of the real scandals, your Blakes and your Burgesses. Then finally he'd tracked Seagrove on a secure line and he'd admitted he'd heard the old girl was involved in a UDA back in the immediate postwar period. Berlin, Vienna, somewhere like that. Unofficial Deniable Actions. Off the meter, as they used to say in his department.
'It's about another twenty kilometres.'
Her thin voice may lack power but it still makes him jump.
She turns and looks at him, fixing him with those cloudy eyes. 'Deakin isn't it?'
'When we get there I should like to stay in the car. Not up to messing about in boats.'
'As you wish, ma'am.'
'Not ma'am, please. Makes me feel dead already. Rose will do, Deakin.'
He nods, knowing he will never be able to bring himself to call this dignified and scary old lady anything of the sort.
She reaches into her handbag and extracts a pair of Zeiss binoculars. 'Just park me so I can keep an eye on things, Deakin, eh?'
'And ring me.'
She hands him a card with a mobile number on it. Not such a relic of the past after all. 'Of course.'
Then, from the bag, Rose takes a Carrier watch, and Deakin gets the impression of great weight, and catches the sparkle of diamonds. She slips it on to her wrist, ludicrously large against the shrunken flesh clinging to the bones. She catches him staring and says, 'Lovely, isn't it? It's coming home, Deakin. At long last.'
Then, after being a silent companion, she turns positively garrulous.
Deakin pulls his coat tighter as he crunches down the gravel path from the makeshift car park to the mirrored waters of Lake Senlitz, its surface glinting like polished obsidian. It may only be autumn, with the hills and mountainsides still dappled with delicate yellow and purple flowers, but Senlitz exists in permanent winter, deep and icy and forbidding, the chill it exudes lowering the temperature in the valley by a couple of degrees. Below him, on the edge of the inky water, he can see Simon Warner, the Chief Archivist of the Imperial War Museum.
Warner looks to Deakin like a slumming Oxford don, a man who would be more at home in tweeds and an egg-stained knitted tie than the blue overalls and green Wellingtons he is currently wearing. Behind Warner, out on the lake, are a pair of low, functional dive barges, hoists spouting from each side, with black inflatable Zodiacs zipping around like worker bees feeding the queen. On the very far shore, standing on the low cliffs that ring the southern end of the lake, is a derelict cottage with a dangerously crooked chimney. Around a kilometre from it to the west squats a large steam-powered crane, its jib hanging over the water, a hawser disappearing into the liquid night below.
Deakin reaches Warner who stands, clearly an irritated man, but one whose sense of good manners overrules any other considerations. He holds out his hand and says without much expression, 'Mr Deakin? Simon Warner. Imperial War Museum. Welcome to Lake Senlitz.'
Deakin takes the hand with his firmest grip and says, 'Hello. Thanks for waiting for me.'
'Six days. It's a long time.' Yes, thinks Deakin, he's pissed off. The Department has put a block on his activities for close to a week until they could rustle up him and Rose. He'd warrant Warner would be even more angry before the day was out. They were about to take his baby away from him.
'I know, I know. My people are very grateful.'
'Talking of which ...' says Warner.
Deakin hesitates, gets his drift and shows some ID, hastily arranged by the Consulate to bring him on-side.
Warner nods. 'So why are you chaps so damn' interested? When we were trying to get funding for this, we were told by the FO and all its many, many departments that this was ancient history.'
'That was before your divers stumbled across some of our property. Shall we go?'
'Your—?' he begins, but Deakin is off, striding over to one of the black rubber Zodiacs. Without being asked, he clambers inside, wrinkling his nose at the smell, a combination of fetid water and the synthetic skin that suggests a thousand condoms fused together. Warner starts the engine and they putter out on to the lake, heading for the nearer dive barge.
By way of conversation, Warner asks, 'Do you know what else we are doing here? Other than recovering your property?'
'I know it probably isn't Nazi gold.'
Warner smiles for the first time. 'Yes, it's always Reichsgeld, isn't it? At least as far as the newspapers are concerned anyway. What we have got are the plates that the Germans created to flood Britain with forged currency. Do you know that by the end of the war up to a quarter of the five-pound notes in circulation were thought to be fakes? That's why they had to be changed.'
Deakin knows, but he just grunts. Let the man show off.
'Plus there is believed to be a lot of the money itself. More importantly there are also records of several concentration camps. Sachsenhausen among them.'
Deakin is interested now. 'Really?'
'Really,' and he adds pointedly, 'that is why we have some financial help from the Holocaust Center in New York.'
They pull level with the dive barge. A few figures wave, including what looks like a policeman. Warner catches Deakin's puzzled expression.
'Austrian police. It's their lake now, so we have to observe certain protocols. Keep them in the picture, basically.'
A thought occurs to Deakin. 'Won't it all be rotten? The money and the records?'
'Not at all. Very cold, very anaerobic down there. If the containers were properly sealed, no reason why everything shouldn't at least be legible if treated properly. That's why we have that.' Warner points to a large marquee on the shoreline. 'To preserve the material as soon as it comes out of the water, by whatever method is appropriate.'
They are around a hundred metres from the far shore now and Warner heaves to. He takes a mobile phone from inside his overalls, dials, and tells the crane operator he can begin, adding, with a sarcastic sneer, now that their VIP has arrived. Deakin glances back to the car park, the Mercedes a small outline now, but fancies he can see the binoculars trained on them. He can certainly feel Rose Miller's stare, even at this distance.
The crane engine starts a rhythmic thumping and belches black smoke. The hawser twitches, like an. angler's line when the bait is taken by something large and unseen, then tensions and finally starts to move. Off to the left a pair of divers surface in a flurry of bubbles to witness their handiwork.
The steel line reels in and in, starting to swing a little as the object gains a little buoyancy, then tightens again as a bubble of long-trapped stale air escapes from the hidden treasure. The main hawser ends in a large ring and sends off four sub-divisions, each cable connected to the corner of the sunken bulk. Finally, like the back of a metal cetacean, a curve of rust appears, then the full roofline of a car.
'It's a Humber, we believe,' says Warner, 'although there was quite a lot of sediment over it. Probably a British staff car.' Deakin says nothing. Of course it was. Dame Rose has told him what to expect.
The remains of the windows have cleared the surface and black water starts to pour from within, receding in a rush, revealing the shattered windscreen and, grinning the strange mocking rictus of the human skull, a de-fleshed head, peering over the driver's side door.
It takes an agonising two hours to get the Humber across onto a stable platform, for the Austrian police to take their photographs of the body in situ and for a scene-of-crime team to arrive from Salzburg. The SoCs set to work with a desultory air. Old skeletons—old British skeletons judging from the tattered greatcoat cloaking the bones—don't seem to push their enthusiasm buttons overmuch.
Deakin walks away from the activity and finally rings the old lady, imagining her digging in the bag for the mobile, the claw-like fingers trying to find the tiny buttons. But instead she is on the line immediately.
'Can you see it, ma'am?'
'Very well, Deakin, very well. Taking their time, aren't they? But I can't read the number. Is it still there?'
From his notebook he reads off the faded, barely legible serial number from the side of the bonnet.
'Yes,' she says, softly, 'that's mine. That's my car.'
'And that's him?'
'Open the trunk.'
'The police are treating it as a crime scene, ma'am.'
'Bugger the police,' she snaps. 'You hear me? Sort it out, Deakin. Remember who you are.'
He rings off, feeling admonished. Bugger the police. Remember who you are. Fine when you're sitting on the other side of the lake playing at being Queen Victoria. We are not amused, get on with it. He takes a deep breath, walks around to the boot of the car and, before anyone can stop him, yanks it open. A thin stream of gritty water sploshes down onto his trousers and he curses. Inside is more silt, wrapped around what was clearly a trunk of some kind. Warner comes round to see what he has found.
'Should you be doing this?' he asks priggishly.
Deakin ignores him and uses a finger to scrape away at the top of the trunk, revealing the ghostly imprint of the famed Louis Vuitton pattern, now bubbled and split. Riveted to the front is a brass name plate with a single word in copperplate writing, still clear after all these years.
'Well,' says Warner, looking up as the Austrian pathology team slowly lever the bony remains from their resting place behind the wheel, 'at least we know who he was now.'CHAPTER 2
Versailles, March 1928
Williams was halfway up the stairs to the main salon with the bottle of Margaux when he heard the insistent hiss behind him. He turned to find Eve making a series of strange faces at him, as if trying to settle on a suitable expression.
'Wait. You can't go in there looking like that.'
Williams looked down at himself and studied his dark woollen chauffeur's uniform. It was freshly cleaned and pressed, and the brass buttons shone proudly. True, it was the second-best winter outfit, but smart enough for most formal occasions. 'What's wrong, Miss?'
From the salon above came a peal of laughter, and he recognised the tone. One decanter down already, another on the way. It was going to be a four or five bottler.
Williams checked as surreptitiously as he could that his fly buttons were fastened, then repeated the question. 'What's wrong, Miss?'
Eve advanced two steps and shook her ringlets from her face. Although, as usual, she wore no makeup, she appeared to have rouged her cheeks. Williams looked closer. No, she was blushing, something he had never seen her do in the months he had worked for Sir William. And he had seen her in positions that would make a brothel madam colour up. She nodded at the silver tray and its contents.
'Can I take it in?'
A second more piercing laugh. The guest.
'Do you know who that is in there with Bill?' Eve Aubicq always insisted on speaking English to him, even though she knew his own French was word perfect.
'You'll never guess.' Williams wasn't even going to try. Sooner or later they all came by, from David, Prince of Wales downwards, all the great and the not-so-good, seeing if they could get themselves Orpen-ed for posterity. Eve lowered her voice and in a hoarse whisper she finally told him: 'Charlie Chaplin.'
'Chaplin? Here?' Chaplin was a massive star in France and the city had been flattered by his full-length film Woman of Paris, possibly the only place where it received unanimous praise. 'Is Chaplin after a portrait, Miss?'
'From what I hear Orps doesn't have a canvas big enough to accommodate his head.'
Williams smiled and handed over the wine, glasses and corkscrew. 'And now is your chance to find out?'
She nodded eagerly. 'I'll let you know.'
Williams wondered where Eve stood on the subject of Lita Grey, the young wife whom Chaplin had married at sixteen and who three years later sued the star for insisting she performed 'abnormal, unnatural, perverted and degenerate' sexual acts. The French avant garde had rallied to the Chaplin cause, with one magazine claiming the act of fellatio was 'general, pure and defendable'. Williams then realised the strange sound in his ears was his breathing and he had best stop thinking too closely about Eve's attitude to such things.
He retraced his steps downstairs to his subterranean rooms next to the wine cellar, changed into coveralls and headed back up for the front drive, where the Rolls stood.
This was the time of year when the big car earned its keep, gliding between Dieppe and Longchamps and the Champs Elysées, ferrying Orpen and Eve from one point on the French social carousel to another, occasionally dipping off into the dark sidestreets of Pigalle and along Raspaill for an invigorating—to Orpen at least—taste of the seamier side of Paris. It was a beautiful car, a six-cylinder Phantom 1, not two years old, but it required plenty of love and attention if it was to perform at its finest.
Williams had reached the top of the stairs when Eve reappeared in the hallway, her face still flushed, but now a darker colour, as if her skin had been bruised.
'Are you all right, Miss?' he enquired cautiously.
She spluttered for a second before blurting, in French this time, 'He asked if I had a younger sister for him. Younger.'
She pursed her lips to show her deep irritation and stomped upstairs, her heels clacking on the polished runners. Williams waited until she was two floors up before he allowed himself to smile.
Sir William Orpen grunted to himself as he traced the line of Eve's breast. Still not right. So hard to capture the complex shape, the muscles and fat and tendons, the way the right one rested on the rumpled sheets, the beautifully delineated curve running from her left armpit, the glorious blush of pink at the tip. He'd done her twenty, twenty-five times, and on each occasion he reached this stage where he was convinced he could no longer capture Eve's beauty. He had to work through it. He always had before. Now she was no longer a teenager, it was getting harder. The unlined, guileless, still-pubescent body has been simple. In her late twenties, she was becoming more complex, more interesting, more of a challenge. More beautiful. He could see it in the new lust in the eyes of his friends, even if not in Mr Chaplin's.
Excerpted from Early One Morning by Robert Ryan. Copyright © 2002 Robert Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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