The Burning Sky, страница 1
THE BURNING SKY
To Gregg & Christina Prisco
Sorry I missed
About the Author
By Jack Ludlow
Throughout the novel, the Empire of Ethiopia is also referred to by its historical name of Abyssinia. Having, it is claimed, lasted 2000 years, it has waxed and waned, and at times included parts of Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and modern Somalia. The names in the context of the 1930s are interchangeable, and the land it occupied then was close to that which it holds now as a Democratic Republic.
ETHIOPIA AND THE HORN OF AFRICA, 1930s
If Peter Lanchester had any notion of appearing incongruous as he strode down the Reeperbahn, it did not show, while he was also self-possessed enough to ignore the looks he was getting from the inhabitants of the city of Hamburg. No strangers to eccentricity, they nevertheless rarely saw a man dressed in a bowler hat, let alone a thick beige overcoat called a ‘British Warm’, standard dress for off-duty British Army officers and perfect protection against a biting north-east wind.
The tightly rolled umbrella would be seen as sensible in a port that sat in the broad funnel of the River Elbe, which frequently brought in foul weather from the North Sea. If not that, a Baltic tempest could come racing across the flatlands of Holstein, either to drench the city or scar the flesh with a Siberian wind. As Lanchester made his way, a careful ear would have noted some symmetry in the tattoo of the brass ferrule striking the pavement in rhythm with the heels of his highly polished black Oxfords; sensed,
eter Lanchester had any notion of appearing incongruous as he strode down the Reeperbahn, it did not show, while he was also self-possessed enough to ignore the looks he was getting from the inhabitants of the city of Hamburg. No strangers to eccentricity, they nevertheless rarely saw a man dressed in a bowler hat, let alone a thick beige overcoat called a ‘British Warm’, standard dress for off-duty British Army officers and perfect protection against a biting north-east wind.
The tightly rolled u
perhaps, this fellow, wearing a striped military tie, was either a serving or an ex-soldier.
The bar he was seeking looked dingy from the outside, and entry into the dim interior did little to elevate the first impression. Hat off now – Lanchester was, after all, an officer and a gentleman – he ignored the slobbish fellow who sought to guide him to a table and made his way to a point where he could survey the far-from-spacious room, to peer through eyes stung by the smoke-laden atmosphere, the product of numerous cigarettes and too many cheap cigars.
Most of the tables were occupied, but having identified the man he was looking for, and observing he was in deep conversation with another, Lanchester chose a table for himself. He took the precaution of flapping a lazy hand across the chair before sitting down, and even more care not to put any part of him, including his calfskin gloves, on the little round table, much scratched and sticky with dried alcohol. His hat he placed on his upright brolly.
The champagne bottle, two glasses and a bill appeared before his bottom hit the velvet-covered, gilt-painted chair; the overweight and overmade-up whore was sitting opposite him a second after, leering with a mouth full of misshapen teeth, elbows on the table and her cavernous cleavage pushed forward, trying in German to sound seductive while wafting in his direction a mixture of bad breath and cheap perfume.
The temptation to rake his brolly across the table and remove the bottle and glasses was one he had to resist, but the presence of the prostitute he could not abide, being too fastidious a fellow for her type. So, sure she would understand a modicum of English in one of the world’s busiest trading ports, he told her, in his very clipped tones, to ‘fuck off!’.
That she reacted so badly was unfortunate, producing a stream of loud German invective, which drew unwelcome attention, in particular that of the man he had come to see. The eyes flicked over him and he knew he had been recognised: when you have fought in battle alongside a fellow his features never fade. But Lanchester was pleased Cal Jardine did not react in any special way; he looked over and then looked away with an unhurried turn of the head.
Picking up the open champagne bottle Lanchester perused the label, which told him it was a non-vintage Ruinart, which, if true, would indicate a decent brew. Curiosity, and a conviction it was false, had him pour a drop and hold it up to one of the dim wall lights, wondering if he would see any bubbles, his suspicions confirmed when none appeared. He waved to the man who had served it and he came waddling over, his hands clasped before him.
‘Sprechen Sie English?’
‘Ja, a leetle.’
‘Good,’ Lanchester said, lifting the champagne bottle. ‘Take away this rubbish and bring me something decent to drink.’
‘Is fine champagne, mein Herr.’
‘It is shit, old boy, and most certainly not champagne. Now, be a good chap and do as I bid. Dish me up a Moselle of the quality Herr Jardine over there might drink. Oh, and when you bring it, make sure it is unopened, verstehen Sie?’
The waiter, who was either naturally greasy or inclined to excessive perspiration – Lanchester had mentally named him ‘the slob’ – looked him up and down; he was a fellow accustomed to a rougher clientele: merchant seamen, local riff-raff and the like, but it was impossible to equate the elegance of the man he was observing with them. Everything about him, from the toe of his gleaming shoes, through the sharp crease on his trousers, to the neat, swept-back and barbered black hair, marked him out as very different. The face, with its somewhat severe features – well-defined nose, high cheekbones and direct, black eyes – merely added to the overall impression of one who was accustomed to getting his way.
‘And please do not try to cheat me, old son, or you’ll find yourself occupying a cell in Davidstraße.’
The eyes of the slob narrowed, trying to figure out, Lanchester supposed, if in mentioning the St Pauli police station he was bluffing. The slight smile he wore was designed to hint at assurance and it worked; the man nodded and went to do as he was asked.
Cal Jardine, having finished his conversation, was now showing his companion out of the club, passing by Lanchester’s table as he did so, but he avoided looking at him until the fellow was through the door and he was coming back, this coinciding with the arrival of a long-necked, brown wine bottle, taken from the slob by Jardine, who looked at the label. He rattled off a stream of German, sending the waiter scurrying away once more.
‘I’ve ordered something better,
‘I have to say, Cal, the old German sounds very proper.’
‘Just back in the groove, Peter; remember, I was partly raised in Germany.’
‘As well as most other places on the bally Continent, I seem to recall. Happy to stay here, are we, with what is going on, Nazis and all that?’
‘I have commitments that keep me here.’
‘Are you going to sit down, Cal? I do so hate looking up at people, it makes me feel as if I’m back at school.’
Jardine sat down as the slob returned, with a bottle poking out of an ice bucket, two glasses, one of which was picked up to see if it was clean, that followed by a sharp nod which sent the man away. While that was happening, Peter Lanchester, in the way of a man who has not seen someone for years, examined Jardine, still a handsome bugger he thought, with the build of the rugby back row he had once been, a hard man who lived a testing life, the face lean, with the scars to prove it faintly evident on brow and jaw.
Then the piercing blue eyes, under those pale eyebrows and lashes, were on him. ‘Let’s leave it to chill, Peter, shall we, and while it does perhaps you will tell me what the hell you are doing here in Hamburg?’
‘Why, Cal, old boy, I have come to find you. I was told this was where you did business and it seems I was correctly informed, though I have to say it is not the most salubrious emporium I have ever been in.’
‘I prefer discretion to decor, Peter, and this is very discreet.’
‘As is the whole area, Cal. Working out of the red-light district seems to suit you. Still smuggling out the Yids?’
‘Don’t you mean the Jews?’
‘No, Peter, one is a race, the other an insult.’
‘Odd, I thought it was halfway to being a language.’
‘Peter, I don’t have much time.’
‘Business is brisk, then?’
‘More truthful to say it is looming. So?’
‘Simple, Cal. Certain worthy people at home require a disreputable character to do an honourable thing, and I advised them you rather fit the bill, you being a multilinguist and something of an adventurer. It also has to be a chap with certain military skills, which you also possess.’
‘I no longer serve His Majesty’s Government. I sent in my papers, remember, several years ago.’
‘It’s not HMG, Cal, which makes you perfect for what we have in mind. I believe the word is “deniable”, which sounds like one of those dreadful new Americanisms to me. But you are still a soldier at heart.’
‘I left the army a while back, Peter.’
‘In a fit of pique I seem to recall.’
‘I prefer to see it as righteous anger.’
‘Do you think that wine is chilled yet?’
Jardine took a waiter’s friend from his pocket and cut through the seal with the small blade, before inserting the corkscrew and easing out the cork, which he sniffed at, then nodded. A drop was poured into the glass closest to him to be swirled and examined before his nose went into the top and took several sniffs. He tasted it with a sort of sucking sound before swallowing. Satisfied, he filled Lanchester’s glass, then his own.
‘Cheers,’ Lanchester said, lifting his glass high.
‘Still the model Caledonian, Cal.’ Lanchester also sniffed the wine before swirling it once more to take a sip. ‘I say, old boy, this is rather fine.’
‘I have to tell you that, whatever you have come to see me about, I am very busy.’
‘Too busy, old boy – I’m afraid Herr Hitler’s minions are on to you.’
‘I’m not doing anything illegal.’
‘When did that ever matter in a fascist dictatorship? And, if my reading of these recently promulgated Nuremberg laws is correct, you are sailing very close to the wind.’
‘All I am doing is helping Jews to get out of Germany.’
‘With everything they possess, Callum, which will not please the Finance Ministry. They prefer that when the Yids … sorry, the Jews, decamp to safer climes, they leave behind most of their worldly goods. Also, the idea that you are making pots of money from it …’
‘Who told you I was making pots of money?’
‘Little birds twitter, old boy.’
Cal Jardine looked around the dingy club. ‘Then why am I operating out of this dump? If I had any money, Peter, I would have a cavernous office overlooking the Binnenalster.’
‘This wine was not cheap.’
‘This wine was a gift from a grateful client. There are some things even I decline to get out of the country unseen.’
‘So you’re Robin Hood?’
‘No, but neither am I the Sheriff of Nottingham. I do charge a fee out of principle, also because I have to live, and as well as that I have to make payments to certain people, like the fellow you saw me talking to when you came in.’
‘Shipping agent or ship’s captain?’
‘None of your business, Peter, and if you don’t mind me asking, what are you up to these days?’
‘This and that, Cal, but I was asked to do this little errand because we are friends.’
‘Never really friends, Peter.’
‘Soldiers together, then, and fighting the good fight. It was felt that, since you know me, you might listen to what I have to say; not, I am sure you will agree, something for which you have a sterling reputation.’
‘I always listen, Peter, it’s just that I so often disagree with what is being proposed, like dropping bombs on women and children in undefended Arab villages to pacify them.’
‘Let’s not get into that, Cal,’ Lanchester insisted wearily, as the phone behind the bar began to ring. ‘It is now so sterile. Britannia has departed Iraq, so they are now happily murdering each other instead of engaging us to do it for them.’
‘We left the Iraqis with a deep and justifiable bitterness.’
‘You see everything as black and white – Manichean, in fact.’
‘While you, Peter, and your like, don’t see human when you see black, brown or anyone who does not ascribe to the thirty-nine articles of the Anglican faith.’
‘Look, Cal, there are things about which you and I will never agree; let us just accept that, shall we? But I have come to tell you that you are in some danger, and also that I carry a proposal for a certain task, which given your well-known prejudices, or as you choose to call them, your principles, will be right up your street. Besides, your name and activities are so well known you are going to have to get out of Germany.’
The slob finally picked up the ringing phone.
‘You think they are planning to deport me?’
‘No, Cal, our information is that they are planning to arrest and incarcerate you.’
The phone was jammed down and the slob moved with surprising speed to whisper in Jardine’s ear. If he had a sense of urgency, the man he communicated with showed none.
‘That, Peter, was my contact at the local Nazi Party office.’ That got a high-raised eyebrow. ‘Money well spent.’
‘And there’s me thinking the Party members were pure and honest.’
‘Purity and poverty find it hard to coexist, especially for a widow with three children.’
‘An attractive widow, I suppose?’
‘Ravishing! Apparently there is a squad of Brownshirts on their way to pick me up, though not, it seems, to hand me in to the authorities.’
‘I have to say, old boy, I thought you had more time.’
‘It wasn’t you that put the Germans on to me, was it?’
‘Perish the thought.’
‘We have to leave, now.’
‘Correction, Cal, it is you who has to leave. I have done nothing.’
‘How little you know the country, Peter. There could be someone in this bar watching us, and since you were the last person to speak to the man who has now disappeared …’
‘Are you going to disappear?’
‘Probably best, pity to leave the wine, though.’
‘Let’s take the bottle,’ Jardine said, with that seductive, lopsided grin Lanchester remembered so well: the one, and he resented this, that seemed to weaken women’s knees more readily than his own biting wit.
Jardine stood up in a way that ensured the bottle was hidden behind his back. Peter Lanchester, taking his pace from his fellow countryman, rose slowly, hat and brolly in hand, and followed Jardine as he sauntered towards the back of the room. As soon as he was seen to move in that direction, a brutish-looking type, with a square head and a flattened nose under a narrow forehead, rose to cut across his path.
Cal approached him in a casual manner and, as soon as he was close enough, he swung hard, hitting the thug with the bottle, taking him across the upper cheek, where it broke and cut him; then, bottle dropped, he kicked him in the groin before, as he fell forward, swiping him with a haymaker on the side of the ear to fell him. Behind the two Britons, the rest of the clientele was getting out fast.
‘I say, old boy,’ said Lanchester, this while Jardine put the boot in until the fellow lay bleeding and comatose. ‘You have not lost your barbarian touch.’
‘It a rough old town, Hamburg,’ Callum said, as he stepped over the body, carrying on until they came to the foot of a set of steep stairs by a closed door.
‘Just your sort of place, then.’
‘Wait here, Peter, I have one or two things to collect.’
Callum Jardine took the stairs two at a time, with Lanchester calling after him, ‘I hope it’s not one of those ugly tarts that use the upstairs rooms, old boy.’
Lanchester opened the door and, bending forward, looked out before exiting into a narrow alleyway, where he donned his bowler. He was still there when Cal Jardine reappeared wearing a Burberry trench coat and carrying a large Gladstone bag. With a gesture he indicated that Lanchester should follow him and they made their way down the alley and out onto the wide avenue of the Reeperbahn.