1951, Trieste, at the southern end of the “Iron Curtain.”
A custom jeep, lights extinguished, slowly climbed a muddy, twisting track up the side of the hill. As it neared the summit a half-moon broke out from behind a cliff of dark cloud, shedding ghostly silver across rolling countryside. Barbed wire glistened. The only other light came from the distant flickering flame of the oil refinery at Muggia on the Adriatic coast.
‘Damn!’ the driver mumbled. ‘Couldn’t they pick a darker night? . . .We can be seen a mile off.’’
Even in daylight these men worked in shadows.
The man alongside him shifted in his seat. ‘No one told ‘em the moon shines at night.’
‘Chiefs never give a thought for the Indians.’
‘We’ll dump them here.’
The jeep crunched on gravel and stopped. The men got out and went round the back. They pulled their duffel coats closer around them; autumn breezes get chilly at night. The jeep was encased in a hard shell without rear windows. The driver opened the back and hissed, ‘Out you get.’
Two men, clad in nondescript clothes, collars turned up and flat caps pulled down over their eyebrows, clambered out and adjusted Sten sub machine guns slung over their shoulders. Without a word they bent low and slipped quietly into the night over the crest of the hill towards the wire.
The driver heaved a sigh of relief. ‘I could do with a fag.’
‘Let’s move on,’ said his companion. ‘We’ll pick up the other two and get back. I always get the willies on these trips.’
‘How d’you think I feel?’ asked the driver. ‘I can sense a Slav rifle pointing at me right now.’
The jeep manoeuvred a tight turn and returned down the slope. Half a mile farther along it stopped again near a disused black barn. One corner had collapsed leaving a pile of rotting timbers. The men alighted and crept round the rear. The passenger flashed a torch three times
‘Where the hell are they?’ he grated.
The driver walked over to a shallow gully and shone his torch along the bottom. The beam picked out the unseeing eyes of a man. He wore clothes similar to the two men dropped off nearby. . .and there was a small round hole in the centre of his forehead.
He sucked in his breath and strode back to the jeep. He lit a cigarette with a nerveless hand. ‘Get out of here. . .There’s just one of them and he needs a hearse.’ The moon slid behind the cloudbank and blackness returned.
The following afternoon Les Hooper of the Special Investigation Branch sat sipping beer and munching a panino formaggio at a small corner table in Bing’s, a city bar on Piazza Oberdan. It was his favourite daytime watering hole. His girlfriend served in a clothes shop a hundred yards away and he waited for her to finish work. Sunday evenings usually found them sitting outside a trattoria on Viale XX Settembre, nicknamed the “Monkey Run”, weighing up the passing fashion show. After church the local beau monde talent paraded their finest glad rags up and down the avenue. The girlfriend’s interest concentrated on houte coutre while he entertained more earthy thoughts. Les was very contented
A trolley bus whined round the square and stopped at the terminus. A few passengers trickled on to the pavement. A boxed-in jeep pulled up outside the bar. It bore Trieste number plates, which were false. Two men in mufti alighted wearing tight expressions. . .one tall with a trim moustache, the other clean-shaven and shorter with pale eyes which made Les think of Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s Nazi SS chief. They both wore Fifty Shilling Tailor suits and Tootal ties. The taller of the pair looked like a country gentleman fallen on hard times. His companion failed charm school.
They entered the bar, spotted Les, pulled up a couple of chairs to his table and ordered beers. They possessed the intense sense of purpose of the young that vanishes with age. Altogether, the three men looked remarkably unprepossessing, like normal off-duty British servicemen.
‘You’re cheerful,’ Les cracked.
Himmler – called Nick – nodded. His watery eyes swept round the bar, which lacked patrons at that time of day. Satisfied, he said, ‘Me and John have spent the day on the end of a tongue-lashing. One man was stupid enough to get a bullet in the head and another one’s done a runner.’ He fished out a cigarette and lit it.
John slapped a palm on the table in a futile gesture. It seemed out of character with his mild appearance. ‘And it wasn’t our fault,’ he protested. ‘What were we supposed to do. . .run up and down the border calling him?’
Through the large picture window Les saw one or two pedestrians unfurling umbrellas. Globs of rain flicked at the glass. ‘We all suffer setbacks in life.’ He could not think of anything brighter to say.
A fresh bunch of passengers boarded the trolley bus and it wound up its electric motor and glided away, arms swishing and clicking on the shiny wet overhead wires. A thin stream of smoke snaked from Nick’s lips. He emptied his glass and ordered more beers. Bing, himself, red-faced and wearing a crisp white apron, appeared from the cloud of steam spewing out of a chrome coffee machine and carried them over.
‘We’re even forced to come here to drink, since you shut our mess down.’ Nick tapped ash on the floor and glared at Les, pinpoints of light in his weak eyes. He was referring to the Intelligence Corps mess on nearby Via Coroneo, which regularly got its accounts in a tangle.
Les managed a sympathetic grin. ‘You shouldn’t cook the books.’
‘This is third time you’ve closed us,’ John said. ‘You SIB have a lot to answer for.’
‘Don’t blame me,’ Les snapped, ‘I’m not on the enquiry this time.’
‘They can’t tell a stock book from the Dandy. Most of our blokes are glorified clerks and sit on their backsides all day.’ Nick sounded bitter. ‘We’re the ones who stick our heads over the parapet. . . .So far we’ve been lucky.’
The spat of rain stopped. Bing collected a cloth and went outside to wipe the dripping pavement furniture. An attractive young girl in a tight skirt and high heels entered. Les wondered what she wanted; she did not appear to be the type who frequented bars alone. Besides, it was too early in the evening for street walkers. ‘What happened to your missing man, then?’ he inquired, stuffing the last bite of his Emmental roll into his mouth.
‘Probably caught by the Yugoslavs—or dead. . . .Nigel Dunford made more fuss about missing Sten guns than the dead man.’
The girl collected a trolley bus timetable from the counter and sauntered out.
‘What are you up to now?’ Les asked.
John’s expression brightened. ‘No missions for a week.’ His moustache twitched as he watched the girl out of sight. ‘We’re going on the razzle day and night.’
Les chuckled. ‘So what’s new? . . .You do that anyway.’
Next morning Captain Beach, who commanded Trieste Special Investigation Branch, collared Les. ‘What d’you know about Major Dunford, in charge of Field Security?’
Les inclined his head sideways, eyes narrowed. Why ask the question? ‘He runs his territory like a randy lion. He controls the biggest intelligence operation outside Berlin and no one’s going to intrude on his pride.’
Beach abstractly shuffled papers on his desk. ‘Right. . . .He rang to say you left a car unattended last night with a confidential document in it.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘I visited a couple of places. . . Keeping my eyes open.’
‘He found the car on Via Baciocchi.’
‘It was immobilised,’ Les cried. ‘He’s niggled about his mess being shut down.’
The captain raised a flattened hand. ‘Don’t get in a flap over it.
UK Eyes Only
‘What confidential document?’
‘An AFA 3676.’
Les’s eyes widened. ‘A traffic accident form. . .that’s petty, isn’t it? Anyway, it was blank.’
‘Still confidential, according to the major.’ George Beach shrugged. ‘Be a bit more careful. It’s childish but don’t give him flimsy excuses to criticise us.’
Les dropped a surprise. ‘One of his agents got the chop.’
The captain jerked upright as if someone stuck a gun in his back. ‘How d’you know?’
Les grunted and confessed, ‘I drink with sergeants who do the dirty work. The whole set up ended a bit messy by all accounts.’
The older man’s benevolent features hardened momentarily. ‘Watch your step. Dunford will find genuine grounds for complaint if you meddle.’
Les thought the captain really cared about his men’s welfare. He would never make a proper officer—too kind-hearted. ‘Don’t worry about me.’
Beach nodded and straightened his papers. ‘Okay. What’ve you got on at the moment?’
Les brushed a hand through his dark hair, thinking hard. He did not want more work. Christ!. . . He had more on his plate than a dedicated trencherman. He ticked a list in his mind as he spoke. ‘Death by dangerous driving—remember, the copper who was knocked down, two larcenies at Villa Necker, the Royal Engineers base assault, then, er. . .’
The captain lifted both hands to halt him. ‘You’re whingeing. . .get out to Lazaretto. The VG police found some army gear. See Superintendent Williams. You’re friendly with him.’
Les left shaking his head. He took his girlfriend to the Trocadero nightclub the previous evening, and removed the rotor arm from the army car before he left it. Major Dunford was a troublesome git. The drive to Lazaretto took longer than expected. There were always bottlenecks in the road tunnels. That day was worse. A taxi driver tried to overtake in the one leading to Via Capitolina and ploughed into an on-coming bus. The jam left Italian drivers leaning on their horns. The noise was deafening in the cavern of the tunnel.
Superintendent Williams of the Venezia Guilia Police Force and commander of Lazaretto District stood up and greeted Les with a firm handshake. Almost as tall as Les’s six-four, he was a big man with a taciturn expression. Straightforward, gruff and outspoken, he was a block of granite from the Rhondda valley.
‘What can I do for you?’ Les dragged the offered chair up to the desk and sat down.
‘It’s what I can do for you – or rather – the army, boyo.’ The policeman reached under his desk and suddenly produced a Sten gun, like a rabbit out of a hat.
Les turned down the corners of his mouth. ‘Clever trick, that. How do you do it?’
The superintendent laughed. ‘My men picked this up a couple of nights ago. Smoke if you want. Guess where?’
Les knew admission could lead to complications. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. ‘No idea,’ he lied glibly. ‘Left behind somewhere by a squaddie, I suspect.’
Williams stared at him with narrowed eyes. The man behind the desk was no fool but nor was he.
‘We found it with a dead man on the border. He failed to dodge a 9mm bullet in his head.’ He waited for a reaction, which never came. He continued, ‘. . .And another Sten with a live body. I’ve got him under lock and key. Thought you’d like to know.’
Les tried to remain expressionless. Sten guns fired 9mm rounds. He was obviously expected to say something. ‘You want me to take the guns?’ he asked.
Williams ignored the question. ‘What d’you think of Major Dunford? If you don’t mind my asking.’
Dunford was definitely flavour of the day. ‘I try hard not to think of him at all.’
The policeman nodded with satisfaction. ‘So you do know what I’m talking about. Thought you did. He’s a pompous ass. Because he controls a few dogsbodies who slip back and forth across the border he thinks he’s Winston Churchill.’ He paused. ‘I want no truck with him. . . .Inform him he can have his man back.’
Les puffed on his Senior Service, untipped. ‘And the stiff?’
‘I’ll report he was shot by Tito’s UDB—the Yugoslav secret police. Actually the two men squabbled and one shot the other and vamoosed. Could’ve been an accident, I suppose. My chaps picked him up in a ditch a short distance away. Dunford will deny they’re his underlings, of course, but that’s par for the course. I’m taking no further action. I won’t stir up a hornets’ nest even though he’s a toad.’
The superintendent rose, indicating the meeting was over. Les stubbed out his partly smoked cigarette in an ashtray on the desk and stood up. ‘I’ll let ‘em know.’
The superintendent winked. ‘Good. Being the Intelligence Corps they might employ people with more intelligence than to be caught armed.’ He strode round the desk and opened the door. ‘But what do I know?’ At past four in the afternoon, after making a phone call, Les sat nursing a cappuccino in Bing’s, wrapped in a woollen overcoat. Following a flurry of rain, wind strength increased by the minute with all the hallmarks of an approaching icy Bora.
City workmen were already erecting safety chains around pavement corners. Across the square a disillusioned ice cream seller wheeled his cart away. The closed-in jeep ground to halt outside. Nick and John, huddled under beige duffel coats and bleary-eyed, trudged in. They ordered vino rosso.
‘Your missing bloke’s at Lazaretto police station,’ Les told them after making sure he could not be overheard. ‘He got arrested near the border for carrying a Sten gun. He shot the other one. . . .The VG police don’t want to know.’
Nick and John exchanged glances. Eventually Nick sighed. ‘Looks like we’ve now got two vacancies,’ he said.
Les shuddered at the menace in his pale eyes. Their concerns were exaggerated and unnecessary for the Displaced Persons camp at San Sebastian overflowed with men ready to volunteer for the dangerous work.
John swallowed a mouthful of vino with a loud gulp. ‘Which also means our week off is down the Swanee.’
The two men clinked glasses and mockingly toasted each other.
Several months later, Major Dunford was posted to Germany. SIB there sent a report asking for enquiries to be made because the officer alleged gear had been stolen from his unaccompanied baggage between Trieste and Germany. On the list was an evening outfit. Les investigated and took statements from the major‚Äôs former batman and Italian housekeeper. Both declared they had never known him own a dress suit. Les gleefully pictured Dunford‚Äôs embarrassment when his superiors heard. Vengeance is so sweet.