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 | 14. Nach Paris
Episode Fifteen – Poker
4.10 AM, 10th July 1944
An abandoned house on the outskirts of Dreux, France.
Julienne paused for a moment. She wanted to just take a deep breath. It wasn’t anything to do with reassurance. The air around her that morning was cold. And she liked cold morning air- it soothed her senses. Closing her eyes, she took her surroundings in with her other faculties. The two men- James and Klaus- were having a serious conversation in the living room. She couldn’t make out what it was- the volume was too low for her to hear anything. She didn’t want to either.
She leaned forward and took in another dose of the cool air-this time decorated with the fine odour of perfume. She was going to play the part of a collaborationist wife- a part she wasn’t particularly making her debut at. She had to smell the part too. Once she felt she was calmer than a few seconds before, she opened her eyes.
“Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed, startled when she saw in the mirror the image of James standing behind her.
“I thought you were talking with Klaus.” She said, turning back to him.
“I was talking to the Red Baron. Once that conversation finished, I came here.” He replied.
“I hate that name!” Klaus’ voice came in from the other room.
Both Julienne and James laughed a little and then paused. Julienne was looking down at her own feet, fidgeting with her hands. She could feel James looking at her. For a few seconds, neither spoke- both seemingly content with status quo.
Finally, Julienne turned back to face the mirror and said, “I should get ready.”
“Yeah. Sure.” James replied, suddenly whipped back into action, “You need me to help you with anything?”
“Not really. But thank you for offering.”
“Sure. Just let me know in case you do.”
Julienne smiled and James smiled back at her. Their mutual goodbye uttered in utter silence, he left the room.
5.30 A.M, 10th July 1944
“How far is Paris from here?” Klaus asked Julienne as they trudged along the side of the road.
“An hour or so by vehicle.” She replied.
“Where are your boys anyway?” James asked, “We’ve been walking a good half hour or so and there don’t seem to be any vehicles coming around.”
“They’ll come. It’s nearly time for them to switch guard in the morning.” Klaus said.
They were walking one behind the other- Klaus leading the way with James bringing up the rear end. The three of them had not slept in a while and it was taking its toll on their legs. James was especially not in the mood to hitchhike to Paris and Klaus wasn’t enthralled at the idea of walking all the way to Paris in a stolen Wehrmacht uniform.
Suddenly, in all seriousness, Klaus turned back and asked, “How’s your German?”
Momentarily caught unawares, James stumbled through the initial perfunctory monosyllabilic sounds before asking back, “Very good, actually. Why?”
“Do you have an accent?”
“My German’s clean. No accent.”
Klaus eyed him suspiciously for a moment before looking forward and continuing his slow, lethargic walk toward the French capital.
“I’m going to take you at your word for that. But your word better be good.”
“Oh it’ll be good alright.” James said, slightly irritated that his proficiency in German would be called into question.
“In any case,” Klaus continued, “let me do the talking. Don’t speak unless you’re asked to.”
“Ja, Meister!” James replied, mock saluting Klaus- although he was sure Klaus didn’t see him.
“I’m serious!” Klaus shouted at him
“I know. Relax, jeez.” James said.
“How’d you learn German anyway?” Julienne asked, intervening in the conversation.
“My grandfather spent some time in Germany at the turn of the century- he was an architect. He learnt it from there. I learnt it from him.”
In the midst of conversation, they hadn’t noticed the noise but once the headlights fell on them, the three hitchhikers ground to a halt. The vehicle was still some distance away, so the three waited. And in the meantime, Klaus again repeated what he said to James. But this time, he addressed both Julienne and James when he insisted on doing most of the talking. There was just enough time to confirm that all three knew their fake identities before the vehicle stopped near them.
From the window next to the driver’s seat, a man’s head, covered on top by a Wehrmacht helmet, popped out. The man in the helmet surveyed the three of them quickly from head to toe. James thought he lingered a little on Julienne. Seeing that Klaus was also wearing a Wehrmacht uniform, he spoke to Klaus in German while James was mentally translating everything to himself.
“You guys headed to Paris?” the man in the vehicle asked.
“We are, as a matter of fact.” Klaus responded, briefly taking a look at James and Julienne.
“These are your friends?”
“He’s my brother. She’s his wife. She’s French – doesn’t understand a word of German.”
The man in the vehicle examined the three of them closely one more time. They had disguised themselves well. Julienne had cut her hair even shorter- she now sported a boy cut, applied tonnes of make-up and was generally distinct from her usual self. James and Klaus, for their parts, had haircuts, shaved off their beards and made an effort to hide any scars with some of the make-up they borrowed from Julienne.
“What’s your name?” he asked Klaus.
“Adolf Freitner.” Klaus replied, without any pause.
“And them?” he pointed again at the two people in civilian clothing.
“My brother, Felix and his wife, Emilie.”
“Why do you want to go to Paris?” he directed the question at James.
Not hesitating, James took a glance at Julienne and then responded, “I think my wife is pregnant with our second child. We want to get it checked in Paris.”
Julienne had no idea what was going on since it was all in German. She was a little confused when the man in the vehicle asked James to speak but she didn’t betray any emotion in her face. She still looked on from one speaker to another, pretending to be interested in the conversation.
The man in the vehicle looked at them one last time before deciding that the interrogation had gone on long enough.
“Alright, get in. There’s space in the back.”
James led the way to the back of the small truck and was followed by Julienne and Klaus. When they reached there, Klaus opened the door and let Julienne enter first. The back of the truck was filled with boxes of weapons and ammunition. There were two small benches attached on either side of the van which the three of them occupied- Julienne and James on one side, Klaus on the other.
Seriously? Even here, do you HAVE to be next to her? Klaus thought to himself. He did concede that James was sitting a fair distance away from the woman- near the back door of the truck.
“You guys okay?” a different voice- probably the driver, Klaus thought- called out to them.
“We’re good. We can go ahead.” Klaus responded.
And almost immediately, the vehicle started to move. Starting out slowly, it eventually accelerated and settled at a good pace. Five minutes into the drive to Paris, Klaus finally felt a little relieved and let out a deep breath. He looked at the other two- James was looking at the road they were leaving behind while Julienne had her eyes closed- more out of exhaustion than deep thought.
Content to be quiet, Klaus leaned back and closed his own eyes. They were free from worry- at least till they reached the checkpoints in Paris.
6.15 A.M., 10th July 1944
Militärbefehlshaber Frankreich (The German Military High Command in France)
Hotel Majestic, Avenue Kleber, Paris, France.
Thomas Streichel was in early that day. Normally, he wouldn’t set foot into the office before eight in the morning but this was no ordinary day. On his way to the Hotel Majestic, he picked up the morning edition of the paper – the Pariser Zeitung – and fortunately found a coffee shop open in the wee hours of the morning. The owner was still sleep deprived but didn’t complain when Streichel walked in and gave him his first business of the day.
Waiting for him at the lobby was Ernst Geigen- who stood up and saluted him as soon as he saw Streichel.
“What do you have for me?” Streichel asked. He was never a man for small talk- especially in this place.
“It’s from the SS.” Geigen replied.
When Streichel motioned him to continue, Geigen went on, “The SS say that their agents have found the silver Renault. They do report however, that the trail goes cold after that and there’s no way of knowing if they are going to Spain or coming to Paris.”
“Is anybody from the SS here?” Streichel asked, as they began climbing the stairs to his office.
“Oberstürmbahnführer Friedrich Heinz is in your office”
“Alright, I’ll talk to them directly. You go ahead and do your job.”
Midway through the second flight of stairs, Geigen took leave from Streichel and went back down. On reaching his office, he found Heinz- just like he had been told- waiting for him.
“I’m so sorry for keeping you waiting.” Streichel said, as he entered the room. Seeing the Wehrmacht officer, Heinz stood up and saluted.
“Have you been here long?” Streichel asked, taking his seat.
“Not really. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes at the most.” Heinz lied. He had been waiting for Streichel nearly an hour. But he wasn’t going to tell the truth- it was too trivial a matter and he wanted to move on to the more pressing subject at hand.
“Would you like some coffee? I can have Ernst bring it up to you.” Streichel asked.
“No, thank you, Oberleutnant. I don’t drink coffee.” Heinz said.
“Really? It’s rare to see somebody in the military that doesn’t drink coffee these days.”
“They say coffee is bad for the gut. Is that why?”
“No, sir. It’s just that I’ve never had the habit, from my early days.”
“Alright,” Streichel smiled and felt that enough small talk had been made for the day, “so, tell me about this Renault, Oberstürmbahnführer.”
“The silver Renault that was stolen from Sarceaux. We managed to find it. It was found abandoned in Dreux- it’s a town about an hour from here.”
“When did you find it?”
“Today morning at about five thirty, I think, sir.”
“It was parked next to an old, abandoned house. We’re still analysing whatever forensic evidence we can get but I can tell you that it was occupied last night. It may or may not be the Trio- I cannot confirm that. But that, along with an incident that happened last night does enough to arouse suspicions.”
“This morning, at six, there is the usual change of guard. So, when the kid in charge of the day shift comes by, he finds the night shift guard tied up and bound in the station. He immediately alerts our office in St. Lȏ and after a few minutes of communications delay- unavoidable to say the least- we get the news.”
“Anyway,” Heinz went on, “our boys went to check him out and he reported two men- he couldn’t see their faces since they were covered in grease – assaulted him and took away his uniform and his ammunition. He thought they were foreign Resistance workers since they were in civilian clothes but he says the way they went about their job- ‘they were trained, there was no question.’”
“And on checking with official Wehrmacht records, the doctor- Klaus Morstein- knows English and can communicate very well in English.”
After some thought, Streichel said, “That is not conclusive but it certainly points in the direction of the three of them. We don’t know anything about the American except that he is military, so we cannot be certain of anything. Did you get any clues on where they’re headed?”
“No, sir. But we’re still analysing the place to see if we get anything- assuming they stayed there. They’re thorough, sir. They aren’t leaving much and a lot of our investigation is based on some kind of an assumption or the other.” Heinz replied.
“But,” Heinz went on, “given the fact that Dreux has been a relatively peaceful town with no untoward incidents of note until yesterday- coinciding with the car’s arrival into the town – I think we can safely assume that it was them.”
“Alright,” Streichel got up from his chair, more to stretch his legs than anything else, “let’s say it was them. They took a Wehrmacht uniform. That’s a strange thing to steal. Why would anybody steal that?”
“To gain entry into a place guarded by Nazis without arousing much suspicion?” Heinz suggested.
“Exactly. Unfortunately, the quandary we are stuck in here is that we still don’t know which place they want to go to. They could check into one of the many cities down south if they are headed to Spain. Or maybe they could try to go directly to Normandy – although I fancy that’s a risk. Or, last and worst case scenario, they try to enter Paris.”
“Why would they enter Paris? That’s like entering the lion’s den. There are just too many people out here looking for them.”
“I don’t know. But we cannot discount that possibility until we’ve actually found something against it.”
There was a lull in the conversation- an unintended consequence of both men engaged with their own thoughts. In the meantime, Paris was slowly waking up outside the hotel. The curfew lifted, a few pedestrians made their way to their local jobs- their faces sombre and expressionless. Streichel always felt that it was a typically French way of expressing disdain at having to work for a living.
“Anyway,” Streichel said, with a conclusive note in his voice, “something will turn up. They’re bound to screw up somehow. In the meantime, just keep the guards at the checkpoints outside the city on alert.”
Heinz nodded in the affirmative, got up, saluted and left. Streichel wasn’t comfortable with the situation and as was custom during uncomfortable situations, his mind was second-guessing him. There was too much in this case riding on luck and riding on their actions not going according to plan- a plan he had no idea of. As of now, they held the cards and they had the best poker face on them. All he needed was a single tell- an eyebrow twitch, a clearing of the throat, or something along those lines. Then he would turn the tables and take their money with it.
That’s all it is. It’s a poker game. And I just have to bide my time and call their bluff. Streichel thought to himself and strangely, it had a soothing effect on him. He didn’t know why.
Then again, maybe he did. He was just too damn good at poker.
7.00 AM, 10th July 1944
Wehrmacht Checkpoint, Outskirts of Paris
The truck ground to a halt slowly. The ride to Paris was a very smooth one. Early in the morning, there wasn’t much traffic anywhere and apart from a few stray cars and another Army vehicle similar to their own, they didn’t have any company on the way.
The three of them were prepared for this moment. There was, at this point in time, no option of turning back either. They were on the doorstep of Paris- the ball was too far down the hill to throw back up. Julienne didn’t think either of her other two companions had such thoughts. Klaus and James were uncharacteristically silent throughout the journey. She’d always heard of soldiers being laser-focused before a mission but hadn’t seen it first-hand until today.
James was nervous. He had avoided eye-contact with any of his co-passengers. Of course, his inner soldier was already channelled and was at the forefront of his thought processes- for the most part. Some of him though felt queasy this time. It wasn’t a routine mission- not by a long shot. He was entering unknown territory- both geographically and militarily. Paris was a city he always wanted to see but he had no prior knowledge of the situation there. And to top it off, he was basically engaging in covert operations. He had undergone some basic covert ops training at Fort Knox but most of his training was focused on firing at Germans who were a good distance away from him and dropping out of twenty-thirty thousand feet in the air. But despite all this, James knew that when the time came, the soldier in him would take over his mind and body.
Klaus was straining to hear what the driver was telling the guard at the checkpoint. Their voices were being partially drowned out by the continuous drone of the running engines of the vehicle.
“…have some travellers with us at the back,” the driver was saying, “one of whom is a Wehrmacht officer.”
“How many have you got back there?”
“Three people. Two men and a woman.”
“Alright, I’ll check them out.”
Klaus snapped his fingers quickly and nodded at the open back-side of the truck. James understood what he meant but Julienne didn’t grasp it until a man fully decked in Wehrmacht overalls materialised in front of them. With him was a dog- James recognised it as a German Shepherd.
How clichéd! He thought to himself.
The dog didn’t seem particularly interested in any of them. It took a glance at each of the occupants and then returned to smelling the road for something interesting. The guard did the same thing- spending a little more time than usual on Julienne, or so James thought- before talking to Klaus in German.
“Sir, what is your name? I need to fill in the records.”
“Do you have your papers?”
“Yes,” Klaus reached into a pocket to take out a few of the fake papers they had got in the postman-delivered package, “Would you like to see them?”
James was a little alarmed at this. If the guard took a closer look at the paper, there was a chance he may recognise a fake ID. It was a minor risk- the papers looked pretty authentic- but a risk nevertheless.
“No, sir, that won’t be necessary. And who are they?”
“That’s my brother- Felix. And that’s his wife- Emilie.”
“Why are you here?” the question was addressed to James
“We’re here for a consultation with a doctor. I think she might be pregnant with our second child.”
James looked at Julienne and smiled and she responded in kind. It was the kind of smile one would expect from a couple who are excited about a child. That seemed to clarify any doubts the guard may have had.
Taking one final look at the three of them, the guard, simultaneously giving a gentle kick to the dog in its belly, said, “Wilkommen in Paris” before whistling at one of the other guards manning the gates to let the vehicle in.
As the checkpoint passed behind them, James exhaled deeply- more out of relief than anything else. Their deception had worked well so far. The road ahead wasn’t easy but at least they could revel in the fact that they had successfully reached Paris without arousing too much suspicion or leaving too many clues.
At a time of continual insecurity and instability, this was a big win for the three of them. And they knew it better than anybody else. Looking at each other, all of them broke into a simultaneous smile- the kind one didn’t see too often during the war.