Le Coeur de Lion
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
Would it be wrong to kiss
Seeing I feel like this
Would it be wrong to try?"
Deep, seductive, the voice wove among the men and women ensconced at the nightclub's tables, half-hidden in low light and cigarette haze. The owner of the voice graced a low stage at the rear of the club, her hair sparking gold and her dark gown glittering beneath the single spotlight. Many men, especially after a few drinks, swore her the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. More than one would have invited her to share a glass of wine-and more. But Katrine Durr had made it clear that anyone bothering her young cousin risked the club owner's displeasure. Rather than suffer exile from Le Coeur de Lion, the admirers had resigned themselves to admiring from afar.
The German soldiers, too, had acquiesced, though their motivation undoubtedly lay more in pleasing their new commandant than the Frenchwoman. Since his arrival in St-Clair two months ago, Commandant Schemmel had clearly developed a liking for the charming club owner and her silver-voiced young relative. At first, the men had expected him to make the older woman his lover. One particularly stupid officer had even slyly hinted as much to the commandant himself.
According to a guard who had witnessed the scene, an enraged, and married, Schemmel had informed the officer, as he lay sprawled on the floor nursing a broken jaw, that he knew nothing of honor and loyalty. But perhaps a new posting-to the frontlines-would teach him their value. The Germans made no further comments about the commandant and the club owner. And Schemmel continued to pass most evenings at Le Coeur, chatting amiably with Madame Durr and listening to the music.
This night, however, the commandant sat at his usual table only with one of his officers. Katrine Durr, clad in a stylishly feminine version of white tie and tails, was busy greeting new arrivals at the door. Well-known patrons she hugged and kissed on the cheeks. To newcomers she offered a free drink if they promised to "leave the war outside." A true bon vivant, she clearly cared nothing for the war and so allowed those entering her club to care nothing for it as well. Charming, vivacious, warm, she cast a spell on French and German patrons alike.
As she had for more than two months, Anna discreetly watched Madame Durr's performance from the stage, half in fascination, half in distrust. To her there was something suspicious about a person who could slip easily from one role to another, and this was not the woman Anna saw during the day.
Katrine Durr the resistance leader hated the war and Germany's imprisonment of her people. She had sworn to help free them. Though her immediate followers numbered only three (Anna did not include herself), Madame Durr had created an effective team for ferreting out information from the Germans and transmitting it to other resistance groups and the Allies. For this accomplishment as well as her calm leadership and ability to swiftly and effectively alter plans when forced by necessity, she had earned a grudging respect from the maquisard. But that was greatly tempered by the other woman's refusal to push beyond the limited tasks she had set. She feared the risks to her people too much.
She would never last in the maquis, Anna thought. There is nothing but risk there. However, more than an unwillingness to gamble with lives set the club owner apart from Anna's former comrades. Those who sought to destroy the vermin infesting France had to strip away the veneer of civilization and become what most men were at heart-killers. Katrine Durr, Anna was certain, could not do it.
As she began another song, Anna saw Madame Durr, wine bottle in hand, take a seat at the commandant's table. Yes, let her smile and joke with the pigs night after night to prize out information. Let her act friendly with the French collaborators, who think nothing of betraying their own people. This is where she belongs, what she does best.
And what of you, Anna? An internal voice inquired mockingly. You won't sit with them, but you sing for them, smile at them-while others fight for your freedom, often sleeping, when they dare, on the cold ground, half-starved. You spend each night warm and dry in a soft bed, with a full stomach. Are you so different, now, from her?
The noise, the stage lights, the chattering people were suddenly stifling. Anna's singing faltered, drawing Katrine Durr's gaze to the stage. An odd sensation jolted the younger woman when she met those inquiring eyes, touched with a hint of concern. Wrenching her own eyes away, Anna stumbled through the rest of the song.
"Thank you, ladies and gentlemen," she said. "Please do not forget Claude," a practiced gesture toward the piano player behind her, "without him I would have no voice."
Despite the near panic driving her, Anna delivered the closing line smoothly-just as Madame Durr had instructed her to do in those first few days.
[three months earlier]
"Think of it as an undercover mission," the club owner cajoled, clasping Anna's hand and pulling her toward the nightclub's stage.
Anna stiffened at the contact. The older woman glanced back, eyebrows rising. Seconds passed. Then Katrine Durr moved toward the stage again, trailing behind her a bewildered Anna, who only knew she couldn't back down from the challenge in those eyes.
Reaching the edge of the stage, the club owner released Anna's hand. "Your latest mission," she said, "is to become Le Coeur's singer."
"Do you always choose so unwisely for your 'missions'?" Anna asked sarcastically.
Katrine Durr's lips twitched, but she said only, "But didn't you tell me you could sing?"
The younger woman sighed. "As a girl," she answered slowly, as if to a dimwitted child, "for my own amusement or my family's."
The club owner's eyes crinkled. "Ah, then think of Le Coeur de Lion's as one great gathering of family."
"Madame...," Anna began.
"Please, Mademoiselle, one song?" the club owner asked, more solemnly. "I promise if you are terrible, I will find another way. But we must account for you somehow."
Half annoyed with the club owner, half with herself for not simply refusing, the younger woman replied, "Very well. What is it you wish me to sing?"
"Anything. What do you like to sing?"
Anna snorted. "I haven't done much singing recently, Madame. Strangely, in the maquis, it wasn't required."
That surprised a laugh out of Katrine Durr. But she quickly replaced her grin with an arrogant smirk. "Ah, but in St-Clair, we expect more of our people."
Before the maquisard could reply to this outrageous statement, the club owner continued hastily, "Perhaps there's something you remember singing as a girl?"
Anna had started to shake her head when a memory slipped through the door usually barred to her past.
A summer's evening, a few years before the invasion. She had had another argument with her parents about her refusal to walk out with any of the village boys. 'I don't feel that way about them, Mama,' she had tried to explain. Her mother, exasperated, had replied, 'You can't continue acting like one of the boys.' Her father, taking her hand in his, had tried a gentler approach. 'You are nearly a woman, our Anna. We don't want you to be alone.' In the end, she had gone outside to sit, letting nightfall cool her anger and hurt, knowing they didn't understand that their words only made her feel more alone. And she had found herself singing softly into the night, longing for ... something.
"Are you all right, Mademoiselle?"
Anna started, realizing she had momentarily lost the present to the past. "I'm fine," she replied harshly.
But fear tightened her chest. For three years, she had survived by never dropping her guard, not even among the men beside whom she fought. Yet she had just allowed her mind wander in the presence of someone she barely knew. Why? Because she had been badly wounded, seen her comrades cut down? But she had been wounded before, had lost ... everything ... before. Could it be this woman, this place, affecting her so strangely?
Madame Durr studied Anna a moment longer, then said, "So you've thought of a song, yes?"
Still off balance, Anna merely nodded, then allowed the club owner to urge her up onto the stage.
"Please begin," Katrine Durr instructed, standing back a few feet from the stage, arms loosely crossed, head tilted in anticipation.
Not knowing what to do with her hands, Anna clasped them behind her back. Her palms had begun to sweat, and she swallowed nervously. Just begin, Anna, her internal voice instructed. The sooner you finish, the sooner she will realize that you're not a singer.
Yes, she answered. Then we can move to her next mad scheme. She seems capable of more than one.
Forcing herself to begin, she found it was easier to sing if she didn't think of the woman before her, imagining instead that she sat once again on the steps of her home.
"I wished on the moon
For something I never knew
Wished on the moon
For more than I ever knew
A sweeter rose, a softer sky
On April days that would not dance by
I begged on the stars
To throw me a beam or two
Wished on the stars
And asked for a dream or two
I looked for every loveliness
It all came true
I wished on the moon for you."
As the final notes faded, so too did the image of her home and that innocent, unknowing girl. Anna ran a hand over her face and once again forced close the door to memory.
Finally, she glanced at Katrine Durr, who had said nothing as yet. There was something strange about the club owner's appearance. Her lips were slightly parted, her eyes glistened, and she seemed to be hugging herself with the arms she had folded across her chest. Her gray-blue eyes met Anna's and held on.
Then the club owner blinked and looked away, dropping her arms to her sides. Moments later, she peered up at Anna, face calm. "You have been lying to me, I think."
"What?" Anna asked, nonplussed.
"You have sung professionally," Katrine said.
"No?" A soft smile broke across the club owner's face. "Then Le Coeur is honored to host your professional debut."
Anna sighed in exasperation. "Madame...."
"Truly, Mademoiselle, you have a lovely voice."
The compliment disconcerted the younger woman, who didn't know how to reply.
"However," Katrine continued, "in the club, you will need to 'sell' the song with your whole body."
"Sell?" Anna asked, puzzled.
"To the customers," the other woman replied, a hand sweeping back toward the empty tables. "It is all about illusion and desire, Mademoiselle...," she broke off, looking chagrined. "But I don't even know your last name."
A sudden unwillingness to surrender anything else kept Anna stubbornly silent.
A frown line appeared between the older woman's brows. Then she shrugged, one corner of her mouth lifting wryly.
"It's no matter. You're to be my cousin, Anna Durr. Perhaps another name between us would only confuse matters."
Not knowing how she felt about the instant relationship between them-or the common name-Anna again said nothing.
"As I was saying ... Mademoiselle Durr," there was amusement in the voice, "you must create an illusion for the customers, make them believe you long for love. Every person in the audience, man or woman, young or old, desires love. Some may not realize or wish to acknowledge it, but the heart knows."
She rested her left hand against her chest. "That is what you must touch." A wry grin twisted her lips. "You are perfectly capable of doing so ... believe me. But you need to tell the story with both voice and body. Allow me to show you."
The club owner indicated that she would exchange places with Anna, who gladly relinquished the stage. Not wanting her back to the door, she plopped down a table to the right of the platform. Madame Durr made no comment, merely adjusting her position to face the table.
A transformation began. Katrine Durr's posture loosened, becoming sensuous, head tipped downward, while half-lidded eyes peered up through auburn lashes. Then the song began, sliding out in a throaty purr that hinted of evenings darkened with whiskey, cigarettes, and desire.
Would it be wrong to kiss
Seeing I feel like this
Would it be wrong to try?"
Every word was caressed by that husky voice, every emotion echoed by that attractive face and lithe body. Then her gaze reached out to ensnare her audience of one, sending a shiver down Anna's spine.
"If it is wrong
Then why were you sent to me
Why am I content to be
With you forever?"
Not until the last word faded, and the singer dropped her pose, was Anna released.
"Do you see?" the older woman inquired.
Anna nodded, shaken and disturbed. Yes, she saw-that Katrine Durr could project any kind of persona she wished, easily disarming those around her. But where, Anna wondered, did the real woman begin?
"Good!" the club owner exclaimed, responding to Anna's nod. "Now you again."
Yes, Anna did see, and she would keep her guard up and watch this woman.
Two weeks of struggle, sorely trying both women's patience, had produced a passable nightclub singer. An initially amazed Anna discovered that people enjoyed her performance, though she soon decided that the costumes won her much of their approval. The tight dresses had been another argument with the club owner-another Anna had lost.
The gowns, the make-up, the mannerisms, the words, together composed the disguise she donned six nights a week. A disguise slowly suffocating her.
A stiff smile plastered on her lips, Anna mechanically responded to the patrons who complimented her as she pushed her way toward the backrooms. Then at last she was through the door that separated the public and private areas of Le Coeur, walking quickly down the dimly lit, narrow hallway to the room Katrine Durr had given her. Once inside, she leaned against the door, almost gasping for air.
Tonight. I will do what needs to be done, she thought and began jerking the gown from her body.
"A profitable night, Thomas?" Katrine asked as she returned from bolting the front doors. Profitable in German-occupied France being, of course, relative for a Frenchwoman.
The bartender, a tall dark-skinned man in his late 30s, glanced up from the bills and coins he had finished stacking neatly on the table before him. "Adequate. And you?"
The club owner grimaced. "Not enough time. The commandant took his leave soon after our singer did."
Thomas merely nodded and flipped open a well-worn ledger to note the evening's figures in ink. Finished, he placed the money in a heavy metal cash box, locked it, and slipped the key into his jacket pocket.
Task completed, the man folded his hands on the table and fixed his gaze on Katrine. "Our singer did not appear well tonight," he said in his usual impassive-sounding voice. "She left the stage in haste."
The club owner, who was leaning on the bar, sighed. "Yes."
"She doesn't like her role."
"I know," she replied quietly. "She grows restless. I send her on what errands I can, but our work isn't what she is used to."
"Perhaps," he said, "it would be best if she were to return to the maquis."
"No!" Katrine exclaimed, straightening up from her position against the bar.
Startled brown eyes met gray-blue. The club owner, shocked at the vehemence of her own outburst, took a breath and repeated more calmly, "No. She has no one to go back to. The Germans killed everyone she knew."
"There are others...," the bartender began.
"But she would have to prove herself again," Katrine interrupted. "That's not easy for a woman. And that arm still pains her at times. Though she'll not admit it." A rueful smile twisted her lips.
"Still...," he insisted.
Katrine moved closer and grasped his arm. "Thomas. She lost everything. Even before the slaughter of the maquis." Anna hadn't confided the details, but she had let enough drop for the club owner to be certain this was true. "For three years, she has struggled to survive, enraged and terrified, both hunter and the prey." A wounded Anna, alone and running for her life, unfurled all too clearly in Katrine's mind.
She turned away from her friend, grateful that he remained silent as she sought to master her emotions. When she looked back and leaned on the table toward him, her voice was more controlled, softer, but no less certain. "To exist in that hell, she had to kill a part of herself. I want her to have the chance to feel human again."
"She is at risk here, too," he replied.
The woman nodded. "Yes, we all are. But here it is a little safer. She doesn't have to hide out in the mountains, fighting the cold, the rain, as well as the Germans."
Thomas said nothing for a minute. Then, "Is that the only reason?"
"What do you mean?"
He hesitated, one finger tapping against the table. A controlled man, Thomas rarely displayed emotion. To Katrine's knowledge, that small gesture was the only way in which he ever betrayed himself.
"You have a ... fondness for her, do you not?" he asked with care.
The club owner stiffened, heart beating a little faster. She kept her voice steady, however. "I have come to care about her, of course. You know me," she said self-deprecatingly, with a slight shrug, "unable to pass by those in trouble."
"Yes," he agreed gravely. "You have great compassion for others. But ...." He hesitated, opened his mouth to continue, then closed it again. The finger tapped a little harder.
His obvious reluctance to finish alarmed her. Though she was certain she didn't want to hear him out, he had always spoken his mind to her. She depended on that.
"But...?" she prompted.
"A person can't always afford to lead with her heart," he finished reluctantly. "Not when other lives are at risk, ma capitaine."
Ma capitaine. He had begun calling her that after she had formed their small resistance group. First to tease her when she gave orders, then later, after she had proved herself a worthy leader, as an acknowledgement of her abilities. But sometimes, he wielded it as a sharp-edged reminder of her responsibilities as a resistance leader and the wide-ranging consequences of her actions.
Silence stretched as the two old friends and colleagues faced each other over the small table, where Thomas's statement lay ticking between them. Katrine did not want to pick it up, did not want to examine it-or her own feelings-to discover how much truth, how much danger, it contained. But she had no choice.
The club owner pulled out a chair and sat down, folding her hands before her on the wood surface. She examined them, then looked up to meet his dark gaze. "And that is what you think I'm doing? Putting the rest of you at risk?"
A shrug. "It is difficult to say for certain. But it's true that you allow her to challenge your decisions, time and again. When she argued to buy more explosives instead of the oscillator we needed for the radio, you told her you would consider the matter. Yet you knew we needed the part."
"But I did choose the oscillator," Katrine countered, "and sent Anna to get it."
A nod. "But you waited two days, two days we might not have had," he returned. "And we had no urgent need for more explosives. We've never used what we have."
"Making these decisions isn't always easy, Thomas," she countered, defensiveness flaming into anger.
"No," he agreed, and something in his dark eyes seemed to soften a bit. "You have led us for three years. We are still alive, doing what must be done. You are responsible for that."
She felt the flames die out. "All of us have...."
"You," he interrupted, "are responsible for that. Because you have made the decisions that needed to be made-no matter the cost."
Before she could respond, he continued, "Yet, recently, you have hesitated more than once. It has left us ... uneasy."
Is he right? She wanted to deny the accusations-for that's what they were, however carefully phrased. But she couldn't afford to do so. Pushing her emotions aside, she tried to objectively review her actions of the past weeks, all the encounters, hesitations, second-guessing of herself. It didn't take long to realize he had spoken the truth.
The blood burned in her face. I have let them all down. Because I wanted to ... what did I want? To make Anna feel welcome, a part of the group? So she wouldn't go back out there and get killed?
Yes, Katrine admitted. She had wanted to protect Anna, who for all her deadly strength could project a curious vulnerability, though it bled through her mask only rarely. When it happened, that beautiful face would change, collapse in some subtle and painful way. The ache of it would echo in Katrine's chest, making her want to reach out to the younger woman. But she never knew how to get past the mask that almost immediately fell back across the features, sealing Anna off.
An ironic failure for someone whose business it was to slip past people's defenses, to make them feel welcome, to convince them that in her they had a friendly and sympathetic ear. Letting them tell her about their days, their romances, their families. It had always made Le Coeur de Lion, as many of her patrons before the war had told her, a refuge. And now she had turned those skills to good use with the Germans, who seemed as susceptible to her as her own countrymen. But she couldn't breach Anna's walls, to help her, to protect her.
But that's not my first responsibility, is it? Katrine admonished herself abruptly, cutting off the familiar train of thought about the maquisard. I have a greater obligation. I can't allow these feelings to interfere any longer.
"Thank you, Thomas," she said at last. "For reminding me."
He shifted in his chair and cleared his throat. "I did not wish to...."
Katrine slipped a hand over his, halting the agitated tapping. "I know, my friend. You did what was necessary. And so will I, I promise you."
That promise led Katrine to Anna's door after she had left Thomas to turn out the lights in the club. Anna must understand that it's important for her to perform her role. To keep the German officers here so I can get the information we need. The younger woman's early departures from the stage had become more frequent recently. At least three other times this week, she had disappeared into her room, not surfacing again until morning.
Katrine knocked softly on the door and waited. When a minute had passed with no answer, she tried again, more firmly. Nothing. The club owner frowned. Could the other woman be so soundly asleep that she hadn't heard the knock? But no, Anna wasn't someone who slept through disturbances. Could she be ill, too ill-or too stubborn-to call out for help? Increasingly uneasy, the club owner reached out for the doorknob.
Fingers grasping the cool metal, she hesitated again. Was this wise? Intruding on the woman? You have a responsibility, Katrine, she reminded herself. Something is wrong here.
Abruptly, she flicked her wrist and opened the door partway. "Anna?"
Again, no response. She opened the door fully, allowing the light from the hallway to fall across the threshold of the room. Though it failed to penetrate as far as the bed in the far corner, Katrine knew the room was empty. But she crossed to the nightstand near the bed and switched on the lamp to make certain.
The bed was still made, the gown Anna had worn earlier tossed across the chair at its foot. Katrine turned to survey the rest of the room and noticed that the wardrobe was half-open.
The uneasiness grew. Where could the woman be? A thought occurred to her, and she walked hurriedly across the room to the right of the wardrobe, where a small braided rug lay. Kneeling, she folded it back and pried up the loose floorboard beneath.
Anna's pistol was gone. Katrine knew the weapon had been there; she had watched the younger woman conceal it.
Heart beating heavily, the club owner sat back on her heels. Had the woman left? Gone to find a new maquis group? Without a goodbye?
But what about her other possessions? Katrine rose swiftly to cross to the wardrobe. As far as she could tell, most the clothes still hung there. Would she have left with only the clothes she was wearing? The club owner rummaged through the drawers. Again, it appeared as if all the toiletries were still there. But she could have abandoned those, too. Katrine turned from the wardrobe, uncertain. Then she spotted the book on the nightstand.
Yes, it's the same one. She stood beside the bed, holding the small, well-worn book. The club owner had found Anna reading it one night. The maquisard had revealed that the volume belonged to her mother. From the barely suppressed emotion that crossed Anna's face, Katrine was somehow certain the book was all the young woman had left of her parents. She wouldn't have left St-Clair without it.
So Anna hadn't abandoned them permanently. Yet she had taken her gun, which surely meant she had gone somewhere dangerous. But to see what? Or... whom?
Dread crept over Katrine. Had she been wrong all along about the young woman? Had it been a German trick to unmask the resistance in St-Clair and through them other groups? Has my desire and need killed us all? She closed her eyes, gripping the book she still held.
"Is there something amiss?"
Katrine whirled to find Thomas standing at the door.
She didn't want to tell him, haunted by fear and shame. But she couldn't hide this, not from herself, not from him. They had to do something. "I don't know. Anna seems to be missing," she replied.
"Gone back?" he said, his thoughts obviously following the same path hers had at first.
She shook her head and glanced down at the book. "I don't think so. She's left everything," Katrine looked up at him, "except her gun."
He straightened. "Perhaps I will look around."
"Yes, that would be good," she said. Then she straightened, tossing the book onto the bed. A cold determination flooded through her. Whatever it took, she would protect her people. "But I suggest that we arm ourselves first."
Continue to Part Three