A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery - Book 1
|Publisher:||Bella Rosa Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
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A World War II Novel of Suspense
By Sarah R. Shaber
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2011 Sarah Shaber
All rights reserved.
June 26, 1942
'Two Trees', a boarding house
I slept naked last night, like everyone else in this city. But despite lying flat out on my bed in my birthday suit with the fan blowing straight on me, I couldn't cool off enough to fall asleep.
The heat wasn't the only thing keeping me from my rest. The Top Secret document I'd locked in the office safe before I'd left work worried me to the point that I'd been fretting about it all evening and into the night. Before I'd slid the document onto the shelf inside the safe, I'd noticed the surname on the memorandum subject line: Bloch. My stomach seized and a shiver of apprehension scurried down my spine. It couldn't be Rachel's family, could it? Bloch was a common French surname, there must be thousands of families named Bloch trapped in France.
I managed to banish my worries for Rachel until morning, telling myself I could do nothing until I got to work. But around two in the morning I realized that without relief from the smothering heat I might well be awake all night.
Finally I got out of the bed, slipped a cotton housecoat over my sticky body, pulled the top sheet off the bed, went into the bathroom, opened the bathtub tap, and soaked the sheet in the tub. I wrung out the sheet until it stopped dripping, carried it back to my bedroom, and stretched it between the tall bedposts at the foot of my bed, tying the corners to the bedpost caps so that the sheet hung its full wet length down to the floor. I turned the fan on high, trained it directly on the sheet and stretched out on my bed. Cool air brushed my body, drying my skin. For a few minutes I listened to fat June bugs popping and buzzing against my window screens and the rhythmic clicking of a loose fan blade, until, blessedly, I fell asleep.
The morning queue at the bus stop was so long I figured I had no hope of catching a bus anytime soon. So I walked the ten blocks from my boarding house on 'I' Street to the agency's headquarters in Foggy Bottom. I shaded my eyes from the harsh glare with a straw fedora and my first pair of prescription sunglasses, and soaked three handkerchiefs sopping up perspiration from my neck and any other part of my body I could reach without exposing myself.
The security officer at the front entrance to my building stopped me at the door. He was an army private who compulsively shrugged every few minutes to resettle his rifle on his shoulder, as if he wasn't comfortable with it yet. Private Cooper knew me well by now, but he still squinted at my ID badge. Satisfied that I was the same person I'd always been, the soldier opened the door to the anonymous building, a converted apartment house at the corner of 23rd and 'E' Street without a sign or a street number, and nodded at me to enter.
'Good morning, Mrs Pearlie,' he said. As he did nearly every day, he looked down at my feet, sensibly shod in cotton anklets and canvas shoes, and said, 'I know it's hot, but I wish you girls would start wearing stockings and heels again.'
I didn't respond. I'd decided a long time ago that it was best not to say out loud much of what crossed my mind. I could think what I liked, though, and I thought the guard would wait a long time before he'd catch me wearing stockings in one-hundred-degree heat ever again.
I was here to work, not be whistlebait for teenaged GIs.
The heavy wood doors that opened off the hall of the old apartment building weren't identified or even numbered. The first one on the right led to my office, which I'd worked in alone for the last few days, since the three girls who clerked for me got food poisoning at a USO picnic last Sunday. Doing their jobs as well as my own was exhausting, though it was a relief to have some respite from the incessant clatter of typewriters and mimeographs.
I switched both floor fans on low, to keep the breeze from blowing papers everywhere, and raised the shades in what was once the living room of a two-bedroom apartment, now crowded with four desks, banks of index-card file cabinets, and a massive Yale floor safe.
I went straight to the safe, entered the combination, twirled the dial and used both hands to haul open the heavy door. Top Secret files and papers crowded it. I extracted a thin file off one shelf and shut the safe door behind me. The lock engaged with a solid click.
As the only clerk in the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services with a Top Secret clearance, all documents referred from General Donovan's office came directly to me, stamped 'your eyes only' in red. Oh so secret, and oh so silly, as the pundits editorializing in the Republican newspapers often described our infant spy agency. I wished I could put those jerks to work in my office. I'd make them file index cards until their fingers bled!
The document I held had arrived at General Donovan's office from London OSS headquarters by way of a creased leather diplomatic pouch, but the message originated with an intelligence operative in Marseille, deep inside Vichy France.
The original French message was scrawled on a fragment of brown waxed paper, the kind a village charcuterie might use to wrap up a housewife's breakfast bacon. A typed translation, single-spaced to conserve paper, was clipped to the original. The message read: 'Met with Gerald Bloch, of the Marseille Hydrography Office, expert on the coastline of French North Africa, free to work with the Resistance if OSS evacuates his family to safety.' That was all. A memo from General Donovan's aides directed us to forward the file and any information about Bloch we could find to the Europe/Africa desk for further study.
Gerald Bloch. My dearest friend in the world, Rachel Foa, had married a Gerald Bloch after she and her father, an officer of the New York branch of a French bank, returned home to Marseille in 1933. I'd last heard from Rachel in the summer of 1940, when France fell to the Nazis. She wrote to tell me that her father had died of heart failure after the Nazis occupied Paris and seized his apartment and his bank accounts. She reassured me that she was safe in Marseille, but I was desperately worried about her.
The Nazis occupied half of France, including Paris. But France was supposedly free and independent with a president, Marshal Pétain, and an administrative center in Vichy. For political and diplomatic reasons it suited the Germans to allow a puppet French state to exist, for now, anyway.
I'd known Rachel was Jewish before I met her, since the Dean of St Martha's, the junior college we attended, wrote and asked me if I had any objection to rooming with a French Jewish girl. Of course I didn't. I felt so blessed to go to college, especially during the depression, I would have roomed with a Hottentot. As it happened the only thing about Rachel that appeared remotely Jewish to me was that she didn't eat bacon on Saturday and played mah-jongg obsessively.
Could the Gerald Bloch of this file be Rachel's husband? Surely it was a coincidence. I forced myself to stay calm and read the file as if the name Bloch meant nothing to me.
This Bloch must be Jewish, too, or he wouldn't be trading his expertise for his family's escape from Vichy France. And French North Africa would soon be the target of a massive Allied campaign, the first offensive in the Mediterranean theater since the United States entered the war six months ago. I'd even overheard its code name, Torch, whispered in the women's restroom. Outside OSS all us typists and secretaries and file clerks kept the nature of our work to ourselves or risked being shot. Inside we gossiped shamelessly. Besides, most of the scholar spies from the Europe/Africa desk had been camped out at the Library of Congress for the past few weeks, feverishly writing reports about Tunisian railway track gauges and Algerian tribal cultures. I'd have to be blind and deaf not to realize the Allies were preparing to invade French North Africa through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, to join forces with the British Eighth Army, already battling Rommel in Egypt and Libya.
I pictured Monsieur Bloch desperately bartering his expertise for his family's safety, and it made my eyes sting. If I remembered the conversation at yesterday's coffee break correctly, he didn't have much time to close the deal. Internment of refugees and Jews had begun in Paris and the rest of Nazi-occupied France. How long before Vichy France followed Paris's example?
I knew Rachel's husband was a scientist, but the letters that Rachel sent me were one page, thin, almost transparent sheets folded in half and sealed, to save postage, and there wasn't much space for her to elaborate on her husband's work beyond using the French word to describe it, a word I hadn't bothered to translate. She wrote more about her baby son Claude, the view of the Old Port from her apartment balcony, and the diminishing supply of butter and cheese in the local shops. But her family had been French citizens for generations, and since she lived in unoccupied Marseille, in Vichy France, that meant she was safe, didn't it?
Donald Murray rapped on my open door, interrupting my brooding, and I turned my attention to my work. Don was one of those perfectly nice people who make you cringe without knowing why. I think perhaps his slight Boston accent seemed snobbish to me, although many of the people I'd met and liked had heavier Yankee accents than his. A thirtyish economist from Yale, he wore the summer civilian uniform of male Washington bureaucrats, khaki trousers, short-sleeved white cotton shirt, and white wingtips. He wasn't bad looking by any means. He was slender, with blue eyes and light-brown hair. He wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses with rims the same shade as his hair and affected a military-style crew cut, as did most of the young men in Washington who didn't want to look like slackers. Betty, one of my junior clerks, was sure Don had a crush on me, and that the 'third' after his name meant he had money. She kept telling me I could do worse, but the way he hung around my office irritated me. On a slow day a few months ago I read one of his journal articles on file in the office. Then I understood why economics was called the dismal science.
'I need the London telephone book,' he said.
'Come on in,' I said to him.
I went to the safe, spun the dial, blocking it from Don's view with my body, and opened the heavy door again. I retrieved the telephone book and plunked it on the library table in the middle of the room and shoved the safe door closed again.
'Please,' Don said. 'Let me take it to my office.'
'Sorry,' I said. 'You know the rules. I can't let it leave this room.'
'You know I'll bring it back.'
'Stop grumbling. You know how scarce the London phone book is. If this one goes missing, we might not be able to replace it. We'll have to ask the London office for phone numbers by way of diplomatic pouch.'
Don sat down at the work table and went through the familiar ritual of lighting his pipe, knocking old ash into an ashtray, filling the bowl with fresh Captain Black, tamping it down, drawing his first mouthful of smoke and exhaling it slowly. He settled the pipe in a corner of his mouth and opened the telephone book.
I pushed the library ladder over to the 'B' index card stack and climbed to the top rung, keeping my skirt tucked close to my body. At work I wore a khaki dress with narrow lapels and no pockets, thanks to fabric shortages, hemmed at the knee. I'd heard rumors we'd be allowed to wear trousers to work soon, thank God. I already owned two new pairs I'd bought at J.C. Penney. I was used to trousers, since I wore overalls while working at my family's fish camp, but I'd met girls here who'd never owned a pair in their lives.
My office contained a minute fraction of the acres of index files that filled entire buildings in Washington. Even so, small square wooden file drawers, holding thousands of five-by-eight index cards, climbed the ten-foot walls of my office to the ceiling, blanketing every vertical surface of the stripped kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms.
The powers that be had left us the toilet and bathroom sink, a deference to our sex that I appreciated.
Sure enough, one Gerald Bloch, a hydrographer, had an index card in our files. This meant we had a subject file on him somewhere in the building. This wasn't as unlikely as it seemed. After the war began, my branch of OSS, Research and Analysis, asked every academic in the country to send us information on experts they knew, including foreigners, who might be helpful to the war effort. Later we collected even more names from the foreign publications our agents bought in neutral capitals like Stockholm and Lisbon. OSS had rooms full of file clerks to stow away the stacks of paper that found their way to the agency.
I paused at the door, on my way to the 'B' main file, and looked back at Don. He didn't even remove his pipe from his mouth. He tapped the phone book with his pencil.
'I'll guard it with my life,' he said.CHAPTER 2
Three floors up, in yet another gutted apartment, I pulled Gerald Bloch's dossier out of a file cabinet. The Manila jacket contained few papers, and I flipped through them quickly, until I saw a Bloch listed on the program for an international hydrography conference held in 1936. Must be the same man. How many French hydrographers named Bloch could there be in the world, and what was hydrography, anyway?
Back in my office I'd barely settled down to read the Bloch file when Don closed the London phone book with a final slap. After giving it back to me he took the pipe out of his mouth and leaned back in his chair.
'Louise,' he said, 'I was wondering. There's a cocktail party at Evalyn McLean's next week. I can get us in. Want to go?'
'Gosh, Don, I don't own a dress I could wear to a party like that.' Maybe Betty was right. Don must have social connections, and money, if he could wangle an invitation to Friendship House. I wanted to go, just for the fun of it. But that might encourage him, and I didn't want that, though I was supposed to be finding my second husband. My parents made that clear barely three months after Bill died.
'Girls wear anything to parties now,' Don said, 'even Red Cross uniforms.'
'I'll get back to you,' I said. 'Depends on work – whether my girls are back from sick leave.'
I'd be thrilled to go to one of Evalyn McLean's parties. All the rich, famous and important people in town went to her soirées. I read all about them in the society columns. Last week Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini were in town and went to Evalyn McLean's and then on to three more parties in one night. Of course I'd met lots of celebrities already. John Ford directed our Field Photography Unit, and I once saw Sterling Hayden in the cafeteria, eating chipped beef on toast just like the rest of us.
After Don left and I'd returned the London phone book to the safe I sat down with the dictionary and the Bloch file. I had some privacy even when my clerks were in the office. My desk, as befitted my title, which entitled me to one hundred and eighty dollars a year more than my subordinates, sat apart from the others behind a partition knocked together from two-by-fours and plywood. I could even lock my desk drawers. When the desks were delivered to this room, government workmen pried out the locks on the others.
Hydrography was the science of charting the oceans, I learned. Wet geography. Humor aside, I figured that hydrography would be critical to winning a world war that was fought on the sea as well as on land and in the air.
Bloch's file contained a letter from an instructor in the geography department at George Washington University, one Marvin Metcalfe, who'd met Bloch at that international conference in 1936, and thought he fit the OSS description of a 'foreign expert'. He'd enclosed the program from the conference, which listed Bloch as a speaker.
That wasn't all. The file contained a photostat of a letter from Bloch dated in May of 1940, as the Germans advanced on Paris, to the American consulate in Marseille. My French, and his handwriting, wasn't good enough for me to translate it, but I did recognize the words émigrer and demande de visa. Bloch had been trying to escape France for some time. The final document in the file was an article from a Marseille newspaper, probably clipped by an OSS employee at the Bern office combing old French newspapers. The piece was brief and in French, of course. I gathered that Bloch received some sort of award. A photograph accompanied it.
Bloch was a slender, fair man with a thin mustache. His wife, holding their baby son, stood next to him proudly. I felt my chest contract and my stomach roil. Bloch's wife was Rachel.
Waves of heat washed over me; darkness, pierced by flashes of light, dropped like a curtain over my vision. I just barely made it into the bathroom before I slid to the floor.
I revived to find myself stretched out full length on the cool tiles. For the first time in my life I'd fainted. I grasped the edge of the toilet bowl and pulled myself to a seating position leaning against the wall. After the room stopped tilting I was able to stand and brace myself on the sink. I soaked a handful of towels and sponged my neck, and opened my blouse and cooled myself under my arms and neck.
Excerpted from Louise's War by Sarah R. Shaber. Copyright © 2011 Sarah Shaber. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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