From the beginning Obersturmbanführer Hans Josef Kieffer thought of “Madeleine” as his own. Even before her inevitable arrest he knew it. He knew it before he knew her name. She was his especial captive. He would create the bond between them and it would define them both. He knew this instinctively and he had long ago learned to trust his instincts.
Just three hours after her arrest in an apartment four blocks from SS headquarters in Paris, she immediately betrayed his trust. Looking back on the incident, he wondered for a moment why he had agreed to her request for a bath. How on earth had she actually ended up alone in a room with a window. Obviously her child-like demeanor had a disarming affect on his staff.
He, himself, had caught her just at the moment of escape, tawny legs dangling as she attempted to squirm through the small square window of his private bathroom. The opening was too small for even a child to pass through. He had still to discover which of the fools on his staff had left her alone.
Although, at the time of her arrest the girl had fought like a wolverine cornered in a henhouse, she had adopted an air of quiet reserve since her arrival at headquarters. This odd serenity and her air of detached politeness, somehow deflected suspicion. A shadow of kindness darkened her eyes, affecting even his most hardened Gestapo officers. Even he had, perhaps, momentarily succumbed to some ridiculous desire to please her. And so she had nearly escaped.
He tapped his pen against the blotter and thought of those slim legs dangling from the small window, toes scrambling for purchase against the tiles. Her dark dress had caught on the pull-crank to reveal a worn nylon slip and raw scrapes along her thigh.
Would she have gotten through if he had not happened to check on her? Or would she have remained wedged there, stuck between her present hell and that sheer drop from a fourth-story window?
These days Keiffer did not himself generally grapple with his prisoners, but he had lept towards her immediately, grabbing the flimsy belt of her dress. Throwing one arm around her thrashing legs, he had pulled her back into the bathroom and for a moment they were face to face. Caught in his arms, hair loose and face flushed, she had stared past him as if she did not see him at all.
Almost instantly she had gone perfectly still, limp and withdrawn like the rabbits he used to hunt on his grandmother's farm.. He had seen it time and again in prey animals. At first the doomed creature squirms, perhaps cries out --even the mute hare will shriek in an unearthly echoing squeal, but then it goes utterly still. "Thrawn," his Gran had called it -- a trance state, an instinctual reaction to impending death. The girl's eyes had looked just like that, like the dying rabbit, glazed and milky and still. The thrawn paralysis was, he believed, entirely natural, soft creatures were born that way, programed by nature to simulate death in the jaws of the predator--in vain hope that he will loosen his grip, assuming its prey to be already dead.
He feltl her bones against his hands as he shook her. In a direct act of anger unusual for him, he had slammed her head into the door jam, before turning the girl over to his men for punishment. From his office he heard the sounds of the beating. It distressed him that his own private bath should be the scene of that kind of mess. The counterintelligence unit had rooms, basements and cells within the compound for such things. He office and his private flat on this floor had always been sacrosanct, used only for the intellectual elements of interrogation.
Of the British operatives who had come through his office over the last year, few held his interest after the first couple of days. But this one, this “Madeleine” would be different. Kieffer found her naivete almost endearing. It was as if she were a child and no one had informed her of the seriousness of her predicament. That, or she played a deep game, the nature of which completely eluded him.
Kieffer found Paris to be oppressive. He missed the cool watery light of Berlin, the easy feeling, the private lakes and inlets, the sun-drenched weekends at Wannsee, the sweet lines of blue shadow in the Christmas snow. He liked the atmosphere in Germany these days, the sense of order that emerged from people pulling together, united by a sense of purpose.
By comparison, Paris seemed like an aging mistress, garish and discontented. This was a satisfying metaphor to Keiffer as he gazed out the window of his staff car at the dim shops and market stalls where faded housewives stood patiently in queue for a chunk of horse meat. Paris was like a starving femme fatale from a previous century. No amount of scarlet lip rouge or gold lamé would restore her faded allure.
Parisians were thin and grasping; the city had lost whatever self-important grace it had ever had. The hollow-faced people in the streets no longer seemed worthy opponents; their passivity had become as annoying as their bland refusal to recognize themselves as conquered people.
Even now he had come from a bridge party, hosted by an obsequious matron who, afterinviting him to tea, expected him to bring the tea. And, having generously presented her with a tin of the finest Oolong, she and the other guests still looked right through him. They spoke as if to a defective child, in slow syllables, deflecting his gaze and addressing themselves to a point just above his left ear.
Perhaps once Parisian women had been captivating--now they were merely tired and calculating. Even the girls on the street looked right through him, their blank eyes flickering away from his as if they could count the centimes hidden in his fist.
Kieffer no longer found it possible to see the romance of the city. The longer he stayed, the more convinced he became that Paris had never been the delightful coquette one hears about. Not even in its heyday.
In fact, he thought, amusing anecdotes about an enchanting courtesan are invariably a great deal more intriguing than the lady herself. Such tales represented the measure, not of the woman, but of a beautiful idea, an image constructed by men for the minds of other men. These ideas had a life of their own, more splendid and seductive, than the skin, hair, and bone of any actual woman.
As his car pulled up outside No. 86, Rue Foche, he nodded to his attache and made a mental note to elaborate on the idea of “City as Woman” in his journal at the end of the day. He indulged himself in extending the metaphor. What kind of woman was Berlin? A cool clean beauty, sun-tanned and well-tailored, who uncoiled her shimmering blonde tresses only in the safety of her husband''s arms. He smiled, pleased at his creative vigor. Cities, indeed, are like women and circumstances had combined to give him a very special understanding of both.
His three SD buildings shone bone pale in the afternoon light. Once a prestigious block of apartments near the Arc de Triomph, Avenue Foche now housed Kieffer's SS counterintelligence unit. It's creamy walls and wrought-iron balconies had become merely a back drop to the Fuhrer's red flag with its wheeling black cross. No one now declined an invitation to this address.
In his private lift, he straightened his jacket and tucked his cap beneath his arm. Time for his second encounter with, “Madeleine.” He was more than prepared.
During the first year at his post, Kieffer had enjoyed matching wits with his prisoners. He had the advantage of pure calm, an ear for subtle inconsistencies, and a hearty appetite. Nevertheless, Kieffer liked to think that his prisoners had their own advantage--adrenalin and hope lent them a certain feral acuity. He had enjoyed playing mind games, shell games, inquisitorial hide-and-seek with his captives, knowing each tiny sliver of information would invariably lead to further revelations. Indeed, now, despite the failures in other parts of occupied France, his district, Paris itself, could boast not one remaining active resistance network.
The latest arrest shad already yielded a surprising wealth of information, purchased at a bargain rate from an informant who apparently had only a vague malice as a motive. This girl, know as “Nurse” was out of the ordinary even in a landscape peopled with extraordinary individuals. She was special, and not only because of her strange fragile beauty. He considered how best to approach her. How did the English put it? There is more than one way to skin a cat. Or the French “il y a plusieurs façons de plumer un canard.” Or in his own language, “Alle Wege führen nach Rom.” Interesting that his own idiom didn't bother with domesticated similies, but when straight to political desitiny, for all roads did lead to Rome.
While a few hours of hands-on questioning could be exceedingly useful, Kieffer prided himself on using his intellect, his ability to read people, a careful bluff, or a smidgeon of truth to elucidate what he referred to as “a little slippage.” Something would come out; every captive let goa few morsels of information. And when that slip came, he was ready. That was the moment to douse their open wounds of despair and betrayal with his personal brand of sour brine—hope and hopelessness.
He thought of these as fairy-tale creatures, the evil twins, Hope and Despair. Both were beautiful in their own way.
His techniques worked more efficiently than a beating to elicit the really useful tidbits. Information and disinformation, these were his specialties. In matters of love or matters of war, manipulation had become its own reward.
So he still played at interrogation, giving a little, taking a little, shifting information from one hand to another like a pretty bon bon. He liked to think of himself as Genial Uncle Hans, who could, with a flick of his hand, send any one of these appallingly ernest young people to the the basement of No. 84.
Getting information was like pulling teeth. He grinned, for in the bowels of No. 84, it was … well...let's face it, extracting information was exactly like pulling teeth. Blood spattered, bones gave way, and nearly all prisoners broke. Whatever preparation they had made for this moment became useless when faced with the real thing. Their fragile constructs of imagination, their false leads, first faltered then crumbled. Few could even stick to the same lies for more than twenty minutes. Sometimes the mind broke first, sometimes the bone. That at least never failed to intrigue him--attempting to guess which would give way first, the flesh or the spirit of a man. Or a woman.
The arrest rate for wireless operatives was doubtless the reason the British had begun recruiting women in the first place, hoping they could pass more easily through the crowd even with a heavy suitcase. He almost felt sorry for these girls—bad enough to be a stranger in a strange land, but to be burdened with the bulky wireless set as well... it was a wonder any of them survived. In his district very few did.
This one had the worst luck of all, and he found himself eager to talk to her again. Even before she landed in June, he had already begun rolling up her circuit. The Prosper group was one of the oldest networks operating in the Paris district and it had been quite a coup to break them at last. Within a week of landing in a field outside of Paris, her contacts had been arrested, her safe houses compromised.
He had thought about “Madeleine” during the night, knowingthat in a few hours he would know her real name and a great deal more. He relished the assumption that she too was anticipating their next meeting, doubtless with less pleasure.
Behind his broad mahogany desk Kieffer yawned, waiting for his aide to bring the girl down from her cell upstairs. He lit a cigarette and sent his secretary scurrying to his private stash of Earl Grey. He preferred Assam, but Earl Grey had its uses. A single whiff of bergamot could move an Englishman to tears. He looked over his notes, turning his attention to this last remnant of the British resistance network, which bore their increasingly ironic codename “Prosper.”
What made the girl so interesting? For one thing, she was reputed to be incapable of lying, at least according to the woman who had finally betrayed her. This presented a particular challenge—would she lie to him now, keeping her contacts and goals secret as she was obliged to do? Or would she tell only the truth and still attempt to reveal nothing?
Furthermore, the girl displayed little skill at tradecraft. The simplest rules seemed to escape her, and yet she had remained at large for almost six months, long after the Prosper circuit had crumbled around her. Was she, perhaps, the ultimate spy? Feigning innocence or incompetence to allay suspicion among even her own people?
And finally, the ultimate puzzle. Among her notepads, Kieffer's men found records of all her previous transmissions. No one kept their notes. It was a universal precept that all information should be destroyed the instant radio contact was finished. If for some reason the operator broke this basic rule, their notes would obviously be coded, based on a key known only to her. And yet, deep in the lining of “Madeleine's” wireless case, they had found a notebook full of information, most of it entirely clear, uncoded. What on earth was he to make of that?
For these reasons he had barely interrogated her yesterday. Already bruised and bloody from her arrest, after her escape attempt, he naturally had to ordered his men to beat her again, soundly but carefully. Declining to send her over to Fresnes where the other women were housed, he instead ordered her into a cell on the fifth floor. A convenient perk of his position to have prominent prisoners housed only one floor above his own flat.
As she smoothed her skirt and seated herself in front of him, he was surprised again at how small she seemed. She still wore her own garments and had, in the end, received the bath she had previously requested. He understood instinctively that these privileges would both confuse and frighten her, especially after the brutal beating in the tiled bathroom on this floor—his own private bath to be exact. Now everything was clean and fresh. They could both start anew this morning, on terms of politeness, as if none of that had ever happened.
He watched her as she examined the room: two doors, one leading to the outer office, the other opening onto a balcony with tall windows on either side. Her gaze paused at the framed photographs on his desk and then scanned the books on the shelves behind him. Since the books had mostly been in place when he took over the office, their titles would tell her little. The stolid faces of his parents in the photographs were a cipher even to him, thus unlikely to be useful to her. He waited, letting the silence inhabit the room. Most humans are not comfortable with silence and will speak just to fill it. He enjoyed watching the process, his prisoners giving parts of themselves away before he had even asked a question.
“Madeleine” however, said nothing. She looked at him and for the first time in all his months in France he wondered what exactly she saw.
“So, you are Madeleine?” He broke the silence. She blinked, her long smooth eyelids falling like shutters over the still darkness of her eyes. “Yes, we know your code name. It doesn't suit you. I fancy your real name falls more gently on the ears – am I correct? Something with more vowels, perhaps.” She looked away and he saw that he was right.
She had forced him to break the silence, but his instincts would serve him well. He made a note on the blank pad in front of him. “Bauchgefühl” – 'gut feeling', to remind him to heed his instincts.
“Shall we start with that? Your name, please, mademoiselle?” There were no rules preventing her from providing this information; he knew that it was, in fact, encouraged by her superiors.
She seemed occupied in some inner meditation and answer slowly, as if waking from a dream. “Jeanne Marie. Renier. You can see that on my papers. Why don't you just read them and let me go about my business.”
“Oh, I believe we are long past that charade. I have no interest in Mademoiselle Renier.” He looked at her and dropped the first point. “And I quite dislike your code name, 'Madeleine,' or should I say 'Nurse?' I find the latter most unsuitable; I don't see you as a nurse at all. But then we already have 'Teacher' and 'Chaplain,' perhaps 'Nurse' was all that was left when SOE gave out nicknames.”
She said nothing, but picked at a knot of fuzz on her sweater. She must be thinking of the friends he had just named. Cecily and Diana. She must be wondering where they were now?
She tucked one lock of hair behind her ear. The skin around her left eye had gone all green and purple and a split lip marred her face, as if a painter's brush had slipped, ruining what should have been a pretty mouth. Unfortunate--he had told them to avoid her face.
Kieffer tried imagining her in an evening gown, something pale to play up that skin like caramel creme. The dress she wore now was unbecoming, ill-fitting and made of cheap crepe, navy blue with stained white piping. Like all SOE plants, her clothing bore local labels, this one from a Jewish department store that had long ago vanished. No doubt a garment donated to SOE by one lucky enough to escape across the channel. The sweater was couture, in an unbecoming burnt orange – just the type of thing these Parisian women seemed to find chic, as if an ugly garment in an unappealing color was a mark of distinction.
He found himself thinking of her as French and noted this on his pad. He followed his instinct.
“You are French I believe? Or, lived here most of your life? Definitely not a Brit are you?”
She blinked and he scored. He made another note on his pad.
“Renier,” she said. “Jeanne Marie Renier. It is enough.”
“On the contrary. I require that you tell me your real name. In fact, if you wish to be treated as a prisoner of war, you are required to provide your name and rank.”
Kieffer doodled on his pad, creating an elaborate wreath around the word “Bauchgefühl.”
“Are you saying that you will treat me as a prisoner of war? That all I have to do is give you my name and rank?” She met his eyes for the first time. A touch of hope. The evil twin emerging.
“Well, it would be impossible to do so without those details.”
“I see.” Her gaze turned toward the long doors leading out onto the balcony. Did she see the sky, where one bird threw itself headlong into the clouds or did she she only another possible escape route?
“Then call me Jeanne Marie.”
Suddenly he wanted very much to know her real name. “If you insist. It's all the same to me: Mademoiselle Renier can disappear today, bound for one of those camps in the East. Given your SOE rank and an honest name, however--in that case you might be useful to me. I could keep you hereat Avenue Foche a bit longer.” He waited. This was the easy part, one knew exactly what was going through her head.
Forty-eight, the magic number. The spymasters in London were so predicable. Knowing that sooner or later everyone would be broken, they instructed their agents to attempt to hold out for forty-eight hours. Everyone knew the time frame . Those still at large would use that time to change plans, create new drop-boxes, move meetings and reestablish safe houses.
Thus “Madeleine” hoped to last for another 24 hours without breaking. She would be wondering if she could last that long under torture. It was a gamble. If she gave him her name now, she might be spared the immediate threat of violence and buy time for her comrades. On the other hand she would have given up the only real piece of information she was allowed to share. Everything else would require duress.
“You look tired,” he said. “The Gare du Nord two days ago. Tuileries before that. A bookshop in the Marais, a cafe near Pont Marie.... I know how exhausting it is to be on the run.”
Mistake. He had not sounded sympathetic. Only sarcastic. A rare misstep. And yet she smiled at him, a real smile. As if they both knew something about exhaustion.
He tried to identify for himself her appeal.
Really nothing about the girl was attractive; much had been lost to her already.
“Why did you bleach your hair?” Pulled back in a cheap clasp, it must once have been dark and luxuriant.
The girl raised her and, as if she'd forgotten the color. She shrugged. “I assumed you were looking for a brunette. It bought me a little time.”
She was thin, as so many were these days, but so birdlike as to remind one of a very old, very dignified grand-dame. And yet there was something in the softness of her mouth, the clean line of her jaw, the sensuous heavy-lidded eyes. Her fingers, long and delicate, lay peacefully in her lap and he wondered what musical instrument she played. He made a note to ask later as these little things often threw them off, then found himself wondering whether she preferred jazz or the orderly joy of a Bach prelude. When had she last danced? Then he wondered when he himself had last danced.
“I am tired,” she said. “Perhaps, I could lie down for awhile and we could talk this evening.”
Either she was extremely bold or verging on idiocy.
He shook his head. “Your name? You see how much we already know. Your codes, your movements, your friends. And your enemies.”
“And if I don't give you name and rank, you'll have them hit me again?”
Something in her phrasing made him think her origins were neither French nor British. Not Russian, not Slavic... those were true to type, and easy to spot. “At the very least.” He made his tone light.
Still she said nothing, but he could feel her ready to answer. Still, she held back. Perhaps she was aware that talking itself could be addictive. After prolonged solitude people want to speak, then can't stop themselves from continuing.
“I'll tell you what,” he said. “If you tell me your name and rank, and prove to me that you do have an official rank in a legitimate branch of the Allied Forces, I promise to speak to you only of unimportant things for the rest of the day. I will even give you information.
“Aren't you curious about who betrayed you?” Often the truth became confusing to a person without options. 'You must have been surprised to find my man waiting for you in your own flat.” He looked at the bruises on her legs and arms. “Poor Cartaud is much worse off than you--he says you fought like a tigress and by the bloody welts on his arms I believe him. One would never guess, looking at you now, sitting so peacefully. To me you seem like a true lady, despite your rough appearance.”
That was the perfect touch. She seemed embarrassed by her deshabille. He guessed she was usually meticulous about her looks and it must be difficult for her to be watched, virtually under a microscope, dressing and undressing in torn clothing, without soap or a comb, bloody and bruised.
He guessed she was a very private person. And made a note.
He penciled in little tic marks against each point written so far. He could go back later and add a cross to those guesses that turned out to be correct.
“Did anyone tell you before you left, that wireless operators have the shortest lifespan of all operatives?” He was suddenly curious. “Would you have come had you known?”
“Baker,” she said, at last. “Nora Baker. Assistant Section Officer. Ensign.” Her voice was soft, almost musical, and some exotic spice lay beneath her perfect French. “And the answer is no,” she said, “And, yes.”
Somewhere in the city a church bell tolled. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I have been told that you cannot tell a lie. That you have some kind of religious commitment to tell only the truth.”
“Is that a question?” She smiled at him, a smile so faint it might have been a shooting star on a clouded night.
Kieffer nodded. “Can you lie?”
“I don't know yet,” said Noor Inyat Khan.