SS-GB - by Len Deighton


Chapter Twenty

‘When I was a young Sub-Divisional Inspector I often found myself in a brawl with drunks on a Saturday night. But this was different. I never dreamed what it might be like to have a strong, determined kid, with a knife in his hand, trying to murder me.’ Douglas sat back in the best armchair, and sipped the hot soup.

Barbara Barga said, ‘And you don’t think he could have had any connection with Standartenführer Huth?’

‘To murder me! Huth doesn’t have to go to all that trouble. Now that he’s empowered to sign the Primary Arrest Sheets he could pop me into a concentration camp, and I’d never be seen again.’

She shuddered. ‘But could he have sent this man just to frighten you?’

‘Huth frightens me enough already,’ said Douglas. ‘He doesn’t need anyone waving daggers.’ Barbara came round the back of the chair, and leaned over to kiss him.

‘Poor darling,’ she said. ‘Have another bowl of soup.’

‘No thanks; I’m fine.’

‘I still think you need a Scotch.’ She took a slice of bread and a toasting fork. ‘You’re in shock.’

Douglas took the bread and toasting fork from her and leaned forward to hold it near the hissing flames of the gas fire. His hand trembled.

‘In England, it’s a man’s job to make toast,’ said Douglas. It was his way of saying he didn’t want to be treated like an invalid.

‘Or every Englishman’s sneaky way to hog the fire,’ was her way of saying she understood.

‘Is that your experience of Englishmen?’

‘Of some of them…people are depressed and nervous, aren’t they, Douglas? This lack of self-confidence makes them devious and unreliable.’ She paused, uncertain of whether she’d offended him.

‘We’ve always been like that,’ said Douglas, and made light of her criticisms. ‘But if that’s the way you feel, why are you risking your neck with…?’ Douglas didn’t say the names of Mayhew, Benson and Staines.

‘Oh, my, you are discreet,’ she said. ‘A lady’s honourable name has nothing to fear at your hands, Doug.’

The toast smoked. Douglas turned it over, and held the other side to the fire. ‘You still haven’t told me.’

‘Let’s just say I can’t resist a titled Englishman.’

Douglas knew there were other reasons but he did not press it. The radio was broadcasting dance music, direct from the Savoy Hotel ballroom. Carrol Gibbons was playing his famous white piano. For a few minutes they listened to the vocalist singing ‘Anything goes’.

She had butter for the toast – pale and spotty, it was home-made and delicious. ‘I’m not really a part of it, Doug,’ she said suddenly. ‘But with my syndicated column I can be valuable to Mayhew and the others…and, from my point of view, it’s a story no good reporter could pass up.’

‘But how did you contact them? And why should they trust you?’

‘My ex-husband works for the State Department in Washington.’

Ah, so that’s it, thought Douglas, an ex-husband!

‘He’s been helping Rear-Admiral Conolly’s people find their way round town.’

‘What are Conolly’s chances?’

‘He’s…’ she was about to make some flippant remark but she saw that Douglas depended upon her answer. ‘Not good, Douglas. Congress distrusts military rulers. They’ve seen too many of them in South America. If it was Churchill there in Washington, or even Lord Halifax, or just some name they’d heard before…’ She waited to see how Douglas would take this pessimistic assessment. He nodded. She said, ‘Colonel Mayhew believes that it would be worth almost any kind of risk to get the King out of German custody.’

‘So he told me,’ said Douglas. ‘But you’re the one who warned me about Mayhew and the rest of them.’

‘And I still warn you,’ she reached out and pressed his hand affectionately. ‘When Mayhew says he will risk anything, he means he’d risk any number of guys like you.’

‘You don’t like Mayhew?’

‘He’s too much like my ex-husband,’ she said, and Douglas was pleased with both judgments.

Colonel Mayhew arrived at nine-fifteen. He came into the cramped little living-room, shaking the rain off his Melton overcoat. ‘Good evening, Archer.’ He took his coat off. ‘Now that the curfew has forced Boodles and Whites to close early a man like me has no place to spend his evenings.’

Barbara and Douglas smiled politely. They both knew that Mayhew had never been the sort of man who spent his evenings in gentlemen’s clubs. ‘What happened to your neck?’

‘A kid tried to knife me tonight,’ said Douglas.

‘My God,’ said Mayhew. ‘And came damned close to killing you, by the look of it. Who?’

‘One of your boys I think,’ said Douglas.

‘I have no boys,’ said Mayhew coldly. ‘Have you got a corkscrew for this?’ He held up the bottle of wine that he’d had in his overcoat pocket.

Barbara had a corkscrew ready in her hand.

‘Ah, the ever-practical American,’ said Mayhew. With all the skill of a wine-waiter, he removed the foil, wiped the top of the cork, and withdrew it without shaking the bottle. ‘I have no boys,’ he said again, holding the bottle to the light to be sure that the sediment was undisturbed. ‘And I don’t have killers either.’

‘He had a pocket full of these,’ said Douglas. He passed him a leaflet.

Mayhew took it by the corner and held it with obvious distaste. ‘What are these stains?’ He gave it back to Douglas.

‘Blood,’ said Douglas, ‘he’s very dead.’

Mayhew had handled the leaflet with the same kind of delicacy that he’d given the bottle of claret, from which he now poured.

‘People want to do something,’ said Barbara. ‘Even if it’s only passing round leaflets, with slogans like this. People want to show how much they hate the Germans.’

‘You see,’ said Mayhew. ‘These Americans! Impetuous, impatient, and so full of energy.’ He handed wine to her, and another glass to Douglas.

‘Good health,’ said Douglas. They drank Mayhew’s wine.

Douglas said, ‘My job is solving crimes. The British public have a right to be protected against murder, robbery and violence. Do I have to tell the victims of such crimes that I don’t like working under the Germans?’ He touched his neck. It was tender and beginning to throb.

‘Hold your horses, my dear chap. No one is criticizing the police, just as no sane person would say the fire-service is disloyal because it extinguishes fires under the German regime.’

‘I wish someone had explained all that to the kid who came at me tonight.’

‘You’re a special case.’ Mayhew put down his glass, raised his hands to warm them at the fire and rubbed them together vigorously. ‘All that “Archer of the Yard” publicity…of course, you’ve not encouraged it.’ He smiled briefly, as a film star smiles for a photographer. ‘But it’s always the prominent people who are singled out for attack. None of the chorus, the dancers or the musicians who do those special Wehrmacht shows at the Palladium, get threatening letters – but Maurice Chevalier does get them, and so do the other top-name stars.’

Barbara held her empty glass for more wine. Mayhew poured it. She said, ‘But all this is academic, Colonel. The most urgent thing is that you do something to prevent any other Resistance man trying to kill Douglas.’

‘What would you have me do, dear lady? Shall I tell the world that Douglas Archer is now a fully paid up member of the Resistance?’

‘Jesus Christ, Colonel,’ said Barbara. ‘You’re going to leave him, like an Aunt Sally, a target for any crank or crackpot who comes along?’

‘I’ll do anything that you, and the Superintendent, wish. But I believe a few moments’ reflection will tell you that it is far more dangerous to be known as a member of the Resistance, than…’ He left the rest unsaid.

‘Colonel Mayhew is right, Barbara. I’ll just have to be careful.’

‘It’s probably going to be the best thing that ever happened to us,’ said Mayhew. ‘From what you tell me, no one could believe that this was a put-up job.’ He drank some wine. ‘From now onwards the Germans will regard you as one of the most reliable men they have.’

‘And if the next attempt on my life succeeds,’ said Douglas, ‘the Germans will put up a statue to me. You make it sound very attractive, Colonel.’

Mayhew smiled. It was an engaging smile and in spite of his feelings, Douglas smiled too. ‘That’s better,’ said Mayhew. ‘When the King is freed and makes a statement about the true status of Rear-Admiral Conolly, everything else will begin to fall into place.’

‘Where will the King go?’ asked Barbara.

‘A lot of people will have to be disappointed. The Canadians will expect him to go to Ottawa, I expect. But politically he’ll be more effective in Washington DC. On the other hand, His Majesty might prefer to join his brother in the Bahamas, or even go to Bermuda.’

‘I’ll drink a toast to that day,’ said Barbara.

‘And a scoop for Barbara Barga,’ said Mayhew, careful never to overlook the vested interest of each party in every discussion.

‘Not much chance of that,’ said Barbara. She drank. ‘Is it really a possibility?’

‘We’ve been having talks with a man named Georg von Ruff, a Generalmajor on the staff of Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr – military intelligence – he’s a General mark you, but one of a group of convinced anti-Nazis. He hinted that there is even a plan afoot to assassinate Hitler.’

‘And you believe him?’ said Douglas.

‘Yes, I do,’ said Mayhew. ‘These are men of fine German families, professional soldiers of the old school. They have no time for the Nazi Party and the SS ruffians.’

‘There are bitter feelings between the German occupation army, and the SS,’ agreed Douglas.

‘And we must exploit this division,’ said Mayhew. ‘But I thank Providence that I’m having to find common ground with these Prussians, rather than those SS cutthroats.’

‘But will they really do something?’ said Barbara. ‘Or is it just talk?’

‘There’s an element of self-interest,’ said Mayhew. ‘The army strongly oppose this new idea that Great Britain should soon be ruled by a Reichskommissar rather than by the army C-in-C. They want to stay in control here, and I believe it’s in our interest that the army do remain in control. Anything that strikes at the prestige of Kellerman, and his SS, automatically benefits the army.’

‘Setting the King free would certainly make the SS look foolish,’ said Douglas. ‘Kellerman would probably be sacked.’

‘And you say that that would suit your man Huth – right?’ said Mayhew.

‘It would,’ said Douglas. ‘But to what extent he’d actually assist, remains to be seen.’

Barbara said, ‘If Huth is let into the secret, he could betray you.’

‘That’s where Superintendent Archer has agreed to help,’ said Mayhew. ‘He can leak rumours of the idea to Huth, and tell us the Standartenführer’s reaction.’

‘Yes, I can do that,’ said Douglas.

‘Be careful, Doug,’ said Barbara. He reached for her hand and pressed it in reassurance.

Mayhew got to his feet. ‘Well that’s the next step, Archer. I leave it to you how you go about it.’ He looked at himself in the ornately framed mirror over the fireplace. ‘Don’t overplay your hand, it’s too risky. Just a hint will be enough.’ Mayhew frowned at his reflection and tugged at the ends of his spotted bow-tie to tighten the knot. ‘Simpsons of Piccadilly have a small stock of long combination underwear; wool, pre-war quality. I bought some yesterday. It’s going to be a damned cold winter.’

‘It won’t be cold in the chair I’m using,’ said Douglas.

Mayhew smiled. ‘Well, goodnight. Get in touch when you think you have an answer. I don’t have to tell you what will happen if we get this one wrong.’

‘No, you don’t,’ said Douglas.

‘Well, be a good chap, and stay out of the glossy magazines for a week or so.’ Douglas nodded. He knew that Colonel Mayhew liked to have the last word.


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