At the first rays of dawn I awoke and went to soak in a hot bath, trying to expel my bitter feelings from last night’s encounter. This was neither the first nor the last time I would run into officers like Adelbert and Gerhardt. Sometimes I wanted to shed my façade and just start hitting them with spells that would make them run back home with their tails in between their legs like the cowardly dogs they were. However, being a vigilante wizard wasn’t part of my mission, though sometimes I wished it were.
My limbs still ached from last night’s assault and my shoulders burned with soreness, but otherwise I felt fine. As I relaxed in the warm water I noticed on an adjacent shelf a display of waxy soaps, some wrapped, from different regions of France and even other countries.
These were probably small gifts left by guests who’ve come and gone, some perhaps forever. Looking at the display reminded me of my father, who’d bring my brother and me treats from the different places he had traveled to. And for my mother, he’d bring exotic flowers and a heartfelt kiss.
I laughed to myself when I remembered how he would always warn us not to stay up late eating candy, and Johnnie and I would hide our treats all over the house in the most unlikeliest of places so that we could grab them whenever we’d want—and my father found each and every one of them without fail. As a child, I never understood how he knew and anticipated every plan and move we’d make. My favorite part though was when he’d tuck us in and read me Emily Dickinson poetry until I fell asleep. Though I was only eight and didn’t completely understand it all, I had always found her poetry fascinating, and I enjoyed the fact that a girl wrote it.
After nearly an hour in my thoughts and memories, I tore myself away from the tub with lethargic movements and got dressed. I hid my supplies beneath a secret panel in the floor before heading to the kitchen. My stomach rumbled when I caught a whiff of the fresh pastries just coming out of the oven.
I greeted Renée, the woman who had admitted me last night, and sat at the table and helped myself to a cup of coffee. She looked rather pleased at my enthusiasm as she placed a couple of pastries on my plate. Though I didn’t know her, I knew of her, and that she had been with the Resistance since the beginning. I was glad that she had accepted the task of hosting me.
“My husband fought in the Free French Army until a Maquisard betrayed him and murdered him in his sleep.” She gestured toward her husband’s portrait hanging on the wall. “My son and daughter-in-law were sent off to Dachau and I’ve never heard from them since.”
I shook my head. “Our enemies knew you were hurting them…you were important.” Those Gestapo bastards often kidnapped or killed members of people’s families as retribution.
“Have you lost anyone, Emelie?”
“Yes…I mean, I hope not.” Stella, where are you?
“I once had a guest tell me that he at first thought I was a hard woman because I still fought despite everything. The truth is I’m the type of woman who would go into my son’s old room and dust off his belongings, fluff his pillow, and sometimes just sit or cry.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss.” It reminded me of Stella and how I acted as custodian over her items, though I feared the most likely outcome of her fate.
“May I ask you about Veit Heilwig? Do you know anything about him?” I breathed in the heady and aromatic scent of the coffee before taking another long sip.
“Dr. Heilwig fashions himself a man of great intellect,” Renée said as she escaped her somber mood and poured herself some coffee. The fine lines in her face softened. “He is at the university lecturing and poisoning minds.”
I broke off a piece of my pastry and ate it before speaking. “Do you know anything else about the chemical weapons being used?”
“I heard that they’ve transferred more from the south where Mussolini’s men are stationed, but no one really knows where they are coming from. They’re probably in a factory in this region, though the Maquis haven’t been able to find out which one.”
“Perhaps Mathieu could help us with that,” I said.
Mathieu Perrine had become the unofficial voice of the Maquis during occupation. His nightly radio broadcasts were a constant thorn in the Gestapo’s side. If you ever needed a message to be sent out or coded instructions to the nearest safe house, or a simple word of encouragement, Mathieu could deliver.
“I’ll try to contact him and see, but it won’t be easy.” She sipped her coffee. “We lost a safe house last week and I fear the Gestapo is becoming more ruthless.”
“I understand. I’ll most likely have to get into the university to keep an eye on Heilwig.”
“Is Penn in Paris? He can give me the papers I need.” I looked askance when she kept staring at me.
“So young,” she shook her head. “I don’t know if you just seem familiar to me or you remind me of myself. Believe it or not, I was like you once, and now I am just old and tired.”
“You were one of the first.” Though I gazed at her with pride, it was tempered by the sadness in her eyes.
“And perhaps I will be one of the last. Only God knows. Just remember to stay true to yourself, no matter what…that’s what I’ve learned.”
“Very sound advice.” I drummed my fingers on the table and stared at my Agate stone ring.
“Well, I might as well show you around, Emelie. Would you care to see the garden?”
I followed her to the back door that led to the plot of land behind the house. A picket fence enclosed the garden and I could see three small crosses peeking out from beneath the hyacinths. Inscribed on each cross were the words “Se Souvenir,” which meant “Remember.” For most of us, remembering something painful often proved to be difficult, but Renée seemed to embrace it because it was all she had left.
“Do you see the tool shed over there?” She pointed at the wooden structure with its peeling white paint. I cringed a little at the thought of me slamming the trapdoor so hard last night.
“I had one of those…at my parents’ old house.”
“Make sure that you always take the underground passageway beneath the floor that leads to the chapel down the hill. No one must know that you’re staying here.”
I gazed at her in amazement. “You made that passageway yourself?”
“I can’t take credit for it. My husband did it years ago during the Great War when we thought Paris might be taken.”
“Your husband must have been a great man.”
“And to think, when he first proposed to me I turned him down.” She chuckled. “He was very intelligent, but not always the best at showing his emotions. Even when he proposed to me it was more of a logical argument as to why we would be compatible mates. One day, he showed up with flowers and a poem he had written for me. I knew then that I wanted to marry him.”
“And the crosses are for him, and your son and his wife?”
She smoothed her hair right where a streak of gray stood out. “Three reasons to get out of bed every morning and keep doing my work. I used to hide maps, weapons, and even passports back here. So many people have come through this house, each leaving his own mark.”
“What do you hide there now?” The air was quiet—a good quiet, but a sad quiet.
“Nothing. I haven’t had a guest in eight months. Soon, SOE will forget about me.”
I raised an eyebrow. “This can’t be the same woman who I hear inspired so many SOE agents and even saved lives.”
She folded her arms. “Is that what they say about me?”
“Well, I don’t think the Gestapo has forgotten about you.” Even from here I could hear trekkers speeding up the hill, and I exchanged glances with her.
“Wait here,” she said. “If they come to the door, I’ll talk to them.” She patted me on my shoulder and headed toward the front, either apathetic to her possible fate or resigned to it.
My heart jumped at the shouting and loud knocks at the door. I listened carefully just in case Renée needed me. I heard two agents speaking with her, and then a pair of heavy shoes pounding against the floor throughout the house. Doors opened and shut, closets were ransacked, and I thought I even heard the toilet being checked. As the pounding footsteps grew louder, I placed my back against the wall and tiptoed side ways. Just as I turned the corner, the back door opened.
Not waiting to see if the Gestapo agent would explore the backyard further, I made my way toward the front but froze in place when I heard the second agent with Renée from an open window right above me.
“Adelbert caught a suspicious woman riding around last night. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that?”
“I’ve only been up a couple of hours.”
I flinched and bit my tongue when I heard a thunderous slap. “I asked you about last night, not about this morning.”
I was just about to turn the corner and make it to the front of the house when I saw the second agent coming from the other side. I ran back toward the garden, hoping he hadn’t seen me from the corner of his eye. I didn’t want to chance running into him so I stayed in the back, listening for footsteps. When I heard none, I slipped in through the back door, my bare feet tiptoeing once more. I quickly went into Renée’s son’s old room and stood against the wall, straining to keep track of the conversation and praying I could make it over in time if he decided to pull out a weapon.
“Who had breakfast with you?”
“The old man, Otto, who lives down near the chapel. He’s a friend of mine.”
“Lorenz, go see Otto.”
“Yes, sir.” Lorenz left and shut the door.
“How are your Maquis friends, Renée?”
“They cost me my family. I wouldn’t quite call them friends.”
“I might as well have some refreshments while I’m here. Got anymore coffee?”
“Of course,” she responded in a stiff voice, but I heard her go into the kitchen and return.
“Ah, looks delicious. The old man must’ve left in a hurry.” I could hear him scraping a spoon against the bottom of a coffee cup.
“Is there anything else I can get you, Agent Karsten?”
“Sounds like Lorenz is coming back up the road. Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to confess?”
“Only the guilty have something to confess, sir.”
“Well let’s see if you’re the lying whore that I think you are.”
The door opened and Lorenz’s boots scuffed the floor. “Sir, the old man said he had breakfast this morning with her…and asked if she had any more pastries left.”
A torturous silence filled the house and I stepped closer to the doorway, my heart pounding in my chest and my palms sweaty. If anything happened to Renée, I would feel responsible, and I didn’t know if I would forgive myself for that.
Karsten grunted. “Then let’s not waste any more time. Perhaps we’ll stop by later.”
As soon as I heard them depart and the loud rumble of their trekker fade in the distance, I ran into the living room toward Renée. I gently touched her left cheek and felt a burning sensation where Karsten had struck her. I delivered a cool flow of healing energy through my fingertips and shrank the swollen bruise on her face.
“Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” she sighed. “They know about my husband and son, so every now and then they come and try to scare me.”
“Cowards. Thank goodness Otto went along with your story.”
“Yes, and it helps that I make only pastries for breakfast anyway.”
My hand fell to my side. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
“So did I, Emelie.” Suddenly she jolted. “Emelie…I knew there was something familiar about you. This may sound strange but Otto came by a month ago and said he had a letter for you. I didn’t know what he was talking about since I hadn’t hosted anyone in months, but he was adamant that the letter be given to an Emelie.”
“Me? Are you sure?” I didn’t receive letters while undercover. This was either extremely important or terribly dangerous.
“I don’t know.” She frowned. “But he’s very loyal and discreet. You can go see him this afternoon and find out about it.”
The letter certainly piqued my curiosity, but it also made me uneasy. I ran through nearly all the people I knew as I tried to guess who would attempt to send me a note under these circumstances. I managed to put aside my worries and offered to clear the table and wash dishes for Renée. I didn’t forget to thank her for the meal, and especially for her protection. After I got rid of my milkmaid’s dress and the jumpsuit, I borrowed one of Renée’s old shift dresses and a sun hat to cover my head. She had already packed the remaining pastries and set them in a picnic basket, asking me to thank Otto once more for his aid. I headed out the back door carrying the basket and made my way to the tool shed. Using a candle Renée had given me, I made my way through the dark tunnel.
Wooden beams reinforced the ceiling and walls, and I went a little faster when I thought I felt something scurry across my toes. I exited through the trapdoor in the chapel. Otto wasn’t there, and so I walked through the front and headed toward his house, stiffening with each car that passed and refraining from making eye contact with others.
I wanted to cringe when I spied three SS officers with weapons drawn, and four young men and two women on their knees in a line, hands behind their heads. The situation startled me, and though I’ve seen death and have sent enemies to their deaths, the idea of shooting innocent and defenseless people in the streets like that filled me with a sickening dread. I started running toward them but when the first gunshot rang, I knew I was too late.
“This will be the punishment for all terrorists!” one of the officers shouted to horrified passersby and witnesses. Once again, the cowards had used murder to intimidate their foes.
I slowed my pace as each subsequent shot ripped away the façade of tranquility that the mild summer weather presented. I held back tears of anger as I slowly went up Otto’s front steps. I had made sure to look at each officer, remembering their nametags and faces, promising that they would one day get what they deserved.
Otto opened the door and ushered me through, and gladly accepted the basket of pastries I brought him. He led me to his sofa and had me take a seat, all the while asking me who had been shot in the street. I shook my head and let the matter go; I was still upset at the sight, and I didn’t know who the people were, but they certainly weren’t terrorists. The real terrorists were wearing swastikas.
“It’s a shame,” he said as he took a seat next to me. “I fought in the Battle of the Marne over fifteen years ago and thought the Germans wouldn’t dare come back after that. Now I must sit here and suffer them shooting people in the streets.”
“Do you still work with the Resistance?”
He snorted. “They say I’m too old. They’ll let boys who are barely old enough to shave carry messages back and forth, but me? No…Old Otto might break his foot coming down the steps.” He muttered a curse word in French and I reluctantly smirked.
A steaming kettle whistled from the kitchen and he excused himself. I glanced at his coffee table that was covered with newspapers and magazines, and I could hear the low humming of the radio. It seemed Otto spent much of his time trying to keep up with current events, though the Nazis filtered or censored most of the information. Mathieu Perrine’s radio broadcasts were the only trustworthy source of what really went on with the Allies and the Resistance. I grinned when I saw Otto return with a hot cup of tea for me, and I politely listened as he began telling me about his son Lucien.
“My boy fought alongside the Maquisards and eventually joined the Free French Army.” He smacked his lips when I handed him a pastry from the basket. “He’s on special assignment in Spain with some Americans. They’re trying to bolster public support for the Allied forces—secretly, of course, since General Franco would not openly have any of it. Perhaps you can meet Lucien one day as he is a fine young man, and unmarried!”
I smiled again and took a sip of tea as he showed me a picture of Lucien. I didn’t want to be rude, but elders were notorious for holding you hostage in a conversation if you let them. I needed to grab my letter and find out who tried to contact me.
“Renée told me you had a letter? May I see it?”
“Yes, yes…I will get it.” He nodded his hoary head and shuffled over to a cupboard where he had a secret compartment. At least two pictures of his son Lucien hung on every wall. There were also pictures of a beautiful young woman, probably his deceased wife when she was younger.
“Here it is, and it’s still sealed.” He handed me the letter and then sat across from me, filling his pipe.
“Who gave it to you?” My heart nearly skipped a beat when I recognized the handwriting.
“A courier. I took it and thought maybe he had intended it to go to Renée since she has people stay at her house sometimes. I brought it to her the day I received it but she insisted that I keep it. I think she was waiting to see if I was fool enough to get caught.”
I opened the letter and unfolded the sheet of paper. It had no signature or date:
Safe in their alabaster chambers,
untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
rafter of satin, and roof of stone.
I should have shielded you from our friends.
We will meet again.
I re-read the note until I had committed it to memory. I promptly took it over to the stove and lit it on fire, watching the paper blacken and curl. The note confused me, and scared me. My head wagged back and forth in denial, and for a moment I thought someone was playing a cruel joke on me.
“My dear…why did you burn that letter? Was it not important?” Otto had come into the kitchen with an anxious expression.
“If you were still active, you’d know to never keep any papers or letters on you. If they were lost or if you were captured…then what?” I didn’t want to snap at him, but I had little patience to spare these days.
“You don’t need to…thanks for the letter, and I hope your son safely returns.”
I gave him a peck on the cheek and trudged toward the door, once again being faced with walking back to the chapel. The bodies of the victims had been removed, but their blood still stained the street. I felt like I would go berserk if I saw another SS officer out on the road but luckily I didn’t.
When I returned to the house, Renée saw me trembling and she pulled me to sit down at the table. I barely heard her questions and didn’t even reach for the glass of water she pushed in front of me. I kept arguing with myself in my mind about the note and how my father couldn’t have sent it. First, I knew for a fact he wasn’t in France, nor would he have been within the last month. Second, he was a very straightforward man, much like Renée’s husband. Why would he send me such a cryptic message? Renée kept rubbing my shoulder in a consoling manner and staring into my eyes, finally falling into silence because she seemed afraid of what I would say.
“I got the letter…from Otto.” A letter that was either a lie or pointing toward one.
“Wh-what did it say?”
I took a moment to clear my dry throat. “I think it’s from my father.”
“Is he in France?”
“He died sixteen years ago in Rome.” Both the U.S. Army and the Gray Tower confirmed it.
“My God…” She placed her hand on her chest as she exhaled; her shocked expression mirrored my own. “Are…are you sure he’s dead?”
“I don’t know anymore.” I felt my stomach tighten. If this note had truly been penned by him, then that meant I had been lied to about my father, and so everything I’ve believed about him…I didn’t know what I believed anymore. It was his handwriting, a reference that he knew I would recognize, and it had been addressed to my codename—eerily enough the same name as my favorite poet.
“What did the letter say?”
I repeated the lines to her and realized that the first four lines were an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem about time and eternity. Why this poem?
“I have that poetry collection!” Renée shot up and went into her son’s old room, leaving me to recall what I did know about my father.
He rose through the ranks of the U.S. Army and had also been trained by the Gray Tower. Both institutions readily assented to my father being a liaison between the military and the Order of Wizards, and by all accounts he served honorably. One November evening when another Elite Wizard, Serafino Pedraic, came from the Gray Tower to meet with my father in Rome, his bloodstained apartment had been ransacked and he hadn’t been seen since.
After a lengthy investigation Serafino had arrived at our house along with General Robert Cambria and delivered their final verdict—Major Carson William George was dead. Though I was ten years old, certainly old enough to understand, part of me wanted to deny it and keep believing that my father would come through the front door any day with candy for me and Jonathan, and flowers for my mother. But he never came home.
All other kinds of emotions rose inside me, and I didn’t know what to make of them. I believed my father had written the note, but where was he if he was alive, and why had he been missing all those years? I kept ruminating over his words. What exactly did he mean by shielding me from our friends? He mentioned alabaster chambers and resurrection; could it be about death? Dickinson was a bit preoccupied with it. Maybe it was a warning that someone would die.
“Here it is.” Renée nearly bumped into the table. She held a book open and started reading the poem to me, pausing after each stanza to see if I recognized any significance in them.
I shook my head, having only listened to half of her words. “I need to think about all this.”
“Sooner or later, it will come to you. You say you haven’t seen your father in years…perhaps there were things he said to you or that you’ve heard while he was still around.”
She closed the book. “Penn is with The Red Lady. Will you be going down to the nightclub later?”
I gestured toward the back where my guestroom stood. “Do you have any extra dresses in that armoire?”
“Do you like purple satin?”
“I’ll take it.”
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