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«The Guns Of Navaronne», Alistair MacLean

CHAPTER 1

Prelude: Sunday

0100–0900

The match scratched noisily across the rusted metal of the corrugated iron shed, fizzled, then burst into a sputtering pool of light, the harsh sound and sudden brilliance alike strangely alien in the stillness of the desert night. Mechanically, Mallory's eyes followed the cupped sweep of the flaring match to the cigarette jutting out beneath the commodore's clipped moustache, saw the light stop inches away from the face, saw too the sudden stillness of that face, the unfocused vacancy of the eyes of a man lost in listening. Then the match was gone, ground into the sand of the airfield perimeter.

"I can hear them," the commodore said softly. "I can hear them coming in. Five minutes, no more. No wind to-night–they'll be coming in on No. 2. Come on, let's meet them in the interrogation room." He paused, looked quizzically at Mallory and seemed to smile. But the darkness deceived, for there was no humor in his voice. "Just curb your impatience, young man–just for a little longer. Things haven't gone too well tonight. You're going to have all your answers, I'm afraid, and have them all too soon." He turned abruptly, strode off towards the squat buildings that loomed vaguely against the pale darkness that topped the level horizon.

Mallory shrugged, then followed on more slowly, step for step with the third member of the group, a broad, stocky figure with a very pronounced roll in his gait. Mallory wondered sourly just how much practice Jensen had required to achieve that sailorly effect. Thirty years at sea, of course–and Jensen had done exactly that– were sufficient warrant for a man to dance a hornpipe as he walked: but that wasn't the point. As the brilliantly successful Chief of Operations of the Subversive Operations Executive in Cairo, intrigue, deception, imitation and disguise were the breath of life to Captain James Jensen, D.S.O., R.N. As a Levantine stevedore agitator, he had won the awed respect of the dock-labourers from Alexandretta to Alexandria: as a camel-driver, he had blasphemously out-camel-driven all available Bedouin competition: and no more pathetic beggar had ever exhibited such realistic sores in the bazaars and marketplaces of the East. To-night, however, he was just the bluff and simple sailor. He was dressed in white from cap-cover to canvas shoes; the starlight glinted softly on the golden braid on epaulettes and cap peak.

Their footsteps crunched in companionable unison over the hard-packed sand, rang sharply as they moved on to the concrete of the runway. The hurrying figure of the air commodore was already almost lost to sight. Mallory took a deep breath and turned suddenly towards Jensen.

"Look, sir, just what is all this? What's all the flap, all the secrecy about? And why am I involved in it? Good lord, sir, it was only yesterday that I was pulled out of Crete, relieved at eight hours' notice. A month's leave, I was told. And what happens?"

"Well," Jensen murmured, "what did happen?"

"No leave," Mallory said bitterly. "Not even a night's sleep. Just hours and hours in the S.O.E. Headquarters, answering a lot of silly, damnfool questions about climbing in the Southern Alps. Then hauled out of bed at midnight, told I was to meet you, and then driven for hours across the blasted desert by a mad Scotsman who sang drunken songs and asked hundreds of even more silly, damnfool questions!"

"One of my more effective disguises, I've always thought," Jensen said smugly. "Personally, I found the journey most entertaining!"

"One of your–" Mallory broke off, appalled at the memory of the things he had said to the elderly, bewhiskered Scots captain who had driven the command vehicle. "I–I'm terribly sorry, sir. I never realised–"

"Of course you didn't!" Jensen cut in briskly. "You weren't supposed to. Just wanted to find out if you were the man for the job. I'm sure you are–I was pretty sure you were before I pulled you out of Crete. But where you got the idea about leave I don't know. The sanity of the S.O.E. has often been questioned, but even we aren't given to sending a flying-boat for the sole purpose of enabling junior officers to spend a month wasting their substance among the flesh-pots of Cairo," be finished dryly.

"I still don't know–"

"Patience, laddie, patience–as our worthy commodore has just advocated. Time is endless. To wait, and to keep on waiting–that is to be of the East."

"To total four hours' sleep in three days is not," Mallory said feelingly. "And that's all I've had. . . . Here they come!"

Both men screwed up their eyes in automatic reflex as the fierce glare of the landing lights struck at them, the flare path arrowing off into the outer darkness. In less than a minute the first bomber was down, heavily, awkwardly, taxi-ing to a standstill just beside them. The grey camouflage paint of the after fuselage and tailplanes was riddled with bullet and cannon shells, an aileron was shredded and the port outer engine out of commission, saturated in oil. The cabin perspex was shattered and starred in a dozen places.

For a long time Jensen stared at the holes and scars of the damaged machine, then shook his head and looked away.

"Four hours' sleep, Captain Mallory," he said quietly. "Four hours. I'm beginning to think that you can count yourself damn' lucky to have had even that much."

 

The interrogation room, harshly lit by two powerful, unshaded lights, was uncomfortable and airless. The furniture consisted of some battered wall-maps and charts, a score or so of equally scuffed chairs and an unvarnished deal table. The commodore, flanked by Jensen and Mallory, was sitting behind this when the door opened abruptly and the first of the flying crews entered, blinking rapidly in the fierceness of the unaccustomed light They were led by a dark-haired, thick-set pilot, trailing helmet and flying-suit in his left hand. He had an Anzac bush helmet crushed on the back of his head, and the word "Australia" emblazoned in white across each khaki shoulder. Scowling, wordlessly and without permission, he sat down in front of them, produced a pack of cigaottes and rasped a match across the surface of the table. Mallory looked furtively at the commodore. The commodore just looked resigned. He even sounded resigned.

"Gentlemen, this is Squadron Leader Torrance. Squadron Leader Torrance," he added unnecessarily, "is an Australian." Mallory had the impression that the commodore rather hoped this would explain some things, Squadron Leader Torrance among them. "He led tonight's attack on Navarone. Bill, these gentlemen here–Captain Jensen of the Royal Navy, Captain Mallory of the Long Range Desert Group–have a very special interest in Navarone. How did things go to-night?"

Navarone! So that's why I'm here to-night, Mallory thought. Navarone. He knew it well, rather, knew of it. So did everyone who had served any time at all in the Eastern Mediterranean: a grim, impregnable iron fortress off the coast of Turkey, heavily defended by–it was thought–a mixed garrison of Germans and Italians, one of the few Aegean islands on which the Allies had been unable to establish a mission, far less recapture, at some period of the war. . . . He realised that Torrance was speaking, the slow drawl heavy with controlied anger.


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