The sun came warm through the plexishield. The shield squeaked as Tom wiped a patch of condensation. He was no good with words, and he didn’t have to be. Plenty of aviators said it for him. One talked of slipping the surly bonds of earth, and of sun-split clouds. Another spoke of rarefied splendor. “Untrespassed sanctity” was a favorite, and those were the words he’d use to tell the folks.
Untrespassed sanctity, he’d say of the English Channel, and of the gut-thrum of his aircraft, of the daily sorties to France, and his placement in the V. It never got old. It was untrespassed. Maybe not invincible, but so far, on his watch, untrespassed.
I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above; those that I fight I do not hate, those that I—
“Angel flight, this is lead.” Captain Fitz finally broke radio silence. “Rolling in.”
The five Thunderbolts approached the target area, flying in lovely V formation. Tom would ransack his vocabulary for a different word than lovely if talking with the guys, but the new guy from Molesworth stayed on his wing pretty as pie. Someday he’d like to hear a liberated Frenchman say, There I was, getting beat up by a Nazi; we look up and see this lovely V . . .
“One and two, take targets on the right. Three and four—”
“Captain! We got movement—”
Antiair flak slammed her belly, blew a hole in the front of the cowling. Tom barely knew he was hit before oil pressure plummeted. “Mayday—this is Angel three. I’m hit! I’m hit.”
“Angel three, can you make it back?”
“Pressure gauge says no, flight lead. I’m going in.”
“Copy. We’ll cap the area.” Then, “Good luck, Tom.”
“Good luck, Cab,” another echoed.
“Guts and glory, Cabby,” called another.
Bullets stitched the plane as he peeled off the target. Smoke filled the cockpit, burnt oil singed his nostrils. She was flagging the second she was hit, but he gripped the stick and pulled back to get as much height as he could before bailing.
He tried for a look at the ground but couldn’t see through the smoke. Where was he? Too charmed by rarefied splendor and the alignment of his wingman to—
“Normandy,” Tom coughed. Northeastern Normandy.
Flak exploded and pinged, black patches pockmarked the sky, and as Tom gained altitude, he heard a conversation in the debrief room.
Then Cabby got hit, and that was it, the whole ground opened up on us.
You capped the area . . .
Stayed as long as we could, sir, but it was too hot.
Where was he in Normandy? Caen? Cabourg? Maybe he could—
But the old girl jerked, leveled, and he had no hope of circling back to bail in the sea.
Why do you call him Cabby?
He looks like he jumped outta the womb hollering, “Heil Hitler,” but didn’t like us calling him Kraut. So we called him Cabbage.
We called him Cabbage.
I ain’t dead yet, fellas. I am, however, about to reacquaint myself with the surly bonds of earth.
He waved off smoke, snatched the picture of his little brother, and shoved it down his collar. He jettisoned the cowling, and the plexishield broke from the plane in a whumpf, popping his ears, sucking his breath.
There were two ways to bail from a P-47 Thunderbolt. Tilt the plane and let it drop you out, or, in what Tom felt was a more stylish way to go, just stand up, rise into the slipstream, let it carry you away . . .
Listen, Yank. You get hit, you go down, here’s what you do: get to Paris, get to the American Hospital. Look up a doc there, a Yank by the name of Jackson. He’s with the Resistance. You tell him Blakeney says thanks. He may not remember me. He’s helped a lot of blokes. You tell him thanks for me.
“He looks like a boche.”
“I saw him go down. I heard him speak. He’s no boche. He flew one of the new planes. You should have seen them. Beautiful.”
“What did he say?”
“Not much. Before he came to, something about a flight of angels and a fellow named Jackson in Paris. Now look at him. He’s not going to say anything.”
“That’s what worries me. We have to find out if he’s German.”
“I’m telling you, he’s no German. He sounds like the man from Ohio.”
Tom watched the two Frenchmen watching him and tried hard to pick out words. His mother’s friend had given him a little French phrase book from the Great War, when she had served as a nurse with the Red Cross. From sheer boredom between flights, he’d sometimes taken it out. It was in his escape and evasion pack, no longer strapped to his back. Either he lost it in the jump, or the French guys took it.
He was in a dark woodshed with a low ceiling. He remembered fumbling for the chute cord the second he left the plane, waiting until he was clear to yank it. He remembered terror at the descent; he’d parachuted many times, none with fear of enemy fire. He’d never felt so vulnerable in his life, not even after jammed gear and a belly landing—Captain Fitz rushed up with a pint of Jack Daniel’s after that one. But the float down into enemy-held land, the air thick with bullets, the ground exploding, that was one for the books. He heard himself telling it to the guys, heard Fitz’s laugh and Oswald’s quick “Yeah, yeah, yeah, and den what happened?”
I don’t know yet, Oz.
He suddenly felt for the photo. The Frenchmen leaped back, and one pulled Tom’s own .45 on him. Tom held up his hands and pointed to his shirtfront.
“Picture. Photograph.” He added, “Uh . . . frère. Picture of ma frère.”
“Mon frère,” one of them corrected.
Keeping one hand up, he slowly unzipped his flight jacket, unfastened a few shirt buttons, and looked inside. It was stuck in his underwear waistband. He glanced at the men, slowly reached inside, and pulled it out. He held it up for the men to see. “Mon frère,” he said. “Mon petit frère. He’s thirteen.”
“Oui.” The one with the gun nodded, and slipped it back into his pocket.
He looked at the picture. Mother had sent it with the last package. Ronnie wasn’t little anymore. The kid was growing up. Still, same old grin, same cowlick, same rascal shine in his eyes. He ignored the rush of pain and affection at seeing the familiar face in this strange place.
“Can’t get a word in edgewise even now,” Tom muttered. He held it up to the men. “Kid can talk the hind leg off a donkey.” He rubbed the face with his thumb, and slipped it into a zippered pocket in his flight jacket.
“Who is Jackson?” the man with the gun said in English.
Tom’s heart nearly stopped; had he said it out loud? He’d banged his head good when he came down in a tight place between two buildings. He remembered a gray tiled roof coming on fast; he remembered sharp pain, sliding to the ground, then nausea, vomiting. Then he went into some sort of daze, vaguely recollected being bundled into the back of a horse cart. They covered him up with firewood, and the dark invited him to blank out. He came to in this place. First thing he did was to feel for the gun now in the possession of the French guy.
What else did he say when he was out? He cursed himself. Don’t go to sleep, Cabby; they’ll get everything out of you.
The one without the gun had a sullen, suspicious expression. He paced back and forth, shoulders and arms stiff for a fight, eyes never leaving Tom. The one with the gun had the offhand confidence of being the one with the gun. Both were in their twenties, both were spare built and thin, both had the work-hardened look of factory or farm workers. Who were they? Resisters? The Maquis—French guerrilla fighters? The Brits trusted these collection crews more than the Americans did, maybe because England and France had had little choice but to trust each other. And what choice did he have?
Should he tell them about Jackson? Every instinct said no.
Jackson was a fellow from Maine, a doctor at the American Hospital of Paris. He had a reputation with the British Royal Air Force as a man to trust behind enemy lines. Tom had heard of him more than once from downed airmen given up as MIA. He once witnessed a homecoming at Ringwood, an RAF pilot missing for four months. Once the initial euphoria of his return settled, the guy, Captain Blakeney, had all the men toast Dr. Jackson, “the patron saint of downed airmen.”
What if his captors were collaborators? What if they were French Milice? One peep about Jackson, and Jackson’s a marked man. How much had he said already? The thought sickened him.
Where was Paris? How would he get there? It hurt to even move his head. He’d assess damage later. He needed a plan, and he always favored three-part plans. Not a word on Jackson. Get to Paris. Don’t vomit.
“Thees Jackson . . . ,” the gunless Frenchman asked. “Ees een Paree?”
“Thomas William Jaeger. First lieutenant, United States Army Air Forces. One four oh nine six—”
“This is no interrogation, my friend. We are the good guys.” The Frenchman with the gun strolled forward a few paces and sat on his haunches. He pushed his hat up with the tip of the gun. His brown eyes were lively and measuring; his thin face, amused, or rather, ready to be amused. He had the sort of face that invited entertainment of any sort. His English was far better than the other’s. “But we do not know if you are a good guy. Tell us why we do not kill you for a spy?”
“Tell me why I should trust you,” Tom said. “I hear you guys sell out your neighbors. Lot of Jews gone missing, too.”
The man wagged his finger. “The question of trust lies with us alone.” He gestured toward his face. “Attend this handsome face. Tell me if you see a German. Then I will get you a mirror, and you will wonder why we have not killed you yet. Hmm?”
“Lots of Americans look like Germans,” Tom scorned. “Some are German. I’m Dutch. I was born in the Netherlands. We immigrated to the States when I was nine. I’m from Michigan. Jenison.”
“You are very tall. Very blond. Very square-headed. Pretty blue eyes, too. I am aroused.” The man behind him laughed.
“Yeah? Come to Jenison. You’ll be plenty aroused. And you’re puny.”
“I do not know puny.”
“Petite.” He couldn’t keep the sneer out. Payback for square-headed.
The Frenchman shrugged. “I do not get enough meat. I would be your size, with meat.” The other man laughed again. “Perhaps from a great height I am puny. You have legs like trees. Trust me, I had to fit them into the cart. Listen, Monsieur Jenison. I am, hmm—” he gave a considering little shrug—“sixty percent you are not a spy. But we have been fooled before. Some of my friends have died because we were quick to believe a pretty face.”
“Where did you live in Holland?” came a voice from the shadows.
A third man emerged from the corner of the shed, and he looked nothing like the other two. This older gentleman was dressed like a lawyer. He wore a fedora. The collar of his gray overcoat was turned up, and he wore a red scarf. He clasped black-gloved hands in front. He had no wariness about him like the others. He looked as if he were deciding which newspaper to buy.
“Andijk. A small city in the northern province.”
“Where was your mother born?”
“Andijk. Shouldn’t you ask me who won the World Series? Or what’s the capital of North Dakota? Not that I remember.”
The man reached into a pocket and took out a piece of paper and a pencil. He wrote something and held the paper out to Tom. “Tell me—what is this word?”
Tom took the paper. He angled it to catch light from the door. “Scheveningen. My aunt lived near there, in Rotterdam. They bombed it off the map. She and my uncle died in the attack, with my two cousins.”
The man took the paper back. “I am very sorry for your family. C’est la guerre . . . to the misfortune of the world.” He turned to the one with the gun. “No German can pronounce that word.” The gentleman touched his hat, then left.
“We are not the only ones who saw you go down, Monsieur Jenison. But we got to you first. The man who lives in the house you fell on took a beating because he could not tell the Germans where you were. Do you think you can trust us? Hmm? Because thanks to the monsieur, we now trust you.”
“I’d trust you more with my gun back,” Tom said.
The man grinned. He had a look Tom liked, that of an amiable scoundrel. He knew plenty of his sort; you’d trust him in a fight but not with your sister. The man rose and pulled out the gun, and handed it butt first to Tom. “You can call me Rafael.” He looked over his shoulder at the other guy and gave a little whistle between his teeth. “Give him his pack.” To Tom, he said, “Regrettably you will not find your cigarettes. I suggest they were lost in the jump.”
“Lucky I don’t smoke.”
The man with the red scarf, known in Cabourg as François Rousseau, walked rapidly to work. He exchanged pleasantries with his bronchial secretary, suggested mint tea, and slipped into his office. He took off his coat and hung it on the coat tree. He left the scarf on; it was cold in the office, but he did not light the coal in the brazier. What coal the company allotment allowed, he brought home in newspaper to Marie and the children. Thank God spring was coming soon.
He rubbed his gloved hands together and settled down to the papers on his desk. But he could not settle his mind. He finally pushed aside the latest numbers of Rommel’s new cement quotas and let his mind take him where it would.
Twice he reached for the telephone, twice he pulled back. He had to work it out in his head, every detail, before he called his brother, Michel. He tapped his lips with gloved fingers. Hadn’t they improvised for nearly four years? If there was one thing they’d learned under enemy occupation, it was resourcefulness.
It was a fool’s scheme, he knew, but Michel was feeling so very low. The idea could have enough in it to beguile him from the latest blow. And it was an interesting scheme. That face? That height?
He thought it through, beginning to end, and picked up the phone. Sometimes, answers to problems literally dropped from the sky. There was only one thing a cunning Frenchman should do with a Yank who looked exactly like a proud German officer. Make him one.
Michel Rousseau stared unseeingly out the train window, rousing only at the grumbles and rustling of passengers. “What is it?” he asked of the man in the seat next to him.
“The rail is out from Caen to Paris,” the man said sourly, reaching for his package on the rack over the seat.
The journey was over before it began. “All the way?” Michel asked, dismayed. What now? “Surely not all the way. How far can we get?”
“Was it an Allied bombing?” a young woman with a small child asked.
“Probably the Resistance.” A middle-aged woman snatched up her basket. “Probably those thugs, the maquisards.”
“Those ‘thugs’ aid the Allies,” the young woman said indignantly. “Those ‘thugs’ risk their lives for us. Whose side are you on?”
“I am on the side of France,” the woman said, lifting her chin.
“Then I dare you to sing ‘La Marseillaise,’ you Vichy cow.”
“Don’t be a fool,” the woman hissed, indicating with a little jerk of her head to the two German soldiers at the front of the car. As if everyone on the train were not aware of them. “However proud you are of your thugs, did they get you where you wanted to go today? There is no civility left in France. No one acts rationally anymore.”
“I suppose you think Marshal Pétain is rational,” the young woman said, her face flushing, and in his heart, Michel cheered her boldness. “‘The trouble with France is you women!’” she mocked. “‘You did not produce enough babies to raise a decent army!’ First they screech at us for not staying at home to be good little mamas. Then they screech because we are not out there, making enough money to feed our families with so many men in camps. France starves because of us women.”
“Do not trouble us with truth, mademoiselle,” the man next to Michel cautioned with a sad smile. “We have not heard it for so long, you confuse us.”
The people close enough to hear this exchange leaned in, and began to add low-muttered opinions.
“She is right—Pétain and Laval are Nazi puppets. Everyone knows it now.”
“We didn’t think so in the beginning.”
“You live, you learn.”
The young woman began to gather up her bags—and hum “La Marseillaise.” She caught the hand of her child, lifted her chin, and hummed loudly and proudly. Michel’s heart began to fill, and he had to smile. He glanced about discreetly, and others smiled, too. One old man, likely a veteran of the Great War, blinked bright-blue eyes filling with tears.
The national anthem of France had been forbidden for nearly four years. To sing it in public was punishable by imprisonment, or if they thought you revolutionary enough, death. One would hear occasional snatches of it in crowded places, but it was forbidden to gather in a crowd these days unless approved. Even a wedding had to have approval, if the guest list was too long.
Michel found himself humming along. When the song was done and she looked at him, startled, he winked.
“Tiny rebellions keep the spirit alive,” he said. “Oui?”
“Oui, monsieur,” she said fervently. “God bless you, monsieur.”
“Oh, no—God bless you, mademoiselle.”
“Bless you, child,” the old man said.
“I’ll add my own as well,” said the man next to Michel. “You have made me feel an irrational bit of national pride. I feel French. Old-style French, and for that, God bless you, m’selle.”
Michel felt a wave of giddiness. Such an open exchange was beyond reckless. Collaborators were everywhere, people who would turn in their own mothers for wearing a tiny French flag or for doing as this brave young woman had done, humming the beloved national anthem.
This insidious collaboration with the spirit of the devil, this disease throughout France where common sense seemed to have fled the majority—how had it happened?
“We didn’t know what hit us,” he murmured. We lost our bearings, and then we lost hope.
And yet, Michel mused as he followed the others off the train, hope remained if a young woman could hum “La Marseillaise” on a crowded train, right under the nose of a Vichy supporter, right in the hearing of two German soldiers, who pretended not to hear so they wouldn’t have to deal with it.
“Tiny rebellions,” he mused, feeling better than he had in days. It would change once he got back to his apartment. But the little exchange on the train had been the most heartened he’d felt in a long while, and he wondered if the others close enough to hear felt the same. Today, he too felt French.
The telephone jangled, startling Michel from his thoughts.
His brother’s voice greeted him. “You’re supposed to be in Paris.”
“The rail is down again.”
“All the way?”
“Apparently. We hadn’t even left the depot.”
“You sound cheerful.” François sounded suspicious.
“Yes, well, an amazing thing happened today. A tiny rebellion, in which I took part.”
“You rebel in ways great and wide, little brother. Tiny is not your style.”
“Today I hummed ‘La Marseillaise’ with a young woman on a crowded train.”
François laughed in delight. “You fool!”
“Yes. It was exhilarating. I thought the feeling would leave when I came home but it did not. I feel wonderful. I feel like champagne.”
“Did she know she sang with one of the greatest Resistance leaders in France?”
Michel put stockinged feet on the desk. “We didn’t sing; we hummed. They’ll have to add another clause to the law. But it was far more than that, François. It was what I felt from those around me. I felt hope. I haven’t felt it in so long, I think I’d forgotten what it was. I felt, in this tiny collective rebellion, that a far greater rebellion lay just below the surface. I can hardly describe it, it was—a gathering of strength. From each other, from angels, I don’t know where it came from, but I felt it, and I know others did, too. You should have heard what the man next to me said—such unhidden truth, spoken in the same air Nazis breathed. I could have danced with him.”
“Dancing is forbidden,” François said dryly.
“Be quiet. I am at the brink: François, I felt for the first time in a long time a return to common sense. That young woman reminded us of who we are. There was a scent of freedom all over the place—above us, around us, it came through the floorboards—as if humming ‘La Marseillaise’ summoned a holy presence. She will never know what she did for the heart of this worn-out old man.”
“Today, I feel it again.”
“Well, brace yourself, Brother—before I’m done, you’ll feel younger yet. If anything, it’ll scare the daylights out of you.”
“Tell me full on. Today I am expansive and brave.”
“I have a plan to infiltrate the German brothel in Bénouville.”
“A German, of course.”
For the first time, the champagne bubbles went still. Michel took his feet off the desk. “François, if this line . . .”
“I have it checked daily, Michel. It is safe.”
“Then what are you saying . . . ?”
“I’m saying it is not too late to gather information on the bridges for the Allies. You told me Madame Vion says one of the prostitutes is sympathetic. My plan is perfect.”
Michel rose. “It makes me sick to hear you say this over an open line.”
“It is not open. I check it daily, dear heart. Do not worry.”
He knew the illusion would not last. He did not expect illusion’s truncation to come through his own brother. The last of the freedom trailed away, and he was home again. Back to the real world, and what he did in that world.
“François,” he said carefully. “Listen to me. This is not a game. Whatever—”
“Be expansive and brave, my brother, and in two weeks I shall deliver to you Lohengrin himself. It will take that long to heal the poor man’s head. He was bleeding and didn’t even know.”
He gripped the telephone. “You are all the family I have left.”
“Is this my own brother? Michel. I have been proud of you for so very long. I have come up with a plan that lets me hope, one day, you will be proud of me.”
“I am begging you—stay out of it! You have no idea what you’re about. Think of Marie. You would be tortured and shot, but your own sweet Marie—she would suffer as Jasmine did. They make examples of the women to weaken the men, and believe me, it works. She was tortured to death. Can you . . . can you comprehend those words? She died in my arms.”
Jasmine had made a mistake, and they never learned what it was. Was she denounced? By whom? How did she slip, what had she done to bring about her arrest? They never learned. She whispered one thing before she died, and that with a broken smile: “I didn’t talk.” Jasmine was the best agent Flame had. She’d worked for the Resistance cell in Caen for three years.
The invasion was coming; everyone knew it. But the closer France got to the whiff of freedom he had on the train, the worse things got. He’d seen plenty of brutality in the past four years, and yes, he could understand the use of some torture to procure vital information to win a war; but what they did to Jasmine wasn’t war. What they did to Jasmine was alien.
He had been so strong in the beginning. He wasn’t strong anymore. He had flashes of the young woman on the train, humming “La Marseillaise” with her boy. The thought of that brave young woman in Nazi hands made him weak. They knew how to get to the men, as if the devil spoke in their ears.
How could he describe such barbaric cruelty to a man as good and innocent as François? He didn’t want the images in François’s head any more than he wanted them in his own. Yet not to speak of it betrayed Jasmine. Not to tell it shamed the living for covering up Nazi atrocity. And if it prevented his brother’s involvement, he’d tell it in detail.
The telephone cord tethered him; he could not pace. “Listen to me. Must I tell it? I will tell it.” Submerged images surfaced, dizzying him. He could smell the untended wounds, he could hear tortured, labored breath. He could feel her in his arms. She was so small, a window broken in place, one nudge and all would shatter. He held her as long as he could. He made her last moments on earth safe. “They pulled out her teeth. They broke her fingers. They burned her, François; between her toes they lit pieces of cloth—”
“Michel, the invasion comes,” his brother cut in gently. “You said the Allies need to know about the bridges. We must give them what they need.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing! Stay out of it!”
“I have a plan. It is a good plan. You will see, Michel.”
Michel sank into the chair, fingers sinking into his hair. “François, you have not seen the beast.”
“Two weeks, my brave little brother. Give me two weeks. You will see.”
Several clicks, and the connection disengaged. Michel replaced the receiver. Back to his world, and what he did in that world.
Colette LaPonsie had a boyfriend. Brigitte Durand did not. Colette believed Claudio could keep her safe. Brigitte didn’t care if Claudio was Milice, the French equivalent of the German Gestapo—Brigitte knew who was in charge of France, and it wasn’t the French. Not that the Milice couldn’t make miserable the lives of their fellow French. Sometimes they out-Germaned the Germans.
“Where is Claudio?” Brigitte asked, suddenly aware she hadn’t seen him in a few days.
“In Paris. On business for the oberkommandant.” Colette could make a Milice thug sound like a respected diplomat. She was hemming the frayed edge of a kitchen towel. She bit off the thread and smoothed the towel on her lap, as satisfied with her work as she was with her man.
What sort of man would allow his girlfriend to sleep with other men?
Jean-Paul wouldn’t have believed she was doing it, for one. Then he’d have killed every man who touched her, German or not.
You told me to survive, Jean-Paul. She had, but Jean-Paul had not.
He died in the spring of 1940 at the Maginot Line, the place that was to stop the Germans from getting so far. She found out in July of that year, on a hot sultry day when she stood in front of a list taped to a building in Paris. He had occupied her heart, and now he occupied a grave. So this German occupation was nothing to her. It was hunger, it was fear, it was loss of freedom, and it was so very cold, but she saw his name and the world became a different place. The bullet that took Jean-Paul’s life did not end one fate; it ended two.
She was hungry. In Paris, alone, and hungry.
The food had had a strange rallying effect. Strange in that, once it brightened and revived, it also filled her with shame for the act that obtained it. Yet days later when the brightness left and hunger came again, no shame remained, only some primitive desperation, and she showed up at the same place she had met the German soldier, at the bench along the Seine near the Notre Dame bridge. He was there, for the bridge was his, and once off duty he came to her again. He didn’t say a word. Not that he had any French. He stood with his gray overcoat fluttering in the November breeze, and had the grace, as he had before, to stare at the flowing Seine until she stood and followed him to where he was billeted, at a home on the rue d’Apennine.
The soldier whispered things in German. When it was over, and she waited, eyes out the window, for a handful of francs, she slipped down the staircase and out the kitchen door, past the disgusted glare of the old woman who owned the house.
Paris had fallen. Jean-Paul was dead. And she slept with a German for food. One of those things she never could have conceived, but all three? Three belonged to someone she did not know. Three were a different fate.
“What are those?” Colette asked of the books in Brigitte’s lap.
“A Baedeker’s and a French-English dictionary. I’ve decided to be a travel book writer when this is over.” She held up a piece of notepaper. “This is the first page of my book. I start out with Ireland.”
“How can you write a travel book about a place you’ve never been?”
Brigitte shook her head at Colette’s utter lack of imagination. She held up the Baedeker’s. “This is misrepresentative. It tells of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, but says nothing of the patrolling angels.”
“What angels?” Colette scoffed.
“The German officer told me. The expressive one. To speak of the Cliffs of Moher but to say nothing of the angels that press you down before you get to the edge . . .” She lowered her voice to ghost-story stealth. “It’s an ordinary day, right? And you’re an ordinary tourist. You start for the cliffs, little suspecting what you are about to encounter. You approach . . . and suddenly sense a phenomenon of caution in the air. Then it is dread, and then—impending calamity. You creep toward the edge . . . and then you feel the actual weight of the beings themselves. You are pressed down and filled with a holy sickness to stay alive. Thus you are preserved, not by what your eyes can see but by what your soul can feel . . . the Angels of Moher.” She held Colette’s transfixed gaze a moment longer. Then, hushed: “This is not in Baedeker’s. Who would go for the cliffs? I’d go for the phenomenon of caution.”
Colette stared at Brigitte as she sometimes did, with a softened look on the verge of beguilement. It seemed that Colette sat on a fence, and Brigitte always felt the urge to give her the tiniest push and she would topple backward into a far more habitable place—a place, Brigitte fancied, she truly wanted to be. Brigitte long awaited Colette’s conversion to humanity.
Colette came out of her daze with more self-consciousness than usual, and contempt fast replaced interest. “You are stupid, Brigitte.” She gathered the hemmed towel and the sewing things and shoved them in her basket. “It’s your turn to wait in line for eggs today. And if you take any more to the château, I’ll make myself an omelet and eat the entire thing.”
Colette rose with her basket and left the sitting room.
Brigitte called after her, “You are hopeless, Colette. You have no imagination.”
“You’re the hopeless one. That German officer was killed by the Resistance last week. So much for ‘expressive.’” Colette slammed the sitting room door, rattling a few pictures on the wall. The venom was high today; she must have been close to conversion.
Brigitte regarded the books. So Colette noticed the missing eggs? Colette was a counter. If Simone or Marie-Josette received potatoes or beans for payment, every potato and bean was inventoried with German precision and doled out between the four of them. Colette once broke two beans in half to make sure all was scrupulously equal. Brigitte would have understood her better, and liked her better, if she’d just danced the two beans in the air, out of reach of the others, and then popped them in her mouth.
Maybe it was wrong for Brigitte to take eggs from the others. She had taken the four precious eggs to the Château de Bénouville, the maternity hospital up the road, run by Madame Léa Vion. She brought them not for the women or children, but for the downed Allied airmen Madame Vion hid on her property. She’d left them on the step of the little stone chapel by the river, the place it was rumored Madame hid the pilots. She also left a note: For the Friends of France. From a Grateful Patriot.
Brigitte had discovered Madame’s secret one day while walking the château grounds, the closest thing Bénouville had to a forest. A few acres of towering trees and bushes and flowers gave grand illusion; no German occupation existed within its silent green realm. At least, not until Brigitte came across the startled British evader. She knew him for British the moment she set eyes on him, and she instantly knew she had to act as if she’d never seen him—Germans were everywhere, and informants, besides. One could be pruning a tree for all she knew. So she gave him a wink and a tiny nod and strolled on, neither slowing nor increasing her pace.
The rumor was true, as she’d hoped it was. Brigitte never told the girls, not with a Milice about. She let Colette think she brought the eggs for Madame Vion, but what did she care about the madame? She’d snubbed Brigitte once in the village. The snub came as a surprise, knowing they were both French, both against the Germans—though the madame would never believe it—and both hungry.
Rolling in baubles and finery, is that what everyone thinks? She’d take a nice Camembert over francs any day. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent Beaujolais.
Brigitte was just as surprised as the madame at what she had become.
Madame Vion had snubbed her as had the man at the café, a French politician who had spit on Brigitte in front of his wife and daughter. Did Brigitte not see him with Marie-Josette last week? Did she shout out what he had done? She did not. She could not hurt his daughter; she was only twelve.
“Brigitte!” Colette called, and when she called like that, there was a customer at the back door.
Brigitte set aside the books and waited a moment before she lifted the needle from the Vera Lynn record. There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover . . . tomorrow when the world is free . . .
She did not know the man at the back door. He was either scrounging for food or, despite the sign, didn’t know this brothel was for Germans only—or for occasional French politicians. This man was no politician; he wore the clothing of a day laborer. He certainly wasn’t German.
He pulled off his hat. “Bonjour, mademoiselle.”
“Bonjour, monsieur,” Brigitte said with a little smile. Such politeness. It reminded her of better days. “Regrettably, we have no food and this establishment is a Germans-only business.” She pointed to the sign nailed to the door: Nur für Wehrmacht. Only for armed forces. “Perhaps you can try Caen.” She started to close the door, but the man put his hand on it.
“You are Brigitte?” he asked quietly. “You are the grateful patriot?”
She stared for a moment, speechless, and whatever she did say, Colette mustn’t hear it. She slipped out the door and pulled it shut behind her. She drew her sweater close against the March wind.
“What do you want?” she asked in a low tone.
“I’ve been sent to see if you are truly a patriot.”
“Sent by whom?”
The man leaned against the house and pulled out a package of cigarettes—Lucky Strikes. American cigarettes. It certainly wasn’t the stuff they smoked around here, and whatever that was, it was likely more rolling paper than anything else. Occupation tobacco, they called it. Same as Occupation coffee or Occupation tea, shabby imitations of the real thing.
She stared at the package until he pocketed it. He lit a match and cupped his hand around it, lit the cigarette and gratefully pulled it to life. He shook the match dead and tossed it, then offered the cigarette to her. She shook her head, but knew in a moment it was the real thing. It didn’t smell like nasty Occupation cigarettes. He smiled and looked appreciatively at the cigarette.
“They came from an American. I like them better than Player’s. The British have Player’s. The fellow you saw in the château woods was a British pilot.”
Brigitte did not answer. The man did not have the same feeling about him that Claudio did. He didn’t feel like Milice. He was likely with the Resistance. She felt an odd little tremor of excitement.
“Why do you feed them?” he asked.
She nearly answered with “Because I don’t know how Madame Vion can do it with ration coupons assigned only for maternity patients and workers.” It would have been a stupid mistake. He could be anybody. Instead, she said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Mademoiselle, if I were going to denounce you, I would have done it already.”
“What do you want?”
“Help from a brothel. I’m sure you realize brothels are state-run.”
“Not this one.”
She stared at him. “How would you know that?”
“I know it is not registered. It is unlicensed.”
“A matter of paperwork. It is fully licensed by the Germans, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Germans are in charge.” How could this man know her home was not legally registered with the local French government? Brigitte had seen to that. She’d fought to keep it unlicensed. Somehow it kept her unlicensed. “We follow the law. We pay taxes. What business is it of yours?”
All of the girls had to be free of disease. Any German soldier who turned up with a sexually transmitted disease was sure to be sent to the Russian front, and the prostitute who gave it to him would be jailed. Brigitte found it ironic. Maybe ironic was the wrong word, but even hypocritical was too weak a word for a system that would legitimize a brothel but punish any evidence of its sanctioned acts. As with any licensed Parisian brothel, Brigitte saw to it that she and the other three were checked weekly and prescribed fastidious hygienic treatments and preventions. She found these appointments more humiliating than those first “appointments” with customers; the doctor was a kind man. Kindness sometimes shamed her more than any guilty act.
Her eyes narrowed as she thought of the doctor.
“What kind of help do you need?” She said it with enough frosty indifference that the man would not mistake her. This conversation was dangerous. The tremor of excitement now felt more like fear.
“The kind that would mean torture and death if you are caught. Whatever you have in mind when I say torture, make it ten times worse.” He pulled on the cigarette, then smiled a rather chilling smile. “I’ll never recruit anybody without putting it all on the table.”
“It’s a wonder you recruit anyone.”
“You would be surprised.”
Brigitte thought again of the doctor. “You never know who is with the Resistance,” Claudio once told her. “Those Communist pigs are everywhere.”
“Are you a Communist?”
“Most are not, some are. Do you have a problem with that?”
She couldn’t believe this conversation was taking place. She couldn’t believe she’d let it go on this long.
“Are you Jewish?”
“Most are not. Some are.”
He’d said enough for her to denounce him herself. He could not be an informant, unless he was trying to trick her into betraying her political views. But who would care about the political views of a prostitute? Prostitutes slept with the enemy; therefore prostitutes were collaborators. “Horizontal” collaborators, the joke went.
“Well, are you French?”
The man grinned, and it was a lively grin. “Yes I am, and everyone with us. Whatever else they are, they are French. And they want their country back.”
“This help you want.” She glanced at the house next door. Anyone could be watching from a curtained window. “Will it make a difference?”
“If you are not caught—and the last woman was—yes.”
“Then I’ll help.” The words were out of her mouth before she knew they were there. The tremor became something she hadn’t felt since Jean-Paul was alive.
“Then you are a resistant.” He took the cigarette from his mouth and made a wry little ceremonial sign of the cross. “The cross of Lorraine, by the way. Our symbol.” He held up the cigarette. “Do you know the Americans smoke them only to here?”
“Every nation should have a little taste of occupation, yes?” She folded her arms tightly against the chill, inside and out. “What do you want me to do?”
“On Friday at 2 p.m., you will meet someone at the north café by the Caen Canal Bridge. You will sit at the northeast corner table, closest to the river. You will say not a word of this to anyone—not to your best friend, not to a priest, not to God.”
“Who will I meet? A man or a woman?”
“A woman. You may recognize her. Do not act surprised. She will ask if coupon J has been issued for the month. You will say, ‘I have no children, I wouldn’t know.’ When she answers, ‘Lucky you, I have three’ . . . you will know it is safe. If it doesn’t go exactly as I have said, leave the café as quickly as you can, as discreetly as you can. Repeat it to me.”
“Coupon J. I have no children. Lucky you, I have three.”
“Good. She will give you your instructions. The operation itself will begin in a few weeks.”
“What happened to her? The woman who was caught?”
He flicked away the cigarette. “She died.”
“What is your name?”
“My nom de guerre is Rafael. Someday, when this is over, I will tell you my real name.” He glanced up at the house. It was a two-story brick home, built by her grandfather. A little smile attended his inspection, and he shook his head. The smile soon left. “We know of Claudio Benoit.”
“I can handle him.”
“I do not doubt. But he is Milice. He may as well be SS. Do not change how you act around him. If you treated him with contempt before, continue. If you treated him with respect, continue. One more thing, mademoiselle. I had a friend who served under your fiancé. Jean-Paul Dubois was a good man. He would be proud of you.”
“No, he would not,” she fired back.
He caught her hand and kissed it. “Yes, mademoiselle. He would.” A little louder, he declared, “Such a face, such a body—wasted on the Germans!” He kissed his fingertips and tossed the kiss to the sky. “Say good-bye to a real man, m’selle!” He bowed low, replaced his hat, and lifted his chin in affected pride. He gave a quick wink and was gone.