Thursday, April 26, 2018

History is made at night: V for Vengeance by Dennis Wheatley (1942).

V for Vengeance by Dennis Wheatley (1942)


Streaks ahead of the previous Sallust adventure, The Black Baroness.

Wonderful little bits like a nursing home in Paris where inmates sleep and rest all day, then go out at night to carry out their Resistance assignments.

Even better: a Resistance leader who moves freely around Paris in a casket carried in a hearse.

Sallust escapes occupied Europe by kayaking from Ostend to England:

....Next morning they got the collapsible canoe down to the garage, which was empty, as the Comte's car had long since been commandeered; but there was a small working-bench at one end of the garage and a miscellaneous assortment of paints and gear.

The Comte proved quite useless at such work, but Frédéric was very helpful, and Gregory's natural ingenuity enabled him to devise means for not only making the necessary repairs but strengthening the canoe considerably. Having cut some pieces of wood to the required length they inserted them as extra struts, then used an old sunblind for patching the canvas where it had rotted, and carefully covered the edges of the patches with rubber solution. For the dual purpose of making it both more watertight and less conspicuous they painted it all over with a mixture blended to a dull green and broke up its outline by two broad strokes of purple which cut across its covered-in bow and stern.

It was evening again by the time they had finished, and although Gregory had hoped to set out that night Frédéric pointed out to him that he would be much wiser to give the paint twenty-four hours to dry; so he slept again under the hospitable de Werbomont's roof.

On the 13th they spent their time devising everything they could think of which might add to Gregory's chances of a successful voyage. In order to buoy up the boat, if it became waterlogged, Frédéric collected all the empty bottles that he could find, and having corked them, firmly wedged them as tightly as he could into the pointed bow and stern. They also sewed a number of cork table-mats into an old sheet so that when Gregory was within a reasonable distance of the English coast he could throw the sheet out and trail it in the water, where, as a big patch of whiteness, it might catch the eye of a British airman and result in help being sent out.

Like many wealthy Belgians, de Werbomont had laid in a good stock of tinned food at the time of the crisis, but he now willingly parted with some of his hidden reserve to provision the canoe. Bottles of water, a bottle of brandy, a torch, cigarettes and matches were also put aboard, an old carriage lamp was rigged up on the stern, and Frédéric succeeded in buying from one of the local fishermen a sou'-wester and an old suit of oilskins.

After dinner that night they waited anxiously until their neighbours had gone to bed, although this precaution was scarcely necessary, since the Belgians, as a whole, were much more pro-British than the French, and very few of them indeed were playing the part of Quislings.

Owing to the lack of proper heating, the population was going to bed early in these days, and even the German garrison, apart from the sentries on night duty, finding little amusement in the hostile town, preferred their barrack-rooms and messes to going out at night; so at half-past ten de Werbomont declared that he thought the coast was now about as clear as it would be at any time during the night.

Frédéric went out as a scout and, after having had a good look round the beach, came back to report that all was well, except for the danger that they might run into one of the German patrols which moved along it at irregular intervals; but that was a risk which had to be taken whatever time they set out.

De Werbomont then led the way down to the beach, while Gregory and Frédéric followed, carrying the now weighty canoe.

For the season of the year the sea was moderately calm, but even so quite biggish breakers were frothing on the shore, and it looked as though the little craft might easily be swamped before they could get it launched.

After a quick debate Gregory got into its cockpit just on the tide line; then, when he had thanked the other two and they had wished him luck, as a big wave came creaming in they ran him out through it till they were nearly waist-deep in the water. With a few swift strokes of his double paddle he sent the canoe leaping towards the next big breaker, just before it broke. For a second the boat rose almost perpendicular in the air, then it tilted forward, rushing down the farther slope, and he was off.

The first hundred yards proved a heavy strain. He had to keep the canoe head on to the incoming waves, otherwise, had one caught it sideways, it would have overturned, then been rolled back and dashed to pieces on the shore. But after a breathless fight he reached deeper water, and although the waves were just as big the strain of fighting them became considerably less.

He had little fear of going under, as the canoe was as buoyant as a cork. Even if it capsized it was virtually un-sinkable, so he would be able to cling on to it for as long as his strength lasted; but whether he had the stamina to make the journey was another question.

The moon was only four days from full, and while he had been making his preparations he had dreaded that it might be too bright for them to dare risk carrying the canoe down to the beach. Its light would have made them visible at quite a distance to any prowling Germans; but luck had favoured him again, as the sky was overcast, and not a glimmer of the moon could be seen.

On the other hand, he had to some extent counted on it for setting his course, and he would now have to rely entirely upon the little pocket compass with which de Werbomont had provided him; yet he dared not flash a torch to see it so long as he was near the coast, and for the first half-hour he had to make his way purely by guesswork.

It was only when he risked a first quick flash to look at the compass that he began to realise to the full what he had taken on. The tide had already swung him round, and he found that he was proceeding parallel with the coast. After that, holding his torch low, he flashed it down on to the compass every few minutes, as he soon found that if he did not do so he constantly lost his sense of direction. As far as possible, he endeavoured to maintain a steady stroke, knowing that the one thing he must not do was to exhaust himself too quickly. In the camouflaged boat he felt that he would be really unlucky if the Germans spotted him, provided he could cover a fair distance before morning, but he knew that to reach England safely would require every ounce of his endurance.

After he had been out for about an hour and a half he heard the hum of planes in the darkness overhead. Only a matter of seconds later there came the crash of falling bombs behind him; the R.A.F. were making one of their raids on Ostend harbour.

The first bombs had hardly fallen before the German antiaircraft batteries opened up, and looking back he saw that the whole coast was now fringed with the long pointing fingers of searchlights, which swept the sky, groping for the raiders, and lit up the sea with a pale gleam for miles around. Mentally he wished the raiders luck and at the same time blessed them as he now no longer had to waste time and lose way every few moments while looking at his compass.

For the next twenty minutes he put his back into it and paddled straight ahead. Gradually the din behind him subsided; then the searchlights went out, plunging him again into complete darkness on the black waters.

Soon after one the sky cleared a little, and the moon became visible intermittently through breaks in the heavy clouds. Again he felt that his luck was in. The light was not sufficient for such a small craft as his to be sighted at any distance from a German patrol boat, but he had carefully worked out the position of the moon at various times for that night, so he was able to set his course by it, and once more prevent the loss of way from looking at his compass so frequently.

Hour after hour he ploughed on through the gently heaving sea with a steady rhythmic motion, resting for short periods now and again, but never long enough for the boat to be swept far off its course. About five o'clock he took a longer spell, and made a light meal of some biscuits and lukewarm coffee laced with cognac, which Frédéric had put into a bottle for him.

The moon had now set, and he paddled on for another couple of hours in darkness, then it gradually lightened until the grey streaks of dawn came up in the east. A little after dawn a wind got up, and this gave him considerable concern, as it was blowing at an angle across his bows, which meant that he could no longer stick to his even stroke and had to paddle much more strongly with one arm than the other to keep the nose of the canoe headed in the right direction. As the wind increased it became a devilish fight to prevent the little craft from being swung right round and driven far off her course.

Gregory was tired now; the muscles of his back ached, and his hands were beginning to blister. The wind, too, was whipping at the wave-caps, so that a constant spray lashed over the boat, stinging his face, covering it with salt brine and getting into his eyes.

Morning had come, and he was as much alone as if he had been in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean. Owing to the fact that his head was only a few feet above sea-level, his horizon was very limited, and as the canoe shot down into the troughs of the waves he could often see no more than a few yards ahead; but when it swished up on to a crest he could catch a momentary glimpse of the heaving seas all round him for a considerable distance. He was out of sight of the Belgian coast, although he had not the least idea how far he had managed to get from it, and he was in two minds as to whether he wanted to see a ship or not, as he knew that in any case he must still be a very long way from England, so the odds on its being British or Nazi were about even.

At nine o'clock he abandoned the uneven battle for a little while he fed again, but it irked him bitterly that every moment he rested the canoe was now drifting sideways with the wind and undoing some of the heavy labour he had put in. When he began to paddle again another thing that worried him was that he had no means at all of judging what progress he was making while the sea continued to be so choppy. For all he knew he was only barely countering the effects of the tide and the wind, so that unless they lessened all his efforts might serve no better purpose than to keep him in the same position for hours, or even days, on end.

In the middle of the morning three British planes flew over, but he knew that they were much too high to see him, so he did not even bother to get out his cork-floated sheet, and in a few moments they had disappeared from view. Just after midday he saw a long pencil-shaped Dornier, which was flying at a much lower altitude. As it came towards him he feared for a moment that he might be spotted and machine-gunned, but its pilot must have seen something that interested him farther north, since the aircraft suddenly veered off in that direction. He was bitterly cold and had constantly to resist the temptation to take too frequent nips from the bottle of brandy, but he did not feel the least hungry and had to force himself to make another meal early in the afternoon, because he knew that it would help to keep his strength up.

About half-past three he sighted a destroyer. From her design he felt certain she was British, and he put on a terrific spurt in a wild endeavour to cut across her course. But even her apparently leisurely speed carried her along at far too swift a pace for him to get anywhere near her, and, although he waved his paddle and shouted at the top of his voice, owing to the fact that he was so low in the water she passed without her lookouts having seen him.

As it neared five o'clock his anxiety increased. The winter day was closing in, and it looked now as though he would have to spend a second night at sea. Even in a rowing-boat that would not have been quite so bad, as there he would at least have been able to stretch his limbs and warm himself a little by violent exercise; but in the tiny canoe he was imprisoned from the waist down, and had been sitting now in exactly the same position for close on nineteen hours. From time to time he was getting bouts of cramp, and he felt another night would be almost unendurable.

It was the realisation of this that caused him to light the carriage lantern which had been rigged-up just behind him. By doing so he deprived himself of the option to form a judgment as to whether any ship which might come on the scene were British or German before hailing, and in the latter case hoping to remain unobserved. If anyone saw the light at all and decided to investigate, it would be pure chance whether they proved friends of enemies; but he felt that the risk had now to be taken. If a Nazi ship picked him up it was hardly likely that they would shoot him out of hand, whereas, chilled to the marrow and desperately tired as he was, he felt that if he was not picked up at all there was a good chance of his dying of exposure.

As twilight deepened the wind went down a little, so he took the opportunity to have another rest, and laying down his paddle glanced behind him. He could have fainted for sheer joy. The same destroyer that he had seen earlier in the afternoon had evidently turned in her track, as she was now heading back towards him, and less than a quarter of a mile distant.

Getting out his sheet, he draped it on one end of the paddle and began to wave it wildly, almost upsetting the canoe. Next moment there was a faint shout from the destroyer, and he knew that he had been seen. He had been right about his vein of luck; it had held out after all.

The destroyer hove to, a boat was lowered, and the frozen Gregory helped aboard. For a little time he could not even stand upright, but when the Lieutenant-Commander came down off the bridge to question him he was getting back the use of his legs. Having given an account of himself, he was taken down to the ward-room by a sub-lieutenant, who gave him a good stiff drink and lent him a pair of dry trousers. He soon learnt that the destroyer was a unit of the Dover Patrol, and that, although he was a considerable way north of the course he had set himself, he had managed to place the best part of thirty miles between the Belgian coast and himself before he was picked up. The destroyer was now beating back to Dover, and to his great satisfaction it put him ashore there shortly after ten o'clock that night....


Although V for Vengeance has plenty of action in Spain, Portugal, and blitzed London, this is a Paris thriller.

Sallust and his comrades traverse the city like mad, shooting cops and hiding out in underground cathedrals made of human bones.

At one point Sallust and his comrade Stefan Kuporovitch must hijack a police transport in the dead of night to rescue their third musketeer, Madeleine Lavallière:

'What do they intend to do with Madeleine next?' Kuporovitch asked.

'At the moment she's in a cell at the Sûreté, but they'll transfer her to the Cherche-Midi, where they keep most of the women these days. What time that will be I can't tell. It all depends on when there's a police car free to do the job; but I should think they'll take her across within the course of the next two or three hours. Once she's inside you'll stand precious little chance of getting her out. The trick you played before won't work a second time, even if you could find another Luc Ferrière.'

'What happened to him?' Gregory interjected.

'The old chap's protesting his innocence and offering to swear to it on Mein Kampf. They're treating him quite decently at the moment, but I doubt if he'll get away with it when they find that stuff you planted in his house. Serve him right, too! The dirty little Quisling was responsible for our nursing-home being raided; and if you knew what those devils have done to poor little Nurse Yolanda and the others who were there you'd be ready to tear that old man's guts out with your naked hands. But, as I was saying, your only chance of rescuing Madeleine is to intercept the car that takes her to the Cherche-Midi. Now I must get back, otherwise I shall find myself having to smoke one of my own cigarettes.'

They gave Ribaud two hundred yards' start, then followed him until they reached the Sûreté. Walking round it, they took up their positions in a deep doorway on the opposite side of the road to the entrance of the courtyard, from which the police cars always drove in and out.

It was now getting on for half-past three, but another long wait was in store for them. Occasionally it was broken by a sudden tense expectancy as a police car came out of the yard, and they strained their eyes to see if Madeleine was in it. Had it not been for the bright moonlight they would have had no hope at all, but as long as the moon lasted they felt reasonably certain that they would be able to pick out a woman's figure, even if she were seated in the back of a car, some distance away. Four o'clock came, then an intensely worrying period when the moon disappeared behind the roof-tops, and semi-darkness partially obscured their view; but by five the street was lighting with the early summer dawn.

They were both very tired from their long vigil, and incredibly depressed by the thought that, even if they were able to make their attempt, it could only be a forlorn hope. Madeleine's escort was certain to be armed, and the driver of the car would have only to put his foot on the accelerator for it to streak away. Their opportunity would consist of no more than a bare half-minute, as the car turned out of the courtyard before developing its full speed.

Suddenly Kuporovitch gripped Gregory's arm, but at the same second Gregory had seen the same thing. A police car was running quietly out of the yard, and in its back they could plainly see Madeleine seated beside an agent de ville. They had long since discussed their method of attack in detail, and now, without an instant's hesitation, they put it into operation.

While Kuporovitch remained concealed in the doorway Gregory stepped out on to the pavement and hailed the driver of the car. Just as the man was about to put on speed he turned with a look of surprise. Letting the car run gently on he called: 'What d'you want?'

Gregory ran swiftly across the road to him, crying as he ran: 'For God's sake come and help me! Some men have broken into my apartment in that house. They've half-murdered my wife, and I only just managed to get away.'

The police chauffeur stopped the car and leant out of it, as he said quickly: 'That's bad luck, but we've got a prisoner and can't leave the car. There are scores of our chaps in the yard of the Sûreté there. Give a shout to some of them.'

Gregory was now right close up to the man, and he waited on tenterhooks for the next act in their skilfully staged plot. Suddenly it came—a single shot rang out. Unseen by the driver, Kuporovitch had come up behind the car and fired through its window, shooting through the back the agent de ville who was sitting next to Madeleine.

The instant Gregory heard the shot his hand darted forward. Grabbing the police chauffeur by the throat he dragged him from the seat. Then, lifting his fist, he hit the man a hard blow between the eyes, dropping him in the roadway and, scrambling into the car, seized the wheel.

Meanwhile, Kuporovitch had run round the other side of the car. He jumped in beside Gregory, and with his gun still in his hand thrust it in the face of the agent de ville; but he had no necessity to shoot again. The man was lying back, either unconscious or dead.

The single report of the Russian's automatic had been enough to raise the alarm in the courtyard of the Sûreté. Other policemen were now running from it, shouting at them to halt; but Gregory had the brake off. He let in the clutch and the car shot forward.

A pistol cracked, another and another. The shots echoed through the quiet dawnlit street. A bullet clanged on the metal-work of the car; another hit one of the rear tyres, which went off with a loud plop. The car swerved wildly, but Gregory managed to get it under control. Crouching over the wheel he drove on all out, in spite of the bumping rim.

But he knew that he would never be able to get clear away in the car now. The rim must be cutting the flattened tyre to pieces, and the stout rubber-covered canvas might catch in the axle, causing it to jam. In addition, there had been a number of other cars in the courtyard of the Sûreté. In them the police would give chase at once, and he could not hope to outdistance the pursuit with one of his back tyres gone.

He took the first corner to the left at full speed, ran on a little way, then turned right, into the entrance of a mews. 'Come on!' he cried, jumping out. 'We've got to run for it!'

Kuporovitch had been leaning over the back of the seat examining the agent de ville. He found that his victim was still breathing, and he hoped the fellow would live. He had little time for the French police who were now co-operating with the Germans, but he knew that they were more or less forced to do so, and it had been particularly distasteful to have to shoot the fellow in the back; but Madeleine's safety being involved, he had not hesitated an instant, as it was so obviously the one certain means of putting the man out of action before he could offer any resistance.

There was no time to examine the policeman further, so Kuporovitch extricated his body from the car and, seizing Madeleine's arm, began to run. Gregory had only waited to see that the other two were out before setting off at a pace which he thought Madeleine could manage.

As it was still early the mews was empty, except for one chauffeur who was cleaning a car, which had a red label Médecin pasted on its windscreen. At first the man made as though to intercept them, but Gregory cried: 'Get out of the way! The Germans and the police are after us!'

Immediately the man's expression changed. He pointed to his garage. 'Get in there! I'll tell them you ran past.'

With a hurried word of thanks they ran into the garage and crouched down behind an empty trailer that occupied the back of it, while the chauffeur went on cleaning his car.

A moment later they heard a police car drive up. Excited questions were flung at the man who had hidden them; but apparently the police were satisfied with his replies, as they drove on, and silence again fell in the mews.

After another few minutes the chauffeur came in to them and said: 'The coast's clear now, but they may come back later to make a more careful search. You'd better get out while the going's good.'

As they thanked him for his help he shrugged: 'Oh, that's nothing. It's a treat to be able to put one over on the police, now they've gone in with those filthy Boches….'


25 April 2018

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