Autumn 1936. Clouds of war are gathering in Europe and the Fascists are eyeing up possible nuclear resources in Scandinavia.
High-flying Cambridge nuclear scientist Dr Dulcie Bennett travels to northern Norway to join an elite group of researchers bent on unlocking the secrets of the atom. She makes a startling breakthrough on a radioactive experiment, but a suspicious lab explosion derails her plans.
John Kirkwall is a troubled Canadian journalist in Sohlberg on a personal quest to uncover the real story behind a doomed polar expedition. Despite initial misunderstandings, they are drawn to one another. Soon, they become embroiled in a shady world of spies, saboteurs, secret police, neurotic academics, anti-semitism, murky political and sexual intrigue.
As winter grips, they enlist the help of the local Sami community, persecuted by the increasingly powerful right-wing nationalist party, and together they expose a dark and shameful secret of Norway’s past, bringing to light a treacherous plot that could tilt the balance of power in Hitler’s favour.
Kirkwall pulled the cord and the engine sputtered into life. He settled on the seat, took the tiller and shot a glance to the far shore. After putting it into gear, he adjusted the throttle and the boat began to move.
On the jetty, Dulcie walked alongside him. A drop of icy rain landed on her face. All around, the surface of the water broke into myriad rings and concentric circles. A solid mass of pewter cloud had drawn up overhead, its leading edge pointed like the prow of some aerial ship.
Dulcie watched the little boat chug along. Kirkwall tugged down his hat against the rain. This was desperate, she thought, heart torn in two. It shouldn’t be like this. Those Germans had attacked him. He shouldn’t be the one to run. It was unbearable watching him leave. She tried to picture them meeting up somewhere...Stockholm, perhaps...but the image dissolved.
The boat reached the end of the jetty. Dulcie looked out across Sohlberg Sound, shielding her eyes against the stinging drops.
A noise made her stop. It was the sound of deep barking. She turned and saw a dozen men, half with dark animals straining on short leads, making their way along the snowy path past some warehouses in the distance. “Dogs!” she cried, wondering if she had time to get back to the motorbike. There was a sharp crack and something zipped past her ear, then splinters sprayed up from a wooden plank a few feet away. “They’re shooting at us!”
Kirkwall slowed and waved at her frantically. “Quick. Get in. Jump!”
Without hesitating, Dulcie hunkered low, ran to the end of the jetty and leapt in, as Kirkwall gripped her arm to steady her. The boat lurched, then straightened up. He twisted the throttle control and they shot off down the shore, away from the approaching police, Kirkwall straining forward, as though this would make the boat go even faster.
Another noise reached them. She turned toward Kirkwall and saw him staring out across the sound toward a bank of mist. The sound of a throbbing diesel engine echoed across the water. As she squinted through the murk, she suddenly made out the low, angular outline of a pale vessel speeding along, following the line of the coast. It was about a hundred feet long, a dull grey with no flag. The German e-boat. It disappeared into the mist, although they could still hear the engine, getting louder.
There was no way they could cross Sohlberg Sound in time. Kirkwall twisted around then veered suddenly toward half a dozen ramshackle jetties, before cutting the engine. As they slid toward a low one at the end, he grabbed an oar and steered the boat underneath the planks. Then, he pushed Dulcie down against the damp planks and pressed his body against hers, pulling the blanket over them both. They lay, breathing hard, as the boat bobbed up and down in the wash. She could feel his cheek against hers, the light stubble prickling slightly.
“E-boat patrol,” she whispered. “It comes by at eleven o’clock every morning.”
He held her more closely as the thumping of the diesel engines got louder. Dulcie could feel their hearts thudding as they lay still in the darkness. She closed her eyes, picturing the men on board the large vessel. Were they joining in the hunt for Kirkwall too, or was it simply the routine patrol? It wasn’t hard to imagine them in heavy great coats, gripping binoculars, training them on the shore, wating for a signal. The noise of the engine receded, but then waves began to batter the jetty and their boat began to wobble wildly, knocking against a wooden pier.
“Hang on!” His arms tightened around her, preventing her from being thrown into the water. One of the bundles inside the boat broke free and skittered about inside, knocking into her wrist. Kirkwall braced a leg against it as the boat surged up and down once more in the backwash that swept under the jetty, slopping up between the timbers before being sucked back down again. After a while, Kirkwall raised the corner of the blanket and then relaxed.
“Have they gone?”
“For now.” He sat up slowly.
Dulcie raised herself up on an elbow. The face of her wrist watch was cracked. Beyond, rows of ridged waves charged diagonally across the water, fanning out from the e-boat now some distance away as the German vessel continued down the coast. She peered at it disappearing into the distance. “Thanks,” she said. It sounded feeble.
Kirkwall clambered upright, then passed a hand over his grey face. The noise of the dogs barking echoed behind them.
“So,” she said. “I suppose I’d better come along with you for a while.” She steadied her breathing. “No going back now.”
He paused and gave her a long, searching look. “Right,” he said. “Grab an oar.”