Just entering a third decade of post-war relative 'peace', the atmosphere is nevertheless no less fraught with Cold War tension between the West and the Soviet Union with the much feared moment of nuclear fission between the two almighty powers growing ominously more imminent. Apart from liaison duties between US Naval Analysis Group for combined US/NATO Operations and the United States Indo-Pacific Command, Military Intelligence Officer, Major Frank Falzoni also trawls the shadowy backstreets of Europe's cities that are forever festering with undercurrents of secrets, double secrets and Betrayal, in order to make periodic contact with a Russian mole on delegation leave in Europe. However, escalation of aggression between American Armed Forces and Vietnamese Communist Forces, aided by China and the Soviet Union, sees the Major being assigned the urgent mission to personally infiltrate the realms of the Asian war scene, rife with its battlefield dangers, as well as dangers of the jungle, in order to seek out and bring back strategic information vital to US Air Force Bomber Command. With KGB tentacles, unseen but forever present everywhere, this makes the Major's task a perilously tight-rope one of do or die, serving his flag, or having that triangularly-folded one presented at his military funeral.
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Also by Brandon Rolfe
Countdown To Doomsday
The Dromyrk File
Published by Dolman Scott Ltd in 2021
Copyright Brandon Rolfe©2021
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission of the copyright owner. Nor can it be circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on a subsequent purchaser.
Dolman Scott Ltd
Down in the darkness of deep waters, a great black hulk stirred, with a low belly-groan, from its slumber. Suddenly the bright Arctic moon blinked repeatedly as a clamorous swarm of gulls gathered beneath it, criss-crossing and swooping down round the ‘thing’ rising out of the water, coming up out of the fathoms of Norway’s Hardanger Fjord. Rising up as a sharp ‘fin’ at first, it suddenly swelled out into a long body glistening in the moonlight, the water running off its massive round back and cascading down its sides with a mighty roar boasting its colossal weight.
Were it from a biblical text, the small dark figure emerging from the gigantic dark body would have been seen as Jonah making his hectic exit from the Whale. But apart from being a few millennia and a day or two late, this whale’s skin stretched a whole three hundred and eighty-one feet from head to tail in 2.5 inch thick high-strength alloy titanium steel. A great ‘dorsal fin’ was the twenty foot conning tower jutting up from the curved back, bristling with classified electronic gizmos that virtually looked round corners by scanning beyond the horizons, thanks to those satellites looping the globe faster than Santa’s reindeers --- as well as with white-capped heads that were beginning to pop up, to dot the darkness, one after the other.
Major Frank Falzoni was the one not wearing a naval cap. As US Army Intelligence liaison officer with US Navy-NATO operations, he wasn’t required to. Instead, his head hugged the shelter of his fur-lined blue anorak hood, away from the biting Arctic night air. And that air sure stung his lungs, sharp in its freshness, in contrast to that ‘cosmetically treated’ soft warm atmosphere of the sub’s interior that he had breathed in for several days, when they had needed to remain submerged in strict compliance with operational tactics. USS Arkansas, this new age’s breed of sea-monster, was a Python class SSN-594B nuclear-powered fast attack hunter submarine armed with UUM-44 SUBROC anti-submarine torpedoes and UGM-84 HARPOON anti-ship torpedoes.
Nothing moved. Everything in the vacuous expanse stood still. Movement was measured in geological eons that reduced Homo sapiens to a nonentity. Man did not feature in the titanic combination of time and strength that had brought forth this landscape. Nothing short of millions of years of seismic upheaval had been sufficient to contort and weld the strata together with colossal pressure and heat, to form this indelible sculpture of a landscape. Enormous rock masses reposed with a lethargy that was reminiscent of a slothful Mezozoic Period, where brontosauri had probably weltered in the sun on these very banks. Now, supposedly, it was Troll territory if local folklore was anything to go by.
Well, none of those crazy mythical ogres were about, swinging their tree-trunk clubs, it seemed. But maybe it wasn’t just quite the right night for the old moonlight wassail flowing with ale, grilled human steaks and french fries. No-one else was about, either. But then things always weren’t what they seemed, especially in this game. Noting the large binoculars dangling on the chest of the young lieutenant beside him, Frank gave him a nod, pointing to them. ‘Sure, Major.’ The lieutenant handed them over.
Falzoni made a long slow sweep all round with the infra-red lenses to snatch in out of what had been a dark landscape, sharper ‘daylight’ images than what the naked eye had managed. Only to be greeted with the same inert stillness.
The Major shook his head. ‘Clear.’ He handed the binoculars back to the lieutenant.
Falzoni returned his attention to the crewman who had emerged earlier from the deck hatch. The guy was now being joined by another two figures climbing out of the black void, hauling out behind them a long rubber dinghy. That would get him to the small wooden jetty, dispelling his crazy thoughts of a moment’s inaccurate manoeuvring of the sub’s two and a half thousand ton bulk crushing the timber structure to matchwood. Easy to see he wasn’t a Navy man.
Falzoni watched the quiet activity going on outside from his chair by the cabin window. Specifically, at that around the small white Bombardier CL-415 amphibian flying boat, its twin Pratt & Whitney PW123AF turboprop engines providing the right balance of decreasing thrust to neatly skim in to land on the fjord’s generous expanse of water, now being serviced by the Arkansas maintenance crew. The eyes looked on, while the mind worked elsewhere, running facts over and over again through its treadmill. Not fully satisfied that there was nothing to worry about, he tried to ignore the burning unease in his mind, relaxing until his grey concentration began to ebb away.
Amusement poked through his dark mood for a few seconds, as did the awakening pang of hunger in his stomach, as he watched the antics of the old man in the corner of the wooden cabin. Part woodsman, part poacher, part fisherman, he was now imitating the long-necked cormorant, holding on high, head tilted back, a whole pickled herring, bones and all, to be dropped into the gaping mouth and swallowed, without chewing, down the throat, in the manner of that great voracious seabird. Frank wished he hadn’t turned down the galley chef’s offer of that mouthful of venison steak before leaving the sub’s warmth for this cold air. But it was always the same when you were called out. Just as he had been shaken out by the young Duty Officer; right out of that tiny haven of sleep that he’d just managed to fall into, having finally escaped the background droning of the sub’s powerful nuclear-driven motors. Out of his bunk and into a new round of ‘Battleships (and Subs)’, rolling the dice, not on a kid’s play-board, but on green-glowing electronic screens.
Called out of his shallow sleep at 01.46hrs, the young officer’s message had been short and precise: ‘We’re here, sir.’ The coded instructions he handed to Frank fought a short battle with the Muscae volitanti spots dancing in his inner ocular fluid and the yawning brain struggling to form some intelligence out of what it was seeing. The words, stippled across the paper in primary code, then secondary code, held an inner message in tertiary cypher; the last, solely for Frank to recognise and decipher. Nothing more was needed to set up the alert signals in his mind. All aspects of the ‘hit and miss’, ‘dodge and dive’ game spiked up in his mind, like those pin-pricks of light you try to comprehend on the radar screen. These always tended to create pressure points of frustration, where impatience with monotonous waiting left you no more to do than restless tapping of the feet.
Your stomach habits changed no more than work did. HQ expected you to take all this in your stride with no more fuss beyond that first shiver and cigarette of the morning. Frank tapped his pocket by reflex. And guess what loon had forgotten to pick up his cigarettes. Damn!
Frank’s companion, seated across the dark space of the tiny cabin, Lieutenant Ferten, was deep in his own thoughts. He alone had accompanied the Major in the dinghy. Neither of them had exchanged much conversation. What few words they had uttered had barely managed to leave the strained jokes stage. Ferten seemed to have no inclination to see the serious side of things. A jolly young blond product of the US Naval Academy in Maryland. That was a difficult institute to be enrolled into, unless your old man had lots of influence and dollars to put in the way of that lot in Washington with ‘scrambled egg’ on their service caps and a mini Fort Knox of gold braid on their dark coat sleeves. With a tall frame that took in all sports, from A to Z, he saw all problems remedied with a tap on the knee from the MO’s rubber hammer, followed by a brisk jog around Annapolis in the fresh morning air before reveille.
Not quite like Frank’s straddled situation, with one foot planted in Military Intelligence, while the other was an insecure footing on the shifting ground that was the Central Intelligence Agency. A mind-jangling job where he had to correlate all the information gathered between the services. That wearisome chore having Frank’s cigarette butts fighting for space in the overflowing ashtray, when petty bickering among rival intelligence officers caused snippets of information to be snipped even further. That caused no end of bother with needless delays and certainly didn’t go easily on the dollars. That was why he had to investigate individual points on the spot, and gather all the data into a form that kept departmental heads happy --- and let the country sleep peacefully at night – theoretically.
They had come ashore at 03.11hrs, to wait for the Bombardier supplies/transport plane to fly in. And it did, a little over forty minutes later. That was just an hour ago. Since then, two reports had come through from the sub’s communications room, at progressive stages, assuring only ‘CIRRUS’ at that stage. With the technical crew working to and fro between the tiny Bombardier and the mighty Arkansas, they were now waiting for clearance at this end.
Frank fingered the crisp notepaper with the coded message which the radio operator had passed on. The next two reports should have set his mind at rest. But they didn’t. He was still uneasy about something, somewhere, at the back of his mind. Nothing specific, nothing more tangible than that faint thread of tension that you can’t dismiss until you’ve finally put the lid on the job. Totally irrational, of course. You always knew this, and accepted it as the habitual uneasiness that you called alertness, that waylaid you at this early stage of your assignment. You just couldn’t do this job without being suspicious. That was what those pen-pushing grand wazirs back in Washington paid you for --- to be suspicious and safe, rather than satisfied and sorry. Frank went over the Grade 5 security cypher’s points in his mind again, seeing Marley Goodblood’s hand in the coded message as clearly as the Boston Chimps’ score-board.
The rough rasp of radio static, from the Lieutenant’s walkie-talkie lying on the stool in the corner, pierced the silence, cutting into their thoughts.
Lt Ferten jumped up and went over to the squawking box that was threatening to fall off its perch, in its eagerness to spill out its urgent tidings. Picking it up, he the grunted into it, while making the toothpick flit nimbly across his row of upper teeth, like a miniscule acrobat. ‘Yeah?’ He waited, searching with his tongue for the gum that shared the mouth space with its companion wooden performer, while the scratching voice burrowed into his ear. ‘Yeah?’ he said again, finding time to transfer the midget artiste for a performance on the lower row of shining white teeth.
All the while Frank sat waiting, watching the Lieutenant standing waiting, listening.
‘That’s it, huh?’ A pause. ‘Right.’ Putting the walkie-talkie back down on the stool, the Lieutenant went back to his seat, seeming oblivious to all but the timings of the next ‘buccal cavity performance’. Officers’ etiquette said it would be rude to speak to the Major with the toothpick in his mouth. He promptly took it out before sharing his new knowledge with Major Falzoni. ‘It’s all clear. That was them on just now. They’ve fallen for it. Seems to have got through and accepted by ‘them’ that it was just a freak malfunction in the turbine thrust units that caused the Arkansas to divert from its scheduled route, and take berth here, to await appropriate ‘technical replacement’. But anyway, things seem to be flowing smoothly, as planned. No sign, so far, of Red Whales and Minnows adjusting positions in redirected manoeuvres. No trace of their ‘cats’ whiskers’ twitching unduly in tracing our action. A nervous Board of Inquiry lot will have to be placated, hopefully, with falsified reports, of course. Otherwise, okay. Does that sound okay to you, Major?’
Ferten’s nonchalant manner, with its matter-of-fact sum up, sounded as if he was taking full credit for everything being ‘okay’. Falzoni could have bet that he harboured a secret yearning for the simplicity of a bygone era officers’ chivalry in clear air, clear water, free of blemishing ‘dirty water’ tactics below surface. Well, perhaps a lot of us did. But he could have done without the intonation of the Lieutenant’s final remark. It had carried, not too openly, but still its hint of disapproval, if not chiding, for this charade of a holdup.
Frank resisted the urge to show annoyance. ‘Yeah, I suppose so, Lieutenant. It sounds all right. But what do you think? You’re the gunwale and oars man. I’ve just a liking for terra firma beneath my feet. You tell me.’ What juice are we really picking up on the other side? Can you say for certain?’
‘Do you mean will it fail to sell, and collapse with the weak dying squeak of a burst balloon?’
Hell, this guy was sure slow on the helm-wheel for turning corners. ‘That’s as good a way as any of putting it, I suppose. Yeah, I mean something like that, Lieutenant; something like that.’
‘Not that we can afford to ignore that mal chance, from what we have so far. But, no, at least I shouldn’t think so. Not even with this latest integrated link-on set-up for detection they have now. I gather that it works something like the idea of Nobel’s dynamite. Kick it, beat it, but it still won’t release from its programed quarry without reciprocally programmed stand-down instructions. That’s perhaps an odd way of putting it, maybe, but I think you follow my meaning, Major.’
The Major’s faint personal stab had got through. Ferten, for all his apparent preoccupation, took the message quietly, casting a wary eye at him. ‘But I’m gathering that you haven’t seen any real action since your wartime days, have you, Major? Just like we did in Viet. With flak and anti-aircraft tracer bullets strafing your ass, you had to count your balls regularly, I tell you.’
‘You were a flier before this?’
‘Reconnaissance, but only for a very short time. Having almost lost my plane on only my second mission, I reckon ‘Uncle Sam’ considered I’d constitute a strain on the Defence Budget, so being a safer bet grounded to the steel deck of a ship.’
The challenging hold that had sparked up moments before in the young eyes dimmed, striking the Major as a boyish step-down after losing his swipe at the ball. A follow-through to old college fraternity house rules, perhaps? ‘Strictly speaking, Lieutenant, Captain America books are more in my line of fire.’
The casual small talk lost its edge as suddenly as it had begun and immediately dried up. Both minds came back to the more important matter in hand. Ferten leaned forward on his seat with a philosophical look, over a pensive few seconds, ready to speak. ‘You’ll no doubt want to see some analysis figures for yourself, after our Intelligence Section has integrated them thoroughly, Major?’
‘Faster than fast. As soon as your people are finished, we want in, without a second to spare. As it happens, we know a lot about them already. But I could do with a fresh inflow.’
Ferten knew his lot, reading the details off from memory, while his fingers kept pace tapping out the points, holding the Major’s attention. ‘That ‘shadow’ we’ve shaken off at last, after its tailing us for days, is – was- the Kila class sub, Meerni, nuclear powered, liquid-metal engines. Captained by one Grigori Zartenov; one child, a daughter; graduated in Chemistry from Leningrad University, the daughter, that is, not the Captain. The submarine left Murmansk, on Kola peninsula on Tuesday the fourteenth, to take up watch on our NATO Summer-time Operation off Norway’s Spitsbergen Island – or Svalbard – if you want to twist your tongue.’ Ferten paused for an apparent mental breather, looking at the floor with his inner puzzle, before looking back at the Major. ‘At least that’s what it’s supposed to have been doing after leaving Murmansk. That’s our official statement for keeping face, so to speak. Where the thing went after we lost it on the seventeenth is pretty much unclear. Damned well anyone’s guess, really.’ Although Ferten’s words came out in a constantly calm pace, Falzoni could virtually hear the situation gnawing away like a true rodent across the room in the other man’s mind.
‘Kila class? They’re quite fast, aren’t they?’ remarked Falzoni with what sounded like a faint touch of envy.
‘Very fast, Major. From what we’ve managed find out so far – they’re capable of reaching about forty-two knots underwater. Their deep-diving capacity is giving us in the West a sore head. Apart from conventional torpedoes, they can also launch nuclear ones, as well. These nuclear babes could devastate a whole carrier group of ours without even having to score a direct hit on a target. Their potential nautical range, we‘re not sure of. Not quite the length of the Arkansas. Pretty impressive, I’ve got to admit – as well as worrying.’
‘Yeah, pretty impressive.’ Falzoni’s reply was a low brooding, almost inwardly-directed one, pulled down by the gravity of the situation that the statistics denoted. The very prospect of nuclear torpedoes would have those Hawks and Doves on Capitol Hill baring their talons at each other. But he managed to find amusement in the Lieutenant’s psychological trick of lessening the gravity by finishing up with a ‘lighter’ statistic.
Falzoni saw the change in mood and took the opportunity to stress his question urgently, without having to pull rank with priority orders. ‘Can we go over again what exactly it is that we have got, so I can check with anything I’ve missed. No room for errors, right?’
‘Yeah, let’s do that. Well, in actual fact we have, as you yourself know, all their Strategic Nuclear Strike Command codes – codes for patrolling Western air space and waters; targets, codenames, the lot.’
Falzoni scribbled down what codes he could remember in his notebook, putting a stroke through each of them. ‘A tiny bit of a problem there, Lieutenant. Only double shift work for the poor ‘technics’ having to relocate routes and targets and reshuffle codes, when Moscow finds out, as indeed, it will eventually.’ You couldn’t last in this game if you didn’t realise that bad points inevitably had their turn of popping up to put a spike in things. Falzoni’s calm words did little to reassure either of them in their minds, as they both visualised the mountains of paperwork and headaches that would come their way in the progress of putting things right. Not to mention having to stare down, if not satisfy, angry Naval Board Enquiry Committees.
Ferten pondered the implication, with its uneasiness, in the Major’s words. ‘Not for a long time, let’s hope.’
Clearly not fully cheered with his own remark, Falzoni drummed his pen down sharply on his knee. Ferten caught the unsettled motion. He wasn’t feeling too happy himself. Looking up from his notepad, Falzoni stared out the small dirty window. The darkness had thinned slightly, where a waking sun was trying to scrape a way through from behind the black blanket. Maybe it was waiting for a conductor’s baton to summon Grieg’s soft musical raising up of the curtain on a new morning.
Just visible was the mobile compressor, servicing the plane, chugging and shuddering away on the end of the cable snaking out to the Arkansas. The working crew from the Arkansas had all dispersed, their lot done. That had all been a dummy run, of course. An open secret operation, on hush hush orders from above, to pull the wool over the eyes of the Red Fleet monitoring the US/NATO wargame manoeuvres. But even this had a double lining. A ploy within a ploy. Marley Goodblood’s brainchild, of course.
05.11hrs. Falzoni watched the ginger-haired ensign striding smartly towards their cabin, to tell him that the helicopter would be landing shortly, to take him inland. Zipping up his anorak, he stood up to go. Ferten looked up at the Major. ‘Time for you to shift, Major? Right.’ Ferten looked at his watch, and then reached over, to pick up the walkie-talkie.
Frank followed the other’s longing look at the empty hotdog foil tray. That faint pang of hunger he had felt earlier, when offered breakfast by the galley chef, was now gone. He had to ‘stomach’ other things first. ‘You go get yourself another one of those, Lieutenant. I’ll push on with my lot. I’ve still a couple of things I need to see to first, before the chopper flies me out.’
The bright spot in the distance gradually grew into a headlamp flux as it entered the forest, reappearing as flashes between trees as it travelled along the winding road. Flashes sharpened every so often into silver rapiers of light thrusting expertly between the slender trunks, and then withdrawing again with equal adroitness. Falzoni’s black Porsche swept round bend after bend, flanked on both sides by legion after legion of tall stalwart pines honouring the passing regal chariot. With the way ahead continually twisting sharply from left to right, Frank could only hold his patience and drive on and on – perhaps ‘tunnel on’ would have been more appropriate -- where the dark dense foliage of this great Norwegian forest never seemed to be ending. When at last a torch-light suddenly popped up, moving from side to side some fifty yards down the road, Frank pressed his foot down to have the car slowing down and gradually halting.
With the engine purring quietly, in readiness to race off again in an instant, and his throbbing suspicion and alertness equally tensed for action, Frank waited, watching. The dark figure started to walk forward slowly. Closer and closer it came. Eyes trained all the time on the man looming up closer, Frank felt for the .38 Ruger automatic lying beside him on the passenger seat. Still no sign of hostility. He let the widow slide down slowly. The cold air space filled up with a large face, searching eyes trapped between massive spiky beard and fur hat pulled down to the eyebrows. Seconds stretched out until inspection, both ways, was satisfied.
‘SAILOR BOY?’ The code-words came out in a surprisingly light tone, instead of a heavy bear growl to match the heavy bear face that Frank had expected.
‘SAILOR MAN,’ replied Frank in required corrective code.
Nodding in approval of the response, the man stepped back, beckoning Frank to follow him. Pocketing the automatic, Frank got out of the car to follow on, still taking the precaution, code-words or not, of not walking too close behind for the man to suddenly turn round in surprise attack on him. Stepping down off the road, they passed through the great wall of trunks and into the heavy undergrowth of the forest. With only the torch-light and snapping twigs in front to steer him, Falzoni had a hard job stumbling, tripping, and fighting off branches springing back at his face, in his effort to follow his guide. All at once, after what had seemed to be a never-ending trek, obstruction from menacing branches fell away and they were suddenly in a small clearing. Correction – he was in a small clearing alone by himself. The guy had skedaddled, leaving the torch behind, God bless his kind consideration! Still lit, and perched on a branch-end, the torch seemed to signal this to be a tryst of a stopping point.
Frank looked around, inspecting the tiny circular space. If this was where the local coven held its nocturnal pagan rituals, there wasn’t much standing room for the chorus with its vibrant Carmina Burana or without the central sacrificial bonfire scorching a few of those bare feet dancing around it. But this wasn’t the States, so you had to respect a foreign culture’s oddball way of doing things. Then he noticed the stone jutting out of the ground on the far side. It seemed too regularly shaped to be natural. It had been placed there deliberately. Now that he looked, there appeared to be markings of sorts on it. Something was written on it. Stepping in closer, he leaned down to try reading the crudely scratched words.
‘He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, no less,’ The words, suddenly cutting the silence from behind Falzoni, broke his attention in trying to read out and pronounce the strange foreign name.
‘You don’t say. How about that!’ Frank didn’t need to turn round to identify the speaker, long-time familiar as he was with the New England rounded accent.
‘And he was executed by firing squad the next day.’
‘His spelling was that bad? They reckoned money was better spent on bullets than on casting a gold medal?’ Frank turned round abruptly to face his associate ‘advisor’ and handler in the field, in things that were much better left unmentioned --- forever dubious as he was trustworthy --- Marley Goodblood. As he did, he gave a slow shake of the head of mild rebuke that hardly needed his cynical smile to reinforce his open show of annoyance. He half turned to have another look at the stone. The dirty surface made it difficult to decipher the words. ‘This – Hi-? -- or Ho-? Stohl, guy?’
‘Yeah, sure, whatever you say; who the fucking hell is this guy that you had to have me come all the way out here to see his final dice-roll stepping-off block? Couldn’t you have just as easily wired me the dossier ‘ink blots’ straight through to the sub? Drowned in that flow of Navy Operational info coming through all the time, nobody’s going to notice that it was in a separate cypher that only I could read; well, not straight away, anyway. I would have deleted it immediately after reading. So what’s so important about him? What’s his security label? How the hell does he figure in the game?’
‘Frank, Frank, take it easy.’
‘ ”Take it easy”!’
‘Yeah, cool down and hear me out.’
‘This will turn out to be a good one, I bet, just like all the endless good ones you load onto me under the murky heading of ‘for national security. So let’s have it.’
‘I just figured that you could do with a break from playing Navy games, with you being holed up ten days in that fancy electronic wonder of a titanium can, playing hunt the Pirates; I thought you could do with some fresh air from a walk in the country, Frank --- this country.’
Frank recognised Goodblood’s devious smile after getting his way in dowsing the child’s anxiety tantrum, with only the stereotyped rubbing of hands missing to complete the scene. ‘Jeez, Marley! That might wash down well with coke-headed college kids with asses still dripping oil from their Alpha House initiation rituals, but not with me. Fairy tales went out the window with me when I realised that Rudolf got his red nose from swiping the seasonal brandy. Save the schmaltz for unblemished virgin ears in your next Langley recruitment class lecture.’ It was another feather in Marley’s cap, joining the already thickening plumage, for him to lay down the sacred tablets of CIA’s official rules of protocol before fresh college kids stepping forward to take up sword and shield for their country. Yeah, well, we can all fantasize at some time in our lives. Pausing for a cigarette, after his heated verbal fusillade, Frank was bluntly reminded for the second time that he had forgotten to pick them up. He had to satisfy himself with a piece, his last piece, of gum. ‘So answer the question. Where does this guy, or what he was, figure in our own little private board-game?’
Then the thought, vague at first, started to come clearer to Frank. ‘Hold on a sec --- you said: “this country”; Norway! Right, I’m beginning to see now, or perhaps at this stage, only what I’m allowed to see.’ His jaws worked more slowly on the gum as he pulled the connecting parts into shape in his mind. ‘So our little trick of using the Navy’s latest hush-hush submarine detection sonar deflection equipment to evade the Meerni’s searching sonar beams and disappear from its screens, was not entirely dreamed up and pencilled in solely by gold-braided Navy Chiefs alone, was it? It was you who initially handed them the pencil. Stopping off here for so-called ‘minor technical modifications’ in this backwater pond, was all part of the plan from the very beginning of Operations. Have I got it right?’ Of course I’m right, if I know you, Goodblood’ If ever any family name was synonymous with power in Washington, be it in politics, industry or military dealings by the side, it was Goodblood. You could be sure that Marley got more than just a word in edgeways where specific strategic lines were to be drawn in across giant screens in the Operations Room.
‘You’re not quite the parrot brain I sometimes take you for, Frank. You can hatch a good egg from time to time.’
Frank shuffled to show his restlessness, looking round the small clearing. ‘So why am I here, in what’s not exactly Central Park, if it’s not looking for Red Riding Hood. Spit it out.’
‘The significant point is that you are not here, Frank. The US Navy’s submarine Arkansas is here in a Norwegian fjord for all to see with the naked eye or electronic screen. But you are not. Repeat: you are not. Capisce? Knowledge of a civilian stepping ashore from that naval vessel and onto Scandinavian soil is shared by a very select few.’
Still only half clear on what was happening from that sparse briefing, Frank pointed to the small stump of stone. ‘And where does our pal, here, come into the picture?’
‘He doesn’t. Forget him. I came across him when I was checking the area for a suitable out of the way place for us to have our briefing in private, and I found this place. It seems that who he was, or what he was at that time, nineteen forty-two, was somewhat unclear to those concerned. He was either a collaborator informing the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) of local Resistance movements, or a double agent supposedly working with German Occupation Forces, while all the time passing valuable information back to the Resistance. With unresolved suspicion outweighing absolute certainty on both sides, an Iron Cross or a hero’s bronze memorial plaque was not to be the order of the day. Possible embarrassment from tarnishing of reputations on both sides, made swift, remote disposal of the ‘problem’ the mutually best plan of the day.’
‘And that’s it? That wraps it up? All this.’ Frank swung a hand, indicating all around them and not hiding his irritation of the time wasted on a pointless guided tour.
‘Just thought I’d let you know and quell your anxiety in putting you off on the wrong track.’
‘You managed to do that well enough, for sure. Right, so putting that behind us and moving on, the next question is: what pawn’s square are you playing me from in this new game you’ve arranged, as if I hadn’t guessed.’
‘All in good time, kid, all in good time. I don’t have to remind you of our thumb-rule: you need know only what you need to know.’ Goodblood paused as he felt something touch the tip of his nose. Taking it off with his finger, he looked at it. A tiny white snowflake. He looked up to see that the little thing hadn’t descended on them without bringing pals along. In spite of the dark umbrella of the forest’s thick foliage sheltering them overhead, snowflakes were managing to filter though. ‘We’ll get back to that later, Frank. In the meantime, I think it’s time to get out of here. One buried here is enough; we don’t want it to be three.’
Turning to move off, Goodblood stopped again to take something out of his pocket. He handed it to Falzoni. ‘It should help you, carrying this on your person.’
Frank opened the small plastic wallet. The photograph was of him, but the name wasn’t. ‘Lewis. Frank Lewis. Food critic, writing for Boston gourmet magazine, Bon Appetit. Is this who I am for this assignment?’
‘Enjoy the Scandinavian cuisine, Mr Lewis. Now let’s get going. We’ll go in my car. Some things we need to go over on the way. Give me your keys, and someone will see to the Porsche.’
‘Hold on; wait a sec and satisfy my curiosity. What’s your opinion on him?’
You can make up your mind on that for yourself, when you meet him, Frank.’
‘No! No! Him!’ Frank jerked his head, indicating behind him at the grave.
Goodblood’s patience won over his anxious haste to leave, to let him ponder the question. ‘That damn fiasco a few years ago where we all became heroic victors wasn’t a ball game with only Allied Forces and Nazis on the field. The referee wanted to join in with his stringent rules to overrun us all, waving his glorious red flag.’
‘Red flag? You mean ---. Right, got it.’
‘Bravo! Somebody give Wonder Boy Frank, a gold star. Now, for God’s sake, let get moving. We’ve wasted enough time, without having to go into history lessons about Johnny Red Bolshevik coming into the game and pushing everyone else off the field.’
The parks were first to sense the coming weather change. A darkening of grey skies came first, followed by leaves twitching to a low sough sifting through them, the green fingers swaying in the breezes. Upsurge currents whispered the cry for change across the city, so that plant growth everywhere was shifting feverishly, in readiness for the coming. Just as suddenly, a stalling stillness returned. Then down came millions of them. Each with a separate identity, in a swirling motion to answer the clarion call for this new purity. The snowflakes landed where they were welcome, abandoned by the wind, as it tended to millions more earth-bound passengers. Parks and streets slowly changed colour, like a giant kaleidoscope. The white particles floating down onto soft turf and hard stone, covering greys and greens of the rough and the smooth. Only the lamp standards stood out aloof over their territories. Buildings, whether grand imposing edifices, or lowly homesteads, all gradually lost their huffy divisions, united at last under the thin blanket covering the city, except where the river and lakes swallowed up the white invaders without mercy.
That was how Frank saw it as he drove across the city in his hired Volvo, to his rented apartment in the quiet district where, on Marley’s assurance, his presence would not arouse undue attention. Worn and tired, like the rest of the ancient vehicle, the windscreen wipers struggled and groaned, almost losing the battle, to cope with the snow piling up on the glass. With everything getting wetter under the falling snow, his patience grew thinner with his crossing off street after street in never ending succession. What he was impatiently wanting see springing up just short of magic before him out there didn’t appear to be willing to grant his wish.
Continually craning his neck and straining his eyes, peering out to read partly obscured street names distracted Falzoni from what he should have seen. Until he saw it in the rear-view mirror. And yes, the car was following him. Time for crazy maze games. Ramming the pedal down fiercely, he had the car lurching forward, its wheels spinning in sudden wild acceleration, spurting out great arcs of snow to shower grim-faced passers-bye who were none too pleased to have the slush, in addition to the bitter wind, bite into their faces. Turning rapidly down side-streets, one after the other, without knowing where he was going – without caring where he was going --- didn’t seem to be doing any good. That damn blob of a stalker was still stuck there, square in the centre of the mirror.
Perhaps sensing Falzoni’s annoyance, the ‘blob’ started flashing its headlights. No, it wasn’t a trick of the light. There, in the mirror, the double spots of blue fog-lights were blinking in positive pattern. On and Off twice; pause, On and Off once; pause, On and Off twice. Repeated over and over. A finger was either jammed on a switch, or someone wanted a parley.
The ‘Indianapolis-500’ car rally ended slower than it had started, both of the vehicles pulling in, at a ‘safe’ distance apart, at the kerb. Two car door clicks, distinctively clear in the quiet night air. Blowing on his cold fingers, Falzoni looked down the street, taking in the dark figure cringing in the night, the face half covered by collar, the other half by snow. From the way the guy was holding that thick package, fingers splayed out, to his chest, you could have taken him to be a Dickens-style Bible-thumping evangelist in timely keeping with the ‘no room at the inn’, stable at Bethlehem theme.
Which, of course, he wasn’t. Blowing on his cold hands as he walked towards the guy, Falzoni recognised, with a knowing eye, the polite just discernible servile manner of the raw diplomat recruit. The courier from the Embassy.
‘The one and only, in person. Yeah, c’est moi.’ The playful words to put the nervous young rookie at ease. Frank looked up pointedly at the guy’s car roof. ‘Couldn’t Expenses afford to squeeze a neon sign in on its budget?’ Frank couldn’t help thinking that one of those contraptions glaring out its message could hardly have attracted more attention than the wild flashing of headlights had done.
‘Skip it.’ Frank reached out to take the package. He saw through the open end of the small diplomatic bag what he reckoned to be a long night’s reading in the form of two fat folders. ‘My homework, right? That’ll take more than a packet of Camel and a long stream of coffees to get through. What do you reckon?’
Not knowing what to answer on that, the man blurted out: ‘I gather that it’s important --- useful, anyway, for you. According to Mr Hawkesly, that is.’
‘ “Useful,” huh?’
‘To be delivered to you immediately, he said –-- Mr Hawkesly, that is.’
‘Ah, of course, Mr Hawkesly,’
‘You know how he likes things done quicker than lightning. But you’ll already be acquainted with his ways.’
Frank gave a soft avuncular smile, shaking his head slowly. ‘Ah, no, sorry to disappoint you, but no, I don’t know your Mr Hawkesly.’ He held up the bag, with its ‘precious’ lot in a gesture of gratitude. ‘But you can tell him that I said thanks for this, and that I’ll get on with the good work at “lightning” speed, have no fear. We don’t want him developing ulcers from undue worry, do we?’
The young man gave a short laugh, realising now, that it was his own behaviour that was the butt of the humour. ‘I guess not, Mr Lewis.’
Looking down at his watch, Frank began turning away slowly as a signal before looking again at the courier. ‘Well if that’s all there is, I think we can call it a night and disperse, before the local Keystone Cops arrive to haul us in for ungodly soliciting in the street.’ He walked away with a quickening pace. Enough time wasted.
The courier called out. ‘Incidentally, Mr Lewis, we’re holding an informal cheese and wine sort of do on this coming Wednesday. Perhaps, in your capacity of professional gourmet, you’d care to come along and enlighten us with your valued opinion on the refreshments; the wines especially?’
Frank stopped, to turn round. He pulled on a frown, not that it could be seen at that distance in the poor light of the street lamps. ‘Now I do like the sound of wines, like music to my ears; but cheese? Cheese makes me think of mice. And mice scare the pants off me, but don’t tell anyone. So I think we’ll leave it there.’ He turned to walk away again, then stopped, looking back at the guy. ‘Say, kid, what the heck is your name, anyway?’
‘Yes, Hawkesly. Hawkesly Junior, that is, sir.’
That his father was now gone, alas, having lain a mere fifty-one hours in the grave, gave Frank only the compensation of partly pulling his mind from that other painful connection with the past – Charlie’s death. It moved him in reminding him of the only other time that he had paid a visit, to that antiquated suburban corner of San Francisco that had spawned and spewed him forth, to die-cast him in his ever-lasting like-or-lump-it personal mould. Coming down from the university, back to the quaint little apple-blossomed hometown had given him a feeling of personal conquest. But where sadness of farewell filled the day, a drabness flowered over former familiarity, like weeds springing up and cluttering what had once been welcoming doorways. Thus he had been able to look down in a quiet satisfaction of completion. He did not recognise the town, any more than it recognised him, or failed to grant him recognition after it had once sent him away, a long time ago, to offer his life in service for his country. He had not felt alone or alienated in that strange town that day. Rather, he had felt an elating sense of freedom – of his having broken the chains of familial bonding – of having wiped away blemishing faults of the past. Or so he had thought then, watching the coffin’s slow descent. But that very lowering into the earth had mirrored that earlier coffin drawing out of reach forever, making him realise that the past was continually stalking him, a skulking predator snarling on his heels, its hunger increasing of late.
Laden with this morbid mood, it was thus through a whirling snow blizzard that Falzoni, after parking the car, tramped his way uphill, his form bent forward, to the town’s Sorjen Institute of Natural Studies. As far as he could judge, a place rarely visited by the common crowd but most avidly by that peculiar ‘absent-minded’ lot forever in search of something more extraordinary, like a mutant strain of banana with two left feet. A high spiked wall hid the select institute, except at the gateway, where the building leapt out in bright patches of red sandstone, to penetrate the grove of snow-sprinkled larches. The trees moved aside so that a forest of twisted chimney turrets took over, smoking heavily to recover the heat lost through the tall French windows. Where Falzoni churned the snow underfoot, he was able to deduce that the large building had reproduced itself in countless little red pieces covering the driveway and scattered up the stairs under the stone portico.
Scraping his soles on the iron frame to remove the snow, Falzoni pulled down on the heavy iron door handle and pushed open the heavier iron-studded oaken door. He entered the main hall, brushing under the tropical palms held in the grip of two grimacing Burmese jungle warriors standing beside two fiercer grimacing jade dragons. Teak parquets and raw sienna carpeting stretched out before him, with finely veneered wood panelling rising to the Renaissance ceiling’s frescoed pale-flesh frolics of naked nymphs. And shelves and shelves holding up a sea of dust-covered, time-forgotten, volumes visited mostly by the odd adventurous spider. Frank took in the room’s dull atmosphere, along with that unique smell of books quietly decaying all around him. It gave off a cool feeling, but not as cold as he’d been out there in the snow. Looking cooler in their redundancy, just like the books, the two suits of armour standing on both sides of the large crest emblazoning the balcony balustrade caught Frank’s attention. ‘Semper paratus – always ready,’ he said quietly, reading from the large shield. ‘Yeah, pal, I get it, no need to remind me,’ he muttered again quietly to himself. He stole a glance all round about, without looking suspiciously on guard. In this game, you could never be sure who was who, tailing you or not tailing you. Not unless any KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti) agent would be crazy enough to be sporting a Ku Klux Klan- style of tall conical mask headgear.
His inside started for a brief instant at the sight the woman’s face framed in profile against the light of the window. It reminded him of her for a moment, the surprise catching him inside. But the woman straightened up from her leaning position over the glass case, turning her head to reveal an entirely different person. His inner glow subsided. It wasn’t Charlie. She was dead. Killed by a bastard traitor double agent just doing his duty to protect what he supposedly believed in before fleeing to the safety of the Soviet Motherland. Now in game rebound, it was apparently Moscow’s turn to be betrayed by one of its traitors scheming to help the West.
The woman stepped away from the display cabinet with a slow unsure motion that quickened into the brisk official walk of a curator. ‘Kan jeg hjelpe deg’ The woman’s voice tried to convey a friendly tone, but didn’t manage to lose its official note completely.
Snapping out of his dark thoughts, Frank broke out in a wide smile, shaking his head politely. ‘Sorry, ma’am, I don’t speak your lovely lingo. In any case, I don’t think my tongue would curl round those cute vowels with quite as chic a click as yours does.’ And she was a chic chick in Frank’s eyes, in spite of the officious message that came across from her impatient fidgeting with those keys on the long gold-linked neck chain draped over and dangling from her generous bosom balcony.
‘Ah, American,’ she exclaimed. Did he detect a note of disdain in her remark?
Switching to English, she tried again. ‘Can I help you?’ Turning slowly, she swung an arm around, indicating the glass cases with their display of precious specimens.
Taking a quick step back, Frank gave a short laugh, declining the kind offer with a shake of the hand. ‘No, no, it’s okay; I’m just browsing – looking around at your super collection here. That’s awful kind of you. Thanks all the same.’ Turning away, whilst trying not to appear rude, he made his escape. She followed the American’s retreat with dagger eyes, her face creasing into a frown of disapproval. Another foreign tourist insulting the museum’s precious specimens by coming into the building simply to shelter from the inclement weather outside.
All the way from Lavik to Bergen in the back of Marley’s car, Frank had made a rough perusal through the CIA classified notes that Marley had loaded on him. Dropped off at a convenient suburban coach stance, a local bus had him arriving discreetly in the city with its picturesque image of yester-year multi-coloured wooden buildings. In his rented room in the town’s quiet district, he had spent the night running over dossier after dossier, field reports, recorded phone-calls and letters, until he felt that he knew him, in spite of the fact that he had not yet set eyes on the damn guy; none of our lot had seen the guy --- if it was a guy, or a dame. Nobody knew. Even with all the scant snippets of information collated by our agents spread over Europe and everywhere else outside of Russia, anything beyond what we now had was a total obscurity. It sufficed for the moment, to allot him the codename: COMPASS.
Tomorrow’s low-profile entrance, this time in Oslo, would let him see the guy face to face.
Now he was here in this gloomy mausoleum to meet this crazy phantom ‘Red’ Pimpernel, who was offering to tear a hole in the Iron Curtain, if you could excuse the pun. Taking a final checking sweeping glance around the room, Frank turned his attention on the broad staircase, walking with a determined step towards it, muttering: ‘Okay, pal, so let’s be meeting you, whoever you are; let’s put your invisible mug-shot in the frame.’
Clearly, what had been of compelling interest to scholars for centuries had now waned in drawing power with the two men in the ancient manuscripts room of the Institute. Neither Falzoni nor the blond-haired man in russet Norfolk jacket was giving any real attention to the manuscripts in the glass cases over which they stooped, shifting and turning like restless bloodhounds. And what scent was that they were each picking up? Both of them were acutely vigilant of all that was happening around them. Their senses were tuned to every creak of the worn-weary floorboards, to every voice or whisper that filtered in from the surrounding rooms of the building. Both of them were acutely aware of each other.
Falzoni bent in closer to the glass case, his nose almost touching it, all the while watching the man’s angled reflection on its surface. When the reflection turned its back on him, Falzoni stole a quick glance at the man across the room. The man’s height and broad, robustly filled, frame were two factors tying in with the image of him Falzoni had conjured up in his mind the previous night when going over the will-o-the wisp guy’s details. Military boots, gleaming bright from devoted polishing, stood proudly out of the cavalry-twill trousers, and could well have strode with resolute pounding across a hard concrete barracks parade ground at one time in the past, although the footsteps were sounding differently on relatively soft wooden floorboards today. Cautiously light, furtive, steps. Not wishing to draw undue attention. Yeah, that was making sense, joining up the dots in the vague sketch they had of him so far, built up from equally vague field reports that had been gathered on him from far and wide. Collectively it all added up – from military to civilian – from soldier to engineer – from dedicated comrade to disillusioned traitor.
But this dawning clarity was suddenly giving rise to an uneasy feeling in Frank’s mind. Was he mistaken? Was he being over-alert comparing the sound those military boots would have made, to the sound he remembered hearing – thought he had heard -- striding resolutely after him in the shrouded depth of the evening mist last night? Trailing him? Hell! Or was it just the light of day blowing away the night’s gossamer phantoms of the mind, like a child’s nightmare dissolved with the coming of morn?
All in all, who was this fucking guy who appeared to be one step ahead of us, keeping a tab on us, in the game we thought we were running? If Moscow was unaware of agent Falzoni’s presence in Norway, as Marley had so resolutely assured him, and this guy was dogging the steps of our operation so closely, you had to see a new mantle of professionalism flapping round those broad shoulders. And it somehow didn’t seem to tie in with the image of the quiet docile laboratory worker interested in nothing else but what he read through a spectrometer, measuring the laser-beam power of possibly what could be another asset to be added to the Red Army’s already massive armoury. No, it didn’t.
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