Saltmeade Farm, Suffolk, England
28 August 1952, 05:50
HIS father had a special name for it: Hiobsbotschaft. From the Old Testament, Job’s news. The type of news you didn’t want to hear. News brought on the wind of shipwrecks. Or by breathless messengers arriving with the dawn.
In an instant Burton was awake. He had never slept well, not since he was a child. Outside he heard the sound again.
He moved to the curtains, drew them open a sliver, and peered out – like an archer at the window of a besieged castle. The sun was pink and fresh on the horizon. It had rained again in the night.
Another whump: the sound of wheels as they hit potholes in the driveway. Burton had been meaning to fill them in for months, to make everything perfect for Madeleine. Except now maybe she wasn’t coming. Why else would someone be driving to his door at this hour unless to bring bad news?
The car was a Daimler, the latest model, its paintwork brighter than vinyl. As it approached Burton made out two figures inside: a chauffeur and passenger in the back. The passenger’s face was obscured by a newspaper. Or maybe a large, unfolded map.
Burton let the curtains close gently, so as not to draw attention to the movement, and picked up his clothes from the floor. Corduroy trousers (no time for smalls), yesterday’s shirt. He strode to the door – then hesitated.
These people could be anyone. Maybe they’d come to repay some act of violence. Maybe they were just a diversion: shiny car at the front while men with balaclavas and pistols sneaked round the back. That’s how Burton would have done it.
He reached underneath the bed to a jewellery box: there were no gems inside, just his gun. It was a Browning HP, one he’d acquired in French West Africa years before. Not that there was a French Africa any more. Nowadays it was marked red, white and black on the map; a forbidden territory of sand dunes and hearsay.
The Browning felt solid in his hand. Reassuring. Its grip was made from engraved ivory.
Madeleine had kept asking him to get rid of the gun before Alice came to visit again. She didn’t want a weapon in the house with a child, even if it was hidden. Burton agreed but never quite got round to doing it. For once he was glad of having too many chores. There was no clip, but he hoped to rely on its effect rather than actually pulling the trigger.
The car was close now.
Burton tucked the gun into the waistband at the back of his trousers, hiding it beneath his shirt, and hurried downstairs.
By the back door he paused to yank on his boots, then slipped out into the morning. The air smelt of dewy grass and cattle; there were no masked men waiting. With only a shirt on Burton felt his skin prickle and shrink; he ignored the sensation. He half crouched and using a low wall for cover darted to the front of the house, thinking how ridiculous he’d look if his visitors were making a social call.
The Daimler had come to a halt outside the farmhouse, the chauffeur already opening the door for his passenger. The man in the back got out. He was dressed as sombre as a banker, had silver, brilliantined hair with a razor parting. Only his skin suggested a life beyond a desk. The man strode to the house and rapped on the door.
Burton recognised the accent at once: Rhodesian, possibly South African, somewhere from the Transvaal. As far as he knew Madeleine had no connection with the colonies. Perhaps it wasn’t anything to do with her. He adjusted the Browning in his waistband.
‘Maybe he’s not up yet, sir,’ suggested the driver. ‘It’s still early.’
‘These type of people never sleep. Too much on their conscience. And never enough under the mattress.’ The Rhodesian chuckled at his own wit. He knocked again, harder this time. ‘Major Cole!’
‘Actually, I sleep very well,’ said Burton, appearing from behind the wall.
If the Rhodesian was startled, he made no show of it. Instead he turned deliberately from the door and appraised the man opposite him.
Burton imagined what he saw: old, army-issue shirt, trousers spattered with mud and creosote, wheat-blond hair far too long to be respectable. Five days of beard; Burton loathed shaving. Only his eyes might suggest something of his background. They were blue-grey, the colour of an autumn afternoon. Calm but alert. Hard as a rifle butt.
‘Yes.’ Burton’s own voice was soft but growly with the nowhere accent of his upbringing: English, German, African.
The Rhodesian moved to greet him, sending out a waft of citrus cologne. ‘My name is Donald Ackerman. I wish I didn’t have to call so early but I’ve important business.’
Burton felt a sudden tightness in his chest.
There was something about the way he’d said ‘important business’. Burton had a flash of Madeleine lying cold and colourless, Alice tugging at her hair not understanding why Mummy was so still. Hiobsbotschaft after all. He took Ackerman’s hand and shook it. It was warm and chalky.
‘Is there somewhere we can talk?’ Ackerman motioned towards the house. ‘Somewhere private.’
Burton didn’t move.
He’d bought the farm wholesale, complete with its cracked-brick floor and old man’s furniture. Had no choice but to keep everything (except the crucifix above the bed). Maddie never seemed to care, but if there was a connection between her and the Rhodesian, Burton didn’t want him to see the interior and make any assumptions. Assumptions that he couldn’t provide for Madeleine, especially after the luxury she was accustomed to.
‘Come with me,’ said Burton, leading him away from the door.
Ackerman lingered for a moment, then followed.
Physical discomfort was something Burton had long grown used to. The one thing he couldn’t bear, however, was boots without socks. In his rush to get outside he hadn’t put any on. Now, with each step, he felt his soles rub against grainy leather, felt his nails catch on the toecap. The boots themselves, like the Browning, were another acquisition – this time from the carnage of Dunkirk. He’d pulled them off a dead German paratrooper and they fitted as if measured for his own feet.
‘You don’t seem like your average farmer,’ said Ackerman as they trudged towards the orchards. Ahead were rows of vranja quinces and apples; ravens watched them from the branches.
‘It’s a new life,’ replied Burton.
‘And you own this place?’
Something about his tone made Burton suspect the Rhodesian already knew the answer. He came to a halt by a quince tree. ‘Like you said, Mr Ackerman, it’s early. And I’ve got a lot to do. What is it you want to talk about?’
‘A business proposition.’
So not news about Madeleine. ‘Unless it’s about my crop,’ he said, ‘I’m not interested.’
‘I haven’t come all this way to buy fruit, Major. Besides, your quinces aren’t ready yet.’
‘Another month, I know.’ It never ceased to amaze Burton how the details of the seasons had come to capture his enthusiasm. That was Maddie’s doing, she made him see the world like a child once more.
Ackerman spoke again. ‘I represent certain… “interests” in Northern Rhodesia.’ He said it as if struggling to find the right word, though Burton guessed this was a long-prepared patter. ‘LMC, to be precise. Lusaka Mineral Concessions. We need you to do a job for us. Head up a team of commandos—’
‘I’ve already told you, I’m not interested.’
‘Assassination? What are you talking about?’
‘Come, Major. You have a certain reputation – Dunkirk, Tana, Stanleyville to name but a few. Why do you think I’m here?’
Definitely not about Madeleine.If she were here she’d already be yelling at Ackerman, her fists in balls, black hair flying.
‘Mr Ackerman, I suggest you leave. Now.’
‘You will of course be paid...’ again he searched for a well-prepared word, ‘“handsomely” for your services.’
Burton laughed. ‘There’s nothing you could pay me.’
Ackerman didn’t reply. Instead he reached inside his jacket and withdrew a small leather box. He handed it over. ‘My business,’ he said.
Burton opened the case and fought the urge to gasp.
‘That’s just a down payment. To secure your interest. You’ll get the same again on acceptance of the job. Double if you complete it… “satisfactorily”.’ He made it sound like homework.
‘How do I know they’re not fakes?’
Burton looked at the diamonds. There were five of them, each the size of peas.
Five plus five plus ten. A fortune.
He could pay off the loan on the farm. There’d even be enough for new furniture. No more making love on that mildewy mattress for him and Maddie. And he could buy her a dressing table, something antique, French, none of that imported German kitsch. And chesterfields for the drawing room. And a pony for Alice so maybe she wouldn’t hate coming here so much…
Burton closed the box and handed it back. ‘It’s a very generous offer, Mr Ackerman. A few years ago I’d have taken you up on it quick-flash. Not any more.’
‘It’s not enough?’
‘My life is here now, no more killing. At any price.’
The Rhodesian chuckled to himself. ‘You’re going to give mercenaries a bad name.’
‘I’m sorry to disappoint.’
‘Nevertheless, I still expect you to head up our team.’
‘I’m not heading up anything. I want to stay here, work the land.’ Burton suddenly thought of his former comrades and the ribbing he’d have got for declaring that. ‘Maybe even settle down.’
‘That’s all very endearing, Major Cole. But I think marriage is perhaps a fantasy too far.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Madeleine. I’m sure her husband won’t give his blessing. I hear he’s a very jealous man.’
Burton clenched his hand together until the knuckles stung. In his mind he saw himself grab the Browning. Force the gun hard against the Rhodesian’s gullet. Cock the trigger. Demand to be told how he knew. Instead, he remained impassive except for a slight tic in his jaw.
‘So that’s why you’re here.’
‘No,’ replied Ackerman. ‘The Kassai diamond fields, German Kongo.’
‘Kongo? I don’t want anything to do with Africa. Not any more.’
‘How very British of you.’
‘The Nazis fucked it up... and we let them.’
‘Exactly why your talents are required now.’
‘You want me to kill someone,’ said Burton. ‘Why? There are a thousand men out there who could do it.’
‘But none so good.’
‘There are plenty better. Pulling the trigger was always my last resort, not profession.’
Ackerman snorted. ‘Now you’re just being modest.’
‘No cold blood. Ever.’
‘Hot blood, cold blood. It’s still blood. Besides, we feel you’d be more “committed” to the task than anyone else, especially when you learn the target.’
‘I told you: I’m done with all that.’
‘You’ll change your mind.’
‘Mr Ackerman,’ said Burton, struggling to find some gritted patience, ‘I don’t want your diamonds. And Madeleine and me is my business. I want you to leave. Now. I’m not going to tell you again.’
But when the Rhodesian failed to move, it was Burton who turned and strode away. The Browning felt sweaty against the small of his back.
Ackerman called after him: ‘I’ve got news of an old acquaintance of yours, Major. A friend.’
‘They’re all dead.’
‘Not this one.’
Burton ignored him.
‘The man we want you to kill is – Walter E. Hochburg.’
Burton stopped solid.
It was as if his entire body – every muscle, every sinew, every pulsing vein and nerve – had turned to stone. Although the sun was continuing its ascent everything suddenly seemed darker: the fields, the trees, the farmhouse he so desperately wanted to make a home for Madeleine. The thought of her in front of the fire, toasting crumpets, flickered through his mind; they were both looking forward to their first autumn here. He pushed the image away. As far away as he could. So help him, God.
Very slowly he twisted to face Ackerman. ‘What did you say?’ He spoke as if his breath had been stolen.
‘I think you heard me well enough.’
From close by came the croaking of a raven.
Burton tried to laugh. ‘It can’t be. Hochburg died years ago. In a fire.’
‘Let me assure you, Major, he’s still very much alive.’
‘Alive and now the Governor General of Kongo—’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Burton. There was the slightest catch to his words.
‘Don’t you want the details? What we’re proposing is danger itself. And what about your quinces?’ He might have been joking with him now. ‘And Madeleine? She’s arriving later today, isn’t she? I rushed to get here first.’
But Burton was deaf to everything Ackerman had to say.
‘I’ll do it,’ he repeated.
This time his voice was unflinching.