A Turbulent Peace
Following the armistice, Mary Kiten, a volunteer nurse in northern France, is ready to return home to England when she receives a surprise telegram requesting that she report to Paris. The call comes from her Uncle Arthur, a security chief at the Peace Conference.
Within minutes of arriving at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, Mary hears a commotion in the street outside. A man has been shot and killed. She is horrified to earn that the victim is her uncle. The police report the attack as a chance robbery by a known thief, who is tracked down and killed resisting arrest.
Mary is not convinced. Circumstances and the gunshot wound do not indicate theft as a motive. A scribbled address on Arthur’s notepad leads to her discovery of another body, a Russian Bolshevik. She suspects her uncle, and the Russian, were murdered by the same hand.
To investigate further, Mary takes a position working for the British Treasury, headed by J M Keynes.
But Mary soon finds herself in the backstreets of Paris and the criminal underworld.
What she discovers will threaten the foundations of the congress.
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Enjoy an Excerpt:
We passed Avenue Beaucour and turned right into Rue Daru, which was clear of pedestrians. The gate to the church was padlocked, but the iron railings were low enough for Adam to vault over. Then he reached, grabbed me under my arms and hoisted me over before I had time to protest or gather my skirts – graceless but effective. The thin layer of snow lent an unnatural hush to the air as we crept to a corner of the church and peered around to ensure we were alone.
We trod carefully and in silence to the storage building. There was no light from inside. Our next challenge was the lock on the door down the sunken stairwell. Adam had brought a trench torch with him, which he shone on the door when we reached the foot of the stairs. It was locked with a chain and small padlock. I hadn’t thought how we might overcome locked doors. I suppose I assumed that Adam would use brute force to gain entry.
‘Hairpin?’ he whispered.
‘Hairpin? What… oh, sorry, I see.’ I reached back, removed a pin from near the nape of my neck and handed it to Adam. I held the torch while he poked and prodded the padlock. I was surprised when it opened easily in a matter of seconds.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’
‘Never mind.’ He answered. ‘Have you got your gun?’
‘Aye, aye, sir.’
The door scraped and creaked. Too loud. Slowly. We squeezed inside a crack in the open door barely wide enough to fit Adam. Holding our breath, we halted, checked all was still and silent, then inch-by-inch closed the door. A smell immediately gripped my senses, an acrid, pungent scent that stung the back of my throat. Adam pressed the lever on his torch. The space was big, too big for the feeble light of the torch to illuminate more than a fraction of the interior. What appeared to be oiled sheets were piled over two mounds to our left. On our right side were blocks of stone, a jumble of ironware and reams of coiled rope. Storage for stonemasons, I assumed. Adam handed me the torch and heaved at the oiled sheets. They were heavy, and it took some grunting and pulling before he uncovered one of the mounds. Barrels; five of them.
I put a gloved hand to my mouth. ‘What is that terrible whiff? It reeks.’
‘So… does that mean they contain some sort of explosive?’ In my mind, barrels were associated with either beer or bangs. Ever since I overheard the word ‘barils’ in Bar L’Espoir, I had been dreading a discovery of explosives, having seen too much of the grisly damage inflicted on the human body from bombs, mines, grenades and various other explosive devices. The last thing I wanted was a close encounter with those barrels. I shuddered, my knees trembled, and an icy chill pricked my toes, fingers and face.
‘Yes, probably some mix of ammonium nitrate.’ He lifted the sheets on the other mound to reveal more barrels. ‘That is a hell of a lot of high explosives – maybe a dozen barrels.’
‘Who would… what could be their purpose… and the target?’ I struggled to form words to express my disgust at the intended use of the barrels.
‘Who knows, but we should inform the police straight away so they can seal this place off and render the barrels harmless.’ He lifted his torch and shone an arc around where we stood. At least one half of the building remained cloaked in darkness. ‘We should get out of here, Mary; it’s too dangerous. High explosives like ammonal and amatol are unstable.’
‘Wait.’ I sniffed the air. There was something else in the air – the putrid stench of human waste.
‘If we go now and the police clean up this place, we may foil whatever destruction is planned, but we don’t solve the murders. We can’t touch Sazanov and Fournier for this.’
‘And we can’t do anything about them if we are blown sky-high. I don’t like it here.’
‘Neither do I.’ I took a couple of steps into the dark and sniffed again. ‘Hand me your torch, Adam. I will be quick. I just want to check over here. It stinks. Can’t you smell it?’
There was nothing in the centre to hinder my progress. I made my way slowly towards the far wall. On my right were more blocks of stone. The stench was getting stronger. I followed my nose to a break in the blocks of stone. I moved closer and shone the torch on a bundle of rags, ropes and chains. I put a handkerchief to my mouth and kicked at the rags with my foot. Nothing. Something small and metallic nestled on a soiled woollen blanket. It looked like a tin cup. I picked it up between thumb and forefinger. A spoon was inside. I replaced them carefully on the blankets, and then I noticed a bucket in the corner. Ugh! I had found the source of the stink.
Adam hissed a warning to hurry. I turned to head back, took a step and froze. Had I imagined it? A noise. A low moaning. A groan. Again. I bent and picked at the heap of rags. Something moved. I shifted a heavy layer of rough, damp wool and shone the torch. I scrabbled at the pile with more urgency. More muted sounds. A human voice? Ah! I lurched back. Shock. Disbelief. I called to Adam and held the torch to light his way.
‘What is it?’ He was impatient, exasperated with my delay.
‘What the hell…?’
I knelt and shone the torch at a face – an unkempt, bruised, unshaven face coated in grime. A hand was shielding eyes from the light of the torch. The wrist was manacled and chained. Adam joined me, picked up the chain and followed it to a block of stone. Two lengths of chain were fixed fast in the rock. Both wrists were manacled, and it seemed the chain length gave enough movement to use the bucket.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
The only response was an unintelligible croak and feeble attempts with an arm to re-cover himself with the rags I had loosened. I searched for his feet. I found one, then the other, both covered in filthy socks. Mercifully, his ankles were not chained or tied with rope.
‘Help me, Adam. His flesh is icy cold. We must cover him well until we can free him.’
He grabbed and hoisted what could have been the man’s tattered jacket so that I could place blankets underneath the stone floor; then, we wrapped him tightly. The blankets and cloths were damp and soiled but better than nothing. I put my fingers to his neck, searching for a pulse. It was there but faint.
‘Here, try this.’ Adam handed me a leather pouch.
Why? I looked closer, and the pouch opened to reveal a small, silver hip flask. I opened it and inhaled. Whisky. Normally, I would run a mile to escape the fumes, but it was heavenly, overpowering all the other odours around me. I knelt on the floor, grabbed a bundle of cloths with one arm, put the other under his body and tried to lift him. He wasn’t heavy, but his cocooned bulk was awkward, and Adam had to assist before we had the upper half of his body upright and ready to drink. I put the flask to his lips and urged him to drink. There was no reaction. His eyes were shut, and he appeared to be asleep or unconscious. I slapped his face gently and tried again, pouring a few drops between his lips. There – movement. His lips twitched, the tip of a tongue searched for traces of nectar. I poured a little more. Too much. His body convulsed and a croaking, wheezing noise was his attempt to cough. His eyes opened. I waited until the spasms subsided and he seemed settled.
‘Who are you? What is your name?’
He tried to speak. I put my ear to his mouth.
‘What did he say?’ asked Adam.
‘Brinkov. His name is Georgi Brinkov.’
Paul Walker lives in a village 30 miles north of London where he is a full-time writer of fiction and part-time director of an education trust. His writing in a posh garden shed is regularly disrupted by children, a growing number of grandchildren and several dogs.
Paul writes historical fiction. The William Constable series of historical thrillers is based around real characters and events in the late sixteenth century. The first two books in the series – “State of Treason” and “A Necessary Killing”, were published in 2019. The third book, titled “The Queen’s Devil”, was published in the summer of 2020.
Travel forward a few hundred years from Tudor England to January 1919 in Paris and the setting for Paul’s latest book, “A Turbulent Peace”. The focus of the World is on the Peace Conference after WW1 armistice. Add a dash of Spanish Flu, the fallout from the Russian Revolution, and you have a background primed for intrigue as nations strive for territory, power and money.
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