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11:46 p.m., December 1, 1941
The young woman hitched her skirt to her thighs, revealing slender legs encased in lisle stockings.
"I do apologize they're not silk," she told the man in the shiny black waistcoat. "So terrifically hard to find silk these days, isn't it?" She lifted her skirt a fraction higher, and as the man gaped she brought the heavy iron piping down hard on his skull.
He fell to his knees and made a funny wheeze.
It was rather exciting. She hadn't been in London during the Blitz, but oh how she'd envied them the drama. The whine and clump of the incendiaries and ack-ack shells, the streams of tracers and the barrage balloons bumbling overhead. Now the Luftwaffe was raiding more heavily again, and she felt a glow of pleasure at being part of the grand sweep of things--a glitzy Berlin cabaret, with brilliant spotlights sweeping the darkened stage, but better for the real tears and blood and love.
And bomb sites were super places to trap and scrap onetime informants. The man in the shiny waistcoat was like a funny crab, trying to crawl away over the rubble. She checked that the message he'd given her was intact. She knew that some people in the SD--the Sicherheitsdienst, the security service of the SS--considered her flighty. They'd laughed that her code name should be Schmetterling, Butterfly. But she wasn't flighty. She was dedicated and smart and she did what needed doing.
She lifted the iron piping to finish the man but was interrupted by the gleam of a blackout torch pricking among the wreckage and an air warden calling out, "Hallo? Miss? You're within the danger area."
"Oh this poor man!" she cried. "Please--he's hit, he's injured. Oh, do help!"
She knelt as if to care for the man and put her knee on his throat.
"What? Is the gentleman hurt?" The elderly air warden hurried forward, babbling questions.
She felt the knobby bone of the man's throat crack and separate under her knee. She heard him wheeze and die, but it was nothing so climactic as a death-rattle. She stood, her hand to her own throat in horror, her eyes wet and wide.
The air warden became agitated, and she began to weep. It was curious, the lingering scent of a bomb site. Brick dust as thick as the London fog mixed with the smell of damp plaster and heavy clay and the bitter waft of domestic gas hissing from shattered pipes. The bouquet of an eviscerated building. She even imagined that the man in the shiny waistcoat had exuded a sort of fleshy-sweet fragrance, like narcissus, as he'd died.
She sniffled away from the air warden, murmuring that she simply had to leave, then rode her bicycle through the dark streets to slip into Mr. Pentham's house through the garden. She memorized the message the man had given her and destroyed it. Was it bad news? She couldn't decide. She was forbidden to contact Hamburg except once: the first and final time, when the mission was complete. The British had direction finders, and there was no reason to jeopardize the operation by using her wireless too soon.
The agent she called "Bookbinder" was in place. Not the place he'd intended, but in place nonetheless. He could not fail. Her faith in him was religious. The two of them together would ensure the victory of the Fatherland. It shouldn't be long now, ten days at the outside.
It was the most thrilling assignment of her career, and her satisfaction was complete--except for the occasional whiff of dead Mr. Pentham, who, she was afraid, was beginning to go off. But even that could be ignored, caught as she was in the excitement. She considered the message again. She'd never met a Yank, not really. Thomas Wall. Perhaps she'd call him Tommy.
Early Morning, December 1, 1941
Thomas Wall woke from what wasn't quite sleep. The bedside lamp smeared feeble light on the patterned tin ceiling and the scarred wooden bedposts. He sat up and the room reeled. He steadied himself against the mattress, his breath catching at the pain in his bandaged right hand.
The broken memory of a fever dream flashed and was gone. England. He was in London. The Rowansea Royal Hospital--a hospital dormitory, an asylum, once packed to the rafters with shell-shocked husks of the Great War. Now a new generation clamored at the gates as Churchill faced Hitler across the narrow Channel.
Tom had a bed in a semiprivate alcove, and the enforced company of hollow-eyed men stiff and brittle as scarecrows. All he needed was time, quiet, cool darkness. He needed sleep. Hadn't slept for two days and--
Someone was coming. He heard footsteps on the tile floor, sounding over the snoring, wheezing inmates. Tom turned his head, and the light of the hallway blinded him, shining like a deadly beacon on a deadly night. The operation. The recovery. The airfield on Crete. He lifted his bandaged hand to shield his eyes and heard the rustle of skirts.
"Harriet?" he said.
"Still awake, love?" a nurse replied, matronly and bustling.
"You and me both, Mrs. Harper. No rest for the wicked."
"The weary, Mr. Wall. No rest for the weary."
"Them, either--but what would you and I know about that?"
She clucked. "How you do go on!"
But he didn't go on. He stayed. He had recovered--except for his hand--but he stayed in the asylum, cutting paper dolls. All he needed was rest and sleep and . . . Earl. He needed Earl. Earl was a walking bomb only Tom could defuse.
". . . it's coming on seven," Mrs. Harper was saying, "and you have a visitor this morning."
"Seven? It's morning?" Another disorientation, the dawn obscured by the blackout curtains. Then he heard the rest of it: "I what? I have a what?"
She clucked again. "Hush, now. You'll wake the others."
He had a visitor. His family was in the States. In England, there were only Earl, Harriet, and Chilton. Not Chilton, never Harriet. Then Earl? He needed a gun. He needed his Colt. He needed his BAR, snap off the bipod and work it till the muzzle caught fire. He levered off the sheets. Beneath the white bandages, his right hand throbbed.
"Set yourself down, love," Mrs. Harper said. "Rushing's the last thing to heal you."
"What visitor? An American?"
"You know what the governor said, Mr. Wall--steady as she goes." She drew the alcove curtains, and a mumbling moved through the room as light seeped in. "I told them, didn't I? No visitors. But do they listen to an old nurse who's been tending her boys since the Aisne River?"
"I'm steady," Tom said. "I'm four-oh. What visitor?"
"A gentleman from the Home Guard . . . or so he claimed. Called past midnight, if you please! I put him off, of course. He'll be coming at half eight, so we'll need to shave and dress, Mr. Wall."
"He claims to be from the Home Guard?"
"A Mr. Davies-Frank. Fire Control--or so his calling card said."
She hushed him and led him into the hall. There were doors every twenty feet down the wide institutional corridor, and buckets of sand--in case of fire--every ten. "Mr. Davies-Frank," she said. "Gentleman of your generation, and why he's not in uniform, I wouldn't presume."
"Not American, then," he said. Not Earl.
"English as the day is long, with an accent that could roast chestnuts. Nothing like--" Mrs. Harper shook her head. "I won't hear a word against Americans, but if you won't fight the Germans, I'm sure the king going on bended knee to your Ambassador Winant won't change his mind."
"This Davies-Frank mentioned Ambassador Winant?" Tom asked. "The embassy?" The embassy was where Earl worked--when he wasn't working elsewhere.
"There now, Mr. Wall," the nurse said. "Less of that, if you please."
She unlocked a door and led him past the chapel and the display of flags. Four flags were American, taken in 1814 when the Brits set fire to the White House. Some of the old pensioners liked to twit Tom about the captured flags, so he pretended to think they were veterans of the War of 1812 and was rewarded with toothless and grizzled smiles.
Mrs. Harper led Tom toward the governor's wing and unlocked a final door. "Journey's end, Mr. Wall. Shave, bathe, and dress. I'll have Mr. MacGovern bring you a nibble. Is there anything else you'll be needing?"
"Scrub my back?"
She clucked in amusement, and was gone.
Beyond the door was a small, tidy bedroom. There was a suit laid out on the bed, and a narrow paneled door opening to an attached bathroom. There was a razor in the bathroom, an old-fashioned cut-throat with a handsome ivory handle. What the hell? Giving an inmate a straight razor instead of a safety?
He couldn't think. His mind was sluggish, exhausted as his body. He wanted sleep, he wanted Earl, he wanted Harriet--
Shaving left-handed was awkward, and with a cut-throat it was worse. There had been a girl who'd shaved him during the worst of it. He remembered that. He remembered her breath smelled of licorice and her front teeth were off-kilter, and she'd smiled at his gallantries as if she didn't suffer a thousand daily flirtations, a thousand broken men trying to prove themselves whole.
He cut himself on the chin, cut himself on the cheek, then stripped and stood under the shower until the stink of the dormitory sloughed off. The water was cold and smelled crisply metallic. It roused him and he realized he was still here, still going through the empty motions, when he needed to be gone.
He toweled dry and slopped a bowlful of sudsy water onto the tile floor, and left the razor at the edge of the basin.
He dressed. The suit was his--he'd bought it last year in Burlington Arcade, before it caught a Luftwaffe bomb. There was no wallet in the pocket, no money, nothing. An empty suit for an empty man.
The door opened and MacGovern entered. He was tall and bent, like Ichabod Crane, with bony shoulders and a gaunt face. He was stronger than he looked, and he ruled the men with a brutal bonhomie.
"Got yourself all prettied up, then," MacGovern said, putting a tray on the bedside table.
Tom ignored the tea and dry biscuit. "Mmm."
"You look a little sailor boy, at sea in your own suit."
"That's right, Mac."
"Audience with the king, I told the lads. What do they want with you, then?"
"My recipe for coffee cake."
Mac cuffed him. "Your bleeding lip, more like. I hear the man's calling from the War Office. Or is he the Yard's Special Branch?"
"Horse Guards. Want to come? They're in the market for a jackass."
"Better than a lame dog. Bloody one-handed Yank . . ."
Tom said "mmm" again and slipped his feet into the shoes. Nothing would placate Mac, not if he felt Tom's treatment was a challenge to his authority--being allowed a shave, a shower, and a mysterious meeting without Mac's permission. But he'd get his own back tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that.
Tom crouched over his shoelaces, and MacGovern finally glanced into the bathroom, finally saw the straight razor on the counter.
"Stupid cow, handing that to the likes of you." His spindly legs unfolded like a stepladder and he was inside the bathroom almost before Tom knew he was moving. "Lucky you didn't give me a crisp new grin, from ear to ear."
Tom smiled and launched forward from his crouch. He hit MacGovern's waist with his shoulder just as MacGovern set his second foot on the soapy tile floor.
MacGovern buckled and windmilled his arms. He caught at the wet towel flopped over a hook and cursed and fell hard, his legs flinging upward.
"Bleeding fuck!" he yelled, splayed there like a stick figure come undone. "I'll see you get a week without--"
Tom dropped on him, his elbow hard into MacGovern's gut, and while Mac was gasping for breath, he took a handful of Mac's hair in his good hand and beat his head against the floor. Three times, and MacGovern stopped struggling. Four, and he was moaning in a semiconscious daze, his outflung hand clenching and unclenching.
Tom pulled Mac's arms around the water pipe, careful not to slip on the wet tile, and bound his wrists with the man's necktie. It was painful work, Tom's right hand flaring beneath the bandage, but he did it--tight as he could manage.
He stepped back. The exhaustion was gone, replaced with edgy euphoria. He'd done it. It was he and Earl in this lightless, ravaged city. He took MacGovern's keys and wallet, then closed the bathroom door and locked the bedroom. If luck was with him, the room was soundproof. If not, MacGovern's yell would raise the alarm.
Nothing he could do. Nothing but find Earl, and stop him.
Tom slipped down the corridor toward the kitchen stairs. He found himself in the front hall, what they called the Court Room, with its painted ceiling and dingy colonnades. A moment of vertigo, and then he knew where he was. He turned and--
Voices in the hallway. If they caught him now, with MacGovern bruised and bloody, no way he'd get another chance.
The voices grew louder, then faded.
He willed his heart to stop pounding. Sgt. Thomas Wall--Rosenblatt had called him "Tommy Gun," and the nickname caught on among the other men. That was him: fearless, quick, decisive . . . afraid of the echo of gossiping nurses.
No time for self-pity. He unlocked a set of double doors with MacGovern's key and walked twenty feet before a nurse came into the hall. He nodded without meeting her eyes, continued walking.
She said something behind him.
He said, "Yes, thank you," and didn't slow.
He turned a corner, opened a door, and slipped into a coatroom that stank of camphor. How soon before MacGovern was found? How long before Mrs. Harper returned? He rifled through the hangers, grabbed an old army greatcoat, and shrugged it on. The hall was empty. He went down the stairs and into the kitchen, past the sandbags and out the side door.
Tom blinked, breathed, and made himself walk slowly across the wide windblown street. A pinprick of tension ached between his shoulder blades, as if he were expecting a bullet. He headed down the next street, trotted kitty-corner across the intersection. He boarded a tram, and fifteen minutes later he found himself on a common--Streatham, Clapham, where the hell was he? London somewhere.
The iron fence had been removed from the common, to be melted down into bullets and bombers. There were ruts where the railings had been, long, barren furrows. The front half of the green was divided into garden allotments, and there was a piggery built with bomb-salvaged timber, and Black Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds pecked at the dirt beyond. At a barrage balloon--painted dull silver and tethered inside a wide wire circle--a mustachioed corporal and his crew trained their replacements, a dozen women from the WAAF, with a combination of efficiency and flirtation. There was a sort of domestic serenity to the scene, which made Tom slow, then stop.
From the Hardcover edition.