Moselkern, Germany, July 1940
Maple leaves draped over the tree house window, the silvery fronds linked together like rings of chain mail to protect the boy and girl playing inside.
Dietmar Roth charged his wooden horse across the planks, knocking down two of the Roman horses with his toy knight as he rushed toward the tower of river stones. In his thirteen years, he’d become an expert on both knights and their armor. Metal rings were useless for protection on their own, but hundreds of these rings, woven tightly together, could withstand an opponent’s arrows. Or sword.
Standing beside the tower, a miniature princess clutched in her hand, Brigitte yowled like a wildcat. As if she might really be carried away by warriors.
At the age of ten, Brigitte was an expert on royalty. And drama.
Instead of an army, Brigitte played with one toy—the princess Dietmar carved out of linden wood and painted for her last birthday. He liked renaming his knights, but Brigitte never changed the name of her toy.
Brigitte thought her princess could fly.
Dietmar drew a tin sword from his knight’s scabbard and began to fight the black-cloaked opposition that advanced in his mind. Stretched across the tree house floor was an entire army of battle-scarred knights, all of them with a different symbol painted on their crossbows. All of them fighting as one for the Order of the Ritterlichkeit. Chivalry.
He’d carved each of his knights’ bows from cedar and strung them with hair from Fonzell, their family’s horse—at least, Fonzell had been the Roth family horse until Herr Darre stole him away. Herr Darre was a German officer. And the Roths’ neighbor. He was punishing Herr Roth for not bringing Dietmar to Deutsches Jungvolk—the weekly meetings for Germany’s boys. Brigitte and her father were the only neighbors his family trusted anymore.
Dietmar was too old to be playing knights and princesses, but Brigitte never wanted to play anything else. And Dietmar didn’t want to play with anyone else. He and Brigitte had been the best of friends since her family moved into the house across the woods six years ago, playing for hours along the stream until his father built the tree house for them. Their mothers had been best friends too until Frau Berthold died from influenza.
Once, Herr Berthold asked Dietmar to care for Brigitte if anything ever happened to him. Dietmar had solemnly promised the man that he’d never let anything or anyone harm his daughter. Not even an army of toy knights.
He lifted one of his knights off the horse. “Brigitte . . .”
She shook her finger at him. “Princess Adler.”
Cupping his other hand around his mouth, he pretended to shout, “Princess Adler, we’ve come to rescue you.”
Brigitte flipped one of her amber-colored braids over her sleeve, calling back to him, “I will never leave my tower.”
“But we must go,” he commanded, “before the Romans arrive.”
She feigned a sigh. “There’s no one I trust.”
Dietmar reached for Ulrich, the knight who’d sworn to protect the princess at any cost, and he solemnly bowed the soldier toward her. “You can trust me, Your Majesty.”
“‘Your Majesty’ is how you address a queen,” Brigitte whispered to him as if his words might offend the princess.
Dietmar knew how to address a queen, of course. He just liked to tease her.
With his thumb, he pounded the knight’s chest. “I will protect you with my life.”
Brigitte studied the knight for a moment and then smiled. “Very well. Perhaps I shall come out.”
Outside their playhouse window, six rusty spoons hung in a circle, strung together with wire on a tree limb. The warm breeze rustled the branches, chiming the spoons, and Brigitte leaned her head outside to listen to their melody. The whole forest was an orchestra to her. The strings of sound a symphony. Brigitte heard music in the cadence of the river, the crackling of twigs, the rhythm of the wind.
Dietmar checked his watch. Only twenty minutes left to play before he started solving the geometry problems Frau Lyncker assigned him tonight. The world might be at war, but his mother still expected him to do schoolwork between four and five each afternoon. Even though everything outside their forest seemed to be foundering, his mother still hoped for their future. And she dreamed of a future filled with Frieden—peace—for her only child.
Brigitte leaned back in the window, her freckles glowing like a canvas of stars. “I shall make a wish on this tree, like Aschenputtel.”
“Should I capture the evil stepsisters?” he asked.
At times it seemed the threads of imagination stitched around her mind like rings of armor, the world of pretend cushioning her sorrow and protecting her from a real enemy that threatened all the German children. She was on the cusp of becoming a woman, yet she clung to the fairy tales of childhood.
“I want you to capture the wind.”
He laughed. “Another day, Brigitte.”
Her fists balled up against her waist. “Princess Adler.”
Her gaze traveled toward the ladder nailed to the opening in the tree house floor. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” he teased.
“I wish we could find some Kuchen.”
He nodded. Fruits and vegetables were hard enough to obtain in the village; sweets were impossible to find, reserved for the stomachs of Hitler’s devoted. But his mother’s garden was teeming with vegetables. He and his father had devised a wire cage of sorts over the plot to keep rabbits away, though there seemed to be fewer rabbits in the woods this summer. More people, he guessed, were eating them for supper.
He’d never tell Brigitte, but some nights he felt almost hungry enough to eat a rabbit too.
“I’ll find us something better than cake.”
He left Princess Adler and her wind chimes to climb down the ladder, rubbing his hand like he always did over the initials he’d carved into the base of the trunk. D. R. was on one side of the tree, B. B. on the other.
He trekked the grassy riverbank along the Elzbach, toward his family’s cottage in the woods. Beside his mother’s garden, he opened a door made of chicken wire and skimmed his hand across parsnips, onions, and celery until his fingers brushed over a willowy carrot top.
Three carrots later, he closed the wire door and started to march toward the back door of the cottage, the carrots dangling beside him. He’d bathe their dirt-caked skin in the sink before returning to battle. Then he’d—
A woman’s scream echoed across the garden, and Dietmar froze. At first, in his confusion, he thought Brigitte was playing her princess game again, but the scream didn’t come from the forest. The sound came from inside the house, through the open window of the sitting room.
The woman screamed again, and he dropped the carrots. Raced toward the door.
Through the window, he saw the sterile black-and-silver Gestapo uniforms, bloodred bands around the sleeves. Herr Darre and another officer towered over his parents. Mama was on the sofa, and Papa . . .
His father was unconscious on the floor.
“Where is the boy?” Herr Darre demanded.
“I don’t know,” Mama whispered.
Herr Darre raised his hand and slapped her.
Rage shot like an arrow through Dietmar’s chest, his heart pounding as he reached for the door handle, but in that moment, in a splinter of clarity, his mother’s eyes found him. And he’d never forget what he saw.
Fear. Pain. And then the briefest glimpse of hope.
“Lauf,” she mouthed.
He didn’t know if the officers heard her speak. Or if they saw him peering through the window. He simply obeyed his mother’s command.
Trembling like a ship trapped in a gale, Dietmar turned around. Then the wind swept him away, carrying him back toward the tree house, away from his parents’ pain.
Coward, the demons in his mind shouted at him, taunting as he fled.
But his mother had told him to run. He just wouldn’t run far.
First, he’d take Brigitte to the safety of her home. Then he would return like a knight and rescue his father and mother from the enemy.
London, England, 2017
Dear Miss Vaughn,
I received your e-mail and am deeply offended by your implication that my mother participated in some sort of secret Fascist network during the war. I object to your accusations and question the integrity of the entire World News Syndicate for proposing an article founded on lies.
If you decide to pursue this course of action, I will contact my solicitor in London. Fenton & Potts will put an end to this fallacy.
The Hon. Mrs. Samuel McMann
Quenby’s finger hovered over the Trash icon on her iPad as she skimmed the e-mail one more time, but she flagged it instead. Not that she would forget the woman’s message. Her next feature for the syndicate was banking on an interview with the Honorable—and much-appalled—Louise McMann.
Sighing, she closed the iPad cover, and her gaze wandered past the kitchen table in her flat, through the patio’s sliding-glass window. Fog veiled the hills and trees of Hampstead Heath like a filmy curtain draped over a production on the West End. Any moment the curtain would lift, revealing the spring flowers and pond below.
Usually the beauty of the view energized her, but this morning she wished she could slip back into bed. Chandler Parr—her editor and best friend—was planning to feature the espionage story next week, but even though Chandler had asked her to focus solely on this article right now, Quenby still had nothing even close to ready for publication.
Her feet slid into her slippers, and she propped them up on the opposite chair, pressing her fingers into the back of her neck. If only she could knead away every tendril of stress that coiled under the skin.
Two weeks ago, without any sort of fanfare, the War Office had released more than a hundred detailed files related to espionage during World War II, held under lock and key by the curators at the National Archives in London. She’d recently written a series of articles on the influx of refugees in England, and a friend at the archives thought she might be interested in the espionage files as well. He was absolutely right.
Few people outside England knew about the seemingly ordinary, even upstanding British citizens who’d supported Nazi Germany during World War II, but hundreds of these sympathizers had been rounded up before or during the war for betraying their country. Many of the newly released files contained information about Nazi spies already known to the public, but she’d found a confidential inquiry into the background and character of Lady Janice Ricker—Mrs. McMann’s mother—who’d resided mainly in Kent. A woman whose story would interest both North American readers and those on this side of the pond.
Lady Ricker was an American citizen who’d married into a wealthy upper-class British family before the war, becoming the wife of an astute Member of Parliament, and according to a memorandum in one of the files, she’d admitted to being sympathetic to the Nazi cause. The British government suspected that her ladyship had assisted the Nazis during World War II, but so far, Quenby hadn’t been able to find any documents with solid proof that she’d operated as an Abwehr spy.
She’d located the obituary for Lady Ricker in the Kent and Sussex Courier. February 8, 1953. Lady Ricker was survived by a son and daughter at the time, but Louise McMann was the only child who remained now. Since Mrs. McMann refused to answer questions, Quenby would contact Lady Ricker’s grandchildren to request an interview.
Not that Mrs. McMann wanted the world to know her mother might have participated in German espionage, but she’d thought the woman might be willing to share her family’s perspective in the article, even if it was to declare Lady Ricker innocent of the accusations. Or perhaps give a reason as to why Lady Ricker had betrayed her country.
If Lady Ricker was innocent, Quenby would write a story about the difficulty deciphering who was innocent and who was guilty of espionage during World War II. An article about trust and deception and witch hunts—today and in the past—sparked by fear. Chandler might ax her story even before Evan Graham, the owner of World News Syndicate, saw it, but it would be the truth.
She took a long sip of the milky tea she’d brewed an hour ago. In her mind, journalism was a science that educated society about both past and present in hopes of bettering it, keeping people accountable for their actions and informing them about the past so they wouldn’t repeat mistakes. In the mind of Mr. Graham, it was more about keeping a dying industry alive and, of course, selling papers. If people stopped paying for news—online or off—Quenby wouldn’t have a job.
As president of World News Syndicate, Mr. Graham wasn’t afraid of a little conflict. Or a lawsuit. His family had been in the business of news for more than sixty years.
A breeze blew through the park below her flat, curling the fog into strange shapes over the pond’s surface. Then a ray of light pierced through it, a spotlight on nature’s stage.
Cue the actors—otherwise known as mallards—along with the pods of water lilies that had tucked themselves away for the night. In another half hour, she figured, the curtain would rise on them all, and she’d have to make her way to the office for her own performance during their team’s Friday morning editorial meeting.
Right now, she had about as much clarity as the foggy park below. Without the help of Lady Ricker’s descendants, there would be no story. And Chandler might unravel in front of the whole team if Quenby didn’t have at least a lead.
Her mobile phone rang, and she glanced down to check the number, but there was no ID. Perhaps Mrs. McMann wanted to talk after all.
Quenby rotated her mug so it aligned perfectly along the table’s dark oak before answering the call. “Hello?”
“My name is Lucas Hough,” the caller explained. “I’m looking for Miss Vaughn.”
Standing, she stepped toward the window. “How can I help you, Mr. Hough?”
“Is this Quenby Vaughn?”
“I’m a solicitor in London.”
Her heart felt as if it skipped a beat or two. Had Louise already contacted her lawyer?
“I have a client who would like to meet with you.”
She leaned against the table, the fog-infused shapes over the park shifting below her. “Why does your client want to meet?”
He chuckled, a low, amused sound that startled her. Was he laughing at her?
“I don’t find any humor in that question.”
“My apologies,” he replied. “Most people would inquire as to who wanted to meet with them before they asked about details.”
She glanced at the microwave clock. The editorial meeting started in an hour. “I believe I can decipher both the who and why in one shot.”
“Indeed,” Mr. Hough said. “My client is Daniel Knight.”
He said Daniel Knight like she should know the name, but she didn’t recall contacting anyone with the last name of Knight for any of her recent articles.
“You still haven’t explained why your client wants to meet with me.”
“Mr. Knight would like to hire you.”
She reached for her mug but didn’t take a sip. “He wants me to write a story?”
“No,” Mr. Hough said. “He wants you to find someone.”
She sighed. “Then your client should hire a detective.”
“He already has, but none of the investigators were able to find this person for him.”
Her mug clasped in her hand, she moved down the narrow hallway, into her bedroom. A stray pair of jeans hung off the side of a woven basket at the end of her bed, and she stuffed them back inside. Laundry would be the first order of business over the weekend. “I’m a writer, Mr. Hough. I find people so I can tell their stories.”
“This story is quite remarkable, but Mr. Knight wants to hire you as a researcher instead of a reporter.”
She set her mug on top of a book on her nightstand and pulled a pair of clean jeans and a white blouse from the wardrobe, spreading her clothes across the end of the bed. Then she arranged her slippers neatly underneath.
Mr. Hough’s secrecy was maddening, but she couldn’t resist a good story and had a feeling this man knew it.
“Who exactly is Mr. Knight looking for?” she asked.
“Someone he lost.”
Maddening, intriguing, and irritating—she mentally added the word to the list. “A child?”
“No.” He paused. “His best friend.”
Quenby sat down on the bed and leaned back against the headboard. Her floor trembled as the Tube ran its morning course underground. “When did he lose this friend?”
“Seventy-five years ago.”
She groaned. “This is crazy.”
“Not crazy,” he clipped. “Perhaps unusual, but not crazy.”
Her head was beginning to ache. If only she could go back to bed and start this day again.
“I’m simply the messenger, Miss Vaughn. My client has done his homework, and he’s decided that you are the person he wants to locate his friend.”
“Because I’m a journalist?”
“His reasoning is unbeknownst to me.”
This time she laughed. “Unbeknownst?”
“I’m sorry,” he said without sounding the least bit. “I assumed you understood the queen’s English.”
She leaned forward, clenching the phone in her hand. He might think his teasing hilarious, but she had no time for this.
“Assuming can be a detriment in both of our professions,” she replied. “But then again, I’ve been assuming that you and your client know I have a full-time position as a journalist.”
She heard the clicking of a keyboard on the other end. “Mr. Knight will pay you a significant amount of money if you decide to work for him.”
“I’m not motivated by money, Mr. Hough.”
“Miss Vaughn,” he said with a sigh, “everyone is motivated by money.”
She massaged her temples, tiny circles to clear her mind. He was pushing too hard now, and she didn’t respond well to manipulation. Or the condescending tone of his voice. “I can’t take the time off work to help your client.”
“Before you decide, you should listen to his story.”
It was like dangling a sweet carrot in front of her, enticing her to follow. She should tell him no, but perhaps she could mine a newsworthy story over the weekend, something to appease Chandler until the Ricker article was complete. “I can meet your client tomorrow morning at Pret’s in Camden Market—”
“I’m afraid that won’t work.”
She drummed her fingers on the bedspread. “I suppose you already have a plan.”
A phone buzzed in the background. “I’ll fetch you in the morning at seven sharp, in front of your building.”
“Wait—” She moved her feet back over the edge of her bed, onto the rug. “How do you know where I live?”
His laugh grated on her skin, like a pumice stone sloughing away her nerves. If he laughed one more time, she was going to throw him and his queen’s English into the laundry basket.
She nudged the lid of the basket with her toe instead and watched it fall over the pile of dirty clothes. For some reason it made her feel better to hide it even though no one could see the laundry but her. “I can arrange for my own ride.”
“Pack a suitcase,” he instructed. Then he disconnected the call.
Quenby stared down at the screen in her hand, the time staring back at her. 7:32 a.m.
She’d done plenty of crazy things in her stint as a journalist, but she wouldn’t be packing her suitcase for this Mr. Hough. Nor would she go with him to some undisclosed location in order to meet a stranger who seemed certifiable, even if he promised her an interview.
The money was just a ploy. A second carrot dangling on the stick, probably luring her right over the edge of a cliff.
She didn’t know what these men wanted, but she was certain of one thing—she would be spending her weekend trying to track down someone to interview for her story on the Rickers, not searching for the friend Mr. Knight lost seventy-plus years ago.
“You have to go with him,” Chandler Parr insisted, leaning back against the L-shaped desk in Quenby’s ten-by-ten cube of an office. Her best friend and boss wore a pear-colored blazer and black trousers. Between her fingers, Chandler clutched an unlit cigarette that doubled as a baton.
Smoking wasn’t allowed in their building—and Chandler was trying to quit anyway—but she liked to cling to a Kent Blue. To combat stress, she said.
Unbeknownst to her, the staff referred to Chandler’s cigarette as her “dummy.” Pacifier. And now, thanks to Mr. Hough, the word unbeknownst was stuck in Quenby’s head.
“I’m not packing a suitcase and leaving London with a man I don’t know,” Quenby shot back, drumming her three-inch heels on the floor. “Especially one who won’t tell me where we’re going.”
She’d thought Chandler would be amused by Mr. Hough’s early morning call, but instead her boss was appalled that Quenby had turned down his request to meet Mr. Knight. Like Quenby was crazy for not driving away with a stranger.
“Rubbish,” Chandler said. “You may not know Mr. Hough, but that doesn’t mean he’s dangerous.”
“Nor does it mean he’s safe.”
“Just because your mum told you not to talk to strangers . . . ,” Chandler started. Then she stopped herself, her smile falling. “Oh, Quenby, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
Quenby brushed away the apology with a swat of her hand. “I know you didn’t.”
And this was precisely why Quenby didn’t tell people about her mother. She didn’t want them stumbling over apologies when it wasn’t their fault. Chandler only knew that Quenby’s mother hadn’t wanted to be a mom.
Chandler nudged her aside and clicked the mouse beside her computer. “Type in your password,” Chandler said, her boss voice prevailing.
Scrivener, Quenby typed. A medieval reminder that her job was to create new stories, not regurgitate ones that had already been told.
Chandler usurped the keyboard controls to search Google for Lucas Hough, and she found him at the law office of Hough and Associates. According to the firm’s website, the senior Mr. Hough had been practicing law in London for forty years. The junior Hough probably hadn’t struggled a day in his life, slipping easily into the role his family already carved out for him.
Quenby despised the bitterness that welled inside her. She should be pleased for his success, not aggravated. If only Mr. Hough hadn’t been so arrogant on the phone.
Another search, and Chandler selected an image from the faces that filled the screen. A man with wavy brown hair and brown eyes, wearing a gray bomber jacket and jeans. In his smile Quenby could almost hear his laughter. The thought annoyed her even more.
Chandler tapped her cigarette on the screen. “Let me introduce you properly to Lucas Hough, one of the most eligible bachelors in London.”
Quenby turned away from the screen. This Mr. Hough wasn’t like one of the friends her boss attempted to set her up with. Chandler had never even met this man. “He may look nice enough, but it doesn’t mean he’s safe.” She didn’t need a mother to explain that to her.
Chandler sighed. “Mr. Hough is a prominent attorney.”
“Defending the law doesn’t mean he obeys it.”
“He’s not going to kidnap a reporter,” Chandler said, waving the cigarette back and forth in front of Quenby’s face. “Go with him. I’ll track you on my phone.”
“A lot of good that will do if I end up in the Thames.”
Chandler pushed away from the desk. “You might get a good story out of it.”
Quenby straightened her keyboard and mouse pad. “Speaking of stories . . .” She opened the e-mail from Mrs. McMann and let Chandler read it.
Chandler stuck the cigarette between her lips. “You have more contacts than her, right?”
“I’m e-mailing her grandchildren this morning, and I’ve requested more files from the War Office. They’ll be transferred to the archives on Tuesday.”
The cigarette shook. “Evan Graham is not a patient man.”
“I’m well aware of that.” He had personally called Quenby out twice in their editorial meetings this year to say she needed to dig deeper. Find the stories no one else was telling.
“Go talk to this Daniel Knight,” Chandler said as if she were scrounging for crumbs under the fridge. Then she glanced at her watch. “Let’s not mention the fate of your article to the team yet. You’ll have a break soon enough.”
“Lady Ricker’s daughter practically threatened to sue the syndicate if I don’t drop the story.”
“As long as you stick to the facts, she can only threaten.”
“I figured Mr. Graham wouldn’t mind the publicity.”
Chandler put her finger to her lips. “He’s in the office today.”
Quenby cringed. Sightings of their boss were rare and, on days like today, unwelcome. “He’ll ask about my current article.”
“I’ll cover for you.”
Quenby reached for her coffee mug and followed her boss into the meeting room.
Quenby wasn’t packed by seven the next morning. Nor was she waiting for Mr. Hough in front of her building. Instead she’d fallen asleep on top of her bedspread, exhausted after a long night of researching the Ricker family.
But her mind didn’t rest. Hundreds of puzzle pieces crammed into her dream, different colors and shapes, and she was desperately trying to fit them together on her table so she could see the entire picture instead of a jumbled mess.
The puzzle was almost finished when a loud noise rattled the pieces and they blew out the window, floating like bubbles toward the heath. She saw herself for a moment in her flat, her blonde hair tousled around her face, green eyes pale in the mist. Then she saw the girl with straw-colored hair, the one who often haunted her dreams. This time, the girl was alone on the heath, trying to gather the puzzle pieces in her arms. But no matter how tightly she grasped, the pieces kept slipping away.
Quenby tossed on the bed, knowing it was a dream and yet wanting to help. The girl ignored Quenby, as she always did, and Quenby felt paralyzed in her own body. She wanted to break free. She wanted to—
More pounding from beyond her dream, and Quenby jolted back into reality. Her arms moved again, as did her legs, but even as she sat up, the lonely girl lingered in her mind.
She’d planned to meet Mr. Hough downstairs at seven, sans suitcase, and demand that he answer her questions. It was ten after seven now, and she hadn’t even gotten herself dressed for the day.
Before she answered the knock, she stumbled into the bathroom and replaced her nightshirt with a pair of running shorts and a paint-splattered T-shirt. Then she brushed her fingers through the layers of her cropped hair and swished Listerine around in her mouth. With a glance at her ragged T-shirt in the mirror, she reevaluated her attire but decided there was no reason to attempt to impress this Mr. Hough.
Mr. Hough was clearly not impressed. “You were supposed to be ready by seven,” he snapped when she opened the door.
“I never agreed to go with you.” She looked him straight in the eyes, undeterred by their espresso color that was steaming hot—in the precise Oxford Dictionary definition of the word.
He glanced at the time on his phone and then at the floor beside her like a suitcase might suddenly appear. As if he didn’t have time to waste on someone like her. “We’re going to be late.”
“Late for what?” She stepped out into the alcove, closing the door behind her. Mr. Hough towered over her by at least six inches and smelled like sandalwood and soap. Blast Chandler for making her look at his picture online. Lucas Hough was even more handsome in person.
“Perhaps I should have given you more information.”
She crossed her arms. “Starting right about now.”
If he was willing to answer a few questions, she might go with him—for Chandler’s sake—to hear Mr. Knight’s story in person.
“I can’t say much, Miss Vaughn. It’s my job to protect my clients.”
A brick wall, that’s what he reminded her of. A fortress of pride and aristocracy that had blocked out the lower classes for centuries, as if the lowers might corrupt them.
“Is your client’s friend a man or a woman?” she asked.
When Mr. Hough shook his head, Quenby leaned back, propping her bare foot on the trim behind her. “You don’t think I can find her, do you?”
Doubt flickered in his eyes. “I think the best investigators in London have tried for decades to no avail.”
“Is she hiding from your client?”
He glanced at his phone again. “Her last known address was near Tonbridge, on the property of Lord and Lady Ricker.”
Goose bumps prickled her arms. No one knew what she was working on except the syndicate and her contact at the archives. Had Mr. Hough somehow discovered her secret, or was it mere coincidence that Mr. Knight’s friend lived at Breydon Court?
“Did your client know the Rickers?”
The man’s phone vibrated. Instead of answering her question, he checked his text, then glanced back up. “The plane is ready.”
She tilted her head, her cool demeanor waning. “What plane?”
Finally he smiled. “You didn’t think we were driving, did you?”