Authors: T. Davis Bunn
“Betray,” she repeated as another tear escaped. “Have you ever faced an impossible choice, Jake?”
“I'm not sureâ”
“Have you ever seen the only way to save what is most precious to you is by destroying all that you hold dear?”
“No,” Jake said, for some reason shaken to his very core by the fragile power of Jasmyn's words.
“Pray that it never comes, Colonel Jake Burnes. Pray that you are never seared by the flames of impossible choices.” Jasmyn rose to her feet by pushing upon the table with both hands. Then she leaned over and spoke intently. “There are others who have been asking about Patrique. Evil men with evil intent. They were among the smugglers. But if you speak with them, take great care.”
Jake started to his feet, but was stilled by the motion of one slender hand. He asked, “When was this?”
“Two months ago, and then again the week before last. I
know nothing more, except that one man bears a scar from forehead to chin and another is called Jacques. And also that you must watch your back if you search among the smugglers.”
She looked down at him a long moment, with a gaze that was tormenting to behold. “Take care of my Pierre,” she said quietly, then turned away.
Jake watched her slow passage through the cafe. As she passed each table, many people rose from their seats and gave little half bows in her direction. She walked with head held high, acknowledging none of it. A trio of men at the bar turned and lifted glasses in her direction, murmuring a salute that Jake could not understand. The barkeeper hustled out from his station, wiped hands on his apron, and opened the door with a bow. Jasmyn raised the hood up and over her beautiful face, gently touched the barkeeper's hand, then stepped into the night.
Jake was already downstairs and seated at the kitchen table when Madame Servais appeared on her way to morning Mass. She smiled and wished him
, then placed her hands together and raised them to the side of her faceâdid he sleep well?
Jake seesawed a hand. Not so well.
Bright, birdlike eyes peered closely, then the old lady spoke the single word, “Jasmyn?”
Reluctantly Jake nodded yes. He remained troubled by their encounter.
“Ah, oui. Jasmyn.” She sighed the words, then happened to notice the little volume that Jake half hid with his hands. She peered around his fingers, showed widening eyes, and asked, “La Bible?”
Jake lifted his hands. Although he had discovered no answers to the many questions scurrying about his head, he still found comfort in his morning routine.
They both started at the sound of another tread descending the stairs. Madame Servais motioned with one finger to her lips, shook her head, then pointed to her heart. Jake understood. He should not mention Jasmyn to Pierre's father because of his bad heart.
The look in her dark eyes deepened and she said the single word, “Pierre.” Then she shook her head once more and again pointed to her heart.
Jake sighed agreement as Madame Servais turned to her husband. So many secrets entrusted to him. So many questions without answers.
He exchanged greetings with the old man, then accepted the look of approval when his wife pointed out the small New Testament Jake had been reading. Madame Servais turned back to Jake and motioned an invitation for him to join them
for Mass. Jake thought it over and decided to accept. Perhaps the answers would come to him in church.
He was surprised by the number of people entering the church for early Mass. Almost every seat was taken. Jake followed Pierre's parents up to what was undoubtedly their customary pew. People slid over to make room for him, then offered little seated bows of welcome.
The church was built of ancient dressed stone. Small alcoves held narrow stained-glass windows, statues, paintings, and row upon row of candles. The people were of every age and description, from local farmers to stern-faced dignitaries in shiny dark suits. Jake followed their lead, standing and sitting and kneeling, understanding nothing, content to listen as the refrains echoed about his head.
He tried to pray, but the confusion only seemed to grow as he sat isolated by his lack of comprehension. Sally, his own future, his friend's distress, Patrique, Jasmyn, Lilliana's rumorsâhe did not even know where to begin. He began with a simple prayer for guidance and felt as though the words bounced about his own internal inadequacy. So he stopped praying and sat in silence.
It was not until he was leaving the church that Jake noticed a change. He stepped from the ancient dimness with its cloying scent of incense to be greeted by the sun cresting the buildings across the square. A brilliant ray of light shot over the rooftops and almost blinded him. In that instant came a sense of illumination, of answer. He could not explain why, not even how he could be so sure that here was a message intended for him. But he knew. He was being guided. There was a purpose to it all.
Jake walked back home, slowing his pace to match those of Pierre's parents, and knew peace. He was not alone.
“You say someone approached you last night?”
“Just after I left the restaurant,” Jake agreed.
“You're sure you've told me everything they said?”
“I'm sure. It wasn't much.”
“Enough,” Pierre replied, pedaling alongside Jake on the now-familiar road into Marseille. “It appears, my friend, that one of our little seeds has sprouted.”
“You know where to go?”
“The smugglers are a clannish lot,” Pierre replied. “They stick to their own cafes, their own streets.”
“I had the impression that just about everybody here is on the fiddle.”
“There is a difference between a fisherman who smuggled a load of weapons for the Resistance and another who lives from nothing else. Many people barter on the black market, selling chickens they have failed to register or butter from a cow hidden far from home. Such things are a way of life for us now. But with the smugglers it is different. War or no war, shortages or not, they would do nothing else.”
“You know them?”
“Not well. I know where to look because my uncle knew them. All fishermen do. And Patrique used them from time to time for smuggling people.”
Many of the people they passed were pitifully thin, especially the children. Young people sprouted from old clothes that fit their bodies only because they had not grown out as well as up. The men wore dark suits and hats or berets, the women simple print dresses and coats. All their clothes bore multiple repairs; all were burnished by age and wear.
And yet the people of this town remained erect. Proud. Confident. Determined. Jake wondered if he would have noticed it as strongly had he not just arrived from a defeated nation. Here, unlike Germany, there was no air of pervading dejection. Here there was hope.
They stopped as they crested the final ridge and the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean stretched out before them. Pierre asked, “What did he look like?”
“The man who spoke to you in the night.”
“It was a woman,” Jake said, wiping his brow as the sun rose higher in a cloudless sky. The previous night's chill had proved as fleeting as a bad dream.
“The street was very dark,” Jake hedged, wishing he could just speak the truth and get it over with. “But I'm pretty sure. Small, slender, a hood over the face.”
Pierre mulled that one over, then decided, “I want to go back there first and ask around. Perhaps someone else saw something more.”
Jake shrugged as though it was the least of his concerns. If somebody talked, he would be happy. He hated this subterfuge. “You're the boss.”
Pierre grasped his handlebars and pushed off. When Jake was alongside and coasting downhill, Pierre said, “Still I wonder why the woman came to you, and not me.”
“Maybe she was afraid,” Jake said.
Pierre picked up speed and called out over his shoulder, “Why would any woman be afraid of me?”
As they entered the crowded market area, Jake felt himself lifted and carried along by the general sense of contagious excitement. The air was charged with rediscovery. Still, there were ruins and want and decay and loss. Yet the people seemed to draw hope from this very hopelessness. They were seized by a wild spirit of reconstruction. They were free of the fascists' grip. The blindfold was off. What they saw was painful, yes, but at least they
Jake balanced his bicycle outside the cafe and waited by the side wall while Pierre popped into numerous doorways and asked his questions. The cafe's barkeeper came out to clean the two rusted roadside tables and set chairs in place. He ignored Jake completely.
Jake turned his face to the sun. The roofs of the surrounding buildings were steep-pitched and clay-tiled. The walls were mostly of dressed stone. The roads were dusty clay or crumbling asphalt or bricks smoothed to glassy roundness
by decades of hard use. Even in the middle of the city, the air was sweet with awakening springtime. The sky was an open, aching blue. Jake could not get enough of the air, the sky, the scent of sea.
Eventually Pierre returned, his face creased with thought. “All right. We leave our bikes here and go on by foot.”
Pierre hesitated. “I have the feeling . . .”
Pierre struggled with words that made no sense even to him. “I have the feeling that they are all waiting.”
“My friends. The homecoming celebration is over, or so it seems today, and now they are waiting. All of them. Everyone I knew and some I didn't. Watching me and waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
“This is what confuses me most,” Pierre replied. “It is as though they think I already know.”
“You realize,” Jake pointed out, “that what you're saying makes no sense at all.”
“They are waiting,” Pierre insisted. “I felt it at home this morning as well, but did not think of it at the time. They give me only half a greeting. Half a welcome. The other half they hold in reserve.”
Jake thought of the way Jasmyn had been bowed from the cafe the night before and said nothing.
Pierre started forward. “Come. Let us see if the smugglers can make more sense than my friends.”
Their way paralleled the harbor. Two streets farther along, the cramped orderliness gave way to ruin. The dwellings had been flattened as with a giant's hand. Streets were buried under a field of rubble. A few chimneys rose in mournful monument to what once was. In the distance, a pair of buildings stood isolated and naked, the only surviving structures in the vast acreage of desolation.
Grimly Pierre surveyed the specter, then said simply, “Le Panier.”
Something tugged at Jake, a thought that remained only half-formed. “And you say nobody was hurt when the Nazis did this?”
“A mystery, yes?” Pierre turned and started down the lane bordering the destruction. “I must ask my friends how that came to pass.”
The lane meandered along the brink of devastation. The buildings lining its right side looked out over a vast field of dusty stone and sorrow. Pierre stopped in front of a glass door and said, “I wish we were armed.”
Jake glanced at the utterly silent glass-fronted shop. Overhead were the vestiges of a name painted long ago, now so covered in dust and time that it was illegible. “We're going in there?”
“We must.” Pierre reached for the door. “Full alert, my friend. Watch both our backs.”
They entered a narrow cafe, and were enveloped in gloom.
The pair of cramped windows flanking the door were so coated in grime that little light could enter, and the cafe had no other illumination. The patrons stood cloaked in shadows. Jake felt unseen eyes fasten upon him as he stepped through the doorway.
Pierre moved up to the bar and gave a quiet salutation. The barkeeper responded with stony silence. As Jake's eyes adjusted to the poor light, he saw a man slip through a back passage and disappear from sight. His mind shouted a warning.
Pierre seemed utterly unaware of the silent hostility that gripped the room. He leaned against the bar, calmly pointed to a bottle behind the barkeeper's head, and spoke with casual politeness. Jake sidled over to a spot next to the window, from which he could watch the whole room.
The barkeeper lifted down a bottle and poured out a measure. His eyes did not leave Pierre's face. Pierre lifted the glass
and offered the blank-faced man a toast. Then he took a sip, set down the glass, and spoke a name.
The silence was taut as a scream.
Pierre took another sip. His hands were as steady as his gaze.
“So, the famous captain finally comes to see his brother's old mate,” boomed a guttural voice from down the passage, “and brings an American officer to keep him company.”
“Major,” Pierre corrected, his eyes still on the barkeeper.
“Captain, major, what is a little more gold braid between friends?” A great mountain of a man appeared in the hallway. He was not simply tall. He was huge in every way. A vast frame was covered in so many layers of fat that he had to turn sideways in order to pass through the doorway. “It is not often that an officer of the law dares enters these portals. Not even one who has a great American hero to guard the exit.”
“Colonel Jake Burnes,” Pierre murmured, remaining where he was. “May I introduce Abdul Hassad, smuggler king.”
“Yes, one who needs no ribbons to gain the fear and respect of his fellowman.” The man lumbered across the room to stand alongside Pierre. “By Mohammed's beard, if you did not wear the uniform, I would swear I stood before your brother.”
“The same brother who brings me here,” Pierre replied.
A slight thrill of movement coursed through the room. Jake watched the room and wished for a gun, a platoon, and another pair of eyes. The huge man's gaze narrowed slightly. “You have news?”