Le Coeur de Lion |
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
Hearing the tramp of boots on cobblestone, Anna froze in the alleyway between two buildings. Back pressed to a brick wall, eyes turned toward the street, she slipped her right hand beneath her dark jacket. Three German soldiers stepped into the yellow pool of light tossed out by a nearby street lamp, and Anna's hold tightened on the grip of the pistol. But the men continued on their way, chatting amiably, and disappeared from view. Still she waited. Not until the boot steps and voices had faded completely did she drop her hand and begin moving down the alley once more.
A sudden wave of pain and nausea swept over her, forcing her to stop again and lean against the building. Breathing raggedly, she waited for the worst of it to pass and settle again into a dull throbbing. The cold October breeze whipped around her, and she hugged the thin, worn jacket closer with her right arm.
She should abandon this senseless search and find a hole to crawl into before her strength gave out. There was only Jacques's word that this woman, Katrine, would help. Could she stake her life on that? While it was possible she would die without treatment, if she lost consciousness in the open, death would be certain. The only question remaining would be how long the Germans would torture her before the execution.
The crash of metal snapped her head up. A moment later, a man began yelling in German. The pistol was suddenly in her hand, pain and exhaustion forgotten. Pulse racing, Anna moved toward the far end of the alley, footsteps silent and sure. Crouching down, she peered out. A boy of no more than ten lay sprawled in the street near a fallen bicycle, its rear wheel still spinning. A German officer glowered down at him, spewing obscenities now in heavily accented French. Then the man grabbed the boy by his shirt front, yanked him up, and slapped him across the face.
Anger, cold and deadly, stole over Anna, who welcomed its familiar embrace. Time to slaughter another pig. She shoved her pistol back into its holster before slipping a knife from her boot. She had just begun to rise when a hand clasped her arm from behind.
"Wait!" came an urgent whisper.
Anna whirled, ignoring the stab of pain as she shoved her injured left arm against the speaker's chest, smashing the body against the rough brick wall. The blade of her knife hovered over the exposed throat. In the partial moonlight, Anna could see that her captive was a woman, smaller than she.
"Why do you care if I slit that beast's throat?" Anna whispered harshly. "Is his life important to you?"
Beneath her arm, Anna could feel the wild beating of the woman's heart, but the eyes that met her own showed no trace of fear.
"No," the woman replied in a low, husky voice. "But the French lives that will be taken in retaliation for his murder are."
There would be such a price if she killed the German, Anna acknowledged silently. Hoping to stop the assassinations of their soldiers and officials, the invaders had made it a policy to slaughter as many as 100 French citizens in retaliation for the death of a single German. But resistance fighters knew the random attacks frightened and demoralized the enemy; they could not afford to throw away such a weapon. Freedom came at a terrible price, Anna thought fiercely. Every member of the resistance knew it because they were the ones who so often paid the bloody reckoning.
But was the killing necessary tonight? Would this one death matter? Weak with pain, exhausted from days with little or no sleep, Anna found it difficult to think.
The sound of another slap followed by a cry came from the street. Anna shoved her arm harder against her captive's chest, saw the other woman wince. "I will not," she hissed, "allow another French child to be beaten."
"Neither will I," said the woman, steel in her voice. "Let me go, and I'll take care of this."
Anna hesitated, searching the face before her in the dim light, looking for something to tell her whether this woman could be trusted. She found herself wanting to believe in...somebody. The thought shook her, and her right hand began to tremble. Abruptly, Anna dropped her arm and stepped back. "Betray me, and you'll die with him," she promised, "no matter the consequences."
The woman nodded once, smoothed her dress, and strolled out into the street. Anna moved to watch from the mouth of the alleyway.
"Lieutenant," the woman called out, voice low and throaty, "is this stupid boy bothering you?"
The officer loosed his grip on the child, who fell in a heap at his boots. "Madame," he said in harshly accented French, offering her a small bow, "a pleasure to see you again."
The note of familiarity caused Anna's finger to tighten on the trigger.
"Do not concern yourself with this piece of trash," he continued, glancing distastefully at the frightened boy. "I am merely teaching it a lesson in respect."
The woman halted in front of the officer, looking up at him with a smile. "A good lesson to learn."
"Yes," he replied, "one too many of your countrymen still need. But they will find us up to the task-as we have been for the past three years."
"Perhaps you're right," the woman answered easily, "but you needn't waste your time further with this boy. I know his mama. When I tell her what's happened, she'll be only too happy to finish his lesson."
The officer appeared undecided, less than eager to release his small prey.
"Lieutenant," the woman said, placing a hand on his arm, "come enjoy a bottle of wine tonight at Le Coeur de Lion and forget all about careless boys."
He smiled. "Will Brigitte be there tonight?"
"Then I accept," he replied and offered her a final bow before strolling away.
The woman waited until the German had turned a corner before kneeling beside the weeping boy and taking him into her arms. "It's okay now, my little one, he's gone."
She pulled out a handkerchief and dried the boy's face. "You must go home now, Pierre, your mama will be worried."
"Are you g-going to t-tell her?" he asked in a small voice. "Do you think s-she will b-beat me?"
"But no, of course not! How could you think it?" she chided, smiling kindly down into the frightened face. "I only said that to get rid of the German."
Pierre hugged her. She returned the embrace, then held him away, face serious. "But you must promise me to be more careful. The Germans are dangerous, even for little boys."
"I promise, Madame."
Anna had seen enough. Exhaustion swept over her, and she slipped back into the alley. She didn't realize that she had slid to the ground until the woman reappeared and stooped down to examine her.
"Pierre isn't the only one in need of rescuing," the woman murmured in her low voice.
Anna tried to summon up a denial, but blackness stole over her before she could speak.
"No, Nicolas, no doctor," Katrine replied patiently. Seated on the edge of her bed, she was gently washing away the dirt on the face of her guest, having already cleaned and bandaged the wound on the woman's upper arm. Fortunately, the bullet had not lodged itself, and Katrine hadn't needed to undertake the grim task of digging it out.
The face slowly being revealed beneath the layer of grime was a young one, not more than 22 or 23, with a straight nose, full lips, and a cleft chin. A pretty face, Katrine decided, vulnerable in repose-nothing like the deadly one seen in the moonlight above the sharp blade of a knife. Katrine shivered at the memory. The immediate danger having passed, she could indulge in that small luxury.
"But, Madame," protested the short, homely man standing near the bed, faded red hair springing from his head in untidy wisps, "if the wound becomes infected..."
Katrine glanced up at him. "I know, Nicolas, but I don't trust Dr. Lacoste. His son joined the Germans' Legion of French Volunteers."
"But the doctor has denounced the legion and other collaborators," the nightclub's handyman and errand runner replied. "He often talks about how much he hates the Nazis."
A corner of Katrine's mouth lifted. "Too often."
A moan interrupted the argument. Katrine dropped the washcloth back into the basin of soapy water on the night stand, then placed her other hand lightly against her visitor's chest to prevent any sudden movement that could restart the blooding. The club owner stifled a gasp as her wrist was captured in a viselike grip. Pale blue eyes, cold and hard, challenged her.
Keep your head, her father once said, and keep your life. That advice had saved her more than once. So for the second time this night, she suppressed the instinct to struggle against her captor. "You're safe here, Mademoiselle," she said soothingly.
The injured woman ignored the comment, eyes leaving Katrine's to scan the room. They flickered over Nicolas, paused, then dismissed him. Evidently satisfied that there was no imminent danger, the injured woman threw off Katrine's hand and struggled to sit up.
The club owner stifled an impulse to offer assistance. Instead, she sat rubbing her wrist, waiting for the stranger to speak.
After several breathless and obviously painful moments, Katrine's patient managed to prop herself up against the headboard.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "Where is this?"
"I am Katrine Durr. You are a guest in my home and nightclub, Le Coeur de Lion," Katrine answered evenly, ignoring a flash of anger at the tone of the question. The woman was hurt, and undoubtedly afraid, whether she showed it or not. "Now perhaps you will tell me who you are and what brought you to the alley behind my club."
Katrine raised her eyebrows. "Me? You've come to see me?"
"Yes," the woman replied.
Katrine waited, but the stranger seemed to have no intention of expanding on her statement. Half-exasperated, half-amused, the club owner said, "I see. You heard that Le Coeur de Lion offers the best wine in all of France and decided that, despite the small nuisance of a bullet wound, you had to come see if it were true."
The blonde raised one eyebrow. "Jacques didn't mention the wine."
The name clutched at Katrine's stomach. Not an uncommon one, she reminded herself. But considering who this stranger probably was, Katrine suspected she knew this Jacques quite well. And I want it to be my Jacques, she admitted silently. She had had little word of him since the Germans had invaded.
Still she couldn't afford to be reckless. Or any more reckless than she had already been in bringing this woman here. "One of my patrons?"
"He said he grew up with you," the young woman replied coolly. "He claimed you shoved him out of a tree."
That surprised a laugh from the club owner, whose mind instantly conjured the scene of a scruffy dark-haired boy sprawled on the ground, scowling up at her. Relief washed over her. He would never have told this woman that story unless he trusted her completely. He had obviously meant it as a sign for his old friend.
Smiling, Katrine asked, "How is Jacques?"
Voice emotionless, the woman replied, "Dead."
Dead. The word struck her like a blow. Breathless, she stumbled to her feet and crossed to the room's single window. Back to the others, she struggled for control, lifting the edge of the heavy curtain to peer out. Another loved one dead. On the lamp-lit street outside, she imagined she could see the ghostly shape of the man who had been her friend, her faithful ally, and for a brief time, her lover. Ah, my Jacques, not you. She had known his death was all too possible. Those who fought for freedom rarely enjoyed long lives. But she had hoped. She had hoped.
Nicolas cleared his throat. Impatiently, she brushed away the tears. She couldn't allow the blackness to engulf her; people needed her. She turned back to face the room.
"Katrine," Nicolas said tentatively. "I should go run that...," he threw an uncertain glance at the blonde, "errand."
Katrine waved her hand in dismissal. "Yes, go on. We're fine here."
Nicolas nodded, then turned to the stranger, giving her a short bow. "Mademoiselle, I wish you a speedy recovery."
The stranger stared out him, making no reply.
The little man flushed. "Yes, well...," he mumbled before grabbing awkwardly at the doorknob and making his exit.
Katrine crossed to the foot of the bed. "You have a great deal to tell me, yes?"
That was met with a shrug. The gesture was clearly a mistake, however, for a grimace of pain followed.
The club owner sighed, wondering just how much trouble Jacques had sent her. "May I at least know your name?"
A hesitation then reluctantly, "Anna."
One small victory, Katrine noted wryly. And we've haven't even gotten to the difficult parts yet.
"Anna. I think you need some food-and a bath."
Steam rising around her, Anna rested her head against the sloping back of the claw-footed bathtub, eyes closed. Cradled by the heated water, aches and pains soothed, she allowed herself to savor this respite from the struggle. When was the last time she had felt full, warm, and halfway clean?
A childhood memory slipped through the door she usually kept barred. Her mother was laughing, leaning over the old tub in their small house to wash her only child's pouting face. Anna had always hated taking baths because it meant abandoning whatever adventure she and the village boys had been embarked upon. Now she would have traded her soul to feel the slightly rough texture of the washcloth sliding over her skin and hear her mother's laughter.
Before she could stop it, another picture superimposed itself upon the first: her mother's raped and beaten corpse lying in their front room.
No! Anna slammed her mind shut on the memories.
A tap at the door jerked her upright, water sloshing onto the tiled floor. Pain shot through her left shoulder.
"Damn!" Anna gritted out, clutching her arm.
The door, which faced the tub, was pushed partway open, and the club owner peered around it.
"Is that your way of saying 'come in'?" she inquired, a smile edging her lips.
If her skin hadn't already been flushed from the heat, Anna was certain she'd be blushing. For some reason, this woman disconcerted her. Trying to hide her discomfort, Anna asked gruffly, "What do you want?"
Katrine stepped into the room, a pair of wineglasses in one hand, a bottle in the other. "I thought I would offer you a glass of the wine you came so far to taste," she replied, tone teasing. "You only had water with your food."
Not knowing how to respond, Anna found herself staring at the other woman, assessing not her potential danger this time, but her physical appearance. Madame Durr was probably in her mid-thirties, about 5'3" or 4", certainly several inches shorter than Anna's own 5'9". She wore her shoulder-length auburn hair tied back loosely from her face. The features of that face were finely drawn, the eyes a grayish-blue, the jaw strong but feminine. It was, Anna conceded, a face men would find very attractive. The body, still clad in the simple but flattering dress, was slim, with small but well-rounded breasts and hips.
"Is that a yes or a no, Mademoiselle?"
Anna started. Where had her thoughts been going? "Yes," she managed to say.
"Ah, good." Katrine Durr stepped forward and leaned over the bath to hand Anna a glass.
The younger woman took it gingerly, not liking the sensation of having someone towering over her-especially when she was naked. If someone of Madame's size could be said to tower, Anna thought dryly.
Katrine poured the white wine into Anna's glass, then straightened to fill her own. "To Jacques," she said softly, lifting her glass.
Anna saw pain flicker across the other woman's face, heard it in her voice, and wondered if she were mourning a close friend or a lover. What difference does it make? she thought, irritated with herself.
"To Jacques," Anna responded, raising her glass before taking a sip. Ahhh. Savoring the liquid before swallowing, she closed her eyes as it wrapped itself smoothly around her tongue. It had been a long time since she had tasted wine this good. Nights huddling under blankets for warmth, passing around stolen bottles of cheap wine, flashed through her mind. She couldn't see the faces; they didn't dare risk a fire. But she could hear the men's voices all around her, murmuring, sometimes even laughing-the humor grim.
"Do you wish to talk, Mademoiselle?"
Anna's eyes snapped open at the question and saw the compassion in the older woman's face. Pain stabbed at her chest as that look threatened to breach her emotional dam.
"No," she replied.
"Well, then," the club owner responded, seemingly unperturbed, "at least let me help you wash your back and your hair."
Anna, who was taking another swallow of wine, choked. "Wha...what?" she asked, staring up at the other woman.
Katrine smiled, gesturing at the injured arm. "You can't do it with only one hand. Let me help."
Anna was nonplussed at the thought of the other woman's touching her, but the proposal was only logical. And now that hair had been mentioned, Anna's scalp itched all over.
"Ok," she agreed at last.
She continued to sip her wine, slightly bemused as she watched Katrine bustling around, getting the various items she needed. Before long, the club owner was seated on a wooden stool behind Anna. Nervous with this stranger at her back, she took a long swallow from the glass that had just been refilled.
"Bend forward a little, please," Katrine instructed in her husky voice.
Anna complied, and warm water cascaded over her head.
"Good. You can lean back again."
Anna steeled herself for the first touch; her mother had been a vigorous washer. But these fingers slid gently through Anna's hair.
At first, it unnerved her to be touched. Not even Jacques had been allowed to do so, except when a mission required it. Yet tonight, as the minutes passed, Anna gradually felt her muscles begin to relax. In the quiet, she could hear the ticking of a clock in one of the outer rooms, the squishing of her hair as it was washed, and the soft breathing of the woman behind her.
"We had gone out to sabotage a train," Anna began in a low voice, surprised because she had not meant to speak at all. The hands washing her hair stilled momentarily, then began moving again.
"But there was trouble, and we were nearly caught. To lose our pursuers, we had to go the long way back to the mountains. It was infuriating because there was to be a meeting of several maquis groups at our encampment the night after our mission. But we had to be safe, make sure everyone would be safe, so we didn't reach camp until the following afternoon."
Anna took another drink against the memories, wishing to shut them away as she had others. But she had begun the tale, so she would finish it.
"The Germans had ambushed the camp. We could see through the trees that most of our comrades lay dead, though a few were still firing back. Jacques wanted to start shooting the Germans, but I knew we'd never survive once the pigs discovered us. So I stopped him."
The maquisard gave a short, unamused laugh. "That was funny, you see, because he was the one who always kept me from charging recklessly into a situation."
She remembered his crouching beside her in the basement of some house, his dark handsome face, with its serious brown eyes, broken nose, and surprisingly delicate mouth, turned toward her. Look, Anna, before you go charging in, he had said. Weigh the risks. We are few. We'll only succeed by being smarter than they are.
"We couldn't do anything for those men-except stay alive to finish what all of us had started."
If I had been alone, Anna wondered, would I have cared? But she couldn't let Jacques die for nothing, not after all he had done.
Anna shook her head slightly, clearing away the stray thoughts. After another sip, she continued. "We had begun retreating when we stumbled into a German soldier."
Her voice faltered as the scene played out again in her mind, as it had time and again over the last few days: the German rising in front of them, Jacques shouting a warning, her hand snapping up to shoot even as the enemy soldier was already firing, her finger squeezing the trigger on her pistol, the smacking recoil of the gun against her palm, red blossoming on the soldier's gray uniform, his falling, her turning to see Jacques lying on the ground. She had dropped to her knees beside him, not realizing until he reached out a shaking hand toward her arm that she had been shot as well.
Anna took a breath, forcing her fingers to loosen their white grip on the wineglass. "We both knew he wouldn't survive that wound. I would have stayed anyway, but Jacques made me promise to get out, to come here. He said to trust you; that you would help me."
She paused then took a breath. "So I came because I promised him." This last was said defiantly.
In the silence that greeted her story, Anna could hear the ticking of the clock again. A minute or more passed, then she felt the woman at her back stand up. Madame Durr moved to the sink to refill her pan with warm water and sat down behind Anna again. "Lean forward, and I'll rinse your hair," she said.
Anna complied, the empty wineglass still clutched in one hand. Warm water once again cascaded over her head, Katrine's free hand moving through Anna's hair to help rid it of the soap. The process was repeated with a second basin of water.
"That should do it," Katrine commented at last. "Now let me wash your back, and you can get out."
"I don't need...," Anna began to protest.
"Yes, you do." The words snapped with impatience.
Anna's stiffened. She reached out and set the empty wineglass on the floor, then began to push up out of the tub. A hand pressed on her good shoulder.
"I'm sorry," the club owner said. "Hearing of his death...," her voice trailed away.
"I thought you wanted to know," Anna replied gruffly, allowing herself to be gently pressed back down.
Katrine rose and came around to kneel at the side of the tub. Her eyes, damp with grieving, met Anna's. "I did. Thank you for telling me."
Anna remembered just in time not to shrug, nodding instead.
"So let me wash your back to show my appreciation," Katrine said, a sad smile touching her lips. "Please."
Suddenly feeling a great weariness, Anna nodded her head once more.
Katrine lounged in an overstuffed chair in her sitting room, a fire crackling in the fireplace before her. She had shifted from wine to brandy. Swirling the dark liquid in the snifter, she let her thoughts run over the last few hours and the maquisard in her bathroom.
Do I endanger everything and everyone by taking this woman into my home and into our group? Katrine wondered. She had purposely kept her organization small, a tight circle of people whom she trusted with her life and who trusted her with theirs. Jacques, it was clear, had trusted Anna, or he wouldn't have told her as much as he had. But that was no guarantee that Anna was not a spy, that she hadn't been coerced. Even Jean Moulin had fallen victim to betrayal, when a member of the resistance, captured by the Germans, had turned informant. It had been a blow for it was Moulin who had united the resistance groups throughout France.
The last anyone had seen or heard from Moulin had been in late June. One of the men Katrine had met with in Paris last month to exchange information had talked to someone who had seen Moulin in a Lyons prison. His face had been a mess, bruised and swollen. But the word among the prisoners was that Moulin had given his torturers nothing.
That surprised no one, except perhaps the Germans. Moulin, who had been prefect in the district of Eure-et-Loir when the Germans invaded, had resisted the enemy from the beginning. When they had tried to force him to sign a paper accusing a group of black French soldiers of murdering seven women and children, he had refused, knowing the men were innocent. Angered, the German officers had beaten him, threatened him with death, and thrown him into a cell.
Katrine had met Moulin once when Paris. A handsome and charming man who had worn a scarf around his neck to hide the ugly scar there. The wound had been self-inflicted. Afraid that if the Germans tortured him again, he would break and sign that paper, the prefect had taken a shard of glass from a broken window and slashed his throat.
Fortunately for France, he had botched the job. The Germans had treated him and eventually gotten rid of him by giving him a pass to cross into the unoccupied zone. But Moulin was only beginning to make trouble for the Germans.
Katrine sipped the brandy, letting it slide warmly down her throat. Strange, but there was something about Anna that reminded the club owner of Moulin. Perhaps that was why Katrine found herself willing to trust this stranger. Like Moulin, Anna would probably slash her own throat before betraying anyone.
The brandy snifter clicked as Katrine set it down on a small table. She stood and walked across the room to a cherry-wood secretary, scattered with loose papers. It was the portraits of the desk that drew her attention, however. In one of them stood a distinguished-looking man in the uniform of a French officer of the Great War. Katrine reached out to touch his face. 'Trust your instincts when you take the measure of a man,' her father had said. 'I always know who will make a good soldier.'
"Well, Papa, shall I make this Anna one of my soldiers?" she asked softly.
"I need clothes."
Startled, Katrine swung around. Anna, with only a white towel wrapped around her like a sarong, stood in the doorway of the bedroom. Katrine's breath caught. Pretty, she had told herself, as she washed the grime from the maquisard's face and when she had half-seen the woman in the dim light of the bathroom, steam rising around her. But here, in the well-lit sitting room, golden hair clean and towel dried, falling to her shoulders, her skin glowing, the woman was nothing short of beautiful. Boticelli's Venus, the club owner thought. But looking at the strong jaw and the barely contained fire in those pale blue eyes, she changed her mind. No. This is no demure damsel swept ashore by fate. This is Athena, goddess of war, springing fully grown and armed into the world. A rush of desire swept over Katrine, dizzying her.
"I'm sorry. I must be tired," Katrine managed to say, hiding the heat of her face by walking over to the table to pick up her brandy. The liquor helped steady her, and she brought her thoughts back to Anna's needs.
"I've picked some things from my sister's wardrobe as well as some clothes left by one of the men who used to work here, before the war. My sister is fairly tall, though not quite your height, while Eric was slight. I think you can find something among their things. I've set the clothes out on the bed; you must not have noticed them."
"No," the woman agreed shortly, then turned back into the bedroom. In the low light from a lamp on the nightstand, Katrine could see the white towel drop away and Anna's naked form bending over the bed. The club owner turned away abruptly.
Keep your mind out of the bedroom, Katrine, she admonished herself. Taking that one to bed could only lead to complications...dangerous ones. She had never had much luck with lovers anyway, male or female.
But that doesn't mean I can't try to be her friend. And she is, I think, someone who very much needs a friend.
Decision made, Katrine felt less agitated and reseated herself to finish her brandy. Now the question is, how to account for Anna's presence at Le Coeur? A smile slowly crossed the club owner's face. I wonder if this maquisard can sing?
Continue to Part 2