A Common Enemy – Episode Fourteen

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 | 12. Hearsay | 13. In Dependence

Episode Fourteen – Nach Paris

February 1946

The Pennington Residence, Near Austin, Texas.

James could see the house in the distance as he drove along the dusty road. It was the only house in the neighbourhood for as far as he could see. He didn’t have to struggle much to get to the address. It was exactly where the Army officials had told him it would be. It had taken him about five days, along with a detour to Charlotte, to travel from Miami to Austin. Behind him, his car left a continually fading trail of dust as it snaked its way through. He was not five minutes out of the town of Austin when he was hit with the contrast between a fairly well developed area and its outskirts.

Driving his car up the gentle upward slope, he tried to think about what he was going to say. And unsurprisingly, he came up empty. What was he going to begin the conversation by saying? Forget going further beyond that. That very question stumped him. As he pulled up near the gate, he stopped the car and sat inside with his eyes closed, taking deep breaths.

As he opened his eyes, he caught a glimpse of a girl closing the curtains of the window facing him. Thinking that it must be Mary, the little Pennington girl, he got out of his car and walked slowly to the house, each step being measured and deliberate. He was about to knock when the door opened on its own. In front of him was a woman, about five feet seven inches in height. She had blonde hair, neatly tied in a ponytail at the back of her head. She was dressed in casual clothes that one wore at home with an apron that nobody really wanted to show outsiders.

“Good morning ma’am.” James finally managed, after a few seconds of awkward silence.

“Good morning.” She replied, in a heavy Texan accent.

 “I’m Captain James Kirby. We spoke on the phone.”

“Yes, yes. I’m Louisa. Please,” she said, recognising the person in front of her, “come in.”

James followed Louisa into the small living room. She sat on a cushioned chair near the fireplace and he took his place on the couch arranged at right angles to it. On the wall above the fireplace, he saw a lot of pictures framed. It was hard to miss- there were just too many of them. Most of them were of the child, Mary, going through normal childhood. There were a few of Michael and Louisa from their wedding day.

James felt queasy looking at Michael. It had been so long since Pennington had been killed that he had forgotten his face. On the ride here, he had tried very hard to remember Michael and every time he did, he drew a blank.

“Those were the only good pictures we ever took as a couple.” Louisa said, looking at James and seeing that his attentions were directed in that direction. James turned and looked at Louisa quizzically.

“He thought he didn’t have a photogenic face.” She said, chuckling wryly. James managed a smile.

When a few sufficient seconds had passed, he asked, “When did you move to Austin?”

“A couple of months ago- soon after the war ended. My sister had to move to Chicago and I moved here from San Antonio to take care of our land.”

“So, all this property is yours?”

“Yes.”

Another few seconds of uneasy quiet passed before Louisa suddenly exclaimed, “How rude of me! Would you like to have some coffee or tea?”

“No, ma’am, thank you. That’s very kind.” James said.

Finally out of small talk, Louisa asked, in a voice much lower than before, “You worked with Mike?”

“I did. I was his commanding officer early on in Europe.” James said.

“So you knew him well?”

“Pretty well, yes.” James replied.

“How did he go?” she asked, quietly.

James wasn’t sure how to respond to this. As much as the Army had trained him, they hadn’t trained him for this. So he began with a generic statement. “Michael was a brave man. He was one of the best soldiers I could ask for.”

“Don’t avoid the question. It only makes it worse.” She said, her eyes welling up.

“He was shot.” James said, trying to both distance himself from it and put it as humanely as possible. However it turned out, he did know one thing- a weight had been lifted off his chest. And as soon as he said it, the tears began to flow gently down her freckled face. He hadn’t noticed them before James now saw that she had dark patches around her eyes too.

“Were you,” she paused, “were you with him when it happened?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He said quietly. He was going to give her as much time as he could to process it. He couldn’t empathise with her. He didn’t know what it felt like to lose your spouse. All he could give her now was sympathy and from what he’d heard, nobody liked sympathy.

Her voice cracked as she spoke the next sentence but she didn’t seem to mind. “Did you get the bastards that did this?”

James nodded in the affirmative. He didn’t know what he was supposed to say. The guys who got Pennington were also the guys who captured him alive. Of course, he could assume that someone else killed them later on. And in all likelihood, that was true. But there was also the chance that they were alive- maybe they even survived the entirety of the war. Obviously, he couldn’t tell Louisa that. So he just told her a lie. Sometimes, lying to protect something or someone was better than telling the truth. He’d always believed that.

“He also wanted to give you this.” James dug deep into his pocket and brought out the letter that Pennington had handed him in the plane. The paper was worn out, James noticed.

Louisa took the letter from him and opened it slowly, seemingly taking in every moment of the process. As she began reading it, the tears began flowing down her cheeks. The further through the letter she got, the more hysterical she became until by the end of the letter, she was crying uncontrollably. James was uncomfortable. On the one hand, he wanted to let her get through this herself and on the other; she looked like she could do with a helping hand. Eventually, following a short mental debate, he settled on the former.

After about a minute, Louisa too, settled- partially because she realised she was crying in front of a stranger. Hearing her mother cry, Mary had come from the other room and was standing meekly in the corner, wondering what this stranger could have done to make her cry.

“I’m sorry, Captain. It’s a lot to deal with.” She said, wiping her tears away.

“I’m sure it is, ma’am.”

“It brings a lot of memories back.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

His job done, James quickly stood up after that and went to the door to leave. One last time before he left, he turned back and said, “Ma’am, Michael was one of the best men I ever knew. And he loved you and Mary till his last breath. I know what I say now may just sound like mere words and mere consolation but I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am. I truly am.”

*****

10.30 P.M., 9th July 1944

An abandoned house in the outskirts of Dreux, France.

While the initial reaction from both Julienne and James to Klaus’ plan had been one that echoed the craziness that the idea was, they did warm up to it when Klaus explained the rewards of his high-risk, high-reward idea. And eventually, following some discussion about the technical details of execution, the three of them retired to different rooms in the house. James chose the master bedroom, Klaus the smaller bedroom and Julienne chose to stay in the small study.

James thought back a few days and wondered why he wanted to escape from Sarceaux on his own. It was an impulsive decision. He figured it was borne out of the fact that he was being held as a prisoner. Nobody liked being a prisoner- whether of his own self or of someone else. It was a good thing that his plan to walk out didn’t pan out. For starters, he had no idea how and what the Allied invasion forces were doing. More importantly, he didn’t know French and he would have to negotiate the German-infested country in order to get to Allied lines. The odds of surviving all that were slim. At the time, of course, all these things came to his mind. He chose just to ignore them. He would cross those bridges when he had to was his line of thinking then.

Things had moved and wheels had turned since then. He was no more a prisoner and to some extent, whether or not Klaus and Julienne trusted him, they realised that they needed James to get through to the Allies. James was no more a pawn in this game of chess. He wasn’t the king or the queen but he felt that he was equivalent to a rook- powerful but not invincible. Then again, which piece in chess was invincible?

Feeling bored, James stood up and walked to the study where, as expected, Julienne was still up. Seeing him come in, she smiled and made place for him on the small couch that she was sitting on. The room was dimly illuminated by a solitary lamp on the table. The windows were shut and the curtains drawn so that nobody outside had any idea that there were new inhabitants in this house.

“Hey.” James started the conversation. He didn’t really know how to go forward beyond that.

She smiled again.

“You nervous?” he asked.

“I am going to be alone in this house for a few hours in the middle of the night where if the Germans find me, they are going to rip me to sunder. You tell me.”

James smiled understandingly.

“Don’t worry about it.” He tried to say, despite knowing deep down that it was useless. Julienne knew that too but she did appreciate what he was trying to do.

“We’ll be back before you know.” He said after a brief pause.

“I hope so.” She said, “Don’t you have any pre-mission routines? Klaus is sleeping over there. He says it keeps his mind fresh.”

“I don’t have much of a routine. Usually, the day of the mission, I’d check my weapons, my canteen, my backpack and so on. But I didn’t have any specific things to do or prayers to say or things like that. I used to know people who did stuff like that but I wasn’t one of them.”

“Used to know people?”

“They died.” James said, sans emotion

“They? So there was more than one person?”

“Eighteen.”

“You remember the exact number?” she asked, a little surprised.

“It’s hard to forget the guys you fought with or the guys who fought under you.”

“How does it feel?” Julienne asked quietly.

“It doesn’t hit you then. It hits you later, when you’re quiet. When you turn around, wanting a cigarette to ease the tremors on your arms and you see he’s not there. That’s when it hits you. When you’re trying to think of something to pass time, this is what your mind pulls out from its repertoire of memories.” His voice was a lifeless shade of black as he spoke. Julienne, at this point, knew better than to interrupt.

“I felt it for the first time this year in January. Our mission was in the Netherlands- it was to blow up a communications centre about fifty miles away from Amsterdam and then get extracted. The whole thing was supposed to take only forty five minutes. Anyway, long story short, things got messy. The Germans were better prepared than we thought. And before we knew it, we were fighting floor to floor and room to room in the building. It was deadly. I’ve never seen anything like it since, nor have I been a part of anything like it since.”

When he stayed silent after this for a prolonged period, Julienne prodded him along with a whisper, “What happened?”

“I’m tasked with clearing rooms on the first floor of the building- with a guy named Adrian Lowell. He’s a college kid- just like me- from Brooklyn. And we’d been together since basic training, so we knew each other very well.”

“Best friends?”

“You could say that. I had other friends in the Army but he was the one who was with me- by circumstance, at least – for the longest time. Anyway, we’ve cleared two rooms and we enter the third one- using a smoke screen and everything- when he gets knifed by a German at close range. Of course, I immediately take out the German but the damage was done. Adrian is down on the ground and he’s bleeding his life out, literally. The German, knowingly or unknowingly, got his carotid. I tried putting pressure on it, trying to keep the blood inside and hoping by some miracle that he makes it. But it was of no use. He passed away within two minutes.”

“While he was dying though, he had this look. I’ll never forget it. His pupils were dilating, his eyes were tearing up and there was blood- lots of it. It was spurting out all over the place. But despite all that, it was the look that stuck to me. It was like he was being cornered by this invisible spectre- a macabre ghost of death. He wanted so desperately to stay alive, but he knew he couldn’t. He tried to open his mouth and speak, say something but all he managed to do was make a few rasping noises before he was fighting for every last ounce of oxygen. I tried telling him that it’ll be okay and that he was going to get help but both of us knew I was lying.”

“All your life, you prepare to kill your enemy but nobody teaches you how to deal with death- be it your own or that of somebody you care about. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” Julienne said quietly.

“Of course, life moves on after that- seconds after that even. Eventually we managed to take intelligence from that place, wreck the system there and come back home. And after that there were other missions, a promotion from Private to Corporal and then leading a few missions myself but through all this, it’s these eighteen men whom I will never forget. I’ll never forget their faces, the fear in some, the eagerness in others, the burden writ on their foreheads- I’ll never forget all that. And who knows? By the end of the war, the number might well be so much more than eighteen.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I think death is a mercy in times like these. The real victims of war are those who survive the war, having seen their friends and family die before them and have to live with it for the rest of their lives.”

They stayed silent for some more time. Julienne continued to look at James- who himself was staring at the lamp. She didn’t know what to think. Her mind was, for some unknown reason, numb. All it was doing was passively receiving information and processing it.

Five, maybe ten minutes passed in absolute silence before James exhaled deeply and then said, “You better sleep. There’s still some time to go before me and Klaus leave.”

*****

12.30 A.M., 10th July 1944

Dreux, France.

“I don’t get the point of this, you know?” James whispered as they lay prone behind an extensive cover of foliage.

“And why is that?” Klaus asked, disinterestedly as he tried to focus his binoculars on the Nazi outpost a kilometre away.

“I mean I do but I don’t at the same time. You get what I’m saying?”

“I get that you’re speaking in riddles but I don’t get the riddle itself.” Klaus responded.

“On the one hand,” James paused to shirk off an intrusive mosquito that had landed on his grease covered face, “I get that we need a new Wehrmacht uniform to pass off as the Wehrmacht.”

“But on the other hand?”

“I don’t think this is worth it. Surely, there’s got to be an easier way to get a uniform.”

“Our luck isn’t that good. There isn’t- not here anyway.”

“Fair point.”

“There’s one guard- it’s not the same guy who was here on the way in, going by his build. And he’s sleeping. There’s no one else around him for miles out. This should be easy.”

“What about toys?”

“What?”

“Weapons?” James asked, clarifying.

“A standard issue rifle. He’s not got it on him. It’s lying by the side. I’d probably also say he has a pistol on him.”

“Alright, so here’s the plan. We creep up there, silently and without waking anybody up. Then I take the man- hold him down, pin him to his chair, and you make him inhale the chloroform. That’s it right?”

“Sounds right. We’ll modify it as we go along if things start to change.”

James understood the meaning of the last sentence. The innocuous meaning aside, the truer sense of the sentence was that if things started to go south, pull the trigger and don’t look back. Not that James had any qualms killing a German.

*****

1.30 A.M., 10th July 1944

An abandoned house on the outskirts of Dreux, France.

Julienne sat alone with her thoughts and her pistol in the darkness. It had been one hour since the two men had gone and she had been nervous for every minute of it. A cold wind blew through the window into the room. Julienne reflexively closed her eyes and shuddered for a second in the sudden drop of temperature, her hands clasping the handle of her gun tighter than before. When it had passed, she opened her eyes and looked out the window again to make sure there was no movement that went unnoticed. A few seconds later, satisfied that nothing untoward was happening, she released the gun and let it drop softly onto the floor.

Where she was sitting, her face was partially illuminated by the moonlight. She could feel it’s minimal warmth on her face now that she focused on it. Taking out a small mirror from her handbag kept nearby, she looked at herself. She smiled to herself.

If I am going to die tonight, at least I’ll look beautiful doing it.

She thought back to before the war. She’d always pictured a night when she would just look at herself in the mirror, brightened by undiluted moonlight and say to herself that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. To be fair though, Julienne always imagined it would be the night before her wedding when she would try on a satin white wedding dress, put a little make-up on and pretend to be walking down the aisle with her father.

She did have a wedding but it was not like she’d imagined. She loved Rudy- of that there was no doubt- but part of her also felt incomplete when she was getting married.

Rudy. Whatever happened to him? She thought. There hadn’t been anything on the news. The only thing she knew for sure was that the Nazis would’ve arrested him. Maybe even shot him. It wasn’t anything new. She had seen it happen many times herself. The close relatives and spouses of people whom the Reich believed had been treacherous were subjected to the firing squad. If they found her, she was pretty sure she would be subject to the same thing. And that made her question herself.

Why did she collaborate in the first place? There were lot of women who didn’t collaborate with the Germans and somehow were still alive. She could’ve stayed neutral- like a lot of these said women. The Germans only hated the Jews and the Resistance. And as long as you were neither, they were going to leave you alone.

Mostly.

Of course, at the time, she justified her decision saying that was the only way to stay alive. She was living in uncertain times and collaborating with the Germans was a solid platform that was being offered to her as she walked on water. But now, looking back on it, Julienne felt profoundly disturbed. She realised now that she was a woman who had struggled, through most of her life, to find a place in society- an identity for herself. She joined the Resistance because she thought it was the right thing to do, and then she joined the Germans because she thought it was more important to stay alive. And now, when she was faced with defeat, she was changing sides once again. She thought back to the story that Klaus had told her- about the monkey. Some people would call that being selfish and opportunistic. Maybe before the war, if she’d heard a story like this, she would have said that it was being selfish and opportunistic. But now that she’d lived through it, she felt different. And she felt uneasy about it, like she was doing something she wasn’t supposed to and yet it felt like the right thing to do every stage of the way.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of leaves rustling just outside the window. Quickly picking up her gun and handbag, she tried to make as little noise as possible on her way to the kitchen. Leaving the door slightly ajar so that she had a decent view of it, she waited with bated breath for the front door to open. Gun still tightly held and trying to breathe carefully, as if her breaths were going to alert anybody to her presence, she watched.

Less than ten seconds later, the front door opened and in the darkness she saw two pairs of boots enter the room. Still crouched, she felt a little relieved when nobody else showed up. Nevertheless, she waited for the signal. And sure enough, when both men had ascertained that no one else had followed them and there was nothing in the house to worry about, one of them tapped the wooden flooring hard once and then followed it with three soft taps.

Emerging from her hiding place confident, Julienne was able to see only the silhouettes of James and Klaus. Seeing her walk in, they both turned and looked at her.

“How did it go?”

“We got the uniform.” James said

“And the guard?”

“He’ll say he was robbed of his uniform by two English-speaking Resistance agents whose faces were covered in grease.” Klaus said.

“We have to get to Paris as fast as we can though.” James said.

“I agree.” Julienne said.

“It’ll be better if we’re on our way hitchhiking to Paris by six in the morning. That should be the right time to meet some Wehrmacht patrols on their way there.” Klaus said.

“We’ll leave at five then.” Julienne said.

“That gives us three hours- give or take. Let’s get ready.” James said

“And this time, we have to do a better job of disguising ourselves. There are a lot of different things in the bag that the postman gave us.” Klaus said. They’d nearly been captured in Sarceaux and he didn’t like it. It had been too close for comfort last time.

For a moment after that, they all looked at each other. Even though none of the others knew it, each of them was thinking the same thing. The stakes and the rewards of this game that they were playing were getting bigger with every passing minute.

Finally, Klaus whispered, “Nach Paris.”

“Nach Paris.” The other two replied in unison.

*****

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