"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Faked Passports by Dennis Wheatley (1941)

Faked Passports

(Gregory Sallust Book 3)
By Dennis Wheatley (1941).

Those who read Dennis Wheatley should savor his novels with a long spoon.

His adoration of Bonapartist European strongmen like Göring, Voroshilov, and Churchill is nauseating. But I do not read thrillers for political education.

There is enough wit, panache, and aplomb in Faked Passports to carry us over Wheatley's views.

The novel picks up where the previous Sallust adventure, The Scarlet Impostor, left off.

November 1939.

UK agent Gregory Sallust crash lands in Germany. Bluffs his way to Berlin in a "borrowed" uniform. Has a tet-a-tet with Göring. Convinces Göring to send him to Finland instead of having him shot.

In Finland, reteams with love of his life Erika Von Epp. Tries to spike the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the imminent Russo-Finnish War. Turns tables on local Gestapo goons, evades Helsinki police. Then evades invading Red Army while fleeing north with Erika, chum Flight-Lieutenant Freddie Charlton, and Freddie's love Angela Fordyce.

They get stranded in the desolate Arctic. In their escape from Helsinki, Sallust has received a head wound, and from this a case of amnesia.

The four find a cabin whose inhabitants have been killed by Red Army troops. There they live in tranquility into early 1942, when a Red Army detachment returns. It's either reclaim their cabin or freeze to death.

….Angela's deep blue eyes sparkled angrily in her pale face. "What I couldn't do to these filthy Russians!" she exclaimed. "Surely there's some way in which we could turn them out of our little home. We've all been so happy there."

Freddie shook his head. "We've got our rifles, darling, and I daresay Gregory and I could pot a few; but that would only be like stirring up a hornets' nest. Two of us couldn't possibly tackle eighty of them."

"Nobody but a lunatic would expect you to, my hero," she said sarcastically. "I meant that you should use that marvellous brain of yours to think up some way of getting rid of them."

Freddie remained quite unruffled by her taunt. He knew perfectly well that brains were not his long suit and he did not mind admitting it. "You've got a better head than I have," he replied at once, "so you do the thinking and I'll carry out any plan you like to suggest."

Erika looked hopefully at Gregory for a second, then quickly away again. She felt certain that if his brain had been functioning properly he would have hatched some clever scheme in no time but, although he had got back scores of pieces of miscellaneous knowledge since he had lost his memory, his brain was still incapable of constructive thought.

He was just standing there with a look of childish interest in his eyes; obviously willing to accept anything that anybody else might plan but totally unable to plan anything himself. His face, which so openly portrayed the crippled state of that once swift and brilliant mind, wrung her heart with pity to such an extent that she could think of nothing else just then. She found it impossible to focus her own mind on the problem of producing any scheme which might save them from freezing to death that night or, at best, a terrible journey through the snows which would end in their capture.

"I know!" Angela suddenly exclaimed. "The Russians are a superstitious lot, aren't they?"

"Not the tough eggs in the Kremlin," replied Freddie. "They're all atheists; but I expect these chaps here believe in all sorts of things—certain to, as they're mostly Asiatics."

"Right, then; let's play ghosts," Angela went on excitedly.

"Ghosts!" repeated Erika.

"Yes. They won't place any sentries round a camp like this, as it's miles from anywhere. When they've all gone to sleep we could dance round the place waving lights and emitting the most blood-curdling yells."

"It's good, that! Darned good," Freddie exclaimed. "Worth trying, anyhow. With luck they might think the place is haunted and take to their heels."

Although it had been dark for some time it was still before five in the afternoon. The glimmer of lights through the trees and an occasional faint shout showed that the Russians were still busy at their tree-cutting under arc-lamps which they had erected; so it looked as though the party would have to wait for several hours before they could put their plan into operation, but they started their preparations at once.

Erika got behind the sleigh. With the chattering teeth of a swimmer who is about to plunge into icy water she undid her furs and lower garments so that she could pull off her suspender belt. When she produced it the others stared in amazement but she smiled and said: "The best ghosts always give the death-rap before they put in a personal appearance. I mean to use the elastic on this belt to make a catapult."

"I don't get you, darling," Gregory murmured.

"Go and cut me a nice forked branch, not too thick, but strong and springy. Then trim it down and you'll soon see."

Freddie, meanwhile, was delving into the contents of the sleigh for any tins or cardboard boxes he could find; with the intention of punching holes in them which, when a light was placed inside, would show eyes, nostrils and a mouth like grinning death's heads.

It took them two hours' hard work but by the end of that time Erika and Gregory had made four good catapults and by rummaging in the snow at the base of the trees had collected enough small, hard fir-cones for ammunition; while Angela and Freddie had an assortment of seven ghost-masks into each of which they had fitted a candle from a box that was among the most precious stores taken from the house. At half-past seven they drank the rest of the lukewarm coffee and ate a scratch meal from some of the supplies, which were so cold that, at first, they could hardly bear them in their mouths. Soon after eight Freddie went off to make a reconnaissance. Half an hour later he returned to say that the men occupying the tents had turned in but that a light was still burning in the house.

They huddled under the rugs in the sleigh for an hour, then went forward again together. The light was now out and the moon was not yet up; the whole camp was wrapped in the stillness of the Arctic night so they proceeded to arrange their dispositions. Freddie and Angela were to go round to the far side of the clearing and take on the tents while Erika and Gregory attended to the house. They reckoned that their supply of fir-cones would last them for about half an hour, if they used them two at a time with short intervals between, and by then they hoped to have the soldiers badly rattled. The death-masks were then to be lit for a few minutes, blown out and carried to another place, then re-lit and blown out again and so on, moving in circles round the camp. Lastly, when Freddie held one of the masks aloft in the air, that was to be the signal upon which they would all give tongue to the most banshee-like screeches they could manage.

It was with tense expectancy that Erika and Gregory first loosed their catapults, directing their aim at the darkened window of the living-room, and they distinctly heard the sharp "rap-rap" as the cones struck the window one after the other. They waited a little and as nothing happened loosed off two more. Still nothing happened; but after the third "rap-rap" the lamp was lit and somebody came to the door of the house to peer out.

Seeing no-one the man went in again, the light was put out and, presumably, he climbed back on to the top of the oven. They gave him a few minutes to settle down then started to shoot again.

In the meantime Angela and Freddie's fir-cones had been thudding on to the tents. They were taking two at the end of the row by turns. First a man came out of one, then a man came out of the other. They saw each other, had a short angry argument and returned to their respective tents.

Erika and Gregory's second series of shots next had effect. The light went on in the house again and this time the officer came right outside to shout something to his men. Several soldiers came out of the tents that Angela and Freddie had been attacking and, advancing to the middle of the clearing, held a short consultation with their commander.

While they were talking, Angela and Freddie started shooting at the two tents at the other end of the row and soon several men appeared out of each of those to join the group in front of the house. The whole party then walked round the house and round the tents but, finding nothing, went in again, with the exception of two men whom the officer had apparently ordered to remain outside on watch.

As soon as the camp had settled down again the ghostly attackers recommenced their shooting and almost at once got results. The officer came stamping and cursing out of the house; the soldiers ran from their tents to meet him. Soon every man in the camp was up and about, arguing with his comrades as to what could be causing the uncanny rapping which by this time nearly all of them had heard.

The moment had now come to light the death-masks. No sooner had Freddie lit the first than two of the soldiers spotted it and letting out a yell of terror dived back into their tent. As the other masks were lit up general pandemonium broke loose; but it proved a dangerous business. Several of the soldiers blazed off with their rifles and Angela very nearly paid for her brilliant idea with her life. A bullet struck her fur cap from her head just as she was stooping to blow out the candle in one of the masks before moving it.

Freddie ordered her back among the trees and lifting the still-lighted mask on high at arm's length gave a blood-curdling wail. Its echo, even more fearsome, came from the far side of the clearing as Gregory and Erika gave tongue. The Asiatic Russians waited for no more. They had had their fill of terror. With the officer running as hard as any of them the whole party of eighty men took to their heels and fled blindly down the track with the screeches of the demons still ringing in their ears.

Having given the terrified soldiers a few minutes to get well clear of the encampment the two couples advanced and met in front of the house where, striking an attitude, Freddie and Gregory shook hands like Wellington and Blücher after Waterloo.

"Well I'm damned!" Angela appealed indignantly to Erika. "Did you ever see such impudence? Here are our two privates giving themselves the airs of Generals when it was I who planned the campaign and you who invented the secret weapon with which we won it; and it isn't even as though we had scored a complete victory yet."

"But they've gone," said Gregory simply.

"I know, dear"—Erika laid a hand on his arm—"but they'll come back. By morning they will have come to the conclusion that they were only imagining things. We've got to put in a lot of hard work yet before we can hope to scare them away for good. You go along to the road now and act as sentry until one of us relieves you. I doubt if any of them will venture near the camp till daylight, but they just might when the moon rises. If you see anybody approaching you can easily warn us by starting to scream like a banshee again."

"That's right," Angela agreed, "and Freddie had better go and fetch in the Lapps and the horses before they are all frozen to death, while you and I prepare a hot meal."

The two men went off obediently about their appointed tasks and as the girls busied themselves with the cooking they discussed further measures for putting the fear of the devil into the Asiatics. The soldiers would certainly recommence their wood-cutting operations as soon as daylight came and to wait until the following night to stage another ghostly attack, even if they drove the men out of the camp again, simply meant that they would return once more the following day. To be really effective the next attack must take place in daylight, to convince the troops that the site they had chosen for their camp was haunted by day as well as by night, and it was Erika who thought of the poltergeist.

There was a good quantity of crockery in the house and the peculiarity of a poltergeist is that it has a passion for hurling china about. The plan entailed the sacrifice of a number of plates and dishes but they considered this would be well worth it if they could devise a means of making them fall from the shelves of the dresser and crash on the floor, apparently without human aid.

The dresser backed on to the stable and in the store-room there were several reels of wire which the trapper had used for making snares. Angela suggested that if they bored tiny holes through the partition wall they might run wires underneath some of the crockery so that when the wires were jerked away the crockery would fall; then, even if the officer got up on to a chair to see what was causing these apparently inexplicable accidents, by the time he did so there would be no evidence for him to find as the wires would have been pulled away through the holes.

When Freddie came in he told them that he had duly stabled and fed the horses but that Bimbo, Mutt and Jeff with their dog-sleigh had entirely disappeared; so they could only suppose that the Lapps would turn up again in due course. Immediately the girls had outlined their plan to him he set to work with a gimlet from the tool-chest, boring holes through the partition wall. They then sat down to the meal which was now ready.

After they had eaten Freddie went out to relieve Gregory, who came back and ate his belated supper while the girls went on boring the holes that Freddie had started and arranging their less valued pieces of crockery in the right positions near them. When Gregory had finished they explained to him what they wanted done with the wire. Going round to the stable, he pushed the loose ends from the reels through the holes to the girls in the living-room where they adjusted them under the china. He then unreeled the lengths of wire, laying them under the stable doors and burying them in a shallow trench, which he made with his boot in the snow as he went along, until all their extremities lay with the empty reels near a tree about a hundred and twenty yards from the back of the house.

Erika, who had read much more about black-magic than any of the others, had made further plans by the time he had finished it. She declared that they must make the clearing appear as though a witches' sabbath had been held in it, as that was better calculated to prevent the superstitious Asiatics from spending another night there than anything else. First they went to the soldiers' tents. Taking all they could find there they smashed everything smashable and scattered the things and pieces in every direction except in the centre of the clearing, which Erika said must be left free for the witches' circle. Gregory was then set to run round a central point, kicking up the snow right and left as he went and stamping it down in the middle of his track as though a crowd of mad people had danced round and round in a ring there. While he was occupied with this Erika asked Angela to take over the job of sentry for Freddie because she wanted a man's strength to help her to make a big snow effigy of a goat in the centre of the circle. When Freddie arrived she had already fetched a couple of shovels and started work.

To have made an ordinary snow-man would have been an easy matter, but to make anything that looked like a goat was far more difficult, even though they now had a bright moon to work by; so first they built a large, square base with a solid back to serve as a throne for the snow-animal to sit on. Then they piled up a pillar of the hard, frozen snow out of which Erika sculptured with a carving-knife the figure of the animal. When she had finished it did not look particularly like a goat, but its long pear-shaped head and hoof-like extremities definitely gave it the appearance of some sort of large beast and the slanting eye-sockets, into which two fir-cones had been stuck for pupils, gave it a most menacing and sinister expression.

Gregory was standing admiring her handiwork when, to their surprise, he announced: "I know that the Devil is supposed to appear in the form of a goat in Central Europe, but they don't have goats in these parts. The nature myths of the Arctic all make him take the form of a reindeer or a moose."

"Fine, darling, fine," Erika laughed. "That's all the better. We've got lots of reindeer antlers in the meat store. If you'll get me a pair I'll fix them on its head. I think, too, it would be more effective if we could blacken the brute a bit. What about some soot?"

Gregory fetched the antlers and Freddie succeeded in raking down half a bucket of soot from the flue in the chimney with which they black-powdered the snow-devil. By the time they had finished the moon was high above the trees and in its eerie, silver light the totem of age-old evil seemed to radiate malignance even to its creators.

They spent another half-hour in acting like demons themselves by pulling down the tents, ripping them to pieces, blunting the edges of the circular saws and smashing in the sides of the lorries with axes; but they did not interfere with the engines, as the last thing they wished to do was to rob the Russians of the means of making a speedy departure, and occult forces although at times mischievous and dangerous would hardly be likely to sabotage machinery hidden under the bonnets of the lorries. It was one o'clock in the morning when, chilled to the bone and exhausted with their labours but highly satisfied, they gathered again in the house.

When they were all thoroughly warmed up once more it was decided that the two girls should sleep the night through while the men took turns to watch at the entrance to the camp; but they agreed that they must be clear of the house again by seven o'clock, although there would still be over three hours of darkness to go, in case the Russians plucked up courage to return first thing in the morning.

At six they were all up again. After a good, solid, hot breakfast they took great pains to dispose of any evidence that they had spent the night there but threw the officer's things all over the floor and turned the heavy table over on its side as though the poltergeist had been at work. Gregory fed the horses and led them back to the sleigh while Freddie dug a pit in the snow by the extremity of the wires which led into the house. Angela took up her position some distance to his right where she could see the front of the building and could signal to him without being seen from the camp. When Gregory returned all four of them settled down to wait.

It was half-past ten before the Russians put in an appearance and then, even from a distance, Angela could see that the poor wretches were in an extremity of misery, from having had to spend the night out on the open road. Some of them were limping as though affected by frost-bite in the feet; four of them were being carried by their comrades and all of them were bowed as though they no longer had the vitality to walk erect. Shambling through the snow they reached the edge of the clearing and halted there in a scared, silent huddle as they took in the devastated state of their camp and the grim, black figure that stood out so clearly against the dead whiteness of the ground.

Several of them turned to run again; but the officer gave a sharp order which halted the men, and they all stood there jabbering excitedly for several moments before plucking up the courage to advance. In wonder and fear they approached the witches' circle, those behind pushing forward the ones in front. For a time they stood staring at the malignant-looking beast, but none of them had the courage to cross the trodden track where they obviously thought that snow-demons had danced the night before. Then they split up into little groups and began to collect their broken, scattered belongings.

The officer and two of the men walked resolutely over to the house. Angela gave them a couple of minutes to take in the overturned furniture and the equipment which had been strewn about then she signalled to Freddie. He pulled hard on one of the wires and in the deep stillness of the forest they heard quite clearly the crash that followed.

With yells of fright the officer and his men came bounding out of the door and it was a good five minutes before they mustered the pluck to go in again. Angela signalled. Freddie pulled another wire. There was another crash; and out came the frightened men again as though an enraged lion were after them. This time they made no further attempt to enter the house but, getting a long pole, proceeded to fish the officer's belongings out of the room, through the open doorway, without crossing the accursed threshold.

When they had rescued the things from the poltergeist's lair the officer gave a shout and his half-frozen men came straggling towards him through the snow. He addressed them for a few moments then, apparently inspired by some new impetus, they scattered and quickly began to load up their six lorries.

Angela's stratagem had succeeded and her victory was complete. Three-quarters of an hour later, except for a little scattered rubbish, there was not a trace of the Russians in the clearing. Bag and baggage they had moved on further north to form a new camp in a more congenial atmosphere; and it was a safe bet that they would not select a place within several miles of that devil-ridden spot.

Freddie brought the horses and sleigh back and after clearing up the smashed crockery they were able to settle down in their refuge as though they had never been driven out of it. Nevertheless, after their midday meal Freddie and Gregory went out and felled two tall trees on either side of the track so that they fell across it. Then they cut the lower branches from many others and fixed these firmly among the boughs of the fallen trees; thereby forming a screen which would prevent any other troops that passed along the road seeing the house from it even in daylight….


21 April 2018

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