Berlin-Basel train. August 1940.
There were three young SS troopers in the dining car, all vying to buy the lovely young blonde a drink. Didn't she know a finger of schnapps was very healthy before going to bed?
Brigit smiled, taking care not to look any of the men in the eye, willing a blush onto her cheeks. These men weren't the problem, anyway; it was the other one, slightly superior, marching past them again, fixing her with that unchanging steely glance. She'd seen his eyes on her not five minutes after boarding, and they'd lingered just long enough to beg the question. Now, here they were again, cold and merciless.
Whatever he knows, it's too much.
The sense of apprehension clawed at the back of her neck, but she ignored it and carried on gently fending off the sweet yet insistent attentions of the younger men. Perhaps the sergeant just didn't like to see men flirting with a silly Irish girl. If they were going to dispose of their off-duty time so frivolously, it should be with good German stock.
"Gentlemen, please, let the young lady go back to her compartment. You see she doesn't want any schnapps."
His voice was low but authoritative, with a hint of condescension. Something that might have been a smile teased about his lips but came nowhere near his eyes.
The men glanced at him--after all, he was only a sergeant. But theynonetheless inched away from Brigit to gauge her reaction. She hesitated, unsure which way to play this game. She could say that perhaps one drink would, in fact, be very pleasant and hope that the sergeant went away, thinking no worse of her than that she was a tease. Or she could pretend some gratitude to him and seize the opportunity for the solitude she was craving. She only had to hope that he wouldn't accompany her, and that he didn't suspect anything, however unlikely that seemed.
Offend none of them. You can do it.
She cast around a dazzling smile.
"It is a bit late. Perhaps you'll forgive me this evening, and I'll say good night?"
The sweetness in her voice and sparkle in her eye assured them that all was not lost, that for as long as she and they were on the train together, their chances were very good indeed.
The effusion in their wishes for her good rest was almost touching. Another time, she would have laughed.
She gave the cold-eyed sergeant a pleasant, even slightly grateful nod and slipped by him, willing him to simply glare at her receding back.
He let her take five steps down the corridor before following her.
"Fräulein," he called, "a moment, please."
She smelled nothing immediately dangerous in him, but it had been many months since she could really trust her senses. There was certainly something in him worth her concern. Possibly an alert had been given out to watch for someone of her description. Or, of course ... she wished there was a way to find out, and to know exactly how detailed the warning was.
She wondered if she detected a frisson of annoyance in his face when she stepped back against the wall of the corridor as he approached. A small stroke of luck placed her directly in front of a panel. He could not easily scan the window for a reflection, not if he wanted to tread with any caution.
"Is there a problem?"
She put her head to one side and gazed up at him earnestly. The tiniest vibration in her throat was meant to cloud, and even soothe. Or, at the very least, distract. But it didn't seem to work. Not well enough, anyway, which had become par for the course.
"You are very young, Fräulein."
There was almost definitely a sneer in the statement, but that could have many meanings. Brigit willed her expression not to alter.
He smiled suddenly, startling her.
"I am Sergeant Maurer," he announced, his tone generous but his eyes still flinty. He was looking at her too hard, as though hoping to see the shadow of a fang behind her lips. She forced herself to breathe.
"You should be careful, you know, traveling like you are. Alone."
No mistaking the emphasis on that word, or the brief smirk. Brigit inclined her head, curious.
"Perhaps, I mean to say, 'unprotected.'"
The intense desire to show him exactly how capable she was of protecting herself swelled up inside her with a hot rush.
"One can hardly feel unprotected with so many fine officers on board."
There was only sweetness and sincerity in her melodic voice, but Maurer looked neither pleased nor flattered.
But is he fooled?
What he wanted, she could tell, was to touch her, and she almost wished he would, wished he would find an excuse to lay a hand on her skin. Maybe then he'd think twice, be cowed, step back. Think he must be wrong. It would not be what he might expect. The chill of her body was not the iciness of mythology, the cold of death. It was more like a pleasant coolness, and not wholly inhuman. To touch, or, happier, be touched by Brigit, was like sinking a hand into a bowl of fresh cream. A man could roll over and be enveloped in that sweetness. He'd never want to be released. It was a touch she could control, but even at its coldest, it still imparted calm. A promise, an idea of comfort, however illusory.
He didn't touch her. Instead, he jerked his head, indicating for her to walk on. Hands behind his back, he accompanied her to the door of her compartment. She turned to him, a cheerful smile lighting up her features.
Wouldn't I just love to show you my other smile. The one that would drain the color from your face and tug the high scream into your throat before I reached out and ...
"These are dangerous times, Fräulein. A girl like you wants to be careful."
Brigit tossed her golden curls and gave him an arch look--the confident seventeen-year-old adventuress, thoroughly enjoying her hasty trip home.
"Thank you, I can manage."
Still polite, even friendly. Still acting with infinite care.
She slid the compartment door shut behind her and leaned against it, listening to the measured tread of his steps as he marched down the corridor.
And we thought this would be so easy.
It was anything but easy, with so many minefields to navigate. Even at her most innocuous, she engendered scorn and envy from other quarters by traveling in a compartment to herself, dressing in expensively tailored clothes, and possessing such an astonishing beauty. She looked like an arrogant, overprivileged chit dripping in excess. Even the ruse of being Irish was of little help. She was a question mark of a girl, in one way too many.
She cast a glance around the dark, quiet compartment, checking again that everything was in place, that her well-cut blue coat was still hanging with casual insouciance over the mirror. There was something about the train's efficient amenities and highly polished veneer that irritated Brigit, despite its manifold comforts. The money poured into the Reichsbahn, the surety of the superiority of their trains, it all seemed too indicative of the entire manner of capricious thinking that had landed her here, watching, waiting, wondering.
"British trains are warmer anyway, no matter what anyone says."
It was not her habit to murmur out loud, but the sound of her true, suddenly dear, British accent was a tiny comfort. It was just about the only thing around her that was still familiar. And it made her feel less alone. She almost marveled at the speed with which her world had been upended and shattered. Two days. An absurd little speck. Or two days, nine months, and one year, to be more exact. Either way, the enormity of the upheaval was easier to bear when tempered with fear.
No, not shattered, that's not fair.
Her real world, her whole world, was waiting for her, and she could feel him.
The cherished name echoed in her brain, and she didn't dare even whisper it. She had to retain her control.
Her eyes studiously avoided the upper bunk, where the precious, volatile cargo she was toting was stored. She checked the door again to make sure it was locked. Not that it was any sort of real fortification, but even illusions were welcome now.
Brigit sat by the window and slipped off her shoes. Rubbing her feet, she cracked the blind just enough to peep outside. She concentrated on emptying her mind and enjoying the dark countryside. Her well-trained eyes could discern beauty in all that blackness.
Funny, how much light there can be in darkness, if you know where, and how, to look.
Funny, too, how surprised she was at her own surprise. If there was one thing she knew, it was how quickly one community of men could destroy another. It was one of the easiest acts a human could commit. She and all her kind often thrived on that destruction. Besides, she'd done her own personal share of havoc-wreaking, there was no denying it.
It wasn't even the first time she'd had her own little rug yanked out from under her, but this was very different.
It's not just me, now.
Nor was it over. At no time in her long life had she ever been in such protracted potential danger, a situation in which so much of her strength and abilities would have to be channeled in a manner unsatisfying, to say the least. And if ineffective, well ...
I can't fail. I will imitate the action of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. There is no other option.
She repeated it out loud, attempting to assure herself. She would throw herself into it, and hope for the best.
Berlin to Basel, at the Swiss border; through Switzerland and across Vichy France to Bilbao; a boat to Ireland; a boat to Wales; a train home. She laid out the steps of the journey in her mind like dominoes. It was easier to apply cold logic to the proceedings than to dwell on details like the length of the journey, the long hours of daylight that comprised a European summer, the delays that must characterize wartime travel, however determined these new rulers were to keep thingsnormal and briskly efficient, and the presence of armed guards throughout the train.
If only she could tell if he knew. What would give her away? She seemed to breathe, to blush, her hair shone and her eyes sparkled. And he wasn't a hunter; he wasn't trained in the finer arts of detection. He wouldn't discern the skin, the touch, the whisper.
And you have to be one of us to read the history in our eyes.
History. Confounding, exasperating history. Lessons learned over and over, and never learned at all.
Still. It's not over yet. None of it.
From two cars away, she could hear the rhythmic click-click of the striding boots. She fought down the hot surge of impatience, the rising bile at the Nazi gall. How dare they patrol up and down the corridors all night long, as though the train were a prison? She supposed they fancied they were providing comfort and security for the slightly uneasy passengers. Who, at this stage in the journey, were almost all Germans, bathed in the warm certainty of their nation's power and absolute justification for the violence and despair they were wreaking on their weak, insolent neighbors. Still, however untouched they yet were by the war, one could not exercise too much care. Besides, this steady marching gave the soldiers a feeling of importance. Their brethren were holding sway in Poland, had broken down France, and were now battering England. Soon, they, too, might have more impressive dominion than this sleek, sumptuous train. But until that time, they would assert themselves however they could, and so they patrolled.
Irritants. Brigit shook her head, almost amused at this reduction. Her marvelous strength, so close to useless. The powerful demon she had to soothe and lull into slumber. She caught the scent of Maurer returning, his steps slowing, but not stopping, outside her compartment. So recently, so very recently, a man like this would already have been a memory. Now he was a man to be feared.
A man. To be feared. Oh, Eamon, where am I?
Quickly, silently, she put on her silk pajamas and tucked herself into the narrow bed. Who knew but that they might find some excuse to knock, even enter? At no point could she be seen as doing anything unusual. Her situation was already absurdly delicate. She was in no position to take chances.
THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN. Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Jane Stratford.