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The Proteus Operation
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Even the sinking of the Royal Oak had been "a pretty good show by Raeder’s chaps," in Portel’s opinion. Ferracini was incredulous as he listened. It was all still a game of king-size cricket. A sporting, "Well hit, sir!" had been earned by the other side. It didn’t seem to have registered that what had been knocked for six was over eight hundred British sailors.

But at least the British were doing something, he reflected.

"What do people in America think?" Cox asked him.

Ferracini had to answer, "To be honest, most of them have forgotten there’s a war on over here at all."

There were innumerable stops and delays, and it was dark when the train arrived at King’s Cross Station. They emerged, stumbling over curbstones and sandbags, into an eerie, black, treacherous world of unseen steps, corners, and lampposts, vaguely outlined buildings, and shuffling bodies. Pedestrians materialized suddenly in the gloom, most of them carrying flashlights and wearing at least one piece of white clothing, usually an armband, coat, hat, or scarf. In the roadway itself, drivers cautiously inched their way forward, guided only by thin pencils of light coming through slits cut in their headlight masks.

Portel vanished into the murk to find a cab. How, Ferracini couldn’t imagine. "Man, oh, man, I never realized Broadway was so beautiful," Cassidy’s voice muttered from somewhere behind as they stood waiting.

Portel evidently knew the ropes and reappeared after what seemed a miraculously short time with a taxicab, into which Cox squeezed with half the group. Then, to prove it hadn’t been a fluke, Portel repeated the performance by finding another cab for the rest. Twenty minutes later, they were all reunited at the Kensington Garden Hotel near the Albert Hall. Rooms had already been booked, and Major Warren and Gordon Selby were waiting to welcome them. While the arrivals from New York went upstairs to clean up and change into fresh clothes, Portel and Cox went for a quick "noggin" in the bar with Warren and Selby; then, their charges safely delivered, the two British officers departed. The others reassembled for a late dinner, which Warren had arranged to be served in a private room.

"It’s a lot different here from Manhattan," Gordon Selby said as they sat down. "I still haven’t figured out how the cabbies find their way around at all."

"Doesn’t anyone talk about anything else but the blackout?" Ryan asked.

Selby grinned apologetically. "I must be picking up English habits already," he admitted. "The big scare’s over, so now they grumble—about the food rationing, about the Civil Defense people sitting at their posts and drinking tea with nothing to do all day, about the lousy benefits that the wives of the guys who are drafted get paid. . . ." He nodded. "But sure, mostly about the blackout."

"How about the trains—have you tried them yet?" Cassidy said. "They’re really something."

"But in this England, we just walked on," Lamson reminded him. "We didn’t need any travel permits stamped by the local Polizeif├╝hrer. The Gestapo weren’t on the train checking papers. That’s something, too."

"That’s a point," Cassidy agreed.

"The saddest part’s the big toy stores," Selby said. "They’re all trying to keep up a business-as-usual face with lonely Santas sitting around among mountains of train sets and dolls, but there aren’t any kids. They were all evacuated out of the cities at the beginning."

"But they are starting to trickle back in again, especially with the time of year," Warren added.

One lump of sugar for the coffee was allowed per cup. Each person received one pat of butter and one of margarine for the rolls, and the waiter pointed out which was which.

Ferracini turned his head to scan the room after the waiter had left. "Is this place safe to talk?" he asked.

Warren nodded. "It’s okay. We checked it before you guys arrived."

"Then about the mission—what happens next?" Ferracini asked. At last—this, of course, was what had been burning in all their minds.

"We’re gonna go in and take out Ay-dolf’s return-gate," Cassidy said before Warren or Selby could reply. "Why act like you don’t know, Harry? None of us thinks we came along just for the ride."

Nevertheless, all eyes remained fixed on Major Warren. He seemed unsurprised. Nobody had expected him to be. He nodded.

"Where is it?" Payne asked.

Warren frowned in the act of raising his fork to his mouth, and hesitated. "You’ve all come a long way, and the subject isn’t really appropriate to this evening," he said. "Leave it until tomorrow, okay? It’s going to be a busy day. First thing in the morning, we’ll be coming back here to pick you up for breakfast with Claud, Anna, and Arthur. After that, you’re all going to meet Churchill and Professor Lindemann for a preliminary briefing."

"Is that when we get to meet the British half of the act?" Ryan inquired.

Warren shook his head. "Forget it." The others exchanged puzzled glances.

"There isn’t going to be any British half," Selby explained.

"Just us—everyone here except Gordon," Warren said. "He has to stick around to help get a bomb program moving if we don’t make it."

Ryan frowned. "So what happened to this idea of getting British replacements for the backups we were supposed to have gotten from JFK back in July?"

"That’s out," Warren said. "The politics between the British and the French stinks. The generals are all playing ostrich with their heads stuck in the last war. The staff in London doesn’t get along with their commander in France. He doesn’t get along with the French, and none of them gets along with the war minister. Some of them have even started bitching behind each other’s back direct to the King." Warren shook his head. "It’s all a mess. I’ve talked about it with Claud, and we’ve agreed we’d be better off staying out and running our own firm in our own way."

Six men were going to pit themselves against what was probably the most secret and heavily protected place in Europe—or, very likely, anywhere. Ferracini slumped back as the enormity of what Warren was saying hit him. He caught Cassidy’s eye for a second, and for once even Cassidy seemed dazed. Selby, watching, attributed their expressions to fatigue. "Anyhow, you guys have come a long way. Let’s save it all for tomorrow and try to get some sleep tonight, eh?" It was all right for Selby. Selby wouldn’t be going.

Cassidy leaned back in his chair. "Just us, period, or will we be using local contacts?" he asked.

Warren waved his hand decisively in front of his face. "Not another word about it until tomorrow morning," he ordered. "Gordon, tell us again what you were saying earlier about that crazy horse and cart."

"There’s a famous old firm of hatters in London, called Scott’s," Selby told the table. "They’ve always used a horse-drawn delivery van—a kind of tradition now. It’s very distinguished, with nice woodwork all painted and varnished, and liveried coachman and footman in cockaded top hats.

"Well, I saw it this morning trotting down Bond Street with everything just the same as usual, except that the guys have traded their hats for steel helmets—I guess until the war’s over." He shook his head. "These people . . . I don’t know . . . I’m not sure it’s so inevitable that Hitler will walk all over them. Sometimes I still think it could go either way."

"We all know what happened last time," Lamson drawled laconically.

"True, but they were under the wrong management," Selby said. Then he added, "If only something could be done about that. . . ."

Payne caught the curious note in his voice. "What are you trying to say?" he asked.

Selby glanced uncertainly at Warren. Warren gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, and Selby steered the conversation to other things.

Later in the evening, after the dinner party had broken up and the others had turned in for the night, Ferracini, Cassidy, and Ed Payne caught Selby on his own in a quiet corner of the lobby. "What did you mean earlier, Gordon, when you said something about changing the management?" Payne asked as they sat down around him at a table.

"Oh, nothing really . . ."

"Who do you think you’re kidding?" Cassidy said. "Come on, give. We’re curious."

Selby hesitated, then emitted a long sigh and nodded. "Anna’s convinced that Claud and Arthur are up to something that they’re not letting on about," he said, lowering his voice. "Claud has taken more key people into his confidence over the gate and what’s going on in the U.S. He says it’s to stiffen the country’s morale, but Anna doesn’t think that’s the main reason."

"What does she think, then?" Ferracini asked.

"That Claud’s meddling again," Selby said. "It gives him direct access to more of the nation’s policy shapers. He’s having dinner tonight with Lord Salisbury and Leopold Amery, which is why he wasn’t here. They’re both among the people who have been saying some pretty tough things about the way the government’s been handling the war so far. You see, it broadens Claud’s base for pulling political strings. Chamberlain might be a sincere guy and all that, but he’s just not a war leader. Churchill’s the only one with any fighting spirit in the whole War Cabinet. Anna called him ‘a cuckoo put in a nest of baby hedge-sparrows.’ Now she thinks Claud is carrying out preparatory maneuvers to capitalize on having gotten Churchill in there."

"You mean some of the sparrows might be kicked out before much longer?" Payne said.

"That," Selby agreed. He paused for a moment. "Unless the idea is to bring down the entire British government, which might explain why Claud and Arthur are being so secretive."

The others stared at him incredulously. "Surely not?" Payne protested. "Not even Claud would try to pull off anything as audacious as that."

Selby smiled in a strange, humorless kind of way. "That’s exactly what I told Anna," he said.

"And what did she say?" Payne asked.

"She agreed," Selby replied. "She said her imagination must have been running away with her. Why, it would be almost as audacious as trying to go back in time to change history!"

 
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