Going through some old files the other night, I stumbled across the opening of a thriller set in WW2 London I began about two years ago but never finished. I still have a good idea where the story could go. Who knows? I may give it another try in the not-too-distant future. This is rough, unedited copy. You’ll see the word “BLANK” appears in some sentences . . . this is because I wasn’t sure what to place there!
The working title for this was “Midnight Men.” Like I said, I may give it another go. Without further ado . . .
“If you ask me,” Detective Inspector Michael Bishop said, “it’ll take a bloody miracle to win this war.”
“Don’t let Winston hear you say that,” joked his detective-sergeant, a stout, bullish man named William Terrence—“Terry” to everyone.
The two men sat in a Coventry Street pub, enjoying their regularly scheduled drink. The unpredictable nature of police work meant both men found comfort in their set routines.
“How many years have you been on the job?” Bishop asked over the rim of his glass.
“More than I care to remember.”
“I’ve been doing it for twenty two years—twelve of them staring at bodies,” Bishop said. “We both deal in cold facts and assemble them one by one into concrete certainties. That is what policemen do, Terence, and the facts as they relate to our, England’s, current predicament speak for themselves. I’m not a pessimist; I simply resign myself to life’s harsh realities.”
“Lower your voice,” Terence said with good humor. “Talk like that might get you shot.”
“So be it,” Bishop roared. “I admire decisive action.”
Bishop downed the contents of his glass, ordered two more at the bar and cursed silently when the air raid sirens began. He imagined the bombers taking off from captured airfields in BLANK and BLANK, flying over the English Channel, crossing the southern coast at Dover and following the moonlit ribbon of the Thames to London. In the early days of summer, before the first bombs fell, his wife and two young sons had left the city for a distant corner of Lincolnshire where his in-laws owned a small country pub. He traveled to see them when he could and often heard British bombers taking off from the nearby RAF airfield, roaring over the village in the twilight of evening, young men winging their way toward an unknown fate. Some nights, he lay awake in bed and listened for their return, his vigil surrendering to a silent dawn. Other times, he heard the approach of sputtering engines and the painful grinding of flak-damaged machinery cough its way across the sky.
“This is a damn foolish business on both sides,” he said, returning to the table and placing a full glass in front of Terence. The younger man reached for the coat draped over the back of his chair and appeared ready to leave.
“Don’t be in such a rush,” Bishop said, sitting down. “They’ll no doubt hit the East End again.”
The Luftwaffe had bombed St. Katherine’s Dock three nights running. By day, thick plumes of black smoke clawed the leaden sky; at night, the burning warehouses, supply depots and docks served as a homing beacon for the bombers above.
Bishop took another sip of drink and looked about the room. The barman carried on business as usual, wiping the beer taps with a wet rag. At the nondescript wooden tables, and in the old leather booths, most customers appeared content to stick it out with their wine and beer.
“To fine English stock,” Bishop raised his glass.
Terence shot a glance over Bishop’s shoulder. The detective turned in his chair and saw a couple, their drinks abandoned, scurry from the pub to no doubt find shelter.
“That saddens me, Terence,” Bishop said, his mood somber again. “Have you spent a night in the Underground? The air from the tunnels, a thousand bodies sweating in close proximity—it smells God-awful down there. That bloody Hitler has us living like troglodytes.”
Terence stared into his beer and made a mental note to look up troglodyte.
“At the Dorchester,” he said, “they’ve built a gas-proof shelter in the basement for government ministers and important guests. It has waiters and a fully stocked bar.”
“Must be nice,” said Bishop. “London burns, and our betters are no doubt sipping expensive brandy.”
Terence looked quizzically at the two pints on the table between them
“This is different,” Bishop said and reached for his glass. “Beer’s the drink of the working class.”
Terence shrugged and raised his glass. Having transferred to Scotland Yard’s CID from T Division (Hammersmith) six months prior, he was growing accustomed to Bishop’s self-serving logic.
“Whatever gets you through the night.”
Outside The Fox, the street was nearly deserted, save the odd shadowy figure milling about. Many Londoners rushed after work to catch the homebound bus or train. Meals were devoured quickly and a few meager possessions packed for a night in the shelter. Lighting a cigarette, Bishop thought not for the first time that life had become equal parts comforting routine and apocalyptic horror—but even the nightly raids and the destruction they wrought were slowly becoming part of the norm. Above the black outlines of buildings, sweeping columns of blue and white light canvassed the sky. The sirens continued to howl.
“The Devil always gives warning,” Bishop said.
“I suppose,” Terence replied, “the bloody Germans say the same thing about us.”
“Indeed,” Bishop sighed.