Paving the New Road: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #4

Paving the New Road: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #4

Shortlisted for the Davitt Award for Best Adult Crime Fiction for 2013 It's 1933. No less than Europe, Britain, or America, Australia contends with the Left, mostly Communists but also ...

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Sulari Gentill

After setting out to study astrophysics, graduating in law and then abandoning her legal career to write books, Sulari now ...

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Prologue

“No! For God’s sake, no! Rowland Sinclair cannot be trusted.” Freddie Middlemiss was adamant and furious. His lips puckered and pressed into a disconsolate line. “The man’s a disgrace. We still can’t be sure he’s not a bloody Red.” He stubbed out his cigarette, agitated. “If I had my way, we’d shoot him and be done with it!”

“What Charles is suggesting may be tantamount to shooting him,” Maguire observed. It was hard to tell if the surgeon was necessarily unhappy with the proposition.

Senator Charles Hardy pushed his fingertips together as he considered the warning. The select meeting of loyalists waited for his response in the private meeting room of the Riverine Club. A dozen men sat around the polished board table, ashtrays and scotch within easy reach. The air was heavy, a smoky, conspiratorial fog. It was a testament to Hardy’s growing influence that the venerable men in attendance had travelled to Wagga Wagga at such short notice, and that they had done so without the knowledge of Wilfred Sinclair.

A throat was cleared. Frederick Hinton tapped the table impatiently, his chin dimpling as he dropped it into his fleshy jowls. Sir Adrian Knox mopped at his brow with a handkerchief as if he were searching for the judge’s wig under which his balding crown was so often hidden. Even Goldfinch pulled restlessly at his moustache. Only Maguire remained rigid, unmoving.

“I believe Rowland was cleared of suspicion,” Hardy said finally. “And the Sinclairs have always been true to King and country.”

A general murmur of agreement.

“There is not a man here who would doubt Wilfred,” Middlemiss returned. “He’s a decent chap, but Rowland is another matter entirely. I doubt even Wilfred trusts him.”

“Rowland has skills that could be very useful,” Hardy said, sensing the mood was against him. It would take a great deal to convince these men to act against Wilfred Sinclair. “Rowland is fluent in French, Spanish, and, most importantly, German. Not to mention the fact that the very associations which cause some of you to doubt his loyalty may make him privy to valuable information.”

Frederick Hinton’s round face puffed. “Surely you are not suggesting that we should endorse his enlisting the Reds to help…”

“No, of course not,” Hardy said hastily. “But his ability to move among the vermin may be useful. Let us remember, gentlemen, why we need to place a man in Germany.”

“We have not forgotten, Charles.” Knox pointed at the Senator. “It’s why we need a man we can trust, who is unimpeachable. It’s why Wilfred is our man…whether or not he speaks German.”

“One should also remember that the ability to speak German didn’t really help Peter Bothwell in the end,” Goldfinch added.

Hardy pulled the unlit pipe from his mouth. He spoke carefully. “You may be right, gentlemen. But let us not deceive ourselves—this operation is not without risk and Wilfred is both very valuable to and inextricably connected with our movement.”

“What are you saying, Hardy?”

“I am simply making the observation that if things were to go wrong, Wilfred is inseparable from this organisation…he is closely linked to every man at this table. Rowland Sinclair, on the other hand, is a known renegade—there was that business last year between him and Campbell, and then that nonsense with the Theosophical Society. No one will doubt that he was acting of his own accord.”

Hardy’s proposal was considered. The Senator waited.

It was Maguire who first broke the pensive silence. “Wilfred won’t like it. He won’t allow it.”

“He could be made to appreciate the wisdom of it if we were resolved. We really can’t risk a good man like Wilfred.”

“And how do you expect to get Rowland Sinclair to agree?” Maguire asked. “You have hardly endeared yourself to him.”

Hardy did not flinch. “Leave young Sinclair to me. I’ll make him see the sense of taking his brother’s place. Needless to say, I shall have to speak to him before Wilfred suspects our purpose.”

Maguire folded his arms, tilting back in his chair. “Wilfred will not take kindly to this plan of yours, Charles.”

“I suppose he won’t,” Hardy replied. “Regardless, it will keep Wilfred out of harm’s way.”

“By putting his brother directly in it.”

Middlemiss snorted loudly. “Wilfred may thank us for it. Rowland’s been little more than an embarrassment for years.”

Maguire’s beard moved with the clench of his jaw. “Rowland Sinclair is his only surviving brother. You’re a fool if you think Wilfred will tolerate any proposal to send Rowland into danger!”

“Steady on, Maguire,” Knox protested. “All we’re doing is replacing Bothwell.”

“And may I remind you, Sir Adrian, that Peter Bothwell is dead.”

The room fell again into an uneasy silence as the inescapable fact settled on the consciences of the Old Guard leadership.

Hardy’s voice was brittle. “All the more reason we should send Rowland Sinclair.”

 

 

 

Chapter One

ERIC CAMPBELL NOW IN LONDON.

FASCISM URGED FOR N.S.W.

LONDON, March 7

 

Mr. Eric Campbell told a press representative he was seeing Sir Oswald Mosley regarding organising Fascism in New South Wales. He proposes to visit Italy, Germany and Poland. Mr. Campbell added the time was never so opportune as now for Fascism in New South Wales. Not only Lang and his Communist friends need watching, but the Stevens Government was paving the way to Socialism and Communism.

The Townsville Daily Bulletin, 1933

***

 

It was a particularly inconvenient time to call.

The smoke was thick and the blaze in real danger of getting away. A misshapen, one-eared greyhound barked madly at the flames as it tried to warn its master of the peril.

“Lenin! Calm down!” Rowland Sinclair relinquished his shovel reluctantly. No doubt it would be another irate neighbour demanding to know why he was trying to set the street alight.

“Who is it this time, Mary?” he asked the housekeeper, who had personally ventured into the gardens of Woodlands House to bring him the message. He patted his thigh to call his dog to heel beside him.

Mary Brown sighed, conveying all manner of frustration, disapproval, and concern in a simple exhalation of breath. She had been employed at the Sydney residence of the Sinclairs since well before its current master was born, and although she had run Rowland’s household for several years, she did not condone his lifestyle. Of course she would never utter what it was not her place to say…and so she sighed again. “A Senator Charles Hardy, Master Rowly,” she said, addressing him with the title she had used since he was a child. “The Senator is most insistent that he speak with you now.”

“Hardy?” Rowland stopped, frowning as he unrolled his sleeves and rebuttoned his waistcoat. He and the  Senator were hardly friends. Why would he call unannounced? “Ask the Senator to wait in my studio, please, Mary. I’ll be along directly.”

“What is it, Rowly?” Edna shouted over the crackling roar of the fire. The young sculptress for whom they had built the small inferno tossed an armload of split logs into the flames. She wore overalls, as she always did when she was working. Her auburn hair was caught back from her face beneath a headscarf and her cheeks were streaked with smoky residue. Rowland paused to enjoy the dishevelled picture of her. There was something particularly enchanting about such a beautiful creature, being so at home in overalls and soot.

“Rowly…?” Edna prompted, rolling her eyes. She had become accustomed to how easily men were distracted in her company…or by it.

“Just an unexpected visitor,” Rowland said finally.

“Who?” Edna persisted. She knew him too well to dismiss the hard glint in his dark blue eyes, and she was too curious by nature to let it pass.

“Senator Hardy, apparently.”

Milton Isaacs looked up from his book. The poet had taken refuge in the gazebo upwind of the fire, unwilling to risk his immaculate cream jacket in the smoke. “And they were enemies: they met beside the dying embers of an altar-place,” he said loudly, looking pointedly at the fire.

“Byron,” Rowland shouted back at him. Milton’s posture as a poet was the ill-gotten product of his talent for quoting the works of English bards at will. That the words were not the creation of his own poetic inspiration was a detail that escaped most people…except Rowland Sinclair, who felt obliged to make the attribution his friend so conveniently omitted.

Milton snorted contemptuously as if it were Byron who had, in fact, stolen his words.

Clyde Watson Jones leaned on his own shovel, a wary eye still on the fire. He was not the eldest of them by many years, but his face was already mellowed, weathered but comfortable, like a well-worn pair of boots. The time he’d spent in the luxury of Woodlands House under Rowland’s generous patronage had not erased the map of care etched by years on the wallaby, scrounging for work and dignity. “What would Hardy want with you, mate?”

Rowland’s face darkened further. “I’m sure I’ll find out.” His last encounter with Charles Hardy had been anything but pleasant. The Senator had essentially accused him of treason… some cockeyed notion that Rowland Sinclair, the youngest brother of Wilfred Sinclair—that bastion of conservative respectability—was a Communist spy, a traitor to King and country. Rowland might have found it funny, if it had not seemed that his brother was standing with the accusers.

Retrieving his jacket from the garden seat on which he had tossed it when they’d begun the task of digging a pit for Edna, he dragged it on. Edna reached up and straightened his tie, and used her sleeve to wipe a stray smudge of black from his cheek. Unfortunately, her sleeve was not itself pristine and her efforts were less than successful.

Rowland smiled as he attempted to rectify the extra soot she had left on his person. It was just cursory…let Hardy take him as he found him, cinders and all.

He entered the house through the conservatory. Lenin padded quietly after him.

Rowland’s studio, in which Hardy waited, had once been the grand mansion’s main parlour. It was a large room with high, ornate ceilings and ample light afforded by bay windows. It was this light that made it an excellent studio space. That using it in such a way stamped his stewardship of Woodlands House absolutely did not displease Rowland either.

Charles Hardy was standing before the larger-than-life portrait of Rowland’s late father, the pastoralist Henry Sinclair. His gaze, however, was on the painting that graced the opposite wall—a nude of Edna seated in the armchair which Rowland now invited his guest to take.

The Senator smiled broadly. “Just admiring your father’s portrait…a fine, loyal Australian, a real Briton,” he said as he approached Rowland with his hand outstretched.

Rowland accepted the handshake cautiously. Aside from the fact that he doubted Hardy had been concentrating on his father’s portrait, the Senator was no more than thirty-five. It was unlikely he’d known Henry Sinclair, who had died in 1920.

“Of course, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him personally…but I knew him well by reputation. A man to be reckoned with, I’m told. He was taken too early, as I suppose the best men are.”

Rowland glanced at the glowering likeness in oil, and said nothing. He had been fifteen when his father died.

In the silence, Hardy’s eyes fell upon the greyhound. The dog ignored him and stretched out at Rowland’s feet. “Good Lord! Your dog?”

Rowland nodded.

“What do you call him?”

“Lenin.”

Hardy changed the subject. “Been barbequing, I see.”

Eager to ascertain the purpose of Hardy’s unexpected visit, Rowland offered the Senator a drink. He allowed Hardy to make small talk for the minimum time that courtesy would allow before asking quite bluntly, “What can I do for you, Senator Hardy?”

“Please…Charles,” Hardy said. He studied Rowland over his glass of whisky. “Look, Sinclair, I’d like to bury the hatchet, as it were. I misjudged you. I admit it and I apologise.”

Rowland watched him suspiciously. “Thank you.”

“Good…good…no hard feelings, then.” Hardy didn’t wait for Rowland to reply, and Rowland didn’t make any attempt to do so.

The politician glanced back at the portrait of Henry Sinclair. “I should have known that despite your unusual social connections, the Sinclairs have always been King’s men. Your father would have brought you up with love of country and Empire.” He paused in his rhetoric. “I was hoping that I could rely on that now.”

“Rely on it for what, exactly?” Rowland knew full well Hardy had not called merely to apologise.

“I hoped to enlist your help on a matter of national security.”

Admittedly, Rowland’s interest was piqued. “National security? Are you sure it’s not Wilfred you’d like to talk to?” It was Wilfred who now wielded the power of the Sinclairs— influence born of wealth and political connections. Rowland had instead claimed the role of black sheep, a part which suited him and which he thought he played rather well. That the Senator would seek his help on any matter, let alone one of national security, was, at the very least, a little surprising.

Hardy sipped his scotch and let the silence settle dramatically before he answered. “No, it’s you…Can I depend on you, Sinclair? Can your country, your fellow Australians, depend on you?”

Rowland raised a single brow. Hardy had always had a predilection for theatre. “What do you want, Senator Hardy?”

“I really must insist you call me Charles,” Hardy said, placing down his drink. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “I need your word as a gentleman, Rowland, that what I am about to tell you will not go outside these walls.”

Rowland nodded impatiently.

“I understand that you are acquainted with Eric Campbell.”

“I believe he is a mutual acquaintance,” Rowland replied. He wasn’t going to allow Hardy to deny his own involvement with the fascist group.

Colonel Eric Campbell was the commander of the New Guard, a right-wing movement of citizens which had once sought to overthrow the New South Wales government of Jack Lang, who they decried as a Communist-coddler. Over a year ago now, Rowland had infiltrated the movement for his own reasons and, in the process, come to know Eric Campbell and the machinations of the New Guard quite well. But the whole affair had ended rather badly, destroying his reputation in certain quarters, enhancing it in others.

Hardy studied him piercingly. “The Riverina Movement was not a part of the New Guard,” he said tersely, defensively.

Rowland did not withdraw. Led by Hardy himself, the Riverina Movement was to Rowland’s mind not so different from the New Guard. Indeed, Campbell and Hardy had been tentative allies against what they regarded as a common evil. Of course, now Charles Hardy was a respectable member of His Majesty’s parliament and Campbell considered an extremist crackpot…in some circles, at least.

“What is Colonel Campbell up to, then?”

“Abroad…he’s abroad,” Hardy replied, “on an educational tour of Europe. Right now he’s in Britain consorting with Sir Oswald Mosley. In a couple of weeks he’ll be in Germany meeting members of the Reichstag—perhaps even Hitler himself—making contacts and allegiances with, we believe, the intent of bringing European fascism to Australia.”

Rowland laughed. “Last year you were all sure Stalin had his eye on New South Wales—now it’s Hitler and Mussolini?”

Hardy waited until Rowland’s grin subsided. “This is not a matter for jest, Sinclair. Surely you are aware of the changes Hitler has already brought about in Germany. She is no longer a democracy. Hitler’s latest manifesto speaks of Lebensraum… room to live. His agenda has become expansionist.”

Rowland frowned. Germany did indeed disturb him. Only the previous year he had taken his friends there in search of the avant-garde, bohemian Berlin which had nurtured and inspired so many artists. But things had changed. Many of the painters and sculptors he had known and admired were under attack, their work labelled as degenerate. Rowland had called on his old friend, Jankel Adler at the Art Academy, to find the revered painter persecuted and in fear of his life. Adler had since fled to Paris. It was hard to believe that such things could happen in the modern world. Clyde and Milton kept him apprised of what they learned through their links in the Communist Party.

“And what has this got to do with me?”

“I’d like you to go to Germany.”

Rowland choked on his drink. “You what?”

Hardy opened a leather briefcase and took from it a cardboard file of documents. “You are a scholar of languages, I believe—you speak German like a native.”

“The natives might disagree.”

“You also speak French, Spanish, and Italian.”

“I’ve not had call to do so recently,” Rowland said carefully, wondering what exactly the file held.

Hardy sat back in his chair. He frowned. “I wonder if you might have read about Peter Bothwell?”

Slowly, Rowland nodded. The Sydney papers had reported the death of Bothwell, a grazier from Cootamundra. He had drowned, though the reported details had been noticeably vague. Bothwell had been in Germany at the time of his death. “Yes, I did read something. Did you know him?”

“I’m godfather to his boys.” Hardy sighed. “Indeed, Peter and I have…had been friends for many years. We served together. You couldn’t find a better chap or a more loyal Australian.”

“My commiserations.” Rowland wondered where the Senator was leading.

“The fact is, Rowly, Peter wasn’t in Germany on holiday. We’d placed him there to wait for Campbell’s arrival. He was a vital part of our operation to keep an eye on Campbell.”

Now Rowland was intrigued. “The Federal Government sent this chap Bothwell to Germany?”

Hardy shook his head. “No, this was never official.” He dropped the file onto the occasional table beside him as he tried to explain. “Let’s just say Peter Bothwell was sent to Germany by men who have our country’s, and arguably the Empire’s, interests at heart…who are concerned to ensure that Eric Campbell’s star does not rise the way Hitler’s has in recent years.”

“I see…but what has this got to do with me?”

“We have another man in Campbell’s party…travelling with him—a little like a spy.”

“A lot like a spy, I’d say.”

“Blanshard is Campbell’s interpreter. He speaks both Italian and German—and a couple of other languages besides. He will be assisted by other operatives in Italy, but Peter was to be his contact once Campbell arrived in Germany. With Peter’s passing, Blanshard is isolated.”

“So bring him back.”

“That would be suspicious and he is the last man we have left within the New Guard. If we lose him, we’ll have no idea what Campbell’s up to.”

“And you want me to go to Germany to do what, exactly?”

“We would like you to assist Blanshard, see what you can find out about Campbell’s connections to the Nazi government.” Hardy paused before adding, “I would like you to look into Peter Bothwell’s death.”

Rowland put down his drink. “I’m not a detective, Senator Hardy.”

“No, but you do speak German and you are familiar with the country.” He handed the cardboard file over to Rowland. “I’d like you to read this. It contains all the communication received on the matter of Peter’s death, as well as newspaper clippings, letters from Peter himself…that sort of thing. You read it and tell me if you think his sudden demise isn’t suspicious.”

“You want me to swoop in like some Colonial Sherlock Holmes and solve the case?” Rowland didn’t bother to hide that he thought the proposition ridiculous.

“I want you to find out what you can while you’re assisting Blanshard in making sure Campbell doesn’t bring Nazism back here.”

“I wonder why you think I’d be interested in—let alone humanly capable of—doing what you want?”

“Because you more than anyone know how dangerous Campbell can be…the fanaticism he is able to incite. I believe the New Guard nearly killed you once.”

“If I recall, Senator Hardy, the good men of your Riverina Movement seemed keen to shoot me too.”

Hardy looked at him blankly and Rowland wondered if it were possible that the man was unaware of the excesses of the mobs he had incited to violence.

Hardy sat forward. “Look Sinclair, do me the indulgence of hearing me out.”

Rowland raised his glass. “Be my guest.”

“I assume you are aware of the organisations of patriotic men who have the defence of democracy and our way of life as their purpose.”

“I am aware of a number of organisations who claim that is their purpose,” Rowland said carefully.

“And you are aware of your brother’s involvement with the Old Guard?”

Rowland stiffened. The Old Guard was the vehicle of the establishment, a clandestine conservative militia, the leadership of which included Wilfred Sinclair. Beyond that, he knew little about the movement. “What has Wil got to do with this?”

“The Old Guard is becoming increasingly uneasy with Campbell’s attempts to forge allegiances with the European fascists. Our information is that he proposes to float a political party…to work within the democratic system to wrest power from it.”

Rowland nodded. The parallels to the German Chancellor’s recent rise to power were unmistakable. He frowned. “Our? You’ve been recruited to the Old Guard?”

“In times of need, like-minded men will join forces,” Hardy replied. “The underlying tenets of the Riverina Movement were never at odds with those of the Old Guard.”

Rowland shrugged. So Hardy was now with the Old Guard…it was inevitable, he supposed. He was a Senator.

“The Old Guard is concerned enough about recent developments to have installed a man within Campbell’s inner circle and to have sent Peter Bothwell to Germany to ensure that he didn’t receive too warm a welcome.” Hardy spoke slowly now, ensuring his next words had maximum effect. “Now that Peter is dead, Wilfred himself will go to Germany in his place.”

Rowland sat up. “Wil?”

Hardy sat back, noting with satisfaction Rowland’s alarm. “Of course I was struck by the similarities between Wilfred and Peter—both good men with loving wives and fine young sons. Wilfred has two boys, I believe?”

“Yes.”

Hardy spoke urgently now. “Wilfred is prepared to go to Germany, Rowland. In fact, he’ll leave within the week. Your brother is a capable man, but he does not have your flair for languages and he does have a family.”

“Why hasn’t Wilfred mentioned this to me?” Rowland said, his eyes moving to the framed photograph of his young nephews which stood among the others on the mantel.

“Perhaps he doesn’t trust you.”

Rowland knew full well that Charles Hardy was playing him, but he couldn’t prevent his response. “I doubt that’s the case,” he said coldly.

“You must understand, Rowly, Wilfred’s in a difficult position. This is a matter of national import. The Old Guard are necessarily cautious men. If you’d seen service, they would have proof of your loyalty, but unfortunately…”

Rowland glared furiously at Hardy.

“Perhaps if you were to assume this task for your brother, for your country and fellow countrymen…well, your loyalty would be beyond question, regardless of your associations.”

“I’m not a fool, Hardy,” Rowland said, his eyes flashing dangerously. “And I’m not interested in proving myself to the Old Guard.”

“Of course, if you went, Wilfred would not need to.” Hardy looked over at the picture of Wilfred’s sons, leading Rowland’s eyes and mind to the same.

“Is Wilfred aware you’re here?” Rowland asked.

Hardy shook his head. “Rescuing you has become something of a habit for your brother. I expect he will object most strenuously to your going anywhere outside the bounds of his protection.”

Rowland’s eyes darkened. Hardy watched closely, clearly gauging the effect of his words.

Rowland rubbed his face, aware that he was reacting just as Hardy intended, and irritated that he could be so easily and obviously manipulated. He stood and walked over to the mantelpiece.

“Peter Bothwell’s younger son is barely two years old. He won’t even remember his father.” Hardy pressed his advantage. “Our only chance to prevent Wilfred from doing this is for you to go in his place. Surely, man, you’re aware of Campbell’s extremism, his ambition…”

Rowland picked up the picture of Wilfred’s boys. “Fine,” he said quietly. “I’ll go.”

Reviews of

Paving the New Road: A Rowland Sinclair Mystery #4

“The combination of famous historical figures, detailed descriptions of a troubling time, and plenty of action makes for a tale as rousing as it is relevant.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This installment takes the aristocratic Sinclair into a much darker place than did the previous three entries in the series but does so without losing the stylish prose and the easy way with character that have given the novels their appeal.”

Booklist

“…stellar plot twists and her signature historical quotes throughout, deftly combining history and mystery in this page-turner.”

Historical Novel Society

“… stylish, well-paced murder mystery… cheeky plotline… this tale is told with such flair and feeling for those extraordinary times… Verdict: thrilling”

The Herald Sun

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