On Special Assignment

I.

When a light tap sounded on the door of Klaus’s office (or rather the broom closet he’d been allotted for his visit), he answered with an ill-humored grunt, expecting one of Knochen’s minions, come to bother him about some small inconsistency on one of the numerous forms he’d filled out when arriving at headquarters. It was not one of Knochen’s men who opened the door, however, but a plump young girl with a delightfully pink complexion. Looking at her, Klaus immediately thought of a Viennese Knodl, one of those small sugared dumplings that hide a single ripe strawberry.

            “And you are?” he asked, rising and taking the folder she handed him. She must be someone new, he thought, or else he would have remembered her from his last visit to Paris at the end of 1942.

            “Olga,” she answered, her round face turning an even more vivid shade of pink. “Olga Voss.”

“Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie,” he replied, clicking his heels and bowing slightly. She was very nicely formed, he reflected, as curvy and plush as the rolled arm of a sofa and so short that the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. And her mouth was simply adorable, such a dark rosy red and shaped like . . .

She cleared her throat, her face having reddened even more. “Your signature, Herr Obersturmführer,” she said, gesturing toward the folder. “It’s required.”

He opened the folder and saw that it was the forms he himself had filled out on the prisoner he’d delivered earlier in the day. Klaus had no idea who the man was—probably a black marketer and not much else—but Knochen apparently thought otherwise. “Hands off,” he’d warned Klaus over the phone, “and I mean that literally. None of your clumsy techniques.” So, instead of questioning the man ­­­­­­­in Lyon, which would have been logical, Klaus had been ordered to drive him to avenue Foch. In addition, there were a few other things—odds and ends, Klaus supposed—that Knochen was assigning him. It was exasperating: a section chief from Lyon had better things to do than serve as a lackey for the great Dr. Knochen . . .

Olga coughed lightly. “If I could just have your signature . . . ”

            Klaus, who had momentarily forgotten her, looked up to see a nervous half-smile on her lips. “Tell you what,” he said. “You go to lunch with me and I’ll sign it when we get back. How’s that?”

*     *     *

When they got to the Bouillon Racine a bit later, Klaus was gratified to see Fraulein Voss’s small red mouth open into an “O” as she took in the restaurant, which was decorated to look like an Art Nouveau jewelry box. Klaus thought it was ridiculous—all those beveled glass mirrors, the table lamps designed to look like nodding tulips, the long curvaceous bar that was ludicrous in the extreme—but he knew that women were attracted to this kind of excess, that it put them in a receptive mood.

“A table for two,” he said to the maître ’d, an anemic-looking man who bowed obsequiously. “Perhaps something with a view.” 

The maître ’d glanced briefly at Klaus, no doubt taking note of the uniform, then led them to a table near the front window which seemed more for show than actual use. Other diners, watching from the dim recesses at the back of the restaurant, could see them, as could anyone passing on the street. Fraulein Voss seemed embarrassed to be the object of so much scrutiny, but Klaus thoroughly enjoyed their island table. It was almost as if he and Olga were on stage giving a performance of some kind.

“So how long have you been in Paris?” he asked as their consommé arrived.

“Just a few weeks, Herr Obersturmführer,” she replied, ducking her head.

“And you’re from . . . ”

“From Herressen in Thuringia,” she said, explaining that her father was a fruit seller there. “A member of the party,” she added parenthetically, and Klaus nodded his approval, though it made no difference to him one way or the other. Apparently, things had become unpleasant at home after her mother died, and so she’d gone to Berlin to take a secretarial training course. Then, after that, she’d applied to the military for a job. “I was lucky to get Paris,” she concluded, “because Paris . . . well, everyone wants Paris. It’s the City of Light.”

Klaus smiled, on the verge of reminding her that nightly blackouts had all but extinguished those lights, but then he thought better of it: perhaps the city was every bit as bright as she’d expected. In any case, there was no need to say anything since their main course was arriving: lapin à la moutarde for him and boeuf bourguignon for her.

Olga spent a moment or two studying her plate. “Ach, so good,” she said, smiling her thanks before picking up her knife and fork and applying them ardently. It pleased Klaus to see that she was not a dainty eater. So many women only picked at their food, as if it were somehow indecent to reveal any kind of appetite in front of a man. It was refreshing to come across a girl like Olga who dug into her food without dilly-dallying.

While she ate, he told her a little about himself, beginning with his early days on the vice squad in Berlin. He considered this a neutral-enough subject, since women, even women who worked at SD headquarters the way Olga did, could be—well, a little skittish if the conversation strayed too close to the reality of things.

“Berlin was a cesspool in those days,” he told her, describing his raids on lurid nightclubs and brothels. “And it was even worse during the Olympics,” he added, explaining that they’d been ordered to round up all the prostitutes in the city. “You won’t believe it,” he said, “but we made them peel potatoes just as they were, in their high heels and feathers and I-don’t-know-what-all. It was quite a sight.” He laughed loudly at his recollection of the scene, and Olga joined in, giggling into her napkin discreetly.

Then, judging the time was right, he pulled out a photo of little Ute, his daughter, who was back in Trier with her mother. Showing the picture was a ritual of his, a way of making sure that the women he courted knew how things stood with him.

“Wie niedlich,” said Olga, who peered at Ute’s fat little face and toothless grin, then added in English: “Such a darling.”

 “You know English?” Klaus asked her, surprised, and she explained that “dar-

ling” (more or less the equivalent of libeling) was a word she’d picked up while visiting her married sister in London—a sister she hadn’t seen in years, not since the war had begun.

            “You must miss her,” said Klaus politely, his only aim to keep the conversation going. But Olga responded by prattling on about Hedwig and her family for ten minutes or more. “If I could just send her a letter . . . ” she finally said, looking up at Klaus from under her brows.

“A letter?” asked Klaus, who had been only half-listening. “But that’s impossible. We’re at war with Britain. No contact is allowed.”

“I know,” said Olga as the crèmes brûlée appeared. “I just thought maybe . . . well, that someone in your position might be able to . . . ”

“No, it’s impossible. Really, what are you thinking?”

Olga tapped the caramelized top of her custard with the back of her spoon until it splintered. “Of course,” she said in a tight, barely audible voice. “I understand there are rules.”

Too late Klaus realized his mistake. She was a motherless girl who missed her sister, that’s all, so why hadn’t he been more tactful, more understanding? Still, he couldn’t afford to get caught doing favors, even though he knew it wouldn’t be difficult to have Gottlieb mail a letter from Geneva. He was certainly there often enough, either running errands for Klaus or doing a bit of reconnaissance work. The only problem was Olga. She was so silly, so chatty. Could he trust her to keep her mouth shut?

Snapping his fingers, he summoned the waiter and ordered coffee. Then, leaning across the table, he said, “But perhaps there’s something else I can do for you? Perfume maybe or some silk stockings?”

But Olga only shook her head—no, she didn’t need anything like that—and when the coffee came she had only one small sip. Klaus was annoyed (there were Parisians who would have traded a week’s worth of cigarettes for that coffee) but he tried to ignore her sulking.

“Well, at least let me see you again,” he said, looking into her moon-shaped face with its wet red lips. “Some evening this week perhaps?”

            Predictably, though, she prevaricated: Well, not that night, but perhaps the next. She would have to see. But she had enjoyed lunch, please don’t think that she hadn’t, it had been a real treat. This was not what Klaus wanted to hear, but he took it for what it was: a feeble attempt to preserve her dignity.

“I understand,” he said amiably enough as the bill was presented on a small silvertray. “But remember, I could be called back to Lyon at any moment.”

II.

Meanwhile, Josephine Butler, who was approaching Le Fouquet’s on the Champs Élyseés, felt a fist tighten around her heart. Was this a café, she wondered, or a Germans-only canteen? But there was no turning back now. She’d been commissioned to track the comings and goings of Admiral Canaris, so if Le Fouquet’s was the place he frequented, she had no choice but to install herself there.

            Quickly, she scanned the outdoor tables, taking in the blur of uniforms: the Wehrmacht in grayish-green, the Luftwaffe in blue, and—worst of all, lounging front and center—a trio of Gestapo men dressed sleekly in black. Sitting there, with their long legs sprawled out in front of them, drinking coffee and cognac and smoking what was almost certainly real tobacco, they looked a little ridiculous, like fourteen-year-old boys who’d raided an uncle’s liquor cabinet. But Josephine knew they were anything but harmless—and so, apparently, did everyone else, judging by the empty tables surrounding them.

For a moment, she stood there pondering—weren’t there any other seats anywhere?—but, then, realizing that she was standing there like a ninny, she made herself choose one of the empty tables and start walking toward it. Be decisive, that’s the important thing, she told herself, sitting down as casually as she could and looking around with what she hoped was a bored expression. The SS men, a table or two to her right, had barely looked up as she passed, which was good, just what she wanted. Not only that, but the table she’d chosen gave her an unobstructed view of the boulevard.

She signaled the waiter and ordered a café noir, or whatever it was they were calling coffee these days, and took a deep breath to calm herself. Waiting in cafés was part of her job, but it was always nerve-wracking. Conjuring up her younger self—the jeune fille who had left England to study in Paris—was one of her tricks. That girl, as she recalled, had spent a lot of time waiting for beaux in places not so different from this one. She was no longer young, of course, but the way you looked (the color of your hair or the shape of your face or the makeup you were wearing) didn’t matter as much as the story you projected. Cover, the SOE called it.

            In her pre-war life, Josephine had been a physician with a busy practice in London. It was what she had always intended to do. While other little girls played elaborate games with their dolls, dressing them up like brides or treating them like babies, Josephine wrapped hers in bandages or subjected them to injections administered with a hatpin. The notion that she would ever do anything except practice medicine had never crossed her mind. But then, quite without warning, she’d been summoned for service abroad, something very hush-hush that Churchill himself had dreamed up. Josephine supposed that someone must have recommended her for the job, though who that person might have been she couldn’t imagine. There must have been a vetting process as well. At any rate, the officer who interviewed her on Baker Street had been very well-informed, knowing without Josephine’s telling him that she’d studied at the Sorbonne, that her French was excellent—and that she wasn’t married. In addition, her parents were dead (the officer seemed quite cheerful about this), meaning that, as he put it, she had no obligations of a personal nature. Surely, he concluded, it would be no problem for her to suspend her practice, just for the duration, while she undertook some special assignments.

Her decision to do so had eventually led Josephine here, to this outdoor café where she was hoping to spot Admiral Canaris, a man who was known to disapprove of Hitler. Josephine had no idea if he might go so far as to try to overthrow the Fürhrer, but that was obviously Churchill’s hope.

A white-aproned waiter appeared just then with her coffee, and Josephine forced herself to take a small sip. It was bitter, barely drinkable, like water out of a rusty drainpipe, but it was all you could get after three years of German occupation. She’d heard it was made from roasted barley, but she would have believed anything: bark, wood shavings, even mouse droppings. Ersatz, that was the German word for it, and it applied to practically everything these days. Shoes weren’t soled in leather anymore but in wood. Cigarettes weren’t made from tobacco but from sunflower leaves or some other “approximation.” Even Josephine herself was ersatz, a Parisienne only by virtue of the small chic hat and fancy French coat she wore. She’d found them at a second-hand shop on rue Rocher, where they were expensive but not as expensive as they looked. Besides, a good coat wasn’t an extravagance, it was camouflage.

Josephine’s drama teacher at St. Swithin’s had taught her the usefulness of costumes. Put on Lady Macbeth’s nightgown, dip your hands in raspberry jam and, voilà! you are Lady Macbeth. It was risky, though: play the role enough times and you could lose track of yourself. That was why, underneath her fancy French clothes, Josephine still wore British-made underwear: a Marks & Spencer brassiere and sensible cotton knickers, both rather the worse for wear but still holding up, thank goodness.

She sipped her coffee and stared intently at the boulevard for a few minutes before reminding herself that the SS were only three or four yards away. So far, they’d paid no attention to her, but if she looked too anxious, they might. Perhaps it was time for Je suis partout, she thought, pulling that week’s edition out of her bag and shaking it open with a flourish. It was a scurrilous rag but a very useful prop if you were forced to share space with Nazis. She spread it out on the marble-topped table in front of her and started turning the pages, searching for an article that was halfway readable. Just pick one, it doesn’t matter, she told herself, finally settling on a long article about the French aircraft industry and how it was busy churning out planes for the Luftwaffe. When she’d read it twice and then summarized it to herself, just as a mental exercise, she looked up again hoping to catch sight of Canaris, but all she saw was a dilapidated old man, some sixty yards off, wobbling alongside the gutter.

She returned to her paper, turning over to the next page where a photo showed Ambassador Abetz welcoming someone-or-other to the German Institute. She had just started in on the accompanying article when she happened to overhear fragments of conversation coming from the Gestapo table.

“Nicely turned out but a bit past her prime, wouldn’t you say?” joked one of them, glancing in Josephine’s direction. He was big and aggressively blond, a propaganda poster come to life.

“Oh, I don’t know,” answered one of the other two. “Women her age, they’re a gift. Grateful for any attention you give them.” He picked his teeth idly. “It makes them more tractable.”

            A general guffaw followed, and Josephine felt her cheeks growing warm. She fought back the urge to throw them a scorching look. But to do so would have been an admission that she understood German. 

            Then the third officer weighed in. He was sallow‑faced and had a long nose, rather like a ferret’s. “You’re pathetic,” he told his companions in a Berlin drawl, giving Josephine a quick glance. “You’d be lucky to get the time of day out of that gnädige Frau.”  He fished a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose with a loud honk, then summoned a nearby waiter with a snap of his fingers.

            “Oui, messieurs soldats,” said the waiter, a thin, stooped man who nodded attentively as he took their order, then hurried away to get their bottle of cognac. When he returned, he topped off their cups of coffee, turning the mouth of the bottle at just the right moment to keep it from dripping. But then the blond one bumped the waiter’s forearm––Josephine was quite sure it had been deliberate––and a little of the cognac dribbled onto the black sleeve of his tunic.

            “Watch what you’re doing, old man,” said Propaganda Boy, holding out his arm and shaking it menacingly, pretending that his sleeve had been drenched.

            The waiter, with the solid dignity of his profession, bowed slightly and murmured

an apology. But then, walking away, he tripped on something (his long apron? a jack-

booted foot?) and the metal tray he’d been holding clattered to the pavement. The sound, exploding behind Josephine like the report of a pistol, was so sudden and sharp she couldn’t help jumping as the tray rolled away, veering this way and that before hitting the leg of a table and toppling over with a clang. Wrong! don’t make yourself conspicuous, she told herself. But hadn’t everyone else jumped too? It would have been suspicious if she’d remained unnaturally calm.

She fingered the small gold cross at her throat and looked out over the boulevard where she saw the old man still picking his way toward the café. Unsteady on his feet and coughing loudly, he jerked his way along like a rag doll or a puppet, his eyes fixed on the gutter. From time to time, he bent over, plucked a cigarette butt from the pavement, then wavered up again, holding his small treasure at arm’s length for a moment before tucking it into a saggy pants pocket. Josephine was not without sympathy. After all, who knew what his troubles were. Chronic bronchitis? Tuberculosis? Or perhaps he’d been gassed in the last war, so many had been. Still, she couldn’t help feeling upset. To be old and sick was no crime, but to parade your misery up and down the Champs Élysées where every off-duty Boche could take in the spectacle was demeaning and shameful.

A few more patrons trickled into the café and Josephine took a quick inventory. A

woman in a red hat with a small, vicious-looking dog on her lap. An elfin man whose pipe and pointed goatee made him look like a professor. And there, in the corner, a heedless young couple who couldn’t stop touching.

Meanwhile, the puppet‑man edged closer. The bottom half of his face looked

shrunken, as if his back teeth were missing, and even though it was cold––quite cold––he had no coat: only a worn‑out suit jacket and a sad scrap of scarf that might have been blue or green once but was now the dead color of cement.

            Seeing him, the SS men laughed hugely: what fun, this besoffen old bum shambling along, oblivious of everything except his precious tobacco. They tossed a couple of half-smoked cigarettes in his direction, cheering derisively as he scooped them up. But instead of being scornful, or at least embarrassed, as Josephine would have hoped, he stood there grinning like a clown, smiling his gap-toothed smile and touching a palsied hand to the brim of his cap.

A nervous hush settled over the café. Conversation slowed, eyes were averted.  Even the young lovers looked uncomfortable.

 “God, what a useless old bastard,” said one of the SS men, looking around the café belligerently. “Fritz, promise you’ll shoot me if I ever get that old.” Then guffaws erupted again as one of them––it was the ferret-faced one––tossed another cigarette butt in the direction of the old man, who immediately pounced on it. It was then, before anyone could realize what was happening––before the recipient even had a chance to straighten up––that the blond‑headed officer was out of his seat and standing over him with the heel of his boot held flat against the old man’s neck. He squirmed, trying to free himself, but then, within seconds, he was still. He’s blacked out, that’s all, Josephine told herself, hopeful when the jack-boot was finally lifted and the old man managed to lift his head a little way off the sidewalk. It lolled like a freshly born kitten’s, but, yes, he was alive. Surely they’d leave him alone now. But then the boot slammed down again, this time with even greater force, while its wearer surveyed the crowd around him with disinterest, as if he had no idea what his foot was doing. Then finally, as if recalling, he looked down, saw the Untermensch and lifted his foot from the man’s neck. The movement was as smooth and impersonal as if he’d released the clutch while driving. Then fastidiously, as if to avoid contact, he turned the body over with the toe of his boot and nudged it gently to see––or rather to show––that the body was lifeless.

            A dome of silence descended over the café‑terrasse and in that silence fingers were snapped, the headwaiter summoned. “Here, take him away,” ordered the man who had done the killing.

Josephine plunged her hands into her lap to hide their shaking as the corpse was removed. Every atom in her body strained to escape—if only she could leave, simply pick up her things and get out of here—but how could she when her job was to stay and watch for Canaris? She looked around cautiously, just in case she might have missed him, then nearly gasped when she spotted a cripple crutching his way along the same gutter, once again searching for German cigarettes. No, she wanted to shout: Don’t do that, go somewhere else, it’s not safe, they’ll kill you. But the words were only in her head where the cripple couldn’t hear them. He had no idea what had happened here only ten minutes before. 

            Once again, the café held its breath, waiting, watching for the inevitable cigarette to come flying through the air. Josephine didn’t see the SS man who threw it, but his aim was poor and the cigarette rolled in the direction of her table. Without thinking, almost without knowing, she reached out with her foot and stamped on it, grinding it into the cobblestones as though it were something lethal, an ampoule of anthrax spores or a tarantula poised to sting.

Finally, having destroyed it, she sat back in her rattan chair, aware, suddenly, that everyone was staring at her, their mouths slack with horror. Then she heard a chair scraping against the sidewalk and realized that she had broken the cardinal rule: she had made herself conspicuous. Even without looking, she could sense one of the black-suited men approaching.

III.

When they brought her to him, Klaus was impressed. She wasn’t young—probably in her forties—but he saw at once that she had class. Her coat was well made—expensive—and she was wearing a fetching little hat with a veil that seemed to magnify her blue eyes. In addition, she had a delicately moist complexion (rare except among English women) and, though she wasn’t particularly tall, she stood erect. 

He listened to what the men from the café had to say, then scanned her papers (Solange Préjean, a schoolteacher from Eure et Loire, etc.). He positioned himself in front of the window and looked directly at her. “Why do you dislike Germans?” he asked quietly in French.

“I did not say I disliked Germans,” Josephine replied, glancing at her inquisitor, noting the Iron Cross on his left breast pocket, the collar tabs that indicated the rank of Obersturmführer. So, a lieutenant, that was all. Still, he was young (in his twenties probably) so Obersturmführer was no doubt an accomplishment. Nor was he bad looking, in fact rather handsome.

“I’m sorry I acted the way I did,” she continued. “It was on the spur of the moment.” She paused, praying that something plausible would come to her, then added:  “You see, I am a schoolteacher and therefore very fond of children, and I have always felt––well, perhaps it sounds silly––but I have always felt that elderly people are rather like children. They need protecting.”

The Obersturmführer looked at her with his large pale eyes––either blue or gray, she wasn’t sure––and frowned slightly. 

“I am inclined to believe that you are more of an aristocrat than a teacher,” he said, and Josephine felt her stomach shrivel. Perhaps the stylish coat and hat had been a mistake. A schoolteacher wasn’t likely to own such fine things.   

“You are certainly very cool and collected,” he continued. “Where do you teach?”

Josephine had her lines prepared: she was a relief teacher currently between posts. She was now waiting to be reassigned. 

Klaus nodded. It was a dull story, so dull it was probably true. But he wasn’t sure. Her self-possession spoke against it. Most women, when they were hauled into Gestapo headquarters, were jumpy and tense. Bark at them and they’d start to cry. But Mlle Préjean seemed immune to her surroundings. She could just as easily have been in the lobby of a theatre or on the corner of a busy street. He decided to test her. 

            “Strip,” he ordered, keeping his voice quiet.

Josephine was stunned. Surely she had misunderstood. “Do you mean remove all my clothes?” she asked, her throat dry. 

            “Yes and hurry up,” he snapped.  “Or would you like some help?”

There were snickers from the Gestapo men standing around, the three who had brought her in plus a couple of others who had wandered in, and for a moment Josephine was afraid her knees would buckle. She glanced around the small office, at the filing cabinet, the calendar on the wall, anywhere but at their faces, and reached for her hat. Fumbling for her hatpin with stiff, clumsy fingers, she recalled her arthritic patients and how the simplest things were monumental tasks for them. Now she knew what that felt like. Finally, though, she found the head of the hatpin and managed to extract it. 

She lifted the little dome of black velvet from her head and wondered what she was supposed to do with it. She looked around, uncertain, until the Obersturmführer pointed to the center of his desk.

She laid the hat down carefully, almost like a sacrifice, and began on her gloves.  They were kidskin, a tight fit even under ordinary circumstances. She tugged at the fingertips, but the gloves seemed to have shrunk to her hands, almost like a new layer of skin. She glanced at her interrogator, hoping for what—a reprieve?—but he stood motionless, his face frozen over. Finally, not knowing what else to do, she resorted to biting the tips of the fingers and yanking the gloves off with her teeth. 

Klaus watched with interest. Her teeth were small and white and seeing her use them in this unexpected way was a revelation. Perhaps, he thought, there was a bête sauvage hidden inside every woman.

Josephine laid the gloves on the desk beside her hat and felt for the buttons on her coat. As if in a trance she began to undo them, her hands performing the task without direction from her brain. Through the open door of the office, she heard secretaries clacking away on typewriters or speaking into their phones. How nice it would be to be one of those women, she thought: typing things up, answering the phone, alphabetizing files—such an easy and comfortable job, no risk of any kind, just go home at the end of—

“Come on, hurry up,” goaded one of the men standing nearby, and Josephine, startled, glanced down to see her coat hanging open. Strange, because she didn’t remember undoing the buttons, yet obviously she had. Once more she scanned the room, looking for a place to put her coat, but the office seemed to have been stripped of anything remotely suggesting hospitality—no chairs, not so much as a hook on the back of the door.  Nor was the Obersturmführer offering up any more space on his desk. She looked down at the parquet flooring—once elegant, now stained and dirty—and shrugged off her coat, letting it fall to the floor in a heap, its pale mauve lining sadly exposed.

Now only her skirt and blouse were left, that was all. And once they were removed, she’d be standing there in her chemise, wearing less than she did when she went to bed. It was hot in the office—stiflingly so—yet she couldn’t help shivering.

Klaus took note of the shivering (a point in her favor) and admitted that he was enjoying himself. Watching a woman undressing slowly never failed to thrill him. The stage version, a stripper performing for an audience, was always a cheat: even as you sat there, titillated, watching as layer after layer dropped away, you knew she was never going to give up everything. Some small shreds of cloth would cling to her even at the end of the act, depriving you of the all-inclusive vision you craved. But in real life it was different. So far Mlle Préjean had managed to maintain her poise. Well, good for her. But from here on out it wouldn’t be so easy. With each item of clothing she was forced to relinquish, she’d be losing a little more of her self-possession.

Josephine fingered the buttons on her blouse—tiny dome-shaped buttons, a long row of them, covered to match the crêpe de Chine of the blouse—and began undoing them as slowly as she dared. The first two were easy, but from the third one on down, she knew that the top of her chemise would be revealed. That was bad enough, but infinitely worse was the telltale brassiere just underneath. She cursed herself for being so stupid. Hadn’t she heard of agents who would have passed had it not been for the label in their underwear? Her mother had always warned her about being overly confident, that it would get her in trouble someday if she didn’t watch out, and now that day was here.

Across from her, Klaus watched intently as Mlle Préjean untucked her blouse from the band of her skirt, pulled her arms free of the sleeves and tossed the blouse on top of her coat. A moment ago he would have said that her elegance came from her clothes, but now, gazing at her, he realized it was actually the reverse. Indeed, every part of her was imbued with elegance. The slenderness of her arms. The length of her neck.  The neatness of her breasts, which were as high and dainty as a girl’s. He might have preferred breasts that were a bit larger, but it hardly mattered, he was aroused all the same.

Josephine, reaching behind her to undo her skirt, caught the flicker of lust in his eyes but pushed it away. She had to. Panic was pressing in on her from every direction, and anything else, anything at all, might break her. It would be so easy just to give way to the fear and collapse in a heap on top of her clothes. That was probably what they wanted. But they’d had their fun with the old man, that was enough. Lord, help me, she prayed silently, staring at her hat and gloves in the middle of the Obersturmführer’s desk and concentrating all of her energy on the hook and eye at the back of her skirt. But it wouldn’t budge, or rather her fingers couldn’t manage the task. 

Klaus saw the trouble she was having and nearly stepped forward to assist her before remembering that this was not a domestic scene. Still, he couldn’t help imagining his hand pulling down the tab of her zipper and then drifting slowly, so slowly if might have been an accident, across the curve of her rump. And if he did that, what would she do? Cringe? Burst into tears? Start wailing? It would be interesting to see.

But finally Josephine, using her nails, was able to pry the tiny hook away from its even tinier eye. She undid the zipper, easy by comparison, and her skirt dropped to the floor. She stepped out of it lightly, then pushed it out of the way with her foot, noticing a dark stain near one of the desk legs that reminded her of a Rorschach print. Impassively, she wondered if it might be a bloodstain.

             “Get on with it,” said the Obersturmführer. “This shouldn’t take all day.”

Josephine, her heart pounding inside its basket of ribs, fingered one strap of her chemise, wishing she could think of some way to stall. If it had been an interrogation, she might have been able to talk her way out of it. But this, she thought, pushing the strap off her shoulder, was an altogether different interrogation—an interrogation without words.

            “C’mon, c’mon,” said one of the others, a blotchy-faced NCO who looked as if he drank. “The other one too.”

Reluctantly, Josephine pushed the other strap off her shoulder, and it was then, just as the top of the chemise sagged to reveal the alien bra underneath, that she caught the Obersturmführer in a leer—a leer so fat and greasy, so unmistakably obvious (he wasn’t even trying to hide it) that this time there was no way of shoving it aside. She felt a thickness in her throat, a sudden wave of nausea Please, God, she prayed, touching the cross at her neck, please save me from this ordeal.

Slowly, as if guided by a force outside herself, she lifted her head and brought her eyes up to meet his. There is goodness in everyone, even in one of Hitler’s borreaux, she told herself, looking directly at him and searching his pale eyes for some hint of mercy.

Klaus, surprised by the audacity of her gaze, was taken aback. Prisoners did not

generally look him in the eye (or, if they did, it was only because they were practiced liars), yet here she was, petitioning him with a gaze so direct it felt almost intimate. During his training, he’d been told that no one, not even the weakest prisoner, was without power. Chained or beaten, it made no difference, they were still quite capable of pressing their advantage. He’d never given the notion much credence, but perhaps there was some truth in it. Before he could pursue his thoughts much further, though, a faint noise in the hallway—an intake of breath or a small exclamation—distracted him.

It was Olga, standing just inside the doorway, staring at Mlle Préjean in horror. It was as if the floor in front of her had suddenly opened up to reveal a pit full of rats. 

Klaus was mystified. A woman in her underwear, what was so shocking about that?

But then she lifted her eyes to his, and her gaze, though searching and dispassionate at first, quickly hardened into something mask-like. “Sorry,” she murmured. “I didn’t know.” And then, as quickly as she’d appeared, she was gone.

Well, good riddance, thought Klaus. A little goose whose only talent was giggling—who cared?Had she no idea what went on in Gestapo headquarters? What she had seen was nothing. Nothing! If she wanted, he could show her something much worse, something more in keeping with her misplaced pity.

He stepped away from the window and glanced at the men loitering around his office. “This is a waste of time,” he barked. Then, turning to Mlle Préjean, he said, “You may dress.” He waved the others away as if they were flies and then sat down at his desk, took out a file and started to make notations in it.

Josephine, stunned, pulled on her clothes as quickly as she could, afraid that at

any moment he might change his mind. All she could think of was getting away from this awful, airless building and out onto the street where the crowds would cover her up. But then, just as she was about to pick up her hat and gloves, the Obersturmführer stopped her. 

            “Leave those,” he commanded.  “I am inclined to believe you, but you are not going yet.”

IV.

It was a couple of days later, after Klaus had finally lured Olga into his bed—all it had taken was a promise to mail her letter, such a small thing really—that she asked him about the woman she’d seen in his office.

            “What woman?” he asked, watching as the smoke from his cigarette drifted lazily toward the ceiling.       

            “You know, the one you made strip in front of everybody.”

            Klaus frowned. “Well, you can hardly call it stripping when all she took off was the outer layer.”

            “Oh, I thought you made her take off everything.”

            “No, there was no need,” said Klaus, tapping the ashes from his cigarette into the ashtray that was balanced on his belly. “She was just a hapless schoolteacher. In the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all.”

            “So what did you do to her?”

             “Oh, nothing much. I gave her two days’ hard labor, that’s all.”

             “Hard labor?”

            “Oh, it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “Scrubbing floors, cleaning boots, that sort of thing. She got off easy.”

Olga was quiet for a moment. “But do you think she was really a schoolteacher?”

            “Why, don’t you?”

             “No, not really,” she said, rolling over onto her side so that her magnificent Busen was on full display. “To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure she was French.”

             “So, after only a few weeks in Paris,” said Klaus, teasing her gently, “you can tell who’s French and who isn’t?”

             “Well, no, not exactly, but in this case . . . well, didn’t you wonder about her brassiere?”

             “Her brassiere?” asked Klaus.

             “I know it sounds silly,” she said quickly, “but I recognized it right away. It was just like Hedwig’s.”

Klaus looked at her in bewilderment.

             “Hedwig, my sister in London,” she said. “You’re mailing my letter to her.”

             “Oh, right,” he said, blowing out a series of smoke rings that floated up to the ceiling.

             “Anyway,” she continued, “the thing about Hedwig is that she buys all her brassieres from Marks and Sparks and—”

             “Marks and Sparks?”

             “It’s really Marks & Spencer—people just call it Marks and Sparks—but the interesting thing about them is that everything they sell is British-made. It’s what sets them apart from other department stores.”

Klaus had been only half-listening, but the term “British-made” jumped out at him. “What exactly are you saying, Olga?” he asked.

             “Well, I’m not sure. It just seems strange that she’d be wearing a brassiere you could get only in Britain, that’s all.”

Klaus stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and set the ashtray down on the floor.

He knew the routine well enough, how you needed to check hatbands and labels—well, everything really—but it hadn’t occurred to him that it was necessary in the case of Mlle Préjean. She simply hadn’t seemed like an operative. If he’d been wrong, though, and she were brought in again—this time on something more substantial than crushing a cigarette under the sole of her shoe—he’d have to pray that Knochen never found out that he’d been the one who released her. Knochen had never much liked him anyway, and Klaus knew he’d be only too happy to cut him loose. Isn’t that what had happened to Dannecker, sent away to Bulgaria? And Heinrichsohn too: he’d been a Jew-lover of course, but marching him off to the Eastern front? It would have been easier just to put a noose around his neck and be done with it.

 “But she could have gotten the brassiere as a gift,” said Klaus, turning onto his side to face Olga. “Or maybe she went to London for a vacation and bought it then. You don’t know. There could be a hundred explanations.”

Olga brushed aside his protests. “Maybe, but didn’t you notice how shabby and worn-out it was? Everything else of hers was so elegant—the coat, the hat, that crêpe de chine—”

“But if she’d been trained by the SOE,” Klaus cut in, “don’t you think she would have been more careful? She would have known better than to wear something that could give her away.”     

Olga considered this. “Yes, you’d think so,” she said. “But people are funny. They turn all sorts of things into good-luck charms.”

“That’s what you think it was? A good-luck charm?”

“Well, maybe,” said Olga. “Either that, or a reminder of home.” She paused for a moment, then added, “You never know, wearing it might have given her a bit of courage.” She said this in such a wistful way that it seemed as if she knew Mlle Préjean personally.

 “Listen, Olga,” said Klaus, propping himself up on his elbow, “you’ve got to promise me that you’ll be careful not to mention this to anyone else, especially not in the office.”

Olga’s eyes shone. “So you think she was a spy? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No. No, of course not, but this whole thing . . . well, it’s somewhat irregular. I mean, it might be a bit difficult to . . . ”

“A bit difficult to explain?”

“Yes, something like that,” he said, stung by the jaunty, almost taunting tone of her voice. He tried out a small smile on her and waited for her to smile back, or perhaps even giggle (wasn’t she a champion giggler?), but Olga only looked at him blankly.

“Well, I wouldn’t worry,” she finally said, a little light of contempt coming into her eyes as she studied him. “Whoever she was, she’s long gone now.”

Klaus didn’t know what to say this, but there was no need to say anything. Olga, apparently done with him, was busy fluffing her pillow. Then, turning her back to him, she lay down and glided off to sleep as effortlessly as a child. For Klaus it was different, though. He lay awake for hours, smoking one cigarette after another and staring at the expanse of white ceiling above him. Russia was like that, he thought, just an endless stretch of snow and ice that reduced humans to ants. He could see himself there, gnawing on a frozen mule shank and watching while his toes turned black from frostbite.

But he was being irrational. Insomnia always did that to him. Still, there was no getting around the fact that he’d been sloppy—and sloppiness was not something the SD overlooked. Just ask Dannecker or Heinrichsohn.

He sat up then and, looking over at Olga, cursed her under his breath. What had she thought she was doing anyway, barging into his office the way she had? Hadn’t she known that an interrogation was underway? And why seize on some small inconsistency (maybe useful, maybe not) only to harbor it until—voilà!—she could hurl it back at him like a grenade?

He had let a viper into his bed, he realized, gazing down at the sweat-dampened curls that were stuck to the nape of her neck. Mindlessly, he reached out and touched one of them with his forefinger, noticing at the same time how thin her neck was. To measure, he dropped his hand onto the back of her neck, his thumb on one side, fingers on the other. Beneath the palm of his hand, he could feel the knob of a vertebra. There were seven in the neck, stacked up like shelves, and quite delicate really, more delicate than people realized. . . . But then, with a sudden jerk, he snatched his hand away. This was craziness. What was he thinking? She was a little girl, a goose. Only hours before, he’d been cooing in her ear. And he was unhinged enough to think . . . Quickly, he threw himself onto his side of the bed and lay there as if pinned to the mattress, waiting for his chest to stop banging. People talked about men, SD men like himself, who had gone off the rails and lost their effectiveness. This had been a close call, no question about it, but he’d be careful in the future, he’d keep himself in check. Because he couldn’t afford to let this war weaken him. Others might crumble, but not him, not Klaus Barbie.

– The End –