Authors: Robert Goddard
Tags: #Historical Fiction
Spring, 1919. James ‘Max’ Maxted, former Great War flying ace, returns to the trail of murder and treachery he set out on in
The Ways of the World
He left Paris after avenging the murder of his father, Sir Henry Maxted, convinced that the only man who knows about the mysterious events leading up to Sir Henry’s death is elusive German spymaster, Fritz Lemmer.
To find out more, he enlists in Lemmer’s network under false colours and is despatched to the Orkney Isles, where the German High Seas Fleet has been interned in Scapa Flow. His mission: to recover a document secreted aboard one of the German battleships. But the information it contains is so explosive that Max is forced to break cover and embark on a desperate and dangerous race south, pursued by men happy to kill him to recover the document.
The breathless chase will take Max from the far north of Scotland to London and on to Paris, where the world’s governments are still bartering over the spoils in the aftermath of the Great War. The stakes could not be higher. It is life and death for all concerned.
MAX COULD ONLY
wish he had made the crossing from Scotland in such weather: calm, cool and benign, the sea sparkling, the sky blue, with puffs of cloud herded at the horizon like well-behaved sheep. He stepped out of the Ayre Hotel into the peace of early morning, lit a cigarette and gazed around him.
The few locals already up and about would probably have identified him as a visitor even if they had not seen him leave the hotel. Tall, lean and youthfully handsome, dressed in clothes that were just a little too well cut to have been bought from an Orcadian tailor, Max looked what he was: a man out of his element. Yet he also looked relaxed and self-assured: a man as unlikely to attract suspicion as he was condescension.
He turned towards the harbour and started walking. The staff of the Ayre had warned him that Kirkwall Bay did not normally appear as it did now: an anchorage for dozens of US minesweepers and support vessels, most of them stationary at this hour, but some with smoke drifting up from their funnels. They were there to clear the thousands of mines laid around the Orkneys during the war, a task expected to take them many months.
Max knew little of the sea war, sharing the general prejudices of those who had engaged the enemy on the Western Front that the Royal Navy had had a cushy time of it, Jutland notwithstanding. His gale-tossed passage across the Pentland Firth had forced him to reconsider, however. He did not envy anyone who had spent the past four and more years in these waters.
Of all the places in the world where he had never expected to find himself, the Orkneys were high on the list. But he was aware that there were currently a good many people there who wished themselves elsewhere, doubtless including the crews of all those American minesweepers he could see strung out across the bay.
The same was certain to apply to the crews of the interned German High Seas Fleet, under Royal Naval guard in Scapa Flow. Until glancing at an atlas shortly before his journey north, Max had supposed Kirkwall overlooked the Flow and he would therefore have a good view from the city of the captive ships. But Kirkwall was on the northern side of Mainland, the Orkneys’ principal island, albeit at its narrowest part. To the south, enclosed by Hoy, South Ronaldsay and various other smaller islands, lay the vast natural roadstead of Scapa Flow, where seventy-four German warships were corralled at anchor.
Max would see them soon enough, of course. He knew that. They were why he had travelled to Orkney. And they were why he was out so early.
But early or not, he was not proof against unlooked-for encounters. As he passed the Girnel, the old grainstore facing the west pier, he saw a woman he recognized approaching along the harbour front. It was too late to think of avoiding her. She smiled and raised a hand. He smiled too and waved back.
Susan Henty was clearly no local herself, a tall, big-boned young woman with a horsey look about her, dressed in newish tweeds. She had auburn hair and a broad, open smile. Max imagined her as an enthusiastic rider to hounds in the Leicestershire countryside she had already told him she hailed from. She was impossible to dislike, which was half the problem in itself. He could not afford to appear secretive. But neither could he afford to reveal much about himself, least of all the truth.
‘An early riser too, I see, Max,’ she said as they met.
‘I thought I’d take the morning air.’
‘Me too. I walked down to the cathedral. Rather a fine structure, actually.’
‘Selwyn not up yet, then?’
‘Probably still in bed, poring over a map. He’s very excited about seeing the Ring of Brodgar. As you are, I trust.’
‘Well, I . . .’
‘Selwyn’s so pleased you agreed to help him.’ Most women looked up at Max. Susan Henty engaged him levelly eye to eye. She lowered her voice confidentially. ‘I’m not sure he believes I’m completely reliable when it comes to surveying.’
‘I’m not sure
‘Perhaps not, but you’re a man, which makes all the difference.’ She smiled. ‘This trip’s doing Selwyn no end of good, Max. I’m more grateful than I can say for your willingness to indulge him. How’s your driving, by the way?’
‘Yes. You know.’ She mimed turning a steering wheel.
‘Ah, that. Not too hot, I’m afraid. A better pilot than a driver, to be honest.’
‘Then I’ll do it. One of the few blessings of the war is that it enabled women to take up things like driving without anyone disapproving. And I’m rather good behind the wheel, if I say so myself.’
‘I’m sure you are.’
She affected a frown. ‘Do I detect a note of sarcasm?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Mmm. I’ll have to be on my guard with you. I can see that. Now, the hotel’s recommended a garage where we can hire a car. And it looks like a fine day for it. So, shall we leave around ten?’
‘Good. See you later, then.’
Max tipped his hat and watched Susan Henty stride on her way, back towards the Ayre. He disliked misleading her. He disliked every aspect of the subterfuge he was obliged to practise. It was a damnable game to have to play.
He lit another cigarette and waited until Susan was out of sight. Then he walked smartly along the street fronting onto the harbour, past the Kirkwall Hotel – of altogether grander appearance than the Ayre – and out along the east pier.
It was considerably longer than the west pier, with an extension added onto the seaward curve where it enclosed the harbour. Max strolled past a warehouse and assorted stacks of cargo and on towards the far end, passing another building that sported a prominently stencilled sign:
US NAVAL PERSONNEL ONLY
. An American marine of considerable bulk was standing by the door. He stifled a yawn as he returned Max’s ‘Good morning’.
A US Navy cutter was moored on one side of the pier. Max headed for the other side, propped his foot on a bollard and tossed the butt of his cigarette into the sea as he gazed idly out towards the massed minesweepers. He glanced at his watch and checked the time. Yes. He was neither late nor early. All he had to do was wait.
And not for long.
The man was bulky and bearded, but had a sprightly look about him that owed more than a little to his mischievously twinkling eyes. He was dark-haired, thirtyish, dressed in a US Navy lieutenant’s uniform. He was wearing a greatcoat, despite the mildness of the morning, and smoking a cigarette. His accent was indeterminately American. West coast or east or where in between was hard to gauge.
‘Good morning,’ Max said cautiously.
‘I’d take you for an educated man.’
‘And you’re English, right?’
‘Yes. I am.’
‘Maybe you can settle an argument for me. Your prime minister before Lloyd George was Asquith?’
‘And before him . . . Balfour?’
‘Ah. I lose the argument, then . . . Max.’
Max nodded in acknowledgement that the preliminaries had been satisfactorily concluded. ‘Fontana?’
‘Lieutenant Grant Fontana, United States Navy. At your service.’
‘What’s your role here?’
‘Liaison with the local merchant marine. Which is handy for you, considering I know a drifter skipper who likes to make a little money on the black market – including illicit bartering visits to the German ships in Scapa Flow.’
Max paused before responding. ‘That does sound handy. Can he be trusted?’
‘He can be trusted to do what he has to do to stay out of trouble. And I can land him in a whole load of trouble any time I like, as he well knows. But on the subject of trust . . .’
‘Who was that woman you were talking to?’
‘Susan Henty. I met her and her brother on the ferry.’
‘You met them?’ Fontana suddenly seemed less friendly. ‘You should have made it your business to meet no one.’
‘So you say. What do they think you’re doing here?’
‘My brother was killed in the
‘Remind me what disaster that was.’
blew up while anchored in Scapa Flow on the night of the ninth of July 1917, with the loss of more than seven hundred souls. Probably caused by the spontaneous combustion of cordite in the magazine, though there were rumours of sabotage.’
‘And one of those seven hundred was your “brother”?’
‘Sub-Lieutenant David Hutton.’
‘So, that makes you Max Hutton?’
‘As far as the Hentys and everyone here’s concerned, yes. I’ve come to see where it happened – to pay my respects.’
‘Touching. Truly touching.’ Fontana sucked a last drag out of his cigarette and flicked it away. ‘Listen, I don’t want to know what you’re after on that German ship. I’ve done what the boss wanted me to do here: make it possible for you to get on board. It’s not going to be easy, but Tom Wylie’s the man to do it. I’ll see him this evening and explain to him what’s wanted and brief you on the plan straight after. OK?’
‘Meet me in the back bar of the Albert at nine o’clock. Mounthoolie Lane. It’s Saturday, so it’ll be busy. And noisy. No one will pay us any attention.’
‘I’ll be there.’
‘Which ship will Wylie take me to?’
Fontana gave a mirthless little laugh. ‘You’ll find out when the time comes and not before. I mean to stick to the rules even if you don’t. The boss doesn’t like deviations.’
‘But he isn’t here, is he, to worry about how we get the job done?’
‘Not here? Well, that depends on exactly what you mean by “here”. I often feel he’s looking over my shoulder watching what I do.’
‘Do you feel that now?’
Fontana lit another cigarette and contemplated Max as he drew on it. ‘You should feel that now. It’d be good for you. Stop you taking too many chances. This is your first big job for him, isn’t it? If you want to live to do another, you need to be more careful. Guard your tongue and watch your back. That’s my advice. I’ll see you later.’