Authors: Elly Griffiths
In May 1940 Edgar had been part of the Allied expeditionary force sent to Narvik in Norway. The idea was that the land troops would take advantage of the naval success of HMS
and repel the invading German army. The reality, though, had been very different. Edgar would never forget his first view of Norway. From the deck of the troop ship the jagged, icy landscape seemed like something from another planet. He had seen snow before, had made snowmen in his Esher front garden, had sledged down hills on a tin tray with Jonathan yelling in his ear. But this, this slogging march through snow that came up to his waist, was something else entirely. The Norwegian troops had skis and, to Edgar, they seemed liked mythical creatures, a snowy form of centaur. The French troops seemed almost as unprepared as the British, and the so-called Polish mountain specialists had had no cold-weather training at all. They marched on, watching war planes take off from frozen lakes, finding their way blocked by snowfall and by glaciers and fjords whose
existence seemed to come as a complete surprise to their commanders. For all of them it was their first experience of war and, for many, it was also their last.
Edgar was eventually evacuated by an aircraft carrier. He was lucky; the aircraft carrier
, carrying returning troops and evacuated Hurricane bombers, was torpedoed and sunk. All in all, the Norway campaign was considered a complete failure and led to a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In fact, Edgar liked to say, without Norway and that first shock of actual battle, Winston Churchill might never have become prime minister. Ironic, really, as Churchill had been one of the major architects of the Norway debacle. Edgar himself was sent to hospital with severe frostbite and was fortunate to escape with nothing worse than the loss of a toe.
After Norway, Edgar was determined never to fight on land again. He decided to volunteer for the RAF. He liked the idea of being in the air, free and clear amongst the clouds, and never getting his feet wet. He had never even been in a plane, much less flown one, but how difficult could it really be? Besides, Jonathan had just been killed, and nothing seemed very important any more. Helped by a sympathetic commanding officer, Edgar applied to Victory House and was told to present himself for interview.
Edgar was recuperating at a hospital in Kent so he took the train to Charing Cross, planning to walk to Kingsway and the RAF headquarters. The train was full of evacuees, so a kindly guard told him to have a seat in first class. He
still remembered the slight thrill of pleasure as he took his seat in the compartment, empty apart from one other man, and opened his paper at the cryptic crossword. One down: Hankers after a name in time. Edgar wrote the answer in block capitals. YEARNS. It was a fairly straightforward puzzle that day, and his pen flew across the paper.
‘Excuse me?’ Edgar looked up and saw the man opposite smiling at him. He was tall, with iron-grey hair, the sort of person who looks military even when dressed in civilian clothes.
‘I couldn’t help noticing,’ said the man, ‘that you’ve almost finished the crossword and we’re not out of the station yet.’
Edgar remembered feeling rather embarrassed, as if doing the crossword were a sign of a useless, dilettante life. ‘I’ve been convalescing,’ he said. ‘I suppose I’ve had rather too much practice.’
Under the man’s sympathetic gaze, he told him about Norway, about the RAF, even about Jonathan.
‘Have you ever thought about the Secret Service?’
Edgar remembered that he had laughed aloud. The Secret Service? People didn’t just join the Secret Service: you probably had to put your name down at birth like you did for Eton.
‘Why not?’ said the man mildly. ‘You told me that you were studying at Oxford and you’ve obviously got an eye for code-breaking.’ He gestured at the crossword. He leant across and presented Edgar with a card. Colonel Peter Cartwright, MI5.
Two days later, Edgar sat in a dingy room near Shepherd’s Bush, being briefed about his new assignment.
‘It’s an experiment really,’ said Colonel Cartwright. ‘The enemy are in Norway. Well, you know that better than anyone. They may well turn their eyes to the Highlands of Scotland. Remember the attack on the Firth of Forth at the start of the war? And there are some important armament factories in Scotland. We have to make them think that the coast is defended, that we’re prepared for an invasion. I’m sending you to the RAF base at Inverness.’
we prepared for an invasion, sir?’
Colonel Cartwright had laughed. ‘No, of course not. But it’s your job to make them think that we are. There’ll be a special team to help you.’
‘What sort of team?’
Another laugh. ‘I think I’d better let you discover that for yourself.’
Edgar first saw them from the train. Coming into Inverness, tired and travel-stained after the long journey, he had looked out of the window and seen two men on the platform. Though it was nine in the morning, one of the men was in full evening dress. The other, who was considerably older, was wearing a private’s uniform topped by a straw hat. The two WAAFs who were sharing Edgar’s carriage cheered up immediately.
‘That’s Max Mephisto, the magician.’
‘Isn’t he staying at the Cally? Part of that hush-hush team.’
The first girl laughed crudely. ‘I don’t know, but he can saw me in half any time.’
Edgar had looked curiously at the dinner-jacketed man. He was drinking from a hip flask now. The older man said something, and Max Mephisto passed him the flask with a laugh. Then, to Edgar’s surprise, he took a pack of cards from his pocket and shuffled them casually, without looking. The older man sat down, rather abruptly, on a bench. Then he took off his hat and wiped his brow. Edgar’s first thought was that they both looked rather seedy. He hoped they wouldn’t be part of the team. The top-secret team that was, it seemed, known to everyone.
But, as Edgar hauled his heavy case along the platform, Max put the cards away and strode towards him.
‘Captain Stephens? We’ve been sent to meet you.’
Edgar took the proffered hand and found himself looking into a pair of amused brown eyes.
‘I’m Max Mephisto. This is Stan Parks, otherwise known as The Great Diablo.’
‘Charmed, I’m sure.’ The older man remained seated. ‘Excuse me if I don’t get up. Max and I had rather a heavy night last night.’ He took a deep swig from the flask.
‘Get up, you old reprobate,’ said Max. ‘We’ve been told to make a good impression on Captain Stephens.’
He smiled sardonically as Diablo limped forward to shake hands. Edgar was taken aback when the old man leant in close and asked, with a powerful blast of brandy breath, ‘Are you one of us?’
Edgar looked at him blankly.
‘One of the
,’ mouthed Diablo.
‘He means are you a magician?’ said Max, picking up the case.
‘Oh,’ said Edgar. ‘No. Regular army.’
‘Fascinating.’ The old man peered at him as if he were an interesting – though potentially repulsive – specimen.
‘Come on,’ said Max, over his shoulder, ‘you’re staying at the Cally. I’ve got transport.’
As they followed Max to the front of the station, where a jeep was waiting, Diablo whispered loudly in Edgar’s ear, ‘Word of warning, my boy. If you’re playing cards with Max, never take your eyes off his hands.’
The team convened in the bar that evening. Max was in uniform and Edgar was surprised to see that he was a captain. Diablo, silk scarf rakishly round his neck, was deep in conversation with a young man in civvies. Everything about the man, from his wide pinstripes to his trilby, screamed ‘spiv’, so Edgar was surprised when he was introduced as ‘Private Tony Mulholland, another member of our merry band.’
‘Are you a magician too?’ asked Edgar.
Tony Mulholland drew himself up as if affronted. ‘I was only top of the bill at the Liverpool Empire. Tony “The Mind” Mulholland.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Edgar humbly.
‘Don’t mind him, dear boy,’ said Diablo. ‘He’s a civilian.’ This was said without apparent irony.
They were soon joined by Major Gormley and a thickset man introduced as ‘Sergeant Bill Cosgrove, he’s our carpentry whizz-kid. Massingham has the ideas and Cosgrove puts them into action.’
‘Or into wood,’ added Diablo in a stage whisper.
The Major organised drinks with brusque efficiency and there, in the lounge bar, with the stag heads staring sorrowfully down at them, he outlined the mission ahead.
‘Enemy are in Norway, only a few miles away. We can’t attack, we haven’t even got the sea power to have a warship on patrol. But we’ve got to persuade them that, not only are we bristling with guns and boats, we’re weeks away from invasion. So the idea is to employ some
. Sleight of hand, I believe you fellows call it.’ He glared round at the group: Max shuffling his cards again, Diablo picking his teeth, Tony smoking, Bill watching calmly.
‘Captain Massingham here …’ it took Edgar a few moments to realise that he meant Max, ‘has had some success with camouflage in North Africa. Private Parks,’ he gestured towards Diablo, ‘knows about stagecraft and suchlike. Private Mulholland is to help with the psychological aspects. Sergeant Cosgrove is in charge of construction.’
Edgar thought that it was time to say something that had been on his mind for several hours.
‘What am I here for, sir?’
‘You,’ said the Major gloomily, ‘are the brains of the outfit.’
Tony Mulholland let out a guffaw. Max grinned into his card-deck.
‘What shall we call ourselves?’ said Diablo. ‘Better think up a dashed good name.’
‘I don’t care,’ said the Major, having exhausted his eloquence. ‘As long as you don’t call yourselves the bloody Magic Men.’
Much later, after Max had produced a rabbit from Diablo’s straw hat and won five pounds from Edgar playing cards, Major Gormley announced that he was going to bed.
‘Don’t stay up drinking until all hours. And you, Massingham, don’t play cards with the locals.’
The only other occupants of the bar were an elderly man and a dog. Max looked across at them. ‘I think the locals are safe.’
‘Watch the dog,’ said Diablo. ‘It’s probably a plant.’
With the departure of the senior officer, the atmosphere swiftly became raucous. Diablo told Edgar that he’d once been a serious actor, ‘People still talk about my Hamlet.’ He then juggled with three ashtrays, breaking one. Tony, whisky in hand, embarked on a long story about a WAAF and an orange. Edgar remembered watching them with a mixture of dislike and envy. What did these men know about fighting? About Jonathan, dying on the beach at Dunkirk. About Norway and the endless march through the snow, soldiers falling to freeze to death where they lay. They were tricksters, charlatans. They had never done a useful day’s work in their lives and now they had secured this cosy little berth where they could sit out the war, drinking all day and carousing all night. There was
about as much chance of this bunch being able to think up a decent plan to trick the enemy as there was of Edgar being able to work out how the hell Max had produced the rabbit. And where was the animal now? He looked round, feeling confused and disorientated. He would not have been surprised to find the rabbit sitting next to him, checking the time on its pocket watch.
But the occupant of the next seat was Bill. He smiled at Edgar as if he knew something of what he was thinking. ‘Rum bunch, aren’t they?’
Edgar agreed that they were.
‘Mulholland’s a spiv, of course. Apparently he’s meant to be able to read minds. Don’t know about that. Never seen him read anything. Diablo’s an old soak. They say he was a good magician once, but he’s all washed up now. Don’t know what he’s doing here, to be honest.’
‘What about Max Mephisto?’
‘Ah, Mephisto. He’s a hell of a fellow. In Egypt there was this imam, a whirling dervish or some such thing. The imam controlled the route from Cairo through Palestine to Syria. He was refusing to let our troops set foot on his land, said he’d start a holy war if necessary. Mephisto met with him and apparently levitated the imam’s servant right up to the ceiling. The old dervish was so impressed he let our chaps through. That’s how Mephisto got to be a captain.’
Hearing his name, Max looked round. After a few moments he came to join them, placing a fresh whisky in front of Edgar.
‘Thanks,’ said Edgar stiffly. ‘But I’ve had enough.’
‘You’ve had enough of all of us, I imagine,’ said Max. ‘The only answer is to have another drink.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Edgar. ‘It’s just that it all seems crazy to me. How can we stop the Nazis by … by magic?’
Max didn’t answer. Instead, he leant forward and cleared a space on the table, brushing away the remnants of Diablo’s ashtray. Then he took the cards out of his pocket, placed one in the centre of the table, face down. Then, a little way away, he placed four more cards, also face down.
‘Which is the important card?’ he asked.
Edgar pointed at the centre card. Max turned it over. Two of hearts. ‘No,’ he said, pointing at one of the four others. ‘Put something in the centre, create a space around it, and it becomes important. This card, one of the outer ones, is the important one.’ He turned it over. Ace of hearts. ‘By putting it with others, it loses significance. Misdirection. We can make the enemy look where we want him to look. And that’s important.’
How? Edgar wanted to ask. But Bill, who was obviously deeply impressed by Max, asked, ‘Is it true that Hitler actually mentioned you personally, Max?’
Max laughed. ‘Yes. When I was in Egypt, he apparently said that he wanted to make me disappear in a puff of smoke. And, to be fair, he did try to blow me up once or twice.’ He looked across at Edgar. ‘The Germans believe in magic. They’ve got a word, ‘
’. It means being able to feel something in your fingers, to sense
it before it happens. Hitler’s superstitious – the man employs five astrologers, after all – but he also knows the power of totemic objects and symbols. The swastika was an ancient fertility symbol and the SS badge is modelled on the mythical runic alphabet. Have you heard of the Spear of Destiny?’