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21 March 1944
Brittany Coast, France
Seas are rough and mortally cold and, though she surely approaches her death, Virginia Hall can't row fast enough. France is within sight.
The warnings of her superiors echo in her mind.
"As a wireless operator in fully occupied France, you'll have six weeks to live."
Good, she'd thought. Six weeks. Forty-two days.
One day for each of those brave men and women she'd abandoned during her first mission in Lyon. If they're still alive, they surely languish in prisons and concentration camps, yet she escaped. The thought nearly chokes her, as it has every day for the last eighteen months, but she shoves it aside. She will go on.
In spite of the frigid night, Virginia sweats. The British gunboat only took the agents so far. They have to use a dinghy the rest of the way. She can feel the sting of blisters forming, and her partner Aramis-they are trained to use only code names-is too tired to continue. At sixty-two, he's old for a secret agent. As much as Virginia hates traveling with another, it will only be for a little while. His mission is confined to setting up safe houses and gathering intelligence in Paris, while Virginia's will take her to the outskirts of the city and then on to the mountain region of the Haute-Loire. She'll coordinate supply drops to help arm and organize Resistance forces, the Maquis, to prepare them to rise up and fight when the Allies finally land. Any reporting she can do on Nazi activity won't go amiss, either, and Virginia is itching to help rain terror on their heads.
Still, the Haute-Loire seems remote, unimportant, and far from action, but Vera Atkins, a high-ranking intelligence officer with the SOE, is adamant that Virginia covers it. One thing is sure: Remote or not, Virginia will never again abandon France. Even if it means defying orders. This time she will stay until the liberation.
Hoping to discourage her from returning to France, Vera gave Virginia the grim details of the fates of all the wireless operators they'd lost in recent months.
"You can't bring them back by going and getting yourself killed," Vera had said.
"No, but I can help win the war."
"A noble motivation," Vera said. "Are you sure that's the only reason you want to return?"
It isn't. But Virginia didn't share that with Vera.
"You're a superwoman, just as the rumors said," says Aramis. "If your prosthetic leg weren't such a topic of conversation, I'd never have guessed. What's it they say you named it? Herbert?"
Cuthbert, she thinks, clenching her teeth.
Because the Gestapo took to calling her "the Limping Lady" when they started hunting her in Lyon, what she had once kept secret was exposed. As if she needed another reason to hate the Nazis. She's weary of people making a fuss about her leg, and most of all she's weary of this man. He has been talking since they met less than twenty-four hours ago, including telling her his real name, his day job, and details about his actual family. Most secret agents sneaking into Nazi-infested France might stay a little quieter, but Aramis is undeterred.
"With any luck, we can get you a stiff drink once we land," he continues. "Maybe the safe house will have a wine cellar they'll be happy to share for a small fee."
When he reaches across the dinghy to pat the concealed money bags at Virginia's hips, she drops the right oar, grabs his arm, and twists it.
"Never touch me again."
His eyes grow wide behind his spectacles. After a moment, she releases his arm and returns her hand to the oar. During the mere seconds she wasn't rowing, the dinghy turned, and a swell knocked the thirty-pound wireless suitcase into her good leg. Cursing her temper, she struggles to turn the vessel to cut the waves head-on instead of running parallel to them. Aramis picks up his set of oars to help her. They're soon on track, and in the silence between them, Virginia can no longer ignore the throbbing in her jaw.
Just last week, she'd sat in recovery from the sadistic dentist who had replaced her American fillings with gold, in the French way. Secret agents had to become their parts down to the last painful details. Vera had stood over her in the recovery room.
"Your first mission was a tea party compared to what now awaits you," Vera said.
Vera helped recruit Virginia for the SOE early in the war, before the US had been involved, when Virginia could use her cover as an American journalist to travel freely. Vera had formed and tested her, and continued to do so at every opportunity, even now that Virginia transferred to the OSS under American general William J. Donovan. With a price on Virginia's head, Vera didn't think it wise for Virginia to return to France. "Wild Bill" Donovan had overridden Vera, however-the grin he'd given Virginia reminiscent of the one her father gave when overriding her mother-and Vera never missed an opportunity to remind Virginia of the danger she faced.
"The new collaborator militia of thugs, the Milice," said Vera, her eyes intense on Virginia's, "are just as dangerous as the Nazis. In fact, more so. As native French, they understand dialect, know who's an outsider, and take delight in hunting the Resistance."
Virginia's mouth went dry. On her first mission, a year and half earlier, she didn't have to worry about her American accent. Now, since the US was in the war, and the Gestapo had plastered wanted posters of Virginia's face all over France, she knew she'd have to go undercover, but it hadn't yet dawned on her that she would need to be so careful when speaking.
"Finding the Maquis and getting them to trust you will be a challenge," said Vera. "But you must if we are to unleash hell on the Nazis once Operation Overlord begins."
"D-Day," Virginia said.
"D-Day. Which will just be the beginning."
"The beginning of the end."
"We hope," said Vera. "After D-Day, if you've had success finding Maquis groups, we'll drop in officers to take command in your wake as you move toward the Haute-Loire."
"Do you have the official date?"
"That's not yet for you to know," said Vera. "You must await the signal."
The poem. Verlaine's "Chanson d'automne." Autumn song. She had to memorize it. The broadcast of the first stanza by the BBC will signal invasion is imminent. The second stanza will announce its commencement.
"Once I get the Maquis armed," Virginia said, "holding back men and women who've been waiting to avenge their losses will be like trying to stop a dam from breaking."
"But you must," said Vera. "Once D-Day comes, and the fighting is in the open, you know how the Nazis will respond."
No. None of them knew. But they could all imagine how a rabid beast would strike back once cornered.
Vera had pulled out a small brass container from her jacket pocket engraved with an L. Lethal pill. In case of capture.
"Do you want it this time?" Vera asked.
"You know the answer to that question."
Vera stared at Virginia a long moment before sliding the container back into her jacket, and, after checking Virginia's pockets to make sure there weren't any London bus ticket stubs or American playing cards, Vera grasped Virginia's coat lapels and looked into her eyes. Her face softened. She became the old Vera, before all the war losses.
"Don't put yourself in unnecessary danger. Change safe houses frequently. Don't get attached. When this is all over, I want to toast our success, not fly to the states to give your mother the bad news."
"At least she'd be gratified to know she told me so."
"This war has made us all so cold," Vera said, almost to herself before adding one more thing. "In your final region, there's a remote village at its heart: Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Protecting it must be your highest priority."
"Why is it so important?"
At that, Vera had released Virginia's lapels and returned to her rigid posture.
The shore is now upon Virginia and Aramis. The fog conceals the rocks, and they sharply navigate a turn so they don't crash. The edge of the dinghy is clipped, and while Virginia is able to steady herself, Aramis goes overboard. He sputters, trying to stand while the surf pounds him. Virginia beaches the dinghy, disembarks, pulls the boat farther ashore to ensure it doesn't wash away before they can empty it, and turns to take in the view.
If she were still able to cry, she would. She inhales the air, filling her lungs. Unbidden, the memory rises of her father whispering her awake and carrying her through the darkness to watch the Paris sunrise, but she pushes it aside. She knows that-like her father-that version of France is gone. As much as she would love to savor this moment, the clock is ticking. She turns her attention back to Aramis, who moans in the sand.
She swears under her breath and shushes him for his complaints. Working quickly, she lifts their bags from the rubber dinghy, uses her knife to slice holes in it, and heaves a small boulder inside the boat to sink it. Once she's sure the vessel is fully submerged, she returns to Aramis. She pulls his strappy valise over her shoulders, gives him her lighter clothing suitcase, and carries the wireless suitcase in her other hand.
They spot the path that will lead to the farm where they'll spend the night. An icy rain falls, and by the time they arrive at the barn an hour later, they're both shivering, exhausted, and starving, with only an hour to sleep before they have to catch their train. Aramis snores within minutes, but Virginia cannot. As it has every night since Lyon, the image of a pair of cold blue eyes and a sinister smile plays in her mind as she stares through the dark.
Six weeks to live, they told her. She has much to accomplish in that time.
As sunrise breaks over the frosty March morning, shafts come in the barn through holes, reminding Virginia of her childhood farm in Baltimore, the place her late father taught her to hunt and hike and row and skin a rabbit. The last time she was at Box Horn Farm, seven years ago, she'd taken her six-year-old niece, Lorna, sledding. Up and down the hill behind the barn, over and over. Each time they got to the bottom, Lorna shouted, "Again, Aunt Dindy! Again!" No matter how badly her knee stump ached, Virginia would climb the hill with the child and sled back down until the night forced them to stop.
Again. Keep going.
In spite of what lies ahead, and what drags heavy behind her, these memories give her the strength to rise.
Virginia paints gray dye on her auburn hair, uses icy water from the pump outside to wash the dye through, and combs her wet hair into a severe bun. Then she smudges kohl under her brown eyes, draws wrinkles on her forehead and cheeks, plumps her slender frame with layers of old-woman's clothing, and puts on a pair of fake eyeglasses. When she awakens Aramis, he's shocked at the transformation that has aged her several decades beyond her thirty-seven years. Without speaking, she passes him a packet of biscuits from her stash, sits next to him on the dirt while he eats, and stitches the tear in his pants. When she finishes, he stares at her with gratitude.
"Come, husband," she says in French. "We have a train to catch."
Frustrating as it is for her, Aramis must accompany her to Crozant, where her first contact will provide her safe lodging for wireless transmission. His escort is necessary so he knows Virginia's place in the circuit, and so he can talk for them if they're stopped. Her French is plagued with the American accent she can't shake-a reality that tortures her. If she and Aramis make it, she needs to check in with HQ as soon as possible to get their pins on the map of agents. If she doesn't make contact within two weeks, she will be assumed captured or killed, and another wireless operator will have to be sent in her place.
At the busy hub of a train station, Nazis swarm. They shove batons in her chest, demand papers, push her and Aramis roughly along from one checkpoint to the next. Identity card. Proof of residence. Travel permit. Ration book. She and Aramis produce the forged documents with their fake identities, certain that each stop will be the one that catches them. Virginia hadn't fully appreciated what her superiors told her to expect in France. She didn't comprehend the potency of full Nazi occupation, how it pollutes the air and poisons those who breathe it.
They make it through, but as she climbs aboard the train behind Aramis, Virginia stumbles on the step. A young woman with red hair and green eyes is at her arm, giving her assistance. Virginia can't help but wonder if the young woman is one of the Resistance or a collaborator-everyone must choose. Virginia gives a curt nod of thanks before continuing.
She and Aramis struggle to find seats in the heartbreaking crush of hungry, hollow-eyed, weary people. When they find a spot, the young woman squeezes in next to her at the window. Heat emanates from the woman like a flame, bringing the exotic scent of her perfume to Virginia's nose.
Guerlain's Vol de Nuit. Night flight.
It was the perfume Virginia's fiancé, Emil, had given her, a lifetime ago, when she was whole and alive.
Flinging all thought of Emil away with a shake of her head, she threads her arm through Aramis's. When the whistle finally blows, she jumps in her seat. This distresses her because she has never been jumpy. Jumpiness makes one a target. Perhaps Vera was right to worry that Virginia had no business returning.
The young woman touches her arm and offers a smile of reassurance. Ignoring her and calling upon her training, Virginia stares out at the station clock to regulate her breathing by the second hand. She'd been instructed at a series of manor houses throughout Britain in everything from hand-to-hand combat, to sabotage, to interrogation. Psychological evaluations were a critical part of the process. Virginia always received the highest marks in her ability to keep cool. But now, something she sees nearly undoes her.
It's a sketch of her own face staring back at her.
Her wanted poster.
la dame qui boite-The Lady Who Limps, Most Dangerous of Allied Spies.