Authors: Mark Ellis
A FRANK MERLIN NOVEL
Copyright © 2014 Mark Ellis
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ISBN 978 1783067 503
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To Victoria, Kate, Claudia and Alexander
Also by this author
About the author
Mark Ellis lives in London and has been a barrister, corporate executive and entrepreneur.
is the second in his Frank Merlin series.
is the first.
Many thanks again are due in particular to Jon Thurley and Patricia Preece for their advice and great help in pulling this book together. Also thanks to the readers of early drafts for comments and advice: Mair Ellis, my mother, who sadly died just before the publication of this book and who was my great fan in all things, Kate Ellis, Keith Ross, John Harrington and Geoff Barclay. Thank you to Victoria for editing help and to all my family for their support. Special thanks are due to my good friends, Gregg Berman and Norman Lang, who have done so much to help with the promotion of my work in the USA and have been great sources of encouragement. Audrey Manning yet again coped brilliantly with the deciphering and typing of the many drafts. Thank you Audrey. Last, but not least, thank you to all at Troubador Publishing Ltd who helped with the production of this book.
Moscow, December 1938
Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria was not used to feeling intimidated. It was rather his job in life to intimidate others. Some might say that “intimidate” was quite a polite word for what he did. One month ago he had been appointed head of the NKVD, the state security service, by his Georgian compatriot, Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin. In this position it was his task to hunt down, terrorise, torture and, more often than not, exterminate the enemies of the state. Since, in the mind of his boss, this category of “enemies of the state” often appeared to embrace the majority of the Russian population, this was no easy task. However, as when he had run Georgia with blood-soaked efficiency, he approached it with ruthless determination. A powerful, self-confident and brilliant man nevertheless, as he sat in the leather armchair beside Stalin’s surprisingly modest desk, Beria was feeling intimidated. Through the window he could see the snow beginning to fall in large, fluffy flakes down towards the courtyard. The roofs of the Kremlin already carried a thick layer of snow from yesterday’s blizzard. He removed his thick-lensed spectacles and gave them a wipe with his red handkerchief, then rose and walked around the room in an attempt to relieve his anxiety. Pausing at a bookcase, he pulled out a heavy volume of Shakespeare’s plays, which fell open at a passage from Macbeth.
“Found anything interesting?” The soft voice with its still thick Georgian accent made Beria jump and the book fell from his hand. “Now then, Lavrentiy Pavlovich, be careful there. That is one of the first Russian translations of Mr Shakespeare. It is worth a rouble or two.”
Josef Stalin emerged fully from the side door through which he had gained access to the room and bent down to pick up the book, which was still open at the page Beria had been reading. “Ah, what have we here! ‘There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The near in blood, the nearer bloody!’ How true, don’t you think? An important thing for men like us to remember. Duncan was not wary enough of those close to him and got himself killed. A mistake we shall not make, my friend, eh?”
Stalin smiled broadly, dislodging a few remaining specks of breakfast from his thick moustache, and patted Beria gently on his shining bald head. “Come.”
As Beria went back to his chair, Stalin sat down at his desk, lit a pipe, then removed a folder from a drawer. “Gold, Lavrentiy. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
Unfortunately, Beria did. “The Spanish consignment?”
“Indeed so. Your predecessor, the Poisonous Dwarf, made little progress in this regard. I am hoping you will do better.”
The Poisonous Dwarf, otherwise known as Nikolas Yezhov, had been eased aside by Stalin a few months earlier and had entered that black limbo land of disfavour, which seldom ended happily.
“I am just familiarising myself with the papers, Comrade Stalin.”
“You may think, Lavrentiy, that in the scheme of things the loss of this gold might be of little account. When you consider that the bullion equivalent of at least five hundred million dollars ended up in our coffers, the loss of five or ten million dollars here or there might seem irrelevant. That, Lavrentiy Pavlovich, is not how I view things.”
“No, sir. The theft of such an amount cannot be ignored.”
“I want it back. Is that clear? And I want those responsible to pay the penalty – a particularly unpleasant penalty, understood?”
Stalin sucked on his pipe and nodded. “Very good. And Lavrentiy?”
Beria could feel a trickle of sweat running down the back of his neck into his collar. “Sir?”
“People always seem to let me down in the end. You won’t, will you?”
The wind whistled outside as Beria closed the door.
Sunday, September 1, 1940
In his dream he was lying on a bed. There was someone lying next to him. He wasn’t sure who it was. It might be his wife. His dead wife. Or it might be someone else. He was in a room with white walls. The ceiling was white too or was it pale blue? There was a buzzing sound. Flies were walking on or flying to the ceiling. Their droning noise was soothing. A window was open somewhere and a pleasant warm breeze was blowing over his face. He felt something on his arm. A little pressure and then his arm was being shaken.
“Come on, Frank.” He could hear a soft female voice. A voice with an accent.
An attractive accent
, he thought. “Come on, Frank, we’ll miss the train.” His eyes slowly opened to reveal a clear blue sky above. Someone was giggling and stroking his shoulder. “Oh, Frank.”
He came fully to his senses and the soft comfort of the mattress in his dream gave way to the uncomfortable reality of Brighton’s pebbled beach. He could still hear the droning noise above him, but it was the drone of aeroplanes rather than insects, very high above. He wasn’t as well up on aircraft recognition as his sergeant, but he thought that they were Hurricanes and, as some of the planes were engaged in an elaborate dance around each other, he presumed he was seeing Messerschmitts as well. Suddenly, one of the fighters banked away from the others and started to drop through the sky. A trail of smoke followed it as its descent picked up pace. He sat up and watched in fascination as the aircraft pursued its deadly downward spiral into the sea. It disappeared some way out from the beach and he saw no parachute. “Let’s hope that’s one of theirs, eh, Sonia?” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes before rising stiffly to his feet.
His companion was a pretty girl in her mid-twenties. Her hair was still wet from her last swim half an hour or so before. Detective Chief Inspector Frank Merlin himself had not been in the water. He had joined Sonia on this seaside expedition at short notice when he’d realised he wasn’t going to get anywhere with the backlog of paperwork he’d hoped to get to grips with. The task facing him the following day was too distracting. On the spur of the moment, he’d left Scotland Yard, grabbed a taxi and hurried round to Sonia’s place in Marylebone. They quickly decided on a seaside outing and she threw her swimsuit and a couple of towels into her shopping bag and jumped into the taxi. Merlin knew there was a train for the Sussex coast at 10.35 and he hadn’t wanted to waste any time going back to his place for his swimming trunks. In fact, he hadn’t been sure that he still had any trunks. He’d had a black swimsuit a few years ago, but he doubted it had survived his various moves.
And so he stood on Brighton beach in the clothes he had worn to work early in the morning. He had taken off his dark-brown suit jacket and his tie, and was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, but all of that only provided slight relief in the baking heat of the day. It was well into the eighties, although it had just gone six. Their train was at 6.40 and Sonia was right to hurry him. It was a good half-hour walk to the station from where they were on the beach.
It had been a blissful day. Merlin hadn’t had a proper day off work for four weeks and he’d really needed one. In Sonia’s company, he’d managed to forget almost all about his work at the Yard. They had a jolly lunch at a pub on the seafront and then had gone for a long walk through the Brighton Lanes. After looking in the windows of the antique shops, they had enjoyed some ice-cream cornets and Sonia had laughed as Merlin’s had dribbled onto his trousers. Then they’d found their spot on the beach. With much laughter, Sonia had manoeuvred herself into her swimsuit behind a towel held for her by Merlin, who averted his eyes. When she had discarded the towel and stood in her bright green swimsuit, Merlin had caught his breath. How had he been so lucky as to snare this beautiful creature? Sonia Sieczko was Polish, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. She had shining, auburn hair, which just reached her shoulders, large, blue eyes, a neat, straight nose and a full mouth. A few freckles were scattered charmingly around her cheeks. She was of medium height, perhaps five or six inches shorter than Merlin, who was just over six feet tall, and had a full figure, which her green swimsuit displayed to great advantage. As she carefully picked her way, giggling happily, over the pebbles on the way to the sea, Merlin sighed with pleasure. She shouted to Merlin as she splashed around in the waves and he clumsily made his way towards her, removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and paddled cheerfully at the water’s edge.
Frank Merlin had a heavy caseload of his own and in addition supervised the work of several other officers. As the ranks of those Metropolitan policemen dealing with domestic crime had been steadily depleted during 1940 in consequence of the demands of the war, so Merlin’s free time had diminished to almost nothing. Thank God Sonia Sieczko had come into his life to provide some relief.
“Come on, Frank. We’ll be late.”
Merlin stared out to sea briefly and then up at the sky where he saw that the British and German fighters appeared to be disengaging from their dogfight. Several planes headed rapidly back across the Channel while the rest turned and disappeared in the opposite direction. “Yes, alright, Sonia. I was having a very peaceful dream, you know, when you so rudely interrupted me.”
As Sonia smiled, her pert little nose crinkled disarmingly. “Come on now, Mr Policeman. I have work to go to tomorrow, as do you.”
“Yes, of course, my darling, neither of us can afford to miss the train.”
Sonia smoothed out the creases in her white summer dress as she rose to her feet. She gave her left hand to Merlin and pulled him towards her. As she did so, he felt a stab of pain from the wound in his right shoulder, which reminded him of his miserable task the following morning.
“Are you alright, Frank?”
“Yes, thanks. Just a little ache.”
“Sorry, my darling, I should have realised.”
Merlin shrugged and picked up Sonia’s bag and they scrunched their way over the pebbles to the pavement and joined the chattering throng of Londoners making their way to the railway station. By the pier, a Punch and Judy man was packing up his pitch. His face was bright red, whether through exertion or sunburn or a bit of both, Merlin could not tell. As the Punch and Judy man paused to mop perspiration from his forehead, he caught sight of Sonia and winked at Merlin. A welcome gust of sea-breeze blew across Merlin’s face. Another gust of wind rustled through a bucket of children’s celluloid windmills next to the partly dismantled booth. The pier was still crowded and noisy and the predominant sound seemed to be that of crying children. It had no doubt been a long, hot, tiring day for many. They crossed the street, half-running as they looked up at the clock opposite the pier chiming the half-hour and reached the station with a minute to spare, but the press of people was so great that it was another ten minutes before the train got under way. Merlin ran down the platform holding Sonia’s hand and was lucky enough to find an empty compartment in the first of the second-class carriages they entered. By the time the train got under way, their compartment was full. A young couple with two exhausted toddlers sat opposite them and a soldier and his sweetheart next to them. Within a few minutes, as the train gently chugged its way through the beautiful, slowly darkening Sussex countryside, Sonia was dozing with her head against the window and her hand in his. She woke briefly as the train jolted to a stop at the first station and repositioned her head on Merlin’s shoulder and he smiled as he breathed in the sweet salty smell of her hair. Within another fifteen minutes, all in the compartment had succumbed to that particularly pleasurable sleep brought on by a day at the seaside. No one stirred until they reached Victoria, even when the guard noisily stretched past everyone to pull down the blackout blinds.
* * *
They had a long wait for a taxi at the station and it was gone ten when they got back to Sonia’s place, a tiny little pink mews house just off Baker Street. Since the girl who had shared the rent with her had left a couple of months before, it had become a little too expensive for Sonia and Merlin had insisted on helping her out with a contribution.
As they got out of the cab, they could see that the lights were on behind the blackout curtains. Sonia smiled. “It must be Jan.” Sonia turned her key in the door and they entered the small living room. A tall, lean, young man was sprawled out in a dressing gown on the sofa. He seemed to be asleep but, as Merlin closed the door, one of the man’s eyes cracked open.
“Sonia. Is that you?” Jan jumped suddenly to his feet and brushed some crumbs from his pyjama jacket. A half-eaten tomato sandwich lay on the small table in front of him. He leaned over to kiss Sonia on the cheek.
“This is Frank Merlin. Frank, my brother Jan.”
The men shook hands. “So you are the policeman. Very pleased to meet you, sir. I have heard much about you from Sonia.”
Merlin extricated his hand with difficulty from Jan Sieczko’s firm grasp and nodded his head. “Yes, likewise. And I’ve heard all about you, Mr Sieczko. Good to meet you too.”
“Please, call me Jan. And may I call you Frank? After all, you’re almost one of the family now.”
The two men remained on their feet, smiling awkwardly at each other, while Sonia cleared Jan’s sandwich from the table and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil.
Jan Sieczko was darker in complexion than his sister. He had a mop of reddish-brown hair, a matching neat moustache, deep-set eyes and a broad, engaging smile. Merlin noticed a vivid red mark on his right hand as Jan reached out to offer him a cigarette. As Merlin declined, Jan looked down at his hand. “It’s nothing. I had an accident working on the plane. I’d like to say that it was a war wound, but it’s not. They’ve not allowed us to do anything yet.”
The two men sat down opposite each other and Jan Sieczko took a long draw on his cigarette. “And so, Frank, what have you and my beautiful little sister been up to today?”
“We had a day at the seaside. Brighton. Ever been?”
Jan shook his head. “No. Unless you count flying over it as being there. Well. A lovely day for the seaside.”
“Yes. And you? Have you had a pleasant day?”
Jan stretched out languidly on the sofa and blew a smoke ring. “Very good, Frank. I have a couple of days’ leave and I came up to town from Northolt at lunchtime with a friend. We had drinks at a pub near here then we went for a long walk. Today was my first chance to have tourist look at London, so we did sights, you know, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square and so on. We had a nice meal at a place my friend knows. Then my friend, Ziggy, went off to meet someone and I came here for a little nap. That was my day, Frank, perhaps not so nice as yours, but not so bad, eh?”
Sonia came from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of tea, cups and saucers and biscuits and sat down happily next to her brother. “He’s a good-looking man, my brother, Frank. Don’t you think?”
Now that they were sitting next to each other, Merlin could see the resemblance more clearly. He noticed that Jan had a few of Sonia’s freckles and their smiling mouths were almost a perfect match. Merlin knew from Sonia that Jan Sieczko was a pilot in the Kosciuszko Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Sonia had left Poland before the war began, but Jan had stayed and had fought valiantly with his comrades in the Polish Air Force as Hitler’s forces overran his country. When all was lost he had made his way to Romania and then, by a circuitous route through the Balkans, to Britain. Scores of Polish airmen had made a similar journey. In the summer, after some misgivings, the powers that be had gradually realised how valuable these battle-hardened pilots could be to Britain’s own war effort. At the beginning of August, just in time for the start of what soon became known as the Battle of Britain, the officers of the new RAF Squadron 303, a squadron made up almost entirely of Poles, arrived for the first time at their base in Northolt on the western edges of London. Merlin felt he should make some comment about the courage of Jan and his comrades, but could not phrase the appropriate words.
“So, Jan. You’re staying until tomorrow night?”
Jan stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray and put his arms around Sonia. “Yes, my lovely sister. I have to report back at seven o’clock tomorrow night. I have almost another full day of freedom. What shall we do?”
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to do much, Jan. I have to go to work tomorrow.”
Jan made a face and groaned. He said something in Polish, which Merlin took to be a request for her to take the day off. Sonia shook her head.
“Ah, poor me. Well, I’ll have to make my own entertainment then. I asked Ziggy to come round. Perhaps he will be up for some fun and games.” He shrugged at Merlin then looked back at his sister. “I think perhaps I am being the, how do you say it, the gooseberry here. I think I will go to bed. Please excuse me.”
Merlin rose. “No, no, it’s alright. I should be going really.” He suddenly felt very, very tired. “Well, very nice to meet you, Jan. I hope you have another good day tomorrow. And best of luck when you get back to the squadron.”
The men shook hands again. Sonia put down her cup of tea and followed Merlin to the door. “It was a lovely day, Frank, thank you.” They kissed gently and Merlin rested his hands lightly on Sonia’s shoulders. “It was perfect, darling, just perfect.”