Le Coeur de Lion |
|Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 |
Clad in dark pants, sweater, and jacket, blonde hair snugged beneath a knit cap, Anna blended into the shadows through which she moved, hugging the buildings to avoid the occasional street lamp. Trembling with excitement, she barely noticed the winter cold that had chilled her earlier as she lay on the ground, waiting for her chance.
I did it, she exalted. It was easy. But then the thought came, Too easy? Anna stumbled on the pavement and had to grab at the window frame she was passing to stay upright. She froze, afraid the slight noise might have drawn attention. But the night streets of St-Clair remained silent and empty. Cautiously, she crept on, trying to pay more attention to her surroundings, but the doubts she had uncapped bubbled to the surface.
She was certain they didn't suspect a thing. She had been careful-knowing the cost of failure. A small shudder took her. No, the Germans wouldn't have dealt kindly with her failure.
So the risk tonight had been great. But she had been in St-Clair for three months, with nothing to show for it except a bigger music repertoire. She had to take action.
But what about tomorrow? Could she get past Madame Durr and her people to get the job done? It was one thing to sneak out when the club was full and they were distracted. But tomorrow Le Coeur would be closed.
Spying the familiar alleyway ahead, Anna shoved the thoughts aside to concentrate on getting back inside tonight. Part way down the alley, she stopped and knelt by a basement window, leaning forward to listen. A minute passed, then two. Satisfied, she eased open the casement, pushing a dark curtain back at the same time. Turning around, she grasped the frame and lowered her body inside. Her boots touched the slightly springy wood of a crate. Footing gained, Anna carefully latched the window and let the curtain fall into place before stepping onto the cement floor.
Pulling a small flashlight from her jacket, she made her way between the jumble of boxes and broken furniture to the stairway. There she clicked off her light and began to ascend cautiously. At the top, Anna pressed her ear to the door.
Deciding it was safe, she twisted the knob and slowly pushed the door open. Sensing no movement in the darkened hallway before her, she stepped into it and closed the door, making certain the latch didn't click. She set off to the right, dragging the fingertips of her left hand lightly against the wall as she walked, counting doorways.
Here. She slipped inside the room. Leaning back against the closed door, she breathed in relief.
A light clicked on. Fear threw her into a crouch, fumbling for her gun as she blinked desperately against the sudden glare.
"Did you enjoy your little foray, Mademoiselle?"
There was nothing reassuring in the voice, but it was familiar. Her hand dropped away from her jacket. She made no other movement.
Katrine Durr, dressed in trousers and sweater, sat in the straight back chair by the bed, hand curled around the grip of a pistol that lay in her lap. Seeing the grim set of that classic face and the hardness of those gray-blue eyes, Anna shivered.
It came to the maquisard that she had never really seen Katrine Durr the resistance leader. Unlike the woman Anna thought she knew, this one looked quite capable of squeezing the trigger. Anna had underestimated Madame Durr-an error that might cost the maquisard her life.
"You haven't answered my question, Mademoiselle. Did you enjoy yourself tonight?"
Still crouched at the door, afraid the slightest movement could bring that weapon up, Anna answered, "It was necessary."
"But of course it was," the resistance leader mocked. "Necessary to betray us to the Germans?"
"No!" Anna replied, the word exploding in the small room. Seeing the tensing of the hand on the pistol, she struggled to rein in her emotions. "How could you think it?"
"How could I think it?" Katrine Durr grimaced. "Far more easily than I would have believed four years ago. More of my countrymen have been turned against us than I could ever have imagined then. Fear and pain twist the body-and the mind. Stopping them can be an irresistible argument for betrayal."
Anna nodded slowly, still fighting for calm. "I know all about betrayal, Madame. Do you think the German pigs just happened to stumble onto our camp when so many of us were there? Someone betrayed us."
"You, perhaps? Did you not say you were the only survivor?" Katrine replied, eyes dark.
The words struck Anna across the face. Pain and anger boiled over, scalding her, and she surged to her feet. The desire to strike out at her accuser drove her forward, danger unheeded.
Katrine Durr sprang up, pistol in one hand; the other hooked the chair behind her and hurled it between them. Unable to stop, Anna collided with it and crashed over onto the floor. She managed to break her fall with her left arm, but pain from the still-tender bullet wound shot up into her shoulder. Gasping, she rolled onto her back, cradling her arm, and met the barrel of Katrine Durr's gun.
"Do you wish to die, Mademoiselle?"
The maquisard peered past the barrel into the stark features above, into eyes that held none of their usual compassion or warmth. One more unbearable loss to add to all the others Anna carried.
Meeting Katrine Durr's cold gaze, Anna replied evenly, "Sometimes."
Emotion flickered across the older woman's face. Then she shook her head as if ridding herself of something unwanted and glared back.
"I may grant you your wish. But first, you will tell me where you went and what you did."
There was nothing to do now except go forward. "To German headquarters."
A sharp inhalation. "Why?"
The desperate vulnerability of her position was too much. "Could I sit up?" Anna asked abruptly. "If you're going to kill me, Madame, I'd rather not be on my back."
The other woman appeared nonplussed for a moment, then motioned consent with her gun. "All right."
"Thank you," she said dryly. But the sarcasm died as she rolled to her left, causing another stab of pain. She pushed herself awkwardly into a sitting position, and, finding that she was near the bed, she scooted back against it for support.
Anna peered up at the resistance leader, who hadn't moved. "Because I wanted to get information, find out what they are up to in this area." Anna took a breath. "I needed to do something!"
"We have been 'doing something,'" Katrine Durr replied, sarcasm heavy. "Long before your unexpected arrival."
"By entertaining those pigs every night, laughing and flirting with them?" Anna asked harshly.
"Yes, and we've gained vital information that way. What would you have us do, Mademoiselle? Take the kind of risk you have tonight, endangering us all? We want to live through this war, and we will do what is necessary to survive."
"And that includes servicing those pigs in bed, as Brigitte does?" Anna replied in disgust.
The gray-blue eyes snapped with sudden fury. "You know nothing about what Brigitte does or what she has suffered."
"I know what I have seen. She carries his child."
"Did you bother," the older woman asked tightly, "to find out anything about Brigitte before condemning her?"
Anna made no reply.
"But of course not," Madame Durr said, disdain evident. "Do the maquis all rush to judgment without gathering enough intelligence, or only you?"
The maquisard's right hand, resting on her thigh, clenched into a fist. "Say what you want to say, Madame."
"Listen then. Brigitte was unfortunate enough to catch that lieutenant's eye when the Germans first invaded our town. He summoned her to dinner and made his intentions perfectly clear."
"She could have refused him," Anna interrupted.
The sharp command silenced her.
"Brigitte has a small son. Did you know that? And a mother who is elderly and sick. She knew the German wouldn't hesitate to use them against her-knew he'd do whatever was necessary to bring her to his bed. So she submitted. But she also came to me, asking for my help. She reasoned that with the number of people I knew, I could pass along any information she might glean to the right people."
"Do you know what kind of courage that took, Mademoiselle?" Katrine Durr seemed to search Anna's face for understanding. "She risked everything coming to me. I could have turned her over to the Germans for my own advantage. Others were doing such things."
"Why did she...?" Anna broke off, not having meant to speak aloud. But the story had stirred something inside her, and the question had tumbled out.
The resistance leader frowned in confusion. "Why did she what?"
Since she couldn't retract the question, Anna finished it. "Trust you."
A bemused expression crossed the older woman's face, and she tilted her head slightly, considering Anna. Then she shrugged. "It may have been because our families have known each other for generations, or it may have been who my father was." Pride awoke in the husky voice. "He had been an officer in the Great War, fighting the Germans, and a hero to the people in this town."
"Like Petáin?" Anna asked derisively, then wished that she hadn't. All the pride and warmth that had softened the other woman's face as she remembered her father had been replaced by outraged anger, shadowed by-hurt? But wasn't that why she had asked the question, to hurt Katrine Durr? In the club owner's sitting room, Anna had seen the picture of the distinguished-looking officer, had caught the other woman's loving gaze on it.
Once, a comparison to Petáin would have be a compliment of the highest order. But no more. While claiming to be the savior of his countrymen, Marshal Petáin, hero of the First World War, had betrayed them all. Named leader of the unoccupied portion of France after the Germans had invaded, he had proceeded to end the republic, assuming a dictatorial power. He stole the rights of the people and collaborated with the enemy, giving them anything and anyone they desired. When the Germans had had enough of the pretense and assumed control over all of France, Petáin had remained to do their bidding.
"No, not like Petáin." The resistance leader bit out each word. "Not a single person, not a single kilometer, would my father have surrendered without a fight."
Anna struggled with herself. She wanted to apologize, but couldn't. She never did. So she offered something else. "My father wasn't an officer, but he fought in the Great War, too, and hated the Germans. And died three years ago when they came to take our homeland again."
The anger in Katrine Durr's eyes dissolved, replaced by a flicker of the compassion Anna usually saw there. That brought its own pain, and she looked away.
"Tell me the rest of your night's adventure," Katrine Durr said into the silence that had stretched between them. "Every detail."
Hope sparked within the maquisard. If she could only convince Madame Durr to let her act tomorrow.
"I have been watching the German guards for the last few nights," she began.
"The last few nights!" the other woman exploded. "You have been sneaking out for several nights?"
The resistance leader turned away to pace once around the room, muttering to herself and shaking her head. Finally, she leaned against the door and gestured at Anna with one hand. "Continue."
"One of them is lazy," Anna said disdainfully. "I knew I could get past him into the headquarters. Tonight, I did it. Instead of walking his post, he sat smoking. It was easy to slip inside. Once there, I went to their radio room."
"How long did it take you to find it?"
For the first time, the maquisard flushed. "Not long. I... I asked Brigitte for the location. I knew she had been inside their headquarters."
Eyebrows rose in disbelief. "You just asked Brigitte, and she told you without question. Strange, I hadn't thought she liked you anymore than you liked her."
Anna examined her hands. "I told her...you wanted me to know."
"And she believed you without question." Katrine Durr sounded skeptical.
The younger woman shrugged. She, too, had been a little surprised. The relationship between her and Brigitte had been barely civil from the beginning-and hadn't improved in the weeks that followed. When Anna had first approached Brigitte a week ago to ask the layout of the headquarters, the other woman had seemed reluctant and suspicious. But when Anna had claimed that Madame Durr wanted Brigitte to pass on the information, Brigitte had merely nodded and found paper and pencil to draw the layout.
"That is how I knew where the radio room was. Once there, I found the latest dispatches." Anna explained. "They said..."
"Wait," Katrine held up a hand, eyes narrowed. "You read German?"
"I grew up in Alsace." Thinking of her beautiful home region in northeastern France brought its own pain. Alsace, originally part of France, had been torn away by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in the previous century. Then France had reclaimed it in 1918. Now the Germans had stolen it once again.
"You said your father fought the Germans during the previous war," the suspicion was back in the husky voice. "Alsace belonged to Germany then."
Anna's chin lifted. "My mother was Alsatian; my father was from Orléans. He went to Alsace after the war, after it was part of France again. He met my mother and chose to stay. I grew up in Alsace-and yes, I learned German from my mother and my grandparents. But I am as French as you are, Madame," she said vehemently.
"How convenient," the resistance leader remarked dryly, but when Anna would have replied, she signaled for the younger woman to continue. "The dispatches?"
"There's a train of armaments passing through St-Clair tomorrow," Anna said, excitement rising. "It would be easy to sabotage it."
Katrine Durr straightened from her position against the door, faint lines of concentration appearing on her forehead. "We will send word to Henri's cell about the train. Perhaps they will be able to sabotage it."
"There's no time," Anna leaned forward but forced herself to remain seated. The other woman still held the gun, though it hung at her side now.
"Then what do you propose?" Katrine Durr asked warily.
"Let me destroy the train. I've done it before, with Jacques and the others. We have the explosives. And I'll do the job outside St-Clair so no one will connect it to the town." Anna injected all the persuasiveness she could into the words.
"And do you propose to go alone?" the resistance leader asked politely.
"No." Firm and final.
"Because you still don't trust me," Anna said bitterly and was surprised to find that it hurt. Irrelevant, she thought fiercely.
Gray-blue eyes gazed at her. Then the other woman sighed and, much to the maquisard's surprise, crossed the room to kneel before her. "I want to trust you, Anna," she said softly, voice low. "But from the beginning you have refused to accept that you are no longer in a maquis group, that there are certain rules you must follow here."
Anna could no longer remain seated and struggled to her feet, ignoring the other woman's flinch. She paced across the room, trying to get her anger, frustration-and hurt-under control. She turned back and leaned against the brass rail at the foot of the bed, grasping its vertical bars with two hands, despite the twinge in her left arm. "You asked me to sing to the Germans, Madame. You asked me to wear ridiculous gowns and paint my face for them. You asked me to smile at them and be friendly. I have done these things, have I not?" she said, teeth gritted. "And I hate it! It suffocates me."
"Out there," she gestured with one hand toward the front of the club, "I feel trapped-helpless."
"When the Germans...," she stumbled a moment, then continued, "...killed my parents, I swore I would never be helpless again."
Anna breathed deeply. "But you asked me to do these things, and because you asked I have done them. Yes, I have argued with you about your rules. But night after night I have gone out onto that stage and performed like your trained monkey."
"I cannot do it anymore," she said savagely, hands twisting on the brass bars. "Unless I can strike back at those pigs some way."
Katrine, who was standing now, slowly approached Anna. She stopped and put out her free hand, resting it on the top of the brass frame, above where two white hands gripped the bars. "We are doing something. We are gathering information and passing it on..."
"It's not enough!" Anna shouted, control slipping. "Let me do this, tomorrow night. Or let me go back to the maquis. There, at least, I can hurt the beasts who have invaded our homes and killed our people."
The resistance leader appeared startled, and her eyes met Anna's in question. But then she stepped back, putting distance between them.
"Tomorrow we will talk with the others. You can tell them what you know, and we will let them decide. Because no matter where the train is destroyed, the Germans will be looking for the saboteurs. And the lives of everyone here will be at greater risk."
Anna's chin lifted. "Do you think survival is everything, Madame? Do you know what it's like to be the only one to survive?"
Madame Durr studied the younger woman for a long moment, then said, "Tell me."
But Anna's barely heard the words, her mind already being drawn back.
When word that the Germans were coming had reached the village, Anna's parents had sent her into the woods. Anna had argued with them because no one else seemed to be taking this kind of precaution.
'I fought the Germans,' her father had said fiercely. 'I know what they're like. I won't trust my daughter to them.'
'Then we should all go,' Anna had responded.
'Go, Anna,' her mother had said, gently steering her to the back door. 'They won't care about two old people. And it will probably be all right, anyway. Your father lost many friends in the last war. He is still angry. But I think everything will be fine.'
'But how long must I stay away?'
'I will come find you tomorrow.' Her father had said. 'Then we will decide what to do.'
'Don't try to come back until then,' her mother had added. 'Promise me.'
She hadn't wanted to promise, hadn't wanted to leave. But thinking of all the worry she had caused her parents as she ran wild about the countryside, she had reluctantly agreed. So she had taken the food and water her mother had provided and gone into the woods to wait.
But her father had never come. Two days later, she had sneaked back into the village, avoiding the German soldiers. She found her parents in the front room of their home. Her father had been shot in the head, no doubt trying to protect his wife, who had been so hideously violated. On her knees beside her parents, she had made her mother another promise: to kill as many Germans as she could.
The voice jolted her out of the memories. Anna raised her head to look at the other woman.
"Jacques was right," Anna said bleakly. "We should have gone in shooting. We should have killed as many Germans as we could before they killed us." Because what good has it done for me to survive-again?
The resistance leader ran a hand through her hair and sighed. "We'll talk tomorrow."
Anna stayed where she was, feeling drained of all emotion, as the other woman walked to the door. Hand on the knob, Katrine Durr glanced back over her shoulder. "Though I've urged you against it, I've never prevented you from returning to the maquis."
Then she was gone.
Anna released her grip on the brass frame and moved to collapse onto the bed. One arm flung over her forehead, she stared up at the ceiling, tracing a thin, jagged crack with her eyes.
She could only hope that the others would see that she had to stop the train. And if they don't, will you leave? To her own bewilderment, she didn't know-anymore than she knew why she hadn't left Le Coeur de Lion before now. As the club owner had said, she was not the one keeping Anna here.
Then why did it feel that way?
Closing the door to Anna's room behind her, Katrine walked to the end of the hallway to her own rooms. Only the burning logs in the fireplace, which had died down considerably in the time she had waited for the maquisard's return, cast light over the sitting room. Nicolas, as usual, had built the fire before he had left for the night. Not bothering to switch on a lamp, she crossed to her liquor cabinet and lay her pistol down atop it. Then she knelt to retrieve a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Behind her, she heard quiet footsteps.
"Is it safe to leave her door unguarded?" Thomas asked.
Katrine stood and crossed to the two chairs near the fireplace. On the table between them, she set down the glasses and splashed dark liquid into each. She seated herself and waited for Thomas to follow suit.
After taking a long sip of the whiskey, the resistance leader said, "I don't think she's going anywhere at present."
"Do you think she has betrayed us?" Thomas asked, picking up his own glass but keeping his dark brown eyes on her face.
Katrine watched the flames flickering before her. God, I hope not. "Did you hear what we said?" she asked him instead. As agreed, he had been posted in the empty room next to Anna's. Katrine had been surprised that he hadn't burst in when the maquisard crashed to the floor, but he had agreed not to interrupt unless she gave the word.
"Most of it, I believe."
"And what do you think?"
"She's dangerous," he replied, simply stating a fact.
The woman took another sip of her drink then ran a hand through her hair. "Yes," she agreed at last, remembering that moment when the younger woman had bolted up from the floor and charged her, eyes mad with rage. Thank God, she stopped, Katrine thought, sick with the knowledge of how close she had come to shooting Anna. But I knew that going in, didn't I? Knew when I discovered her gone that I might have to kill her. Know that I might still have to if I'm wrong about her.
"Do you think she's telling the truth, Thomas?" she managed to say, afraid of his answer.
It was his turn to stare at the fire, contemplating. The flames crackled. Katrine finished her glass of whiskey and turned to pour another one. Not the wisest course in the present circumstances, but necessary to calm the churning emotions.
She remembered another part of her encounter with Anna. Right after the charge, when the younger woman had admitted a certain wish for death. It had clutched at Katrine's heart. More than anything, she had wanted to offer comfort, to shelter the younger woman from whatever demons plagued her. But Katrine could not. And that knowledge brought her own despair rising to the surface.
"I would cautiously say yes." Katrine was startled from her reverie by Thomas's voice. "I believe we have more to fear from her impetuosity and arrogance than from any outright betrayal."
The relief made her lightheaded. That was her assessment as well. But when it came to Anna, Katrine knew her judgment was questionable, at best. But Thomas's opinion could be counted on-as much as anything could be in this time and place.
"What do you think of her plan to sabotage the train?" she asked and saw the first sign of disturbance in his face.
"It is a risk-one that might not be worth undertaking." He turned to Katrine. "But I am willing to hear her out."
Katrine nodded. "Good. Can you let Nicolas and Brigitte know that we need to meet tomorrow morning?"
"Yes. And I believe that Nicolas and I should keep an eye on Anna from now on. We can divide up the watch at night."
She wanted to protest that it wasn't necessary, but knew that it was. "All right."
Thomas bid her goodnight and left her to her whiskey and dying fire.
Continue to Part Four