Authors: Dennis Wheatley
Tags: #Fiction, #Occult & Supernatural, #War & Military
The fact that she was free could be accounted for either by the possibility that she was the mistress of some Nazi official, or that she had been let out of a concentration camp and had agreed to impersonate Frau von Altern to save herself from the gas chamber. Probably she was hating the role she was being forced to play, but if her life depended on it that would not prevent her from doing her utmost to trap him. And he had seconds only to think of a way of saving himself.
As the tall, flat-chested woman came towards Gregory, he noticed subconsciously that the clothes she was wearing had once been good but were baggy from long use and that she had a generally uncared-for appearance. That fitted with the theory that she had been hurriedly released from a concentration camp. Suddenly, he realised that he was staring at her with apprehension. Swiftly he strove to compose his features and adjust his thoughts to this perilous situation.
Everything he had meant to say to her must remain unsaid. Instead, he must do his utmost to convince her that he really was an officer on leave, interested only in fishing. In making use of a Jewess the Germans, as was so frequently the case, had underestimated the intelligence of their enemy; but, even alerted as he was to his danger, how could he at such short notice explain his having said that he had come from Sweden, or give an account of his recent activities which could not immediately be checked up and found to be false? And, even if he could succeed in fooling her, for the Nazis to have sent her there meant that they must have seen his letter. That made it certain that Gestapo men in plain clothes were among the people at the nearby tables, covertly watching him, ready to pounce instantly should he attempt to bolt for it.
Knowing that his only hope lay in keeping his head, he succeeded in acting normally. Coming to his feet he clicked his heels and bowed sharply from the waist in the approved German manner, rapping out as he did so the one word âBodenstein'.
Searching his face with her large eyes, which were grey and unsmiling, she extended her hand. He took and kissed it,
murmuring, âFrau von Altern, it is a pleasure to meet you; and most gracious of you to enliven a lonely soldier's leave by coming to take lunch with him.'
âThat we have mutual friends is quite sufficient,' she replied. âIt is in any case a duty to do anything one can to make our men's leave enjoyable. But you looked quite surprised at seeing me.'
Her voice was deep and she spoke German with a heavy accent, so Gregory was able to say, âIt was your appearance that took me by surprise. Iâwell, I had not expected you to be a foreigner.'
âHow strange,' she remarked as she sat down in the chair he was holding for her, âthat our friends did not tell you that I am Turkish by birth. I married Ulrich von Altern when he was at the Embassy in Ankara. Perhaps, then, you also do not know that my beloved husband was killed six months ago on the Russian front.'
That von Altern was out of the way for good, so could not become a complication, was good news for Gregory, but he hardly gave that a thought so great was his relief at the earlier part of her statement. For a German while stationed in Turkey to have married a Turkish woman was in no way abnormal. Her Near-Eastern origin explained her features and their semi-Asiatic cast made her in Western Europe easily mistakable for a Jewess. Since she was not, there was no longer any reason to suppose that she had been planted on him by the Gestapo. Freed from his fears, he swiftly recovered himself, beckoned over the old, lame waiter and asked her what she would like to drink.
With quick, nervous gestures she fished a cigarette out of her bag, lit it and ordered
âan unusual drink before lunchâbut Gregory made no comment and, as the waiter limped away, sought to make a new appraisal of her. At closer quarters he judged her to be in her middle thirties. She wore no make-up and her skin was sallow, merging into almost black shadows beneath her fine grey eyes. An untidy wisp of hair protruding from under her scarf now showed him that it was red. He decided that as a girl, when her nose would have been less fleshy, she must have been good-looking, but lines running
from her nose and about her mouth now furrowed her features.
Although relieved of his sudden fear that he had fallen into a trap, he was still on delicate ground; for he had yet to make certain that it was she who had sent the information about PeenemÃ¼nde to Sweden. So, having commiserated with her on her husband's death, he went on cautiously, âIt is not for us to question the FÃ¼hrer's wisdom, but one cannot help feeling that the sacrifices he demands have become almost unbearable.'
âYou are right,
,' she agreed bitterly. âHad my husband been killed while marching against France that would have been one thing; but for him to have died last winter in the snows of Russia is quite another. In
the FÃ¼hrer declared that never again should the German people be called on to fight a war on two fronts, and in that he betrayed them.'
To declare that Hitler had betrayed his people was a very dangerous thing to do, particularly when speaking to a person one had only just met; so Gregory assumed that she was giving him a cue and replied:
âHitler having gone into Russia before he finished with Britain can end only in our defeat. Personally, I take the view that anyone who now does what he can to thwart the Nazis, so that war may be brought to an end before Germany is utterly ruined, would be acting in the best interests of our country.'
His words amounted to unequivocal treason, and S.O.E.'s briefing was not always reliable. If, after all, she was not the source from which they had received information, and her outburst had been caused only by resentment at the loss of her husband, she might quite well denounce him.
The forged papers he carried were adequate for all ordinary purposes, but the identity he had assumed could not stand up to investigation. German thoroughness in keeping records would soon disclose that there was no such person as Major Helmuth Bodenstein. If she turned him over to the police his mission would be at an end before it had properly begun. But he had known that sooner or later in their conversation, if he were to get anywhere with her he must offer her a lead and take the risk that he had been misinformed about her. Having made his gamble, with his heart beating a shade faster, he waited for her reaction.
For a moment her grey eyes remained inscrutable, then she said in a low voice, âI was right then in assuming that you did not wish to meet me only to enquire about fishing?'
He nodded. âYes. There are other matters of interest up here in Pomerania about which I am hoping you may be able to tell me.'
At that moment the waiter brought her drink. She swallowed half of it at a gulp, then asked, âSuch as?'
âSuch as that about which some weeks ago you sent a report by a Polish officer to Sweden.'
She gave a little gasp and looked round nervously. âHow â¦ how do you know about that?'
âThrough a certain Embassy.'
âIn your letter you mentioned having friends in the Turkish Embassy, but it could not have been through them?'
âNo. I put that in only to act as cover for both of us should my letter have fallen into wrong hands.'
Fumbling for another cigarette she lit it from the one she was smoking; then her voice came in a whisper, âYou are, then, a British agent?'
Gregory nodded. âYes, I have been sent here specially to contact you and ask your help in securing more exact particulars about these, er, long cigars.'
With a swift movement she gulped down the rest of her brandy, then she said, âCan I have another? I must have time to think.'
Catching the waiter's eye, Gregory pointed at their empty glasses. Turning back to her, he said very quietly, âIn this our interests are mutual. You cannot wish the war to go on until millions more Germans are killed on the battlefields or blown to pieces in their homes by bombs; and I, naturally, am most anxious to prevent millions of British men, women and children from being obliterated by these ghastly secret weapons. If the two countries make it a fight to the finish there will be nothing worth having left to either side. Hitler has made his great gamble and lost it, but for this one thing. If you and I can prevent his using it peace will come while both nations will be little worse situated than they were in 1918 and a few years should bring full recovery to them both. It is a choice of that
or destruction so terrible that those of us who are left will be living like pariah dogs in the ruins for decades to come.'
âI know it,' she murmured, âbut to secure this information you seek would be extremely difficult and entail great risks.'
âNaturally. But I have considerable experience in such matters; and, as far as risks are concerned, it will be for me to take the major ones. All I ask of you is to give me any lead you can and, if possible, provide a base from which I and the companion I have brought with me, who is posing as my soldier servant, can get to work.'
Her second brandy arrived at that moment. Taking it eagerly, she again drank half of it, then she said, âI should like to help you, but I cannot give you an immediate answer. I must first consult my father.'
He gave her his friendliest smile. âThank you. How soon can you do that?'
âPetrol is precious. Having come in here I must not lose the opportunity to make a round of the shops for cigarettes. But if my father agrees, the sooner you leave Grimmen the better; so immediately I get back to Sassen I will speak to him then telephone to you.'
She finished her second drink and they went in to lunch. Over the meal, he learned that the von Altern estate covered several thousand acres. Before the war it had been farmed by her husband's cousin. When he had been called up she had taken over and still ran it with the assistance of one of the tenant farmers. It meant a lot of hard work, but had its compensations, as it enabled them to live very much better than people in the towns and cities.
Gregory tried to draw her out about herself, but she proved very reticent. All he could get out of her was that she had married von Altern during his first year in Turkey as Military AttachÃ©, that to her great regret they had had no children and that her father, who was a doctor, had come to live with her at Sassen soon after the war broke out. For the remainder of the time they talked about the war situation, but exercised care not to express any opinions which, if overheard by anyone at the nearby tables, would draw unwelcome attention to them.
Shortly after two o'clock Gregory escorted his tall, somewhat
untidy-looking guest to the entrance to the hotel and bowed her away.
At first he had been at a loss to decide what had attracted a Prussian aristocrat like von Altern, who also must have been a Nazi, to her; for she was both a non-Aryan and, he felt convinced, had had only a middle-class upbringing. But while sitting opposite her at lunch he felt still more certain that when a younger woman she must have been decidedly attractive.
During the meal she had eaten little but had chain-smoked all through it and, although he had offered her wine, she had stuck to brandy, even drowning her ersatz coffee in it; so he thought it probable that grief for her husband's death had caused her to take to drink. If so, that would account for the deterioration in her looks and her scruffy appearance. That she had proved intensely serious and had shown not a trace of humour gave him no concern, for he knew it to be safer to work with such a woman than one who was inclined to be light-minded and flirtatious; but he could have wished that she had a more pleasant personality.
Sending for Kuporovitch, he told him the situation and that he had better not leave the hotel that afternoon; then he settled himself in the lounge with his book to await Frau von Altern's telephone call.
She did not ring up till past five, but what she said was entirely satisfactory. âMy father is quite angry with me for not having asked you out here at once. He says it is unthinkable that we should leave an old friend of my husband's at an hotel and that you must spend as much of your leave with us as you would care to. Later we will make plans for you to get some fishing. Please be ready with your servant at half past six and I will come in to Grimmen to pick you up.'
Gregory politely protested that he did not wish to be a bother to them but accepted for a night or two anyway; then rang off. Kuporovitch was summoned and they went upstairs to pack. Now that they had a third suitcase Kuporovitch was able to put his few things in one while Gregory retained the other and that which contained the wireless transmitter. By twenty past six Gregory had paid their bill and they were standing on the steps of the hotel with the suitcases beside them.
They were not kept waiting long. As Frau von Altern brought the farm truck to a halt Gregory stepped forward, saluted, bowed and, indicating Kuporovitch with a negligent wave of his hand, said, âThis is my servant, Janos Sabinov. He is a Ruthenian, but speaks enough German to make himself understood.'
The Russian made an awkward bow, murmured, â
KÃ¼ss die hand, gnÃ¤dige Frau,
' put the suitcases into the back of the truck and scrambled in after them. Gregory climbed in beside the driver and they set off.
As soon as they were clear of the town and had entered a winding lane that ran between broad, flat fields, his companion said to him, âI must now tell you something more about us. My husband's cousin, Willi von Altern, who ran the estate before the war, returned in the autumn of 1940. During the invasion of France he was blown up by a shell and seriously injured. He lost a leg and, although he was fitted with a false one, so can now get about quite well, he is no longer capable of running the place because his mind was also affected. We make use of him for simple tasks, but his memory is quite unreliable. He was never particularly well disposed towards me and my father and if his brain were still capable of taking in our sentiments I think he would betray us. But, fortunately, there is little danger of that.'