- Published: 30 April 2018
- ISBN: 9780143788355
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
The Juliet Code
‘I don’t remember.’ Or rather, she didn’t want to remember, which was not the same thing. Juliet was quite content to leave gaps unfilled, stones unturned, honour unstained. Thanks most awfully. Guilt. Corrosive, soul-destroying guilt. That’s why she’d agreed to this. An ex-special forces officer and his lab-coated minion probing her brain for details about a Nazi war criminal and his hapless victim. If she could help the Nazi hunter find Strasser and bring him to justice, if she could prove what had happened to Denise . . . But nothing could redress the wrong she’d done.
The hypocrisy of the situation nagged like a string of bully beef between the upper molars. If only her war work had been kept out of the papers, she might have lived a lesser lie. A sort of drab median between heroism and cowardice. Did her bit like everyone else. Nothing spectacular. Life goes on.
But her photograph had been splashed across the papers, headlines blaring, the sensational details of her courage and survival as an agent in occupied France breathlessly recounted. So there was no hope for it, was there?
Dimly, she was aware of Felix, sitting on a bench against the wall, waiting for her to speak, his dark eyes brimful of compassion. That only made it ten times harder to lie.
At least the good doctor had patience and delicacy, if not the tact to situate this interrogation in a room that didn’t look like a prison cell. Hour upon hour of gentle questioning had elicited very little of use, however. She suspected that by now the SAS man burned to beat the truth out of her like dust from a Turkish carpet. A big man with a bad temper. No. She was safer with Dr Leichhardt. But she’d better give them something soon or the SAS man might try it his way.
She was Juliet Barnard, late of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and, more secretly, of the British Special Operations Executive. That much, they knew. Since that article in the Telegraph and countless others like it, everyone in Britain knew.
The SOE had sent agents parachuting behind enemy lines to wreak havoc on the Nazis. They blew up bridges, destroyed or stole weapons supplies, derailed trains, co-ordinated resistance fighters and rebels, and gleaned intelligence, relaying information back to Britain via wireless transmissions from portable transceivers. The organisation operated out of Baker Street in London, in offices marked ‘Inter-Service Research Bureau’.
The SOE was so secret that even parliament hadn’t known about it. Guerrilla warfare was a sneaking kind of strategy frowned upon by most upstanding British men. And if the public had known Churchill had sent women into the field, there would have been an uproar.
Now it seemed that the Baker Street Irregulars, as Churchill dubbed them, had flung secrecy and discretion to the winds in a flurry of self-justification, leaving her with undeserved notoriety. At least by helping Captain Steve McIntyre she avoided the lecture tour of France they’d planned for her – a blatant public relations exercise. Even now, Juliet shuddered at the thought.
She watched the thin man in the white coat with his sparse, mousey hair and delicate spectacles as he set up the recording machine once more. At a glance, he was unprepossessing. But there was a pink-and-white, scrubbed-up kindliness to him that made her well-disposed toward him, if not toward the ginger way he sought to lead her through the worst months of her life.
‘Let’s go even farther back,’ he suggested. ‘To the time before you left for France. What stands out to you? What do you remember?’
Well, now. She could string this part out for days, if need be. How long might she prevaricate before they’d come to the part of her story she would never tell? They weren’t to know it, but her interests and theirs were not aligned.
So. Time to be more forthcoming. But there is greater danger in lies than in silence, as any operative knew. Juliet rather doubted she was clever enough to carry out her plan. She needed to select appropriately attractive details, arrange and present them like cut flowers in a vase. Leave a few thorns on for verisimilitude. But the way the gaze of that special forces officer drilled through her made her insides tumble. She wanted very much to smoke, but didn’t dare highlight how badly her hands were shaking.
Anyone in her situation would be distressed, she told herself. But something about the SAS man made her want to appear unruffled. He was different, she realised. He treated her as an equal – a fellow combatant, not a delicate flower. Ordinarily, she would appreciate that. Now it only made her deception more difficult.
The doctor repeated his question to her. ‘What happened before France?’
‘All right,’ she said slowly. ‘Yes, of course. I’ll tell you about my training, shall I?’
‘We’re all ears.’ Harsh-tongued and sarcastic, Captain McIntyre leaned back in his chair and folded his arms.
She met the burly Scot’s eyes with a long, cool look. He wasn’t a man to be distracted by frills and fancywork. He’d be satisfied with nothing less than the unembroidered truth. If she gave him what he wanted, would he overlook the glaring omissions in her story? He wasn’t here to condemn her, after all.
Juliet drew a long, steady breath and began.
Beaulieu, New Forest, England, 1943
The night we broke into the Special Operations Executive personnel files was planned with more precision and forethought than many military campaigns. Light-fingered Lucy had made some excuse to visit the commandant’s office the day before. While flirting with one of the clerks, she’d lifted the appropriate key and made a plasticine impression of it, replacing the key with the smitten clerk none the wiser. I had duplicated the key in the workshop and would act as lookout while she broke into the files. Of the two of us, I had the more innocent face.
Lucy was a puzzle, as poised and polished as a London socialite, foul-mouthed as a sailor, and accomplished in criminal sleight-of-hand as a Dickensian street urchin.
I’d heard that some of the top brass were due to arrive the next week to look us over and our instructors had been writing reports in anticipation. Lucy, always the renegade of our cohort, was justifiably concerned about what might be said of her. She was desperate to get to France, she told me.
Well, I thought, weren’t we all? My younger brother, Jonathan, had been shot down over the Channel during the Battle of Britain and I burned to avenge him. The memory of him was the one thing that had got me through the gruelling, punishing outdoors training in the Scottish Highlands that had preceded our stint at the Beaulieu finishing school.
Lucy proposed that we break into the office and read our personnel files. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t done it before. One of our training exercises had been to sneak into the main administration house, Beaulieu Manor, and steal papers from one of the other ground floor rooms.
We already knew how to approach the manor in the dead of night without being heard or seen, avoiding the many booby-traps set up by the resident gamekeeper and woodsman, William Clark. This break-in would merely require the added finesse of being undetectable afterward. No breaking of window panes or jemmying of doors allowed.
I was accustomed to being overlooked by my peers when it came to such shenanigans, so I was flattered to be included in this escapade. Lucy alone seemed to expect me to be daring; in her company I found myself expecting the same. However, my practical mind baulked at the vagueness of our objective. If we were caught breaking in to the files, we risked being thrown out altogether.
‘What will you do if the reports are bad?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t know. Burn them?’ When I choked back a laugh, Lucy’s face took on that stubborn look I’d come to know well. ‘I’ll think of something.’ She glanced at me. ‘Don’t you want to see yours?’
I wasn’t at all sure that I did. Unlike Lucy, I hadn’t been equal to the rigours of the various courses we’d taken in Arisaig and elsewhere. I was pretty decent at anything that didn’t require physical strength or stamina. Not only was my mother French, I had spent my early years at my grandparents’ estate in Normandy, returning later to study at the Sorbonne and perfecting my Parisian accent. Thus I had the fluency required to pass myself off as French, not to mention the dark eyes and hair I had inherited from Maman. I was an average shot and could manage the precarious chemistry of explosives, but hand-to-hand combat was a nightmare, obstacle courses pure torture and I would have died of exposure on the overnight exercises if one of the instructors hadn’t kept an eye on me and hauled me back to base before I froze.
I tried to take it all in stride. There was a very good reason they wouldn’t kick a girl like me out of the Special Operations Executive, no matter how many physical challenges I failed: they needed me. Quite desperately, in fact. I was the best wireless operator the SOE had and wireless operators – even mediocre ones – were as scarce as hen’s teeth at that stage of the war. Mostly because their survival rate in the field was not high.
I had to remind myself of my one redeeming feature quite often, particularly when I was partnered with Denise Laurent. Denise was to be a courier in one of the larger networks, possibly in Paris itself. We were ordered to keep the precise nature of our respective missions secret from each other, so I’d probably never know.
In addition to the hazards of ferrying messages to and fro, couriers were called upon to help sabotage Nazi operations. Dangerous work, but if anyone was up to that challenge, it was Denise. She excelled at everything she did and earned praise from all the instructors. If she hadn’t been quite so insufferable about it, I might have admired her.
On the evening of the break-in Lucy and I had planned, a number of the F Section agents were gathered in a neighbouring family’s drawing room, smoking, playing cards and unwinding. I sat at the piano, tinkling idly, whispering plans to Lucy, who sat on the bench beside me. It was a Friday night, our recreation night, and Mrs Durey had served roasted pheasant – a rare treat reminiscent of happier days before the war.
Denise’s antennae were twanging and she nearly caught me in the act of passing the duplicate office key to Lucy between songs. ‘What are you two girls up to?’ With an arch lift of an eyebrow, she came to stand by us, tapping her index finger on the polished piano lid. I felt a slight shift in the air between us as Lucy slipped the duplicate key into her trouser pocket.
My left hand immediately started up a boogie-woogie rhythm, drowning out my response to Denise’s question. Lucy gave a whoop and shot to her feet, tugging at Denise to come and dance with her. The men began shifting furniture out of the way, cutting in on the two women and dragging the blushing Mrs Durey out to dance, and the drawing room of that cosy home jumped and shook with the desperate exuberance of a group of people who might not live out the month.
Frank Adler tapped me on the shoulder and stuck his thumb toward the dancers, urging me to cede the piano to him so I could join in. I wanted to refuse. Being the one who played suited me. I could remain an outsider while appearing to be in the thick of the action. However, there was a severe shortage of women – Lucy, Denise and I were the sole females among this batch of recruits – so I gave up my seat at the piano and joined the hopping crowd.
I was dancing with another instructor when I caught sight of Mr Trevor. After a quiet word to the pianist, he approached and smoothly cut in.
‘How’s my star pupil, eh?’ He smiled down at me, then pulled me close as the music transitioned to something slow and sentimental.
With his over-large ears and permanently furrowed brow, Trevor was not the most attractive man at Beaulieu, but to me he was the most interesting. His task was to conduct a final refresher course for this motley band of agents in coding and wireless transmission.
Among the hard-bitten instructors of the Special Operations Executive, Trevor was as much of a misfit as I was among the other recruits. Like me, however, he had an indispensable skill set.
My incompetence in the outdoors did not matter when I was in Trevor’s class. Transposition and encoding was second nature to me, like completing the crossword puzzle every morning. Morse code was like music. The dot and dash tones transformed into letters, and then into words, on a level that transcended conscious thought. Not only that, my proficiency at the piano had made me a prime candidate for the tricky manipulation required of wireless operators in the field.
‘Finished your reports, sir?’ I asked, with a sense of relief that at least I wasn’t a failure at everything. Just everything else.
He glanced down at me in surprise. ‘How do you know about that?’
‘I’d be a poor intelligence agent if I didn’t,’ I said. ‘Everyone knows. The top brass are coming to inspect us on Friday.’
‘Hm,’ he said. ‘Yes.’
He seemed uncomfortable with the topic of conversation but I persisted. ‘I’ve been told postings will be made in the next couple of weeks.’
That appeared to trouble him even more. But the song ended and we broke apart to applaud. A significant glint in Lucy’s eye as she caught my gaze made me remember our mission with a pang of anticipation. I thanked Trevor for the dance and called it a night.
An hour or two later, pleasantly buzzed from the dancing and the beer we’d drunk to fortify ourselves – nothing stronger was served at the training school, more’s the pity – I waited outside the office for Lucy to finish her incursion into the bowels of the filing cabinet inside.
The hallway was quiet and dark, giving out the usual creaks and groans of an old house settling its bones in the cool of night. While Lucy explored the office by torchlight, I kept watch, my skin tingling, stomach clenching at every sound. My eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness by the time Lucy came to the doorway and waved a file at me – mine, I presumed.
I stared at her. She shouldn’t have been able to find my reports because they were filed under ‘Juliet Barnard’. At the training school I was known as ‘Jane Barker’. ‘How did —’
‘Never mind that now.’ She shoved the file at me. ‘Here. You’d best come inside if you want to read it.’
As I took the folder full of paper, I heard a noise down the hall. Brisk footsteps – impossible to tell whose, muffled as they were by the carpet runner.
Lucy was tugging at my elbow, but my hand came up in a signal that meant we had company. The air turned faintly blue with Lucy’s whispered remarks. She switched off the torch and we stumbled and dived behind and beneath the nearest furniture.
The footsteps came closer and my heart took up a racing staccato in my ears. What would happen to us if we were caught? Even Lucy might not be able to talk our way out of this one.
The footsteps stopped outside the office. The soft whine of the door opening, the flash of torchlight strafing the walls, the furniture, the floor.
Please, I prayed, hunching into a ball under the desk. Take yourself off now. Nothing to see here.
I was acutely aware of the personnel file wedged between my thighs and chest. I should have disposed of the incriminating evidence before hiding. Now I was going to be caught red-handed.
A click seemed to echo through the still room as light flooded the office. The jig was up.
‘I knew you two were up to something.’
‘Denise!’ I hissed, ducking out from the kneehole of the desk into which I’d crawled. Oh, thank God. Thank you, God. We’d be perfectly fine. Tickety-boo. Denise might be a swot and a lickspittle but she wouldn’t split on us.
Lucy unravelled herself from behind the heavy curtains, blinking against the light and scowling like an irritated Siamese. ‘Oh it’s you, is it? I might have guessed it would be.’
‘You shouldn’t be here.’ Denise often stated the obvious. It was one of her less attractive traits.
‘Marvellous at deduction, ain’t she?’ Lucy’s voice had turned soft and husky, a sign she was about to become dangerous. ‘No wonder she’s Sir’s little pet.’
The last thing we needed now was to rile Denise. ‘Look here,’ I said. ‘We only wanted to know what they’re saying about us.’ I held up the slim folder that contained the instructors’ reports. I licked my lips. ‘I mean to say, don’t you?’
Denise’s eyes widened. ‘Is that your personnel file?’
I nodded toward the filing cabinet. ‘We can get yours, too.’
And now came the dilemma. Denise hesitated, torn between the angel that always sat on her shoulder and the devil incarnate in Lucy and me. I don’t think anything else could have tempted her, but she had a burning need to know what important people thought of her performance. She was heaped with praise at every turn, but it never seemed enough to satisfy her.
‘Come on, darling,’ said Lucy, a slow smile curving her lips. ‘You know you want to.’
I saw the precise moment Denise gave in. She flushed and her shoulders sagged the slightest bit. I pounced, slipping my arm around her waist, gesturing with a head jerk and an eye roll that Lucy should turn off the light before someone less persuadable came along.
By torchlight, we found Denise’s file and left her to it. Still vaguely reluctant to peruse my own reports, I said to Lucy, ‘What do yours say?’
She grinned. ‘You wouldn’t believe it. Apparently my high spirits are good for morale.’ A mixture of delight and relief tumbled out in one of her rich belly laughs.
‘Shhh!’ I gripped her wrist. ‘Put it back, then, and let’s get out of here.’
‘What about you?’ she whispered to me, glancing at Denise, whose cool goddess-like features were illumined in profile as she pored over her dossier. Her expression was remote as she turned the pages.
Yes. Indeed. What about me? ‘Not sure I want to.’
Lucy stilled while she thought about it. ‘Up to you, darling. Completely.’
I ran my fingertips over the file. Then I gave a humourless smile. ‘Oh, what the hell, eh?’
Lucy held the torch while I leafed through. I had to bite my lip hard as the pitiless assessments struck me like stiletto stabs in the gut. Average intelligence . . . lacking in physical fitness . . . lacking in general gumption . . . weak as a kitten . . . wouldn’t last a day in the field. I forced down the hurt and shock. I knew I hadn’t done well, but I’d no idea of how badly.
I blew out a slow, painful breath. Served me right, I supposed, for poking my nose where it didn’t belong.
Glancing at Lucy, I was grateful that she’d averted her gaze. She was studying Denise and said, ‘Everything all right over there?’
‘What does Jug Ears say?’ Lucy asked me. ‘He thinks the sun shines out of your —’
‘Shhh!’ hissed Denise. ‘Don’t be so loud. Do you want us to get caught?’
With a grin at Lucy’s quip, I returned my attention to the file and riffled through for the one report that might shore up my self-confidence.
Lucy was saying, ‘Well, hop to, girls. We don’t have all night,’ when I found it. Trevor’s report.
Wireless training. Has a rudimentary grasp of coding and a competent touch on the instrument. Cracks easily under pressure, and when she lies you can see it written in large capital letters all over her face. Can barely lift the wireless set much less dash all over France with it. Temperament totally unsuited to the work. It is my recommendation that Juliet Barnard should not be sent into occupied France.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
Max looked at his watch, and a sinking realisation that he was late plunged through him.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose.
The agent, unlike the soldier, who has many friends, is surrounded by enemies, seen and unseen.