The Prime Minister's Secret Agent
Maggie Hope had thought that summer in Berlin was hell, but it was nothing compared to the inferno of darkness that now raged in her own head, even as she was “safe as houses” in Arisaig on the western coast of Scotland.
A mixture of shame, anger, guilt, and grief had become a miasma of depression, which followed her everywhere, not at all helped by the lack of daylight in Scotland in November. She’d once heard Winston Churchill describe his own melancholy as his “Black Dog,” but didn’t understand it. She’d pictured a large black dog with long silky fur and dark, sad eyes, silently padding after his master.
But now she knew the truth: The Black Dog of depression was dirty and scarred, feral and rabid. He lurked in the night, yellow eyes gleaming, waiting for a chink in the armor, a weakness, a vulnerability, a memory. And then, jaws wide and fangs sharp, he would leap. She had trouble sleeping, and when she did finally fall unconscious, she had nightmares.
Sometimes, just sometimes, Maggie had a few moments in the morning, when she first woke up, when she didn’t remember her nightmares, or any of what had happened. Those were blessed moments, innocent and sweet. Until her mind started working again, and the sharp ache returned to her heart. She remembered what had transpired in Berlin. Remembered that her contact, Gottlieb Lehrer, was dead—a devout Catholic who’d shot himself rather than be taken by the Gestapo for questioning. Remembered that she herself had killed a man.
“It was self-defense,” the analyst she’d been ordered to see by Peter Frain had told her. “It’s war. You don’t need to torture yourself.” And yet, even though he’d shot first, and she’d killed in self-defense, the man’s eyes—sad and reproachful—haunted her.
As did the high-pitched voice of the little Jewish girl being pushed into a cattle car in Berlin, destined for Poland. “I’m thirsty, Mama,” she’d cried, “so thirsty.” What happened to her? Maggie often wondered. Did she die on the train? Or later in the camp? Could she still be alive? Because now that Maggie—and most of the rest of the world—knew that the Nazis were capable of killing their own children, calling it “Operation Compassionate Death,” she didn’t hold any hope at all for the children of Jews.
And as if that weren’t enough burden, her mother, Clara Hess, a Nazi Abwehr agent, was imprisoned in the Tower of London—and asking to talk with her. She was also scheduled to be executed soon, if she didn’t share some of the top-secret information she possessed.
And then there was John Sterling, with whom she’d worked at Number 10 for Mr. Churchill during the Battle of Britain. And had almost been engaged to marry. And who’d become a RAF pilot and been shot down near Berlin. And even though she’d managed to rescue them both and get them safe passage from Berlin to Switzerland, their return to London had been, well, less than romantic. More of a romantic disaster, really.
Maggie turned over beneath the scratchy gray wool blankets, reflexively reaching for the hard outline of the German bullet, which had just managed to miss her heart. Dumb luck was what had saved her—and allowed her to kill her attacker, instead. The doctors in Switzerland, and then in London—even one of her best friends, Chuck, a nurse—had wanted her to have the bullet removed, but she refused. She called it her “Berlin souvenir.”
I’m dead inside, she thought, not for the first time since she’d made it to Arisaig. Worse than dead—if I were dead at least I wouldn’t have to remember everything anymore.
On her nightstand, the black Bakelite clock ticked, and she reached over to turn it off before the alarm rang. Maggie concentrated on breathing—in and out, in and out. Even that caused pain, as though she had a shard of ice in her heart.
Maggie had heard the expression heartache before, of course, but never thought it would be so literal. So much pain, physical pain in her heart. But the heart was just a muscle, an organ, made to pump blood—not to feel things. So was it stress? Adrenaline? What made it hurt so much? Of course, the brain wasn’t much better—the brain could be a hellish prison of despair and pain and emptiness. Who knew that the brain could be such a traitor?
It didn’t help that it was coming up on Thanksgiving—and even though she’d lived in Britain since 1938, Maggie still missed her Aunt Edith, a chemistry professor at Wellesley College. She missed the United States sometimes too, truth be told. She missed its innocence—or was it ignorance?—of war, its clear skies and untouched cities. Not to mention unlimited hot water and unrationed food. Although she was British by birth, she’d been raised in the U.S., and even though she’d made a choice to throw her lot in with the Brits when war started, she missed her aunt and her friends and their broad, flat, nasal accents. She missed Thanksgiving. She missed turkey and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. She missed Boston and Cambridge. She missed America.
Maggie sighed and then rose, washed her face and brushed her teeth in the rust-tinged water in the enamel sink, and changed into her clothes, the brown twill jumpsuit all the instructors wore over layers of thermal underwear and wool socks, plus standard-issue thick-soled boots. She twisted and then pinned up her long red hair with her tortoiseshell clip. If she’d been doing office work, as she had been doing at Number 10 Downing Street, she would have put on the pearl earrings that her Aunt Edith had given to her when she’d graduated from Wellesley in ’37—but not only were they inappropriate for her job as an instructor at an SOE camp, she’d lost them somewhere in London after returning from Berlin. Not that anyone cares about anything as frivolous as earrings anymore. But they were another symbol of everything she’d lost.
Sallow and pinched, with shadows under her eyes and a chafed red nose, Maggie shrugged into her thick wool coat and pulled on a scarf and stocking cap. She left the upstairs flat of the gardener’s cottage, where she’d been assigned to live, and headed to Arisaig House, the large home that loomed above.
Although her body ached and felt as if it were made from spun glass, she jogged to warm her muscles before breaking into a run up the path of the rockery, taking the steep lichen-covered flagstone steps to the manor house at a brisk jog in the darkness. It was November and so it was light only from eight thirty in the morning to four thirty in the afternoon. But to Maggie it always seemed dark, not Henry Vaughan’s “deep but dazzling darkness” but a sinister absence of light.
Arisaig House was the administrative heart of the War Office for Special Operations Executive—or SOE, as it was better known—in Scotland. SOE was neither MI-5 nor MI-6, but a black ops operation, training agents to be dropped into places such as France and Germany, and helping local resistance groups “set Europe ablaze,” as Winston Churchill had admonished. The SOE used great houses all over Britain to train their would-be spies, sparking the joke that SOE really stood for “Stately ’omes of England.” While training camps were preliminary schools, or specifically dedicated to parachute jumping or radio transmission, Arisaig was the place where trainees received intense training in demolition, weapons, reconnaissance, and clandestine intelligence work.
Isolated on the far western coast of Scotland, closed off by military roadblocks, the rocky mountains and stony beaches were perfect for pushing trainees to their physical and mental limits. Arisaig House was the administrative hub, with its own generator and water supply. Other great houses in the area were used for training—Traigh House, Inverailort, Camusdarrach, and Garramor, just to name a few. Maggie’s lips twisted in a smile as she recalled how groups of Czech, Slovak, and Norwegian trainees had stumbled over the Scottish and Gaelic names.
But it was the perfect place for Maggie, still recovering from her wounds.
As an instructor, she trained her charges harder than Olympians—swimming in the freezing loch, navigating obstacle courses in the cold mud, and mastering rope work. From other instructors, the trainees learned field craft, demolition, Morse code, weapons training, and the Fairbairn-Sykes method of silent killing. Anything and everything they might need to know to be sent to France, or Germany, wherever a local resistance group might need aid.
Maggie hadn’t always been a draconian instructor; in fact, the very idea would have made her formerly bookish and dreamy self laugh in disbelief. She’d wanted to earn her PhD in mathematics from MIT, but had instead been in London when war had broken out in 1940. She’d found a job in Winston Churchill’s secretarial pool, and, after discovering secret code in an innocuous advertisement, and then foiling an IRA bomb plot, had been tapped for MI-5. She’d been sent to one of the preliminary training camps in Scotland as a trainee in the fall of 1940. While she was excellent at Morse code and navigating by stars, she’d flamed out spectacularly at anything that required the least bit of physical fitness.
Approaching the manor house, Maggie recalled how furious she’d been when she’d washed out of the SOE program and Peter Frain of MI-5 had placed her at Windsor Castle to look after the young Princesses. But in retrospect, it had done her good. She’d grown stronger both mentally and physically, and was able to help save the Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping plot.
After her assignment at Windsor with the Royals, she’d returned to SOE training in the spring of 1941. She made it through all the various schools, and, as a newly minted agent, was sent on a secret mission to Berlin. Now she had returned once more to Arisaig House—but this time as an instructor. As she opened the thick oak door, the bells in the clock tower chimed eight times.
The vestibule of the large stone manor house led into the great hall, which SOE had turned into a lobby of sorts, with a desk for a telephone and a receptionist. Sheets protected the grand house’s chestnut paneling from the government workers, while Arisaig and Traigh Houses’ owner, a Miss Astley Nicholson, had been relocated to a smaller cottage up the road for the duration of the war. However, the spacious high-ceilinged entrance hall with its mullioned windows, staircase elaborately carved with birds and thistles, and views over the fields dotted with white sheep leading down to the jagged coastline made it clear this was no ordinary office.
In the vestibule, Maggie heard an ongoing discussion by some of her current charges: this time around, mostly young women bound for France. Pausing unnoticed in the doorway, she stopped to listen.
“Yes, Miss,” the girl on receptionist duty said into the black telephone receiver, twisting the metal cord around her fingers. She was short, sturdy, and a bit stout, with a wide grin and eyes that crinkled when she smiled, which was often. Her name was Gwen Glyn-Jones and she was from Cardiff, Wales. But her mother was French, and she had a perfect accent from summers spent just outside Paris. She wanted to become a radio operator—if she survived the physical training at Arisaig.
In the light of an Army-issue lamp, Gwen scribbled something down on a scrap of paper, and finished with a number. “Yes, Miss—I’ll make sure Miss Hope receives the message as soon as possible. Thank you, Miss.” She hung up.
“Message for Lady Macbeth?” one of the other girls asked. Yvonne had been born and raised in Brixton, London, but her grandfather was French—from Normandy—and, like Gwen, she was bilingual.
“The one and only.” The girls giggled. Maggie was strict. She was hard on her students. She never smiled. None of the women at Arisaig House liked her. None of the men liked her much, either, for that matter. “I loathe being in her section.”
Yvonne leaned in. “Why does everyone call her Lady Macbeth?”
“Because she’s a monster.” Gwen lowered her plummy Welsh-inflected voice. “Rumor is, she has blood on her hands.”
Yvonne’s eyes opened wide. “Really?”
“I heard she killed a man in France.”
Two other trainees walking down the staircase, a man and a woman, joined in the exchange. “I heard she killed three men in Munich,” the woman offered.
One of the men said, “I heard she was interrogated by the Gestapo and never talked—”
“She’s always nice to the gardener’s dog . . .” Yvonne ventured.
“Well, Hitler loves dogs, too.”
All right, that’s enough. Maggie swept in, giving them what she’d come to call her “best Aunt Edith look”—cold and withering.
“Two, Five, and Eight—aren’t you supposed to be out running?” Maggie had given her trainees numbers instead of names.
There was an uncomfortable silence, punctured only by the ticking of a great mahogany long-case clock. Then, “I’m on desk duty . . .” sputtered Gwen.
“And I was waiting . . .” Yvonne tried.
Maggie held up one hand. “Stop making excuses.”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Miss Hope,” Gwen stuttered.
“Stop apologizing.” Maggie looked them all up and down. “You—Twelve—stay here and do your job. You others—go run on the beach. Relay races on the stony part of the shore—they’re good for your ankles and knees and will help your parachute jumps. I’ll be there shortly.”
They stared, frozen in place.
Maggie glared. “I said, go. Go! Gae own wi’ it, as they say around here!”
The trainees nearly fell over themselves in their haste to get away from her. Gwen became very busy at the reception desk.
Harold Burns, a fit man with smile lines etched around his eyes and rough skin dotted with liver spots, walked in from one of the other huge rooms of the house, now used as administrative offices. He favored Maggie with a wintry grin from around the billiard pipe clenched between his teeth. The tobacco smoke smelled sweet in the frigid air.
He removed the pipe to speak. “Impressive, Miss Hope. I remember a time when you could barely run a mile without passing out. Or twisting your ankle. Or dropping your fellow trainees in the mud.”
Maggie put a finger to her lips. “Shhhhh, Mr. Burns. That’s our little secret.”
Burns fell into step beside her. They entered what used to be the great house’s dining room. “When you first came here, you were god-awful. One of the worst trainees I ever had. But you persevered. And you came back. You worked hard. I’ve heard of some of the things you’ve accomplished, Miss Hope, and I must say I’m proud.” Mr. Burns was a survivor of the Great War. Maggie could see in his eyes that, like her, he had seen things. Things he wished he hadn’t.