creating pandemic peril in a whimsical world
Editor Barbara J. Becker
LINGUISTIC FINGERPRINTS EDITION: 2021
Compilation copyright ©2021: Barbara J. Becker
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Cover Photo: courtesy Pat Stefanchuk. Photographer Kevin Dennis
Pat Stefanchuk wrote:
"The ruins are a part of my family history. The deMerle ruins were a fortress for the deMerle family in the Middle Ages. It is located in southern France. They were French Huguenots who were basically run out of France around 1500 & fled to England where they took up residence around Shakespeare’s residence, along the Avon River. Less than 50 years later a branch of the family emigrated to New York. Of course when they got to England they changed their name to Merrell so they wouldn’t be taken for French Catholics. After Robert Merrell got to the USA his extended family moved around. Some went to New Jersey, others to the New England area. That branch became United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution & fled to Nova Scotia & finally to southern Ontario where they had fruit orchards. My dad’s grandfather brought his family of 20 to Manitoba (Wawanesa) in the late 1800’s."
Oprah Winfrey 2002. O Magazine.
Worry is a misuse of imagination.
BARBARA J. BECKER writes and edits stories. She lives in Winnipeg. Recent works are the Measured Words trilogy, and assorted articles to the Manitoba Genealogical Society magazine, Generations, editor David Farmer. Barbara wrote the same introduction to all of the Covid Caper stories and then let them happen.
JACK FRANCIS grew up in St. James – Assiniboia, Winnipeg. His exploits are recounted in his memoir Time Warps. Jack is currently working on a second memoir.
FRANCESS H. BEATTY lives and writes in Winnipeg and has published an anecdote in Reader’s Digest and her short story, Dog Days of Winter in Measured Words: second helpings, and Justice Denied in Measured Words: third course.
ROBERT WOOD originally from rural Saskatchewan, lives and writes in Winnipeg. His story, Ice Jumpers, received Honourable Mention in the 2012 Winnipeg Free Press/Writers Collective non-fiction contest, and was published in the Free Press. His short story, Forbidden Fruit, was published in Measured Words: third course.
The steps did not go straight up. There was a curve, ever so slight, to the right. You had to place your foot squarely in the center. The edges collected moss and did not offer a solid footing. The air was damp and heavy to breath. The light from a single torch ricocheted off the stone wall, swirling and dancing in the surrounding gloom. A splayed hand tapped the stair wall for purchase keeping time to the roll of numbers off the tongue. …twenty-seven…twenty-eight…twenty-nine…thirty… thirty-one…thirty-two…. The landing was small and rectangular – flat grey slate, barely large enough for a small person. Rock walls formed two sides with a solid heavy wood door directly ahead. An ornate serpent handle controlled a slotted closure. With a heavy pull the door swung open. A further five steps and it was done. The door slammed shut.
Isabel wondered why she always counted the thirty-two steps that led up the hillside toward the basement of the immense old manor house. Something deep in my mind must cause it, she thought. An idle thought made her wonder how many hundreds of steps the huge old place possessed. For the moment she put that question aside as more important things required her attention.
She shivered from the chilly underground air and the scariness of being all alone in almost total darkness. She was calm, though, had her wits about her. She didn’t think she’d been followed, but caution dictated she wait briefly to be sure. She knew her major asset was that no one knew she was familiar with the area.
After five minutes, she moved, reaching back to silently twist a deadbolt into place. Now, no one else could get in. She was in a space a few feet wide, with rock walls on both sides, a thick timber door behind, and five steps to another thick door ahead. By the fading light of the electric torch, she located the slot in the wall. Bending over, she put her hand in and extracted a key. Fumbling in the dimness, she put the key into the inner door, turned it, and inched forward into a wine cellar, lit dimly by her torch. No noise penetrated there, and none was produced.
Walking softly among the endless racks of bottles, Isabel searched for evidence of other recent visitors, but all the racks were full, as though none of the wine was ever consumed. The layer of dust on many bottles looked like the accumulation of decades. The cellar was in two parts, and the smaller part, which she now searched, looked more used, more likely to be frequented, and more likely to have recent vintages. She searched diligently, but the constantly fading light from the torch made it pointless. She would have to wait for daylight, still hours away, when feeble light from the soggy sky would percolate through the low set windows, recessed in the thick old walls.
A few chairs were scattered around, so she sat down to nap. She was awakened at dawn by the sound of two men talking as they entered the wine cellar. They were at the far end from her, so she tiptoed across the sandy floor, back into the entry passage, closing and locking the door behind her. The door was heavy, but not soundproof, so she could hear them talking.
“Now, Bill,” said one, “we can’t take old Fred too seriously. What did he see or, more likely, imagine he saw?”
“Well, he says he seen a dim light going up the steps at the back, about 3:30 AM, then later, there was a bit of light visible here in the wine cellar. It was hard to see ‘cause these windows are so low set in the thick wall, and he was on higher ground.”
“What was he doing up in the middle of the night, at his age?”
“Well, Nigel, he’s on the sky patrol, watching to see if there’s any bombers on their way to London.”
“Doesn’t the radar system take care of that?”
“Mostly, but there can be strays or some lose their way.”
“Bill, do you think he’s just imagining things?”
“Could be. He didn’t think it was intruders at first. Actually, thought it might be a ghost. After all, this place is over six hundred years old, and this space, down here, used to have dungeons. People died down here in Cromwell’s day - you know, in the Civil War.”
“Oh, bloody hell, Bill! A ghost!” Nigel was apoplectic. “I was got out of bed at an ungodly hour because of some senile lunatic’s imagination! Can you believe, in this day and age, in the year of our Lord 1941, that people still believe in hauntings?”
“Well, Nigel, I do,” Bill said firmly, “though I’m not saying this was a ghost that Fred saw. But if it’s not a ghost, what do you think he saw?”
“Bill, there was a small thunderstorm in the night. Could’ve been light from that; or maybe a poacher. But I’ll tell you what’s likeliest. A soldier home on leave was walking with his sweetie and having hugs and kisses. And since it was so dark, they naturally had an electric torch.”
“What about the light Fred saw inside here?’
“Maybe they came in. There’s a door back there. I’ve seen it.”
“Nigel, I don’t think that door has been opened in my lifetime, and I’m forty-seven. It’s probably all spiders and lizards behind that door. Bad enough in here.”
“Imagination, lightning, hauntings, whatever. I don’t really care what Fred saw. I’m going home to have breakfast. Uh, is the squire in residence these days?”
“The place is empty, at the moment. Everybody’s in the services, or gone to a war factory, or helping grow food. Her ladyship is in Cardiff, rolling bandages. So, there’s just me; I’m the groundskeeper, gamekeeper and Jack of all trades – and I live down in the village.”
They went out. Isabel breathed several sighs of relief. That had been a bit of a close call, but she knew now that she could work undisturbed throughout the day. Also, that the passageway she had come in by was considered unusable and unlikely to be checked.
She had food with her, so she went into a workroom to have breakfast. There was water in the taps, which she let run slowly for several minutes, then had a drink. Ah, she said to herself, the place still has excellent water. What it lacked was a water closet, but the sand floor in an adjacent workroom sufficed.
fter her brief meal, she resumed her search in the main area of the wine cellar, noting that the dim, but consistent, light was easier to search by than the fading torch of a few hours ago. It took over an hour of careful inspection before she noticed one rack slightly out of line with the others. Eureka! This could be it. The rack moved surprisingly easily; the lack of gurgles indicated the bottles were empty. She edged it aside and, with growing excitement, noted the rectangle of churned up dirt and sand, about six feet long, and three feet wide. She was suddenly both sad, and ecstatic, saying to herself, Well, now I know where they buried poor old Harold.
Poor Harold; he had learned too much. He had to be silenced.
It was Harold, the long time butler of the manor house, who had got Isabel snooping there in the first place. At first he smuggled her in, and soon showed her how to get in on her own.
He told her of overhearing short wave conversations – some of it in a foreign language, he thought. On a recent foray into the wine cellar it didn’t take her long to find the shortwave radio hidden in a large wooden wine barrel.
Now she was looking for evidence, of what, she wondered, maybe espionage.
Well, what could be finer than a nice red wine with her lunch? So she selected a bottle from a rack and with the always handy Swiss army knife in her shoulder bag was able to remove the cork easily. A few tentative sips were appreciated. Then a few good swigs followed.
And what to her wondering eyes should appear, but a rolled up red plastic sheet with rows of numbers on it. She quickly wiped it dry with facial tissues and stuffed it into her shoulder bag. And now to make her getaway. In her excitement at finding what she was sure was a coded message, she was eager to leave, but knew she had to wait for a time that she had learned to be safe to get out. Her plan was to get the wine bottle find as quickly as possible to her friend Jeffry at the War Office.
Once safely away from the manor, Isabel lost no time in getting to Jeffry. She was worried that the simplicity of the numbered sheet would make it unimportant or maybe in an unbreakable code. So she was surprised to see Jeffry quickly begin jotting down notes.
“That was the easiest code break in my memory,” Jeffry told her.
“Really? How so?”
“Each number simply stands for a letter. There are 26 letters in the alphabet and it was quickly obvious to me that there are no numbers higher than 26 in this message,” Jeffry explained. After that it was simply a matter of figuring out the letter combinations and patterns, shapes and repeats. This is a schedule for wireless short wave radio contacts.”
Isabel asked him to make a copy so she could get it back into a bottle of wine and back on the rack in the wine cellar of the manor. Done, he told her, and added a request for her to check out more bottles, carefully, and see what else she could find.
“Will do,” she responded, and quickly and carefully stuffed the coded sheet into her shoulder bag, and headed for the door.
Harold’s directions got her back into the mansion and into the wine cellar in record fast time in spite of the difficult terrain travelled.
Isabel returned the plastic code sheet to the wine bottle and refilled it with red wine from another bottle which yielded another plastic sheet.
“Oh wow! Now I’ll have to get this to Jeffry for decoding, too,” she yelped.
The timetable that Jeffry had decoded made it easier for Isobel to organize her comings and goings into the wine cellar. It was unlikely she would encounter the culprit between scheduled radio communications. The enemy must surely be equally wary of running into someone during clandestine short-wave contacts in the cellar. The information gave her confidence that she would have more time to search further, undisturbed.
She pondered who among the people in the nearby village would be a Natzi German spy and how they had chosen this particular manor to coordinate their operations.
The manor was within easy proximity to Bletchey Park where the War office housed its top-secret decoding facility. Isabel worried that the manor’s strategic location may have been the very reason it was chosen. Everyone working for the British had been scrupulously vetted and sworn to secrecy. Perhaps it was simply a coincidence, but it was a worrisome thought.
She made her way back carrying the new document in her bag with the intention of broaching her concerns with Jeffry. In her hurry, she stumbled along the uneven terrain and then, slowed her pace. It had been a long day and she was tired. It gave her time to think more clearly; she changed her mind. After all, Jeffry was a decoder, not an agent, and would be the wrong person with whom to raise a security breach. But she was not privy to the chain of command and it was getting late.
She planned to make some discrete enquiries the next time she had an opportunity to talk to the Officer who had recruited her on Harold's recommendation. But she could not shake the feeling that to delay might be a devastating mistake. Isabel decided to make an effort to contact someone in charge as soon as possible even if it meant a breach of protocol.
She bit her lip, sat down on a nearby log, and mulled over her plan. It was crucial to know the identity of the German Agent who had been making forays into the manor to relay his information by radio to the enemy. She still had one incriminating document to return, but now knew, that it was unlikely anyone would miss it until the next scheduled contact which was two days away.
As she mulled over her options and the best way to approach the matter, Isabel had an aha moment. Jeffry had given her a rundown of the schedule; it would help with her plan for the next visit to the catacombs beneath the manor to be without the danger of encountering the Nazi informant. It had been easy to commit the schedule to memory because it followed a predictable pattern. She was now in a position to carry out a heroic plan.
Knowing when to expect the village traitor, she decided that, instead of avoiding an encounter, she would orchestrate one. She would let herself in, in the early evening
before the next scheduled date and lie in wait in the hope of recognizing the individual who was doing the spying. She thought of hiding in the shadows near the rack of wine where she first discovered the coded messages. But on second thought, anyone with a torch or any source of light and her presence would be spotted.
She thought of another better plan and decided, instead, on a bolder move. If she were to be detected in hiding, it would put her under immediate suspicion and probably in danger of losing her life. If they met in full view, she would be able to feign a legitimate reason for being there. An unabashed encounter would give her an excuse to ask questions and feign ignorance. Because she had no way of knowing the exact time her target would show up – she guessed it would be under the cover of darkness – she would need to work out a believable ruse for being there.
Isabel continued her trek back to the War office with the newly retrieved, encrypted message for Jeffry and a daring new mission in mind, for herself--to plot and...execute. Should she seek permission, or simply forge ahead on her own?
The new message was much longer than the first. On the train to London, Isabel considered whether Jeffry was the best person to take it to. She thought him a very nice chap, perhaps a romantic consideration in other circumstances, but this was do, or die, wartime, and the coded messages were not a game; they were a battlefront. Crucial results might hinge on them; untold numbers of lives might be in the balance. After long pondering, she decided she would have to tell Jeffry what she was, and what she was up to. Together, they could pass it up the chain of command to where the important decisions got made, and important actions set in motion.
It took Jeffry hours to decode it, then translate it into English. Isabel cruised the nearly empty shops, seeing nothing to tempt her to spend any of her meager cash. When she returned, Jeffry seemed oddly amused, despite the scary message he had deciphered. This message, he said, was a set of orders.
“It’s for an agent here to create chaos at Portsmouth naval base by setting a batch of huge fires with various incendiaries already in his possession. There will be an air raid at the same time. The purpose of the raid and the arson is to cause the fleet to withdraw to sea, supposedly out of harm’s way. Then, while the ships are silhouetted against the flames of the city, a pack of waiting U-boats will sink everything in sight. There’s a lot of details, but that’s the gist of it.”
Isabel was aghast. “We’ve got to alert the Admiralty, the police, the fire departments … why are you grinning? This isn’t funny.” She was shrieking in panic, while Jeffry continued to grin.
“Well, Isabel, it’s a hoax. I’m not sure whose, but I know it’s a hoax.”
“How do you know?” she demanded.
“First, no important message would be sent in such a simple code. Second, anyone planning such an operation wouldn’t tell the agent everything, for fear of discovery, or leaks. Third, even if this was a surprise assault, it wouldn’t succeed. Because of the importance of the naval base, the area is very heavily defended. Few planes would get through to inflict damage. If the fleet did withdraw to sea, all craft would be armed to the teeth and on maximum alert. Subs would get chewed up and spit out. Erich and Fat Hermann know all that, so they wouldn’t even try.”
“So, who are Erich and Herman?”
“Erich Raeder heads up the Kriegsmarine – the Navy – and Fat Hermann Goering runs the Luftwaffe – the Air Force.”
“Oh, yeah. I knew that. Just didn’t think of it. But whose hoax is it? And why, in the middle of the war, would they bother with the trouble and expense?”
“Well, if it’s the Germans, it could be to see if we’re on our toes enough to catch this little jab at our defenses, or to see if we react by taking steps to give the naval base extra protection. Or they may just want us to run around on some fool’s errand, getting all hot and bothered and wasting resources.”
Isabel couldn’t imagine it being anyone except the Germans, but she asked anyway; “Well, if it’s not the Germans, then who and why?”
“Our guys,” Jeffry told her, “Also checking to see if all of our security people are on their toes. Maybe also checking to see who understands German and might be a possible sympathizer, even a traitor.”
“Not that I think you’re a sympathizer,” Isabel told him, “but how did you learn German?”
“In school, but also travelling around Europe with my Dad. He’s an engineer with an international firm. All quite above board.”
“Oh, of course, of course.” She didn’t apologize, as her question had seemed so legitimate. “Now, I can understand that sort of stuff about them trying to fool us or our guys checking on our security, but what does either of those have to do with Harold Watt being buried in the sand of the wine cellar at Arlington Manor?”
Jeffry gaped, moved his mouth but emitted no sound for many seconds, then said, “What? Harold? Buried? Like dead and buried? “
“Exactly! Harold, the butler forever at Arlington Manor. He told me he had suspicions about someone up to no good. When I went to check on things, I found his grave under a big wine rack, not far from the wine barrel where I discovered a two way short wave radio.”
Jeffry was deeply shocked. He had known Harold, if not well, at least for a long time. Like Isabel, he had grown up in the area and had known Harold as a nice chap of his parents’ generation – someone liked by everyone. He wondered who would kill Harold? And why? So he asked Isabel. She pondered his questions for a few minutes, then said, “Jeffry, it’s time to come clean with you. I’m not just a WREN on leave. That’s only a cover occupation. I’m actually part of the Security Service. We’re known semi-officially as MI5, to distinguish us from MI6, which is Military Intelligence. MI6 operates externally, gathers intelligence both military and civilian for use in the war effort. We in MI5 operate internally to discover and deal with spies, sympathizers and hostile foreign agents of various sorts.”
“So how did you get to be working for Security?” asked Jeffry. “I don’t remember you as being all that adventurous.”
“Well, I worked at the manor in my teens, and got to know it, and Harold, pretty well. He often told me he’d been in military intelligence in the 1914 to ’18 war, so it was no surprise when MI5 reactivated him to keep an eye on this area. They apparently had suspicions of enemy activity. He then recruited me, and I took the training. This isn’t the only locale I’ve worked in, but given my familiarity with the region and people, I was an obvious choice.” She said nothing about protecting the Bletchley Park decoding facility. Its location and function were absolute top secret, but she thought her assignment might relate to that. She was one of the few people outside the facility to know it existed. It would be treason to talk about it.
Jeffry digested all this information for a few minutes, then said, a little haltingly, “Well, I ... uh ... guess, I’ve also got some coming clean to do, too.”
“Yes. As you know, I’m a decoder for the War Office. Some of the overseas stuff I handle is pretty high level, so that I can’t ever talk about it. Battles, strategies, troop movements, plans, directives to generals, military requisitions, even civil service and ration regulations can have a lot of information wrung out of them. This is not to brag, but to point out that I’ve got clearances similar to yours and similar access to high ranking ears. I think we should join forces to kick this case up the chain of command to solve Harold’s murder, nab whoever is behind the radio transmissions, and keep the country safe.”
Isabel agreed, but with the feeling that they weren’t quite equal partners; Jeffry was taking over her case, even if that wasn’t his intention.
Oblivious to her concern, he now added complexity to the situation. “We should consider we may be dealing with two separate, mostly unrelated cases. Whosever’s hoax it is would be unlikely to kill Harold and draw attention to themselves, so his death may be caused by someone else. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Very reasonable,” she agreed, then asked, a bit sardonically, “Okay, Mr. Jeffry Grant, what is the first thing we should do in this endeavour?”
“For the moment, I’m going to sit at my desk doing my usual job. You will take the train back to Little Morton village, get that sheet of plastic with the message on it back into the wine bottle. Then you will sleep soundly for many hours, till early morning. In the morning, you will take the train back here – to London – and we will begin the process of unraveling this case.”
Isabel awoke with a start.
Something about the wine cellar had been nagging at her, was stuck in the back of her mind. Now, suddenly, it popped up. What was it all about, those two men she had overheard arguing in the next room during one of her wine cellar visits? Now it all came rushing back to her as she got out of bed.
Bill, the groundskeeper and jack-of-all -things around the aging mansion, was telling Nigel about Fred seeing the odd lights in the night in the woods leading up to the back of the building and dim signs of light in the wine cellar window slit. Nigel was insisting old Fred, at his very old age, and well known for his failing eyes, was seeing things, but Bill continued to fret.
Isabel was now also fretting for she had no doubt old Fred was right and she was afraid her visits to the wine cellar were the source of his sightings. But then she had second thoughts because of the short wave radio activity in the wine cellar which Jeffry had discovered in those coded messages she had found in wine bottles. She would have to pay a visit to Fred, in his hut in the nearby village, and find out who else he might have told about his light sightings. Fred is a neighbour of Bill’s, so she could check with him too, she thought, hoping to find them both home.
After a quick breakfast of bangers and tea, Isabel phoned Fred and finding him home caught the bus that had stops in the nearby village. A knock on Fred’s door got no response. Then she recalled about his poor hearing, as well as poor eyesight, and hammered hard on his door.
Fred opened the door and his big smile showed his pleasure at having a visitor. Isabel declined his offer of tea and crumpets, and quickly grilled him about Bill and Nigel, and anyone and everyone he had told about his claims of mysterious lights at the mansion.
Fred was tempted to weave a tale of telling many in order to keep her visit there longer, but being a lifelong honest person, told her the only person he discussed it with was Bill, the mansion handyman.
On the bus back home Isabel though it over. So that’s Bill and Nigel, Isabel said to herself as she pondered the clues. I can’t see Bill as being anything but what he is, the handyman, but Nigel, there’s a different cup of tea, altogether, she thought, and why was he so insistent that Fred was seeing things?
Nigel, she knew, was a long time friend and traveling companion of the squire and his family. Before the war, Nigel was sure to accompany the squire whenever he was in the west Europe countries, especially Germany and France.
It is time to check with Jeffry again. Maybe he has some information about Nigel that could be helpful, Isabel thought. She trusted Jeffry; she had to trust Jeffry, she now realized and accepted, because he was helpful so far, without reservations.
Talking to Fred was revealing. Isobel was convinced that he had seen the lights and it worried her that he was freely, even eagerly, passing out the information. Perhaps, he was just an old man wanting to remain relevant and important in the community, especially to Nigel. Questioning Bill would not be a wise idea. He might become suspicious and wonder why she was interested in what he and Nigel had discussed in the cellar, and how she had known about their conversation that morning.
She decided that Jeffrey would be a better source for some answers. After a careful review, she realized that the lights Fred had seen did not coincide with times that she was there. There was only one answer; it must have been someone working with the Nazis. There might be others involved: those who had left messages in the wine bottles; perhaps, people involved with the radio communications.
It worried her that Nigel seemed eager to discredit Fred and make him out to be nothing more than an imaginative old fool. Was Bill covering up when he intimated that poor old Fred believed in ghosts.
Jeffry was her main contact, but she needed to corroborate some of the information he had given her. He told her to replace the decoy paper he had decoded and go home for a "good night's sleep." That seemed a little presumptuous – why would he want her to be out of the way that night? She pondered the idea and wondered if she was over-thinking things. If she decided to overstep Jeffry's authority and approach one of the others working on the team at the War Office, he might get wind of it and that would ruin everything; they needed to trust each other.
This was becoming more complicated as time went on. It occurred to her that it was surprising that Jeffry had not known of Harold's death. That was another loose end that troubled her deeply. Was it being kept secret for a reason? Why had she not been warned to keep that bit of information to herself when Harold`s disappearance was discovered. At this point, she felt there was no one she could really trust. With the exception of, perhaps, poor old Fred.
She entertained the idea that Fred, might be playing the fool to keep everyone off his trail. Maybe he dropped tidbits of information to get a reaction from his confidants and catch them in an unguarded moment. Was he actually the best undercover agent, so far.
She decided that she would need to avoid visits to the Manor during the scheduled dates that Jeffry had decoded. It would be dangerous to encounter individuals responsible for the clandestine activities at the Manor; they would not hesitate to kill. She wondered how Harold had been found out and eliminated; he was a highly respected member of the War Team. She itched to unmask a traitor from the village, if there was such a one among the people they trusted. It was tempting because she was privy to the times Nazi operatives would be expected at the Manor.
If only she had someone more experienced to consult who would be capable of approaching others whose identities were unknown to her. A seasoned agent would know what to do and how to approach a suspect without detection. She would be willing to take a calculated risk to confront one of them, but, on her own, she felt at a loss.
Her next move could be the catalyst to a dangerous plot, or an opportunity lost if no one at the War Office was privy to her suspicions. Who could she trust to take her seriously and have the experience to act judiciously?
Enough hemming and hawing, Isabel told herself. I’m sure Jeffry is thoroughly patriotic and dependable. I can’t start here doubting everyone or I’ll wear myself out from paranoid worry. I’ll watch, though, for any signs of doubtful loyalty, in anyone.
She felt better after that decision, departed for London immediately, met Jeffry for a meager wartime lunch, and got busy. A meeting was arranged for 1:30PM, with a high level personage- “someone up the ranks” in Jeffry’s phrasing. Meeting in the personages’ miniscule office, Isabel was introduced to “Mr. Somerville”, which she was told was a pseudonym. No rank was given, only the suggestion that it was quite high. “Mr.Somerville” was in civvies and unmilitary in bearing. Isabel recited the events, circumstances and concerns which had brought her to this office. Jeffry corroborated her information and supported her concerns. Mr. Somerville listened closely, with few interruptions. When her information was all given, he spoke at more length.
“Your concerns are legitimate. We, meaning everyone involved in protecting the country, appreciate you bringing in this information. We have a few somewhat similar cases around the country. Mostly they’re harmless, as we’ve got the hostile element under heavy surveillance and could act on a moment’s notice if they try anything. Some are double agents, some are plants; people with some German connection to feed them lies about our defenses, economy, morale and so on. But what is transpiring at Arlington Manor is new to us and possibly very dangerous. It would be dangerous anywhere in the country, but its proximity to the Portsmouth naval base renders it especially so.”
He paused, then asked, “Any comments or questions?”
“Well, do you think some or all of what we’ve found is a hoax? Jeffry thinks there is a strong element of deception, because the code is so simple, and the actions proposed are so unrealistic. Or could it be a practical joke by some of our own people?” Isabel wanted all possibilities considered.
Mr. Somerville thought briefly, then said, “The wine bottle messages may be a hoax. They’re unrealistic and maybe designed to divert attention. The serious side of the situation is indicated by the death and burial of poor Mr. Harold Watts. I’m genuinely saddened by this. We won’t even be able to exhume him for a funeral and proper burial till this case is dealt with. Now, more questions: you quoted this Bill chap as saying ‘there’s just me; I’m the groundskeeper, gamekeeper and Jack of all trades’. So if Bill was doing all the maintenance of the place, where was Harold living and working?”
“Harold was now living in the village, just visiting the manor occasionally to keep an eye on things. He was retirement age, but doing sky watch and helping out various places. He had no schedule, so his absence wouldn’t be noted for a while. I went looking for him when I hadn’t heard from him for several days.”
“So, he was just checking on conditions at the manor house, then? Like, making sure there was no vandalism, or other intruder problems?”
Isabel agreed, saying, “He was worried about theft and squatters. There are over eighty rooms in the place, meaning it’s easy to hide in. I was concerned about someone being there, which is why I went in the back way. That entrance is pretty secret.”
Mr. Somerville had more questions. “Okay, this Bill Parker chap said that back route was unusable, so how did you get in?”
“Harold rebuilt it over a period of years, without changing the external appearance. He figured it probably hadn’t been used for over a century. When he recruited me for the security service, he showed it to me. I don’t think even the squire is aware it’s usable.”
Mr. Somerville was curious: “Why did Mr. Watt expend the time and effort to rebuild the secret passage? Do you think he had some negative purpose in mind?”
“He never said as much but hinted that he sometimes poached some of the squires’ game. Also, I …uh…think maybe it was for romance. He’d been a widower for many years, and possibly used that passage for nocturnal visits to lady friends in the village, or beyond.”
Mr. Somerville smiled tolerantly at that but made no comment. Instead he said, “Next on the list is Nigel Kingsborough. Tell me about him.”
“Nigel is a former police officer. The local people seem to think he’s still one, so they call on him for everything. He and his wife run the village pub. He’s good friends with the squire and often travels with him for security.”
Jeffry had listened to Somerville’s questioning of Isabel, interjecting only to clarify some points. Now he spoke up, ”I know these people almost as well as Isabel does, and I can vouch for her information.”
Somerville sat pondering, with knitted brow, for a few minutes, then spoke slowly. “This is an interesting situation, with all sorts of possibilities, but not much real evidence to go on. We have a file pertaining to Mr. Watt, dating from reports of activity in the region. Because of these reports, we told him to investigate and also sent you, Isabel, to see what you could find out. Mr. Watt reported hearing a two way radio conversation in another language, though he didn’t know which one. Not French, he was sure. He also found the radio, which you rediscovered. This poking around probably cost him his life, but who did it is unknown.”
He took a breath, then said, “For the moment, Isabel, I reluctantly have to ask you to return to Arlington Manor, to carefully watch for comings and goings, plus, if it’s safe, enter the manor house to see who’s been there and what they’ve been doing.”
Isabel felt conflicted. Excitement lay ahead, which was good, but also danger, which could be bad-very bad. She accepted without comment, showing, she hoped, neither bravado nor timidity.
“We can issue you a handgun, if you know how to use it.” said Somerville.
“I’ve been trained, “she told him, “I can also use my knife for more than just cutting cheese.”
“Good thing,” Somerville grinned. “With all the rationing, it won’t get much use on cheese.”
With open ended assignment, armed, eager to serve and to find poor old Harold’s killers, she said good-bye to London. She was back in Little Morton by nightfall, in sight of Arlington Manor.
She hadn’t previously stayed overnight in Little Morton, just “skulked around” as she put it, but this time she took space in a boarding house. The room was small and clean, quite adequate for her needs. It had been ten years since Isabel left Little Morton, and with changes in hair styles and clothing styles, the long widowed Mrs. Waterford didn’t recognize her. So she said her name was Kate Hurst, a military nurse on leave to deal with the emotional stress of constantly treating badly wounded soldiers. Mrs. Waterford was kind, sympathetic, lonely and chatty. Good place to catch up on local news and gossip; find out who’s hanging around town, Isabel thought. To that end, she told Mrs. Waterford that she took a lot of long walks, and that her edgy nerves made her an insomniac, so a lot of her walking was at night. Mrs. Waterford understood.
“Now, dearie, would yez like a cuppa tea to warm yer bones? It’s a chill evening out there.” Mrs. Waterford was immediately going into ”mum mode”, which Isabel liked, as it indicated she would chatter long and hard.
“I’d love some tea, thank you,” Isabel told her, discovering immediately that Mrs. Waterford could simultaneously make tea, put out biscuits, rearrange couch cushions, pat her hand comfortingly and talk nonstop. When she got a chance to speak, Isabel asked, “Do you have many roomers nowadays, with the war on and so many in the services?”
“More than you might think, dearie. Soldiers on leave often want some fresh country air and with good rail service from here to London, this village is convenient. And being close to the Portsmouth naval base brings lots from there.”
Have to check that out, Isabel thought.
Two hours of conversation ensued, until Mrs. Waterford’s jaw grew tired. She then wished Isabel good night, promising to be unconcerned if she heard her wandering in the night.
Isabel got up at 2:00AM, left the house quietly and walked a mile to the manor. She went slowly, via back lanes and bike paths, and through fog patches. She trod carefully, making sure she was unobserved. She approached the manor through a tangled grove of young elms. There were twenty feet between the elms and the steps leading to the wine cellar. She gingerly tip toed across. She kept her torch hidden, navigating only by starlight, and little of that. She counted the steps again. … twenty-seven … twenty-eight … twenty-nine … thirty … thirty-one … thirty-two…, it was necessary to orient herself in the darkness. She opened the heavy wooden door into the passage. Cautious listening assured her no one was in the wine cellar. Again she found the hidden key, opened the door and edged forward into the cool dampness.
She paused, waiting, straining for any sound. Silence reigned, so she moved forward carefully in the darkness. She waited again, for many minutes, then felt out a chair. She sat down and waited a full half hour. Her radium dial watch said it was now 3:15AM. With great trepidation, she now turned on her electric torch. She was careful to not shine it on the windows, lest old Fred or some other curious person was watching. She had a red filter in her pocket, which she now put over the lens of the torch. This way she could see where she was walking and, by squinting, examine things.
A quick survey showed nothing different from her last visit, no sign of anyone being there. She went upstairs up to the kitchens. Inspection of this area also showed no sign of recent visits or use. The whole place was eerily quiet and empty. She was about to leave when she heard a noise one, maybe two, floors above. Someone had flushed a loo- a water closet. That someone was either stupid or indiscreet, or felt that eliminating evidence of their presence justified making that bit of noise. Isabel stood still for minutes, then with no further indication of anyone moving, carefully made her way back to the wine cellar.
It was still dark when she came out at the top of the stairs. The now heavy fog insured her departure was invisible, if anyone was watching. She was back in bed about 5:15AM, “woke up” about 7:20 AM, breakfasted with Mrs. Waterford about 8:00AM. The lady noticed that “Kate” still looked tired, and she was told that, “I didn’t sleep well. I’ll probably need a nap this afternoon.”
She endured a torrent of gossip, before getting the “conversation” turned to other visitors. Mrs. Waterford now bleated that some odd characters had passed through her house lately, with strange accents, other languages, fierce mustaches. “I think they were Polish. There’s lots of them now, flying with the RAF. They’re brave lads, very well thought of, but they like to get out into the countryside on leave.”
Interesting, Isabel thought, but I don’t think so. None of the squadrons manned by Poles are near here. Who else could it be? She pondered, then remembered that many ethnic Germans lived in western Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other border territories. Surely, some would be bilingual. When they infiltrated into the United Kingdom, posing as Polish airmen would provide an excellent cover identity. And since acquiring housing would be a problem, given the bureaucratic complexities of wartime, what better place to hide than a big, old, and unoccupied manor house? It provided space for living, storage and lots of interior rooms where lights would not be visible from outside. Best of all, it was only a few miles from the huge and strategically important Portsmouth naval base, probably a prime target of saboteurs.
Excited, Isabel went to her room, wrote a long letter to Jeffry, explaining her findings and suspicions. She posted it straightaway, confident that Jeffry would have it the next day.
She had a longish nap, then strolled over to the local pub for a fish and chips lunch. Nigel Kingsborough remembered her well, asking what she was up to these days. “Well,” she told him, “I’m a journalist now for a small paper whose main function is helping keep up civilian morale as the war goes on. There are more defeatists than you might suspect.”
Nigel agreed, saying he fully supported the work of people like herself, and asked what she was working on now. “Actually, I’m just visiting my home turf for a few days,” she said, “but back in London I’m writing up the exploits and heroism of the Polish airmen who’ve joined the RAF. Are you familiar with them?”
“Oh, for sure,” Nigel said. “Some of them come over from Portsmouth on leave days. Nice chaps. Hard to understand, but they like British beer. Some even say it’s better than German, which I thought was kind of odd.”
Isabel chatted with him for a while longer, hiding her exultation at what she was discovering. Tomorrow, she told herself, I’m going to follow that letter to London, to talk with Jeffry, and “Mr. Somerville”, in person. Maybe Jeff and I will celebrate.
Next day Isabel woke early, bothered by troubled thoughts. Thoughts that maybe she needed to double check the recent clues before seeing Jeffry and ‘Mr. Somerville’. She felt she needed to know more about who was apparently staying in, or at least sometimes stopping in, the old manor? And was anyone using the wine cellar?
“Oh what tangled lives we lead, when not known which clues to heed,” she said aloud. “Now we even have the RAF and the Poles involved. Or do we?”
Maybe it’s time to go back to square one, Isabel thought. She decided it was time for another visit to the wine cellar. After dark she made her way to the manor’s cellar door,
now known so well that she got there by the light of the moon. As she made her way, in the dark inside, with only the bit of light provided by her mini purse torch to find her way, there were no signs of lights nor sounds of activity as she snuck in and checked out the cellar. So she decided to hide on a stack of canvas, in a storage shelving area, where she could keep an eye on things without being seen.
Isabel was just about to doze off when she heard voices.
Isabel, startled, focused her attention, and listened. Male voices rumbled above, punctuated by laughter, they wafted down the staircase into the cellar. She held her breath and waited. She withdrew the gun from her pocket, gazed at it in her shaking hand, checked the ammunition chamber, and pocketed it again.
A door above banged shut and boots clomped down the stairs. Her nerves settled a bit as she reasoned … they won't see me in this dark room, but I'll get a good look through the open doorway when lights come on down here. Sure enough, bulbs blazed overhead as one, by one, switches were activated – who knew this place so well?
More relaxed now, she concentrated on trying to hear the conversation. At first, she was confused – they were not speaking English; then, a realization – these blokes were German! Nazis! Shocked, but excited, she stretched around peering into the cellar to get a better look.
At that moment, Nigel walked by leading the way; two of them, and him. A quick intake of breath drew the attention of one man to her hideout. He peered inside as Isabel shrunk into the shadows behind the pile of canvas and prayed to stay undetected.
Kingsborough waved his two companions into the back where the vintage wines were stored. She heard the clinking of bottles as they picked through their options. A few minutes later, the group emerged carrying dusty vessels cradled in the crook of each arm.
Without warning, she sneezed.
"Swienhunt ," one of the men swore. They stormed the storage area as Nigel pulled the cord of a dangling light switch. She came out from behind the pile of canvas, dusting her skirts as she emerged. Nigel laughed, nervously, said something in German to the other two, and nodded toward her. After a gesturing exchange, Nigel volunteered, "Does her ladyship need something from down here?" Turning to the other two men, he said, "This is Isabel, her ladyship's private secretary; may I present Miss Isabel Wren. Miss Isabel, these are two Polish Airmen billeted here by permission of his Lordship."
Isabel held her composure and replied, "yes, they are short of canvas cots at the emergency center and I was estimating the supply of old canvas fabric we have here to use at the shelter." She had slipped her torch out of her sack and shone it on the pile. "I couldn't locate the light chain," she explained, having been caught inexplicably in the dark.
Just then a commotion erupted upstairs; running feet drummed upon the wooden floors, people shouted. Someone called out, "this way; it's this way." Bill flung open the cellar door with Fred close behind him, followed by three, armed, militia, their guns drawn.
The Nazis dropped the bottles onto the sandy floor and raised their arms. Nigel stammered, "Thank, God," but placed his hands over his head. Jeffry arrived shortly after and ran to Isabel. "Are you okay, ducky," he asked.
"I am fine; fine," she replied with a little quiver in her voice. His big arms encircled her shoulders which began to shake.
Nigel and the two "Polish" Airman were escorted out at gunpoint. Fred sat down on the bottom stair and wiped perspiration from his brow. "Take 'er easy there, old chap," Bill offered. You did your job well and good for a retired bloke."
"It were close, too close," Fred muttered, "... and to think it were all my fault."
"Now, now, Fred, it were’nt. How were you t’no we were putting this little lass in harm's way. You’d no way of knowing she'd be here until we informed that there lad, Jeffry, when he came by. Right good, he’d a feeling she'd be coming here."
Isabel extricated herself from Jeffry's arms and ran over and hugged old Fred. "You were just doing your job, telling Bill about the lights to extract a reaction from Nigel. Good thing Sutherland looked into it.
Bill owned that he had dropped the information on Nigel in an effort to illicit some information. Then, he decided to risk a confrontation in the tower and climbed up there to have a look. It was the only way to check if anyone was taking up lodging while the manor was vacant. Harold must have discovered the truth on his routine rounds, to have been eliminated. He had been a faithful butler and a valued agent, but it had cost him his life.
"What about Nigel?" Isabel asked. "Did he know what he was doing or was he duped by those men posing as “Polish” airmen while spying on us Brits? He seemed to be covering for me when they discovered me in the storage room. His excuse for my being there probably saved my life."
So far as I can tell," Bill said, "Nigel was on the take...he thought he could pick up a few quid by putting them fellas up at the manor. He was missing the fine lifestyle he enjoyed at the Squire's expense before the war. Not to worry your pretty head; the War Department’ll figure it all out."