DISCLAIMER: All named characters in this story do not belong to me, they belong to the creators and producers and studios that own Xena: Warrior Princess.
THE HISTORY: I am not a historian, or a history major or a major expert on history. This story, first and foremost, is a work of fiction. Not everything depicted in this story is historically accurate, particularly the details pertaining to the Nazi nuclear program. For example: the Nazis never developed a nuclear reactor capable of firing a nuclear bomb. Fritz Houtermans is a real German scientist who worked on fission experiments and developing nuclear technology. However, he did not remain in Germany and joined the war effort in America. Merkers was a mine but not a cover for a nuclear storage facility, etc. etc. I tried to be as accurate as possible without interfering with my intention to explore the effects of WWII. Plus it creates drama, and I know how much you guys love drama
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: THE XENA SCROLLS.
The air was vicious and cold, biting at concave stone and vulnerable flesh as though starved. The frozen air could not mask the acid scent of rotting excrement, blood, and the overwhelming reek of moulding vomit. Hazed, ruddy torchlight illuminated lime-slicked tiers of ancient stone. Insects and rodents crept into the diseased anatomy of the dungeon cells; fattened rats scurried across wooden beams to nibble on spider webs and the creatures trapped within them. Each hour brought sporadic chaos: sounds of screaming and barking. In the distance, the hollow drip of putrid water marked time in seconds. Behind a wall of iron bars, a woman sat huddled in the corner squeezing the edge of a splintered wooden bucket in a vice-like grip.
She was filthy, her face matted with layered sweat and dirt, fresh moisture glistening at her hairline. The dried blood on scratched flesh pulled her skin taut, making her nerves sting as she moved the muscles in her face and limbs. Dry heaving into the bucket, she added to the misery of the dark prison cell. She forced two fingers to the back of her mouth and elicited a strong gag. The acid burned, purged into the bucket yellow and vacant. She tried again and another mouthful rushed out to spill into the wooden pail. A scorching pain ripped through her throat and palate until the object of her affliction clinked into the bucket.
Her throat was raw, inflamed by the contents of her stomach. She moaned in agony, the burn lingering on her lips and she reached into the viscous bile, thumb and forefinger grasping a tiny key. She turned the slimy key in her fingers as though fascinated by it, examining it with darkened blue-green eyes. Placing the key between her teeth, palps of fingers clawed at the stone debris in the corner of the cell. She flinched as her hand contacted a sharp edge and cursed under her breath. She proceeded to unearth the object from the hollow in the wall, digging out the thin iron wedge until she plucked it carefully from the clammy, dark abyss.
The woman staggered towards the iron bars disoriented and weak. Grasping the bars, she peered down the hall at the guard, his eyes fixed on the draped National Socialist flag and the rusted cage suspended from the ceiling by a metal chain. He looked bored, rocking back and forth on the heels of his combat boots as he whistled an uneven tune.
Satisfied, she took the key from her mouth. Her right hand snaked up the cold iron bars until she reached the large panel lock. Fear and doubt crept into her chest, seized her in an asphyxiating grip and her breath hitched in her throat. She pressed the key up and tried to ease it into the lock. The key slipped, fumbled by slimy, dirty fingers and fell, landing on the stone with a sharp clattering echo. Her face drained and eyes widened while she turned to survey the guard. He continued to whistle, oblivious, cheerful.
Anxious, desperate fingers stretched out onto the stone as she forced her right arm through the bars. Fingertips scraped against pebbles and dust, felt the cold metal edge of the small key but could not grasp it. Her effort rearranged the object into the crevices between the stones where it gleamed, teased with the imminence of being caught. The guard shouted at her, glimpsed her hand clawing at the dust. The sound of his menacing shouts filled her ears; the even pace of combat boots stamped the ground and closed in on her. A single, frustrated tear escaped the corner of her eye, mingled with the grime on her skin and made it sting. She prepared the hand grasping the iron wedge, tucked it behind her back and the wall.
He came to the iron bars yelling, his unfastened helmet wobbling from the aggressive movement of his body. Bending toward the ground, he sniffed about the stone floor, scrutinizing with feral interest. He quickly discovered the metal key, clawed at its tiny form and rose to stab at the lock. It clicked twice and he burst through the opened door. He sneered at her, bared his gleaming fangs as his paws seized her chin and thrust her face upward. He cursed her, shook her and dangled the fallen key at the tip of her nose; spat his rage at her face.
She kept her face hardened, showed little emotion to ignite his temper. She gripped the iron wedge tighter, tearing the soft flesh of her palm. Feigning passivity, she waited until he released his powerful grip to slap her. His menacing hand raised and hesitated upon descent, the startled limb trembling as he registered his injury. She lifted the iron wedge from the pliant flesh of his left cheek and watched as the blood trickled down into his open mouth, his large paws coming to protect and cover the gushing incision. Encouraged by his whimpering, she plunged the iron wedge through his forehead, trimming the flesh of the thumb protecting the first wound. The wedge lingered in his skull, and to free it, she wrestled it callously, scoring the flesh deeper. His knees buckled and she followed the large body to the stone floor. Her keen eyes scrutinized him for signs of life. His throat convulsed beneath taut skin: a slow, desperate swallow of phlegm and copper-hinted blood. She ran the sharp wedge along his throat, scorn pressed into the creases of her furrowed brow. His movements slowed at last and she gave up, her energy spent and adrenaline gone. Her viridian eyes scanned the lacerated corpse: the disfigured face of the guard and the pool of blood beneath his head to match the scarlet laced between her fingers.
Recovering enough strength, she bent and searched his uniform, found a dagger, bullets and a black pistol. She lifted her torn shirt to switch it for the soldier's jacket and struggled against her ripped clothing. She winced as her thumb contacted a stitched wound, vivid and raw, surfaced from beneath the cloth waist of her trousers. Her eyes narrowed at the foreign mark and her fingertips brushed the sore tissue, the brutally sewn stitching. Dream-like her thoughts wandered into flashes of memory: images of a cold metal slab, obtuse metal tools in rows and an overpowering dread. A hazed, liquefied object seized in bloodied fingers. She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her teeth. The vision faded, memories drowning in distortion. She did not have time to be thoughtful.
Dressing quickly, she loaded the pistol and headed down the passage. The other prisoners made noises as she walked by, some of them begged to be set free. A decrepit, skeletal man howled to notify the guards, his brown, rotting teeth uncovered by snarling lips. She scowled at him and slinked along the stone walls. Passing underneath the rusted cages, she stared at the immense red flag brandishing a black swastika across the space of the wall. Omnipotent. Overwhelming.
The sound of clattering metal filled her ears and a gentle murmuring followed. She peered around the corner, finding another door made of iron bars. Her feet moved heel to toe to conceal her heavy footsteps and she inched toward the door. She turned the rusted latch carefully, pulled the door open with deliberate slowness. Squealing hinges destroyed her secrecy and her arm shot out in reflex, pistol swaying in her outstretched hand. She froze. There was a man in the room in a white coat, his back turned to her. He was washing his hands at a metal sink in the corner and called to her without looking:
"Ah, Richter, I'm glad you came in," he gestured with a tip of his head toward a white sheet, eyes trained on his task, "I need you to get rid of the body."
Seizing the opportunity, she removed her dagger from its black sheath, walking briskly toward him. She reached around the man's throat to carve the blade into his flesh. He turned, blood sputtering from the wound as he gagged. She watched him flounder, crashing to his knees, one hand pressed against the gaping wound while the other clutched the severed sink in vain.
The kill was effortless. She stared reverently at the scarlet-matted dagger, her eyes working their way along the glinting steel. Above the blade, she glanced at the metal slab, a white mass of fabric on top of it crumpled in human-like form.
get rid of the body
Her curiosity piqued and she examined the draped cloth, with haste pulled it back to reveal the corpse beneath. He was obscene, mutilated and burned, his torso exhumed in pieces. He reeked of charred flesh and burning sulphur, his face almost unrecognisable. But she knew him. It was the French pilot: the man charged with the task of transporting her, the man promised a safe return home for his heroic patriotism. She dropped the cover over him again, ignored her harassing conscience. Sentiment could wait.
Stepping out of the room, she came to another dimly lit hallway and a short staircase. She pressed her back to the stone, slipped along the shadowed hallway from wall to wall, taking cover in the depressions of the crumbling tiers. The dagger stayed firmly in her hand.
A tall archway led into an area with a large stone column and a patrol guard. She observed him from a depression in the stone wall, her eyes scanning the trappings of the room. She squinted, the vivid electric light foreign to her sheltered eyes, accustomed to the torchlight and the darkness. She spotted a communications radio propped up on a table next to a yellow map displayed on the wall. The map was encumbered with pinned symbols and coloured markings. The radio whined in the expansive silence, wavelengths travelling through the static haze while combat boots echoed as they stomped past the table. The guard disappeared behind the column, strolling toward the lockers, and she cautiously stepped into the room, her gut knotted with terror.
Treading stealthily past the column, she stepped up behind the sentry fixated on the locker shelving. She raised her arm behind his neck. The guard gasped as he stared into the locker, the light around him absorbed by a sudden darkness. She flinched at the sight of her own distorted shadow rendered gigantic above him. She plunged the dagger. The blade cut him as he turned to face her, gaped a hole in his neck and sunk toward the hilt. He groaned and his eyes rolled back, mouth hanging open in pain. The body collapsed against the open locker door, slamming the iron mass against the stone wall. The hollow clamour reverberated through the calm and she cursed as her eyes assessed the damage. Her vision skittered from end to end of the room for signs of danger.
A single voice from behind her shattered her nerve.
-"What's going on!"
Reflexively her hand retrieved the Luger pistol. She whipped around, arm stretched out, vision following the metal scrape at the tip of the barrel. Her hand muscles pulsed, squeezed the trigger back toward the grip. A bullet flashed from the mouth of the pistol and the body dropped to the floor. She watched the slender smoke escape the barrel tip, the air filled with the sound of her heavy breathing. Her veins thrummed with adrenaline. She remembered the old curse, welcomed the familiar sensations of its aftermath. Killing. It was not unlike breathing: fixed and effortless.
The radio whirred in the silence.
She walked over the guard's body, wiping her feet against the grainy floor. Her boots left bloodied footprints. She turned her head in examination, watched the puckered flesh of the headshot burst with escaping blood. She searched him, took his ammunition and went hastily toward the lockers to raid the contents, slinging a first aid bag over her shoulder and the guard's automatic rifle across her chest. She stuffed the extra magazines and Luger bullets into the bag and scurried over to the radio.
The model was different, German made. She gained little knowledge in France how to operate ham radios and the scrambled mix of signals left her frustrated and lost. She tried the knobs again and input the frequency. She spoke in an even tone, eyes scouring the room and the halls for intruders.
"Rembrandt calling Arcadia, come in, Arcadia!" Static. Droning robotic squeals. She tried again.
"Rembrandt calling Arcadia," her voice intoned with desperation, "Arcadia, do you copy?" The static returned and she resigned her effort, her head lolling back as her eyes squeezed shut in defeat. The radio garbled,
- This is Arcadia. Transmit your message.
Relief washed over her in a warm wave and she staggered as she spoke, relayed the message in code.
"Rembrandt here, still alive. Plane shot down. Captured in " She looked around and spotted the yellow map above her. The markings were concentrated in Germany to the west. She leaned over the table, struggled with the fading print beneath the scribbles of red ink.
"Captured in W, Wewelsburg. Don't know where... A dungeon. A hideout maybe. Pilot is dead " Static and silence. The seconds raced on and she fidgeted impatiently. Even armed, she felt naked, exposed to unseen predators that waited to devour her. Her nerve dissolved into old, familiar dread.
"What are my orders, Arcadia?"
- Has the mission been compromised?
"Negative. I was not interrogated." She looked back toward the laboratory room, swallowed hard and added, "The pilot took his life with cyanide."
- Understood. Investigate the building. Radio with the information you collect and we'll give you further instruction. You must escape enemy hands at all cost. Do not compromise your mission. Your employer doesn't want American intelligence getting too involved. This is Europe's war.
"Roger, Arcadia. Rembrandt over and out." She switched the radio off and the radio dials swung dramatically as the power cut, "Bastards."
The electric hum of the light bulbs buzzed in the eerie silence; dead bodies drained of blood on each end of the gray room. She switched the radio back on wondering if she could reach Washington. She stared at the dials as the needles swayed maniacally left and right. The radio emitted a squall of turbulent mechanical noise: static frequencies and howling signals. No one responded to the call. Exasperated, she stepped over the body of a guard and headed into the hallway, a spiral staircase visible at the other end, a colossal Nazi flag radiating through the synthetic light. She walked casually forward, stopped as she heard a hitch from the radio in the other room.
- Richter? Himmel? Status report.
Nazi officers. Her eyes widened and her pace quickened down the hall. She gripped the automatic rifle, held it prone and tilted it up at the winding staircase. Satisfied, she bounded up the stairs, desperate to be away from the prison cells, the mutilated pilot, the putrid air and the demanding voices emanating from the radio. She could hear glimpses of words and static,
- Richter? Himmel? Why are you not answering? Where is Dr. Hertz?
Gasping for breath as she reached the last stair, she stumbled toward the large iron door. Exit. It groaned despite her gentle manoeuvring. The cold air was jarring to her senses, as foreign and familiar to her as the blinding glare of natural light. The sky was overcast and the land below the parapet walk was lifeless with the quiet languish of winter. She was on a stone walkway that led to a conical tower. Looking up at the tower, an open gorge decorated with Nazi flags loomed over her, the construction like a medieval palace. Trembling from the frigid air and confusion, she scanned the mammoth structure that held her captive. Within the massive building, she could see the courtyard but beyond it was a bleak, white oblivion of snow and fog. The wind whispered through her cropped red-gold hair, bit at the tips of her ears and fingers, and she swallowed her disbelief. She was in a castle.
Crouched low, she scurried down the parapet walk, cautiously pushing the brown iron door open. Inside she found another winding staircase obscured by darkness. Kaleidoscopes of bright colour weaved charmingly along the steps, projected and distorted through stained glass windows. As she climbed the stairs, her eyes glanced curiously at the art and colours. She passed a window with a sacrificial lamb depicted in passive countenance, a golden crown with violet jewels placed above its head. Achtung scrawled in dark paint. A window with an angel in a regal gown washed the winding staircase in gold and red. She ran past more iron doors further toward the roof, glanced at a window depicting a golden crucifix, a lion and an ox below it gathered in humble reverence. At last she reached the final door at the top of the staircase, and on the wall above her, in a vibrantly coloured semicircle, an eagle with its wings outstretched glared down at her.
The imperial ivory head was turned to the left amongst a collage of white and blue patches of glass. A yellow-gemmed eye glowered upon her, ribbons of red trimming outlined the immense wingspan. Her resolve frayed a little more. She felt like a slave. The inhuman gaze burned through her skull. Judgement. Another master. Her chains were absolute.
She pulled the door open slowly, and the well oiled hinges preserved the silence. A sentry stood yards from her position, the open area was vast and empty. She moved stealthily, gripping her rifle. As she neared him, she pulled the rifle back, the bulky handle aimed at the back of his head. With one fluid strike the guard was dazed, stumbling forward to the edge of the tower. Arms swaying with hands grasping desperately at the vacant air, his balance betrayed him, and he tumbled over the brink, screaming as he watched the ground draw toward him. She listened to the faint liquid thud of the body, organs and bones pulverised by the impact. The scarlet mass of blood and obtuse limbs flared in the gray abyss of winter light and snow. Her pity was transitory, broken by the garish bark of a low, furious voice.
She followed the sound, traced it to a grate at the far end of the rooftop. Men exchanged orders in German and the sound of footsteps followed. She peered warily over the rusted perimeter of the grate, her finger trembling on the trigger. Her gaze met furious, searching eyes that preyed upon her own. She gasped, squeezed the trigger upon impulse. His body shuddered as he died, an array of bullets piercing his face, blood splattered across his pale skin. She recoiled from the reckless shot, fear trembling through her body settling liquid and hot in her stomach, coursing up the swollen veins in her neck. She inched toward the grate again. The officer lay in a pool of blood, face toward the sky, the remains of his eyes gleaming vivid and blue, anger replaced with shock. She could hear the familiar hum of a radio emanating from the room.
A sudden burst of noise snapped her attention to the side. She did not hesitate, hardly saw the youth: his barely adult face staring idiotically at his target, his hand trembling as he gripped the pistol. Two bullets exploded from the barrel of her gun with a light touch. His stomach bled and he staggered backward but did not fall. She squeezed the trigger again, and two more bullets lanced the bloodied torso. He fell to his knees, half turned and came to rest on his side.
She went over to him, searched for ammunition. His breathing was slow, wheezing and his tongue moved imperceptibly in his mouth as though fighting to talk. She swallowed and ignored his inquisitive eyes, the scarlet blood frothing at the corners of his lips. Stepping over him, she gazed out at the enormity of the castle, spotting thick black cables suspended through the air: a tram station to the west. Heading back down the staircase, she entered a door left ajar, walked gingerly down the hall until she saw the officer's dead body and the light from the open grate. Directly in front of her was the active radio.
Inputting the frequency, she dialed out the signal. The radio whirred, static collapsed as she spoke into the mouthpiece, "Rembrandt calling Arcadia. Do you copy?" The static returned and crackled. A voice responded,
- Arcadia here. Transmit your message.
She pressed down the buttons on the microphone and replied in code, "I'm in a castle. It's under Nazi occupation. I'm not sure what their purpose is here "
- We know where you are. Have you found a way to escape?
"There is a tram station west of here. I don't know where it goes, but anything has to be better than this."
- Take it. That will lead you to the local village of Wewelsburg. We will send a member of the local resistance to your aid once you're in the village.
"What about the Nazi occupation? Don't you find it odd that they're congregating here in a castle?"
- We've had that idea for some time. You will contact us via radio once you've convened with the resistance. We'll inform you then. Arcadia out.
She sighed. "Roger."
She pinched the bridge of her nose, eyes squeezed in frustration. Her head tilted skyward and she searched for sunlight through the grate. But there was only gray half-light, the familiar and vacuous haze of deep winter. Silent. Desperate. Unfulfilled.
Her gaze travelled to the wall above the radio, met with a vast, fraying map of the world. Wewelsburg, Germany. The area was marked with an inked swastika. She stared at the mark, followed it west and across the ocean borders to America. Her home.
"Good old, Uncle Sam," she said, eyes narrowed, a smile tugged at her lips, "has it marked you yet?" Her hand trekked toward her aching stitches and her voice trailed off, "I am."
Images of her house filtered into her mind, calmed her anxiety. She recalled the scents and sounds of the neighbourhood, the mingling aromas of cooking from the kitchen while she sat and read at the table, the radio surging with the voice of Jack Benny and his witty comedies. And after dinner, with a cigarette, she would listen to jazz. Bing Crosby. Billie Holiday. Cab Calloway. How she longed to hear it all, feel it all: the mundane routine, the forgotten luxury of the ordinary. Moonlight Serenade. The tune ran fleetingly through her head accompanied by the scent of an unmistakable perfume. A woman she once knew. An everyday comfort.
She shook her head. That world was gone. The reality was in her hands: polished black metal wedged between her palm and trigger finger with automatic fire. The last certitude left. She held it prone; let it guide her back down the spiraling staircase, past the stained glass windows and deep into the anatomy of the castle to the hulking double doors.
Through the doors, she was immersed in dark shadow and shallow red lights. Chain-link fences and machinery towered over her, groaning from exertion. She hid behind a large cylindrical boiler as a figure approached the nearby control panel. He pressed the buttons in an arbitrary fashion, lights blinking and unblinking. He pulled a lever and the room calmed. The machines lost their energy and power. He turned to head out the double doors and she leapt out from behind him, the barrel of the MP40 poking at his spine.
"Freeze!" She prodded him with the rifle, instructing him to turn. He trembled as he stared at her. He wore a one piece uniform matted with oil and grime. An engineer. She articulated slowly in his native tongue, "I'm not going to hurt you if you co-operate. How do I get to the tram?"
He stuttered and spat his nervous reply, "A ahead. Up th- upstairs. There."
He pointed. His blinking, avoidant gaze betrayed her confidence. "What were you doing just now?" She asked, raising the pistol to his face. "Everything was turned off Why?"
He shook his head, repeating 'no'.
She pressed the rifle into his gut. "Ya know they say the most painful way to die by gunshot is right in the gut that way, all of the burning acid inside mixes in with your blood, spills out little by little "
He whimpered. "I I turned it off. I was ordered by my commanding officer. He said a French prisoner esc- escaped!"
"Did he now?"
She sneered at him, eyes narrowed. "Tell you what you turn it back on, and I won't have to mail you back to your commanding officer in pieces. What do you say?"
He nodded vigorously and turned toward the control panel. With his back toward her, he keyed in the commands. She watched as the lights flashed and handle was raised. The machines came to life again with the sound of metal grinding and electricity humming, pistons pumped as steam whistled into the air. She walked backward toward the tram door, her eyes and her rifle trained on the engineer. "Good boy."
She felt her back contact the door and she opened it a crack, scanned the platform for guards. A tram car lolled in the wind, swaying on the overhead track in the wind. It looked abandoned. She turned back to him, kept the rifle on him a moment more and then used the force of her body to throw the door open, feet thumping on the stone platform as she bounded into the tram car. She got into the tram and slammed her palm against the control panel as it flashed green. The tram car staggered and screeched as it began to roll down the overhead tracks into the gray fog.
A few yards from the platform, a siren blared in her ears and she ducked, watching the tram station sink away in the distance. Guards swarmed through the doors along with the engineer who pointed at her. They fired at the tram and it rocked precariously from side to side. She stayed low, clutching the rifle to her chest as the windows shattered around her. She tilted the rifle above her, pulled the trigger and fired blindly at the air behind the tramcar.
Stray bullets clinked against the weakening exterior of the tram. She was approaching a tower erected in the middle of the overhead track. A guard fired from the lookout. She was an immobile target, caged prey. She bit her lip and raked her teeth against the flesh. She was done for.
Adjusting his uniform, he walked into the minute kitchen and retrieved the pistol laid on the table. Beside it, the warm scent of potato pancakes and fresh baked bread filled his nostrils. He reached for the bit of bread and broke off a chunk, popping it into his mouth and chewing happily. His palm cradled the magazine, snapped the metal wedge into the pistol and dragged the slide back. With a loud clap, the gun loaded, coiled spring launched the metal slide back into place. The woman bent over the stove jerked at the noise and turned to stare at him with mock scorn.
She approached him casually, heels clicking on the wooden floor and bowed her head to place a quick kiss on his lips, reaching up to straighten his hat, worry written into the faint creases of her lips and brow. He half-smiled at her, shared a knowing glance as her hands cupped his face. "I'll be fine," he murmured, grasping her hand and placing a kiss on her palm, "Besides they like me."
"I know they do," she sighed, resting her forearms on his shoulders, "but they're not supposed to like you and you have no business being there. And in an officer's uniform! They could "
He kissed her again and cut off her reply, "I'll be fine."
She nodded slightly and dropped her arms. "When will you be back?"
"The café will be open and I'll come in through the house. You'll be busy with the customers and won't even notice. You know how the dinner crowd is." She leaned her forehead against his and closed her eyes, committing to memory the warmth of his presence. He reluctantly pulled away with a final glance at her bright blue eyes.
"Be careful," she said solemnly.
He grasped the doorknob and turned back to her, "I will."
As he walked through the frigid, quaint little town, he avoided the Nazi outposts, guards congregated in pairs. The snow crunched beneath his combat boots and he meandered through the streets, knowing each pathway and every turn. The locals he passed ducked their heads in fear, but for one man, who looked him in the eye and regarded him reverently. He ignored it and continued his short journey.
The message was urgent; slipped to him beneath a coffee cup by a boy of the café staff, the translated encryption was scrawled in a desperate hand:
Radioed from France at 16:00:
Allies' soldier captured in Wewelsburg castle.
Request backup at the tram station.
Need help ASAP.
The distress in the note hung heavily over his head as he read it behind the bar. He knew why they gave it to him, a quiet member of the resistance. He was a snitch, had a stolen uniform, and the local officers liked him because he appeased them, entertained them, provided for them. Yet the risk of being shot or deported was ever present, and as he ambled past the square, behind two conversing guards, he felt as though he willingly wandered toward his death.
The barrier doors loomed ominously over him. He pushed them open with a nervous hand. The hallway he walked was narrow, tunnelled and lined with a red carpet, medieval weaponry and Nazi flags decorated the stone walls. He marched toward the next door with his jaw clenched, teeth grinding. The muscles in his chest tightened around his ribs and he struggled for breath. His hand reached for the loaded pistol. Fear mixed into his blood, ran though him uninhibited.
Slowly entering the next room, he ducked into another, slithering through the labyrinth of corridors. Each hall he examined was empty, every room abandoned. He walked into a barbaric looking study devoid of books and warmth. A desk, a series of propaganda posters and maps; a radio against the far wall, a table with an abandoned plate of mauled bread placed beside the arched entrance. He looked about confused. There rooms were all vacant.
As he turned to leave, the radio sounded.
- Allo? Town entrance, report status. Private Engel, are you there?
He stared at the radio transfixed. The voice spoke in German. He walked over to it and waited, hesitating. Static fuzz filled his ears. Then the voice sounded again.
- Allo? Engel? Bauer? If there is anyone there, please respond!
He swallowed hard to clear his throat, activated the buttons and answered, "Allo. Private Engel reporting. All clear." The radio whirred and crackled, the response was delayed.
- Understood. And the French prisoner?
The French prisoner, the Allied soldier. His fingers thrummed against the table as he contemplated an answer, swallowing nervously. His palms were getting clammy. He closed his eyes as he replied, "The prisoner is dead."
He pursed his lips, grimaced as he listened to the mechanical sounds of the radio. He removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair. He fidgeted and tapped his foot. The need to escape was overwhelming. His eyes continued to travel toward the entrance.
- Very good. Carry on, Private.
The response startled him and he flinched. A blast sounded from the hallway -a door slammed open, hinges screeching. A barrage of footsteps sounded down the hall. He plastered himself to the wall, pistol held out in front of him. Carefully, he slinked down the wall toward the chaos. More gun shots. He squinted as he listened. Automatic rifles. A final surge of bullets sounded and hush seized the room, unnerved him. He swallowed the knot in his throat.
Boots hit the ground at pace, bounded toward him. A single pair. He turned the corner and came face to face with the barrel of a gun. He stared at it, trembling, brown eyes wild with fear. Steadily, the barrel dropped down as the soldier behind it relented. He looked up and gaped at the woman, the light viridian eyes that regarded him with equal disbelief.
"Jack?" Her voice wasn't as he remembered it. The mock, gruff drawl was replaced with a deep melodic voice.
"Well I'll be damned " Jack ran a hand through his short brown hair, "Janice Covington." She raised the pistol back up to his chest and growled.
"What the hell are you doing here?" She motioned toward his Nazi uniform, "Switch sides already?"
He blanched and raised his arms in surrender, "No! Janice I've been sent to help you," and more quietly, "from the resistance "
She paused, stared at his fearful eyes and conceded, "So they did come through after all."
He studied the dishevelled blonde-red hair that spiked in dirty clusters around her head, followed the scratches and lines of grit down her cheek and neck. On her left arm, her jacket was torn, and on a white bandage, a blot of scarlet blazed through the thick cloth.
"Jesus Christ!" His eyes were wide as he searched for more injuries, "You've been shot!"
She grimaced, bent over in pain. "No. Knife wound. Panicked little bastard lost his pistol over a railing at the tram tower. Came at me with a dagger. Know a way out of here?" His brows furrowed as he stared at her injury.
"Yeah, I do. Can you move okay? I'll get you a doctor once we're in the village."
"I'm fine. The bandages are holding up. How far do we have to go?"
"Not very far. Stay behind me and give me cover fire. I'll clear a path for you if we get held down."
She followed close behind him, down a darkened hallway, "Will do."
He watched the room carefully, glimpsing over his shoulder in concern. She hobbled through the corridors, gun supported on her chest and held firmly in her right hand. Jack watched the precariously swaying gun with trepidation and moved out of its destructive path. He arched his eyebrows gesturing toward the rifle and she replied with a shrug:
"Get me outta here faster, and you stand less chance of getting shot "
"Oh really?" He replied, leaning from his position on the wall to scan the next hallway. Empty. Safe. "Some ally you are. I already know the Nazis are after me. Bunch of merry bastards never leave me alone."
Janice scoffed, struggling to keep up the quickening pace, "Must be those astonishing good looks."
"You know it, baby," Jack smiled, turning nervously back to the room.
When he entered the open court, he frowned and stepped back revolted. Dead soldiers lay strewn in piles of mangled limbs, scattered like the twisted bodies of insects deformed by bug spray. The scent of blood filled his nostrils, bullet wounds bled profusely. The soldiers' eyes were open, petrified, paralyzed mouths hung agape in agony.
"Jesus, Janice this your handiwork?" He stared at her, expression softening a little as he saw her eyes grow distant. He shrugged, offering her a half-smile, "Remind me never to piss you off." Her eyes brightened slightly, the hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips but never materialized. He winced and was silent as they wandered through the stone archways, walking hurriedly through the narrow hallway to the double doors. Janice watched the doors with child-like wonder, the slit of gray light from beneath the door shone ethereal. The pain of her wound was replaced with a dull ache in her chest and tears glazed her eyes. Freedom.
The metallic latch echoed as the door opened, hinges faintly squeaking. The winter air washed over her in seconds, and she inhaled the biting cold, eyes closed in ecstasy. Janice turned, looking onto the iron-railed balconies of shops and houses lined one after another in tight packed duplexes. The evergreen trees held ivory snow on their outstretched branches. A stray tear escaped from her right eye, trickled down a grubby cheek and stuck to the flesh and grit on her jaw. Overwhelming and profound mercy.
Jack stopped, petrified where he stood. With a sudden turn, he grabbed Janice by the arm, pinching her bandaged gash. She groaned, kept her scream behind clenched teeth. Her eyes burned vivid green, alive with fury as he tugged her along the path. He walked brusquely, leaned down toward her ear. "There are two guards walking up the street. Move!"
They scurried behind a gray building, entered the maze of cobblestone streets and slate bricked homes not unlike the world behind the castle walls: lifeless stone that crawled with sentries. Janice paced her breathing to steal the pain from her stinging wound. Jack whipped his head restlessly to and fro, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat as he swallowed repeatedly -a nervous habit. She spat her response through clenched teeth, "Think they saw us?" A rough voice yelled from behind them, distanced beyond the corner of a gray building:
Jack shot Janice an exasperated look, "Yep."
"What do we do?" She asked, looking at her mangled SS uniform.
"I think running would be a good idea."
The command was nearer. Her eyes widened. "Sounds good to me."
They manoeuvred through the layered streets, slipping on the wet, slicked stone as they turned abrupt corners, slate labyrinth winding in perpendicular paths that framed the secluded town. Janice was lost, forced to stare at the back of his jacket for direction, struggling to turn as quickly as he turned, the world a gray blur. His sunken, burnt-out eyes turned to look over his shoulder, hand gripping the loaded gun. Boots echoed around them, the rubber soles slamming against the pavement.
Janice stumbled, her arm wound burned as though it was new. Jack looked back, saw her slowing pace and grabbed the loose fabric on her coat, pulling her along, searching for an escape. A shallow river ran in the dug-out channels scattered through the town. He turned suddenly and jumped into one of the open waterways. She reluctantly followed, her body tensing as frigid water seeped into her bones from the knee down scalding her icy flesh. He crouched down with Janice in tow, ducking into the mouth of the small archway beneath the bridge. The sound of thundering footsteps filled his ears. More guards had joined the pursuit.
Their harsh, jagged voices roared at one another, demanding to know what had happened. Janice and Jack hid in silence, trembling violently from the freezing water. Jack stared nervously at the guards' boots, peeking up at the sidewalk above them where they congregated in flustered anger. His legs were going numb and his fingers stuck to the cold metal of the pistol grip. Janice watched her breath materialize in the icy air, staring miserably as it appeared in steady stream and vanished in a cloud.
A loud, animalistic noise sounded through the clamour of voices. Jack's head snapped up instantly and he craned his neck to listen again. The same call echoed through the cobblestone streets. He smiled. The SS guards turned their heads, noticing the sound as it appeared a third time. A gunshot thundered from above the bridge as a bullet ripped through the forehead of one of the Nazi soldiers. He dropped to the ground with a faint thud. Panicked, the guards fired their rifles into the air, coated the area in a blanket of bullets as they scrambled to find cover. On the other side of the tunnelled arch, a pair of boot-clad feet dropped down. Janice aimed, the rifle shaking in her grasp but Jack covered the barrel with his hand.
"Don't shoot," his glassy eyes were wide, a smile hinting at his violet-tinted lips. The man at the other end of the tunnel scuttled forward on bent knees, smiling up at Jack with fragmented and missing teeth. His hair stuck out of his workman's cap in errant, dirty strands, ice blue eyes reflecting the watery frost etched along the moist stone. Jack patted the man on the back, "Braun! You crazy bastard!"
The man smiled and whispered back, "Looks like we got here just in time. Got two boys on the roof with Mausers and three on the street with pistols." He winked. "Wife sent us to take care of you, Jacky. God, I don't know what she sees in you you look like shit." He turned to Janice as she struggled to stay awake. "Who the hell is this?"
"The Allied soldier from the castle," Jack replied, coaxing them to move toward the other end of the archway, away from the firefight.
"A woman? You're kidding me, Jack."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Jack replied quickly, "and don't piss her off. She left more Nazi corpses in that castle than you've left heartbroken tarts in Germany."
"Christ! I hope you're right," he said, "I won't have the boys risking their asses for just anyone." He shot her an unfavourable glance.
Janice narrowed her eyes at the man as he crawled out from beneath the bridge. Jack went to her side, spared her a sympathetic look, "Ignore him. He's a crazy bastard."
Her teeth chattered behind plum coloured lips, "So I've heard."
Jack climbed out and stood, offered his hand to Janice as she crept unsteadily out from under the bridge. She ignored the proffered hand and stood full height with pride. Jack withdrew his hand sheepishly. She stared at Braun with her shoulders squared. Jack watched the defiance burning in her darkened green eyes, saw the irked tension of muscle chiselled into her face along her cheeks and jaw. He stepped behind them both as they headed toward shelter.
They approached a duplex and were met by a resistance member who opened the door to them. They filed in quickly and stayed low to the ground inside of the home to avoid the stray bullets. The man turned to them. One of his coat sleeves was empty, twisted and tucked into the pocket of his bland peasant clothing.
"We'll have to disguise you to deflect their attention," he said, nodding at Jack and Janice. "We'll trade our clothes for your uniforms."
Jack turned shyly toward Janice with a hint of unease as he removed his hat and loosened his jacket. She hesitantly followed, freeing herself of the weight of the rifle, removing her boots as she turned to unfasten the buttons on her torn blazer. The awkward quiet was broken by a garish bark and they jerked in unison.
"God, this is war we're in the middle of!" Braun exclaimed. "It's no time for modesty!"
"Relax, Braun, and turn around," Jack scolded, coaxing the two other men to turn their backs as Janice undressed. Jack let his coat crumple to a heap on the floor and Braun immediately scooped it up, handing his shirt to Jack. The other man tossed his clothes in a heap behind him, shuddering in the cold. The faint clinking of metal punctuated the thin, icy air as Jack and Braun undid their belt buckles.
"Now," Braun said eyeing the front of his unveiled briefs, "before we pass judgements let me remind you all that it's the dead of winter and it's colder than a witch's tit in here " Jack chuckled and stepped out of his clothing. He took Braun's trousers, tossing the belt toward Janice. From the pile of clothes, he seized Braun's black cap and much to Braun's chagrin, positioned it on his head.
"Don't be putting holes in that cap, Jacky," Braun mumbled, "I'm a bit fond of it."
He continued to mumble to himself as he donned the SS uniform and brightened enough to chuckle when he saw the other peasant clad in Janice's shrunken trousers and a torn jacket. He spoke mockingly into the air, eyes fixed on the wall, "Are you decent, Madame?"
"Yes," she replied shakily. The men turned around simultaneously and regarded each other with a satisfied grin.
"You look like the local delivery boy," Jack said, staring at the spike-thin bangs that poked out from her black cap, clouding her eyes.
"Alright," Braun said curtly, "enough coddling."
He walked to the front door, followed closely by the man with one arm who gripped a bag of potato mashers. Janice walked to the back door of the two-room abode and waited as Jack stayed behind. "Will you guys be okay like that?" Jack asked him, concern evident in his tone. "I think we've thrown them off enough we shouldn't have any problem from here. Maybe you should retreat "
"Nonsense!" Braun countered and continued in a sarcastic tone, "With my pistol and this uniform, I am the ubermensch!"
Jack shook his head, smiling despite himself. "Be careful."
Braun raised the Luger beside his cheek as he slowly opened the door, "You too, Jacky-boy!"
The distant gunshots pierced the air in errant blasts: a formless frenzy of chaotic noise that dissolved in silence, blaring back to life as a grenade shook the ground and enveloped the streets with crumbled shards of slate and glass. Their movements were calculated, guarded as they ducked through the remaining twists in the forked roads. Jack reached into his pocket and fumbled for his keys, bounding toward a wooden door that marked the entrance. He worked the lock with ease, hastily throwing the door open and running inside. Janice followed and shut the door behind her. The warmth consumed them instantly, locked the hostile world outside.
Janice turned to see Jack with his head in his hands, walking toward the kitchen table. The mellow kitchen light hung over the dining area, suspended from a wide conical fixture. She walked over to one of the wooden chairs and collapsed into it, feeling the odd comfort of human artefacts filter into her system. Her wandering eyes glimpsed the kitchenette and sink with the dishes neatly arranged beside it; the fridge hummed mechanically on the reverse side framed in cracked yellow plastic. The floor was made of dark hardwood planks that reached throughout the kitchen, the halls, and to her right, the short corridor dissolved into a bedroom.
"Jack!" A young boy burst through the door, a white apron tied around his waist from which a pencil and notepad protruded in the front pocket. They jerked in unison at the noise.
"Hey, Ben," Jack croaked, looking up from his hands.
"You're back!" The boy regarded Jack reverently. As he turned to see Janice, he fell silent, bowing his head in embarrassment. Jack chuckled,
"This is Janice. She's an old friend of mine."
The boy looked up, dark, timid eyes darted from her and the floor. "Hi."
Janice raised her hand and waved, wincing as her wound elicited a sharp pain. She clutched her arm and Jack placed his hand on the boy's shoulder to instruct him, "Go and see if one of the girls can come and help her out, okay?" The boy nodded dutifully and disappeared through the wooden door. Jack walked over to Janice's chair and leaned against the table next to her. He flipped up his collar and adjusted his cap.
"I'm going to send for the doctor," he said, watching her agonized expression.
"No!" She exclaimed. A hand shot out to grasp his forearm. "I'll be fine."
"Janice, you " She moved without acknowledging him, her movements slowed by the injury. She lifted the first aid bag over her head and dumped its contents on the table. A handful of bullets clinked onto the tabletop as rifle magazines clumsily bounced across the wooden surface. At the bottom, a suture kit fell into the heap of ammunition and a bottle of disinfectant slammed onto the wood. Janice cursed, examined the bottle for damage. Satisfied, she put the bottle down, gradually shrugged off her jacket, revealing a thick, white undershirt matted with sweat. With her right hand, she grasped the bandages on her left arm and bit by bit unwrapped them.
"Where'd you get this stuff?" Jack asked, lifting the suture kit in his hands.
"Stole it from the castle," Janice said as she undid the last of the bandage.
They winced in unison as she revealed the wound. Jack swallowed hard at the sight of it. It was deep scarlet, troubling. He felt dizzy. "Know how to sew?" She asked him.
"Not really," Jack said, his complexion pallid.
A tall, blonde woman walked into the kitchen, leaned under the hanging kitchen light. "Welcome back," she said, smiling as she stared at Jack.
"Thanks," Jack said, managing a half-smile. "Helen, this is Janice." He paused a moment to swallow before he continued, eyes drawn to the scarlet mess, "And that is a very bloody knife wuh wound." Helen examined the cut and her nostrils flared. Jack fidgeted and looked away. She turned to him and patted his shoulder.
"Ben needs someone in the kitchen to fill the orders."
"Right " he replied, his voice choked and meek. He turned back to Janice, "I'll send a plate of food when you're ready." She nodded slightly and reached for the bottle of antiseptic. Jack blanched and ran through the kitchen door.
"He doesn't do well with blood," Helen said, gazing sympathetically at Janice. "He cut himself once - a hectic night at the café. Took one look at his missing fingertip and fainted." She offered a weak smile. A grin tugged at Janice's lips as she unscrewed the bottle cap. Helen reached for the item and took it from her, grasping a cloth from the pile of materials strewn about the table surface. She moistened the cloth with the substance and pressed it on the wound. Janice shrieked, breathed heavily through clenched teeth as the pain scored through her flesh. Instructing her to hold the cloth down, Helen reached for the suture kit. Janice amassed the strength to speak.
"Have you done this before?" Her green eyes were glazed and bright.
"A few times," came Helen's response as she threaded the needle, "Ben is accident prone."
"Are you his sister?" Janice croaked, observing the needle with trepidation.
"No," Helen replied as she manoeuvred Janice's arm under the light, "but I take care of him now."
"Where are his parents?" Janice asked.
"Deported," came the curt reply as the needle penetrated tender flesh, "He's Jewish."
Janice closed her eyes and groaned as the stitching began. Heavy-lidded, she stared at Helen's cascading golden hair and sharp features, tried to distract her mind. "How did he get away from deportation? They must know he's here."
Helen smiled slightly, her kind eyes glanced up at Janice, "That was Jack. He hid him for a while and then employed him when I got his papers."
"Yep," she replied, an air of pride in her tone, "I'm a forger."
"Great," Janice hissed as the next stitch went through her skin, "I was hoping you were a nurse... "
Helen's smile widened. "I'm also Austrian. Now, so is Ben and Jack, and everyone else who works here."
"Do you own the café?"
"No," Helen replied, "That belonged to Jack's family, but his family's name was too dangerous for the time we live in. So he put it in his girlfriend's name and they run it together."
Helen offered her another genuine smile. "Don't look so scandalized. It isn't as though he signed it off to just anybody. They were business partners at first sweethearts second."
The stitching became more irritating and they carried on in silence as Helen focused on her task. After many rough tugs along the gaping wound, at last, the stitches were complete. Helen cleaned it thoroughly, adding more antiseptic to clear the blood that stained the swollen tissue. She gently wrapped the arm in new bandages and clipped it tightly. Janice observed the tended injury and thanked her.
"It's no problem," Helen replied, "It's difficult to get the doctor here anyway. He's somewhat of a nationalist I'm sure he'd be displeased to find a foreign soldier in his care."
"What makes you think I'm foreign?" Her brows furrowed.
"Um your accent is English? American?"
Janice sighed and mumbled, "American. That obvious, huh?"
"I'm afraid so," Helen smiled cordially, blush creeping up her neck. "In any case, don't think Jack will mind if you use the sink in the bathroom to get cleaned up. You'll have to mind that wound so you don't wash off the antiseptic. Down the hall, just before the bedroom."
She nodded, "I'll see if Ben has some clothing you could use."
"Yeah " she replied, blush deepening, "I think anyone else's clothes would be a bit long on you?"
Janice grimaced and rose to her feet, waving off Helen's apologetic expression. "I get it," Janice remarked, "I'm short."
She grinned at Helen and turned to head toward the bathroom.
She squeezed the moistened towel in her fist, hot water cascading down her back. Janice welcomed the burn against her skin, wanting to eradicate the layers of grime and scarring left by her captivity. Her fingernails dug into her flesh through the towel, scraped raw her pale complexion. The water slid down her arms and dirt collected in the fibres of the cloth, blotches of bronze flecked with dark specks of unidentifiable dirt. She scrubbed between the webbings of each finger and toe, beneath her nails, behind her ears. She submerged her head beneath the running faucet, lathered the soap on her head and laced it through the heavy, greasy strands of her cropped hair. Her nails dug into her scalp, recovered thick deposits of dirt that clung to their surface. She scratched furiously until the coating of filth was gone. Opening the faucet again, she ducked her head beneath the stream of hot water.
The water converged at her forehead and nose, blinding and suffocating her. A spark of panic coursed up from her chest. She struggled as she gripped the countertop, meditated on physical sensations to calm herself. Overwhelmed, she stepped back from the sink and used the towel to wipe the water from her eyes. The thick veil of cloth covered her mouth and nose, ignited a greater frenzy. Her heart hammered in her chest, nerves flashed hot and strained, twitching signals through the network of her veins. She threw the towel to the ground, gasping loud mouthfuls of air.
When she calmed, she approached the sink again, stared at herself in the mirror. Her eyes narrowed in disappointment at the face she saw. Her eyes were lacklustre, red-rimmed, puffy, and burnt-out. The lines around her mouth and forehead were more prominent than she remembered. Her skin was sickly gray. Her youth, once believed infallible, was bleeding away from her. She sighed, eyes downcast. The damage had been done and the effects were permanent. Janice glimpsed the sore stitches at the left edge of her pelvis and squeezed her eyes tight, searching for the memories attached to the mark.
She received blank spaces of time and nothingness; a feeling of dread surfaced and died within her as quickly as it rose. She tried harder to rebuild on the scraps of collected memory, but all she could remember were the agonizing hours before her escape from the castle. As she pulled open the medicine cabinet, she decided it didn't matter, and reached for a small comb to run through her hair and brush it back.
Her head pulsed with an emerging headache, the result of hot water and the shock of the freezing winter air that hung in the bedroom. She noticed the clothing laid flat at the foot of the bed: a pair of grey trousers, a white shirt and white socks. Her black boots sat beneath the draped pant legs, cleaned of mud. She ran the towel through her mop of hair and quickly dried her body and got dressed.
"What I wouldn't do for a bra right now "
She fastened the shirt and arranged the socks on her feet, followed by the snug boots.
The sound of muffled yelling travelled through the walls to her ears. The voices spoke in German. One of the voices belonged to Jack. The other was deep, bellowing and demanding. She leaned closer to the sound, faintly deciphering the words, "We have orders, Jack," the deep voice thundered, "and you will let us through."
"But I have no idea what any of this is about what could I possibly have of value to you, General?"
"Well there is that woman of yours," the General said, his men snickering, "But you never mind that. She doesn't appear to be here anyway. Open the door, Jack."
"General, I'm quite certain you -" A gunshot cracked. Debris rattled to the ground.
"You are never to question me!" The General barked. "There is an intruder in the village and we will search every inch of this town until we find them!"
Jack's voice quieted, "Yes, Herr General."
Janice started, the tumblers in the kitchen door clattered loudly as Jack fumbled the lock in warning. She bolted from the bathroom, searching frantically for a spot to hide. The space beneath the bed was vacant but she stubbornly dismissed it. It was an obvious place. Beside the bed, a bookcase stood away from the wall. She pushed it back to hide behind it and the carpet beneath it snagged on the corner. It crumpled bizarrely, she noted, as though it was being manipulated. Janice crouched down on her knees to examine it closely. The kitchen door opened and the soldiers filed in.
Her fingertips trembled as she scoured the small rug with haste. There was a hole with a string suspended through it, attached to a corner of the carpet. She pulled it back. A hatch. Hurriedly, she lifted the door and went through, silently replacing the carpet over it. She descended the dark staircase to the frozen clay ground. Her eyes scanned the darkness as the floor creaked and echoed with footsteps above her. She was in the large expanse of foundation beneath the house. At the far corner, light shone through a rectangular grate just barely big enough for her to struggle though. Gingerly, she crawled forward, careful to avoid arousing the suspicions of the guards walking on the hardwood planks above her.
As she moved she could hear the guards ransacking the house: upturned mattresses and countless possessions slammed onto the floor in arbitrary patterns. Guns discharged into suspicious bodies of furniture and piles of clothing, in closets. Janice reached the rectangular grate and wiggled it open, discarding the weak metal fixture on the ground beside her. She flattened her cheek against the ground and eased her head through, wriggling her body the rest of the way. The faint noises of the sentries' commands filtered into her ears:
- All clear.
She tried not to imagine the destruction or the expression on Jack's face in the aftermath of their pillaging.
She squinted as she looked about, unaccustomed to the darkness punctured by areas of soft, blue-gray light. The air felt as cold as the winter chill outside, the sweet aroma of fruit tickled inside her nose. She shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist, slouching as if to avoid the cold air. In front of her, just visible from the shadows was a giant barrel with a spout protruding from the front. A wine cask. The sound of rustling seized her attention and she scurried to hide behind the cask.
Janice leaned out, cheek resting on the rough surface of the barrel as she observed the rest of the cellar. Over the tops of wine racks littered with green glass bottles, she saw Ben staring up at the ceiling in terror. He twisted his apron in knots, hands moving absentmindedly. Long, white fingertips reached out and touched his shoulder. His head whipped back. Janice leaned further out, able to see the hand and arm but not the figure from which it emanated. She heard faint mumbling and dared to venture further, wandering away from the safety of the darkness. Her breath hitched, chest ached from shock and guilt; her eyes glazed with the imminence of tears. She pushed the emotion down and continued to stare in silence. The sound of Helen's voice travelled into the cellar. "It's okay," she called. "The General is gone."
With that, the boy turned to the figure that comforted him, shared an affectionate glance and headed for the stairs. The figure remained, skittish eyes scanning the wine racks. It was a dream: the lights, the nausea, the cold air and the wine's familiar sweetness. As she inhaled the frigid air, her emotionless façade collapsed, tremors coursed through her slender frame. Janice crept forward, her movement hesitant, expression anguished and afraid.
The woman looked up instantly, primitive drives alerted by subtle noise. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. In the blurred darkness, a black boot stepped into the threshold of light, a face obscured by shadow; gold strands of hair absorbed the radiance from the weak light bulb. The woman retreated, fear clouding her judgment. She straightened her posture, defensively resorting to the authority of her height. "Who's there?"
Janice faltered, confined to the safety of the darkness. Bunching her hands into fists, she took another step. The light rolled over her features to illuminate her face. She watched the woman's reaction, the colour drain from her cheeks as recognition settled in. A sad smile languidly formed on the woman's lips. She stumbled forward, emotions rising to the surface.
"Janice?" The woman asked, voice quiet with shock. Her accent brought back the memories perforce and Janice shut her eyes to keep her tears unshed.
Time stretched between them, formless and discarded minutes frittered into the awkward pause as they gazed at each other in stunned silence, reverence, recollection. Controlled expressions guarded their shame. Melinda was first to dispel the stillness, arms reached out to touch the source of her grief; the being she was certain could not be real. Memories and nothing more.
Melinda stepped forward, her hand cupped Janice's shoulder as the other trailed down her arm. Her hesitation collapsed and she embraced her friend. Pulling back, they regarded each other with profound relief.
"My God you're alive." Melinda uttered the words under her breath.
"To the disappointment of the Nazis," Janice replied with levity.
"How did you get here?"
"Jack lead me from the tram station in the square... I was trapped "
"You're the captured soldier?"
Janice smiled, "Yeah."
A pause as Melinda felt the fibrous cloth beneath her left hand. The knife wound. Her brows furrowed, "You're hurt "
Janice shrugged, "It's nothing."
She assured her with an affectionate smile. Melinda embraced her friend again, returned the grin, "I can't believe you're here."
Mel's trembling fingertips curled beneath Janice's ear and her own hands shook resting on Melinda's shoulders. Years of separation collapsed between them, breaths shared in the small abyss. A sudden noise startled them, gurgling up to the surface and echoing in their ears. Janice grimaced as her stomach growled a second time and Melinda's smile turned into faint giggling. She watched a slight flush on Janice's cheeks and ran her fingers through the mass of auburn hair atop the shorter woman's head.
"Hungry?" She asked.
"A little," Janice replied sheepishly, refusing to relinquish her hold.
"Come," Melinda said, covering Janice's hand with her own, "There's soup in the kitchen."
Janice pulled back, "What about the soldiers? They're looking for me."
The smile on Melinda's lips gradually faded, replaced with a grim mask, "I almost forgot over here."
She walked past Janice into a darkened corner of the wine cellar. Janice followed and reached out to help Melinda move a large wine rack that towered toward the ceiling. Behind it, a worn-out iron door blended into the slate wall. Reaching into her small apron, Melinda recovered a ring of keys and slid one of them into the minute keyhole. The tumblers clacked within the heavy door and it yielded, groaning as she pushed it open with effort. Wordlessly, Janice stepped into the room.
Melinda strode mechanically past the bed, reaching up to pull on a chord attached to a light bulb. Janice scanned the illuminated room, finding within it a small bed flanked by a night table and lamp, to the right, a desk pressed along the wall with a wooden chair and little room to walk between them. In the corner: a dilapidated toilet barely partitioned by a cracked wall of bricks. Melinda faced away from her, eyes downcast.
"We've been using this room to hide people from them " Melinda said, her voice meek.
"Me " Melinda began, hands fumbling with her apron, "and Jack "
Janice remained silent. Melinda continued, "We hid his aunt and uncle until they could escape. We've hidden resistance members. Planned to hide the Allied soldier once we recovered him I never imagined it would be you."
Janice sat on the bed, bouncing on it slightly. She turned toward Melinda half-smiling, "Not too shabby."
Melinda reciprocated the half-hearted grin and bit her bottom lip as she returned the door. Lingering beneath the frame, emotion flooded her mind: disappointment, fear. An aching sense of hope that she knew was ultimately doomed. She was transformed; Janice was different. War changed everything.
"I'll go get you some food " Melinda said, watching Janice reply with a nod. "I'll have to keep this door closed in case the Nazis come down here they're always trying to find ways to steal the wine without paying for it. Jack and I have keys to this room. Don't open the door for anyone, okay?"
Another obedient nod. Melinda disappeared through the doorway. Tumblers cracked, locks fastened. Like the prison bars. Janice lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling with her hands tucked behind her head. Paralysis. The slate walls wrapped around the ceiling corners and her peripheral vision. She was caged again. Captive once more.
Time bled into vacuous moments, shifts and nauseating twists of movement from right to left, hot to cold, wakefulness and sleep. Her consciousness wandered in and out of fantasy as she struggled to orient her body within the room. Sweat-slicked strands of hair stuck to her forehead and chilled in the cellar air. She stretched her muscular body in states of half-sleep, torn apart by dread and the deep voice that echoed between her ears. Her teeth ground noisily and with her eyes squeezed shut she was impervious to it, lost in the fevered dream. And at the height of it, she slowly floated to the surface, the voice of the Nazi doctor she heard calling from above her: the faceless monstrosity dissipating into the weakened hum of the light bulb hanging overhead. Gray washed walls around her, soft cotton sheets beneath her.
On bent elbows, she got up and scanned the empty room: the chair, the desk that brandished the abandoned white bowl slimed with remnants of stew and breadcrumbs, stale from supper hours ago. She flopped back onto the pillow, wondered how long she slept. She could not remember and could not have known, turned on her side, loathe to dwell on the flaws of memory. She pulled at the undershirt that stuck to her torso with sweat, climbed out from the heavy duvet cover and put on her trousers. The quiet room was numb with the electric buzz of the ceiling light. She ran a hand through her hair.
The lock scratched noisily and clicked within the heavy door. Frightened, Janice jumped back onto the bed, scrambled to the corner to hide. Hinges groaned and Melinda reluctantly poked her head through the doorway. They regarded each other quietly, fleeting moments of affection passed in soft smiles and warm looks. Janice gazed at the glass cups in Melinda's hands, a precariously balanced bottle of Hennessy held in the space between them.
"I, um " Melinda said, floundering as she met Janice's eyes, "thought you might like a drink before you go to bed?"
"Thank you," a gentle smile played upon her lips as she let Melinda in, pulling the heavy door closed once her friend was through.
Melinda sat on the bed setting the cups down on the night table and poured the alcohol. Mahogany liquid filled the glass tumblers halfway and she handed one to Janice as she raised hers in the air.
"Cheers," she said softly, a slight flush colouring her cheeks.
Janice gulped the drink and drained it quickly. Melinda refilled her glass with a low chuckle, the alcohol trapped and held in her mouth, savoured leisurely. With her refilled glass, Janice walked around the bedposts and sat on the other side of the bed, her legs over the covers. Melinda joined her, removing her shoes as she propped her feet on the mattress. From the pocket of her blouse, Mel produced a red box of Overstolz. She flipped the package open, shaking it onto her palm. A mischievous look appeared on her face, eyebrows arched in question toward Janice. Janice smiled, pinching a white cylinder between her thumb and forefinger and dragging it from the cardboard.
"How did you manage this one?" She said, returning the playful glare she saw in Melinda's eyes.
"Jack has friends in high places," Melinda replied, slender fingers striking a match across the matchbox.
"The man I met earlier today was rather lowly," Janice sneered, her eyes narrowing as she leaned the tip of the cigarette into the flame and puffed, embers glowing as the bitter flavour flooded her mouth. Dry, delicious warmth.
"The resistance?" Melinda asked, cigarette bouncing from her bottom lip, "They are criminals technically. And smoking is against the law here "
"Technically more against the law for women than for men."
Melinda nodded, lit her cigarette. Janice took a drag from the white cylinder, opened her mouth as the smoke lingered in gyre-like shapes and then exhaled it all in one fluid stream, "Vive la résistance."
Melinda laughed, the long cylinder dangling from two fingers curled around the tip, "That's French!"
Janice nodded, "I know."
"Did you take it in school?" She asked, reaching for an ashtray hidden in the night table drawer.
"Try more like, a week's crash course before I flew to the darn country."
Melinda's teeth were bared in a wide grin and she chuckled faintly, delighted. Janice took a long drag from her cigarette, frowned and looked away from her. Mel was oblivious.
"You never told me you visited France," Melinda said, laying her head back on the pillows.
"Before Greece, I hadn't " Janice answered, her gaze distant and fixed on the gray wall ahead.
The quiet pervaded as they sipped their drinks and smoked, the charm of the moment lost.
"For the longest time I thought " Melinda paused, voice hitched as she gazed up at the ceiling, "I thought you were dead."
Janice shook her head, "Melinda "
"I waited a long time hoping "
Janice raked her teeth against her bottom lip, downed the last of her cognac. Melinda took a long sip of alcohol, staring bleakly at the wall and drained of vigour, "Where have you been, Janice?"
Janice ran a hand through her hair, gazed at her feet. Cautiously, she glanced at her friend, and regretting the sight of her anguished expression, turned away. Melinda sat in the silence, despondent. She took another drink. Janice took a drag from her cigarette and rubbed her temple.
"I couldn't contact you " she began, "even if I wanted to. I couldn't even tell you where I was "
Melinda absorbed the information quietly. Seizing the tumblers, she refilled them both and handed one to her friend.
"I went to France when I left Greece," Janice continued after a calculated pause, "doing some work for an employer back home. It was serious, I suppose you could say. Government and private interests. They set it up through British and American intelligence. The Brits said what I was looking for was in France "
"What were you looking for?" Melinda regarded her with scrutiny, a hint of curiosity in her tone.
"Stolen art " Janice replied, inhaling smoke, "Gold. Money. I had to figure out where it was and how the Nazis were transporting it. Things just started vanishing from homes that were invaded, from private businesses, from the Louvre "
"How could they expect you to take on that type of task? Alone?"
"I wasn't meant to return the paintings, Mel," Janice said, staring earnestly at her friend, "I only had to find out their locations. Where the Nazis were hiding it so it could be exploited by my employer."
Melinda paused, eyes detached as she mused. "Did you find it?"
"Found lots of things " Janice replied. "Paintings and gold and jewellery travelled from person to person, from greedy and desperate hands all over Paris. People helped Nazi officers steal art anything they wanted so long as they were promised money or food. But the epicentre -the storehouse where all the stolen paintings and gold were hidden, was in the catacombs "
"Les Catacombes de Paris " Melinda said, the creases in her brow neutralizing as she fantasized.
"It was incredible creepy even " Janice said, a smile tugged at the corners of her lips as her eyes glassed in recollection, "I was right there staring at it all: rows of skulls packed tightly, like bricks, in a descending maze so many bones it was impossible to count them. And in the center of it, deep in the crypt, they kept everything stored: crates upon crates of the world's most valued art, boxes bursting with jewellery pyramids of gold bars stacked in tiers. It was manned by dozens of people working constantly, arranging, transporting before it was all shipped to Berlin on the trains."
"How did you figure it out?" Melinda asked.
"A combination of things," Janice replied matter-of-factly, "Gossip. French intelligence and local resistance there's resistance pockets everywhere it seems. I was there for over a year."
"Janice the spy sounds swell," Melinda gazed up at the ceiling, exhaled wisps of smoke and watched them weave into nothingness.
"I wish," Janice said gravely.
"I wish I could have been there "
"No," was her curt response, "Paris is disintegrating. The war is destroying it little by little, like a disease. Walls are marked with blood from executions. I saw buildings blown apart and vandalized. People's homes were set on fire while the Nazis enjoyed their obnoxious parties; drunks and music roaring through café windows "
"It's not much different here, y'know," Melinda mused, pouring herself another drink, "I mean we're not so exotic as Paris. A little town in the mountains, all alone, but there's always a sense of loss "
Janice stared at the cognac in her glass, lost herself in the dark liquid, "I know the feeling "
The space between them stilled again, silence wrapped around them in a cloud, mouths filled with cotton. Melinda gulped her drink and Janice watched her with interest. She felt awkward at her own curiosity, knowing indulgence was vital, dulled thought and pain. Life was disappointing. She lit another cigarette.
"So?" Melinda said, her voice a bit more groggy.
"So, what? Janice answered.
"So what brings you to this part of Germany?" Melinda peered out from the rim of her glass.
"I should ask you the same thing," Janice replied, raising an eyebrow in question.
Melinda smirked and straightened her posture, preparing a thorough rendition. Janice watched Melinda's exaggerated movements with a faint smile. The cognac settled into her veins, smoothed the tension and coated her mind in a vague numbness. Janice knew her tolerance, having spoiled the bliss of intoxication on street curbs and alleyways as her body repelled its internal abuse and rebelled against her rebellion in youth. Melinda's movement was a tad more animated and Janice could see the obvious signs of drunkenness.
"You remember me leaving Greece?" Mel asked.
"How could I forget?" Janice replied, exhaling a puff of smoke toward the ceiling. Melinda smiled and nodded. Images and sensations seeped into her mind: the fragments of memory convoluted by numbness and alcohol. She recalled the faint bitterness of the air that day, stale from the onset of winter, and the look in Janice's eyes that scarce hid her displeasure. Come back soon. I'll be waiting. Working on the scrolls
Janice frowned, unsettled by the silence.
Melinda blinked, head swayed slightly as she recovered from her reverie. " yeah?"
Janice grinned and shook her head, and Melinda slinked further down the headboard to lie flat on the pillows, her glass abandoned on the table.
"Did that meeting of yours in Berlin work out?" Janice asked, gazing down at her friend affectionately.
"It did," she replied, "That professor had the most amazing collection of scrolls. Roman. Stories of Caesar and his rivals. You should have seen them."
"You authenticated them?"
"Of course. And translated 'em."
"He must have been impressed."
"He was," Melinda replied, "But he expected as much, I suppose. Jack recommended me to him."
"Jack?" Janice's eyebrows arched.
"Yeah," Melinda smiled sleepily, "The professor was a friend of Jack's family for some time. He trusted Jack and arranged the meeting. The scrolls are now on display in Trier."
"I'd love to see them when the war is over," Janice mused, dejection in her voice, "and talk to this professor of yours. Does he live near here?"
"He lived in Berlin a while " Mel replied.
"We haven't heard from him since " she said, turning to the bottle of alcohol and straightening her position to pour another drink.
A pause transpired between them before Janice asked quietly, "Was he Jewish?"
Melinda took a long sip of alcohol, eyes heavy lidded, pupils dilated in the dim light.
Janice cleared her throat. "So you went from Berlin to this place?" She asked, anxious; the knowledge of her captivity briefly nested into her conscious.
"No," Melinda said, adjusting to lie back down on the pillows and stare at the ceiling, "I went back to Greece."
"Yeah " Mel replied, distant, "I know now where you went why you left with no word."
Janice swallowed hard, rocking faintly as she struggled for a response. Dabbing a smouldering cigarette into the ashtray, she conceded.
"I'm sorry," she said, the whisper barely audible.
"The strangest thing " Melinda continued, "was that the hotel we stayed in was shut down completely. I couldn't get anyone to tell me why. I asked about the people who stayed in the rooms and no one knew anything. The man behind the counter in the café across the street mentioned a fire in the restaurant downstairs "
Her voice trailed into a hush as her eyes lethargically closed, with equal slowness reopened. Janice kept her gaze away from her friend and settled onto the pillows as her fatigue returned. Staring at the wall, she counted the stones.
"Do you think we'll ever feel the things we felt before?" Melinda asked, the level of her voice breaking with the imminence of sleep.
Janice frowned, "What do you mean?"
"You know before the war. When we lived in America. When you wanted to finish your father's work and I wanted the same. Normal. Will we ever feel that way again?"
Janice stole a glance at her friend, saw the peaceful, porcelain face with eyes closed. In the privacy of her mind, her voice replied angrily, no. Resigned, she returned her mournful gaze to the ceiling, "Of course we will when the war ends."
She heard the rustling of bed sheets as Melinda turned to look at her, rolled onto her side. "What if we don't?" Melinda asked quietly, "What if the war never ends and we're trapped here? And we can't go back to how we used to be "
Janice covered her face with her hands and gradually lifted them up to rub her forehead. "I don't know, Melinda," she answered, voice wavering with emotion.
Another pause. Melinda closed her eyes. "Janice?"
"I missed you."
She bit her bottom lip, "I know." Cleared her throat. "I missed you, too."
"Can I stay here? I don't want to get up."
Silence as Janice slowly ran her hand through her auburn hair, pursed her lips and relented, "Okay."
Janice clamped her hand over her mouth as stray tears slipped from the corners of her eyes to collect on the pillow. She ached with a bitter void and was at the mercy of fate, chained to her assignment by forcible duty. Her body was branded with mysterious scars that she tried, but could not remember getting. And she was empty, left wanting for the day she could return to America, to piece back together the shattered form of her abandoned life. Home. Freedom. Peace.
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