In the 1930s, the Nazi government of Germany, bitterly resentful at having lost the 1914 war, determined to destroy its traditional enemy, France. Force of arms lay in the future, but a small bureau in the Reich Foreign Ministry undertook operations to weaken French morale and degrade France’s will to defend herself. This strategy, using ancient and well-proven methods, was known as political warfare.
IN PARIS, the evenings of September are sometimes warm, excessively gentle, and, in the magic particular to that city, irresistibly seductive. The autumn of 1938 began in just such weather and on the terraces of the best cafés, in the famous restaurants, at the dinner parties one wished to attend, the conversation was, of necessity, lively and smart: fashion, cinema, love affairs, politics, and, yes, the possibility of war—that too had its moment. Almost anything, really, except money. Or, rather, German money. A curious silence, for hundreds of millions of francs—tens of millions of dollars—had been paid to some of the most distinguished citizens of France since Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933. But maybe not so curious, because those who had taken the money were aware of a certain shadow in these transactions and, in that shadow, the people who require darkness for the kind of work they do.
After an uncomfortable call from his creditors,
he took the
money and ran
The distinguished citizens, had they been willing to talk about it, would have admitted that the Germans, the political operatives who offered the bounty, were surprisingly adept. They knew how to soften a conscience, presenting bribery as little more than a form of sophisticated commerce, of the sort that evolves in salons and offices and the private rooms of banks—a gentleman’s treason. And the operatives could depend on one hard-edged principle: Those who style themselves as men of the world know there is an iron fist in every velvet glove, understand what might await them in the shadows, and, having decided to play the game, they will obey its rules. Still, human nature being what it is, there will forever be somebody, won’t there, who will not.
ONE SUCH, on the 14th of September, was a rising political star called Prideaux. Had he been in Paris that evening, he would have been having drinks at Fouquet with a Spanish marquis, a diplomat, after which he could have chosen between two good dinner parties: one in the quarter clustered around the Palais Bourbon, the other in a lovely old mansion up in Passy. It was destiny, Prideaux believed, that he spend his evenings in such exalted places. And, he thought, if destiny had a shred of mercy left in its cold heart, he would just now be hailing a taxi. Destiny, however, had other things in mind for the future and didn’t care a bit what became of Prideaux. Who felt, in his heart, terribly wronged. This shouldn’t be happening to him, not to him, the famously clever Louis Prideaux, chef de cabinet—technically chief of staff, but far more powerful—to an important senator in Paris. Well, it had happened. As tout Paris left for the August migration to the countryside, Prideaux had been forced to admit that his elegant world was doomed to collapse (expensive mistress, borrowed money, vengeful wife), and so he’d fled, desperate for a new life, finding himself on the night of the 14th in Varna, the Black Sea port of Bulgaria. Bulgaria! Prideaux fell back on his lumpy bed at a waterfront hotel, crushed by loss: the row of beautiful suits in his armoire; the apartment windows that looked out at the Seine; the slim, white hands of his aristocratic—by birth, not behavior—mistress. All gone, all gone. For a moment he actually contemplated weeping, but then his fingers, dangling over the side of the bed, touched the supple leather of his valise. For Prideaux, the life preserver in a stormy sea: a million francs. A soothing, restorative million francs.
This money, German money, had been meant for the senator, so that he might influence the recommendation of a defense committee, which had for some time been considering a large outlay for construction on the northern extension of the Maginot Line. Up into Belgium, the Ardennes Forest, where the Germans had attacked in 1914. A decision of such magnitude, he would tell the committee, should not be made precipitously; it needed more time, it should be studied, pros and cons worked through by technicians who understood the whole complicated business. Later, the committee would decide. Was it not wise to delay a little? That’s what the people of France demanded of them: not rash expenditure, wisdom.
All that August, Prideaux had temporized: What to do? The suitcase of money for the senator had reached Prideaux by way of a prominent hostess, a German baroness named von Reschke, who’d settled in Paris a few years earlier and, using wealth and connection, had become the ruling despot of one of the loftiest salons in the city. The baroness spent the summer at her château near Versailles and there, in the drawing room, had handed Prideaux an envelope. Inside, a claim ticket for the baggage office at the Gare de Lyon railway station. “This is for you-know-who,” she’d said, ever the coquette, flirting with the handsome Prideaux. He’d collected the suitcase for the senator and hidden it under a couch, where it gave off a magnetic energy—he could feel its presence. Its potential.
The senator was in Cap Ferrat, wouldn’t return until the third of September, and Prideaux sweated through hot August nights of temptation. Sometimes he thought he might resist, but the forces of catastrophe were waiting and they wouldn’t wait long: his wife’s ferocious lawyer; the shady individuals who’d loaned him money when the banks no longer would; and his cruel mistress, whose passion was kindled by expensive wines with expensive dinners and expensive jewelry to wear at the table. When unappeased she was cold, no bed. And while what happened in that bed was the best thing that had ever happened to Prideaux, it would soon be only a memory.
He had to escape before it all came crashing down on him. Take the money, Prideaux’s devil whispered. The Germans have more where that came from. Go to, say, Istanbul, where a perfect new identity could be purchased. Then, on to exotic climes—Alexandria? Johannesburg? Quebec? A visit to a travel agency revealed that a Greek freighter, the Olympios, took on a few passengers at the Bulgarian port of Varna, easily reached by train from Paris. Stay? Or go? Prideaux couldn’t decide. But then, after an exceptionally uncomfortable telephone call from one of his creditors, he took the money and ran. Before anyone came looking for him.
But they were looking for him. In fact, they’d found him.
The senator had been approached on September 5, in his office. No, the package hadn’t arrived. Was there a problem? His chef de cabinet was up at a resort in Deauville; he had telephoned and would return in a few days. The committee meeting? The senator consulted his calendar. That would be on the 11th. Surely, by then…
In Berlin, at von Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry, the people at the political warfare bureau found this news troubling, and spoke to the bribery people, who were very troubled indeed. So much so that, just to make sure, they got in touch with a dependable friend, a detective at the Sûreté Nationale—the French security service—and asked him to lend a hand. For the detective, an easy job. Prideaux wasn’t in Deauville, according to his concierge, he was staying indoors. The concierge rubbed her thumb across the pads of her index and middle fingers and raised an eyebrow—money, it meant. And that gesture did it. At the Foreign Ministry they had a meeting and, by day’s end, a discussion—not at the ministry—with Herbert.
SLIM, WELL-DRESSED, QUIET, Herbert made no particular impression on anybody he met; probably he was some kind of businessman, though he never quite got around to saying what he did. Perhaps you’d meet him again, perhaps you wouldn’t; it didn’t particularly matter. He circulated comfortably at the midlevel of Berlin society, turning up here and there, invited or not—and what could you do? You couldn’t ask him to leave. Anyhow, nobody ever did, and he was always pleasant. There were, however, a few individuals in Berlin—those with uncommonly sharp instincts, those who somehow heard interesting things—who met Herbert only once. They didn’t precisely avoid him, not overtly; they just weren’t where he was or, if they were, they soon had to be elsewhere and, all courtesy, vanished.
What did they know? They didn’t know much; in fact they’d better not. Because Herbert had a certain vocation, supposedly secret to all but those who made use of his services. Exceptional services: silent, and efficient. For example, surveillance on Prideaux was in place within hours of Herbert’s meeting with his contact at the Foreign Ministry, and Prideaux was not entirely alone as he climbed aboard the first of the trains that would take him to Varna. Where Herbert, informed of Prideaux’s booking on the Olympios, awaited him. Herbert and his second in command, one Lothar, had hired a plane and pilot and flown to an airfield near Varna a night earlier, and on the evening of the 14th, they called off their associates and sent them back to wherever they came from. The Greek freighter was not expected at the dock until the 16th and would likely be late, so Prideaux wasn’t going anywhere.
He really wasn’t.
Which meant Herbert and Lothar could relax. For a while, at least, as only one final task lay ahead of them and they had a spare hour or two. Why not have fun in the interim? They had a contact scheduled at a local nightclub and so went looking for it, working their way through a maze of dockside streets; dark, twisting lanes decorated with broken glass and scented with urine, where in time they came upon an iron door beneath a board that said Uncle Boris.
Inside, Herbert handed the maître d’ a fistful of leva notes, and the one-eyed monster showed them to a table in the corner, said something amusing in Bulgarian, laughed, made as though to slap Herbert on the back, then didn’t. The two Germans settled in to drink mastika and enjoy the show, keeping an eye on the door as they awaited the appearance of their “brute,” as they playfully referred to him. Their brute for this operation—Herbert rarely used them more than once.
Lothar was fiftyish, fat and jolly, with tufts of dark red hair and a red face. Like Herbert, he’d been a junior officer during the Great War, the 1914 war; they never met in the trenches—with five million men under arms an unlikely possibility—but found each other later, in one of the many veterans’ organizations that formed in Germany after the defeat of 1918. They fought a little more in the 1920s after joining a militia, killing off the communists who were trying to take over the country. By the early 1930s Herbert had discovered his true vocation and enlisted Lothar as his second in command. A wise choice—Lothar was all business when it mattered but he was also good company. As the nightclub show unfolded, he nudged Herbert with an elbow and rumbled with baritone laughter.
In a space cleared of chairs and tables, a novelty act from somewhere in the Balkans: a two-man canvas horse that danced and capered, the front and rear halves in perfect harmony. Done well, this was by itself entertaining, but what made it memorable was a girl, in scanty, spangled costume, who played the accordion as she stood center stage on a pair of very sexy legs. The men in the club found them enticing, bare and shapely, as
did the canvas horse, which danced nearer and nearer to the girl, the head lunging and feinting as though to nuzzle her thighs, then turning to the audience: Shall I?
Oh yes! The shouts were in Bulgarian but there was no question what they meant.
“Will it have her?” Herbert said.
“I should think so,” Lothar said. “Otherwise, people will throw things.”
The one-eyed monster brought fresh mastika, the shouts grew louder, the accordion played on. At last, the horse found its courage and, having galloped around the girl a few times, stood in back of her on its hind legs with its hooves on her shoulders. The girl never missed a beat, but then, when the horse covered her breasts with its hooves, and to the absolute delight of the audience, she blushed, her face turning pink, her eyes closing as the horse began to move in a rhythmic manner familiar to all.
A LITTLE AFTER 10 o’clock, a white-haired man with a skull for a face entered the nightclub and peered around the room. When Herbert beckoned to him, he approached the table and stood there a moment while the attentive one-eyed monster brought a chair and an extra glass. “You would be Aleksey?” Herbert said. “The Russian?”
“That’s right.” German was the second language of eastern Europe and Aleksey seemed comfortable speaking it.
“So I’m called—there are many other Alekseys. How did you recognize me?”
“My associate in Belgrade sent me a photograph.”
“I don’t remember him taking a photograph.”
Herbert’s shrug was eloquent; they did what they wanted to do. “In security work,” he said, “it’s important to take precautions.”
“Yes, of course it is,” Aleksey said, letting them know he wasn’t intimidated.
“Your contract with us calls for payment in Swiss francs, once you’ve done your job, is that right?”
“Yes. Two thousand Swiss francs.”
“If I may ask,” Herbert said, “of what army a general?”
“The Russian army, the tsar’s army. Not the Bolsheviks.”
“So, after 1917, you emigrated to Belgrade.”
“ ‘Emigrated’ is barely the word. But, yes, I went to Belgrade, to the émigré community there. Fellow Slavs, the Serbians, all that.”
“Do you have with you…what you’ll need?”
“Yes. Small but dependable.”
“As you ordered.”
“Good. My colleague and I are going out for a while. When we return it will be time for you to do your work. You’ve done it before, we’re told.”
“I’ve done many things, as I don’t care to sweep floors, and Belgrade has more than enough émigré taxi drivers.” He paused a moment, then said, “So…”
From Herbert, a nod of approval. To the question he’d asked, an oblique answer was apparently the preferred answer. As General Aleksey poured himself some mastika, Herbert met Lothar’s eyes and gestured toward the door. To Aleksey he said, “We have an errand to run. When we return we’ll tell you where to go. Meanwhile, the floorshow should start up again any time now. You may find it amusing.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Not too long,” Herbert said, rising to leave.
PRIDEAUX HAD PACKED in a hurry, forgetting his pajama bottoms, and now wore the top and his underdrawers. Alone in a foreign city, he was terribly bored, by 10 in the evening had read, for the third time, his last French newspaper. He was also hungry—the desk clerk had brought him a plate of something that couldn’t be eaten—so smoked the last of his Gitanes followed by the first of a packet he’d bought at the Varna railway station. Surely he couldn’t go anywhere; a nighttime tour of the Varna waterfront with a million francs in a valise was an invitation to disaster. Stretching out on the bed, he stared at the ceiling, tried not to recall his former life, and fantasized about his new one. Rich and mysterious, he drew the attention of women…
A reverie interrupted by two hesitant taps on the door. Now what?
Somebody from the hotel; if he remained quiet, perhaps they would go away. They didn’t. Thirty seconds later, more taps. He rose from the bed and considered putting on his trousers but thought, Who cares what servants see? and stayed as he was. Standing at the door, he said, “Who is it?”
“The desk clerk, sir.”
“What do you want?”
No answer. Out in the harbor, a ship sounded its horn. From the room above, the floorboards creaked as somebody moved about. Finally, whoever was in the hall again tapped on the door. Prideaux opened it. The man in the hallway was slim and well dressed and not a desk clerk. Gently but firmly, the man pushed the door open, then closed it behind him as he entered the room. “Monsieur Prideaux?” he said. “May we speak for a moment?” His French was correct, his accent barbaric. He looked around for a chair but there was no such thing to be found, not in this room, so he settled at the foot of the bed while Prideaux sat by the headboard.
Prideaux’s heart was beating hard, and he hoped desperately that this was something other than what he suspected. “You’re not the desk clerk, sir.”
Herbert, his expression on the mournful side, shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “I am not.”
“Then who are you?” But for the whine in his voice, this would have been indignant.
Herbert said, “Think of me as a courier.”
“A courier. I’ve come here to recover something that belongs to us—it certainly doesn’t belong to you.”
Prideaux looked puzzled. “What are you talking about?”
Herbert, no more than slightly irritated, simply said, “Please.”
“I don’t know what you want, sir, I simply got fed up with life in Paris and came down here. How does that concern you, whoever you are?”
Herbert turned toward the window. This was growing tiresome.
“I hope there’s no need for violence, Monsieur Prideaux. My associates are downstairs but please don’t force me to bring them up here. Better that way, believe me. I am, as I said, a courier, and my instructions are to take the money you’ve stolen back to Berlin. After that, we don’t care what you do or where you go, it doesn’t concern us.”
Prideaux collapsed very slowly; the hauteur in his expression drained away, his shoulders slumped, and finally his head lowered so that he stared at the floor.
Herbert took no pleasure in this—a show of humiliation was, to him, unbearable weakness. And what might come next, he wondered. Tears? Hysterics? Aggression? Whatever it might be, he didn’t want to see it. “I’m sure,” he said, his voice reaching for sympathy, “there was a reason. There’s always a reason.”
Prideaux started to rise, but Herbert stood up quickly, raised a hand like a traffic policeman stopping a car, and a defeated Prideaux sat obediently back down on the bed. Herbert stayed on his feet, stared at Prideaux for a moment, then said, “Monsieur Prideaux, I think it will be easier for both of us if you simply tell me where the money is. Really, much easier.”
It took a few seconds—Prideaux had to get control of himself—then he said, so quietly that Herbert could only just hear the words, “Under the bed.”
Herbert slid the valise from beneath the bed, undid the buckles, and peered inside. “Where are your personal things?” he said.
Prideaux gestured toward another valise, standing open at the foot of the bed.
“Did you put any of the money in there? Have you spent some of it? Or is it all, every franc of it, in here? Best now to be truthful.”
“It’s all there,” Prideaux said.
Herbert closed the valise and pulled the straps tight. “Well, we’ll see. I’m going to take this money away and count it and, if you’ve been honest with me I’ll be back, and I’ll give you a few hundred francs—at least something for wherever you’re going next. Shall I tell you why?”
Prideaux, staring at the floor, didn’t answer.
“It’s because people like you can be useful, in certain situations, and people like you never have enough money. So, when such people help us out, with whatever we might need, we are always generous. Very generous indeed.”
Herbert let this sink in. It took some time, but Prideaux eventually said, “What if I’m…far away?”
Herbert smiled. Prideaux’s eyes were cast down so he didn’t see the smile, which was just as well. “Monsieur Prideaux,” Herbert said, as though he were saying poor Monsieur Prideaux, “there is no such thing as far away.” Then he stepped into the hall and drew the door shut behind him.
HERBERT HAD LEFT LOTHAR to watch the hotel. Likely unnecessary but why take chances. Prideaux, he thought, had taken the bait and would remain where he was. Herbert then returned to the nightclub, told General Aleksey where to find Prideaux and described him, in his pajama top and underdrawers. Thirty minutes later, as the canvas horse capered and danced to the music of the accordion, Lothar and the Russian returned. Herbert counted out two thousand Swiss francs, General Aleksey put the money in his pocket, wished them a pleasant evening, and walked out the door.
Alan Furst’s bestselling historical spy novels have been translated into 18 languages. This excerpt is from Mission to Paris, copyright © 2012 by Alan Furst, published by arrangement with Random House.