The Winter Agent by Gareth Rubin

Read an extract from The Winter Agent, the gripping new thriller from Gareth Rubin, author of Liberation Square.

In this extract, Marc Reece – an SOE agent undercover in wartime Paris – has just seen his contact violently arrested by the Nazis in the middle of a crowded bar…

Gareth Rubin

The SS major came further into the room, scanning it efficiently. His gaze fell on Reece.

‘Do you know that man?’ he asked Reece, calmly, in good French.

‘No, sir,’ Reece replied. ‘No.’ He did his best to sound meek.

‘Not at all?’ Reece shook his head. He hoped no one in the bar would contradict him. The major turned to the heavy-set Gestapo officer. ‘Where was he sitting?’

‘Over there, sir,’ he replied, pointing to Luc ’s overturned seat.

The SS officer looked to the customer who had sat next to Reece. ‘Did they speak to each other?’ he asked. Reece looked into the man ’s eyes. The man was nervously fiddling with his scarf.

‘Sir?’ he said.

‘I asked you if these two men’ – he waved at Reece and Luc – ‘spoke to each other. Look at me!’ he barked as the man glanced at Luc. ‘Tell me now, or you will be joining them.’

‘I . . . ’ Reece heard the man ’s voice failing him. ‘ I . . .didn’t see them do so, sir.’

‘I will give you another attempt. And if you are lying, it will go hard on you. Did these two men speak to each other or greet each other at all?’

Reece forced the thought of what the Gestapo did to SOE agents from his mind. He had to remember that he was an innocent and frightened passer-by caught up in something he didn’t understand and wanted no part of. And he prayed none of the other patrons would speak up from fear or the hope of payment. The man with the scarf looked at the glass of piquette Reece had bought. His fingers slipped towards it and drew it in front of himself.

‘No, sir,’ he said.

The major gazed around the bar, seemingly challenging anyone to dispute what the man had said. The waitress dropped her head. ‘Is that true?’ he asked her.

‘I think so, sir.’ Reece silently thanked her. Paris was full of barmaids who would happily inform to the Germans. She was not among them.

‘Herr Sturmbannführer?’ said the Gestapo man who still held the gun on Reece.

The major’s eyes met Reece’s and stayed there for a while, as if searching for something.

‘Check his papers.’

Reece reached into his jacket and handed them over, including a deliberately dog-eared identity card in the name of Marc LeFevre, a man who ran a tabac, and his ration book.

The Gestapo officer checked them.

‘Why haven’t you used your tobacco ration?’

Reece looked at the full set of coupons. He couldn’t tell why on earth the man would care. Then he realized. The full book had come in from London with the last drop – a gift to keep the circuit ’s spirits up – and the man must have suspected something like that. It was a trick Reece would remember next time.

‘I have bronchial problems. I worked in a forge for years. If I smoke cigarettes, I cough up blood in my sputum.’

The man looked disgusted and thrust the book back at Reece.

‘Now, what – ’ ‘Wait,’ interrupted the younger officer who held Luc. They all looked at him.

‘Where was this forge ?’ His accent was French. So he wasn’t Gestapo, like the others, but probably Carlingue, the Gestapo ’s French auxiliaries, used for sniffing out resistants.

Reece had the story pat and rehearsed, but still it was nerve-wracking to repeat it. ‘A village near Reims.’

‘Which one?’

‘Dortin.’ He looked over at Luc. How had they found him? How much did they know? His mind was working on two tracks: to deflect the questions put to him, and to work out what, if anything, lay behind them.

‘Dortin? My aunt lives there. Colette Bernard, she runs the post office. Do you know her?’

Reece thought for a second and shook his head. ‘The post office is run by a gentleman named Édouard. I ’m afraid I don ’t know anyone called Colette Bernard.’

‘Where . . . ’

The SS major was becoming impatient. ‘We don ’t have all night,’ he said.

‘Sir, if . . . ’

‘Send the prisoner to Amiens and be done with it.’

‘Yes, Sturmbannführer Klaussmann.’ The officer glared at Reece as if slighted. ‘Get out,’ he barked.

‘Yes, sir.’ Reece walked rapidly out of the bar, with every step fearing that he would hear an order to stop or feel the grab of a hand. But then he was outside in the freezing cold with the streetlights, painted blue to ward against air raids, leaking a dim glow to the snowy pavements below them. Luc had been taken, and the photographs were gone. He had no idea how much the Germans knew about the circuit or were about to find out. And he had to get back to Charlotte. He unlocked his bike with a shaking key and rode away at speed.

The Winter Agent is out now.

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