Prologue: June 1943
The power went out, and Andy wondered how often through the night it had flickered out and flickered back on again. She lit a pressure lamp and while she was pumping it to bring the light up from a glow to brightness, her friend Lily walked into their tiny kitchen.
"German practice," said Lily. "Guten Morgen."
"Dir auch," Andy said wryly: and to you.
"I wanna swear," Lily muttered.
"I will on your behalf: fuck," Andy chuckled.
"I gotta learn German and swearing. Not fair," said Lily, whose idea of strong language was 'Applesauce!' Lily stretched and covered a yawn, and asked, "What are we doing for breakfast?"
"We've got bread and eggs. Fried egg on toast?"
"Yes, please... I wonder what the fellas are doing for breakfast," Lily said.
"I'm half-expecting Nate to change his mind," Andy said. "After all, I nearly always get things from the bistro."
"Talk about irony," Lily said.
That irony had to do with Nate being a chef at another restaurant, one that was formal and expensive, and where his salary was considered sufficient to purchase his own food. Part of Andy's salary was a share of any produce and baked goods left over at close of business, and things like bread and eggs were usually not in especially short supply in this little pension. Her boss was generous because he could afford to be, in two ways. Firstly, he had a staff of only eight, and secondly, he was well-connected with the shady people who ran the black market. Nate worked at a much bigger establishment; he was one of five chefs and the rest of the staff numbered upwards of thirty. That particular restaurant was popular with German officers, both those resident here in Paris and those visiting. Nate's boss was a firm Vichy supporter, and by extension a supporter of the occupying Germans. When he couldn't find an ingredient, he was known for sending a runner to find the nearest high-ranking SS officer, and within a day, that ingredient was part of a dish on the menu.
"Nate was talking yesterday about roast quail," Lily said.
"Wonder where the asshole Nazis stole those birds from," Andy muttered.
"They catch 'em in nets, don't they?"
"As far as I know, and what else I know is that it's not quail season, so those birds caught and killed were still raising their young."
"Fewer quails next year," Lily said.
She finished toasting the bread over a tiny fire on the hearth, and Andy was ready to put the eggs on the toast. As usual, they ate slowly, enjoying every morsel, and not a crumb was wasted. They wiped their plates with rough slices of the bread that hadn't been toasted. It was yesterday's bread and there was no point in saving any, and Andy took what was left of it and the remaining three eggs, and knocked on her neighbor's door. The food was gratefully accepted by a woman with a small child. As with many other men, her husband had been shipped off to Germany as part of a forced labor program.
"Have you had a letter from Louis?" Andy asked in French.
The woman's only answer was to shake her head, and Andy didn't say anything else. Her neighbor's door closed, and Andy was about to go back to her little apartment when she heard footsteps on the staircase. She looked towards the landing in time to see Nate crest the stairs. He gave her a half-smile that faded quickly.
"If you've come for breakfast, there's none," Andy said.
"I've had a little," Nate said. "Was hoping I could buy some milk. Heard of any available?"
"No," Andy said. She closed the door after Nate, and waited for him and Lily to swap greetings. Andy said, "If you hear about milk, let us know, okay?"
"You're always on the list," Nate said. He took a small paper-wrapped package from his pocket and dropped it on the table. "I got a bag of coffee beans. Ground some up for ya, cos you don't have a grinder."
"That's real coffee?" Lily mumbled, pointing at the package.
"Nothing added," Nate said, nodding. "You got a pound there, or so. If you get some chicory..."
"I can get some," Andy said. "We'll make that pound stretch. Thanks, Nate."
"Yeah. Lemme go hunt the milk," he said, going to the door. "Got an idea I'm not gonna find any, though."
He left and Andy had an idea that what Nate was really off to find was breakfast. She shook her head at the closed door, and looked at the package on the table. She and Lily decided that they could brew a little coffee, enough for just one cup each of the unadulterated real deal. They transferred the ground coffee to a clean jar and Andy carefully measured grounds into a small pot.
While the coffee brewed Andy stood at a window, looking down at the quiet street. The only passersby at the moment were a small group of Paris Police officers, and Andy wondered if Nate had been stopped and questioned by them. She shuddered at the thought. Nate had good French, but unlike Andy, Lily, and Doug (who went by the name of Alphonse these days), Nate's French was accented.
Their American passports had been hidden away and they all had fake papers and passports, saying they were Canadians, from Quebec. It was a thin ruse but so far it had worked, mostly because there was an ongoing political struggle against military conscription in Quebec, and the majority of Québécois supported the pro-German Vichy administration here in France. If not for that fact, Andy and her friends might've ended up in an Ilag, short for Internierungslager, the civilian version of a POW camp. Their fake papers had been a last gift from a friend who'd boarded a ship that had been sunk as it crossed the English Channel. Andy had no idea if he'd survived, but she hoped so.
Nothing here was certain anymore. Andy and her friends were stuck, unless they could save enough to pay to be smuggled out through Spain, and that was unlikely. All they could do was keep their noses clean, Andy more so than the other three: she was Jewish, and if that fact was discovered she'd undoubtedly be deported to a concentration camp in Poland or perhaps Ukraine. It was firmly suspected that those who were deported ended up dead.
So much for what should've been a working vacation: after more than four years, they'd done more work here in Paris than vacationing, and that didn't look likely to end soon. Still, the phrases 'after the war' or 'when the war is over' were often mentioned among the four friends.
Lily had no intention of going back to the States, and she wanted to talk her parents into coming here. Not even the jackbooted German soldiers gave Lily any of the racist invective she'd been subject to almost every day back home. Here in Paris being fluent in French and knowledgeable of whichever subject was what mattered first, and the color of one's skin was often not even a secondary consideration; in most cases it wasn't a consideration at all.
Doug was undecided. He wanted to see how things turned out here, and he felt that if the Germans were pushed out, the French might need him to hold onto his job at a bank. He might even be able to get a better job in the finance sector beyond banking. But Doug was also honest about missing his family, and Andy was pretty sure that he'd jump straight on a ship, if he was offered a ticket home.
The tune that Nate sang most often was that he'd be going home as soon as he could, though lately he'd occasionally mentioned the possibility of signing up to fight. He'd say things like that after being hassled by the Vichy police or when a German patron had complained about a dish at the restaurant.
"I can't see him with a rifle," Lily said over her coffee cup.
"Me neither," Andy said. "He only says that stuff about enlisting when he's sore about something, so don't take it seriously."
"You ever gonna tell me why you two split?" Lily asked.
"He says I've changed," Andy said angrily. "Of course I've changed: there's a fuckin' war on. People are dying, and other people are just... disappearing. They're rounding up Jews everywhere and deporting them, and there's things like what happened last week, when those innocent people in that village were shot... Of course I've changed. Of course I take life and living a lot more seriously. My blood is enough to get me killed, for Pete's sake."
"You're telling me he doesn't get that?" Lily said.
"Oh, he gets it, but he doesn't get why I'm getting angry about it, and he doesn't get why I feel guilty about not getting angry about it before now."
Lily nodded and slid a pack of cigarettes across the table, and Andy lit one. Puffing smoke was better than chugging that precious coffee. She had a small sip and, as she often did these days, she thought a small prayer of gratitude. Andy could only think her prayers. Saying them out loud, even in a whisper, was far too risky. She snorted smoke through her nostrils, angry at the very idea of how many times a day she usually had to tell herself, "Don't say that," or "Don't do this."
"At least in Egypt we got to pray; Pharaoh had nothing on Hitler, God damn him."
"Shhh!" Lily hissed, looking at the open window.
"Shit..." Andy muttered.
She got up and made sure to approach the window from one side, and she leaned just enough to look down at the street: no-one was running, a few citizens were talking, absorbed in their conversation, and none of the other people out there were looking at this window.
Later that day Andy and Lily attended a lecture in a cool classroom, out of the summer sun. A few other people in this regular group of 'students' were as Jewish as Andy was. They knew each other, knew about each other, sometimes warned each other of police or milice roundups of Jews, but otherwise they hardly spoke. The only time they met was here, to listen to a lecture by a writer or philosopher. Three of the other students were Americans, three men in their thirties, clearly old friends, and Andy suspected that they were Jewish, too, though perhaps not practicing Jews. They were less cautious and Andy worried about that occasionally.
For a while she'd been a little suspicious of a newer student, but other people who attended these lectures were comfortable with that young man, who was always smiling and occasionally cracked clever jokes. Most men his age had been sent off as laborers, to Germany, but this fellow had lost an arm, somehow. The French were very correct about such things, and his pinned, empty sleeve was never mentioned, never looked at. He had little to say to the women in the group, and Andy supposed that he was one of those men who agreed with the Vichy principle that women were meant to be mothers, and that married women in particular should not hold jobs. Ordinarily that was enough to cause Andy to want to smack people, but in this young man's case she let it slide, mostly for the fact that when he contributed to discussions his views seemed a good deal more liberal than those of the average Vichy supporter.
Today he'd had interesting things to say after a lecture on existentialism, but Andy noticed that he kept checking the clock on the wall, and he left in some haste at around four p.m.
"Straight to work?" Lily asked.
"Yeah," Andy said. "May as well. François is always grateful for a little extra help before dinner time. Good luck with that exhibition opening this evening."
"At least it's contemporary art," Lily drawled. "It's not likely to vanish overnight."
"Unlike things in museums," Andy said under her breath, her eyes on a few SS officers. "See ya later. Much later."
Lily kissed Andy's cheek and jogged away, and Andy likewise hurried off. When she got to work, François told her that she was wonderful and kissed both of her cheeks, and Andy didn't need to be told that someone had quit or sent word that they were ill. It wasn't often that she worked in the kitchen (her usual place was behind the bar), but tonight François trusted someone else to pour beer and wine and make up a few cocktails, and Andy ended up sweating over pots and pans at a range. She'd learned a lot from Nate and put much of it to use tonight.
When the bistro's last patron had left, François chased Andy out of the kitchen, and her colleagues there agreed that she'd earned a break. François poured her a glass of wine and pushed her gently into a seat at a table. He disappeared for a while and came back with a basket of things, mostly the usual: bread, eggs, but also some nearly-cold roast chicken. Everyone would have some chicken tonight.
"Where did you get them?" Andy asked in French.
"Her name is Miranda. Like you she came from across the sea," François said, deliberately a little cryptic. He knew that Andy wasn't a Canadian. "But she came here many years ago... Miranda Priestly. That's a name we should all remember. She's of much help."
"I've heard her last name before," Andy said. "They whisper it, sometimes."
"Better to whisper that name, than to shout it. The Boche hate her, and those Vichyste swines hate her even more than the Boche do, but they are helpless against her, because so many would rise up if she were harmed, and if they rebel, then others will also... All the eggs we serve here, all the eggs you eat, they come from her. She feeds many people. Sometimes she 'feeds' them things that they cannot eat, but which are still a help."
"The Krauts don't like those things, huh?"
"No," François said with a smirk. "Drink. Good wine, yes? Also from her."
"It's really good wine," Andy agreed and had another little sip. "So she's out in the country somewhere?"
"Halfway between Paris and Orléans. I have been to her chateau and walked in her vineyards. But that was before this damnable war. Sacré nom... when will it be over?"
"All we can do is keep hoping it's soon," Andy said and had the last of her wine.
François, ever the gentleman, walked her to the door and waved her off on her way home.
It was late, something before midnight, and Andy walked quickly even though she was tired. She had a pass allowing her to be out after curfew and instead of trying to avoid a patrol of Wehrmacht soldiers, she walked right up to them, holding out the little card. They checked it and also checked her basket. One made a silly chicken-and-egg joke, and even Andy laughed. For the most part the Wehrmacht men were regular, ordinary soldiers, and many outright refused to get involved when the Paris police and/or the milice—the Vichy militia tangled with citizens. Wehrmacht men were only guaranteed to harm a Parisian if those people used firearms. Andy bid the four men a good night and they complimented her German before wishing her the same.
As she neared her neighborhood, the power went out, leaving Andy in almost complete darkness. Light from a kind half-moon and from chinks in drapes and blackout paper helped her to find her way, albeit slowly. She took a shortcut through an alley dark as hell, but there was more light beyond it, and she kept her eyes focused on that grey patch ahead.
Hearing a rustle behind her, Andy paused, and as she was turning an arm was rapidly wrapped around her throat and tightened; another arm pinned her arms to her body. She tried to shout, but the arm around her throat squeezed and she started to feel faint. Someone else put a cloth bag over her head and in a harsh whisper she was told not to make a sound, or she wouldn't be the only one who died tonight.
"Nathan. Lily. Douglas," the whisper listed.
Andy ceased to struggle; she froze, her body literally locked up in fear for the lives of her friends.
She still had a hold of her basket, her brain still focused on not breaking the eggs. The basket was eventually wrenched from her grasp, and her hands were tied behind her back; a cord at the base of the bag was tightened around her neck. She was almost carried somewhere, perhaps back the way she had come, or forward from where she'd been grabbed: she couldn't tell.
She heard the sound of a motor and wheels rolling slowly over cobbles, and she was picked up and shoved into a vehicle, the back of a truck. Andy sat still, heart pounding, and all she could think of were her friends.
She'd only heard French spoken, but now someone whispered in German, asking where she had to be taken.
"Rue de Saussaies."
Andy's heart thumped so hard she thought it might kill her. Saussaies: she'd been grabbed by the Gestapo.
Someone climbed into the truck and slapped her, hard. Andy's head hit the floor of the truck bed, and she passed out.
Le vol noir des corbeaux
Sur nos plaines?
Les cris sourds du pays
Friend, do you hear
The black voice of crows
Over our plains?
Friend, do you hear
The muted cries of our country
—Maurice Druon, Joseph Kessel, Anna Marly: Chant des Partisans
La Renarde d'Argent—the Silver Vixen sat at a table in the shade on this warm autumn day. Some distance away two red-haired girls, eleven years old, played marbles in a patch of sand. It wasn't an especially feminine game but their mother, like many others, wasn't at all inclined to limit them in any way. It just wasn't done to say, 'Don't play' when the next day might bring a bombardment, or soldiers might drop out of the sky and decide to use one's home as a headquarters or a hospital or as shelter from other soldiers.
In German Occupied France nothing was certain except the very present, and life lived hour-to-hour was a tense affair, to say the least.
And those two little girls didn't know it, but today was the last they'd be spending in France.
"Have you told them yet?"
The girls began arguing in French over a marble, whether it had only been tipped or had rolled, and their mother clapped her hands twice.
"English," she said just sharply enough.
"Yes, Mom," came a two-voiced chorus in a definite American accent.
That was imperative. If the girls were caught alone, if they spoke only English in American accents, it was unlikely that any German or Italian soldier would harm them. They would be turned over to an officer, who'd curry favor by in turn handing them on to a superior, and the girls would be ransomed. By now any American wealthy enough would lie through their teeth about distant relatives, and pay up. The girls would soon be safe with whomever whichever consulate sent to fetch them—the one in Madrid, most likely, though the consulate in Istanbul had been rather busy, sending out escorts and ransom-bearing emissaries.
But if all went well, the girls wouldn't have to go through such an ordeal. If all went well tonight, they'd board a vehicle and would arrive at a certain airstrip in Spain in just two days. From there they'd fly to Britain, and be kept safe by a friend in Scotland.
"Don't you think London would be safer?"
"Stephen, have you been drinking again?"
He flinched and wondered yet again (for the eighth time today, alone) why the hell he'd married her.
"You don't really believe those Rube Goldberg rockets are actually gonna reach England."
"They bombed the hell out of London, using planes by far inferior to our bombers. I don't put anything past them."
"And if Scotland will be safe, why don't we get on the truck, too?" he muttered.
"Go, by all means," she hissed, eyes burning.
"Y'know, maybe I will."
He got up in a hurry and her hand snapped out, catching his falling chair. That always shocked him. She didn't look like much, she never had, but she was so damn quick. And he knew she was glaring at him. He was about to walk away, but thought of something.
"If I leave tonight, Miranda, I'm not coming back, and the hell if I'll stay in fucking Scotland."
"By. All. Means," she repeated, her gaze steady, unflinching.
He'd never been able to stare her down, but if this was the last time, he felt he might as well give it a try.
And all she did, as she'd done so many times before, was raise her chin just a little. As had many other men, he turned away from her complete defiance and the absolute belief she had in her equality.
He walked away and she knew he'd go ahead to some little drink-swilling hovel near the rendezvous point. She wouldn't see him again, and that didn't hurt even a little. She'd reached her limit with Stephen some months ago, and from that point on she'd merely tolerated him.
"The Englishwoman is back."
Henri, supposedly the farm foreman, jerked a thick thumb over his shoulder. Miranda looked that way and saw two people walking along at a good pace, still some way off.
"Who's that with her?"
"A man, American," Henri said, his voice coming from somewhere below his shoes. "I forget his name but when I was still a boy, before we moved to Lyon, I remember, he was here all the time."
"Nigel?" Miranda murmured.
"Oui, him," Henri rumbled and lit a cigarette.
Miranda stood and stole the cigarette. Henri grumbled good-natured cusses and lit another.
"I last saw Nigel in Paris four years ago," Miranda said.
"The day you were married to le salaud?" Henri rumbled: —the bastard.
"Mmm," Miranda said, nodding. She'd long since ceased to be offended by Henri's honesty. "And it seems that le salaud will be leaving tonight."
They smoked in silence, Miranda occasionally watching her girls at play, and within a few minutes Miranda was kissing Nigel on both cheeks. He looked thin, harried, and she'd noticed that he had a slight limp.
"The milice nearly caught me," he blurted. "She got me out."
"How?" Miranda demanded of an older redhead.
"Good old punt-and-run. In this instance I punted a smoke-grenade and we managed to run away," she drawled.
"Emily's got a real good arm. She could pitch in the Majors," said Nigel.
"I'll stick to cricket, thank you."
"After the war, who knows?" Miranda said lightly, but she gave Emily a slight nod. "What news is there?"
"Believe it or not," Emily said. "The Italians surrendered, and that was probably a mistake on their part, because their Gerry friends aren't friends anymore. Word from Greece: as many as three-thousand Italian POWs slaughtered by the bloody Gerry bastards."
"Dear God," Miranda muttered. "What else?"
"That's about it. But James' group have another American for you. They've kept her a while because she sniffed them out."
"She wasn't sent?" Henri asked.
"Neither by our Baker Street chaps, nor by the Yanks. I dunno what the bloody hell she thinks she's playing at. That stunt could've gotten the dilly cow killed."
"We'll see," Miranda said. "All set for tonight?"
"Ready and waiting," Emily said, her eyes on the two little girls several yards away. "It really isn't safe here anymore."
"Where is it safe?" Henri rumbled around an unlit cigarette. He lit it and said, "But we give them a chance. I hear the Boche are too scared of those horrible bagpipes to go anywhere close to Scotland."
"If you think the pipes are bad, old bean, you should experience a haggis," Emily drawled.
"A what?" Henri said, frowning.
"You're better off not knowing," Nigel chuckled.
A lot of people were better off not knowing several things. Much later, after dark and almost midnight, Miranda bundled her two sleepy daughters into the bed of a truck. Stephen climbed in with them, and Miranda hadn't expected that. She certainly hadn't expected him to be sober.
"I'll get 'em there," he told her, and that was all.
It was enough, and she knew he meant it. Miranda kissed his cheek, and kissed her girls' foreheads, and by now they were asleep again. She looked sharply at an old doctor.
"Laudanum. Very safe, as I promised, madame," he said and took her hand. "By the time they wake... Well, they are not babies and they understand great distances. And they trust me, remember?"
Miranda nodded and gave his hand a squeeze. She looked at her daughters for a while, and jumped down from the bed of the truck.
"Go. Aller, aller," she said, just loudly enough.
The driver ground the gears a little, but he was good with the clutch, otherwise, and the chugging lorry rolled away smoothly. Miranda stood alone in the dark with only the cold stars for company, and she allowed rare tears to slip down her face. Nothing was certain, not even the usual way of things for youngsters who had American accents.
How many lies had she told herself, in the last few days? She couldn't remember, and to try to remember now was bound to do her nothing but harm. Sometimes lies were the best thing left, especially if they were the only thing worth hearing.
~ ~ ~
She was cold and hungry, but that was all right: she'd been a lot colder and hungrier than she was now, and a lot less safe, too. The scar around the left side of her neck itched but she left it alone; she had to do a lot more work, mentally, to keep from scratching at the itching scars at both wrists. She tried to focus on something good, and that also took some mental discipline. Eventually: At least my hair's growing back, she thought. As always that particular thought was followed by another: Kraut assholes.
"You're angry again, huh? Always mad as hell," said one James Holt. He smiled and nodded. "Good. Mad is very, very good."
"You gonna tell me your name yet?"
"Suit yourself: no breakfast."
"Listen Mac, starving me is not gonna get me to say anything more than what I've already told ya, and what I've told ya should be enough."
"Really?" James said and sat on a hay bale that had seen less-moldy days. "This is Occupied France, doll. It's a nasty place. Lots of risks, and one of those risks is people ratting us out. That happens, all the time. I mean, kids and old people are literally starving, because the fuckin' Krauts are making 'em pay for their own occupation. Know what that means? Can you break it down, honey?"
"Oh sure. They say their Reichsmark is worth twenty times the French franc, and they say they're buying fair, but they're really fleecing everyone bare. How's that, honey?"
"Huh," said James. "Y'know what? Miranda can have ya. I don't care how much my bosses in the US of A will wanna bust my chops for that."
"Who're your bosses?" she asked.
"Hush-hush bunch called the OSS—Office of Strategic Services. All you need to know is that we're spies."
"You were just making a big deal about getting ratted out, and now you flap your gums about being a spy? Huh. Some spy..."
James' face reddened a little and he rubbed the back of his neck.
"You're a real pistol," he said and sucked his teeth. "Anyhow, like I said, you can go be Miranda's problem... Unless she decides she doesn't want ya."
"What happens then?"
"Nothing terrible. We just get you papers and get you out." James stood and walked to the barn doors, rapped on one of them, and it opened. "You waiting on an invite, sweetheart? Shake a leg, c'mon."
She got up and brushed bits of hay and straw off her clothes and marched out of the barn.
"Psst!" someone said.
She turned and looked around, and a young man beckoned her closer. He had bright blue eyes and a face that was far too young to match the rifle slung from his shoulder.
"What?" she said.
"He thinks he's much; he's not so much. You see, soon. She is much, la Renarde d'Argente."
"Silver Vixen?" she whispered.
"Oui, his uhh... boss, yes? His boss. Go, go now."
"Sure. Thanks... I think," she said.
She trotted off in the direction of a farmhouse, trotting mostly for the warmth it provided: the sun was only just rising and it was a lot colder outside the barn. At the door to the house she made use of a bootscrape and pushed her way inside, and she had to give the door a slight shove to close it. Something smelled good, but for now warmth was more important than food and she stood still, rubbing her hands slowly. She became aware of eyes, aware of someone staring, and she looked up at someone with red hair and a critical expression.
"You're a green one, but also not."
"I said so."
"Sit down before you fall down. When last did you eat?"
"I dunno... You don't look much like a silver vixen," she blurted.
"Hmph. I'm Emily, not Miranda. I know you've kept mum, while in James'... custody, for want of better, but you need to start talking. And I said, sit down, woman."
She sat at the table but made no move towards the bread, and certainly not towards the bacon.
"I'm glad there's bread. When there's nothing else, it's better to live, so I'll eat even pork."
"You're a Jew?" Emily asked.
"I am, but I'm not the kinda Jew those assholes are used to," she almost snarled.
"So you were caught. They shipped you off?"
"Uh-huh, to a camp up near the German border. East of here, in Alsace."
"How did you get out?" Emily asked.
"They were stupid," she said, and resisted scratching again. "They picked me out for some young Nazi buck, and they thought I wouldn't try anything, but I hit him over the head with the chamber pot. It only stunned him a little, but there was a knife on his belt—a dagger, I guess, something to do with his regiment... Anyhow, he's dead, and I managed to get out that house. I was outside the camp, so I ran. Took me a couple months to get back here. I mean, no hair, skinny as a rake– I look like an escaped prisoner, so I could only move at night. And I'm ashamed of it, but I had no choice: I stole all the clothes I'm wearing."
"If you hadn't you'd be dead by now. And you should've just told James about all of that," Emily said. "If you had, he'd not have dared to keep you locked in a ruddy barn. Come along. There's better food down the road a bit. And certainly no pork."
She followed Emily out of the house, and there was no-one else around now. She thought she might have to walk, and hoped she could keep up, but in a little copse that might've been an orchard once, a pony and trap stood waiting. She climbed up and sat next to Emily who gee'd up the pony like an old hand.
"How long have you been here?"
"A couple of years now," Emily said. "You're Jewish, yes, but you're an American, so how in blazes did you end up in a concentration camp?"
"I was stuck here, so like a few other foreigners I ended up studying. It's sort of... It's a case of if-not-why-not, because the literary greats here all give open lectures in Paris, and except for our jobs we had nothing better to do. Anyhow, that went fine, but we noticed a new student at some of the lectures who seemed as French as almost everyone else, but he had to be a spy. Twenty-seven of us were transported in the same cattle car, five Americans, only eleven people that I knew from lectures, but all of us Jewish. There was no warning: I was walking home from work around eleven at night, and they grabbed me. They asked me a bunch of questions that made no sense, and I thought I was gonna end up dead– they kept dunking my head in a tub of water. Then some man in civvie clothes walked in and said for them to stop, because dead I couldn't work. After that I didn't get to talk to anyone for three, maybe four days. Hard to tell because I was kept in a dark room. When we talked in the cattle car, we all had similar stories to tell, but two of the eleven people from lectures were missing. Maybe they'd gotten killed, or maybe they were the ones who coulda answered those questions."
"Nacht und Nebel..." Emily said through her teeth.
"Night and fog... What?"
"It's what they call it, the Gestapo and others. After they've grabbed someone and made them disappear, those bastards say they've been vernebelt—turned into so much fog. We've found out that much, but hardly anything else... And you don't know what's happened to your fellow prisoners?"
"I know about one. He put up a fight, first day at the camp; they shot him... But my other friends, the ones still in Paris, aren't Jewish. When I got back here I skirted the city; I didn't dare go anywhere near my friends."
"Wise. There are spies everywhere—I mean, you're talking to one," Emily said.
"That makes two of ya just spouting that to someone you don't know from Adam."
"Well, I could pretend to be a shop-girl from Stratford-upon-Avon," Emily said dryly. "But there's not much point."
"Right. I see that now... At least you're the right kinda spy."
"We can but hope," Emily drawled.
"And what about Miranda?"
"She's lived here for twenty-five years. She's an intellectual, a socialite, well-connected, well-monied—in other words, the perfect spy. She's also an incredibly angry woman, and that makes her a very effective spy... among other things."
"Something tells me she doesn't take orders real well."
"She doesn't take orders at all. She gives them, and those who are clever and wise and who like their hides in one piece, all obey, fast."
"So the local partisans like her?"
"No. They worship her," Emily stated.
The pony hauled the trap over a short rise and another low hill came into view, but this one was crowned with an old chateau, and the hillsides all around now bore neat, well-wired rows of vineyards. She stared at them, wondering when last she'd seen any kind of agricultural anything looking as well-tended. The distant low of a cow was heard, but it was out of sight, as were the sheep that bleated occasionally.
"How much does she have to pay to keep this?"
"She used to pay half, but these days no-one's stupid enough to come and collect on that."
"But everyone who works here gets a share?"
"And even some who don't work here," Emily said, nodding.
Emily drove the trap between old gate posts and a man came up to take the pony's headstall. He gave Emily a nod in reply to her greeting, and said something in French about "last night's shipment." Emily's step hitched ever so slightly, and it was possible that the man didn't notice because he led the pony and trap away without saying anything further.
"Listen here," Emily said quietly. "She sent her children away last night. Don't mention them. Don't ask about them. I'm only telling you so that you don't put your foot in it. In general, Miranda's a very private person, more English than American, sometimes."
"Private like that. Okay."
Emily led the way inside, and from the way she checked this room and that it seemed that she knew this old house well. They ended up in the kitchen where they found an older woman stirring something over the stove, and a thickset man reading a newspaper at a table. There was a sawed-off shotgun resting next to the paper, and a pack of cigarettes was casually balanced on the hardwood stock. Emily picked up the pack and offered it to—
"What is your name?" Emily said.
"Andrea Sachs, but everyone calls me Andy."
"I'm not 'everyone.'"
Andy whirled around and here at last, judging by that short silver hair, was the Silver Vixen. She wasn't tall, but Andy had imagined that the Vixen would be tall, and even now, faced with the reality of five-foot-five or so, Andy couldn't call this woman short or even average. She had that in her bearing that immediately caused Andy to want to stand up straighter, like a soldier on parade. Andy supposed that this was what her father had always meant by 'command presence.'
"Miranda Priestly," she said quietly and sat at the table.
The man hastily removed both his shotgun and the paper to the floor, and the older woman brought over a platter covered with a clean tea-towel. Emily gestured with the pack again and Andy took a cigarette, supposing it would make her hack because she hadn't had one in months, but she wanted it anyway. The man struck and held a match for her, and she coughed only slightly. She thanked him in a mumble.
"So," Miranda said and took a croissant from beneath the tea-towel (Andy stared at the pastry). "James sent me a runner early today. You have no experience and yet you expected—nay, demanded to see me, and further, I'm led to believe that you have no real idea of who I am, of what I do, of what I represent."
"Ma'am, yours was the only name I could remember. I kept my nose clean, in Paris."
"She's Jewish," Emily supplied.
Miranda set down a piece of her croissant, wiped her fingers on a pristine linen napkin, and gave Andy a long measured look. She felt like a specimen in a jar, but she bore up. She felt she had to, that if she didn't she'd flunk right out of the strange exam she'd walked into.
"Sit down," Miranda said at length.
Andy took the only seat remaining at the table, the one directly opposite Miranda.
"This one hasn't eaten for a while," the man rumbled, looking carefully at Andy. "No croissant for you, chérie. Jeannette?"
"She must have an omelette," said Jeannette and began to bustle in a different way at the stove. "Emily? Your ugly oats."
"Ugly it may well be, but oats for breakfast is as good as a full tank of petrol," Emily said and got up. She soon sat down again with a bowl of rolled oats porridge. "If you manage that omelet, Andy, there's some of this left. For now have some milk."
"Do," Miranda said, glancing at Andy. "What happened to your neck?"
"I got caught by some Maquisards east of Paris," Andy said and took a tiny sip of milk: so good. She went on: "Because of my hair, they thought I was a collaborator that someone else had cut loose. I had to talk them into cutting me loose, literally."
"They were going to hang you?" the man asked, and he extended a thick but strangely gentle hand. "Henri."
"Hi," Andy said and shook his hand. "And yeah, it's not like the men in hiding to do major harm to women, but those fellas were real mad about an attack, an ambush. They lost two of their pals. Anyhow, the rope got me a bit. Coulda been worse, but they listened. Well, one of 'em did. There's not too many collaborators who'd say the Shema while getting strung up."
"I daresay," Miranda murmured.
"You know what the Shema is?" Andy blurted.
"Priestly, hmm?" Miranda said.
Andy blinked as her brain made a connection, a translation, and complete sense of the whole situation, all at once.
"Cohen," she whispered.
"Mmm," said Miranda.
"Right," Andy mumbled. She drew a breath and said, "I don't have any experience, you're right, but I'll work hard."
"We'll see," Miranda said.
~ ~ ~
It was the late vendange for the remaining fifth of Miranda's vines, and as was the common practice people came from all over to help with the picking. While Andy picked she noticed that those 'people from all over' all knew each other well. She recognized some men without the serious expressions that they usually wore when they occasionally dropped by here, and some youngsters had a look of their fathers or uncles or older brothers. The women were, most of them, less connected, and Andy also noted a distinct absence of men like Henri and several of the other partisans who were here regularly and who could call those women wives or family.
Grape-picking was nice work but tiring, and Andy did her best to push through her spells of weariness. That often required complete focus on whichever task, so that it almost seemed she was working in a box or a tunnel.
"Stop. If you don't have the strength to push the bunch stem against the hook with one hand, then you'll drop the bunch."
Andy had been trying to hold the stem with one hand while sawing through it with the other. Miranda produced a hook-knife of her own: bunch of grapes gripped in the left hand, and her right thumb pushed the stem past the hook: sheared clean in a second.
"Tired," Andy admitted.
"Look after yourself," Miranda said flatly. "Go and help with the weighing."
Andy nodded and jammed the little hook-knife into the sheath on her belt. She walked off to the place on the side of the road where several people were weighing baskets and loading them onto horse- or ox-drawn wagons. Here Miranda's vigneron or vineyard foreman Alain gave Andy a grin, and asked if she knew how to handle the balance scale.
"Sure. What's the average basket's weight?"
"One-and-a-half kilos," Alain said.
Andy moved the forgotten counterweight on the balance bar, setting it to automatically reduce total weight by one-point-five kilograms, and Alain cussed up a storm.
"I know from scales," Andy chuckled.
And she was good with figures, and as a result the wagons were loaded faster, which in turn meant that the grapes spent less time in the sun. All of that was a good thing, and Andy's gut told her to stick with the scale, even when she felt up to picking again. Alain eventually went off to pick and left her in charge of the weighing, and Andy felt good about that. The end of the day came sooner than it might have and the wagoners in particular made sure to thank Andy for that.
There was more work at the chateau where the grapes were being pressed. Andy was told that the giant basket press would be loaded, pressured, and cleaned for long hours into the night. She wasn't tired and leant a hand, breaking only for dinner, and she went straight out again. When at last she had a wash before bed, she was exhausted.
Andy and Emily shared a room, and Andy noticed that Emily didn't look up from her book that night. She might even have slowly and almost imperceptibly shaken her head. Andy was too tired to ask about that.
In the morning she felt like hell. She was so stiff that she could barely move, and that was noticed at breakfast, which was an oddly silent affair. Miranda was never exactly chatty but she tended to drop a quip here and there. When Henri, Emily, and Nigel were finished with their meal, they left the table promptly, and Jeannette also vanished. That left Andy perched somewhat foolishly at a corner of a mostly empty table, with Miranda, who was taking her time with the remainder of her coffee. Andy was about to go and find something to do when Miranda pinned her with a glare.
"I told you yesterday to look after yourself. You've been getting regular meals for only six days. Are you intent on suicide?"
"I—No," Andy mumbled.
Miranda stood and glared at Andy a moment. Andy gulped despite herself, and Miranda gave a quiet snort, turned on her heel, and stalked out of the kitchen.
It really wasn't pleasant to know that Miranda regarded her as a young fool. Andy stood with a wince and rubbed at her lower back.
"Dear God, gimme strength," Andy muttered.
"Hi, Nigel. Nothing... Just—"
"Miranda?" Nigel guessed. He approached the table where he picked up his pocket-watch. "Andy, if you thought she'd be soft on you, then you deserve whatever rap she just gave you."
"I didn't expect—" Andy broke off and ran her fingers through her hair, still no more than an inch long. She measured her words and said, "I really dunno what she wants from me."
"She wants you to do your job without being stupid in a way that might get you killed, or that makes you so ill that you're of no use to anyone," Nigel said while wiping his glasses with a handkerchief. He settled them on his nose and looked her up and down. "You need better clothes."
"Maybe if we ask 'em nicely, all the fashion houses will open up again," Andy snarked.
"Oh darling, I wish," Nigel chuckled. "Come along with Uncle Nigel."
"We're going shopping."
"There's a clothing store out here in the sticks?"
"Kind of," Nigel said noncommittally.
Over the course of that morning, for a few francs or promised barter of wine or milk or eggs or in one instance raw wool, Nigel found Andy shirts and trousers and even a couple of sweaters that were all only a little too big (she was still really skinny). The clothes she'd been tramping around in for the last week had all been far too big.
During the following week she found that her 'new' duds actually made a difference. She was better able to move and her chores seemed to get done faster. Better able to move also meant that her evening training sessions with the partisans went a lot more smoothly. She wasn't yet as fit as she could be, but good food and proper rest over the last two weeks had made her feel strong, and the constant simmering anger she bore gave even more of a lift to her strength.
It seemed to the partisans that she was trying harder and they gave her a little more of their grudging respect. Most of them really didn't want women involved in any of the business of resistance. The only woman to whom they gave complete respect was Miranda, and Andy had come to realize that that had a lot to do with the fact that Miranda demanded that respect, but all without saying a word. She simply had that air about her: command presence, by the boatload.
It was rare that Miranda joined them in the evenings in one of the big old barns. Whenever she did, Andy made sure to watch her, and she noticed that everyone else did as well. When Miranda entered that barn, she'd often take over as instructor: firearms, blades, open-handed combat, explosives, general methods of sabotage, tactical planning and coordination—it seemed that she was well-versed in all of it.
"Where did she learn all of that stuff?" Andy asked Emily.
"I don't know, and Nigel doesn't know much either. If he doesn't know..."
"Yeah." Andy stole a puff of Emily's cigarette and handed it back. "Guess it wouldn't do to ask her."
"I learn from the mistakes of others, whenever I can," Emily said. "Several people have told me, never ask Miranda anything personal. I'm quite happy not to find out what sort bollocking they got for stepping on her toes."
Andy agreed, but she remembered that quiet little revelation in the kitchen on her first morning here.
Miranda had said nothing further about being Jewish. While she made no objection to Andy's observation of Sabbath rituals on Friday evenings, and she'd even helped to prepare and bake challah bread, Miranda didn't join in Andy's quiet prayer over the lighting of candles, another over the Sabbath wine, nor did Miranda engage in ritual hand-washing or in the prayer said before drying one's hands. But last Friday, after Andy had finished saying the blessing over the challah bread, Miranda had murmured "Amen." She'd also frowned and had looked annoyed with herself, and Andy had been hard-pressed not to laugh.
That little 'Amen' and the fact that Miranda had changed her name to 'Priestly' spoke in whispers of another life, one that Miranda had put behind her. That didn't sit well with Andy, but given that the Nazis were trucking Jews away in their thousands and tens of thousands, and locally the Vichy milice were always keen to round up all Jews for pay, Andy would never berate any Jew for making an effort to avoid that.
Recently one of the partisans, a Jew himself, had said to Andy that being Jewish was important only so long as there were Jews left to feel that way. These days truer words were seldom spoken.
Over the following fortnight, Andy continued to work and learn. Some of what she learned had to do with Miranda.
Andy had taken Emily's instructions to heart, which left asking the right sort of people the right sort of questions about Miranda. Andy figured that if the Silver Vixen was as private as Emily had let on, then personal questions were likely to get the same reaction from Miranda's friends as they would from the woman herself.
All Andy wanted to know was the background, and she asked the kind of questions that sometimes needed only five- or ten-word answers. When those short answers were added into a long collection of answers, they painted a picture of someone who was probably considered a major hassle by both the Nazis and their Vichy dogs.
Twenty-five years ago, directly after the Great War had ended, Miranda had arrived here to find her inheritance little more than a ruin. The house stood, for the most part, but it lacked a roof and the east wing needed heavy repairs, and most of the farm buildings needed either to be re-roofed, or they had to be torn right down and rebuilt. Only the cellars had escaped damage, which was just as well because there were twenty reasonably well-tended acres under grapes, and Miranda arrived just a month before the vendange.
"I was still a boy then," Henri said. "And that first harvest she pledged to us, to the people who came to pick."
"And you coulda knocked 'em all down with a feather," Nigel tacked on.
"So much the surprise," said Alain and he topped Andy's wineglass. "My father was still with us then, and even before the surprise was softer, was less, Papa said, 'How many acres of three-hundred-and-sixty shall we put under grapes?' And Miranda said, 'Half.'"
"If she'd said that she didn't know," Nigel said. "If she'd hesitated or asked for advice, she would've lost Jean-Pierre's respect."
"But instead," Henri said, wagging his cigarette. "Alain's papa asked her what she wanted to learn about vines. So Miranda said, 'Only what will grow here.'"
"And Jean-Pierre promptly claimed her as his new best friend," Nigel drawled.
Whom Alain's father trusted, everyone else trusted, too, and that was the beginning of Miranda's closely cooperative relationship with almost everyone who lived within a ten-mile radius of her home.
Over the years the vineyards spread into those one-hundred-and-eighty acres, and the rest of Miranda's land, including an additional hundred acres purchased fifteen years ago, had been properly ordered for mixed agriculture. There was a large kitchen garden, potatoes, and several feed crops. The livestock numbered a beef herd, an eighteen-cow dairy herd, and a small flock of dual-purpose—meat and wool—sheep. The latest livestock addition had been chickens for eggs and meat.
"Two years before it kicked off, she sniffed out this goddamn war," Nigel said during another evening. "She converted the old hay barns into layer and brooder barns—in the States they're called broiler houses. These days those barns are sometimes the only source of food for upwards of three-hundred people."
And these days, food bought loyalty. Or it would have, if Miranda hadn't already had the loyalty of most of the locals, their extended families and friends, and anyone who thought she was 'a good egg,' as Emily called her. That amounted to an awfully long list of people, and many of them had never met Miranda; many lived as far as four-hundred kilometers away.
Closer to this chateau, Andy found out mostly by listening, that eggs and the occasional slaughtered bird had served to bring around even those people who hadn't liked Miranda, for whatever reason, before the war.
"As they say, Death is the great leveler," Emily said on a night when rain and sleet were competing with each other. "And those people put aside their stupid bloody reservations because Miranda is literally keeping people from Death's door... Wouldn't work, though, if this place was any closer to Paris or Lyon or Orléans. The farms closer to the cities have all been stripped, and most are abandoned."
"I saw a lot of that, while I was walking," Andy said. "I'd walk at night and almost every morning at dawn I'd see these... dead farms. They made for good places to sleep, though. Y'know, somewhere outa sight and outa the rain... I think we'll have to bunk with the cows, because this wet stuff is not gonna let up."
"I've kipped in worse places," Emily said, looking quite comfortable on a pile of straw.
"Yeah. Me, too," Andy said.
Learning about Miranda and the farm was one of Andy's small escapes from bad memories. Work was the big escape, and training was a lesser one, time-wise, but it was more potent: she was being trained to do considerable damage to the war-machine that had sought to kill her. That idea gave her some measure of comfort, but sometimes it wasn't enough, in light of the fact that it would never be enough for those who'd already been trucked away like cattle and slaughtered like helpless lambs.
"I'll be really honest with you," Emily said, her eyes on the guttering rain lit to streams of dull fire by their single storm lantern. "What you know as fact is still only a rumor, and one that isn't believed by many. Even after that United Nations declaration was published in several newspapers including the New York Times, there are people who doubt mass executions of Jews and Poles for no other reason than their being Jews and Poles. It's just so hard to grasp when one's at a distance. It's not malicious doubt, Andy; it's the same kind of doubt expressed, during the Great War, when Germany gassed thousands of soldiers with chlorine mortars: how can it be true... But it is, and those people will only believe it when they see it."
"If there's anything left to see," Andy said. "At that camp... They've got a fuckin' crematorium, Em. And I have fluent German: those SS assholes talk about other places—Birkenau is one, in Poland."
"Birkenau..." Emily muttered. "Did you ever hear it called Brzezinka?"
"Once– one of the guards asked what it's called in Polish. You know about it?"
"The SOE provides training to Polish resistance members. They know about the place. It's not just one camp, and they're better known as Auschwitz One and Two... The Polish blokes had an idea to liberate those camps, but there's no way we could do it that would involve protecting the prisoners—we can't just turn them loose. They'll all be captured again and likely have it worse than before."
"I see that point," Andy said quietly. "They push thousands of us through those camps. Thousands in, no-one gets out. Those camps can't be big enough to hold 'em all, which means they're death-camps."
Emily nodded and Andy knew by her expression that she was nodding because she knew, and not because it would shut Andy up.
"Both Gerry and the Vichy swines have been sending Jews out of this country since Forty-one," Emily said. She looked at Andy sharply, and said, "Why did you stay? You could've gotten out in Forty and even in Forty-one. Why?"
"My friends and I came here to work and travel," Andy said and flopped in the straw next to Emily. "A working vacation, and then the shooting started... Two of our friends were on a little ship going across the Channel, and it got sunk; the day before we were due to leave, the boat that was crossing back, the boat we had tickets for, also got sunk. Rest of us looked at that and we decided to stay; when we wrote home, our families agreed: stay here. We all had good jobs by then, so... Stupid, I know, but—"
"Not really," Emily drawled and shuddered. "Me, take ship? With all those ruddy U-boats lurking about? Not bloody likely."
"So how did you get here?"
"Oh, I dropped in."
"By parachute?" Andy mumbled.
"Marvelous invention, the parachute," Emily said, nodding. "It's a lot like flying... Well, flying down, and the ride never lasts long enough."
"You're screwy," Andy stated emphatically. "I'd rather take my chances with the U-boats, which is saying something, seeing as I can't swim."
"Now you're the one who sounds bleedin' daft," Emily chortled.
"Hey!" Nigel hollered. "Where are you two girls?"
"Communing with the cows!" Andy yelled.
There was a pause during which a door was closed and opened again.
"Miranda says it's just drizzling, get your heinies in here!" Nigel yelled.
"Drizzling? And I really doubt she said 'heinies,'" Andy said, and glared out the doorway at the rain– still bucketing down. She let Emily haul her out of the straw. "Looks like I'm gonna have to learn to swim fast."
"Ugh," Emily grumbled. She picked up the storm lantern, and said, "Right ninnies, we are... Race you!"
The race lasted less than thirty seconds, but they still ended up drenched to the skin, and freezing with it. In the kitchen even Miranda winced at their chattering teeth and nodded along with Nigel's orders regarding an immediate change of clothes. Once they'd obeyed those orders, Andy wrapped a towel around Emily's long wet hair, and she didn't say as much, but Andy finally made a little peace with her short locks.
~ ~ ~
A month without her children, and it had taken that long month for word to reach her that her girls were now safe in Scotland. It helped to have connections and to be owed favors: the British Special Operations Executive, also called the Baker Street Irregulars, had sent the plane and had seen to it that her girls had reached their destination.
Miranda fingered the letter smuggled to her and tucked it away in a hidey-hole beneath a floorboard. Very few documents were kept in this house, beyond bills of sale and the farm record books. She replaced the rug and straightened up, and felt a little lighter, a little happier, a little more certain that tomorrow might be a good day. She took a stroll through the house, intending to go out onto the wide back porch. In the kitchen she paused and collected a snifter of brandy, and she stepped through the backdoor.
It was dry out and cold but not uncomfortably so. That would come later, when the night forgot that it had been preceded by an almost warm day. Miranda lit a cigarette and blew smoke up at the cloud-patched stars.
"Nice night for it."
Miranda turned in the direction of those softly-spoken words: Andy was sitting on a bench right at the end of the porch where two walls made the sort of corner almost meant for one's back. Miranda strolled over, noticing on the way that there was a pistol on the bench near an ancient brass ashtray.
"You're in my seat," she said, teasing.
"Too bad," Andy chuckled.
"Perfect response," Miranda said and sat down.
She removed the Sauer 38H pistol from the waistband of her trousers and set it next to Andy's weapon, a Walther P38. Andy picked up Miranda's pistol and squinted at it in the dark.
"Where did you get this?"
"Off a very dead Fallschirmjäger. It's small, easy to hide."
"Yeah," Andy said and put the gun down. "I take it you're the one who made the Kraut paratrooper dead?"
"I don't like it when people point guns at me," Miranda said dryly.
"Me neither," Andy said. "But these days I got no problem pointing guns at other people... Henri said they caught some milice snooping around in the woods near Oison."
"And you wish that you'd been there?" Miranda said, her tone even.
"No, I don't," Andy said, shaking her head. "I just wish those bastards would have more pride."
"Pride has nothing to do with it," Miranda said and blew a smoke ring. "They were all borderline-criminals before the Nazis arrived and gave them opportunity to become proper criminals. The active, armed milice are all volunteers, and many of them are solid members of the Croix-de-feu, a faction not dissimilar to the Ku Klux Klan in the States."
"Oh, lovely," Andy drawled.
"And that's why my standing order is to shoot any of them out-of-hand."
"You... You talk like that, and it doesn't fit," Andy said.
"Doesn't it?" Miranda said quietly. "And isn't that a fine disguise, hmm?"
"I see," Andy murmured. She cleared her throat, and said, "But people know who you are. I remembered your name, remembered that someone I know hinted that you had Résistance links."
"Mmm, it's no secret, and yet..." Miranda stubbed out her cigarette and folded her hands in her lap. "Understand that by attacking me the Germans have much to lose: it would provoke the sort of uprising that they cannot, at this stage of the war, afford to put down. Moreover, by acknowledging that I'm a problem, the Vichyste and their milice dogs would lose face with the Germans. That, all of it, leaves me free to operate... though not without risk. I was shot last year, an assassination attempt. Even at near-point-blank range, the idiot didn't have very good aim, and he was rather surprised, next moment, to find a blade between his ribs."
"So it wasn't a bad hit."
"Small caliber, in and out and relatively clean. Not the first time I'd been shot, and the first was by far worse– the bullet glanced off the bone in my upper arm and broke it. I was a constantly angry woman for about eight weeks."
"I think of you as constantly angry," Andy said. "But it's like all the anger I've got in me: just simmering, waiting."
Miranda nodded and stretched her legs, crossing them at the ankle, thinking that anger like Andy's was a useful thing, if it could be controlled and channeled. But Miranda also had to be fair:
"At present you walk a wide road with room to turn, but the further you travel that road, the narrower it becomes. You must think carefully about what that might mean." Miranda got to her feet and finished off the last of her brandy. "Goodnight."
Andy mumbled a response. Miranda replaced her pistol behind the waistband of her trousers, and gave Andy a last look before carrying her empty snifter inside. She paused when she heard footfalls behind her; she'd half-expected them. Miranda paused, but didn't turn.
"Miranda," Andy said quietly. "Yael wouldn't have failed to drive the tent-peg through Sisera's temple. If I don't keep walking that road, I'll fail, and I refuse to fail."
Miranda turned and regarded Andy thoughtfully. The light of a single Tilley pressure lamp showed the truth of only a month's good food with the addition of physical effort– Andy was still a little gaunt. The shadows played about her face in a way that reminded Miranda of Andy's first morning in this kitchen.
"You delivered yourself out of Egypt," Miranda almost whispered.
"But others—so many others won't get that chance," Andy said. "I can't turn my back on that fact."
Miranda nodded. There was nothing to say beyond that acknowledgment, and Andy eventually returned to the porch.
Alone in her room Miranda readied for bed and sat a while looking at a photo of her girls. She hoped that by now they weren't missing her too badly, and that they'd made new friends, and that they were enjoying school. Her heart ached but before that got too bad, Miranda deliberately thought about the fact that her girls were safe.
"...so many others won't get that chance," Andy had said.
Miranda set the framed photograph next to the bed and checked the magazine in her pistol before turning out the lamp. The dark settled in around her as she settled into bed, but she didn't fall asleep at once. Miranda didn't know how long she lay awake, waiting, until Andy's quiet steps passed by the door. Until she heard those footfalls, Miranda hadn't known what she was waiting for. She fell asleep wearing a slight frown.
~ ~ ~
Over the next few weeks Andy felt that she learned more than she had during twelve years of school, four years of college, and several months' worth of attending lectures by various French writers and philosophers. Whatever she'd learned at school and more recently began to seem trivial and unimportant, in light of the fact that all the new things she was learning had to do with survival and defense, and ultimately a certain hoped-for success.
The British Special Operations Executive had people all over France by now, even right under the noses of the Nazis in Paris. Any new people assigned to the Paris-Orléans-Lyon triangle soon found themselves meeting Miranda, and since Andy had arrived those new people had reached and passed the count of twenty. Andy was often present at those meetings, and she listened and learned about major smuggling lines mostly from Spain, where the SOE made regular supply-drops.
Nearly every weapon currently in Maquis and partisan hands had literally fallen out of the sky, 'donated' by the SOE. The current favorite was the Sten Mk II, which the Americans had ended end up copying—they called their M3 the Grease-gun, because it looked very much like one. The Sten submachine-gun was ridiculously cheap and therefore easy to replace if something went wrong with it (and Andy soon found that things frequently went wrong with them). The best characteristic of the Sten was its ammunition: 9x19mm, readily available either through supply drops or, as Henri once put it, by killing a few Germans. More often, instead of killing anyone, Miranda's people blew up a section of railway track directly under a passing train, and that usually resulted in the locomotive and whichever trucks still attached steaming away rather than attempting a fight. The partisans then salvaged whatever materiel from the remaining derailed or stopped trucks. Since Andy's arrival, and in several parts of France, various partisan groups and the SOE had captured several tons of materiel this way.
"Much of what is captured must be destroyed, such as Eighty-eight millimeter shells," Miranda told a new SOE agent. "We'd really like to take them apart and make use of the high-explosive housed in the projectiles, but that's a risky operation, and besides the fact that people get killed, big bangs attract attention. So we blow up stockpiled Eighty-eight shells, for an almighty bang, and by the time the Wehrmacht arrives to investigate, our people are long gone."
"A smaller bang might be used to attract attention," the SOE agent said. "And when the Wehrmacht arrives, you could blow them up with the remainder of the shells."
"Hmph," said Andy. "You're a real green one, all right."
The SOE agent blinked at her and shook his head, confused.
"What Miz Sachs means," Miranda said. "Is that we don't poke tigers with toothpicks. For every German soldier killed through any sort of resistance action, the Germans usually execute three or more innocent civilians. We capture and sometimes destroy materiel, Mister Foster, but we try to avoid killing Germans, if at all possible."
"Right," said Foster. And: "Yes, I'm rather green, aren't I? But my specialty is communications and I hope to be of some use."
"If you stick to building radios, Sparky," Emily said. "And if you let other people make the big plans, you'll be of damned good use. But getting people killed is a right quick way to get yourself sent back home. If you're lucky. The last SOE agent who buggered it all up got buried, and no-one seems to know how he died. But we can guess, can't we?"
"Roger," Foster mumbled.
Like Foster, Andy learned a lot, fast, but she never thought that the roles would be switched and that she'd become the teacher, however briefly.
Three SOE agents came one night specifically to talk to Andy, and they'd come all the way from England. Andy and Henri had driven out to a vast empty field and had just glimpsed the three men making a rare accurate parachute landing. That night had been windless and that had been a help. Ordinarily parachuting into any place was a crap-shoot. When Emily had 'dropped in' she'd landed completely alone, forty-odd kilometers northeast of the chateau. As had Andy, Emily had had to hike only at night, without a map. She'd found a signpost at a crossroads that had helped her to work out where she was, and with the aid of a compass and a few more handy signposts, she'd managed to reach Miranda's home within three nights. By then Henri, Miranda, and others had looked at Emily as if she was a ghost: they'd thought her dead.
Tonight the three SOE visitors gave Emily respectful nods, and Andy had to wonder if they'd keep up that sort of respect, after the war. Probably not, Andy thought. That thought was akin to something hot and sharp poking at her, making her bristle with annoyance, but she hid that before anyone else could pick up on it.
The visitors were shown down into the brandy cellar, where most meetings took place. It was almost as good as a bomb shelter and the heavy steel doors had once been armored hull plates off an old battleship run aground during a gale.
"Who made those doors?" one of the men asked.
"I've no idea," Miranda said. "They were here when I arrived. I presume my great-uncle commissioned them."
She poured generous splashes of brandy into several snifters and everyone helped themselves. Miranda cut the paper seal on a box of captured Tuscan cigarillos, and slid off the lid, and no-one said No to one of those. Andy chased the sweet rich smoke with a small sip of brandy, and felt close to that place where it was possible to forget that most of the world was at war. She didn't like that place and snapped herself out of it by asking the men their names.
"Peter," a man said, tapping his chest. He pointed out the other two men, and said, "That's Barry and this fellow is Captain MacIlvray. He's SAS, not SOE."
"And he's better known as Cap'n MacEvil," Barry chuckled.
"I don't stand for nonsense," said MacIlvray, with a shrug.
"Good. Nonsense, when there's a war on, usually gets people killed," Andy said. "What's SAS?"
"Special Air Service," MacIlvray said. "It's rather a new stunt, and the name's a bit... misleading. We don't spend much time in the air."
"If people don't really know what you do, that's a good thing," Miranda said.
"We all think so, yes," Barry said. He cleared his throat and said to Andy, "We know that you escaped from a labor or concentration camp—"
"I was outside the camp when I escaped," Andy corrected.
"Never reveal that detail to just anyone," MacIlvray said.
"If you must mention your escape, it was directly from the camp," Peter said. "You killed a man during your escape, yes?"
"I did. He was someone important?" Andy said.
"The nephew of Hitler's Chief of Staff Generaloberst Jodl," MacIlvray said.
Andy was standing and decided that sitting down on a bench next to Miranda was better than falling down. She didn't expect Miranda's hand to arrive on her back, but Andy was grateful for that light pressure and slight warmth.
"How many people did I get killed in reprisal?" Andy asked quietly.
"We don't know, but it's possible that none were killed," Peter said.
"We have an agent in the area of that camp, who heard a story," Barry said. "A rather far-fetched tale of a duel. You see, duels these days are strictly verboten in all branches of the German forces and in Germany as a whole. That duel was supposedly witnessed, but the 'man' with whom Leutnant Jodl fought has not been named, while all of the 'witnesses' have been demoted and some relieved of command."
"Some of them were rather conveniently sent back to Germany," Peter said. "Too conveniently, and that's why our agent did a little more digging and listening."
"And she sent us word," Barry said. "And we already knew that you'd escaped and you'd killed someone in the process, with a nice sharp dagger. But there was no word on that. Too much of a coincidence for it to be otherwise: we put the pieces together and that chap dead as the result of a supposed duel, was the one you killed."
"Makes sense, actually," MacIlvray said. "They've covered it up that their manly young Leutnant was killed by a woman. A Jewish prisoner, no less."
Andy felt the muscles of her jaw tighten; her pulse began to race and her temperature rose to a full sweat, like she had a fever.
"You're so angry that you don't quite know what you're feeling," Barry noted. "But I know: you feel cheated, don't you?"
Andy did no more than nod in response. She knew that if she opened her mouth the first sound out of it would be something like a howl, a roar of righteous but impotent indignation. It was all made worse for the fact that she knew that these men were right, that she dared not mention the truth of her escape, because if word got out about it, those who'd effected the cover-up would likely have her hunted by the Gestapo. That hunt would lead not only to Andy, but also to Miranda and Henri and Emily and Nigel, and many others connected with them.
Andy had a sip of brandy and faced the music:
"So you're here to tell me it'd be a good idea if I left this country."
"Our immediate superiors felt that way," Barry said. "But they're mostly rather old men who fight wars from behind their desks."
"These two made them see sense," MacIlvray said, gesturing at his SOE companions. "Those old coffin-dodgers wisely decided to defer to the expert opinion that you'll be bloody useful here, and very unhappy elsewhere."
"The only thing you've got to worry about, in that regard," Barry said. "Is the OSS deciding they should ship you home."
"In their fuckin' dreams," Andy muttered and got up. Her cigarillo had been angrily puffed to nothing, and she snatched another from the box. She lit it, and while shaking out the match she said, "I'm not a soldier, I'm not signed up with anyone—not even you fellas. I aim to keep it that way."
"That's capital," Peter chuckled. "Exactly what we hoped to hear."
"What else we'd like to hear is any detail you might remember of that camp," MacIlvray said.
"You got all night? Cos I got a real good memory," Andy said.
"There's enough brandy here to keep us going all night..." Barry quipped.
Andy had expected Miranda to bridle at that comment, but she only laughed, and asked if their guests would like anything to eat. She mentioned bread and cold roast beef, cheese and pickles, in combination almost a plowman's lunch, served well-after dinnertime. The three men looked somewhat poleaxed.
"Rationing is that bad in old Blighty, is it?" Emily said.
"Well, the three of us live at a barracks," Barry drawled. "In barracks one tends to subsist on all things powdered or tinned."
"The last thing I had that didn't come out of a tin, was a carrot," Peter said. "It wasn't an especially nice carrot, but I only thought as much an hour after I'd rather eagerly polished it off."
"I'll send you on your way later with some apples and raisins," Miranda said.
"When last did I have raisins..." MacIlvray murmured.
"Miranda dries a literal half-ton of them during summer," Emily said, and followed Miranda to the doors. "We usually only give them to kids."
"I can try to look shorter," said MacIlvray, who was at least six feet tall.
"Oh, I'm sure. What else do they call you? Lamppost?" Emily ragged.
"Some'ing like," MacIlvray said with a grin.
"The sparks, they are flying," rumbled Henri, who'd been otherwise conspicuously silent.
"You noticed, too, huh?" Andy drawled. "Careful there, Cap'n MacEvil. Brandy's highly flammable."
"And I don't see a fire extinguisher anywhere close-to-hand," Peter said.
Peter was given a little shove, and MacIlvray harrumphed at his companions' laughter. Andy decided to call his bashfulness cute. She'd noted already that like many other men, he was rather young to hold the rank of captain. But she trusted the experience on his face and in his eyes and later, while Peter and Barry asked questions and took notes, Andy found herself addressing most of her answers to MacIlvray.
"You get to that place, halfway up a goddamn mountain, by a narrow, winding road," Andy said. "When we were taken there from the train station, they trucked us up, but we'd all been expecting a long walk somewhere. There was a little gap in the tarp over the truck. We took turns looking out of it and soon figured out why they used the trucks: that road's real steep."
"That's very useful info," Barry said.
"Yes, especially if we can commission aerial photographs," Peter said.
"Your spy there doesn't know where the camp is?" Andy asked.
"Not precisely. She and the other residents of the town are sure there is a camp, somewhere, but they can't see it from the town."
"And she dares not go looking for it," MacIlvray said. "Did you ever hear anyone give that place a name?"
"Natzweiler or KLNa," Andy said. "The KL stands for Konzentrationslager. I heard several mentions of 'KL' and two other letters, sometimes also numbers. If you pick up any snippets of radio messages, or you get your hands on documents where 'KL-something' is mentioned, they're talking about a camp or more than one. Also, our word 'commando' is nothing like the German 'Kommando,' which is a work-detail, but when mentioned in connection with a KL, it's a smaller camp attached to the bigger one."
"Was there any mention of those in direct relation to Natzweiler?" Barry asked.
"I'm pretty sure that every mention of the word 'Kommando' involved one of those attached camps. Some of the guards seemed to be on rotation: one week at the camp, and one week somewhere else."
"And what about prisoners?" MacIlvray asked. "Were they moved about, too?"
"Yes, but that was a daily thing. They'd get taken to go work somewhere and then get brought back."
"We're getting ahead of ourselves somewhat. Let's just refocus a bit, please," Peter said. "What was your timeline, Andy?"
"I was grabbed on Thursday June tenth," Andy said. "But I'm still not sure what day it was when I got to the camp. Those guards use time, but not the days of the week, and if I hadn't known it was June when I got there, they'd never have said which month it was. First time I heard the date was when those Maquisards grabbed me, east of Paris: August twenty-fifth. I'd been walking for a month by then, twenty-nine days... Well, nights. I dared not walk during the day."
"That's what kept you alive," Peter said. "So we can say that you escaped on or around the twenty-sixth of July."
"That's the date I settled on," Andy said, nodding.
"And what sort of work did you do as a prisoner?" Peter asked.
"Laundry. Day in, day out, I pressed and folded shirts."
"Uniform shirts?" Barry asked.
"Yeah. And I remember a silly thing, an ink-stain on a cuff, and I saw one of the camp officers wearing that shirt. I ended up pressing and folding it again, several times."
"Let's talk about officers," Peter said, scribbling on a notepad. "I'm going to give you this list of ranks, and you tell us about the senior-most whom you heard addressed at that camp."
Andy took the notepad and read through the list, she tapped a rank.
"Hauptsturmführer. Kramer is his name, SS sonuvabitch, and all the guards complained about him being a paperwork stickler. You said all those soldiers got demoted for covering up that so-called duel? Wouldn't surprise me if he made sure that happened. He didn't strike me as real smart, but anyone can cover that up by making sure to follow the rules and instructions to-the-letter."
"Overtly violent?" Barry asked.
"Uhh, that would be everyone in SS feldgrau uniforms," Andy said angrily. "I don't think anyone qualifies for the Schutzstaffel unless they can kick a day-old puppy. Kramer used to trip up prisoners and kick 'em. Skin'n'bones, nearly-dead, helpless prisoners. For some of them, that kick was the end."
"These monsters have to be stopped," Peter muttered.
"No-one's ever gonna believe that every Kraut soldier is a monster," Andy said. "That's cos they're not. Go spend time in Paris and you'll meet some of the nicest German soldiers in the world. Thing is, as nice as they are, they all know exactly what's going on at places like Natzweiler. The officers especially: there's no way they can't know. And at that camp I heard a guard complaining that she should've been assigned to the camp close to her hometown in Germany. That means that the German people also know what's going on in those fucking camps."
"That's a chilling thought," MacIlvray said.
"Isn't it?" Barry said, shaking his head. "In that other life that I led before the war, I was a psychologist. Still am, I suppose. And I tell you, none of this, none of what Germany is doing, is covered by any theory that I've studied; it's not in any book that I've read. I want to call it mass-hysteria, but it's too well-organized. However, I am sure that Hitler is utterly insane."
"Maybe the new scary disease is contagious insanity," Andy said. "Sure seems that way to me."
"And me," Emily said. "The only problem with our theory is that the both of us have been near those ruddy Gerry bastards in Paris, and we're still sane."
"I find the same fault with your theory," Miranda drawled.
"Me, too," Henri said. "But maybe you shouldn't count my vote, because I have only been near very-very dead Boche."
"Well, the contagion might require listening to Hitler's speeches too often," said MacIlvray.
"I say, I think you're right, MacIlvray," Peter chuckled. "Those screeches are enough to drive anyone barmy."
"I refuse to be scientific," Barry said, amused. "Let's just settle on that theory, shall we?"
Andy recognized that diplomatically-phrased version of 'Now children, that's enough,' and it seemed that everyone else had as well. Even more diplomatic, Barry let Peter ask the next question.
"You mentioned a female guard, Andy. How many were there?"
"There weren't many women at that camp, so only a few female guards– I never counted more than ten on duty. I once saw a bunch of female guards touring the place, looked like they were being trained, or something."
"Did you ever make a count of the other female prisoners?"
"Not an accurate count, but I'm damn sure there were less than two-hundred when I was there. We did upkeep stuff, like laundry, and some women cleaned the camp offices and staff quarters, washed windows, and generally kept the whole camp tidy. The only time I got a break from laundry was to help mow the lawn around the admin block, and that was because I was the only one strong enough to handle the push-mower. I think the bulk of the women and some of the men worked to make clay pots. They had a press-mold—stick a lump of clay in the mold, and then push on a lever and it pushes a negative in and makes a pot. Then they put trays of them into a firing kiln."
"Pots? Flower pots?" Peter asked.
"I dunno. Maybe?"
"All right..." Peter said. "Did you see other female prisoners arrive at all?"
"Once, a small group, but I never got to talk to them and they pretty much disappeared. I dunno if they were killed or sent somewhere else."
"Killed?" Barry said.
"There's a crematorium at that camp," Andy said. "And there's an old farmhouse. People would get taken in there, would get marched in– usually they'd be sick or hurt. They'd be carried out, dead. I never got close enough to see how, but I never heard gunshots."
"We've heard rumors that the Germans are using gas," Barry said.
"Gas, what, like chlorine or mustard gas?" Andy asked.
"Perhaps, but likely something else that's lethal though less likely to also kill the bastards using it."
"Phosgene?" Peter suggested.
"Phosgene is far too dangerous: the slightest breeze... And mustard gas lasts too long," Barry said. "Unless you mean that those bodies were removed from the house a day or two later?"
"No, same day," Andy said. "Those poor men would usually go in there around noon, and before three or so, other prisoners would carry 'em out."
"That's not mustard gas, for certs," MacIlvray said. "But I think they must be using a gas. They're deporting thousands."
"Gas would be the most—sorry: expedient method of execution," Peter said. And: "Hang on a minute. Crematorium. Pots. Urns, for ashes?"
"This only gets worse," Henri muttered.
"You're right, because we don't know the half of it," Barry said. "I mean, we know that they're shooting people– civilians, POWs, excess concentration camp prisoners—"
"They work us to death, too," Andy said, shaking her head. She wanted to cry but she held it back. "Most of the men I saw in that camp were like walking skeletons. We got one meal a day, some kinda thin soup. I think I lost twenty pounds in my first week there... Let's keep on with this drill, okay? I'm getting to the point where I don't wanna talk about it anymore."
"Of course," Barry said. "Was there any indication that they were going to send you, or anyone else, to another place?"
"There was one group of men sent off in six trucks, and they never came back; later that week four full trucks of new prisoners arrived. Then there were the men who got collected and brought back every day. One group was working in a factory, I think, and I'm pretty sure they got fed there, got bread at least, because they weren't as thin as the others. Their clothes were always greasy—mechanic kinda greasy, and their hands were usually black."
"Probably fitters and turners," Barry said to Peter.
"They'd be considered valuable enough to feed," Peter said, nodding, and he double-underlined a note. "We know that there are quarries in that area. Do you think prisoners worked at that sort of labor?"
"Those would be the dusty fellas," Andy said. "Most of them, in other words. Those greasy fellas were a pretty small group, maybe a hundred, but not as many as a hundred-twenty. I know cos they fit into three trucks, forty men to a truck, but the third was only about half-full."
"Andy, did you ever make a daily count of trucks leaving or returning?" MacIlvray asked.
"You're joshing, right?" Andy drawled. "If I'd stood that long, counting anything other than shirts, I'd have gotten hanged or shot. My second week there they made an example of one of the prisoners. Kramer told the guards to tie that poor man's hands behind his back and they hung him up by his hands from a big hook. The pain eventually made him pass out. They made us all stand and watch that. And then he's hanging there, unconscious, and some asshole officer, who was visiting, walked up and shot him in the head. He actually asked if he could do it cos he hadn't shot anyone in a while."
"My God," Barry said.
"Did that man do anything specific, or was he just picked out as an example?" MacIlvray asked.
"We were all told that he tried to escape," Andy said. "But he denied it. He was Hungarian, and the woman next to me said that he was saying over and again that the truck drove off while he was trying to get into it. And they found him on the road, walking back to camp. So he was telling the truth. Didn't matter."
"Those bastards just wanted someone to kill," Miranda said, anger making her voice even quieter than it usually was. "I'll wager they set the whole thing up for that visiting officer."
"I agree," Peter said. "I can even see the poor beggar being left behind on purpose."
"Yes, especially if someone had picked up on his personality," Barry said. "They'd want someone easy to catch, and there'd be none easier to catch than the sort of chap who'd go back to camp, possibly to save others from getting into trouble."
"That's what the woman said he was saying, why he came back," Andy said. "I think people like him make those bastards feel bad. I mean, we're untermenschen, right? We're not supposed to be good and kind and courageous, and when those Nazis get faced with the fact that we're all of those things, I think it makes them real uncomfortable."
"So they fix that," Henri said. "Easy, with a bullet."
"Pity they don't all bloody-well shoot themselves," Emily said through her teeth.
Andy agreed with a grunt and she noticed that Miranda's expression had become closed, distant, a sure sign that she had long since passed the place where she was merely angry.
Andy had expected to be asked about the night she'd escaped, but the three men skirted the issue, clearly more interested in the camp itself. Andy understood that focus. She kept reminding herself of how the place had looked, of how the other prisoners had looked. She felt that forgetting would be shameful and, as she'd proven tonight, remembering was useful. At least, she hoped so.
"Is all this information gonna be used somehow?" Andy asked.
"If we know where a camp might be, when the bloody Gerries are pushed out of France, we'll be able send men straight to the camp," Barry said. "The Gerries are just about starving those poor blighters. I doubt they'll be left any provisions when the guards scarper, so we'll need to get people to that camp quickly."
"They might kill everyone before they pull out," Andy said.
"That's a possibility, but not one I'd like to gamble on," Peter said.
"Nor me," Barry said and looked at his watch. "Right, lads. We'd better get a move-on."
"Where are you lot off to, then?" Emily asked.
"There's a Spaniard coming to fetch us, and by morning we'll have split up to meet with other people," MacIlvray said and stood. He shook Andy's hand firmly. "Maybe we'll meet again."
"Yeah. Don't get shot or caught," Andy said.
"We'll all do our damn'dest in that regard," Peter said.
The men left at a little after one a.m, and Andy scowled at the clock in the kitchen: that late and she wasn't tired. She didn't have a word for how she felt– not restless and not agitated, but neither was she calm. She felt almost like she had when she'd first started drinking coffee, and had tended to have too much. If the night passed in an eyeblink and the sun rose, she felt certain of being able to put in a full day's work.
As had become her habit, Andy took a glass of sherry out onto the porch. The breeze was downright cold, but she turned up the lapels of her military greatcoat, and huddling into her corner kept her a little warmer, as did sips of the sherry. That glass was a third gone when the kitchen door opened and Miranda stepped outside: boots, greatcoat, a scarf, and gloves. And she looked right at Andy this time.
"I object: it's not a nice night for it," Miranda drawled.
"You're out here," Andy said pointedly.
Miranda sat on the bench with a slight bump, crossed her legs at the knee, and arranged the skirt of her coat over them. She didn't have a drink this time, but Andy didn't even think about it and offered Miranda the glass of sherry. She took the glass without comment and had a sip, and gave it back, and the glass made occasional trips back-and-forth over a slow half-hour. Neither woman said a word, and that was all right; Andy knew it was all right both ways. Sometimes companionship alone was enough, and tonight it was.
When she finally got to sleep, Andy had mildly pleasant dreams for a change, and when she woke she lit the lamp and answered Emily's typical morning scowl with a smile.
"What're you so bloody cheerful about?" Emily grumbled.
"I'm alive and kicking, and I intend to kick some Kraut ass," said Andy.
"Jolly good, even I'm on board with that," Emily chuckled.
~ ~ ~
Henri straightened up from strategic placement of a burlap sack. He yelled at the driver of an ancient tractor and the man nodded, engaged reverse gear, and backed up so that one enormous back wheel went over the sack. At Henri's hand signal, the driver engaged first and rolled that big wheel over the sack again.
"This had better not wreck 'em," Andy said, arms folded, glaring at Henri.
"Trust me, chérie," Henri rumbled.
He waved the tractor driver on his way, and retrieved the multiply-folded sack and its contents. Andy helped him to cut the twine holding the layers of burlap in place, and the contents were soon visible: a pair of American paratrooper boots. Andy looked at them suspiciously because they showed no sign at all of having been under the wheel of a tractor, twice.
"The sacking keeps them safe, but they will be softer now, I assure you," Henri insisted.
Andy sat on a bench outside the dairy shed and took off her old boots, and two of the three pairs of socks she'd been wearing to keep her feet from sliding around inside those too-big boots. These new boots were the right size, but they'd been so stiff that only an hour of wearing them had been enough to give her blisters. She'd tried again when the blisters had healed up, and had taken the boots off before they'd given her more blisters. Emily had suggested dunking them in boiling water, as she'd done with her own, but Henri had insisted there was a better way. Hence the tractor.
"If you were heavier, these boots would be tame by now," Henri said. "You think men have less trouble only because our skin is thicker? Mais non, it's because we are heavier."
"That makes sense," Andy said, busy with laces. "Okay. Lemme march around..."
Her first step caused her eyebrows to arch in surprise, and after several more steps, Andy gave Henri an impulsive hug. He grinned and told her to keep the boots on for the rest of the day, even if her feet got a little sore.
"Because now your feet must learn also to be friends with the boots. And I know someone who will fit in your old boots."
"Sure," Andy said. "Way too big for me, even with three pairs of socks... That group of scouts is coming by tonight, right?"
"The man who needs the boots, he is one of them," Henri said, nodding. "These are the men who have been spying for la Renarde, and also making the count."
"Count?" Andy queried.
"In this big triangle, between Orléans and Lyon and Paris, they have been everywhere, counting all the people Miranda can call to her... Call to her? Call up?"
"'Call up' is better," Andy said. "How many, d'you think?"
"Maybe one-thousand, and all of them with weapons," Henri said. "That is much, oui?"
Andy agreed and didn't bother to hide her surprise.
More of a surprise lay in store that night. Fifteen men sat on benches and on the floor in the brandy cellar, each with brandy in their tin mugs. This was the first evening that they'd gathered as a group in more than three months. They'd been split into five groups of three but they'd all been to the same villages and farmsteads, and had hunted up small groups of Maquis hiding in woods and forests here and there. The idea had been to make the count five times, and if their figures remained steady five times in a row, then those figures were solid.
Tonight Miranda sat at a table with Andy and each of them worked addition sums from many small scraps of paper. They both came up with the same figure.
"One-thousand-eight-hundred-and-seventy-four," Miranda announced.
There was silence for a while, but only for a while: cheering broke the silence into little pieces, and Henri had to shout to get the small crowd to shut up. He reminded them that this cellar could stand as a bomb shelter, but it wasn't soundproof.
"All right," one of the men said in French. "But this is wonderful news."
"Yes, we are a force! We're almost an army," said another.
"Almost," Miranda said. "In this coming year, I think we'll be very busy."
"We will," Emily said and tapped the side of her nose with her finger. "Take my word on it, gentlemen."
"Your people will make airdrops, with more weapons?" a man asked.
"Count on it," Emily said firmly.
"Then we will soon have more people even than nearly two-thousand."
The scouts all agreed with that, and some of them gave reports of places that they'd visited where they'd been asked for weapons.
"I think as many as another five-hundred."
"Maybe even more than that."
"To be on the safe side, I'll request six-hundred Stens," Emily said.
"We have a hundred in stock," Andy said. "As well as two-hundred-thousand rounds of ammunition."
"We can part with some of the ammo," Emily said. "But we need to keep that little stockpile of Stens."
"So we can replace broken ones," Nigel drawled.
"We will train the new people better," Henri said. "There will be fewer fucked-up guns. You wait, you see."
"I'll wait and see," Nigel said, his tone dripping with skepticism.
The men laughed, because they knew exactly where Nigel was coming from, and Andy knew, too. By now she was training a few new people herself, and she had to constantly remind her little group not to hold the Sten by the magazine. She repeatedly told them that the canvas or leather cover over the barrel shroud hadn't been added to make the Sten look pretty: "Grip it there!" Andy would say, over and again.
"I think those barrel shroud covers should be stamped with 'Your hand here,'" Andy drawled. "In French and English, too."
"That's a really good idea," Emily chortled. "I'll pass it on, shall I?"
Miranda and several men agreed before Andy could even open her mouth, but she added her agreement anyway. She didn't know if it would help all that much, but as with everything else, the effort had to be made before anyone could know for sure.
For the rest of the evening Andy sat and listened to what Emily always called 'intel': while making a tally of fighters, these men had also been spying. Mostly, they'd been careful to gauge the country folk's attitude toward the current political situation.
As the war wore on, and as the Vichy government lost more and more power to the Germans, so the country folk, in particular, had begun to withdraw their support for anyone even remotely supportive of that collaborative government. As Andy had understood it, there'd always been a certain level of distrust of Marshall Pétain's government among country people. They especially didn't like the fact that under Vichy authoritarianism, France was now supposedly a state and not a republic. They'd even done away with the Republic's beloved motto of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité—Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood" and had replaced it with "Travail, Famille, Patrie—Work, Family, Fatherland."
"Makes us sound like the Boche," a man muttered. "We don't say 'le France,' we say 'la France,' because this country is a mother to us."
All of his colleagues agreed, as did Henri, and Andy noticed that Miranda was allowing the men to grumble and commiserate for a while. One of them brought up the point of the Vichy administration cracking down on France's proud tradition of laissez faire—a free market that allowed farmers to ask fair prices while still engaging in competition.
"The bottom line," Miranda added. "Is that we country people know better than anyone that the Reign of Terror, of Seventeen-ninety-three, was not so very long ago. I think the Vichy's worst mistake, as it affects the French people, was to fix food prices. A good government may set price controls, a range between this price and that to ensure fair prices, but fixing food prices is sure to enrage people."
"I agree with that," the man said, nodding. "Yes, there is a war, but if we could still adjust prices, there would be no black market. Even with the Boche everywhere, we could simply stop producing—"
"The old tradition!" a man agreed.
"Oui," Henri said. "You don't pay our prices, we won't grow those vegetables or put enough cows in-calf to get milk to supply the market. We could have broken even the Boche."
"But no, the stupid Vichyste went and fucked it all up."
"You said it," Henri said, nodding. "The Vichyste and Pétain didn't open their eyes, didn't see that the Boche needed them to boss this country. If they had..."
Henri didn't need to finish that sentence. Andy had lived in Paris where the Germans hardly ever did anything themselves, especially not the dirty work of rounding up Jews and Gypsies and communists, and anyone else on the Nazis' list of people to detain and deport. The Paris police did all of that work. The French administrative authority was nothing but a tool, and the occupying Germans bossed that tool. They also didn't have to have as many soldiers here as they might've, had the Vichy government realized that the occupiers would've had to do a lot more work without Vichyste help.
One of the men mentioned that particular point, and Miranda pounced on it, asking about German patrols.
"Like ripples, when you throw a stone in a pond," a man said. "Close to the cities and some towns, more patrols. Further away, and the ripples are less."
"And weak," another said. "We watched around the smaller villages: Boche soldiers sometimes arrive—not every day, and just a few, no more than twelve. They walk around or even just ride in their trucks, and then they go away."
"But there's no schedule?" Emily asked.
"No, there is. At this village, every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon, and again on Saturdays. That other village, only Monday mornings. This one they only patrol on Tuesdays and Sundays, and only in the afternoons."
"The same soldiers patrol around the same group of villages, either in the morning or in the afternoon."
"What about after dark?" Andy asked.
"Only close to the cities."
"Close to their bases," another man clarified.
"So they can call up reinforcements," Emily said.
"Patrol sizes at night?" Miranda asked.
"Always double, usually twenty four, but once we counted forty."
"That night they were looking for someone: they had dogs."
"All right," Miranda said. "Tell me about the railway lines."
The men described a well-organized system of properly-manned patrols, this despite the fact that Germany needed to send more men to the fronts. It seemed that someone somewhere was smart enough to recognize the fact that if France's railways were not guarded, disaster was likely to befall the Occupation forces currently in the country.
"But we know their patrols better now. Damaging the lines is still possible."
"The patrols always move. They march up the line two kilometers, and back two kilometers."
"And they time it, so each patrol walks in the same direction, and stops, then turns back, at the same time."
"What?" Andy said. "That's not smart. I mean, irregularity would make it hard to predict where those soldiers will be at any time. Instead, you can use their set patrols against them, easily."
"We think so, too," one of the men said. "Also because they are not clever about strategic points, like switch-tracks: they walk past points like that; they don't walk to those points."
"If a switch was an endpoint," the first man said. "Then one patrol would always be walking to that point, because when a patrol reaches it and turns around, the patrol behind them is now walking to that switch-track."
"Anyone fiddling with the track might be seen," Emily said.
"Right, but instead they walk past, and we can run up literally behind their backs, lay a charge, run away, and BOOM!"
"I want you to spread the word," Miranda said and got to her feet. "For the next month, our targets are sections of switch-track. If at all possible, avoid confrontation. Just make a mess of the German supply lines... Goodnight, everyone. Don't get too drunk."
The men greeted Miranda and thanked her for the brandy, all of them grinning broadly, and Andy guessed that they intended to drink all of the bottles Miranda had set out for them.
"I'm off to bed, too," Emily said and surreptitiously jabbed Andy in the ribs.
"Yeah, real early start tomorrow," Andy said.
The men, Nigel and Henri included, tried to cajole them into sticking around but the two women argued firmly about that early start and made tracks out of the cellar. Emily shut the steel doors and she and Andy looked at each other for a while.
"They'd better not end up spew-up drunk, not in there," Andy said.
"I think Nigel and Henri will babysit them... At least, I hope so," said Emily.
"Let's not think about this anymore."
"You're the one who started down that path."
"Forget I said anything," Andy groaned and linked her arm into Emily's. "C'mon... Fuckin' cold, yeesh..."
"And this is only the start of it," Emily said while they marched towards the house. "But cold weather makes a cuppa that much more enjoyable."
"Cold weather's the only time I like tea."
"I could be a lot more stuck-up, you really have no idea," Emily chortled.
"Don't tell me you have a title," Andy said, laughing.
"Landed gentry, no less, but don't you dare tell anyone else that," Emily said. "The French have an automatic hatred of anyone even resembling nobility."
"Thankfully, you're not in the least noble," Andy quipped.
"I choose to take that as a compliment," Emily said, grinning.
"Was meant as one," Andy said with a laugh. Her smile faded, and just as they walked into the kitchen, she said, "None of my old friends would get that kinda joke."
"Would you like to send them word that you're all right?" Emily said and locked the door.
"They're Americans," Andy said, shaking her head. "Knowing that I'm all right would never be enough for them. They'd want explanations, details; they'd wanna know how the messenger knows that I'm okay. If that person doesn't tell them where I am, they'll try to find out—"
"And probably get themselves and us into deep trouble," Emily said, nodding. She set a kettle on the range and said, "What is it about you Americans, and thinking you've a right to it all?"
Emily wasn't being accusatory, just curious. Andy thought at first to just shrug and change the subject, but she found herself objecting to Emily's use of that inclusive 'you.'
"I'm not like that anymore," Andy said. "But I was, once, though I wouldn't have put it quite that way—wouldn't have put it any-which-way, mostly cos we need it pointed out, or we need some distance to see it for ourselves... Our parents and our politicians tell us over and over that ours is the greatest country in the world, that we're the best at everything. But when it comes to wanting to know everything, that links back to 'Don't take No for an answer,' something we're told regularly: we only take No from our parents and other people in charge... I guess all of that leads to a lot of Americans thinking that they're always right."
"That they are always right, hmm?" Emily said pointedly.
"Like I said, that's not me, not anymore. Getting tossed in a cage is real humbling, I tell ya."
"Did you ever tell those bastards that you're an American?"
"Wouldn't have mattered," Andy said with a shrug. "Everyone they grabbed that night was Jewish, all of us. I think that the worse things get for the Krauts, the harder they're gonna work on wiping out as many Jews as they can."
Andy turned in her seat and gave Miranda a half-smile, and Emily offered her a cup of tea. Miranda accepted and sat at the table, and Andy decided that she liked Miranda in a brocade smoking jacket, though Andy supposed that it was filling the role of a bathrobe. Emily added extra tea-leaves to the teapot, and muttered about the water on the range taking its time to boil.
"Then again, when it comes to tea, it's never fast enough," Emily said wryly.
"That's how I feel about coffee," Miranda said. "As for the German attitude to towards Jews: we are every one of us officially regarded as partisans, even our children, even our aged. We are considered the first enemy of Germany, and yes, they'll seek to destroy us first, even when they're under direct threat of bombings and bombardments. They'll continue to freight Jews into those camps even when the Russians and Allies have pushed right up to Berlin."
"The Gerries are all barking mad," Emily said.
"I won't argue with that," Andy said. "I used to think the regular Wehrmacht soldiers were different to the Nazis, different to the SS. But they're not. They know what's going on, and they're going along with it."
"As you said to our three SOE friends not so long ago, every German is going along with it," Miranda said, anger tingeing her tone. "No-one in that country can claim to be ignorant. They know, and the majority of them aren't doing a damned thing to stop it; they're not even complaining about it."
"That's just about unforgivable," Andy said.
"Forgiveness is the battle we'll all have to fight, and win, when this war's over," Emily said quietly. "Look at Germany: lost the Great War, refused to forgive, deliberately bred hatred: now we're all stuck in this ruddy war. Learning to forgive is what we need to keep us out of wars."
"Where've you been hiding that philosopher?" Miranda chuckled.
"Generally up my sleeve," Emily said and blushed a little. "She creeps out occasionally... But I tell you, Jews around the world will all be forgiven for never forgiving Germany."
"You got a lot to learn," Andy drawled. "We'll forgive. We got a few thousand years practice at forgiving. This business of Germany trying to wipe us out is nothing new."
"It's just better organized," Miranda said, nodding. And: "Which isn't surprising."
"Organized, disciplined, and efficient, very German characteristics," Andy agreed, holding onto a straight face. "Just think: what if Pharaoh or Hadrian had been a German?"
Miranda snorted a laugh and Andy gave up and grinned. Emily looked from one to the other, and shook her head.
"You're joking about this?" Emily mumbled.
"If all else fails, laugh," Miranda said.
"Right. We've been making jokes about persecution almost since Creation," Andy said. "You really think we're gonna stop now?"
"I see your point," Emily said, and poured the tea.
There was nothing to laugh about several days later, when one of Tomas' men came in to report that a German soldier had been killed while Tomas and his crew had blown up a section of switch-track. It appeared that the soldier had left his patrol group in order to relieve himself, and he was abruptly seen jogging alongside the tracks, just as Tomas had twisted the handle on the detonator. It had been an accident, but that wouldn't matter at all.
For two days Andy and everyone else waited for the inevitable. No-one slept well—there were occasions when there was a sleepless crowd in Miranda's kitchen, all of them silent, the air around them thick and heavy with dread. The waiting was almost as bad as that inevitable news.
A runner came in at last, his youthful face streaked with tears: five civilians had been executed in reprisal for the soldier's death, and one had been a boy no older than the young runner.
"Who did it?" Henri asked. "The Boche or the milice?"
"Both," the boy said and nodded his thanks to Miranda for a glass of milk. "I saw them counting their men, the ones who would shoot: ten Boche soldiers and five milice. The milice were laughing, first, saying they were lucky to get a share."
"But I bet they looked sick afterwards, huh?" Andy said, and her blood was boiling.
"I don't know. I didn't look," the boy mumbled. "But after the shooting, the Boche were talking, but not the milice. They said nothing, just went away."
"Can you name the milice?" Miranda asked.
"Oui," the boy said firmly. "Are you going to kill them?"
"No, I just make lists," Miranda said. "And when this war is over..."
"Then they die," Henri said and walked away.
The expression on Henri's face had frightened Andy enough that her anger simmered down to a bare prickle. The Germans would retreat or surrender, eventually, but the collaborators would be left behind. Andy guessed that those people would suffer, many would be killed, and she was damn sure that the idea of fair trials would be conveniently forgotten for a long while.
Andy didn't really know how she felt anymore, about the concept of a fair trial. There were people she'd met face-to-face who genuinely deserved to be stood against a wall and shot, like Hauptsturmführer Kramer, and every one of the Gestapo bastards who regularly tortured people in the basement rooms of No. 11 Rue de Saussaies. Likewise, the milice members involved in today's execution of civilians had given up their rights to be treated fairly. If she was asked, Andy would firmly vote for no trial for any of those people. They didn't deserve trials.
But there were people in Paris and other cities, women especially and many of them mothers, who had had no choice but to be friendly with German officers. Andy had known several of those women. Their husbands had either been killed before France's surrender, or those men had been forced onto trains at gunpoint, sent to work as laborers in Germany and other places. Andy's gut told her that many of those men had been worked to death by now. If that wasn't bad enough, their wives had been robbed of their jobs by the Vichy government, which had forced many companies and shops and restaurants to immediately dismiss any married women. The Vichy regime had insisted on that without thinking that those women still had to somehow feed their children.
Andy had already seen what happened to known female collaborators: if they ventured into the wrong parts of Paris, they were caught, their hair was shorn, and they were allowed to go free. Their freedom was perhaps the worst punishment, because with shorn hair those women were no longer attractive to German officers. That shorn hair also marked them as collaborators to other Parisians, and those women were unlikely to receive any help.
"The men either hide their collaboration, or they're open about it and stick close to their asshole milice buddies," Andy said. "But the women are... It's an impossible situation."
"Sometimes," Miranda said.
Emily hesitated and then nodded in agreement. Andy frowned and found herself almost studying the way Miranda tapped the end of a cigarette on the table, to tamp the tobacco, and she lit it with a match. The match was waved out but to Andy it seemed that darkness swallowed that small light. Tonight there was the drone of planes overhead—Allied bombers on their way to their targets, and the three women had the light of only a storm lantern, one of the small ones that was probably about twenty-five years old, if not older. It burned with a dull orange glow that threw jagged, wavering shadows.
"What did you mean by sometimes?" Andy asked.
"There are a lot of women who didn't rest until they got help from their fellow French, or from people like me," Miranda said. "But yes, there are women, especially those who were mothers of newborns, who had to find help faster. For them collaboration was unavoidable, and they should be forgiven, pardoned, understood. However, there are also women who made a deliberate, conscious choice to collaborate, right from the start... How do you tell the difference between the two, especially when every one of them will be protesting complete innocence, when the Germans are forced out of France?"
"I wouldn't like to be the one asked to judge the difference," Emily said. "Not when it's possible that some of those women are responsible for the deaths of whomever they talked about. Andy, it's possible that a woman you knew sold you out to the Gestapo."
"No, I'm sure it was that new fella who—"
"And who suggested that he should join your lectures, hmm?" Miranda said.
"I don't know," Andy murmured.
"But now you're trying to think of who it could've been," Emily said. "And I'm almost certain that you know of at least one woman who might've been the one to talk. That's everyone else, too. They're all in your boat: they all know someone who was picked up or even killed, and they also know of at least one woman who might've been the one to sell them out."
"So it's bad news for the women who made their choice," Miranda said. "And it's just as much bad news for the women who had no choice at all. Can we help the ones who didn't have a choice? I'll try, even Henri will try, but we're going to be outnumbered, and sometimes we ourselves will have no choice but to live with our consciences, and step back."
"I dunno if I can do that," Andy said, thinking of the woman who'd been her neighbor. She'd been one of those women who'd never given up hope that her neighbors and friends would help her, and like Andy, they had helped. "Because there are also those women who've never collaborated, who might be suspected of collaboration just because they've managed to survive. When the Krauts are out, you two know as well as I do that people who left Paris and other cities, will go back. They won't know the truth for sure. Mobs just act; they're like that. And then?"
"Think of names," Miranda said. "Write them down. We'll bring those women here. That's all we dare do. And you must know that even if they're here, those women will be questioned, and seeing as they can't stay here forever, they're liable to face more questions when they leave."
"They might even have it worse," Emily said. "I have to be honest: whoever comes here might be thought guilty because they went into hiding. If they stay where they are, they have a better chance of people speaking up for them."
Andy covered her face with her hands and shook her head behind them. Dear God, what a mess we're in, she thought. She wanted to suggest that they pile into a car and go and fetch women now, thinking that if they could get those women out of Paris before the Germans packed up and left, it might help. But even though it was late, even though Andy was tired, her brain returned a But: But I don't really know which of them I can trust. Not even her neighbor– Andy could no longer say for sure that even that woman was a hundred percent trustworthy, and no-one who wasn't trustworthy could be brought here. Emily, Miranda, and the others had taken a gamble trusting Andy, all with the odds stacked against them.
"What a fucking mess," Andy muttered. She rubbed her face and had a sip of black tea that had been 'doctored' with brandy. She didn't want to admit it, but she did: "I don't even know if I can trust my three American friends anymore."
"Even if you can, it's better for them that you don't," Miranda said.
"Whoever talks about anything at all, might be overheard," Emily said in agreement. "Anyway, as you said, there's also the possibility of them trying to find you... Given that racket south of us, Gerry won't last here much longer."
The distant bombing sounded almost like thunder, and Andy shuddered, thinking of the people directly under those bombs. The Germans had bombed Paris in early June of 1940, and Andy and her three friends had narrowly escaped becoming victims of one of those bombs. She still couldn't work out how only two-hundred-and-fifty-four people had been killed that afternoon.
"At least broad-daylight bombings are a thing of the past," Andy said. "I think they're scarier: we all heard that fucking Stuka dive-bomber, looked up and saw it coming right at us, and we literally ran away from it, to one side. But none of us thought we'd get away, so we're all running like hell, thinking I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die. I'd really rather just give it up to God and hope that the bombs falling in the dark don't hit me."
"You saw the Stuka?" Emily said, blinking. "You weren't in a shelter?"
"We were on our way to a basement," said Andy. "So yeah, we were stuck out in the open in an air-raid. Best advice I can give anyone: try real hard to avoid that."
"I concur, excellent advice," Miranda said.
"Yes," Emily drawled, shaking her head. She got up and said, "Just off to check in and give my report."
"Didya double-check your code?" Andy asked.
"Triple-checked," Emily said.
She left the kitchen via the basement stairs, and as usual locked and bolted the door from the inside. The radio was down there but the antenna was artfully hidden in a tree—so artfully hidden that Andy didn't know which tree. Emily wasn't gone long. She'd sent a seemingly garbled string of dot-dash code that wasn't even proper Morse. It was a private code between Emily and a particular radio contact, and not even their superiors were privy to the formula needed to crack it. If Emily had especially important information to relay, she used another code that the Germans might be able to crack in a couple of weeks (by which time that particular code-book would've expired), but that any SOE operator could decipher in only a minute or two.
"Did he send anything back?" Miranda asked.
"Yes, regarding the civilians shot: Bloody bad luck," Emily said, sounding weary. She topped their cups with what remained of the tea, and Miranda dealt with adding half-tots of brandy. Emily muttered, "Sodding horrible luck. We've really got to keep up with wrecking railway lines, but we have to make sure that we steer clear of killing Gerry soldiers. I think Henri's idea of using lookouts is a sound one."
"Someone else with binoculars, on the other side of the tracks," Andy said, nodding.
"The trouble is, what signal do they use?" Miranda said.
"A flash, or two if the coast's not clear," Andy said. "If the flashlight's small and has its lens taped down to a slit..."
"Yes, you'll have to know where it'll be flashed to see it," Emily agreed.
"All right. Have that sent out tomorrow," Miranda said.
"Will do," Emily said.
Andy wondered if she'd ever be 'sent out tomorrow'– Emily had gone along on sabotage raids twice in the last week. The only especially exciting thing Andy had done since she'd arrived here had involved riding a horse cross-country in the middle of the night to deliver a message to someone, a message about eggs and when to come and collect them. Actually, the only thing 'exciting' about that little venture had hinged on the fact that anyone seen riding a horse was likely to be shot at by the Germans, hence Andy's after dark three-miles-there-three-back ride, several miles from any road.
"She's got that restless 'Let-me-at-them' look again," Emily said to Miranda.
"You have to lose that look," Miranda told Andy. "And you need to have a proper grip on the emotions causing it."
"You've got to be really self-disciplined to get any of this work right," Emily said. "Mistakes on our part get people killed, remember?"
"Yes," Andy said quietly.
~ ~ ~