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Allowing himself a final moment of calculated indolence, Stanhope reached into the carton and removed the fourth and final file. Someone had written on the cover: "Val de Grace. Sanitation Procedures and Methods. May 1940." Inside, another wad of wrinkled onionskin copies, each showing faint traces of an old typewriter, though none of the carbon papers discarded long ago. Probably the fourth or fifth copy that had been made for a bureaucracy with no shortage of files or functionaries.
He was just in the process of closing the folder when it happened. An envelope slid out from inside the cover and fell on Pourchet's table, freed, he guessed, from somewhere near the bottom of the pile. It was a letter-size envelope, light tan in colour, bearing in its left-hand corner the iconic image and address of the Val de Grace. It had been hand-addressed to a Monsieur Michel, in care of a Paris hotel in the 18th arrondissement. But in the absence of stamp or postal frank it appeared never to have been sealed or sent, an appearance underscored by its crisp, pristine condition. Within a carton of four folders, each gorged with administrative exchanges and financial statistics on onionskin, this item seemed entirely out of place, something that did not seem to belong where it had been found, an anomaly.
Neither, more remarkably, did its contents, comprising two ripped-apart postcards, one of them undated. Though in two quite different hands, both were in dark ink and both in letters heavy enough to suggest male authors. The first, faintly postmarked, bore a once whole photograph of the famous cathedral of Notre Dame featuring its west-facing, three magnificently carved stone portals -- that of St. Anne on the right now ripped haphazardly from its entranceway, diagonally toward the north tower. The second, in a different script, seemed to be an abbreviated reply to the first. Dated 30 June 1940, it had once celebrated the familiar face of the writer Colette. But her thick, wavy hair, dark eyes, pursed lips, plaid jacket, even hand-held fountain pen had been viciously torn in two, again diagonally. The second card had never been stamped or mailed. Its author had only written a few opening lines, then apparently had ripped both cards in two, dropped the remnants in the envelope, and either by accident or intent consigned the lot to a folder stuffed with administrative records. Perhaps it had been inadvertent, but Stanhope also realized that any file marked "Sanitation Procedures and Methods" might just as well have been flagged "Dull! Keep Out." He thought of Pourchet and smiled.
Stanhope could not suppress the sudden rush of questions, for what he had deciphered from the four pieces made his spine tingle. The subject, and one name, told him he had stumbled on to something potentially significant. Matching the pieces, two by two, he reread the first card, then the second.
The first, undated, was in a cramped hand, tight and very precise, letters slightly angled to the right, the letters a's and o's barely distinguishable. The text continued where an address could have been but was not, a suggestion that the card either had been given to the recipient by hand, or presented inside an addressed envelope long lost. It was signed "Col. M."
M. le Directeur, urgent to see you. P. will be PM, but advisors include member of Nazi ring. 3 deaths already because of our friends in Ariege, and missing defence secrets. I need help to leave France. Landrou dead. Reply Hotel de Londres, rue du Chevalier de la Barre 18th. Not usual address!!! My friend, this disaster must not go unpunished. Help me.
The second was more telling, and less. Dated just days after the armistice with Germany on 22 June 1940, its unfinished text began:
Monsieur, I am sorry. What you say, and what you ask, are both impossible. I cannot see you. We are already being watched, and I will not endanger staff or patients. I will try to.........
There it ended, unsigned, torn like Colette in two, suspended in mid-sentence for 34 years.
Stanhope stood transfixed. Over the years, he had become very familiar with the name of Colonel Philippe Landrou, head of the French army's counterintelligence bureau in the late 1930s; and now recalled the story of the officer's accidental death shortly after the outbreak of war. Stanhope had already written about the work of the pre-war Deuxieme Bureau, and was pretty sure that his research notes would confirm his guess that "Col. M" was none other than Landrou's principal deputy, Lt. Col. Marius Michel who, in the summer of 1940, was evidently on the run from the German occupiers. The "usual address," Stanhope suspected, was almost certainly France's pre-war, counterintelligence headquarters on the avenue de Tourville, in those days located just next door to the grand Hotel des Invalides and Napoleon's tomb, headquarters which in June 1940 were certainly in the process of being cleared out by Wehrmacht intelligence officers. As for the author of the second note, clearly he had been based at the Val de Grace, and apparently no less than its director-general. If so he likely had held the rank of general. So two officers, possibly from the Ariege region in southern France, linked in some way to more than one death, espionage, and perhaps even the collapse of 1940. "P. will be PM." The "P." surely had to stand for Marshal Philippe Petain, "saviour" of Verdun during World War One, just as "PM" foresaw him becoming Prime Minister of the degraded and occupied French State. Unlike Stanhope, no one in June 1940 anticipated that only a month later Petain would add to his title of Prime Minister that of the President of the collaborationist state known as Vichy France. But someone in June 1940 did know, or strongly suspected, that in the Marshal's immediate entourage there was at least one Nazi agent or sympathizer.
Suddenly alerted by the slam of the heavy front door downstairs reverberating upward from the ground floor corridor, Stanhope hastily returned the contents to the brown envelope, the envelope to the file on Sanitation, and the file to the bottom of its custodial box. Slipping across to his own desk a few steps away, he put on a mask of intense concentration as if totally absorbed by the sterile, mind-dulling contents of his own files -- only to allow the spell to be broken by Pourchet's cheerful return. For a few moments they exchanged pleasantries, then resumed work, Pourchet now turning his attentions to the fourth and final file folder, Stanhope struggling against the temptation to watch every movement of the young man's hands -- dextrous and with a quickness spurred by boredom. Flick, flick, flick, one page after another, followed by several at a time, followed by more than several. The Sanitation file was getting a very rapid and certainly incomplete dusting. At least until the brown envelope re-appeared. Stanhope held his breath. Four small items fell upon the table, and were just as quickly returned to their envelope. The file folder was closed with an audible sigh of relief from its examiner, then returned to its carton, followed by folders three, two and one. The carton was returned to its original place on a nearby shelf, with its identical-looking neighbour the next to be selected with all the enthusiasm of someone who had been dared into asking a girl to dance. Pourchet, it seemed, had no future as an archivist once the final months of his military sentence had been served.