Coming home from holiday today and while it has been great to have two weeks with Mrs. Padre exploring Canada, it will be pleasant to get back to our own bed, three disgruntled cats, my painting table and and what herself calls "Michael's little men".
In the meantime, some of you said that you enjoyed the narratives behind the Weird War Fearless Vampire Killers. I had fun writing them as well, and during some down time on this trip I had the opportunity to flesh it out a bit. I have to confess that it was only in the airport this afternoon that the humor behind the name "Hugh Jarce" actually struck me once I said it aloud and Mrs. Padre looked at me strangely. No wonder the Too Fat Lardies crowd love him! Really, I can be a bit of a thickie sometimes. However, I think I'm stuck with the name now. Enough about that, here's the fluff.
Fenton Manor, Norfolk. August 1940
"Major Cushworth is here, Brigadier."
"Thank you, Putnam. Hello Graham! Have a seat." The Brigadier pointed to a leather bound chair across from his cluttered desk.
The major was of medium height and in his early thirties. He carried a bundle of folders in his left hand, a fact made noticeable by the absence of a corresponding right hand. His right arm ended just below the shoulder, the stump covered by a neatly tailored and folded uniform tunic. Several medal ribbons decorated his tunic, the most recent standing out by virtue of its vivid crimson hue. The thin lines from recent trauma and illness suggested the face of a slightly older man.
"How was your first day on the job? Feeling alright?"
Cushworth settled into the chair and adjusted the folders in his lap. "Quite well, sir. I'm enjoying the chance to do something useful again. A month on a hospital ship, then two more here getting over that infection. Well, it was a long time, sir. It's good to be back."
"Excellent. You're streets ahead of where the MO said you'd be when ainsaw him last month. Shall I ask Putnam to bring us some tea, or would you care for something stronger?"
"I'll stick with tea, thank you, sir. Once you decide on the candidates, I still have to cut the posting orders for tomorrow's dispatch."
The Brigadier sat back and refilled his pipe. Putnam returned shortly with steaming mugs of tea for them both "Thank you, Katherine, that will be all. I'll want the car tomorrow at eight when we go see the Deputy Minister. Get some sleep."
"Oh eight hundred it is, sir. Goodnight, Major." Cushworth found that he was favored with a surprisingly warm smile. She turned to the Brigadier. "Goodnight, Alice". There was a hint of a mischievous smile in Putnam's hazel eyes as she left. Cushworth raised an eyebrow.
The Brigadier met his eyes, and kept his expression deadpan. "I don't see what's so odd. Alice does happen to be my code name. It amuses her to use it. She likes you, I noticed."
Cushworth ignored the last comment. "Alice is an unusual code name, sir."
"True, but it fits. This is a bit of a trip to wonderland, albeit a quite sinister one. What about you, Graham? You've had the briefings, you've come down the rabbit hole and joined us, on the job a whole day. What do you think of it all?" The Brigadier held his gaze while he lit his pipe, his manner reminiscent of a school master testing a bright student.
Cushworth sipped his tea and considered the question for a moment. "To be honest, sir, it still seems very odd. Before I came here I always thought that Bram Stoker and Dennis Wheatley were just authors of harmless thrillers, the sort of thing you read for a bit of a jolt. Now I'm told that they are more truth than fiction, that the ancient dead walk the earth and some of them wear Nazi uniforms, well, sir, it's a bit much to take in, all at once."
"Precisely. Your response is typical, and quite natural. It's both our best asset and our hardest challenge. On the one hand, no one on the outside of our organization would accept the premise of our work, and that suits me fine. As far as the wider world knows anything about this project, we remain a bit player in the shadow war, training operatives, organizing sabotage, and so on. It's excellent cover for what we really do. On the other hand, the difficulty is that when we try to get funding and support, we can only go to a few people in the military and in the government. Thank goodness Winston is on board. Without him, well, I'd rather not think about that possibility."
"Sir, if I may, if the danger is as great as you've said it is, why don't more people know? Why aren't we better supported?"
"Graham, this is the real shadow war. We're fighting a foe that has existed for centuries, perhaps for as long as darkness itself has existed. By necessity, they have kept themselves hidden. They owe their survival to their invisibility, and only a handful of us are on to them. That will soon change. Now,mwith a regime dedicated to evil on a scale hitherto unimaginable, they have the perfect opportunity to find allies and gain in strength. The Nazi party and its war machine are ripe for manipulation. This is the enemy's time, and he means to use it. It's vital that we're ready for them."
"How far has it spread? Are you saying that Hitler is, well, is one of them?"
The Brigadier chuckled. "As far as we know, the Bavarian corporal is just that. But those around him, certain key figures in the Party and in the SS, that we don't know. That's why Project Alice was created, to determine the magnitude of the threat. That's why we are standing up "S Commando", to fight it once we expose it."
"How much time to we have, sir?"
"Hard to say. The one thing working in our favor, I think, is that our enemy can't risk moving too quickly. He faces threats from within as well as from without. The Nazi party is just a gang of thugs. If they were to learn that honest to goodness monsters were setting themselves up as puppet masters, some would gladly be the puppets, but others would chafe at the strings. They won't allow themselves to be used as tools. There's also the German people to consider. They may be swept along by brass bands and victories at the moment, but if they were to learn that their real masters saw the dear Deutsch volk as little more than cattle, they wouldn't accept that. So our enemy has to move slowly and carefully. We still have a little time.". At this, the Brigadier glanced at his wristwatch. "Speaking of time, it's late and we need to crack on. Who have you found as our first candidates for S Commando?"
"Right, sir. Four names to start, and one of them is already approved by yourself. Padre Mercer. His file is sealed, so all I know about him is the name."
"You'll meet him next week. He's been in this business almost as long as I've been." The Brigadier removed a folder, marked Highly Secret, from a drawer and placed it on Cushworth's side of the desk. "You can study that before you go up to Scotland to meet him."
Cushworth glanced at the folder briefly, his expression slightly skeptical. "Are you sure he's cut out for this sort of field work, sir?"
The Brigadier chuckled. "Don't worry, Graham. You're probably imagining some pious type who hands out cigarettes and platitudes. He's not that sort. Who's next?"
Cushworth passed a folder over the desk. "Captain Hugh Jarce. Commanded a company of the 3rd Flintshire Fusiliers in France. His troops were among the very last to hold the perimeter at Dunkirk, and he got most of them off the beaches. Personally destroyed a German tank with a petrol bomb, and then shot down a Stuka with a Bren gun. His CO put him in for the MIlitary Cross when they got back. An avid sportsman, played rugby for the Army, a keen yachtsman."
The Brigadier studied the lantern jawed face staring back from the photo on the inside of the personnel folder. "Promising. What about the psychological profile? Is he the high strung type?"
"Hardly, sir. According to his evaluations, a good tactician but not especially imaginative. Dogged. Dependable. A first rate junior officer, but not likely to go far beyond that in rank. At least, that was the word on him before the war stopped being Phony."
"Yes, and before officers started dying in droves. Always good for promotion." The Brigadier scratched a note on a foolscap pad. "Courage will be essential in this business, and it seems like Captain Jarce has that in spades. And it sounds like he has the right sort of head for it. From what Mercer and I have seen, the brainy types don't always do well in the field. Let's give him a try. Who's next?"
Another file passed over the desk. "Captain Richard Byrd. Intelligence officer. First in Archaeology and Early Modern History at Cambridge. Fluent in French, German, and three other European languages. He was a don before the war."
The Brigadier frowned as he paged through the file. "Rather a colorful past. I didn't know professors could be given the sack. A lover of wine and women, it seems. A series of public schools after Oxford, each less distinguished than the last, and never more than two terms at each. And then the war and the army. Hmmm." Now it was the Brigadier's turn to raise an eyebrow, and his expression went flinty.
"Yes, sir, that part is interesting reading. Byrd was on the Intelligence staff with 1 Division in France. During the retreat he and an Army lorry went missing for three days. Turned up at Dunkirk and tried to get the contents of said lorry, twenty cases of rare French wine, onto a boat."
"That's when he was arrested for theft and desertion, I see."
"It gets better, sir. He's released from detention to join a rearguard action leading a scratch group of provosts, cooks, clerks and drivers and does damned well. Is reported missing and then, three days later, he brings a motorboat into Dover with two French nuns and a dozen orphans."
"Is that why you're recommending him?"
"Well, sir, you told me to look for good hearts. Whatever story is behind the business with the orphans, it augurs well, don't you think? And frankly sir, no one else is going to give up a qualified IntO with that kind of linguistic background. Except for Byrd. His boss told me that after Dunkirk he can't in good conscience court martial Byrd, but he'd happily unload him on the Ordnance Corps to spend the rest of the war counting shells."
"So he's available. I agree with you that there's more to Captain Byrd than meets the eye. Let's take a chance on him. After a month with the Commandos, he'll probably wish he was counting shells." The folder was passed back. "I take it you have a minder for Byrd to keep him in his cage?"
Cushworth passed over a third file, this one much thinner. "Private Sam "Snuffy" Snape. Medical orderly. When his Regimental Aid Post was overrun by the Germans in Norway, he killed three using a spade and drove off the rest. Got the Military Medal for that show. Cheerful. No known vices. His CO told me he has never questioned Snape's courage, only his sentience. He says Snape has the heart, the strength, and the brains of an ox."
The Brigadier laughed. "Sounds like the chap to keep our little trio in line. Very good, Graham. I'll buy the lot. When can you get them started?"
"I can meet them at the Commando school on Sunday, sir. They'll be on the jump course starting the Monday. I'll have a week to evaluate the three while they train, and the chance to get to know this mysterious padre of yours. If they all work out, you can decide on when and how to brief them into this business."
"Excellent. That's a good first day's work, Graham. I'll let you get on with it and I'll check in with you when I'm back from London." The Brigadier sat back and watched Cushworth gather up the file folders, a slightly slow process for a man with one hand. He didn't offer to help, and sensed that no help was wanted. Before the Major reached the door, he spoke. "What about you, Graham? Have you figured out why I asked for you?"
Cushworth paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. "Because, like the others, I was available, sir?"
"That was part of it. You were destined for a public relations job in the propaganda ministry, a one armed hero to show off at rallies and war drives. That would have been a waste of your talents. You've got a good mind, which is rare in cavalry officers. That ribbon on your chest shows you're brave enough, and that will be useful to me. A VC opens doors, and I need open doors. But most important to me is that you didn't give up after your show in the Desert. I saw that in the last war, brave men giving in to self pity and hopelessness after their wounds, or when they thought they'd had enough. You still have hope. Hold on to it, Graham. Down the rabbit hole is a dark place. You'll need hope most of all." The Brigadier picked up his pen and returned to work.
"Good night, sir."
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Location:Somewhere over Saskatchewan