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  • Published: 1 December 2020
  • ISBN: 9781405930635
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 400
  • RRP: $22.99

The Winter Agent



Chapter 1

Individual security

The agent, unlike the soldier, who has many friends, is surrounded by enemies, seen and unseen. He cannot even be certain of the people of his own nationality who are apparently friendly. The agent must, therefore, remember that, like primitive men in the jungle, he has only his alertness, initiative, and observation to help him.

– Special Operations Executive manual for new recruits: ‘How to be an Agent in Occupied Europe ’, 1943

8 February 1944

Marc Reece straightened the black woollen jacket that lay on the counter like something abandoned to the bitter winter outside. He traced his finger over the four Bakelite buttons, up the machine-made seam that strained as if the wearer had put on weight since it had first been fitted, past the stiff, finely turned lapels, and on to the wide collar where two silver lightning bolts formed a pair of letter ‘ S ’s, like slashes in the fabric.

‘I could have it cleaned by Friday. Will that be sufficient?’ he asked. His accent was not his own. And yet he had cast off so much of himself in the past few years, leaving it all in the dark, that there was no one around him who knew his true voice.

‘You are slow,’ the soldier in front of him replied irritably, his lips protruding as if in spite. ‘Make sure you press it well.’

‘Of course. Thank you,’ Reece said. ‘And how is the Obersturmbannführer?’ He did his best to smile.

‘The Obersturmbannführer is fine. As am I.’

‘Of course.’ Reece hesitated slightly and dropped his gaze. He focused on the jacket. ‘ Herr Scharführer, I have a friend. He was an antiques dealer before . . . and often still comes across fine things – beautiful clocks, paintings – that their owners are unable to keep. Perhaps the Obersturmbannführer would like to meet him sometime?’ He raised his palms to indicate the new world, one that had its opportunities as well as its costs. This opportunity was to possess items that, until the inversions of the previous years, only the great aristocrats and industrialists of the age could have dreamed of possessing. The cost was dealing with black marketeers.

The sergeant smirked. ‘I imagine some of these items are lacking in provenance.’ Reece nodded. They understood each other now and he was glad to have gained the soldier’s confidence. It could prove invaluable in future. ‘It might be possible. I will speak to the Obersturmbannführer and see if he is interested. He does have an eye for fine items.’

‘Then he won’t be disappointed. I’m sure there would be a market back in Germany if he ever gets bored with the items and wants to dispose of them.’

‘Yes, perhaps. Does your friend have anything in particular at the moment?’

‘I believe he has an especially fine set of silver cutlery – eighteenth-century Italian, he told me.’

‘Eighteenth ?’  

‘Indeed, Herr Scharführer.’

The German sergeant seemed intrigued. As he spoke, something outside caught Reece’s attention. A wailing sound. It was a human voice, although there was something inhuman about it. The soldier ignored the noise, no doubt having heard it many times.

 ‘Well, perhaps. But if your grubby little friend is even thinking of passing off a fake . . . ’

Reece pushed the sound from his head and concentrated on his words. ‘Oh, he wouldn’t be that stupid!’

‘No. I should hope not. If anything is less than a hundred per cent genuine, he will be very sorry indeed.’ The sergeant rapped his knuckles on the counter.

‘He knows that. It’s my reputation too,’ Reece replied. Through the ice-fringed window, in the five o ’clock twilight he saw the source of the sound: a young woman being dragged barefoot along the frost-covered pavement by a pair of men in leather trench coats.

‘That’s right, it is,’ the soldier said sternly. ‘And I will require a fee for this introduction,’ he added.

‘Of course, it is the normal business practice.’

‘My fee will be fifteen per cent of the sale price.’

‘A fair amount, Herr Scharführer.’

The men threw the young woman into a waiting car, one on either side of her. The engine gunned and they rolled through the sparse snowflakes whipping along the rue du Haut Pavé. Bare trees seemed to sag under the weight of the season.

‘What are you looking at?’ The sergeant glanced over his shoulder, to see where Reece was staring. But the car had gone and there was only a view across the ice-bearing Seine to Notre-Dame. It was skeletal grey through the snow, hunched on its island in the river like a dying animal. Red-and-black swastika flags rippled from lamp posts all around it as if they had snared a beast, and below the banners, an anti-aircraft gun pointed over the cathedral’s Gothic towers. In a moment, the snow seemed to gather and swirl, blotting out the vision, as if the cathedral stones themselves had taken fright at the world that had gathered around them and had retreated into the white, blind weather.

Reece recovered himself. He had to, he knew. ‘I will speak to my friend and send you a note to arrange the introduction,’ he said, folding the jacket and placing it at the end of the counter.

‘Good.’ The sergeant looked at his wristwatch. ‘Damn it, I’m late. You have kept me talking.’

‘I apologize.’

‘And do take better care of your appearance. It’s slovenly.’

‘I apologize.’ According to Reece’s identity card, he was a hundred and eighty-four centimetres tall, with brown eyes, black hair, a slim face and clear complexion. Thirty years old. It didn’t mention the layer of stubble on his cheeks, the product of the shortage of razor blades.

The soldier turned and strode out into the snow. Reece looked around the shop. It was stacked with the cheap household goods of a tabac-laundrette, one of the everyday edifices of French society. Every draught-enticing gap had been plugged and it was still freezing – it was years since there had been wood or charcoal for the stove, and the gas was available for only an hour during lunch and supper times.

He went back to the jacket. Black – not just for the darkness but for the practical reason that it hid the oil stains that Waffen-SS panzer regiments inevitably attracted. A little red piping to add a flash of energy, and those two unmistakable silver lightning flashes on the collar. Like boys playing. Boys with a game that had become a churn of wanton, nihilistic destruction. Reece had had two years of people like the arrogant Waffen-SS sergeant. Every day he had had to fight harder to keep himself under control.

He went to the window and wiped away a film of condensation with his sleeve, only to see the tiny beads of water on the fabric turn into ice crystals. The Seine had frozen over this winter, the harshest anyone could remember. To the human eye, Paris’s great artery had ceased to flow, although below the sheen there was unseen movement. Reece recalled setting his feet on the surface weeks earlier and calculating if the impenetrable ice were a sign or a warning for the city.

The city, itself frozen in ice, had been waiting for four years for a sign; ever since the young German troops had fanned across it in two hours in a textbook example of efficiency and with no more resistance than harsh looks. The faces Reece saw on the street and the buses now were haggard with waiting for the ice to melt. Reddened flesh sagged under every eye, and foreheads were permanently tipped towards the ground, unable to face the visions in front of them. He felt for these people. His purpose set him apart from them.

He stamped his feet and turned the shop sign to ‘closed’ before stepping into the back room. Dusty boxes of pencils and children’s colouring books sat on the shelves and at the rear a narrow wooden staircase led to the attic above. He hauled himself up with the aid of a rope that served as a bannister, into the little room that was his bedroom.

A radio propped up on a stool was playing folk songs about country lives while, at a wooden dressing table squeezed under the eaves, a woman sat with her narrow back towards him, slowly brushing her dark hair. In a small, cracked mirror he saw her lips making tiny movements, silently singing along.

‘You know the song,’ Reece said.

She stopped but didn’t turn to him. ‘It’s very old,’ she said, placing the hairbrush on the dressing table. Her voice was low, speaking to herself more than him. ‘My mother sang it. Sometimes she had friends over to play music.’  

‘Did you sing with her?’ he asked.


‘Your first public performances.’


Still she kept her back to him; he watched her lips and cheek moving in the mirror.

‘Tell me about the songs you wrote.’

She put her chin in her hands. There was something immensely sad about the action. ‘Some of them were good. Some were bad. Most of them were bad, I think.’

He sat on the bed. The mattress was made of horsehair, which made it rough to sleep on but warm in the winter.

‘That’s usually the way.’

She turned to face him and smoothed back her hair to reveal a pale oval face with a slim, aquiline nose and dark, hooded eyes. The top button of her blouse was open, over the top of a cotton cardigan. She reached for a wooden case, took out a thin cigarette and lit it, letting blue smoke curl up to the ceiling like a Chinese creature.

‘Well, Maxime?’ she said. She put the case back on the table between her wireless transmitter and a .32 Colt 1903 hammerless: the semi-automatic that Reece had taken when they left London, slipping it into a shoulder holster underneath his parachute suit.

‘I want to kill three men I’ve seen in the last ten minutes,’ he said. He glanced at the Colt. He could take it right then and go in search of the two in leather greatcoats who had dragged the girl into a car. He wanted to raise the gun and squeeze the trigger and see their lives ebb in the place of hers.

He knew he couldn’t. Times would change, but for now he had to remain in the city’s formless background.

‘You and half Paris.’ She turned back to the mirror and began dusting powder on to her skin.

He lifted a novel from his bedside table: Proust ’s À la Recherche du temps perdu, then went to his shaving kit and took out a phial of perfectly clear liquid, which he used to fill a pen. He noted down, on one of the book’s blank pages at the back, the date, and then the rank and insignia on the WaffenSS uniform he had been given. The invisible ink made no mark on the page; it would require a re-agent to do that.

The transparent note formed the latest in a record of insignia and ranks. A few past entries had an additional piece of information: the forwarding addresses of where to send the uniform when an officer was being posted elsewhere and the cleaning would not be ready in time. In that way, the book constituted a clandestine record of German troop locations and movements.

Reece flicked to the next page and ran his finger down. It was a special section devoted to units heading to the Pas de Calais. He had been ordered to pay particular attention to any regiments posted there and to probe for any additional information that he could glean. The number of panzer divisions heading to that stretch of coastline indicated that the Allied invasion was expected there. And Reece knew how his superiors in London would pore over that information.

He, the Wehrmacht, the French – everyone was tense, waiting for D-Day, believing it must come soon, desperate to know when and where. Time and again, Reece had calculated what he needed to prepare for it, for the time when he and the circuit would co-ordinate a Resistance uprising, sabotage train and telephone lines and ambush German troops on the roads. He needed more men. He needed more ammunition, more money, more chocolate and coffee to hand out as favours. He needed a lot.

He shut the book.

‘Can you close up the shop?’ he asked.

‘All right. Then what?’

‘Stay at your safe house this evening.’

She turned to face him. There was a shadow of dark rouge on the bones of her cheeks. ‘Where are you going?’

‘To collect some photos from Luc.’ The raw weather dropped gravel into his voice, roughing it as if he had been drinking cheap spirits.

‘Is it the SS document?’

He hesitated. ‘I’ll take it to London tomorrow.’

‘It must be urgent.’

He would have liked to tell her how important it was: that he had been ordered to drop everything else and take it himself to the Cabinet War Rooms beneath Whitehall to place the photographs – more precisely, a film developed into negatives and any prints Luc had been able to make from them – in the hands of his Officer Commanding. But even within the circuit, security had to be maintained. ‘I’ll be gone a week,’ he said. He should have been going for longer, really. He needed the rest. But he was needed in Paris. ‘I’ll see you when I get back.’

The tip of her cigarette glowed pale, threatening to fade into grey ash. ‘Will you bring some coffee back? I would like some real coffee. It’s been so long I hardly remember it at all.’

‘You prefer it to roast acorns? I’ll try, Charlotte.’

Charlotte. It wasn’t her real name, but it was the one he knew her by: her service name, the one by which she was known to other agents. Like Reece, she also had a series of cover identities with identification documents in those names.

He pulled on woollen gloves. ‘Be careful while I’m gone. The Gestapo are stepping up patrols.’

‘All right.’

He glanced at the pistol beside her transmitter. ‘Take the safety off.’ She stubbed her cigarette out in an empty ashtray, lifted the grey-handled gun, flicked down the safety lever and replaced it softly on the table.

The Winter Agent Gareth Rubin

A gripping thriller set in occupied France, based on a shocking historical conspiracy that reached the very top of the British establishment

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