Henry found the first barricade to his progress about a mile from the farm, where the narrow road had just begun to rise from the level ground in the bottom of the valley. It was a strip of white rifle cleaning cloth tied across the road in the moon cast shadows under an hunched elm tree.
The cloth was a marker left by Cordery and Julie to show the first boundary on the march to the chateau. Now the rest of the unit would bunch up again before moving off at their different speeds. The leading scouts on their bikes, Henry and the bridge party close behind, also mounted on bikes, and then the chateau assault party on foot with the trolleys and the gun.
Using unmistakable re-grouping lines helped to keep the disparate parts of Henry's unit within reasonable distance of each other. They also went a long way towards preventing one group using cold steel on another by mistake in the darkness. Even so, Henry's heart skipped a beat when he first saw Cordery's peaked hat, carefully shaped with a skilful application of hot towels into the smart high peaked style that the Luftwaffe favoured. The matching uniform was perfectly cut and fitted immaculately. Which was probably no surprise, it was a lot easier to find Jewish cutters and tailors in London now than it would be in Berlin.
Henry dismounted and lifted his bike over the fluttering barrier. Julie's voice was barely audible against the creaking sounds of the branches being swayed by the strong breeze. "This seems like a good spot for one of your fireworks."
Henry noted the sharp bend in the road, the high hedge banks on either side and the deep pool of gloom underneath the tree.
"You're right. Hold my bike steady, please."
He opened the 37 pattern pack hanging from the cross bar of his bicycle and took out a short section of steel tubing. With his fighting knife he carved a hole in the bank on the outer curve of the bend and fitted the tube inside with one end pointed down the road.
"What is that, exactly?" she asked.
"In the engineers, we call it a fougasse. A kind of improvised anti-vehicle device with scrap metal packed in front of an explosive charge. This is my own design. I've managed to get some of the latest RDX explosive because it has the highest rate of detonation, and in front of it I put a four inch diameter tungsten disc. The trick is to leave a space between the charge and the disc and to make the back of the disc slightly concave. I'm not sure of the physics of it yet but I think the disc is picking up something close to eighty per cent of the RDX's initial detonating rate."
"Well, that's getting up to twenty thousand feet per second. Really stepping out. Of course a disc isn't an ideal ballistic chape but at this range it'll go through three inches of armour plate like an arrow through a balloon. If I can aim this pipe to hit the engine of any vehicle chasing us . . . well, it'll stop chasing us. And stuck between these banks it'll block the road nicely."
Henry took out a small wooden cigar box with two meat skewers and a length of fine black cord held to the box with a rubber band. He carried the box across the road and plunged a skewer deeply into the turf, one end of the cord attached to it, then discarded the rubber band and stretched the cord out loosely on the top of the road, so it wouldn't be caught up by the feet of his followers. To complete the booby trap the box would need to be moved back further to tauten the wire and anchored with the second skewer.
For now he opened the box lid and checked that the wooden insulating wedge attached to the other end of the cord was securely jammed between the teeth of the clothes peg which carried the electrical connections for the firing circuit. He was equally careful in making sure that the safety switch in the circuit was fully open. Finally, he took two coils of wire out of the box and offered the bared ends up to the small crocodile clips dangling from the front of the fougasse tube.
Having prepared the booby trap as far as he could, Henry looked around him. Julie was still close by. Other figures stood further apart, apparently in deep concentration as they strained their ears and eyes for any signs of life. Henry knew exactly the sort of apprehension they were feeling: where the hell was everybody?
Of course there was probably a curfew. Of course there was probably very little traffic on this back road at night even in normal times. Of course there was no reason for the Germans to come here unless they'd suddenly noticed four of their men were missing. Of course all of those assumptions made sense. But it was still a very strange feeling to be travelling through an enemy occupied country like this. Since leaving the farm they seemed to have been taking part in an exercise where the mock enemy and the umpires had buggered off back to barracks without bothering to send a message that everything was cancelled.
The tall Irishman walked towards him, pushing his incongruously small airborne bicycle beside him. "Good evening to you, sir."
"Likewise, Corporal. Would you have happened to have made many trips like this in the past -- under these sort of circumstances, I mean?"
"Sure, and I was a courier in Wicklow for several months, doing the rounds for the boys, sir. Walking across country sometimes, but usually on a bike. I've spent many a night at this game."
"Hmm . . . well, is this usual in your experience? I mean, not seeing a soul around?"
Cantrell chuckled. "Why, sir, didn't I do it week in and week out, and nobody the wiser, especially the bloody British? Thick as flies round a cow turd they were in the towns, but hardly a sign of them in the country. Nor hardly an honest Irishman either. When times are troubled, wise folk stay in their homes at night."
"What about dishonest Irishmen -- surely there was a few of those around?"
"Ah well, sir, that depends on who'd be doing the judging. But the truth of it is that there's always a power of empty land in the countryside."
Henry shook his head in renewed bafflement. "Damnit, Cantrell, what are you doing here? You were such a committed young republican you broke with Collins and joined the Four Courts garrison to fight for total independence from Britain. What are you doing in this army?"
Cantrell chuckled again, as amused by his officer's sudden outburst as he had been by Henry's first question. "Ah, sir, if I'd only had the conniving gifts to be a politician, sure I'd be well suited now at home. But the way of it is that I'm one of those fellows who are only of any use during the fighting. So here I am, a lot older and not a tad wiser or richer to show for all my scars. Anyway, we didn't spend six hundred years getting rid of the English to become part of somebody else's new empire."
The Corporal swung around as a soft padding noise approached. Everybody reached for their knives until they could distinguish the shape of a man with a loaded trolley following behind him like a tame donkey as he steered it with the tiller arm. Behind him came another trolley and driver -- or helmsman, if that was a better word. In the rear was the Smith gun, rolling along behind the double file of men hauling on the drag ropes. There was also another figure in there, pulling with a will and a swaying skirt. Natalya had clearly decided the only thing to do was to give the operation her best efforts and hope for the best.
Sergeant McCaughan came over, the marker strip in his hands. One of the vital two inch mortars was slung over his shoulders. He handed the length of cloth to Henry.
"Everything OK, Sergeant?"
"Hardly raised a sweat yet, sir. No problems, although I don't know how we'll get on with this thing going down the bridle path."
"I guess we'll manage, one way or another. Have a breather, then we'll move on."
Henry moved back towards the bridge party. "Eric, get your boys to listen in while I have a final word with the scouts."
A very few words was all he could usefully say to Cordery and Julie: "Alright, you two, this is where it's likely to start. If there is an armoured vehicle up there we've somehow got to dispose of the crew without a sound. It's not going to be easy. Take it carefully."
"We'll do our best to open the way for you, Captain." The Patrol Leader's voice sounded confident. Then she spoke to Cordery in harsh German, using his native language to confirm that he understood their orders.
The guttural tones seemed very strange in a woman's mouth. It would be odd to have a German girlfriend, Henry thought. It was hard to imagine anybody trying to talk of love and affection in words that sounded so full of menace and bluster. Perhaps that was why the Huns were so keen on music as an alternative to their horrible language. He stopped musing as the scouts moved off, merging into the darkness with Julie giving a final wave of her right hand in salutation as she left.
"One minute, Eric."
Cunliffe-Brown and the other men of the bridge party waited impatiently in their saddles as Henry tied the weapon cleaning cloth to one of the tree's branches so he could easily find the almost prepared booby trap again. The next time he came along this road, if he ever did, it was going to be in a lung tearing hurry. The hanging strip danced in the breeze like a dying man on the gallows.
"OK, off we go."
Henry slung his carbine across his chest, then began pedalling after his scouts, the other soldiers following closely enough for him to hear the creak of their pedals. It was a raggedy arsed way to attack what was probably the most expensive and sophisticated unit in the entire armed forces of the Third Reich. But it was also very economical and practical method.
In Henry's philosophy, it was economy and practicality which won wars. A good engineer was a man who did for ten shillings what any fool could do with ten pounds: a good soldier was a man who won a battle as cheaply as possible in scarce resources. It was just unfortunate that the resource which was usually the easiest to supply was brave men. Every army in history had plenty of those. It was talented and well trained soldiers you could never get enough of.
While his mind followed long worn grooves, his stomach contracted around a small pool of acid which seemed to be accumulating somewhere inside it. This was a bloody frightening experience for him, however calm Julie Braddock or anybody else seemed to be. Dunkirk had been bad enough, but at least he'd been able to vent his emotions with a bren gun fired up from the hip at any dive bomber which came into anything like range. There was absolutely nothing like a machine gun and an endless supply of ammunition for psychological relief.
Then Henry's concerns about his mental state were abruptly terminated by a figure stepping into his path.
"What the fuck?"
Whoever it was heard Henry's voice just as Henry recognised the pot shaped helmet on the other man's head. The German grabbed for the rifle hanging from his shoulder, Henry collided with him, desperately hooking his arm around the other man's neck. He half fell off his bike, one leg caught in the frame, the saddle jammed into his thigh and the carbine held tight between him body and his opponents. The German was as strong as a bull, threatening to break loose at any second. Henry hung on desperately to his armlock around the Hun's neck, stopping him from bellowing. Then he grabbed the man's left ear with his left hand, trying to hold the soldier's head back and so relieve the awful pressure on his right arm.
"Will somebody please kill this bastard?" he pleaded to the darkness.
Another bike fell on the road and a figure leapt forward, waving a knife. It connected somewhere in the German's body with a tinny sort of a sound and the enemy soldier made a convulsive leap which broke Henry's grip around his neck. Gasping for breath and his hands held to his throat, the enemy soldier tried to run away. Because Henry was still continuing to hold desperately onto his ear lobe the German moved in a circle like a tethered goat. Behind him was his second assailant, repeatedly stabbing him in the side. Then Henry fell over his bike and dropped onto his knees, the German gave the other man a push which sent the Commando staggering back and took the chance to run for his life. It was his third enemy which sealed his fate, appearing out of the darkness, neatly tripping the German up and dropping onto his back to drive a knife into his heart. Then the killer stood up.
"Were the pair of you dancing a jig with this fellow?" Cantrell whispered contemptously, wiping his blade on his sleeve.
"I'm sorry -- I thought the knife would do the job." It was Cunliffe-Brown's voice, apologising contritely.
Henry nodded weakly in agreement. On a fair to easy going assessment, the whole thing had been one total fuckup. How Julie and Cordery had missed the sentry was a mystery. Perhaps he'd been standing off on the side of the road for some reason, heard the bikes, walked over and straight in front of a dumkopf Englander. And why the hell hadn't Cunliffe-Brown put the man down with his knife?
Henry rolled the body over and ran his fingers across it. A broken blade was jammed between two filled ammunition pouches on the German's belt. Couldn't really blame Eric for that. But the stupid bastard hadn't improved the shining hour by not realising that his knife was only a broken stub. On the other hand it hadn't been Cunliffe-Brown who had practically run over an enemy soldier without even realising what was happening. The simple truth was that the whole episode would have been a disaster except for Cantrell's experienced efficiency. The IRA man had made the two British officers look like complete idiots.
His nervousness now obliterated underneath seething anger at his own incompetence, Henry walked forward as quietly as he could, wheeling his bike with the carbine resting on top of the handlebars. A bar of yellow light shone ahead, just above the level of his eyes. A soft finger click and a smell of perfume guided him to Julie. She led him by the arm along the grass verge. Out of the darkness loomed a large flat fronted radiator belonging to a vehicle parked on the side of the road. They skirted the offside front mudguard which had a clearance knob on a stalk jutting up from it.
Now Henry could see what what kind of vehicle it was, an Adler 13, the first word in post-war German fighting machines. It dated back to the early thirties and looked like a mobile bathtub, an open topped thinly armoured scout car with two wheel drive, poor cross country performance and usually armed with a single machine gun on a flexible mounting. Probably relegated altogether now from front line service for internal security duties, where they might still be useful. This one mounted a bed frame radio aerial which was draped with camouflage netting, making a kind of tent over the bodywork. The light was spilling out of the half opened driver's hatch high upon the left hand side of the ungainly vehicle.
Julie stopped him with the flat of her hand on his chest and held up the other hand in the light. She lifted one finger and pointed at the car. Then she lifted two more fingers and pointed lower down, underneath the vehicle. Henry nodded and knelt down on the road, then looked sideways. Yes, two of them, sleeping snug and comfortable, wrapped in blankets on the grass on the other side of the Adler, underneath ground sheets stretched out and down from the hull of the scout car. So it should be two off duty and two on, one sentry patrolling on foot and one man on radio watch inside the Adler. Since the sentry was already dead that left the duty radio operator as the biggest problem, then the two sleeping crewmen. Henry looked left and right out of the corners of his eyes and saw Cordery crouched by the nearest wheel, knife held ready.
He stood up again and signalled Julie to wait. Then he went back down the road and issued some quick and very quiet orders to the bridge party before leading them towards the Adler. As they reached it, the party divided, two of them joining Cordery and moving around to cover the back of the scout car, the others standing near the front nearside wheel. Both groups had a crossbow and both crossbows were already aimed at the nearest sleeping target. Corporal Kelty knelt down by the offside front wheel for Henry to step on his back.
Once his buttocks were on the mudguard Henry's legs lay comfortably on the backward sweep of the metal arch as he bent forward to peer through the driver's hatch. Sitting inside with his left profile to him was a young man with curly blonde hair, wearing a lumpy blue civilian sweater over his uniform shirt. A single interior light was shining over his head and he was holding a large pad of white paper on which he seemed to sketching a building. Around his neck was a pair of earphones, and a microphone which brushed against the operator's throat.
Henry found it absurdly difficult to push the fat barrel of the De Lisle through the hatch opening without rattling it on the top or the bottom of the gap. He could only do it by turning the weapon sideways so the foresight didn't hit the hatch lid. Having achieved that, he then found it impossible to look along the sights with the carbine held in the normal manner because the lid blocked his line of vision. Stifling an overwhelming desire to swear in frustration, he jammed his right leg against the driver's compartment, twisted over on his left side, turning the firearm with him, then tried to squint down the sights as he fought to hold the carbine steady. He now had a clear view of the inside of the Adler, especially of the thick metal mounting post for the MG 34 machine gun underneath the netting. In fact his sights were aimed directly at the post, at least three feet to one side of his intended victim.
Inch by inch, he wriggled out to the edge of the mudguard, trying to get as far as he could without falling off the side. The barrel of the De Lisle tracked across the interior of the Adler until it was aimed at the man inside. Or at least the barrel weaved back and forth across the German as Henry fought to keep his balance and his point of aim simultaneously.
Abruptly, the radio operator swung round in his seat to face Henry, at the same time holding up his drawing pad to study some detail more closely. Henry heard the click of the firing pin hitting the round in the carbine, a neat little hole appeared in the pad suddenly surrounded by a red halo, the noise of the impact of the bullet again sounding like a side of beef being cleft open.
The Luftwaffe man inside lowered the pad, looked at the smoking gun barrel pointing at him and frowned. Blood was spraying out from his chest in spurts as though it were leaking out of a high pressure fire hose. He dropped his chin onto his chest, the red stained pad now resting on his knees, the radio microphone untouched.
Henry slipped off the mudguard and knelt down on the tarred gravel. His people were dragging out the two men from beneath the ground sheets, each of the Germans with a bolt buried in him almost up to the feathers. The primitive crossbows seemed to be efficient enough at point blank range anyway.
"Insulation tape -- who's got some, quick?"
Sergeant McCaughan passed him a roll. Henry leaned in underneath the camouflage net and taped down the pressel button on the top of the microphone. If a station on a radio net failed to make a check call, or answered one with a strange voice, somebody would soon be along to find out what was happening. But a stuck button left down by a dozy operator was a fairly common problem. It was also a bastard of a one, because nobody else on the net could transmit until the pressel switch on the offending set was released. The only cure was to physically go round to all the stations and find which idiot was responsible.
Just before he pulled himself out from underneath the netting Henry picked up the drawing pad from his victim's lap. The blood soaking into the paper had almost obliterated the charcoal outline of a Norman towered church surrounded by oak trees. It was near enough a replica of Henry's own village church to make him look twice. The drawing was wonderfully styled in bold strokes, but what Henry could see most vividly was a mental picture of Huns strutting around the streets of Hallaton the way they were in Carnoules. He looked down at the blonde curls an inch or so from his face and spat into them. The cocky sods wouldn't like what they found here at dawn. Maybe he could do more a few more things before then to make it even more depressing for the war loving bastards.
As soon as he was sure his leading elements were secure on the position he began arranging another booby trap. Except that this time it was designed to be an anti-personnel one. He stood a square one gallon petrol container against the bottom of the wall and draped it with a piece of camouflage netting and some grass stalks.
It was noticeable how far away everybody else went away from him as he connected up the electric wires from another booby-trap cigar box to the crocodile clips on top of the tin. His men cared little about the dangers of high explosive, but these things terrified them. Inside the container was a wax egg wrapped in a three and sixpenny reusable rubber contraceptive sheath, the 'Workman's Friend'. At the centre of the egg was a core of plastic explosive surrounded by potassium chlorate and sugar: the rest of the tin was filled with a well stirred mixture of petrol, sulphuric acid and soap flakes. When one of these infernal devices went off they threw blobs of burning material up to fifty yards away, blobs which stuck to whatever they hit until they eventually burnt out, which was always far too late to be of any help to the poor buggers who had been fried. As angry and determined as any pursuers might be, one taste of a hell bomb like this should induce a modicum of caution.
After preparing his trap Henry took the ignition key out of the Adler's dashboard and hid it underneath one of the radiator bars. Then the advance continued, though it was more of a rush than the previous deliberate movement. Everybody knew they still had surprise on their side and they also knew it couldn't last much longer. Now was the time to stake everything on speed. A few yards further on Henry found another piece of white cloth lying on the road next to the mortice gate opening onto the bridle path. Cordery was waiting beside it.
"The lady is down further along this path. There is nobody else here."
Henry nodded and checked his watch: 2312 hours. The air force was due to arrive at 0020, moonset at 0233. On present progress they seemed to have made up the time lost on re-briefing at the farm. Of course the original schedule had had a lot of spare time built into it, more than he'd found easy to justify to other would-be planners. But the people who had made such comments were the same idiots who talked about military operations being carried out with split second precision timing. The truth was that military operations were usually undertaken across unfamiliar country against an enemy of unknown strength at guessed at locations; they were the most imprecise type of plans imaginable.
"Sergeant, call up the Albatross on the S-phone and tell them our progress. Also tell them we're now working to the original time-table again."
Henry walked over to his second in command and spoke quietly. "OK, Eric, I don't think I need to keep you here any longer. Just secure my flank by blowing that bridge and we'll do nicely."
"Yes, sir. Can I just mention something that's on my mind?"
"Yes, sir. I want to say is that I consider this idea of yours of actually entering the chateau guard room to be total lunacy. You'll get yourself killed for nothing. Forget about it: no political prisoner is worth what you are to us."
"War is nothing else but politics on a grand scale, Eric. But thanks for your concern. OK, on your way."
Cunliffe-Brown sighed. "Alright then, sir, you stupid sod, go ahead and get yourself killed. Good luck." He held out his hand and Henry grinned and shook it. Then he stepped back and waved the rest of Cunliffe-Brown's party on, trying to think of something appropriately encouraging to say, something the Duke of Wellington might have said. "Up Guards, and at them" didn't seem right somehow. Nor did: "England expects . . . "
"Right, altogether now, girls, and we'll piss this."
Two sets of white teeth showed in darkened faces as Cantrell and Reech grinned at Henry's impromptu encouragement before pedalling off after the Lieutenant. Three men were few enough to do the job -- but he had no more to spare. Before going through the gate Henry carefully placed another marker by his discarded bicycle. The gun party would drop off the bikes they were carrying on the trolleys before they followed down the bridle path, ready for a fast getaway when they retreated down the V road back to the farm and the glider. If retreat was the correct word to describe fleeing for your life.
The path on the other side of the gate was partly grass and partly patches of sticky mud, leading off between a few large trees hunched underneath the cloud streaked moonlight, their bare branches stirring against the wind as if excited by what was about to happen. Henry took a deep breath of the sea crisp air and followed Cordery down the slope. He felt nakedly exposed out in the open, away from the cover of the road's banks and walls. Looking back it was somewhat comforting to realise that his men weren't quite as conspicuous as he had imagined. On the other hand any sentry who wasn't dealt with by his scouts would soon enough spot that something odd was going on. Better to move ahead quickly and get Julie and Cordery on their way again.
On the other side of the field was another wall, another low gate. The Patrol Leader was standing behind an elm, glassing the way ahead with a pair of compact night glasses. "That avenue of trees on the other side of the next field should be the last two hundred yards of the approach to the chateau."
Henry borrowed the glasses, trying to pick out the details. "I don't suppose you'd see any movement down there from this distance."
"No, although I expect that the area would be guarded. I'm more concerned about that building just this side of the trees, over on the right. That wasn't in the briefing."
She was right, there was a dark square shape down near the beeches leading to the chateau. Not a glimmer of light nor sign of a vehicle near whatever it was. "OK, take it steady then. You've done well so far. Cordery had better take the carbine in case you need it."
Julie put the night glasses back in her handbag, opened the gate and led Cordery through it. Then she put her arm around him, clinging close to his right side and masking the carbine he was holding behind her back. Together, they looked just what Henry wanted them to, an officer and his girlfriend. Of course it was a damn silly time and place to be be doing a spot of courting. Still, if you were a private or an NCO a lot of things that officers did were crazy. One of the brigadiers in Third Division had been famous for his habit of running through the fields stark naked at dawn looking for mushrooms for his breakfast. And in Henry's experience aircrew officers were generally the silliest and most unpredictable of all commissioned ranks. At any event, he had no doubt that a woman was the best sort of camouflage for this kind of open approach. Which led to another thought.
He turned around and checked his men's progress. The trolleys were sliding around in places, although there didn't seem to be any problem in keeping them moving. The downward incline would certainly help to conserve their batteries, there was that much to it. The gun crew had divided themselves into two men at the front to steer and two behind using lanyards attached to the axle to hold its weight in check. Natalya was walking to one side, her arms wrapped around against the cold air.
She walked up to him. Henry unbuttoned the German tunic he'd picked up at the barn and draped it over her shoulders. "That looks more realistic, I think. I want you to walk ahead with me and pretend to be my girl friend. Whatever happens, don't make a sound. I shall be carrying my knife and if it's the only way to keep you quiet, I'll have to use it."
He took off his sorbo rubber helmet and put on a Luftwaffe sidecap. Then he slung a cocked cross bow over his shoulder and tucked three bolts in his ammunition pouch. The sooner they got some more De Lisles the sooner this Agincourt rubbish could be relegated back to the museums.
"Right, let's go for a walk. Sergeant, wait two minutes, then follow us."
He pushed open the gate wide enough for the gun to follow and they walked through. Then he pulled his fighting knife out of its sheath, held it with the blade concealed in his right cuff and put his left arm around Natalya's shoulders.
"I just hope to hell you know what you're doing," she muttered.
"Let's put it this way, sweetie, I'm either going to get you killed or very famous. No more need to fight for publicity: it's all down to your luck now."
Natalya sighed and put her own arm around him. "You think I'd be good in the movies?"
"As long as you don't get any leading men who look like me. Now keep quiet, please."
She did so, staring ahead as they crossed the field towards the double row of beech trees, straight trunks upright and facing each other like honour guards on either side of the chateau party's intended route.
Henry turned his head sideways to improve his night vision, studying the walls of the suspicious building, which seemed to be built of irregular sized lumps of pale stone stuck together in rough layers. Then a white strip appeared, a length of cloth suddenly tied up to the nearest corner. It was a signal that the position was safely cleared. He increased his pace until Natalya was almost trotting to keep up.
Mrs Braddock was waiting by the corner of the suspected building. Henry felt like laughing at their own stupidity when he saw that the construction behind her consisted of rows and rows of cut tree branches, the sawn ends facing outwards and the thinner branches stacked on the top like a roof, with a plaited straw covering to keep the rain off. Near her was a rough overhead shelter made of some of the branches and some straw. Hanging from one of the supports was a field telephone. A pair of jackboots stuck out from underneath the shelter.
"The sentry stood there saluting until Cordery shot him. I don't think he even knew what happened."
"Right, keep moving," Henry ordered. "I'm going to follow directly behind you now because you may need some help when you get to the stables."
She nodded her understanding. Henry cut the telephone wires, put his arm around Natalya's shoulders again and followed Julie to the far corner of the log pile. It seemed a lot more than a week and a half since he had walked behind her into Petty Bowling, quietly laughing to himself at her melodramatic disguise. Now he was probably one of the few men who had found out what she was really like without paying for the information with his life. It would be an interesting experience to meet Mr Braddock. The man must either be another Garth or the most hen pecked husband of all time. At any event, whatever the general value of women in the front, Julie Braddock was staying with his Commandos if he could possibly fix it. When it came to getting rid of sentries a good female killer seemed worth any number of men.
The interior of the beech avenue was spongy underfoot with decaying leaf mould and as dark as the proverbial cow's gut. They moved down it in single file, relying on their ears for any sign of trouble. At the other end of the avenue a pair of projections against the lighter shade of the night sky indicated the gate posts set in the chateau's outer wall. So close, so bloody . . .
It was Julie who heard it first, who reached out and stopped Cordery. Henry halted behind her, head tilted. Admittedly no great shakes in anything to do with music even he could identify, borne on the wind, something which sounded very much like a dance band. In fact, if pressed, he would have been prepared to state with some confidence he was listening to 'In the Mood'. Not that he had a lot of time to think about it, because of the headlight which appeared just then between the gateposts and swept towards them at high speed, a massive engine behind it roaring at high power.
Julie and Cordery dived out of sight to the right, Henry turned around, threw his crossbow away, grabbed Natalya, jerked her skirt up and pushed her back against the nearest tree trunk. Keeping their faces together, he jerked his hips against her, simulating a stand up shag. As the headlight grew brighter he pretended to ignore it while he tried to make his movements look as though he was getting onto the short strokes. He wasn't surprised when the engine stopped close behind him: neither was he surprised at the masculine shouts of approval he could hear over the noise of the machine -- what did surprise him was the female laughter he thought he could hear. Then the laughter was cut off abruptly by the heavy handed smack of the De Lisle.
Henry spun around and leapt to one side out of the headlight's beam. A red shaded torch was shining out of the side of the road, about where he'd last seen Julie. The light was falling on the largest motor bike Henry had ever seen, a matching side car attached to it. Two figures were in the side car, another behind the handlebars wearing uniform. Leaning against the driver's back wearing a party dress pulled up over her knees was a plump girl with dark hair pinned up high on top of a shattered skull. Henry saw her fall to one side out of the pillion seat, the driver twisting around to look behind him, then part of the German's right shoulder seemed to explode as one of the big .45 rounds hit it.
There was an eruption in the side car as another girl tried to scramble out and the man whose lap she was sitting on grabbed for his holster. Henry hit the girl in the face with his clenched left hand, dropping her back into the side car, then drove his knife point towards her companion's throat. The man flinched and the knife point slid along the side of his jaw, slicing the flesh apart. Again and again Henry drove for the neck, the only vulnerable spot he could reach. The muzzle of the De Lisle appeared in the edge of the torchlight; the wind of the bullet passing through the air hit his face, the driver jammed the throttle wide open as he arched up under the impact. A jet of scarlet liquid spurted up into the light as Henry cut an artery, his victim screeching at the sight of his own blood. Julie changed her position to better illuminate the sidecar while Cordery worked the bolt of the carbine. A smooth functioning team of death whose work temporarily finished with a shot down into the sidecar man's collar bone.
Henry dropped his knife, leapt for the bike and tried to throttle the screaming engine back. The right hand grip was unyielding, connected to nothing, instead of the usual right hand throttle control on British bikes. "Fucking, fucking, fucking German bastards!" He hauled up the body slumped over the handlebars by dragging on its hair until he could get a hand underneath it. The engine cut out and the headlight beam vanished as he flicked over the ignition key set in the handlebars. Julie's torch went out. Henry could hear the girl in the side car gabbling hysterically. He felt around, then heard her yelp in fear as he caught her hair. "Tell this bitch to be quiet."
Braddock translated into urgent French. Piss stink wafted up from the sidecar, either from the girl or the corpse underneath her. He put his blade against one of her breasts and she stiffened into terrified silence.
"Can anybody see or hear anything?" They were all blinded after being so close to the headlight. Yet the music was still playing away and nothing seemed to be happening.
"I think it's alright," Julie whispered. "Anybody down there would think the bike has stopped so the men can enjoy themselves with the girls."
"Christ, they'll lose this bloody war yet. Use your torch to give McCaughan a couple of quick flashes so he knows we're OK. Shield it with your body as much as you can. Then let's push this thing into the side and see what we've got."
The motor bike combination refused to move. "Natalya, give us a hand," Henry snarled, trying to push with one hand while keeping his knife pressed against the girl. He heard her come stumbling over, then she squealed in horror.
"Oh God, I stepped on somebody!"
"It is the woman who was riding on the back. Her foot is caught in the back wheel," Cordery reported calmly. "I will get it out."
Free of the obstructing body the bike was finally pushed in between two trees. Henry went back onto the road, pulled the dead girl into cover, wrapped some white four by two cloth round a clump of bracken to mark the rendezvous for Sergeant McCaughan, then rejoined the others.
Julie's torch beam leaked out between her clenched fingers, passing inch by inch over the motor bike and sidecar. It was clear that the dead girl had been hit by Cordery's first shot, no doubt aimed at the man in front. Then the second shot had been fired to one side of her, wounding the driver, a very inadequate expression for even a passing blow from a .45 round. Cordery's third bullet had nailed him fair and square. The man looked to be in his mid twenties, dressed in all the finery of formal Luftwaffe mess uniform, though hatless. The yellow patches on his collar displaying two eagles and a laurel wreath proclaimed him as an Oberleutnant in the flying branch. Julie lifted up the officer's right arm and twisted the blood soaked cuff around for Henry to see the Germanic script on it which formed two words: 'Legion Condor'.
"We've got one of them," she said happily. "One of their best."
Henry couldn't help chuckling. "The bastards must have been given a lifetime's supply of Spanish fly for helping Franco. Too oversexed for their own good."
The girl in the side car was a thin face brunette with a complexion like dirty marble and the eyes of a terrified rabbit. She was still sitting in the lap of the other dead officer, blood dribbling out of her cut lips. Rather surprisingly, he was wearing the pink insignia and three bladed propeller of a senior engineer. It seemed unusual for an aircrew officer to be quite such good friends with a ground crew technician; possibly the bike had something to do with it.
Henry whistled softly in sheer admiration when he examined the machine. The tank had the head of a Red Indian chief painted on it, the word 'Indian' lettered across the streaming back feathers. Underneath the tank was an massive engine, with finning on the cylinder heads that ought to have been in an art gallery. In fact, the whole machine was a gleaming example of absolutely solid and meticulous workmanship. Judging by the styling it must have been imported from the United States just before the war. A toy for a lucky rich boy who had just run out of luck.
Henry reluctantly gave the torch back to Julie. "Interrogate her," he ordered. "I'll be watching the road. Two minutes is about all I can give you."
Incredibly, the scene within the avenue appeared just as calm as it had done before. Not an apparent flicker of interest in the bloody slaughter which had just taken place. Henry flashed his torch in McCaughan's direction. He was answered by a double finger click. He responded with a double click, then another double click. Behind him he could hear Julie snarling softly in French. The girl stuttered some sort of an answer.
And still the band played on: still in the mood, but three lives less now to share it. God, it was strange how quickly you could leave this world with one little piece of bad luck. Fourteen years from cradle to walking out the schoolhouse door, put on your first pair of long trousers, learn to fly an aircraft, drop a few bombs, get on a bike with a mate, drive a couple of girls up a dark lane and suddenly that was your lot. It didn't seem like much in the way of memories to go into eternity with.
More finger clicks, very close, but it was difficult to see with his eyes still dazzled. His night vision would be affected for a long while yet and he couldn't afford to wait for it to come back. Henry whispered, "Sergeant, can you see me?"
"Yes, sir. What happened?"
"Two German officers and two tarts on a motor bike and sidecar. Killed three of them, one girl left alive. Patrol Leader's talking to her now. Can you see anybody at the other end of this avenue?"
"There must be some bastards somewhere close. It certainly seems as if the Huns are having a booze up. We'll have to play it as it falls. Maybe the Patrol Leader can get us some useful gen."
The smell of her perfume still managed to cling to Julie as she came from behind a beech. "Our information is correct, there is a party on. What's somewhat surprising is that she says the Grand Duke is drinking with the Germans and seems to be enjoying himself."
"Perhaps there isn't going to be a free gift of White Russians to Stalin after all. Perhaps the whole story was wrong. Even if the story is true, it still makes sense. Luftwaffe officers aren't members of Stalin's fan club, even if he is supplying the petrol which keeps them flying. If the Duke was under house arrest, they'd make it as comfortable as possible for him."
"Stuff it, we'll worry about it later. The next job is to get into the grounds. OK, McCaughan's party and Natalya follow on foot. You, me, Cordery and Sergeant McCaughan travel on the motor cycle. Straight through the gate, kill every sentry we find, while I rev the guts out of the engine to drown any noise. Nobody is going to take any notice of that with this party going on. Get the gun and the mortars into firing positions, then we take it from there. Everybody clear on what we're going to do?"
McCaughan and the Patrol Leader confirmed that they understood. "What about the girl - any reason to keep her alive?" Julie asked.