Previous Episodes: Prologue | 1. Company | 2. What Next? | 3. The Man Next To You | 4. I Will Kill You | 5. D-Day | 6. Premonition | 7. Dante’s Inferno | 8. Julienne | 9. Suspended Animation | 10. Survival | 11. Questions
Episode Twelve – Hearsay
10.00 A.M., 9th July 1944
The Headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (The Counter-intelligence division of the SS)
84 Avenue Foch, Paris, France.
“How’s the search for the trio going?” Obersturmbahnführer Friedrich Heinz barked, storming into the room with little regard for the fragility of the door he slammed behind him. When nobody answered the question immediately, hoping that somebody else would, he picked up a lanky German close to him, held him by his collar and repeated the question – his face inches away from the poor kid’s.
“I’ll answer that, Obersturmbahnführer.” Sebastian Wolffe volunteered, putting on a brave face.
Letting go of the lanky German, Heinz looked suspiciously at Wolffe. He walked towards the latter and in the meantime, the rest of Section IV resumed their work- acting like nothing had happened. They were used to Friedrich Heinz and his moods. It still terrified most employees, but they had learnt to recover fast from it.
“At least someone’s got the balls in here to speak up.” He said, patting Wolffe on his shoulder and motioning him to follow- something Wolffe was both obligated and happy to do. After all, he had good news.
They stopped in one corner of the room, secluded from the rest of the employees at the SS’s Counter-Intelligence wing. They were next to a window which looked down upon the Avenue Foch. The street was deserted since the Wehrmacht parade had finished.
“So what have you got?” Heinz asked.
“Okay. So, we’ve got a report for today with inputs from both within France and from Germany and Belgium.”
“Alright. Start from wherever you want. Tell me everything.”
“Okay. We’ll start with Antwerp. An SS unit there arrested Rudolf, the husband of the Frenchwoman Julienne Beausejour. He’s being transported to the Fresnes prison from there as we speak. Our orders, according to Standardtenführer Helmut Knochen as of this morning, are to interrogate him ‘however we see fit’ for a maximum period of three days before we transport him to Ravensbrück along with the other prisoners. He doesn’t expect the husband to know much- considering she operated as a Resistance agent right under his nose.”
“Fair point, that is. He’s probably one of the biggest idiots I have known. How he got to work for the Abwehr, I will never know.” Heinz remarked.
Pausing to allow for his superior’s observations, Wolffe continued, “From Germany- our Leipzig offices to be specific, we have got word that the German’s family- the Morsteins- have been summarily shot for treason. Our offices in Hamburg and Dresden have also arrested his two cousins and their families and they will be executed tomorrow morning. He has two more uncles in Vienna and Berlin but he wasn’t known to be close to them so they’re just being kept under surveillance. And finally, he has a cousin who serves in the Wehrmacht also- he’s stationed in Amsterdam. Again, he wasn’t very close to this fellow. So, like the two uncles, he’s under close watch but in all likelihood, no action will be taken against them.”
“That’s alright. But I don’t see the good news yet.”
“That’s from France,” Wolffe smiled as he said it, “we think we know where the three of them- Morstein, Beaurechard and the American are hiding.”
10.30 A.M., 9th July 1944
The Resistance Safe House, Sarceaux, France.
Julienne barely slept the night before- she didn’t know why. She had been trading in espionage for the best part of the last four years and she was- in her estimation- one of the better ones at the job. Yet, she had never experienced sleeplessness before. Blessed with intellect, good looks and a survival instinct second to none, she had manipulated, manoeuvred and made her way through treacherous waters. And now, here she was, the finish line in sight. All she wanted to do was to cross that and start a new life- just like her country.
Just like that, I’m a true Frenchwoman again. She thought to herself. At that point, something that James had asked her the previous day came back to her.
“It’s just that easy for you, isn’t it?” his voice echoed in her mind.
He doesn’t know what it’s like. Her mind told her.
“What are you thinking so deeply about?” James’ voice woke her up from her reverie.
“Nothing.” She replied, initially startled but quickly regaining her self-control.
“I don’t want to play this game again.” He said, turning into a more comfortable position as he lay on the ground.
“I persist asking about ‘nothing’ and you snap. No ma’am, I don’t want any part of that.” He said with his eyes closed.
She allowed herself a smile but said nothing, looking away from him and staring down at her own finger nails.
“You’re thinking about yesterday aren’t you?” he asked anyway. She looked at him and found James staring directly at her.
“The meeting isn’t worth that much of my time.” She responded evasively.
“You’re not thinking of the meeting. That’s your job- you don’t usually think too much about it. You’ve gotten so used to being a double agent, espionage runs in your veins. It’s part of you now. You use instinct to spy- not intellect anymore. You’re thinking of something else.”
“You think you know me so well, Américain.” She said, half-amused.
“You’d be surprised.” He replied, a twinkle in his eye.
“Okay then, tell me, Monsieur l’Américain, what am I thinking about?”
“I’m going to take a wild guess and say you were thinking about what I asked you yesterday morning when you were going on your date.”
Julienne chuckled and shook her head.
“So you knew what I was talking about yesterday?”
“Of course I knew that. I’m not an idiot.” She replied.
“Well, you’re not getting any arguments from me on that count.”
“Anyway,” she went on, “like I said, I knew what you meant. I just chose not to respond to it.”
“Because you’re ashamed of what you did?”
“Because you wouldn’t understand.”
“Understand what it feels like to live a life of fear.”
“A life of fear? Bullshit! You’re just changing sides because we’re winning. If it wasn’t for Britain, Russia and Normandy, you’d be handing me over to the Germans right now!” he started shouting at her. Why, he didn’t know.
“And this whole witch-hunt the Germans have on us is just a convenient excuse for you,” James went on, “to change sides without raising suspicion from our men. I can’t raise a voice because it would look stupid if I said that the woman who brought me back home is a fucking Nazi. And the actual fucking Nazi cannot say a thing against you because let’s face it, he needs to get out of this place and stay alive and will do whatever it takes to accomplish that.”
“You’re right in saying that I am changing sides,” she conceded, her voice still even and calm despite James’ outburst, “but it’s not because one side is winning the war. Winning and losing is for politicians and generals, Américain. It’s not for common people like me. For me, victory is not the fall of Berlin or Moscow or London. For me, victory in a war will come when I see that the sky’s red colour belongs to the sunrise and not to a burning building. Victory in war is when I hear a child crying and the first thing I think of is that the child hurt himself playing on the street, and not feeling sorry for him that he found his dead mother’s body.”
“For you,” she was still calm and her voice maintained its even tone, but she seemed fired up nonetheless- James thought it was her eyes-, “victory in the war is about raising an American flag in Berlin or Tokyo. My aims are far more grounded. Victory in this satanic, no-holds barred, all guns blazing, apocalyptic world to me means seeing a better tomorrow. And, Corporal James Kirby, I intend to do whatever I have to, in order to see as many better tomorrows as I can. And if you think that means switching sides when the odds have changed, then so be it- because I don’t care what you think.”
She took a few deep breaths and neither spoke for a while. Then she said, her voice turning into a whisper, “You’re lucky, Corporal. You believe in what you fight for. Your country gave you reason to believe in her and all that she stands for. Mine gave me none- be it my dad’s Jewish employer, Pierre’s death or France’s weakness when she needed to be at her bravest. When the Nazis buried the tricolore from the Eiffel Tower into the annals of oblivion, the post-office girl from St. Lȏ buried herself with it. And when they raised the swastika, a new woman was born- somebody whom my soul didn’t recognise but has worn as a mask ever since- a means to the simple end of survival- of seeing a tomorrow.”
“You don’t regret it then?” he asked, his voice much calmer than before.
“I’ve lived for four years as that woman, haven’t I?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“You wouldn’t understand my answer.”
Noon, 9th July 1944
The Headquarters of the Sicherheitsdienst (The Counter-intelligence division of the SS)
84 Avenue Foch, Paris, France.
“You’re sure about this?” Friedrich Heinz asked again, the fifth time by Wolffe’s estimates.
“Absolutely.” Wolffe responded, showing no signs of frustration in answering that question for a fifth time.
They were waiting patiently for a man who had told them to call him as soon as the SS got any information on the whereabouts of The Trio- as the escaped German, American and Frenchwoman had come to be known.
“So have you ever met this man, this Oberleutnant Thomas Streichel?” Wolffe asked. He was genuinely curious. He had only heard about Streichel from a few friends of his in the Army but he had never actually seen or met the man.
“I met him once in Italy- Turin, to be precise. He was part of a group from North Africa and I was sent there from Berlin. Our job was to figure out how best we could co-ordinate our efforts with Mussolini and his men in Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Saharan areas. We didn’t talk much. I was a lower level officer then with the SS and he was there with the Wehrmacht as an aide of some sort.”
“Did he make an impression on you at the time?”
“Not particularly. He seemed unremarkable but he did go on to have a great war.”
Wolffe couldn’t disagree. Anyone within arm’s length of a television set in Germany knew of Streichel and his famous four-day stand. Having been cut off from the rest of his unit by British troops who heavily outnumbered them, Streichel and a group of thirty men were holed up in a hidden bunker in Tobruk, Libya. Despite multiple attempts by the British to capture them, Streichel and his men held out for four days with limited ammunition, next-to-nothing food supplies and a constantly decreasing morale before a retreating German paratrooper division-who were also trapped- found them and together led a successful breakout attempt from the Libyan port. Twenty three of the thirty men with Streichel died over the four days but his story became an instant classic and an example for German bravery and commitment to the Reich- much like Monte Cassino would become later on.
Tobruk fell into British hands not long after that but Streichel’s career took off. He was called back to Berlin, felicitated personally by Adolf Hitler and promoted over many senior officers. To preserve the “national icon from Africa”, as Joseph Goebbels called him during a meeting with Hitler, he was made to be a part of the Wehrmacht teams administrating in Paris.
Streichel, however, hated his job. He wanted to be in the thick of the action, amidst the bullets, the gunfire, the bombs and the searing heat of war. He didn’t like sitting behind a desk doing mundane work. So when the chance arose for him to head a small task force whose sole aim was to find the Trio, he took it like a hungry dog to meat. His superiors wouldn’t let him fight the war in Normandy, so if this was the closest he was going to get, then this was the closest he was going to get. His own personal itch aside, Streichel also knew how important capturing the Trio was to the High Command. If he succeeded, it would put him in an elite league and should the time come, he would, he hoped, be called upon to defend Berlin.
Just then, one of the two attendants at the door opened it and announced in a loud monotony, “Herr Oberleutnant Thomas Streichel!”
Wolffe was struck by the crispness of the Wehrmacht officer when he entered the room. Every stride seemed to have a purpose and Wolffe, for a moment, caught Streichel’s eye surveying the room like it was a potential threat to him. He walked around the oval conference table in the middle of the room and greeted the two men with the customary Heil Hitler salute.
“So, I hear you have news.” He began, his voice trembling with excitement. Not since Tobruk had he been actively involved in the war. This was not a hundred percent but it was a start.
“Indeed, Oberleutnant.” Wolffe said.
“Well, let’s hear it then.” Streichel rubbed his hands together as he said it. Heinz got reminded of the opulent German aristocracy at a Parisian opera before the opening act for some reason.
“We have reason to believe that the German soldier- Klaus Morstein- is hidden in a town called Sarceaux in France.” Simultaneously, Heinz directed Streichel’s attention to a map on the conference table, where the town was marked with a big, red ‘X’.
“We also believe,” Wolffe continued, “that the Frenchwoman- Julienne Beaurechard- is with him and so is the American- whose name we do not know yet. One drawback is that we do not know exactly where within Sarceaux. But it is a small town so we should not have too many problems finding them.”
Streichel studied the map for a little while longer after Wolffe was finished. Occasionally, he would inhale deeply and twist his lips in a strange fashion- at which point both Heinz and Wolffe would look at each other, neither knowing what it meant. After what seemed like eternity, Streichel spoke up.
“You had an interesting choice of words. Why did you use the word ‘believe’ one too many times?”
“We haven’t confirmed it with our own eyes yet.” Heinz replied.
“Confirmed what? Their presence?” Streichel said, turning slowly to face Heinz.
“Yes, Oberleutnant. The information that we gave you, is from a Frenchman- a grocer who works in the town.”
“Can he be considered reliable?”
“I think he can, sir. Most of the French people we round up are based on other French people who hand them over to us.”
“Yes, I noticed that during my time here. I have to say, the things these people do for a loaf of bread is quite incredible. They’d give up their sons and daughters if they had to. It took me by surprise really.”
“True, Oberleutnant. But coming back to the issue, the grocer identified the woman. She was disguised according to him and walking with a slight limp- we assume she had an accident of some sort, but he is dead sure it is her.”
“What kind of disguise are we talking about?”
“Nothing major.” Wolffe said, “Just a haircut, extra lipstick and a few other accessories.”
“We also don’t know where in the town they are.” Heinz added.
“You mentioned that already, Obersturmbahnführer Heinz.” Streichel said curtly.
After a long pause, only disturbed in between by an SS officer shouting at a Parisian citizen who happened to venture near the heavily fortified buildings on Avenue Foch, Streichel spoke again and this time his voice was cold yet venomous.
“Transfer a couple of SS agents – who will report solely to me and nobody else – from Argentan to Sarceaux and try to find the woman and her two cronies. We will track their movements from here on out. If my calculations are right, they will either make a break for Spain or they will try to get to Normandy and the Allied lines. Whether or not they choose to go via Paris, I cannot say. And that is why we need to track them. If they get to Paris, we can nab them here. If they try to go to Spain, we can nab them anywhere from here to the Pyrenees. Are my instructions understood?”
“Yes sir.” Heinz and Wolffe replied in unision.
“Alright then. I’ll see you gentlemen around.”
Both the SS officers reflexively saluted him as he walked past them and exited the room, leaving an aura of awe in his place.
4.15 P.M., 9th July 1944
The Resistance Safe House, Sarceaux, France.
“She’s taking an awfully long time.” James remarked. It was two hours since Julienne left to meet the maquisards and there seemed to be no sign of her coming back.
“She did say it was going to take time.” Klaus replied.
The two men were sitting opposite to each other- Klaus on the couch and James on the chair. James wasn’t comfortable at all and his hands being tied made it harder for him to wriggle around and adjust himself.
“You should untie me you know?”
“And why is that?”
“You want to get to the Allies. And I want to get to the Allies too. I need you to get us past the German lines and you need me to get you past Allied lines. And we both need her because we’re doing it in the middle of a country whose language neither you nor I can speak a word of. So, there’s no motive for me to kill you or to run.”
“Moreover,” James continued, “I am your best hope for survival once you do cross Allied lines. I vouching for you will go a long way in ensuring your survival.”
“When the time comes, I will untie you. Don’t you worry about that.”
They stayed silent for some time before Klaus suddenly got reminded of something and spoke up.
“Jules said she’ll try to pick up some new clothes and stuff from here. We can’t stay around in our uniforms forever and I can’t hide you in a trunk every time we hit the road.”
James nodded his head in passive reception of the information.
“We have to change our appearances a bit too, according to her. We’d be recognised by any Gestapo, SS or Wehrmacht soldier right now no matter where we go.”
Again, James responded with a passive nod. He was about to ask if Klaus knew any specifics about the kind of changes Julienne had spoken about when the lady herself walked in, barging through the door like a bull which had found the exit door at a bullfighting ring. Without looking up, she threw one of the two bags she carried at Klaus and the other at James- something which struck the latter squarely in the face.
“Jesus!” James shouted.
“Yeah whatever.” She took out a pocket knife from her handbag and swiftly cut the duct tape which was tying James’ hand.
“Why’re you in such a hurry? And how did the meeting go?” Klaus asked, simultaneously opening his bag
“The meeting was alright. I’ll fill you in on the way. But the far more important thing is that you guys change and we get the hell out of here as fast as we can. Rumour has it that the Germans in Argentan are on high alert.” She seemed a little fidgety and on edge.
James and Klaus both stopped in their tracks and looked at Julienne.
“You mean they’re onto us?” James asked.
“There’s no other explanation. We got word from the FTP down there that something was fishy- that the Germans weren’t acting normal.”
James resumed rummaging through his bag to see his newfound supplies- which included a gun- but his mind was distracted. The possibility of being captured- again, in his case- had just become a wholly distinct possibility.
“Okay,” Klaus said, in between changing into a new shirt, “at least tell me where we’re going.”
“Paris.” Came the stoic reply.