Read The Darkest Hour Online

Authors: Tony Schumacher

Tags: #Historical, #Thriller, #Suspense

The Darkest Hour

 

Dedication

For my Mum and Dad, sorry you never got to read it,

 

and for Boo, thanks for keeping me warm when I was cold

 

Epigraph

We do not yet know what will happen in France or whether the French resistance will be prolonged, both in France and in the French Empire overseas. The French Government will be throwing away great opportunities and casting adrift their future if they do not continue the war in accordance with their Treaty obligations, from which we have not felt able to release them. The House will have read the historic declaration in which, at the desire of many Frenchmen, and of our own hearts, we have proclaimed our willingness to conclude at the darkest hour in French history a union of common citizenship. However matters may go in France or with the French Government or with another French Government, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have suffered we shall emulate their courage . . .

I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.

—W
INSTON
C
HURCHILL,
H
O
USE OF
C
OMMONS,
J
UNE
18, 1940

 

Acknowledgments

I
USED TO THINK
that being a writer would be a lonely job; well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m a lucky man, and this page will show you why.

I really couldn’t have written this book without the nudging encouragement of the fabulously talented Tracey Edges, her chivvying kept me working away when I was struggling to see the point. You should buy one of her paintings and give her the platform she deserves. Two others who were there at the beginning are Mary and Kenny; they kept knocking on my door asking me for more, and they helped push me on when I wasn’t sure if I could do it.

Sweeney, Terry, Jimmy, and Barry, four likely lads who stood by me when it was dark, who held me up, never doubted, and were always there. You’d be lucky to have one of these in your life; I’m not sure I deserve four. Thanks, lads.

Col Bury, a brilliant writer and a brilliant guy, living proof that there are people out there who will help another for no other reason than they can. You changed my life, mate; it’s as simple as that.

Ian Collins, Cash Peters, Jo Hughes, and Jane “StooshPR” Buchanan; early believers who encouraged me and helped spread the word.

Angie Sammons, who opened the door of my cab and led me to a new life. She taught me a lot and occasionally gets me drunk; a special friend who started the ball rolling.

Nat Sobel and the amazing, patient people at my agency Sobel Weber. They put up with the stupid emails and daft jokes and never complain, they never lose patience and they teach me a lot. I’m a very lucky man to have Nat as an agent. They invented the saying “carrot and stick” for the legend that is Nat; he’s perfected it to the extent that he is now able to hit me with both items simultaneously, and I’m very grateful that he does.

The team at HarperCollins and William Morrow: David Highfill, Jessica Williams, and everyone else there behind the scenes. You made the magic happen, you made the dreams come true and the sun come out. You guys changed my life; I hope I don’t let you down. Thank you.

There are so many others I should thank: my sister Denise, my brother Philip, John, Tony, Ian, Tracey, etc. This list would be longer than the book if I was to add the name of every person who helped me, encouraged me, and loved me. Rest assured if you’re not here and you helped—I love you and thank you for putting up with the selfishness that comes with writing. Christina, I’m looking at you.

Finally, the most important people, the men, women, and children who fought and died in the darkest hours mankind has ever known. Your sacrifice inspired and gave us all a free voice.

I hope I’ve used it well.

 

Tony Schumacher

Liverpool

July 2014

 

Chapter 1

I
T WAS THE
dream with the blood.

So much blood.

Pouring from a wound he couldn’t find, covering his hands, making them so wet he couldn’t open his tunic. No matter how hard he tried to grip, his hands slipped and splashed in the blood.

Around him crowded gray faces, leaning and towering, looking down as he looked up, slipping and splashing, coughing and choking; he looked down for the wound and then back up at the faces.

He surfaced in his bed.

John Henry Rossett listened to the rain lashing against the window. Panic over, sleep long deserted, he listened to the rain outside and pretended.

He pretended nothing had changed and that the world was the one he’d known back when he was a boy. A boy curled under the covers listening to his father toss damp coal on the kitchen fire after a night shift. On mornings like this, if he closed his eyes and tried, he could hear the studded work boots clattering across the backyard with the clang of the dirty metal bucket coming to rest on the cobbles.

Long ago now.

Before the blood.

Before the gray faces.

A gust elbowed the window and more rain rattled on the glass like tossed gravel. Rossett shivered and opened half an eye to look at the clock on the wooden chair next to his bed. Half past four. He realized it wasn’t that he’d woken early, because he hadn’t woken up. He would have had to sleep to wake up, and what he’d managed for the last four and a half hours wasn’t sleep.

He reached out of the bed and switched off the alarm before it had a chance to disturb the rest of the house, then pulled his bare arm back into the warmth.

He sighed, rolled onto his back, sighed again, stared at the ceiling for a moment, and then threw back the blankets. He got out of the bed and pulled on the old dressing gown that he had left on top of the bedclothes as moral support. He wrapped it around him and shuddered with the cold, then coughed a sticky wet bark full of whiskey and cigarettes.

He walked to the window, lit a cigarette from the pack in his dressing gown, and took his first drag.

His breath felt heavy. When he ran his tongue around his mouth, his teeth and his tongue felt thick and sticky. He coughed again, this time dipping his head, trying to catch some stubborn smokers’ phlegm but failing.

Nobody was moving in the street outside. His little Austin sat under the lamp, looking like it was about to be swept away by the water rushing down the gutter. Rossett wondered if he’d pushed the driver’s-side window all the way up or if he’d have a wet arse on his drive to work again.

He dragged on the cigarette. The reflection of the flaring orange end in the glass looked like a distant explosion, though it was only inches away. His tired eyes tried to focus, and he blinked away some sleep and heard a rattly wet cough through the thin wall. It was coming from the room next door, and Rossett decided he needed to get going before the boardinghouse came alive and a queue formed for the toilet on the landing.

It wasn’t easy being a police sergeant attached to the SS in London in 1946, and Rossett didn’t want to make it any harder than it already was.

He dressed and silently smoked another cigarette, sitting on the wooden stool by the window, looking at the shadows cast on the floor by the streetlamp. Eventually, he rose with a sigh and went downstairs to the small kitchen at the back of the house. Mrs. Ward, his landlady, was already up, and a fat, sweating teapot sat waiting on the cast-iron stove behind her, gray steam whispering from its spout. She nodded as he entered, silently poured him a cup, and set it on the table.

“I’ve only got toast and dripping,” she said as Rossett reached for the teaspoon, then added, “There’s no sugar or milk either, so don’t bother asking.”

He placed the teaspoon on the table next to the cup and wrapped his hand around the brew, more for the warmth than anything else. He wouldn’t drink it, he never did; morning tea didn’t agree with midnight Scotch.

“I don’t see what the point is of having a police sergeant live in your house if he can’t get you things,” she said as she sat down across the table from him. “I barely have coke for the stove, let alone food to cook in it.”

“The point is that he pays you rent; it’s not his job to steal food for you as well,” Rossett said flatly, blinking through the smoke of yet another cigarette.

“Trust me to get the only law-abiding copper in London.”

Rossett half smiled at her and she smiled back, eyes coming alive beautifully amid the laughter lines.

One New Year’s Eve, three sherries the wrong side of sober, she had told him she would wait “all my life for my Ronnie.”

Ronnie hadn’t come back from Dunkirk.

That was the night Rossett realized he was jealous of a dead man.

They’d danced at midnight, in each other’s arms for one song on the parlor radio, eyes closed, hearts open for five minutes.

He didn’t drink the tea. He stood, and she fetched his heavy raincoat from the hook on the back of the door. It was still damp from the night before, and he shivered as she smoothed it across his shoulders and then pulled it across his chest.

He tossed what was left of his cigarettes onto the table. “Fry those for now,” he said as he walked out the door. “I’ll see you tonight.”

He sat in the car and looked at the folders lying on the front seat.

The job.

The damn job, waiting next to him, eager to get going, already sitting in the car.

Rossett wondered about the gray faces in his dream. He couldn’t remember when they had first started to appear.

He looked at the files again, sighed, and then started the car.

The window on the Austin had stayed up for once, so his drive across the city wasn’t as grim as usual. Few private cars were left on the roads in the near absence of fuel, so the journey only took him twenty minutes through a black-and-white London that was still half asleep and confused in fog.

As he approached the marked house, he saw three army trucks and a black Rover police car parked on the corner. He checked his watch: five thirty-five, everything on schedule.

He parked behind the third truck, nodding to the eyes that watched him pull up. A couple nodded in return, but most stayed huddled in their heavy coats and capes, arms folded like surly schoolboys outside a headmaster’s office, heads sagging from lack of sleep.

He got out of the car, walked past the trucks, and banged on the misted-up window of the Rover. The door opened almost immediately, and Rossett leaned down to speak to the occupants.

His boss, Brewer, and a uniformed inspector he didn’t know nodded in the half-light of the yellow bulb in the back of the car. A uniformed sergeant Rossett vaguely recalled from a previous operation climbed out the front of the car and smoothed his tunic, nodding at Rossett.

“We okay to go, sir?” Rossett addressed Brewer directly.

“Whatever you think best, Sergeant,” replied Brewer, who was pretending, quite badly, to read some papers on a clipboard in an effort to stay out of the operation.

“I’ll check that the men are ready to roll,” said Rossett. Although Brewer didn’t respond—he seldom did—he was supposed to monitor Rossett’s work as a courtesy to the Met. In truth he only turned up under protest and seldom even spoke to the Germans.

“If you don’t mind, Sergeant, I’ll stay out of your work as much as I can. I’m sure I can trust you not to get us, or for that matter, me, into any bother?” That was all he’d said when they first met.

And for the past nine months, that was how things had stayed.

Rossett and the other sergeant stepped across the road as a pack of cigarettes and some matches came out. Rossett shielded the flame with his hands as the sergeant held the match for him to draw on. Once their cigarettes were lit, they walked the short distance from the car to the corner of the street. Rossett blew the smoke from his mouth and, staying close to the corner of the building, sneaked a glance around like a sniper into Caroline Street, their eventual destination. He quickly ducked back after he’d checked the target house.

“Anyone moving?” said the sergeant.

“No.”

“It’s a bloody awful morning for this sort of work.”

“I’ve never known a good one for this sort of work.”

“I don’t know how you do it.”

“Someone has to. It may as well be me,” Rossett replied, checking his watch.

“When I was a nipper, there was a family of them used to live in our street. They weren’t a bad sort, kept to themselves. Not sure I could be all heavy-handed if I met them today. I used to play football with their lad, we was about the same age . . .” The uniformed sergeant spoke almost to himself as he looked at the end of his cigarette and picked a piece of imaginary tobacco off the tip of his tongue.

Rossett stared at him for a moment and then flicked his own cigarette toward the gutter. It fell short and rolled in a half circle, hissing to a halt in a puddle.

“We get in, we hit them hard and fast. Tell your lads lots of shouting and banging, and don’t let them settle or start to argue. If any of them gives any backchat, just give them a crack.” Rossett jabbed his thumb in the direction of Caroline Street. “They will offer all sorts of things—money, jewels, even food to be left in the house if you give them a chance. So you make sure you let your men know, if anyone takes anything he will be on that cattle wagon faster than the Jew who tried to bribe him. If everything goes to plan, you’ll be drinking tea in the canteen in an hour and all this will be forgotten. Understood?”

The sergeant dropped his cigarette and ground it out, suddenly aware of the tiny swastika badge on the lapel of Rossett’s raincoat.

“Yes, of course. I’ll pass the word,” he said, turning toward the trucks. Rossett watched him go and dug his hands into his coat pockets, very much aware of the tiny swastika badge himself.

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