By Gary Prisk
The world’s richest bankers are killing Special Service British Commandos to keep their currency arbitrage plans a secret. By raiding the stocks of Germany’s most prosperous industrial companies, Keppler’s Circle of Friends intend to elevate Heinrich Himmler to Chancellor, and rid Germany of Adolf Hitler.
Captain Edward Hardin is their last obstacle.
Chapter 1: “Southern Burma”
Southern Burma. 10 August 1939, 1438 Hours, Greenwich Mean Time, GMT + 6.5 Hours.
When Hardin came at last awake, he was four days beyond death. He scoffed a futile laugh. Reasoning had become impossible. He had not eaten in two days—or was it six days?
Little can match the bitterness of the monsoon or the death of a faithful soldier. There was even less to comfort the living in Burma—in the jungle north of Malaya, nothing at all.
Dying was the easiest thing he could do—a barely noticeable distraction. Grumpy, Hardin’s signals sergeant, was fated to die—a young man wrapped in a torn khaki guise.
Hardin spit at the rain. I’ll miss the turning sky. My mate’s voices. Their shadowed smiles.
An old chest wound throbbed with a distant ache that spiked whenever he coughed. The bullet wound across the front of his right thigh wept with a sticky fluid. When he tried to bend his knees, pain from his thigh shot through his balls and into his lower back. The sequence made him grunt and lift his chest to absorb a hacking cough.
And now came a new note of complaint—Captain Edward Hardin lay dying. The glassy brightness of recent fever shone in his eyes.
Calm at times, he could not stop shivering.
Wedged in the corner of a bullock cart, he gripped the top sideboard. He pressed his cheek into his hand. Slime mold coated the cart’s sideboards and its worn wooden deck.
I may as well be west of hell, he thought. My team was ambushed. I can’t find my Thompson or my knife. I’m being held captive by a bloody water buffalo. Hunted by mercenaries. And tracked by what I think is a young woman.
In the steaming heat, the minutes seemed as hours and the hours hard to follow.
The captain was a tall, hard-bitten man, with black curly hair, his gaunt, wide-jawed cheeks covered with a blue-black scruff of twisted hair. For weeks, he had played Mother-May-I with a jungle more tuned to savaging his vitals than lending a hand—his body pitted by leeches boiling from the rot on the jungle floor. His humping tackle spared; his little-used piss tube had become a shriveled twig.
Distant lightning illuminated the periphery of the track way, and far-off thunder drummed with the rain beating on the canopy. Hardin watched his back trail. He cocked his head. Why is she hiding?
Mopping sweat from his face, he licked salt from his wrist.
Searching the funnel of vegetation behind the cart his vision showed two frames, for each eye. In seconds, his vision cleared. His pulse carried on with a sickening force. As the visual frames rushed to join, a man leapt across the track thirty meters behind the cart.
Hardin’s memory keyed on the man—something about him. His massive bulk reminded him of Grumpy. But this man was stoop shouldered. He was carrying a rifle. No, a machete. Hardin wasn’t sure in the dim light.
“It’s one of my ghosts.”
Days ago, after his team was ambushed, automatic weapons fire lanced the canopy above his head. Wounded and unable to run, he changed direction and hobbled until the pain ripped at his stride. Gasping, stumbling, he fell against a rock. Hardin lowered his head to shield his face, breathing with his mouth open. His mind was a clatter of blurred pictures.
Wind-whipped rain rattled off his head.
A day ago, at twilight, Hardin had crawled into a cavern behind a jumble of vine-covered boulders and closed his eyes. Instantly, the mosquitoes swarmed down on his face to have a slap. He could hear their wingbeats as he lost consciousness.
Hardin woke with a jerk. The sun was parsing the canopy. Listening for movement, for vegetation being brushed aside, he set his shoulders against the base of a tree and waited. Slowly, he took a strip of his shirt and tied it around his upper thigh to staunch the flow of blood from his leg wound. His rucksack was a sodden mess.
His essentials were dry—cigarettes and matches.
Satisfied he was alone, he used his last bit of plastique explosive to heat a cup of tea, took his last salt tablet and then lit a cigarette. He had to keep moving. During the first hour he barely stumbled on, pausing in the shelter of a tree from time to time to search his backtrail.
Later, after drinking from a stream, he began picking his way at a faster pace. The game trail he found drew him into a corral of sorts. Tangled in a patch of interwoven vines he fell to his knees. Try as he might, he did not have the strength to stand. How long he lay in the compost he did not know.
His shivering had settled his face into the mud.
After burning a leech off his neck with a cigarette, he started walking… falling… crawling… standing, a collusive cycle. Exhausted, he leaned against a tree. Struggling with the buttons on his pants, he hauled out his cock and stood shivering as he was finally able to pump ship without his left kidney howling with pain.
The jungle had fallen into a pulsing silence. Not an even pulse, more a conniving. The odor of a mud flat mingled with the sea mist lingered in the morning air, and, in the intrigue particular to this silence, a wet, infectious, heavy smell.
Hardin closed his eyes to picture Ross Island, a jungled outcrop two hundred meters north of his rally point in the Mergui Archipelago.
Instead, the sea off Lizard Point, near his childhood home in Cornwall, crashed along a rocky shore.
Curlews and gulls were screaming.
Hesitant, uncertain, he realized no jungle birds were calling out the day, and no rustle rattled in the palm fronds. The jungle lay vacant. All the while, a murmur rose throughout the canopy—a high, minuscule hum, nearly beyond reach of his ear.
Much of the overcast had broken. A mist filled the top of the trees.
Wild thoughts were colliding. Of the outside world, he was unaware. The betrayal of his team ran a disturbing gamut. Exhausted, he wiped mud from the stock of his Thompson. The sub-machine gun had gained weight—good for close combat—jungle combat.
Hardin stared out to sea. Dimly, at the end of the game trail, through a thin veil of rain, he glimpsed a schooner near the shore heading north and the faint outline of a transport framed against a far-off gathering sky.
Warily, too clumsy to remain undetected, he hobbled across an open stretch of knee-high grass. An oily sweat, a pore-fungus, had joined with the jungle’s mist, staining his face. Standing inside a tree line to listen, he began arguing with himself as to how his team was ambushed. And why some for-hire bastard was hunting him.
Have I been cashiered? Am I on my own?
By now 10 Downing knew of Team 7’s fate. The Queen Mother’s boffins always knew. One of the six radio relay stations in the Bay of Bengal area of operations would have sent a signal indicating they had lost contact with the team. Would Mother respond? Would Admiral Sinclair initiate a search by friendly indigenous fighters? If the Admiral knew a commando had survived the ambush, would he attempt a rescue?
Surely the radio intercept station at Lion Rock on the island of Ceylon alerted the old broad that Team 7 had dropped off the net.
To hell with Mother. Her bloody pride—never checked or resigned. She mops the seas, from continent to continent, never at odds with Greenwich Mean Time. She won’t find the man I used to be. I’ve acquired a soiled mind.
In South East Asia, in August 1939, a long-range penetration mission might last a lifetime and be shorter than a rainy day.
Hardin’s memories persisted: For the rest of the morning and through the afternoon, he thought of Baxter Corcoran, the steam ship captain whom his mates and crew called Uncle Dingo. He wondered if the Aussie would make the rally point near Ross Island.
He knew Uncle ground the corn of his missions. Details and variables were analyzed. Threats were segmented by type, location, and probable timing. Mother’s weans in China Bay, Ceylon, could tell Uncle what to do. They could not tell him how to do it.
Hardin’s mate was a raucous Aussie with unforgiving guile—a touchy-as-hell Jack who looked at life through dusty fly wire. With rum and a good cigar, Uncle could blind himself with sheer belief, donating half his pay to the sailors’ home near Candle Creek, in Australia.
My wild mate is bobbing about in the Bay of Bengal. And the cobber is dry. My mate is sitting in a warm day-cabin on his steamer, drinking rum with Molly, and smoking cigars. You can trust him for that.
Hardin stood into a small recess and lit a cigarette. Knowing the aroma of tobacco would linger in the dense canopy, he took a final draw and shredded the remainder of the fag. He knew he was being followed. A hunter always knows.
The sun was sinking into the Bay of Bengal as shadows gathered at the base of the rainforest spires. The mist was cool and heavy. Mud pulled at his feet as he walked away from a small stream, trailing his wounded leg. Struggling to keep moving instead of laying-up to ambush the tracker, he changed directions—east, south, west, south.
Stopping to listen, he had shouldered his rucksack and was checking the bolt housing on his weapon, watching a mosquito drill into the back of his right hand, when he caught the flash of a bamboo rod as it crashed into the side of his head.
Since being clobbered, there had been days and nights of lying in a rickety ox cart mumbling to himself. The knot on the side of his head had closed his right eye and nearly covered his ear.
Damn good thing it wasn’t a bloody cricket bat.
Candle Creek, New South Wales. 15 July 1939.
The enlisted men’s club at Candle Creek lay in shambles thanks to the commandos selected for the Special Operations Executive Force 136 Group B, Team 7. The roustabouts had just finished six weeks of training, bush ranging for hundreds of miles, living on short rations, honing their movement and communication skills for Operation Snow White, a deep-penetration mission into northern Tonkin near the Chinese border.
Laying on the verge of the airstrip at Candle Creek, drinking their last round of gunfire, tea mixed with rum, the commandos laughed and joked as they waited for a long-range aircraft.
Cocksure lads they were, plucked from the ranks of the 1st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry—one of Mother’s finest fighting units. Trained in the school for bloody mayhem, in the jungles of Panama and the outback and waters of New South Wales, they were the best guerrilla fighters in the world. The lads who volunteered to scour the jungles of hell.
Captain Edward Hardin, code name “Doc,” was their team leader. Sporting a hangover that made his hair hurt, he gathered his team around a small fire. “Snow White is definitely a long-range mission. If all goes well, we should be in and out in four weeks. We run through Laos and Thailand down into southern Burma and onto the Malay Peninsula.”
“Snow White’s a whore,” Grumpy shouted.
“Yes, she is,” Hardin agreed. “The parachute jump has been changed to a night jump into northern Tonkin so we can snatch Burma’s Catholic Bishop being held by communist guerrillas near the Chinese border—guerrillas being trained and supplied by countries around the world to fight the Japanese in Southeast Asia.
“Bloody hell,” Grumpy declared. “A night jump on the tail of the monsoon. We’re going to be hanging in the fucking trees, with manky bastards shooting at us.”
“There’s a good chance,” Hardin said. “Spicy, that’s Snow White—a vicious tart, that one.” Hardin kicked Sleepy’s boot to wake him.
“George West is the bishop’s handle. According to Dewar, he works the Vatican’s black-market in Indo-China—trading rubber, tin, and opium on behalf of the Vatican’s Prefecture of Extraordinary Affairs. West was recruited in ‘37 by MI6, Section D, to trade for the Household—the Windsors.
“The spooks want this priest alive and in England.”
“The bastard will stay alive if he can keep up our pace,” Grumpy declared.
“Phase Two: we escort the bishop to Haiphong’s British passport office.”
Grumpy stood and kicked his rucksack. “How fat is this papist bastard?”
“Maybe this one’s skinny,” Dopey said.
“That’s why we decided you were Dopey, Wingrove,” Grumpy said, finishing his gunfire.
Hardin offered Grumpy another shot of rum, and said, “Phase Three: we infiltrate through Laos and Thailand into southern Burma gathering information on Japanese activity in the region.
“Phase Four: rendezvous with Captain Baxter Corcoran’s steamer near Ross Island in the Mergui Archipelago for extraction. Uncle Dingo will be on time.
“Grumpy will set the pace.” Hardin picked a small twig out of the fire and lit a cigarette.
“If he slows us down, I say we shoot him,” Grumpy declared.
Hardin shook his head. Certain and hard were these bush-rangers selected for Team 7. Keeping Grumpy under control was a worry. None of the commandos liked the operational code signs Hardin had selected—strictly bollocks was Sleepy’s charge.
Robin Wingrove held a bewildered expression. He was Dopey. Tall and lanky, with crystal blue eyes and a pointed jaw, he carried a spoon and fork in this breast pocket of his uniform.
Dudley Sutton was eight-months married, couldn’t stop smiling, and talked to a tattered picture of his bride. Sutton was an inch short of six feet with a square jaw, and a neck that was part of his shoulders. He was Happy.
Nathan Everett was Bashful, remote and detached. Barely over five foot and six, he liked to stand somewhat removed from the team. And yet he was dangerous. Everett would fight at the drop of a hat. Often for reasons no one else could fathom.
Rory Campbell was Sneezy. A man badgered by hay fever and loud nasal exchanges, Sneezy carried a thick cotton muffler to deaden the noise. The medics at Candle Creek assured him the muffler was useless. The training center phycologists praised adrenaline as a potent antihistamine. They were confident that Campbell would not sneeze when under stress.
At twenty-six years of age, obviously too old to muster an oak-hard stiffy, Harlin Rogers training nickname was Pops. At five feet plus ten he was so skinny he needed a rucksack to cast a shadow. Hardin assigned him the code name, Sleepy.
Dirch Jensen was Grumpy. An all-England football legend that never smiled, with thighs bigger than Sleepy’s chest, he could run for days without rest. Jensen was born ornery. He liked to argue with his superiors. Any subject would do. As Team 7’s wireless-radio operator he would say anything to anyone over the airways.
For Captain Edward Hardin, Grumpy was the perfect signals sergeant. He could sense Hardin’s frustration with backbenchers and would tell them to bugger off. Or piss off. Or any number of declarations designed to end a radio transmission.
Hardin was the Doctor—Doc. Team 7’s team leader.
“Sutton’s not going to get laid for months,” Rogers chimed. “He’s got a pair of her nickers in his rucksack to remind him of home.”
“He’s not like you, Rogers. So old and slow he can’t get it up.” Grumpy laughed. “So old his hand has worn out its blisters.”
“You are a grumpy bugger,” Everett said.
“Doc. Where’s our airplane?” Wingrove asked.
“Well Dopey, you’ll know where it is when it lands.”
Captain Hardin finished his gunfire and looked at each face. “Your identity discs only have your code names on them. Start using the names after we exit the aircraft above Tonkin.”
Hardin knew these men were bush-rangers by the casual way they wore their day—laughing and jaw-jacking each other as if it weren’t raining. There was a better-than-average chance many of his team would die during the operation.
Southern Burma, 11 August 1939.
Edward Hardin was a large, square-built Welshman. He had a hard, sure way about him and moved with an assurance few could muster. The months of training and the jungle had carved away any empathy he had and left behind a hard core of vengeance. Within him was a warrior’s spirit even the jungle could not defeat.
He was not a man given to talking. He spoke only after his mind was made up. Once his teeth set hold of an idea or circumstance, those he found contrary were in for a gnawing. That was when he was a soldier—before he was clobbered with a bamboo rod, lost his weapons, was thrown into a rickety cart, and lapsed into the profane.
Of late he had discovered his left pant leg had more holes than a fisherman’s net. The panels of his jungle blouse were torn, front and back. The buttons were gone. And, someone had cut away the front of his right pant leg, exposing the wound he picked up in Burma when the team was ambushed.
Damn I’m tired. Mother doesn’t bloody care.
The jungle during the day did not seem dangerous—the sun streaming through the leaves. But with yellow jack fever, the jungle during the night was an appalling mystery, a sensory overload—a hellish maze of insanity itself.
Hardin’s options were limited. Either wait for death or fight to survive. Instinct told him the secrets in the pouch Grumpy stuffed into his rucksack were toxic. Why else would the team have been ambushed? Why was Hardin being hunted?
No one will see Grumpy as I saw him, his belligerent, wry smile—his icily silent glare. A wily communicator, a trusted soldier, he must have been one of Mother’s best.
The man died to save my life—for what? Surely not for a sodding pouch. Grumpy did die. Grumpy was gone. His caustic asides were a thing of the past. Suddenly energetic, falsely so, Hardin braced through a fit of anger, then sorrow. He had come awake, boasting; Uncle Dingo will sort out the bastards who posted Team 7 to this hell.
“I’ll see you again, Grumpy. I’ll keep you close by.”
The water buffalo ambled along. Hardin peered at it, wondering why the animal kept walking. Finding black humor in timing the cadence of the buffalo’s ass, his laugh sounded like a choking grunt.
The beast must be heading home.
Hardin anchored himself against the roll of the bullock cart and stared at the rutty track way. The jungle was closing in.
The trace wove through a rainforest of ancient canopy trees. Glistening colors from creamy gray to black and tan to ochre brown stained the massive spires gripped the moist soil with long, stout, gnarled buttress roots. Vibrant greens for a backdrop, a tangle of lianas encased a route that had been used for centuries—a puzzle of muddy ruts.
Dark and dank, an arched tunnel framed by large leaf plants and clumps of stiff grass ran away from Hardin’s view. Weak, with blood seeping from his leg wound and pooling on the cart’s deck, he searched the foliage for the stranger.
The vegetation pulsed—black one moment and glowing the next. Wisps of cloud rushed along the ground, sparring with the oil palms and fending the light sweeps of rain…torn rags battered the sky.
Southern Burma had shed the monsoon with an audible sigh, exhausted by the attention and
bursting with new life. Burma’s rugged mountains had been cleansed by months of rain, the small sounds of her passage undetectable because of the water’s purl.
Hardin in his prime had had a raven’s presence. A jungle-worn squaddie, he had been uncommonly decisive—wise with the wisdom of a young man who never had time to be a boy. Fear was something strange to him, and although he had known danger, it had passed him by.
As twilight drew darkness around him, he thought of Ashchurch, England, of the bakery on the town square sitting with his lovely bride—his Katherine. She liked to cup his cheeks in her hands before she kissed him, laughing with the charm of sensual sureness, her breasts a confusion of affection.
He needed help and a good bit of luck to make it out of Burma alive. Think, Eddie. What will Uncle do if you’re late for the rally? Will he have to leave to get fuel? Will he come back?
Slowly the hours drew on. Night brought a pounding rain.
Trying to sit up, he gasped for air, each movement a painful, deadening drag. Lucid and losing strength, he struggled to see. An odd opaque cast held his eyes, as if their quicksilver were tarnished. Unable to control his mind’s eye for minutes at a time, the shock of his team’s ambush had receded into bouts of guilt and rage, and the putrid smell of death.
The trouble is, that bloody pouch can’t be dismissed. It must be the reason we were ambushed.
With Hardin on point, Team 7 had run as one through the jungles of Thailand without a hint of fear, or Japanese prickers. Anxious to press on, heading for the boatyards of Portsmouth and Southampton, the team had a boat to catch; a tramp steamer driven by Uncle Dingo.
Hallucinating again, Hardin kept whispering. Grumpy, the team’s signals sergeant, grabbed his arm. Fear leapt in Grumpy’s jasper eyes, and a rush of static blared from the team’s Paraset radio. “The priest has documents we need to secure.”
Lucid, Hardin slumped against the cart’s sideboard and fell silent, listening to the metallic clatter of the buffalo’s harness, the drum of the wooden lynchpin, the teeter of the yoke pole, and the drag of the worn leather traces hanging at the buffalo’s side.
Moaning through a surge of pain, he thought of Captain Baxter Corcoran. The thick chested man was a roughhewed, leather-skinned roustabout—mean as a pack of dingoes. Except where a buxom Mayfair Mama was tattooed on his forearm, Uncle Dingo had black hair on his weathered hide. Quick to muster, Uncle was prone to lie even when the truth made a better story.
Uncle Dingo liked to howl when he drank. When Clive Mauldin, his chief engineer was out of money; when Molly couldn’t fix his jack, Uncle would boost his balls, while stuffing a fiver in Molly’s beer glass, and screaming, “Have a piss, Molly.”
Hardin licked his hand hoping for salt.
Struggling with the haunting rattles of betrayal, he rubbed his face and tried to sit up, alert but confused. A series of rhythmic footfalls sounded through the wind—a man, perhaps, or an animal. Unable to find his knife, his emotions ran wild, first vast frustration and then quick calculation—a sense of being stalked.
Where’s my weapon? My ammunition?
Hardin clutched his near-empty rucksack. A shoulder strap was wrapped around his left wrist. The thin straps of Grumpy’s leather pouch were cinched in his fist.
“Listen, dammit,” he whispered, spitting air, “there’s a hound nearby.” A pant leg, or the shoulder of a cat pushing aside the vegetation.
Searching his back trail, the tunnel of vegetation began vibrating and then warped through a spiral. Fighting to find a clear focus, vagrant bits of sunlight lanced the canopy only to be blurred and scattered by fluctuating shades of gray and green. Wind-blown shapes swooped into the tunnel, fractured, and then disappeared.
The steady saunter of the water buffalo, the pause before the drag, one hoof muffled by the next, forced the ponderous rhythm of the bullock cart. Odd sounds interrupted the pattern—footsteps. Gusts of wind rustled the leaves and fronds.
The angle of the sun shafts meant the day had slipped away.
“Stay awake, Eddie.”
Of course, there was, there had to be a reason he was being hunted. It’s funny, in a way—laughing at death. My balls are swollen, my leg is rotting, I’m being hauled to hell knows where, to a fire-ant heap, and there’s a bastard stalking me.
A searing bolt of pain shot through his frame, sending his mouth racing through a medley of infectious slurs, giving rise to a coupling of recall and fear.
Unable to concentrate, he shook the empty canteen. Salt crystals encrusted his eyelids. His body was running out of water. A black, resinous sap of the Rengas tree had blistered the skin on his forearms, leaving cavernous, rotting sores.
If they took my weapon, they mean to kill me.
Again, his memory loomed hazy, swimming in a flux. Disconnected scenes of his teammates converged and then scattered, replaced by the filmy remnants of a pluvial waltz—the tactical questions haunting him were about tempo—and route selection.
Why had he chosen Ratline 4-Charlie? Of the five escape routes, out of Southern Burma, 4-Charlie ran through forgiving terrain—the caches well stocked, the bridges well-tended. Why had he dismissed these anomalies? The cashes were too well stocked. The guides spoke French.
We were warned—the smugglers speak French.
4-Charlie’s regularity had drawn the team into a trance, into a loping, rhythmic pace. For centuries Burma’s section of the ratline followed a track worn bare by animals that used the terrain for ease of movement to hunt their prey. Men new to the jungle would not find the track.
For Team 7, the track may as well have been paved with stones.
A woman scurried past the cart and slipped into the jungle, on the bullock cart’s right flank. She seemed to float across the jungle floor, her bamboo hat gliding evenly through the gusts of rain, her course unaltered by the motion of the vegetation.
“Is she tracking me?”
Talking to himself had become involuntary. Putting a sliver of wood in his mouth, he drew saliva into his throat. I need salt.
The pouch Grumpy gave him was sturdy enough, scarred by jungle vegetation and the variants of pursuit. As if entrusting him with England’s survival, Grumpy had warned, “Hide this pouch. Keep it under seal. Give it to my uncle, Sir Lewis Poston. No one else.”
The shit in this pouch must have MI6 dancing on a penny, Hardin thought.
During the hour-long firefight, Team 7 killed nineteen Tonkin guerrillas in and around the prison compound two kilometers south of the Chinese border. As the team withdrew, Sleepy found the bishop’s head mounted on a bamboo spike, dripping fluids, near a cave. His body had been split shoulder to crotch and staked on a mammoth bed of fire ants.
Grumpy found the bishop’s rosary lying in the ant heap. The leather pouch was hidden nearby under a pile of thatch. He washed the blood off the pouch in a small stream and examined the wax-covered brass seal. This was the pouch he had been ordered to find—at all cost.
To a man, the other commandos had wanted answers. Why did the bishop have a pouch bearing the seal of England’s royal family? Was he one of England’s own or one of England’s enemies?
Withdrawing across a grass covered knoll, the team stopped in a saddle two hundred meters southeast of the prison compound. Standing near a seam in the thick vegetation Hardin searched the burning compound. Smoke drifted through the single canopy into the sky.
The team waited and watched the backtrail leading to the compound. The Tonkin guerrillas the team engaged were dead. The team wasn’t being followed.
Hardin drank the last of his water. The leaves near his head hung still in the hot, lifeless air.
There was a studied deference about him now, mixed with a thick medley of doubt.
Grumpy had not engaged the enemy during the raid on the compound. Grumpy seemed to be looking for alternatives. Hardin had known men who were slow to muster and others who found fear debilitating. While Hardin had no such fearful inhibitions, Grumpy, the all-England football player, was normally aggressive.
While Team 7 was running south out of northern Tonkin, Hardin had received a coded radio message directing the team to proceed to Haiphong for a rendezvous with three MI6 operatives.
Hardin stood to brief his mates and nearly passed out. “Here’s our sit-rep. We’re on mission. We’re short of ammunition and rations. To get extracted we need to run.
“Even you, Sleepy.”
The team members were relaxed—all except Grumpy. He looked tense. As Hardin spoke again, he saw Grumpy stiffen. “We run to Haiphong to resupply and rendezvous with a Yank mercenary working for our Special Intelligence Service lads. Meeting this Yank is a new twist.”
“Does this Yank have a name?” Grumpy asked.
“Lucien. An American Frog.”
Grumpy stood and said, “You better meet those boys alone, Doc. Without the team. Almost all of the mercenaries working in this region, smuggle drugs and work both sides of the fence.”
“I agree. You’ll be the team leader until I get back. Get our ammunition and rations squared away.” With a nod from Grumpy, Hardin said, “Here are the grid coordinates for the resupply. We have a six-day window to get refit.”
The sky was turning gray in the east when the team approached the outskirts of Haiphong. Hardin set the team in a dense patch of jungle outside the city and left his rucksack and the pouch with Grumpy.
He found Mother’s mercenaries drinking Three Feathers Whiskey to a chorus of sarcasm at a sidewalk stall in Haiphong, in Tonkin, laughing through a cloud of beaten French tobacco. Lucien, the self-proclaimed team leader, insisted Hardin meet them again after dark at the Red Mill, a restaurant in Saigon.
Leenstra slapped him on the shoulder and gave him an extra 32-round ammunition box loaded with 9x19mm parabellum cartridges for Hardin’s Hart MK1 submachine gun.
Hardin took a chair from an adjoining table at sat apart from the three strangers.
Noting their weapons, he remembered the French army had purchased several hundred Thompsons from Birmingham Small Arms, a company headquartered in Small Heath, England. The Frogs had decided not to buy the gun for general issue and had shipped the weapons to Annan, in Indo China to arm the Vietnamese supporting French rule.
Lucien, Leenstra, and Steiner, were wearing weathered French jungle fatigues, driving a British Bedford K-series lorry, and carrying a ten-dollar BSA 1926-9mm French Thompson anchored to loosely arranged combat webbing.
They smoked expensive cigars and drank expensive whiskey. Hardin doubted their courage, and he did not trust them. They were back-shooters. Never at odds with the people they killed.
Team 7 had received a thorough mission briefing at Camp Z, in Broken Bay, New South Wales. Lucien had been the subject of a situational brief-up. He typified the for-hire soldiers fighting for Ho Chi Minh.
Piecing bits of their conversation together over a beer, Hardin learned the three mercenaries had recently jumped into Southern China with thousands of weapons and tons of ammunition to help the communists fight the Japanese, their mission paid for by the Americans.
Hardin studied their expressions, their humor—their stories bouncing from pussy to killing with equal enthusiasm. Although they looked comically different, a cryptic fire flickered in their eyes, as if they loved the adventure, and something else. The killing.
“Let’s drink to our next mission: bush ranging from here to Burma,” Lucien announced.
“That’s a long haul. Are you running over ground?” Hardin asked.
“Not initially,” Steiner declared.
“Night jumps can be tricky,” Hardin said.
“In the dark all cats are gray, mon ami.” Lucien’s counsel came with a nod from Steiner. Lucien didn’t know his picture was posted on the ready board at the SOE Training Base in Broken Bay—next to Leenstra’s. They were known players in South East Asia’s drug trade, transporting drugs through Malaya’s Neck for more than a decade.
“If you’re one of the cats, your next mission must be a secret,” Hardin said.
“You’re our mission, mon ami.” Lucien nudged Hardin’s shoulder as if he were joking. Then he pointed at Leenstra and Steiner, and said, “My two friends are the best trackers in the world.”
“Why has Steiner memorized the tread-pattern on the bottom of my boot?” Hardin asked.
“Uncivilized krauts have many habits. We’re being paid to look for Jap prickers along the coast of Burma and northern Malaya.”
After ordering another round of beer, Leenstra invited Hardin to join their table, all the while measuring the heft of Hardin’s weapon.
The Dutchman is too anxious. The bastard is looking for something—a clue, my rucksack, Hardin thought. This meeting is a cover. These bastards were expecting the entire team.
Leenstra spoke with boyish pride of Tonkin’s Vietnamese communists, of playing hide-and-seek with Jap patrols, and of leveraging one employer against another.
When Lucien asked about the condition of Team 7, Hardin’s jaw tightened. “Why do you want to know?”
“You’ll never reach Malaya, mon ami.”
At the man’s challenge, Hardin felt his rage surging. His first impulse was cold cock the bastard. Then he said, “Frenchman, I’m not your bloody friend.”
The ground-rules are plain enough now, he thought. He poured his beer on a potted palm and set the glass on the table. How does this bastard know my team is heading for Malaya?
Shaking hands with the three mercenaries while they were still sober enough to trail him, Hardin left Haiphong on foot heading northwest for three hundred meters before turning west and then south. Choosing a route through a series of small villages, he checked his back trail at odd intervals. Deciding he wasn’t being followed, he rallied with the team.
Why did Mother order me to meet with those mercenaries? Are they working with MI6? Does Dewar know? Are they hunting the team? Do they know the location of our extraction rally point? If they do, Team 7 is in for a bashing.
* * *
Rested, it was long after dark of the second day when the team left their resupply loc-stat heading southwest. On the fourth day out, Grumpy disclosed his separate intel mission and gave Hardin the sealed pouch—with a warning. “There is a spy in MI6.”
“A spy. Is that who you are, Grumpy?”
With a sideward glance and a thin, cryptic smile, Grumpy cocked his head. “Captain! Doc! You and I volunteered for a long-range penetration mission. And, we’ve ended up in a gum tree. We’re left to run the whole of Southeast Asia looking for Jap prickers.”
Grumpy’s eyes came to a sudden judgement. “I’m your signals sergeant, Captain. The rest you don’t need to know.”
For the next eight days, Hardin pushed the team south and east, spotting and killing a six-man Japanese patrol. Then came nine quiet days to the coast of Burma, turning south onto the Malay Peninsula. There had been the usual stops, to barter for food from the locals, to dry socks and massage feet, to clean weapons and repair uniforms.
Hampered by the rains and winds of a tailing monsoon, Hardin ran at point. He skipped a step when he saw a broken vine. Dismissing the anomaly, he kept his pace. Suddenly Grumpy, the second in line, the slack man, shouldered Hardin forward off the trail. Falling through a tangle of vines, Hardin heard the team open fire with their Bren guns, screaming as they were shot to pieces in the kill zone of an ambush.
Wounded, unnerved, barely able to defend himself, he surveyed the slaughter. His heart was pounding with rapid, heavy beats drumming pain through his thigh.
Retracing Ratline 4-Charlie and replaying the ambush, he realized someone in MI6 had betrayed his team. There was no other explanation for the sequence of events. An MI6 operative named Gordon Dewar had flown from England to New South Wales to brief the team. Hardin decided to start with him. That the man wore a houndstooth jacket in the sweltering heat of Australia’s outback should have been a clue.
Reaching for the cart’s gunwale, he saw himself stumble into a mindless scramble—again the night parachute drop, then rally points Ac and Beer, Haiphong, Lucien, the Yank mercenary, the team’s ambush—and a relentless stream of images circled in a roily brine stirred by a headless bishop.
Wet with fever, Hardin’s vision pinwheeled into a black void. Suddenly he was jumping from a plane. Pulling the parachute’s O-ring, falling into the night, the T-4’s canopy catching air and deploying, he began drifting in a cloud, soaking wet—the drone of the modified RAF Shackleton transport fading in the east.
When he regained consciousness, he was exhausted. The bullock cart was rocking, slowly rolling along the jungle track. Hardin rubbed his eyes to clear his head of the dwindling fog. The rain beat on the canopy with a steady drum. Images of tortured men appeared one after another, their cadence loosening a blinding plea.
Soaking wet, he could not stop shivering. Listening for the fear that rode his shoulders, the echo of the rain on the canopy rang out.
Wounded, remembering, his bush-ranging squad of durable lads fell to the jungle floor, screaming in counterpoint. He had carried their finals pleas, limping and bleeding—hiding and hobbling for days. Weak from lack of food, he remembered cleaning his leg wound and applying his last battle dressing minutes before being shanghaied.
Jarred awake by the cart’s sudden stop, he lost focus. The jungle, the cart, the rain; all were an enveloping blur.
He set an ear to the left side of the cart. A faint noise seemed near yet remote. A passing sound. The sequence accelerated. Hallucinating, he could not separate the sounds.
Then came a familiar voice.
A man spoke with a decorum particular to English gentry. The words rang from a hollow beyond the jungle. It was Hardin’s guardian, the late Sir John Poston.
“Indian freedom fighters killed your father, Edward—in the summer of ‘21. His patrol was ambushed west of Calcutta, in the West Bengal region of India. A bad show all round.” Sir John’s voice came crashing from afar. “One ambush is much like the next, Edward.”
There was a barbed lining to Lord Poston’s charm and a bite to his tobacco.
Sir John Poston, an elegant old sod, with his top hat and thick, badger-gray hair, I can see him clearly—flashes of evening light reflecting off the silver inlay of his cane. Sir John’s voice remains even, still, and cautious.
Suddenly lucid, his vision clear, Hardin took a deep breath, hoping to ease the pain in his chest. Banging on death’s door, he clung to his past—to a proper sense of religious truth—to the memory of three men—his father, Richard, William Hockey, and Sir John Poston.
As one man’s gravestone warped into another, a surge of fever sent him off—malaria mixed with yellow-jack and his leg wound’s mounting infection. Flailing into a rage he saw himself rush from a churchyard into the jungle in an instant—gravestones warping into muzzle flashes.
Sorting the tortured bodies of his mates, smothered by the stench of their bowels, he whispered, “So, this is what death looks like.” Then, in a moment of twilight’s calm, he began to allay his sorrows and sort consoles.
“Will I ever see Katherine again?”