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The War Journal of J. Harker

FROM THE WAR JOURNAL OF J. HARKER (transcribed from shorthand) 

APRIL 24, 1941

             Some bloody spy I turned out to be.  Not behind enemy lines three days and I was on my way to a prisoner-of-war camp to sit out the rest of the war.  King and country would be so proud - not to mention my mum.

            Of course, I could just get shot.  The thought did cross my mind.  More than once.  Maybe every ten seconds or so.  I had no idea who had nabbed me.  The hood over my head was completely opaque and cinched at my neck.  The raw burlap was rubbing the skin around my throat, causing an irritating burn.  The least of my worries, I kept reminding myself but the chafing was extreme.  Plus, I was re-breathing my own hot breath over and over, creating a suffocating claustrophobia.  I tried not to hyper-ventilate as I knew I would pass out from oxygen deprivation.  My hands were bound behind my back, otherwise I would have been clawing at the damned sack like the trapped animal that I was.

            I called out to my Sergeant a few times and received no answer, not that he could have responded or would have in his current state.  I assumed that he was similarly trussed.  Rough hands manhandled me out of the paddock where we had spent the night.  The thugs who awakened us so rudely trundled me into the back of some vehicle, a lorry of some sort.  I found myself lying upon a steel bed reeking of manure and hay.  There was also a sharp odor of diesel fuel and I heard the rhythmic rattling of a four-cylinder engine.  I bounced about the hard floor like a marble in a cigar box, rapping my skull more than once.  Nothing like tenderizing the meat before tossing it into the cooking pot.

            There were a few stops, more than a few turns.  I tried to keep track of the twists and turns, but soon lost any sense of distance or direction.  I could hear other engines, some passing.  I could hear voices, but just a murmur, no words that I could make out.

            After a while, time was immeasurable, the lorry stopped and I was dragged across the floor and hoisted by my shoulders and feet like I was a sack of grain.  I felt a brief flash of warmth as the sun seeped through the bag over my head, then darkness again as I was carried down a flight of stairs, my abductors grunting with the effort.  I was put on my feet and eased into a sitting position on a hard chair.  Retreating feet climbed the stairs, I heard a door close with the creaking of hinges moaning for a bit of oil and then I was left alone for what seemed like hours.

            The possible loss of my life or years of imprisonment were nullified by an even more pressing concern.  During this whole ordeal my bladder was near bursting.  I am a man of habits, one of those being the emptying of such organ first thing every morning upon waking.  Subsequently, the trip in the lorry was a circle of hell for me, every bump and jolt had been like somebody beating my bladder with a truncheon.  Sitting in that chair, the wood jabbing into my bones, the urge became all encompassing and finally, to my dismay and profound embarrassment and, I have to admit, some relief, nature took its course.  I almost wept in shame.

            So, when I finally heard footsteps descend the stairs and that cursed hood was at last removed, I felt no solace.  I was more worried about my abashed condition than any consequences from being caught a spy.  I crossed my legs, attempting to hide my offense.  My hands were unbound and I felt the sting of blood returning to those extremities.  That pain was increased by the wounds in my palms and I could barely contain an anguished cry.  I was determined not to allow my captors the benefit of my suffering.

            It took a minute for my eyes to adjust and when they did I saw that I was ringed by three men, one holding my own pistol, not exactly pointed at me but his eyes were vigilant.  He wore a beret and sported a Stalinist mustache that drooped at the ends.  Another man, tall with a military bearing, grey hair in a brush cut, was untying my Sergeant, who sat in a chair a few yards in front of me.  The third man, a dark-complexioned fellow with eyes crinkled as if smiling at a joke only he was privy to, emptied my kit onto the floor and began rifling through my possessions.  I watched this with some trepidation.

            He found my pipe, which was more than an ordinary meerschaum, then examined my assortment of ink pens.  I held my breath until he discarded them.  But then he opened the box that contained what appeared to be a lump of coal.  He tossed it from hand to hand, studied it, perplexed, then was about to pound it on the stone floor.  My sphincter tightened, the action having nothing to do with my usual morning alimentary ablutions.

            "Don’t!" I finally shouted in Rumanian. "Stop before you blow us all to kingdom come!"

            He froze.  So did the other two.  They stared at me, then past my shoulder.  I turned to see my Sergeant sitting behind me, similarly bound to a chair.  He grinned like a tot on Christmas morning.  "BOOM!"  He shouted, startling all of us.    I was relieved to see that he appeared to be in good condition, at least not impaired any more that before.

            "And how does a lump of coal present such a danger?" A voice at the top of the stairs asked.

            I stared up at the black silhouette as the figure descended.  As he came into the light, I could see that he was a distinguished-looking gentleman, old, at least in his seventies, a large head, clean-shaven, a broad forehead with bushy eyebrows and a wide set of intelligent blue eyes.

            And then down the stairs, like an angel descending from heaven, came a young red-haired female who might have been the most beautiful example of her sex I have ever encountered.  Her brilliantly red hair was long, falling over her shoulders in great rubiginous waves; startlingly green eyes peered through a profusion of bangs much like a wary jungle cat watches through tall grass.  Her skin was pale to the point of luminescence.  She seemed slight of figure, but this was hard to discern under the bulky sweater and baggy mens trousers held up by what appeared to be a knotted man’s tie in lieu of belt.  Her sensual aura hung about her like the nimbus behind a sunlit cloud, and my curiosity about the form beneath that sweater over-rode the circumstances of my capture.

            Or the fact that she was pointing the barrel of a German Luger at my chest.  It came to mind what my father said when the government announced the drafting of women into the armed forces.

            “You can’t give a gun to a female,” he declared.  “Women become flustered under any stress.  They’re much too fragile creatures, too emotional.”  At the time I concurred, despite the hearty tongue lashing from my mother.  I never conceived that I would be put into a position to test his theory.

            "Who are you?" She demanded.  I had never seen a human so ready to kill.  The look in her eyes was frightening in its intensity.  She wanted to kill me, she was eager.

            "The other side of the coin is who are you?" I countered as I glanced at the lapel of my jacket where previously I had pinned a cyanide capsule.  It had been given to me by an American OSS agent in London, to take in the event of enemy capture.  The dilemma for me: was I brave enough to take that grim route instead of revealing my secrets under torture?  To my dismay, or delight, the bloody little death pill was gone, probably lost in our disastrous river crossing.

            "What do we look like?" The woman asked. "If we were the Rumanian Army, you would be in shackles and on your way to Bucharest.  If we were German you’d be minus a few fingernails and blithering about what colour bloomers Churchill wears on Sunday."

            What she said made sense.

            "Code name?"  The old gentleman asked in English that was tainted with a dash of an accent, not German, but in that linguistic family.

            "Purfleet," I replied.  I had picked it myself.

            "Commanded by?" He prodded.

            "Major Samuel F. Billington."

            The old man nodded.  Now it was my turn.

            "Code name?" I asked.

            "Ledhrblaka," he said.  It was the right response; this was my Brasov contact using an Old Norse word for "leathery wings."  It fit the man as his skin was as creased as old saddle leather. 

            "You can call me Professor.  We apologize for your rude welcome, but there have been report of Germans and Rumanian spies impersonating English commandos in order to infiltrate the resistance."

            "No worries," I said. "Tithes of war and all that."

            "We waited for you at the designated drop zone."  The old man said.  "What happened?"

            "My pilot mistakenly dropped me up near Red Lake."  I told him.  “We had to make our way here by hook or crook.”

            The woman fixed me with her emerald eyes.  "What are you doing here?"

            "And you are?" I asked, not so much for intelligence work, but to put us on a less formal basis. 

            "Maybe your worst enemy." She stepped over so that she stood directly in front of me.  I suddenly became aware of the ignominy of my condition and the accompanying odour emanating from my lap.

            "I am not as trusting as my father," she continued, her dour demeanor assured me of her conviction. "Again, why are you here?"

            This was my moment.  The trading of our clandestine pro formas over and done, I was finally allowed to deliver the speech I had rehearsed since the day I met Guy Gibbons at the St. James club and he asked if I would be interested in joining the OSE.

            I stood up for my recital.  My wet pants stuck to my thighs in a most uncomfortable manner.  I tried to put aside my odious state and concentrate on my words.

            "I am here to provide an operational link between your local resistance and Britain."

            "Why do we need you?" The young woman again.

            "Please don’t interrupt." I was afraid if she did so I would lose track of my recitation and have to start over again.

            "We know that the Germans only succumbed in the First World War because of a collapsing morale and an economic disintegration caused by the British naval blockade, in addition to conventional warfare.  We have seen that organized resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, comparable to the organizations such as Sinn Fein in Ireland and the Chinese guerillas operating against the Japanese, can have a profound impact."

            "So far you’re just carting coals to Newcastle." She was becoming less attractive by the moment.

            "Um, British blockade...organized resistance...Ireland...  Oh yes, we at the SOE plan to supply and to mobilize secret armies across Europe.  For one, to tie down Axis forces when invasion eventually takes place."

            "And until that wishful ’when’?" She was quite a corker.

            "To kindle and fan the flames of revolt in the enslaved lands of Europe.  Using different methods, including industrial and military sabotage, labor agitations and strikes, continuous propaganda, assaults against traitors and German leaders, boycotts and riots, plus missions of strategic significance." I was proud I had gotten the whole spiel spot on.

            "A very pretty little lecture." She smiled sardonically.

     Despite being a bit browned-off, I had to admit I felt a stupefying shock to my libido when she deemed me worthy of that smile.

            "You deserve a pat on the head, I suppose," she continued, the sarcasm a tad heavier. "But one last time, what do we need of you?"

            "I can coordinate air drops of weapons and munitions, anything else that you may need," I replied. "For example that bit of coal.  It is really a small explosive that you can toss into the coal car of a locomotive.  Thereby, say, turning an enemy train’s journey into a bit of a shambles.  Or one could stash it in the stove or furnace of a military barracks and ruin the sleep of many of our foe."

            The three men examined the lump of coal with a bit more respect.

            "And how do you go about getting us these air drops?" She asked.

            "By radio," I responded.

            "And your radio is...?"

            "Um, a bit buggered at the moment," I confessed sheepishly. "On the trek here.  Lost it on a river crossing.

            She shook her head at me.

“There were wolves,” I added.

            "Hopeless," was all she said and my heart plummeted into a deep dark chasm.

            "Young man," her father addressed me in a kinder tone. "Have we met before?’

            He searched my face with those penetrating eyes and I in turn examined his features.

            "No," I admitted. "I don’t recall encountering you before this moment."

            "Nevertheless," he continued. "The acts of resistance you describe do not come without consequences.  Our German occupiers guarantee reprisals."

            "We have been victims of those consequences," his daughter added and a pall seemed to invade the room.  “Recently.”

            They began to relate to me the events at the St. George’s festival in Brasov, the arrival of a certain Major Reikel and his immediate predations on the populace.

            While they did this, I watched the man called Ledhrblaka, remove the bandage from my Sergeant’s head and examine the wound underneath with a professional manner that made me think he might be a doctor.

            “This is a most severe wound,” he said.  “I’m surprised that he is conscious and ambulatory.  What happened here?”

            Indeed the injury appeared worse than the first time I saw it, the skin an angry red and pulled away from the shiny skull to reveal the crack all the more ugly.

            “On our parachute drop the Sergeant struck his head on some rocks.  Miles from the designated drop zone, the result of what I would call, to say the least, a distracted pilot.  He was comatose for while.  Since he regained consciousness he has demonstrated some mental defectiveness, a bit of a muddle head, I’m afraid to say.”

            I gave them a brief recounting of my rescue of the Sergeant.  (I did not dwell upon the perilous risk of my own life rescuing him from a precipice, though I mentioned the injury to my hands as parachute lines ripped the flesh from my palms when the dangling man slipped away for a brief frightening moment.)  I gave a short recitation of our trek from the mountains of Red Lake to Brasov, our encounter with a kindly old crone who tended to our wounds and the assistance of her relative as he drove us by lorry to a rendezvous with another Samaritan, who took us on a perilous trek through the mountains by horse, the loss of our radio during a hazardous river crossing.  I omitted the chase by a wolf pack so as not to come off as melodramatic.

(Editor’s Note: Excerpts from Harker’s war journal describing his adventures, or misadventures from England to Brasov are available for the more persistent reader at xxxxxx.com)

The old man ran his fingers over the Sergeant’s skull with tender precision.  The Sergeant just sat there as if he was being measured for a derby hat.

“What is his name?”  The woman asked.  “Or code name if you insist on your clandestine tomfoolery.”

“Uh,” I was suddenly shamefaced to confess that I did not know the Sergeant’s name.  At my first meeting with him at the Egyptian airfield, the din of the airplane propellers had rendered our introductions incomprehensible and I heard not a word he uttered, much less his name.  At the time I shrugged this off, assuming I would have plenty of time later to elicit his particulars.  That moment, because of his later head injury, never came.  After that he answered no questions and I had only addressed him the his rank displayed on his uniform before he changed into his civilian spy attire.

The others looked at me, waiting for an answer. 

“Uh, he goes by the code name Renfield,” I told them with as much confidence as I could muster.  I thought I heard the woman gasp and the old man gave me a peculiar frown.  I do not know where the name came from.  Yes, I do, my preoccupation with that damned novel and its hold upon me now that I was in the land of its origins.

“Cats on the rooftops, cats on the tiles,

Cats with syphilis, cats with piles,

Cats with their assholes wreathed in smiles

As they revel in the joys of fornication.”

The Sergeant, I suppose I must refer to him as Renfield from here on, sang as in a school recital.  Everyone stopped and stared at the chanticleer and I felt a touch of embarrassment.  Some first impression we were giving, me in my soiled pants and a vulgarian Frank Sinatra.

“He does this,” I told them.  “Ever since the knock on his brainbox.  Or it may have been a habit from before I met the chap.”

“The hippopotamus, so it seems,

            Very seldom has wet dreams.

            But when he does, he comes in streams

And he revels in the joy of fornication.” Renfield continued his warble.

“Are you a doctor?” I asked the Professor trying to distract them from this quirk.

            “Among other things,” he said and turned to me, “You said you injured your hands.  Let’s see.”

            Carefully removing my gloves I held out my damaged hands for his inspection.  I couldn’t help but wince as he removed the poultice.


            “That is quite the abrasion,” the old man stated, gently probing my torn palms.  “He needs a clean dressing,” the old man said this to the ginger girl.  She nodded and climbed the stairs.

            “I was hauling the Sergeant off a cliff by his parachute lines and the nylon slipped through my hands,” I told him.  “I couldn’t let loose or he would have plummeted to his death, I’m sure.”

            The redhead returned, handed her father some bandages and began to clean the Sergeant’s wound, dabbing it with cotton swabs soaked in what smelled looked like Mercurochrome.

            “Sounds like you had quite the hike,” the redhead commented and I felt myself blush.

            “What is this ointment?” the old man dipped a finger in the paste covering my palms and sniffed it.”

            I explained that the old woman in the mountains kindly applied the poultice.  He smiled in admiration and told me that my hands were well on the way to healing and to my surprise and delight they were just so.  Under his questioning I described the old crone’s potion and he mentioned his own studies of native folk remedies before his research was interrupted by the war.

            Finished with my hands he went back to Renfield.  With the assistance of the woman he wrapped the Sergeant’s skull with a very professional bandage.  A great improvement over my amateur efforts.

            "Your fellow traveler has suffered severe trauma to the cranium.  There is nothing we can do here, nor do I think any nearby hospital or doctor is capable of handling a case such as this.  Much less the danger of him serenading a Rumanian hospital staff with a ribald aria, in English, thusly revealing his origins.  He would be arrested immediately," he said. "My advice is to leave him be and hope for the best.  He may improve on his own."

                                                As if on cue Renfield continued his tune:

                                                “The ostrich has a funny dick,

                                                And it isn’t very often that he dips his wick,

                                                So when he does, he dips it quick

                                                As he revels in the joys of fornication.”

By now the novelty had worn off and no one stared at the Sergeant anymore.  It made no matter to him.  I think he sang only to entertain himself.  The professor turned his attentions to the wound on my knee sustained in my tumble in the river.  He showed no disgust as he raised my urine-stained pant leg and I was grateful for his professional objectivity.  He told me that he would need to clean the wound and maybe some stitches were required.  And promised me a bath and change of clothes.

Renfield’s head was as wrapped as King Tut’s and he beamed at everyone with an imbecilic grin.

“You revel in the morning with an upright stand

(It’s urinary pressure on the prostate gland),

And you haven’t got a woman so you jerk it off by hand

As you revel in the joys of fornication.”

To my astonishment the Professor broke out in loud guffaws at the last stanza and the others joined in.  So did I.

            The old man led us up the stairs and on the way I probed with questions about the recent SS incursion.  They expanded on the events at Brasov Square, the massacre of the civilians and the impalement of the Mayor.  I was struck into shocked silence as the others related their account of this barbaric slaughter.  Everyone fell into a somber silence.

            Oft times, this is all we can give the dead, a respectful quiet.  This was not so for the daughter.  Her face clouded and she spoke quietly.  "I will kill them all.  Every one of the bastards.  I will kill them all."

            It was then that I knew that I was in love.

Next Chapter: Excerpt of The Dragon Prince and I