Micheline threw the still-smoldering Gauloises cigarette to the ground and crushed it with the high heel of her black leather boot. Then she marched across the darkened Paris street and grabbed the man she’d never seen before by the lapels, throwing him back against the stained brick wall of the station.
“Kiss me!” she ordered in English, whispering tersely.
The airman, his crew cut a dead giveaway despite his French civilian clothing and chapeau, stood motionless, too surprised to move as Micheline reached up and pulled him toward her, pressing her open mouth against his. His musty scent was mixed with a hint of tobacco. The streetlight cast a yellow pool on the pavement around them, illuminating their embrace. Micheline felt the man’s body responding against her own. The navy beret which covered her red curls tilted off-center, threatening to fall to the ground.
A second later, Micheline broke away and brought her mouth close to his ear. “If you hope to live, follow me.” Without another word, she started away down the Rue des Récollets. She sensed the one-two beat as he hesitated, followed by the rapid pattern of his footsteps against the icy pavement. She strained hard to make sure she did not hear anyone else following them but did not dare to look back.
Micheline slowed, allowing the airman to catch up. When he reached her, she moved closer, linking her arm in his and tilting her head toward his shoulder. Anyone watching would have thought them just a smitten couple.
Micheline had spotted the airman a few minutes earlier, standing on the pavement outside the Gare de l’Est, a half kilometer from the intended rendezvous spot, looking out of place. It was always that way with the Brits, scared and barely out of school. The passeur, a girl from Brittany called Renee, was supposed to escort the airman. Her instructions had been simple: deliver the soldier to the Hotel Oud-Antwerpen, where a local contact would take him and hide him for the night. But Renee had never shown. Something must have gone wrong and she’d panicked and fled, leaving the airman alone.
Another ten minutes outside the station and the police would have picked him up. There was already a gendarme at the corner, watching the solider too steadily. That might have been what spooked Renee. Micheline, who was in Paris on an unrelated errand but was aware of the planned pickup, had seen the stranded airman by the station and knew she had to intervene. But Micheline had no way to lead him away on the open street without attracting attention. So she had resorted to The Embrace. It was not the first time she had feigned passion in the service of the network. The Sapphire Line, as it was now called, had formed almost immediately after the war started. They had a singular purpose: ferrying downed British airmen from the Dutch or German borders across Belgium and occupied France to freedom. This was the hardest part of the journey, getting the airmen across Paris from Gare de l‘Est where they arrived to Gare d’Austerlitz where they would set out for points south. It was a few days across France to the Pyrenees, with only a brief stop or two for rest. When the line worked, it was brilliant. But when it failed, catastrophe. There were no second chances.
When they were several blocks from the station and out of sight of the policeman, Micheline pulled the airman into a doorway. He looked as though he expected her to kiss him again. Instead, she adjusted his chapeau in the classic French style so as not to give him away as a foreigner. The disguise, consisting of secondhand, outdated trousers and a too-large shirt, would not fool anyone. And if the clothes did not give him away, his tattered army boots certainly would. He would be forced to take those off farther south anyway. The evacuees tied their shoes around their necks and replaced them with alpargates, the strong laced sandals necessary for crossing the Bidasoa River into Spain.
“Where are you from?” Micheline demanded. She hated to speak aloud out here, but she had to verify that he was actually an airman and not a German spy before taking him to one of their safe houses. If the line was infiltrated even once, it would spread like a cancer, and the entire network would be gone.
The airman paused, his trained instinct not to answer. “Ely in Cambridgeshire.” “What is the most popular movie in Britain right now?”
He thought for a second. “49th Parallel.”
“Good. What type of plane were you flying? How many men?”
“Halifax. Six. I don’t know if the others made it.” There was a choke in his voice.
“I’m sorry.” There were a half-dozen other questions she wanted to ask to verify his identity, if only there was time. But they had to keep moving. “Come.”
She started walking again more briskly now, savoring the familiar surge of adrenaline that rushed through her as she led the airman to safety. Though just twenty-three years old, Micheline had risen quickly to the top of the network, and she seldom got to undertake rescues herself anymore, instead overseeing operations from her headquarters in Brussels. But the job was fluid and changing. Sometimes, like now, when the mission called for it and there was no one else, she had to jump in. She had nearly forgotten how much she liked being in the field.
As the bell of the church of Saint-Chappelle tolled eleven, Micheline calculated mentally, judging the best way to protect the airman for the night. They had already missed the rendezvous with the contact at the hotel who would have hidden him. Paris was the most dangerous segment of the escape line, but it was often necessary because so many of the trains ran through the French capital. An airman could not simply be dropped at Gare de l’Est and expected to make his way across the city to the southern stations where the trains left for Lyon or Marseilles. No, he had to be individually ferried through the back streets and alleys by someone who knew the city and how to avoid the security checkpoints, and who spoke impeccable French in case they were stopped and questioned.
When they reached the banks of the Seine, Micheline led the airman across the Pont au Change and into the shadowy alleyways of the Left Bank, clinging to the shadows. The cafés were already closed, barkeepers turning chairs onto tables, snuffing out the candles that burned low. She forced herself to walk at a normal pace and not to run. Her close-fitted trench swished smartly below her knees. She looked to the passersby like she belonged in the throngs of students who frequented the Latin Quarter.
Thirty minutes later they reached the safe-house apartment on Rue de Babylone. Micheline took the airman’s hand and led him up the stairs to the apartment, a room which was bare except for a mattress and a weathered armoire and a sink in the corner. He would stay no longer than twelve hours in the city, just enough time to rest and carry on.
Inside, the airman looked weakened and confused. “We went down quickly after we were shot,” he offered, saying too much, as they all did. “They hit the fuel tank.” “Are you wounded?”
“No. There were others, though. Someone will look for them, right?” She nodded, but it was a lie. The network could not spare the resources to go back and search for those who were wounded and presumed dead. He opened his mouth to ask something else, but she put her finger to her lips and shook her head. It was not safe to say too much anywhere, even here. The airman’s eyes widened. She had seen more than once how very afraid the young soldiers were, the ones who panicked or cried out in their sleep. They were eighteen and nineteen, not more than boys, and thousands of kilometers from home. Micheline herself was just a few years older and sometimes wondered why she could be strong when they could not.
“Empty your pockets,” she instructed firmly. There were too many times when a well-intentioned Brit carried something sentimental from home which would be a dead giveaway if he was stopped and questioned.
The airman glanced around the apartment. Then he turned back toward her hopefully, as if the kiss had been real and matters might continue here. “Did you want to…?”
Micheline stifled a laugh. She might have been offended at the overture, but he seemed so naive she almost pitied him. “Here.” She rummaged in the armoire for new clothes. Then she threw the clothes at him and gestured toward a screen that offered a bit of privacy at the far end of the room. “Get dressed.” He moved slowly, clumsily toward the divider. A tram clacked by on the street below, rattling the cloudy window panes.
A few minutes later, he reemerged in the simple shoes and buttoned shirt of a peasant farmer, an outfit that would help to get him through the south of France to the Pyrenees. She took his old clothes from him. “There’s bread in the cupboard,” she said. “Stay away from the windows, and don’t make a sound. Someone will come for you before dawn. That person will have a key. Don’t open the door for anyone.” “Merci,” he ventured, and it seemed likely that it was all the French that he knew or understood.
“Bonne chance,” she replied, wishing him luck.
Without waiting for a response, she walked briskly from the apartment. She wondered uneasily whether he would still be safely there when the new passeur arrived to claim him for the next leg of his long journey home or whether another calamity would befall the already-struggling network.
Excerpted from Code Name Sapphire @ 2023 by Pam Jenoff, used with permission by Park Row Books.
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