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Disclaimer: The characters of Mel Pappas and Janice Covington are the property of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal and are used without permission. This is a work of fan fiction and there is no intention (or possibility) of profiting from the writing of this story.
Warning: This story contains some violence. The relationship between the two main characters is "subtextual." There is no graphic sex.
The young boy, tall and gawky, appeared perched both on the edge of manhood and on the edge of his seat. His Uncle Mischa reached over and pulled the boy's ear. "Go, Herschel. See if our auntie will come down now."
Herschel didn't need to be given a second opportunity. He leaped up the open stairway, then paused outside a closed door to smooth the coat of his new black suit and to make sure his red, white, and blue tie was straight.
A quick check that the ever-present cowlick at the back of his part was under control, and he was ready to knock. He did so gently, two times, and then listened. Nothing. Shyly, he pushed the door open just enough to peak in. He saw the woman Uncle Mischa called "auntie." She was sitting upright in the armchair beside the guestroom bed. Her eyes were closed.
The boy cleared his throat. She didn't stir. Hesitating to do more to wake her, he studied this woman his family held in such awe. Although to a boy of thirteen, her forty-some years qualified her as ancient, he noticed that her black hair held no gray, and her pale skin few wrinkles. He knew that she was very tall, towering even over Uncle Mischa. His father referred to her as "a real beauty," and even Herschel could see that this was probably true. He cleared his throat one more time and, when she slept on, he backed through the door and closed it gently. He walked down the stairs to look into the clear gray eyes of his uncle.
"Is Auntie coming down?" he asked.
"No, Uncle," the boy answered. "She's sleeping."
The older man nodded. "Probably tired from her long flight from Turkey.
She needs to rest, but it seems there's always one more dig to visit, one more inscription to translate, one more course to teach. I was hoping she would come down to watch the inauguration with us. Oh, well, she'll see the new president tomorrow when he gives her the prize."
The boy stepped off the last step and realized, with a start, that his eyes were almost level with his uncle's. "Will we all really get to see the president?"
"Yes." Mischa seemed to realize also that his nephew had overtaken him in height. At thirteen, the "boy" truly was a man. "The award is from our people, but the first Irish Catholic president will present it. That seems fitting, don't you think?"
A woman's voice called, "He's about to take the oath of office. Better hurry. Oh, isn't Jackie's outfit beautiful! What a lady!"
"We're coming, Rachel." With a smile, Mischa put his arm around his nephew's shoulders and walked with him into the apartment's living room.
Mel was looking down upon red-gold hair, bright despite the lack of sun.
The eyes that met hers held concern. "Mel, are you all right? Snap out of it." A lorry passed, and Janice grasped the sleeve of the taller woman's coat and tugged her back onto the curb. "We're supposed to be at the Ministry at 9:00 a.m, and it's almost that now." When her friend continued to stare at her, Janice asked again, "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Mel found herself smiling, not sure of the reason for her distraction.
"Mel, I know you wake up slow, but this is ridiculous." Janice turned her attention to the grim-looking brick building across the quiet, London street. She stepped off the curb again and, when Mel didn't follow her, pulled her across, this time brooking no hesitation.
"I woke up with a bad feeling about this meeting," Mel explained. "Don't you feel all this is kind of unusual?"
Janice spoke carefully. "Early this morning, as usual, I I left our hotel and had a breakfast of bangers and potatoes and came back to wake you up.
As usual, you protested until I offered a little cold water to help you along. Then you got up, dressed in that cute red number you're hiding beneath that blanket of a coat. . . ."
"This fog is cold. Besides, you're wearing work pants, a leather jacket, and that old hat to keep you warm."
"Fog is just moisture. It isn't cold," Janice corrected automatically before continuing. "Then we walked here to keep our appointment with Mr. Ranscomb and see what the devil he wants from us. With me having to practically drag you to get you to keep up. As usual. Why, when your legs are almost half again as long as mine, you can't keep up. . . ." Her voice trailed off as Mel's usual gentle gaze turned to a glare.
"What's unusual is this appointment itself.
Why would we be invited to meet with a man you call the boss of spies?" She arched an eyebrow in suspicion. "Are you sure you don't know what he wants from us?"
Janice shook her head. "Not a glimmer. How about you?"
"I have a pretty good idea," Mel admitted and stopped. Janice waited, her hand on the tarnished doorknob of the Ministry. "I think we're going to be asked to do something dangerous. And I think we should say no."
"Even if we're given a chance to help the war effort?" Janice asked.
"Even then. Let someone else do it, someone trained, not us. Not you."
Her soft voice and gentle face carried a determination that impressed her friend.
"Well, let's hear Ranscomb out. He probably just has a question about some archaeological site or something." She laughed to break the tension. "To bomb or not to bomb, that is the question."
It was Mel who reached out this time, tugging on the worn leather of Janice's jacket. "I mean it. Whatever he wants, say no. If you care about me. If you want us to stay together."
Mel knew she had gone too far when her friend's face settled into its familiar stubborn lines. "I'll do what's right." She pulled away and, as she neared the door of the building, she said gruffly over her shoulder.
"Don't ever use our relationship to control me. It won't work."
Tears springing to her eyes, Mel hurried to catch up. The dreary interior hallway perfectly matched her mood.
Ranscomb, always the gentleman, stood as the two women were shown into his office. He motioned them to the two straight-backed chairs opposite his desk and sat only after they did. Mel noticed that the other occupant of the room, a man who wore civilian clothes but with the posture of a soldier, stood beside a wall map to the right of the desk and did not sit or acknowledge their presence. Janice focused all of her attention on Ranscomb.
"Are you enjoying the city, Dr. Covington, Miss Pappas? I believe this is your second or third visit since the war started." Ranscomb was a nervous man, nondescript, seeming like what he was not, a minor functionary in an unimportant ministry of the British bureaucracy. He was a pale man dressed all in brown. Thinning hair. High voice with a public school accent. A small man working in a shabby office in a depressing building.
Janice had discussed Ranscomb with her stepfather and knew him to be a man of unbelievable power, the power of life and death over thousands, maybe millions, as he and his department gathered and dispensed intelligence across western and southern Europe. This powerful man was now offering tea. "All I can offer, I'm afraid," he apologized.
"No, thank you," Mel answered but Janice glanced at her, surprised by the edge in her voice, as if the polite Southerner already disliked this man.
Tearing her eyes away, she said, "Maybe you could tell us why we're here."
Ranscomb nodded. "To the point. I was told to expect that." Before Janice could ask who his informant was, he gestured toward the standing man. "Brinton will fill you in."
Brinton's expression indicated he considered this a waste of time, but he pointed to a section of the map and explained, "This, as you probably know, is Rumania." He said it as if he doubted they knew anything at all. "It is a country that was formed after the first world war by combining three distinct regions, each with a mixture of ethnic majorities and minorities."
"Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania," Janice interrupted just to wipe away his superior smirk. "Magyars are the most important minority."
He raised an eyebrow and continued in a more respectful tone. "With the Nazi sympathizer Antonescu in power and the country occupied by SS and Gestapo, it matters little that most of the citizens hate Hitler and the Germans. Opposition is quickly crushed, and the agitators are executed or sent to German factories as forced labor."
"Or to the camps," Janice added.
"We don't know anything about any 'camps,' " Ranscomb put in hastily.
"Right." Janice kept her attention on Brinton while responding to his superior. "Is there a significant resistance movement?"
Brinton glanced at Ranscomb, who nodded. "It's spotty and deep underground." He pointed to a place in the central Carpathian Mountains.
"Here, near Lake Snagov, there seems to be a resistance cell. We haven't been able to pin it down, but we're depending on its existence."
"We?" Janice asked.
"Dr. Covington." Ranscomb directed her attention back to himself. "From this point on, anything you're told must stay in this room. Whether you agree to help or not. Miss Pappas, that warning includes you. Do you understand?" Both women nodded, and he said, "Brinton, continue."
"For a few weeks, we've been getting reports about a new German weapon, something more powerful than even the "secret" weapons, the rockets we've detected along the French coast."
"Brinton, remember 'need to know.' "
"Just drawing a comparison, sir." He turned back to the map and pointed again to the middle of Transylvania. "The Soviets have heard the same rumors, and they seem to center on this region."
"The same area as the resistance cell," Janice observed.
"Yes. We've tried to contact that group in an attempt to get more information, but our attempts have all failed. Fatally, we believe." He faced the two women. "We've sent in seasoned professionals, men who have been trained in infiltration and insurgency." Janice didn't imagine that he stressed the word "men." She and Brinton locked eyes. "None have sent any word or returned to meet the vessel that brought them in. Our belief is that they were killed, either by the German forces or by the native population, which is not known for its trust of outsiders."
"Peasants with torches and pitchforks?" Janice asked sarcastically.
"Exactly" was his response.
Mel, who had been quiet throughout Brinton's recital, finally spoke up.
"What do you expect us to do?" She said it wearily, having already guessed the answer.
Ranscomb did not surprise her. "We think you, Dr. Covington, and you, Miss Pappas, can do what those men could not. We think you can enter that area, and, right under the noses of the SS, gather intelligence about that secret weapon, find out at least whether it exists or not, and bring that information out." Brinton's expression showed he didn't consider himself part of his superior's "we."
"I appreciate your confidence in us," Janice replied, "but what are you basing it on?"
"On this," Ranscomb said. He handed Janice a photograph, which she studied intently and then handed to Mel, whose jaw tightened. She handing the photo back to her friend as if eager to get rid of it. Ranscomb continued, "And on your facility with the German language, Dr. Covington."
"This woman looks a little like me," Janice observed. "Who is she? And what does she have to do with this situation?"
"The resemblance is superficial," Ranscomb admitted, "but close enough for our purpose, since no one in Transylvania has actually seen her. That is Margethe Berndt, also known at the Monster of Montmere. She is Hitler's favorite interrogator. Makes the Gestapo look like Boy Scouts."
Janice studied the photo again and then gave it to Ranscomb. She slouched in her chair. "So?"
Brinton spoke up. "She has been 'working' in France and most recently in Greece. Now she has been dispatched to Rumania to help crush the resistance there before it can gain momentum. Hitler's very worried about what will happen if the Rumanians and the Hungarians forget past quarrels--and catch his eastern army between themselves and the Soviets."
"What do you want me to do?"
"We want to place you in Rumania--as Margethe Berndt," Ranscomb answered.
Janice laughed. "Won't the SS notice if there are two Monsters roaming around? Even in Transylvania."
"Margethe has been. . . .detained," Brinton explained. "By us. You'll be the only Monster there."
"Where is she?" Janice asked.
Brinton smiled for the first time. "Here. In the basement of this building." Mel, noting that smile, shivered.
"I want to meet her, make sure I can carry this off," Janice said.
"That's a good idea," Ranscomb agreed. "Then you'll do it?"
"No, Janice," Mel began. "This is a bad idea. What chance do we have of pulling this off when their spies have failed?"
"There's no 'we' in this," Janice responded. "I'm going in alone, and I will be coming out. I've done it before, and that was through the front door."
"Yes, you finally told me all about that, remember? And about how you almost died." Mel caught the warning look Janice gave her and stopped.
"Miss Pappas, we do desire your participation in this mission," Ranscomb said. "Some of the information we've received has been. . . .shall we say, odd. We believe your skill as a translator may come in handy."
"Oh?" Janice asked. "And how would you explain her presence? I suppose you have another German she resembles? One who doesn't even speak her native language."
"No," Ranscomb answered, "but Fraulein Berndt has certain proclivities that are well-known--and that she often practices on women of the indigenous populations. It won't be considered unusual for her to be accompanied by an attractive Greek. . . .conquest. You do speak Greek, don't you, Miss Pappas? The modern variety?"
"Good. There we are then."
"I'm going," Janice said with finality. "Mel isn't. Now I want to meet the woman in that photograph."
Brinton led the two women down three flights of stairs to the lowest basement of the building. He flicked a switch as they reached the last landing and pulled an overhead chain to bring dim illumination to the darkness below. Stepping aside, he motioned for his followers to proceed him. Janice and then Mel soon found themselves in a cellar room that contained a narrow open space bounded on one side by three barred cells.
One bare bulb provided feeble light from the rough ceiling in front of each cell door. By this light, they could see that only the center cell was occupied.
Mel paused at the foot of the stairs, but Janice approached the bars.
"Don't get too close," Brinton warned, and she stopped about a foot from the cell door. A young woman, her fair hair in a tangle around her face looked up, blinking, from where she sat on a bench apparently bolted into the back wall. She ran the fingers of both hands through her hair, brushing it out of her face. And she smiled.
Janice looked questioningly at Brinton, who stood beside Mel. "She was captured by Greek partisans on her way to Rumania," he said, apparently explaining the woman's scratched and bruised features. "They weren't gentle, but they got out a message that they had her--alive--and we managed to get in to pick her up."
The prisoner stood up and walked to the cell door, her walk as confident and arrogant as if she were on the other side of those bars. She wrapped hands, one of which was heavily bandaged, around the vertical steel of her cage. At Brinton's gesture, Janice stepped back another pace, well out of the other woman's reach.
"Who are you supposed to be?" the blonde woman asked in lightly accented English. "My next interrogator?"
"No, Margethe," Janice answered. "I'm supposed to be you."
Margethe studied the imposter of herself, and her smile grew wider. "There is a resemblance. Do you speak German well enough to fool anyone?"
Janice rattled off a few sentences in Margethe's native tongue.
"Yes, you are convincing, and it's even the right German, neither too high nor too low for my upbringing. Quite. . . .respectable. . . .quite the burgher class into which I was born." She shook her head then. "The color of your eyes is close enough, perhaps a little more green than mine. Your hair, however, will not do. You are a redhead, not a true blonde, not quite . . . Aryan, are you?"
"A little bleach will help that," Janice replied evenly, "just as I'm sure it helps yours."
Margethe's eyes slid to Mel. "And you? There's no way you will pass for one of The Fuhrer's own. Your hair is too dark, features too. . . .Mediterranean. Italian? Greek? Nice pale eyes and skin, however. And very nice. . . ." Her voice dropped suggestively.
"Shut up," Janice ordered.
The prisoner's eyes slid to Janice and back to Mel. "So what is your role in this masquerade? Ah, I have it. You will play the part of poor Maria."
She again let her gaze play up and down Mel's long body. "You're really much better looking than my late companion. I envy my imitator your company. For as long as you both last."
"What happened to Maria?" Janice asked, not sure who would answer. It was Brinton.
"She and this bitch's driver were killed during the capture."
"That isn't strictly true," the blonde woman corrected him. "The driver was killed in the ambush. Maria was wounded, but alive, when the so-called partisans got their hands on her."
It was Brinton who told her to shut up this time, but again she continued.
"The partisans got a radio message out that they had captured us both, but the English replied that they had no use for a Greek whore."
"We didn't tell them to kill her," Brinton said.
Her eyes held hatred as she looked in his direction. "What did you think they would do? They considered her a traitor, a Nazi collaborator." She quickly masked the emotion in her face and voice as she turned back to Janice. "Maria's death was neither swift nor easy. As yours will not be when the SS or Gestapo catch you. As hers," with a stabbing glance at Mel, "will not be whether she's captured by my people or by Rumanian resisters."
Mel shuddered, whether at the woman's words or her gaze, she wasn't sure.
"Have you seen and heard enough?" Brinton asked.
Janice nodded and turned away, but the German woman's voice followed her.
"You will die in Transylvania or in trying to get there. And I will survive in this dark place until the war's end. My skills are valuable, and no one will waste them by ordering my death."
Janice glanced at Brinton, who shook his head. She noted his meaning, but was disturbed by the hint of a satisfied smile on his lips. She looked for Mel and saw her half-way up the first flight of steps.
Janice had found the short submarine voyage through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the length of the Mediterranean surprisingly pleasant. Never plagued by claustrophobia, she wasn't bothered by the close quarters, which had the bonus of preventing arguments between herself and Mel. Mel was too much of a lady to argue within the hearing of the sailors, and no one was ever out of earshot on that sub. Now, sitting out from the shore of mainland Greece in the choppy waters of the Ionian Sea, she felt the stirrings of nausea that heralded seasickness. Ensign Grimaldi watched the dark shore for the brief flash of light that would be their signal to go ashore. When they boarded the inflated raft, he had whispered to her that this landing would have been impossible even two months before. Then the Jerries had the pillboxes that ringed Europe fully manned. Now, with successful Allied landings in Sicily and, most recently, on Normandy, and disasters on the Soviet front, the Germans had all but abandoned this coastline.
Looking past the ensign for the promised light, Janice stifled a groan.
Please don't let it be too long.
To Mel, Janice was only a small silhouette perched in the front of the bobbing boat. Still, hearing the groan, she knew her friend's malady was striking again. Poor Janice. Mel remembered their last conversation, no, their last argument, before leaving England. They had finished a two-day briefing by Brinton and some of his men and were in the bedroom they shared in the London townhouse of Janice's mother--packing the clothing that had been provided for them. It had been explained that they could take no personal belongings, since everything must be traceable to the women they would impersonate. Mel had adjusted the wire rim glasses she had been issued in place of her usual dark frames. Janice had patted her own hat and leather jacket and reluctantly laid these in a drawer. After some hesitation, her cigars and knapsack followed. Both women would carry German-issued knapsacks for this trip.
"We don't have to do this, you know."
"You don't have to do this" had been Janice's curt answer. "I do."
Janice had shrugged.
"This is crazy. We can go back home and find other ways to help. Ways that don't involve walking into Hitler's backyard."
Janice's eyes had blazed. "Right! We can organize a cotillion to sell war bonds. And talk the Tidewater aristocracy into turning in the tires off their spare Packards. Or maybe you want me to jump up and down on tin cans so they'll make neat bundles for the metal drive."
"You have the feet for it!" Mel had retorted. "Please, Janice, reconsider.
I have a bad feeling about this."
"If you're afraid, stay here, or, better yet, go on home. I want you to."
"You're always wanting me to leave you. Or you're wanting to leave me."
Mel had struggled to keep from crying. "After that last time, I would think you would have had enough danger, enough of risking your life. I know I have."
"Then don't come with me."
Janice had turned to face Mel, and Mel had known further argument was futile. Still
she had tried. "The only way to get me stay in London is to stay yourself."
"Then we're both going."
"What?" Mel realized she was sitting in a bobbing boat and that she must have repeated Janice's earlier words aloud. The sailor seated beside her was looking at her quizzically.
"I said, 'when are we going?' " she covered.
Just then, the ensign whispered, "There's the light." A pause. "Yeah, that's the signal. Let's go in. We run the boat up on the shore and run to cover as soon as we land. Everybody got that? Ladies?"
There were whispers of "Aye, aye" and "Yes." The boat moved silently toward shore, propelled now by oars, not by a motor. As the bottom scraped the sand, everyone leaped out, and all but the two men assigned to haul the boat out of the water crouched and ran for large rocks just up from the beach. Janice grabbed Mel's hand and ran, expecting at any moment the flashes and retorts that would announce German machine gun fire. And answering fire from the seamen who accompanied them. Darkness and silence reigned, and the small party soon found themselves behind the tall, wave-smoothed rocks.
From the other side of the rocks there came a harsh whisper, first in Greek, then followed by heavily accented English, "Jeepers creepers."
The ensign answered, "Where did you get those peepers?" Then he stood up, and three people, all dressed in dark clothing and watchcaps, faces blackened, walked around the nearest rock. Two men and one woman. Each carrying a German-made machine gun.
"What's your name?" the ensign asked the woman, still making sure.
"Eleni," she answered, then added, "It's not safe here. The Germans still keep up patrols." She gestured toward Janice and Mel. "Leave them with us and go."
Janice nodded to the ensign. He acted as if he wanted to say something, then settled for a rough slap on her shoulder and a nod to Mel. He and his men melted into the darkness, the only sound of their going the faint splash of the oars. Then there wasn't even that, and the two American women found themselves alone with the Greek partisans.
"Follow," the woman ordered quietly. She and her companions turned, expecting compliance, and, as they, too, seemed about to disappear, got it.
There followed a rapid march from the shoreline into the cover of rocks and brush and then trees.
Seemingly untiring, the Greeks continued until, after some hours, Janice called a halt. "We need to rest," she admitted. The partisans continued for a few steps; then Eleni fell back to the Americans and looked them over. Her eyes passed over Janice and settled on Mel before she nodded.
"Sit," she said and went to catch up with her companions. There followed a quiet, but rapid-fire, conference in Greek; then the two men disappeared, and Eleni returned to where Janice and Mel had dropped to the ground.
"Drink," she told them as she handed the smaller American a canteen.
Noting that this was, like the guns, German army issue, Janice handed it on to Mel, who took a brief drink before trying to hand it back. Janice's look and refusal to take it caused her to take a deeper drink. Then Janice took the canteen and took a long pull on it. Eleni indicated with a gesture that she should keep it.
"Where are you taking us?" Janice whispered.
The partisan squatted beside the other two women. "There's a. . . .place to keep animals. . . .a barn near here," she explained. "That's where that woman's. . . .automobile is hidden."
"Margethe Berndt's?" Mel asked.
"Yes." Eleni rose. "Can you go on? It is not far. And you will be safer there."
Janice reached out to help Mel up, but the taller woman rose on her own.
As Eleni led them through the trees, her two male companions appeared from the surrounding darkness and joined them. "Not far" proved to be a couple more hours' walk, but they made it without stopping again.
As Eleni had said, the building they finally approached appeared to be a barn, apparently abandoned when the nearby house, its position now indicated by only a chimney, had burned down. Eleni gestured for a halt before entering the clearing. The two men left them, one walking to the left, the other two the right, circling the barn. The door in the front of the structure suddenly opened, and one of the men emerged to wave the women in. Eleni ran at a crouch to the door and inside, and Janice and Mel followed in the same posture, the silhouette of Mel's long body still towering over her smaller companions.
Inside the barn, black paper and dark rags had been used to cover the chinks between the aging boards, and the two men efficiently covered the spaces between the barn door and its frame with similar materials. Only then did one of them light a lantern that had been hanging from the wall.
The interior, thus illuminated, revealed a small square table and four mismatched and much repaired chairs. And, farther into the barn, still almost hidden in darkness, the shape of a car, a German touring car, the driver's seat uncovered, but the passenger seats under a high roof and surrounded by windows.
"That's Margethe's automobile?" Janice asked. At Eleni's nod, Janice approached it. Then she could see that the front seat had been damaged and recently repaired, closely matching rags sewn over what were probably bullet holes in the driver's seat. One of the side windows was completely broken out. Janice looked at the man who stood beside her.
"No. . . .glass. . . .to fix," he said in halting English.
Eleni approached as Janice opened a side door of the car and peered in.
The American saw no sign of damage to the interior of the car. "Both women survived the capture?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral.
"Yes." Eleni seemed about to leave it at that. Then she added, "My group did not capture."
"Would it have made a difference?"
The other woman looked at her levelly. "No." She was holding the lantern, and she used it to light Janice's face. "I have the Monster's papers. You match close enough." Mel had sat in one of the chairs, obviously exhausted. The partisan indicated the seated woman with a gesture of her head. "She's supposed to be the. . . .the coll. . . .the coll. . . ?
"The collaborator?" Janice finished for her. "She's supposed to be the Greek woman who was traveling with Margethe. Yes."
Eleni spoke carefully, this time not because of difficulty with English.
"Is she . . . . Can she do it? She seems. . . ."
"She'll do fine," Janice informed her sharply. "She always does."
The Greek woman ducked her head politely, showing she meant no offense to this woman's comrade. "In the morning, another man come. He wears uniform of driver. Washed and holes fixed. He drives you and her to Kilkis. You call him Dieter. He is Greek, but knows German. You talk to him in German only. Yes?"
"In Kilkis, you show papers and get on train. Go through Macedonia. You know Macedonia?"
Janice chuckled. "Yes, I know Macedonia."
"You take train to Rumania, where your orders say."
The blonde woman sobered. "Won't the dates be all wrong?"
"We fixed." She reached inside her close-fitting black jacket and came up with a black document wallet, which she handed to Janice. Janice took out a sheaf of official-looking papers and scanned them. The date Margethe left Athens was now only three days before, but she could not detect the alteration.
"Good work," she commented.
"Resisters, live ones, got many skills," Eleni remarked seriously.
"Greek saying?" Janice asked.
"Never mind." Janice started to return the papers, but the Greek woman stopped her.
"You keep." Janice slipped the wallet into a pocket. "In morning, you put on the Monster's uniform. Your friend put on Greek woman's dress. Now you rest." Holding up the lantern, she led Janice to a couple of pallets on the other side of the car.
"Mel," Janice called. Her friend's arms were supporting her head on the table, but now she looked up. "Come to bed. You'll be more comfortable."
Mel rose wearily only to drop onto one of the pallets. She was asleep as soon as her head touched the blankets. Janice lay beside her, and used her blanket to cover them both. Then Eleni and the light of the lantern were gone. It was Janice who tossed and turned her way through the night.
Mel helped her friend smooth the collar of the heavy wool uniform. It was chilling to see the small blonde dressed in what looked like the black uniform of Hitler's elite police. The jacket was bare of insignia except for a swastika near each collar point. Mel touched one of these and pulled her hand back, as if it were burned.
"At least you don't have to wear this. . . .monstrosity," Janice mumbled.
She ran her hands across the trousers, which had hastily been altered, Mel demonstrating her skill with the small sewing kit Eleni had provided.
Margethe was a couple inches taller than Janice and built stouter. Mel felt renewed tenderness for her companion, realizing again the fragility and strength that combined in her body.
"What?" Janice asked, and Mel dropped her gaze.
Eleni entered, followed by "Dieter," who had arrived during the night. He wore the uniform of a Waffen SS enlisted man. "You need to get going. It is several hours to train station. Dieter knows the way, and he will do the talking if you get stopped by patrol. You both have your papers?"
"I'm carrying the ones you gave me last night and Maria's, as well," Janice said. "I figured that was what Margethe--what I--would do."
"You are right," Eleni said. "When captured, Margethe did have both sets of papers."
"I thought you weren't there," Janice reminded her.
Eleni didn't answer.
"That broken window still worries me," Janice stated. With that, she walked to the other side of the car and came back carrying a small board.
Before anyone could protest, she swung the board twice, leaving two dents and a deep scratch in the passenger door. She threw down the board and rubbed her hands. "Slid off the road and sideswiped a tree."
Dieter and one of the other partisans opened both doors at the front of the barn. The third man was nowhere to be seen. Eleni shook hands with Janice and patted Mel once on the arm. "Good luck," she said and opened the damaged door. Mel entered first, long legs accentuated as her calf-length gray skirt pulled tight. Janice took her arm to help her slide over and followed her in.
Mel leaned over Janice briefly and said to Eleni in Greek. "Take care.
Live to enjoy freedom."
Eleni answered, also in her native language, "Be sure you return to yours."
Then Dieter climbed into the front of the touring car and, starting the smooth-running engine, drove out of the barn.
The car bumped and twisted down a narrow trail at what seemed to the passengers breakneck speed. Janice tried to lean forward to open the sliding window to the driver's section but found herself thrown violently against Mel. All they could do was hold onto the seat and to each other until the car emerged from the cover of trees, and Dieter turned it onto a comparatively smooth roadway.
The position of the sun told Janice that they were heading almost due north. "Eleni said it would take us almost 5 hours to reach the Macedonian border," Janice commented. "There is a shorter way, but we would have to pass a major checkpoint on the road from Athens. The guards there might have better communication with the German command and would be more likely to check when our documents were actually issued."
"Won't someone at the Rumanian headquarters figure out that Margethe and Marie left Athens three weeks ago, not last Friday?" Mel asked.
"From what Brinton said, the show in Rumania is mostly run by political troops, both SS and Gestapo, while Greek operations have been run by the regular army. There's little love lost among any of those branches. Also, most communications and transportation from Hungary and Rumania go directly to Germany by air and land. Greece has been serviced through the Mediterranean sea until the Allies disrupted German sea power in the area."
"I still think you're going to have questions to answer about where we've really been," Mel objected.
"No problem. I've been out terrorizing the Greek populace, no more than a holiday excursion for Hitler's favorite monster. With my lovely Greek companion at my side." Janice gave Mel a suggestive leer. Then she put on her fiercest expression. "Anyone, and I mean anyone who messes with Margethe Berndt will come to regret it."
Mel shuddered. "Just because we get past the Gestapo doesn't mean that the Rumanians will welcome us with open arms. Remember that they have a resistance, too. If the Greek partisans have been able to lay hands on German guns, so have they."
Janice was silent for some moments, then asked quietly, "Do we have more right to be safe than the men who are fighting the Nazis? In Italy and France and over Germany? Or the ones who are battling their way from island to island against the Japanese in the Pacific?"
Mel looked out the window at the rocky fields they were speeding by. She blinked away tears.
"If there is a secret weapon hidden in Rumania, we have to find it. If there's an effective underground, we have to make contact with them."
Mel turned now to study her friend and saw the determined tilt to her chin.
"No matter what the risk?"
"Yes." Although she tried not to say it, her thoughts emerged. "You didn't have to come. I told you that I could handle things alone--and join you back in London or the states. You could have waited in safety while I. . . ."
"Do you think it's myself I'm afraid for?"
Mel's words cut through Janice's just as the car slowed.
"Halt!" German words were shouted as Dieter hit the brakes. Hard. Mel held the door strap and grabbed the smaller woman before she could tumble to the floor. "Halt! Get out of the automobile!"
As the car slid to a stop, Janice leaned forward and opened the sliding window to the driver's section. "What's wrong?" she whispered.
Dieter shook his head and got out of the car. There was the sound of arguing, not shouting now, but excited nevertheless. Mel's eyes were round as she exchanged a glance with Janice. Janice patted her thigh. "Stay here." Then she pushed open the door and slid out, straightening to her full, if small, height. She saw that two German soldiers, Wehrmacht, she thought, were questioning the driver and arguing, not with him, but with each other about his papers.
As she emerged, the soldiers paused in mid-sentence to stare at her. Up and down. Taking in her black uniform and the insignia on each point of her collar. "What is the trouble?" she asked imperiously. "Is this a checkpoint?"
"Fraulein?" one of them asked.
Janice took her documents from her inside pocket and handed them to the speaker. He took them and began to read. Immediately, he said one word, "Fuhrerbefehal" and returned the papers with a respectful salute. Fuhrer's orders.
Janice saw that the men were in possession of a military motorcycle with sidecar. "Were you sent to escort us to Kilkis? We are running late due to a slight accident caused by this incompetent driver." She indicated the dents and missing glass.
"No, Fraulein Berndt. We saw the car and decided to stop it. There has been partisan activity in this area."
"Good. Commendable initiative." She held out her hand for her documents, and, without hesitation, he returned them. "Then we'll be on our way. Be certain to give my . . . . regards to those partisans when you catch them."
She gave a stern look to the driver. "You there! Now!" With that, she slid back into the car and slammed the door. Dieter started the engine, and they pulled away before the soldiers were back with their motorcycle.
Mel reached for a small hand and found it trembling.
Kilkis proved to be a quiet Greek town, of interest to the Germans only because it was a railroad gateway to Macedonia and the Balkans beyond. The car was stopped twice by German patrols as they entered the outskirts and again at the train station, but "Fraulein Berndt's" orders and manner brooked no interference. Janice took a proprietary hold on Mel's arm and propelled her to the boot of the automobile as Dieter unloaded their military-style packs and one large black case.
Not liking the tight grip, Mel pulled back until Janice gave her a jerk that almost took her off her feet. Mel gasped.
"What's in that?" Janice asked, indicating the case.
Dieter shrugged. "The monster's possessions."
"Get everything loaded on the train and get out of here." Not waiting for agreement, Janice gave another tug on her companion's arm. This time Mel came along with no resistance. "Much better, dear. We have to hurry.
The train had one passenger car, the torn upholstery of the seats speaking of a past luxury that was no more. A few German officers sat in the front, one of them wearing a clean white bandage wrapped around his forehead and over one eye. All seemed exhausted or discouraged, and Janice figured they were on their way home from the front. Or on their way to another. She nodded to the officers, who seemed disinterested, and maneuvered Mel into the seat farthest from them. Only then did she release her friend's arm.
The taller woman rubbed the area beneath her left elbow.
"Sorry," Janice whispered. "For show."
Janice gave her a sharp glance, then let it go. Two heavily armed soldiers boarded the train and inspected the papers of the officers in the front.
They wore gray uniforms with red piping along with an arrogant air. The manner of the battle veterans showed that they appreciated neither. With a perfunctory salute, the
soldiers passed on to where the women sat.
"SickerheitsDienst," Janice muttered, then rose to hand them her orders.
Seeing who had signed them, their manner changed.
"You travel to Rumania, Fraulein?"
"Yes. There's some business that needs to be settled." She looked at him meaningfully. "Finally."
"And the woman?"
"She's my secretary, as my orders indicate. A Greek, but on the right side." She made sure they knew the first statement was a lie, the second possibly the truth. Mel, not understanding most of what was said, understood the raised eyebrows of the men.
"Fraulein," one of them acknowledged, and she forced herself to smile.
After folding and returning the documents to Janice, both soldiers saluted sharply. "Heil Hitler!"
"Heil Hitler," she snapped and returned their salute. With a click of the heels, both soldiers exited the car. Janice looked forward into the one eye of the wounded Wehrmacht officer. Then, shaking his head, he turned away.
The train traveled on level land for about an hour, then began a long climb and a series of tunnels and bridges that would take them through the southeastern range of the Alps and finally into the Carpathian Mountains.
The crossings from Macedonia to Bulgaria and finally into Rumania were no more difficult than the first, with SS or SD passing quickly on Fraulein Brandt's orders at each stop. In Alexandria, just across the Danube River, the Wehrmacht officers left the train, passing the women without a glance.
After that, the train traveled through the valley of the Olt River, sometimes traveling beside the fast-moving water and sometimes high above it.
There were no food and no bathrooms, and Mel thought this train trip would go on forever. As darkness fell, she finally dozed, her head bumping painfully against the window, until her friend pulled it to her shoulder.
Janice looked down at the smooth lines of Mel's face and was both grateful and sorry not to be alone.
Dawn arrived as the train pulled into a station whose small sign announced "Tlaj." Janice shook Mel awake. "What? Where?" that woman spluttered.
"We're there. Tlaj," she began gently. She detected a heavy step in the aisle and jerked her startled companion to her feet. "Wake up, you Greek bitch! Think we've got all day?" She turned to look into the pale gray eyes of an SS officer. Officiousness and amusement played over his face.
"Fraulein Berndt?" he asked.
She gave a short nod and reached for her papers.
He waved them away. "I am Reichskommander Ernst Grube," he told her. "Of the EinsatzKommando of the Cluj-Napoca region." He finished with a stiff bow. "Welcome to Klaj, Fraulein. I have come personally to see to your comfort."
"Thank you, Reichskommander, but I am here to serve the Fuhrer, not for any comfort" was her uncompromising retort.
"Of course. Heil Hitler."
She returned the words and salute, and Grube turned to lead the women from the car. At the foot of the steps was a small guard of SS, standing stiffly at attention. Beyond them sat a black staff car. Grube bowed, indicating that the women should slide into the back seat. They did so, and he joined the driver in the front seat. "Headquarters," he ordered, and the driver pulled the car into the dusty, narrow street. Grube spoke to Janice over his shoulder. "This is a backward place, important only for its mines and oil. We have been bombed twice in the last month, but little damage was done. The Allied bombers are no match for our Luftwaffe fighters."
"Of course," Janice agreed.
"One bomber was shot down."
"Oh?" she asked casually. "And the flyers?"
"Killed. Unfortunately," he informed her.
"Yes, I would have liked a chance to question them. What an opportunity to show what I could do." He shrugged. "But I'm sure you understand that better than most."
"Yes, I do understand," she agreed. Feeling Mel's shudder, she changed the subject. "Is it far to your headquarters?"
"No, it's about fifteen minutes from the village. We have a short track that leads back here so we can ship material and. . . . personnel back to the main line. For shipment to the Fatherland or other points."
"I see." She wasn't sure she did, but she didn't ask for details. "Do you have much trouble with the indigenous people?"
He shook his head. "No trouble. Not since my troops and I got here almost two years ago. Much of Rumania is sympathetic to our cause, and only a few local inhabitants resisted. They are now gone--either to serve in the factories of the Fatherland or elsewhere. No, around here is nothing like Hungary to the west or those stubborn Greeks you have been dealing with."
His tone was sympathetic, but his manner hinted that the Greeks would not have been so stubborn had HE been dealing with them.
"The Greeks are following a tradition of resistance," Janice said mildly.
"It has taken some work to persuade them that this is not the best course."
"As in France," he complimented her, perhaps thinking he had gone too far in baiting one of Hitler's favored.
"Yes, as in France," she said positively. Then, "Is that your headquarters?"
They were pulling up to a walled compound, strung with barbed wire and heavily guarded. A soldier at the closed gate saluted his commander sharply and ordered the way opened. Inside the wall, Janice leaned forward in her seat to study the buildings and defenses. Mel felt a pang as she turned to watch the gate swing shut behind them.
The car pulled to a stop in front of a white stone building slightly larger than the others, and, the driver holding the door, Janice and Mel slid out and followed Grube through a guardroom and outer office and into the commander's office. After motioning for the women to seat themselves, Grube settled into a chair behind a small wooden desk. Janice sat facing him, but Mel remained standing, placing herself behind her companion's chair, hands clutching the back. Grube looked over a couple of reports that graced the middle of his desk, then smiled tightly at Janice. "The Greek doesn't wish to sit?"
"I told her to stand." She nodded to the reports. "News from the Eastern front?"
"Yes," he said shortly, but then seemed to think her guess had earned her a more complete answer. "The Fuhrer's troops have made a planned maneuver.
Toward our own border."
"Of course." Before she could say or ask more, there was a discrete knock at the door.
"Come," Grube barked.
An SS soldier entered and saluted smartly.
"What is it, Kruiken?"
"The Sergeant of the Guard has arrived with a prisoner, Reichskommander. A saboteur."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "A saboteur?"
The soldier continued to report to his commander. "A young man. He tried to break into a shed at the mine. Early this morning. Would you like him taken to a cell or to an interrogation room?"
"Interrogation." Grube got up and placed his hat back on his head. Then he seemed to have an idea. "Fraulein Berndt, would you like to see him?
So you can tell the Fuhrer you have seen how we handle these situations."
"That is what my orders call for, Reichskommander. I am to assess the state of resistance and assure that there are no interruptions of material and personnel needed for the war effort." She paused for effect. "I don't need your invitation to carry out these orders. From Berlin."
Grube reddened slightly but recovered. "No, Fraulein Berndt. I understand. Would you like to see this saboteur?"
"Yes." She rose. "I would like my companion to stay here. Or in the outer office, if you can assure that none of your men will talk to her.
She is. . . .sensitive, and I don't want her disturbed."
"In the outer office," he said. "None of my men will speak to her. Please come, Fraulein."
They all reached the outer office in time to see two SS Waffen roughly pushing a young man, or rather a boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, out the door. "Stay here," Janice ordered Mel and gestured toward a chair near the far wall.
"But. . . ." Mel started to argue, but a fierce look stopped her. Janice followed the boy--and Grube--into the compound. The boy was being dragged and shoved toward a building across the open space. He and his guards passed a truck around which stood several soldiers and a small group of civilians, both men and women.
Janice gained Grube's attention with a hand on his arm. "Who are those people? What are they doing inside the compound?"
"Them?" His tone dismissed their importance. "They're Rumanians, peasants from the village or farms. We use them for day labor, unloading trucks, digging ditches, things like that."
"Forced labor?" she asked.
He didn't bother to answer, except with a look. They had reached the building, and they entered just behind the guards and the boy. The building seemed to be one room, containing no furniture but a table and a few chairs. Two guards were busy cuffing the boy to a heavy wooden chair which was bolted to the floor in the center of the room. The boy struggled until the guards finished chaining him and stood back. Then he relaxed, his head down.
"Leave us," Grube ordered, and the guards went out, closing the door.
Before Janice could react, Grube backhanded the boy, making his head fly back. Then he stepped back a pace. "Who are you? What sabotage did you attempt?"
The boy shook his head, either to clear it or in answer. Grube pulled his hand back to deliver another blow, and Janice caught it. Anger flared in his eyes, but he fought for and gained control. Janice released his hand.
"May I question him?" She made the request seem overly eager, as if she were excited by the prospect. "I'm sure I can get all the information you want."
Grube's look of annoyance disappeared, but he protested mildly, "This is military business."
"He's a civilian," she reminded him. "A resister, possibly a member of an organized underground. The Fuhrer would very much like to know the extent of such activity in Rumania."
"Very well," Grube said and stepped away. "Do you need anything?"
"My case," Janice said. "It was placed in the trunk of the staff car."
She had no idea what was in the case, but she was playing for time.
Hopefully, it was filled with something other than French underwear.
The officer smiled and nodded. He seemed to be warming to the opportunity of seeing the infamous Monster of Montmere ply her trade. "I'll see to it." He stepped outside.
"Listen," Janice whispered to the boy, sticking to German, since she knew no Rumanian. "I can help you. You need to tell me your name and what you were doing in that shed."
The boy laughed. She thought what a handsome young man he was, jet-black hair, eyes so dark brown they looked black, delicate features....features that would soon be smashed beyond recognition if she couldn't get him to help himself.
"This isn't a trick. Just tell me your name. Quick, before he gets back."
Her voice was almost pleading. "Give me a story for being in the shed.
Something to show you're cooperating." She wanted to switch to English, try to convince him she was an American, but she knew anything she told him would be extracted by Grube. "Save yourself."
He seemed to consider, then said, "I was hungry. I thought there was food in the shed."
Janice turned and walked out of the building. Grube was approaching, a soldier accompanying him and urging on a civilian, who was struggling with Fraulein Berndt's heavy case. Janice addressed the civilian. "Who is that woman helping to unload the truck? The tall young one, the one with the red hair?" Her words were met with a shrug and a look of incomprehension.
She raised her voice. "I know all you people speak German and half a dozen of your barbaric languages, so don't pretend not to understand me. Who is she?"
"Troika," he answered. "She's my daughter-in-law."
"Put down the case, and send her here," Janice ordered. "Now!" The man set down his burden and hurried to obey. Reaching the truck, he spoke with the woman called Troika and gestured toward Janice. Troika wiped her hands repeatedly on the front of her dark skirt, then walked hesitantly toward the small group by the interrogation building. She continued to touch and hold the fabric of her dress, and Janice saw that her hands trembled.
Reaching them, the woman stood before Grube, face averted, until Janice spoke. "Troika. Is that your name?"
She glanced at Janice, then looked down before answering, "Yes, Fraulein."
"You know the boy. Who is he?"
Troika tensed but said, "I don't know who you mean."
"You looked at the boy the guards just dragged across the compound."
Janice cupped the woman's chin and forced it up before letting go. "I could tell you knew him. Who is he?"
"I don't know him."
"Who is he?"
"I don't know him, but. . . .I know he belongs at the castle." When Janice continued to consider her, she added, "His name is Mikel or something like that. Magyar, I think."
"Go back to your work," Janice directed, and Troika ran back to the truck.
"Reichskommander, what does she mean by the castle?"
"The Castle Klaj-meinke," Grube answered. "It belongs to the Count Pitesti. He's local nobility."
"And he's been allowed to retain a feudal estate? In territory occupied by the army of the Fuhrer?" She made sure that disgust mixed with disbelief.
"Count Pitesti is. . . .a friend of the Fuhrer's cause, Fraulein Berndt," he assured her. "He has been helpful."
Translating "friend" to "collaborator," Janice asked, "And this friend sent a boy to sabotage equipment dedicated to the needs of the Fatherland?"
"No, it couldn't be that," Grube denied. "There must be another explanation for the boy's presence. Maybe he was sent with a message for me--and got lost. Or he might have been curious. You know how children are."
From a saboteur to a curious child after a few words about the boy's origin, Janice noticed. "The woman said the boy is a Magyar. Is Pitesti ethnic Hungarian, too?"
"His family is Rumanian nobility from centuries back, but I'm sure they're really Volksdeutsche." When she didn't comment, he added, "Really, he is as blonde as you and has piercing blue eyes. Handsome and intelligent. I am sure he is ethnically German."
Still looking unconvinced, Janice suggested, "Let's talk to the boy again."
The guard started to pick up her case, and she said, "No, I don't think we'll need that."
The boy looked at Grube and Janice alertly as they entered. She saw stubbornness, but no uncertainty, in his face. She stepped to within a foot of him and said, "Mikel, why did the Count send you from the castle?"
He couldn't quite hide a look of surprise.
"Were you supposed to bring a message to the Reichskommander?" She locked eyes with him, not allowing him to look away. She knew the instant he comprehended.
"Yes, I'm sorry, Fraulein," the boy said humbly. "The Count told me to invite the Reichskommander to dinner. We have no fuel to run the automobile, and he did not want to have the horses hitched to the carriage, so he sent me."
"And you decided to visit the mines and take a look in that shed?" she led him.
He hung his head and then nodded. She wanted to smile but did not. "Is that good enough, Reichskommander?" she asked, knowing that, for his own reasons, her audience was eager to believe the boy's story.
"Yes, Fraulein." Grube went to the door and ordered, "Come and release the boy. Return him to the castle." After the guard entered and set to work, the commander told the boy, "You are very lucky we investigated and discovered the truth. Be sure to tell Count Pitesti that. And tell him I will join him for dinner."
Rubbing his hands, now free, the boy surprised Janice. "The Count said to bring anyone who is visiting you."
Grube hesitated, then recovered. "Yes, I have two guests. Tell the Count."
The boy nodded and accompanied the guard to the door.
Continued in Chapter 7