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21

Wednesday, April 4th 2018, 3:33am

Bread and Butter

The Deutsche Oper, Berlin-Charlottenburg, Sunday, 4 September 1948

As he sat on a bench outside the opera house, Alfred Burcough found himself fidgeting – and willed himself to cease. The arrival of another postcard from Blofeld had summoned him here; and the British naval attaché was certain that at some point the Abwehr would tumble to what was happening. He was not really concerned about Blofeld’s fate; and having diplomatic cover he himself would suffer nothing more than being declared persona non grata. But blowing the source of such good intelligence would reflect badly on the Royal Navy generally and himself personally – and his naval career might be over.

He tried not to be looking expectant, or otherwise looking for someone; Blofeld’s arrival thus caught him unawares.

“Good day Herr Burcough,” he said, sitting down on the bench next to him with not so much as an invitation. “Have you read the latest edition of the Danizger Echo?”

“No,” Burcough admitted. “I haven’t found a news agent that carries it.”

“You should. It is full of information. Here, you can have my copy.” Blofeld passed a folded newspaper. “It has an interesting article on recent Kriegsmarine exercises. If you find it interesting, please send five thousand marks, per usual.”

And with that, Blofeld departed, and lost himself in the crowds hurrying into the opera hall.

Burcough made his own way back to the embassy, where he examined the newspaper. Hidden in its fold was an envelope containing several thin sheets of paper detailing amphibious exercises recently held off the island of Rügen, and the negatives of several photographs – one showing a Kriegsmarine transport discharging into amphibious lorries and another, and aerial shot, of a Wittelsbach-class amphibious ship exercising with landing craft.


London, he was certain, would find this interesting enough.

22

Thursday, April 12th 2018, 3:33am

The Big Leagues - Preparations

Berlin-Müggelheim, Monday, Saturday, 11 September 1948

One of the challenges Ernst Blofeld enjoyed was pitting his wits against the hidebound and bureaucratic police forces of Europe; it had begun as a game in his youth, and now was a part of his psyche. His underlings and associates he deployed on a mental chessboard, using to his advantage all the information he had garnered as editor of the Danziger Echo. With greater resources at his disposal he began to scheme anew.

The door opened to admit Kruger, the forger.

“You wished to see me Herr Blofeld?”

“Yes Kruger, sit down.” The little man did as he was ordered. “I want you to print the remaining nine million lire as soon as possible. How long will it take?”

“If I proceed with due care in the printing, three weeks.”

“Care is far more important that speed. I want you to start work immediately.”

23

Saturday, April 21st 2018, 2:20am

A Good Deed (1)

Schönefeld, Sunday, 19 September 1948

An industrial suburb of Berlin, Schönefeld had little to recommend it to anyone save its denizens; this is what appealed to Ernst Blofeld – anonymity in the midst of crowds. He had made an appointment to meet with an associate for that very reason; not that he expected to be trailed by the police or any of the intelligence services with which he did business – but on general principles. He approached a small street corner park, half-filled with mothers walking their children in the late-summer sunshine – there he spotted his associate patiently waiting – tow-headed, dressed casually but in a tailored manner, smoking an expensive Gran Corona.

“Good afternoon Tomasz”.

“Hello Ernst; good to see you.”

They sat together on the park bench, chatting about not much of anything, while both scanned the park and allowed passers-by to fade into the distance.

The tow-headed man took a long drag on his cigar. “Your message said you had some information I might find useful.”

“Yes… I presume you have heard of the The Just Judges?”

Blofeld’s seat-mate nodded. “A Van Eyck altarpiece, stolen from a church in Ghent back in ’34. As the thief died without revealing where he had hid it, it is presumed to have been lost.”

“Correct, as far as most people know. Some information has come into my hands that could be a decent lead.”

Another puff on the cigar. “That is a story I’ve heard before.”

Blofeld took an envelope from his pocket and handed it over. “You can follow-up on this if you wish, or not, as you choose.”

“Let’s say I do follow it up… and let’s say I find it. The official Belgian valuation for it is fifteen million francs; the normal finder’s fee is ten percent. That’s fine for me. What’s in it for you?”

“A good deed perhaps? The enjoyment of a beautiful piece of art returned to its rightful place? The consternation caused by its recovery? I’ll settle for a tenth of your tenth if it proves true.”

“Then I hope this lead works out.”

Blofeld stood and nodded. He was confident of his associate’s abilities and probity. Now all that was needed was time and some good luck.

24

Saturday, April 28th 2018, 7:28pm

A Good Deed (2)

The Berlin-Brussels Express, Monday, 20 September 1948

Sitting in his first-class carriage Tomasz Banaczek pondered the matter brought to his attention by Blofeld. De Rechtvaardige Rechters – also known as the Just Judges – had been stolen from the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent in 1934 and never recovered. There was some controversy as to the true identity of the thief; a Belgian named Arsène Goedertier, who had held the painting for ransom but who died before the transaction was completed. For unknown reasons he had left, in place of the painting a cryptic note "Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles". On his deathbed Goedertier had confessed to his lawyer, Georges de Vos, that he had in fact stolen the painting.

The note from Blofeld was a clipping from a Belgian newspaper, which had recently interviewed de Vos on the subject. It quoted de Vos’s last conversation with his client, where Goedertier allegedly asserted that "I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is. The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked 'mutualité.'" De Vos had found the papers, and after some delay, had shared them with the police – copies of the ransom notes Goedertier had sent and a second cryptic note which read, "It rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public."

All this was still familiar ground to Banaczek. Then his eyes lighted upon the final paragraph of the clipping. According to De Vos, at the last moment, Goedertier had raved about a cask of amontillado. This meant nothing to De Vos, and he admitted that he had not previously disclosed this to the police. A bell went off in the back of Banaczek’s mind, and an idea began to take shape in his thoughts.

25

Thursday, May 3rd 2018, 10:46pm

A Good Deed (3) – The Scene

Ghent, Belgium, Thursday, 23 September 1948

Tomasz Banaczek had arrived in Brussels two days before, stopping briefly to review the facts in the matter of the theft of the De Rechtvaardige Rechters, as well as confirming that the Belgian authorities’ offer of a reward for the discovery of the painting was still open. His contacts in the Belgian police however had little else to add to what he knew. He then had journeyed to Ghent, the scene of the crime, and as a dutiful investigator had gone straight to the headquarters of Ghent’s police to inform them of his intentions. This brought him face to face with police commissioner Antoine Luysterborghs – a formidable looking fellow who was not at all amused by a private investigator poking his nose into his back yard.

“The entire police force of Ghent, and dozens of other busy-bodies have been searching high and low for the Just Judges! What makes you think you can succeed if we haven’t had any luck in fourteen years?”

“I might not succeed; but I might. In any event, my time is my own. Are you forbidding me from making the attempt?”

Luysterborghs grew red in the face. Banaczek had come armed with a letter of introduction from the office of the Direction générale de la police judiciaire; the man could not be stopped.

“No, but you cause one iota of trouble, if I get one complaint from anyone – you’ll be on the train back to Warsaw so fast your head will spin.”

“Thank you for your cooperation. If I find anything, you will be the first to know.”

Banaczek spent the rest of that day touring, casing in the investigator’s parlance, the scene of the crime, Saint Bavo Cathedral. He appreciated the great altarpiece, with its still missing scene; the decorated stone and marble naves, and the frescoed crypt that lay beneath the floor of the church proper. He made the acquaintance of the dean of the Cathedral chapter, explaining his mission; the dean, while hopeful that the panel might somehow be recovered, had little useful information to share – having told his story many times to previous investigators.

“May I have permission to examine the sacristy?”

The dean was rather taken aback by the request, but upon explanation, gave his permission, accompanying Banaczek personally to assure nothing untoward might take place. A half-hour’s study confirmed part of the Pole’s surmises.

“Thank you Eminence.”

“Have you determined anything?”

“Some things have been eliminated; others remain in play. I must continue my investigations elsewhere.”

26

Friday, May 11th 2018, 9:44pm

A Good Deed (4) – The Neighbourhood

Ghent, Belgium, Thursday, 23 September 1948

Having spent the morning with Commissioner Luysterborghs and the late morning-early afternoon examining the cathedral, Tomasz Banaczek found himself somewhat famished and certainly thirsty; to rectify this situation he walked across the square that fronted the cathedral and found a brasserie with a free table and ordered the house speciality, steak frites, and a lager. Inwardly he chuckled, for seated two tables away were the pair of shadows – obviously members of the local constabulary – that had followed him since he departed police headquarters earlier in the day. He attracted the attention of the waiter, had a few whispered words with him, and then sat back and smiled.

The waiter, bearing a tray with two beers, approached the two guests seated at the table.

“From the gentleman… he invites you to join him if you wish.”

Sergeant Vendredi looked up and saw Banaczek nod politely.

“Come on Willem… he’s made us. Might as well make this as easy as possible.”

“Alright Jojo – if we’ve got to tail him why not?”

The two policemen sauntered over to the Pole’s table and sat down.

“I’m Sergeant Joseph Vendredi of the Ghent Police, this is my partner Willem Gannon. I suppose you’ve worked out why we’re here…”

“Let me guess – Commissioner Luysterborghs ordered you to follow me in case I found something.”

They confirmed it with a wordless nod. This led to a discussion of the case presently in hand. Vendredi had only come to Ghent since the theft, but Gannon had been a cadet at the time, and remembered the circumstances in great detail, which he spared little effort in recounting.

“Yes… the Commissioner was among the first on the scene; he had been investigating a break-in at a cheese shop around the corner when word of the theft of the painting was called in.”

Banaczek raised an eyebrow. “A cheese shop?”

“A cheese shop! It’s still there.”

“I am going to visit it then; you two are welcome to accompany me, if you wish.”

Banaczek got up and headed in the direction of the shop in question; Vendredi and Gannon followed at a respectful distance. The Pole seemed a decent enough fellow but the pair did not wish to seem as if they were derelict in their duty by appearing too chummy. The shop was found without difficulty, and Banaczek noted that it abutted the rear wall of the cathedral.

“Say, the shop’s been re-decorated since those days.” It was Gannon – Vendredi and Gannon had followed him inside.

“Oh, what was here?”

“These walls have been whitewashed – makes the place look a lot brighter, cleaner. The shop used to have murals on the wall. Scenes of old Ghent.”

The shopkeeper joined in the conversation. “Many years ago this place had been a wine shop. Over time the murals flaked off in spots, had grown dingy, and it had become really off-putting. I had the walls redone in 1938; now every couple of years all I have to do is add a quick coat of white-wash.”

Banaczek explained his purpose and asked if he could take a look around. The shopkeeper, noting the presence of the two policemen, reluctantly agreed. After a half hour of measuring, poking, probing, and knocking, Banaczek departed, having bought a cheese to assuage the shopkeeper.

“I’m returning to my hotel gentlemen, I have some thinking to do.”

27

Wednesday, May 16th 2018, 3:32pm

A Good Deed (5) – Discovery

Ghent, Belgium, Monday, 27 September 1948

As instructed Sergeant Vendredi and Corporal Gannon had tailed Banaczek on his peregrinations about the city over the last several days. On Friday he had returned to the cathedral from whence the painting had been stolen, consulting with the sub-dean about the renovations that had been carried out around the time of the theft. He then took himself off to the library, where he spent several hours reading the newspapers of the time – they presumed he was familiarising himself with contemporary details of the crime.

Saturday saw him return to the cheese shop they had visited the previous Thursday; Banaczek had spent an hour in conversation with the proprietor, who told them afterwards that the Pole had made further inquiries about the old decoration of the shop before its walls had been white-washed. That the shopkeeper had been able to give him several old photographs of the shop at that time – for suitable compensation of course – had made him very happy. On Sunday Banaczek had heard Mass in the cathedral and otherwise spent his time sightseeing.

“What is he doing, leading you on a merry chase? Haven’t you got any idea what he’s up to?”

Commissioner Luysterborghs was not a happy man, and had turned his ire upon his subordinates. Vendredi was about to answer when Banaczek opened the door of Luysterborghs’ office and saved him.

“No, I doubt they have any idea of what I’ve been up to, but they have been very helpful. And if you will accompany me to the cathedral I believe I know where the altarpiece might be found.”

Luysterborghs fulminated at the suggestion but finally decided to take up Banaczek’s offer; after all, if the man was wrong he would at last be rid of him; if he was right, a case that had dogged him for years would be put to rest at last.

Two hours later they were all gathered in the sacristy of the cathedral – Luysterborghs, Vendredi, Gannon, the dean and several other members of the cathedral chapter – and Banaczek began to lay out his case.

“At the time the theft occurred the cathedral was under renovation – it was the only way that Goedertier was able to obtain access to the altarpiece. However, there was work being done in here as well. The ambry was being refurbished for less sacred purposes. The sub-dean was good enough to confirm the scope of the work to me on Friday.”

“With your permission Eminence?”

The cleric nodded, and Banaczek proceeded to open the ambry, which now served the function of a storage cabinet for items not required for daily use. In a few moments he had it cleared and he tapped the sides and then the back with a small hammer he produced from his jacket pocket.

“That sounds hollow…” Gannon’s hearing was quite correct.

“It should not be, and if I can find the key to removing the back panel…” Banaczek examined the interior with a small torch, then pried with a small screwdriver, and slowly worked the back panels lose, removing first the upper, and then the lower back panel, which revealed a dust-covered object, which he carefully withdrew. As he removed the cloth in which the object had been wrapped the assemblage gasped.

“The Just Judges!”

“Yes. Goedertier knew that he could not get the painting out of the cathedral un-noticed, so he first built a hide here – he was the workman assigned to renovating the sacristy. He removed the painting from the altarpiece and secreted it here, with the intention of recovering it at some later date.”

“But how?” Luysterborghs was a stickler for details. The dean and the other clerics were merely overjoyed at its safe return.

“The wall of the cathedral abuts that of a shop around the square. A cheese shop. Goedertier hoped at some date to break through the wall of the cheese shop to the ambry he had prepared. Unfortunately, he died before he could accomplish his purpose.”

“How would he have been able to locate the painting inside the wall?”

“The shop was then decorated with scenes of old Ghent – at some point before it became a cheese shop it had been a wine shop, and the murals which decorated the walls then would have told him.” Banaczek handed around the photographs he had obtained from the shopkeeper. “See the painting of the wine casks? Those are on the wall right behind the ambry – of course, now covered in white-wash. In his dying words Goedertier had raved about a cask of amontillado. He was giving us two clues – how to tell the spot and how to find the painting.”

Luysterborghs shook his head. “I understand one clue now, but how did that tell you how to find the painting?”

“Ever read the American writer Edgar Allen Poe? One of his stories was about a man walling up his enemy alive inside a wall, leaving him there to die. It was called The Cask of Amontillado. That told me where to look."

28

Monday, May 21st 2018, 4:19am

A Good Deed (6) – Loose Ends

Brussels, Belgium, Wednesday, 29 September 1948

The Belgians had hesitated a bit, but in the end the Banaczek received his recovery fee, a million and a half Belgian francs. There was much rejoicing in Belgium – save in police circles – that the painting had been safely recovered and that the Ghent Altarpiece was again complete. Flush with success Banaczek opted to travel to Berlin by air, rather than by train. Before boarding his flight he sent a cable to Blofeld arranging a meeting in Schönefeld.

The following afternoon saw Ernst Blofeld waiting in the small park where he had met Banaczek ten days before.

“Good afternoon Ernst.” Banaczek sat down on the bench and lit up a Gran Corona.

“Your success has already made the papers here. Congratulations!”

“Thank you.” Banaczek withdrew a rather fat envelope from his jacket pocket and passed it over to Blofeld. “Your share, as promised.”

Blofeld did not bother to examine the contents but put the envelope into his own jacket pocket. “And I thank you.”

29

Today, 2:58am

Expanding Operations

Berlin-Müggelheim, Thursday, 30 September 1948

Blofeld looked up from his desk at the sound of the door being opened; it was his trusted henchman, Kowalski, allowing the forger Kruger to enter.

“Herr Blofeld, I have done as you asked, and printed the lire notes you directed.” Kowalski set a large suitcase on a side table for Blofeld’s inspection. “I hope you find them acceptable.”

Blofeld stood and walked to the table; opening the suitcase he quickly inspected the forger’s work.

“Excellent, excellent. You have done well Kruger. Your reward will be commensurate.”

“Thank you Herr Blofeld.”

Kowalski escorted Kruger from the room, leaving Blofeld alone with his thoughts. Printing the counterfeit currency was only half the challenge; injecting it into circulation without discovery was far more difficult, particularly with large sums. His plan to use a commercial cover to hide his transactions would be sound so long as it was done quickly and the trail sufficiently obscured. He would avail himself of the services of the courier Bandiera to carry most of the cash to Milan, as before. He had plans for the rest of it – he had opened negotiations with a senior officer at the Italian embassy – a man of expensive habits who unfortunately chafed at the pittance of a salary he received from his government. If successful, he could deliver an intelligence coup of grand proportions.