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Authors: Robert Ryan

The Dead Can Wait

BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
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By the same author:

Underdogs

Nine Mil

Trans Am

Early One Morning

The Blue Noon

Night Crossing

After Midnight

The Last Sunrise

Dying Day

Empire of Sand

Death on the Ice

Signal Red

Dead Man’s Land

As Tom Neale:

Steel Rain

Copper Kiss

Silver Skin

Black Cross

First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2014
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © Robert Ryan 2014

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.

The right of Robert Ryan to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
1st Floor
222 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8HB

www.simonandschuster.co.uk

Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney
Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

HB ISBN: 978-1-47110-117-5
TPB ISBN: 978-1-47110-118-2
EBOOK ISBN: 978-1-47110-120-5

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon CR0 4YY

To Gina

And for her godmother, Christine

Taten statt Worte,

Zähne statt Tränen

‘Deeds not Words, Teeth not Tears’

Motto of the
Sie Wölfe
Special Naval Unit 1916–7

‘Which is it to-day?’ I asked. ‘Morphine or cocaine?’ Holmes raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. ‘It is cocaine,’ he said, ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’

from
The Sign of Four
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

THE DEAD CAN WAIT

Contents

 

PROLOGUE

PART ONE 10–29 JULY 1916

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

PART TWO 11–15 AUGUST 1916

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

PART THREE 16–19 AUGUST 1916

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

PART FOUR 1–16 SEPTEMBER 1916

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

FORTY

FORTY-ONE

FORTY-TWO

FORTY-THREE

FORTY-FOUR

FORTY-FIVE

FORTY-SIX

FORTY-SEVEN

FORTY-EIGHT

FORTY-NINE

FIFTY

FIFTY-ONE

EPILOGUE

AUTHOR’S NOTE

PROLOGUE

 

The orderlies carried the six bodies down the steps of the sunken ice house that lay half hidden in the grounds of the Suffolk stately home. The commanding officer of the ‘special’ unit that had displaced the owner and his retinue from the Hall stood at the bottom of the stairs, watching the orderlies manhandle the stiffening forms, grunting with the effort as they laid out the dead on the stone flags. Each of the deceased was tightly swaddled in a waxed groundsheet.
They look like latter-day mummies
, the colonel thought grimly.

The officer lit a cigarette. There was a smell of decay in the air that the smoke would help mask. Not from the six bodies – these poor souls had been dead only a matter of hours – but from the ice house itself, part of which had doubled as hanging rooms for the estate’s bag of venison, partridge and pheasant in the years before the outbreak of war. A persistent sharp, gamey tang tainted the atmosphere.

It would be high summer soon enough, and the colonel didn’t want the dead men adding to the stink before they could be properly examined. Hence he directed the orderlies to move them to the coldest corner of the subterranean chamber.
Examined for what, though?

The colonel tried to keep his jaw set and his face impassive as the orderlies neatened up the row of cadavers, moving the legs so they were absolutely parallel, as if this were some kind of Best Laid Corpse competition. Inside, though, his stomach was a bucket of eels. He had been entrusted with the secret project that was intended to bring a swift resolution to the war, to see it all over by Christmas 1916, to consign the horror of the trenches, the slaughter of the Somme, to a hideous but fading memory. Yet out there, in the grounds of the house, in front of generals and politicians and even minor bloody royalty,
this
had happened. Six dead, two others reduced to jibbering lunatics.

Oh, they had managed to cover it up as quickly and smoothly as possible, postponing the test for ‘technical reasons’, and the bodies were only removed once the viewing stands had been cleared of the dignitaries. Still, it was both an acute embarrassment and a serious setback.
And a damn sight worse for six dead members of the Machine Gun Corps,
he reminded himself. What on earth would he tell the next of kin? ‘Died for King and Country’ would have to do, wrapped in a bow of the usual platitudes.

The colonel’s job now was to keep a lid on this, to get to the bottom of the deaths before someone decided to stop throwing good money – and men – after bad. To save the project at all cost. He dismissed the orderlies, warning them, on pain of the most severe punishments he could threaten, not to reveal or discuss anything they had seen that day. Exile, imprisonment and disgrace awaited those who betrayed his trust.

He smoked on, staring down at the shrouded forms for a few minutes. The flickering oil lamps had turned the groundsheets a glossy, sickly yellow-green. The very colour he himself felt. He could taste bile in his mouth. The colonel tossed the remains of his cigarette onto the stone flags and ground it out with the toe of his boot. He did this rather longer than was necessary to extinguish it.

There was a polite cough behind him and he turned, wondering how long he had had company. It was the unit’s intelligence officer, a deep frown corrugating his youthful brow.

‘Yes?’ the colonel demanded.

‘Trenton just expired,’ said the young man.

Seven, then
.

Seven dead men in one afternoon.
And then there was one
. The colonel muttered a particularly fruity oath. ‘Get him brought down here, quick as you can. Who was with him?’

‘The new nurse.’

‘Well, make sure she keeps her mouth shut. Let’s be clear: I don’t want anyone outside the main committee to know about this until we are certain what is behind it. I am not letting two years’ worth of work go to waste because of an unfortunate’ – he looked at the bodies and shivered. The perpetual chill of the ice house was penetrating his bones – ‘accident,’ he finished.

‘But how do we find out what happened out there?’ asked the intelligence officer, glancing over his shoulder.

‘We have to hope the survivor talks.’ The remaining man was the least affected by whatever malaise had struck the eight. He had settled into being merely comatose. ‘Hitchcock, isn’t it?’ asked the colonel.

The younger man nodded. ‘And if he doesn’t talk?’

The colonel considered this for a moment. ‘Then we’ll find someone who will make him.’

PART ONE

10–29 JULY 1916

ONE

 

The sound of the bell was an icicle plunged into his heart. At the first few notes, shivers racked his body and his pulse raced like a rodent’s; a prickling sweat broke out, beading his forehead and wetting his palms. A sense of blind panic threatened to overwhelm him as the ringing grew in intensity and then abruptly stopped. The ominous silence that followed was somehow even more threatening.

The gas alarm.

Time to mask up. Major John H. Watson of the Royal Army Medical Corps stepped away from the young lad he had been treating up at the regimental aid post and looked down beneath the trestle table. His gas mask case was not there. He had tripped over it too many times. He had hung it outside, he remembered, on the trench wall. If this was a genuine attack, he needed that mask.

The bell resumed its warning again, seemingly more urgent than before. He heard the bellow of the company sergeant major. ‘Gas! Gas! Gas! Come on, lads, snap to it if you want to keep y’lungs on the inside where they belong.’

There was only one other patient in the dugout, and he didn’t need a mask. He had breathed his last. The RAMC orderly next to the poor lad, who had been preparing the corpse for burial, was busy struggling with his own rubber and canvas respirator.

‘Orderly, when you have done that, get a mask on this man too!’ Watson shouted, indicating his own patient. ‘It’ll be with his rifle. I’m going to fetch my nosebag.’

Watson stepped out from the low-roofed aid station, his feet slithering for purchase on the slimy and worn duckboards. In front of him, on the opposite side of the trench, was a recess, where metal hooks had been screwed into the supporting timbers, forming a primitive open-air wardrobe. From the hooks hung a motley assortment of capes, caps, helmets and coats, but no gas masks.

A figure thumped into Watson and he was spun round, scrabbling to retain his footing. The man, a lieutenant, made goggle-eyed by his air purifier, apologized in a muffled voice and indicated that Watson should protect his face. The junior officer pointed upwards, towards the pale blue of the early morning sky. Like a sly fog, the first tendrils of greyish-green gas were creeping over the sandbags of the parapet. Watson felt his eyes prickle and sting.

Not again. Not chlorine gas again
.

BOOK: The Dead Can Wait
8.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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