Butcher and Bolt
The second instalment of the Joe Dean series.
Published by The Style Merchants Pty Limited.
Copyright 2017 The Style Merchants Pty Limited.
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The top of the cliff was only feet away. The commando placed his boot in a cleft, loosened his grip on the chalky outcrop and thrust upwards. The boot dislodged a chunk of the brittle rock, and white dust cascaded into the upturned faces of the men clinging below him. No-one coughed. No-one looked down.
The commando reached the top and his hand crept over, searching left and right for a grip, like a demented spider. The hand discovered the root of a shrub and grasped it. The commando pulled himself up until he could peer over the edge into the darkness.
A momentary flare to his left revealed the face of the sentry, huddled with his back to the wind. The match died instantly and the sentry struck another, and another. Then all was blackness again, but for the glow of the cigarette, moving steadily across the face of the cliff, flaring now and again.
The commando waited. He waited until the hand gripping the root was screaming for relief and the footholds in the cliff were crumbling beneath his boots. He waited until the pain seared down to his shoulder, then he forced himself to count to sixty and hauled his long body up and over the edge.
Behind him, his men clambered up and lay rubbing the cramp from their hands. The chalk he had kicked over them clung to the boot-black smeared on their faces, making them look like clowns, or maybe owls, he thought.
Don’t be ridiculous man. Concentrate.
The tiny glow of the cigarette re-appeared, bobbing towards them. None of the five men moved. The moon was behind a cloud for the moment, but out to sea its gleam revealed the white tops of the waves that had created such havoc in the rubber boats on the way in from the motor torpedo boat.
The sentry took the last step of his beat and looked around.
No one moved.
The sentry uttered a muffled curse, ripped away by the wind. Guard duty on a cliff edge in a gale. Not a pleasant duty, if there was such a thing. Not a duty anyone would volunteer for, but a duty that had to be done for a time, until the next unfortunate came to relieve him. Every man lying there knew what the sentry was experiencing.
The sentry set off again the way he had come.
Before them lay an expanse of grass, so flattened by the wind that it seemed to be fleeing from them. It sloped down towards a grand two-story building, that gazed placidly out over the sea to the north-west. At its front was a driveway of crushed stone, with steps leading up to a pillared entranceway.
It may once have been a lord’s manor. Perhaps carriages pulled up here two hundred years ago to disgorge aristocrats, mused the commando. Perhaps. Now it was a hotel, and in a window on the second floor, light filtered around the edges of the curtain.
In that room was the man they had come for.
The commando flicked his two fingers forward and the men started crawling. They’d made it twenty metres across open ground and were nearing the shadows of the trees when one of them made a sound: it may have been a helmet hitting a rifle butt, a bayonet clinking against a water bottle, but it was not a natural sound and it travelled clearly to the ears of the sentry.
He spun in place, pulled the rifle from his shoulder and pointed it straight at them.
A lantern flickered into life in the undergrowth nearby and a cigarette lighter flared.
‘Bang Bang, you’re dead,” came the sardonic voice of the sergeant in charge of the sentries, ‘training’s over for tonight. You can try again tomorrow night, maybe you’ll get third time lucky. I hope so for your sake, you useless bloody shower, it’s your last try before the real thing.’
Lieutenant Joe Dean lay in the grass and cursed, then hauled himself to his feet and set off for the waiting truck with his men. If they couldn’t pull this off in training, what chance did they have over the Channel?
The room was not clean, and the woman was more witch than midwife, but there hadn’t been a lot of choice. Either the child was Joe’s, who was gone, probably killed or captured at Dunkirk; or it was the unwelcome spawn of the many rapes the Nazi spy Schmidt had subjected her to.
Either way, the child would be a bastard born of war that would only remind her of everything she had lost. She wanted nothing to do with it, and so she had knocked on the door of the small house in a disreputable part of Calais, and now found herself lying on a table while this horrible old woman poked around between her legs.
‘How long?’ asked the crone, picking some dirt out from under a fingernail.
‘I last bled two months ago.’
‘You are sure about doing this?’
‘Very well then. This will hurt, but it’s important that you don’t flinch or move at all. If you do, you will bleed to death. Do you understand?’
‘Oui. Just get it over with will you?’
‘First the money,’ said the woman, holding out her hand.
Reaching for her bag, Yvette counted out 200 francs and handed them over.
‘Bon. Now, we begin.’
The woman went to the stove where a pot was boiling and drew a foot-long piece of wire from the water. Yvette eyed it with mounting fear as she came over to the table.
‘Now, open your legs as wide as you can girl, and don’t move.’
Yvette closed her eyes and parted her knees. When she felt the hot metal slide into her body she flinched involuntarily. The woman leaned over and slapped her viciously across the face.
‘Do not move if you want to live!’
Yvette clung to the edge of the table and gritted her teeth as the wire pushed deeper inside her.
‘Be strong,’ she thought to herself, ‘this is no worse than the rape that caused it.’
She heard a truck pull up outside in the street, and the sounds of boots hitting the pavement. Doors were being thrown open and people were crying out. Then there was a loud banging on the door and a voice yelling in German.
The woman cursed, withdrew the wire and dropped it into the cutlery drawer beside the sink.
‘Get into the toilet,’ she hissed at Yvette.
Huddled in the toilet, Yvette heard the front door open and the sounds of hobnailed boots stomping in.
‘What is going on officer?’ asked the woman innocently.
‘We’re looking for a prisoner who has escaped from our custody,’ replied a German in heavily-accented French.
‘Well he’s not here,’ said the woman, ‘only my niece, she’s in there.’
The boots came towards Yvette and the toilet door was flung open, revealing a German lieutenant staring down at her. He couldn’t have been more than 19.
‘Ach, entschuldigung sie bitte fraulein,’ he sputtered in embarrassment, then closed the door.
Five minutes later, the last of the boots left and Yvette emerged.
‘It is not safe to continue,’ said the old woman, pushing her towards the door, ‘you’ll have to come back another time.’
‘Non, if we are caught they will hang us both you little fool, now get out.’
The woman thrust the 200 francs into her hand and slammed the door on her. Out in the street, the Germans had moved on and all the doors were closed once again.
Yvette walked down the lane towards the docks. She put a hand on her belly, but there was no tangible or visible sign of the child growing inside her. Yet.
The first week of training in the Scottish Highlands had been the most agonising experience of Joe’s life. Worse than the cross-country trek he and Smythe had endured to reach Dunkirk, worse than being strafed in the water of the Channel. At least that was how Joe had felt until they began the second week.
Seven days of running up mountains in full kit carrying a rifle had stripped away whatever spare flesh he may have had. Flopping exhausted to the ground at midnight of each day, he’d slept like the dead until dawn.
That was the first week. Now in the second they were only being allowed two hours sleep each night before being kicked awake by a sergeant and forced to keep moving. Joe had gone beyond exhaustion into a bleary world of constant pain, where just putting one booted foot in front of the other required all of his willpower. Many times he had been on the verge of giving up and surrendering to the sergeant, but each time his pride and the mocking sneer of the Pommy git had forced him to persevere.
With each passing day the platoon had become more strung out, as each man struggled with his own demons. Five had dropped out, unable to take the strain, and were already on a train back to their units. Only the thought of the shame and ignominy those men must be feeling kept Joe moving.
After de-training in the bitter city of Glasgow, they’d travelled by truck to a nameless town in the Highlands and pitched camp in the rain amidst the ruins of an ancient castle. Along with Joe and Smythe there were thirty other men, all of whom quickly regretted their decision to volunteer for this ‘special duty’.
The instructors wouldn’t talk to any of them except to bark orders, and there were few even of those. On the first day, a Scottish sergeant-major lined them and, after checking their water bottles, announced that ‘For the next few weeks you’ll be climbing some mountains, make sure you enjoy the view. Now, take out your compasses. See where it points north? That’s where you’re going. Off you go.’ The recruits had stood bewildered until the sergeant-major made the order clearer.
‘Get moving! NOW!’
The platoon had run, then started walking north across-country. Country that became steeper and rougher with each day, until on the fourth day they crossed a major ridgeline and started down the other side. Joe had lost count of how many mountains he’d traversed; the last few days were a blur of gorse, heather, rain, mist, mud, grey rocks and agony. He had cuts and bruises all over him, but the thing that bothered him most was the sweat sore between his arse cheeks. With every step it felt like he was being sliced with blunt razors. For all that he’d been thankful they were doing it in summer, not winter. Thankful for that, and the companionship of Sergeant Smythe.
The two of them had stuck together throughout the ordeal, and that was the only reason they’d made it. When one fell, the other picked him up; when one said he couldn’t go on, the other waited, then picked him up and pushed him on; when one asked to be put out of his misery the other beguiled him with tales of hot food and hot women. Despite the best efforts of the trainers to separate them, they’d found each other again on one mountainside or another, and stumbled onwards.
Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the ordeal ended.
Descending a hill studded with outcrops of wet black slate, they stumbled across a road heading north-east and decided to follow it. It was the first road they’d seen in days. Crossing a stone bridge, Joe saw a village ahead with an army truck parked on the side of the road. As they got closer he could see the hated instructors standing around the truck, smoking and sharing a hip flask.
‘So, Mr Dean and Mr Smythe,’ said the Scottish sergeant-major, as Joe stumbled up to them, ‘you made it then. Good work lads, you’re the first ones in. You’re home. Here, have a whisky.’
He proffered the flask. Joe managed to gulp down a few mouthfuls of the fiery liquor before the world turned grey and he collapsed in a heap on the road.
The motor gunboats crept through the icy waters, their engines on slow, giving only a low bubbling growl. The Met people had forecast a calm overcast night with a sliver of crescent moon, and they were right, but they had seriously underestimated the Channel’s habit of ignoring what was happening in the sky above. The moment the MGBs cleared the breakwater at Dover they had found themselves in a sharp choppy sea that assaulted the port bow, causing them to pitch and roll violently, sending geysers of salt spray over the twin 20mm cannon on the forward gun deck.
Below decks, Joe, Smythe and the three commandos had huddled miserably, each alone with his personal demon of seasickness. The first had thrown up within five minutes of hitting the Channel proper, and now, unable to contain his own seasickness amidst the stench of vomit and diesel fumes below deck, Joe came up into the weather.
As he emerged from the hatch, the bosun saw him and came over, walking as steadily across the swaying deck as if it were a bowling green.
‘Struggling a bit are we?’ he said companionably, holding up a lifejacket, ‘better put this on if you’re going to stay up here.’ As Joe pulled on the jacket, the bosun clipped the line that was attached to it to the leeward rail.
‘Just in case we hit a big one,’ he said, giving Joe the thumbs up.
‘How much longer?’ gasped Joe, struggling to hold down his leaping stomach.
‘Half an hour maybe? We’ll have to slow down when we get closer or they’ll hear our engines.’
Joe groaned and leant over the rail. He’d heard of people on long voyages being sick the entire time. He couldn’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for the poor devils on the First Fleet heading to Australia. The idea of feeling this bad continually for six months was inconceivable.
Ahead he could see nothing but darkness. The entire French coast was blacked out, and how the captain of the vessel knew where he was going was a mystery. A few score yards to his right, Joe could see the other gunboat that carried the rest of the troop. Eight men in all, a team supposedly big enough to shoot its way out of trouble, yet small enough to disappear if things got heavy.
That was the theory anyway. To Joe it stank of compromise. He knew his CO had wanted to send either a whole platoon or just two men, on the basis that a platoon could shoot its way out of trouble, and two men, especially French speakers, really could disappear, but he’d been overruled. A question of tactical doctrine apparently.
Back in England, Joe had gone over the plan with Captain Jensen more times than he could remember and he still didn’t believe it could work. As the icy spray splashed into his face, he closed his eyes and was back in the briefing room.
‘Our war criminal Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter has acquired a little bit of French tail while he’s been on leave,’ said Captain Jensen, ‘and he’s in the habit of visiting her every night after spending a few hours drinking with his officers. She’s a waitress at the Hotel Les Mauves on Cap Gris Nez, about six or so miles south-west of Calais, it’s the closest you can get to England without getting your feet wet. Around 2100 hours, his driver picks him up from the Hotel de la plage in Wissant and drives him down there. The driver returns at 2300 hours and drives him back to town.’
Joe was astonished at the precision of the briefing.
‘How do we know all this sir?’
‘Because the waitress in question, a brave lass she must be too, has communicated his schedule to the local cell leader of the French Resistance, who passed it on to us by radio last week. We owe it to her to catch this bastard, after all, she’s given everything to the cause. And I mean everything,’ he added with a knowing look.
The plan called for the commandos to land on the beach below Cap Gris Nez after nightfall, scale the cliff and lie in wait near the hotel. They would ambush the car and bring Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter to England. The man had ordered the massacre of an entire company of British soldiers during the invasion of France, an event from which Joe and his Sergeant Smythe were the sole survivors, and the British wanted to get their hands on any such war criminal if they could. This was the part of the plan that Joe wasn’t happy about: assuming he managed to stop the car, how was he supposed to disable the driver silently and manhandle the officer down the cliff at gunpoint in the dark? All his men could climb, but Richter was an unknown quantity.
‘Why don’t we just shoot the bastard?’ said Joe, ‘that’s what he deserves.’
Captain Jensen was about to answer when the door opened and a man in a dark suit entered the room. He removed a homburg to reveal a head covered in orange stubble, above penetrating blue eyes. Joe pegged him as maybe forty years old, but he was introduced only as ‘Mr Smith from the ministry’.
‘We want him alive for questioning about the massacres in Belgium and France, that’s why,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘plus, from what we’ve seen of these SS filth, if we raise any suspicion that the locals might have been involved, the Germans will launch reprisals against them and we could end up with innocent civilians being murdered.’
‘And to avoid that possibility we have to make it absolutely clear that this is a British raid,’ added Mr Smith in a dry voice.
‘And how do we do that?’ asked Joe.
Major Benjamin and Captain Jensen exchanged looks.
‘This is now a dual mission Joe,’ said the captain, ‘as well as kidnapping Richter, we also want you to blow up the radar station the Boche have just built at Cap Gris Nez.’
Joe looked from one officer to the other; neither would meet his eye.
‘Surely this mission’s complex enough without throwing a second objective in?’ he objected, ‘What idiot had this idea?’
Major Benjamin coughed and glanced at Mr Smith, ‘Let’s just say the order has come from senior sources.’
‘Sir, with respect, the first rule of operations is to have a single objective. How will we manage the timing of this? How far away from the hotel is the radar station anyway?’
‘Ah you see that’s the beauty of this plan,’ said Mr Smith with a smirk, ‘the station is on the headland across from the hotel, they’re less than a mile apart as the crow flies.’
‘As the crow flies? What about on foot? What’s the terrain like for God’s sake?’ said Joe. ‘Looks to me like this doesn’t have anything to do with avoiding reprisals,’ said Joe, ‘it’s just a target of opportunity.’
‘Whatever the case,’ said Mr Smith, ‘that is the mission. I’m told you’re the man to carry it out because you speak reasonably fluent French and German. That should enable you to enlist the help of the locals if you need it, and will give you an edge over the Germans in the dark. I suggest you plan your attack to take advantage of those abilities.’
As he retched convulsively over the rail, Joe reflected bitterly on the gap between the planning of a raid like this and the reality of executing it. Captain Jensen had made it clear that this was Joe’s opportunity to make a name for himself and cement a position in the commandos. If he failed, he’d be posted to his old unit, assuming he returned at all. They’d already had to delay the mission a day because the weather in the Channel had been too rough to contemplate a landing.
His ears detected a change in the tone of the engine and he looked up to see the crew preparing the Bofors gun in its circular mounting.
‘Time to go matey,’ said the bosun, unhooking him from the rail, ‘good luck.’
At the rear of the MGB the crew were casting two inflatable rubber boats into the sea and tying them alongside. They bobbed like corks, and Joe blanched at the prospect of trying to get into them, let alone paddle them to the beach. With a final spit over the rail, he went below and found his squad ready and waiting, their faces blacked out with shoe polish.
‘Okay boys,’ said Joe, pulling a balaclava over his head, ‘let’s go visit France.’
He grabbed his rifle and pack and climbed up the pitching ladder into the wet darkness.
~ ~ ~
In his hotel room in Wissant, Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter signed the letter to his wife and glanced at his watch. Downing the last of his glass of cognac, he checked himself in the mirror and headed down the stairs to the foyer, where his driver, Private Hans Sprenger was waiting.
‘A delightful evening to spend by the French seaside eh Hans?’ said Richter jovially, acknowledging the private’s salute.
‘Gemutlich sir,’ replied the private, ‘how much longer do you think we’ll be here?’
‘Oh a mere junior officer like me isn’t privy to these sorts of details private,’ smirked Richter, who’d been told only that morning that he’d been promoted to commander of an anti-aircraft battery in the flak battalion of the Totenkopf division. This was wonderful news, not just the promotion, but because as a battery commander he’d be well away from most of the close fighting. All he’d have to do is shoot down the handful of enemy planes that had managed to elude the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitts.
He had no desire to repeat the hellish experience he’d endured at the hands of the Tommies a few months before when his company attacked Le Cornet Malo. He’d lost half his men in half an hour, shot down like rabbits in the fields. Still, he’d settled the score in the farmyard at Le Paradis: none of those Tommies would see the green fields of England again, he’d made sure of that. The best of it was that he’d got away with it—they’d buried the bodies where they lay and since then no senior officer had seen fit to reprimand him for the incident. And why would they? The SS Totenkopf ‘Death’s Head’ division didn’t need to obey the usual rules of war.
Richter laughed to himself as the car wove its way through the dark French countryside. No-one was ever going to hold to him account for that day’s work. He wouldn’t be surprised if that was what had got him this promotion.
‘Something amusing sir?’ enquired Hans.
‘I was just thinking Hans, how good it is to be a member of the SS. We truly are the chosen people.’
By some miracle they had all got into the inflatable boats, but it was only after the sailors had cast them off and turned for home that they realised the danger they were in. They were still a hundred yards out from shore and the cliff just a faint line in the darkness. The swell was strong and as they paddled closer to shore, the crash of the breakers hitting the pebbles grew ever louder.
They’d practised beach landings in inflatables for five nights, but that had been in a bay on the Channel coast with a small swell, and even then they’d capsized twice. Getting ashore here was going to be a totally different matter.
‘When we reach the break we’re going to have to try and catch a wave,’ called Joe over the sound of the waves crashing onto the shingle, ‘so take it easy and go on my signal.’
The other boat had been dropped off slightly further north of them, and Joe couldn’t even see it now. He could only hope they made it. The boat was pitching heavily now as the waves caught it at the rear and pushed it up and forward; ahead of him, Joe saw the white foam where the waves were breaking and felt the heave of the wave beneath him.
‘Now! Pull hard!’
Corporal Black on one side and Private Gregson on the other bent their backs to it and the rubber boat shot forward with the wave. Joe barely had time to register the gulf below them as the surging waters picked the boat up like a toy and dropped it into the trough. As the inflatable smacked down nose-first onto the shingle the wave surged over them, tipping the boat over and tossing men and equipment into a maelstrom of freezing water.
Joe felt himself plucked from the boat by a giant’s hand. The wave thrashed him against the pebbles, then picked him up and rolled him over and over until he had no idea which way was up. Helpless in the grip of the wave and surrounded by blackness, he was pounded relentlessly into the beach until eventually the waters of the Channel spat him out as indigestible and he washed up on the shingle amidst a rubble of boulders.
Coughing up mouthfuls of stinging salty water, Joe hauled his burning lungs through the rocks and up the beach until he was clear of the waves, then rolled onto his side and retched. When he got his breath, he checked himself. Miraculously nothing appeared to be broken, but he had lost his rifle, his helmet and his backpack.
He heard a cry of pain and looked around. Down on the waterline, where the waves rushed up and back through the black boulders, Private Gregson was writhing on the ground clutching his right leg. Corporal Black was kneeling beside him trying to drag him out of the water. Of Private Duncan there was no sign.
Joe stood and grimaced as the weight came onto on his left knee. His trousers were torn and when he touched the spot his hand came away smeared with blood. He hobbled down to the waterline and helped Black drag Gregson up the beach.
‘Let’s have a look at you mate,’ he said, pulling his knife from its scabbard and slicing open the private’s right trouser leg. Even in the gloom it was impossible to miss the shattered end of bone protruding from the man’s thigh a few inches above the knee.
‘Just a flesh wound, Private,’ said Joe, punching him on the shoulder, ‘want to lead us up the cliff?’
‘I’m sorry sir,’ said the man, wincing with the pain, ‘I’ve really buggered the mission haven’t I?’
‘Hell, you’ve got tickets on yourself mate, you’re not that important,’ said Joe, sheathing the knife, ‘You’ll just have to hold the fort here until we’re done.’ He hoped his making light of the situation didn’t sound as forced to Private Gregson’s ears as it did to his. He knew that showing any sympathy would only make Gregson feel worse, the man was a Commando after all, he deserved to keep his self-respect even if he was out of action. He’d be faced with lying here for hours in agony not knowing if his fellows would ever return, and facing certain capture when the sun came up.
Joe looked down the pile of rubble that was the beach, and despair rose in him like bile. One man down, one missing presumed drowned and no sign of the other boat. Thirty yards away the inflatable was snagged on a rock and rolling with the waves. He also noticed that Gregson still had his backpack and Black had somehow managed to hold on to his rifle. One firearm; that was something at least.
‘Blacky, go and secure that boat will you? Gregson, let’s get you bandaged up and into some cover. Give me your field dressing.’ Joe put a makeshift bandage around the spot where the bone stuck out into the air.
‘The docs will have you as good as new once we’re back over the Ditch,’ he said as he tied it off. ‘Okay, up you get.’
With Joe under one shoulder, Gregson limped painfully up the slope to where some large boulders had fallen from the cliff face. Joe lodged him amongst them.
‘If any fresh rocks come down while you’re waiting, just duck. We’ll be back before dawn alright?’
‘Right you are sir, I’ll guard the boat for you with this,’ said Gregson, brandishing his knife.
‘Good man. Black, scout out a way up the cliff, I’m going to look for the other boat.’
The shoreline was shallow, only about twenty yards deep before the cliff rose up abruptly. It certainly wasn’t where they’d expected to land and Joe wondered how far they’d drifted off course and in which direction.
He clambered over the rocks at the northern end and came out onto a longer stretch of stony shore. It was black as the pit so he made his way carefully over the rocks looking for any sign of the other boat. Nothing. He negotiated another rock outcrop and found himself looking at a sheer cliff face that stretched out of sight. The waves were crashing directly onto the rocks at the base of the cliff.
‘Not much hope if they came in here,’ he said to himself and turned back the way he’d come.
Returning to the boat, he found Black pulling a rope, pitons and a rock hammer from Gregson’s backpack.
‘Found a chimney sir, but I can’t see more than about twenty feet up it, so we’ll just have to give it a go.’
‘Get moving then, I’ll scout the other beach and follow,’ said Joe, ‘Gregson, strip and clean that rifle and dry it out. It’s our only weapon so if I find any sand in it you’ll be on a charge.’
He sensed rather than saw Gregson throw a salute, then crunched off down the shingle towards the southern point. The smell of brine was thick in his nostrils, and now that the adrenaline of the landing was wearing off he was starting to shiver in his soaking uniform.
On the next beach he found Smythe.
‘Over here lieutenant,’ came the familiar voice from the shadows. Smythe and Privates Hill and O’Sullivan were huddled against the rocks sharing out the contents of a backpack.
‘We lost Martin sir,’ said Smythe apologetically, ‘the rubber duck overturned and he never came up again. His backpack washed up, but not ‘im. At least we have the explosives,’ he said holding up a dynamite bundle.
‘We lost Duncan too, and Gregson’s broken his leg,’ replied Joe, ‘so we’ll have to make do with the five of us. Black reckons he’s found a way up the cliff, so let’s move.’
Black was already out of sight up the cliff when they got there, only the twitching tail of the rope betraying his presence above them.
‘What have we got between us?’ asked Joe.
‘Two dynamite bundles with detonators, and a coil of fuse wire,’ said Smythe, ‘but the timer’s buggered,’ he added, holding up a smashed clock face with wires hanging out of it.
‘We’ll think of something,’ said Joe, ‘what else?’
‘I’ve got me rifle and six grenades sir,’ said Private O’Sullivan.
‘I’ve only got my knife,’ said Hill, ‘and we’ve cannibalised the three backpacks that got through, so we’ve got some food and bandages, but surely you can’t mean to go on with the mission Dean?’
‘That’s Lieutenant Dean to you private, and yes, too bloody right I mean to go on with it. We’ve got explosives, there are five of us fit and able, and I originally wanted only two, so as far as I’m concerned nothing’s changed.’
‘But Lieutenant, we’ve only got two rifles, and what about Gregson here?’ objected Hill, ‘he needs to be evacuated.’
‘And he will be, with us, an hour before the sun comes up. Now enough talk soldier, get up that cliff or I’ll have you on a malingering charge.’
Using the rope as a guide, they started climbing. The rocks were encrusted with wet salt, and getting a purchase in the dark was a slow and painstaking process. After climbing steadily for a few minutes, Joe found himself in the chimney Black had mentioned and the climb got a bit easier as he used his back to steady himself against one wall while he walked his boots up the other side.
The further he went the narrower the chimney became, until he was cramped and bent almost double between the sides.
‘You’re nearly there sir,’ called Black from above him, ‘Grab the rope. I’ve pitoned it and I’ve got the other end, so you can put your weight on it.’
Joe reached out and grabbed the rope, then steadied himself and let his legs fall out of contact with the opposite wall. He swung outwards and smashed into the rock, twirling around and around, then grimly started hauling himself up the wet hemp one hand at a time. Twenty three pulls later he felt Black’s strong arms grab him around the shoulders and pull him up over the edge of the cliff.
‘Thanks Private. Carry on. I’ll have a dekko.’
The briefing had them landing a few hundred yards north of the hotel Richter was supposedly visiting, but as he crept away from the cliff edge Joe could see no sign of human habitation. The dim light of the moon through the clouds showed only windswept bracken and a few bent trees on the ground before him.
‘Bugger it, have we landed in the wrong place?’ he thought to himself. He went over the landmarks in his mind. They were supposed to have landed on a sandy beach with the cape on their right. The plan was to infiltrate up a track to the road that ran parallel to the beach and led to the hotel. The beach itself ran for about a mile north, so Joe concluded that they must have hit the shore right on the point of the cape itself. That meant that the radar station was in the south-east corner of the field in front of him.
As he stared into the darkness the clouds slid slowly west and the moon came out, revealing the field in more detail. Looking around him, Joe could see the cliff edge curving around to the north and south, while on the far side of the field he could just make out something moving: it was the rotating metal grid of the radar station. So the hotel must be down the hill on the left about 400 yards from the cliff. A breeze was now coming in off the Channel, adding a salty tang to the smells of earth and grass that filled Joe’s nostrils. He crept to the edge of the cliff, where Black, Hill and O’Sullivan were waiting.
‘We’ve landed further south than expected, but it might work in our favour. Target Two is south east of here, the proposed ambush site for Target One is about a half a mile north, but we’ll have to find a way there without being spotted by anyone in the hotel. These woods should cover us. It’s 2000 hours now, we’ve got an hour to get into position for the ambush.’
‘Sir,’ interjected Hill, ‘we’ve got no timer or plunger. How are we going to set off the bomb?’
‘I’ve got an idea for that Hillbilly, but we have to take the Nazi first, he’s our main objective. Once we’ve got him we can take our time setting the charges and blow the place just before the gunboat comes to take us off.’
‘Won’t they sound the alarm if he doesn’t return to barracks tonight sir?’ asked O’Sullivan.
‘He’s an officer Sully, he can do whatever he likes, I reckon they’re probably used to him not returning every night anyway. The moon’s going behind the clouds in a few seconds, let’s get into position; we’re heading that way.’
Joe pointed towards a dark wooded area. As a cloud crossed the moon they began moving carefully and silently across the field.
~ ~ ~
Hans swung the staff car through the curved road that climbed the hillside and pulled up outside the Hotel des Mauves, nestled in the northern slope of Cap Gris Nez.
‘Here we are sir. I’ll return at 2300 hours sharp.’
‘Excellent Hans, I shall look forward to it,’ said Richter, snapping a quick salute as he stepped out of the car.
‘Oh and bring some cognac for the journey home will you?’ he asked through the window, then strode up the steps into the hotel.
In her room, Yvette pulled up the stocking and clipped it to the suspender belt. She surveyed herself in the mirror and saw a beautiful young woman with long dark hair, her body encased in a tight black lace corset. She slipped into her heels, the silk on her shapely legs flashing in the lamplight, then slid a black dress over the whole ensemble.
Pulling the lamp closer to the table, she began applying eyeliner, lipstick and a hint of blusher, then pulled her hair up and pinned it carefully into place it on the top of her head, so that ringlets cascaded down the sides of her face. Pressing the plunger on the perfume bottle, she applied a few drops behind her ears and on her wrists. It was a cheap eau de cologne and she hated its fragrance—he had given it to her.
She took another look in the mirror, scowled at her reflection, then practiced her fake smile. It was pretty convincing, and it had to be maintained for at least two hours. Her contact had told her that tonight would be the night the British came for Richter. All she had to do was act as if this were just another ‘normal’ night, in which he used her body for an hour, then left some sort of gift that he imagined a girl of her nature living in a rationed country would appreciate, usually silk stockings, chocolate, and on two occasions so far, money.
The first time he’d pretended that he’d left it there by accident and said she could keep it, but the second time it was clear that this was no wartime romance between conqueror and conquered, but a business arrangement in which she did not dictate the price.
She had her price though, and he had paid it many times over by divulging all manner of sensitive information about the movements of troops, promotions of officers, arrival of new equipment. Once he had sated his lusts he loved nothing more than to smoke a cigar and talk away about the things he thought made him important, things that no little French piece of ass would understand.
Fortunately for her he was not quite as sadistic or perverse as Schmidt, the last German who had raped her when her home town of Roubaix fell to the Germans during the invasion of France. Where Schmidt had been sadistic, this man was unimaginative and cold, simply using her as a receptacle for the pent-up needs of his body. While he talked, while he groped her breasts, while he thrust himself into her, Yvette occupied her time visualising the ways she would kill him, given the chance. Instead, the plan was that he was to be taken to England for trial as a war criminal, and this would have to satisfy her thirst for vengeance.
Once he was gone there would no doubt be an investigation, but there was nothing to connect Yvette to his disappearance, beyond the coincidence of his having been with her that night. Unless they tortured a confession out of her, or found something incriminating against her, there was no way for them to know how the British had taken him.
She touched her belly, where the bump was still not yet noticeable, and wondered for the thousandth time whether the father was Joe Dean or the Nazi pig Schmidt. The thought brought on a wave of nausea, and she rushed to the bathroom to throw up.
Joe Dean. What had happened to him she wondered? She’d had no choice but to send him away. If she’d known what was to come she’d have begged him to take him with her. No doubt he was dead, lost in the shambles of the retreat or drowned at Dunkirk. Even if he’d made it to England she knew her chances of ever seeing him again were next to zero. She couldn’t take the risk that the child might be Schmidt’s—there was no way she was going to bring his child into the world—but so far all the scalding baths and gin had had no effect. She’d even stopped eating for a week to try and starve it to death, but to no avail.
The knock on the door roused her from her thoughts. Smoothing her dress, she walked to the door.
‘Good evening Hauptsturmfuhrer,’ she said, smiling, ‘punctual as ever I see, please do come in.’
~ ~ ~
Two hundred yards away, Joe and his team crouched in the shadows, observing the hotel. It was a grand two-story stone building with half a dozen windows along the top floor, and a dining room and bar on the ground floor. Along the front, a rose garden flanked a set of steps that led up to a porch illuminated by a lantern. The road curved around the hotel and disappeared into the woods beyond.
‘Smithy, do a quick recce up the road for me will you? Hillbilly, crawl over to the edge of the trees and keep an eye on the front of the hotel. Let me know if anyone arrives or leaves. Sully, you, me and Black will start moving towards the ambush point and set up. Any ideas anyone has for stopping the car without making any noise I’m all ears. Go.’
Joe pondered his dilemma. In the original plan, the bomb for the radar station was to have been set off by a timer at 5am, by which time the MGB would have taken them off the beach with their captive. The ambush was to be carried out by shooting out the tires of the car, tying up the driver and seizing Richter. The argument was that on this isolated stretch of road, no-one would hear the shots, but Joe had never trusted that theory. With the timer now smashed, he had to nab the German silently and find a way to set off the explosives manually at the last minute, so they could reach the boat in time to make it off. He couldn’t risk any shooting—if they blew their cover they’d never get near the radar station—he needed a way to stop the car silently.
‘Let’s get down to the ambush site, at the double! Look for a fallen tree.’
Joe and Privates Hill and Black hurried through the undergrowth. Within a minute they made out the white ribbon of the road gleaming palely in the moonlight. Crouched beside it they found Smythe and O’Sullivan.
‘Nothing further up the road sir,’ said Smythe, ‘all clear.’
Just then they heard the roar of an engine approaching as it wove its way through the forest road towards the hotel.
‘Everyone down!’ yelled Joe, plunging into the undergrowth.
In a glare of headlights a large black Mercedes raced past them and disappeared around the bend.
‘Goddamn it, the bastard’s ten minutes early,’ said Joe in exasperation, looking at his watch, ‘I thought Germans were supposed to be punctual?’
‘What now sir?’ asked Private Hill.
What indeed thought Joe, his mind racing through the possibilities. He looked around and spotted a fallen elm, its pale bark gleaming in the moonlight.
‘Quickly now, drag that tree onto the road,’ he ordered.
The five men grabbed the trunk and hauled it with much cursing out of the undergrowth and positioned it across the road.
‘Any way to get around that do you think?’ asked Joe.
‘Not unless he goes into the ditch sir,’ said Corporal Black, ‘and the way he was driving I doubt he’ll be wanting to do that. He’ll ‘ave to stop.’
‘Righto then, take your positions.’
The four commandos disappeared into the ditches on each side of the road and waited, wondering what their lieutenant had in mind.
~ ~ ~
Ethel Waters was singing ‘Stormy Weather’ on the gramophone as Richter popped the cork.
‘Some champagne mademoiselle?’
Yvette was sitting on the edge of the bed, legs crossed, her left calf gently swaying up and down in time to the music. Sometimes she had to struggle to remember that her name was ‘Alouette’ to this foul German. She was not used to playing the whore, and these little deceits did not come easily. She supposed that aliases were something she would have to grow used to quickly if she were to survive while fighting the German occupation.
‘You will be disappointed to hear my dear,’ said Richter, taking a sip and eyeing Yvette’s stockinged leg appreciatively, ‘that our little tryst must come to an end tonight.’
Oh God, does he know something? thought Yvette, turning pale at the thought.
‘Now now my dear Alouette, I didn’t mean to upset you, you’ve gone white as a sheet.’
‘It’s just, well, a shock Hauptsturmfuhrer, I’ve grown … accustomed to seeing you,’ she replied, taking a gulp of the wine.
And no doubt accustomed to my ‘gifts’ of stockings, wine and food, you cheap French slut, thought Richter.
‘Ja, and me you, but that is war is it not? I have been promoted and my duty calls me elsewhere.’
‘Promoted?’ cried Yvette with mock enthusiasm, ‘congratulations mon cher! Where will you be going?’
‘Well that is all highly confidential of course, but I see no harm in telling a little girl like you about it. I will be in charge of a flak battalion in the Totenkopf Division, and if I know anything at all, we’ll be transferred east shortly.’
‘East? Why east? I thought England was supposed to be next?’
‘Ha, England, I think the Fuhrer may have bigger fish to fry than that pathetic little island. No, it will be Russia. This time next year I will be in Moscow, and we will have the whole continent at our feet. We might have some ‘domestic’ duties to complete in France first though.’
‘And so tonight is to be our last night? Must you leave so soon?’
‘I am ordered to Dresden, I leave tomorrow on the evening train. Now, enough talk. Tonight is your last chance to remind me why the French are supposed to be such famous lovers. I see no reason not to stay here until morning.’
He walked over to the window, leant out and called out something in German that Yvette didn’t catch, then turned to her with an expectant expression.
She lowered the straps on her dress and, shrugging it off her shoulders, made a silent prayer that the British came tonight.
Private Hans Sprenger started the engine of the Mercedes and turned the big car around. Now he had the rest of the night to himself he intended to make good use of it. Ten minutes down the road toward Boulogne sur Mer was his friend Johan Becker, one of a pioneer unit building bunkers designed to house a battery of 380mm naval guns.
‘There’ll never be a better time to have a beer with him,’ said Hans to himself as he changed into second gear and headed south away from the hotel. The Hauptsturmfuhrer was obviously having a good time: he’d called out to him from the first-floor window.
‘I’ve decided to stay here tonight Hans, you’ve got the night off now, as long as you’re here at 0700 and not too hungover.’
This was the first time Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter had done this, and Hans reckoned he knew why. There’d been a round of promotions in the wake of the French campaign, to reward the successful officers and replace the dead ones. The lieutenant commanding his platoon had won an Iron Cross Second Class during the fierce fighting against the British in Belgium, he was sure to be promoted. The Hauptsturmfuhrer himself had commanded several successful actions and was bound to be promoted too, although Hans suspected he owed this more to the gallantry of his men than to any innate skills as a combat leader. In all the actions they’d been involved in he’d never once seen Richter place himself in the line of fire. If he was being promoted then he’d most likely be transferred as well, to take over some new unit being formed out of raw recruits and beat them into shape. Richter was taking his last opportunity to enjoy the fruits of victory in France before returning to Germany and the dubious delights of the infantry training school. No bits of French tail eager to do your bidding there.
As the forest closed in around the road, he accelerated into the corners, enjoying the power of the big machine in his hands. Swerving around a bend he saw that a tree had fallen across the road. Assessing the distance to the tree and the width of the gap at one end of it he realised he wouldn’t make it, and reluctantly jammed on the brakes.
‘Thank God he stopped,’ whispered Smythe as they watched the German step out of the car from the shadows of the ditch beside the road.
‘Go!’ whispered Joe to O’Sullivan and Black.
The two men rose silently out of the ditch and sprinted across the short gap to where the German was struggling to drag the tree off the road. Black grabbed the man around the neck from behind, while O’Sullivan delivered a series of left and right hooks to his defenceless stomach, ignoring the muffled screams. Black dragged the still-struggling man into the ditch where Joe was waiting.
‘Achtung!’ he said in a violent whisper, then continued speaking in German.
‘Stop struggling and you’ll live. If you try to escape or make a sound, this man,’ Joe pointed at the grim-faced Black, ‘will slit your throat with that big knife he’s carrying, verstehen sie?’
The German nodded furiously, his throat still in the remorseless grip of the big corporal.
‘Good work boys. HillBilly, get his uniform off, then put him out of sight, tie him up and gag him. Black, if he gives you any trouble, cut his throat, but only after you’ve got the uniform off okay?’
‘This is gettin’ to be a habit with you sir, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so,’ said Smythe, as Joe pulled on the uniform.
‘At least this time I’ll be driving in style, not riding a motorbike right through German lines Smithy,’ replied Joe.
After getting caught behind the German advance in Belgium only months earlier, Joe and Smythe had killed two Wehrmacht soldiers riding a motorbike and sidecar combination, stolen their uniforms and ridden at high speed straight for the British lines. The ruse had worked, but had it failed they would both have faced a firing squad.
‘Be careful sir,’ said Smythe, ‘we know this Richter bloke is a murderous bugger. How are you goin’ to play it?’
‘If I can keep up the act until I get him in the back and reach here, so much the better. If not, I’ll just pull a gun on him. Now, let’s find out what time he’s expecting to be picked up.’
Joe walked over to where the German sat tied up in his underwear. Once he had changed into the German’s uniform he squatted beside the man who was shivering from a combination of cold and fear, and removed the gag.
‘What time is the Hauptsturmfuhrer expecting you to return? And don’t try to mess with me, or Corporal Black here will take care of you.’
The German eyed the big corporal nervously and said ‘drei and zwanzig heure.’
‘2300 hours. What do you reckon Smithy, should I be punctual, early or late?’
‘Never late sir, you might want to turn up a bit early, do a bit of a recce,’ said Smyth.
‘Car coming sir!’ called O’Sullivan.
‘Bloody hell!’ exclaimed Joe. What were the odds on a back-road like this?
The clatter of a poorly-tuned diesel engine came through the trees, but no headlights, not even the tight, shuttered beams expected during a blackout.
The commandos watched from the shadows as a small van came around the corner and slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid ramming the tree lying across the road.
‘Merde!’ cried the driver, rubbing the lump where his forehead had connected with the windscreen. He and another man jumped down and looked at the tree and the abandoned Mercedes.
‘What do you make of it Etienne?’ asked one man.
‘The driver must have walked back to the hotel to call his unit.’
They tried to drag the tree off the road. After a minute they gave up and sat down on the trunk.
‘What now?’ said the driver.
‘We either drive around the long way and risk getting arrested, or we hope someone clears this away tomorrow and try again tomorrow night,’ replied the other man.
‘But the German is leaving tomorrow!’
‘Etienne, are you prepared to drive through Wissant after the curfew? It’s the only other way in.’
‘We could walk in.’
‘And how would we escape after we kill him?’
‘Unless someone alerts the Nazis we could run into the woods and get back here easily enough.’
‘It’s too risky, we need to be able to get away fast.’
‘Why don’t we take the Mercedes? If we have to kill the driver too, what of it? Where is the driver anyway?’
Lying in the ditch, Smythe whispered in Joe’s ear.
‘What are these Frogs jabberin’ about sir?’
‘I’m not entirely sure, but it sounds like they’ve come to do the same thing we have Smithy. This road only leads to once place, Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter’s a popular man it would seem.’
Joe couldn’t help wondering whether this was too much of a coincidence. Had the mysterious Mr Smith set up a second hit squad in case he and his men failed? Either way, he couldn’t risk these two amateurs blundering into the middle of his operation. He signalled to O’Sullivan and Black to circle around the rear of the van.
‘We’re going to take these two prisoner Smithy. Quietly.’
‘I’ll address them in French. When I start speaking, you and O’Sullivan stand up and cover them. Ready?’
The men had made a decision and were heading to the back of the van when Joe spoke loudly in French.
‘You two men, stand still and put your hands up!’
At the sound of his voice the driver jumped and the other man dived for cover behind the van.
‘You are covered by four rifles, the first man to move dies. Now stand up, put your hands up and walk this way. Smithy, search ‘em.’
Neither man was armed, but when Joe walked out of the shadows in his German uniform they stared wild-eyed from the men in British uniforms to the German.
‘What’s going on here?’ asked the passenger.
Close-up, Joe could see that he was a strongly-built man. Not particularly tall, but solid, with thick black hair and clear, honest features. He was young and his whole demeanour radiated defiance. The other man was older, his brown hair and moustache streaked with grey, but he carried himself with a natural air of authority.
‘You’ve blundered right into the middle of a British commando operation,’ said Joe, ‘what the hell are you doing here at this hour?’
‘British?’ said the older man, eyeing the German uniform, ‘you look German to me.’
‘If I were German you’d be either dead or arrested by now,’ said Joe, ‘count your lucky stars we stopped you. From what you were saying it sounded like you were planning to assassinate a German at the hotel. That wouldn’t be Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter would it?’
‘How do you know that?’ the man gasped.
On closer interrogation, the two Frenchmen turned out not to be the amateurs they first appeared. The older of the two, one Marcel Fabache, claimed to be an ex-officer, while the solid Etienne Rigal said he was a sergeant from an elite French mountain unit or chasseurs alpin.
‘M’sieur,’ remonstrated the older man, ‘you must let us help you. I am the man who has been in radio contact with your superiors. One of our resistance members is in the hotel with Richter, she has been preparing for this night for weeks.’
‘We had agreed that you would take Richter last night, but when you failed to show up we decided to kill Richter tomorrow night when our agent was expecting to see him again. Then a few hours ago we discovered that he is due to be transferred tomorrow and has left word that will be ‘occupied’ tonight. Tonight was our only chance, but time is short, he usually leaves at eleven and returns to Wissant.’
‘How did you find that out?’ asked Joe.
‘We have friends everywhere. My brother works as a clerk in the German headquarters. He saw the transfer order.’
‘Why are you so keen to neck this bloke anyway? We’ve got our reasons, what are yours?’
The younger man’s face darkened, ‘He is a murderer! We have been forced to stand by as he and his men have shot innocent civilians and packed all the Jews onto trains. He has also taken to choosing local girls and forcing them come to his room at night. One of them is our agent and she is with him now. He has to die.’
‘Well he’s not dying tonight, but he’s leaving town tomorrow alright, and not for Germany. My orders are to take him to England; there’s a boat coming for us at 0500. You can’t help me with him. I’m sorry, the best thing you can do is go home without drawing attention to yourselves. The last thing I need is a bunch of Germans patrolling around here because they found you two out after curfew.’
‘But m’sieu …’ remonstrated the older man.
‘Enough!’ snapped Joe, the blood singing in his ears, ‘turn that bloody van around and get out of here, now!’
~ ~ ~
‘How do I look?’ asked Joe a few hours later, as he put on the German’s cap and straightened the shirt.
Smythe looked him up and down and brushed some leaves off the lieutenant’s elbow.
‘It’s not exactly a perfect fit sir, sleeves and pants are a bit short, but if you keep out of the light you should pass muster.’
‘Alright men, remember, when I come back I’ll get out to move the tree. At that point you come out and nab Richter. We need him alive, got it?’
‘Yes sir,’ came the small chorus of voices.
‘Are you sure you want to do this alone sir?’ asked Smythe, ‘seems like a bit of an unnecessary risk is all. Why don’t we all just storm the hotel?’
‘And if we accidentally kill some French civilians, what then?’ asked Joe, ‘I reckon this way’s the simplest plan Smithy and the simplest plan is always the best. I’ll return in ten minutes, be ready to move to the radar station.’
Joe got into the Mercedes, did a three-point turn and took the car back up the road towards the hotel.
Pulling into the driveway in front of the hotel, Joe checked himself in the rearview mirror. The German’s forage cap was a bit small for him, but he’d stuck it at a rakish angle low over his forehead and it looked good enough.
Expecting to find Richter waiting for him, Joe was surprised to see that the foyer was empty. He rang the bell on the concierge desk and a fat balding man with a thin comb-over and bushy moustaches came out from the adjoining office.
‘You have come for the Colonel, non? He has not come down yet, perhaps you would like to wait?’
‘Nein,’ replied Joe, ‘was ist der Zimmernummer?’
‘Quatre,’ he replied, pointing up the stairs, ‘but I doubt he wants to be disturbed.’
Joe grunted in reply and headed for the staircase.
Inside room Four, Yvette squeezed the douche bag and flushed Richter’s revolting, sticky discharge down the toilet. Wiping herself off carefully, she stood and looked in the mirror. Her hair was all over the place: the bastard had forced her to kneel on the floor so he could take her like a dog. He liked to grab her long hair and pull her head back, and of course, she had to make all the appropriate noises or he wasn’t satisfied. So she submitted, and tried to make herself sound convincing as she endured the seemingly interminable pounding that lasted only a few minutes, but drove deep into her soul.
She re-applied some lipstick and quickly tied her hair into two side-plaits. She knew from experience that, when he arrived, Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter expected her to embody the cliché of the ‘French whore’ with her hair long and her skirts short, but that once he’d spent himself, he felt both dominant and a little regretful, and he preferred the slut he’d just raped to turn into a demure and honest young girl who was both innocent and grateful that a German officer should choose her as his concubine.
God she hated this man. She mused for a moment about the ways in which she would torture him before he died, but…
‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’
The knock on the door was not that loud, but in the silence of the hotel it sounded like gunshots.
‘Rap Rap Rap’ came the knock again, a little more discreetly.
Yvette took a moment to settle herself, then crossed the room and opened the door.
In the corridor, was a German who was Joe’s doppelganger. As she stared in surprise, the blood drained from the man’s face and a strangled whisper came from his throat.
‘Was ist?’ called Richer from the bed.
Joe choked down the lump in his throat and pulled himself together, still staring at Yvette with wide eyes.
‘Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter,’ he said in German, ‘my name is Corporal Muller, I’m sorry to tell you that you have received an advance order. You are required in Paris at 0700 hours.’
‘Paris? Was?’ cried Richter, leaping from the bed, ‘But where is Hans, my driver?’
‘We have not been able to locate him sir, he was expected at the barracks several hours ago but he did not arrive, so I have been sent to collect you. I have a car waiting outside.’
‘Very well,’ grumbled Richter, reaching for his trousers, ‘ein moment.’
‘Naturlich Hauptsturmfuhrer,’ said Joe from the corridor. Stepping away from the door he gave Yvette a searching look and made his way downstairs.
Stepping back into the bathroom, Yvette stared at her deathly pale reflection. Was this a ruse? Was the man outside the door really Joe? No, it was too fantastic, it had to be a coincidence; the British didn’t have the imagination to plan something so unlikely, surely? But he had said her name! For a few seconds she stared at herself in utter confusion, then, remembering that she had to maintain her cover for just a few minutes longer, she opened the door and stepped back into the room.
Richter had his shirt and pants on and was sitting on the bed struggling with a jackboot. He looked harried and she thought she’d never seen him so vulnerable; she had to smother the urge to grab a hatpin from the dresser and drive it into his throat.
‘Alouette, I am called away early after all it would seem. Help me with this boot will you?’
As she knelt beside the bed and pulled the jackboot up his calf, he reached down and held her plaits in both hands.
‘Aah, my sweet Alouette, I shall miss our nights together, but unfortunately duty calls at the oddest hours. Here, take this as a parting gift.’
Donning his jacket, the Nazi dipped his hand in a pocket and pulled out a gold bangle.
‘I was intending to give it to you in the morning over breakfast, but now will have to do.’
‘Thank you Hauptsturmfuhrer, it’s beautiful,’ whispered Yvette.
‘Ja, well, enjoy it, and now it is goodbye, ja?’ He pulled her up from the floor and squeezed both of her breasts fiercely.
‘Ach, I shall miss these,’ then he turned and, without a backward glance, strode to the door and stepped into the corridor.
As the Hauptsturmfuhrer closed the door behind him, Yvette sank to the floor. The gleam of gold in the lamplight drew her eye to her left hand where she still clutched the bangle. Holding it up to the light she saw an inscription carved into the inside: ‘Love always. Elijah.’
She hurled the bangle across the room where it clattered against the bar heater and settled on the floorboards, spinning ever-faster until it fell and lay silent.
Joe. Joe. He had said her name, it was him. She thought he was gone forever, had tried night after night to forget him, and here he was on her doorstep.
Joe already had the engine running when Richter climbed into the back seat. He engaged first and moved off down the driveway, the headlights illuminating the entrance to the dark tunnel of trees that enclosed the road.
Richter drummed his fingers on the window sill.
‘This order,’ he said, ‘who sent you to deliver it? Do you have it with you?’
Joe cursed inwardly, this was precisely the sort of question he wasn’t prepared to answer. He pushed his foot on the throttle and pretended not to hear.
‘Corporal! I asked you a question!’
‘Enschuldigung sie bitte sir, I didn’t quite hear you over the engine.’
‘Who sent you to pick me up?’
Joe searched for an answer, names were no use, he’d see through that right away.
‘The Obergruppenfuhrer sir.’
‘Schwarze? But he’s supposed to be in Essen.’
‘Yes sir, the order came by telephone.’
‘Verdammt! Why Paris? I was told Dresden.’
‘I don’t know sir, I was just instructed to come and collect you.’
The ambush site was close now, only a few hundred metres to go. He could hear Richter’s fingers drumming louder.
‘Corporal,’ said Richter, ‘take me back to the hotel, I must make a phone call to confirm this.’
Joe realised he’d blown it and braked abruptly, then reached down and lifted the Webley revolver that lay concealed under his left leg. He pointed it at the German.
‘Put your hands up, now!’
‘Was ist?’ cried Richter in surprise.
‘Hande hoch!’ screamed Joe, cocking the hammer.
Richter raised his hands slowly.
‘Now sit there and keep your hands up, don’t try to run or I’ll shoot you like a dog, verstehen sie?’
‘Ja, ich verstehen,’ replied Richter.
Keeping one eye on the German, Joe unlatched his door, pushed it open with his leg and leapt out, retraining his gun on the German.
‘Get out of the car, keep your hands up.’
‘Now, very slowly, remove your pistol and drop it. Remember if you try anything I’ll shoot you dead.’
‘Now start walking, that way,’ said Joe indicating the road with a nod.
‘Who are you?’ asked Richter as they walked into the darkness.
‘No questions! Move!’ snapped Joe.
The men were expecting a car. He had to alert them somehow or he risked both of them being shot. He began whistling ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary.’
After a few minutes of walking the challenge came in English.
‘Who goes there?’
‘Lieutenant Dean and prisoner,’ said Joe, but even as the words left his mouth the German made a break to the left and dashed towards the shadows of the woods.
‘To me men,’ yelled Joe. He turned. He had a clear shot. He steadied himself to fire, then lowered the gun. He wasn’t here to kill the man. He ran into the woods.
A cloud had covered the moon, and inside the wood it was black. Joe heard a crack ahead and to his left and headed in that direction.
‘Let’s hope he keeps moving,’ he thought to himself, ‘if he goes to ground here we’ll never find him.’
A rustle of leaves ahead and Joe stopped and listened. What would he do in Richter’s place? he wondered. Find a nice dark hole and hope the searchers gave up before dawn? Or keep moving, risking making enough noise to bring the hounds down on him?
As he was musing on this question and listening intently, the clouds drifted away and the moonlight seeped into the woods, casting a dim luminescence over the twisted trunks and branches of the trees. Still, he could see nothing moving.
‘Dammit!’ he cursed, ‘where is the bastard?’
An hour of fruitless stumbling about later, Joe called to his men.
‘It’s nearly 2am. I reckon we’ve lost him,’ he said as he changed back into his British uniform. ‘We’ll have to forget about Richter and try to salvage something from the mission. If we’re going to lay these charges and make the boat we’ll have to move now. Sergeant Smythe, I want you to note that I take full responsibility for the failure to achieve the primary objective of the mission. Gather the men.’
‘What about the driver sir?’ asked Black.
‘Tie him to a tree near the road. They’ll find him soon enough. Here’s his uniform. Let’s move.’
3am. The charges were all in place around the base of the radar station’s tower. After spending an hour closing in on the station from three sides, watching for guards, the commandos had realised that whatever garrison might be guarding this particular piece of the coast was not expecting anything more alarming that night than a sudden shower from the Channel.
Joe lay in the darkness beside the concrete bulk of the bunker. The metal superstructure of the radar gantry towered overhead and the shadows the moon cast through its criss-crossed beams made a chessboard of the grass behind him.
The sole guard they’d encountered lay nearby, his throat cut from ear-to-ear by Black’s razor-sharp combat knife. The man had taken his time dying, and they were certain that the rest of the garrison would hear his gurgling cries, however much they tried to muffle them, but no-one had come.
In just five minutes of silent, efficient work, the commandos had laid their charges at the vulnerable points of the pylons and run the wires to Joe’s hiding place. This was little more than a scrape in the ground, as the Germans had cleared all the undergrowth around the station for a distance of 50 yards in every direction.
Joe took the two wires and connected one to the positive pole of the battery.
‘Smithy, you understand your orders if I’m not there by exactly 5am?’
‘Yes sir, but I can’t say I like them,’ said Smythe miserably.
‘Never mind that. I lost Richter hours ago, so there’ll be Germans all over the place here soon. Get going. I’ll see you at the foot of the cliff in less than two hours. And take this, when you make it to Dover, call that number and ask for Major Benjamin. He’ll come and take your report.’
Joe handed Smythe a slip of paper with a phone number on it. The men moved off silently into the dark, leaving Joe clutching the car battery. He realised he was holding it with a grip of iron and loosed his hand, taking a few deep breaths.
He cursed himself for the hundredth time for not keeping a closer eye on Richter. Picking a stone out from beneath his hip bone, he tried to make himself comfortable. The radioactive dials on his watch showed 3.11. At exactly 0445 he would blow the charges and bolt for the cliff. To do it earlier would mean he and his men would have to wait too long for the MGB that was due to arrive at 0500. In the meantime, his thoughts dwelt on Yvette. Surely she’d recognised him? Even if she had, what good did it do them? Three hours from now he’d be back in Dover, separated from her by twenty-odd miles of the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. Unless he stayed here. But that was madness, desertion if nothing else, and if he could somehow find her without being captured, how could he be sure she’d even want to see him again? After the way they had parted the last time, she could be forgiven for thinking him a coward. He allowed these thoughts to torture him until his watch showed 0430, when suddenly he heard voices coming from the radar station.
A German came out of the steel door and called out ‘Heinrich? Heinrich? Wo sind sie?’
Heinrich was in no condition to reply, and the man climbed up the concrete steps to the watchpost, which was not only empty, but splattered with blood. He stared about him in disbelief, then clattered down the stairs yelling ‘Achtung!’Achtung!’
‘Bugger the bloody bastard,’ muttered Joe, and grasping the second wire, touched it to the negative pole of the battery.
The charges exploded with a flash and a roar, and the mast of the radar station tottered, swayed for a second, then toppled over and crashed into the field with a rending shriek. Joe didn’t wait to see if the garrison had survived, he grabbed his rifle and bolted across the field towards the cliff edge.
Behind him, the stunned Germans were still clawing their way out of the rubble into the smoke when the tank of diesel fuel for the backup generator, punctured by a chunk of flying concrete, took fire and exploded. A bright yellow plume leapt into the air and liquid flame fell in all directions, lighting up the night sky and setting ablaze the wooden superstructure of the observation platform.
Joe had just reached the cover of the undergrowth when the flames took hold and the whole cleared field became illuminated. He could see the figures of the German soldiers standing away from the blaze, shielding their eyes—there was nothing they could do to quell the flames—then he turned seaward and felt the sudden and unexpected jarring impact of a fist on his chin.
Stumbling back in shock, he looked up to see the enraged face of Haupsturmfuhrer Richter, coming in to throw another punch, and he raised his arm to shield himself. Ineffectually, as the German swung with full force into the side of his head.
The pain seemed to split his head open, and Joe’s eyes swam with tears, but he’d been hit like this before by his instructors, and his training took over. He sidestepped as the German came in with an uppercut that would have broken his jaw had it connected, and using the man’s momentum, tripped him up, sending him sprawling in the dirt.
‘Hilfe! Hilfe!’ screamed the man, as Joe dropped a knee into his back and pinioned his left arm. The garrison troops were only fifty yards away, and hearing Richter’s cries for help they came at a run.
Outnumbered five to one, Joe gave Richter a final kick in the side of the head for luck, and bolted for the cliff.
~ ~ ~
Down on the beach, Smythe looked at his watch for the thousandth time. In the greyness of early dawn the MGB was clearly visible offshore, and the inflatable boat was making its way unsteadily towards them.
Still no sign of Joe. They’d all heard the explosion clearly enough, but the lieutenant had yet to materialise.
A big swell was running and the tide was high. The sailors on the little boat heaved-to outside the point where the waves began to crest and crash into the shingle.
‘We can’t come in any further,’ hailed one of them through a speaking trumpet, ‘you’ll have to swim out to us!’
‘Okay boys,’ said Smythe, ‘dump all your gear and let’s go. Tie a rope around Gregson, we’ll have to pull him out with us.’
The men divested themselves of rifles, helmets, bayonets, backpacks and webbing, dumping them in a heap on the shingle. Those who had rifles pulled the bolts and tossed them into the icy water before wading in after them.
Swimming out through the crashing waves, pulling the wounded Private Gregson, was one of the most exhausting experiences Smythe had ever had. He’d only learnt to swim since joining the commandos and couldn’t call himself a strong swimmer. Fit yes, strong yes, but his technique was woeful. Joe had shown them all how to do the ‘Australian Crawl’, but trying to draw breath amidst the chaotic rushing foam of the breakers was altogether different from doing it in a flat, freshwater Scottish loch; the appalling temperature was the only thing the two pieces of water had in common.
After an eternity of near-drowning in the wash and foam, Smythe cleared the break and was able to paddle out to the boat, rocking on the swell, and grab hold of the rope around its edge. Never had a rope felt so welcome, and when the sailors hauled him inboard he collapsed in a heap.
‘Is he the last?’ asked a sailor of Black.
‘All except the Lieutenant,’ replied Black gruffly, ‘and he ain’t comin’ by the looks of it.’
‘Sir!’ interjected a sailor, ‘E-Boat coming up from the south-east!’
‘We have to leave right now then,’ said the sailor, ‘sorry about your officer, but we have to go.’
Up on the edge of the cliff, Joe drew breath and watched the inflatable turn away. In the grey dawn light he’d seen the E-Boat cutting its way towards them at high speed, only a few minutes away to the south. It would take him a few minutes to climb down the cliff, and another few minutes to swim out. A delay like that now would doom them all. If he hadn’t had to spend twenty minutes avoiding Richter and his squad of goons he’d have made it.
He’d failed. Oh they’d blown up the radar station, but that was a secondary target. He’d failed in his main objective, the reason he’d taken the mission, to capture Richter. On reflection, in the cold hard light of failure, it was a cockeyed mission from the start: ill-conceived and poorly-executed. Worst of all, he was now a liability trapped on a foreign shore. Assuming he could avoid capture, the best he could hope for was to find some sympathetic Frenchman who would give him some civilian clothes so he could pass as a Frog until he could find a way back to England. As for Yvette, he longed to see her, but that would be insanely dangerous for both of them.
Out to sea, the rubber boat reached the MGB and he watched the small khaki figures clamber up onto the deck. He could see Smythe staring back to shore but he didn’t show himself; he knew that would just make matters worse. The water at the rear of the gunboat foamed and she gathered way, turning in a wide arc and accelerating towards the cliffs of Dover, now becoming visible in the rising sun, a thin pink line on the horizon.
The bushes behind him parted, and Richter stepped out onto the cliff edge, holding a pistol in his right hand. Three of the men from the radar station behind him.
‘Zo. We thought we might find you here. Missed the ferry did you? How sad.’
Joe took one last look at the receding gunboat and raised his hands. He was turning around when Richter smashed the Luger into the side of his head.
~ ~ ~
A shaft of morning sun stole through the gap between the blind and the window frame, illuminating Yvette’s sleeping form. She stirred and rolled over, but was suddenly wide awake to the sound of boots stamping in the forecourt of the hotel and loud German voices.
Peeking out the window, she saw half a dozen German soldiers guarding a man in a British uniform. Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter was striding up the steps and into the foyer, his left arm covered in blood. She hurriedly threw on a dress, pulled her hair into a ponytail, and hurried down the stairs.
In the foyer, Richter was on the phone, fortunately with his back to her, and she slipped across the hall and into the dining room, where she pretended to be setting the table nearest the door. She could hear Richter shouting into the phone.
‘Ein Englander! Ja, commandos … vier, funf … sie haben der radarstation vernichtet. Calais? Ja naturlich, sechs-und-dreissig heure. Alles gut.’
‘I think you’re done here Alouette,’ said the waiter in charge of the dining room, ‘can you help in the kitchen please?’
‘Oui, of course,’ she said. She stole a glance out the window. The man in the British uniform was Joe alright, and he was bleeding from a gash on his forehead.
Sergeant Smythe had never met the two men who debriefed him at Dover. When the MGB came into the jetty he had gone straight to the naval headquarters and called the number Joe had given him. A couple of hours later, during which the Royal Navy had been kind enough to issue Smythe and his men with dry clothes, hot soup and half a pint of navy rum, he was summoned by a midshipman.
Major Benjamin and Captain Jensen were awaiting him in a small office, with a man in civilian clothes who introduced himself as ‘Mr Smith from the Ministry’.
‘So you lost two men and most of your equipment on the way in?’ asked Captain Jensen, aghast, as Smythe related the events of the night, ‘and lost your lieutenant on the way out? Good God, what a monumental fuck-up!’
‘Well sir, I’d say we were lucky not to lose more men, the surf was that rough.’
‘The usual intelligence balls-up,’ said Captain Jensen with a sigh. Major Benjamin gave him a frown and gestured at Smythe to continue.
‘So we don’t know whether your lieutenant was killed, taken prisoner or escaped?’ said Jensen.
‘No sir’, replied Smythe, ‘but he certainly blew up the station, we heard the blast at 0430 by my watch.’
‘Well that’s something at least,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘pity about Richter, but we can’t have everything can we?’
‘You said he changed into a German uniform to kidnap Richter,’ asked Mr Smith in a low voice, speaking for the first time.
‘Yes sir,’ said Smythe, ‘I pointed out to him that this was rather dangerous, but he knows the risks, he’s done it before. We both got through the lines in German uniforms on the way to Dunkirk. Besides, he changed back into his khakis before we left the ambush.’
‘Let us hope he has avoided capture then,’ said Mr Smith, ‘if not, our Lieutenant Dean will most likely be shot out of hand as a spy or worse, passed to the Gestapo. Fortunately for us he doesn’t know much about anything except this operation.’
Smythe glared at the man but said nothing.
‘Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter tells me that when you kidnapped him you were wearing the uniform of his driver, is that correct?’ enquired the man.
The room was dank and mouldy, there were no windows and the only light came from a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Joe grimaced: it was faintly ludicrous, almost comic, a cliché from a First World War[+ +]spy story, the kind he’d devoured avidly as small boy. Yet, here he was, in just such a place, and while the man interrogating him hadn’t identified himself, Joe was reasonably sure he was from the GeheimStaatsPolizei, the infamous Gestapo. This was interesting in itself, because, as he understood it from his mission briefings, they were concerned with internal security, spies and the like, not with military matters.
This led him to consider the question further. He understood the rules of war as well as any soldier, and being caught in enemy uniform almost invariably led to the firing squad, on either side. He was surprised at his own calmness; for the moment it all seemed perfectly logical, he hadn’t yet succumbed to the terror of his situation, but he knew this self-delusion couldn’t last long. That knowledge itself was a small puncture in the wall of his self-belief, a puncture that the pressure of fear was steadily enlarging.
Joe said nothing.
‘Dog!’ screamed the man, leaning over the desk, his spittle flecking Joe’s face, ‘you think to play the fool with me? Why were you here?’
He had the red, jowly face of a man who over-indulged in beer and sausage. Above the cheeks a pair of small, piggy black eyes stared out angrily, seeming to find offence in whatever they saw, while his receding hairline added to the impression that he was some sort of demonic dwarf. Around the fastened collar of his shirt, folds of flesh drooped and sagged, and beneath the shirt a large belly protruded. Up close, his breath was a foul mixture of rotting pork and sour wine—he clearly had not cleaned his teeth in some time.
Joe didn’t answer. Admitting anything would do no good. He’d decided on a resolute silence as the best course of action. The instructors had said that engaging in any conversation with an interrogator was simply playing into their hands, and that while a mute silence might enrage them and drive them to torture sooner, that was preferable to finding yourself talked into betraying someone without a fight.
‘You do realise what is going to happen to you, don’t you?’ asked the man, picking his nose and examining the result. ‘You will be shot as a spy’, he said calmly, ‘thrown onto the town rubbish heap for the dogs, and no-one will ever hear of you again. You will be listed as ‘Missing In Action’ and your mother will worry herself to death over what may have happened to you. Worry herself into an early grave. Do you love your mother? Clearly you care nothing for your mother. You’re no doubt one of these wastrel sons, you probably ran away from Liverpool or some such hellhole to join the army.’
Joe said nothing. He examined his fingernails to try to prevent himself looking at the German. He might not have them tomorrow.
‘So you are not prepared to do this the civil way then?’ asked the man, almost rhetorically, ‘in that case we will have to find other means. You are now the property of the Gestapo, and Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter has laid a case of espionage against you. My fellow investigator will be here tomorrow and I can assure you that he has none of my moral scruples about interrogation. You see, I am a student of humanity and the idea of pain is abhorrent to me, but my colleague has no such qualms, and he travels with a well-stocked bag of devices that have been refined over centuries to make people reveal their secrets. I’m no expert in his methods, I usually leave him to do his work unimpeded, but I’ve seen the results. His name is Hagan Schmidt. It’s a name you’ll love to hate for however long he decides to let you live. I’ll leave you to contemplate that. Auf wiedersehen.’
The cell door clanged shut and the light went out, plunging Joe into blackness.
~ ~ ~
In[_ L’Espadon_], Marcel Fabache and Etienne Rigal drank their vin rouge morosely.
‘Merde, how did it come to this?’ said Etienne, gesticulating wildly.
‘Etienne,’ replied Marcel calmly, ‘we’ve gone through this a thousand times. We lost.’
‘Oui, but why did those commando bastards insist we go home?’ he remonstrated, ‘we could have helped them! And now look, they let that German bastard get away.’
In the room around them, a small and insalubrious wine bar, fishermen and farmers talked in murmurs about the catch, the weather and the Germans. Due to its proximity to England, this part of France now laboured under far stricter rules than the rest of the occupied area. Passes had to be carried everywhere, a curfew was in place, petrol was almost impossible to get except on the black market. Food was becoming scarcer, available only through ration books issued by the Germans or through that same black market at extortionate prices. Being a port town and surrounded by fertile countryside, the situation was not so bad in Calais as it was reported to be in the bigger cities, Rouen for example, where people were now queuing for hours for a loaf of bread. The worst thing for the two men though, was the constant presence of the Germans.
‘When les Allemands came here in 1870,’ muttered Etienne, ‘my grandfather fought them, and lost. When France surrendered, the Germans occupied nothing but Paris, and once the terms were agreed, they went back to Germany en masse.’
This time was different. The Wehrmacht troops in their field-grey uniforms and their jackboots were everywhere: sitting in the restaurants, cafes and bars, wandering around the town taking photos as if they were tourists on holiday. And that was the ones who were on leave. They were complemented by armed squads who patrolled the streets to enforce the curfew, and conducted raids on houses of suspected ‘enemies of the occupying forces.’
‘And Mareschal Petain sits in Vichy issuing grand proclamations,’ continued Etienne, ‘it is “the duty of every Frenchman to co-operate and that the time for fighting is over.” Pah!’
The man spat on the floor in disgust.
With millions of French soldiers captured and sent to Germany during the confused fighting of the invasion of France, there were few young men left, and the streets looked strangely empty of French males under 30, their place taken by the Germans.
‘And now our women are flirting with the Germans,’ cursed Marcel, the combination of the cheap wine and Etienne’s anger kindling a fire in his usually calm demeanour, ‘but at least we have one who is ready to fight.’
It had been the quiet violence of the words of Yvette Bendine that had enabled them to see the defeat of France as more than a threat to French manhood.
‘What manhood?’ she had said derisively, ‘no Frenchman can hold his head up after such a surrender. Fight? The glorious Armee de Francais barely lasted a month! No wonder French girls are turning to the Germans, they are the victors! And besides, all the best French men are in prison camps, who knows when they will return?’
Her words had cut deep into the pride of the two Frenchmen, as she had intended. She needed them to be so ashamed that they would do whatever was necessary, take any risk to kill as many Germans as possible.
‘But, my friends,’ she had said, ‘as a Frenchwoman myself I can see an opportunity here.’
That had been two months ago. The two men had been sitting in this same tavern, trying to ward off despair with thoughts of how best to resist the Germans, when Yvette had come in with a basket, walking around the rooms, importuning the drinkers to ‘give a little something for the poor orphans, of which there are now so many more than usual.’
When she had reached their table, she gave a quick glance around the room and while leaning over to accept their donations, whispered, ‘I hear you are the men I should speak to about la resistance.’
They met the next evening at a cafe, and discussed their position. Yvette made two things clear immediately: that she hated the Germans with a passion, and that she would not tolerate being treated as anything but a man in all respects as far as the work of resistance went. When the conversation turned to action, Marcel listed from memory the German units he had noticed being posted in the area. The one that he was most interested in was the 14th company of the SS Totenkopf division. He knew that a certain Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter who commanded a company in this regiment was one of the SS officers who had committed hideous atrocities during the campaign—the general staff had received reports of these even as the front collapsed around them. He was determined to give the man his just desserts while he had the chance, but he had been utterly incapable of working out how to do it, except perhaps through the clumsy expedient of a grenade through the window of his car, an approach which would almost certainly mean death for the perpetrator.
‘Richter?’ said Yvette, ‘I know the man, he would have had me ‘relocated’ with all the other Jews from Roubaix if it hadn’t been for the intervention of another Nazi pig who wanted me all to himself.’
She shuddered at the memory, and the two men looked away in embarrassment, an embarrassment that encompassed their feeling of inadequacy for the whole of France, and every woman who had been violated during or since the invasion.
‘I have no doubt I can get close to Richter,’ she said, ‘he’s just a man after all. I’ll put myself in his way, then once I have him in a routine you can find a way to kill him that leaves me completely blameless.’
The two men looked at each other with alarm at her cold-bloodedness.,
‘Yvette,’ said Marcel, ‘are you sure that’s what you want to do? It will be extremely dangerous.’
‘Do we have a choice?’ she demanded, ‘what plan have you come up with?’
Marcel and Etienne exchanged a rueful glance: they had no plan whatsoever.
‘If you’re determined to do it, then we will have to move fast,’ said Marcel, ‘his unit will not be here on leave for long, a month at most I expect. Are you sure?’
‘I’m sure,’ she replied firmly, feeling none of the confidence that her voice implied.
~ ~ ~
In the light of the night’s events, that conversation seemed to belong to a distant time. Yvette was appalled at her naivety and over-confidence, but she had had no option. If she were to achieve anything she had to prove that she was tougher than these two professional French soldiers, tougher in her own way, and able to offer something they could not: the wiles and sex appeal of a young, attractive woman. She had no illusions about what her role in the resistance would entail. She was the honey trap, the seductress who would open the way to murder.
She hadn’t given it much thought. After what the German spy Schmidt had done to her, her sense of self had changed irrevocably. There was no way to explain to herself the abuse she’d suffered, and certainly no-one she could possibly talk about it with, so she had crushed her pain into a ball and swallowed it. Now every day she chewed upon it as cud, looking for some way to digest it, and the only answer that presented itself was revenge. As a word it was meaningless; she’d heard the expression that vengeance was a dish best eaten cold, and she thought she understood it, but it relied upon the idea that the victim would one day meet the perpetrator and, in some perfect climax, avenge themselves. She knew that there was little chance of ever tracking down Schmidt and visiting upon him some of the tortures she’d dreamt of inflicting upon him.
No. Her vengeance had to be more general, visited upon the Germans as a whole. God knew their whole race deserved punishment for the crimes they had committed. Any and every German in France was a target to her, and if she had to take off her clothes and give her body to them to help her compatriots kill them, then that was what she would do. She knew that some of the folk in Wissant has already labelled her as a collaborateur. She cared nothing for their opinion—none of them were doing anything to resist—and she hadn’t planned on staying for long anyway: there might be safety in knowing the local terrain and the people, but there was just as much risk. Anyone could turn out to be an informer, betraying a confidence for some trifling favour from the occupiers.
She had never considered herself to be French, or to be a Jew, she had always thought of herself as an individual, somehow different from the people in her town, an impression reinforced by those very people, who, aware of the tragedy of her family, saw her as somehow outside the normal round of daily life. Her parents had both died when she was a child. Her Jewish father had been killed in the defence of Verdun in 1916, only days after returning from the front and spending a single night in a forbidden tryst with her gentile mother. When she heard the news of his death, her mother had gone into a decline, and, shortly after the child was born she had been found stretched on her lover’s grave, both wrists slashed to the bone.
Now once more, only twenty years later, here were the Germans again, pushing into their country with their weapons and their arrogance, and the mighty French army, so utterly confident of victory, had been swept away in just a few weeks.
Could it really be only a year since the Germans had invaded Poland? she reflected. Europe had changed irrevocably in that time, and the whole world seemed to be holding its breath now, waiting to see what Hitler would do next.
In France at least, his intentions were clear: the country was to be put to the wheel of the German war effort. The soldiers who had surrendered during the defence of France had never returned. The papers said they had been sent to work camps in Germany and the male population of northern France now consisted mainly of farmers, boys and old men.
Those who remained were on ever-stricter rationing, their movements restricted by curfews and identity cards. The whole apparatus of occupation was aimed at keeping the population too busy trying to find food to put up a fight. Food became scarcer each month, and the conversation in the ever-lengthening queues was of rising prices and the prospect of a bad winter ahead. Those who could afford black-market luxuries, such as tinned food, stockpiled them against a future with no certainty except for the sound of German voices in the street outside at night.
The frustration and impotent rage boiled in Yvette like a sulphurous cauldron. After weeks of self-doubt, and against all her instincts of self-preservation, she had decided to leave the farm near her home town of Roubaix, the farm where she had sheltered while the Germans advanced across France. The farmer there had said he knew of men who were planning to resist, but after her ordeal at the hands of the spy Schmidt, she had been too weak to do anything but rest and recover. One night, the farmer had given her a sleeping draught in her coffee and she awoke the next day in a room in the Hotel Les Mauves on Cap Gris Nez, between Boulogne sur Mer and Calais, near the town of Wissant.
Beside the bed was a set of German-issued identity papers that stated she was Alouette Fontain of Wissant, daughter of Andre and Eva Fontain, both deceased. Whoever had arranged for her to be there and had produced these false papers was clearly someone with connections. As she pondered these questions the hotelier had opened the door to her room and said ‘Attention! Mademoiselle Fontain, you have been assigned to me by the Arbeitgefreiter as my new maid. Get up! You have work to do!’
After two days spent mopping, sweeping and ironing in which she had barely had a moment to contemplate what had happened, she was pouring a man his breakfast coffee in the dining room.
‘How are you finding the hotel?’ asked the man quietly, without looking up from his coffee cup.
‘I’m not sure what you mean m’sieur,’ said Yvette, arranging the salt and pepper shakers and looking at him intently. He was unremarkable really: a small man in a three-piece suit with his jacket slung over the back of the chair. Dark hair stippled with grey, a strong chin and a bulbous nose seemingly founded on a bushy moustache. A French face, with dark penetrating eyes glaring out from beneath thick eyebrows. He could have been the local fishmonger or tobacconist, except for those eyes. She felt naked under their gaze, all her secret hatreds and revenge fantasies apparently observed, considered and dismissed for what they were: mere phantasms.
He retrieved a fountain pen and a piece of card from his waistcoat pocket, wrote something on it and wrapped in a twenty-franc note. Grasping her hand, he thrust the note and the card into it. She started, but didn’t pull away.
‘Until tomorrow then Yvette,’ and he stood up, tossed a few francs onto the table and walked out.
On the card in black ink were the words: ‘L’Espadon, Calais, 10pm. Marcel.’ She thrust the card into her bosom and quickly retreated to her room where she shredded the card and burnt the remnants in the ashtray as she smoked two cigarettes to the butt in quick succession.
That had been over a month ago. Now Yvette found herself sitting again in a corner of L’Espadon in Calais, casting nervous glances at a fly-specked clock on the wall. She’d left a message the day before in the dead-drop, a space behind a loose brick in an alley wall behind the fish market, and now Marcel and Etienne were late.
She sipped at her sour wine and tried to ignore the sickly sensation of morning sickness. She’d thrown up that morning the moment she woke up sure enough, but her experience of being pregnant was of a generalised miasma of mind and body, not unlike a hangover that wouldn’t go away.
A drunken and morose fisherman at a nearby table kept staring at her, and she pulled the scarf closer around her face. She was less afraid of his being a potential rapist as of his recognising her from the last time she had been here. This was not a good meeting place for her, too conspicuous, and no-one could be trusted these days.
The door swung open and Marcel and Etienne walked in, Etienne making straight for the bar, Marcel to her table.
‘Bonsoir Yvette, what have you decided?’
‘We have to get him out.’
‘It will not be easy.’
Etienne placed a carafe of Bordeaux and three glasses on the table, sat down and reached reflexively in his pocket for the packet of Gitanes that wasn’t there.
‘Damn! Bloody rationing. They’ll be stopping our wine next.’
‘Etienne, how much do you know about the gaol in Calais?’ asked Yvette, pouring them each a glass.
‘The gaol? Well I’ve been in it once, a friend of mine was locked up there back in ’37 awaiting trial.’
‘What for?’ said Marcel.
‘Murder,’ said Etienne, ‘he killed his landlord, with an axe, can you believe that? Must’ve been reading Dostoevsky and got the red mist on rent day. They let him out when the war came and brought him back to the regiment.’
‘Is he still alive?’ asked Yvette.
‘Oui, and here in Calais, like us he managed to avoid being captured during the fighting.’
‘I must speak with him,’ said Yvette, ‘he will know how we can get a man out of there.’
Etienne looked at his watch.
‘Curfew starts in an hour, he lives not far from here, we could go and see him now. I will not introduce you by your real names, this man is not altogether trustworthy.’
Five minutes later, a ground-floor door in a squalid block of flats opened to Etienne’s knock, and there stood Ricard Monschal. He was chewing a crust of bread, and gulped it quickly, as if he feared they would snatch it from his hands. The crust disappeared into a narrow-lipped mouth, and a pair of suspicious black eyes peered out from beneath a single eyebrow.
‘Etienne?’ said the man in surprise, ‘what is it? Who are these two?’
‘Let us in Ricard,’ said Etienne in an urgent whisper, ‘there are Germans about.’
The building was old and in disrepair, and Ricard’s flat consisted of just two rooms. His state of poverty was clear from the lack of furnishings and he didn’t offer Yvette the chair that sat alone beside the table.
‘It’s been a while Etienne,’ said Ricard, ‘you survived the invasion then?’
‘Oui. Allow me to introduce Alouette and Roger, friends of mine.’
Ricard ignored the introduction.
‘What’s this about then?’
‘A friend of ours has been taken by the Germans and imprisoned in Calais gaol. Alouette here wants to get him out, we thought you might be able to help.’
‘Help? Why would I do that?’
‘He is a British officer captured during a raid,’ said Etienne, ‘and a personal friend of Alouette’s. Before he was captured he was seen in German uniform, and once they have interrogated him he is likely to be shot as a spy, so we don’t have much time.’
‘This is all rather interesting, but you didn’t answer my question.’
‘Because you will be helping your country,’ said Yvette.
‘Ah patriotism,’ said Ricard, and he spat on the floor, ‘I am done with that. What else can you offer?’
‘Before we discuss payment, perhaps you could explain what you can do for us?’ said Yvette.
‘What do you want to know? How to get your lover out?’ asked the man with a leer.
‘Oui,’ said Yvette unflinchingly, ‘that is exactly what I want to know.’
‘While I was inside I knew a man who escaped just after the war started. He had every opportunity to disappear, but what did the fool do? He volunteered for the army and was killed at Stonne trying to destroy a tank with a grenade. How do I know this? Because they awarded him a posthumous Legion d’ Honneur. It was in all the papers. Anyway, tell me how you will pay for this advice and I will tell you how he did it.’
‘What do you want?’ asked Yvette.
‘Some real food would be a good start. Meat, and wine, and cigarettes.’
‘Very well, we can provide those things,’ said Etienne.
‘Deliver them tomorrow night, and in the meantime,’ pointing at Yvette, ‘you must go to the prison tomorrow and apply for a job there as a cleaning woman. To bring someone out you need someone else in. If you can’t do that, you have no chance. Once I have the food I will tell you what you need to do.’
‘What if I can’t get a job there?’ asked Yvette.
‘Don’t worry, they’ll take a pretty little thing like you,’ said Ricard, eyeing her legs appreciatively.
‘We should go,’ she said, standing abruptly.
With only ten minutes before the 9pm curfew, the three split up and Yvette walked through the streets to her own flat, a tiny place that she shared with a woman whose husband had gone missing during the invasion.
She lay down on her uncomfortable bed, but sleep refused to come. Her mind raced with thoughts of what she must do in the morning. When she finally fell into a restless sleep, she dreamt of Joe’s face behind barred windows, and she was afraid.
~ ~ ~
In his cell, Joe stared at the ceiling with a blank mind. He’d spent the last three hours in a state of panic: pacing up and down the five steps to the door and back, heart pounding, sweating with fear at what was to come, and eventually throwing himself to the floor and doing fifty push-ups just to move the focus from his mind to his body. This seemed to work, so he kept going, working his way through the sequence of squats, sit-ups and stretches that his Commando instructors had forced him and his men through three or four times a day. Finally, drenched in sweat, he lay down on the creaking wooden cot, put his hands behind his head, and tried to breathe himself into a state of calm.
Why had he volunteered for this insane mission? What had he been thinking? That he could just sail over and snatch a German officer just by clicking his fingers?
‘You idiot Dean,’ he muttered to himself, ‘bloody, bloody idiot.’
He thought about his parents. His French mother who had so carefully instructed him in her native tongue since he first started to talk; his father who had shown him and his brother the kind of strict discipline that comes from a military career. He pictured his father in this situation, standing ramrod straight and formally stating “Name, Rank and Serial Number, that’s all I can give you”. Joe smiled at the image. He’d respected his father, but he couldn’t say he’d ever really felt much affection for the man, with his obsession for obeying orders, doing his duty, never questioning authority. It was all faintly ridiculous. How would he have resisted torture?
Besides, what did it matter if he talked anyway? He didn’t have any useful information. He could tell them a little of the techniques they’d trained in, but no doubt the German army was just as adept at training soldiers as the British. He knew the names and ranks of his two superior officers and little else. He didn’t even know the location of the barracks they’d stayed in before leaving England, as they’d arrived and left in the dark.
As the night wore on, tears of self-pity began to trickle down his cheeks.
~ ~ ~
Yvette rode her bicycle to the gaol at 8am the next day. She had taken particular care with her make-up, and put on her last remaining dress of any quality. She had padded her bra with folded newspaper, which itched against the underside of her breasts and, with some difficulty, tied her unfashionably long curly hair into twin plaits. Combined with the last of her pink lipstick, the overall effect was to make her look like a schoolgirl who was being sent to the headmistress to be reprimanded for raising the hem of her dress above the knees.
She leant her bicycle against the wall of the gaol and approached the guard at the gate. Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard she though the man must surely hear it, and her hands shook involuntarily.
‘Excuse moi,’ she asked the soldier, ‘I’ve come about the cleaning job.’
The German looked at her uncomprehendingly, gave her an up-and-down glance and pointed through the open gate to a set of steps leading into the main building.
‘Ansprechen die Unteroffizier.’
The guard watched her walk across the cobbled square and whistled softly to himself. He wasn’t aware of any job on offer, but he hoped she got it.
On her way across the courtyard, Yvette took a quarter of an onion from her pocket, squeezed it and, pretending to blow her nose. held it beneath her eyes until they began to sting and water. Entering the office, Yvette found a lieutenant sitting behind a counter, shuffling papers.
‘Excuse moi,’ she said, looking at him with lowered eyes, ‘I’ve come about the cleaning job.’
‘Job? What job?’ replied the man in French, ‘we already have cleaners, you must be mistaken.’
‘Non!’ she said firmly. ‘One of your officers, his name is Max Einden, he told me to come here and I would be given a job. He is, what do you call him, a Hauptsturmfuhrer?’
‘Sorry mademoiselle, there might be a dozen Hauptsturmfuhrers posted in this town for all I know, but none of them work here, certainly no Max Einden. I think you have been tricked.’
‘Non, surely not?’ cried Yvette, ‘he promised me that he would take care of me! He has used me for months and now has left me nothing!’ and she began to sob loudly.
A door to her right flew open and an officer in a captain’s uniform burst in.
‘Was ist? What is all this racket Leutnant?’
‘My apologies, Kapitan Hetzel, this girl seems to think she has been promised a job here.’
Yvette held her head in her hands, the fumes from the onion clutched in her handkerchief making her eyes run, then raised her distrait face to the Captain.
‘Oh sir!’ she said, ‘the Hauptsturmfuhrer promised me he would look after me! For months now he has promised, and now he has gone and I am …’ She gestured at her stomach.
‘Verdammt!’ exclaimed the captain, then switching to clumsy French, ‘who was this Hauptsturmfuhrer? Does he have a name?’
‘Einden, sir, Max Einden.’
‘And his unit?’
‘I don’t know sir, we never really talked about that. I think he said he was in the artillery, but I know nothing of these soldierly things.’
By now the Captain had noticed Yvette’s figure and, through her tears, the fine angles of her face. He thought for a moment as he looked her up and down. He could easily sack of one of the other cleaners he reflected, one in particular was a cranky old hag who muttered constantly as she worked—no-one would miss her—and he had no doubt that this girl could be induced to do more than clean, especially with the food he could offer her.
‘Ach, kommen sie,’ he said, pointing to his office, ‘was ist deine Name? Ach, Quel est votre nom?’
‘Alouette sir, merci sir,’ said Yvette as she sat in the chair opposite his desk and heard the door close behind her.
‘A cleaning job you say eh?’ said the captain. ‘Tell me, how did you meet this Hauptsturmfuhrer of yours? Did you know that is an SS rank?’
Yvette knew all the SS ranks, but she looked wide-eyed.
‘SS? No I had no idea, he wore a grey uniform like all the rest. I met him when he was billeted to my father’s house. He was very kind, he brought me food and…’ she trailed off.
‘And he took advantage of your situation?’ said the captain.
‘Well sir,’ said Yvette, avoiding his eye, ‘we have been occupied and our Marschal has told us to co-operate. When a German officer wants something, he gets it.’
‘And if I give you a job here, with regular food and pay, what will you do for me?’ said the captain.
‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ said Yvette.
The captain stood up.
‘Come around here,’ he said, gesturing at this side of the desk.
As Yvette rose and walked around, the man unbuttoned his flies.
‘You are right girl, you are a conquered people. Now, I’m sure you know what to do with this,’ he said, pulling his rapidly swelling penis from inside his pants.
‘Oh sir!’ cried Yvette, stepping back, ‘I can’t possibly…’
The captain grabbed her arm, and pulling her close, slapped her viciously on the cheek.
‘If you want this job,’ he hissed, ‘get on your knees now, you little French bitch!’
~ ~ ~
A few minutes later the captain buttoned his flies and rang the bell on his desk. The door opened and the Unteroffizier came in.
‘Show Alouette here to the maintenance room and introduce her to Madame Fevrier will you? And tell Madame Boucher to report to me immediately. Alles klar?’
‘Sir!’ said the officer.
‘As for you, cheri,’ said the captain, ‘I’ll expect to see you here at the same time tomorrow, is that clear?’
Yvette ground her teeth and gagged at the taste of the man’s semen in her throat.
‘Yes Captain,’ she said, ‘quite clear.’
‘Gut. Until tomorrow then,’ said the captain, and directing himself to the Unteroffizier he waved a hand.
The officer led Yvette back out and across the courtyard to a portcullis that guarded the corridor into the prison proper. A guard stood beside the chain that raised and lowered the heavy iron gate.
‘This girl is the new cleaner. Take her to the maintenance room and tell Madame Fevrier to show her around. And send Madame Boucher to the Captain.’
The soldier saluted and hauled on the chain, and Yvette took her first step down the dark tunnel that led into the heart of the gaol. As she left the sunlight she hawked and spat the last of the German’s seed onto the cold cobbles.
‘Excuse moi,’ she said to the guard, giving him her best smile, ‘I have a cold.’
In a draughty Paris studio on the Left Bank, the artist’s model pulled the fur coat around her nakedness and stretched. Her hips and lower back were on fire after contorting herself into position on a chaise-longue for the last two hours. She rubbed her hands together and shivered into the fur as the circulation returned to her aching joints.
Behind his easel, Bernard Thiebaud lowered his brush and studied his work. A few more hours would do it, and then he would have to let Hortense go, it was getting too cold to continue. Despite a few unseasonably hot days the autumn winds had already begun to strip the leaves from the trees, and, with its cracked windows, the temperature in the studio was well below what a nude body could be expected to stand for long.
It was a pity, as Hortense was a magnificent example of French beauty, and his favourite nude by far. Tall and curvaceous, with long blonde hair, she was an exceptional subject. He had painted her no less than nine times, and sold the last one to a German officer for a tidy sum, but it would be nothing short of cruel to force her to continue in this temperature. Not that he was even slightly interested in her body or her bodily comfort. He was thinking of the rendezvous he had tonight with the delectable young Pierre. It was amazing what depraved things a sixteen-year-old boy would agree to when he was hungry enough Bernard reflected, dabbing his brush into a delicate shade of pink on his paint board. All-in-all this German occupation was turning out rather well he thought, applying a final stroke.
‘Nearly finished my dear,’ said Bernard, washing his brush, ‘can you do another session tomorrow?’
‘Non, it is too cold for any more,’ said Hortense, throwing on a dressing gown, ‘what will you paint instead of me now, cheri?’
‘I’m thinking of giving painting a break,’ said Bernard, ‘now that the Germans are running Paris the market has slowed, and I have one or two other interests to pursue.’
Bernard’s other interests consisted of cycling to his brother Raymond’s farm fifteen miles south of Paris, and bringing in as much produce as he could conceal under a load of hay in the farmer’s horse and cart. Fresh vegetables and milk could be sold for a small fortune on the black market, and these sorts of bulk goods that spoiled easily were not the domain of the black market gangs that had sprung up, who preferred tobacco and liquor, so there was a gap in the market.
As a reasonably well-known painter, Bernard knew plenty of people who had money and were prepared to spend it to prevent themselves from starving. Industrialists, bankers, merchants, they had all bought his art before the war, now they bought his brother’s produce, and there was sometimes little difference between the price his paintings had fetched before the war, and what he could expect for a shoulder of pork now. He and Raymond were doing well, and now he was looking to cultivate a new contact he had made through his after-dark companions at a club in Pigalle.
La Fleur was one of the less prestigious dance halls that doubled as a brothel, and the manager, Madame Legrand had been one of the first to approach the German command in Paris with a request to provide ‘clean women of a class suitable for a German officer.’ The German commanders in Paris were obviously practical men: rather than trying to suppress prostitution, they had set about regulating it, and were keen to control the supply and keep the choicest girls for themselves. Raymond’s farm produced far more food than he could distribute himself, especially milk, which had to be moved on quickly, and the woman Bernard had spoken with in the club assured him she had dozens of mothers beseeching him for milk for their children.
‘If you can supply me with as little as ten litres of milk per day,’ she had said, ‘I can make it worth your while.’
Tomorrow he would make his first delivery, and he chuckled to himself at the prospect of how he would be paid. The Madame had a particularly nice boy in her rooms, firm of ass, yet soft of cheek, the hair just starting to sprout between his legs. Bernard felt himself growing hard at his mind’s-eye vision of the splendid boy. His thoughts moved to the two other models he had suggested find work at Madame Legrand’s establishment. Predictably they had fitted right into the chorus line and were now making a tidy sum for Sophie Legrand working what she euphemistically called the ‘night-shift’ in the upstairs rooms. Sophie was suitably grateful, and that was a favour he would call in when the time came.
‘Hortense?’ he asked the model, now dressing before him, ‘I’ve been meaning to introduce you to a friend of mine. She runs a club in Pigalle called La Fleur. Sophie Legrande is her name, she can find you some work to replace modelling. I’m going to see her tomorrow, do you want to come?’
Hortense shrugged, ‘Certainly I will need something, I am not sure how I will pay the rent this month, let alone afford food, these black market prices are pure extortion!’
‘Outrageous isn’t it?’ said Bernard, thinking of the money from the stores he’d brought in only days before, ‘people profiting at others’ expense, it’s a disgrace for France. Tomorrow then?’
‘Oui, tomorrow,’ said Hortense resignedly.
The prison was old and small. The original building had been designed as a cavalry barracks centuries before, and what had been an extensive stable had been converted into cells by the simple expedient of bricking up the walls of each stall to the ceiling and installing bars across the front. It could only hold a hundred or so prisoners, and at present it was not even half-full. The Germans were so confident in their domination that they hadn’t troubled to replace the French warders, but had merely placed a handful of German guards to oversee the place, and taken over the front half of the building for their local administration.
The tunnel Yvette traversed led to a room with a barred corridor running through its centre, with gates in each side and a barred door at the end. On the right was a rough concrete shower room with three faucets at head height where prisoners were washed and occasionally shaved; on the left, a man in a blue uniform sat at a desk studying a sheaf of papers and making annotations in the margin.
The German soldier walked Yvette straight through and opened the barred door into another courtyard, where a tall, thin warder with a handlebar moustache was supervising some prisoners exercising.
‘Achtung! Die neues raumpflegerin,’ yelled the soldier, then turned and went back the way he came.
‘You’re a new cleaner?’ asked the warder. Yvette curtseyed in reply.
‘First I’ve heard about it.’ He shrugged, ‘I’m Sergeant Gallien, in charge of the prisoners here. Your duties are as follows: every evening at 5pm, while the prisoners are eating, you will sweep out and mop the stable floor and the cells. When you have finished that you will sweep out and mop the mess hall. The whole should not take you more than three hours. Is that clear?’
‘Yes sir,’ said Yvette, ‘but where are the mops and brooms?’
‘Madame Fevrier will show you all of that,’ said Gallien, ‘she’s been here for twenty years. You’ll find her through that door over there. Oh and another thing, it’s pretty clear to me why the Germans have chosen you to replace Madame Boucher, who did an excellent job. You may be young and pretty, but if I were you I’d take care not to find myself alone with any of the Germans. You understand that my men and I cannot intervene if anything untoward happens?’
‘Oui,’ said Yvette, looking down, ‘I understand,’ raging internally at the indignity the captain had put her through. Sergeant Gallien turned and she noticed that he hobbled as he moved towards the guardroom. He was certainly old enough to have served in the Great War, was that an old wound he was carrying?
Madame Fevrier was a small and bowed woman, seemingly in her 60s, who had obviously had a hard life. Her desiccated face was like a wrinkled leather purse, and wisps of grey hair clung to her cheeks. She sat on a stool beside a rudimentary stove on which a kettle was warming. All around her in the tiny room were brooms, mops, buckets and rags. There was barely room for two people. Yvette noticed a row of pegs along one wall with a key hanging from each peg. They were labelled: Guardroom, Office, Kitchen, Courtyard, Storeroom.
‘Ah, the new girl,’ said Madame Fevrier in a wavering voice, ‘what a sudden decision by the Commandant! These Germans, they have no real sense of order, despite their fondness for shouting commands. Madame Boucher has been here nearly five years and then one day, gone! Just like that. So how do you come to be here my dear?’ she asked with a warm smile.
Yvette was about to trot out her weak cover story when she hesitated. She had no obvious reason to trust this woman, and to do so could be to risk her neck, but she knew she couldn’t possibly get Joe out by herself. She was going to need an ally, and perhaps this woman was it?
‘Oh a friend suggested I apply and the captain said yes. I was as surprised as anyone. But Sergeant Gallien out there tells me you’ve been here for twenty years Madame,’ said Yvette, ‘can you tell me how you come to be here so long?’
‘Ah, it’s twenty-two years actually,’ she said with a sigh, taking two battered tin cups from beneath the stove, ‘1918 it was that I came to work here, at the end of the last war. The place was full of Germans then too, but they were in the cells that time around. I’ve been here longer than Sergeant Gallien even, and he was given the posting when they demobilised the army. Coffee?’
Yvette accepted a cup of the thin, bitter brew and sipped at it.
‘It sounds ridiculous now my dear, but I came here for love, of all things.’
‘Love?, said Yvette incredulously.
‘That’s right. Love. When the Germans invaded France the last time, I was living in Douai, which of course ended up behind the German lines for four years. I was just a girl then, and things were hard. There was little to eat and by the winter of 1917 we were starving, but a particular German who was garrisoned in the town used to take pity on me. Whenever I left the ration queue empty-handed he would materialise beside me as I walked home and give me something, a piece of bread, a bit of sausage, sometimes a few potatoes, and it was through his kindness that my family managed to stay alive. Of course I never mentioned him to my parents or my little brother, they would have nothing to do with les Boches. Anyway, one thing led to another and I began to fall in love with this German, who, while not particularly handsome, was a considerate, gallant and polite man.
‘We began an affair and he had even suggested that when the war ended I should go to Germany with him. Then suddenly the war did end, but not the way he’d expected. Many of the German officers simply packed up and left. It was chaos. You’d have expected the Germans to run away, and some did, but most were too afraid of being shot as deserters. I told Wolfgang to leave, but he said it was his duty to stay with his men, when the French soldiers arrived, he was captured and taken here. So I followed.’
‘He and a hundred other Germans languished in this place for a year after the war, and this was when I applied for a job here so I could see Wolfgang. I think the Government had forgotten they were here, and in early 1919 a prisoner was brought in who we later discovered had typhoid. When the Germans started getting sick I appealed to the local authorities, but they said their hands were tied, and until an order came from Paris they could do nothing about releasing them.’
‘Wolfgang lasted longer than most, but eventually he too succumbed. I buried him myself out there in the prisoners’ graveyard. I knew he came from Leipzig, but I had no idea who his family was or how to find them, his last name was Langer, which is a common name there I believe. It was terribly sad, an awful death. Anyway, I have stayed here since, tending his grave and looking after the prisoners, to try and prevent the same thing happening again. And now we have another war and the Germans are back, only this time it is Frenchmen who are imprisoned here. Who could have believed that France could fall so easily after all the sacrifices only twenty years ago? All those young men.’
Yvette looked at the woman. She had tears in her eyes.
‘Forgive me,’ muttered Madame Fevrier, ‘you must think me a sentimental old fool, telling you all these ancient stories.’
‘Not at all,’ said Yvette, and decided to risk everything on a single throw of the dice.
‘There is an Australian here,’ she said quietly.
‘You mean the Englishman with the strange accent they brought in two days ago? How do you know about him?’ asked Madame Fevrier, her eyebrows lifting in surprise.
‘Madame Fevrier,’ said Yvette, looking her directly in the eye, ‘you don’t know me, yet you have trusted me with your story. Can I trust you with mine?’
‘Why of course my dear,’ said the woman, putting down her cup.
‘I will be entrusting you with my life as well, and that of my lover.’
‘Lover eh? This Englishman is your lover?’
‘Oui, and I am carrying his child,’ said Yvette, hoping it was true.
‘Sacre Bleu!’ said Madame Fevrier, ‘tell me everything child.’
~ ~ ~
A dream about riding his horse across the plains back in South Australia morphed into another, one in which he re-lived the moment when he had burst through the door of the house in Roubaix to find Yvette being raped by one of his own men. Or at least he’d thought it was one of his own men. Summerville had turned out to be a German, a spy who had murdered before and had now stolen and destroyed the only thing that had mattered to Joe: the love he had for Yvette. In this dream though, instead of charging Schmidt and forcing him to run, Joe found himself unable to move, bound there helpless as the foul man had his way, and laughed at his weakness.
The grille of the cell clanged open and Joe woke abruptly. A French warder came in carrying a tray of food while the other stood outside.
‘Mangé,’ said the guard, placing the tray on the bunk, and closed the door behind him. Joe looked at the bowl of gruel, cup of water and the piece of black bread on the tray.
‘Could be my last meal,’ he thought to himself bitterly, ‘better enjoy it.’
He dunked the rock-hard bread in the gruel and began to chew. Ten minutes later the door clanged open again. This time the guard gestured at him to step outside into the corridor. It was not his execution, only exercise, although why they bothered he couldn’t understand.
‘Can’t you let me out of here?’ he asked the warder in French as they walked between the barred cells, ‘I’m a soldier, not a criminal like these people.’ Joe gestured at the miserable Frenchmen sitting on their bunks. Most of them, Joe had gathered from listening to the conversations around him, were petty thieves arrested by the French police, smugglers trading contraband with England who had been captured by the German coastguard, and the odd black-marketeer who hadn’t paid his bribes. Joe was the only soldier in there, and he wondered why he hadn’t been transferred to a prison camp.
‘It is more than my job is worth,’ said the warder, ‘and besides, you will no doubt be moved to a camp eventually. It’s a question of transport I gather, but I hear Hitler has postponed his invasion of England, so the men sent here for that will no doubt be sent somewhere else now. And good riddance to them.’
‘Postponed you say?’ asked Joe, ‘for how long?’
The warder shrugged and pursed his lips.
‘I am just telling you what I hear in the tavern from the sailors m’sieu, it could all be rubbish of course. What difference does it make? The British are not about to sail over and liberate us, eh?’
It makes a huge difference thought Joe. His chances of escaping and getting back to England were next to nil while the whole area was swarming with invasion troops, but if they re-deployed them somewhere else? Plus, once the British realised the invasion was off they would start serious offensive operations. The Commandos would be out in force on the French coast, and while he had little chance of meeting up with any of them, it gave him some small encouragement to think that they might be nearby.
Out in the welcome open air, he did some star jumps to loosen up, then sprinted from one side of the courtyard to the other, dropping for thirty push-ups at each end. Three hundred push-ups later he was sitting against the wall getting his breath back, when the door to the cleaner’s room opened and Yvette stepped out with the old lady who swept the place every day.
Joe stared, and viciously suppressed the urge to run over to her. She passed right beside him on her way through to the cells, but if she noticed him sitting there she gave no sign of it.
[* ~ ~ ~*]
After three tedious hours of sweeping, mopping and scrubbing floors, washing clothes in a giant tub and hanging them out to dry, Yvette had red hands, sore knees and an irritable disposition. She was thoroughly exhausted and soaked to the skin with a mixture of sweat and filthy water, but she also had a pretty good idea of the layout of the gaol. As she walked out into the dusk she contemplated the lack of walls surrounding the place. Never having been intended as a gaol, the builders had not thought to build a separate wall around it, so the rear walls of the cells themselves directly faced the buildings on either side across narrow alleyways. The only way in or out she could see, short of tunnelling through a wall, was through the front gate, and to reach there, a prisoner would first have to pass through the tunnel from the inner courtyard and into the parade ground.
In L’Espadon, Marcel looked at his watch and nodded at Etienne. They had agreed that it was too conspicuous meeting her here. The only women who came into this bar were whores or aggrieved wives, looking for their drunken sots of husbands. They finished their wine and walked back through the town to the Café Joan d’Arc, where they took a rear table facing the door. The café was small, lit only by a few dim oil lamps, and empty but for an ancient couple sitting in a corner, the wife reading [_Le Monde _]in a subdued voice to her husband, a veteran who had lost his eyesight in a chlorine gas attack at Verdun more than twenty years before.
Yvette came in and sat down.
‘Vin?’ said Etienne.
Yvette nodded and took a decent gulp of the thin red wine.
‘There is only one way in and out: the front,’ she said, drawing a crumpled pack of Gitanes from her bag. Marcel struck a match and she drew in the smoke gratefully.
‘Then what is your plan?’ said Marcel.
‘Assuming I can get the key to his cell, the only way I can think of is Ricard’s suggestion. Madame Fevrier says they never check.’
‘Madame Fevrier?’ interjected Etienne angrily, ‘you mean you’ve told someone in there of the plan? Are you mad?’
‘It was a decision I had to make,’ said Yvette, drawing hard on the tobacco, ‘she has a key to the guardroom. Anyway, calm yourself, she’s sympathetic. Her own lover died there after the last war, and when I explained the situation she agreed to help.’
‘I hope so for all our sakes,’ said Marcel throwing up his hands, ‘that was one hell of a risk for all of us Yvette.’
‘Too late for recriminations now,’ said Etienne, ‘you’ve done well in such a short time Yvette. When will you do it?’
‘The day after tomorrow, unless you have any other ideas,’ she replied, draining her glass.
‘That doesn’t give us much time to arrange papers,’ said Marcel, filling it.
‘We can hide him for a few days until the papers are ready.’
‘Where?’ asked Marcel, ‘the Germans will search high and low for him, he was in German uniform for God’s sake!’
‘Marcel,’ she said abruptly, ‘I am depending on you to work that out. My immediate problem is the key to his cell. If I can get him out without being seen, we must be ready to act immediately. Assume he gets out, what do we do then? Start thinking! And in the meantime I need you to get me something.’
Once she had gone, Marcel picked up the phone and dialled a number.
‘Philippe?’ he said when the call was answered, ‘we need to get rid of someone.’
[* ~ ~ ~*]
‘We have a decision to make Sergeant Smythe,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘and as it involves you, Captain Jensen here thought it might be polite to ask your opinion.’
‘Very good sir,’ said Smythe, still standing at attention.
‘Sit down man, for God’s sake,’ gestured Captain Jensen irritably. The German bombing had forced him into the air-raid shelter twice the night before, he hadn’t yet had so much as a cup of tea this morning, and he was profoundly against the plan that his superior had just explained to him.
‘As you can imagine, we’ve been fairly busy trying to cultivate contacts among the French people who are still prepared to resist the Germans. We’ve set up a unit called the Special Operations Executive to handle this side of things, and one of the people they recently sent over the Ditch has informed us that Lieutenant Dean is alive and being held in a gaol in Calais.’
‘By God that’s wonderful news sir!’ said Smythe, enthusiastically.
‘Yes,’ said the major, ‘but it does raise some questions, such as why is he there and not in a Stalag, or for that matter, if what you tell us about his escapade in German uniform, why has he not been shot?’
‘But Calais, sir, it’s only an hour away, can’t we have a stab at getting him out?’ said Smythe.
‘It’s the obvious thing to try isn’t it? Which is what makes me so suspicious,’ said Captain Jensen, ‘how do we know if we send a commando team in there that they won’t be waiting for us and shoot us up on the beach, just for the fun of it?’
‘I expect that comes down to whether or not you trust your source sir,’ said Smythe.
‘Yes indeed laddy,’ said Jensen reflectively, although he couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Smythe, ‘that’s what it comes down to.’
‘Well sir, if you don’t my mind my askin’, who’s the source?’ said Smythe.
‘It’s a former French staff officer who managed to avoid the round-up in August,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘he made contact with us through a fishing boat that passed a message to one of our MTBs in the Channel. He took a huge risk telling us where and when he could be found, but our man found him and gave him a radio, and since then we’ve been in regular contact.’
‘Your man must have had some balls to take on that mission, if you’ll pardon my French sir,’ said Smythe.
‘We’re not asking your opinion Sergeant,’ said the Major, ‘we asked you here to find out whether you have any interest in going back for your lieutenant.’
‘Well sir I’ll do what I’m ordered to,’ said Smythe, ‘but I’d always volunteer to help Lieutenant Dean. He saved my life a couple of times over there, it’s the least I could do.’
‘You don’t speak French by any chance do you Sergeant?’ asked Jensen.
‘No sir, sorry sir. It’s been said that I barely speak English sir,’ said Smythe, producing a guffaw from Major Benjamin.
‘That’s a tad harsh I’d say, wouldn’t you agree Jensen? Never mind, all that means is that we have to eliminate any disguise options, which is probably safer for you in the long run anyway. You see Sergeant, we know that some of our friends over there are planning to bust Lieutenant Dean out of his cell and they want us to be ready to take him off their hands so to speak.’
‘I’m happy to sit in a dinghy off Cap Gris Nez for a week if it means we can get him back sir,’ said Smythe.
‘Very well then Sergeant, we’ll be in touch. You might like to sound out your men and see if one or two of them are prepared to accompany you, you might find this mission a bit easier with some assistance.’
‘Very good sir, two men it is.’ Smythe knew when an interview with officers had ended, and he stood and saluted without thinking.
‘Well then Jensen,’ said Major Benjamin as the door closed behind Smythe, ‘he seems keen enough.’
‘It was never a question of whether he’d volunteer, it’s whether any of them will come back alive, or whether we’ll just lose three more highly-trained men to no good purpose.’
‘Oh for heaven’s sake Jensen,’ said Benjamin with some exasperation, ‘what does it matter? You know as well as I do that they’ll be frittered away in raids just as pointless as this one, trying to scratch the pimples on the back of an elephant.’
‘You mean you never had any faith in this mission either?’ said Jensen.
‘God no,’ said Benjamin, ‘but this Dean fellow is the first commando officer to be captured, and he’s got an MC. He’s also an Australian, and their prime minister is making a lot of noise about keeping all their divisions at home rather than sending them over here, so it would be helpful politically if we could demonstrate that we can at least hang onto their men. I’ve been told to make an effort to get him back, so if you have any brilliant ideas I’m all ears.’
‘I need a cup of tea,’ said Jensen.
[* ~ ~ ~*]
Yvette put the mop and bucket back into the cupboard of the tiny cleaning room and sat down heavily. Her hands were raw with hot water, soap and scrubbing. Her knees were chafed and bruised and her lower back ached. She could see now why so many washerwomen were bent double. Through the tiny window, the orange bars of the setting sun cast their beams into her face. She drank a cup of water then stood and walked resolutely to the guardroom.
On her way she passed the two warders heading out to bring the prisoners back from the yard. She nodded and smiled and quickly stepped into the guardroom where Sergeant Gallien sat in his shirtsleeves, twirling his moustache has he read the newspaper.
‘Oui, what is it?’ he asked as she entered, closing the door behind her.
‘Madame Fevrier tells me you served in the Great War, Sergeant,’ said Yvette, ‘I am something of a student of history and I was wondering if you could tell me something about your experiences.’
He looked at her abruptly.
‘Well, it’s not something we veterans generally talk about,’ he replied, ‘war is horrible, but then you’ve seen it first-hand yourself now.’
‘Where did you serve may I ask?’ said Yvette.
‘After 1916, mostly at Verdun, before then further south in Alsace, but I was invalided out late in 1917,’ he said, pointing at his left leg, ‘shrapnel wound, nearly took my leg off. By the time they’d fixed it the war was over.’
‘So you have the Germans to thank for a lifetime of pain then?’ said Yvette, looking around the room. On the wall behind the desk was a row of wooden pegs on which hung the keys to the cells, arranged in numerical order.
‘Well you could say that,’ he replied, shifting his weight, ‘but at least I survived. Plenty of my friends didn’t make it.’
‘And if they had made it, what would they think of France today?’ she said, thinking that surely their security must be better than that?
He looked at her for a moment, then said quietly, ‘We are all ashamed, but what can we do? This time we have been beaten.’
[* ~~ ~ *]
Madame Fevrier hung her rosary beads back on the nail beside her wooden cot and struggled painfully to her feet. Praying seemed to be getting ever harder on her knees, and sometimes she wondered secretly to herself (or so she hoped) whether there was any point to it. God had never answered, and he knew as well as anyone that, had her prayers been answered, she would not be forced to eke out her last days stuck in that foul gaol with all its memories.
The story she had told the foolish girl was true, up to a point. She certainly had been in love with Wolfgang, had discovered she was pregnant with his child in fact just two months before the war ended. Stupidly, she had told him of this, and, only two weeks later she discovered he was sleeping with another French girl, a slattern from the neighbouring village who cast her favours about like rice after a wedding in return for food.
When the war ended, an officer friend told her that Wolfgang had been locked up in the local gaol. She applied for the cleaning job so she could see him in his cell every day as her stomach expanded, a visible reminder of his betrayal. She had no illusions about what would happen: now the war was over he would be released eventually and she would never see him again. In the meantime, she wanted him to feel the burden of his guilt and betrayal, every day.
Wolfgang was indifferent to her though, even when she stole the cell key from the sergeant’s room and taunted him with it, he showed no reaction. It was as if he were dead inside. Then the typhoid came and he began to waste away before her eyes.
She was infuriated; she was only a month from her due date, and above all she wanted him to see the fruit of his lechery, wanted to bear the child and thrust it upon him through the bars of his cell, make him admit his culpability. But the typhoid won, and the day after she watched him buried in a mass grave with a dozen other Germans, she had a miscarriage.
Amidst the blood and the despair at having her revenge snatched from her, Madame Fevrier swore an oath to herself: she would stay here forever and tend the ghosts of her lost lover and lost child. What else did life hold for her now?
[* ~~ ~ *]
‘Here, take it!’ said the widow with a sneer as she handed over a gold necklace her husband had given her as an anniversary present only two years ago, before the war, when they had been wealthy and influential.
Bernard Thiebaud handed over the sack, pocketed the necklace and made his way down the stairs. The apartment was in a fashionable Parisian district and the decor he had glimpsed through the door indicated people who had money. He examined the necklace as he descended. It was a fine gold chain with a green stone pendant cut in a tear-drop shape. Some sort of peridot or semi-precious stone, he thought, but the bag he had exchanged for it had contained only a leg of ham, a pint of milk and a brie cheese roundel. Before the invasion it would have cost a fraction of the value of the necklace.
‘But this is not before, this is now,’ thought Bernard to himself contentedly, dropping the necklace into his pocket and stepping through the front door onto the pavement, where he almost walked straight into the lead man of a German patrol.
‘Dummkopf!’ shouted the soldier, as Bernard cowered in the doorway and the file of soldiers marched past.
He wiped away the sweat that had suddenly formed on his forehead, and, taking a deep breath, headed to the right towards the metro station. If he were stopped and searched now the necklace would be gone forever, and he tried hard to look inconspicuous as he hurried to the train, the necklace warming in his grip inside his trouser pocket.
~ ~ ~
The rough blanket chafed against his skin, but Joe had no thought for physical discomfort. God only knew what time of night it was, but he’d been lying awake for hours now, running over the events of the last few days in his head again and again, wondering what he could have done differently. Obviously, letting Richter out of the car without another man covering him was an inexcusable failure, but then, none of his men had come to help him.
‘Not that that’s any sort of excuse,’ said Joe aloud, his voice echoing down the brick corridor.
He had failed. Again.
Captain Jensen’s words about this being his “opportunity to make a name for himself” floated into his mind and he almost laughed at himself. Name? Joe ‘Do Nothing’ Dean is how he’d be known in the Commandos if anyone remembered him at all; hell, the instructors would probably use him as an example of what not to do. His tormented mind ran down alleys of sarcastic commentary and recruits laughing and it was only when his imagination led him to the phrase ‘He did a Dean’ as a byword for failing that he awoke from the nightmare. His conscious mind clawed its way up and out of this morass and into the glim from the smoking lantern that hung some way down the corridor, but there was no solace in being awake. Next his semi-conscious mind ventured down pathways that led to a torture cell, where his hands were chained to a wall as they threw buckets of cold water on him and applied electric current to the soles of his feet.
He was trying to force his mind into less terrifying territory when he heard the door at the end of the corridor open and a shuffling step come along the corridor. A man carrying a lantern appeared in front of the bars. He was limping slightly, but Joe recognised him immediately.
Summerville. Schmidt. The spy. The rapist.
‘So, Lieutenant Dean, what a joy to see you again,’ said Hagan Schmidt. ‘It’s been months since I had the pleasure of your company.’
‘What happened to your leg?’ said Joe, ‘did you try to rape a man this time?’
‘Aah, Australian humour,’ said Schmidt, ‘I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it. I just thought I’d come by Dean, to let you know that I’ve been assigned to your case. I’m with Department D of the Gestapo now, at least in name, and that means that internal security and the interrogation of suspects in occupied territories is my responsibility. Tomorrow you will be moved to another prison, one that’s a little more secure than this. Have you ever heard of Bitche? It’s a fortress a bit east of here, Napoleon used it to imprison captured British officers, so I’m going to continue the tradition, even if it is a French one.’
The man came closer to the bars and whispered.
‘It’s said that no-one ever escaped from Bitche, and I can assure you that you will not, unless I decide to let you crawl out with no hands or feet.’
He stepped back and picked up the lantern.
‘Until tomorrow then Dean. Schlaf gut.’
~ ~ ~
Slowly and gently, Yvette opened the cupboard door and peeked out through the crack. The cleaner’s room was dark and silent. From the window she could hear a tomcat making its mournful wail, while from further inside the building the hiss of the boiler was faintly audible.
She eased open the door and crept across the room. The shutters on the window were closed and the moonlight did little to illuminate her path. Walking like a blind man she made her way towards where she knew the door to be, holding her hands out in front searching for obstacles. Halfway across, her foot connected with a steel bucket. To Yvette’s paranoid ear, the metallic screech as it slid across the floor sounded like the shriek of a tormented ghost.
She swallowed, stood stock still and listened. She heard footsteps in the corridor outside. Casting about, she ran to the window and threw open the shutters, then raced back to the cupboard and closed the door behind her, just as the door opened and the light of the guard’s lantern shone in. Through the crack in the door she could see Sergeant Gallien surveying the room and muttering to himself.
‘Bloody cats!’ he swore, ‘why does this idiot woman leave the window open?’ He stomped across the room and swung the shutters closed with a bang, then walked out slamming the door behind him.
‘Merde! This bloody job! Bloody war! Bloody Germans!’ Yvette heard him shout to himself as he walked down the corridor.
She crept out again and drew from her pocket the cosh that Marcel had given her. It seemed so small, but she knew it worked – he had made her practice with it for hours, walking the corridor wearing his service helmet so she could work out the best angle of approach and get used to hitting a man’s head accurately. After the second night of practice, in which she’d landed half a dozen pulverising strokes on the crown of the helmet, he called an end to it.
Cosh in hand, she crept through the door and looked right. Out in the courtyard, grossly exaggerated shadows danced on the wall as Sergeant Gallien walked, the oil lantern flickering and swinging in his hand.
She listened to his footsteps and counted them as he stepped ponderously into the corridor, down the row of cells and back, across the courtyard and straight past her where she crouched behind the door, turned and walked back again to the guardroom. She’d heard him making this round every hour for six hours now. An overly-diligent guard for such an inconsequential prison she thought, but he was conscientious, she gave him that. Shame she had to knock him out really, he didn’t deserve it. She would have preferred it to be one of the Germans, but they left such mundane tasks as night duty to the French.
She heard him turn and walk back. Now was the time. She took a deep breath, clutched the cosh tight and, as his footsteps passed the door, swung it open gently and stepped out into the courtyard.
The moonlight illuminated him clearly. Two steps brought her close behind him and she swung the cosh up and brought it down hard on the sergeant’s head.
There was a sound like an eggshell cracking under the impact of a teaspoon and the man’s legs crumpled beneath him and he collapsed in a heap. Yvette grabbed him under the armpits and hauled him into the cleaner’s room. He was heavy, a dead weight, and she wondered for second if she’d killed him. Once she had him inside she closed the door and put her ear to his mouth. Still breathing at least. She checked his head. No blood that she could see, just a large and misshapen lump.
She grabbed the bag from the cupboard, pulled out a length of old cloth and tied it around his mouth, then removed two lengths of rope and tied his hands and his ankles together behind his back. Trussed like a chicken now, she dragged him across the floor and tried to heave his inert body into the cupboard. It was like pushing a mound of sand: as she got one leg in, an arm would flop out; if she got the torso in, a leg would fall out.
‘Damn it you French bastard!’ she whispered, ‘get in there!’ She gave the limp body a despairing last thrust and slammed the cupboard door. A single arm was preventing the doors closing and she kicked it inside then thrust the bolt across.
The doors bulged, but it would have to do. Through the shutters she could see the faint greying of the dawn.
~ ~ ~
He must have fallen into a restless slumber, because the next thing Joe knew, hands were shaking him awake and a girl’s voice was hissing ‘Joe! Joe! Wake up!’ urgently in his ear.
Joe sat up abruptly. There was no mistaking that voice, but it was with a sense of bewilderment that he beheld Yvette crouched beside his cot, her face tense, still gripping his forearm and shaking it.
‘Sssshhhhh!’ she whispered fiercely as he opened his mouth to speak, ‘there is no time to talk, you must come with me now.’
Out in the corridor the other cell doors were closed, but the gate at the end hung slightly ajar. Slipping through it, Yvette pushed him to the right, where the guardroom lay open and empty.
‘This way,’ she whispered.
They emerged into the central courtyard and Joe glanced skyward reflexively. An offshore breeze was blowing, and high above, fat clouds floated past, gleaming in the moonlight.
Yvette opened the side-door that Joe knew led into the laundry and gestured him inside.
Where was the guard? He wondered. As far as he’d been able to tell there was always one on duty at night, in case of emergency.
The laundry was black, but Yvette’s grip on his arm directed Joe across to the wall where he barked his shins on an obstacle. His exploratory hand brushed across the grid of what felt like a cane basket.
‘Get in and curl up as much as you can,’ she whispered, lifting the lid, but before he could move she grasped his head and pulled him to her, crushing his lips to hers.
‘Yvette…’ began Joe.
‘Get in!’ she hissed and pushed him away.
Clambering over the lip of the giant basket he heard her rummaging nearby and as he lay down, a pile of unwashed sheets tumbled down over him. He pushed the cloth away from his mouth so he could breathe and felt several more layers piled on top, then her voice came, muffled through the rough linen.
‘I will see you outside in the morning. Stay silent whatever happens.’
Then the door closed and all was silence.
~ ~ ~
As a boy, Joe had become accustomed to waiting. Whether it was hoping for a bite on a fishing line, hunting wild pigs or sitting on a horse for three hours riding home from a muster, he thought he was fairly patient. The next hour tested that patience like nothing had before.
The bottom of the basket was rough and bumpy, it dug into his hips and back and for a time he twisted and struggled before realising that no position was better than any other. The worst of it was trying to breathe: every inhalation tickled and he found himself snorting and rubbing his nose just to prevent himself sneezing.
How had she known he was here? How had she got in? How had she managed to get the key to his cell? The fear of the mortal danger she had put herself in for his sake welled up, and once again he felt the peculiar shame and guilt he had experienced in Roubaix when he’d watched the Germans drag her away, helpless to prevent it.
After a time chewing over this he gave himself a mental slap in the face.
‘Wake up Dean,’ he said to himself, ‘don’t ask questions, just be thankful.’
He began to recite ‘The Man from Snowy River’ to himself in an effort to pass the time. Not because he particularly liked the poem, which he found a bit sentimental, but because his schoolmaster had made him and the rest of his class learn it by heart, all thousand-odd words of it.
He’d just reached his fourth recitation of “Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground” when he heard a door clang shut and voices outside.
The door to the laundry opened, and Joe felt strong hands lift the basket at each end.
‘Merde this is heavy. Have they decided to wash the entire prison’s laundry in one day?’ came a gruff voice from one end of the basket.
‘Oui, les Boches said our standard of cleanliness was not high enough,’ said a voice Joe recognised as one of the French prison guards, ‘the new cleaning girl said they had ordered her to wash everything twice over,’ Joe could almost hear the man’s Gallic shrug, ‘they are crazy. One day they come in here and destroy everything, the next they are reprimanding us for a little grime, in a gaol of all places. It’s not as if it’s a hospital.’
The other man only grunted, and Joe saw faint daylight through the cracks in the basket as they entered the courtyard. The basket was manhandled upwards and dropped onto a hard surface. Joe suppressed a grunt as a jolt of pain shot through his left hip.
The smell of horse dung filtered through and Joe heard the familiar language of a man talking to his horse, then the basket started forward, only to stop abruptly seconds later.
‘Halt,’ came the German voice.
‘Ach Hans, can’t you leave Tulip alone?,’ came the voice of the cart driver.
‘Mein schatz,’ said the guard, ‘here, I have an apple for you.’
‘You are spoiling her with your apples,’ said the carter, ‘now she turns up her nose at my oats, unless I starve her for a few hours.’
The dust in the bottom of the basket, shaken up by the movement, was swirling in Joe’s nostrils and he pinched them shut and clamped a hand over his mouth to suppress the sneeze. The pressure in his chest and throat made spots swim before his eyes, but he managed to hold it back.
‘Come on you idiot,’ he cursed to himself, ‘get this bloody thing moving.’
‘How old is she?’ asked the German in fractured French, then lapsing into German, ‘she reminds me of my own little mare on the farm in Pomerania.’
‘How old? Thirteen,’ said the cart driver, ‘and still going strong God bless her.’
‘Off you go then,’ said the German, ‘guten tag.’
Joe felt another sneeze building as the horse stepped towards the gate and he held it as best he could. With all his strength he pushed down on his nose and chest.
~ ~ ~
Madame Fevrier looked at the decrepit clock on the wall of her tiny apartment: 5.45am. She sniggered to herself as she thought of the pathetic trustfulness of the girl. Who would put her faith in a total stranger? Didn’t she know there was a war on? One thing Madame Fevrier had learnt in the last war was that no-one was to be trusted.
She scratched at the dry skin on the palms of her hands, forever itchy and peeling from the washing water. By now the girl would have freed her ‘beloved’ from his cell and put him in the basket. All it would take was a phone call to the Commandant and the whole hopeless attempt would be foiled. She would stand there wringing her hands and looking sympathetic as the girl was led away, enjoying the bitter-sweet taste of malice and twisted vengeance. The prospect cheered her as she knelt, crossed herself and started on her rosary.
She had only reached the fifth bead when the pounding on the door began.
‘Achtung! Achtung! Offne die Tur!’ came the shouted command.
She jumped with shock and ran to the door. When she opened it, two German soldiers armed with submachine guns burst in, bowling her over onto the floor. They were followed by a lieutenant.
‘You are Madame Fevrier?’ demanded the officer.
‘Oui m’sieu, but…’
‘Silenz!’ screamed the man, ‘you have been denounced as a Jew. Move!’ and he gestured at the door.
‘But, but I am not Jewish!’ she remonstrated as she tried to stand, ‘who has denounced me?’
‘You need not know that,’ said the German, ‘but I can tell you it is someone we trust, now get moving.’
The old woman hauled herself up and walked through the door of her flat. She’d heard enough stories to know where she would be going next.
The sneeze came anyway. Suppressed as it was it didn’t sound much like a human noise.
‘Ach Tulip,’ said the guard, waving his hand before his nose and looking up at the carter, ‘you’ve been feeding her too many oats.’
‘Oats?’ said the carter, ‘if I had any oats, I’d be the one doing the farting.’
And the horse clopped steadily on out of the gate, drawing the cart behind it. At a little after 6am, it drew up in the laneway at the rear of the laundry. The horse lifted its tail and deposited a large pile of dung on the cobbles, then turned its head and looked accusingly at the driver.
‘Oui, oui, hold on a moment can’t you, you impatient bitch?’ said the man, grabbing the nose bag and jumping down.
Fitting the nosebag over the mare’s head, he stroked her ears fondly and gave her a kiss on her broad forehead. The mare gazed back at him with her big brown eyes, already pre-occupied with masticating the first mouthful of grass. She would have preferred oats, but she hadn’t had them for a long time now.
Around the corner of the alley, Yvette and Marcel waited until the carter walked into the back of the laundry.
‘Now! Quickly!’ said Yvette.
They ran up to the cart and she leapt up and threw open the lid of the basket. A huge sneeze greeted her.
‘Joe!’ she whispered, ‘it’s safe to come out.’
Joe’s tousled head emerged from beneath the pile of sheets. He hauled himself out and together they jumped down. Marcel threw a cloak around his shoulders and stuck a non-descript old hat onto his head.
‘Let’s go, but don’t run!’ cautioned Marcel, ‘just walk normally towards the end of the lane.’
At that moment the carter emerged from the laundry’s back door with a small Vietnamese man.
‘Bonjour,’ said Marcel, setting off down the laneway.
‘Bonjour,’ said the carter as the two men came out, seized the basket and dragged it off the cart.
‘It’s not heavy at all!’ said the Vietnamese man, ‘you’re losing your strength mon ami.’
‘Merde,’ spat the carter, ‘it must be all this rationing. Fancy a drink?’
‘A bit early isn’t it?’ said the Vietnamese man.
‘Those rules don’t apply since we lost the war,’ said the carter.
He pulled a flask from his pocket and the two men carried the basket inside.
‘By Christ Yvette, you’ve got some nerve,’ said Joe as they walked away, ‘thank you, thank you for getting me out of there.’
‘Say nothing until we are inside,’ she muttered, looking around suspiciously, ‘it is not safe out here.’
They walked steadily down the road, arm-in-arm, Marcel a few metres ahead, seemingly unconnected.
‘When we reach the corner, turn left and keep your head down, ‘ said Yvette, ‘if we’re stopped by the Germans now …’
After an interminable period of exposure, they reached a small house set back from the road, and Yvette turned in, taking a key and opening the door.
It was a humble house of three rooms, bare wooden floors and a fireplace full of cold ash. As Yvette closed the door, Joe took her in his arms and kissed her passionately.
‘Thank you! Thank you Yvette!’ he said as their lips parted, ‘My God, that was bloody horrible.’ He thought of telling her of Hagan Schmidt, but he knew that would only give her worse nightmares, so he kept his peace and instead said ‘How on Earth did you manage it?’
‘In the end it was not that difficult,’ said Yvette, ‘I appealed to the romantic spirit of a Frenchwoman and the head of a Frenchman.’
There was a quick triple knock on the back door and Marcel came in. He sat down, filled his pipe and lit it.
‘So Anglais, you are out thanks to the courage of this girl,’ he said in English, ‘but what are we to do with you now then, eh?’
‘You look vaguely familiar sir. Have we met?’ asked Joe.
‘Ha, you don’t recognise me,’ said the man with a laugh, ‘we met m’sieu, on the road to Cap Gris Nez. You had just hijacked a German staff car I believe.’
‘And was about to let Richter escape and then be captured by the Germans,’ said Joe bitterly.
‘Never let that bother you,’ said the man. ‘Now you can call me Marcel. I am no-one now, but until a few months ago I was a Capitan on the General Staff under Marshal Gamelin.’
Joe looked at him with new respect, noticing for the first time the way he held himself, the small signs of a military bearing drilled into a man for years.
‘Excuse-mois m’sieur,’ said Joe switching to French, ‘I had no idea I was in such distinguished company.’
‘Distinguished? Ha!’ laughed Marcel, reaching for a bottle and three glasses on a nearby shelf, ‘there was nothing distinguished about the way our front collapsed in June.’
‘That’s not true sir, I fought with many brave Frenchmen in that retreat, it was only by their defence that I was able to escape from Dunkirk.’
‘Ah yes,’ said Marcel, pouring them all a generous glass of a pungent green fluid, ‘but you are talking of the French soldier, not of the general staff. The men fought as well as they could, but the real problem was at the top, not the bottom. But it is all history now, and students will pore over it all in years to come, and no doubt novelists will write stories full of courage and self-sacrifice to make the defeat a little more palatable. Yet a defeat it was.’
He downed his glass and poured another.
‘Still, we must not let the mistakes of the past deter us from the victories of the future, eh?’ he said with a smile, ‘one of which we have had today. Mademoiselle, I bow to your courage.’
He stood and raised his glass in a toast.
‘May all the women of France be as brave as you Yvette Bendine. Now, Chartreuse!’ and he knocked back the glass in one shot and slumped in his chair.
‘Enough Marcel,’ said Yvette, ‘we have work to do.’
‘Oui, oui,’ said Marcel, pouring himself another glass and re-lighting his pipe. Joe took the opportunity to empty his glass and the spirit seared its welcome way down his throat.
‘Now mon cher,’ said Yvette, taking Joe’s arm and looking into his face, ‘your English officers have told us by radio that there will be a boat waiting for you off Cap Gris Nez every day for an hour before dawn for the next week. You can get home Joe.’
He looked into her dark eyes and stopped the words even as they formed in his mouth. He’d asked her to go with him once before—was it really only a few months before?—and he knew there was no point in asking again.
Then Marcel took his pipe out of his mouth.
‘But, if you still want Richter you have a choice to make. We have discovered that he was transferred yesterday to Paris.’
‘Paris?’ said Joe, ‘so the story we made up that night turned out to be true?’ He shook his head wonderingly, ‘well, I’ve always wanted to climb the Eiffel Tower.’
‘I doubt this trip will provide much time for sightseeing,’ said Marcel, ‘if you make it there at all. We have had papers prepared for you and Yvette just in case you are willing to do it. But of course, we perfectly understand if you prefer to go back to England.’
Joe said nothing.
‘The permits are not perfect of course,’ continued Marcel, ‘but the Germans have only just introduced them and they are not that hard to forge. The local printer is a friend of mine and he produced these in just two days based on his own papers. The only real point of concern is a new stamp that we could not replicate, but once you are out of town that should not cause problems, as it seems to be unique to the Northern region.’
‘It would be bloody hard luck if they pulled us up over something like that,’ said Joe lapsing into English.
Yvette stared hard at him.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Joe, ‘force of habit.’
‘A habit you will have to break if you want to stay alive,’ said Marcel with a grimace, draining his glass.
‘How do you know Richter was sent to Paris?’ asked Joe, once more in French.
A knock on the door interrupted him. Joe started, and Marcel held up his hand reassuringly.
‘It will be my brother Philippe,’ he said, moving to the door.
The door swung open to reveal the identical twin of Marcel, except dressed in a dark suit and a bow tie and sporting a thin moustache. Marcel gave him a quick hug and the man sat at the table.
‘Philippe, you know Yvette, and here is Joe Dean, the Australian I told you about.’
Joe stood and held out his hand. Philippe gave it a cursory shake and searched his pockets for a cigarette.
‘Philippe is a government clerk,’ said Marcel, ‘he spent some time working in Germany before the war and can not only speak their awful language but read and write it. The Germans have employed him in their headquarters to handle some of the day-to-day administration, and we asked him to keep an eye out for any orders to do with Richter’s unit.’
‘Oui,’ said Philippe, in a slightly higher voice than his brother, ‘Herr Richter’s unit is ultimately to be transferred to Eastern Prussia for training, but it is going to Paris first. There’s no posting shown, so I suspect they may be going to be rewarded for their services in the invasion, or for some unspecified duty.’
Yvette made a contemptuous snort in the back of her throat, a sound Joe had never expected to hear.
‘So, they reward their murderers eh? The Boche pigs!’
‘Yvette, please,’ said Marcel, ‘there is no use getting angry, focus your rage and plot your revenge. If you let your emotions get the better of you will make a mistake and find yourself arrested, and then you’re no use to us, yourself or to France.’
‘So I am just a foolish emotional woman am I?’ she snarled, then realising that she sounded just like that, she bowed her head.
‘You are right Marcel, I will concentrate.’
‘Now,’ said Marcel with a conspiratorial glance, ‘it may seem that Paris is a big place and there is no way to find him, non? Non! Tell them Philippe.’
Philippe took a long drag on his cigarette. He had not tapped it once, and the ash was growing precariously long.
‘Richter will be staying in the Hotel Meurice, the hotel that General von Cholitz, the military governor of Paris, has decided is the most palatial.’
‘The military governor? Christ, the place’ll be guarded like the Tower of bloody London,’ said Joe.
‘Wait,’ said Yvette.
‘Oui,’ said Marcel, ‘that is certainly so, but Marcel and I have a cousin in Paris, a man named Bernard Thiebaud. He is not much of a man – a painter by trade – but he is reliable enough, and he knows many people in the city, plenty among those who stayed anyway. Best of all, he has contacts among the black marketeers. Now, the Germans have not wasted any time getting their fingers into the black market, and Bernard’s contacts are enterprising men with many resources.’
‘You believe they can help us get Richter alone?’ said Joe.
‘I am certain of it,’ hissed Philippe, ‘the only question is whether we can get you there before he is posted somewhere else.’
‘That is another problem,’ said Marcel. ‘Clearly the only practical way is by train, as there is no petrol available and Richter might leave Paris at any time. We think the best way is to take you out of Calais and put you on the train at Boulogne sur Mer, where no one will be looking for you. You and Yvette can pose as a married couple going to Paris in the hope of work.’
‘Oui, but you will have to move quickly,’ said Philippe, ‘the Germans plan to close off the Northern department from the rest of France in the next few weeks and administer it from Brussels. After that?’ he shrugged, ‘travel across that border may well become impossible.’
During the conversation, Joe had presented himself with a simple choice: return to England as a failure now, or continue his mission. The prospect of facing people like Major Benjamin and Captain Jensen didn’t bother him, but how could he ever look Sergeant Smythe in the eye again? In the end it was no decision at all.
‘Let’s go to Paris tomorrow,’ said Joe.
‘That is what we were hoping you would say,’ said Philippe, ‘but we needed to hear you say it. We weren’t sure what sort of condition you might be in after…’
‘You got me out just in time,’ said Joe, ‘the Gestapo had already turned up.’
‘Perhaps they suspected you of having links with some of the locals,’ said Yvette, ‘and they were right.’
‘Well, thank you again for getting me out,’ said Joe, ‘I don’t know how to thank either of you.’
‘Kill Richter,’ said Marcel, ‘and you will have paid the debt.’
‘Kill him?’ said Joe, ‘my orders were to kidnap him and only kill him if all else failed.’
‘And would you not say that all else has failed?’ asked Yvette softly, taking his hand in hers.
Joe looked up into her eyes and saw, for the first time since they had seen each other in the prison, a softer light replace the harsh vengeful glare.
‘I must go now,’ said Philippe, standing abruptly, ‘good luck to you both, I hope you hunt the pig down and gut him. Marcel, that other matter we spoke about has been taken care of, as we speak she is on a train to Poland.’
He put his hat on, dropped the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray and slipped out through the back door.
‘Poland?’ asked Yvette, ‘what did he mean? And who is this ‘she’ he spoke of.’
‘Nothing you need concern yourself with,’ said Marcel, standing dismissively. ‘Now, I am to bed and so should you be. We have tickets booked for you on the train from Boulogne tomorrow at 8.39, so we will have to leave early in the cart. Etienne will take you. Get some rest.’
He left through the back door, but Joe didn’t hear him go. He was lost in Yvette’s deep brown eyes. Troubled eyes.
She looked away, then back again, then she stood and led him by the hand into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
~ ~ ~
They kissed, long and passionately, and Joe’s hands wandered over her hips as she clutched him to her. Then he moved his left hand to her breast, and she lurched away and slapped him across the face, hard.
‘What the hell?’ he exclaimed, staring at her wild-eyed expression.
‘Don’t touch me like that!’ she hissed, ‘what do you think I am, some French whore?’
‘What?’ said Joe incredulously. ‘Have you forgotten what we had before…’
‘Before what?’ hissed Yvette, ‘before you ran away like a coward and left me to the fucking Germans?’
Her words were worse than the slap and he reeled back in shock.
‘I will never love you or anyone again,’ hissed Yvette, ‘not you, not any man, you are all filthy pigs.’ She spat at his feet and despite himself he felt a surge of anger at the injustice of this and involuntarily raised his arm.
‘Go on, hit me!’ she screamed, ‘that’s what you all do sooner or later isn’t it? That’s secretly what you all want to do to women isn’t it? Beat them, fuck them, then throw them away!’
Joe looked at his clenched fist. His heart was beating furiously and in the dim candlelight the room seemed blurry and unreal. He fought for self-control.
‘Fuck that! I came back for you in Roubaix and you refused to leave,’ exclaimed Joe, ‘my men were only captured because I insisted we come for you!’
‘Pah! You fantasist, you romantic fool,’ she sneered, ‘did you think we could just walk away from the Germans? Do you have any idea what they did in Roubaix?’
Then he realised: he knew nothing of what had happened to her, and she knew nothing of what had happened to him either.
‘That day in the square, when they put us in the truck,’ he said, ‘that was the last time I saw you, when that fucking Nazi had his hands all over you. They drove us to a farmhouse and lined us up against a wall with a hundred other British soldiers and shot everyone. Only me and Smythe escaped. Do you want to tell me what happened to you?’
‘Non. You would only pity me,’ she said, ‘and the last thing I want is the pity of a coward.’
‘Fuck this coward bullshit!’ roared Joe, leaping to his feet and towering hugely over her, ‘I may be many things but I’m not a fucking coward!’
Her eyes widened and she cowered into the corner, her arms covering her face.
‘God I’m sorry,’ he said, stepping away from her, ‘for Christ’s sake Yvette, I’m not a Nazi.’
She said nothing.
‘If you hate me that much,’ asked Joe, ‘why the hell did you get me out of that prison?’
‘You are more useful to France free than as a captive of the Germans,’ she said, glaring at him.
He looked at her. Took in the perfection of her face, her cascading hair, the body he had ached for these many nights, then he looked straight into her dark eyes and his heart sank. They were devoid of warmth. Black pools of dread, despair and deathly intent. He knew in that instant that she was lost to him. All the energy suddenly drained out of him as if a plug had been pulled. He realised he was totally exhausted and sat down heavily in the armchair.
‘I’m sorry Yvette,’ he said, ‘I’m not that kind of man, I thought you knew that, but perhaps I’m not what I think I am. Perhaps I am as bad as that German, but I won’t fight with you, it just … destroys my memory of you.’
She stared at the floor, her arms crossed defensively. Suddenly he was fed up with it all. His body drooped with exhaustion and his eyes crunched every time he blinked as if filled with granules of sand.
‘Nothing more to say?’ he said tersely, ‘fine, I’ll sleep here then, you take the bed. Thanks for getting me out.’
He turned from her and folded himself into the least uncomfortable position the chair allowed. She watched him from the bed, and within a minute he had fallen into a deep sleep.
He had the same dream he had dreamt night after night while recovering from his concussion: Yvette being dragged out of a line and shot in the head.
He was dragged out of the nightmare to find Yvette at his side, grasping his arms and shaking him.
‘Joe! Joe! Wake up!’
‘What the … where am I?’
‘You’re with me, you’ve been crying out my name,’ said Yvette.
She knelt over him and took his head in her hands.
‘Come, come to me Joe, there has been enough suffering.’
She pulled him up and held him tight.
‘I thought you were dead,’ she whispered, ‘dead or gone forever back to England.’
‘I thought you were dead too,’ said Joe, as the tears rolled down her cheeks, ‘we must never be apart again. Promise me that.’
She whispered the lie, and pulled him close to her.
~ ~ ~
‘Gone you say?’ asked the fat man in the leather trenchcoat, something he insisted on wearing, despite the late summer temperature outside.
‘Ja,’ replied Captain Hetzel, ‘we’ve been interrogating the other prisoners and the Frenchmen guarding them, but so far no one seems to know what happened.’
Suddenly the door slammed back on its hinges and Sergeant Gallien stumbled in, his face marked from the gag, his legs stiff.
‘Mein Gott, what happened to you sergeant?’ asked the captain.
‘Someone,’ gasped Sergeant Gallien, ‘hit me on the head when I was on duty,’ he was struggling to speak with suppressed rage, ‘I was on my last patrol this morning, just before dawn and they hit me from behind.’
He stooped and vomited abruptly on the floor, making the two Germans leap back to avoid the splash.
‘For God’s sake, get the cleaning woman in here!’ called the captain.
At that moment the feldwebel knocked on the door and entered with a salute.
‘Herr Kapitan, it appears that Madame Fevrier has been arrested and the new cleaning girl you appointed has not shown up today.’
‘Verdammt!’ swore the captain, ‘surely that little fool couldn’t have something to do with this?’
‘Are you talking about that brunette who was sweeping the yard yesterday?’ asked the man in the leather coat, ‘If so, then we must find her immediately, she can’t have got far. Chances are they are both still in town, but they will be trying to leave as soon as they can. Put out roadblocks and alert the train station, and put all your men on a door-to-door patrol. I want that man found captain, he may be just a man to you, but he is the first commando we have captured and he has some limited propaganda value.’
The captain picked up the phone and gave the orders. In the barracks a few blocks away, sergeants started yelling instructions.
‘Now then,’ said the Gestapo man looking at his wristwatch, ‘it’s 8.20, we have wasted too much time already. Where will they be going do you think?’
The door slammed opened and Hagan Schmidt hobbled in, his single good eye surveying the room malevolently.
‘Describe the French girl to me,’ he said.
~ ~ ~
The locomotive rolled massively into the station, steam jetting from its flanks, smoke and cinders from the funnel billowing around the people standing on the platform.
Yvette grasped the pillow under her dress that was threatening to slip out from its restraining belt, brushed her newly-dyed blonde hair aside and looked at Joe. His three days’ stubble had been shaved, leaving only a thin moustache, his hair had been cut short and the beret and shabby black coat that Marcel had provided went some way to creating the impression of a typical downcast Frenchman, perhaps leaving town to go to Germany for work. He still looked far too young though, and while young men were not enough of a rarity to excite immediate comment, they were uncommon nonetheless.
The journey from Calais in the cart was only twenty-five miles, but it had taken the best part of three hours. More than once, trucks full of German soldiers had passed them, and on the outskirts of Boulogne an officious sergeant at a roadblock had demanded to see Etienne’s papers, but no-one had chosen to open the two coffins that sat among the boxes and crates on the cart. In a grubby back-alley near the station, Etienne had reined in the his horses and lifted the lids to find both Joe and Yvette fast asleep. Dead, at first glance.
Ten minutes later they were on the platform as the train came to a halt with a shudder and a final exhalation of steam. That was when Joe saw the German patrol advancing through the crowd gathering around the doors of the carriages.
‘Here they come,’ he muttered.
‘Where are we going Joe?’ asked Yvette.
‘To Paris, to a specialist doctor, you have complications with the child.’
‘And who are we?’
‘Josephine and Henri Bonn, recently married,’ said Joe, rotating the thin gold band on his second finger that Marcel had given him and that was two sizes too big.
‘This belonged to my father,’ Marcel had said that bright yellow dawn as he pushed the ring onto Joe’s finger. ‘He was gassed by the Germans at Ypres and finally drowned in his own lungs after living through twenty years of breathlessness. He’d be happy to see you wear it if it helps you against les Boches.’
It was a thin enough disguise, thought Joe, looking at Yvette’s humped belly, which to his eye looked utterly unconvincing. He put his arm around her protectively, picked up their battered suitcase and moved towards the steps of the carriage.
Inside the train, a man in a bench seat gave up his place for Yvette, and they pushed in against the window. Joe gave Yvette’s hand a squeeze, then the door at the end opened and the patrol came down the carriage. Five men, four with rifles in hand, the lieutenant in front asking people for their papers as he came down the line of seats.
‘Papieren bitte,’ said the officer to Joe and Yvette. The man studied Yvette’s forged papers and handed them to her.
‘Alles gut madame Bonn,’ he said, opening Joe’s papers. Joe looked at the armed men behind him. They were not in a state of high alert, but even so, there was no way he could get past them or through the window if he had to without being shot. He looked at the officer and felt sweat broke out on his forehead. He resisted the urge to wipe away a drop that felt the size of a football, and felt it trickle from under the beret and into his right eyebrow.
The lieutenant looked up at him.
‘M’sieu, your papers are not in order. Please accompany me off the train.’
At a local café, Hortense had introduced Bernard to a German official who worked in the governor’s headquarters. The man had shown Bernard a list of the items he wanted and the prices he was willing to pay for them.
‘The Governor and his staff have certain requirements that cannot be met by the commissariat you understand,’ said the man, ‘and it is my responsibility to ensure that they have everything they need. This lovely young woman,’ he said, gesturing at Hortense, ‘has indicated that you may be able to help me. Is this so?’
‘Oui m’sieur,’ said Bernard hesitantly, eyeing the list, ‘but I cannot provide everything on this list, I mostly have farm produce. Things like wine, chocolate, spices, they are not to be found locally.’
‘I don’t care how you do it,’ snapped the German, ‘just bring me everything on that list by noon on Friday. I believe you can see from the prices I have decided to pay that you can make a handsome profit yourself.’
After the German had left, Bernard turned on Hortense.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing getting me involved in this?’ he hissed.
‘Giving you a chance to make a lot of money, what else?’ said Hortense, ‘I know what you’ve been up to since you stopped painting me, why else do you think I brought this man to you? And by the way,’ she said, taking a sip of cheap Sancerre, ‘I expect fifty per cent of what you make.’
‘Fifty per cent?’ spluttered Bernard, ‘for what? I’ll be the one taking all the risks!’
‘For giving you the prime contact in Paris,’ said Hortense. ‘Now stop foaming at the mouth and listen. I know you can’t provide all these things, but I know someone who has the things that you don’t, and I can get them for you.’
‘Who? How do you know them?’ said Bernard.
‘Never mind that,’ said Hortense, looking around the café, ‘the less you know the better. Suffice it to say it’s someone I met at the club you sent me to. Sophie Legrande as good as sold me to him. He’s a well-connected man, but he’s not going to dirty his hands actually handing goods over to the Germans. He needs someone who can provide fresh produce to round out his offer, someone who can arrange delivery and hand over the money.’
‘Suppose I agree, what’s in it for me?’ asked Bernard.
‘He’s prepared to pay you thirty per cent of the prices on that list for the goods he provides, and seventy per cent for the goods you provide.’
‘So I lose thirty per cent on my own goods?’ said Bernard throwing up his hands, ‘what sort of deal is that?’
‘A good one. Listen Bernard,’ she said, grasping his arm and leaning in close, ‘the Germans aren’t going anywhere fast, they’ll be here for years, possibly forever. Do you want to be a penniless artist for the duration of the occupation, however long that might be? You have to make a choice and this is your only chance to make yourself a comfortable living. Once you prove that you’re a reliable supplier, both the Germans and my contact will rely on you, you’ll be an important man. And besides, I’ve gone out on a limb for you here, it won’t go well for either of us if you refuse.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Bernard looking at her in sudden fear.
‘This man we’re doing business with is a sophisticated criminal,’ said Hortense. ‘He’s been running a gang for years on the Right Bank, selling opium, running prostitutes, blackmailing people, extorting money, the lot. I thought you knew that when you took me to that club.’
‘I thought you could make some money dancing is all,’ Bernard protested, ‘I had no idea it was a front for a gang.’
‘Sometimes Bernard, you are dangerously naive,’ said Hortense, lighting a Gauloise, ‘something we’re going to have to shake out of you fast if you’re going to survive in this town. Now, can you get the farm goods here by Friday?”
‘Yes of course,’ Bernard dismissed the question, ‘but what about all these other things on the list? Caviar for God’s sake!’
‘Leave those to me,’ she replied, ‘I’ll bring them on Thursday night an hour before curfew. Make sure you’re here.’
She got up and walked out of the café, attracting admiring glances from the men at the tables outside. Bernard nervously scanned the list, his trembling hand making the German’s handwriting blur.
‘Aah, Paris!’ said Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter as he strode through the Tuileries. The leaves above him were showing the faintest hints of autumn, but beneath them the shadows were delightfully cool and green on an unseasonably hot day.
‘Ja, it is unquestionably a spectacular city,’ said the man beside him whose shoulder tabs carried the four pips of an Obersturmbannfuhrer, ‘and now it is ours Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter, to do with as we please.’
‘How long do you think I will be here, Obersturmbannfuhrer Schneider?’ said Richter.
‘At least a month I would say. Your men need a rest, and the Fuhrer has not yet given up on Operation Sealowe, although from what I hear it won’t be long until he does: the Luftwaffe is taking a beating from the RAF and is nowhere close to gaining air superiority; as for the Kriegsmarine, they couldn’t hope to beat the British fleet on their own. I fear that taking the English out of the war is going to prove more difficult than we thought.’
‘That is rather defeatist talk is it not Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer?’ said Richter, admiring an elegant Frenchwoman passing by.
‘Ach, Richter! We’ve seen enough of this war together already to know reality from fantasy. Last week I was taken on a tour of the Channel ports, and sure enough, there are many boats being collected to ferry the army across, but what did I see every day as we drove from one port to the next? Squadron after squadron of bombers returning from England, with engines on fire, riddled with bullet holes, some barely flying. One morning we saw a flight of twenty-four Heinkels take off and cross the Channel. An hour later while we were having lunch we saw them come back: I counted thirteen planes. That’s not a sustainable loss rate, no matter how many airfields they succeed in bombing.’
‘Indeed Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer, but surely der Fuhrer has a plan?’ said Richter indignantly.
‘No doubt, but as usual it all depends on the weather. Once we reach October it will be impossible. Half the boats I saw were barges, hopelessly unsuitable for anything but a canal or a millpond, they wouldn’t last ten minutes in the Channel. Nein, I think we would need at least six months to prepare properly. Enjoy your stay in Paris Hauptsturmfuhrer, I doubt you’ll be seeing London anytime soon.’
‘Where do you think we will go next if not England?’ said Richter, who had every intention of enjoying his stay in the French capital and had already planned his entertainment for this evening.
‘Where else but Russia?’ said Schneider, ‘the Fuhrer made that plain enough in Mein Kampf after all. I think he was shocked that the British honoured their treaty with the Poles. He was hoping they would join us in some sort of anti-Communist crusade; now he is stuck with them in his rear when he invades Russia. At least the Americans are staying out of it.’
‘So Russia then, in the summer of 1941. That gives us seven or eight months without active service,’ said Richter.
‘As I recall, your company was left up north to refit because you took such heavy casualties in Belgium,’ said Schneider, ‘while the rest of the Totenkopf division went right through France and is still down near the Spanish border. They’ll probably stay there until next year, but we’ve found something here to keep you employed during the next few months, fear not.’
He paused to admire the architecture of a particularly fine Napoleonic era building.
‘Yes, there are Jews all over this city to be rooted out, and your company has been chosen for this duty before you return to your training school. Most of your men came from concentration camp garrisons did they not? They have the ideal credentials for the task.’
‘Ja Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer, my veterans are mostly from the Oberbayern Standarten of the Dachau camp,’ said Richter, ‘but the replacements we are receiving have never been exposed to that kind of work, they may find it difficult.’
‘Ach, it will toughen them up Richter,’ said Schneider, ‘a lot easier to kill people when they’re not shooting back at you eh? Then by the time they take on the Bolsheviks they won’t think twice about shooting commissars in the back of the head. Remember what the Fuhrer said, “Bolshevism is just the Jews trying achieve world domination”. Your men will understand why they need to obey your orders if you explain this to them.’
‘Sehr gut Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer, of course you are right,’ said Richter, ‘personally I would sooner spare a cockroach than a Jew, I shall see to it that the new recruits are suitably inducted when they arrive here from Calais.’
‘Have you arranged their billets yet?’ asked Schneider.
‘Well Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer, I was thinking of simply commandeering one of the smaller hotels,’ said Richter, ‘it is only a company of men after all, and as we’re receiving replacements I’d sooner keep them all in the same place rather than distributing them among houses.’
‘Ja, sensible. Ask my adjutant to suggest somewhere suitable. It does not pay to be too far from the centre of the city, two enlisted men were murdered in the red light district in the last month. The Gestapo believe they were simply robbed by criminals, as you know there are many gangs in that area. They haven’t found any evidence of any organised resistance behind the killings, even so, if it continues we shall have to arrange some reprisals.’
‘You can count on me for that sir,’ replied Richter enthusiastically as they walked out of the last of the trees and into the sun of the Avenue de l’Opera, ‘Heil Hitler!’
Schneider threw a casual salute and turned left towards the Rue de Rivoli. Richter turned right and crossed over the Pont du Carrousel. Once he left the river, the distinctive Parisian buildings with their iron roofs and garret windows clustered in around him. A momentary shiver ran up his spine as he thought about the two men murdered in the Pigalle, but that was at night in a rough part of town, here he was in daylight and there was a German patrol on the next street corner. He was in no danger, after all, he was the conqueror, and the Parisians fell silent and avoided his eye as they passed him.
His black market contact had promised him a bottle of Pommery, a box of Belgian chocolates and a black lace corset complete with a pair of fine silk stockings. The dancer at the officer’s nightclub he had his eye on would certainly fall to his charms tonight when he presented her with these gifts, along with the kilogram of fresh pork he’d requested. He wondered for a moment whether she’d be more interested in the champagne or the pork, but then dismissed this thought as he realised that he didn’t care either way as long as she was prepared to put on the corset and do her best in his bed. The black marketeer was not what he’d expected. Far from being the expected criminal type he was a highly-educated artist with connections to what had been Parisian high society.
The occupation had clearly levelled things out, thought Richter. No doubt having to rely on shopkeepers was causing a lot of embarrassment for the upper classes. He smirked quietly to himself at the thought of haughty aristocrats having to beg for a piece of meat like everyone else. They had failed to defend their way of life, and the price of failure was high.
~ ~ ~
In his studio on the Rue de Saints-Peres, Bernard Thiebaud wrapped the bloody pork steaks in a canvas bag soaked in vinegar, and placed it in a box with the other items the German had requested. Hortense was going to have the pressure applied tonight, he thought to himself, but he guessed that was better than being raped at gunpoint. Before he closed the door to his storeroom, he checked that the pistol he’d acquired from his brother was loaded.
He had no illusions about the danger of what he was doing. After taking on the supply of the governor’s man, another SS officer, “Hauptsturmfuhrer something or other” had come to visit him in his studio, requesting what Bernard loosely termed ‘sex goods’. The man was willing to pay top prices for them, unfortunately, they were mostly things Bernard couldn’t get himself. He was adding items to the list he gave to Hortense every Sunday at church, selling them on to this officer at inflated prices and keeping the profit for himself. Hortense and her source got paid the list price for everything he sold, and no-one was ripped off. At least that’s what he told himself as he counted the franc notes and military scrip mounting up in the safe in his storeroom.
The first time the SS man had come, Bernard had thought it was all up. The man at the door in his black uniform with the death’s head insignia had the sort of stare that seemed to look right through you as if you weren’t there. Pale blue eyes with no expression; it was as if Bernard were some sort of inconsequential animal or insect, and it was beneath this man to have to speak to him.
Nevertheless, he had some specific requests and Bernard had been able to meet them. Now he had come twice, both visits at the same time of day. Bernard knew this was risky: if the German decided to betray him to the police he would be in prison for years; if the gang found out he was peddling their goods without paying them a cut they would break his elbows and kneecaps with sledgehammers. God only knew what Hortense would do. Since she’d been working for this gangster fellow who owned the club she’d started smoking opium, and when she was deprived of her supply she could be extremely unpredictable and violent.
What had started out as a simple money-making venture selling his brother’s farm goods had, in the space of just a few weeks, swollen uncontrollably into a monster.
Joe followed the German officer across the platform to the ticket office.
‘You see here mein herr,’ said the lieutenant, pointing at a page in Joe’s travel permit documents, ‘you don’t have the required stamp from the Burgomeister allowing you to leave the Northern department. This stamp was only introduced last week, but I see from this other stamp that your permit was issued before then, ja?’
Don’t look at the damned thing too closely, thought Joe, as his pounding heart calmed itself slightly and his nerves untwined a fraction.
‘Oui, I understand. Can I still catch the train?’ Joe said, remembering to speak French just as he opened his mouth, and trying to control his wavering voice.
‘Normally no,’ the officer replied, ‘but as it is only a recent regulation and your wife is pregnant. I will make an exception and ask my adjutant to counter-sign it. Here he is now, Gunther! Kommen sie hier!’
A small bespectacled German corporal with a clipboard took Joe’s permit, scrawled something in it with a pen and handed it back.
‘What’s going on?’ said Joe approaching the train again as the five-man squad climbed down from one carriage and up into the next.
‘Oh a prisoner has escaped from Calais gaol,’ said the lieutenant, ‘he’s a British soldier, so he won’t get far, this search is just a precaution. Guten tag.’
‘Merci,’ said Joe, taking his permit and climbing into the carriage, incredulous at the difference between one German and the next.
‘Jesus!’ said Joe as he sat down beside Yvette and wiped his brow. She clasped his hand firmly and kissed him on the cheek as if nothing had happened and they were just a happily married couple.
A few nervous minutes later the whistle blew and the carriage jolted into motion. By the time the sweat was cooling on Joe’s forehead and his hands had stopped shaking, the train had cleared the edge of the town and was speeding up as it headed across the first fields.
‘Bon,’ said Yvette, ‘now for Paris.’
~ ~ ~
Before being posted to Calais, Hagan Schmidt had spent the months since the French surrender in the basement of Number 76 Tirpitzufer in Berlin re-training in counter-espionage. As an agent of Section Two of the Abwehr, he was expected to carry out any kind of penetration, sabotage or assassination mission handed to him, but after reviewing his case his superiors had concluded that the loss of his right eye and his limp made him too conspicuous to survive as an undercover agent. They agreed that his obvious talents and predilection for what they euphemistically referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ instead made him a natural choice as a man who could extract whatever information was needed out of captured spies and members of the French resistance. Normally this would be the preserve of the GeheimStaatzPolizei, or Gestapo as they were known, but the rivalry between the Nazi organisations was fierce and Schmidt’s superiors had no intention of letting him go. At the end of his training, Oberst Huber summoned him to his office.
‘We have what you might call a practice assignment for you Hagan,’ said Huber, ‘something I think you will enjoy. You are going to Paris and your mission has three aspects. First, you will be posing as a new recruit to the Gestapo. We need a man on the inside of that organisation to keep tabs on what they are up to, and you have been chosen. Congratulations. Second, you are to devote a few weeks to interrogating Jews who have turned themselves in. No doubt there will be many in hiding, and we must find them all, but there will be no shortage of their compatriots willing to inform on them if you offer the right persuasions. May I make a small aside here Hagan to note that sometimes, especially in a period of tight rationing, that a small gratuity in the form of food is often more effective than threats?’
Hagan grunted and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The prospect of posing as Gestapo agent and grubby-ing his hands with Jewish informants made him uneasy at best.
‘I understand that this is not your ideal line of work Hagan, ‘ said Gruber soothingly, ‘but once you have a network of subordinated Jews reporting to you in the mistaken belief that they are protected from deportation, you will have the whole city at your feet. These people know everyone and everything at all levels of society. It is an excellent place to start.’
‘Ja Herr Oberst,’ replied Schmidt disdainfully, barely able to conceal his contempt for this plan.
‘Patience Hagan, patience. We have plenty of time. Now, once you have your network in operation you can start the third part of your mission, which is to identify and round up any French fools who believe they can resist us. There will no doubt be criminal gangs you can employ to help you do this, as they will be serving only their self-interest and so will be easily bought with money and favours. They will seek only to continue their petty black-market operations, and you can use them cheaply. There is one man in particular we are aware of who fashions himself as l‘Hydre, presumably because he believes he has an eye on everything. In fact he is a small-time hood, but he has taken advantage of the war to eliminate most of his rivals, so from our perspective he is the best prospect.’
‘Prospect, mein herr?’ asked Schmidt, beginning to show some interest.
‘Ja, ja, you will approach him with, what do they say in those decadent American films, “an offer he can’t refuse”? He will pass on to us any and all information he receives about Jews trying to escape, about British espionage or about any resistance activity. In return, we will allow him to continue his activities unmolested by us, barring occasional raids to make it look realistic, and of course, we will take a cut of his operation, fifteen per cent ought to do, we have expenses to cover after all. He will believe he is paying off the Gestapo. That’s all. Bon voyage Schmidt.’
~ ~ ~
Sergeant Smythe wrapped his hands around the tin mug and gratefully felt the warmth from the tea penetrate his frozen fingers. Dawn was approaching, and the gunboat was coming back into Dover harbour, where it would be relatively safe from German aircraft. A fifth night floating off Cap Gris Nez had finally dashed Smythe’s hopes that Lieutenant Dean might miraculously show up. Now he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever see him again.
As he walked up the gangway, Smythe noticed Captain Jensen standing on the dock.
‘Good morning captain,’ said Smythe saluting, ‘early start for you sir?’
‘Yes early enough Smythe, but we had a wireless communication from our friends over the Channel at 5am that I thought you deserved to know about. Apparently Lieutenant Dean has gone to Paris in pursuit of our target, so you’re off the hook. No more freezing nights at sea eh?’
‘Well that’s a welcome message sir,’ said Smythe, breathing a sigh of relief at the knowledge that Joe was at least alive, ‘but Paris? What the hell is he thinking sir? Oh sorry sir.’
‘What indeed sergeant,’ mused the captain, ‘what indeed?’
~ ~ ~
The Gare du Nord, and crowds of German soldiers disembarking for their much-anticipated week’s leave in the ‘most romantic city in the world’. Joe and Yvette passed the ticket barrier without difficulty, there being no Germans checking papers. They soon discovered why: all exits but the main one had been closed, and here a long line of civilians shuffled towards the single exit, where soldiers with sub-machine guns stood guard while a corporal examined each passenger’s papers.
The queue was long and progress slow. Joe tried to study the soldiers without appearing too interested. Yvette simply gazed upwards at the arched roof high above, through which green sunlight filtered down.
Joe took her hand and gave it a squeeze. She started guiltily at the affectionate gesture and looked away. She’d not told him she was pregnant, and she’d scrupulously avoided letting him see any sign of her morning sickness. And she knew why.
When the Germans had rounded up the Jews of Roubaix, Hagan Schmidt had pulled her out of the line. Had he not done that she would have been on the train with the rest of them, and in between the rapes and beatings, Schmidt had taken a sadistic pleasure in describing to her in detail the fate that awaited her townsfolk. His account of Belsen and Dachau, although scarcely believable, had made her wonder whether she was fortunate to be where she was, chained to a radiator and being abused, instead of crammed in a cattle car for days, with only death at the end of the journey. At least she was alive.
Schmidt had also gloated about the actions of Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter. It was his men who had massacred the British soldiers at Le Paradis and herded all the Jews of Roubaix onto the train. Who knew what other atrocities they’d committed?
All of these thoughts swirled through her mind as they shuffled forward in the line, hands clenched tightly. In front of them a French woman with three small children, one an infant in a pram, struggled to keep control of the elder two.
‘Fabian! Come back here! You are not to run around. Do you want the Germans to shoot you? For God’s sake Dominique, stand still as you value your life. They will as soon shoot you as look at you. Oh God, will this journey ever end?’
Joe crouched down and looked the little boy in the eye. He must have been only four, maybe five years old, and he stared at Joe with a sullen expression.
‘Want to play a game?’ asked Joe, who didn’t want the child to draw the attention of the guards.
‘Non!’ said the boy, folding his arms and sticking out his lower lip.
‘It’s called Rock, Paper, Scissors, have you played it before?’ asked Joe.
‘Non!’ said the boy, looking enquiringly up at his mother, who looked at Joe and Yvette and nodded.
‘You make a fist, shake it three times then hold out your hand in one of these shapes,’ said Joe, demonstrating. ‘Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper. Got it?’
The boy nodded reluctantly and Joe held out his hand in a fist.
‘Best of three then, here we go.’
The game carried them through the next five minutes, while Yvette spoke to the mother. She was returning to Paris after fleeing the German invasion in July.
‘We went to my sister’s farm in Normandy,’ she said, ‘but most of her farmworkers have all gone, either they volunteered for the army and were killed or wounded, or they have been taken to Germany to work. Now it is just her husband and his father left to work the farm, and they have had to let parts of it go fallow for want of labour. After a month she came to me one night and said they could no longer afford to feed me and the children, and besides, Paris is safe now, so here we are.’
‘Where is your husband?’ asked Yvette.
The woman’s face crumpled and she turned away.
‘He was killed in Belgium in May,’ she said between sobs, ‘they tell me he died bravely in combat, but his body was never found, so how do they know?’
Yvette didn’t know what to say. There was nothing that unusual in the woman’s situation, the invasion had turned tens of thousands of French wives into widows, she was just one of many.
‘How will you live in Paris? Do you have a house here?’ asked Yvette.
‘Yes, yes, we have a house in the 4th arrondissement. As long as no-one has decided to squat in it or the Germans have acquired it, we will move back in. We left in such a hurry we took nothing with us, if it hasn’t been robbed we will do well enough there.’
‘But what about money?’ said Yvette.
‘That is a problem,’ said the woman, ‘but we have some small savings and I am a pretty good seamstress. I expect we will manage. What of yourselves?’
Yvette was about to deliver the cover story she and Joe had worked out when a thin German corporal with a Hitler moustache interrupted.
‘Papieren bitte!’ he said, holding out his hand.
The three adults handed over their travel permits and the corporal took them away to a desk near the door. He leafed through the pages, stamped each permit several times and gestured at them to come to the desk.
‘Alles klar,’ he said, handing them back, ‘you may go.’
Yvette and Joe stepped out into Place Napoleon III and breathed a sigh of relief.
‘So where’s this cousin of Philippe’s live?’ Joe said to Yvette.
‘We will take the Metro,’ she said.
Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter placed the package of contraband goods near the front door of his hotel room and poured himself a glass of riesling. Lighting a cigarette he sat down at the desk and started a letter.
‘Dear Liesel, I miss you and the children desperately. It is now many weeks since the unit was put on recreational leave, and yet here I am stuck in Paris. So close, but I have been unable to persuade Obersturmbannfuhrer Schneider that I should have a few days to visit my family. He keeps telling me that my men are about to be assigned to some special duty rooting out Jews, which of course we are perfectly qualified for, but I could wish that he would either get on with it or give me leave to come to Cologne. You are so close and yet so far, I can barely stand it! How are our two beautiful girls? Has Gretel started to walk yet? Hanna must surely be able to count to ten by now? The thought of their childhood days passing without their papa being there breaks my heart, and as for being apart from you my dear, it is only my duty to the Fuhrer that gives me the strength to stand it. Thank you for the locks of their hair, I keep them close to my heart in the locket you gave me, beneath the picture of your sweet smiling face. I long to return to you, and will let you know the moment I receive any further orders. Give the babies a big hug from me. Your devoted husband, Hans.’
A tear fell onto the page and he wiped it away angrily, sneering at his own maudlin sentimentality. He folded the page and sealed it in an envelope, and for a moment stared out the window at a blacked out Paris thinking fondly of his young wife and children. Then he stabbed out the cigarette, picked up the package and turned towards the door.
~ ~ ~
‘He’s going to ask you tonight,’ said Bernard.
‘How do you know?’ asked Hortense. She was sitting in his bay window smoking a cigarette, her showgirl outfit in a bag on the floor beside her.
‘Because this morning he came here and I sold him champagne, chocolate, a kilo of pork and some lingerie that just happens to be your size,’ said Bernard.
‘Something tasteful I hope?’ she asked, ‘it’s bad enough being a showgirl, I don’t want to look like a whore. I hope you don’t think I’m going to sleep with him, you can forget that idea.’
‘It will not come to that,’ said Bernard, ‘all you need to do is wear a low-cut dress, something tasteful mind you, and give him a good glimpse of your cleavage and your suspenders. He’ll be like a panting dog after a bottle of champagne and an hour of conversation. He’ll be easy meat.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Hortense, suddenly paying close attention.
‘Some colleagues of ours plan to snatch him, and they’re depending on you to help.’
‘What?’ she cried, leaping to her feet, ‘are you mad? Do you think it’s good business to get mixed up with the resistance? You know what the Germans will do to us if they suspect us? And they will you know, they’re not stupid.’
‘What will they suspect, Hortense?’ said Bernard, ‘some may see you leave with him certainly, but you will be well out of it before anything happens.’
‘But they will question me!’ Hortense protested.
‘Certainly when they find him missing they may,’ said Bernard, ‘and your answer will be simple: you were going with the officer to his hotel when he was unavoidably detained by a fellow officer. He told you to meet him there but he never turned up. All you have to do is sit in the lobby and wait for a few hours.’
‘How can you be so sure he will ask me anyway?’ she said.
‘You’ve said yourself that he’s been in the front row for the last four nights watching you exclusively,’ said Bernard, ‘who else would he have bought those things for, his wife?’
‘What’s in this for me?’ asked Hortense, ‘how much did the German pay you for these things anyway?’
‘Eighty-five francs,’ lied Bernard. The German had paid nearly twice that, but she didn’t need to know.
‘Then I want half now,’ she said, holding out her hand, ‘fifty-fifty was our deal and it applies to this deal, especially as I have to put my life at risk.’
‘What a mercenary you are my dear,’ said Bernard, producing the bills from his wallet and handing them to her. He looked at his watch, ‘You’d better be going if you’re going to get to the club in time.’
‘Is that it?’ she said, ‘you’re not going to tell me anything more about what’s going to happen tonight?’
‘The less you know the better,’ said Bernard, ‘I shouldn’t have told you at all, but I thought I owed you that much. Someone at the club may decide to tell you more.’
‘You’ve become a real bastard since the Germans arrived, do you know that Bernard?’ said Hortense, picking up her costume. ‘What’s the problem, having trouble finding young boys now? There must be some eager bums among the German lower ranks surely?’
The slap resounded across the studio.
‘You forget yourself Hortense,’ said Bernard coldly, ‘now get to work.’
He pushed her through the door and slammed it behind her.
[* ~ ~ ~*]
At La Fleur, Madame Legrande counted the bills for a second time and marked her ledger. Then she reached below the bar and pulled a lever to open the hidden draw built into the bench. She pulled out the ledger that sat inside and wrote a different number into the record for the previous day. She was doing well, far better than the tax collectors would ever know, and she had the war to thank for it.
The brothel she had run for the British in Roubaix had given her the capital she needed to return to Paris and go into partnership with Louis Glavon, who called himself by the absurd pseudonym of ‘l’Hydre’. She was an experienced and competent madame; he was merely a criminal whose extortion and clumsy prostitution rackets had made him a petty figure in pre-war Paris. Since the war began though, he had been quietly and efficiently murdering his competitors, or denouncing them to the Germans as spies, and now he was a much bigger fish.
Of course he had rebuffed her first approach. How could a mere woman run a club for him? What did she know about business? It was only on their second meeting when she had shown him the ledgers from the brothel she had run so successfully in Roubaix before the British crumpled in the face of the Blitzkrieg, that she made progress. A little extra persuasion in the form of a night with the girl she knew was her best earner, and he had relented.
Since the day the Germans had occupied Paris, she had set about making friends with the senior Nazi officers. Her girls frequented the bars and coffee shops around their headquarters, struck up conversations and handed out discreet cards with a lilac printed on one side and the address on the other. Within a few weeks she had a full house for the dancers and full rooms upstairs as well, all paying handsomely as officers should. The return from the bar alone was spectacular, as Louis regularly managed to procure crates of excellent wine at absurdly low prices. Somewhere in the Champagne region, vintners were receiving visits from hard men with heavy saps and thin wallets.
Meanwhile, she had managed to procure a diverse range of girls for the Germans. Three pure, delicate blondes, two striking redheads, half a dozen stunning brunettes and three exotics from Morocco and Algiers, whose coffee-coloured skin made the Nazi purists shudder with forbidden delight. With a long-practised eye she had selected them carefully from the many who had applied. She even took one who was unmistakably Jewish, in the belief that those same Germans who were busily rounding up the rest of her people during the day would delight in ravishing her by night. And how right she had been. Little Ruth, with her dark eyes, black hair, pendulous breasts and, of course, the yellow star sewn onto her negligee, had proven irresistible.
It was so easy to appeal to the baseness of men, she reflected, stacking the bills and locking them in the safe, all that was needed was to think of the things they were most afraid of, then offer it to them. One of the Gestapo men who came in once a week liked nothing better than to be hog-tied, whipped and sodomised with a broom handle.
~ ~ ~
‘This is the place,’ said Yvette, looking up at the top floor windows.
They climbed three flights of stairs and knocked on the door of room 8. Bernard Thiebaud opened the door.
‘Come in, quickly,’ he hissed, looking behind them nervously.
Joe barely had time to take in the array of portraits of naked women that bedecked the walls before they were seated at the table and talking business.
‘Let’s not risk real names,’ said Bernard, ‘you can call me Francois, and I will call you Raquel, and you,’ he said, pointing at Joe, ‘will be Jean. Things have been moving quickly since I received the communication from our friend in Calais, and I’m happy to tell you that the event is scheduled for tonight.’
‘Tonight?’ said Yvette, ‘but we’re not prepared, we have no weapons or anything.’
‘I’ve taken care of that,’ said Bernard, ‘but the two of you need to get ready. Now, here’s the plan.’
Five minutes later Joe stood up.
‘This plan is all very well, but my orders are to kidnap Richter, not assassinate him. Unless we can do that we’re not going anywhere tonight.’
Bernard looked at him aghast.
‘Are you completely insane? Kidnap him and take him where? Please don’t say back to England.’
‘Those are my orders,’ said Joe.
‘Well I suggest you disregard them,’ said Bernard, ‘the situation has changed, surely your superiors don’t expect you to take him back from here?’
‘He has a point Joe,’ said Yvette, ‘snatching him from Cap Gris Nez was one thing, but from Paris? How did you plan to do it?’
‘I was going to cross that bridge once I had him,’ said Joe. ‘In my limited experience, plans don’t work out the way you expect them to.’
Bernard rolled his eyes and groaned.
‘Mon Dieu! So you have no plan at all? Did you even know how you expected to grab him here in Paris?’
He threw up his hands despairingly, then got up and poured himself a glass of red wine from a bottle on the sideboard. Then he remembered himself and brought the bottle and two glasses back to the table.
‘Never mind,’ he said, pouring them both a glass, ‘forget this crazy idea of kidnap, you will be lucky to get away with killing him. Trying to get him alive across France, even if you had someone waiting to pick you up at the Channel, ce’est impossible!’
Joe crossed his arms and stared at Bernard.
‘Those are my orders.’
‘Ah you English are so stubborn,’ said Bernard, pushing his chair back in frustration.
‘I’m an Australian,’ said Joe.
‘Australian? English? It makes no difference,’ he replied angrily, ‘you are all mad. What I can tell you my friend is that, unless you agree to kill Richter in a way that makes it look like a robbery gone wrong, you can forget about getting any help from me. I cannot risk being implicated in any way.’
‘Then what do you suggest we do, just shoot him down in the street?’ asked Joe. ‘How can we expect to get away with that?’
‘I have something in mind,’ said Bernard, ‘but tell me something, does this man Richter know what either of you look like?’
‘Oui,’ said Yvette, ‘he most certainly knows my face, and he has seen Joe in circumstances he’s unlikely to forget.’
‘Unfortunate,’ said Bernard, ‘but perhaps we can turn it to our advantage. Tell me Raquel,’ he said, with a stern emphasis on her new name, ‘on what terms did you part with this German pig?’
‘He left in a hurry from the hotel room. As far as he was concerned it was simply the last time he would see me, and I was just another French whore in his eyes.’
‘So if you were suddenly to materialise here in Paris, what would he think?’
‘Depends on how we present it I imagine,’ she said with a shrug, ‘he’d certainly be surprised, but if I told him that I’d come looking for him because I couldn’t live without him he might be arrogant enough to believe it. I expect he’d either tell me to go home immediately, or use me for a few nights then tell me he was being posted elsewhere to get rid of me.’
‘Hmmm, yes,’ said Bernard, ‘you are an old conquest from another part of France and he will have moved on in his own mind and be looking for fresh meat.’
‘Bloody hell you two,’ said Joe, standing up abruptly, ‘do you have to be so damned cold-blooded about it? Christ, I need another drink.’
‘Of course,’ said Bernard, ‘excuse my poor manners, here, have some more burgundy.’
‘I’d sooner have a cold beer,’ muttered Joe mutinously, but he accepted the glass of [_vin rouge _]and downed it. Bernard refilled it and searched his face.
‘You are a young man of strong passions I see. You would make a good subject for one of my paintings,’ he said, gesturing at the canvasses on the walls, ‘as would you mademoiselle,’ he said, bowing to Yvette.
‘Spare me your idle flattery m’sieur,’ she replied with a dismissive wave, ‘and tell me how you think we can kill this man.’
‘Kidnap,’ interjected Joe.
‘Kill I said!’ she replied with a venomous look that made Joe sit back in his chair.
‘Such impetuosity,’ sighed Bernard, pouring himself more wine, ‘it’s a simple plan but it requires help from a certain person.’
Yvette leant forward with interest.
‘L’Hydre,’ said Bernard.
‘The Hydra? Is that fair dinkum?’ said Joe.
‘No one knows his real name,’ replied Bernard, ‘but he is a man with fingers in many pockets, not least those of the Germans and the French police,’ said Bernard. ‘He has many cronies and henchmen working for him and if anyone can help you get your man, it is him. But he is dangerous, and remember, he is collaborating with the Germans, so he could just as easily betray you to them.’
‘How can we meet him?’ asked Joe keenly. A dangerous collaborator was what he had expected to find here; he wanted to know how he could use him to complete his mission. A small voice in the back of his mind told him he was being ridiculous, obsessive, single-minded, obstinate, stupid even, but he suppressed it. To lose focus now, so far into this thing, would be fatal. He had to maintain some self-belief. His father had told him many times that when things got difficult, that was when you discovered who the true heroes were. And Joe wanted to be a hero, wanted desperately to be a hero, like his father had been to him.
‘First you must know what it is you want from him and you must have something to offer in exchange,’ said Bernard, ‘what can you possibly have that a man like this might want eh, Lieutenant Dean?’
‘Let’s ask him that shall we?’ said Joe.
Bernard sighed at the bloody-minded arrogance of this brash young Australian. How could he be so cocky?
‘Whatever his price we can find a way to pay it,’ said Yvette, ‘let’s go and see him now.’
‘My dear, this is not the sort of man you just go and see at your leisure,’ said Bernard, ‘you need to make an appointment. This man has people killed for the slightest provocation,’ said Bernard, ‘men, women, French, German,’ he paused for effect, ‘probably Australian. Are you certain you want to meet him?’
‘Seems we don’t have much bloody choice do we?’ said Joe.
‘We’ve got this far,’ said Yvette, ‘we can’t walk away now.’
‘In that case, we need to ask for an appointment,’ said Bernard. ‘I will see to it, but obviously we cannot act tonight after all. I suggest you two finish this bottle and go to sleep. If this whole thing isn’t over in the next two days we will all end up in front of a firing squad. I need you to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Now, excuse me, but I must leave you for now. If I am not here in the morning, do not under any circumstances leave the apartment, is that clear? There is plenty of food.’
Indeed there was. Bernard’s pantry was well-stocked. He even had an icebox full of fresh meat and, unbelievably, ice. Yvette wondered how he came by this largesse, but she knew better than to ask.
The afternoon sun was throwing long shadows across the boulevards by the time they arrived at the nightclub. Bernard had gone separately, while Joe and Yvette posed once more as a couple and walked arm-in-arm across the Seine and north until they entered the seedier part of town around Place Pigalle. The walk from Bernard’s studio on the Rue Monge had taken them straight across the Isle de la Cité, past German soldiers on leave posing for photos in front of Notre Dame. The direct route would have been straight up Rue Montmartre, but Yvette steered Joe left along the green river past the Louvre and into the Tuileries.
If it hadn’t been for the occasional German uniform, they could have been on holiday. Certainly they looked like any other young Parisian couple, although there were few other couples around. At the Place de la Concord they stopped and admired the obelisk before starting up Rue Royale.
‘This would have been quicker on the underground,’ muttered Joe, as the third German patrol passed them.
‘Oui, but then you would not have seen anything of Paris,’ said Yvette, ‘and you are much more likely to be asked for papers going in and out of a station than out here on the street.’
Suddenly Joe stiffened beside her and steered her abruptly into a bookshop they were passing.
‘What is it?’ asked Yvette, disentangling her arm from his grip.
‘I just saw Richter,’ hissed Joe, ‘he came out of that building on the corner of the next block.’
‘Then we should follow him,’ said Yvette, walking straight out the door.
Joe cursed for a moment, then realised the shop owner was looking enquiringly at him.
‘Women eh?’ said Joe, shrugging his shoulders.
The shopkeeper rolled his eyes and went back to reading his newspaper.
Joe caught up with her twenty metres down the street.
‘You do understand that he knows our faces don’t you?’ he asked fiercely, ‘what if he sees us?’
‘He knows a lot more than my face,’ said Yvette, ‘but we do not look the same as we did before, I’m blonde for one thing. He will not recognise us and he won’t be expecting to see us here anyway. He’s probably forgotten all about me by now anyway. There he is, walking with that fat man.’
The fat man was clearly a senior officer. He was wearing a black SS uniform and gesticulating occasionally with an ivory cane. Joe considered their disguises: he had four days’ worth of dark beard, a grey suit, horn-rimmed glasses and a beret, and looked like an unusually well-fed poet or philosopher; she was wearing a tailored black dress and patent leather heels, and with her blonde hair looked nothing like the serving girl Richter had bedded in the Hotel de la Plage in Wissant a few weeks before.
They were now approaching Boulevard Haussman and it was clear that they would all come to a halt at the edge of the pavement together. Standing just feet away from the two German officers, Joe could see the individual hairs on the back of Richter’s neck. He held his breath as he listened to their conversation, the tension thrumming in his spine like an over-tightened guitar string.
‘So, you have your men ready?’ asked the senior officer.
‘Ja herr Obersturmbannfuhrer,’ said Richter punctiliously, ‘all I need is the list of addresses and we will make Paris Judenrein within a few weeks.’
‘A few weeks Hauptsturmfuhrer? Such zeal!’ mocked the colonel, ‘you will receive your orders tomorrow morning. Have you co-ordinated everything with the train schedulers?’
A convoy of six army trucks roared past in the street and Joe missed some of Richter’s reply.
‘…and there are one or two minor details yet to be confirmed, such as the availability of rolling stock, but they assure me they can provide two-dozen cattle cars and a locomotive, albeit an old French one, solely for this purpose. It would have been more efficient to have two, but we have nearly finished wiring the perimeter of the temporary camp so we have capacity.’
‘Gut, and where is the camp?’ asked the colonel.
‘On the outskirts of Paris, near the shunting yards for the eastern train line at Chelles. We expect to have a regular service running from there to Dachau three days from now.’
‘Good work Hauptsturmfuhrer, I can assure you that your work will be acknowledged at the highest possible level. Germany needs more men like you, men who are prepared to do whatever is necessary to further the Reich. Carry this out well and you will soon make Sturmbannfuhrer.’
The light changed, and the two men strode across the boulevard. Joe held Yvette’s arm for a moment then followed.
Halfway across the street Richter stopped, said something to the officer and turned abruptly in his tracks. Joe almost bumped into him and the German snarled and pushed him aside with a curse.
They carried on up Rue d’Amsterdam, hearts thumping.
‘What are they planning?’ asked Yvette.
‘Sounds like Richter’s been given the job of rounding up the Jews of Paris,’ said Joe, ‘just one more reason to get him out of here as quickly as possible.’
Yvette grasped his arm and looked imploringly into his eyes.
‘Can we not just kill him and have done with it Joe?’ she asked, ‘why do you insist on this ridiculous idea of taking him to England? A knife in the back and this will all be over.’
‘Will it?’ said Joe, ‘whether we kill him or I take him back to England makes no difference, they’ll replace him with some other murdering bastard, but if I can get him there, at least we can interrogate him. A lot of people, the Americans in particular I’m told, don’t really believe that the Germans are rounding up Jews en masse into concentration camps, even though it’s been going on for years. My superiors want someone they can hold up as proof, not just another dead body.’
Yvette sighed with frustration. They had reached Place Pigalle.
‘Very well then, let us find out what l’Hydre can do for us. Here is the place,’ she said, pointing at an imposing stone building on the other side of the street.
‘La Fleur?’ said Joe, ‘so much for innocence.’
‘Bernard tells me that that it’s run by the same woman who ran the British officers’ brothel in Roubaix before the Germans invaded,’ said Yvette, ‘surely you remember? You spent a whole night ‘talking’ to her, according to you, so you should remember her well. Her name is Sophie Legrand.’
Joe did remember Sophie Legrand, but she didn’t remember him, not immediately anyway. For a brothel Madam there was no benefit in recalling the names and faces of British officers who had been in France in September 1940, no-one expected ever to see them again. With the whole of northern France under German occupation, the rest emasculated into Vichy, and the Luftwaffe poised to deliver the final blow to England, the British army was a distant memory.
Sophie Legrand had an excellent memory for the names of her German clients though, and she recognised Richter from Joe’s description almost immediately.
They were in a second-floor office at the rear of the La Fleur nightclub. Their knock on the back door had been greeted by a huge man in a suit that was two sizes too small for him. Not that the suit was small, it was probably the largest size available, but the man inside it was enormous in every dimension. Broad shoulders, a barrel chest and bull neck, with hands so large they could crush a raw pumpkin without effort. His black hair came down to his shoulders and clearly hadn’t been washed in some time.
He seemed to be expecting them and stood aside without a word so they could squeeze past. They were in a narrow corridor with a couple of doors on either side and a staircase that went up and down. The giant gestured at the upward stairs and grunted.
Madame Legrand greeted them in an office that overlooked the alleyway where they had come in. She was seated behind a desk smoking a cigarette. On the desk a lamp with a green shade cast a sickly glow over the room, making a red apple that sat on the desk appear iridescent. Even though it was still daylight outside, she was dressed in a dark purple velvet dress and black gloves. Her hair was pinned up, her face made up with heavy pancake, rouge, eyeliner and mascara. As if to provide contrast, a man in a rumpled grey suit sat in an armchair next to the fireplace. He had a round head with thinning grey hair plastered to his scalp. Below a large brow, his face was decorated with rimless glasses and an immaculately-barbered salt-and-pepper moustache.
‘Take a seat,’ said Madame Legrand. ‘Our mutual friend tells me you’re looking for a particular German, oui?’ she said, without introductions.
‘Yes, his name is Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Richter,’ said Joe.
‘A Hauptsturmfuhrer you say?’ she interrupted, ‘that’s an SS rank isn’t it?’ she asked in an aside to the man in the grey suit.
‘Oui, roughly the equivalent of a major in the Wehrmacht,’ said the man in a rasping voice.
‘And what is your issue with this particular German?’ asked Madam Legrand.
‘He massacred a company of British soldiers during the campaign in France,’ said Joe.
‘And deported all the Jews from Roubaix to a concentration camp,’ added Yvette.
‘So what?’ said Legrand, ‘he is only one of many who have committed such crimes. There are a dozen or more of them in this club every night who we know to be torturers and murderers. They are Germans, it is to be expected. Why this man?’
‘He’s a known war criminal, I was ordered to bring him to England for questioning,’ said Joe, acutely aware of how ridiculous this sounded here in the centre of Paris, hundreds of miles from the English Channel.
The man in the suit chuckled to himself and drew a cigar from his coat pocket.
‘Really?’ said Madame Legrand archly, raising an immaculately-sculpted eyebrow, ‘what ambitious missions you English invent. However did you hope to get him out of France?’
‘We were supposed to grab him from a hotel at Cap Gris Nez and put him on a boat,’ said Joe, ‘but the mission went to hell and he escaped.’
‘Yet you’ve managed to track him all the way here?’ said Legrand. ‘Impressive. I take it from this that you are not the type of people who give up easily. Shame really, I could see a bright future for you both in my establishment. You,’ she said pointing at Joe, ‘could do door security for me, and you,’ looking Yvette up and down, ‘would scrub up nicely on the stage and no doubt be popular in the rooms upstairs. You’re Jewish aren’t you? Worried about being taken by the Germans, hmm?’
Joe stood up abruptly.
‘We didn’t come here to be insulted, we were told you could introduce us to someone who could help. Are you planning to do that or are we going to make small-talk all bloody day?’
‘Ooh, he has a temper this boy,’ said Madam Legrand, looking at the giant who was standing behind them. ‘Be careful you don’t annoy Jean-Paul, he may not say much, but his hands are persuasive.’
She tapped ash into an ashtray carved from a piece of jade and looked at him with narrowed eyes.
‘You look vaguely familiar Mr…’
‘Dean,’ said Joe automatically.
‘Ah yes I remember you now, your mention of Roubaix has brought it back to me. You were that shrinking violet who refused the best of my girls because you were saving yourself. I presume you were saving yourself for her?’ she said, pointing at Yvette with the cigarette.
‘So it’s true?’ asked Yvette, looking at Joe, ‘you didn’t go with any of her whores?’
‘Do I detect trouble in paradise?’ purred the brothel Madam. She removed a knife from the desk drawer and began slicing the apple with neat strokes.
Joe looked around the room impatiently. This wasn’t the time for discussions of long-past events.
‘Of course not,’ he snapped at Yvette, ‘as I bloody told you at the time. Now, are we going to meet this bloke or not?’
‘Normally I would expect some remuneration for an introduction of this kind,’ said Madam Legrand, ‘but Bernard has been so good to me in the way of little luxuries such as this,’ she bit into a slice of apple with a loud crunch, ‘that it would be churlish of me to protest. Besides, he will owe me a favour now. Wait here.’
She rose and swept out of the room, leaving them with the giant and the small grey man.
‘Your French doesn’t sound like that usually spoken by Englishmen,’ said the man in the chair, speaking in English, ‘your accent is different.’
‘I’m Australian,’ said Joe, ‘my mother was French. What do you care? Who are you anyway?’
‘I make it my job always to know as much as possible about the people I work with,’ said the man.
‘So you’re l’Hydre?’ asked Yvette incredulously.
The man rose from his chair and bowed formally to her before sitting again.
‘Not what you were expecting?’ he asked, staring at her inquisitively through the rimless glasses. Even his eyes were grey. It seemed to Yvette that for a moment they flickered with some internal amusement. Then it was as if a wall came down inside the man, and the eyes turned to granite.
‘You appreciate that by helping you I am putting my entire enterprise at risk?’ said the man, steepling his fingers. ‘I can help you get this German to England if that is what you want, but I will need something in return from you.’
Here it comes, thought Joe.
‘What did you have in mind?’ he said.
‘Come with me,’ said the man, ‘I want to show you something.’
They walked out into the hall and down the stairs to the corridor, the giant moving behind them more silently than Joe thought possible. At the foot of the stairs l’Hydre turned and continued down the stairs. When they reached the basement, the man walked up to a blank piece of wall, removed a loose brick and reached inside. Joe heard a click and an entire section of wall swung outwards, revealing a second flight of stairs winding down to a closed door.
‘This club was built in the 1870s shortly after the Germans defeated France,’ said l’Hydre. ‘The man who built it was a smuggler who needed to dispose of a large amount of surplus cash. He created a construction firm and paid a hundred navvies to dig the foundations down a whole storey further than needed. Once the building was finished it was covered over and, as there was no obvious access, people soon forgot about the extra level. He used it as a store-room for all manner of things, until one day he fell down the stairs and broke his neck. An amusing story I find.’
They started down the stairs, which had no hand-rail.
‘Two weeks ago one of my biggest shipments was intercepted by the Germans and impounded. The man who tipped them off is down here, and he has been begging me to kill him for over a week now. Here he is.’
He unbolted the door and flicked a light switch, illuminating a small square room carved out of the stone at the foot of the stairs. A reek of shit, urine, vomit and stale tobacco assailed their noses.
Hanging in chains on the far wall was the remains of a man. His naked body was marked all over with circular burns, presumably made by cigarettes or cigars. His hair had been burnt off and his scalp was a mass of blistered skin. The skin of his arms and legs showed bruises of every colour, some fresh and purple, others yellowing with age. His feet were only just touching the ground, so if he stood on his toes he could relieve the pressure on his shoulders and prevent himself from suffocating. As the light flooded the room the man groaned in agony.
‘L’eau, mon Dieu, l’eau,’ croaked the man.
L’Hydre took a cup from a bucket on the ground, lifted the man’s chin and poured the water in. Yvette turned aside and vomited.
‘What kind of sick fuck are you?’ asked Joe, whose gorge had risen at the sight of the broken body.
‘Careful now,’ warned l’Hydre, ‘Jean-Paul gets upset rather easily, I don’t need to tell you that he can kill you with a blow. This man is a collaborator. He tipped off the Germans and they stopped my barge on the Seine and impounded it. My informers discovered it was him when he went to the Germans for his payoff. The fool thought he could just waltz into the Wehrmacht headquarters without my knowing about it.’
‘So why not just shoot him you bastard, isn’t that what’s done with collaborators?’ asked Yvette, wiping the vomit from her chin.
‘A fair question, one I will leave you to ponder,’ said l’Hydre, ‘Jean-Paul?’
Jean-Paul drew a revolver from his coat and covered Joe and Yvette with it, then the two men ascended the stairs. At the top, l’Hydre took the revolver and tossed it to Joe, then he took a single bullet from his pocket and threw it down.
‘Once you have proven yourself by dispatching this traitor I will require you to help my men recover the merchandise stolen from me. Then I will think about helping you get this man Richter.’
‘Wait!’ cried Joe, but the men turned and the hidden door clicked shut behind them.
Joe took the steps two at a time, but there was no doorknob on the inside, only a small keyhole. He pounded on the door, but his fists made almost no sound. It was as if the door was filled with sand: nothing would have been audible outside, even if anyone had been listening. The screams for help from the poor bastard crucified on the wall would have been in vain.
The atrocity that had once been a man groaned and opened his eyes.
‘Get me down,’ he croaked.
Yvette pulled the pins from the manacles and Joe put his hands under the man’s armpits and lowered him to the ground. A howl of agony escaped from the man’s broken lips as Joe moved him and he lapsed into a blessed unconsciousness.
‘They’ve broken nearly every bone in his body,’ whispered Yvette.
The man’s hands were shattered, the fingers crumpled in unnatural shapes, on one side of his torso a broken rib was pushing outwards, making a pyramid of skin. Both his feet had been pulverised, and his groin was a bloody pulp.
‘We have to help him,’ said Yvette urgently.
‘We can’t,’ said Joe, ‘look at him, he’ll never recover, and even if he did, what sort of life would he have? Anyway, he’s a collaborator.’
‘How do we know that?’ hissed Yvette fiercely, ‘do you believe the word of man who can do such a thing as this? This man could be anyone.’
True, thought Joe. He turned away from the horrific sight and stared at the wall.
He made a decision.
‘What do you do with an animal that’s beyond help?’ asked Joe quietly.
‘What?’ said Yvette. ‘Animal? What do you mean?’
Joe said nothing, just picked up the gun and the bullet and loaded the round into the revolver’s chamber.
‘You can’t be serious!’ said Yvette, ‘you don’t mean to shoot him surely?’
‘Even if he was a dog I wouldn’t leave him to rot in a place like this. He’s as good as dead anyway, it would be a mercy.’
‘Mercy?’ cried Yvette, ‘are you God to make these decisions?’
‘He won’t be the first man I’ve killed,’ said Joe, emotionless, refusing to let himself be riled.
‘But for God’s sake Joe, you have a gun,’ cried Yvette, ‘let’s use it on l’Hydre or his monster when they open the door.’
‘They’ll have thought of that,’ said Joe, ‘they’ll have us well covered, you can be sure of it. He’s given us no option.’
‘We do have an option,’ said Yvette. ‘We can refuse to do his murdering for him and we can leave this horrible place as soon as they let us out.’
‘Don’t you get it Yvette?’ cried Joe. ‘We’re in his hands. He has us captive as surely as this man here, and he can do the same thing to us. Our only choice is to do as he says. Now stand back.’
‘Non!’ cried Yvette, but she stepped back and covered her ears.
Joe raised the revolver, pointed it at the man’s head, and hesitated.
‘What is it?’ said Yevte, ‘get on with it.’
Joe’s hand trembled as if he had a savage hangover. The sight of the tortured body in front of him made him want to throw up. He shut his eyes and squeezed, but he seemed to have no strength in his index finger.
As he stood there, gun wavering, Yvette snatched it from his grasp, she thrust the muzzle against the man’s chest and pulled the trigger.
The click of the hammer on the chambered bullet was not particularly loud, but in that soundproof cellar it seemed deafening.
Yvette looked at the gun in bewilderment, staring down the muzzle as it expecting the bullet to come out, then she dropped it and slumped to the floor.
Joe picked up the gun, removed the bullet from the chamber and examined it. Now that he looked closely at it he could see plier marks on the lead dome. He weighed the round in his hand. Well underweight. Someone had taken the bullet out of the shell casing and removed the powder, then put the bullet back in. The rear of the casing had a distinct mark where the revolver’s hammer had struck it. It was clear that the round had been fired, even if there was no powder to ignite. A safe test indeed.
He looked at the mangled body of the prisoner. He wished to God the round had been live. He took a deep breath, then knelt down and put his hands around the man’s neck.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Yvette, her eyes wide.
Joe said nothing, and tightened his grip.
Ten minutes later there was a click at the top of the stairs and l’Hydre came in. Jean-Paul was behind him, pointing a pistol at them. Joe handed him the revolver and the bullet without a word. The grey man studied the round and nodded in satisfaction.
‘So, you would have shot him if you could, excellent,’ he said, ‘now, put him back into the manacles.’
‘There’s no point you bastard,’ said Joe, ‘I put him out of his misery without your bullet.’
The grey man studied the body for a moment, a hint of colour rising into his sallow cheeks.
‘So, you think you are clever eh? We will see about that. Know that you have saved him nothing, he would only have lasted another day or so. We will leave him outside Montmartre tonight as an example to others. Now come, we have much to discuss.’
Joe and Yvette were only too happy to leave that horrible room, but hey both knew they would never be the same again.
~ ~ ~
As he stepped off the train, Schmidt decided to walk to his hotel to get a sense of the city, despite the pain in his leg. He had been to Paris only once before and felt the need to familiarise himself with the environment. The walk revealed much that was useful: the people hurried along with their faces down, avoiding the eyes of the German patrols. The fromageries, patisseries and boulangeries all had long queues, and already a good number of Jews had sewn the yellow star onto their coat sleeves. Nearly a year before he’d walked the streets of Krakow shortly after the invasion, and this was not that different.
As he hobbled painfully up the steps of the Hotel Lutetia an hour later, he had a realisation: he hated Paris. He’d hated it since the moment he’d stepped off the train from Calais; he’d hated the train journey; and he’d hated Calais too for that matter. In fact, he’d been in a state of constant pain and rage ever since he’d awoken on the floor of that hovel in Roubaix only a few months before, to find his little Jewess gone, his left kneecap smashed, and the right side of his forehead caved in above the eye.
The doctors had replaced his right eye with a glass one and instructed him to remove it and bathe the socket twice a day to drain off any residual pus from the wound. The throb in his head was continuous, and his knee sent shooting pains up his spine with every step, but he had to admit that he’d made progress since they’d found him on the floor. He had no idea how long he’d been there, drifting and in out of consciousness, but eventually some French peasant passing by heard his cries for help and summoned a patrol.
Hagan hated women anyway, but his fury at the girl who had humiliated him burnt with a white intensity he’d not experienced before. At night, as he lay there waiting for the barbiturates the doctors had prescribed to take effect, he’d entertained himself with visions of what he would do to her if he ever managed to catch her again. In the meantime, he took out his anger on whatever unfortunates came under his control, and as the operational agent in charge of internal security in the Northern Department, this gave him plenty of scope. After recovering in the hospital he’d accepted the Abwehr’s instructions to join the Gestapo undercover. Now that he was physically incapable of passing unrecognised, it made no sense for him to consider espionage overseas. Besides, with his talents, he figured he would fit perfectly into the notorious internal security organisation and no-one would be the wiser. It had the sort of culture that he appreciated.
The Gestapo were using the Hotel Lutetia as their main base of operations in Paris, and it was here that he was to carry out his first duties as a Kriminalkommissar of Department D.
‘Ah, Schmidt, how’s the leg?’ asked Herr Setz, the Oberregierungs-u. Kriminalrat, as Schmidt hobbled into his office and sat down with an audible grunt.
‘Improving thank you sir,’ he said, popping out his glass eye and wiping it with his handkerchief.
‘Gut, gut, we need you in top condition for this assignment, ja?’ said the man, beaming cheerfully, seemingly unperturbed by the eye polishing. He was a wide man with a bald head, whose apparent size was only increased by the pair of tiny close-set black eyes that gleamed with curiosity from a clean-shaven, porcine face.
Schmidt knew from Setz’s reputation that his jovial exterior masked a callousness and disrespect for human life so extreme that even his peers in the Gestapo thought it excessive, but which Reichsfuhrer Himmler himself had praised, saying that Setz was the embodiment of the most important characteristic of a Gestapo officer, because he had: “the crucial ability to put aside all notions of compassion and weakness when dealing with issues of national security.”
His appointment to Paris had made Setz a powerful man in the Gestapo hierarchy, and Schmidt was acutely aware that serving under this man gave him an excellent position from which to observe Gestapo operations.
‘Now, to business,’ said Setz, ‘France has only been occupied since June, but already we are getting reports of resistance groups emerging. These poor fools don’t realise what they are up against, but I have no intention of getting into a guerrilla war with any of them. We must be more cunning than that, hein?’ he asked, tapping the side of his nose.
‘Infiltration sir?’ said Schmidt, anticipating the upcoming revelation.
‘Ja! Naturlich! In-fil-tra-tion!’ said Setz with a beaming smile. ‘We know of three main organised criminal gangs working in Paris at the moment. One is the local pre-war group who so far have contented themselves with sticking to prostitution and racketeering. The ringleader is a deeply stupid man who has risen to power through his brute strength and capacity for violence. He is too unimaginative to be of much use to us, so I’ve spoken personally with him and told him that as long as he accepts one of our agents into his staff and does nothing beyond his current operations, we will not bother him. They are an excellent source of coffee and cognac by the way, if you’re looking for some,’ he added.
‘The next is a rabble of Africans from Morocco. From the perspective of simplicity we don’t need three gangs running about, and they will be the easiest to get rid of: we simply round up all the blacks and send them off to the camps. It’s not as if they can lose themselves in a crowd is it?’
The man tipped back his huge head and roared with laughter.
‘Oh dear,’ he said, chuckling still and wiping away a tear, ‘sometimes I do amuse myself. Where was I? Oh yes, the last is a newer operation run by a man originally from Marseilles,’ said Setz, ‘and this one I think we can use to our own ends.’
‘And what ends are those sir?’ asked Schmidt, obediently following the script, despite having had the endgame explained weeks before in Berlin.
‘We will start giving them money and armaments and encouraging them to recruit willing volunteers. People who want to restore ‘la liberte’ to France. We will have to put up with some minor inconveniences along the way. For instance, you may have heard that several rank and file soldiers have been murdered in the streets of the Red Light district. That is no doubt the work of isolated partisans or criminals, but we expect them to do better over the next year or so, and our gang will help organise and arm them. Once they have recruited enough people we will scoop them all up. The train to Dachau will be full that day.’
‘And what is my role to be sir?’ asked Schmidt.
‘You will run this little operation as one of your duties, but your main role in the short term will be assisting the SS in identifying Jews, homosexuals, cripples, mental defectives and Gypsies for deportation. You’ll also be expected to build a network of informers across all levels of society. Now, I don’t expect you to do all this in person Hagan, you will have two staff reporting to you, capable men both, plus two secretaries to do the administration, which will be considerable. We have one woman employed already, French of course, to cover the language aspect, and another arriving from Germany next week.’
‘With permission sir, I’d sooner have two French-speaking German women,’ said Schmidt.
‘Wouldn’t we all?’ laughed Setz, ‘but can you find them? No, not even I can get my hands on more than two. Apparently the SS and the Wehrmacht have priority for some absurd reason, but what can you do?’ he asked holding up his palms. ‘Anyway, I see from your file that you speak fluent French, as well as English. That will come in handy once we start arresting the spies the British will inevitably send.’
Schmidt re-inserted his glass eye and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The painkillers he had taken that morning were wearing off, and whether standing or sitting, his knee ached, and waves of pain rolled through his head at random intervals.
‘But I can see you are keen to start your work,’ said Setz, ‘mercifully your office is on the ground floor, so you will be spared the stairs at least. Good day to you Herr Schmidt, I look forward to reading your first progress report this time next week.’
Setz opened a file on his desk and started scanning a list of names, Schmidt pulled himself up and opened the door.
‘One other thing Schmidt,’ said Setz, ‘you will be working with an SS officer I believe you already know, Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter. He and his men are in Paris charged with Jewish deportation, I believe he is waiting for you now in your office.’
‘Thank you sir,’ said Schmidt, closing the door.
‘Richter eh?’ he thought to himself as he hobbled down the corridor, ‘a Prussian, but at least he has the right attitude to Jews.’
‘The barge is moored alongside Route du Bassin Numero 6,’ said the man the others referred to as The Corsican, a wiry, sallow-skinned man with a perpetual three-day growth, ‘we will go in at 2am, cut it out and take it east around the bend in the river to this quay here on the Quai Aulagnier.’
‘Isn’t that a bit exposed?’ asked Joe, looking up from the map, ‘it looks like it’s on a main road.’
‘It is on a main road,’ said The Corsican, ‘but we have a warehouse here on Rue Novion, and there is a tunnel under the road that leads directly to it. We will have four trucks waiting to take the load and a dozen men to carry. I estimate we can empty the barge in two hours and have the trucks back in the warehouse by 4.30am. Once in we can unload them at our leisure.’
‘So what happens if a German foot patrol or river boat comes past while we’re unloading?’ asked Joe.
The Corsican shrugged, ‘Paris is a big city, there’s no reason for them to be patrolling this area at 2am, the chances are small.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said Joe, ‘what’s the plan if it happens, shoot our way out? What sort of weapons have you got? How many lookouts will you post and where?’
The Corsican looked up from the map, pulled a thin cigar from his shirt pocket and struck a match. He took a deep drag on the cigarillo and blew the smoke in Joe’s face.
‘Seeing you know so much about it, why don’t you tell us?’
Joe ignored the insult and studied the map.
‘I’ll need to see the area in daylight, but covering the land approaches is the tricky part. We’ll be able to hear a boat coming a long way off and get out of sight, but a foot patrol could come from just about anywhere. Aren’t you concerned that the location is too close to the dock? When they notice the barge missing they’ll search the closest places first. What are you planning to do with the barge?’
‘That’s where you come in,’ said a tall man with a scar dividing his right cheek who had been introduced as Claude, ‘when it’s empty you’re going to take it back where it came from.’
‘What? That’s madness!’ exclaimed Joe, ‘stealing the barge in the first place is dangerous enough, but taking it back?’
‘We assume the Germans will not notice it has gone missing at all. By the time they look into it and discover it is empty, we’ll be long gone.’
‘You may well be, but I’ll be stuck at the bloody docks,’ said Joe. ‘How the hell am I supposed to get out?’
‘We will bring a small boat to the quay,’ said Claude, ‘you tie it to the stern of the barge and once you’ve returned it you simply row back here.’
‘It’ll take me at least an hour to row that far,’ said Joe, ‘the sun will be coming up.’
The Frenchman shrugged, ‘So you will be a fisherman rowing on the Seine at dawn, it’s a common-enough sight. The curfew ends at sun-up, you have no reason to be suspected of anything.’
‘And to ensure your diligence, we will be keeping the lovely Alouette nice and safe here,’ said l’Hydre, entering the room with the giant Jean-Paul shadowing him.
‘Where is she?’ asked Joe. When they had left the cellar and gone back upstairs to the office, Madam Legrand had returned and asked Yvette if she wanted to use the bathroom. Half an hour had passed and she hadn’t returned.
‘She’s perfectly safe I assure you,’ said l’Hydre.
‘Not in that bloody cellar!’ yelled Joe, his blood boiling.
‘Non. She is with Sophie. They have much to discuss. A single Jewish girl alone in Paris is in a vulnerable position, open to exploitation by all sorts of unscrupulous people.’
The grey man smiled, a thin, ugly expression that sat awkwardly beneath the thin moustache. He removed his glasses, breathed on them and rubbed them on his sleeve.
‘She could be of great value to us, and besides, where can she go?’ asked the man. ‘Back to England with you? A dangerous journey for one in her delicate condition.’
‘What do you mean delicate?’ asked Joe.
‘You mean she hasn’t told you?’ the man laughed, ‘why she’s pregnant you poor fool, I assume the child is yours?’
Joe’s head spun and the blood drained from his face. Pregnant? How could she not have told him? Of course, he would never have agreed to take her with him to Paris if he’d known. All those visits to the bathroom, had she been throwing up all this time? God he was blind, blind to the most fundamental detail of the woman he loved.
He looked at the men in the room. The Corsican, puffing on his cigar; Claude, stooped over the map looking up at him; l’Hydre, smirking beneath his moustache, and behind him the ever-present Jean-Paul. How had he ended up in this place? Was he insane pursuing this mission at all costs? He needed to get it done and get Yvette out of here.
‘Let’s get this over with,’ said Joe, ‘when do we go?’
‘Tonight,’ said Claude, ‘everything is prepared. Of course this means you won’t see the lay of the land in daylight, so, working from the map, where would you place your lookouts?’
Joe forced Yvette from his mind and stared at the map. ‘Think man,’ he said to himself, ‘think like a German. Where would you be coming from?’
‘Where’s the nearest German barracks?’ he asked.
Sophie Legrand closed the door behind her and looked at the girl.
‘So, what is your name my dear?’ she asked.
Yvette looked around the cupboard-sized room. It was utilitarian and contained just a bed. The yellowing wallpaper peeled from the walls in strips and a single bare bulb hung from a cord in the ceiling. The sort of room no-one slept in; the sort of room where whores earnt their money the hard way; a room no-one noticed or remembered.
‘Alouette. What’s yours?’ replied the girl.
She was a beautiful creature, no doubt about that, thought Sophie, but that was definitely a bump in her midriff. Sophie Legrand was an expert at assessing young women. She had interviewed hundreds of them since the war began, most of them desperate to earn money any way they could. This one was clearly different. She carried her head with pride and had a fierce kind of light in her eyes. Sophie wondered if she’d ever killed a man. She had an air of aggression about her that said “Don’t touch me if you value your life”, that was like a perfume to Sophie.
‘My name is Sophie Legrand,’ said Sophie, ‘and you, my dear, just got lucky.’
‘Lucky?’ said Yvette, ‘how exactly?’
‘Let me try a few guesses about you, hmm? You’re from the north, I can tell by your accent, from Roubaix it would seem, from what your Australian friend has said. You’re Jewish, aren’t you? That black curly hair is a clear giveaway. You’ve come to Paris with your lover to kill a particular German officer, so you must be obsessed with revenge for something done to you or your family. You’ve probably already killed someone, a German most likely, so that makes you a murderess in their eyes, you’ve got nowhere to go, and on top of all of that, you’re pregnant.’
At this last statement, Yvette started violently.
‘What makes you say that?’ she demanded angrily.
‘Oh darling, in this business you quickly learn to recognise the signs. You have a small enough bump, but your skin is glowing, you unconsciously touch your stomach every few minutes, and when you went to the toilet just now I heard you throwing up. Whose is it? The Ossie? Or don’t you know?’
Yvette slumped onto the bed. The strain of the last few days was telling on her. Nothing in Paris had turned out to be as simple as they’d hoped, and now they were in this club with who knew what sort of disreputable people. Who could she trust? She stiffened herself and stood up.
‘It’s none of your business,’ she said, ‘we only came here because a friend said you could help us.’
Sophie Legrand smiled. A tough one this, she’d take a bit of breaking, and if she wasn’t sure of the child’s father, it was possible she didn’t care much about the child either. Opportunities flitted through Sophie’s mind. She could make a lot of money out of this girl. The Germans would eat her up at top price, she knew that, but she would rather she went to the work willingly than having to break her in the cell the way they’d had to with some of the other hard-cases. Sophie Legrand didn’t have much sympathy for anyone, but the process of chaining the girls in the basement, having Jean-Paul and The Corsican rape and beat them several times a day, and injecting them with heroin until they were addicted was not something she wanted to repeat unless absolutely necessary. Apart from anything else, it meant the girls couldn’t work until the bruises mended.
‘Listen mon cher,’ said Sophie quietly, ‘even if l’Hydre were to help your boyfriend find this German, what then? You can’t be on the run in France, let alone pregnant and on the run. The Germans are everywhere. Surely you can see where this absurd mission of his is going to end? If you can’t I’ll tell you: in a ditch with a bullet in your brain, or in a concentration camp. You need to make a decision now about whether you survive the next few days.’
Yvette said nothing. She knew the woman was right, but she had no idea what to do. She had been so single-minded, so consumed with vengeance that she hadn’t thought about the future at all, past getting to Richter. Even if they got him and took him to the coast, what then? Assuming they could even find a boat, did she want to go to England with Joe? The last time they had faced this question only months before she had opted to stay in France, and with hindsight that had been a big mistake. But what awaited her in England? A lone, pregnant Frenchwoman with no visible means of support, and Jewish to boot. She had no illusions that the British were particularly fond of Jews, no-one was. She had relatives in the south of France, her mother’s cousin Angelique, who had left Roubaix long ago and married a man who had land in the hills near the Italian border. She knew she would take her in. Apart from her there was no-one she could turn to, and she couldn’t return to Calais or Roubaix, the Germans might recognise her and arrest her.
She looked at the woman standing before her. Her velvet dress and heavy make-up looked absurd under the glare of the bulb, though she guessed it had the right effect in a dark and smoky nightclub. She must have been beautiful once, but time and a tough life had eaten away at her looks. Crow’s feet ensnared her eyes, and a vertical frown line divided her forehead. She imagined that this woman was as hard as nails and couldn’t care less whether she survived the next few days or not.
‘What’s it to you anyway?’ she asked.
‘Well Alouette,’ said Madam Legrand soothingly, ‘I can help you in several ways. First, I can help you get rid of that thing in your belly, tomorrow if you like. Second, I can give you a job, and third I can protect you from the Germans and the worst of what is yet to come in this war.’
‘How can you protect me from the Germans?’ Yvette asked.
‘False papers,’ said Madam Legrand, ‘among his men l’Hydre has an expert forger. We can turn you into anyone we like and give you a long Aryan pedigree that will satisfy any Jew-hunter.’
‘And this job, what would I be expected to do?’ asked Yvette.
Madam Legrand knew this was the critical moment. She had to convince this girl that she didn’t face a life of forcible prostitution if she came to work for l’Hydre.
‘A girl like you could be useful to l’Hydre,’ she replied, and as she said it she realised it was true. This girl was clearly intelligent and resourceful, and she guessed quite ruthless when necessary. Watched carefully she could add a dimension to l’Hydre’s team that was sorely lacking: a female agent, a woman who could do more than lie on her back and earn German scrip.
‘How so?’ asked Yvette suspiciously, ‘I’m no dancer, and I’m no whore. I’ll kill myself before anyone forces me to sleep with a German again.’
Again eh? thought Madam Legrand. Interesting.
‘No one will force you to do anything of the kind,’ said Madam Legrand, ‘I think your talents lie in other areas. Most of the girls here are pathetically stupid. Peasants with no education., whereas you are clearly well-educated. I don’t suppose you speak German by any chance?’
‘Yes, I do, fluently,’ replied Yvette. ‘I can read and write it as well, I studied archaeology, and a lot of the research was done by Germans.’
‘Well then you see, you would be invaluable to l’Hydre both as an assistant and as a liaison with the Germans. He does a lot of business with them … by necessity,’ she added quickly as she saw the girl’s cheeks flare, ‘and this gives us unique opportunities to damage their war effort and undermine them.’
This last was rubbish of course. L’Hydre’s operation was based purely on profit—patriotism didn’t enter into it—but no doubt they could fool her for a while at least, until they had some other hold over her.
‘Look at the operation your man is on tonight, they are recovering weapons and ammunition intended for our resistance fighters that the Germans have intercepted.’
‘Resistance fighters?’ asked Yvette, looking up eagerly, ‘you mean there’s a resistance in Paris?’
That was when Madam Legrand knew she had her.
‘It is only in its infancy,’ replied Madam Legrand, ‘but with our help it will grow rapidly. You could be a part of it. ‘l’Hydre will tell you more about it tomorrow, tonight I’d like you to watch the proceedings in the club. We have a discreet observation window overlooking the main room. You can familiarise yourself with the German officers who come in. It will be useful to you in the future to know who they are and what they do.’
‘What about Richter, will he be here?’ asked Yvette.
‘Perhaps he will, ‘said Madam Legrand smoothly, ‘I don’t know this man by name, do you know when he arrived in the city?’
‘Only in the last week,’ said Yvette.
‘And what unit is he with?’ asked the madam.
‘He’s a Hauptsturmfuhrer with the Totenkopf Division,’ said Yvette.
‘In that case we will see him soon enough,’ said the madam, ‘this is the favourite club for the SS in all of Paris, they’ve even nicknamed it “Der Delikatessen” I hear.’
‘Why?’ asked Yvette.
‘Because there is such a delectable range of goods to choose from,’ said Madam Legrand, rolling her eyes, ‘and we are open seven nights a week. Do you see Yvette what a superb cover a nightclub is for a resistance operation? All the senior German officers come here, and some of our less stupid girls have become quite adept at loosening their tongues. As a result we know all the units stationed in Paris and the locations and movements of dozens more around France. We are the nerve centre, and you can be a part of it. Observe tonight and let me know your thoughts in the morning. Now come and have something to eat then rest, you must be exhausted.’
~ ~ ~
The plan to steal the barge was simple. Almost too simple, Joe thought. It relied on one fact: a section of the fence that surrounded the port had collapsed near where the barge was moored, and the Germans hadn’t got around to repairing it yet. Security at the port was scant, as nearly all the former French nightwatchmen had enlisted when the war started and were now dead, wounded, or in captivity. Besides, with France conquered, what need was there to guard a port in Paris?
Consequently, the gang’s plan was to move into place in a nearby abandoned warehouse before the curfew. At 2am they would sneak out, cross the fence, unmoor the barge and sail it around to the quay on the other side of the peninsular created by the Seine’s loop. Joe had suggested the simplest plan of just driving the truck in and unloading the barge, but the French had thought that too risky, so now he was part of a far more complicated plan. He could think of a dozen things that could go wrong, but he didn’t have any knowledge of the lay of the land, and after all, he was only there so he would know where to dock the barge when the operation was over.
The warehouse was dusty and the concrete floor cold. Joe found an old bench seat with the slats half broken off and tried to get some sleep. It was a pointless exercise, his mind was racing and the slats of the bench dug into his shoulders. He tried to calm his breathing and focus on what he had to do. The most important thing was to get a solid bearing once the barge was out in the main stream so he would know where he was on the return journey.
After an hour of remonstrating with himself for joining the commandos in the first place, he managed to slow his mind down to a level below panic. If he was caught by the Germans again he was in for a rough time. They’d probably work out who he was eventually and shoot him. Hell, they’d probably shoot him even if they never worked out he wasn’t French. All this just to bring back this man Richter. Joe thought about the Nazi, forced his mind back to the farmyard at Le Paradis, the awful sewing-machine ripple of the machine guns as they tore into the defenceless men of the Norfolk regiment. The screams of the dying and the series of single shots as the Germans worked their way through the bodies, finishing off those who were still alive, then silence. It was nothing short of a miracle that he and Smythe had survived and managed to make it to Dunkirk. Joe shuddered at the risks they’d taken, especially the ride on the motorbike through the German lines when he’d been distracted by trying to kill Richter.
And yet here he was, after the bastard again. And Yvette was pregnant for God’s sake. Was the child his? She hadn’t said much about what had happened to her after the British had retreated, but her silence and her refusal to let him touch her spoke volumes. He wasn’t sure how he felt about it except for a fierce sense of protectiveness that made him want to get her out of this God-forsaken country once and for all, her objections be damned. How could she possibly stay now?
The hours dragged and he must have dozed off, because suddenly he was being shaken awake in the dark.
‘Time to go Ossie,’ came the rough voice of The Corsican.
Outside it was black. A crescent moon gave a thin gleam illuminating the outlines of the buildings and barges in the port, but the shadows were deep and sinister. Perfect conditions for a bit of clandestine work, thought Joe as he, Claude and The Corsican dashed across the exposed road and were swallowed up in the gloom.
They negotiated the broken fence and crept into the port, hiding in the shadows and sprinting across the open spaces when they had to.
‘It’s the fifth barge from the left, right there,’ whispered Claude, pointing. The Corsican went forward and scouted left and right, but there was no-one around. The river-front was empty and dark. They crept down an alley between two warehouses and came out directly across from the barge.
‘Wait here,’ said The Corsican, and disappeared around the corner.
Joe’s ears were straining for the slightest noise, and his eyes were wide, trying to peer through the blackness along the pier. He heard a metallic clang, then a series of clicks and an engine started up, a deep diesel thrum, obscenely loud in the silence. He looked forward to see The Corsican casting off the front rope of the barge and waving them over.
He and Claude broke cover and leapt across the pier to the barge. Claude took the wheel while The Corsican cast off the rear painter, and Joe pulled a boathook from the scuppers and fended the front off, pushing the nose into the stream.
It wasn’t a huge barge, only about thirty feet from stem to stern, and as the bow cleared the barge in front, Claude lit up the engine and the boat surged forward.
‘Get your bearings!’ hissed The Corsican, gesturing at the rapidly receding shore. Joe looked hard at the dock. There were three barges to the left of the gap they had made, and four on the far side. Behind them he could see three warehouses and a crane that ran on tracks along the dock. The crane was at the far end of the line of boats. Joe blinked. Looked again. Took a mental photo of the scene, closed his eyes and visualised it, then opened them again. The dock had receded and they were entering the right-hand channel where an island of sand split the river as the loop began. Only the right-hand channel was navigable, something Claude had been most insistent upon reminding him.
Joe expected lights to come on, and shots. But nothing happened. The dock remained silent and the barge slipped around the corner of the river and out of sight. They had done it. The easy part anyway.
~ ~ ~
After two hours down in the hold, loading heavy boxes onto pallets to be lifted out by the crane mounted on the barge, Joe was exhausted. According to his watch it was nearly 4am, but the pile of crates didn’t seem to have shrunk appreciably to Joe’s tired eyes. They’d been hard at it from the moment the barge tied up. Only once had the crane winch jammed, delaying them for fifteen minutes while they unpacked the pallet to ease the pressure and unravel the crossed wire on the winch barrel.
‘What’s in these boxes anyway?’ asked Joe, as he and Claude waited in the hold for the hook to take up the next pallet-load.
‘I don’t ask so I don’t know,’ said Claude, ‘safer that way, but judging by the weight I’d say a lot of it’s small-arms ammunition. L’Hydre is planning on being overlord of Paris, and there are two other gangs we’ll have to take out. Not to mention the Germans, who are an annoyance.’
‘An annoyance?’ asked Joe incredulously.
‘Oui, they are far more zealous than your average French policeman’ said Claude. ‘We had to kill two of their investigators who got too nosey. They also breed informers like rats, so we have to be careful. That’s one reason why l’Hydre wanted you on this operation.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Joe.
‘Well, he can trust you, can’t he?’ said Claude, rolling his eyes. ‘You’re a British officer so you can’t possibly be an informant, and he can expose you at any time, plus he has your girlfriend as a hostage, you’re the perfect man – everything to lose, and nothing to gain by betraying him.’
We’ll see about that, thought Joe to himself as the pallet came down and he started stacking boxes.
Ten minutes later, Claude looked at his watch.
‘Time to go,’ he said, ‘go up and get familiar with the engine, I’ll join you in a minute.’
‘What about those boxes?’ asked Joe, pointing at a dozen crates that lay untouched towards the bow.
‘Don’t worry about those,’ said Claude, ‘there isn’t time.’
On deck the stars had rotated and the moon was low in the sky. On the quay, Joe heard a truck engine start, then another, then Claude came out of the hold.
‘Now listen,’ said Claude, ‘when you take the barge back you have to moor it exactly the same way as it was before. This means you have go in a wide circle and swing in to the mooring position facing up-river. Take it slow and wide after you leave the channel, there’s not much room for error. Once you get the bow into the slot, cut the engine and run forward to throw the mooring rope. When you’ve got the rope over the bollard you’ll have to run secure the rear one before the stern starts to drift outwards. If you leave it too long you’ll drift out of range. Got it?’
‘What about the boat?’ asked Joe.
‘There,’ said Claude, pointing to a small rowing boat tied over the port side of the barge, ‘the oars are inside it. Good luck.’
Claude started the engine and climbed over the gunwale onto the dock. That was when the first shot rang out.
Muzzle flashes sparked in the darkness and Joe crouched down out of sight behind the gunwale. He heard The Corsican shouting orders, then a fusillade of shots and the sound of truck engines revving madly.
No-one seemed to be paying him any attention, so Joe concentrated on getting the barge into the centre of the river. He pushed the throttle forward and guided the barge out into the stream. He’d completed the circle and was heading back up-river when shots started coming at him from the bank.
The first shot hit the hull with a thud, the second cracked past above his head. They sounded like pistol shots, certainly not sub-machine gun fire. Then a voice called out from the bank.
‘You in the boat, stop now and we will spare your life. We have a man on the bridge, he will shoot you like a dog as you go under.’
Speaking French, not German? thought Joe. Was this the French police? No, they would have announced themselves. Then Claude’s words about the other gangs came back to him. He looked ahead and saw the bridge looming. There was no cover on the deck, the wheel was completely exposed. He had maybe thirty seconds before the man up there would have a clear shot.
He took off his belt and looped it round the stanchion that held the wheel, then buckled it tight to keep the wheel steady. The bridge had two stone pylons, and the barge seemed to be heading right between them. Either way, he’d have to take his chances,
Before he’d even registered the muzzle flash, the bullet smashed into the deck inches from his right foot. He leapt sideways and scrambled forward over piles of rope. Getting to his feet he staggered forward, tripped on a winch handle and fell headlong into the hatchway, half-in, half-out, teetering on his stomach.
He scrabbled desperately at the lip of the hatchway but only succeeded in slowing his fall. With a savage wrench of his shoulder, he landed six feet below on the hard planks as three more bullets tore into the deck where he’d tripped.
The barge motored on, the engine straining, and Joe lay on his back, moaning with pain. His left shoulder was on fire, and where he’d hit the deck his right hip sent waves of aching abomination up his spine. He moved his legs and arms: nothing seemed to be broken, but as he sat up a jolt of searing pain shot through his back.
He lay down, took some deep breaths and tried rolling onto his side. That was better. After a few minutes he managed to pull himself onto his knees and came face-to-face with something Claude had left in the hold.
~ ~ ~
Yvette stood with her back to the door and held the pistol in her right hand. She had never fired a gun in her life and, apart from the obvious things—point and pull the trigger—she had no idea how they worked. Joe had given her the gun that night before setting out on whatever expedition the gang had asked him to be involved in.
‘Claude gave me this,’ he said, ‘but I think you’ll need it more than I will. It’s loaded and ready to fire, so keep it close. This switch here on the side is the safety catch. If it’s up, the gun won’t fire, so if you think you’ll need to use it, make sure you push the switch down. Is that clear?’
‘Oui, up safe, down to fire,’ Yvette had replied.
Once Joe had gone she sat there and flicked the switch down, then up, then down, then up again. She wished this night were over. She flicked the switch back down once more for luck, then flicked it up and slid the gun under her pillow. All she had to do was lift her pillow, draw it, flick the safety and fire. On reflection, she flicked the switch back down. One less step before she could fire.
At 2am, she was sitting in a hard wooden chair in the tiny room the girls had dubbed ‘The Nest’ above the main room of the club. She had a pair of opera glasses and a notepad, and was making sketches of the German officers in the room and their rank insignia. So far she hadn’t seen anyone she recognised and was questioning the value of her sketches, when an officer came in and handed his coat to the concierge. She recognised him immediately.
‘Got you, you bastard!’ she whispered fiercely, and began to draw.
~ ~ ~
The bundle of dynamite was wedged between two open crates. Joe looked into them. More dynamite. The whole bloody barge was a bomb and he was the sucker being sent to deliver it, destroy the evidence, make it look like an accident. He looked at the dynamite bundle. On the far side a bunch of wires connected a timer that had fifteen minutes to go. Exactly how long it was expected to take him to get the barge back. It didn’t matter whether he got it exactly into position or not, close enough would be good enough. All that crap Claude had spun about how to moor it was just a snow-job to make sure he went up in the blast.
At least no-one was firing at him now, but the barge was still ploughing along at full speed. Joe’s head ached and he struggled to remember what it was about the river here that was so important. Christ, the sand island.
He forced himself to his feet and struggled up the ladder, his shoulder and hip screaming. Out on deck the island was looming on the starboard bow, and he stumbled to the wheel and pulled his belt free, spun the wheel and dragged the bows into the deep channel with only metres to spare. He didn’t want to think about what would happen to the dynamite if he ran aground at this speed. He throttled down and thought for a moment, dragging in deep breaths, his heart threatening to burst from his chest, blood hammering in his skull.
Should he abandon ship or take the barge back as planned? If he didn’t take it back, they’d suspect something and God knew what they’d do to Yvette. If he took it back he risked being blown up, and they’d betrayed him anyway, but he had to get Yvette out of there, and if they suspected anything they’d kill her out of hand. Or worse. He thought about going down to the hold to check how much time he had left, then abandoned that idea as pointless and thrust the throttle forward. Up ahead, the river looped round to the left and he could make out the skeletal forms of the cranes in the moonlight, hanging like vultures above the river.
He looked at his watch. He reckoned he had five minutes. He ran forward and untied the row boat, checked its painter was attached and pushed it overboard. It floated gallantly and he threw the oars in after it.
Back at the wheel he looked at the shoreline and spotted the crane and the warehouses he’d identified earlier. He steered the barge straight at the gap where it had been moored, gunned the throttle, threw off the rowboat’s painter and climbed over the gunwale into it.
Joe had never been much of a boating man. Where he’d grown up in South Australia there was precious little rain, let alone standing water, and the only rowing he’d done was in a few weeks of commando training in Scotland where they’d been instructed in using rubber boats. The level of skill they’d acquired hadn’t been adequate for getting them ashore at Cap Gris Nez in the rough Channel surf, and here on the Seine things weren’t much better.
He almost capsized the boat getting in, but settled himself, row-locked the oars and heaved as hard as he could. His shoulder and hip were on fire, but he gritted his teeth and hauled. Above the silhouettes of the cranes he could see a faint greying in the east. The dawn was coming. By God, it must be later than he thought.
He’d put fifty yards between himself and the dock, and was pulling around the far side of a barge moored in the channel, when his panting efforts were interrupted by a huge orange flash and the sound of a hundred artillery shells going off together. The shockwave blew him backwards like a paper doll, and the boat rocked violently as a four-foot wave raced out from the blast area, setting the little row boat pitching and rolling furiously. The water foamed over the sides and Joe clutched at the seat and clung on. As the maelstrom of water began to settle, pieces of flaming debris started to rain down, blown far into the sky by the force of the explosion.
Joe covered his head and huddled in the bottom of the boat. A flaming plank landed beside him and he kicked at it, got a foot under it and flicked it over the side. Smaller pieces pattered on him and something massive and heavy, an anchor maybe, cannoned into the water only metres away, drenching him in spray. Eventually, the hard rain stopped, and Joe pulled himself up.
In the dimness of the early dawn the devastation was revealed. Of the eight barges moored along the dock, only three were still afloat. There was a gaping hole in the dock where the wood had been shredded into toothpicks by the force of the dynamite, and flames raged in the shattered warehouse. The river was covered in debris, and in the background, the crane was listing to one side.
My God, thought Joe, how much explosive had been in that bloody barge? More to the point, what am I going to do now?
~ ~ ~
As Joe pulled steadily on the oars, the sun rose behind him, illuminating a different Paris from the parts he had seen so far. On both banks of the river, industrial buildings and warehouses stretched off up streets far narrower than the boulevards of the centre of town. There were few trees and the buildings seemed to be coated in a grey soot that gave them a uniformly drab appearance. He reached the quay to his left where the ambush had taken place only a few hours before, and, exhausted from rowing against the current, pulled into the quay and tied up the boat. Someone would be bound to have reported shots and he could expect a patrol at any time, so he took a quick and nervous look around. Apart from a few chipped pieces of masonry where bullets had struck the stone of the tunnel there was no indication that a minor gang war had erupted there that morning. He wondered whether Claude or The Corsican had been hit, then realised that he hoped they had been; that would mean two fewer of the bastards he would have to deal with.
He walked up the Quai Aulagnier to the Boulevard Voltaire and jumped on a tram heading towards town, passing the conductor a handful of francs. People were giving him strange looks and when he caught his reflection in the window he understood why: his shirt was torn in several places, his hair was wild and a large red lump was rising on his forehead. He touched it and winced. Up until then he hadn’t noticed it—he must have hit something in the boat when the explosion knocked him over.
He sat down, dazed, and realised that he hadn’t eaten or slept properly for some time. ‘Think man,’ he muttered to himself, without realising he was speaking English, ‘what now?’ The woman beside him looked over in some alarm. It had only been a few months since English was last spoken in Paris, but so much had changed so suddenly, and English was now a dangerous language to speak.
She leant over and cupped her hand over her mouth.
‘You are English, non?’ she whispered conspiratorially, looking around her as she did so, ‘you must stop speaking English. Do you speak French?’
‘Oui,’ said Joe, suddenly conscious of what he’d been doing.
‘You have had some trouble, yes?’ she said, gesturing at his clothes and face.
Joe really looked at her for the first time. She was in her mid-thirties he estimated, wearing a blue dress and a simple hat. Her brown hair was tied up under the hat and she wore no make-up—who did in Paris anymore? She had a generous mouth and widely-spaced brown eyes that were looking at Joe with genuine concern.
‘This is my stop coming up,’ she said, ‘you should come with me, you can’t stay on the streets like this, the Germans will arrest you immediately.’
Joe knew she was right, at the moment he blended into the Paris street scene about as well as a kangaroo.
‘Merci,’ he croaked, ‘you are very kind, but you’re taking a big risk.’
‘Come,’ she said, standing, ‘this is where we get off.’
They stepped off the tram and she walked straight down a side street where grey apartment blocks seemed to Joe to lean out over the sidewalk. She turned into the entrance hall of number 24 and unlocked the door of a ground-floor apartment.
The apartment was small and sparsely furnished with a table and chairs in the kitchen and a single lounge that took up half of a tiny living room.
‘Lie down,’ she said, ‘you need to rest.’
Joe was too tired to argue, he lay down on the couch and kicked off his shoes. The adrenaline that had sustained him throughout the night had faded, leaving him drained and exhausted. His head, shoulder and hip were aching ferociously, and lying down was so much better than walking. He closed his eyes.
‘Drink this,’ said the woman, offering him a glass of red wine, ‘and eat this,’ handing him a plate of bread and cheese.
When he had finished she said, ‘Now, rest. I will be back this afternoon at 5.30. I will bring you some new clothes. Don’t answer the door to anyone, you understand?’
Joe nodded. Waves of grey were washing over his eyes, and the room was starting to dim. He heard the front door close, then nothing.
He awoke when the setting sun shone through the window directly into his face. He sat up with a start and regretted it immediately as the blood drained from his head and the bump on his forehead throbbed painfully.
He got up slowly, walked to the sink, filled a cup and drank deeply. Three times he emptied the mug, then he stuck his aching head under the freezing tap.
He returned to the kitchen, piled coal into the stove and put the kettle on. Beside the sink was a framed photo of a man in a French army uniform. It was a stock-standard picture of the kind no doubt taken in a thousand studio photo in early 1940. The man was wearing his dress uniform. He had no insignia of rank and was staring at the camera if it were a ravenous lion. Even in such a small frame the fear in his eyes was palpable. The husband, presumably. About to discover for himself what it was like to have people trying to kill you by any means possible. Joe could understand his fear, but the reality was far worse than anything he’d ever imagined. A clock on the wall ticked. 6.55.
There was a rattle of keys and the door opened. The woman came in, locked the door and turned to him. She was carrying two bags, from one of which a baguette protruded.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked solicitously, placing the bags on the table, “I’m sorry I’m so late.’
‘Okay thank you,’ replied Joe, ‘you realise you’ll be in a lot of trouble if the Germans find me here.’
‘Here, get out of those clothes and put these on,’ said the woman, passing him the second bag. Inside was a pair of brown trousers, a shirt and jacket. Basic workman’s clothing, not new, but clean and serviceable enough.
‘I would have given you my husband’s clothes,’ she said, ‘but he is much shorter than you, you would look absurd.’
‘Thank you,’ said Joe, taking the bag, ‘but why are you doing this?’
‘Because I have some small amount of pride left,’ said the woman, unpacking some potatoes and a small salami from the other bag, ‘and if you are English you must be here for a reason, and I assume that reason has something to do with defeating the Germans. So, it is my duty to help you. If I may ask, what is your name, and why are you here?’
‘My name’s Joe,’ he replied, ‘but I can’t tell you why I’m here.’
‘You realise you’ll be shot as a spy if they catch you,’ she said.
‘I try not to think about that possibility,’ said Joe, ‘and I’d better be going, I have to get to Pigalle.’
‘Then you’d better hurry,’ said the woman, ‘it’s past seven o’clock and the curfew comes in at nine. It will take you at least that long to walk there from here.’
‘Can’t I catch a tram?’ asked Joe.
She shook her head.
‘They stop running at 7pm. Let me tell you how to get there. When you leave, turn right and keep going until you reach the Avenue de Clichy. Turn right and follow it until you reach Place de Clichy, there is a statue of some Napoleonic hero there, then turn left and take the first right onto Boulevard de Clichy. Place Pigalle is only a short way down from there.’
‘Avenue-right, Place-statue-left, then right onto Boulevard Clichy. Sounds simple enough,’ said Joe, ‘but you haven’t even told me your name, just your first name though, best I don’t know your last name.’
The reason for not knowing too much hung unspoken in the silence between them.
‘It’s Marie,’ she said, ‘I hope you achieve what you came here for. Good luck to you.’
‘Thank you again,’ said Joe, ‘maybe I can repay you for your kindness when the war is over?’
‘Oui, of course,’ she said, smiling awkwardly, ‘now you’d better get going or you’ll be caught out after curfew.’
She opened the door. As he passed she leant in and kissed his cheek.
‘Bonsoir Joe,’ she whispered, ‘bonne chance, and take this, it belonged to my husband, but it is of no use to me.’
She passed him a canvas bag with something heavy in it, then she closed the door behind him.
The kettle was whistling. She took it off the stove and looked at the sepia photo of Pierre as she had last seen him, in his uniform, supposedly heading off to the front. But of course, he hadn’t gone. Instead, when she came home from work she had found him in the bathtub, still in uniform, his brains splattered over the wall. She’d known he was a coward—the bruises he had regularly given her in places that didn’t show proved that—but she hadn’t dreamt that he’d take his own life rather than have the truth come out in front of his peers.
‘Ah Pierre, you yellow bastard,’ she sighed, ‘why could you not have taken the chance? You might have died a hero, like that Englishman will.’
~ ~ ~
Joe pulled the cap down low and headed north at a brisk walk. He soon reached Avenue de Clichy and turned right. The sun sinking behind his lanky form threw a threw a long shadow down the pavement and turned the stone buildings pink.
For a second Joe imagined Yvette walking beside him in peacetime, her arm in his, the baby in a pram front of them. His train of thought stopped abruptly. Baby? How could he ever know if the child was his? He shook his head to clear that thought and reached into the bag Marie had given him. He felt the distinctive shape of a pistol.
Stepping under the lintel of a tobacconist’s, he opened the bag and looked in. It was an M1911 Browning .45-inch automatic pistol, a weapon his commando instructors had trained him to use, over and over again. At the practice range he’d hit a target at twenty yards with six of the seven shots that were standard for this gun. He ejected the magazine. Six shots. He wondered what the seventh had been used for. Still the gun was oiled and in good condition, no rust. He pulled the catch to let the magazine slip and quickly emptied the shells. Re-packing the magazine, he racked the slide and heard the satisfying snick of a round slotting into the firing chamber. At least now he could go down fighting.
He thrust the Browning into his jacket pocket, dumped the bag in a rubbish bin and set off again. As he walked, he thought about how best to play this. He could try to play it dumb and pretend that he’d been well away around the curve of the river when the bomb went off and had only seen the explosion in the distance, so there was no connection in his mind with the barge. It was a tenuous story, but if he admitted to knowing they’d mined the barge he was as good as dead, and he had to find a way to get Yvette out of there. As for Richter, his chances of taking him alive were even slimmer now he’d got mixed up with these bloody criminals. Maybe it was time to forget the mission.
In the end he decided he had to risk the bluff. He was so exhausted, he couldn’t think of another option.
~ ~ ~
‘The explosion was huge,’ said The Corsican, ‘one of the other barges must have had some sort of explosive cargo. I cycled past on the other side of the river this afternoon, the whole quay was blown to pieces and one of the warehouses was still on fire. The Australian must have been killed in a blast that big.’
L’Hydre sniffed his brandy balloon and lit a cigar.
‘One thing though,’ The Corsican added, ‘when I went down to the Quai Aulagnier there appeared to be a row-boat just like the one we had on the barge, tied up at the quay.’
‘There must be thousands of those boats on the Seine,’ said Claude.
‘Nevertheless,’ said l’Hydre, ‘we must be prepared in case the Australian returns. He is clearly a stubborn fool, and now he has nowhere to go except here or back to Bernard with his tail between his legs, and he didn’t strike me as the type who gives up easily. Now listen, if he comes we welcome him in and ask him what happened. We have no knowledge of the explosives.’
‘What if he saw them in the hold?’ asked Claude.
‘We deny all knowledge, say the Germans or another gang must have planted them,’ said l’Hydre. ‘Either way, we know nothing. He’s done his part of the bargain, I see no reason not to honour ours.’
‘You mean to give him the German?’ asked The Corsican incredulously, ‘why?’
‘Why not?’ said l’Hydre. ‘I intend to use this man to gain us some contacts with the British. If he succeeds in getting the German to England he will have credibility and we may well gain an ally; if he fails, we lose little.’
‘But what if the German escapes and accuses us of taking him?’ asked Claude.
‘We won’t do it here you idiot,’ snapped l’Hydre, ‘as far as the Germans are concerned there will be no connection between this Richter fellow and this club, except for the fact that he left here in a taxi with one of our girls who, strangely enough, will also have disappeared. Who knows, perhaps they eloped? This Richter fellow may survive this attempt at kidnapping, but Hortense will most certainly not remain in Paris. I believe there will be a vacancy for her soon in Marseilles, if not, then …’ He made a throat-slitting gesture.
‘What do we do with the pied-noir we captured at the quay last night?’ asked Claude.
‘Leave him in the cellar for the moment,’ said l’Hydre, ‘we may be able to use him as a bargaining chip with the Maghrebi when they finally admit their error in taking us on. What did you do with the bodies of the other two?’
‘Threw them down there with him to keep him company,’ smirked The Corsican.
‘In that case you can carry them out again,’ said l’Hydre with a frown, ‘either now or in a few days when they have started to rot, I don’t care, but dispose of them in the usual way and be discreet about it.’
~ ~ ~
‘What do you mean “didn’t make it”?’ cried Yvette. It was 7pm and she had been brushing her hair in the small hotel room when Claude had knocked and entered. He looked dishevelled and tired and there was a bloodstain on his shirtsleeve.
‘I’m sorry mademoiselle,’ said Claude, ‘last night we were attacked just as the lieutenant left with the barge. The last I saw of him he was unhurt and sailing it downstream towards the port. He was supposed to meet us at the quay, but of course that was impossible after the gunfight, and how could he have survived the explosion?’ he said with a shrug.
‘Explosion?’ asked Yvette.
‘The barge must have been booby-trapped, on a timer or something. We heard it go off about half an hour after he left. He was probably just getting it into the dock. He might have survived but I doubt it.’
Yvette stared at him sightlessly. Joe. Dead? It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t go through this all over again. Her brain swelled and she felt as if she would explode, but then an ice-cold thought sliced through her turmoil. If Joe was dead then she was truly at the mercy of l’Hydre. Sophie Legrand’s offer had appealed to her. One part of her desperately wanted to fight the Germans, the other part just as urgently wanted to get out of this country, to run away to England where she could be safe from Nazis and gangsters, where people were still civilised and the rule of ultimate brutality hadn’t yet crushed the last ounce of humanity out of everyone. But if Joe was dead, then … then there was no escaping France. She was trapped.
‘If he’s still alive we expect he will come here,’ said Claude, ‘unless the Germans have him of course.’ Claude closed the door behind him, but Yvette was only alone with her desperate thoughts for a few minutes before there was a knock and Madam Legrand came in.
Unlike Claude, she had clearly slept well all day. The velvet gown had been washed and brushed down to remove the smell of stale tobacco smoke and sour wine. The thick make-up that had been streaked with black where her mascara had run the night before had been stripped and re-applied: perfect.
‘Sleep well?’ asked the madam.
‘Well enough, thank you,’ replied Yvette.
After her night in the observation room, Yvette had finally got to bed as the sun was rising. When she woke up, the sun was starting to set.
Madam Legrand lit a cigarette. The scratch of the match on the wall broke in on Yvette’s thoughts..
‘You were raised well, weren’t you girl?’ said Madam Legrand, blowing blue smoke, ‘taught to be polite and demure and obliging, just as I was. At least until Daddy and his friends decided I was old enough to have a bit of fun with. I was six at the time. How old were you when it happened to you?’
Yvette shook her head and said nothing. She was appalled. What was wrong with the world? Only six months before she’d been happy enough digging up Roman ruins and rejecting the advances of the local boys in Roubaix. Now … what did this woman think she was?
‘I can see it in your body language Yvette,’ said Madam Legrand, ‘whenever a man enters the room you instinctively guard yourself and get ready to strike if necessary. Your hands tighten into fists, your eyes widen, your blood starts pumping. Every man is a threat, isn’t that right? You were raped weren’t you? More than once I’d say.’
Yvette looked at the floor.
‘By this man Richter?’ asked Madam Legrand.
‘No, not him. I chose to sleep with him so I could get close to him,’ said Yvette, ‘we had it all worked out with the British. I would take him to a place where they could nab him. But it all failed, the men they sent weren’t up to the job. They let him escape.’
‘Let me guess, this Lieutenant Dean was one of them?’ Said Madam Legrand.
‘Yes, they did their best,’ said Yvette, ‘but nothing goes the way you expect it to.’
‘But there were more weren’t there?’ said Madam Legrand, ‘Germans, men who think that raping a Jew is their duty. How many?’
‘Why should I tell you?’ snapped Yvette.
The woman raised her hands in a pacifying gesture.
‘You don’t have to, but sometimes it helps to talk about these things.’
‘Just one,’ Yvette said quietly, ‘a spy who had joined Joe’s unit as a radioman before the invasion even. He’d been reporting on the British positions by radio for months and when they were stationed in Roubaix he was always … watching me. After the attack the British retreated through Roubaix and he took his chance to desert and came for me. He murdered my uncle and raped me. Joe found me and chased him off, but he came back for me when the British surrendered and held me captive for a week.’
Yvette shuddered at the memory she had tried so unsuccessfully to blot out.
‘How did you escape him?’ asked Madam Legrand.
‘One day when he undid the handcuffs I caught him off balance and killed him.’
‘How?’ asked Madam Legrand softly.
‘I beat him to death with a saucepan,’ said Yvette, ‘then I ran.’
‘And you’ve been running ever since,’ said Madam Legrand, ‘Alouette, you’re a brave and resourceful girl, but it’s time to stop running. If you try to work alone or with this Englishman, the Germans will capture you eventually. If you want to help France you need the support of our organisation. From what the boys tell me it’s unlikely that your Ossie survived the night. I’m sorry about that, but listen: we can help you, you can help us. Together we can kill many Germans. You must stay. Think of the work you did last night.’
But Yvette wasn’t listening. Her eyes filled, and she put her head in her hands and wept.
Hortense cursed and dropped the false eyelashes for the third time. What idiot man had invented such a thing she wondered? It would have to have been a man, no sane woman would inflict such a thing on her own sex. High heels too, no doubt invented by a man.
How many hours of her life had she spent in front of a mirror, applying foundation crème, mascara, eyeliner, eye-shadow, lipstick? And for what? To make herself more beautiful for some filthy pig of a man who somehow had the right to use her body for an hour then walk away. It wasn’t enough to be “naturally beautiful”, as her mother had always told her she was, she had to make herself artificially, superficially beautiful, conforming to some idealised stereotype, and who had invented it? Queen Cleopatra popped into her mind. Even she, queen of the most powerful country in Africa had to resort to harlot’s tricks to keep her throne. And to think they had told her she would only have to dance, that her long legs and arms and her training at the Opera National de Paris made her ‘invaluable’ on the stage. Lies, filthy lies. She and all the other dancers were only there to be selected by the Germans in the audience, like cuts of meat on a restaurant platter, kept there only by the promise of the opium they had been forced to crave.
She fumbled in her purse for the marijuana cigarette and lit it with trembling hands. The Corsican had told her that she had a ‘special’ job tonight, and she knew what that meant. Fulfilling the sick desires of some Nazi in a hotel room. She had begged him to give her some opium before the show but he’d refused.
She drew deep on the spliff, holding the sweet smoke deep in her lungs as she looked at her reflection. She had to escape from this place. She knew that another month here and she would do something desperate, she could feel it building inside her, the awful pressure, she had to get out, but she could see no way out. Claude and The Corsican were always watching, and there was the ever-present threat of Jean-Paul. She’d seen what he’d done to one of the girls who’d fought back, the lithe little Moroccan. When he’d carried her moaning out of the cellar and dumped her in the hallway her body had been like a bag of sand, not a bone left whole. They’d put her in a sack weighted with rocks and thrown her into the Seine, alive. Bastards. God how she hated them.
The door to the dressing room opened and Yvette came in.
‘Please don’t tell me they’re planning on making you dance tonight,’ said Hortense, looking up.
‘Non,’ said Yvette, ‘but I want to tell you something. Something important.’
‘What?’ asked Yvette, getting up and closing the door.
‘I overheard l’Hydre and his men talking about you,’ said Yvette, ‘they were talking about the operation tonight and, well, I can’t be sure, but I heard them mention your name and Marseilles in the same sentence. Does that mean anything to you?’
Hortense felt a chill race up her body and back down again and shivered. It meant something. Marseilles was where The Corsican had come from, along with the girl Jean-Paul had broken and drowned. What was her name? Asmara? Adjanna? Hortense couldn’t recall, but she remembered well enough her tales of the brothel in Marseilles: drunk, violent, poxed sailors, night after night, far worse when the fleet was in. Beatings from the pimps, rape, degradation, forced drug addiction, exotic young dark-skinned girls from all over French Africa forced into unnatural acts of every description. She’d said that this place was a paradise by comparison. Hortense wondered what she could have done to deserve being sent there.
‘Yes,’ said Hortense, ‘it means they’re planning to send me to a far worse place. But why?’
‘Never mind why,’ whispered Yvette, ‘tonight is your only chance to get away.’
‘Get away?’ said Hortense looking up hopefully. ‘How?’
~ ~ ~
From his position in a doorway, Joe looked around. There was no-one about except for an old woman walking a small terrier. The dog stopped outside the back door of the club to cock his leg on the steps, then the two moved slowly on. Once they were gone, Joe walked quickly up to the door and knocked loudly three times. After a short pause, the giant Jean-Paul opened the door and stood aside silently.
‘Pleased to see you too,’ muttered Joe under his breath as he passed through and walked up the stairs.
The Corsican and l’Hydre were sitting at the desk in the office poring over a map of Paris when Joe came in with Jean-Paul padding close behind him.
‘Lieutenant Dean!’ cried l’Hydre, ‘my men told me you were dead, there was a big explosion I gather?’
‘Of course there was you slimy bastard,’ thought Joe, ‘because you ordered it.’
‘Bloody oath it was big,’ said Joe, ‘took out the whole quay. God only knows what set it off, but it gave me a bit of trouble at the time.’
‘How did you escape the blast?’ said The Corsican, ‘we assumed by the timing that you must have been right there when it happened.’
‘Luckily I’d started rowing away already and I was passing behind a barge moored in the channel, it absorbed most of the blast. As it was I got knocked over in the boat and copped this,’ he said, motioning at the lump on his forehead. ‘Who the hell was that attacking us at the quay?’
‘Just a rival gang,’ said The Corsican, ‘we dealt with them, they only came with three men the fools.’
‘And you are a lucky man,’ said l’Hydre, ‘and not just because you are alive. Now you are here we can honour our side of the bargain.’
‘What do you mean?’ said Joe, instantly suspicious. He was surprised that Jean-Paul hadn’t searched him, and the M1911 in his coat pocket felt as big as a howitzer.
‘The man Richter was in the audience last night,’ said l’Hydre, ‘your woman observed him from the secret gallery, so we sent Hortense to talk to him. Have you met Hortense, Lieutenant?’
‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ said Joe.
‘Ah, she is a friend of Bernard’s, one of his models in fact and a child ballerina, although she was never destined for success in that arena—her breasts grew too big—anyway, he brought her to us recently as she was destitute, and she has proven extremely useful. She is an exquisite piece, and under our instructions she has laid a little trap for Herr Richter. Tonight he will come as usual, and Hortense will join him at his table and ply him with champagne. Once he is well lubricated she will invite him back to her apartment. She can be quite persuasive, and I sincerely doubt any German’s ability to resist her, unless he’s a man-lover, but Alouette assures us that that Richter isn’t, and she would know apparently,’ he added with a smirk at The Corsican.
‘Of course, he will never reach her apartment,’ he continued, ‘because you will be driving the car they get into. You will take them to a safe place, and at dawn you can drive straight out of Paris for the coast.’
‘But what about the curfew tonight?’ asked Joe, ‘surely there aren’t taxis driving around after 9 o’clock?’
‘Oh we have an arrangement with the Germans about that,’ said l’Hydre waving a hand dismissively, ‘we keep the club open until 3am, well past the authorised hours of their staff car drivers, so as a courtesy we provide a small fleet of cars to take them back to their hotels in the early morning hours. Only four cars, but they suffice.’
‘You’ve certainly got a good thing going with the Germans,’ said Joe sourly.
‘M’sieur Dean, this arrangement dates back well before the war. We did the same with the ministers of the French government, the mayor’s office and the General Staff. Only the nationality of the passengers has changed.’
‘So that’s all of your plan? A straight snatch job?’ said Joe. ‘Stone the crows, it’s not much better than the last one. A kidnap from the front door and then what? How are we supposed to get to the coast through the checkpoints? Where’s the boat? Who’s the contact? I need to know all of it.’
‘All in good time m’sieur Dean,’ said l’Hydre, ‘the show doesn’t start until 10pm. I suggest you have something to eat and get some sleep. You have a long few days ahead of you.’
Joe realised abruptly how exhausted he was.
‘I believe someone is waiting for you in Room Three,’ said l’Hydre, ‘now leave us, we have much to plan if this is all to work.’
Joe stood up, and so missed the look l’Hydre threw at the Corsican. He walked to the room at the end of the dingy corridor and knocked. Yvette opened the door a crack, and pulled him into the room.
‘Oh Joe, I thought you were dead,’ she said, holding him close and kissing him.
‘So did I,’ said Joe, clutching her fiercely to him.
And in Room Three, they finally made love.
The man who called himself l’Hydre lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. Beyond the restaurant window behind him, Parisians went about their business in what appeared to be a normal fashion. Only the occasional German uniform betrayed the fact that this was a conquered city in an occupied country. That, and the man sitting opposite him.
‘So,’ said the man in the black uniform, ‘this man Dean who has approached you is, you say, a British soldier? And the woman with him is with the resistance? And they have asked you to help them kidnap Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter?’
‘Oui,’ said l’Hydre, blowing a cloud of blue smoke into the air.
The man sipped his coffee and looked at him quizzically. ‘An incredible story. It sounds, unlikely, to say the least. How did they get here? How can they hope to escape France with a kidnapped German officer?’
‘That I do not know yet,’ replied l’Hydre, checking the nails of his left hand, ‘I agree it is an insane scheme. I will have the details of their escape plan soon, but events have been moving rather quickly. I thought the soldier might be of some use to me in a small matter I had to clear up, yet a simple scheme to have him quietly eliminated failed last night, and he has returned to my club as if nothing happened. He is either stupid, cunning or absurdly brave, they all amount to the same thing in the end anyway. Of course I do not believe for a moment that he does not suspect that we tried to kill him. He is a dangerous individual, full of pride, as is the girl. So, having failed once to get rid of him, I thought to present them both to you as a gift to help secure our future co-operation in the administration of this great city.’
A fleck of ash from the cigarette drifted across a beam of sunlight and alighted on the German officer’s shoulder. He glanced down momentarily and brushed it away, then picked up his coffee cup and sipped at it. After a prolonged silence he gestured to the waiter and ordered another coffee for himself.
‘It is a gift I am willing to accept,’ said the officer, ‘but I want them both alive and unharmed, is that clear?’
‘Completely clear,’ said l’Hydre, steepling his fingers.
‘Both. Alive and unharmed,’ repeated the German, ‘do not bring me corpses, they are no use to me. At best these two are minnows. All I could likely get from the girl will be the names of a few low-level contacts, these people are civilians, amateurs. As for the Britisher, he may have something interesting to say, but no doubt his stiff upper lip will oblige him to die before he reveals anything.’
‘He is an Australian I believe,’ said l’Hydre.
‘Really?’ replied the officer, ‘well that will be a first for us, but not the last I expect. And what do you hope to receive in return?’
‘Your goodwill and protection, Herr Obersturmbannfuhrer, nothing more,’ said l’Hydre.
‘Well, as long as you keep up your deliveries you can be assured of that, whether or not you deliver me spies, but you have made the right decision. Anyway,’ he added, looking at his watch, ‘neither of these two is of particular interest to me, so I am handing this matter to the man responsible for counter-espionage in Paris. Ah, here he is now.’
The officer in the black uniform stood and held out a hand to a man entering the restaurant. He was not a tall man, not thin, not fat, dressed in a charcoal suit with fair hair combed to one side. You would never have looked twice at him, had it not been for the slight limp and the misshapen forehead.
‘Mr Schmidt,’ said the Obersturmbannfuhrer, drawing out a chair, ‘meet the self-titled l’Hydre of Paris. I‘ll leave you two gentlemen to become better acquainted. Adieu m’sieur.’
The man sat down, leant forward and spoke in a gravelly voice, devoid of warmth.
‘So then Frenchman, what have you got for me?’
~ ~ ~
Joe lay on his back and stared at the ceiling. His shoulder and hip still ached, but they were manageable. What wasn’t manageable was this plan of l’Hydre’s. Even assuming they nabbed Richter on the street, they’d have to keep him out of sight until dawn, then get him out of Paris. After that it was relatively simple: drive west and south for le Havre.
l’Hydre’s contact there would take them at night in a fast boat to where the British motor gun boats patrolled the Channel. They were in regular contact with them according to Claude and ‘There would be no difficulty.’
“No difficulty”, thought Joe grimly. It all sounded far too easy. He hated being in a position where he had to trust these people. There was a knock on the door and Yvette came in. She closed it and sat on the bed beside him.
‘So it is to be tonight,’ she said, stroking his hair.
‘Are you ready?’ asked Joe.
‘Oui, but Joe, we must take Hortense with us.’
‘What?’ asked Joe, ‘why for Christ’s sake?’
‘Because if she stays here she will be killed, or worse,’ she said. ‘Don’t you see that once she does this she will be a marked woman? The Germans will know she was the last person to see Richter, they will shoot her just on suspicion, or send her to a camp, and besides, I know l’Hydre is planning to send her to Marseilles, to a place worse than this.’
‘But how can we take her with us?’ said Joe.
‘We’ve discussed it,’ she said, ‘we will exchange places.’
‘And then what?’ said Joe sarcastically, ‘you start working here as a whore?’
She slapped him viciously in the face and he flinched from the blow. She leant in and spoke in a harsh whisper.
‘I have thought about this, and I have decided to stay in France. I cannot fight the Germans from England, I am no use over there. I will stay here and kill Germans.’
‘But you can’t trust these people!’ exclaimed Joe, rising from the bed, ‘they’ll have you doped up and screwing Germans before the week’s out. Have you looked in a mirror lately? A girl like you is worth a fortune to them. Do you really believe they’ll let you be a resistance fighter? Why would they risk you being killed or captured when they can keep you here completely dependent on them?’
Yvette said nothing, just rose abruptly and left the room.
The room was more of a closet, a low-ceilinged space with just enough space for a chair, but a person sitting there had a grandstand view of the club below.
The air was stifling, the heat from a hundred cigarettes, candles and people, rising from the room. Yvette sat in her underwear, the sweat streaming off her, pouring herself glasses of water every few minutes from a jug. In her lap lay a pad on which she was sketching fast impressions of the faces of the German officers below, with their rank insignia.
Below her and to her right was the stage, where the second act of the night, a perverse comedic act featuring two girls, wearing nothing but corsets and boxing gloves, was in full swing and drawing guffaws and lewd suggestions from a crowd now warmed-up with champagne and cognac. A balconied section ran around the two sides of the room, while the main area, filled with tables and chairs, was set below it. To her left, the front door opened onto a narrow corridor and a cloakroom. She could see Jean-Paul looming in an alcove to the left of the entranceway, from where he could survey the door, the room and anyone coming in or out.
When Claude had handed her the sketchpad and charcoal she’d asked why they didn’t just take photos. He had shrugged and said “The light is not strong enough. Do what you can, you appear to have a talent for it.”
She did have a talent for it, a talent honed over several years sketching the items she had dug out of the Roman ruins around Roubaix. In two hours she’d sketched the faces and ranks of six senior German officers. Her hand was cramped and filthy with charcoal, and the sweat was mixing with it now to leave black smears on the paper. She was about to crawl back out and go to the toilet when she saw him and the skin of her faced drained to the colour of the pad in her hand.
Richter had been there for an hour, and she’d sketched his face without difficulty already, but the hated face of the man who was handing over his coat in the entranceway was all too familiar. She could have sketched it effortlessly from memory.
But it was impossible. He was dead. She had killed him herself, smashed his head to a pulp with an iron skillet back in Roubaix only six months earlier. He had kept her handcuffed to a radiator for a week, and on the fifth day, when she was close to losing her mind from thirst and the agony in every muscle and joint, he’d undone the cuffs and she’d seized her chance. She’d left him on the kitchen floor, his head a bloody mess, and now she thought back to that moment, one she’d done her best to blot out. She realised that she hadn’t stopped to make sure he was dead, she’d been so desperate to escape she hadn’t checked. That had been a mistake, a bad one, and she cursed her own stupidity.
Schmidt was clearly the worse for wear. He was wearing a perfectly-cut grey suit but every step betrayed a limp. She grimaced with satisfaction. At least she’d done the bastard some damage. She wished she’d had the presence of mind to castrate him and leave him to bleed to death.
Putting that thought to one side she picked up the sketch pad. A plan had sprung into her mind fully-formed.
Yvette glanced up and down the narrow corridor, opened the door and closed it quickly behind her. Hortense looked up from the dressing-table mirror with an enquiring expression, then stood up.
‘How do I look?’ she asked, doing a quick pirouette that made her skirts rise, revealing lace stockings and a glimpse of smooth pale thigh.
Standing with her back to the door, Yvette took in the woman. She looked magnificent. Risque definitely, but not slutty. She looked like a young, sophisticated and beautiful Parisian woman who had the money and style to dress well and knew exactly how to show herself off to best advantage. Her white silk blouse was open just enough to give a glimpse of the curve of her breasts. Nestled between them, a blood-red ruby on a gold chain glinted darkly. Yvette knew enough about men to know just how tantalising that combination was. A deep red skirt covered the girl’s long legs to the knee, and her hair was swept-up and pinned above her head, leaving two curls cascading down either side to frame her face. Mascara and eyeliner had been expertly applied by a practised hand, and the luscious red of her lipstick focussed your attention on her slightly open mouth. The effect was electric.
‘Ce magnifique!’ said Yvette, thinking to herself that she would never look this beautiful, then dismissing the idea as the futile jealousy of a schoolgirl. She was plotting murder, surely she was beyond such petty emotions now?
‘Now we must put your charms to work,’ she added matter-of-factly, sitting down on the bed and laying out the charcoal drawing.
‘What’s this?’ asked Hortense, sitting beside her.
‘This is the man you have to seduce,’ she said, ‘he’s downstairs right now. An hour from now you will invite him to your apartment. We will have a taxi waiting outside. Joe will be the driver and I will join you. We will put a gun to his head and tie him up. Once the curfew lifts we will all get out of here and head for the coast. Now, let me tell you a few things about him.’
~ ~ ~
Out in the street, Joe sat at the wheel of the taxi cab smoking a cigarette and looking at his watch every twenty seconds. The minute hand seemed to be stuck and he had shaken the watch numerous times. He’d parked here at 9pm and it was now 9.35, so the watch was working, but time seemed to be refusing to pass.
Two cars behind him in the taxi queue, The Corsican struck a match and lit his tenth cigarette of the night. God he was bored. To think he could have been screwing one of the club’s dancers, or using the knife on the negro in the cell. Even sitting at the bar drinking brandy would have been an improvement on sitting here watching this idiot. The Ossie was clearly nervous. He kept opening his door and stubbing out cigarette butts. As far as The Corsican could tell he was nearly through the packet.
Joe was worried. Twice now German officers had come out of the club and taken the cabs in front of Joe. Now he was at the front of the queue. If the girl didn’t get Richter out of there soon some other Nazi bastard would come out and expect to be driven somewhere. As he had only the vaguest notion of Paris geography, this would be a problem. He kept his cap down low and faced away from the door, but every time it opened and the light shone out on the cab, he held his breath. Come on Yvette, he cursed, what the hell are you doing?
~ ~ ~
‘This is the man,’ said Yvette, showing her the drawing.
‘How can you be sure?’ asked Hortense.
‘I had to … spend some time in this man’s company a few months ago,’ said Yvette, ‘he spent a lot of it talking about himself and what he did and how important his work was.’
‘Huh!’ snorted Hortense derisively, ‘sounds like a typical man then.’
‘Yes, but he is not typical, far from it,’ said Yvette bitterly.
‘He hurt you didn’t he?’ said Hortense quietly, ‘what did he do?’
Yvette looked up at the ceiling. The paint was peeling in places and a lone fly buzzed pointlessly against the window pane. In one corner a patch of mould seemed to her to take on the shape of an old crone with a crooked nose. She shook herself back to the here-and-now.
‘Never mind,’ she replied, ‘the less you know the better. You have to play a part, I only want to give you enough background so you can ask him some leading questions.’
‘Just answer me one thing then,’ said Hortense, ‘is he interested in women? He’s not a homosexual or anything?’
‘Oh no,’ said Hortense, ‘he’s definitely not that, he’s interested in women because he hates them. He hates them as much as he hates Jews.’
‘Okay then,’ said Hortense, ‘I can work with that. Let’s go.’
She stood up and checked her hair and makeup one last time in the mirror.
Hortense entered the main room from a door beside the stage and walked right through the middle of the tables, her hips swaying suggestively. As she passed each table the eyes of the German officers raked her up and down, instantly taking in and evaluating her vital statistics and concluding that she was by far the most beautiful woman in the place. Their heads turned as she passed and each table was disappointed that she’d not chosen to sit down with them.
Reaching the table where Richter and Schmidt were sitting she paused and eyed Schmidt.
‘Do you have a glass eye?’ she said, bending down towards Schmidt to show off her cleavage, ‘that must have been so painful, were you wounded in action my hero?’
Schmidt’s one eye appraised her coolly. Was she mocking him? She was certainly beautiful, and relatively young, in fact she reminded him of the Burgomeister’s daughter he had raped at knife-point all those years ago in Baden Baden, the silly little bitch who’d ended up dying on him and got him arrested. Bad for him at the time, but it had led to his joining the SS and everything else had followed naturally from that.
The memory of that night stirred in him like a coiled snake and he stood up and pulled out a chair.
‘Not as painful as seeing you forced to stand unnecessarily,’ said Schmidt with a clumsy attempt at chivalry, something he was not accustomed to.
Hortense laughed, a liquid ripple, and sat down, holding out her hand.
‘Hortense,’ she said.
Schmidt kissed the proffered hand and sat.
‘Hagan,’ he replied, ‘you remind me of someone.’
‘Oh really?’ she asked with wide eyes and a devilish smile, ‘not your mother I hope.’
Beside her, Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter guffawed and poured her a glass of champagne.
‘My name is Hans,’ he said holding out the glass, ‘let us drink the health and restored eyesight of my friend Hagan here.’
From her eyrie, Yvette watched the party of three closely. Hortense was clearly an expert at playing men. While feigning interest in what Richter was saying, her body language made it clear that Hagan Schmidt was the one who had claimed her attention. She sat facing him with her legs crossed in the aisle between the tables and looked sideways at Richter. Yvette saw her reach into her small purse and produce an ivory cigarette holder which she loaded with a Gitane. Richter held out a lighter and the conversation continued. A few minutes later a waiter brought a second bottle of champagne.
Half an hour later the bottle was empty and Yvette was watching the trio through her opera glasses. She saw Hortense laugh at something Richter said, then Schmidt said something and Yvette saw her whirl around to face him, an expression of fear on her face. Schmidt stood up suddenly, grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Yvette saw Jean-Paul stand in his alcove and make his way down the stairs to where Schmidt was now manhandling Hortense up the stairs towards the door. There was a brief conversation, then Jean-Paul stepped aside and allowed Schmidt to push the girl towards the door.
‘Non! Non!’ came the girl’s screams, but at that moment the band started up, the curtain rose, and the girls came high-stepping out onto the stage. Hortense’s cries were lost in the noise, but Yvette was already flying down the stairs.
‘Fuck! Fuck! What went wrong?’ she cursed to herself as she negotiated the steps two at a time and came into the main room. At the front, the door was swinging shut on the struggling form of Hortense.
~ ~ ~
Joe tapped a fresh cigarette out of the packet, lit it from the stub of the last one and threw the butt into the growing pile beneath the driver’s door. He noticed that the fingers of his left hand were tapping nervously on the steering wheel and he grasped the curved metal tight to stop them. He’d always found the waiting the worst part of any action: once the explosions started going off and he could shoot back at something he was so scared and pre-occupied with the idea of imminent death that he stopped thinking consciously. Sitting here though, waiting for someone else to do something, was mental torture of a completely different kind.
The door at the top of the stairs swung open and Joe saw Hortense come out, being pushed roughly by a man in a suit.
‘I’m not Jewish!’ she screamed, but the man just snarled and slapped her across the face before dragging her down the steps.
‘You there!’ called the man to Joe, ‘open your door immediately.’
Joe jumped out and pulled the door open, and the man pushed Hortense into the back seat of the cab and climbed in after her. When Joe got back into the driver’s seat he looked in the mirror and saw the man was holding a pistol, low down above his leg pointing at Hortense, who was now sobbing. Without prompting, his trained eye identified it as a Walther P38, nine rounds.
‘Hotel Lutetia, now!’ ordered the man.
Joe started the engine and was engaging first gear when the front door of the club burst open and Yvette came running out and down the stairs. Joe pretended to be having trouble with the gear stick to gain her a few seconds.
‘Now, you French dolt!’ yelled the man, and he pointed the Walther at Joe, ‘or do I have to drive this thing myself?’
Yvette yanked open the passenger door, and, as the man swung his gun around, leant in and pointed the M1911 at his head.
‘Drop it or I’ll blow your head off!’ she cried.
The man hesitated and she leant in further and jammed the revolver against his head.
‘Now!’ she hissed.
Joe swivelled in his seat, plucked the gun from the man’s hand and turned it on him. He looked familiar but it was too dark to see him clearly. Yvette took the opportunity to climb in, then stuck the automatic deep into the man’s ribs.
‘Let’s go Joe,’ she urgently, slamming the door.
Joe lurched off in first gear, accelerated down the empty street and turned left onto Boulevard Clichy.
As they turned the corner, the club door opened and Richter raced out pulling on his coat. He ran down to the waiting line of cabs and jumped into the first one. As the cab accelerated and rounded the corner, The Corsican was taking the steps of the club three at a time.
~ ~ ~
‘What the fuck is this?’ screamed Schmidt in German, ‘who are you people? Do you have any idea who I am? You’ll all be hung with piano wire for this!’
‘Don’t you recognise me Hagan?’ asked Yvette in a cold voice, ‘do I look that different when I’m not chained to a radiator?’
Hagan Schmidt’s look of fury changed abruptly to one of fear. In the darkness of the blacked-out Parisian streets he couldn’t see Yvette’s face, but he recognised her voice.
‘You!’ he hissed, ‘you took my eye and left me for dead. By God you’ll pay for this!’
Yvette ground the gun barrel hard into his ear and he flinched.
‘No Schmidt, not me, it’s your turn to pay. Joe, turn right and keep going until you cross the river.’
‘What the hell happened?’ asked Joe, whose view of the rear seat was obscured in the darkness, ‘who the hell is this bastard and where’s Richter?’
‘This is Hagan Schmidt, better known to you as Private Summerville, don’t you recognise him Joe?’
‘Schmidt? What the hell?’
‘He came into the club quite by chance,’ said Yvette, ‘so I told Hortense to go after him instead of Richter.’
For a moment, Joe’s mind filled with the image of Major Benjamin leaning over the desk in the briefing room back in England, explaining that Richter was the target, ‘We want him alive for questioning about the massacres in Belgium and France, that’s why,’ then the memory of Summerville raping Yvette in the kitchen in Roubaix, her uncle’s body still bleeding out in the front room, blotted out any sense of duty or mission objectives. For a moment a red rage filled his eyes, and his throat swelled and threatened to choke him, but he forced air back into his lungs, changed gear and made a turn that he knew would take them down to the Seine.
In the taxi behind them Richter gesticulated wildly at the bemused taxi driver.
‘Follow them!’ he yelled, pointing to where the taxi was turning the corner. He instinctively reached for the Luger on his left side and drew it.
Cursing loudly, he peered through the windscreen at the fleeing taxi. From a side street on the right, a sedan pulled out in front of them and accelerated sharply. At the next intersection, the taxi turned left and the car followed it.
‘A gauche! A gauche! Allez!’ yelled Richter, and the driver stepped on the accelerator and threw the car around the corner.
When the car turned into the side street and Schmidt saw the river, he knew there was only one end awaiting him. He had to make his move now. The bitch with the gun had the barrel hard up into his ribcage though, he would need a distraction.
The fools hadn’t searched him properly. They’d taken his Walther 9mm, but as the car began to slow he inched his left hand into his trouser pocket, where he kept his switchblade. It had been a gift to him from Admiral Canaris himself when he completed his training, and since receiving the knife, Schmidt had kept it scrupulously clean, the mechanism oiled and silent.
The moment to move was when they were getting out of the car. She would have to take the gun out of contact with his body. He readied himself as the car drew up beside the river.
The Australian in front pulled on the brake and got out, aiming the Walther at him. That complicated matters and he instantly changed his plan.
‘Hortense,’ said Yvette, ‘open the door and get out, I’ve got this bastard covered.’
Hortense leant to open the door, but as she did so, Schmidt threw himself bodily upon her, drawing the blade with his left hand as he launched himself up and over the woman.
Yvette was caught unawares and as she squeezed the trigger, stopped with the sudden realisation that the bullet would also kill Hortense. Then she saw the flash of the steel in Schmidt’s left hand, but it was too late. He had the blade at Hortense’s throat and had grabbed her right arm in a pinch hold.
‘If you move I open this bitch’s throat!’ screamed Schmidt.
Then Joe hauled open the door and the two of them tumbled out in a heap. Joe stepped in and threw a mighty kick at Schmidt’s head as it came out of the door, but he only half-connected, and in his follow-through his foot went hard into the door-jamb. He whirled in pain, but forced himself to raise the gun and point it at the German. Schmidt had crawled out and once again had his knife at the throat of Hortense, who was lying curled up, whimpering.
‘So Lieutenant,’ said Schmidt with a sneer, standing and hauling Hortense to her feet in front of him, ‘did I ever tell you how much I enjoyed your woman when you abandoned her in Roubaix? Or did she tell you about it?’
‘Is that how you lost your eye, you bastard?’ said Joe.
Yvette crouched behind the car and levelled her pistol at Schmidt with a cold and deadly expression on her face.
‘It’s over for both of you amateurs,’ said Schmidt, ‘Richter will have followed me, ah, here he is now,’ he said, nodding to a set of headlights coming up the street.
Joe weighed his options. He should shoot Schmidt. If Hortense got her throat cut in the process that was unfortunate, but Schmidt couldn’t be allowed to live. But he couldn’t bring himself to squeeze the trigger, at this range there was no guarantee he could hit Schmidt.
As he hesitated the taxi drew up and Richter stepped out, his Luger steady in his hand. Joe saw another car coming down the street behind him and wondered who it could be. The taxi driver jammed his car into reverse and skidded away from the scene, careering wildly across to the wrong side of the street as he raced away along the river.
‘Drop your gun,’ screamed Richter, pointing the Luger at Joe.
‘You drop yours,’ said Joe.
‘The car behind me is bringing more officers,’ said Richter, ‘in ten seconds you will be outnumbered, you might as well surrender now.’
The approaching car screeched to a halt and the doors flew open, but instead of German officers, l’Hydre, the Corsican and Jean-Paul stepped out.
‘Well, well,’ said l’Hydre, taking in the scene, ‘you are pretty determined aren’t you Lieutenant Dean?’
‘Bloody hell, you cut that fine,’ said Joe, keeping his revolver trained on Richter, ‘can we get out of here now?’
The Corsican and Jean-Paul stood silent, And Joe noticed that their pistols were covering him, not Richter. The man who called himself l’Hydre took a few paces closer.
‘I’m afraid it’s not that simple lieutenant, you see Mr Glass-Eye over here,’ said the Frenchman, gesturing at Schmidt, ‘made me a fine offer yesterday, one I feel obliged to honour.’
‘Seize them both, now!’ said Richter in the voice of one used to instant obedience.
‘Please don’t interrupt,’ said l’Hydre. Richter turned purple and seemed as if he were about to explode, but managed to swallow his rage.
‘You see Mr Dean, while it might be patriotic for me to help you, it is not really in my long-term interest is it? France is conquered, these men govern. If I am to retain even a vestige of my influence in Paris I have no option but to co-operate with them.’
‘Collaborate you mean,’ said Joe fiercely.
‘Call it what you will, but it makes sound business sense,’ said l’Hydre.
‘And do you reckon the Germans will let you run your poxy little operation for long?’ said Joe, ‘they’re just using you, and one day they’ll send you to the camps along with everyone else they deem unfit to live. Criminal scum like you must be high on their list for extermination after the Jews.’
No-one seemed to have noticed Yvette lurking behind the car. Joe knew it was only a matter of time until Schmidt gave the game away. He had a few seconds, while this pointless conversation continued, to come up with a plan of action. He flicked his eyes around the scene. What were his options? To his right, Schmidt held the knife to Hortense’s throat. To his left, Yvette was crouched behind the car. In front of him, Richter, the Corsican and Jean-Paul had guns trained on him. He had the German’s Walther, but it was not a good situation. Not good by any estimation.
‘Don’t listen to this fool,’ said Schmidt, adjusting his grip on Hortense, ‘we have a deal and you have the protection of nothing less than the Abwehr. Now, arrest them or shoot them, I don’t care which.’
At that moment Hortense abruptly threw an elbow into Schmidt’s glass eye. He let out a scream and stumbled backwards, but as he fell the blade sliced across her neck, opening a livid gash. A horrific gurgling scream escaped from her opened throat and blood jetted out, spraying directly into Richter’s face.
Joe and Yvette seized their chance.
Joe had been aiming at the Corsican and at the sudden movement he made a reflexive shot that caught the man full in the chest. He went backwards without a sound and Joe stepped left and switched his aim to Jean-Paul. He fired twice at the shape, but the big man vanished behind the car. Then Richter, his hands wiping blood from his face, stumbled across his view and Joe fired twice again. The first bullet blasted past Richter, but the second scored across the back of the man’s skull and he crumpled to the ground.
Two deafening shots exploded beside Joe’s left ear. He whirled to see Yvette lowering the pistol. One shot had taken Schmidt in the left thigh. The other, presumably her first shot, had hit him in the upper torso, but on the way it had blown straight through Hortense’s right shoulder. The girl’s shoulder joint was completely destroyed and her right arm was hanging by a tendon, blood spraying out through the wound. She was wriggling convulsively on the ground and making inhuman noises. Schmidt wasn’t moving.
A shot crashed into the car window, spraying glass over both of them, and Joe span to see Jean-Paul firing at them from their left. L’Hydre was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where the hell is he?’ Joe asked himself as he crouched behind the car.
Yvette loosed off two quick shots before Joe grabbed her arm and pulled her into cover behind the car. Another bullet screamed through the metal of the far side of the car and exited only inches above their heads. How many shots had Jean-Paul fired? What sort of gun did he have? Joe had no idea, but counting through the events of the last three seconds he realised that between them, he and Yvette had only three shots left.
‘Jean-Paul, stop shooting!’ came the voice of l’Hydre from behind the car. In the sudden silence, Joe crawled behind a tyre and looked around him. Behind him lay the Seine, black and evil, the moonlight rippling in the water where it swirled around the pylons of the bridge. Could they possibly get away in the river? He doubted it. Even the moonlight was bright enough for a decent shot to pick them off before they’d swum twenty feet. Still, they had three shots and there were only two people left to kill. Not great odds, but it could be worse, he thought to himself. He reached over and squeezed Yvette’s hand.
‘Listen Hydra,’ he said, ‘we’ve got no beef with you. All we want is Richter. All you have to do is walk away. You can carry on your operation as if nothing has happened.’
‘Ah, if that were only true,’ replied l’Hydre coolly, ‘but you appear to have killed two Germans, one a senior agent of the Gestapo, the other an SS officer. Do you believe this will go unnoticed? Non. They will investigate and the first place they will come will be my club. The only way I can atone for the mess you have made is to bring the Germans your head, and that of your pretty girlfriend, then perhaps they will see that I am a man of principle.’
‘Principle?’ cried Yvette in disbelief, ‘you disgusting excuse for a man! You call yourself a Frenchman?’
‘Keep talking,’ whispered Joe. He had noticed that only a few metres away a slope descended to the towpath beside the river. He started wriggling towards it. The cobbles of the road changed to raw concrete on the slope and as soon as he was below the line of the wall that lined the ramp Joe got onto his hands and knees and crawled until he could stand.
‘At least your sidekick had the courtesy to acknowledge that he was Corsican,’ said Yvette. ‘Or was that just pride? Perhaps he was hoping for a bit of Napoleonic cachet? Eh?’
Joe ran down the ramp. To his right the Seine flowed black and silent; to his left the stone wall rose three yards. He shoved the Walther into his back pocket and started to climb.
‘Why don’t you just go?’ cried Yvette. ‘We will leave Paris, killing us makes no difference.’
‘You’re not listening, you stupid bitch,’ hissed l’Hydre, ‘I need a scapegoat for these two Germans and you two are it. Tomorrow, when the Germans discover all this, two of the bodies here will be yours. Lieutenant, did you ever really believe you could carry out your absurd mission? Do you think you are Jean Valjean, looking for redemption? There is no redemption, there is only death, the sooner you realise that the easier your life will be. You men of principle are dangerous, you believe you can change things, but human nature always triumphs in the end.’
‘Human nature?’ she shrieked, ‘what would you know of it you scum? Sink to the lowest level and drag everyone down with you? You’re disgusting.’
She tensed on her heels and dashed behind the other wheel of the car. No shot came. Where was Jean-Paul?
Joe reached the top of the wall and clambered over. From this new angle he could see l’Hydre crouched behind the car, but Jean-Paul was nowhere to be seen. The reflected gleam of the car headlights threw long shadows but there was no cover except the buildings across the street.
‘Bugger it,’ he said, and crouching low, dashed forward with his gun raised in two hands.
Yvette screamed. Jean-Paul had come at her from her left. While Joe had been moving to the right, he had worked his way silently around the car to the left in the darkness, and now he pounced on her like a lion.
Joe was five yards from ‘l’Hydre. He stopped, steadied himself, let out a breath, lined up the barrel and fired. The Frenchman saw the movement and turned, but he was too late. The bullet hit him under his left arm and punched a bloody swathe right through his chest, blood and fragments of bone spraying out behind him. His body collapsed like a punctured balloon.
Behind the car, Yvette was being crushed under Jean-Paul’s massive weight. His hands were around her throat, squeezing with a terrible pressure, while beneath her back a dagger seemed to be pushing into her flesh. She clawed at his eyes and throat, but he pulled his head back out of her reach and squeezed harder. Her lungs were screaming and a roaring sound was growing to a crescendo in her ears. She kicked and rolled and lunged, but the terrible grip around her neck never weakened. As she gasped for a breath that couldn’t come, a black pall descended over her and her struggles grew feeble.
Joe ran around the back of the car, lined up the pistol on Jean-Paul’s head and pulled the trigger. The click of the empty magazine jeered at him.
He hurled the useless gun at Jean-Paul’s face and charged, exploding into the gigantic man the way he’d been taught to execute a rugby tackle: low body position, all his muscles gathered into an intense and concentrated point of force in his shoulder, aimed upwards into the ribs. The huge Frenchman slammed backwards and landed heavily on the cobblestones, his head bouncing with a crunch. Joe leapt onto him and, grabbing his long hair, smashed his head repeatedly into the road surface. Jean-Paul barely noticed. Grabbing Joe by the arms, he hurled him off and to the side.
Joe hit the car and fell to the ground, momentarily winded. In that few seconds Jean-Paul clambered to his feet. He hauled Joe up and delivered two massive upper cuts to his chin, followed by a blow to the solar plexus. Joe crumpled like a tissue and folded himself into a ball on the road, vomiting and writhing in agony.
‘Ha! You dare to fight me?’ screamed Jean-Paul, beating his chest with his fists, ‘who the fuck are you anyway? Nothing, that is what you are,’ and he leant in and delivered three well-placed kicks into Joe’s ribs.
The third kick propelled Joe under the car, and he scrabbled back to get out of the range of those punishing boots.
‘Hiding now are you?’ said the Frenchman, reaching under the car, ‘let’s have you out then.’
He groped under the car, but stopped when he heard the metallic click, loud in his left ear.
‘On your knees!’ she hissed.
The gigantic man threw all his weight into a left spin, his left arm whirling around to smash the gun away. But he connected with nothing.
Yvette skipped back and fired into his chest. Then again. And again, until the hammer clicked on an empty breech.
Joe crawled out from under the car and hobbled over to Hortense. The girl lay in a widening pool of blood, her beautiful face as pale as chalk in the moonlight. Beside her, Schmidt lay on his back, gasping for breath. Blood pulsed out of the wound in his leg, and Joe could hear the rattle of his breath exiting from the hole in his chest.
He limped over to where Richter lay unconscious and examined him. Apart from a bloody score mark across the back of his skull he appeared intact. Certainly he was breathing. Joe took off the man’s belt and tied his hands together behind his back, then removed the belt from the body of the Corsican that lay nearby, and trussed the German’s legs. Behind him, he heard Yvette’s quiet voice say ‘Time to pay, you bastard.’
She was kneeling beside Schmidt, and before Joe could see what she was doing, she whipped out a knife and slashed open his pants.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ exclaimed Joe.
As a reply, Yvette reached into the slash of the man’s pants and pulled out his flaccid penis.
‘Stop!’ cried Joe, grabbing her arm, but she spun around and stared at him. There was something in her expression Joe had never seen before.
‘Did he rape you?’ she screamed. ‘Non? Then this has nothing to do with you. It is between him and me,’ and she flung off his arm.
Schmidt, now conscious enough to realise what was happening, groaned and flailed from side to side. Yvette reached down with the knife and Joe turned away as the scream came bubbling from the man’s lips, only to stop abruptly as Yvette plunged the knife deep into his throat.
It was only when she stood and wiped her hands that Joe noticed the blood pooling around her feet.
‘Get in the car,’ he said to Yvette, grabbing Richter by the legs and dragging him towards the boot.
With the German stowed, he turned from the hideous scene and started the engine. As they turned back onto the main street, Joe plumbed his memory for the route. Yvette needed a doctor, and they needed somewhere to hide, but they couldn’t go back to Bernard’s place. The Germans would make the connection to him in no time. He contemplated driving straight out of Paris, but to reach the coast he needed petrol, a disguise, papers, too many things.
‘Dammit!’ he cursed, bashing the steering wheel.
A grey dawn was rising over the grey stone of Paris as Joe pulled the car onto the sidewalk. It was only by a miracle that they hadn’t been stopped by a German patrol in their five minute journey, but their luck couldn’t last much longer.
Yvette was slumped in her seat, staring sightlessly out the window. Joe jumped out, ducked into the entrance hall and banged on the door of number 24.
‘Who is it?’ asked a nervous voice after short pause.
‘It’s Joe, the Australian!’ he hissed, ‘I need your help, it’s urgent.’
A bolt withdrew and the door swung open to reveal Marie standing in her nightdress.
‘Mon dieu! What happened?’ she cried.
‘I had to kill some people,’ said Joe. ‘I have an injured friend. We need to get off the street, can we come in?’
Marie hesitated for a moment.
‘Please!’ said Joe beseechingly.
‘Very well,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ said Joe.
Three minutes later, Marie was examining the wound on Yvette’s back.
‘You must have fallen on something sharp,’ said Marie, ‘you have a deep cut and many bruises, and you have lost a fair amount of blood, but it is not a mortal wound.’
‘It was glass from the car window,’ said Yvette in a monotone, ‘I felt it beneath me when the giant was strangling me.’ Then she started to laugh: an unnatural croaking sound that sent shivers down Joe’s spine.
‘I served him out though,’ she said, still croaking with mirth, ‘and that bastard Schmidt too. I would have liked to leave him alive to enjoy life as a castrati, but I’ve made that mistake once before.’
Joe looked at her. Was this the same girl he had fallen so completely for only a few months before?
‘We need to leave before Richter wakes up,’ said Joe, looking nervously out the curtained window. The car was too conspicuous, he either had to hide it, and stash Richter somewhere, or get out of here now.
‘Go then Joe,’ said Yvette, waving away Marie’s hands, ‘I will not be coming with you.’
Joe stared in disbelief. Although she’d said this before, he’d chosen not to believe her. His head filled with the recollection of the doorway of her house in Roubaix, the first time she had told him she wouldn’t be coming with him. This time he knew better than to remonstrate with her.
‘Is that it then?’ he said, ‘you’re staying in France? Where will you go?’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ said Yvette, ‘I have relatives in Peille in the alps near the Italian border. I will go to them. They will take care of me.’
‘Both of you, you mean,’ said Joe.
She instinctively touched her stomach.
‘You know, I’d completely forgotten about that.’ She laughed again, harshly this time. ‘Let’s hope it’s not yours Joe, because I have no intention of bringing it into this world, whoever the father might be.’
Marie looked at her with a shocked expression.
‘You mean you are pregnant? Then you must stay here with me, you can’t go travelling. Besides, you can’t just walk into Vichy France, you need papers.’
‘I’ll find a way,’ said Yvette, ‘there’s more than one way to cross a border. Anyway Joe, how are you planning to get out of Paris?’
Joe had been turning that same thought over in his mind for the last ten minutes, and only one solution had come to mind.
‘I’ll have to take Richter’s uniform,’ he replied, imagining what Sergeant Smythe would say about his impersonating a German officer, again.
‘You’ll be shot if they catch you,’ said Marie.
‘Well without a pass to leave the city I’ll never get out of here as a civilian,’ said Joe, ‘there are checkpoints everywhere. At least in an SS uniform I might stand some chance.’
‘Then you’d better bring him in here and strip him,’ said Yvette.
Ten nerve-wracking minutes later, after backing the car up to the entrance and dragging Richter out of the boot, removing his clothes and then thrusting him back in, Joe stood in the hallway dressed as a Nazi officer.
‘Apart from the bloodstain on the right lapel you look quite convincing,’ said Yvette, ‘now go, before I change my mind.’
She reached up and kissed him on the mouth. A long, soft moment. ‘Au revoir’, she whispered.
‘Goodbye Yvette,’ said Joe, with the certain knowledge it was the last time he would ever see her.
He turned and walked to the car without looking back. He didn’t want her to see the tears in his eyes.
~ ~ ~
He hit the first checkpoint at the bridge where the Avenue de Villiers crossed the Seine, heading west. A corporal came up to the car and looked in. Seeing the SS uniform he stepped back and saluted.
‘Heil Hitler,’ replied Joe and pushed the accelerator.
‘Let them all be that easy,’ he muttered to himself as he crossed the river and turned right.
Twenty minutes later he crossed another bridge, and saw away to his right the blackened ruin of the port where the barge had exploded in the Port de Genevilliers. The next checkpoint was a more elaborate affair. Astride the main road heading west, the Germans were inspecting every truck that passed and demanding the papers of every driver.
The guards were taking their time, and, watching the process, Joe began to get nervous. Were they looking for him? Impossible. No-one could have worked out the meaning of the pile of bodies by the Seine yet could they? They wouldn’t even know that Richter was missing. At first glance it looked like a falling out between some French gang members and their Gestapo contact. It would take them hours or days to work out what had happened.
Joe swallowed and weighed his options. He had no official papers. He was driving a civilian car. His uniform had blood on the collar. If he had to get out and explain himself he was doomed. The only option was to bluff his way through.
He swung the wheel and, accelerating past the row of cars and trucks, pulled up abruptly at the barrier where a sergeant and two privates were inspecting papers.
Leaning out of the car window he gave it his best parade ground voice.
‘Actung!’ he yelled at the top of his voice, ‘what’s going on here? I need to get through immediately! Schnell, verstehen sie?’
The sergeant walked over the to the car and leant down to the driver’s window. He too stiffened when he saw the Death’s Head insignia on the officer’s cap
‘Ah, Hauptsturmfuhrer, what is the problem?’ he asked.
‘The problem is this roadblock,’ fumed Joe, ‘I have to be in Dieppe by 0900 hours, and at this rate I’ll be lucky to make it by sunset.’
The sergeant looked at the furious red face before him. He knew he should ask for papers, those were his orders, but this man was SS. If he obstructed him God only knew what the man could do. The slightest inquiry could be fatal to him or his family. He blinked for two seconds as he considered the worst his senior officer could do to him: punishment detail for a week, maybe demotion.
‘Carry on sir, have a safe journey, and heil Hitler!’
‘Heil Hitler,’ Joe replied. He saluted and accelerated away, hearing, over the engine’s roar, the sound of muted thumps coming from the boot. A few miles on he pulled into a side street and opened the boot. Richter stared up at him with fury in his eyes and struggle to haul himself out of the stifling space. Joe leaned in, took aim and belted him hard on the temple with his pistol. Richter slumped back with blood streaming from his broken skin.
Joe grabbed a piece of rag he found in the boot, jammed it in Richter’s mouth, then slammed the boot on him and drove off. Then he noticed the petrol gauge: nearly empty.
Passing through Pontoise he saw a petrol station and pulled in. A rotund man in grubby overalls came out of the workshop wiping his hands on some cotton waste. He blanched when he saw the uniform.
‘Oui m’sieu?’ he asked nervously.
‘Benzin,’ said Joe as curtly as he could manage, ‘et un carte du Francais.’
‘Oui m’sieu,’ said the man, undoing the cap and setting the pump.
Although he had no money, the SS uniform seemed to work as currency. The Frenchman filled up the tank and returned from his workshop with a folded road map of France. He handed it over without a word.
‘Merci,’ said Joe, and drove away. The map showed that the road he was on went straight to the sea. He couldn’t go to Courselles-sur-mer now, but with one or two doglegs he could reach a seaside port called Saint-Valery-en-Caux. It was only a few hours away.
‘Pray for me Saint Valery,’ said Joe as he pushed the car to its limits.
It was on the outskirts of Rouen that his luck ran out.
~ ~ ~
The checkpoint was a crossroads much like the last one he’d passed through, only this time he was obliged to wait as a stream of lorries passed in front of him heading north-east. What seemed to be an entire infantry division with its supporting artillery crossed from left to right as he sat in a queue of cars for twenty minutes.
Finally the stream of army trucks ended and the line of horse-drawn carts in front of him edged forward. He was only metres from the checkpoint when he heard the thumping from the boot start again.
‘Christ!’ he muttered. In front of him a horse and cart was waved through and the barrier came down again. A German private carrying an MP38 machine pistol came towards him. Joe took Richter’s Luger from its holster, cocked it and laid it on the seat beside him
‘Papieren?’ demanded the private, holding out his hand.
‘I am on official SS business and was due in Dieppe an hour ago,’ said Joe, ‘and that’s Hauptsturmfuhrer to you private.’
The man saluted casually and waved to the lieutenant standing by the barrier.
‘Ja Heiliger?’ demanded the officer.
‘Keine papieren,’ said the private.
The lieutenant looked at Joe.
‘Hauptsturmfuhrer, may I see your travel authority please?’ he said, pleasantly.
The thumping from the boot became louder, and he could hear faint cries and shouts as well. The bugger had somehow got the gag out.
‘Was ist das?’ asked the private, walking towards the back of the car.
Joe floored it. The engine screamed, the wheels spun and the car accelerated into the barrier. It held firm and for a second Joe panicked, but the engine forced the bar to scrape awkwardly up over the windshield and he was through.
Behind him the private opened up with the machine-pistol, and Joe ducked as a salvo of machine gun fire smashed through the car, shattering the windshield. He swerved wildly and pushed the car even harder, and in a few seconds was around the corner.
The wind was blasting through the cracked glass and he knew now that all hope of deception was gone. What about Richter? Had he survived the shots? He couldn’t do anything about that now. He looked at the map. It was seventy-odd kilometres to Saint-Valery-en-Caux, but they’d certainly send a car after him. He had to get off this road.
Five minutes later he saw a turnoff to a town called Pissy-Poville and took it. On both sides of the road were cleared fields recently harvested of their wheat. There were no trees, nowhere to dump the car. He drove through the centre of the town, attracting curious looks from the local inhabitants and spied a road heading west called Route de l’Enfer.
‘The road to Hell eh?’ he said, ‘well that’s the one for me,’ and he turned left onto the dirt track.
In the nearest roadside copse, he pulled over and inspected the boot. Miraculously it hadn’t been hit. The bullets had all been aimed high and had taken out the rear and front windshields without touching the car. Richter had worked the gag loose and was glaring up at him with hate-filled eyes.
‘What now, Australian?’ he gasped through swollen lips, ‘things not going to plan?’
‘Bugger off,’ sighed Joe wearily, and hit him on the head again with the pistol.
~ ~ ~
The man was covered in the fine dust of the local dirt roads. From the filth encrusting his clothes he appeared to be some sort of itinerant farm labourer, one who’d been walking for some time without finding any work. In fact, the man had only been walking for half an hour, having parked the car in a shady spot out of sight of the road behind a railway embankment. He’d rolled around in the dust to give the impression of a long journey on foot.
The man was croaking to himself in a vague approximation of the tune of ‘Alouette’: ‘Pavilly, Limesey, Yerville, Saint-Laurent-en-Caux, Brametot, Fontaine-le-Dun, Angiens, Gueutteville-les-Gres, Manneveille-es-Plains.’
It had been a tense hour, driving through the villages in a car with no windshield, but few people had noticed, or if they had, had not chosen to comment. With the fuel gauge on empty he’d made his decision, and the final town on his itinerary was ahead: Saint-Valery-en-Caux. He could smell the sea, and as he breasted a rise, the English Channel spread before him, sparkling under an azure sky punctuated by puffballs of brilliant white cumulus. He gazed to the west, but of course, England was too far way to be visible.
‘Nearly there mate, nearly there,’ he muttered.
It was noon by the time he made it to the Cafe Montmarch on the main street. There was only a handful of patrons, who surveyed him incuriously for a few moments before dismissing him and returning their cigarettes and coffee. He ordered a beer and sat at a table by the window, surveying the street. So far he hadn’t seen any Germans, but this was only a relatively small fishing village, so he didn’t expect a local garrison. What was there to defend? Nevertheless there were signs of occupation, the most obvious being a Swastika flag hanging limply above the steps into the town hall.
The waiter, a portly man in his fifties with a handlebar moustache and horn-rimmed glasses brought his beer to the table.
‘You look like you need this,’ he said, placing the tall glass of cool amber fluid on the table. ‘Been walking for a while?
‘Long enough,’ said Joe, ‘any work around here?’
‘What sort of thing are you looking for?’ asked the waiter.
‘Labouring, farm work, deck hand, anything really,’ said Joe, ‘I’m told I’m good with my hands.’
‘Since the defeat all the trawlers have been short-handed,’ said the waiter, ‘the fishermen are always complaining about it. Half the men haven’t come back yet, and maybe never will.’
Joe took a long swig of the beer. The cool liquid sliding down his parched throat was one of the sweetest sensations he’d ever experienced. The waiter looked at the half-empty glass.
‘I take it you can pay for another of those?’ he said, turning to the bar.
‘And one for yourself,’ said Joe to his back.
The man took his time pouring two beers, the returned and took a seat at the table.
‘Salud,’ he said, raising his glass. ‘So, you have come from the front then?’ he asked, sipping his beer.
‘Not quite. I was captured at Dunkirk,’ said Joe, ‘and at the time I was wounded, so I wasn’t packed off to Germany with the rest of the regiment. When my wound healed I just walked out of the hospital one day and kept walking. Apart from the odd train ride I’ve been walking ever since.’
‘Where are you headed then?’ asked the waiter.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ said Joe, ‘my family comes from Roubaix, but that’s in the northern zone and I couldn’t stay there, too many Germans. I could be rounded up at any time, it’s safer down here.’
‘Don’t be too sure of that,’ said the waiter, ‘the Nazis are collecting every boat they can get their hands on. Anything that looks like it might float across the Channel has been commandeered. Presumably they are planning to invade les Anglais. By the way, I’m Andre,’ said the man, holding out his hand.
Joe was nonplussed for a moment, he hadn’t even thought of a name for himself. Best keep it simple he thought to himself.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he replied, ‘my name’s Joseph.’
A customer in the corner made a gesture and Andre rose and went to the bar. Joe looked out the window and stiffened.
A German staff car had pulled up outside the town hall. Two officers got out of the back, one in a naval uniform, the other in the field-grey of the Wehrmacht. They strolled across the street and took a table at the cafe, directly outside the window where Joe sat. He discreetly pushed his chair back and turned to face the room.
Andre delivered two coffees to the Germans, then came back to the table.
‘Are these two regular patrons?’ asked Joe, gesturing through the window.
‘The army one is, regular as clockwork,’ said Andre, ‘two coffees at noon every day. The naval one came in for the first time yesterday afternoon. He’s the commander of the E-Boat that’s moored in the port, they’re making some repairs.’
‘Who should I speak to about work on the boats?’ asked Joe, whose head was starting to swim from the unaccustomed effect of the beer on an empty stomach.
‘Oh any of the fishermen will be happy to have you,’ said Andre. ‘Just go down to the docks and ask the first boat you see.’
‘Did any of them lose sons or brothers in the invasion?’ asked Joe.
Andre looked at him speculatively, one eyebrow raised.
‘I just thought they might appreciate having someone around who went the through the same experience,’ said Joe by way of explanation, ‘give us something in common.’
‘Or perhaps something to resent you for,’ thought Andre, ‘after all, you survived.’ But he said ‘Oui, there is a man called Allas whose son has not come back, he is captain of Turpsichore.’
‘Thank you for the beer, and the recommendation,’ said Joe, tipping his glass back.
‘Look after yourself,’ said Andre, ‘and just between you and me, invent a better cover story, a man who’s been walking the roads for months doesn’t have shoes in that condition.’
Joe looked down at the brown leather boots Yvette had acquired for him in Roubaix. They were dusty, but a sheen still came through.
Andre winked and returned to the bar.
Joe headed down the street towards the wharf. A German E-Boat was tied up alongside the sole crane, and they were busily lowering something into place on the rear deck. A hundred yards further along he came upon Turpsichore. She was one of the older boats tied to the pier, her white paint was peeling in places and the superstructure that held the nets was rusted and bent out of shape. The whole vessel gave the impression of being covered in a layer of fish oil, and it smelt like it too. Joe stood at the top of the gangplank and called out.
‘M’sieu Allas? Hallo?’
There was a muffled curse and a head popped out of a hatchway on the fore deck. The head wore a mangy beanie that had once been sky blue, and curls of grey hair escaped in all directions from beneath it. Above the hooked nose two black eyes stared out fiercely at Joe.
‘What is it?’ asked the man in annoyance.
‘I heard you might be looking for hands,’ called Joe.
The man’s expression changed from annoyance to suspicion.
‘Why? Are you looking for work?’ he said, muttering something Joe didn’t catch entirely, but he thought sounded like ‘deserter’.
‘Actually,’ said Joe, looking left and right, ‘I’m looking for passage.’
The man hauled himself out of the hatch and waved Joe over the gangplank. Closer up he was older than Joe had first thought. His face was weather-beaten and the skin on the backs of his hands was loose and veiny.
‘Passage to where exactly?’ he asked, climbing over a box of sodden nets and walking into the grimy deckhouse.
‘England,’ said Joe quietly, ‘I’m an Australian soldier, I was sent over here on a mission and I need to get back.’
‘Are you mad?’ The man’s expression changed to one of astonishment.
‘Andre at the cafe told me you’d lost a son in the war and I thought you might like a chance for some revenge on the Nazis.’
‘And you trust me with the truth?’ replied Allas.
Joe leaned in close to the man and whispered.
‘I’ll kill you if I think you might betray me m’sieu, but I don’t have the time. I have a German officer trussed up in the boot of a car half an hour’s walk from here. Either he’s going to suffocate or his fellows will find him. My job is to bring him to England, and I’ve been trying to do it for about a month now. This is the last step in a long journey and believe me, I’m bloody tired. If I could do this myself, I would, but I know bugger-all about boats and I need your help. What was your son’s name?’
‘Georges,’ said the fisherman.
‘And what happened to him?’ asked Joe.
‘I have no idea,’ said Allas with a shrug, ‘he could be dead, he could be in Germany, all I know is he never returned. I don’t even know where he was stationed.’
‘And he worked the boat with you before the war?’ asked Joe.
The man just nodded and gazed out to where the quay ended and the open sea beckoned.
‘Since he was seven years old.’
‘Is there anywhere around here you can get close to the shore at night safely?’ asked Joe.
‘You are planning to bring this Nazi onto my boat at night and ask me to take you across the Channel I suppose?’ said the fisherman.
‘Got it in one,’ said Joe.
‘You realise that if we’re caught we’ll both be shot?’ said Allas.
‘People keep telling me that,’ said Joe, ‘but it hasn’t happened yet, so we’ve got no evidence that it’s true.’
‘This German, why is he so important?’ asked the man.
‘He commanded a unit that murdered a whole company of British soldiers in cold blood. Lined them up against a wall and machine-gunned them. I was there. My sergeant and I were the only survivors. The British want him so they can hang him as a war criminal to set an example.’
‘Hmmm,’ said the man, still staring out to sea, ‘how could you be so sure I wouldn’t just turn you over to the Germans?’
‘Is that what your son would’ve done?’ asked Joe.
There was a silence broken only by the squawking of two seagulls, squabbling over the corpse of a crab.
‘Where is your car?’ said the man finally, by way of answer.
‘A mile or so north of town, behind the railway embankment,’ said Joe.
‘Alright. The fishing fleet goes out at midnight and returns an hour after dawn. I’ll tell you what we’ll do, but first, tell me your name.’
~ ~ ~
Joe almost missed the track the Frenchman had mentioned. After walking through the fields around the north edge of town he’d crossed the railway line and found the car. He opened the boot, hauled Richter up and gave him a long draught of water from a can Francois had given him. The German groaned as the blood rushed into joints long compressed by the small boot space.
‘Nearly over shit-head,’ said Joe, ‘we’ll have you safe and sound in England by morning.’
In a voice made harsh and thin by thirst, Richter croaked ‘You’ll never get me there, you swine. You have no chance, do you not think they’ll be looking for me by now?’
‘I’m sure they are,’ replied Joe, ‘but how will they know where to look?’ He pushed him back in and closed the boot.
Driving down the bumpy cart track with just one working headlight, Joe only realised he was on an embankment when a particularly large bump made him swerve and the car lurched sickeningly to the left, almost plunging into the marshlands below.
After a few nervous minutes, the embankment ended in a copse of pine trees and Joe could hear waves crashing below. He opened the boot of the car. Richter glared up at him.
Reaching in, he removed Richter’s socks and threw them into the bushes, then he dragged the German out by his feet, produced Francois’s other gift to him, a ferociously-sharp fishing knife and sliced through the rope binding Richter’s feet.
‘Don’t think about running anywhere,’ he said, holding the knife to Richter’s throat, ‘or making any sound. I’ve had a gutful of you and it won’t take much for me slit your throat. It won’t be the first time I’ve done that. Got it?’
Richter nodded, still groaning with pain as the blood coursed through his ankles into his feet. Joe took the cloth from the boot and gagged the man, then, looking around, he spotted the pine tree standing alone on the edge of the cliff that Francois had mentioned.
‘Let’s go,’ he said, pushing Richter towards the tree.
The path that began beside the tree was steep and covered in loose rubble. More than once Joe nearly slipped and fell, and he had to hold Richter tight to help him balance. Eventually they made it to the bottom, where a scree of boulders led down to a small sandy beach.
Francois was standing in the shallows beside a rowing boat that was not much bigger than bathtub.
‘Bloody hell, how are we going to do this?’ said Joe, eyeing the boat as it rose and fell with the waves rushing up the beach.
‘Lie him across the stern, then get in the bow. I will row,’ said Francois. Joe prodded Richter with the knife and the German climbed into the back of the tiny boat.
‘Lie down on your back,’ said Joe, menacing him with the knife.
He clambered in and Francois pushed the boat out through the waves, then hauled himself over the gunwale. The boat tipped alarmingly and Richter’s eyes widened with fear. With his hands tied and mouth gagged he wouldn’t last a minute in the water.
Francois settled himself to the oars and began to pull steadily. Looking ahead, Joe could make out the dim outline of the fishing smack bobbing at anchor fifty yards out.
‘How will we get him onto the boat?’ asked Joe.
‘Just like the fish,’ grunted Francois, hauling on the oars. ‘Grab that boathook.’
Minutes later they were heading out to sea, Richter tied up in the hold, concealed behind three empty fuel drums.
‘Now we head east,’ said Francois. ‘Keep your eyes open and tell me if you see anything, and hear me Australian, the first English boat we find? You’re on it.’
He pushed the throttle forward and the little trawler gained speed.
Down in the hold, Richter’s eyes had adapted to the darkness. The Australian had at least given him a drink, and the thirst that had tormented him all day had abated. Now, although he was tied hand and foot, he could just reach a rusted angle brace that supported the hatchway above him. Forcing himself painfully to his knees, he shuffled over to the stanchion, put his bound hands against the rusted edge of the brace, and stated to saw.
~ ~ ~
On the rear deck of His Majesty’s Gunboat Sting, ensign David Vanger opened the gate to the gun platform and stepped in. The twin 20mm Oerlikon cannons sat menacingly in the centre of the circular platform, their long barrels and drum magazines gleaming in the moonlight. Spray was blowing over the deck from where the prow sliced through the swell, and he wiped his face with his sleeve reflexively as he examined the guns. Removing each magazine in turn he checked that the round that would be next into the breech was greased, free to rotate and not jammed by dirt or salt. He slid the firing bolt back and forward and checked that the extractor claw was in the correct position to remove the spent cartridges. He slid open the lock holding the guns in place and tested that they rotated 360 degrees horizontally. Unbolting the second lock he ensured that the barrels could be raised to a nearly vertical position.
The reason for his care was that the Oerlikon was a new gun, and this gunboat was testing it. Lord Mountbatten himself had supervised the fitting of the weapon to the gunboat only the day before, referring to plans he said had been smuggled out of Switzerland shortly before the French capitulated.
Ensign Vanger’s job was to test the guns, against enemy ships and aircraft if the opportunity arose. Their first live test-firing, conducted that afternoon, had not gone well. The left-hand gun had jammed after firing only a dozen rounds, and Vanger had been diligently greasing cartridges for spare magazines ever since. Now they were cruising over the far side of the Channel only a few miles off the coast of France, and, in the words of the captain “looking for trouble”.
He strapped himself into the waist belt, settled himself in the curved stocks and, peering through the ring sight into the darkness, pulled both triggers. With the magazines removed, the bolts clicked forward silently. He reset them and clicked the magazines back into place. Now the guns were as ready to fire as they ever would be. He unclipped himself and locked the guns back into their neutral position. As he made his way back along the deck to the steering house the boat pitched awkwardly and a wave gushed over the deck, knocking him over and drenching him from the chest down in freezing water. Vanger ignored it, he had been drenched worse than that more times than he could remember in the last year.
~ ~ ~
The little trawler growled steadily on through the waves. Joe sat right forward in front of the main hatchway, staring ahead into the gloom. When the moon came out he felt he could see the chalk cliffs of England, but he knew that was an illusion, merely the reflection of moonlight off the water at the horizon. England was still thirty or forty miles away, and at this speed it would take them all night to get there. Besides, Francois hadn’t agreed to take him all the way there, only as far as he dared and not too far from his usual fishing ground. From there, Joe would have to row the rest of the way.
It had sounded like a reasonable idea on land, but now he was out in the vast immensity of the ocean he was less confident. The tiny rowing boat that had got them aboard seemed barely sea-worthy in a pond, let alone the Channel, and he was considering asking Francois to take him all the way. He’d force him to if necessary: this mission was more important than the desire of a French fisherman to sit out the war in his home town, even if he had lost a son to the Germans. Surely he could convince him of that? Joe noticed that the moon had disappeared behind low cloud, and, as if on cue, a freezing rain started pelting in from the south, heavy drops pockmarking the surface of the ocean.
Suddenly the tone of the engine changed. The continuous low drone of the past hour was replaced by a high-pitched whine. Francois came racing forward and started down the hatch.
‘What is it?’ cried Joe.
‘I don’t know, I’ve never had a problem with this engine before!’ called Francois as he descended the ladder. The way had come off the trawler and it was wallowing in the swell now, rolling and pitching in a sickening corkscrew motion that made Joe’s stomach lurch.
As he came up to the hatchway, he heard a muffled thump and a curse in German, then Richter’s head popped out of the hatch. Joe stood momentarily dumbfounded as Richter swarmed up the ladder, a long wrench clutched in his right hand, which Joe noticed as if in slow motion, was covered in blood and some shiny grey substance.
Richter swung wildly at his legs with the wrench and Joe jumped back just in time to avoid having both shins broken. He stumbled over an air vent protruding from the deck and went down on his back, scoring his shoulder on the corner of a locker on the way down. Richter was out of the hatch and onto him in seconds. The wrench slammed down and Joe spun wildly to get away, kicking out with his legs as the heavy tool crashed into the deck beside him. He connected with one of Richter’s knees and heard the man howl in pain as the joint bent backwards unnaturally. As Joe scrambled to his feet, Richter hobbled forward and took another wild swing with the wrench. Joe saw it coming and danced backwards, coming up short against the railing. The wrench connected with an agonising blow, and Joe felt a couple of ribs crack in his left torso. As Richter raised the wrench for another blow, Joe pushed forward from the railing and launched himself at the German, who was now laughing maniacally, the rain streaming off his face. The two men smashed onto the deck.
Joe found himself on his back, with Richter sprawled across him, reaching for the wrench which had fallen from his hands and slid across the deck. Joe clenched his right fist and slammed it into the side of Richter’s head. The man howled with pain, but his hand grasped the wrench and he swung it with a vicious back-hand that would have cracked Joe’s skull had it not glanced off a wire that rose from the deck to support the net crane.
Joe grabbed Richter’s hand and bit as hard as he could into the flesh of the exposed wrist. Richter screamed and the wrench clattered to the deck, but he rolled sideways and clamped his left hand around Joe’s neck. Stars exploded in Joe’s head as his air pipe was crushed and he twisted and turned while still biting savagely into Richter’s arm. He latched onto the man’s right arm and pulled, but nothing could dislodge him. He put both feet on the deck and thrust violently upwards, but he couldn’t dislodge the German.
He was choking now. He had no air in his lungs, no breath, he was losing strength, losing the impetus to keep fighting, his arms and legs seemed not to obey him. His teeth released Richter’s arm of their own accord, and that was when the German made a mistake: he shifted his balance and leaned over to pick up the wrench.
Joe made one last desperate lunge and succeeded in throwing the German off. He gasped desperately for air and rolled sideways, coming up against the railing again, where the anchor and its chain lay coiled, waiting to be cast into the sea.
As Richter charged at him with the wrench, Joe seized the anchor in both hands and hurled it bodily at the man. The anchor struck Richter in the chest, propelling him backwards into the railing and straight over into the sea.
Joe looked around him and saw the expected life belt hanging on the side of the wheelhouse. Groaning with the pain of his cracked ribs, he pulled himself over to the wheelhouse and threw the life belt over the side.
~ ~ ~
On board Sting, Vanger was checking the depth charge launchers when he heard the captain calling him from the deckhouse. He ran forward into the small shelter that housed the wheel. The captain of the boat was only a lieutenant, but he was still all-powerful on board. This particular captain, one Lieutenant Hunt, was a no-nonsense young man, desperate for action and the promotion to a destroyer that it might bring.
‘Vanger, what do you make of that?’ gestured Hunt, pointing off to port where a small white light was flashing rhythmically. Vanger watched for a few seconds.
‘Doesn’t appear to be Morse code sir,’ he said, ‘not a buoy is it?’
‘Not this far out, surely?’ replied Hunt, ‘and nothing on the chart, we’d better have a look.’ He leant on the dual throttles and the small boat leapt forward with a surge of power, the prow rising suddenly on an impressive bow wave.
‘Get back on the cannon,’ yelled Hunt over the rising engine noise, ‘just in case.’
Vanger nodded, clambered back to the gun platform and strapped himself in. He unlocked the twin 20mm guns, cocked them and stared ahead to where the light continued to wink.
~ ~ ~
In Saint-Valery-en-Caux, E-Boat S41 of 2. S-Bootsflotille slid out of its temporary berth and out into the Channel. The rest of the flotilla had returned to Ostend the day before, but an oil leak had forced the torpedo boat to dock at this little fishing port after their last mission, attacking a convoy steaming for the mouth of the Thames. The attack had been a success, with three ships torpedoed, but the convoy had scattered and the British destroyers had blown one torpedo boat completely out of the water.
Now, Captain Lothar Brecken pushed his three Daimler-Benz engines up to cruising speed and headed north-east at 25 knots. His orders were to cruise the Channel looking for stragglers trying to reach port under cover of darkness. The moon was half-full, and cloud cover obscured it for much of the time, but there was enough light to detect a transport or a tanker if they were close enough. Brecken picked up his binoculars and started scanning the horizon.
~ ~ ~
The light turned out to be the winking of a torch. As the gunboat drew closer, Vanger made out the distinctive shape of a French fishing trawler, the kind from which they bought fresh fish and occasionally fresh information. The gunboat surged alongside and the engines died to a low throb. The voice of Lieutenant Hunt came through a loudhailer.
‘Attention, this is His Majesty’s Motor Gun Boat Sting, what vessel is that?’
‘A bloody fishing smack,’ came back the answer in a broad Australian accent, ‘carrying an important prisoner of war.’
‘Stand by to receive boarders!’ hailed the lieutenant, and gave a curt nod to three crewmen standing by with rifles at the ready.
Minutes later, they were back, carrying an unconscious and soaking wet man in his underwear, and accompanied by a tall man in tattered and bloody civilian clothes, clearly injured from the way he walked. The man climbed over the railing and saluted.
‘Lieutenant Joseph Dean, 1st Staffordshire Rifles, on secondment to the Commandos sir,’ said the man, ‘and you’ve no idea how glad I am to see you.’
‘Well get below man and get some rum into you,’ order Hunt, ‘and what about this fellow?’ he said pointing at Richter.
‘He’s a Nazi war criminal,’ said Joe, ‘chain him up good and tight, but make sure he doesn’t die on me. There’s also a body in the hold. He was the owner of the boat, a brave Frenchman.’
Ten minutes later, Joe was in dry clothes, his cracked ribs bandaged, and he was nursing a cup of black tea generously laced with Navy rum and condensed milk. His hands were still trembling and occasionally a violent twinge would flick the scalding liquid over his knuckle. He barely noticed it.
‘So lieutenant,’ said Hunt, ‘tell me how you come to be floating in the middle of the Channel in a broken-down trawler with a dead skipper and a half-drowned man you tell me is a German officer.’
Joe sighed and took a deep gulp of the tea.
‘It’s a long story sir,’ began Joe in a low voice, but he was interrupted by a cry from the deck.
‘Ahoy there! Vessel approaching fast on the starboard bow, from the bow wave looks like it could be an E-boat!’
Hunt raced up the ladder to the wheelhouse and seconds later the engines roared and the gunboat start to accelerate rapidly. Joe crawled painfully up to the deck and looked around. The indeterminate grey of a wet and cloudy dawn was infiltrating the sky now, and about a mile away Joe could see the sleek form of a powerful boat racing towards them. As he watched, the British gunboat turned away and piled on speed. Joe pulled himself along the gangway to the wheelhouse.
‘That’s a German S-Class E-boat,’ said Lieutenant Hunt. ‘If there were two of us we’d take him on, but this boat is on an experimental mission today, and I’d rather have a bit of support from the boys closer to home if possible.’
Joe said nothing, just stared aft, to where the E-boat appeared to be gaining on them perceptibly.
‘Is it my imagination, or is he going faster than us?’ asked Joe.
‘Oh yes,’ said Hunt, ‘this girl can achieve maybe 30 knots at full speed, they can manage over 40. The question is, can we get close enough to Blighty for the Fleet Air Arm or one of our screening fleet to notice us before they blow us out of the water?’
‘Jesus, you’re a cool customer,’ said Joe. He thought he’d only murmured it to himself, but the response came immediately.
‘Part of being in the navy old boy,’ said Hunt, ‘you learn to accept that there are some things you can’t control. Imagine what it must have been like in HMS Victory at Trafalgar, sailing straight into the guns of the French and Spanish at little better than a walking pace? It took them an hour to get close enough to fire a shot themselves you know, and they were being fired at the whole time. Horrible.’
On the E-boat, a puff of smoke emerged and was ripped away by the wind. The sea fifty yards behind the gunboat was suddenly rent with fountains of white water.
‘Vanger!’ called the lieutenant, ‘let’s see what you can do with those Oerlikons.’
Three men raced aft and Joe watched as one strapped himself to the dual cannons mounted there while the other two opened cabinets and started lifting out round ammunition canisters.
The cannons opened up with a steady fire of five rounds per second, the flat detonations being swept aft by the speed of the gunboat. Every fifth shell was a tracer round, and Joe could see they were falling well short of the E-Boat.
‘Cease firing!’ called Hunt through his loudhailer, ‘wait until they’re in range.’
The two boats sped on across the iron ocean, as rain once again came pelting down from a lowering sky. Five minutes of jolting and bouncing later, the gun on the E-Boat began firing, and this time the shells rained down all over and around the gunboat. A series of shells ripped through the port depth charge rack, tearing it free. One of the loaders looked in horror at the remains of his left leg before being abruptly flung overboard as the gunboat leapt over a wave. Joe raised his head from behind a sheet of metal plate just in time to see Vanger and his remaining loader peppered with shells as the gunboat climbed a wave. The angle of the boat meant that the salvo cleared the armour plate protecting the gunners, and both men were torn to bloody shreds by the rending shells.
‘Christ!’ yelled Hunt, ‘Lieutenant, do you know how to fire those things?’
Joe looked down the deck, to where streams of blood and sea water were running in crazy directions. The deck was pitching and tossing wildly and he swallowed hard and closed his eyes.
‘I’ll have a go,’ he said, and began crawling slowly down the deck towards the gun position, clinging to whatever hand-holds he could find.
He nearly followed the loader into the ocean as the gunboat rolled violently, but managed to grasp a piece of twisted and distorted metal even as his legs went over the side. With his broken ribs screaming at him, and his feet being dragged under by the wash, he heaved and hauled himself back on board and made it to the limb-strewn gun platform, his lungs on fire.
Kicking a leg and several unidentifiable chunks of bloodied flesh out of the way, he pulled the lifeless torso of Vanger out of the gun straps. The man had been blown in half and his intestines were writhing around on the deck like swollen worms. Choking on vomit, Joe strapped himself in, pulled the cocking levers and peered through the gunsight.
Not only was his own boat leaping about, but the target was also moving violently. The E-Boat appeared in the sight only fleetingly every few seconds. Unsure as to how to hit a target like that, Joe pulled the triggers and sent a continuous burst aft, in the hope that something would hit. After four seconds of this, the left gun jammed with a click. Joe cursed and tugged at the magazine. As he wrestled with it, a hail of shells swept the boat again. Joe instinctively fell to the deck for cover, but the gun-straps held him upright as the cannon shells smashed into the boat all around him, careering off the armour plate just inches in front of his nose like a rain of hammers.
The shells stopped abruptly, and he willed himself to stand still. He pulled the magazine off the jammed gun, reached into the exposed breach and removed the cartridge that had failed to eject. Grabbing a fresh magazine from the rack, he slotted it into position and took aim at the E-Boat again.
Now it was much closer. Joe could see the German gunner looking at him through his own sights. Joe snarled and pressed the triggers, allowing his body to sway with the movement of the boat in an attempt to maintain his aim. Firing in short bursts he went through four magazines, but the German kept firing. All around him the gunboat was being torn to pieces by the supersonic lead shells. The wooden deck had been ripped to splinters, and every metal fitting he could see was a colander. Only the armoured gun-shield was still whole and, incredibly, the wheelhouse. He noticed that the gunboat was moving more slowly now, had an engine been hit? He had no way of knowing. He loaded another magazine and pulled the trigger. Twenty rounds later the bolts of both guns clicked on empty breaches. Joe looked around, but the closest magazines were in an ammo locker three feet way.
He undid the strap and lunged for the locker. As he pulled out two fresh magazines, another burst from the E-boat sent shards of white-hot steel flying around his position. One of these slashed into his right leg below the knee, while another pierced his left thigh sending a stabbing pain up his spine. He collapsed to the deck and lay there with the rain falling on his face, blood dripping onto the ruined boards.
‘Lieutenant Dean,’ came the voice of Hunt over the loud hailer, ‘England expects every man to do his duty! Strap yourself to that gun and keep firing, that’s an order!’
Joe saw the strap dangling from the cannon. All he wanted to do was lie here and enjoy the patter of the raindrops. So cool. So refreshing.
‘Dean!’ came the voice again, ‘get up man, get up and start firing!’
Joe shook himself. He grabbed the strap and hauled himself up into a half-standing position, the best he could manage. Then slowly, agonisingly, he wrapped the strap around his waist and locked it in place, stifling a groan at the stabbing pain in his ribs. Then he realised he’d left the magazines on the deck.
Undoing the strap he knelt, grabbed the magazines, pulled himself back up and slotted them into position as another ferocious burst of fire swept over his head. In a daze, he strapped himself in once again, leant back, aimed in the general direction of the E-boat, closed his eyes and held down the triggers.
When the magazines had emptied themselves, he opened his eyes. Expecting to be staring into the twin barrels of the E-Boat’s cannon, he was astonished to find that the German boat had turned broadside on and was surging away northwards at top speed.
The sudden scream of a klaxon accompanied by the boom of a heavy-calibre gun made him look to his left. A sleek grey destroyer was surging past, the 3-inch guns in the forward turret firing salvos at the fleeing E-Boat, which was clearly outgunned and desperate to get out of range.
Joe looked about him. The deck of the gunboat was almost totally destroyed. Blood was streaming into the scuppers and disappearing into the foaming sea, while the boat wallowed in the swell. He closed his eyes.
‘Quite frankly Lieutenant Dean, we thought we’d lost you for good,’ said Major Benjamin.
‘Yes sir,’ replied Dean, still standing at attention, ‘there were a few tight moments in there sir.’ His right leg was sending jets of pain up his spine and he winced involuntarily and leant on his walking stick.
‘Well sit down man,’ said Captain Jensen irritably, ‘and tell us what the hell happened.’
The door behind Joe opened and a voice said discreetly, ‘Mr Smith from the ministry,’ ushering in the man Joe had seen only once before at his briefing, a briefing that seemed like years ago.
They were in a private room at Black’s, one of London’s exclusive clubs. There was a fire in the grate, leather armchairs and walls lined with books. Captain Jensen poured whisky from a decanter and handed around four glasses while Major Benjamin lit a cigarette.
‘Richter is refusing to say anything of course,’ he announced between puffs, throwing the match into the fire.
‘Well why would he?’ said Jensen, ‘he can only incriminate himself further.’
‘Problem is, we only have two witnesses,’ said Mr Smith, ‘Mr Dean here and who’s the other chap? Smythe? Both on active duty. We need them both to write depositions of the event at La Paradis, just in case.’
Joe smiled grimly to himself. Just in case Smythe and I are killed? Just in case the Allies win the war and we have a chance to prosecute him?
‘All in good time,’ said Major Benjamin. ‘So Dean, tell us what happened. In detail please.’
By the time he got to the point where the destroyer saw off the E-Boat, the porter had come in to refresh both the fire and the whisky decanter.
‘Good God Dean,’ said Jensen, ‘so this Bendine woman stayed behind? Does she know the risk she’s running?’
‘I don’t think she cares anymore sir,’ replied Dean, ‘about anything.’ Or anyone, he thought to himself. He hadn’t mentioned to the three men that Yvette was pregnant, it didn’t seem relevant. It was none of their business, and if she was planning on aborting the child what difference did it make? One more pointless and unnecessary death among millions. He couldn’t help feeling bitter about her decision. What if it was his child? It might be his only chance to father a child. He could be—most likely would be—killed in the next year. It might be a small comfort to him to know that a part of him continued after he was gone. One more thing out of his hands. What had Lieutenant Hunt said on the gunboat? “Learn to accept that there are some things you can’t control.”
He tipped his glass back and felt the fierce liquor burn his throat pleasurably all the way down.
‘So if you don’t mind my asking sir,’ said Joe, ‘what do I do next?’
Major Benjamin lit another cigarette with a significant look at Captain Jensen.
‘Well Dean, you probably need a bit of time to recover from your wounds, but after that it’s up to you. Would you rather stay with the commandos or rejoin your old unit?’
‘There’s a third option,’ interjected Mister Smith, ‘the Australian divisions recently arrived in North Africa, so Lieutenant Dean may prefer to join his countrymen.’
‘Well Dean?’ asked Captain Jensen.
‘I’d like some time to think about it please sir,’ said Joe, ‘but wherever I go I’d like to take Sergeant Smythe with me.’
‘I’m sure we can arrange that,’ said Captain Jensen with a brief smile.
‘One other thing Dean,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘the Navy have recommended you for a Distinguished Service Cross for your actions on the gunboat. How did Lieutenant Hunt put it Jensen?’
Jensen removed a piece of paper from his breast pocket and recited. “When the gun crew were killed, Lieutenant Dean, despite already being wounded, took over the gun, and single-handedly reloaded, unjammed and fired the cannons under intense enemy fire. It was only his continued defence of the boat that kept us afloat long enough for the destroyer to intervene. Without his efforts, the E-Boat would have sunk us within minutes. My crew and I owe him our lives.”
‘Dismissed Dean,’ said Major Benjamin, ‘report back with your decision in three weeks, and in the meantime, get some shut-eye will you? You look a hundred years old.’
Joe saluted, turned uncomfortably and left the room. Outside the door of the club, a familiar figure stood under the portico sheltering from the evening rain, smoking a cigarette.
‘Smithy, there you are. Bloody hell it’s getting cold out, let’s find somewhere warm can we?’ said Joe.
‘I know just the place sir,’ said Smythe with a grin, ‘they have whisky too.’
‘Lay on, MacDuff,’ said Joe, ‘and be damned to him that first cries Hold, enough!’
‘What’s that then sir?’ asked Smythe.
‘Oh just some piece of poetry I was taught at school,’ said Joe, ‘written by an Englishman I gather.’
The air raid sirens started to wail.
The road to Peille was steep and winding. When the mule finally reached the tiny main square of the town that seemed to cling to the mountain, it was sweating despite the autumn chill. The woman riding it climbed down from its back and untied the suitcase strapped to its rump. Clearly exhausted, she tied the mule to a nearby post and headed to one of the cafes that lined the square.
The waiter came out and took her order for a bowl of coffee.
‘And perhaps a glass of water for madame?’ he asked solicitously, noting the bulging midriff of a woman well into pregnancy.
‘Merci,’ she replied.
It had taken her eight weeks to reach here. Eight weeks in which she had travelled by train, bus and cart, but mostly on foot. She had negotiated the demarcation line separating Vichy France from the occupied zone by taking a detour through the countryside between Vichy and Lyon. That deviation alone had added two weeks to her journey. By the time she reached the foothills of the Southern Alps, the temperature at night was close to freezing, and she was beginning to wonder if she would ever make it. Only the kindness of strangers had enabled her to scrounge enough food to stay alive, and to avoid the attentions of the Vichy police, who were increasingly diligent in their practice of identifying Jewish members of society to be handed over to the Nazis.
A mule had carried her up the last leg: the winding switchbacks of the Route de la Grave that led to Peille, perched on its hilltop, seemingly about to slide down to oblivion.
The trials of the journey combined with a meagre diet had stripped pounds from her frame, and she surveyed the town square and its distinctive red tiled roofs from a gaunt face. Finishing her coffee, she placed the last of her coins on the table, picked up her case and led the mule up Rue Central to Place St Joseph. At the door of one of the tightly packed houses she knocked. The door was opened by a rotund woman of middle age, her hair pulled into a tight bun on top of her head. When she saw who was at the door she smiled with surprise.
‘Yvette! Mon Dieu, but what has happened to you? Come in my dear come in!’
Incapable of speech Yvette gestured at the mule.
‘Roberto will take care of her, come in girl and make yourself comfortable!’
Yvette stepped into the house and collapsed.
~ ~ ~
Joe stood at the railing of the troop transport, watching a corvette that was surging past a few hundred yards to port. The waters of the Channel were churned and flung up by the corvette’s propellers before plunging back into the foaming wake. He watched the never-ending motion without really seeing anything.
‘Cup o’ char Lieutenant?’ asked Smythe, handing him a tin mug and leaning companionably on the rail.
Joe took the cup and sipped the bitter liquid. His wounds were improving, and the ache in his head that had seemed permanent a few weeks ago was a dull throb now. Maybe the doctor was right about sea air.
‘You’ve been awful quiet lately sir, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so’ said Smythe, ‘do you want to tell me what happened over there?’
‘You know Smithy, I’d rather not talk about it,’ said Joe.
Smythe paused for a minute and gazed out to sea.
‘Fair enough,’ he replied eventually, ‘but I’m happy to listen if you change your mind.’
‘Thank you Sergeant.’ said Joe, ‘and thanks for the tea.’
‘My pleasure sir,’ said Smythe and returned down the gangway, muttering to himself ‘What’s this “Sergeant” business? He never calls me “Sergeant”.’
Up on deck, Joe stared sightlessly into the waves until the sun set behind him and the world was plunged into darkness.
In Book Two of the Joe Dean series, Joe finds himself in France once again, this time leading a squad of Commandos on a mission to bring Hauptsturmfuhrer Richter to England to face trial for war crimes. From the moment they hit the beach the mission goes to hell. Forced to improvise, Joe and the nascent French Resistance formulate a plan that will take him far from the coast of France and into more danger than ever. Rescued from a terrible fate by his former lover Yvette, the pair follow Richter to Paris and become enmeshed in a seedy underworld of black-market racketeers, gangs and corrupt SS officers, for whom everyone is an merely opportunity for exploitation. As the pressure rises on Joe he begins to question his devotion to his duty, but with the Gestapo closing in his options are limited, and he has to take drastic action to try to complete his mission.