It was official. Nothing - absolutely nothing - could be more uncomfortable than the cargo bay of a Martin III Marauder, with both its insides and its underbelly iced over in a windchill of twenty-below, dropping through an over-clouded night sky from a cruising altitude of fifteen thousand feet to a mere six hundred. Nothing, that is, except falling out of the aforementioned cargo bay into cold, empty space with forty kilos of supplies falling around you (and how you hoped you didn’t get hit) and with a parachute of dubious dependability strapped to your back as the only barrier between you and meeting your Maker much sooner than one might expect - or want. Not only is the deafening roar of two-cylinder engines replaced with the high-pitched scream of ice-cold air slashing at your now-numbed ears and clawing like a rabid animal at your throat, but you can almost catch a terrifying image of the American-made British bomber in the night sky before the sweat inside your flight goggles freezes over and you’re free falling into enemy territory blind.
Amelia Jones had jumped into such conditions quite willingly, corkscrewing violently away from the underbelly of the bomber and tumbling toward earth, battered by a never-ceasing wall of wind that may as well have been made from stone that threatened to seize her limbs from their sockets. Heart racing and in her throat, she tried desperately to remember her brief training as she twisted and turned toward the fast-approaching clearing below. Her thoughts were swirling - a chaotic mess of colour and words that made no semblance of sense, even to herself - her senses frozen as she fell, trying to hold in a scream.
She felt a vicious tug at her backside - she bit her tongue and tasted metal to hold back her yelp - and glanced upwards, squinting hard through the ice on her goggles, hardly able to make out the white cloud jettison away from her body, disappearing for a fraction of a second before opening to its full circumference with a sound that reminded her of enemy bombs exploding over the rooftops of London. The sheer force of it had snapped her head back like it was nothing and pain exploded up the base of her skull.
She had not been prepared for this. She’d no time to think - about her reasons for coming to France, about the difficult path that had brought her to this point, what her future might have in store for her - some six hundred feet over the frozen Rhône-Alpes. And she refused to think about how occupied France was probably the most dangerous place for an American woman to be in 1943.
She clawed at her useless goggles and ripped them from her face, peering first upwards in order to assure her screaming nerves that the parachute had, indeed, opened, and then downward into the darkness below. Her eyes stung and watered - is it possible to go blind from this? She couldn’t remember - and she wiped impatiently at her burning, streaming tears until she could finally (at long last) make out the silhouettes of treetops against an ethereal grey background below her. A second later, she located the yellowish-orange flicker of four tiny lights shining upwards from the small clearing. She prayed it was her welcoming committee that watched her descent - and not a German patrol.
A gust of a sudden breeze jerked her parachute painfully north of the clearing, and she fought with her straps, her muscles straining to pull it back southwards, gritting her teeth so hard she thought they might crack. The goggles slipped from her hands and flew away from her reach, crashing downward on their own, unknown trajectory to some never-to-be-found destination. But Amelia didn’t have time to sort through the implication of a pair of British flight goggles discovered by the wrong person. The hazy grey-white of the clearing was rushing towards her at a rate which made her light-headed and pushed all other thoughts from her mind. Panic tightened her muscles and and liquified her joins. Don’t tense up. Her jaw was still tight. Stay flexible.
She gripped the straps on either side of her body and tooin in a deep breathe as the clearing eclipsed her vision and she found herself able to distinguish footprints in the snow. She focused on those. The impact, when she landed, knocked the breath from her lungs and sent shockwaves of a seismic magnitude from her ankles to her skull. She crumpled into a ball and lay still her breathing laboured, as she immense expanse of white fabric ballooned over her body before sagging gently against the snow.
The good news: she wasn’t dead. The bad news: yet.
For a moment, there was complete silence, blessed silence. From somewhere in the clearing, she could hear an owl hooting to the night. The icy, unforgiving wind that had pummeled her body in the air so mercilessly only a moment before now only gently stirred the darkened tops of tall evergreen trees. Ice particles moved about her in a gentle whirlwind, galling on her parachute like the pitter-patter of a million marching insects. Her body registered the cold first as the snow dampened her side, the bruises on her shoulders burning into her bones and then - muffled footsteps running around her.
She’d made it. Not dead and mostly unscathed, she’d made it. She was trembling - not from panic in those moments before she jumped, but from the sweet relief of being on solid ground - a feeling she would never again take for granted. And, soon enough, Arthur would find her, convince her that she was still in one piece, and they would be together for the first time in two years. She’d been anticipating this moment. That was, of course, if the approaching footsteps were not attached to black boots, machine guns and swastikas. She shivered at the thought and forced her shaking, rubbery body to roll onto her knees, hanging her head momentarily while she focused on quieting her breathing. She knew she should be dislodging herself from the parachute, but the relief of her safe landing muddled with the fear of Germans bearing down on her like a pack of wolves numbed her muscles and she felt as if she might collapse.
She struggled to disentangle herself from the parachute and to stand tall anyway. Amelia Jones would not die on her knees. She was better than that, deserved more than that.
“Amy?” Arthur’s whisper cut across the silence, the cockney tinge to an otherwise very refined London-borne accent unmistakable. Amelia struggled to her feet, turning to the group of four maquisards to find the one she had missed so terribly approaching in the darkness. Her smile was so wide that it hurt and she bounced slightly on the balls of her feet.
And then he was there and she barely had any time to assess any changes to Arthur’s face before he reached for her and pulled her into his chest in one swift motion. “Sois la bienvenue, chérie.”
Amelia wrapped her arms around his neck, holding onto him like a leech, breathing in his familiar scent—the cologne, tea, sweat. All of it. Her eyes fluttered shut and she felt weightless, her heart was warm, like she was sitting next to a warm fire. “I’ve missed you so much. I—”
“We’ve got to hurry.” Arthur Kirkland hugged her briefly before firmly dislodging her arms from around his neck—and even though his brow was creased with worry, he still managed to give her a half-smile. He snapped the release on her parachute harness and helped her pull off the straps—normally she would protest against his help, but, at the moment, she was too tired to really care. The parachute sagged against the ground one last time before he took the fabric with both hands, tugging it toward him, bunching it swiftly and efficiently against his chest. “We might’ve been followed.”
That snapped Amelia out of her lovestruck-haze, stepping back and nodding mutely. Of course. This was more than just a reunion, a romantic liaison. This was a war. A mission. Still, she couldn't help the twinge of disappointment at his hurried greeting. She had known, of course, that their affections for each other must be kept to a strict minimum—and she had already accepted this already, in order to be of proper assistance to Arthur. But, such is war. She vent to retrieve the tiny spade that was still—thankfully—strapped to her leg. One of Arthur’s comrade’s took it from her (she thanked him weakly, too tired to do much else) and went to the task of digging a shallow grave for her flight suit and parachute. Amelia struggled out of the said flight suit before dropping it next to the hole. Another man reached for her pack, which she relented to him easily, relieved by the newfound weightlessness on her shoulders—grunting softly as the weight momentarily unbalanced him, before hefting it more securely onto his shoulders and turning from her.
Arthur swiftly wrapped the parachute inside it's straps and tossed it into the hole as well. Another man covered it with soil, then snow, before sweeping it with a branch.
Arthur took Amelia's arm and smiled briefly. “We really must get going, love.” His breath came in tiny clouds as he spoke.
He pulled up his eyebrows. “Are you alright?”
Amelia grimaced at her bruises and nodded, legs still trembling. “Nothing’s broken. I’ll survive.”
“Lovely. Follow me.” Arthur turned and led her away from the dropsite. She slipped her gloved hand into his and felt his grip tighten comfortably around her palm as their fingers intertwined. The familiar pressure calmed her nerves and she couldn't help but smile.
“What do you have there, love?” Arthur gripped the steering wheel as he leaned his thin torso forward, squinting into the darkness ahead of the trunk. Amelia stole her another glance at her lover, hardly able to believe he was really sitting next to her, after so long without him. She could distinguish the shock of unruly hair underneath his cap (he always did complain about it never laying down flat, although she found it quite handsome) and the determined set of his thin have as he navigated the uneven trail. The truck passed under stately trees, which rose on both sides of the trails, in a way that Amelia almost found regal, shoulder to shoulder, tapering forms pointing heavenward, in a sky brilliant with stars. She braced her back against the back of her seat, as Arthur swerved to miss a rather large depression in the road. The truck righted itself and continued downward, clinging tenaciously to the mountain’s almost invisible road. Below them lay the darkened windows of a mountain village, heavily shades and waiting for the end of curfew and the sun, which would be rising in a few hours.
“Medical supplies,” she finally said. “Morphine, mostly. Transmission radio tubes, money, food vouchers, a coupla pistols and bullets, a few maps, documents.”
“Are those your friends from Belley?” Amelia gestured her chin to the canvas flaps that separated them from the back of the truck.
Arthur shook his head. “Local marquis.”
“You’ll meet him soon enough.” He glanced over at her. “His code name is ‘Bruno,’ be sure to remember that. At least in public.”
“I’ll remember.” She nodded for emphasis.
“You missed the drop zone. Did you have any problems?”
“A strong breeze, that's all. I lost the goggles, too.”
Arthur paused. “You lost what?”
Amelia hesitated, afraid to look at the expression that would be attached to such a tone of voice. “My flight goggles.” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“What do you mean,” (he inhaled sharply at this moment), “you lost your goggles?”
“When the wind—they slipped from my hands, you know…” She looked down at her shoes, face warm with frustration and embarrassment.
Amelia recognised the tightness creeping into his voice. “What were they doing in your hands?”
“I was blind, honey—the ice…”
Arthur shook his head sharply, jaw clenched. “You should have left them on.” Another sharp inhale. “Do you realize what this means?”
Amelia’s cheeks grew hotter with each word Arthur spoke. “Yes, I think I do.”
“If they find your goggles, the dropzone will be compromised.” Another reproachful glance, his expression tight from trying to keep back whatever emotions he may be feeling. “People could die, missions could—no, will go wrong. We’ll have to find a new site.”
“Look, I’m sorry. I—”
Arthur sighed, though he didn't seem very relaxed. “Don’t worry about it.” His eyes didn’t leave the road. “It could have happened to anyone. Things like this have happened before—we survived. It's not your fault, my lover.”
But Amelia didn't feel very reassured. It was her fault. And from the reaction Arthur had, he thought so too. She studied him in the darkness, forcing herself to breath normally around the lump in her throat. She couldn't bear the thought of Arthur upset with her—or, worse yet, someone being hurt because of her. “You mentioned you thought you were being followed.”
Arthur squinted into the darkness. “One of the boys thought he saw somebody before we gathered tonight. Debating calling off the drop.”
“If you had been followed, wouldn't we be dead by now?”
“Perhaps.” Arthur fell silent as they negotiated a difficult curve.
“Maybe they’d been ripped off, but didn't know exactly where we'd be.” The explanation sounded as reasonable as any. Amelia felt almost proud coming up with it.
“Either way, their Alpine troops—the Gebirgsjager, for future reference—will come through the mountain tomorrow, and they’ll find your goggles…” Arthur sounded almost bitter.
Amelia pressed her lips into a thin line, hands clenched in her lap. “You keep coming back to that.” It felt strange for her—a woman normally so outspoken—to feel so small.
“I’m sorry, love.” Arthur sighed, almost helplessly. As if he couldn't control his own tone. “I don’t mean to hurt you. But you’ll find out here that there’s a thin line between life and death.” Arthur relaxed his grip on the steering wheel and reached out a hand to rest on Amelia’s knee. “A cough, a look, hesitation, a tiny piece of paper in the wrong hands— all these things could lead to the death of men. Good men, who are fighting against German tyranny.”
Amelia nodded, put her hand on his, and watched him closely, clinging to his every word. “These mountains are our lifeline, love. Most of these people shrug their shoulders and submit to the occupation. Some—they even condone it.” His lips twisted in what Amelia could only imagine was disgust at that. “But a growing number refuses to submit to surrender to Nazi tyranny. We disrupt railways, steal supplies, impersonate officers—we fight them anyway we can. We need the safety of these villages to survive.” Arthur glanced at Amelia. “Did you know the boches will crush whole villages suspected of harbouring Résistance?”
Amelia's mouth popped open. “Seems a bit excessive for such . . . small acts of sabotage.”
“Small?” Arthur snorted. “Our efforts may seem insignificant to some, but these revolts strike at the Nazis where it hurts most—their pride. The British and Americans have finally recognised our usefulness and have begun to send us more agents, weapons, supplies. Of course, the Germans will fight this anyway they can. But even the best of soldiers are nothing against well-supplied guerrillas.”
Amelia watched her fiancé, the way his eyes lit up with passion, the way his words were thick with emotion—anger, pride, fear, triumph, confidence, desperation. All of it.
“I remember when you had told me that the Germans’d took over the southern half of France,” she murmured. He’d been like madman, pacing his office and flinging his students’ papers across the floor, slipping into the cockney accent of Kent he tried so hard to suppress. “Told me that the Nazis posed an even greater threat to the Résistance than the Vichy.”
“They want to see us broken down, subservient and docile. They want us destroyed. The Vichy are at last our countrymen, and can be reasonable. Or bribed.”
“And the German garrison in Belley?”
Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “They’re determined to see us crushed, to flush out Bruno and his organisation.” He moved his hand back to the wheel. “Bruno says there’s a new officer in charge there—one sent specifically to capture him.”
Amelia blinked. “He’s that much of a threat to them?”
“He’d worked closely with Jean Moulin, back up in Lyon. The Gestapo would kill to have Bruno in their clutches. It would cripple the Marquis in the Rhône-Alpes, maybe even all of southern France…”
“Would he talk?” After all, like on all the signs plaster back home, loose lips sink ships.
Arthur shook his head. “Never! Jean Moulin never talked—and I know for a fact Bruno would be just as strong.”
The flap behind them lifted and one of Arthur’s comrades poked his head in.“We’re finished back here. How you wanna work the distribution?”
“We’ll talk about it later. First I want to get Lénore back to the safe house.”
Amelia had thought she’d been prepared. She had been told by her superiors that she was prepared—but hearing Arthur call her by her code name… She had entered a world only described in Arthur’s letters and British training pamphlets—a world filled with fear that she couldn’t have possibly imagined. She wondered if her feelings were like that of those countless young men who were signing up for the war, signing up to be heroes—those feelings of adventure, excitement, anticipation. How long did it take those boys to be hit with reality, the terror that burned your insides and stuck viscously to the base of your throat? No heartburn pills could cure this burn, and she clenched her hands together. It didn't help that Arthur seemed so different, so cold. She knew what he was feeling—the burden of her safety and his men’s safety, the vigor of patriotism and the burning anger at the Japanese when they attacked Pearl Harbour. But he had changed. He was no longer the Arthur she’d known.
“Madame Guilbert’s?” the man yawned, glancing at Amelia.
“Until curfew is lifted.”
“And the debriefing?”.
“As soon as possible. We have a lot to get through.”
Madame Donatienne Guilbert’s home lay comfortably situated between two larger homes on the unassuming Rue de St. André near the outskirts of Belley. Amelia had immediately taken a liking to the woman, with her cloud of white hair, wizened face and compassionate grey eyes. It was a huge rusk the madame was taking in allowing her to stay, but when she tried to thank the woman for her kindness, she was cut off mid sentence.
“No, no, no,” the woman said. “You are always welcome guests in my home—they’re too old to suspect me of anything.” She smiled radiantly, despite her several decaying and crooked teeth. She offered to fix a meal, apologising in advance for the quality of her coffee and the lack of meat, but Amelia declined gently, explaining that she was tired and needed sleep rather than more energy, before her debriefing.
Arthur grabbed her hand outside her bedroom door, warning it between his own and looking into her eyes. Still the same brilliant green she remembered, made brighter by the deep suffering and a fire of conviction behind them that almost surprised her with its intensity. He leaned in close—she could feel the heat radiating off his skin—and kissed her briefly, but sweetly all the same. Amelia closed her eyes, waiting for a surge of sparks that always accompanied his kisses. Was disappointment destined to be attached to every moment with her fiancé this trip?
Arthur gently cupped Amelia’s cheek. “I’m glad you’re here, love. I want you to know that, no matter how distracted or harsh I'm being...right now. The war—”
Amelia kissed him again and then smiled. “I understand, Arthur. You don’t need to worry. I'm here to help you in any way I can.”
Arthur’s eyes were tired, with deep bruises underneath them. “Do you think you can sleep until I call for you?”
“I’m asleep already, rest assured.”
“Good.” Arthur tried to smile and touched her with a hint of the affection she remembered and wanted so badly. “Don’t worry about the meeting, love. It will be short and you have important things to say that these men need to hear.”
Amelia smiled. “As much as I appreciate the
encouragement, Arthur, I’m not worried.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, but he was smiling. “When are you ever?”
He kissed her cheek and then was gone, calling for her to sleep well and that he’ll miss her over his shoulder. Amelia entered the bedroom and shut the door, locking it behind her. For a long moment, she rested her head against the frame, closing her eyes and listening to the stillness of the night. Though her fingers brushed against switch, she did not turn on the light. Instead, she relied on the moonlight filtering through the delicate lace curtains to illuminate her way across the small, cosy-looking room to the window, past the bed with it's soft down comforter folded temptingly back. (A two-person bed, Amelia noticed, and she vaguely hoped Arthur wouldn't be tired enough to go to bed any time soon). There, she stood quietly, studying every shadow, every movement, for well over ten minutes, summoning all her courage. Then she turned the latch, grasped the edge of the window, and slowly pulled it upward. She slipped out the window, her feet landing firmly on the ground. Hugging her thin coat tight around her shoulders, she crept around the house, staying only in the darkest shadows, until she reached the street. She paused to survey her surroundings closely—any German patrols would ruin her plan in an instant, as well as her life in that same moment.
Amelia kept to the shadows, alert and tensed to run if necessary, the pistol strapped to her side burning a hole in her ribs, to remind her that it was there if things became truly dire. One bullet. That's all she needed. Her heart raced painfully fast. Cold sweat dripped down her forehead. She had known upon agreeing to the task she’d have no idea of the peril should would face. She had only known she’d be allowed to help Arthur of she agreed to complete this one, simple task—and she had jumped at the possibility.
It had been night the offer was extended to her. She had been walking home from Grendon when she had been accosted by two men in suits and bowler hats. They had greeted her in French as she had tried to move past them on the sidewalk. They had called her by name and indicated for her to follow them, without any real explanation as to why. Amelia spent the rest of her escort down Baker Street concocting escape plans for if things went wrong. Her solemn companions had ushered her to the office of Mr Leo Marks, head of SOE communications, whom she had met briefly upon her appointment to Grendon as a coder. He shook her hand warmly, dismissed her depressing escorts, and introduced her to another man in the room—dark-haired, middle-aged, and obviously French.
“Lieutenant Valois wishes to meet with you, Ms Jones. He’s visiting from General de Gaulle’s RF section. We’ve told him a lot about you.” He gestured for her to sit, which she did. “We are discussing a new coding system for French agents and are in need of your services.”
Following that was the most incredible, terrifying explanation for their secret meeting: Monsieur Valois wanted Amelia to drop into France to test a new coding system developed by Marks and, if ordered by the SOE, train the Résistance leaders and existing WT operators on the field in the use of the new system.
“You have wanted to join your fiancé, Ms Jones. Here is your chance.”
It had taken several minutes and plenty of promises on the Frenchman’s part before she accepted the assignment, and even after her acceptance she felt trepidation—an uncommon feeling to Amelia. It was a direction of life she had not quite anticipated—nor would she have ever asked for—and she was not what you would call enthusiastic about it. Sure, she’d be allowed to see Arthur again after such a bout of absence, but she doubted on whether he’d actually be pleased with her randomly dropping in on him when he had important work to be doing.
As her whirlwind of training progressed, she lost track of the times she had given into her fears, always at the back of her mind, tormenting her. That her coding skills would never be up to Marks’ impossible standards. That she may be arrested, interrogated, tortured, or even killed by the Germans—and that Arthur and the rest of the Résistance would pay for her mistakes.
That fear was at the center of her rapidly shifting thoughts as she made her way past an abandoned barn, through a moonlit church graveyard and into a dilapidated, leaning cluster of homes that were probably abandoned at the beginning of the war. She followed a narrow, weed-choked street, counting the houses on her left, stopping once she found number fifteen. She stopped, painfully swallowing the fear that pushed its way up her throat. Amelia was no coward, but the idea that her first assignment could also be her last of the Germans were listening was...stark, for lack of a better word.
She took a deep breath, glanced back down the street and climbed the crumbling steps to the house. Once inside, she proceeded down the cramped, narrow hallway at the back, where the locked door only confirmed that she was indeed in the right location. “A WT set will be waiting for you,” Valois had said after giving her list of instructions and meticulous directions to the location.
Amelia slipped her tools from the pocket of her coat and easily manipulated the lock, shivers of panic running down her side—she didn’t like having her back turned, and her hands occupied. She supposed she probably wouldn't feel safe until she was back at Madame Guilbert’s and by Arthur’s side.
She entered the small, shaded room and sat at the table, removing the old clothing and dusty bedding that was strewn about the room and over the radio, in place of more legitimate camouflaging techniques. She unlaced her boot and from a slit in the lining, produced a small swatch of silk that might have been a ladies’ handkerchief, of not for the tiny letters printed on it. She smoothed the fabric in front of her, before also procuring a nub of a pencil and a scratch of paper.
With a small torch securely between her teeth—is this what smoking felt like?—she hunched over the paper and hastily drew lines, sketching up a crude graph, that she began to carefully fill with letters, seemingly haphazard in location and in clusters—but still supremely accurate in their effectiveness. She referenced the silk code key in front of her often, transferring the necessary information from the frontline of the transposition key printed there.
Though anxious to leave, she took her time, working meticulously with her codes. The local Funk-Horchdiest would not be looking for her until several minutes after she began her transmit—if they were even in the area at all. And then with these new “worked-out keys”—often abbreviated to WOKs—the fear of the Germans being able to decipher my upon its semi-probable interception disintegrated.
Amelia wanted the message to be absolutely perfect: no misspelled words, no misaligned columns, and definitely no mistakes in her security checks. Her message could be one hundred and fifty characters instead of the poem code’s required hundred more. Therefore, requiring of her less time on air and then, less chance of detection. She had faith in this system—she had to—and she felt the strong desire to prove her worth to the SOE’s signal directorate.
According to Marks, this was nothing more than a test transmission—but Amelia planned on sending more than just a test. She alerted Baker Street to the compromised dropsite, the new German in charge of Belley, and the possibility of the drop being observed.
Grendon’s reply was almost immediate, catching her off guard. There would be a supplies stop the following night, and because of the compromised site (Amelia flushed slightly at this—how could she have been so stupid?), news of the drop and coordinates would be transmitted immediately through regular channels (meaning through Francis’s normal WT operator, she supposed) in order to keep Amelia’s transmission brief—ie, secret. Amelia was scheduled one more secret transmission the following night at nine-thirty—six hours before the drop. Should the new code be deemed satisfactory, silks would be sent via the drop and be distributed to Arthur and the others. Amelia acknowledged London’s reply and then signed off, and moved to the front door to watch the street below.
All was silent. Apparently, she’d caught the Germans sleeping. Hopefully, her next transmission will go just as smoothly. She returned to the backroom, cut along the top of the WOK, completely removing the strip of silk that had the key she had just used on it, and then pulled the strings until it all disintegrated. With her foot, she swept the rubbish to the corner of the room. She lowered the radios antenna, and threw old blankets and close on top of it once more.
She scanned the room, looking for any other sign that she had been there—she blew on her foot prints and scuttle marks, displacing the dust until it looked like no one had been there for several weeks. She locked the door behind her, then moved through the house and back onto the street.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
Arthur really should be the teacher, not her. But she had information to deliver that put her at the very front of the room and Arthur as a part of her audience. She swallowed, trying to eliminate the dryness of her throat, as she faxed over the assemblage. In the laziness of the early morning, the front parlor seemed almost claustrophobic, crowded with eleven men and Madame Guilbert, still tightly wrapped in her road. Behind the blackout curtains Amelia caught the first glimmer of morning—it would be light within the hour. Arthur was anxious for the group to disperse without drawing too much attention to themselves. And soon the street would be full of it's usual morning commute.
Now, Amelia had never been one for stage fright, but she was not used to addressing assemblies—especially with the sort of information she held now—and she would very much prefer it if Arthur would be the one to play teacher instead, like when they first met. To her left, Arthur relaxed in his chair, and when she met his gaze, she smiled encouragingly at her, and even circumstances such as the one she found herself in, the memory came to her like a punch to the face—suddenly and dizzyingly. His classroom had been one dominated by women, given that most of them were off in Europe, serving in their country and doing their folks’ back home proud. She had been young, overzealous and much too outspoken for her own good, and he had been so sophisticated and charming. It had been her straight-forwardness, big heart and good humour, Arthur often told her. She would always reply that it was his cute accent.
She blinked rapidly before clearing her throat and her mind. “To answer your question, monsieur, it’ll be sometime next year. That's all know.”
“A little vague, don't you think?”
Amelia looked at the speaker, mouth opened to give her reasoning. He was a small man, bristling with a mustache and a beard, and the top of his head was thick with tar-coloured hair. His dark eyes watched her suspiciously, glinting as he awaited her answer, as did those of every other man in the room. Amelia wetted her lips, ready to speak—
“It is enough to know that the Allies are coming.” Arthur straightened up when he said this, face stern. “What would we possibly do with more information? Leak it to our enemies—we’re not all as strong Moulin was. If we knew the exact date and we caught—”
“Do you doubt our allegiance, Dorian?” The little man’s nostrils flared. “Do you think we’ll sing within their first strike?”
Arthur shook his head, taking his place at Amelia’s side. “I think nothing of the sort, Bernard; but you all know as well as I do that if we’re captured and we resist, they have other means of—”
“I think that’s likely, yes.”
“The Germans would see us suffer first. They love to see us suffer. Barbie made that very clear.”
“Klaus Barbie is Gestapo,” Arthur corrected lightly. “The Gestapo would love to see us suffer. But not all Germans are barbarians.”
A murmur filtered through the group and Amelia could feel the tension pressing down on her chest. Amelia glanced at Arthur through the corner of her, brow quirked. Why would he risk such an apparently inflammatory comment in such a gathering?
Arthur continued, “We’ve a had experiences with Germans. But, you must remember, our service here is voluntary—theirs isn’t. I refuse to believe there isn't some good people among them.” Arthur flushed slightly. “Let me clarify. I know of one good German. I think that there has to be others.”
He sat back down, head low.
Amelia stared after him. His voice had cracked on one good German. What was he not telling her?
“Any more questions?” Amelia glanced apprehensively at the clock. Soon the Germans would be patrolling Madame Guilbert's streets and setting up checkpoints randomly across the city. It would be impossible to disperse without attracting anyone's attention.
“How about the British?” A heavy set man in his forties raised his hand politely, like a schoolboy. “Will they be givin’ us supplies for those operations?”
Amelia nodded. “The SOE and the American OSS are committed to your support. They’re counting on your assistance to pull this off.”
“How do things change, mademoiselle, If you don't mind me asking? We already stage disruptions—we can do this with or without the Allies.” The speaker this time was a lanky youth, perhaps a few years younger than Amelia herself, with stubble just beginning to toughen his features, who was leaning back in his chair, legs stretched out straight in front of him, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his wool trousers. “How does this information—or your presence, for that matter—change that?”
“Your efforts are appreciated by the Allies, monsieur, and they want you to continue your sabotaging—and be ready to intensify it by tenfold when the invasion draws near. They feel you are integral to its success and you will be compensated with more supplies, agents and fighters for your efforts. I was only sent to deliver this message—essentially, a glorified telegram. Outside of that, my presence here is of a personal nature.”
“What do you mean, 'of a personal nature?’”
Arthur, once again, took his place at Amelia’s side and wrapped an almost-possessive arm around her waist. “After win this war, I’m going to marry this woman.”
Amelia couldn't help but beam at the pride in his voice.
Amelia felt like she could finally breathe, like a tonne of bricks bad been lifted off her shoulders, and suddenly gravity no longer applied to her. The message Arthur expected her to deliver has been shared, her assignment done, and now she felt a strong desire to curl up in a ball in front of a warm fireplace, to pull a thick, soft comforter to her chin and just sleep until the war ended. If not for her other mission, known only to herself and half a dozen people in London, that might have been a possibility in her near future. But her stay might be of some duration if de Gaulle gave Marks the go-ahead. She yawned widely, hiding it behind her hand as she glanced around the room. Résistance leaders discussed the information she’d brought with her to France, planning out what would come next and debating the possibilities. She watched her fiancé as he and Bernard studied map of the Rhône river valley, arguing over a suitable drop site.
In the corner, a lone Frenchman stood in the corner, his back against the wall and a scowl deep in his face. His sun-browned skin stretched over high, prominent cheekbones; his nose was crooked from some past injury. His stance suggested military and a Basque beret hung low over watchful eyes. He was a hunter zeroing in on his prey, one arm hovering near his sidearm, his expression one of weary detachment.
Amelia made her way across the room, attempting to appear serious. A strand of golden hair curled over his brow. “I’ve heard a lot about you, Bruno.”
Francis’s face remained impassive, and his shadow of beard and worry lines added about ten years to an otherwise relatively young (late 30s, maybe?) face. “I’m sure none of what you heard is true.”
Now that she was closer, she could see the tenseness of his shoulders, like he was ever-ready to spring into action. As if a fight might break out at any moment.
Amelia gave him a close-lipped smile. “Dorian told me you’re his best friend. That you go way back an’ all that.” She was surprised that Arthur's alias could slip so easily off her tongue, yet also feel so unfamiliar. “You’ve saved his life more than once, I hear.”
“And he has saved mine.”
“It’s nice to finally meet you.”
Francis studies her solemnly, his ocean-coloured eyes hooded. “You understand, mademoiselle, That he will not allow his feelings for you to distract him.”
Amelia flushed. “I-I understand that. I never planned in distracting him.” .
“How long do you plan on staying?”
Amelia hesitated, half-shrugging. “Only a coupla weeks.” She glanced across a room, to where Arthur studied the map. Her heart warmed. “It deeps on what he needs from me, even if it’s jus’ moral support.”
Francis said nothing, so Amelia continued. “I was stupid, Bruno. I had no idea how busy he’d be, really.”
“He loves you. Don't ever think otherwise.”
That pulled Amelia up short—she hadn't expected that. Not from the Francis Arthur had been describing in his letters for month now, at least. “Beg your pardon?”
He continued as if she hadn’t said anything. “Talks about you all the time—about how he’s going to marry you and travel the world together.”
Amelia felt her eyes filling with stinging tears and blinked them back fiercely, cheeks red and lips stretched into a smile.
Francis continued. “You’re very important him. Your plans, your happiness, your everything is very important to him. I bet he already has your kids’ and your grandkids’ names picked out already. But he won’t let anything get in the way of his work. Do you understand?”
“I do.” And she did.
“I’ve found you a job.”
Amelia looked up from the window questioningly, eyebrows raised higher than she thought possible. “A job? Whaddya mean?”
“As a teacher at La Maison d’Izieu. A children’s home.” Arthur sat next to her on the sofa, map in hand. “Won’t pay much—just room and board—but Madame Zlatin is a good woman who could use your help with the children she cares for.”
Amelia hesitated and Arthur misunderstood. “Everybody works, love.” He smoothed the map next to him on the seat. “If we didn't have regular employment, people would get suspicious. Besides,” (he gestured on the map), “it’s near the new dropsite.”
Amelia glanced out the window. The last Résistance members had left Madame Guilbert's home, disappearing one at time into the passing traffic with a proficiency borne of years of practice at fading into the woodwork.
Amelia glanced over at Arthur, pushing down a sudden tightness in her throat. “Alright.”
“I’ll make sure you’re safe out of France after the invasion.”
“I know you will.” Amelia poked him in the ribs. “Bruno said I’d distract you and he’s right. You don't need me around to distract you.”
Arthur laughed lightly. “He’s right—you are distracting. But who else will keep me from losing my mind?”
“Certainly not,” Arthur snorted. “Bastard’s main source of my madness.”
Amelia chuckled and squeezed his hand. “You’re doing the right thing, Arthur. And you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met for it.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows. “You, my dear, need to meet more men.”
Amelia leaned her cheek on his shoulder, still giggling lightly. “Oh, Art, I know I took it kinda hard when you left, but you had to help Francis, an’...” She shook her head. “You’ve did the right thing. No matter how worried I am for you, you’ve done the right thing—so don’t feel guilty about it, I can see it on your face—and I trust your judgement.”
She sighed. “Lettin’ you go was the most difficult thing I’d ever done, I can tell you that.”
“Why was it difficult?” He wrapped an arm around her.
“Personally, I’d love to get rid of me, of I were you. I hear I'm awfully boring.”
Amelia smiled. “First off, you’re not—you’re wonderful an’ I love you an’ you damn well better know it.” She snuggled into his side. “Second off, it was hard ’cause I was so determined to marry you an’ graduate an’ travel an’ settings down London an’ raise a family with you, you know?”
Arthur brushed a piece of hair behind her ear. “I felt the same way, darling—still do, in fact. But right now I’m busy with things, important things! We’re fighting a formidable enemy—one who will stop at nothing to destroy us.” He sighed and Amelia noticed the worry lines that had been etched into his face since leaving the States. “And now Bruno is telling me this new bloke is infamous for his ability for his ability to unravel the secrets of the Résistance.”
“Ever heard of him before?”
Arthur shook his head.“Nope. He’s a major from Hamburg. Supposedly fluent in French and English. Apparently, working under Schellenberg.” Arthur placed his elbows on his knees and rubbed his temples tiredly. “God, what I would give for this war to be over…”
“Can’t you sleep? It's been a long night…” She touched his arm, eyebrows raised in concern. Where is the energetic, charismatic man she’d fallen so deeply in love with? What happened to that mischievous glimmer in his eye, the snarky he’d always seemed to have? Not one since she arrived in this turbulent place had he smiled her in that sarcastic, loving smile he only gave her and that she treasured so much. Again, she felt that pinch of fear in heart—an urgency to leave France and return to her father’s townhouse in Boston. She’d been so excited to return to France, to see Arthur and to help him with his work. But now that she was here beside him, so close she could hear his soft, even breathing and see the confident line of his jaw, somehow she felt more alienated than ever before.
“Sweetheart…” Arthur placed his arm around Amelia’s waist, enveloping her in his warmth, tilting up her chin so that his tired eyes could search hers. Suddenly, he stopped, pulling at the end of one of her curls. “Now that we’re alone, I’ve been meaning to ask you…”
Amelia raised an eyebrow. “Yes…?”
Arthur cleared his wrong. “Don’t take this the wrong way—I still think you’re very beautiful and it’s just going to take some getting used to it, that's all…” He looked embarrassed and Amelia smiled, pressing her lips together to hold back laughter. “But, why did you cut your hair?”
Amelia giggled. “That’s all?” She them shrugged, almost unconsciously touching a piece of her hair. “I dunno. Needed a change, an’ it's much more manageable now. Much less upkeep, you know? Don’t have to brush it so much.”
Arthur nodded. “I see.” He smoothed down her mess of curls. “Well, it really suits you. Makes you look very grown up.”
Amelia smiled at him. “Thanks. You don't look so bad yourself, honey.”
Arthur rolled his eyes, shaking his head, muttering, “Lies,” under his breath.
Finally, he looked back at her, his expression suddenly serious. “I told you I'm glad you're here and I mean it—you’re like breath of fresh air after months of drowning. And I am so looking forward to the day we can be married. But…,” his expression was almost apologetic, “I need to concentrate on this right now. Many lives are at stake right now—Bruno and I are responsible for them. You understand, right?”
Amelia steadily returned his gaze. “I understand, of course.”
“That’s my girl.” Arthur kissed her on the cheek—much too quickly for Amelia’s liking, but still—and turned back to his map. “Now I’ve got to study this new dropsite—we must get the new coordinates to the Allies. My source tells me there will be another drop tonight, and we have to prepare.”
“How can I help?”
Arthur grabbed two corners of the wrinkled map and began folding it inward. “You can inform our contact while I coordinate the new location with Bruno.”
“Who’s your contact?”
“He owns a café not far from here. He’ll get the word to our men.” Arthur set the map aside and put his full attention to Amelia. “You will go to the café at the corner of Place des Terreaux and Chapelle. You will sit at the counter and order a cup of coffee and a croissant—with marmalade. The barman will tell you he’s out and ask if you want a substitute. You will decline, saying you’ll take your croissant plain.”
Amelia listened carefully, wishing she could take notes on this—she never trusted her memory for anything, let alone something as important as this. Arthur took her hand and folded several coins into her palm. “You’re little exchange will tell our contact all he needs to know. Don't rush. Read the paper. Try to avoid talking to other people—stick to your cover story. Pay the barman and leave when you see me cross the street.”
Amelia scrunched up her nose. “Do I have to order coffee?”
Arthur mimicked her disgusted facial expression before rolling his eyes and shaking his head exasperatedly. “You have to—everybody does. Do you want to draw any unnecessary to yourself?” He ruffled her hair. “Besides, the coffee here is breed with grains, thanks to war. So you’re allowed to complain.”
Amelia sniffed. “Fine.”
“Your exchange with the barman is a coded request that our comrades meet a lot certain location after curfew, where they’ll help us distribute supplies. I’ll pass by the café five minutes after you enter. Observe which way I go. Walk the same direction a few minutes later. Someone will be watching you to make sure you’re not followed.”
“Where will you go?”
“After I talk to Bruno about the new drop site, we’ll get our radio operator to transmit the new locations to London. Then we’re going to find Peter.”
Amelia raised an eyebrow. “Peter?”
“Seventeen years old. Barely knows what a gun looks like, let alone how to use one. He’s young and inexperienced, but he’s go enthusiasm. And he’ll never forgive the boches for what they did to his parents.”
Amelia put her fingertips to her lips. “What did they do to them?”
“They were shot for harbouring maquisards after an attack on a convoy. He saw the bodies, had to keep them from his little brother—blood everywhere.”
“That’s awful.” Amelia’s stomach felt sick. Would that happen to Madame Guilbert, if she was found out?
“For the past six months he and his brother have been living under assumed names in Belley. They carry carry forged papers provided by the British.” Arthur stood, gathering his things as they went. “You’ll find that everyone has a story—most of them by German oppression.”
Amelia nodded mournfully. She could only imagine how much that must weight on that poor boy. “You said there’ll be someone there to watch me, right? Will I see ’em?”
“No.” Arthur looked distressed. “When you’re delivering, you’ll be on your own. It's better that only one—” He stopped abruptly, lips tight.
Amelia’s gaze was steady. “It’d better that only one person be arrested instead of two—is that what you’re about to say?”
Arthur closed his eyes. “My lover…”
“Don’t you worry ’bout me, Art—I’m here to help and I’m not scared.” Amelia squeezed his hand. “Not scared at all.” It was easy to say, in the daylight, with her hand in Arthur’s. Heaven knows how she’d react if things came to a worse.
She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll see you at La Maison d’Izieu. I'm going to wait there until you come for me tonight, right?”
“I’ll come for you.”
“I love you, Arthur.” She whispered his given name and attempted to flatten his unruly hair. “And I’m so proud of what you’re doing.”
Amelia paused at the curb across the street from the café, closed her eyes, closed her eyes, took a deep breath. A chill whispered across the wet stone and combined with the foul odour of ersatz coffee, baking bread and cheap colognes and perfumes. Amelia could almost feel the graveness that a war-torn country such as France always seemed to have in the air. The aroma invaded her senses, heady in its unrelenting intensity. Across the street, a bakery threw open its doors, admitting the first few women at the front of a breadline that blocked the sidewalk and disappeared around the corner inside. A passerby made a derogatory comments about the Germans and was immediately shushed by his wife as the offending party strolled down the street, pedestrians parting around them like the Red Sea, laughing as they did so. One of the soldiers glanced at Amelia and then away, as if her presence was not worthy of his attention, and Amelia was grateful was grateful for the tattered coat and sensible shoes that dulled her into the crowd. If she paused any longer, she’s sure to rouse suspicion. She’d been through an intense orientation before she came, but there was only so much one could learn from a British classroom.
She licked her lips and glanced casually at the retreating backs of the Germans. She purposefully took a step off the curve, head held high.
The café was pleasantly busy. Not in a crowded, stifling way, but full enough that she was confident she wouldn't be singled out. The air was thick with a thin film of cigarette smoke, illuminated by the morning light let through by the large, cheerful bank of windows at the front of the store. Lacy, floral white curtains in need of good washing spanned the windows at chest height, giving the patrons privacy as the ate, but allowing them of a view of pedestrians walking down the street. The only shadow in the room came from the mandatory Nazi flag hanging prominently from the top of the window, it's swastika swaying in the cool morning breeze and it's shadow crawling across the floor, like a dark hand stretching for its next victim.
Amelia strode up to the bar, purposefully ignoring the other café patrons. She slid into a stool and reached for a newspaper, casually scanning the headlined until the barman moved in her direction. His irregular gait told her that he one of his legs was shorter than the other.
“Coffee please, and a croissant. Any chance of marmalade?”
The man shook his head. “No, mademoiselle, I'm completely out, unfortunately. I'm sorry.” He hesitated and then asked, “Perhaps you’d like a substitute?”
Amelia shook her head. She gripped her newspaper tightly to keep her hands from shaking. “No, thank you, monsieur. I will take it plain.”
“Very well.” The barman turned away, his expression betraying nothing. He filled her cup and placed it on front of her with a croissant on a chipped plate. Amelia tossed the coins onto the table Arthur had given to her on the counter and pretended to read the paper.
At first her apprehension kept her from noticing anything more than headlines, all of which seemed to condone the war and the situation in France. Despite her anxiety, she found herself enraged by the newspaper’s contents. What turncoat would write that the occupation was boosting France’s economy? What idiot would claim that a work program that took young men from France to compulsory labour in Germany would be a great benefit not only for those young men, but also the families they left behind? Representatives of the Vichy government admonished their fellow French men to do their duty and register their lineage, reminding Jewish citizens to display their stars at all times and to carry their properly stamped documents.
“Pretty awful stuff, isn’t it?”
Amelia looked up from the paper, brow creased and the corner of her mouth quirked upward. “Excuse me?”
The man who spoke to her sat three rows down—Amelia studied him surreptitiously, remembering what one of her instructors had told her—that she should always pay attention to what's going around without displaying too much interest.
He sat casually, at ease, his left elbow resting on the countertop, and his body turned in Amelia’s direction. His bright blond hair was cropped short, swept back from his face—with his high cheekbones, reddened cheeks and pink lips, a straight nose and a strong chin with a sharp jaw. It was the sort of face you expected to see in Nazi propaganda posters, of the perfect Aryan man, or the sort of face you saw in movies. Attractive, well-made. He smiled at her, pleasant and unassuming, with bright blue eyes to soften his face into an almost boyishness, wrinkling their corners. Broad shoulders hinted at his height and large hands played with a hat on the countertop as he spoke.
“Your coffee. Don't you like it? They say it’s the best France has to offer.” The last part was said with a sardonic twist of his lips.
Amelia blinked at him.
Play the game if you don't want to get caught.
Amelia tried to smiled playfully. “And who says that, monsieur? The owner of the store?”
The man shrugged, still smiling back at her. “I’ve just heard around, here and there.”
Amelia wrinkled her nose. “I’m sorry to inform you, monsieur, but you should probably get your hearing checked, if that's the case.”
The man chuckled lightly. “So you don't like it?” he asked again, gesturing to the cup. “You pushed it away without even tasting it, as if you didn't want it.”
Amelia looked down at the counter and sensed a chill go up her spine. Her cup sat on the counter, behind her newspaper, where she wouldn't have been able to reach it without setting her paper down and reaching with her left hand. When had she pushed it away? When she’d been reading that moronic Vichy article? It had been an unintentional habit, borne from a lifetime of hatred of the stuff. She had let her guard down for just a moment, and had already caught the suspicion of the locals and endangered her entire errand and possibly even her life. And the thought terrified her. How could she have been so stupid?
She made a face, cursing herself for never being all that great of an actress, for being so stupid. “It’s disgusting,” she sniffed. “Can’t get used to ersatz coffee.”
He chuckled. “Then why order it, mademoiselle?”
She feigned irritation at his intrusion—though was it truly fake at this point?—and met his gaze, lips pursed, clammy hands flat on the counter. “Look, monsieur, it’s really not your concern if—” Her breath suddenly caught as she realised it wasn't her own idiocy that unnerved her—it was the man himself. His appearance was just too meticulous—his wool coat a little too expensive, his dark shirt a little too tailored. His hair was combed too neatly and his hands were too clean, his fingernails trimmed. When he stood to take the empty seat next to her, his step was a little too casual for the military background suggested by the set of his shoulders and the straightness of his back.
Amelia felt her skin prickle. How could she have been so stupid?
She forced herself to stay casual.
“You’re new here.” All Amelia could do was keep her mouth shut. “Where are from, mademoiselle?”
Amelia gave him an easy smile, though she could feel her stomach churning. “Why? You writin’ a book?” She leaned in closer to him, trying to keep her voice cheerful.“I always knew I’d be a good heroine, you know.”
Where was Arthur? Surely, enough time must have passed by now. She wet the inside of her mouth, hoping her expression would betray the chaos of her thoughts.
“I must know where they make such charming young women,” he said in mock seriousness. “Every hero has her humble beginnings—where’s yours?”
“Nice.” She swallowed, forcing herself to sound confident.
The man straightened, a lazy smile on his face. “Not Paris? I thought every newcomer was from Paris these days.” His voice was pleasant, cheerful even, but she sensed the accusation in his words.
“Perhaps I’m not like other newcomers,” she said lightly, infusing some flirtation in her tone. “Like a heroine might be, for example.”
The man smiled at her again. “So, what is a charming young woman from not-Paris-but-Nice doing in the Rhône-Alpes? Especially at a time like this?”
Amelia tried to keep her tone light, her expression open and friendly. “Oh, you mean ’cause of the war?”
“Not the most beautiful time of our lives, is it?”
She shook her head in agreement, keeping her eyes on his. His eyes were like pools of crystal clear blue water, deep and inviting, and she was trapped in them—her insides felt fuzzy, her legs like liquid. Could he see what she was thinking and sense her fear?
Cheeks pinkening, she forced her gaze away from his.
In that moment, Arthur passed the café window, not even glancing in her direction, striding purposefully past the breadline, and around a corner. Amelia was officially alone in hostile territory, and she quickly averted her eyes from where Arthur had walked past.
The man glanced next to her glanced at the window, then back at her. “Are you waiting for someone, mademoiselle?”
Amelia felt lead in the pit of her stomach, the churning in her gut—had her casual glance in Arthur’s direction really been so telling? She had no idea who this man next to her was, but her instincts told her he was not there to discuss her choice of beverage and the wonders of Nice, France. Arthur had told her to look out for look out for collaborators—French rats spying for the Germans—everywhere, and on her first day she’s cornered by one.
She smoothed her paper down on the counter and tried to look upset. “I was, but I guess he isn’t comin’.”
“That’s unfortunate loss for whomever the lucky young man is.”
Amelia smiled at him. “I appreciate your kindness, monsieur, an’
for keepin’ me company durin’ breakfast, but I really have to go.”
She was turning to go, buttoning up her coat and blowing the bangs out of her face, when his large hand closed around his elbow. Startled, she turned and found him gazing at her. His eyes held in their blue depths an interest—an empathy, almost—that she realised he was trying to hide from her, and she felt the terror in her throat rise further and her stomachs’ clenching grew all the more painful.
There was genuine sorrow in his voice when he spoke. “Not everyone in France is your enemy.”
His words shocked and washed her over her head like cold water, like the time she went cliff-diving when her cousins when she was twelve and they lived in Oregon. Her head felt light and her heartbeat quickened. She jerked her arm from his grasp, holding it to her chest while murmuring thank yous, apologies, and goodbyes, and walked out of the café with as much dignity as she could muster, only focusing on keeping one foot in front of the other, her cheeks burning and her neck splotchy. Crossing the street, she prepared to walk in the direction Arthur had gone, but when she hazhaeded a glance over her shoulder, she saw the man leaning in the doorway, hands in his pockets, watching her carefully, like a scientist studying an unknown specimen. On a whim, Amelia turned in the opposite direction, counting on her invisible bodyguard to turn her to the right direction eventually, and get her to wherever Arthur needed her to go.
When Amelia began encoding her message that evening, her hands still shook we she drew her graph, and she could taste blood in her mouth, her cheeks raw from her teeth gnawing on them, as she had wandered Belley, lost in her thoughts. Using her free hand, she impatiently pushed the hair from her face, eyes stinging with frustration. I’m not cut out for this.
She could just imagine herself in her father’s townhouse in Boston, always with a film of cigarette smoke permeating the air, with rust decorations more fit for a rancher rather than a big-city lawyer that Arthur had claimed given him vertigo when she took him to meet her father after her mother’s funeral. He had immediately taking a liking to Arthur (and who wouldn’t?), clapping him on the back, making jokes, and discussing politics like they’d known each other for years rather than for just a few short hours. Then again, Arthur had a talent for working his way into people’s hearts.
The lead of her pencil snapped and suddenly she was back in reality. Cold, crisp moonlight poured in through the dirty, broken window. Hissing out a cuddle, she used her fingernails to cut through the wood of her pencil and managed to produce a tiny bit of cracked lead.
She just couldn't shake the man at the café, couldn't get the image of his deep, mesmerising eyes of her mind and smooth, baritone voice that could not mark the danger of such a handsome face, the shadows that lurked behind every word on his part of the exchange. His smile had been so charming—disarming, even—the kind of smile that caused romantics like her to swoon (and she might have, before Arthur and under different circumstances). Worse yet—he seemed to have no idea of the unnerving effect he had on her. Or maybe he did, and it was all part of his trap.
But he was a German—or, at least, in league with them. His interest in her presence was not by happenstance—she doubted she was so charming, men would just gravitate towards her like so. But when Amelia had reported her encounter to Arthur, he only expressed slight concern and another brief warning on what she said to strangers. He was too preoccupied with the stop that night to pay full attention to her story.
As the day dragged on, her unease free until it all culminated inside of her as living presence inside her that tightened her muscles and sapped her strength at the same time, screaming constantly that something is very wrong.
It was nine-thirty, and on front of the WT unit she bent again to her task, alternating between silk and graph as her fingers tapped out the sequence she would transmit, the familiar burn in her forearms making itself known, and she found it oddly comforting,Ike she was back in Grendon, completely removed from this mess. She had to warn London—the Germans may know about the drop and that she would recommend for it to be postponed.
She made it halfway through her security code when the front door exploded inward and heavy footsteps approached the room in a run. Without a second thought—or even one in the first place—she grabbed the silk key, heart hammering in her throat, and launched herself and launched herself shoulder-first into the window, shielding her eyes from the crystalline shards with her arm. She landed on her back and shoulder—a shockwave of pain radiated through her and a howl of pain escaped her lips in a single, silent breath.
She scrambled to her feet, stuffing the silk into her boot and gathering up her skirt, mumbling haggard curses under her breath, and dashed into the shadows, feeling rather than hearing the shouts of “Halt!” and bullets raining down on her like a Florida rainstorm. How long had it taken for them to realise she was there? How did they even find her so quickly? She’d only been on air for five minutes!
She clambered over a low, crumbling stone fence, scraping her hands and knees when she fell to the ground. Thank God her legs were moving of their own accord—and so she kept running, blood trailing down her shins, a cursing steadily all the way through.
Her heart was pounding in her chest like explosives, her pulse screaming in her ears and throbbed all through her neck and body like an ever-accelerating freight train. Her feet flew over the snow and onto the back porch of another abandoned house, her boots slipping on the icy planks, threatening to send her sprawling with each step.
With every ounce of strength she had left—which both felt long gone and infinite, a feeling that she’d never be able to explain to anyone but someone who knew what she meant—if she lived, that is—and launched all of her weight into the door. The rusted hinges groaned as they have way, and the door fell forward with a thunderous clump. She tore down a hallway, dodging broken furniture, bashing her shins against an overturned table on the opposite side of the house, barreling through a creaky front door and stumbling onto a dirty pathway, almost unseeable under the overgrown and yellowing grass.
Without hesitating to look for her pursuers, Amelia sprinted down the pathway, racing headlong into a neglected, decades-old apple orchard, thick with underbrush.
There, Amelia finally allowed herself to rest, wrapping her arms around herself at the bottom of a ditch, counting her breath, thoughts running through her mind—both as numerous and quick as the bullets that chased after her. She watched the darkened shapes of her pursuers, breathing shallow, soft. Momentarily, at least, she’d alluded them. But it wouldn't be too long before reinforcements would be called in, the torches would be lit, the search dogs released, and escape would become a fantasy.
Staying close up the ground, she followed the ditch, using her elbows to drag her forward, forging through snow and ice-cold water, until she lost feeling in her arms and legs. Sharp rocks poked into her skin, and sticks scraped across her face.
She emerged from the or hard, face and arms scratched from the bramble, clothes torn and dirty, hair in knots. She found herself in a field, dense with last year’s corn stocks. The drooping lives were blessedly still, sagging as she crept through the shadows.
The Germans must have been expecting to apprehend her at the table. They were disorganized in their search, their numbers insufficient to comb through the whole countryside, as they otherwise might have. And she at least has a few minutes before reinforcements came in. And she wouldn't waste a second of her precious time.
Lucky me, Amelia thought as she hurried away from the scene of the crime.
I also just now remembered action/adventure isn't my forte. Hence why I'm practicing. But yeah. Apologies.
Maybe under different circumstances, Amelia Jones would have climbed the mountain behind her to it's summit and seen the panorama of the Rhône as it snaked around the village of Izieu and headed back to the northeast. In fact, perhaps she should do that with Arthur, once this war was behind them.
In the morning darkness the reflection of the full moon on the river was probably visible for miles in both directions, and she could see the tiny community below her gradually awaken. Blackout shades would be lifted. Businessmen would migrate in the direction of their respective offices in the surrounding communities, and factory workers on bicycles would sound bells as they wore through uneven streets. Children dressed in multiple layers would clutch the hands of overworked housewives on their way to a crowded marketplace. To the villagers of Izieu, the war had probably seemed insignificant: no Germans patrolled the streets, and, tucked so high in the mountains of east Lyon, not much happened to remind the villagers of war.
Amelia heard the wind moving the treetops at the edge of the clearing. An icy breeze carried the noise past her on its way down the mountainside. She brought her numbed hands to her mouth and blew on them in an attempt to keep warm. Her hair refused to stay tucked under her wool beret and she had long-since given up on pushing her bangs out of her eyes.
She squat there huddled in tangle of bushes at the edge of the clearing, coat wrapped tightly around her torso, and attempting to keep herself from shivering too violently in the bitter morning frost. Her shoulder was still aching from her catapult through the window sux hours before, the arm of her coat in shreds thanks to the glass. But, still, Amelia had to thank God for the fact she survived that whole encounter at all—in one piece, even.
It still bothered her that she hadn't been able to receive a confirmation from Grendon that they’d received her message and that it had been understood. She was positive she’d been cautious—she couldn't imagine where she would have left mistakes in her coding, if any at all. But there was no way for her to know that her warning had been deciphered in time to inform the RAF—and, in fact, she highly doubted it—and she was sure that there would still be a drop that night.
How could she have been so stupid?
Arthur’s arm brushed against her shoulder as he shifted his weight beside her. His hair was characteristically unruly and his cap was set at a rakish angle. She watched the rise and fall of his shoulders, and attempted to sync her breathing to his, barely able to feel the half-smile she gave as she looked up at him from the sheet severity of the cold that night. For a brief second, he turned in her direction and smiled at her, eyes crinkling. He leaned in close and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here, love,” and Amelia cherished the burst of warmth that fanned across her face.
She mouthed “me too” back at him. Perhaps she’d been mistaken, overreacting. It was her overactive imagination and everything was fine—and she was being just plain silly, worrying so much. And, at least while she was in France she supposed she’d have to learn to deal with this worry—on a daily basis, even.
On the opposite side of Arthur, Francis Bonnefoy checked his ammunition, running his fingers lightly across the tops, lips moving as he counted them under his breath, and adjusted the Stenmark slung across his shoulders. His movements were silent and efficient, deliberate and practiced. Like someone who’s been doing this his whole life. Amelia made a mental note to ask where he worked before joining up with the Résistance.
On the other side of Amelia, seventeen year old Peter shifted nervously with his rifle, his breath escaping in short bursts as he shifted positions in the snow. Amelia have him a sympathetic smile and Peter nervously smiled back. God, she hoped he’d be less nervous than he looked when the time came. That he’d make it back to his little brother unscathed. She couldn't bear the alternative.
The wind moaned through bare branches in the trees; somewhere, off in the distance, wolves howled like wounded soldiers. Amelia shivered. Her heavy woolen trousers which Arthur had promptly given to her upon her return from the miraculous escape from capture—luckily, she’d been able to bathe before he saw her—damp with snow and her worn leather boots may as well have not even been there for a the good they did.
Amelia thought she saw another shadow, one that didn't have a place in the night sky. She nudged Arthur in the arm.
His voice was barely detectable, even though he sat less than a foot away from her. “It won’t be long now, Lénore. Are you alright?” She nodded and strained to listen to the low rumble of the approaching aircraft.
Francis murmured, “Hudson light bomber. She’ll be here in a moment.”
Arthur, Francis, Amelia and Peter removed torches from underneath their coats and Amelia’s fingertips brushed against her Colt. She shivered again.
On Arthur’s nod, they left their hiding place and entered the clearing. Their task was to take formation and use their torches to signal the dropzone to the oncoming aircraft. Amelia moved to position, her torch still unkit as she waited for Francis's orders.
The snow-packed clearing shimmered silver-white, a pool of moonlight. A full moon was imperative for a drop: a pilot had to be able to locate the site, and, at an altitude of about 300 feet, the light could make a contrast between trees and the clearings to a flight navigator. Once the crew located the pinpricks of light on the ground, the plane would increase altitude and circle for another pass, the drop it's cargo as it flew a second time over the clearing.
Several moments passed and the low rumble intensified above the trees. A dark shadow glided over the far edge of the clearing, and Arthur turned on his flashlight and pointed the beam directly upward into the sky. Amelia, Francis and Peter followed suit—Amelia bit on the inside of her cheek hard enough to draw blood—and held her light steady as Francis signaled the plane with short flashes of a prearranged code.
The twin-engine bomber crossed the clearing and disappeared above the opposite treeline. The engines faded as it circle back to pass overhead once more, this time at six hundred feet. As it appeared against, its shadow spilled a line of shapes that blossomed in the darkness—seven mushrooms floating downward in the night sky. Its task compete, the plane continued west to Lyon.
Amelia watched soundlessly as the grey shapes floating down towards their position. Francis’s voice was both harsh and silent as it rippled across the clearing—“Gather them quickly. Someone will report it to the Germans.”
Many villagers, though amicable during the day, would not hesitate to a file a report to the Germans if they saw a plane circling over a high meadow after midnight.
Arthur ran for the first parachute once the attached canister had settled into the snow—grabbed the billowing material and and crushed it into a bundle against his chest. With a small knife that flashed silver in the moonlight, he cut the parachute away and threw the fabric to the dude. With both hands, he dragged the metal tube to the edge of the clearing.
Another parachute deflated in the snow next to Amelia.
Mimicking Arthur’s movements to the best of her ability, she tugged the fabric away from the canister, rolled it into a tight bundle against her stomach and threw it to the side. The straps took several precious moments to separate from the cylinder—face burning, Amelia glanced to where the rest stood at the edge of the clearing. Aside from the one she currently struggled with, the rest had been pulled into a pile at the edge of the clearing. Peter disappeared into the clearing as Francis watched on, his expression unreadable.
Amelia continued to wrestle with the container, whispering curses through chapped lips. Taller than herself (though she supposed that wasn't hard) and at least three times her weight, the canister refused to budge. She pushed her hair out of her face and huffed as she continued her task. Her feet slipped in the ice-coated grass and she hissed.
Why had Arthur insisted she come?
He seemed convinced they would need her, that she was imperative to the success of the drop. Why had Amelia gone against her better judgement? Was it those passionate, fiery green eyes? The feeling of his fingers brushing against her cheek? The fact that she was too tired to say “no” as firmly as she wanted to?
Suddenly, Arthur was there, hands on the canister. “I’ve got it, love,” he whispered, and Amelia nodded slowly and began to straighten herself up again. Instant relief. But the embarrassment only intensified.
Francis’s expression was still completely wooden, betraying nothing. But it didn't have to. Amelia could guess what he was thinking. They were probably thinking the same thing: she’s not cut out for this.
Suddenly, Arthur was on the ground, flush against the snow, and motioned with his hand—and Francis did the same, eyes flashing in the moonlight.
Amelia couldn't move. She really couldn't. She wanted to drop to the ground, move behind the canister for protection. But she could only watch—her stomach twisting, her heart hammering, her blood cold—as light flood into the clearing. As Arthur released the safety on his Colt; as Francis readied his Stenmark. Her legs shook. Her head felt light. So so light.
They were going to die. They were going to die.
Now that the plane was gone, far beyond being any sort of help to them, whoever was waiting for them would be acting very soon. Very soon.
And Amelia could only be so lucky, couldn't she?
Crouched in the clearing, Francis and Arthur held their weapons at the ready, no signs of shaking, or fear. Wind ruffled Francis’s shaggy blond hair and Arthur’s face was screwed up in concentration.
Amelia felt herself sinking to the snow, legs like jelly, her face white. Her father was probably asleep at home. Alone. His heart could only take so much, and as long as she was safe, he would be sound.
But she was not safe.
Distinctly not safe.
From the road below, there was a bloodcurdling scream.
Amelia’s hair stood on end. Her stomach turned. A bile rose in her throat. They found Peter.
She clutched the handle of her knife tightly, eyes closed, hands shaking. As if her knife could do anything against a hail of machine gunfire.
For one moment, it was like she was dreaming. Like this was a terrible, twisted nightmare. The shadows were too deep, the moon too bright, the air too cold to be reality. And she would wake up in her bed back in London, arms still sore from a day of coding at Grendon. A letter from her father on the table, imploring her on how she’s been, reminding her of how much he loves her. She’s safe, warm. Alive. No Germans bearing down on her.
Arthur rose to his feet, legs sure and solid, squinting against the floodlight, and fires into the light, shattering the glass with a juicy pop! and throwing the clearing back into darkness. Amelia blinked hard to the sudden change in light.
For a split second, everything is still.
Amelia does not wake up.
She gulps, and that seems to be what triggers the bullets to begin flying. A scream bubbled up in her throat and there’s nothing she could do to hold it back.
She could hear Arthur shouting her name as he bolted for the cover of the trees. Amelia stumbled after his voice, slipping in the wet snow, the heat if anger and adrenaline coursing through her veins. Peter’s scream played in her head like a broken record, almost blocking out everything else, and she choked on her own sobs.
I am not cut out for this.
I am not cut out for this.
Shouts roared in her ears like thunder and bullets grazed her skin, her clothes. She stretched out her hands and threw herself into the treeline. Her hip crunched sickeningly as it hit the hard-packed snow. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
She blinked. Couldn't stop.
Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God.
She struggled to get feet, her hip burning. Her vision returned just as Arthur’s hand clamped around her wrist.
“Your father will see his daughter again if it kills me.” Amelia shivered.
Her legs screamed as she struggled to run in pace with Arthur’s headlong flight. Up ahead, Francis passed beneath the trees like a ghost. Amelia felt the sting of snow against her cheeks as the fallen powder spread the air. More shouting. Gunshots. Tears. Pain. Darkness.
“What about Peter?” Throat raw. Nose running. Lungs on fire. Her voice was a squeak. Barely audible. Did she even say anything? Thoughts too addled to tell.
“Nothing we can do.” Arthur threw her a worried glance, like she might do something stupid. No need. I’ve already done something stupid. “Someone’s betrayed us to the boches.”
“We can’t just leave him. His brot—”
“Better one of us than all of us.”
The terrain changed, sloping upward. Branches laden with snow tore at Amelia’s arms and clouded her vision. She clutched Arthur’s hand like a lifeline (and he actually was, she supposed) and she glanced over her shoulder. They were leaving a path in the snow—of course they were. And the moonlight hid nothing from their pursuers.
“Who knew about the drop?” There was point trying to hide the panic raising her voice. No point in trying to hide the uncontrollable sobs. She was weak and Arthur deserved to know that.
His grip on her hand steadied her as they climbed up the slippery face of a boulder.
Francis above them. “They’re right behind us.”
Arthur clambered up next to Francis and heaved Amelia up alongside him. He glanced up the slope. “Need t’ finda place t’ hide.”
“Hide?” Francis seemed almost too calm for the situation. “The new boches’s a bloodhound. There’s nowhere we can go where he won’t find us.”
“Might ge’ lucky.”
“Let’s keep moving.” Amelia was surprised by the sudden steadiness in her voice. She touched Arthur’s sleeve. “We can at least try.”
Arthur pulled Amelia forward. “We’ll leave withou’ you, bastard.” Francis moved past them, deeper into the forest, scowling, and Arthur followed, tugging Amelia along.
Behind them, the sounds of pursuit. Barking dogs. Heavy boots crunching the snow. Shouting. Gunshots. It was panic, Amelia was pretty sure, that was keeping Amelia with her companions’ rapid paces. There was no blocking out the sounds, no thinking of anything other than a bullet tearing through her flesh. Well. Aside from Arthur, cold and lifeless.
Abandoned. Germans taking it away, to be thrown God knows where.
When her mother died, her father had told her the death had been peaceful and a blessing. Amelia had hoped it would feel the same for her. Now, that seemed an unlikely luxury.
“Up ahead!” Amelia followed Arthur’s finger to a small river cutting across their path. He wasted no breath examining his intentions, simply running to his discovery.
On the opposite banks, the ground sloped downward for several hundred yards before rising again toward the summit. The depression acted as a natural wind tunnel, channeling the cold air across the slope with such a force that it kept the area clear if snow.
“It will cover our tracks,” Amelia breathed as Arthur searched for a way to cross the icy flow.
Amelia glanced down at the stream, clutching Arthur's hand so tight she thought she might break it. She saw what she needed. “This way,” and she pulled Arthur with her, towards a tree that had fallen across the river.
“God, I hope that's sturdier than it looks.” He pushed Amelia behind him. “A tumble’d probably kill you.”
He tested the lot with his foot before carefully stepping into the centre and leaning forward. It settled under his weight but held steady. Arthur shuffled across the tapering trunk until it bowed under his weight and disappeared into the swirling pitch. He hesitated before jumping into the snow on the opposite bank.
Arthur spun around and gestured so violently for Amelia she thought he might topple over. She stepped into the log, forcing herself not to look at the churning water below her. She grasped a branch for support, maneuvering across the branch like a tightrope walker. At the point where the tip submerged into the current she lunged forward like a feral cat to the opposite bank and landed squarely next to Arthur.
Francis quickly followed after her then turned to dislodge the makeshift bridge from the bank, kicking the now-splintered truck into the violent water.
“Anything for a few extra minutes, right?” Amelia had to agree as Francis shifted the strap of his weapon and faded into the trees’ protective shadows.
They continued downstream for several hundred yards before sprinting across the valley. Amelia’s thighs screamed and her lungs were desperate for oxygen. They stayed under the cover of trees whenever possible. Amelia heard no sounds of pursuit, but she didn't dare glance over her shoulder to check. Not until she was sure they were gone.
Gunfire burst out behind them and a branch near Amelia’s head exploded into kindling. Amelia stumbled back sideways, a cry escaping her lips, gasping. Another shot brushed against her cheek, light as a feather, before burying into the tree next to her with a dull thud.
Arthur looked over shoulder. “All right?”
Amelia nodded, eyes wide. No amount of training could've prepared her for the sheer terror of being tracked by a gunman. Somewhere behind them, a German sniper had them in and out of his sights, and he was taking every advantage to fire in their direction. Amelia swallowed her fear and moved forward.
They reached the other side of the valley and began climbing up the slope. For several blessed moments, the ground rose gently, and the tree-cover thickened, tangled branches catching at clothes, skin, hair. Arthur’s voice was ragged when he spoke—“Not Alpine. Maybe we can outrun.”
Francis shook his head. “Tracking us without a moment’s difficulty anyway.”
“What do we do?” Amelia felt their rapid ascent in every muscle. Up ahead, the mountain steepened considerably and jagged rocks pushed upwards, as if holding back a web of stars. Between boulders, the silent shadows of trees rose against the summit.
Arthur studied the terrain, forehead slick with sweat. Amelia could almost hear his ribs rattling as he took in more and more air. “Any ideas, Bruno?”
Francis wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, voice like gravel. “We have the higher ground. Can’t outrun them.”
Arthur glanced at his friend and an understanding passed between them. “Remember Eze?”
Francis smiled grimly. “Best hunting trip we’ve had.”
Arthur turned to Amelia. “Brother convinced us higher ground is better for hunting.” He pointed through the trees toward an outcropping halfway up the slope in front of them.
Amelia looked where Arthur pointed, studying the moonlight reflecting off the smooth surface of the rocks. Her jaw went slack. “It’s…” Too steep, she wanted to say, but she didn't have the breath for it. She looked to Arthur, eyebrow raised. “What’re you plannin’?”
Again, Francis and Arthur exchanged glance. “Out of options, love.” His voice was practised, measured, careful—like he was talking to a child. “The Germans…”
Francis didn't even bother to look her in the eye. “We have no choice.”
Amelia took took in a shaky breath, chest constricting. “You’re gonna fight.” Her voice was thin, like glass. “You’re gonna ambush ’em.”
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't swallow the fear crawling up her throat.
“I know this is hard—”
“There’s gotta be another way.” She sounded desperate, even to herself. Her gaze was locked on Arthur’s face—his painted expression, his long, cold-pinkened nose, the determined set of his jaw, thin chapped lips. How his eyes were so vivid, even in the silvery paleness of the night. She had to memorise it, but couldn't bear to think of why she needed to.
“Unless you’re proposing we surrender,” Francis sneered, eyes narrowing.
Amelia’s cheeks felt hot. “Perhaps we should.” Her voice was dumb, achy, strained by tears. Even she could hear it.
She had been so stupid for coming here.
Francis’s eyes flashed, cutting her to the bone. Amelia looked back to Arthur, who pulled up his eyebrows. “You know we can’t do that, love.”
Amelia faltered, lowering her gaze. He was right, of course. They both were. The Germans were merciless. They would torture her, him, Francis—do anything they could to squeeze out information about the Allies, the Résistance, their plans. She would hold her tongue—of course she would—loose lips sink ships and all that—and she would only be tortured more for it, put through more pain than she thought imaginable. She’d be beaten senseless, dehumanised in every aspect of her being—a regular Jean Moulin. The ground no longer felt quite so solid.
“They’ll kill us.” Her voice was tinny, faraway. Warmth trailed down her cheeks. Damn her, damn her, damn her.
“They’ll try.” Francis sounded impatient. “And we’ll pick them off one by one as they try to climb up the mountain.” His voice was low and dangerous. Amelia shivered.
“Until your ammunition gives out,” (her voice rose with hysteria, but Amelia couldn't bring herself to really care), “and they’ve gotten they’re damn reinforcements. Then what?”
Arthur held her shoulders, too firmly to be comforting. “We have to try.”
Amelia stared at him through misty eyes. This was happening. It was happening. And there was nothing—nothing—she could do to stop it. “Okay.”
She doubted they even heard her.
“If we die,” Francis turned toward the slope, shoulders squared, “we give ’em hell for it.”
Arthur’s voice was soft. “Love, I want you to run—as far away as you can. Don't come back, turn around, anything—no matter what you hear, what you see. No matter what. Promise me.”
Amelia sucked at her lips. “I-I can fight…”
Arthur’s eyes practically glowed from his intensity. “Amelia Jones, promise me. Promise me you’ll get away, go back to America. Promise me.”
Amelia opened her mouth to argue. She couldn't just leave him at the mercy of the Germans—couldn’t just leave him to die out in the cold. But she saw his expression darken.
“I promise.” The words burned on her tongue. If Arthur got so much as a scrape, she’d never forgive herself. A boulder had settled in her stomach—she doubted it would ever go away.
Amelia ran to the outcropping with Arthur close behind. With every ounce of energy she had left in her, she attacked the slope, clutching at the terrain with raw, bleeding hands—with her elbows, knees, boots. She weaved through clusters of trees, arms wrapped around her chest, skirting close to walk of the mountain, paying no attention to the drop off into an abyss of inky blackness, just inches from their path.
Arthur panted lightly behind her and Amelia tried to take comfort in that he was there, with her. Above her, Francis had reached the end of the trail, where the moonlight highlighted the sporadic rock formations. Gunshots echoed around the mountainside as hidden sharpshooters tried to pluck her off the face of the cliff. Francis disappeared over the edge of the nearest boulder, keeping his nose the ground. He kept his head below the rocks as he motioned for them.
Amelia felt a morbid curiosity, to turn, see her pursuers, hidden somewhere in the shadows behind him. In her mind's eye, she saw demonic eyes, shining through darkness, tracking her every step. A predator intent on the kill. Revulsion shook her body. She picked up speed, clawing her way to Francis, lungs shuddering with effort, Arthur whispering encouragements behind her—he grasped her waist and lifted her the few remaining feet upward, until she could take Francis’s hand.
As Francis's grip on her hand tightened, and she began to pull herself up the rest of the way, there was a sharp burst of machine gun fire. The sickening thud of bullets meeting skin, a weak moan. Arthur's grip on her waist loosened—she could feel his torso lean agonizingly against Amelia's legs, then roll away, gravity dragging him downwards.
He twisted like a rag doll in air, falling through the underbrush. Amelia screamed as she tried to pull her hand from Francis's death grip.
“He’s dead, Lénore.” His voice cut through her, left her veins ice cold. “We have to let him go.”
“We can’t leave! We can’t leave him!” It wasn't her own voice. It was high, screaming, like a vase bring shattered on the floor, like wind howling through trees. Tears burned hervetes, bile clogged her throat.
With her free hand, she dug at Francis’s fingers, nails digging deep into his skin, until he swore and dropped her hand like a hot stone. She slid several feet down the slope, until she found her footing. Francis’s voice above her—“I can’t be caught. You understand.”
Amelia nodded, and with one last haunted look in her direction, Francis disappeared. The boulder in her stomach grew heavier.
Amelia turned and sprinted down the slope, willing her legs to stay under her. Her entire frame shook violently and the wind whipped through her hair, her beret long-since fallen off. Cold wind froze the sweat on her face.
Arthur would be alright. He had to be. He he had to be. The Arthur she knew wouldn't die like this. He wouldn't. He wouldn't.
She ignored the dark shapes following her. Ignored the fact that they’re weapons were most likely on her. That she was going to die. Die. Die.
Arthur wouldn't die.
She won’t allow it.
She found herself beside Arthur’s still form, vision blurring. Her hands trembled as she lifted his head into her lap. Something warm, wet, and sticky trailed down her wrist and looked at her side. His breath, shallow and weak, hardly there, escaped his crushed chest in small puffs of air.
Amelia stroked his matted hair, whispering his name over and over and over again. A broken record.
Now his hair decides to lie flat.
Arthur’s lips moved, dark and shining with blood, as if to speak, but nothing but air came out.
Amelia felt dizzy. Her stomach churned like a turbulent sea. She forced herself to smile. She had to. He loved her smile. He always told her how much he loved her smile. He'd want to see it now. “You’ll make it, Art. I know you will. Francis says you’re too stubborn to die, remember?”
Arthur’s eyelids fluttered. A trembling hand reached outward, ghostly pale. His fingers barely brushed her chin before falling uselessly into the snow. Amelia gathered it into her hands and pressed against her cheek. It felt like ice, with none of the strength it usually had.
She couldn't keep her voice from shaking. “You’ll be fine. Jus’ fine.”
She hated lying, even if it was to herself.
Gently, she smoothed back his damp hair and kissed his forehead, sticky with cold sweat. His lips moved again as she pulled away. She didn't need words to accompany it to know what he meant.
A cord snapped inside her.
“I love you too, Art. So, so much.”
A sob escaped her.
She kept smiling.
She stroked his cheek as he shuddered one last time. His eyes flew open, completely still, and glued to her face. There was no more vividness in them. His jaw went slack. His whole body went limp in her arms.
The moon was so beautiful that night. She could see that, reflected in glassy eyes.
A sound to her left startled Amelia back to reality, and she jerked her head to the source of the noise, eyes wide, feral.
This was it.
Ten yards away, a tall German officer appeared from the shadows, soldiers that brandished rifles fanning out from behind him. He approached her deliberately—Amelia felt her heart go faster, louder, with each step. His shiny black boots sank into the snow and his dark overcoat trailer down past the tops of his boots to brush against frozen grass like the whispers of a ghost. Darkness his his features like a mask, but as he drew closer, Amelia sensed a strange familiarity in his presence. She watched, skin cold and clammy, heart numb, as he bent one knee into the snow. From under the brim of his hat, he studied her unruly hair, reddened face and winter-paled skin.
Amelia gasped as she took in his features—the strong nose, the proud jaw, the long, pale eyelashes.
The man from the café.
Of all the men in France her pursuer just had to be him. Amelia cradled Arthur’s head, trying not to shudder. Death looks nothing like sleep, and there is no peace in his eyes.
The officer searched her face, his expression stern, serious. A wall of stone. And completely unreadable.
“He’s dead.” Her voice trembled with accusation. Her throat felt swollen, tongue like sandpaper. She felt like she was drowning in syrup—everything felt slow, clumsy, distorted.
The man leaned in closer to study him, and Amelia tightened her grip, leaning over his body protectively. Amelia said again, louder this time, “He’s dead.”
The officer leaned in closer to Arthur and Amelia’s arm shook with the effort to not slap him way. Tears burned her eyes.
For a split second, he froze. Amelia's breath caught in her throat. The officer whirled around, shouting harshly to his men, and two soldiers turned to face down the slope. He removed his overcoat, and before Amelia could stop him, tucked it around his body with a surprising gentleness.
Amelia blinked back tears.
“I will get a doctor for him, mademoiselle.” His voice was strangely tight and all Amelia could do was give him a dumb stare. He placed a gentle but firm hand on her shoulder. “Please stand up, mademoiselle.”
Amelia recoiled from his touch, tearing her eyes away from his probing gaze. And when he rose and offered her a gloved hand, she only clung onto Arthur’s body tighter, tears rolling down her cheeks and landing on his face.
They would shoot her before she moved. She didn't care. Nothing else mattered to her anymore, then Arthur not being left alone in the cold.
Another soldier nudged her with the tip of his gun and she braced herself for the impact. She couldn't explain it, but she felt ready to die. She really did.
Another soldier reached down and hauling her firmly to her feet. Her shoulder strained against his touch as he escorted her away from the scene, his nose wrinkled in disgust.
The last thing she saw was the officer continue to stare at the lifeless body of Arthur Kirkland.
When the Italian Zone turned its management of affairs over to the Germans, they had left southern France in a state of unrest. At least under the Italians, the people had felt some semblance of control over their own lives. The Italian armies, with their friendly ways and casual supervision, did not spark the same hatred in the Résistance and the maquisards as did the Germans garrisons that intimidated formerly Vichy towns.
However, “intimidation” may not have been the best description of German tactics in Belley as of the November in 1943. Just the simple fact they were enemy forces sent to crush any opposition - or whatever they saw as opposition, in anyway they deemed fit - sent French citizens into a frenzy. How could they even begin to continue their way of life under the thumb of the dreaded, and most of all, hated, German boches?
When they first arrived the previous year, the Germans tried to be cordial with their reluctant neighbours, and officers were under orders to treat the local population with respect and try to limit confrontation whenever possible But under the circumstances it was understandable with greetings were ignored or when mothers pulled their children away from approaching troops in order to avoid contact. As time passed, however, a percentage of the good citizens of Belley and surrounded communties softened to the occupation. A pleasantry here, a conversation there - and since the “non-fraternization policy” imposed on the troops by the new Nazi major extended only to trysts with members of the opposite sex, as time went by and many citizens relaxed their distrust of the Germans, on a weekend it was not uncommon to see Germans and Frenchmen drinking together in the cafés along the Place des Terreaux or in the many other establishments throughout the city.
The major himself, of course, almost never made an appearance in these drinking circles, and so his reputation developed principally by what information passed between drunken soldiers and their local drinking buddies. Members of the Résistance gained a reluctant respect for the new head German in town while they friendshipped his young troops and enticed them with any available alcohol. They plied the inexpirienced boches for information on the major’s plans and movements within the scope of southern France (as they cared little about much else, unless told otherwise by the SOE), and when their unwitting German sources became too drunk to do much more than babble, the Frenchmen carried the information to their superiors.
In return, the major had himself his own spies and gained a good amount of his information from his informants from around the city, in exchange for extra rations. It seemed the Allies had plans for the coming year, which he’d predicted en route. And, in order to enact these plans, it seemed, they needed the cooperation of Résistance in France and Belgium - connections they were definitely trying to implement now. Again, he’d predicted as much. Throughout France, there’d been reports of an influx of Allied agents over the past weeks, as if de Gaulle was organising some sort of enormous activity - possibly to distract the Germans, keep them looking in the opposite direction. Rumour in Lyon held that the Allies were planning an invasion of some sort - and the major’s orders from his superiors gave high priority to the apprehension and interrogation of all Allied agents and maquisards. And so a good amount of German espionage also took place among French drinking tables in Belley. That, of course, is how he knew of a pending arrival of an American woman and tracked her and her French connections in his départment. He’d found much on her in his research, and when his source had pointed him to her yesterday morning, he had been ready to arrest her. More than ready, even. But he was patient. The major was a very patient man. She would be more helpful allowed to roam the streets than in an interrogation room right then - especially if she could lead him to the one known as “Bruno.”
Major Ludwig Beilschmidt had been tracking that man for weeks - ever since he’d been assigned to Belley and heard the tales of an elusive escape artist, a regular Houdini, who terrorised German garrisons from Lyon to Marseilles. Several times, he’d been so close to apprehending Bruno, but each time he’d managed to slip into the shadows, undetected. Ever the ghost, Bruno seemed to always be one sabotage ahead of him and one contact richer.
Until today, of course.
Until today, Bruno could have brushed Beilschmidt by on the street and the major would never have been the wiser. But this morning when the fourth member of the damned group somehow managed to escape, even when cornered . . . well, that man could only be on person, and that person was Bruno. He just knew that it had to be him. And when he saw his face in the floodlights - he knew him. Knew his face, anway. He’d seen him around Belley, laughing and drinking with off-duty soldiers in the cafés and teaching in the école primaire during the week. In fact, Major Beilschmidt remembered the man had spoken with him - brief and innocent, a simple request in front of a bar on the Place des Terreaux. If this man were actually Bruno, then he knew his name - his real name, at long last - and the American would be the perfect candidate to help track him down.
As his driver turned the black Citroën into the Place des Terreaux, Ludwig Beilschmidt could see the two sixteenth-century towers of the Château de Lafont in the distance. Soon the entire structure would be visible, with its classical European architecture and Roman-inspired stone arches. The château belonged to a Monsieur Jean-Motier Boisseau, but the major had requisitioned it bofr German use after his arrival that year. HIs troops had applauded the change - from a low sone barracks on the outskirts of civilization where dinner was served chuckwagon style in the courtyard, to the luxurious mansion in the centre of town. Monsieur Boisseau had not been enthusiastic about the situation, but what could he do? These were Germans, not Italians. So he had shrugged his shoulders and moved in with his eighty-year-old mother in Lyon with the rest of his family.
The major’s driver turned into the stone courtyard of the Chateau des Lafont. Several trucks and a lorry were parked in front of the wide stairway, and as his vehicle circled the courtyard he saw metal cylinders tacked amid bundles of parachutes in the open back of one of the trucks. The confiscated Allied supplies represented a dismal failure for bruini and a severe blow to the maquisards, who would be expecting the armaments and provisions donated by the Allies. HIs troops would have returned several hours ago with their prisoner, since the major had opted to complete a bit of unfinished business at the location of the Englishman’s death before returning to Belley. He waited for his driver to open the door, the stepped on the cobblestones and stretches, his strong body upright and his back slightly arched as his long arms reached skyward. He stifled a yawn and moved toward the stairs.
His entire body ached from the morning’s exercise. He had severely underestimated Bruno’s tenacity, it seemed, and he and his troops paid for it physically. But at least none of them had been shot. He wouldn't have to write condolences to some windowed mother Gin Germany saying that her only song had been shot in the line of duty and had died a hero of the Third Reich.
Entering the main reception area, the major removed his overcoat and handed it to his aide. He walked across the marbles tiles and climbed the grain staircase toward the second floor and his office. He allowed himself a glance downard, to where the staircase spiraled into the darkness of the cellar - used as a dungeon in the sixteenth century and a prison for POWs during the Great War. How ironic that just twenty-five years later, dungeons used for German prisoners in 1918 should now house Germany’s enemies. The woman from that morning was probably now waiting in a cell below him. She was a strange, charming little thing.
He closed his office door behind him, tossing his hat onto the desk next to a book and a photograph of his wife.
Beilschmidt sat behind his desk and leaned his head into his hands. His temples had throbbed ever since the capture and how he tried to lessen the pain by massaging them with his forefingers.
She was strange indeed, that American woman. Brash. Loud. Quick. Irreverent. Reckless. Different. She could’ve been killed, in her headlong flight to get to that man’s side - he never thought such a slight, defenseless figure could be so startling. And that glare … that glare.
He’d be surprised to ever get that face out of his mind.
For once, Ludwig Beilschmidt was dumbfounded. For once, he hadn't known.
Because, if he had, he would have moved heaven and earth to bring Arthur Kirkland in alive.
Blindness caused the other senses to sharpen dramatically. And as Amelia stared into the black of her confinement she knew this was true . And that blindness, that panic, that unknown and that morbid anticipation of the future made her no better than a corners animal. She learned sideways until she felt the mousire of the cool stone wall pressed against her cheek. The scent of the centuries- old decay was overpowering, nauseating, and she white-knuckled the rough-hewn bench to keep herself awake and aware, tired as her limbs were, exhausted as her mind was, heavy as her eyelids had become. Her heartbeat seemed to fill the room, echo off the walls, like the beat of a drum. It was the only thing real outside of the cold, outside of the dried blood crusted onto her hands that seemed to burn into her skin. She swallowed, but nothing could get rid of the acid dryness on her tongue, in her throat.
Everything was hazy, dreamlike. In her thoughts, Arthur’s eyes were too green, hair too blond, blood too red, snow too white. It was a painting, a branding - - and Amelia still felt the weight in her lap, the ghost of a hand she would never touch again.
He used to make her tea every morning, used to hold doors open for her, used to read her to sleep with his favourite books. He used to randomly swing her up into his arms, protesting wildly - - carry her books when she complained they were too heavy. Race her on walks, up the stairs. Ballroom dance to the radio in their flat’s front room, like grandparents. They could talk on and on for hours about anything, sheltered in each other’s warmth, planning their future so meticulously, it seemed impossible that it wouldn’t come true. Smiling. Laughing. Happy.
He once told her that he made her feel like a lovesick schoolboy and the proudest husband there could be all at once. That she kept him young, always looking forward. That she balanced him out perfectly.
They were happy.
She scratched her nails lightly across the stone wall, slick with condensation. Her heart was somewhere in the mountains, in Arthur’s cold, still hands, shiny with his blood. It had died with him.
The loud shriek of a telephone startled her back to the present. One of her guards answered it, still laughing at whatever his comrade had just said, though Amelia couldn’t imagine them having anything that funny to say. Save the deaths of innocents, of course. However, the strain of mirth in his voice quickly changed to respect as he conversed with the speaker on the other side of the line.
Lights came on in the corridor outside her cell. Approaching footsteps -- loud, heavy. Amelia straightened, forcing her eyes to stay open. Tried to breathe normally. Stay calm. For Arthur. France. The Résistance. Her life. Family. Europe. France. The Allies.
She wasn’t ready for an interrogation - - her thoughts still swirled around in a disconnected mess and she felt sick to her stomach. Beatings. Bruises. Broken bones. Execution. Her knees trembled. Would she even be able to stand? Her nails bit into sweaty palms. Silent prayers with no real words crowded her thoughts. She was dead. Her family devastated. Mission failed. Didn’t keep her promise to Arthur. Please, God, let Francis have escaped. Gotten away. Far away. To safety.
Viva la Résistance.
Viva la France.
The door slammed open -- light flooded her cell. She squinted against it, jaw set.
“Auf deinen Füβen! Schnell!” One of the guards wrenched her from her bench, fingers digging into her arm. Her legs shook as she was hauled towards the narrow door, already lightheaded with exhaustion. She walked between her escorts, sullen-faced -- through the corridor, leaving behind the dampness of the basement by way of a curved staircase for the grandeur of the château’s marbled entryway to the second floor.
If it hadn’t been for her current situation, she might of been ogling her surroundings, absorbing every detail. She’d always had a fascination with Rococo-style architecture.
At the top of the stairs, the guards escorted her to a large office at the far end, with a heavy wooden door that might’ve been oak or cedar. Inside it -- a large framed photo of Adolf Hitler among his cronies on the wall, behind a large, ornate, polished desk. The kind her mother always wanted her writing room, but what with the Depression and all, they couldn’t afford. A coat stand in the corner, heavy-laden with hats, scarves and a long overcoat that almost reached the floor. On the desk - haphazardly spread, her French identification papers. An address book. Documents printed in German. A small pencil holder, fashioned in the shape of the fish, filled to the brim. A mug, still steaming, full of fresh coffee - a scent that permeated the room. Amelia swallowed down her thirst, frowning.
Light from a narrow window fell on a small, framed portrait of a young woman, propped against the telephone on the desk. She seemed to be in some sort of booth, elbows propped on a table, long-stemmed wineglass in a gracefully delicate hand. She was centre-shot, laughing, wisps of hair falling into her face -- long eyelashes brushed against high cheekbones, her shoulders curled forward, in a necklace that took the shape of a waterfall of diamonds down her dress and a silken dark dress. She smiled at the camera, as if the looker was the object of her affection.
Amelia was startled by the sound of the door opening at the opposite end of the room, and she looked up to see the German from the mountainside approaching the desk. She straightened to face him, hoping the fear wasn’t as obvious as it felt. She knew what was going on; her training had taught her that much. “A Nazi officer’s presence was intended to have a powerful effect on the prisoner. The cut, colour, and insignia on the uniform have been meticulously designed to project superiority, power and authority.” Standing here, in the commanding presence of this officer, she could now understand the reasoning behind these statements (after all those weeks she spent, mocking their supposed childishness), even now. It was hard not to, in the light, now that she could see all the little details she’d missed that morning.
He was a Sturmbannführer -- the German equivalent to a major, she noted, recognising the insignia she had studied in her course with the SOE. His gray visor cap displayed the SS eagle and the Totenkopf embroidered with silver bullion over a dark gray background. HIs dark gabardine wool tunic was buttoned to his throat and had silver and white piping along the collar tabs with the SS symbol on the left collar and the for pips of a Nazi major on the right. His broad shoulders displayed the braided silver epaulettes of high ranking officer proudly, and his double-breasted tunic was belted at the waist with a wide black leather belt, aluminum buckle, and cross-strap that had been a staple of the German military uniform for decades now. His trousers seemed to be the same material as his jacket, and they tapered to his knees before disappearing into black leather boots with knee-high uppers. On his belt he carried a leather gun holster and a small straight dagger in a silver-inlaid scabbard. Black gloves completed the ensemble, and Amelia felt the whisper of panic that had probably been intended by the sight.
The major hung his cap on the stand, before turning his gaze to Amelia. She set her jaw, kept her gaze steady. Hoped he didn’t notice her trembling hands. She kept her eyes locked on his own and he seemed to study her face in some sort of strained disinterest.
But she supposed she might’ve been imagining things.
He was a walking contradiction. His tall, muscular frame suggested power -- that he’s something to be feared, something she should avoid at all costs if she knew what was good for her. But his hands -- though he held her life in them -- reminded her more of her father’s -- large, strong and callused, a mechanics or a carpenter's -- than a torturer's, his face holding none of the cruelty she had come to expect. He seemed almost like the sort of man that would enjoy a quiet fishing excursion, rather than an enlistment in the Führer’s illusterous service.
His expression was guarded but pleasant and from the picture on his desk -- well, there must have been a shred of compassion in his life. Could she be his wife?
The major did not take a seat -- he continued to probe at her face, watching her every movement carefully. Studying her for weakness. This might have been a lecture from an employer or father, if not for the intimidation of his authority and rank, that she was completely powerless to him.
Amelia squared her shoulders and stood stiffly in front of him. She would not be thrown off balance.
He issued a short command -- not in the bark she’d come to expect from people of his rank -- and, without a word, the soldiers saluted, turned, and left the room. Amelia felt dizzy. Here was a man who expects to be listened to. She shifted; she’d never felt so alone before. Ever.
“Major Ludwig Beilschmidt of the Allgemeine SS, assigned to gather intelligence on insurgent activities in the Rhône-Alpes by Major Walter Schellenberg -- personally.”
And though he was direct, his voice was companionable, gentle almost, his French nearly flawless. Amelia licked her lips, unsure of what the major expected from her at this point.
Major Beilschmidt picked up the photograph from his desk. “As I entered, I noticed you’re interested in this.” He held it out to her. “Please, feel free take a closer look. This is my wife, shortly after we were married.”
Amelia awkwardly took the photo into her hands. It was like she was equal to him, almost. Like they were acquaintances of some kind. Trying to show he was human, she guessed. Put a crack in her resolve. The absurdity of it was that when she allowed herself to look into his eyes, he almost seemed it.
Her throat tightened. She wouldn’t play into his trap.
“She is very beautiful.” She brushed the fingertips over the glass.
“She is.” Warmth in his voice. It almost sounded genuine.
Amelia ignored that. “Is she with you? In Belley?”
“No.” Tone clipped. Warmth gone.
“When will you see her again?”
Major Beilschmidt frowned. “Not for a very long time, it seems.” Exhaustion, but just a hint.
“It must be difficult to be away from your family, monsieur.” She handed him the photograph and he carefully set it back down on his desk.
“It is, mademoiselle.”
“Is she in Germany then?”
The major was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “Yes.”
Amelia brushed her hair from her face, her mind coming up blank. She needed to keep him talking -- but, really, what else was there to say?
She swallowed under his scrutiny.
“You are young, mademoiselle. How old are you?” Matter-of-fact, like he already knew the answer and was just asking out of formality.
“And what prompted you to come to France?” But it wasn’t in French anymore. He had slipped into English as fluidly as a slow-flowing river, and Amelia almost hadn't noticed.
Her heart burned and her breath shook. He’d known more than expected -- and she had nothing. Her really did hold all the power, and it was all Amelia could do to not cry, despite the way her throat flexed.
She puckered her brows and quirked her lips, leaning into him slightly.
He smiled amusedly. “What made you decide to come to Belley?”
Still in English.
“Je ne comprends pas.”
“Yes, you do understand.” He was enjoying himself. Amelia’s blood simmered. “It will be easier for both of us if you cooperate.”
Amelia’s heart thumped against her sternum, trying to break free. She frowned, shaking her head in what she hoped look like confusion.
Major Beilschmidt sighed. “Your name is Amelia Lucille Jones, an American citizen. I’ve known long before you capture there was an Allied agent in my district -- even before you lost your goggles in the mountains.” His bright eyes shone. “Now, please tell me, Ms Jones, why you are here.”
Amelia flushed scarlett. How had he thwarted them -- the Résistance, the Allies, herself -- so easily? Sighing, she switched to her native tongues, eyes trained on the floor. “To visit a friend.”
“The British have gone through quite a bit of trouble to finance a friendly excursion then, don’t you think?” He smiled at her. “Please tell me the real reason why, Amelia Jones.”
Amelia met Major Beilschmidt’s gaze, face still warm, and said nothing.
“I have asked you politely to cooperate. Answer my question, please.” His expression was still unnervingly pleasant.
Amelia bit down on her tongue hard enough to draw blood. Her expression did not change.
“You were arrested for suspicions of collaboration with the Résistance. You were found in the Izieu area with suspected rebels, assisting in gathering a British supply drop.” His voice remained professional -- not a hint of malice or accusation. Already, there were all facts to him. “Again, I will ask you: why are you here?”
Amelia felt cold. She chewed the inside of her cheek, desperate for a response. Any response.
“You are very well-trained. I’ll give you that much, Amelia Jones.” Major Beilschmidt sat behind his desk, studying her face. “You are afraid of me, Ms Jones?”
Amelia lifted her chin, eyes narrowed.
“They are thorough in their training, are they not?” His eyes darkened. “But I am also very through, mademoiselle. I will take as much time as I need to discover the truth. So…,” he leaned back in his chair, gaze slicing into her skin. “Either you will cooperate, or we will be together for a very, very long time.”
Amelia’s head hurt. It was practically throbbing, radiating upward, from the base of her skull. Her shoulder blades were stiff, back in knots, jaw tenses. She was white-knuckling the arms of her chair to keep from shaking by the time the major offered her lunch. SHe couldn’t believe -- understand it. He knew she was an American. And he knew she knew - and he used that to his advantage, stubbornly sticking to English, that betrayed him only with the slightest of an accent. He must’ve learned in the States.
But how could he have known so much? Everything, even?? It wasn’t fair -- wasn’t fair that she was alive and uselessly trying to mend her errors when Francis was on the run and Arthur and Peter were gone. If they had just killed her too…
Beilschmidt picked up her French identification papers, shuffling them -- but only out of formality, it seemed, as a way to frighten her. “Where did you find these papers, mademoiselle? They’re very realistic; they might’ve had me fooled, if I didn’t know any better.”
Amelia wetted her lips. “What do you mean?”
“They’re forged, mademoiselle.”
Amelia scrunched up her nose. “How dare -- ”
“Please, mademoiselle, you’re a wonderful actress, but I don’t have time for your shenanigans.”
The room went silence. Amelia could hear leaves rustling from just beyond the mansion’s walls.
“From a contact. I don’t know his name,” she heard herself say.
Beilschmidt didn’t hesitate to change the subject. “Did Arthur Kirkland secure you a position at La Maison d’Izieu?”
Amelia swallowed uncomfortably at the mention of her fiancé. “I -- they needed another teacher. They were kind enough to...”
“Who at La Maison is involved with the Résistance?”
Amelia wrung her hands. “How should I know that, sir? I was there once, for only a few short hours -- I was told they needed a teacher and were kind enough to offer me the position. That’s all.”
Beilschmidt’s expression twisted slightly. He leaned forward, lacing his fingers together in front of him, his eyes trained on her face. She tipped her chin upwards.
“Tell me about Arthur Kirkland.”
Amelia felt her chin dip back downward and her eyebrows crease into a glare. She looked away, throat burning.
“Was he the ‘friend’ you mentioned?”
“What does it matter to you?” Her voice came out strangely thick, words strangled.
She didn't bother to look to him when he spoke. “It is my turn to ask questions. You will answer, please. What was your relationship with Arthur -- ”
“He’s dead. It’s useless to you.” A knife twisted in her gut at those words.
The major’s expression was almost sympathetic when she glanced over to him. “Mademoiselle, I’m terribly sorry -- ”
Her head snapped back, eyes flashing. Her breathe shook. “How can you possibly say that?” She gestured to the photograph on his desk. “If your wife was murdered and the killer told you -- told you…” She looked down at her hands, suddenly drained. “Well, how would you feel?”
She was a dead woman for sure, after an outburst like that. But death didn’t seem so awful all of the sudden.
For a moment, everything was quiet. Amelia counted Beilschmidt’s measured breathes. Hot tears pooled in her vision. And then when the major finally spoke, his voice was everything Amelia wasn’t.
“You are right . . . However, as hard as this may be for you to believe, I am sorry for your loss.” Amelia stared numbly back at him, tears trailing down her face. In his eyes, there was a flicker of something like compassion -- empathy, even. Her ears burned as she looked away.
“I loved him,” she whispered.
“That will be all for this morning.” Without another word, he was gone. Amelia buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
In the late afternoon the guards again escorted Amelia from her cell. They didn’t go the the major’s office this time. She supposed his civility had run out with her recent outburst. She was left in a very large, empty room that must’ve been the parlour at one time. A cheerless, minimalist room, all dingry and dark, with nothing to distract herself with had replaced it’s once-splendour. The orange light that filtered in through the heavy, mouth-bitten drapery casted long shadows against the cold marble floor, barely illuminated the small wooden table and two chair which stood in the centre of the room.
The major nodded at her in acknowledgement as he left the wall he’d been leaning against and stood next to the table, hand on the back of a chair.
Amelia placed a hand on her chest in attempt to still her breathing as she sat across from where the major still stood. She kept her eyes trained directly ahead of her.
Beilschmidt waved the guards away and smiled at her. “I hope you don’t mind, Miss Jones, but I must ask you more questions about your finacé.”
Amelia frowned. She’d never told him that. Still, she tried to seem unfazed. “I’d rather not.”
Another one of those chaste, sympathetic smiles. “Where did you meet?”
Just give him as little as you can.
Amelia looked away. “No.”
“I know you were born here and lived in Paris until you were five in your mother’s family home.”
She never told him that either. “An American one.”
Beilschmidt leaned forward, hands flat on the table. “He was with you in America?”
“He was a student teacher. I was in his class.”
“Over three years ago. Almost four.”
“And what did he teach?”
“But you learned French in Paris, did you not? What sense does that makes?”
Amelia almost smirked; he’d thought he found a hole in her story.
“Arthur taught everything French -- language, history, literature.” She flicked a stray out of her face. “I met him in literature.”
Beilschmidt gave her a sardonic smile. “French literature, then?”
“I actually majored in business and marking, with a minor in political science and economics. My father had always told me I was an overachiever.” She pursed her lips, leaning back in her chair. “But you already knew that.”
“And so . . . ?”
“French was for fun.”
Beilschmidt nodded. “Which university did you attend?”
“A private on in New England.”
“Why does it matter to you?”
“The university, Amelia.”
“Tufts University -- in Massachusetts.” She allowed herself a bit of pride to seep into her words.
Major Beilschmidt sat in his chair, leaning back. He studied her silently for a moment. It appeared she’d given him more information than she intended to with her answers. As she dissolved under his scrutinising face, she wondered when the torture would begin.
“Why did your family move to the United States?”
Amelia shrugged. “My parents decided -- I was too young to be apart of the decision.”
“And how did you feel, abandoning your country?”
Again, Amelia shrugged. “I love France, sir. I have many happy memories of Paris and my home. But I’m an American -- I haven’t really known any other way.”
“And where are you parents now?”
“My father is in Boston -- our home. My mother’s been dead almost three years.”
His gaze was penetrating. “These questions make you uncomfortable.”
“No, sir. “ You make me uncomfortable.
“Then what does?” He grinned.
“Nothing, sir. You must be imagining things.”
He chuckled, but there was nothing curel about it. As if they were friends going out for coffee. “Has anyone ever told you how charming you are?
She recalled their first meeting at the café. “Once or twice.”
He smirked. “Tell me about Francis Bonnefoy.”
Amelia didn’t even miss a beat. “Who?”
Just play the game.
Beilschmidt gave her a thin, amused sort of smile. “ You are persistent, Amelia. Stubborn…”
Amelia raised her eyebrows. “I’ve been told that too.”
“I’m sure you have.” He tapped his finger on the table. “His codename is Bruno. Does that ring any bells?”
Okay. So he knew that too.
“We’re told little about each other. Why would I be trusted with his real name?”
He studied her carefully and she forced herself to keep his gaze, no matter how badly her hands shook. FInally, he spoke and Amelia listening, ignoring the heart in her throat.
“He made a very valiant effort to escape this morning - even I was impressed. But my men are well-trained…”
His expression was unreadable
An image of blood-stained snow and waxy skin and glassy eyes forced it way into her thoughts. He couldn’t be caught -- she understood what that meant. And she knew from the silence of the basement that they had take only one prisoner.
“There was nothing left.”
“What is there to tell? He was Arthur’s best friend.”
“Tell me about his work.”
“Why would he confide in me? I’m no one to him.”
“Amelia held his gaze. “I don’t think you understand, sir, with all do respect. You won’t get anything from useful from me.”
She was dead either way. Why not go down fighting? Make Arthur proud?
His expression went chilly. “With all due respect, Amelia Jones, you don’t understand, either. If I want something from a prisoner, I will get it.”
Amelia felt something run down her spine -- fear, most likely -- but she said nothing. He didn’t deserve a response.
Major Beilschmidt sighed. “Tomorrow, things will be different, mademoiselle. Tomorrow, there will be a gestapo officer to oversee your interrogation. If you don’t cooperate, I’m afraid you’ll be out of my hands.” He walked towards the door, eyes still on her. “You refuse to cooperate, and I am concerned for you safety.” He opened the door and gestured to the guards in the hall. “I will see you tomorrow, mademoiselle. It is late. Try to get some sleep. And..” He sighed. “Try to be a little more reasonable tomorrow.”
Amelia was still asleep when they came for her. They had dragged her from her cot and practically threw her into the ground. The heels of her hands burned as she struggled to stand, suddenly aleert as she remembered where she was. They unceremoniously hauled her into stand position and practically dragged her up the stairs.
Cheery morning light streamed through the windows as she entered the first floor of the chateau. This sitme they escorted her past the second floor and to the attic, where she was ushered inside a room closed off with a heavy wooden door. It echoed when they slammed it shut behind her.
It took a moment for her vision to become clear in the floom. The air was alive with dust particles that tickled her nose and throat, made her eyes water. She stood with her back against the door, facing the window -- the only source of light that she could see. Cobwebs thick with dust and dead flies swayed gently in a draft that she could thankfully not feel.
Two men stood at the centre of the room.
Amelia immediately recognised the major, with his broad shoulders and strong stance. The smaller man beside him stood still as a statue, his face indiscernible in the dim backlighting.
A rickety wooden table and a straight backed chair creaked behind them. Beilschmidt placed one hand on the back of the chair. “Mademoiselle, have a seat, please.”
“”I would prefer to stand, thank you.”
Her eyes were locked on the shorter man, who had not moved for spoken. THe major firmly gripped her elbow. “I insist, Amelia. Sit.” Something about the grip on her arm, the harsh yet pleading tone of voice, terrified her, and she allowed herself to be lead to the chair. She squinted her eyes to better make out the smaller man now that she was closer.
He wore the dark uniform of the Gestapo, immaculately tailored to his every rigid line, with every button buttoned and every crease perfect. His cap rested precariously under one sinewy arm. However, despite all of this, he couldn’t have been too much taller than Amelia herself -- not that it lessened her fear of him by any measurable amount. He defended his petit frame with an arrogant lift of his sharp chin and nose, and his thin lips were pressed into a severe, uncompromising line. His cheekbones jutted prominently, sharp as blade; with a hard, cold gaze, his eyes held a terror all of their own.
A smirk played on the corners of his lips and she flinched away without thinking.
Beilschmidt’s voice came from somewhere beside her. “Amelia, this is a captain from the Gestapo. He is here to observe our session and for his benefit we will speak only in French. Answer carefully and be as accurate as you can.”
He gestured to three photographs on the table, face up, glossy and new. Her heart hammered painfully against her sternum. She tried her best to ignore the captain’s leer. “You have met up with the Résistance, I am sure, to update them with the SOE’s activities. We need your assistance to identify these men in our photographs here.”
Amelia stared dispassionately at the photograph of Francis Bonnefoy, a young man draped gracefully on his arm. His face was turned in his companion’s direction, but the alertness of his posture was evident, even through the lens of a camera. Amelia felt a weight come off her chest. They were still trying to identify Francis, which meant that they hadn’t caught him.
And, all the more important, that he was still alive.
“Who are the men in these photographs?”
She was playing a dangerous game. If Francis had truly already escaped -- and, God, how she hoped he had -- then it was possible the major had not gotten a good look at him. Or maybe he had, and already knew which one was Francis, and was just testing her willingness to cooperate with him. But, if Francis’s identity still remain anonymous, she didn’t want to be the one to reveal it.
She looked up at her interrogator, searched his face, his eyes, to discern what he already knew. Major Beilschmidt returned her gaze with a hooded expression.
She took a deep breath. “As I told you yesterday, sir, I was not introduced to anyone -- they didn’t have the time to convene before…”
“I find that hard to believe, considering he was Arthur’s close friend.”
Amelia said nothing.
“Which one of these photographs is Francis Bonnefoy?”
“Arthur had not told me everything, or introduced me to everyone …” She wrung her hands nervously, pleading with Beilschmidt to believe her.
“You deliberately avoided my question, Amelia.”
Amelia paused, unable to breathe. She glanced up at the major and then at the man behind him. He’d begun to pace, eyes flashing, watching her intently -- like the devil himself.
“I’m sorry, Major Beilschmidt…” She felt her heart beating loudly, traitorously, and she looked back at the major. She swallowed her fear and spoke, her voice barely over a whisper, “I cannot answer you question.”
A sharp, staccato of German exploded from the captain. Suddenly, it felt like a handful of her hair was being ripped from her head and she screamed as the walls around her blurred and the edge of the table ran up towards her. Pain blossomed from her forehead, her world went sideways, her vision went white.
She crumpled to the ground like paper, ears screaming, and her shoulder crunched against the rough wooden floor, a nail barely missing her neck. Before her world went black, she heard a sharp exclamation from Beilschmidt, followed by a quick retort from the captain.
Someone was knocking incessantly at the door and Amelia rushed to open it for Arthur, heart soaring, all the words she never thought she’d be able to say like honey on her tongue. She swung open the door, but the knocking continued, and it wasn’t Arthur.
The captain with the devil’s eyes stared at her like a starved lion seizing up a hunk of meat. She felt naked even though she was covered from neck to wrist to ankle.
“Identify the men in the photographs.”
Amelia opened her eyes. Someone had returned her to her chair. The major stood close to her side, arms folded as he stared intently over her shoulder. Amelia could feel his warmth radiating off him. She knew she must have had a concussion when she felt an almost...protectiveness… in his stance. In front of her, the captain lounge against the table, waiting for an answer. The knocking continued. Amelia felt something sticky and warm run down her neck -- she wiped it away.
The captain leaned in close, his voice devoid of any emotion -- an iced over corpse. “Identify these men.”
Amelia trembled. “I do not recognise them, sir.”
Suddenly, her jaw is in the captain’s grip -- his fingers ground into the soft skin at the side of her throat and she began feeling weightless in the head. “You are so beautiful, even as an American woman. I can change that easily -- make no mistake.” He wrenched her jaw upwards, until she had no other choice but to meet his gaze. His voice was a hiss against her ear. “You are incredibly naive, Miss Jones, if you think you’ll be safe again after this. I promise you -- next time, you will not recover.”
He released her and Amelia’s hand went protectively to her throat. There would be bruises; she could practically feel them forming.
Major Beilschmidt’s voice was firm. “Answer him, Amelia.”
Amelia’s head spun, a bile in her throat, her arms rough as sandpaper, her head pounding like an oncoming train. She swallowed uncomfortably around the dryness of her throat and the beating pain. Her voice was a ghost. “My answer could kill Francis -- and others . . . the entire Résistance…”
“And not answering will cost yours.” His smile was a scythe.
Amelia couldn’t stop herself. She really couldn’t.
The captain shrieked something in German as he recoiled to wipe off her saliva. Beilschmidt’s expression was unreadable.
The captain straightened, now looking to the major. “Offensichtlich wird sanfte Überredung uns mit dieser Schlampe nicht weiterbringen.”
Amelia gave Beilschmidt a helpless look -- he paid her no mind.
The major moved in front of Amelia, his stance too solid to be that of talking to a … coworker -- Amelia cringed at her own wording.
“Deine Definition von Sanftheit amüsiert mich.”
“Fragst du meine Methoden, Beilschmidt? Du weißt, dass du nicht in der Lage bist, in Frage zu stellen, was ich tue.”
The major answered sharply, much too quickly for Amelia to catch, before knocking sharply on the attic door. The captain continued with his rapid, seething German as the guards half carried, half dragged Amelia back to her cell.
Amelia’s sleep that night was … not restful, to say the least. Full of nightmarish images and shocks of pain that only served to partially wake her. She tried to ignore the sticky, warm substance pooling around her face.
Suddenly, her dream changed. She was with Arthur, somewhere -- the landscape around her was hazy and strange, with colours both too bright and too desaturated to really be anything -- in his arms. His eyes were vibrant, smile crooked, hair a mess on top of his head. She ran a hand through his hair and when she pulled them away -- red. Red all over them. She screamed, but his lock on her was solid. “I know him.”
Amelia woke up panting to a dark and cold cell. No windows to shed moonlight on her. She heard a rat squeaking across the floor as she drifted back out of consciousness.
This time it was her mother’s voice. Lilliane Jones stood on the step of their tiny villa in Paris, and Amelia ran in past the gate, and held out her arms. Just as their fingertips brushed, Lilliane disappeared with a soft, “Trust him.”
In an instant, the villa, the warmth of the Parisian sun, and that carefree, childlike air was gone, and was replaced by a whirlwind of whispered threats in a strange, thick darkness that held her frozen in place, no matter how hard she struggled against it. The clatter of a train coming towards her. She could only see the headlights moving towards her. Terrified, she covered her face, crying out for Arthur, her mother -- anyone. But she could still see the light, hear the train, feel the air she she braced herself for an impact that she would not survive.
She opened her eyes back to reality to see a powerful light shining on her face and two figures looming over her behind it. Beyond them, her cell door was open.
Cold fingers pressed against the area around her wound. “Careful -- hold still, please.” She hardly understood the man’s French through his thick accent. “You will want you to hold still, even if it will hurt.”
The fingers were replaced with a rough cloth, and the pungent scent of rubbing alcohol, invaded her nostrils. Amelia grit her teeth, hissing through gnashed teeth.
Another voice hit her ears. “Make sure she’s stabalised. She needs to be healthy enough for interrogation.” Major Beilschmidt.
Fingers continued to busy themselves around her head. “I have seen worse. I will do my best.”
Amelia closed her eyes and tried not to flinch or shimper. Throbbing continued in waves down her neck and radiating through the rest of her skull. “I need to give morphine, mademoiselle. Please be still.” Amelia felt the pinch in her arm and the pressure as the doctor released the painkillers into her vein. The doctor set the needle to the side.
“Major…” Her voice was soft, dry.
“Yes, mademoiselle?” Beilschmidt leaned in closer.
Her lips were chapped. “You never hit me.”
“You interrogated me for two days -- you didn’t even seem to consider it.”
The major was blunt, his tone matter-of-fact. “How much did you tell Dresdner while on the floor?”
It must have been the morphine when Amelia said, “Thank you, major.”
The major said nothing and Amelia wondered what she’d said wrong.
“Do you mind if I ask . . . what’s goin’ to happen to me?”
“Captain Dresdner has received orders from his superiors. He will be taking to you to Gestapo headquarters tomorrow -- well, this afternoon. You will more than likely finish your interrogation in Lyon.”
Amelia’s throat constricted. Suddenly everything felt colder, like she was encased in ice. Like Jean Moulin -- and he’s dead now. And Amelia was the farthest thing from Jean Moulin. “But I’ve told you everything I know!” She sounded breathless, and her voice cracked on ‘know.’
“Miss Jones.” His voice was stern, firm. But not cruel. “I am not here to interrogate you. That’s out of my hands. You’re no longer my jurisdiction.”
“Don’t you believe anything I’ve told you?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. You are no longer my concern.”
Amelia whimpered despite herself, suddenly a cornered animal -- and she began to struggle to stand up. Whatever her plan was, she had no idea. But she could imagine herself lunging past the men, through the open door. Better shot now rather than beat to death later.
But the morphine’s effects were already taking place, robbing her of the ability to carry her own weight.
Beilschmidt caught her before she even got in a sitting position.
She pushed weakly against his grip, but even that much exertion had already exhausted her of any strength she may have had. He pinned her onto the mattress. “Die Fesseln, Herr Ärzt.”
Amelia forced her body to relax as the restraints tightened around her arms. The major released her before stepping back into his original place.
“Fahre mit die Durchsicht fort.”
The doctor turned Amelia’s face to the wall and continued to probe her wound. “Erhebliche Prellungen am Schädel und Kiefer. Einige kleinere, weniger schwere Blutergüsse an ihrem Hals. Ein Schnitt in der Haut, etwa einen Zentimeter lang.”
Amelia tried to keep her jaw from moving too much. “What did he say?”
Neither of them seemed to notice.
“Sie wird Stiche benötigen, wenn sie richtig heilen soll.”
“Stitches it is then.”
Amelia strained her mind to think of the little German vocabulary she knew as the doctor spoke again, in a quiet, nervous tone. Low and concerned. Ominous in the dampness of the cell, against the tightness of her restraints.
“Aber wenn man bedenkt, wohin sie geht, ist es vielleicht egal.”
“Give her stitches. Ich möchte, dass sie in perfektem Zustand ist, bevor sie geht.” His voice was more forceful than she’d ever heard from him -- even when he was interrogating her.
She tried again. “Major, what’s going on?”
The doctor spoke again before Beilschmidt had time to answer -- if he planned on answering at all. “Sollten wir sie nach oben bringen? Ich habe meine Vorräte, aber die Beleuchtung …”
It was official -- Amelia hated German. All of its harshness and edges. No fluidity, no grace like French. No practicality like English.
“No. Here -- in this room.” He repeated the command in German -- or, at least, Amelia assumed that’s what he’d done.
Her hands were beginning to go numb and blood roared in her ears as the doctor spoke again. Hesitant, in protest. Amelia wished she could ask them to switch back to French, but her mouth felt syrupy and her mind buzzed.
“Die Beleuchtung ist unzureichend.”
The major gestured toward the torch. “This will have to do.”
The doctor said something, defeated, as he bent past the bulk of an over satisfied paunch to rummage through his supplies. In the torch’s harsh glow Amelia watched the shadows hands -- like a spider spinning a web -- move delicately next to her head. She closed her tightly once she saw the size of the needle.
For several minutes she grit her teeth each time she felt the sting of the needle and the indescribable sensation of razor wire passing through her flesh.
The doctor tied off the last stitch and cut the gut close to her scalp. “Keep it clean. Do not get it wet.”
He covered the stitches with fresh gauze and taped the bandage securely over it before cleaning up the rest of his supplies. The major gestured towards the door and the doctor swiftly left the room, shutting the door gently behind him.
His words were low and quick as he undid her restraints. “Cooperate with Captain Dresdner and the rest of them. You have more control over your future than you think.”
He unclasped the final buckle on the second restraint and Amelia brought her hands to her chest, attempting to rub the feeling back into them.
“If you talk, they will listen. If you don’t…” He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to. “Are you listening to me, Amelia?”
“Why are you telling me this?” She winced as the stitches pulled at her skin when she turned to face the major -- her captor. Former captor. Whatever he was. “I’m not your problem anymore, remember?”
“You could survive.”
“I still don’t see why you should care about whether I live or not.”
“You’re right. But I’m sure your father does.” He gave her a pointed look. “And maybe you’ll be able to return to him if you’re intelligent enough to do as I say.”
Amelia stared up at the ceiling. There was something about his eyes -- that sympathy that had to be feigned -- that unnerved her. “Why d’you care how my father feels?”
“Have you ever considered that maybe I am a father?”
Amelia almost gave herself whiplash with how fast she sat up to look at him.
“...I had not,” she was finally able to sputter out through her burning cheeks and confused thoughts.
What must it be like to be the child of a Nazi officer?
She shuddered inwardly at the idea.
The officer in question simply smiled at her -- a sympathetic one. Now that she thought about it -- it was rather fatherly. A lot of the facial expressions he pulled, come to think of it, could be considered very much those of a concerned father. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? It’s real coffee -- not that ersatz stuff.”
Amelia shook her head, gently lowering herself back onto the lumpy, cold mattress. “I don’t want it, but thanks anyway, I guess.”
This must be a dream too. She definitely was not having a normal, casual, mundane -- friendly, even -- conversation with her captor. The man who killed Arthur.
“This might be your last chance in a long time.”
“I don’t drink coffee -- I don’t like it -- but, again, thanks anyway. Major Beilschmidt.”
“You are unique, Amelia Jones.”
For some reason, Amelia felt her cheeks turn pink. “Major…”
Beilschmidt stopped. He did not move, and she felt his eyes on her face.
“You have … kindness in you, Major Beilschmidt.”
He hesitated, and opened his mouth, as if to speak. But, instead, he shook his head, as if she was being childish, and left the room.
The snow was blinding in all of its white glory as Amelia exited the chateau -- so much for sunlight, after so long in that dank, dark cell.
The guards walked with her down the stone steps and into the large expanse of the courtyard and a waiting Renault. She still wore the same bloody clothes from the morning of her capture -- reminders she did not need that day. Not at all. It would be forever tattooed in her memories.
Her thin boots did nothing to stop the cold, as before, and her toes were already numb. Dried blood made her hair on the left side lay strangely flat.
She looked like a mess. That much was obvious.
She settled into the leather seat in the back of Captain Dresdner’s car, sandwiched between her guards -- she’d never been so close in proximity to them. Never noticed they had to be at least five years younger than herself.
Her stomach twisted. They really did start the indoctrination young, didn’t they?
She glanced up at the window’s of the mansion -- barely visible through the snow -- and saw no one. No sign of the major.
The captain sat in the front passenger seat, his face expressionless, gaze chilly. “Shall I unlock you?”
“I’m rather comfortable as is, thank you very much.”
She was beginning to really regret spitting on him.
The Renault pulled away from the chateau. Amelia watched as it faded out of sight, heart in her stomach and pounding at a painfully fast speed. The tires crunched over the snow. This was it -- the end of Amelia Jones.
She shuddered, only partially from the cold.
Dresdner twisted back towards her in his seat, a sharp grin dimpling his cheeks and creasing the skin around his eyes. He waved the key to her handcuffs just inches from her nose, right at eye level.
“On second thought, I better not. You might try to escape.”
Dresdner grabbed the chain between her wrists and jerked her closer when she did not respond. Her mouth twisted in disgust, with his face so close to her own. But she was his prisoner -- she had no right to request privacy or space.
“How about a compromise? I will unlock one of your wrists. Will that be agreeable?” He wetted his lips, like a predator who’d finally cornered his prey. “I want this to be an agreeable trip, don’t you?”
Dresdner freed her right hand, and then gripped her left to haul her several inches upwards on her seat, and locked the free end of the cuff on the rod bolted to the roof of the car.
She was caught halfway between her feet. SHe couldn’t sit, even with her arm all the way outstretched, nor could she straightened her legs all the way. She tried to keep the discomfort off her face, tried to keep her legs from shaking.
“There now, Miss Jones, isn’t this much more agreeable?” the captain relaxed in his seat, chuckling mirthlessly. “Our trip would normally take two hours, but in this weather? We’ll be lucky to be there by nightfall. Please make yourself comfortable and enjoy the ride.”
Amelia wasn’t stupid. She knew there was no sweet-talking her way out of this. That her discomfort -- any sign of protest -- would only fan the flames, only inflate Dresdner’s ego further.
She met his gaze in the rearview mirror, determined to appear strong, even through the dark smears and redness in her eyes. Even as she thought about how much better it would have been if she had died with Arthur. Or if she had escaped with Francis.
Or if she had never left Grendon.
Never left home.
“I see the good major patched you up.” Dresdner smirked, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. His eyes gleamed. “I wonder how many times I can strike that spot before I break those pretty little stitches of yours with a wooden club, don’t you?”
Amelia forced her chip to tip upward. She could keep her dignity in tact during the drive, at least. “You disgust me.”
“It’s funny, mademoiselle -- I think the same of you.”
Amelia’s legs began to shake in their unnatural position, despite her best efforts.
Now, Amelia was not dainty. She was not delicate. She did sports with her friends all through her school years, went hiking and biking whenever she could, and went through an, albeit brief, yet effective training to join the USWC. The burning in her thighs was not an unfamiliar feelings to her. As a child -- when she was little more than a boy in girl’s clothing -- she and her friends would sit against the wall, backs pressed flush against the maroon brick of her elementary school, until their legs shook with the effort to keep them up.
But this was no game -- there was no easy way out. And the thought of hanging from her wrist for hours was … so much more than she could take.
Her lips moved in a silent, muddled prayer.
“Praying, Jones?” Dresdner seemed mesmerised by the slight movement of her lips. “Good idea. You’ll be doing a lot of that.”
Major Ludwig Beilschmidt’s fingers brushed against the glass between him and the photograph of his wife. He tried his best to ignore the sound of the car pulling out of the courtyard.
Her smile seemed impossible in such a place, such a time, but it was as if the sky had shed it’s drab grey clouds and sunlight now flooded into his office.
Ludwig placed the photograph on his desk, back in its proper place. He leaned back against his chair, tucking his hands at the back of his head, eyes tracing patterns in the ceiling.
It was like he could finally have space to breathe, with that idiot of a Gestapo captain gone. WIth him no longer looming over his shoulder, watching his every move, it was like he was free from a decade of imprisonment and he could feel the rain on his skin again. Dresdner had done exactly as Ludwig expected: he had used his position as a part of the Gestapo and the safety of his family as leverage. The major would turn the prisoner over peacefully to the Gestapo, or his family would never be seen again, hidden deep in the labour camps of Germany.
Of course Ludwig would comply -- he had no other choice. Dresdner made sure of that, as he always seemed to do.
The American would be moved to headquarters in Lyon. On one condition: the interrogation techniques for which Dresdner was infamous not to be utilised on Amelia Jones until she was out of his jurisdiction.
He hated that.
Hated the look of deep fear in her wide blue eyes, the look she gave him when he told to comply with the Gestapo. Hated the bruises that covered her neck -- hated the thought of her covered in those bruises, and worse, beaten until she was no more than a trembling, whimpering animal -- no longer a human. Trapped in her own mind. Begging, pleading for mercy that Dresdner would be too cruel, too sadistic, too monstrous…
He shook his head sharply.
Best not to think of it.
She was no longer his concern, after all.
There was a knock on his door. Ludwig straightened himself in his chair, adjusting his uniform. “You’re early.”
The man who had entered (without Ludwig’s permission, let it be known) shut the door behind him and leaned against the frame. “We found a shortcut.” He took a drag of the cigarette that dangled between his fingers.
Gilbert Laurinaitis was a man Ludwig would never understand, despite having lived with him most of his life, and was not the sort one would assume to associate with Ludwig Beilschmidt based on their appearances alone.
He was a shorter man, with the sort of frame that could easily be hidden behind Ludwig’s broad one, and his head only just brushed Ludwig’s chin, even though he was about eight years older than him. But he doubted most people noticed that about him -- not with the sharpness of his cheekbones, the intensity of his glare, the brutality of his scars that marked a map all across his body, and the way his very presence seemed to command respect. Not with the practised smirk of unimpressed boredom and the way he seemed to take up more space than he actually did. Certainly not when he gave you his trademark smirk before he pulled the trigger and you were gone.
Okay, maybe he was a sociopath. But he was Ludwig’s sociopath.
And, sadistic he may be, he’s heaps better than Dresdner.
The corner of his lips twitched as he took in Ludwig’s haggard expression. “You look like you’ve just been ordered to the eastern front.”
Ludwig grinned faintly. “You know why you’re here.”
“What? You don’t think we can … ” Gilbert gestured vaguely with his cigarette as boots thunked down the hall past them.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You three have my utmost confidence -- as always.”
“Good. You’d be an idiot not to have confidence in us. Mainly me, though.”
Ludwig rolled his eyes. “You’re very childish for a lieutenant -- and for a decorated war hero for that matter. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“I believe I may have heard that before.” Gilbert’s expression softened somewhat -- and, as usual, Ludwig couldn’t get over how fatherly he looked when he allowed himself to relax a little bit, and Ludwig could see past the scars that marred the features of the man he’d once been. “You’re worried about your family.”
“I’m always worried about my family.”
“Then what is it?”
“I’m just wondering if this American will be worth it... that, you know, I should … ” Ludwig watched the snow fall.
Gilbert pushed himself off the doorframe, tapping out the ashes from his cigarette. “Don’t tell me you’re backing out. We’ve been -- ”
“I’m not, Gilbert. Don’t worry.”
“You’re too cautious. It’s a wonder you ever do anything with your life.”
“And you’re too reckless -- it’s a wonder you’re not dead.”
“I take calculated risks. There’s a difference.”
“Regardless, Gilbert, this is a … well, it could end badly.”
“I’m well aware.”
“You could be imprisoned or killed.”
“I know that. I’m not scared. They hate me, you know; it’s a wonder I haven’t been imprisoned already.” Gilbert shrugged. Ludwig watched as his friend took another long drag of his cigarette, entirely too relaxed for the situation at hand. “You should come with us -- it’d be like old times.”
“Wish I could.” Ludwig retrieved a hat from his desk and began to make his way to the exit. “But I have a small errand to run that will take a few days to complete.”
“Doesn’t sound small,” Gilbert mumbled, rummaging around in his pockets for a new cigarette and his lighter.
“Besides, Dresdner would recognise me. Unfortunately, he has yet to meet you and the others.”
Gilbert flicked the stuff of his cigarette into an empty mug on Ludwig’s desk before lighting another. “I hope we can rectify that tonight.”
“As do I, Gilbert, as do I.” He smiled slightly. “I’ll join you in St. Étienne. Is your team -- ”
“Ready to move, sir.” Gilbert gave him a mock salute.
“What will you tell them?”
“I’ve told Tolys everything -- don’t give me that look, you know he won’t tell anyone -- and as for Tino,” (Gilbert shrugged, unconcerned), “Dresdner can’t be trusted; he’s planning to kill the prisoner and all the valuable information she has will die with her. For the good of the Fatherland, it is imperative that she does not reach Lyon.”
Ludwig nodded. “Fair enough.”
“And as for the good captain?” Gilbert’s eyes glinted.
Ludwig hesitated. It would all be so much easier if they could just eliminate the vile man as soon as possible, yet … well, it was necessary for him to testify that it was maquisards who kidnapped Amelia Jones, vital that he could share such a story with Section Four. “No killing.”
“Not even a little bit?” He sounded a bit put out.
“We need him to testify at Lyon.” Ludwig sighed. “Feel free to terrorise him as much as you wish as long as he remains alive.”
“I should be able to join you by the end of the week. Give the American no false hope of freedom. Watch her closely until you reach your destination. I -- ”
“Understood. But, Ludwig…”
“Why are you doing this?”
Ludwig hesitated. “I wish I knew.”
It was a far, far simpler answer.
Amelia’s eyes stung, completely dry, as she stared ahead of her, numb to her surroundings as the Renault slowed at a checkpoint northwest of Belley. Snow continued to swirl around a dormant and frozen landscape on either side of the road like a vortex, and when the driver cranked down the window to talk to the duo of young guards who seemed just as miserable as she in the cold, a burst of freezing air and snow surged inside the car. Amelia shivered.
“Papiere, bitte.” The man at the driver’s window stared at Amelia from beneath his fur cap. She looked away from him. She didn’t need his pity -- not when he wasn’t going to do something about it.
Amelia’s arm turned more to sandpaper with every second the window stayed open. She ground her teeth together. She doubted the checkpoint was even necessary -- just another German strategy in wasting everybody’s time.
Dresdner looked into the rearview mirror to smirk at her, before raising an eyebrow in confusion. Amelia allowed herself a glance over her shoulder, scanning the landscape for the source of his confusion.
Another vehicle, a navy Citroen, pulled up behind them and waited patiently, its powerful engine idling and sending steady clouds of exhaust into the evening air. They must’ve been pretty desperate to leave Belley, to drive in this sort of weather.
She really wished she were with them. Anything was better than this torture.
Finally, the soldier handed the papers back to the driver, and waved them off, throwing Amelia one last empathetic look.
Amelia continued her staring contest with the windshield, daring herself to lose.
Her legs shook and her thighs felt like they’d been filled with hot coals. Her cuffed hand had long since lost feelings and the metal dug deep into her skin.
It would only get worse from then.
Amelia wasn’t naive. She knew if she couldn’t survive this, she’d be spilling her guts by midnight -- and she would not allow herself that humiliation.
She’d always thought of herself as strong and courageous. She’d daydreamed of being a hero one day.
Well, here was her chance. Now she had to prove it.
As the miles crawled by, Amelia discovered a way to relieve herself of some of the nauseating pain in her muscles. She simply shifted back and forth from one foot to another, keeping her movements with the car, as if she was being jostled by the road. And -- this was a miracle all on its own -- Dresdner seemed somewhat impressed by her stamina, however reluctantly.
The corner of her mouth quirked up in a smirk. Maybe Major Beilschmidt was right. Maybe she’d have a chance (albeit, a slim one) of survival after all.
It was dusk when the Citroen from before pulled up behind them, so closer Amelia could almost make out the drivers. But there was no patience this time” the driver wasted no time with violently honking his horn and them. It swerved back and forth behind them on the dangerously icy road, trying without luck to find a way to pass the Renault.
Dresdner half-muttered in the thickness of sleep. “Was denken sie, dass sie tun?”
“Scheint, sie wollen vorbeigehen, mein Herr.” The driver looked through the mirror questioningly, as if waiting for orders.
“Fahre weiter. Sie können warten, bis sie an der Reihe sind.” Dresdner turned his back disdainfully on the swerving car and settled comfortably into his seat.. He glanced at Amelia through the rearview mirror before he dismissed the sight of her.
He’s bored. I’m not giving in fast enough for him. She ground her teeth harder. She wouldn’t give in. She simply refused.
Behind them, the owner of the Citroen rolled down his window and yelled blasphemies into the howling wind. Dresdner’s driver watched the spectacle anxiously through his mirror.
“Er ist betrunken. Fortfahren.”
It was in that moment of uncomfortable silence that the Citroen accelerated and drove towards them in a very fast, very sober straight line, crunching against the fender of the Renault.
The impact threw Amelia towards the rear window but the handcuffs kept her in place, biting viciously into her wrist. Almost immediately, blood began seeping down her arm, hot and sticky, and drops fell far too quickly for her liking onto the leather next to her. Too bright -- much too bright.
Dresdner had apparently been thrown to the side of his seat -- now he was yelling furiously at his guards, who held the side of their head in pain.
Suddenly the car swerved wildly to the right and plowed headfirst into a snowbank. There was a scream and Amelia realised it was her own as the watched more ruby droplets run down the leather of the seat.
Despite the lightheadedness that came with watching herself bleed out, Amelia attempted to pay attention to the strange chaos around her -- the driver, moaning as he held his jaw. Dresdner, who was crumpled into a heap on his seat, groaning softly; tone guard had been found through the windshield and the other had cracked his head on the driver’s seat, and now lay on the floor, apparently unconscious.
Amelia’s wrist burned from the pressure of her body as the metal hit bone. Her legs shook -- from what, she wasn’t quite sure, as she struggled for her footing, and she attempted to use the length of her arm to reach the Gestapo officer, ignoring the excruciating pain coming from her shoulder. She felt around on the man’s chest, quick to note he was still breathing, completely blind to him.
Dresdner groaned, muttering something that sounded somewhere between a command and a curse in German. Amelia flinched: if he regained consciousness and realised what she was doing …
She shook her thoughts away, forcing her hand to keep searching.
In the corner of her vision, the blue Citroen responsible for the accident skidded to a stop alongside them. Three men in civilian clothing jumped out and adhered to the car, weapons in hand hand and caps pulled low over their eyes.
Amelia’s hand closed around a small key in the breast pocket of Dresdner’s uniform. She pulled it quickly from the fast-awakening captain and fumbled to unlock her wrist -- in a moment, her wrist was free, and clutched tenderly against her chest. The threw the key to the side before lunging through the door closest to the Citroen, landing painfully into the snow, where she would lay, her legs too tired to move on their own accord.
One of the attackers pulled open Dresdner’s door open so quickly Amelia swore it blurred and unceremoniously hauled his body into the snow. The small man lay there in a pitiful heap, moaning and clutching his head with both hands. The others pulled out the driver and the guards and threw them onto the ground next to Dresdner.
Amelia watched, wide-eyed, as two of the men pointed their guns at the heap of wounded flesh, expressions distorted with concentration.
Suddenly, two boots came into her vision.
“Je suis française, je suis française!”
“Mademoiselle?” He held a snow-white hand out to Amelia, and with his help, she stood with shaky legs.
“You’re very lucky, cherie.” The pale man nodded in the direction of the Gestapo officer. “He is a murderer. You wouldn’t have survived the interrogation.”
Amelia stared at the man and he flashed her a brilliant, too-white smile. His French was flawless in flow and wording, but his accent was unmistakable.
He gestured for one of his comrades -- a shorter man, with tufts of blond hair poking out from underneath his cap. In the darkness, he barely looked twenty, and once she came into his sight, he grinned at her, and his chin dimpled.
He gently led her toward their car, face now completely smooth, aside from his friendly, almost childish grin. Amelia gratefully accepted the coat he draped around her shoulders, though it was a bit tight around her upper arms. Her left wrist still throbbed, though it seemed the bleeding had mostly stopped, and her whirlwind of a rescue had left her head spinning.
“Wait here, if you please,” the man said, opening the door for and pushing her firmly into the back seat. “We will be leaving soon.”
Behind the safety of a closed door, Amelia watched the petit man stride back to the . . . well, she supposed they the prisoners now, weren’t they?
The man who had originally helped her -- the pale one with the brutal face -- ordered the captain to stand. He nudged the struggled man with his automatic.
“Give me your coat.”
Dresdner glared up at the man and made no move to obey.
The man reversed his weapon and smashed it into the stomach of the Gestapo officer -- he crumpled like an aluminum can upon impact. “Your coat -- are you so dim-witted you’ll lose your life over a coat?” He hauled Dresdner to his feet as if he weighed nothing. “Your coat and your boots, if you please.”
Captain Bernard Dresdner slowly removed his coat and then, at his captors’ insistence, his tunic, breeches, and long, shiny boots. He stood forlornly in the snow in socks and winter long underwear, his shivering frame pitifully small and thin now that the trappings of his power had been removed. Amelia almost felt sympathy for the man, now that she was in the safety of whoever her rescuers’ were backseat. Almost.
The men bound Dresdner securely, dragging him away from the Renault, and threw him into the snow, alongside the others.
As the other two men made their way back to the car, the pale man suddenly turned and shot a bullet into the Renault’s gas tank -- as to be expected, the vehicle, sending an intensely bright ball of flame skyward and shrapnel in all directions. The Citroen rocked violently and Amelia
instinctively ducked, shielding her face with her good arm.
As the three men clambered into the car, there was
suddenly a sense of energy.
“What the hell was that for?” the third man snapped, glaring at the pale one as he slid in next to Amelia.
“Can’t have pursuit, can we?” The accusatory one didn’t seem satisfied but the one next to her seemed
unconcerned. Instead, he tossed Dresdner’s clothing at her feet and gave her a smirk.
The third comrade took the passenger’s seat up front and the car lurched forward before he even had shut the door fully.
Up front, the men had already began changing into German uniforms -- Amelia tried to ignore how often the driver took his hands off the steering wheel to assist himself in putting on his uniform.
Amelia studied the man next to her as he shrugged on a military jacket that he’d produced from a pack at his feet. “You’re German.”
The man nodded -- again, completely unconcerned. Wavy dust-brown hair fell into pale eyes that seemed to be just the perfect shade to make up the line between grey and blue, and she couldn’t help but notice that his nose seemed a bit too tall and sharp to be a stereotypical German. His hand was ready on his weapon as he watched the road behind them for any sign of pursuit.
The driver accelerated even faster as they found their first twist in the road, and suddenly the Gestapo car was completely out of sight. Sure, of course, the thick black smoke that billowed upwards, that Amelia was sure had already even caught the Germans’ attention was still visible -- but she suspected it would be visible for a while.
The man watched for several minutes longer before the grip on the stock of his rifle slackened. He turned and settled comfortably in his seat, uniform shirt only half done-up, lighting a cigarette. “Lieutenant Gilbert Laurinaitis.”
Amelia took the hand he offered and shook it like her father had taught her -- firmly, to let him know she meant business. “Amelia.”
“Nice to be of acquaintance to you, Amelia.”
“I suppose I should say the same to you, but I won’t.”
The driver laughed. “I like her, Gil.”
Gilbert rolled his eyes, kicking the back of the driver’s seat. “Shut up, loser.”
“How very mature of you.”
Gilbert gestured to the driver. “The annoying one’s my little brother.”
Amelia glanced between the two men. They sure didn’t look like twins. The driver was taller, thinner, with long shaggy brown hair tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong, with a tanned face and a nice pair of green eyes. And his face was creased with laugh lines, rather than the signs of stress that came from scowling often.
“His name is Tolys, but I normally call him dumbass.”
Amelia nodded at Tolys as he swerved around a large snowback with a confidence that unnerved her.
“Also a lieutenant,” Tolys sighed. “But this son of bitch likes to leave out that part.”
Amelia pressed lips together. She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Here they were, rescuing her from her capture, and she was witnessing a sibling argument like the sort her friends used to have when she came to stay at their house when she was little.
Gilbert indicated to the last man in their little group. “And this one is Tino.”
Tino looked back at her and grinned, hair still ruffled from his cap and dimpled, pink cheeks. Amelia raised her eyebrow at him.
“Oh, don’t let his looks fool you,” Gilbert said in perfect answer to her thoughts. “The man has a wife and three kids back home. ‘Sides, he’s killed more men than you can count off the top of your head.”
“He’s ruthless,” Tolys agreed.
“Yeah, don’t mess with me.” He winked at her, chuckling under his breath, before turning to face the road.
Tolys gave a worried glance in the rearview mirror. “Hey, Gil, see if you can patch that wrist up for her.”
Gilbert nodded, holding out his hand -- all long-fingered and callused, with scars and bruises across the knuckles. The kind that came from constant use of brass knuckles. “Are you alright?”
Amelia nodded, reluctantly surrendering her wrist over to him. “Jus’ a bit cut up.”
“Dresdner really has it out for you, doesn’t he?”
Amelia didn’t respond. She winced when Gilbert grasped her wrist, pulling it up inches from his face to study. “Good thing we got here when we did. I don’t think you’ll need a tourniquet -- Tino, gib bitte die Bandagen zurück. Und etwas Alkohol, wenn du welchst haben, ja?”
Tino pulled a pack out of the glove box and threw it back to them. Gilbert caught it without even look. “Dankeschön.”
Amelia winced as he poured the alcohol directly over her cuts. “But why -- why rescue me from your own Gestapo?”
Gilbert didn’t look up to answer her question as he rummaged through the pack. “Our job is to make you disappear.”
“You’re tellin’ me you went through all that trouble jus’ to shoot me?”
“Not as simple as that, mademoiselle.” He began tightly wrapping a rough bandage around her wrist -- probably meant to act as a splint in lieu of an actual one. “Dresdner lives by the common Gestapo philosophy that the end justifies the means.”
Amelia frowned. “What does that mean for me?”
“The Führer has some use for you. He does not want you damaged.”
Amelia shuddered. “So where are you takin’ me?”
“You’ll know soon.” He released her wrist.
Amelia returned her wrist to its place against her chest.
“Keep your head down, mademoiselle.”
Amelia looked away from the window, startled.
It had been an almost comfortable few hours, after the initial shock wore off. Tolys had suggested she rest during the drive and Amelia accepted his offer readily, allowing the low murmur of the men's’ conversation lull her into that strange state between awake and asleep.
In the distance Amelia could almost make out shapes in the darkness -- a small town, with a cathedral standing tall and proud in the centre and little thatched rooftops around it. She opened her mouth to ask what was going on (was this their destination?) when Gilbert’s iron-hard grip on her shoulder forced her to the floor.
“Don’t move -- we’re passing the arms’ factory.” He threw a blanket over her and then something else -- his rifle maybe? “There’s a guard station; they’ll check inside the vehicle.”
Amelia felt the Citroen slow beneath her. She heard the cold click of a pistol being cocked. Her heartbeat accelerated: What were they planning?
“Ich würde es sicher hassen einen Landsmann zu töten,” she heard Tino mumble.
Amelia wanted to ask what they were saying -- she recognised “töten” -- to kill -- but her mouth was dry.
“Das ist nicht nötig.” Amelia winced at the rasp of Gilbert’s voice -- like a knife scraping against rock. As usual, everyone sounded better in French. “Wir hab’ uns in unser’ Uniformen verwandert, oder?”
Amelia peeked out from under the blanket just in time to see Gilbert lift his legs and cross his boots on her back. “Außerdem sind sie nur Gendarmen. Die Stéphanois haben immer die schlechteste Wache in der Nacht -- und ich bin nicht nur ihr Vorgesetzter, sondern auch unvernünftig betrunken -- ”
With that, the lieutenant popped a cork and knocked down most of the bottle without a moment's hesitation.
“Vorsichtig, Herr General—du werdst betrunken sein, wenn du fortfährst.” Tino sounded...well, concerned. Not the most reassuring time in this moment.
Gilbert waved him off (also not reassuring, Amelia was beginning to realise.) Ashes fell from his cigarette like snow. “Ich kann meinen Alkohol zurückhalten. Du weißt, dass.”
Tolys sounded apprehensive when he spoke. “Was soll ich ihnen sagen?”
Gilbert took another swig before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Nichts. Ich werd’ reden.”
Amelia recovered herself with the blanket, heart hammering. She already knew this wasn't going to end well—it literally couldn't end well. She felt sick to her stomach, suddenly wishing she could be back in her cell at Belley. Or at home.
The car brightened—even through the heaviness of the blanket—as the gendarmes swept their torches through. The sound sound of Tolys winding down the window.
Gilbert let our what Amelia could only guess was a loud expletive, his voice slurred and much too high pitched. She winced. “Was bedeutet das? Passt du auf, so du dieses Licht zeigst, Idiot.” There was a shuffling and then Gilbert's heavy black boots slammed into her back, heels digging painfully into her spine. She bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood to hold back the help that bubbled up at the back of her throat.
“Entschuldigung…” Amelia cursed inwardly—more German to sit through the and interpret. She should've taken the German course the SOE has offered her, hadn't she? And she was already starting to get enough of a headache from Gilbert's strange, nails-on-chalkboard rasp as it was…
“Herr General der Panzertruppe?” She heard the gendarme quickly ‘Heil!’ in response. “Guten Abend, Sir General. Lass mich bitte deine Papiere sehen.”
Gilbert swore again, words seeming to crash into each other as he spoke. “Was denkst du sind wir? Maquisards?”
“Verzeihen Sie—es gab Berichte über französische Outlaws, die deutsche Offiziere verkörpern.” The gendarme sounded uneasy now, and Amelia could image the right expression he probably wore.
She felt Gilbert surge upward, digging his boots deeper into her back—she’d be bruised for sure, but she tried not to let that bother her. Not now. There were certainly worse things to come.
“Verzeihst du? Verzeihst du? Du bist ein völliger
Schwchsinniger! Wisst du, wer ich bin?” His voice officially reached an office that should not have been possible for a grown man to produce and, again, Amelia winced.
“Nein, es tut mir leid, ich nicht.”
She felt as Gilbert surged upright and, again, cringed into herself as his boots abused her back further, hissing harshly against her clenched teeth. His voice grew progressively louder with each word—“Ich bin General der Panzertruppe Gilbert Laurinaitis—selbst im Kommando der Sektion Vier Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie! Du könntest erschossen werden, weil ich vorgeschlagen habe, ich sei ein Betrüger!”
“Ich–ich wonte dich nie beschuldigen—”
“Ja hast du!” There was a thumping sound. “Sag mit deinen
Namen, ich werd’ dich selbst deinen Vorgesetzten melden!”
There was a commotion outside of the car, before the engine started up and there was the sound of a bottle shattering.
The blanket was suddenly pulled off her and Amelia yelped. “Are you alright, mademoiselle?” The slur was gone and the smirk had returned. “My eternal apologies for your suffering.”
Amelia rubbed her mutilated spine as she sat up. “Don’t mention it.”
She climbed back at into her seat, legs still shaking with adrenaline. “So...what was literally any of that?”
Before Gilbert could answer Tolys piped up. “Oh, he's a drama queen—all of Germany knows it. Mutti used to say he'd do well in theatre.”
Amelia was surprised to find herself chuckling along with Tony's as Gilbert swatted the back of his brother's head.
“And, also, it would be sort of hard to explain the situation my papers.”
“For me to know, and for you to never find out.”
Amelia decided to drop it, though her heart hammered with curiosity, and went back to staring out the window.
Tolys chuckled. “Save the suspense for later---he’s not second in command to Klaus Barbie. Gil and I have . . . other responsibilities.”
They drove in silence as Tolys weaved through the streets of St. Étienne; a community shrouded in shadows and a deep-rooted dreariness. Save the occasional mangy dog or stray cat, Amelia saw nothing moving on the streets—only the occasional ruffle from the homes which lined them to prove the little village wasn't completely devoid of human life.
There must have been Résistance cells, hidden somewhere in the shadows, just out of her grasp, blending well into the general populations, overlooked by the ever-watchful eyes of the Gestapo at Section Four in Lyon.
She's have to find a way to contact them if she wanted to make it out of France alive.
They crossed a series of railroad tracks and continued west, away from St. Étienne. Buildings gave way to clusters of trees, rolling fields and winter-barrened farms, as the Loire River Valley approached, and, to the left, a smooth black expanse of water shimmered silver-crested in the moonlight.
Amelia tried her best to to push back the memories that forced their way into her mind, digging her fingernails into her wrist.
She refused to cry in front of these men.
“River Loire.” Gilbert nodded. “There’s a castle 'round here somewhere, I hear. Nice place for an outing.”
“I’m gonna guess that's not on the agenda for today?”
“Not tonight, no.”
“Can I know where we're going now, at least?”
Gilbert shrugged. “Don’t see why not.”
“Village of no consequence—St. Victor-sur-Loire, probably fifteen kilometres from here—ever heard of it?” He didn't wait for her to answer. “We’re holding you until further instructions.”
“Not allowed to tell you anymore right now.” He shrugged again at this.
Amelia slouched down in her seat. “Fair enough.”
Amelia must have fell asleep at one point—which wasn't too much of a shock, considering the recent turn her life had taken—and she was grateful for the rest all the same, even thought it was dark and restless, often compounded with the voices of her escorts—because she was startled away by the sound of a door slamming shut.
She shot up as the door next to her opened, blinking and dizzy, stomach tight with hunger and head swimming. “Are we there?” It felt like someone had stuffed her mouth with cotton.
Lieutenant Gilbert Laurinaitis loomed over here. “Yes we are. Did you enjoy your time in Morpheus’ arms?”
Amelia didn't know what he meant by that, so she just ignored it.
As her eyes adjusted to the very early morning grey, she took in her surroundings. Behind Gilbert, she could make out the dark shadow of a stone wall, a heavy wooden door with a brass knocker which stood slightly ajar.
“Tino will point you in the right direction, mademoiselle. The washroom is near your quarters—around the back of the house.” He gestured broadly to the house, seemingly no real direction in mind.
Amelia nodded, half-mumbled a “Thank you” as she climbed three steps to enter the villa. She couldn't be sure if everything was as strange and warped as it seemed to be, or if it was just the sleep-induced confusion, and the ominous circumstances of her reality.
—most likely, it was both.
Tino joined her in the foyer, trailing after her through the lavishly furnished front parlour and hallways full of antiques and brocade's and Medieval-esque stone steps and down another long hallways, narrow and winding, which musty smell suggested a prolonged vacancy.
“In here, mademoiselle.” Tino jut his chin to a door at her left and Amelia brushed past him, into what she supposed most be her room. Tino clicked on the light behind her, startling her enough to almost trip over nothing. “Stay here until someone calls for you. Lieutenant Laurinaitis says there's no need to lock the door unless you try to escape.”
Amelia nodded absently, studying her new prison, tossing her coat onto a small wicker chair and beginning to practically stalk the perimeter of her confinement. On the wall opposite the door a window interrupted textured stone, framed by heavy wine-coloured drapery that ran luxuriously through her fingers but emanated the scent of of old. Next to that window—an ancient, dust-covered armoire, carved out of what seemed to be black walnut and cherrywood. It was taller than her and reeked of mothballs. The doors creaked when she opened them. Inside, it is as stuffed full of dresses, coats, skirts and blouses that, though the seemed to have been sitting there awhile, were stylish enough that Amelia assumed they must have been new—perhaps bought sometime in the past three years or so.
She closed the armoire and turned to see Tino yawning in the doorway. “The lieutenant said to use whatever you need.”
“How generous of him.”
“Have a good night, mademoiselle.”
Amelia nodded at him as he left, grateful to finally have a chance to change out of her blood-stained clothes.
She collapsed on the edge of her bed, hands still shaking. At this point, she had no idea how long they'd been doing that. She clenched and unclenched them, focusing on pacing out her breathing.
Slowly, robotically, she undid her laced and tugged off her boots, her trousers; pulled her shirt over her head. She kicked the blood-crusted trousers under her bed. She didn't need anymore reminders of Arthur's final moments. Inside her new wardrobe (what else was she supposed to call it?) she doing a soft white nightgown with little roses embroidered at the hem.
She turned out the light, ready to crawl into the bed and hope that a good night's rest would be enough to rid her of the memory of Dresdner's face so close to her own—but, suddenly, curious, padded across the room and yanked her blackout curtains aside.
Below her, a cigarette glowed yellow against the darkness.
She wrenched her curtains shut and threw herself across the room, ignoring the dust that ride in a tiny cloud above her from the pillow, too dehydrated to cry.
The last thing she remembered was the sound of the telephone ringing somewhere in the villa.
Her sleep had been dreamless and uninterrupted—well into the next day's afternoon.
The only thing she knew: she was monstrously hungry and craved a long warm bath.
Preferably with rose petals, now that she thought about it.
Or with candles. And white wine.
She crept down the hallway to—what she was pretty sure was, at least—the bathroom, eternally grateful there was nobody currently occupying the tiny room.
In fact, the whole villa was silent as death; as if all her
German guards had abandoned her in this strange, empty residence in the middle of France.
At the door of the small bathroom, she paused. Squinted down the stairway through dust particles suspended in the translucent rays of the sun, her senses heightened as she strained for any signs of life below.
Not a sound---not even the scuttle of rodents.
She looked to her left past her bedroom door, to the nest two down the hall, and a window facing out northwards.
Eyebrows furrowed and nose crinkled with concentration, she krept past the first door, enjoying the coolness of the polished wood against her tired, bruised feet. She touched the knob of the second door lightly, turning it slowly until the latch gave way with a silent click and the door hung free. With the same gentle caution, she peered inside, inching in until the edge of a desk and the curled chord of a telephone came into view.
No signs of life there.
Her hands trembled and she tucked them under her arms, gripping her nightgown. The warmth of fresh bathwater against her skin was beckoning---and safe. She couldn’t forget that this house---beautiful as it was---was guarded hostiles; and God knew what they wanted from her. Though they had said they weren’t going to kill her---saved her even---but since when did Amelia Jones become stupid enough to ever trust a German?
She set her jaw: her luck would hold. And if the boches were occupied elsewhere, she may as well make some use of her time. Scope out the area. See what’s what.
Find an opening.
She was quick now, moving across the corridor, down the stairs. Hesitated at the bottom---two muffled voices carried up from the basement. She glanced through the parlour window down another hall---an empty driveway, trees standing proud over grey snow and an imposing stone wall. No car---one of the men had apparently gone, and two other chatted in the basement.
Her feet whispered against cold tile as she made her way to what she hoped was a kitchen. A little food on the way couldn’t hurt. She’d need it anyway.
Another corridor; more doorways.
More to explore, she supposed.
Just as satisfying as a warm meal.
Maybe not ‘just as.’
She passed several bedrooms with doors ajar---and by ‘several,’ Amelia quite distinctly meant ‘three’---their insides a disarray, typical of male inhabitants. Amelia wrinkled her nose. The stench of cigarettes was overwhelming, especially with the draft coming from somewhere to her right.
Another staircase---small, dark, stone, cold, unused. Though she doubled it would lead her anywhere near the kitchen---or anything all the useful at all---she found herself going up, as if her feet had a mind of their own, as if a supernatural force had taken possession of her body, the pain in her stomach be damned.
It delivered her to a small, long, undisturbed sitting room and another, even tighter staircase to the attic. She paused to study the solid oak door in front of her, upper arms sandpaper from the draft that easily penetrated her thin cotton night dress.
She tested the handle, chewing the inside of her lips. Locked.
She contemplated picking the lock---
and then, the distant rumble of an approaching automobile.
She backed away from the door, stumbling on the first step of the stairs, before catching herself on the railway. Pain as a sliver of wood bit into her palm, but she’d deal with that later.
She turned, sprinting down the stairs, across the corridor, pausing only for a second when she saw the lieutenant’s large Citroën pulling in through the parlour window.
A door slammed, rattling the windows. Amelia ducked and ran, heart racing, skin clammy. Slid behind a musty armchair as if the entirety of the German army was on her heels. Footsteps faded down the stairs---heavy, solid. Boots that could absolutely crush her ribcage if she was found out.
But she wasn’t.
She exhaled against the wall.
Amelia stretched out as far she could in the warm water. Her toes appeared at the opposite end of the tub---and when she pulled them down, heat-reddened knees broke the surface. She slid down her chin and closed her eyes as the steam crashed against her pink-tipped nose.
Reluctantly, she pushed her shoulders out of the warm water and reached for a large bar of soap---the sort her mother used to scrub off her adventures when Amelia to scrub off her adventures when Amelia was young and little more than a menace, let loose on the streets of Paris. She ran the bar down her arm---it smelled better than what she remembered, thank God. Perhaps something mixed in with the lard? Or maybe she smelled so bad in the first place anything was an improvement?
Yeah. Probably that.
Her thoughts turned to Major Ludwig Beilschmidt---which felt uncomfortable in general, but in a tub especially---though she wasn’t quite sure why. He’d been quite clear with her: she was no longer his concern, out of his hands. That’s exactly how he had phrased it. In fact, she doubted she’d ever been in the same room with him---fortunately.
The thoughts of her incarceration---the browned bloodstains on her clothes and the moldy cellar sent shivers running down her spine.
At least with these new Germans, she had a real bed and was permitted warm baths and food any time she pleased. At least she wasn’t being tortured. Or dead.
At least there was still a chance.
Who had orchestrated her escape from Dresdner? Amelia frowned stiffly at the thought; she, however comfortable, was still a prisoner. Nothing had changed in the regard.
Amelia brushed the bruises on her wrist, the tenderness of the stitches above her ear.
Maybe not ‘nothing.’
If not for the lieutenant’s assistance, she was as good as dead. Gilbert Laurinaitis and his men, for better or for worse, had saved her life---or, at the very least, postponed it.
Amelia shifted, suddenly on edge.
Though he’d been quite friendly to her, she could not deny the mistrust she felt. It was not his own doing---he’d made it clear he was acting for someone else.
And he clearly---clearly---was not entirely stable and completely dangerous---she couldn’t deny that. Not if she valued her life.
Who would’ve ordered him to kidnap her? What was there to gain from her capture? A bartering chip with the Americans? The Résistance?
Her mind supplied a name almost immediately.
Major Beilschmidt. Ludwig Beilschmidt.
She couldn’t deny the kindness she sensed in him, totally incongruous to his uniform and the horrific regime it represented.
But why would he order for her to be kidnapped from someone else representing the Third Reich?
Amelia lathered her hair with shampoo, pulling apart the tangles in her curls, incredibly grateful that she’d had the sense to lop it all off before she left.
Was it a power play? He hadn’t seemed to be a fan of Dresdner---and Dresdner him. Perhaps this was the major’s way of getting Dresdner removed altogether.
She hardly knew him yet, somehow, she couldn’t see this being his style.
Amelia took a deep breath before sliding her head underwater, ignoring the doctor’s orders to keep her stitches dry.
At this point, what was the use anyway?
Perhaps he felt Dresdner’s methods weren’t as effective as his? Well, no. There was no ‘perhaps’ about it, was there? He had made it quite clear in their last meeting; that had it to be it. She could find no other reasonable explanation.
Her knees were beginning to grow cold.
Amelia reached for a towel, stood, and vigorous rubbed herself dry---until her skin was pink, rug-burned---as if it could scrub the horrors of her past few days away.
Quickly, she dressed herself in some soft blue thing and undergarments she had found in her---no, the armoire.
She smoothed the skirt as she turned toward the bathroom mirror, which flared to just below her knees, like gossamer petals. The fine bodice was a creamy blue, and pearl buttons marched up the front to meet a barely-modest neckline just below her collarbone.
Gingerly, she took a fine-toothed comb to her hair that she had managed to find before the bath was too full for her to get in without spilling water everywhere.
It would be a long time before her life regained some semblance of normalcy. She was already well aware of that.
But she had not idea of where it would even start.
If it would start.
Amelia turned off the light and raised the blackout curtain to watch the ground below. Forty-eight hours ago they had arrived at the ancient villa that stood overlooking a bed in the precocious Loire. According to Gilbert, several times a year the river changed directions in some spots, and flooded in others. Mist from the rivers blurred her vision, and she squinted stubbornly against it, watching for any signs of movement in the darkness. After a few minutes of adjustment, she recognized some familiar shapes in the distance: stone walls that closed off the perimeter of the property, a small, abandoned garden, overrun with decaying weeds, flush against it.
In the afternoon, she had followed those walls to wide fields and the river bank, all the while painfully aware of Tolys trailing behind her at a “respectable distance,” as he’d called it, as she was a lady, and he didn’t want her to feel hounded. That was his explanation, at least. But, nonetheless, her captors had at least allowed her some freedom---though he had eventually called her back once she reached the road and insisted they returned to the villa, making only polite small talk that Amelia only half-answered.
She continued to study the darkness below her window. The shadow from a rotting peach tree grew from the slope to her left, and beyond that were the ruins of an old stone shed. To her right Amelia could make out nothing but blackness, indicating that the river lay less than a stone throw’s from the walls of the villa.
She stood unmoving at the edge of her window, concentrated and aware. She wanted to be sure there was no guard. Last night it had been Tino---Gilbert had said it had been him the night before. By default, it must have been Tolys---not that he was anywhere to be seen.
Amelia continued to watch the shadows closely.
After what felt like hours but was only around fifteen minutes, she was able to convince her anxieties that Tolys was not hiding behind a stone wall or peeking up at her window from behind some corner. Satisfied that her warm woolen trousers and boots would be enough of a barrier against the cold, she moved to her door, lightly turning the handle; as she had expected, locked from the outside. She pressed her ear against the rough surface: no signs of life. No voices, footsteps, breathing. Empty.
Again, she crossed her bedroom, more confident than she’s felt for little over a week.
You’re a Jones, Amy. You can do this.
She pulled the sheet from her bed, tearing them into long, thick strips and tied them together into a makeshift rope, which she attached to her bedpost. It had barely reached the windowsill. Amelia combed through the room, opening every drawer, checking every pocket, in search of a pair of scissors. Or anything with a sharp edge, really.
Finally---a hand mirror. Small, but it was something. Better than nothing. She crushed it under her shoe, hoping nobody would notice the crunch of glass splintering in the stillness.
With the largest shard of glass, Amelia attacked the comforter, slicing through its cushiony insides and serparting strips of cotton and batting, ignoring the way it slid painfully across the palm of her hand. There, she added to the sheet-rope until she was positive her feet at least reached a safe dropping distance. Gathering the soft coil of not-rope in her arms, she studied the ground below her until she was positive Tolys was indeed shirking his duty.
She tossed the fabric out into the night.
It looked easier than it actually was.
Grabbing hold of the rope, allowing herself to drop from the solid safety of the windowsill took all the courage she could muster---all the courage in her body---and when she had fallen to the length of her arms she hung there, terrified, willing herself to not look at the ground two stories below. She found a knot between strips and stood on it, forcing her boots to lock in place and praying the tie would actually hold. She loosened her grip and allowed herself to slip further downwards, until latching onto a new knot---shoulders screaming---where her head was level with the top of the first-story parlour window. Heart thumping painfully, she let go and landed in in the snow at the base of the wall, crumpling as she landed so her already-aching knees wouldn’t absorb the total shock of the fall. On unsteady legs, Amelia brushed the snow off her raw hands and wobbly knees, eyes at the window of her former cell, grateful to finally be down.
“Not too original, mademoiselle----I think I’ve seen that technique exactly in some American movie before.”
Amelia whirled toward the sound of the of the voice, curse caught in her throat, almost losing her footing on the slippery, uneven terrain. Squinting through the mist---an all too familiar figure released against a stone wall, arms folded, dark overcoat draped casually over his shoulders, which were hunched over ever so slightly to watch her intently. Major Ludwig Beilschmidt pushed himself upright, his gait as natural and relaxed as a stroll along the beach.
“Where did you think you were going, Amelia?”
“Mind if I come along?”
“You’ll scare off the fish.”
Ludwig laughed, but his eyes were stormy. “A little cold for an escape attempt, don’t you think?”
“Well,” Amelia crossed her arms, “with all due respect, I wasn’t plannin’ on waitin’ ‘til summer, Major.”
Ludwig nodded. “I must apologise for curtailing your enthusiasm, but it is my somber duty to tell you that there are several highly sensible reasons you should not continue with your ‘plans.’ First…” Ludwig pointed down the gravel road. “That road is the only way out, and there are soldiers stationed at a guard shack not too far from here. Second…” He waved a dismissive hand in the direction of St. Étienne. “That city is crawling with Germans and Vichy---and you cannot be planning on swimming across the weather. Third, you have no papers and it’s after curfew, which means we shoot first and ask questions later.”
Amelia raised an eyebrow, biting her tongue. Maybe I’d prefer that.
“And, finally, most important, mademoiselle,” he shook his head sadly, “I have traveled all the way from Belley to spend more time with you, and I couldn’t imagine losing my chance to get to know you better.”
“I thought I wasn’t your problem anymore.” She popped her lips.
“Well, I’ve decided to make you my problem.”
Amelia watched him soberly. “I guess under the circumstances I could postpone my outing.” She shrugged away from his proffered arm. “Keyword: postpone.”
“I would expect nothing less from you, Miss Jones.”
As they walked towards the front entrance of the villa, Amelia kept her back ramrod straight, chin held high, chin held high, ignoring the heat high on her cheeks and spreading over her neck and chest.
At the door Ludwig unlocked the door with a key straight from a child’s fairytale book and held the door open for her, bowing slightly. Amelia brushed past him, jaw set so tightly it might crumble to little more than dust. She allowed him to lead her to the kitchen, where Tolys and Gilbert, eating bratwurst and drinking coffee. As usual, a cigarette dangled from between Gilbert’s teeth and Tolys was smirking at him, seeming to be teasing him in some language Amelia had no name for her, what she did know is that their smiles were remarkably similar---both mischievous and charming.
“Look what I found at the river, Tolys.” Ludwig shed his overcoat, draping it over his arm, and pulled out a chair away from the table for Amelia.
Gilbert cackled, exuberantly tipping his chair back against the wall. “I knew she’d do it.”
Tolys blanched, choking on a mouthful of bratwurst. “When--when did you arrive, Ludva?”
“Over an hour ago.” Ludwig’s tone was light as he combed the kitchen for edibles. “I’ve been watching the
Amelia glowered at the major, arms folded defiantly.
“You missed a good show, Tolys.” Ludwig shook his head in feigned mourning. “If only you had been there when you were supposed to be . . . ”
Tolys mumbled an apology, sending annoyed glances in Gilbert’s direction. He only winked in response.
Amelia watched Ludwig wearily. “Why are you here?”
Ludwig poured hot water into a cup and added a spoonful of honey. He placed it on the table along with a loaf of bread.
“Captain Dresdner returned to Belley rather shaken, Amelia. It seems some maquisards assaulted him, torched his transportation---I wonder who on earth is insane enough to do that---” Gilbert simply raised his coffee mug, smirk wider than Amelia thought possible---“and then left him to die in a snowbank.”
“Tragic,” Tolys murmured against his mug.
“It happened in my area and would be so unprofessional for me not to search for you---under the circumstances.” He brandished a bread knife, his smile relaxed. “You were a valued prisoner, after all, and will be sorely missed by the Gestapo. They will waste no time looking for you.”
“Wish I could have seen it.” Gilbert speared his sausage and spoke around a large mouthful. “The old rope trick, eh, Ludva?”
Amelia purposefully ignored him. “You speak in past tense, Major. You forget I’m still a prisoner here.”
“Oh, of course you are---but a prisoner no longer in the Gestapo’s loving care.”
“Will they look here?”
“Highly unlikely.” Ludwig indicated to the food in front of him. “Won’t you join me? The bread is excellent---no sawdust.”
Amelia shook her head.
Ludwig continued. “Why would maquis kidnappers bring you here? No, the Gebirgsjager will be focusing their search in the Rhône region where guerillas are known to operate.”
“German alpine troops.” Amelia turned to Gilbert. “Some of the best fighters in the Führer’s army.”
Tolys nodded. “And our friend Tino is one of them---”
“The best of them, really---”
“Which is another reason you wouldn’t have succeeded tonight.”
Amelia raised her eyebrow at the brothers. “And you two are as well, I assume?”
Again, Gilbert cackled, “Oh, definitely not.”
“You insult us, miss.”
“We are far beyond their skill sets---”
“Trained in Prussia---”
“Prussia’s best.” Gilbert’s chest swelled with pride. “Which, by extension, makes us the best in Europe.”
“Skilled in all forms of combat in all sorts of terrains---”
“As well as sabotage, spying---”
“Fluent in several languages.”
Ludwig grinned. “And Tolys and Gilbert are the best of them.”
Gilbert let his chair slam to the floor with a deafening crack. “Now, I really should be modest...but how can I argue with the truth. He’s right: I am the best.”
Ludwig rolled his eyes. “You’ll notice Gil’s about the most guy you’ll meet.”
Amelia chuckled, despite herself.
“Only the best for you, Major.” Both he and Tolys stood up, contents of their plates gone and ready to move. “We’re off to bed---that is after I confiscate one long hazardous rope.” He winked at Amelia and laughed as the duo left the kitchen, shutting the door behind them.
Amelia frowned at the major. “Why’d you order Gilbert to kidnap me?”
“I have more questions for you. Obviously.”
“All your questions would’ve been answered by the Gestapo.”
“Yes, and I’m sure they would tell me all they discovered—after they buried you.”
“What do you care?” Heat rose high in Amelia’s cheeks. “You’ve captured me, killed my fiancé…” Her voice caught in the barbed wire of her sandpaper throat. “Imprisoned me and interrogated me for two days. But now you care? All the sudden you care if the Gestapo kills me?”
Ludwig’s voice came out measured. “Yes, Amelia. I might be able to help you---might be in need of your services.”
Amelia curved her lip. “How dare you even think---!”
For a split second Ludwig’s face reddened, before turning into a deep scowl. “That’s not what I meant, Amelia.”
Amelia’s words were like tin through her clenched teeth. “Then what did you mean?”
“I--I can’t explain now.” Beilschmidt pushed himself away from the table. “But what I can tell you is that your future depends on what I decide over the next few days.”
“Really? So if I answer your questions to your satisfaction then I go free?”
“Then I don’t wanna hear it.” Amelia turned away from him, nose stubbornly in the air.
Ludwig inhaled sharply. “No, but you’ll be a lot better off than if you refuse to cooperate.”
“And what if I fail your little test?”
“I haven’t decided. I might send you the remainder of the way to Lyon.”
Amelia felt sick, panic swelling at the base of her throat. “What y’mean to say is that my life is in your hands.”
“You could put it that way, yes.”
“You Nazis sure love to play God, dontcha?” Amelia shook her head, snorting.
“Look at it however you wish, mademoiselle. I’m not going to argue with you tonight.”
“O mighty one,” Amelia bowed mockingly, “I would beg your permission to to retire to my cell.”
Ludwig sighed. “Pleasant dreams, Amelia Jones.”
If only her mother could see her now.
She almost managed to crack a smile through the mask of intense mask of concentration at the horror she could imagine on her mother’s face to see her only daughter down on her knees to pick a lock. Her training had prepared her for more than parachute drops and deciphering codes, and with her newfound skills---it would be easy for her to send a message to Baker Street, alerting them to her predicament.
She smirked at the almost imperceptible click as the lock yielded. Though much less sophisticated than the tools she’d been forced to surrender at Belley, her hairpin was a good understudy in a pinch.
Amelia straightened, listening for only signs of detection from the Germans. Tino’s snore continued down the hall and Amelia’s shoulders relaxed as she turned her attention to the task at hand.
Wooden floorboards. A small, dirty window. Cobwebs hanging from the rafters. Dusty, stale air. The attic brought back memories of Captain Dresdner, and she touched her stitches with numb fingers, wondering now such a tiny man could hit with such a force that she might be damaged so permanently.
The sight of the large radio set displayed so temptingly on the table before her sent a rush of euphoria rippling through her. She gravitated toward the heaven-sent object like a moth to flame, extracting the silk WOK from the sleeve of her night gown and sending silent praises to God for the existence of the tailors at The Thatched Barn. And Marks, she supposed, for it was at his request they had worked their camouflage magic on her boots, producing a small sleeve in the lining for her to hide her code key---so well done, she’d managed to even keep her WOK hidden from the detail-oriented eyes if the female guard who searched her after her arrest. Even as she searched for seeming hours on end for weapons, documents and suicide pills, her WOK, somehow, in its hiding place, evaded her inspection.
She had no means of cutting or destroying the sequence she was about to use---but there was no time to think about that. She slid onto the chair and faced the set, taking in the controls. She knew them better than herself; this was the model she first learned cryptography with in Bedford.
She took a deep breath. This was the WOK’s first real test---to discover whether an agent transmitting in a dangerous environment, with no way to encrypt her message on paper, with nothing but a WOK and a memorised poem to assist her, could still manage to transmit a message without deadly errors or double transposition.
Amelia turned on the power and reached for the headset.
Her hands darted between silk, with its lines of codes, and the machine---her forearm burned as she typed. Her unexpected traffic might not be heard by the coders of Grendon---or her columns by misaligned, words misspelled---a game of deciphering with the indecipherable, likely taken up by Marks himself.
If the Germans didn’t hear her first.
She added her security check at the end of her message and sat back to wait. No response.
Field operators were supposed to transmit at pre-arranged times. No one would expect her call, and she had to hope that some insomniac with nothing better to do would be listening.
Glancing at the closed door, she attacked the machine, re-transmitting the encryptions as quickly and accurately as she could. There was no room for error---no time to take her time. Every moment she was on air, her life expectancy diminished---but every second she stayed here---
Her fingers slowed.
Too late she had noticed the strong scent of cigarette smoke.
She felt herself lifted in the air thrown onto the floor, splinters sliding painfully into her palms as she seethed in red-hot pain.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Amelia flinched at the uncharacteristic fury in Major Ludwig Beilschmidt’s voice as it sliced through the musty attic air.
A hand on her shoulder hauled her to her feet---skin prickled as she felt the cold barrel of a gun dig into the side of her jaw, pinching her flesh. She began to tremble as she heard Lieutenant Gilbert Laurinaitis cock the pistol.
This was it. It really was.
“Look at me.” Ludwig’s voice held a mix of disbelief and anger.
“Want me to shoot her?” Gilbert’s voice was cold, mechanical---nothing like his usual humour. His fingers bruised the skin of her shoulder and the gun dug deeper into the soft flesh of her throat, making it hard to breathe.
She felt cold.
“Does he need to shoot you, Amelia?” Ludwig towered over her, his hair sleep-ruffled and eyes penetrating. She strained to meet his gaze, sensing the storm had returned to his eyes, and it was more than just anger.
“Let her go.”
Gilbert released her and she crumbled to the floor, face ashen, palms clammy.
“On your feet.”
She struggled to rise, and the major grasped her open arm and yanked her up to a standing position. “Do you realise what you’ve done?”
She stared numbly ahead of her, mouth stuffed with cotton balls.
“When the Funk-Horchdienst comes searching, it’s you they’ll find. Do you honestly think you could get away with it?”
Amelia glanced at Gilbert, at the barrel still trained steadily on her, gleaming cruelly in the dull moonlight. “I knew the risks.”
Her voice was barely a whisper.
Ludwig turned to Gilbert. “Get me a pencil and paper, Lieutenant.”
“Any chance they got her bearings?”
“We have to assume. They know this is a military facility, but they might stop by.”
A shot rang out, grazing past the skin on her neck. Gilbert glowered at her. “I’ll be back.”
Amelia whipped her head around to lock her gaze with Ludwig’s, gasping for air, eyes stinging.
“Are you trying to make this difficult for me?”
“Let go of my arm.”
For a moment Ludwig didn’t move, as if reminding her she was in no position to tell him what to do. But he released her and stepped back, his eyes never leaving hers. “Explain yourself, mademoiselle. What message were you trying to send?”
Amelia shrugged helplessly. “My location. I want to let them know where I am.”
The major studied her carefully, and Amelia recognised that elusive emotion in his eyes: disappointment.
Surprised, she shifted uneasily. She could handle his fury---she could even demonstrate a bit of her own before inevitable demise---but the strange idea of him being disappointed in her was too much for her to handle, shook her resolve.
It shook her determination in a way that stunned her.
He turned, straightened her overturned chair, and gestured toward it. “Sit, Amelia, we have work to do.”
Amelia complied, back stiff and eyes averted. Gilbert returned with a piece of graph paper and a small pencil. He placed them on the table in front of Amelia before turning and leaving the room.
Ludwig tapped the paper in front of her. “Write the message you transmitted, encoded exactly how you sent it.” He plucked the crumpled silk WOK and laid it out before her. “Use this key. I assume it’s yours?”
She hoped he heard the bitterness in her voice, like acid on her tongue. “Why not jus’ tell you what I meant to say?”
“I have my reasons. Begin, please.” Ludwig’s back faced her as he stared out window. Every cell in her body screamed to refuse---to deny, resist, be prepared to take her secrets to the grave. But then she remembered a darkened basement cell, stitches, and a man who showed her kindness completely foreign to his position.
She looked at the paper. “How will you know I’m writing the same message?”
He sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”
Amelia lifted an eyebrow. “Why?”
Ludwig folded his arms and didn’t torn to look at her. “Just start writing, Amelia.”
Ten minutes later her pencil stilled. Ludwig turned away from the window, walked to the table, and picked her paper and the silk WOK. He studied her silently as he folded the paper, slipping both items into his breast pocket. In the next instant, he produced a pair of handcuffs, and in a fluid motion, locked her wrists together.
“You have raised a new set of questions, mademoiselle---questions I must have answered before I can help you.”
He left her alone, with Amelia studying her shackled wrists, wondering what he could possibly mean.
Three hours later Ludwig Beilschmidt returned. Without preamble the major laid her coded message in front of her, followed by two others that must’ve been written in his own eyes. Disbelief closed her throat as she quickly scanned the contents.
“Your messages from Belley.” His voice was the sharp edge of a knife. “Decode them.”
“What makes you think these are mine?”
“I know they’re yours, Amelia. I don’t just ‘think.’”
“How do you know?”
“Is it not obvious, Amelia? Did they teach you so little in London?” He shook his head. “Well, if you don’t, let me educate you---it takes as little as two intercepted transmissions for an operator’s signature to be recognise your traffic whether it originates from Paris or my neighbours basement.” His fingers drummed against the back of her chair and she shivered. “And---as if that wasn’t enough---your security checks are similar. You might as well have run an announcement in the daily letter.”
Amelia stared at him in shock as he unlocked her cold, tingling hands.
“You were very lucky to escape my officers, Miss Jones: you would not be here if you hadn’t.” His hand rested firmly, heavily, on her shoulder. “Decode them. I will not ask again.”
She closed her eyes. “How will you know…?”
“If you’re telling the truth?” Ludwig rested a finger against the paper. “I’ve already deciphered today’s message---you used selections from a poem familiar to me, unfortunately: The Road Not Taken. Robert Frost. A personal favourite, actually.”
Amelia stared at his finger, white against the paper. “Oh.”
He dangled the silk scrap of fabric inches in front of her nose. “I assume you meant to remove and destroy the indicator keys you had just used---before we interrupted. Am I right?”
“Each indicator is random, Major Beilschmidt. You won’t---”
“I know that already.” He let the silk drop unceremoniously into her lap. “But you underestimate my men---they’ve been working steadily since we intercepted your first little transmission in Belley.”
“Perhaps, as you say, your coders are incredibly talented.”
Amelia took a deep breath and forced her voice to stay steady. “But I cannot decode these two transmission without the key---which has been destroyed.”
“I understand. But you know what messages you’ve encoded, don’t you, mademoiselle?” His grip on her shoulder tightened and she shuddered. “Write them down.”
“Yes, Major,” she murmured.
Amelia picked up the pencil, and began writing, her letters light, shaky, spidery, her mind hesitant as she moved her hand across the page. She finished writing the first---her “test message,” as it were---and turned to the second. She stared at the page, sucking on the inside of her cheek.
Not only had the message been freelance, but had emotions attached to it, memories that twisted her stomach. Hindered her concentration. Major Beilschmidt hovered over her, scrutinising her progress. A headache built up in her left temple. She hissed through her clenched teeth, trying to ignore the building pain as she wrote.
Finally, she dropped the pencil on the table, stretching her tight fingers.
Beilschmidt bent past her shoulder to retrieve the papers and the silk. “You will wait here, mademoiselle, while I check what you have written against my coders in Belley are preparing for me.” She turned to stare blankly at him, though her blood missed under her skin. “If you’ve lied to me and your messages are different from theirs, or your transmissions to London will endanger the lives of my men, I will escort you immediately to Lyon.”
Amelia watched the sunrise with her forehead pressed against the window---exhausted, numb. As much as she tried to ignore the disappointment in Beilschmidt’s eyes when he had puked her away from the headset . . . the feel of a gun digging into her skin . . .
Why did she care? Why should she care that she’d let him down? What did he expect? For her to just be a good little prisoner? To just roll over, and let whatever happens, happen?
Flushed with irritation, she turned when she heard the door open. Again, Beilschmidt was alone, and at his request she returned to her chair.
“Ingenious, these silks, mademoiselle.” Ludwig smoothed the cloth again on the table in front of her. “My men are excellent decoders, but your messages might have caused them more than their usual amount of grief.” He unlocked her wrists before arranging six papers in front of her. “They succeeded, though---as I predicted.”
Amelia studied the messages, a strange burning in her chest. Aside from a few spelling errors on the decoders’ part, Ludwig’s men had done a perfect---job as if someone had handed them the destroyed code keys on a silver platter. Director Marks would be devastated when he learned that his silks could be so easily compromised.
Ludwig read them aloud. “‘Arrived safely, debrief in four hours. New German officer at garrison Belley, drop site compromised, new coordinates required before next drop . . . ‘”
Amelia chewed on her cheeks.
“‘Germans aware of drop. Abort and reschedule . . .’” The major shook his head. “If you had mentioned this to your Résistance fiancé and any of my men had been shot, I would have considered this message your ticket to Lyon.” He rested a gentle hand on her shoulder. “You are lucky, mademoiselle.”
“You Germans keep tellin’ me that, Major, but, honest, I don’t feel very lucky right now.”
“Nevertheless, you are fortunate, Amelia. I chose not to arrest you in the café, you escaped my direction-finding units, my men didn’t shoot you when you came flying down the mountainside, and you’re not with Dresdner---at the moment. Yes, I consider you a bit more than very lucky.”
“You forgot to mention how lucky I am to be here in France.”
“That’s one thing I’ve been curious about. In fact, I’ve been so curious that I decided to do a little research after you left with Dresdner. I had questions about you---questions that couldn’t be resolved with your answers. So tell me, why send a young woman with little to no military training and half a college degree to France?”
Amelia thinned her lips, staring at her shoes.
“Would I be far off to presume you were sent here to test this new coding system? That the SOE’s finally aware of how my team loves your agents’ little poem codes?”
He leaned against the table, as if this was a casual conversation between friends. Amelia wetted her lips nervously.
“A hypothetical benefit of the new system would be faster transmissions, therefore less airtime and less chance an agent could be discovered.” Ludwig nodded toward the messages on the table. “None of these messages come close to the old poem codes’ two-fifty rule, and none of your traffic even reached the fifteen-minute average of past codes. Can you explain it to me?”
Amelia studied her chewed down fingernails carefully. “’Sa long story---too long.”
“I’m good at stories, especially long ones. So let me guess.” Ludwig bent to be eye level with her, his voice soft through it’s harsh tone. “SOE knows we devour your agents’ poetry for breakfast, and in order to save more lives someone dreams up a system that doesn’t require memorisation and therefore can’t be tortured out of a captured agent.”
Amelia looked away.
“And you travel to Britain with the WAE, attend cryptology school, and, because of your dual nationality, flawless French and pretty smile, are approached by the SOE to join their pool of ladies breaking codes at Grendon. You’re eager to do anything in your power to defeat les boches and perhaps even prolong the life of your Arthur Kirkland, who fights for a nation that’s not his own, because that’s what spies do. Am I right so far?”
Amelia’s skin felt clammy. Even if she wanted to answer, she supposed her tongue has to think and threat too dry to say anything anyway. So, instead, she looked at him and held his gaze.
“Perhaps the daughter of renowned structural engineer and Parisian professor William Jones was then recruited by some representative of the only General Charles de Gaulle---who, I believe, currently hides away in Algiers. After the last war the distinguished Dr Jones was a consultant with General Philippe Pétain---who would recruit your father to assist rebuilding much of what the Allies destroyed in their own little conflict with Germany. Am I correct so far?”
Amelia shook her head. “My father’s never moved to England.”
“I understand. But you knew of the connection between de Gaulle and your father.” She didn’t like how it wasn’t a question.
“That has nothing to do with my decision to come to France, Major. I came to be with . . . ” Amelia swallowed the heat rising in her throat forcefully, gripping her knees. She wasn’t going to cry---not again.
“Your father took several trips to England well you attended the university in Massachusetts. You knew about these trips and grew understandable curious. One day you confronted your father and he told you all about de Gaulle and his efforts to organise guerilla cells in France into a cohesive unit---the Free French.”
Amelia’s face reddened. “Where do you come up with such nonsense?”
Major Beilschmidt’s lips twisted. “I’m an intelligence officer---this is what I do.”
“There’s no way you could find out these things about me without an outside source---” Amelia stopped, face growing hotter. She may as well have spilled her guts right then and there, for all she’d just told him. All she had just revealed.
Ludwig leaned back in his chair, an amused smile playing on his lips. “But there’s a twist to this story that I don’t understand.” His voice broke through Amelia’s thoughts like the sudden crashing of dishes against a tiled floor.
“How does Henri Giraud, co-president with de Gaulle of the Comité Français de la Libération Nationale, fir into the picture?”
Amelia had never heard the name and continue to trace the sharp line of the major’s jaw in her mind’s eyes.
“Both Giraud and de Gaulle met in Morocco at the beginning of this year---for a reason I have
no talent to discover.” His smile was now humble, almost sheepish---as if conceding to the fact he might not be as omnipresent as he lets on. “I assume that since Giraud also liaisons with the Vichy government, and General de Gaulle is not exactly friendly with Pétain, there must be some sort of understanding between the Vichy and de Gaulle organisations.”
“I thought the Vichy were with the Germans. They follow everything yous say, don’t they?”
“Not everything, Amelia. Why do you think we had to come south?”
Amelia picked at her thumb.
Because yous’re imperialist pigs?
“The Vichy collaborates with us, yes---at least, to some extent. Pétain, I believe, is not wholly convinced of the Führer’s good will; and because of this, under the rules of the armistice, that makes his authority forfeit.”
“So, he’s a puppet.”
“Exactly.” He smiled, almost apologetically. She really wished he’d stop doing thing---she wasn’t going to forgive him. Not after all he’d done.
But, well, it was an emotion. A human one.
He wasn’t entirely a robot, not all machine.
But still a cog in Germany’s war machine nonetheless: She had to stop forgetting that fact. Pretty blue eyes and all.
His eyes aren’t pretty.
“So perhaps Pétain secretly authorises President Giraud to research the possibilities of cooperating with de Gaulle and his Free French behind our backs. We have no proof of this betrayal, of course, bit it makes sense that after we break out end of the bargain and cross the demarcation line they might find a way to express their disappointment…”
Amelia pushed a loose hair behind her ear. As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, she was intrigued.
“Perhaps Giraud decides the best way to help the two rival French governments secretly cooperate is to help de Gaulle’s agents and freedom fighters coordinate more effectively with the SOE in Britain and the OSS in America. Both organisations working to help the Free French could, and this all theoretically of course, put a stronghold on German forces in France when the Allies invade.”
“So. What does all that have to do with me?” Now her hands shook, and there was no way for her to check if he believed it to be in Calais. Well. At least no way for her to test him without arousing suspicion.
“Patience, Miss Jones, I’m getting there.” She didn’t like the way he looked directly into her eyes, how measured his tone was. She didn’t like how he was practically forcing her to study the impossible depth in his eyes, the worry lines that framed his eyes, the way they had Arthur’s . . .
“. . . any frivioulus squabbles between the two French authorities can undermine the Résistance in France and the rest of the countries the Allies plan to invade. So, at de Gaulle’s suggestion, Giraud meets in London with your father, requesting for his assistance with guerilla organizations in France.”
Amelia blinked. Her father?
“And your father sees this as a way to save lives, doesn’t her? As a way to assist an old friend, a way to honour his late wife’s name? And then, of course, he has a future son-in-law working with the SOE as a spy for the British, and an intelligent, motivated young daughter who is at the mercy of the SOE---both of whom he feels obligated to protect. So he visits headquarters in London, and is met with the problem of your easily decipherable poem codes---child’s work for the Germans, and he---after weeks of research---comes to the conclusion that lives could be saved by reworking the already existing codes.
“Naturally, he recommends the code be tested and implemented as soon as possible---anything to derail the Germans---and so de Gaulle sends a representative to the SOE to negotiate putting said code to use.”
Amelia head swam; none of this made sense. None of this could be real.
He had to be lying to her, cause her to slip up, say something she didn’t mean to. Correct something he said. Prove she knew more than she had been letting on.
“You thought of this all by yourself?” Her laughter was delirious. “Dontcha have somethin’ better to do with your spare time?”
If he was lying, how was he getting so many little details right?
How come he continued to look her in the eyes; how come he seemed to sincere?
He’s manipulating you.
It didn’t feel like it. Amelia knew when she was being manipulated.
Not this time.
She frowned as Ludwig laughed. “With the help of some sources within the SOE and de Gaulle’s organisation, of course.”
Amelia mouth opened and closed soundlessly. Electricity raced up and down her spine.
Ludwig watched her carefully, and when he spoke again, his voice softened. “How did you
expect we would know where to be in order to intercept your transmission, decipher your traffic without the code keys?”
She hadn’t thought about it.
“Miss Jones, I’m not omniscient.”
Amelia felt tears prick at her eyes. So, that was it? Her mission had to been doomed to fail since before she even dropped into France? Her chest tightened. All she had wanted was to be with Arthur, to help her country---both of her countries---and she’d been a pawn of Pétain, used by the Vichy this whole damn time?
“Pétain has his agents among Grendon’s coders, it seems. We were given the new keys would would use within the hours of your arrival in France, along with your name, specific background information---for example, your father’s connections to de Gaulle---and the exact times of your transmissions. All that was left for us was to find your WT site and bring you in.”
Amelia’s vision blurred and her muscles ached from being so tense for so long. “Does General de Gaulle know…?”
“Probably not---unless he suspects, now that you’ve disappeared.”
Ludwig shrugged, and for an instant---pity in those blue depths. Amelia’s jaw clenched tighter---pitied, a pawn. That’s what she was?
“All I can figure is that your father made an enemy of Pétain when he chose to follow de Gaulle instead of assisting the Vichy in France. Perhaps Pétain’s British agents informed Vichy leadership you’d be recruited by the SOE, and, well, Pétain saw his chance, and gave de Gaulle a glowing recommendation. And how could he say no to the inclusion of his dear old friend, Professor William Jones’ very own daughter?”
“Making it possible to kill two birds with one stone . . . ”
Ludwig nodded, the sympathy in his eyes unmistakable. “First, undermine the Free French by compromising their new coding system, and, second, send the daughter of traitor Jones into a situation where she is sure to be captured, tortured, even killed for spying.”
Amelia’s voice was a razor’s edge. “Notta spy.”
“As far as the Gestapo is concerned, Amelia, you are.” Ludwig shook his head. “It’s unfortunate your second message had been received by an agent of Pétain’s, who probably had been told to volunteer for that shift, and who had recognised the message’s significance, and deliberately misspelled three of your five indicator words so that it could not possible be deciphered in time for London to abort the drop…”
Amelia saw the empathy of his gaze, and though all she wanted to do was scream, cry, yell, curse at the top of her lungs, somehow, she found herself able to contain her emotions, and just, for once, listen.
“It is too bad they sent you to France at this time, Amelia; your Arthur might still be alive, and… Well, you wouldn’t have to be here with me.”
Amelia could almost see the young French woman, loyal to the boches, sitting at her station, calmly transmitting letters and hatting columns, making it look as if the transmitter had sent it that way, and then turning over the tortured message to her supervisor, explaining the agent must be under great duress because she had sent an indecipherable---and, no, she couldn’t retransmit, as there was a strong possibility she’d been captured, based on the abrupt ending, and could she please speak to Director Marks?
Amelia’s fingers twitched, knuckles flexed. God help that woman, if Amelia every managed to find her. Hell---God help Pétain.
She was a traitor by blood in the eyes of the Vichy anyway---what did she have to lose?
Hesitantly, Beilschmidt leaned forward, put her hands in his, and Amelia felt too numb to pull away.
Her hands were small, much darker than his large, pale ones. Both callused and rough, though, from years of pencil-pushing and typing.
“Yes, I believe you’re lucky, Amelia Jones: You are lucky to be alive. But I’m concerned for you wellbeing.” He swallowed.
“Your safety, Amelia.”
“How reassuring,” Amelia snorted. Though, some small part of her that she couldn’t control, was grateful nonetheless.
At least someone cared.
Ludwig’s expression was serious, gentle, and so many other things she was too tired to discern.
He’s human too.
He’s a boches. ‘Human’ is far too kind a term.
You know it’s true.
But that didn’t matter. It really didn’t.
Finally, he spoke. “I’m tired, miss. And so are you, I can only imagine. It’s been a long, eventful night, and I think we could both use the rest.”
Amelia looked up at him. “Major, I---”
She wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
She wouldn’t apologise.
Ludwig offered a hand and Amelia quickly took it without thinking. “Amelia, please. We can continue our conversation at ten o’clock, in my office, perhaps with egg creme, bread and sausage. Yes?”
Amelia said nothing as Ludwig turned to go, and she followed.
Egg creme did sound nice though.
Amelia threw back her blanket, the cold morning air hitting her skin like a thousand tiny knives. The cold floorboards sent shivers up her spine as she padded to her window, swiftly pushing the blackout curtains out of her way, let some light into her room, allowing some light into her room. Below her, Tino sat with his back against the stone wall and his arms wrapped around his rifle, hugging it to his chest as if it would afford him any insulation against the cold. He looked up at her, and though every fibre of her being wanted to throw an obscene gesture his way, she simply waved, and he waved back.
Returning to her bed, Amelia pulled off her nightgown in exchange for a silky blouse and a practical skirt that exposed scratched and bruised shins, until she pulled up heavy wool stockings, that scratched at her cuts. She glanced at her reflection in the small mirror above the washbasin and was dismayed to see how gaunt---almost skeletal---her face face seemed; her cheekbones began to protrude, her eyes shadowed and hallow from days of restlessness and anxiety. It had only been a little over a week. And, sure, ever since the war had started, Amelia had been thinning out somewhat, but this. It was insanity---out of one of those cartoons that played at the nickelodeans back home.
She supposed it was her own fault---she was the one who’d been refusing the food. But she couldn’t bear to eat it. It was almost like an admittance of defeat. Like she was submitting to their sympathy, their pity. And she refused to.
She wouldn’t give into her shame.
They could take her freedom, but they couldn’t take her pride.
Whatever. It was a problem for another time.
She quickly dragged her comb threw her hair, wincing as it snagged at the snarls, clenching her teeth as she ripped throw them. What did it matter anymore anyway? She was as good as dead. She pulled clumps of hair out of her comb, wincing at how matted and dull her hair looked in the mirror. She looked like an old doll, thrown in the mud and recovered weeks later. She looked like a corpse, like she was decomposing with every second.
Honestly, it was how she felt.
Groaning, she threw down the comb, hastily smoothed back her hair and covering it with a kerchief.
Her eyes seemed unnaturally bright, as if she were on the verge of tears and her curls had grown out some, now sticking frumpily to her neck and forehead, like a stray poodle.
She was a broken woman, every emotion seeming to stand out in bold relief in their depths. It was no wonder the major seemed to be able to read her thoughts. Though Amelia had always been a “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” sort of deal, she felt like glass---fragmented, fragile, and completely transparent.
Disheartened, she turned and left the room.
Major Beilschmidt looked up from the telephone as she entered his office, lightly wrapping her knuckles against the doorframe as a herald to her entrance.
He was dressed as he’d been when they’d first met in Belley---a wool coat, dark shirt and trousers, and thick boots. All too tailored to fit in despite its neutral appearance. Strange.
She hovered by his desk as she waited for him to hang up, pondering his reasoning for being out of uniform. If it meant anything. How it affected her if it did.
He nodded as he spoke into the receiver, grabbing Amelia’s attention. She never found German very beautiful, but the major had a talent for making it sound almost pleasant, and she listened in rapt attention, and she refused to acknowledge why she was so interested.
“Natürlich nicht. Ich war schon zu lange weg. Ich kann nur noch ein paar Tage übrig haben.” His voice had risen from its normal cadence, however slight, and Amelia’s interest was piqued further. It took a lot to make him angry---and she was curious as to what could.
Aside from her, of course.
She hadn’t forgotten so soon.
The burn on her neck still stung.
“Ich bin mir sicher, dass du es tun würdest. Aber die Wahrheit ist, es ist nicht meine Schuld. Dresdner bestand darauf, den Gefangenen ohne Begleitung zu transportieren, obwohl ich…”
He paused to listen. What had gotten him so upset? Something about Dresdner, obviously, but...They couldn’t possibly be onto him already, could they?
“Nein. Er verweigerte. Sagte, er konnte nicht warten----” Ludwig stopped, as if interrupted. “Mein Rat wäre, Ihre Agenten die Bergdörfer zwischen Belley und Aix-les-Bains durchsuchen zulassen. Sie würde von den Maquisards abhängig sein, um Deckung zu finden, aber sie wird sich irgendwann mal bewegen müssen---sie möchte zurück ins Alliierte Territorium.”
Again, he listened. And now, his voice sterner than Amelia’s ever really heard it, without even the smallest hint of remorse: “Sag Dresdner, er soll sein eigenes Chaos aufräumen!” He slammed the phone back down onto the receiver and gave Amelia a wry smile. “Seems no one can find the elusive American girl.”
Amelia almost smiled back.
“I came to ask what you need me to do today.”
Ludwig nodded, running a hand tiredly through his hair and making what seemed an honest-to-God attempt to give her a sincere smile through his irritation. “I’ve been thinking—maybe—an outing to the river.”
Amelia blinked. An outing, when the air was practically at Arctic temperatures? Between her, a captive, and him, her captor?
It was beyond ridiculous.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Certainly.” Beilschmidt reached for a hair and covered his neatly-combed hair (Amelia grimaced, remembering her combing disaster from that morning). “You can come with me or you can sit locked up in your room all day with Tolys staring up at you from below your window.”
“Some choice,” Amelia grumbled, rubbing her elbows.
“We’ll be leaving in fifteen minutes.”
Mist rose eerily from the river’s surface as the Citroën pulled to a stop on a bluff overlooking the water. Hillsides rose sleepily from the water on every side, and a carpet of trees forested the precipitous slopes, their dull winter grey blending with the blue-grey of the water below. A particularly long hill rose in front of them and stretched warily across the near-end of the liver like a large, lazy crocodile. On the lower end courched the ruins of a castle. Its walls seemed haunched and it’s tower alert.
It was a scene straight from the fantasies Amelia read as a girl.
“Grangent Castle,” Ludwig said, nodding in the direction of the ruins. “I used to spend my summers here with my best friend and his family.”
“Growing up, we were inseparable.”
“Looks like you still are.” She smiled faintly.
“Have you ever rowed a boat?” He pointed to the edge of the shore, where a tiny wooden skiff lay halfway in the sand, it’s back end bobbing against the river’s current.
“Used to go fishin’ with my dad every spring. Unless this is your latest plan to get rid of me, in which case: no, never. Nothin’ to worry ‘bout.”
Ludwig chuckled against the back of his hand politely, and Amelia saw something like companionship glimmer in his eyes. It softened the edges of her dislike for him.
“On a day like this, it would be criminal not to enjoy the river, but, in that case, I’ll take the controls.”
A few minutes later they were gliding past the castle on the hill, and Amelia watched the tower slip away as they pushed against the current of the river.
Though she had initially offered to row upon entering the skill, she was grateful the major had insisted he row the boat (“I was raised to be a gentleman, and if I act like nothing less, I know Herr Laurinaitis would walk out from behind that tree and skin me alive”), as now she gripped both sides of the flimsy craft and stole intermittent glances at the major.
He now sat facing her, his shoulders and arms hunched forward as he propelled them along the river.
He now sat facing her, his shoulders and arms hunched forward as he propelled them along the river.
He was confusing. His methods of “interrogation”---so far, at least---had not been what her commanding officers had established as the norm, nothing of what had filled the British pamphlets. Where were the straps, rubber clubs, the metal bars? The excruciatingly long sessions and bright lights? The chains and mind-softening drugs?
None of it made sense: treating the wounds, kidnapping her from the Gestapo, and now… well, being here, on this river, as if they were old friends.
Amelia recoiled. Why did she have thoughts?
“Used to catch a lot of salmon here, when I was a kid.” He didn’t even sound winded, which Amelia find quite unfair. “Shot my first rabbit around those hills.” He gestured to a wooded slope that was barely visible in the mist.
Amelia giggled, then quickly smothered it with her hand. It was just so ridiculous, like she was on an outing with some boy, not being interrogated by a bizarre German officer with bizarre methods.
And this wasn’t a date. They weren’t lovers. She needed to stop equating all of this to that.
It can’t be good for her health.
“Gil fell out of the boat once. Nearly drowned in the current. Surprisingly, he doesn’t see the charm in the story the rest of us do.” He laughed, and then saw the expression on Amelia’s face. “Not what you were expecting, is it?”
Amelia shook her head. “Not even a bit.”
He grinned somewhat, before his expression grew stern again, softened by the sincere curiosity in his eyes. “Tell me more about your family.”
“Thought your sources already did.”
Ludwig ignored the bite in her tone. “Not everything.”
“’Course not. Well. Why should I?”
“Because I asked you to. Don’t question me.”
He was suddenly preoccupied, impatient. Amelia took a deep breath, chest thick with irritation. She needed to tread carefully with him---he’s suggested her life depended on her cooperation, hadn’t he? She had no choice here. She needed to stop forgetting this fact. However small it seemed to some---though being robbed of her agency felt like a slap to the face, a fate worse than death---it was intrinsic to her survival.
So she forced herself to begin. “Well, there’s not a lot to tell, y’know? But, uh, during the Great War my dad was an engineer with the US Army. Uh, you probably knew that.”
Ludwig’s lips twisted. “Some of it. Go on.”
Be candid. Pretend this is a normal conversation. Pretend it’s an outing between friends. Even a date. Just be honest.
But being honest was not as easy as it should have been, as it had always been.
But she was a traitor anyway.
“He was assigned to an engineering corps of some kind, help demolish bridges an’ all o’ that. You know, to keep the Germans outta Paris.”
I have nothing left to lose.
“Wherever Dad an’ his passed through, people would cry, blow kisses, through roses, even give ‘em bouquets of flowers. They’d stay with well-to-do families, an’ he’d tell me ‘bout the fumier.” Amelia smiled a bit. “Was considered a sign of wealth an’ thrift, apparently. But Dad...well, the stench was pretty overwhelming, he tells me. So, he’d complain ‘bout it. A lot.”
She laughed a bit. She could almost imagine her parents, young and in love.
“So, one night, the boys return to the house, drunk and messin’ around, y’know? So, my dad---well, it was pretty dark, an’ well, he found himself tumblin’ headfirst into a fresh pile of manure, an’ my mom---the daughter of their current host---saw, an’ she couldn’t stop laughin’, called him ‘Monsieur Fumier’ for days. Dad swore her laugh was the prettiest in all the world.”
’Til I heard yours, he was always so quick to say. But that felt too personal to share with just about anybody ---let alone to a Nazi.
She didn’t believe it anyway---it was loud, obnoxious, and she snorted like a pig the whole time.
It didn’t bother her, but she didn’t want to lie to herself about it either.
“So, when Dad was transferred, he an’ Mom agreed to write, an’ when the war ended, they got married.” She shrugged. “Like I said---not much to tell.”
“Your mother had never left France, then?”
Amelia nodded. “Not ’til years later, when Dad found work at a university in Massachusetts. She mainly agreed so she could so she could meet his family though, especially since her parents passed on…”
Amelia fell awkwardly silent, thinking of the grandparents she hardly knew.
Major Beilschmidt looked at her intently, and she saw a curious stirring of emotion in his eyes. After several beats of silence, Amelia couldn’t help but wonder if the mention of “family” had alienated him?
Suddenly the oppressive truth of her captivity weighing down her shoulders.
Amelia looked away. “I’m sorry, Major Beilschmidt. I don’t wanna bore you with my stories.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Bore me?”
“’S what I said.”
Amelia tentatively dipped her fingers in the cold river and immediately recoiled. It was freezing, as she had expected.
“Tell me about your family in America.”
Surprised, she turned from the dull grey water, and he smiled faintly---almost sheepishly---back at her. “They seems to be important. To your mother, at least.”
“They are,” she muttered, voice barely above the rushing water. She narrowed her eyes at him---not in scrutiny, judgement. Warily. Studying his face for a hint, even the barest trace of scorn or ridicule. Nothing. Just polite interest, curiosity. Subtle amusement.
She sighed. Her voice was hesitant when she continued, slipping back into English as a sort of barrier. An ineffective one, still, but a barrier all the same. “Well, most of ‘em are located on the west coast, in Oregon and California, y’know?”
He leaned forward a little, almost like he was trying to hear her better. As if she was giving him the secret to life.
She leaned back reflexively and he did as well. “Excuse me,” they muttered in tandem, and Amelia was pretty sure she saw the major flush a bright red sort of colour, his neck and cheeks growing even pinker than their usual shade.
He cleared his throat. She hummed nervously, twiddling with her thumbs, gaze stubbornly locked on her feet.
“Sorry, sorry,” she half-grumbled, feeling the heat splotching on her neck.
He shook his head, palm facing toward her. “No, no. You have no need to apologise.”
“‘Scuse me for bein’ polite.”
“It’s nothin’. You’re forgiven.” She smiled sardonically. “See? That’s how you accept an apology.”
“Oh, well---my apologies, Miss Jones.”
Another uncomfortable, stuffy silence where Amelia became starkly aware that this boat was not big enough and there was nobody else around.
Not that she feared for her life. Major Beilschmidt had more than proven he didn’t seem to a have a mind for killing---well, not her at least. But there was no escape, was there?
Again, Ludwig cleared his throat. “We’re...we’re getting off topic, miss.”
Amelia glanced up at him. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”
Amelia grinned. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He flashed her delighted smile. “Your family lives in the west? In California and Oregon?”
“Right.” Amelia began picking at the peeled skin on her thumb. “Dad didn’t have a lot, grown’ up as a farmboy an’ all. But he was ambitious as anyone---well, maybe twice it, actually. A real patriot, lotsa big dreams, especially for someone in his situation. Worked twice as hard as anybody else to get into school, going above and beyond in the military, got a masters, moved out to Boston, before movin’ back to France, marryin’ my mom...y’know, alla that jazz.”
She smiled tightly. “Told Mom all ‘bout his childhood, an’, well, she was desperate to visit a country that to her only really existed in stories, you know…”
Ludwig hadn’t even batted an eyes. His brow was furrowed with concentration. Again, her dislike for him eroded a bit more. It was almost touching, how intently and sincerely he listened. Though far from the suffragette her mother and many of her aunts and uncles had been, she had to admit: most men---especially someone of the major’s rank and status---especially in his position over her---didn’t seem to have much patience in listening to her.
She may have been young, but she wasn’t a child. She was plenty intelligent. Plenty knowledgeable. And, well, so far the major had treated her that way, and she wasn’t sure if it would be strange to thank him or not.
Thank all of her captors, really. For treating her with basic respect and dignity---like she was an equal to them, almost.
“The soldiers had told Mom how beautiful it is back home…”
“Is it?” There was a strange light in his eyes.
“It is.” Amelia couldn’t help the swell of pride in her voice---as if she’d carved the landscape with her own two hands. “It’s gorgeous, got any landscape you could ask for.”
“You’ve spent most of your life in Boston?”
“Did your family ever miss France?”
Amelia nodded as she watched a heron fly low over the surface of the river. “Oh, definitely, ‘course. Mom an’ I---we were born there, y’know? Practically shaped my life; I’d’ve been a different person without it. But after my mom’s parents died, well….” Amelia stopped. Another memory too precious to share---not even to prolong her life.
“And you and Arthur?” Beilschmidt prompted. “Were you planning to be married in the US?”
“Yeah, yeah---Arthur’s family’s got a lotta money, y’know, and we both agreed it’d be easier to fly his parents---an’, uh, his brothers, ‘course---over than, uh, my entire family, who aren’t, y’know, exactly accustomed to the likes in London…”
There was a strange look in Ludwig’s eyes; suspicious, she supposed, though she wasn’t sure why. “Is that right?”
“Like I said.”
Amelia pursed her lips thoughtfully. “So, we were gonna get, well, uh...Boston, y’know, and then we were gonna travel.”
“Everywhere. Y’know, Brazil, China, Russia---his mom would always say we both are---were---too adventurous for our own good.” Amelia felt her emotions rising to the surface, dangerously close to boiling over. “Don’t you have anythin’ better to do than torture me with memories? Don’t you realise what you’ve taken from me? I loved Arthur more than my own life---I would’ve gladly taken his place! He was my other half---my better half! The bravest, smartest, kindest man the world’s ever known!” She sucked in her cheeks, glaring. “He was twice the man you could ever be, three times---four---you are now, an’---you took him from me, from everyone!”
Ludwig said nothing; his expression betrayed no emotions.
Again: completely unfair.
Amelia curled her lip. “That’s somethin’ a man like you’ll never understand.”
“Maybe not.” He seemed unruffled by her remarks. “But I want to hear about it anyway, Amelia.”
“It intrigues me. You intrigue me---you and your life. Even those ‘boring’ stories. Sometimes I wonder…” He hesitated, coughing lightly into his hand.
“What d’you wonder, Major?” Amelia croaked.
“Well, without all...this, I suppose,” (he gestured both at everything and at nothing at the same times), “maybe you and I could’ve been friends.”
Amelia’s expression twisted.
“Maybe you and Arthur would’ve gotten married, moved to London---and I could have visited you two there from time to time, formed a lifelong friendship, I suppose…”
“Instead, you killed him.”
Ludwig turned from her, impassive. “Such is war.”
Amelia frowned, her strength suddenly gone, sapped from her outburst. “And how did you know Arthur? Did’ya spend time with him in cafés? Deceive him, like you did to me? Make him believe you were a Frenchman, loyal to the Résistance, so you could infiltrate his organisation?”
Ludwig shook his head. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
“How’d’ya know him then, huh?”
Major Beilschmidt dug in with the paddles, turning the boat back to with the current to head back the direction they’d come. “This isn’t the right time to tell, Amelia.”
“Well, why in the hell not? I’ve been straight with you—gainst my better judgement, by the way—an’ I’ve answered all your questions, haven’t I?”
“Yes...because I required it.” Ludwig smiled forlornly. “When you tell me your thoughts because you want to, Amelia---then will be the right time. Then I will confide in you.”
Ludwig drummed his fingers against his desk, jaw twitching. “I understand it’s out of my jurisdiction. But it affects my district, my security, and the security of my men. This is the Résistance we’re talking about---not some Luftwaffe deserter.”
Only half of him comprehended the voice on the other side of the line as he strained to keep his patience, keep his emotions in check.
“Yes. The woman is connected to the Résistance. And yes, I do think an old French woman's whereabouts is reason enough to tie up the three men each day for as long as it takes.”
He grimaced at the receiver, holding it away from his ear as the voice on the other end rose in volume.
“You need to calm down, Sir. Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure.” He hesitated. “Yes, I will assume complete responsibility for the surveillance. I only ask that you lend me the manpower until we detain the caretaker. Someone is caring for that house, and he’ll help us track down the owner. Sir.”
Ludwig hung up the phone and paused with his hand on the receiver as he sorted through the conversation. Glanced out the window.
Gil’s still on guard duty. He decided, rather than to hole up in his office and fret---though, at his point, it was practically his only real talent---to give him some much-needed company.
Outside, Gilbert lounged against the frozen garden wall, taking long drags of his cigarette to ward off the cold.
But, Ludwig supposed, trench life had taught Gilbert well. Nothing seemed to phase him after the war. The exact opposite of Tolys: the once brasher of the twins in so many ways, he’d become something of trembler, especially when stressed, and he tended to cry out of frustration much too often. Gilbert tended to drink to numb his frustrations, especially after his fiancée left....
Gilbert shook his head. “Rapunzel seems to content to remain in her tower tonight. Though, from the tension I felt between the two of you when you got back---fifty percent chance she’ll smother you in your sleep, fifty percent chance she----”
Ludwig’s face felt like it might melt off from the heat radiation from his cheeks. “That’s enough, Gilbert: I’ll be vigilant.”
Gilbert cackled, spinning on his heel to face Ludwig. “You’re too cute, Ludva---like a little puppy.” He clapped him hard on the back with his free hand.
“Thanks, Mutti.” But he was chuckling as well.
Gilbert suddenly went silent, his voice low and severe in tone. “Seriously, Ludwig. You’re taking a pretty hefty risk. Have you ever thought about what might happen if the Gestapo decides to check up on your activities? What if they’ve managed to intercept the message the little vixen sent last night?”
“I’ve thought about that.” Ludwig leaned on the stone wall next to him. “And it’s a risk I have to take---for the moment, anyway. You know that.”
Gilbert inhaled sharply. “That’s the thing---I don’t, Lud. I really don’t.”
“I’ve explained my---”
“You did, I know. And I don’t care; I told you I’m going to help you. I’m not backing out now. None of us are.” He sighed. “So...you haven’t decided yet?”
Ludwig sighed, leaning his forehead to pinch the bridge of his nose. “She’s afraid of me. Which is understandable, considering her position. But...she’s determined to keep me at a distance---”
“Which is also understandable, I suppose. But like I said, you’re like a puppy.”
Ludwig shook his head. “Of course---I’d worry for her mental stability if she didn’t.”
“Personally, I worry about it anyway---”
“Stop projecting, Gil---”
Gilbert took another drag. “Fine.”
“Well, she shares her memories---barely. She refuses to trust me, which, again, I understand, given her situation, but---” He ran a hand through his hair. “I suppose there’s no come back from being the Nazi officer holding her captive while she grieves, is there?”
The two chuckled, albeit, slightly bitter.
“But, really, is she worth the risk? I mean, as a woman, she is pretty incredible---she reminds me of Böszi---” Another bitter chuckle and Ludwig prepared himself for a long rant on something like the selfishness of women or whatever else popped into his broken mind--- “but is she really worth the risk to your family? You promised An---”
“I know, I know what I promised, but.” He sighed, looked into the misty distance. “She just might be, Gilbert.”
“Is she who you thought she’d be?”