Excerpt Behind the Mask

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The train slowed as it approached the station. On the platform, German soldiers stood at attention. As they boarded the train, people shuffled through their belongings for their documents. A hush settled over the compartment in anticipation. Yvette’s proof of citizenship shook in her fingers. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and dropped her hand in her lap.

Pierre, her canary, was quiet; thank the dear lord, for her nerves were taut enough without his high-pitched chirping. The last thing she needed was for him to draw attention. The last thing she needed was to have someone find Grandpère’s message hidden in the bottom of the cage. The words, written with a shaky hand, made no sense. The grapes are rotting on the vine. It’s time to bring them in. The wine is ripe. But her grandpère’s warning was embedded in her brain. Trust no one. Whatever cryptic message lay hidden under the paper, it put her in danger.

The compartment door slid open and Yvette’s heart skipped a beat.

Two soldiers stood in the corridor. One man, decorated with metals that would way down a rock, appeared to be the superior. He had a wide pronounced brow. His chin melted into his neck and his short-cropped silver hair seemed plastered to his head. A long gray mustache turned slightly down over a frown.

Yvette’s gaze slid past the elderly man to the light-haired soldier who studied her with intense blue eyes. Broad-shouldered, about six two, lean and muscular, he dominated the small doorway. His countenance rigid, like one accustomed to enduring the routine of war, he stood at attention, his eyes assessing everyone and everything.

His superior entered the compartment with an air of bitter disgust.

The routine common place everyone held out their traveling papers. Her heart pounding, Yvette waited and hoped her American papers would be of no interest to them.

The interrogation began in German and she didn’t respond, which brought a heated tone to the superior’s voice. He snapped something to the soldier who stood silently at the door. The younger man stepped forward, his gait like one of the wooden soldiers from the Laurel and Hardy movie Babes in Toyland.

“My commandant wants to know what kind of name Matikunas is,” he said in French.

Her father’s name was Lithuanian, a country annexed by Nazi Germany and placed under German civil administration. The Poles, especially the elite, became subject to mass murder. Was he fishing to see if she was Polish?

“I am an American,” Yvette insisted without further commentary.

Her remark brought a scowl to the commander’s face. He pointed to her birdcage and Yvette’s pulse leapt.

When he ripped off the cloth cover, the startled bird darted back and forth in the cage. Pierre’s loud chirp filled the compartment. The German opened the door and stuck his hand inside.

“How dare you,” Yvette spat, in English, knowing he could not understand her. She did not care. “I hope he bites you.”

He turned a sinister look upon her and her body tightened.

The nervous bird hopped from one perch to the other.

The German began to peel up the newspaper lining the bottom of the cage.

Color drained from Yvette’s face. If he finds the note…dear Lord…what will he do?  Her teeth cut into her lip. She had heard horror stories of people brutalized, thrown in prison for far less. Grandpère’s death flashed before her eyes. Thinking about the possibilities brought a cold sweat to her brow. Calm down, she told herself. Breathe. Breathe.

The German’s fingers were inches away from discovering the hidden message.

Yvette held her breath…

…and Pierre pooped on his hand.

The scene played out in a comic rush. Red-faced, swearing, or so she guessed, the German pulled out his hand and snatched a handkerchief from the breast pocket of the gentleman sitting opposite her, who, in French, called him a German pig.

Yvette suppressed a grin.

Pierre broke out in song.

The commander spun on his heel. He said something to the handsome soldier in the corridor, stomped outside, then slammed open the next compartment.

The train whistle blew and the clanking of wheels, picking up speed vibrated throughout the compartment.

The soldier, who had stood at attention, strode in.

A jolt of fear attacked Yvette’s chest, yet she was struck by the strong sensual lines of his face. A muscle clenched in his narrow jaw. Eyes, like chips of glacial ice, hard and sharp, stared at her. This man seemed far more dangerous than his superior on so many levels.

He stepped up to her seat and bent before her, his face inches from hers. “You are either one brave or lucky woman,” he whispered in English.

He’d understood her!  She froze.

Despite the dangerous situation, she was keenly aware of his vitality, of the waves in his sandy hair and his wide forehead. Her senses leapt to life by the warm breath near her ear and the clean scent of freshly washed hair. She felt as though they were the only two people in the small room. As though they shared, a private moment meant for lovers. Her hands trembled.

Before she could respond, he continued. “Lucky for you that bird did not bite him.” The threat had an odd lilt, its tone almost amused. He straightened and stood over her. Whatever compassion she thought she sensed disappeared behind a mask of indifference.

“My commander is not happy,” he said in French. “He has instructed me to find out why an unchaperoned woman of your age, I surmise you are about nineteen, is traveling alone. He believes you pose a threat. Would you care to explain?” His voice took on an air of superiority.

“I am quite adept at taking care of myself and I’m twenty-one.

“Get up,” he ordered. “Gather your things.”

Her heart fluttered wildly in her chest. Her legs refused to move.

He grabbed her arm. “Now.” He yanked her from her seat.

No one in the compartment made a move to help and she understood their fear.

His touch disgusted her and, for a moment, reined her terror. She yanked free. “My bag.” Before she could reach up for her suitcase, the German grabbed the satchel. She pushed past him and stepped into the corridor. Once again, he grabbed her arm. His gait quick, he practically dragged her down the passageway. A few times the birdcage bumped the wall and Pierre’s loud chirping filled the corridor.

Yvette clamped her mouth shut, suppressing the barbed words on her tongue. She was in enough trouble. As she walked, she deliberated on how she was going to ditch the hidden message. Leaving Pierre behind was not an option. When they approached the lavatory, she came up with a plan. “I have–“

“In here,” he ordered as he pushed open the door and shoved her inside. “Stay put.” The door thud shut.

Yvette dropped onto the small toilet. What in the world had just happened? Quickly she slid out the bottom of the cage and pulled out the note. She scribbled the words on the tiniest piece of paper she could find, slipped off the metal casing of Grandpère’s cigar lighter and neatly pressed the message inside the casing, something, she realized, she should have thought about doing earlier.

Footsteps stopped outside her door.

Her fingers shaking, she managed to put the lighter back together as the door squeaked open. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the original message on the floor. A long arm shoved a pair of pants, shirt and jacket at her. Yvette’s pulse pounded as she slowly eased her foot over the paper.

“Put this on, lock the door and stay quiet,” the familiar voice ordered.

Before she could say a word, the door closed. This time she locked it. Dumbfounded, Yvette stood in the cramped space and stared at the clothes. Whose side was he on? Why help her? Or was he? If this was some perverse game… no, he didn’t appear to be the kind of man who played games.

Yvette picked up the incriminating note, opened the toilet, ripped up the message and flushed the paper onto the tracks.

She struggled out of her clothes and slipped on the pants that surprisingly, fit rather well, securing them around her small waist with a belt, a size too big. The shirt fit a little snugly, the jacket fit perfectly. The thought that he’d sized her up sent an uncomfortable pang to her stomach. Her nerves throbbed at the base of her throat as she waited for his next move.

An hour passed–then another.

The clanking of metal on rails and rocking of the train had a soothing quality and finally convinced, for the moment, she was safe, Yvette’s heart settled back to a normal beat. She was just about dozing when the train slowed and a knock snapped her to attention.

“Open up.”

He was back. Her heart collided with her ribs.

“Hurry, there’s not much time,” he ordered.

She unlocked the door.

He grabbed the birdcage.

“What do you think–”

“Keep your head down and your mouth shut,” he said, his tone stern. With a heavy hand, he plopped a blue pillbox hat on her head. “Follow my lead.”

At the end of the corridor, a woman and her little girl stood waiting. As they approached them, Yvette noticed they had her suitcase. The German handed the cage to child. Her mother took her purse.

“Wait!” Grandpère’s lighter was in her pocketbook.  She couldn’t put them in danger.

“You’ll get him back,” he whispered.

“A smoke. I need a smoke.” She reached inside her bag and pulled out the lighter.

The German eyed her with an odd expression, then pivoted on his heel.

She followed him into the next compartment.

The rail car was full of men wearing the same outfit she wore: khaki pants, a white shirt beneath a khaki jacket and blue and gold hat.

“Foreign Legion.” Short and to the point was his explanation. He was certainly a man of few words. “A dangerous lot. Keep your distance.”

“How can I–”

“Get off with them. The lost child will be a distraction.”

Yvette watched as the mother started to walk away, leaving her daughter behind.

“Take her hand, “The German whispered beside her. “You’re on your own from here.”

“But–”

“Go. Now.” He practically pushed her into the back of the tall, thin man in front of her. She was about to protest when she noticed, over her shoulder, the approaching German soldiers, one in particular—the Commander.

Yvette watched her savior walk away and greet his fellow comrades. For as long as she lived, she would never forget the kind German with the slight limp in his gait, who might have just saved her life.

 

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