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The First Wave (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #2)

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The second Billy Boyle investigation

Billy Boyle is dispatched to help arrange the surrender of Vichy French forces in Algeria. But dissension among the regular army, the militia, and De Gaulle’s Free French forces allows black marketers in league with the Germans to divert medical supplies, leading to multiple murders. Billy must find the killers and rescue the woman he loves, a British spy.

ISBN-13: 9781569475171

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Soho Press Incorporated

Publication Date: 09-01-2008

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Series: Billy Boyle World War II Mystery Series #2

James R. Benn is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II mysteries. The debut, Billy Boyle, was named one of five top mysteries of 2006 by Book Sense and was a Dilys Award nominee. A Blind Goddess was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and The Rest Is Silence was a Barry Award nominee. A librarian for many years, Benn lives in Connecticut with his wife, Deborah Mandel.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Off the coast of French North Africa
8 November 1942

It was dark, and I was at sea, hunkered down in a flat-bottomed landing craft, slamming through four-foot swells and chugging noisily toward shore, leaving the relative safety of our troop transport behind. One hard mile out, me and twenty other guys, all sweating, scared, and slipping on the wet deck every time the landing craft crested another wave, rode on air for a split second, and then fell from under us. Each time it felt like hitting concrete from two stories up and each time I prayed it wouldn’t happen again. No one was listening. The diesel fumes from the engine mixed with the smell of vomit and salt water and fear, giving off a new odor that wrapped itself around me, hooked into my nostrils, and wouldn’t let go.
The guy next to me grabbed my arm. His eyes were wide as they darted back and forth, searching for something that wasn’t there, like a really good place to hide. His face was drained of color and I could barely hear him above the sound of the engine and the smashing waves.
“Are we almost there, Lieutenant?”
“We’ll know when they start shooting at us,” I said.
He looked disappointed at my answer, but I had no idea how close we were and I wasn’t about to stick my head up to look. I didn’t know if the Vichy French were going to put up a fight when we landed or kiss us on both cheeks. Either way, I planned to keep a low profile.
The next wave wasn’t as bad as the others, and I guessed that meant we were getting nearer the shore. Our landing area was designated Beer Green, sixteen miles west of Algiers, capital of Algeria, the French colony garrisoned by the Vichy French. I thought it was funny that after being in this war almost a year, the first time we invade somebody it’s the French. Not the Nazis, not Mussolini and his Fascists, but the so-called Vichy French. After the Germans steam-rollered into Paris, they took all the good parts of France for themselves and let some tame Frenchmen work out of a little town in the south, governing a sliver of France and most of her colonies. Vichy, famous for not much more than bottled water before, now stood for a divided France. Our brass hoped that the French soldiers in Algeria would see us as their American buddies come to help them liberate France from the Germans. But there was a distinct possibility that since we were secretly landing on their turf in the middle of the night, loaded for bear and backed up by a naval armada, they might think we were liberating Algeria from them. Which was sort of the truth, since they were between us and the Germans in North Africa, and sooner or later we were going to have to mix it up with Rommel and his Afrika Korps.
“Boyle! Are the motorcycles still secure?” the voice of Major Samuel Harding barked in my ear.
“Yes sir!” I was standing next to two U.S. Army Harley-Davidson motorcycles, lashed to the deck. They were for Harding and me. Not only did we have to survive the landing, we had to get these beasts up over the beach and then take them for a joy ride, smack in the middle of the invasion. The guys in the landing craft were from the 168th Combat Team, and their job was to help us get the bikes and ourselves safely ashore, then wave goodbye as we took off into the night on a pre-dawn secret mission. So after landing in North Africa, with the first wave of the first invasion of the war, if I survived, I’d be celebrating my twenty-fourth birthday on a motorcycle ride from hell. Not for the first time, I wondered how a nice Irish kid from Boston like me had gotten himself into this situation.
“Okay, men, listen up!” Harding bellowed over the sounds of the engine and the surf. Bellowing was Harding’s normal tone of voice. He was regular Army, in for the long haul. I was . . . well, I wasn’t.
“I know you’ve been wondering why you’re baby-sitting a couple of staff officers. We’re about to hit the beach so now I can tell you.” Harding paused and looked at the men. He stood straight, somehow immune to the rocking of the craft, displaying no sign of a normal sense of self-preservation. The rest of us were hunched over, to present less of a target. Harding seemed like he didn’t give a damn. A couple of guys straightened up and looked around nervously. When no one got his head blown off, a few more did the same. I made believe I was checking the bikes and stayed low.
“We’re landing near Cape Sidi Ferruch,” he went on. “The French have a fortified battery at the tip of the cape, directly overlooking our landing beaches. Big 155mm artillery pieces, with new infrared thermal detectors and range finders. If the French government issues orders to resist us, we have to neutralize their artillery before they blow our ships out of the water. Lieutenant Boyle and I will make contact with friendly French officers to ensure that these guns are not used against us. Your job is to get us and the motorcycles off the beach and up to the main road. Do that and we’ll do the rest. Understood?”
Pinpoints of light arced up from the beach and then exploded brightly above us, just like fireworks. Night turned to day as parachute flares floated lazily downward, light dancing on the waves and bathing us in a white, ghostly illumination. Before anyone could say a thing, there was a sound like distant thunder. Then bright flashes, reflected off the low, dark clouds. Something told me it wasn’t weather.
The major reacted first. “Incoming!” Harding yelled, and then he wasn’t standing so straight. We ducked as a shrieking sound split the sky and exploded to our right, sending up a column of water that drenched us on its way down. I wiped seawater off my face and looked toward the shore. Half a dozen spotlights were playing over the water, picking up landing craft as they slowly made their way to Beer Green. Flashes lit the early morning darkness from beyond the searchlights, and more shells whistled toward us. I tried to make myself small and squeezed my eyes shut, as if that might make everything go away. There were explosions all around us. Men screamed, fear making their voices unrecognizable. We rode through near misses that spewed so much seawater into the craft I wondered if we’d sink before we hit land.
Harding tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to our rear, a broad smile on his face. He was calm, really enjoying all this, like a kid at a carnival. I turned and looked back. Two destroyers were slicing across our wakes, their five-inch guns opening up on those searchlights. The noise didn’t seem so bad when it was our guys dishing it out. When the first searchlight was hit and went dark, GIs, who had been screaming seconds earlier, cheered. The artillery fire from shore lessened as the destroyers kept up their barrage, and within minutes the searchlights were gone. Everyone was whooping and yelling, trying to forget the rush of fear that had gripped them moments earlier.
“Was that the big guns you were talking about, Major?” The white-faced GI who had wanted to know if we were there yet ignored me this time and went direct to Harding with his question. Smart guy.
“No, Private,” Harding answered. “Those were just French 75s. Good field pieces, but popguns compared to their emplaced 155mm guns. Nothing to worry about.”
“Yessir,” the private said, some color returning to his face. I felt sorry for him, so I didn’t point out that a 75mm shell exploding in our landing craft would indeed be something to worry about. No sense upsetting the help.
“Get ready!” Harding yelled. I untied the straps that held the motorcycles in place. As instructed, four GIs grabbed each bike, two on a side. I looked up. We were almost there. I could see the surf breaking on the beach. Other landing craft had already made it to shore. A few isolated shots were fired up and down the beach, sporadically, as if someone was target shooting. Everything seemed to slow down, and I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. My legs felt wobbly. I didn’t know if I could make it out of the craft. I knew I didn’t want to be here. I just wanted to be back in Boston, on the police force with my Dad and uncles, enjoying my promotion to detective. It had become effective December 1, 1941. I was in clover for a week, then the goddamn Japs had to go and bomb Pearl Harbor. Everything changed, and eleven months later, here I was in the middle of the night with a gung-ho major, playing secret agent, hoping some Frenchie didn’t put a bullet in my skull before I gave the Germans and Italians their chance.
You’ve got no one to blame but yourself, Billy Boyle, I thought as the landing craft hit the shore with a jolting crunch. The ramp dropped and we were greeted by the sight of white churning foam on a gravel beach, and complete darkness beyond.
“We’re here,” I said to the talkative private.
“Gee, thanks, Lieutenant,” he said as he pushed one of the Harleys into the surf. I followed him onto the shore of the African continent, an unwilling, wet, and shivering soldier in the vanguard of an invading army, longing for home and for Diana. Wondering where she was, and if she were alive or dead.