The Leading eBooks Store Online 4,272,009 members ⚫ 1,419,367 ebooks

New to eBooks.com?

Learn more

Once a Warrior

Once a Warrior by Fran Baker
Buy this eBook
US$ 5.00
(If any tax is payable it will be calculated and shown at checkout.)

This generational saga follows three friends from Kansas City who serve in different ways in harrowing World War II adventures: First Lieutenant John Brown, Private Charlie Miller and Second Lieutenant Mike Scanlon. Mike falls in love with a young French Resistance member, Anne-Marie Gerard, and their daughter Catherine marries John Brown’s son. When Catherine’s husband is MIA after his plane is shot down in Vietnam, she follows the instructions he sent before disappearing, which take her to Saigon and contact with a mysterious renegade named Cain.

Belgrave House; November 1998
296 pages; ISBN 9780966339734
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Once a Warrior
Author: Fran Baker
 
Excerpt

Dover Air Force Base, Delaware

After thirty-three years, Johnny Brown was finally coming home.

Cat had dressed warmly this morning as the first breath of winter had blown in during the night, dropping the temperature below the freezing point but leaving the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Now she was all bundled up in a black coat, boots and gloves. A wide-brimmed hat shielded her face as much from the cameras as from the cold gold of the November sun.

And yet she shivered as she scanned the sky, watching for the transport plane that was bringing Johnny back to the world and thinking that he would have been the first to say it was a perfect day for flying.

“You okay?”

She glanced sideways at the question, asked in an undertone that was dense with concern. Only someone who knew her inside and out would have noticed the slight tremor that had just passed through her. That someone was the same man whom she had once branded a traitor and claimed to despise. A man whose “badge of honor” served as a daily reminder of how wrong she had been.

“Yes.”  She let out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding, then searched the angles and planes of his strong, scarred face. “And you?”

A trenchant smile twisted his lips as he turned his head, first to the right, then hard to the left, surveying the crowd that was milling about them in the shadows of the hangar. With a twinge of sadness, she wondered if he was reliving his own, very different homecoming. Recalling, perhaps, the way protesters had sneered at him and jeered at him and scorned him as a “baby-killer.”

“Surprised,” he said quietly.

But Cat heard him loud and clear because she hadn’t known what to expect herself. The Vietnam War had ended more than a quarter of a century ago, and Americans now seemed to view it as ancient, albeit painful, history. So at the most, she had anticipated a private gathering of family and friends and a swift procession to the cemetery. Maybe someone from the Pentagon, maybe not, but no ruffles and flourishes and no one who really ranked.

Instead, there was a full honor guard, a military band, and enough brass to launch a major offensive or quell a minor rebellion.

The human-interest angle of the story had drawn the press as well. Still photographers checked their camera lenses. Print reporters surrounded both the American Ambassador to Vietnam and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A video crew from one of the networks’ nightly newscasts made final preparations to film the upcoming ceremony, clips of which would soon be aired in a Veteran’s Day segment.

There was a time when Cat would have jumped at the chance to generate this kind of publicity. But that was yesterday. Today she had a different agenda. She had come to bury Johnny at long last. To complete her role in his life by seeing to it that he received the respect and the recognition he’d earned from a country which had finally learned to distinguish between the war and the warrior. And she was grateful, more grateful than words could say, that she wouldn’t have to do it alone.

She didn’t need to turn around to know that her stalwart old soldier of a father was standing right behind her. Or that her mother, who’d died as gallantly as she had lived, was there in spirit. Even her brother and sister had set aside their radical differences to lend her their support.

Cat’s eyes grew misty when she looked at her four children—her oldest son, who bore such a haunting resemblance to his father in those dress blues and spit-shined shoes; her “twins,” who’d been born five months and a world apart; her daughter, whose delicate beauty was already turning heads—and the reminder of just how much Johnny had missed threatened to overwhelm her.

She shifted her gaze before she lost her composure and saw, like paired mirrors reflecting her own blurred tears, the poignantly-familiar faces of a couple who had lost almost everything they held dear but had found a precious freedom in their adopted homeland.

Heedless then of the curiosity seekers and the cold, she took off her hat and rested her head on the shoulder of the man who had made this mission of closure possible for them all. He responded by putting his arm around her and pressing a kiss into the soft, silvering tangle of her hair. And she knew she was right where she belonged, where she had always belonged, within the shelter of his embrace.

“He’s here.”  That deeply beloved voice vibrated in her ear as the big gray C-17 dropped, thundering, out of the sunlit sky and descended steadily toward the tarmac.

Yes, it really was a perfect day, Cat decided. Not just for flying, or even for meeting Johnny’s long-delayed plane. But also for remembering those who had gone before . . .



PART ONE

TIGER LILY

Chapter One

Ste. Genviève, France; 1944

Bonjour, Monsieur.” Anne-Marie Gérard spoke calmly even as her heart did a frantic pirouette inside her chest. She had just sat down to lunch with her grandfather when she heard the knock. Thinking it might be one of his patients with an emergency that couldn’t wait, or maybe even her cousin, Henriette, with a special treat to spice up their tasteless meal, she had excused herself from the table and rushed to answer the door.

Now terror whipped into the vestibule on the raw January wind. It curled around her stockinged ankles and clawed its way up her shaking legs. Her palms slickened with sweat, her breath sliced at her throat, and her face grew taut with the dread expectation suddenly coursing through her.

Nearly four years under the Nazi boot had taught her well. The short, stocky man in the pin-dotted overcoat and green fedora standing on the snow-covered step was her worst nightmare come true.

He was Gestapo.

What did he know and how did he know it?  Anne-Marie gripped the edge of the door with icy fingers. Had some Judas of a collaborator denounced her?  Were the agent’s henchmen waiting around the corner to search the house?  Or worse, the garage?

The thought of who they would find out there made her ill with fright. Until she reminded herself that the Gestapo didn’t normally knock on doors. They knocked them down.

As her panic faded, she found her wits. It was better to show no fear or hesitation. That much she had learned in her dealings with the German patrols that routinely stopped civilians and demanded to see their papers. Even a moment’s delay in producing one’s identity card with its photograph and official stamps could result in a brutal beating. What happened to those who’d either left theirs at home or were caught with forged ones was too horrible to dwell on.

“How may I help you?”  Keeping her expression as serene as possible, she opened the door a little wider to prove she had nothing to hide.

“Who are you?”  The agent’s small round eyes focused on her intently as he grunted his demand in atrocious French. His mouth was thin, his cheeks fat, and his ears came to porcine points at the top. Redness from the cold mottled his pallid skin.

Anne-Marie met his gaze unflinchingly. She refused to cower before this cochon. He and the others of his ilk—sons of sows, every one of them—had dismembered her family, deported her best friend and defeated her beloved France. Someday he would pay for what he had done, she vowed to herself, but not nearly as dearly as he deserved.

“I’m Dr. Gérard’s granddaughter.”  She was proud of the composed sound of her voice. “And since he has no nurse to work with him, I’m also his medical assistant.”

He continued to stare at her, his piglet eyes gleaming beneath the brim of his hat, and she found it amazing that he could go so long without blinking. At the curb behind him idled a sinister black Citroen traction avant—the Gestapo’s favorite kind of car. The driver, sporting SS tabs on his collar and a swastika armband, kept watch on the road through rimless glasses.

“I want to see the doctor.”  The agent’s hands remained at his sides, hidden in the folds of his overcoat, but his burly shoulders moved menacingly under the heavy wool.

“My grandfather is having lunch, but I’ll certainly tell him you’re here.”  She stepped back on legs that were rubbery despite her resolve. “Would you like to wait in the clinic?”

He nodded curtly and pushed past her, into the dimly lit vestibule. His arrogance was such that he didn’t even bother to stamp the snow off his feet. He seemed to assume she had nothing better to do than to clean up after him.

Anne-Marie shut the biting wind outside and grabbed her sweater off the corner coatrack. The brown wool cardigan had belonged to her grandmother and had been mended in a dozen places. The new holes in the elbows aside, it helped to ward off the sudden chill that permeated her grandfather’s home.

“Which way?” he demanded.

She indicated the door on his right. The one to the left led to the living area she shared with her grandfather. Only when the agent rudely gestured that she should open the door to the clinic for him did she notice that he carried a full bottle of Rémy Martin cognac.

“For the pain,” he said in response to her raised eyebrow.

“The pain?” she repeated in a strained voice.

“I have an infected tooth.”  Not seeming to notice her agitation, he eyed her accusingly across the narrow entrance hall. “And your village has no dentist.”

Anne-Marie judiciously refrained from pointing out that that was because the dentist and his family had recently been “resettled” in Germany and their house confiscated by the government to pay the “special assessment taxes” levied against all Jews.

The fate of the dentist’s daughter haunted her to this day. She could still see Miriam Blum, with her shiny black curls, ripe-olive eyes and that horrid yellow star she’d been forced to wear on her clothing. And she remembered with fondness all the nights that they had slept over at each other’s house, closeting themselves in the privacy of one or the other’s bedroom to giggle and to gossip and to plan their futures.

But if the rumors about the death camps proved to be true, poor Miriam no longer had a future.

Anne-Marie couldn’t look at the man she held partially responsible for that because she was certain that he would see the hatred in her eyes. Instead, she bowed her head in what she hoped he would interpret as submission and, with an after-you gesture, ushered him into the anteroom. It was empty, as it always was in the early afternoon, so he had his pick of chairs.

“Please, sit.”

“I prefer to stand.”

Seeing him with his back to the wall and his eyes trained on the window that faced the street, she realized that the agent didn’t feel safe from sabotage even in a doctor’s office. Yesterday’s derailment of that train carrying reinforcements into lower Normandy, which had left three German soldiers dead and a number of others severely injured, must have hit close to home for him. What she felt wasn’t triumph, not yet, but simply anticipation of the day when les boches were driven out of her homeland and into the bowels of hell, where they belonged.

“As you wish.”  Her wartime wooden soles clunked on the bare floor as she crossed to the door. She left it open in case another patient should arrive before she returned. “I’ll get my grandfather.”

“Tell him to hurry,” Piggy directed. “I have a meeting to go to.”

Her ears perked up at that. “I’m sure he can see you right away.”

In the combination sitting-dining room across the vestibule, Dr. Henri Gérard had just finished his simple lunch of watery bean soup and stale bread and was reaching for his customary demitasse.

The wind rattled the open-shuttered windows, making Anne-Marie grateful for the fire in the hearth that helped to offset the effects of the increasingly severe gas cuts imposed by the Germans. Sick of living in the dark, she had drawn back the silk damask draperies and raised the blackout shade that morning. Then almost wished she hadn’t when she saw the dust that felted the furniture and the lint that covered the fading carpet.

Now, as her grandfather looked up from the medical journal he’d been perusing in the gray light, the shame she’d managed to hold at bay came rolling back.

When his wife was alive, Henri had been as nattily groomed as a Parisian boulevardier. A petite woman with the figure of a pouter pigeon and the fussy energy of a mother hen, Yvonne Gérard had sponged and pressed her husband’s suit every morning, trimmed his snowy hair once a week, and turned his shirt collars whenever they began to look worn. And after his nurse unexpectedly eloped, she’d rolled up her sleeves and added those duties to the cooking and cleaning chores she had taken such pride in performing herself.

Even a long bout with breast cancer hadn’t slowed her down. At least not in the beginning. When the disease finally caught up with her, she fired three maids before finding one who was malleable enough to let her continue ruling the roost from her sickbed.

Her death had so devastated her widower that he scarcely noticed the Germans’ lightning-quick strike against France some three months later. When Anne-Marie first came to live with her grandfather, shortly after the blitzkrieg, she’d been shocked to see that his hair had grown shaggy, his collar frayed, and his suit looking like a remnant of the Hundred Years’ War. Most distressing of all, however, was the resignation—almost a sense of impending doom—which dwelled in his rheumy eyes.

It was no better now. Henri was still a shadow of his formerly impeccable self. The maid, after sweeping the dirt under the rug and setting an overcooked meal on the table, had quit. And Anne-Marie lived with the guilty knowledge that she had failed to meet Yvonne’s exacting standards.

Merde,” her grandfather cursed after drinking from the small cup. “This exotic ‘coffee’ the Germans are sending us tastes more like one of Hitler’s stupid chemistry experiments every day.”

Giving silent thanks that she had managed to close the living room door before his words took wing and settled in the wrong ears, Anne-Marie walked purposefully to the lace-covered table. “You have a patient.”

“Already?”  His bristly gray brows drew together in a confused frown as he glanced at the mantle clock above the blue-and-white tiled fireplace. “Can’t a man even be allowed—”

“May I clear the table now?”

Something in her sharp tone of voice must have alerted him to the fact that this was no ordinary patient. He nodded and sat back in his chair, the nasty demitasse all but forgotten. Seeing the soup stains on his tie, she reminded herself to spot-clean it before he returned to the office.

“Gestapo.”  She deliberately clattered the china as she whispered the word.

“Here?” he hissed, his voice filled with dark history.

“In the anteroom.”

“But . . . why?”

“He has a bad tooth.”  Ignoring her own growling stomach, she tucked the piece of bread she hadn’t eaten into her skirt pocket for the wounded Royal Air Force pilot whom she was hiding with neither her grandfather’s knowledge nor permission in the garage. “And extremely bad manners.”

“Anne-Marie . . .” Bony fingers which had once been steady enough to perform the most delicate of surgeries but which now trembled with age and fear clasped her wrist with surprising tenacity. “You weren’t rude to him?”

“Of course not.”

When he nodded in relief, she felt a sharp twinge of remorse. Her grandfather had lost so much—even his raison d’être, it seemed—that it was only natural he was afraid. Not for himself, of course, but for her and for the rest of his family.

And perhaps of what was yet to come.

It was common knowledge that the Allies, led by the Americans, were going to invade Europe sometime this coming spring. Summer at the latest. The question was, where would the invasion begin?  Convinced that it would come at the narrowest point of the English Channel, the Germans were now concentrating panzer and infantry divisions at the Pas-de-Calais.

But Anne-Marie believed that the débarquement might well come elsewhere. She had already learned the code name of the operation, Overlord, from the forbidden British radio broadcasts she listened to in the attic late at night. And the pinprick sabotage pattern by French resisters against German communication and transportation systems, while not yet of a scale to unduly alarm them, made her think that the Allies were planning to attack the coastal batteries behind the beaches at Normandy and move inland from there.

Which could eventually place Ste. Geneviéve in the path of their advance, if not in the thick of battle.

“You mustn’t keep your new patient waiting, Grand-père.”  She gently extricated her wrist from his grip. “He has a meeting to attend.”

And if she was lucky, she thought, he might just have some important information to impart under the influence of that expensive cognac.

~ ~ ~

Anne-Marie pulled down the blackout shade on the winter-white moonlight flooding into her drafty bedroom, then turned to her cousin with a preoccupied smile. “I’m sorry, Henriette, I didn’t hear what you said.”

From her kneeling position on the double bed that they were sharing tonight, Henriette Bohec’s eyes glittered excitedly in the chamberstick’s flame that had lit their way up the dark staircase. “I said, I’m going to kiss the first American soldier I see!”

The thunderous snores emanating from their grandfather’s room, directly across the hall, precluded an immediate response on Anne-Marie’s part.

Cupping a protective hand around the flickering candle flame, she crossed to the door her cousin had carelessly left open and shut it with a silence born of practice. At twenty, she was only four years older than the giddy Henriette. Given the danger she’d faced of late, however, she sometimes felt one hundred and four years older.

Tonight was one of those times.

Satisfied that they wouldn’t wake their grandfather, she leaned back against the doorframe with a heavy sigh. After scrubbing the office and washing the dinner dishes with the gritty gray soap that was going to be the ruin of her hands, she had dusted and swept the living area and banked the fire for tomorrow. That she had hours to go before she slept only added to her exhaustion.

Absorbed in her own thoughts, Anne-Marie didn’t realize that Henriette was still waiting for a reply to her earlier statement until she caught the girl’s expectant gaze in the wavering candlelight.

Straightening, she said the first thing that came to mind. “And if the soldier kisses you back?”

“Sticks his tongue in my mouth, you mean?”  Henriette’s horrified tone said that she hadn’t thought before she spoke.

“That’s usually how it happens.”  Even though Anne-Marie’s own experience with kissing was rather limited, her “advanced” age gave her voice the ring of authority.

Henriette mulled that over for a moment before declaring indignantly, “If he uses his tongue, I’ll slap his face!”

“That hardly seems fair.”  Anne-Marie realized she was sweating in spite of the cold that permeated her room. Both she and Henriette wore knitted shawls over and ribbed stockings under the voluminous, high-necked nightgowns they’d taken turns donning in the small bathroom next to their grandfather’s office. Unbeknownst to her cousin, however, Anne-Marie had kept on the skirt and blouse and wool sweater she’d worn today. “First to kiss your liberator and then to slap him.”

Henriette yawned, too tired to argue the point, then scrambled beneath the feather coverlet. She had bicycled the five frigid kilometers from her parents’ farm to the village earlier that evening and was planning to go home tomorrow morning. But not before consuming her share of the eggs she had packed in straw and smuggled in her saddlebags to supplement the Gérards’ usually meager breakfast of bitter ersatz coffee and tough, gray bread.

Candlelight projected Anne-Marie’s well-padded shadow onto the whitewashed wall as she followed her cousin to bed.

To look at them lying side by side, one would never guess they were the daughters of siblings—sister and brother, in fact—because they were polar opposites.

Where Henriette’s dark coloring reflected their Breton heritage, Anne-Marie’s Alsatian roots on her mother’s side had lightened her hair to the shade of wild honey and her eyes to clear amber. Their lack of resemblance didn’t end there. Henriette was short and top-heavy, partly due to nature and partly due to a lifelong diet of cream and butter and cheese, while Anne-Marie had been able to eat from morning till night before the strict wartime rationing set in without gaining an ounce on her taller, more slender frame.

“I think I’ll offer the American a glass of Papa’s Calvados instead of a kiss,” Henriette said in a sleepy voice.

“That certainly sounds less troublesome.”  Anne-Marie blew out the candle, plunging the room into complete darkness, then crossed herself and clasped her hands together.

“What are you doing?”

“Praying.”

Henriette chuckled drowsily. “For Guy Compain, I presume.”

Anne-Marie’s blood froze in her veins. “What makes you say that?”

“Papa told me that he saw you two coming out of the woods near the lake yesterday.”

“Did he seem to think we were doing something wrong?” she asked in a careful voice that betrayed none of her sudden anxiety.

“He said you appeared to be arguing.”  Henriette took most of the coverlet with her when she turned onto her side, giving Anne-Marie her back. “A lover’s quarrel, perhaps?”

Anne-Marie repressed a shudder of revulsion at the very idea of sleeping with Guy Compain. He was brave and uncompromising, she would grant him that, but he was also short and pimply and gauche. The fact that he was one of the few men over the age of eighteen still living in the village instead of doing forced labor in Germany made him, she supposed, a logical paramour in Henriette’s innocent eyes.

“Actually, we were discussing Descartes.”  She affected a reflective tone as she rolled onto her opposite side so that she was lying—literally and figuratively—with her face to the wall.

“Who?”  Sixteen-year-old Henriette was more interested in getting her hands on the latest issue of Pour Elle than she was in reading the words of some long-dead philosopher.

“‘Cogito, ergo sum’,” Anne-Marie prompted.

“You know I failed my Latin examination.”

“‘I think, therefore I am.’”

 “Oh.”

Enjoying herself at Henriette’s expense was cruel, but Anne-Marie continued, embroidering a tale that rivaled the Bayeux Tapestry for complexity. If nothing else, she decided she would bore her cousin to sleep. “And then, of course, there’s the whole question of mind over matter.”

“What?”

“Do you believe the world exists, or is it only an illusion of our senses?”

“I didn’t realize Guy was so serious,” Henriette admitted after a moment’s pause.

He wasn’t. At least not about things like philosophy. In fact, he’d hated school and often bragged that he’d been expelled for writing BBC messages from the exiled Général de Gaulle on the blackboard during lunch break. Far be it from Anne-Marie, though, to correct Henriette’s erroneous impression. 

Besides, her real concern was her uncle. She didn’t trust him. And with good reason. Not only did Henriette’s father drink too much, but when the Calvados—the potent apple-pulp brandy he brewed from the trees on his farm—had finished dulling his senses, he talked too much.

“Did you father say anything else about Guy and me?” she inquired casually.

“Only that your maman and papa would roll over in their graves at such a liaison,” Henriette mumbled into her pillow.

Tears stung Anne-Marie’s eyes at the mention of her parents, who’d been killed during the June 1940 invasion. One day while she was shopping with a girlfriend near Rouen’s Place du Vieux Marché, the square where Jeanne d’Arc had bravely died at the stake, a German bomb had hit their home and it had burned to the ground. Cringing in a doorway across town as the sirens wailed and the Stukas swept down, she hadn’t known that it was already too late for her mother and father and a younger brother who’d been confined to bed with a touch of flu. Her dear, sweet Papa had come home from his law office for lunch and to check on him.

By nightfall, she’d been both an orphan and a refugee in a world turned upside down. Her immediate family was dead, the old Norman house of her birth had been flattened, and longtime neighbors were preparing to live without any sanitary facilities in cellars and in hovels made from blackened beams and planks. The next day she’d fled the rubble of Rouen with only the clothes on her back, joining the long line of defeated people plodding south, bypassing numerous other burned-out villages and praying that her father’s younger sister would take her in.

But her aunt was a farmer’s wife with four sons and a daughter of her own to feed. And her uncle, who had just received notice that the Germans were requisitioning his wheat harvest, had emphatically said “No more!”  Her grief–stricken grandfather, however, had gladly welcomed his son’s only surviving child into his home. Anne-Marie had lived with him ever since, earning her certificate from the local lycée and her keep by helping around the house and assisting him in his office.

It was the perfect “cover” for her Résistance work.

Resisting the Germans was, in fact, a family tradition. When the Prussians invaded Alsace in 1870, her maternal grandparents, who were determined to remain French, had moved to Caen, where her mother was born. And when the “war to end all wars” broke out in 1914 and France found herself crossing swords with Germany yet again, her father, a law clerk in Rouen, had sallied forth.

Now it was her generation’s turn to answer the bugles of patriotism resounding across the land, and Anne-Marie was proud to be one of the partisans who’d rallied to the call.

She’d been careful to keep her grandfather in the dark about her activities with the local Résistance. What he didn’t know, after all, wouldn’t hurt him. But by agreeing to serve just this once as a passeur—one of the people who moved downed Allied pilots and Jewish refugees across occupied territories to safety—she had put him in jeopardy as well.

Still, she had decided it was a risk worth taking. Because if she’d known then what she knew now, she might have been able to help Miriam Blum.

Anne-Marie crossed herself again and said a silent “Amen.”  Outside, that bright bomber’s moon shone down upon a village where all but one slept under a patchwork quilt of snow. Inside, Henriette’s soft, steady snores and their grandfather’s louder ones echoing from across the hall told her that her prayers had been answered.

~ ~ ~

“Ssh!”

“What’s the matter?”

Shivering as much from nerves as from the bitter cold, Anne-Marie turned to the wounded RAF pilot crouching in the ditch beside her. After checking to be sure that both Henriette and her grandfather were sound asleep, she’d sneaked down the stairs and out the door of the house. Her “lodger,” whom she’d alerted when she slipped into the garage while gathering wood for tomorrow’s fire, had been lying in wait in the loft above her grandfather’s coupe.

“I hear something,” she whispered now in the English she’d learned at school.

“The German patrol?” he asked on a cloud of breath.

“They’re not due back for twenty minutes.”  She’d managed to glean the timing of their new schedule while the Gestapo agent’s bad tooth was being pulled. While she was at it, she’d filched a small glass of the cognac he’d anesthetized himself with before submitting to the painful extraction. She’d poured some of it into a snifter for her grandfather. The rest she’d used to disinfect the pilot’s nasty leg wound before they’d set out from the village on foot.

The seconds dragged by as they listened intently. A twig snapped. Ice-crusted leaves rustled. Then an owl flapped out of a tree, showering them with snow.

Anne-Marie breathed a sigh of relief and then whistled softly in a pre-arranged signal. When a gnomelike figure rose out of the ditch on the other side of the road, she stood on cramped legs and gave the pilot a hand up. “Follow me.”

The road they needed to cross was coated with a thick, slick layer of ice, making it hard for the limping aviator to keep up with her. Normally the crews of shot-down Allied planes escaped back to their bases through northern France, near the Belgian border. The Gestapo had recently infiltrated the Résistance network that repatriated them, however, so he’d been passed farther south by a friendly railroad man and was being flown back tonight.

“You’re late,” Guy Compain scolded, raising his wrist to check his cheap steel watch as they approached. He was Anne-Marie’s age but had taken to wearing little boys’ shorts, even in winter, to appear too young for forced conscription. So far, the Germans had been too busy trying to capture the more illustrious Résistance leaders to bother with some village idiot who didn’t have enough sense to wear long pants when it snowed.

“Sorry, old chap,” the Englishman gasped, “but I’m a bit wobbly on the pins.”

“The leg wound he received when his plane went down is infected.”  Anne-Marie had switched back to French for the explanation. She slid a supportive arm around the pilot’s waist and motioned for Guy to do the same on the other side. “Since my grandfather won’t have any sulfanilamide powder until the Lysander comes, I poured a little cognac on it and gave him some aspirin for his fever.

“Let’s go,” Guy snapped.

He hadn’t wanted any part in helping the pilot escape, which was what they’d been arguing about when Henriette’s father had seen them coming out of the woods. Too dangerous, he’d declared, reminding her that they would automatically be given the death penalty instead of a prison sentence if they were caught. It was too late to back out now, she’d countered. The pilot was here and he was hurt.

Guy had finally relented when Anne-Marie urged him to remember Miriam Blum, on whom she’d always suspected he’d had a crush.

Moonlight guided the slow-moving trio’s path. A copse of trees lay straight ahead. On the south side was a lake where the villagers swam in summer; on the north, a large field that had been cleared of snow so the small British Lysander could land.

Silent as ghosts, several other figures came out from behind the trees. Like Anne-Marie and Guy, they were all dressed in dark clothes and knit caps. One carried a Sten gun, which had been delivered in a previous drop while the others created a flare path with their obstacle lights.

Tonight’s mission was the partisans’ most daring to date. Their supplies were usually dropped with black parachutes on moonless nights. Since this was their first pick-up, though, they’d decided to risk exposure instead of a crash.

“I hear . . . the plane.”  Now that escape was so close at hand, the fevered pilot began to shake.

“You’ll be home soon.”  Anne-Marie kept a tight hold on him, finding that his weakness somehow gave her strength.

On the ground, everyone watched anxiously as the Lysander approached the makeshift airfield they’d prepared. They’d been warned that timing was of the essence in an operation of this sort. Once the plane landed, they would have three minutes to unload the precious cargo it carried and to get the wounded pilot aboard before it took off. Any longer than that and the German patrol might spot it and sound the alarm.

Vite, vite!”  Guy reminded them to hurry in a harsh whisper.

The instant the tiny aircraft came to a stop on the four hundred-yard runway, the waiting réseau members got to work. Outgoing “mail” diagramming the location of railway depots and bridges so the Allied bombers could further disrupt the Germans’ supply routes went on, while medical supplies, boxes of ammunition and orders for continuing the clandestine sabotage of Nazi travel came off. Last but not least, the injured aviator was made as comfortable as possible in the cramped interior.

Then, before the Lysander even lifted off, the partisans vanished into the night as quickly and quietly as they had earlier appeared.

Anne-Marie stuffed the package meant for her grandfather under her sweater and took off at a run. Snow whitened the ground under the trees, but otherwise it was hard with frost. The ski boots she’d bought on the black market made a ringing sound when their iron supports struck a frozen rut in the road.

Traveling alone, it hardly took any time to reach the village. Only once, when two bicycles came along with their blackout lights flickering unevenly, did she have to sink into the bushes alongside the road. Like her, the riders were breaking the midnight curfew, and she wondered on an increasingly rare romantic whim if they were secret lovers hurrying home to avoid the German patrol.

She clenched her chattering teeth, then shoved her bare hands in her pockets and tucked her chin into the curly lamb collar of the old coat she’d found in her grandmother’s armoire and remade for herself, waiting until the bicycles faded around the next curve.

The rue de Bretagne, the main street in Ste. Genviève, was deserted now. Still, she looked carefully before crossing it because the Nazi nights had a thousand eyes. Even though the patrol car wasn’t due to pass for another few minutes, there was no telling who might have gotten up to use the bathroom and then stopped to peer out the window on the way back to bed.

Her grandfather’s house was as dark and tightly shuttered as a tomb. She slipped around to the back, took off her boots, and tiptoed in through the door that opened to their cramped kitchen. On stockinged feet then, she started across the living room.

Skirting the massive mahogany sideboard that stood against the same wall as the door to the vestibule, Anne-Marie permitted herself a small smile at how well things were going. First, she would set the sulfanilamide powder in her grandfather’s medical cabinet. Then she would duck into the tiny downstairs bathroom to strip off her clothes and put on her nightgown before sneaking back up—

A light flared on just as she reached for the doorknob.

She spun, her heart in her throat, to find her grandfather sitting in the harsh glare of a gas lamp near the draped and shaded window that faced the street. Despite the fact that he was on call for emergencies all night, they suffered the same gas cuts as the rest of the village. Which meant that he’d been waiting for her under cover of darkness.

The lamp hissed steadily as she studied him in the gloomy silence. He looked as if he’d just awakened from a long nightmare. His white hair was mussed, his face flushed, and the fraying ties of his black silk robe lay limp and wrinkled in his lap. On the small table beside his favorite reading chair with the worn frieze upholstery sat the crystal snifter, empty now, into which she had poured the pilfered cognac.

“‘Tiger Lily!’”  He practically spat out the nom de guerre she’d taken when she’d joined the Résistance movement.

Anne-Marie sighed in resignation. She couldn’t deny it. He’d caught her in flagrante. Nor could she look him in the eye and lie. He’d see right through her. The only option she had left was to try to contain the damage.

Toward that end, she spoke softly so as not to wake Henriette. “How long have you known?”

“I have eyes, I can see. I have ears, I can hear.”  His own voice quavered with quiet dignity. “Or do you think I’m too old, too blind and deaf and senile to know what you’ve been up to all these months?”

“Of course not.”  With more aplomb than she felt, Anne-Marie set her ski boots on the floor, unbuttoned her coat, and pulled off her black knit cap. Her hair, gleaming almost gold in the light from the gas lamp, fell past her shoulders. She reached up under her sweater and removed the precious parcel of sulfanilamide powder he needed to treat his patients, many of whom had been beaten by the Germans or badly wounded by Allied bombs.

“You—” As he took the package she proffered, his dark eyes widened in dismay. “Where did you get this?”

“That,” she said gently, “you’re better off not knowing.”

His shrewd expression told her he wasn’t as gullible as she thought. “Are you crazy?”

“War is crazy.”  Still too wound-up to sit down, Anne-Marie paced the room. She moved as lithely as a dancer, her hair swirling as she turned the corner of the heavy old table where they took their meals. “And as pretentious as it sounds, I want to help bring an end to the insanity.”

“By hiding pilots and derailing trains?” he demanded hoarsely.

Her jaw clenched. “If that’s what it takes.”

“The Germans have threatened reprisals—ten of us for one of them.”

“As if they need another excuse to torture and kill the French!” she scoffed.

He gave her a penetrating look. “And if you’re captured?”

“I carry a cyanide pill.”  When he flinched, she realized she’d gone too far and rushed to soften the blow. “But only as a last resort.”

“This war . . .” With his beard spreading like cold ashes below his cheekbones, her grandfather looked older and more tired than ever. “It’s not like other wars. Only men fought them—not women.”

Giving in to her sudden fatigue, Anne-Marie sank down on the arm of his chair. Her heart constricted at the realization that she had added to the burden of grief and worry he already carried. But to do nothing, to simply surrender to the occupiers of her homeland because she was female, to blindfold herself in order not to see what was going on around her . . . it was unthinkable!

“We don’t look at each other as men and women.”  She ran a smoothing hand over his hair and imagined her grandmother smiling down at her from on high. “We see one another as comrades in arms, fighting side by side for a common cause.”

But her grandfather was beyond such simple appeasement. “Is Henriette a partisan?”

“No. But Maurice is threatening to take to the mountains.”

“The Maquis?”   He blanched at the news that his oldest grandson was thinking of joining the guerilla fighters. “My God, what is this world coming to?”

“It’s dying, Grand-père,” she said sadly.

“And you think you can save it?” he concluded in a flat tone.

“Not by myself, of course.”  She lifted her chin to a proud angle. “But I need to do my part.”

Some of her grandfather’s old spirit reared its head as he peered up at her and put a new twist on the argument he’d been making for a good year now. “What you need, young woman, is a man to keep you home at night!”

Subject categories
ISBNs
0966339738
9780966339703
9780966339734