Authors: T. Davis Bunn
“Rumors only,” Pierre replied. “But enough to want to know what you know.”
“What I know,” Abdul Hassad rumbled. Despite the room's closeness, he wore a voluminous navy duffle coat over shapeless trousers and boots so large that one would have held both of Jake's feet with room to spare. “As you say, rumors only.”
“I hear that you know something more,” Pierre said.
“You hear?” The deep chuckle carried no mirth. “Then whoever speaks of my affairs has seen his last sunrise.”
“Tell me what you know,” Pierre said, his voice stony cold.
Dark eyes flickered in the barkeeper's direction, then returned to Pierre. “What I know is yours, Major Servais. For a price.”
With subtle ease the barkeeper flicked the towel off his shoulder and began polishing the bar. His other hand drifted down below the counter. Instantly Jake vaulted over the bar and locked one arm about the barkeeper's neck while he seized the unseen hand in an iron grip. The man struggled, but his strength was no match for Jake's. Tables and chairs crashed as men about the room leapt to their feet. Jake squeezed until the man yelped in pain, then wrenched the man's hand out and up, revealing a revolver which was now pointed directly at Abdul Hassad's massive chest.
The huge man barked out a command, and the room froze. Dark eyes held Jake with a baleful glare, and watched as Jake forced the gun out of the barkeeper's grasp and into his own.
Pierre had not moved. He took another sip from his glass and repeated, “Tell me what you know.”
His eyes still flickering from Jake to the gun and back again, the smuggler replied, “Others have been asking questions.”
Pierre nodded as though expecting nothing else and said calmly, “Jacques and the scarred man.”
Dark eyes blazed with fury. “Tell me who has spoken,” Abdul Hassad snarled. “By the Prophet's beard, he will dine upon his own tongue.”
“Where were they from?” Pierre demanded. “Morocco?”
Abdul Hassad ground his teeth in silence. The barkeeper tried to struggle, and Jake screwed up his arm lock until the man squealed in pain. The greasy little barkeeper smelled of old sweat and cheap tobacco and new fear. Jake raised the gun until it was focused directly into Abdul Hassad's glowering eyes.
“Marrakesh,” the huge man conceded.
Pierre nodded at the news. “Did they speak of a traitor?”
A snarl from across the room was cut off by a roared command from Abdul Hassad. “Get out while your legs can still carry you,” he growled at Pierre.
“What about Gibraltar?” Pierre pressed.
“I have said all that is to be said,” the huge man muttered.
Pierre glanced toward Jake and motioned his head toward the door. Dragging the barkeeper along with him, Jake circled the bar, the gun never leaving Abdul Hassad's face. Pierre opened the door, waited for Jake to exit, then said to the huge man, “You have been most helpful.”
The barkeeper struggled harder when Jake started down the sidewalk without releasing him. Jake tightened the choke hold and picked up the pace. The barkeeper wrapped both hands around Jake's arm and shuffled along on legs that could scarcely hold him up. His two-day stubble burned Jake's forearm like sandpaper.
Pierre stuck his face up close to the man's and snarled words in French. Then to Jake he said, “Keep walking toward the harbor.”
“No problem,” Jake said. “Take the gun, will you? I'll be able to move faster.”
Pierre accepted the gun from Jake's grasp and snarled something more to the whimpering barkeeper. Jake asked, “Are they behind us?”
Pierre glanced back. “No. It is not their way. They will wait until dark and try to strike us in the back.”
“Sounds noble.” Jake shook the man hard as fingers tried to pry his arm loose. “Then why are we bothering with this guy?”
“I want to get him out of sight. Down here.”
They turned down a narrow, filth-strewn alley that emptied directly into the bay. When the water came into view, the barkeeper wailed and struggled anew.
“Wait,” Pierre said. When they stopped he stuck his face within inches of the barkeeper's and roared. The man
whimpered a reply. Another angry command. The barkeeper spewed a fear-filled response.
Pierre took a step back, his face filled with cold loathing. “Let him go.”
The man dropped to all fours, coughed and rubbed his neck, then struggled to his feet. With one vengeful glance back at Jake, he turned and fled down the alley.
“What did you learn?”
“The hunters were indeed here,” Pierre replied, his eyes upon the now-empty alley. “They have traveled on to Gibraltar.”
Jake returned to Mass the next morning, trying hard not to hope for a repeat of the previous day's revelation. Still, when he remained untouched by the liturgy, he could not help but feel disappointment.
After the service, Pierre's mother motioned for him to remain behind while her husband exited the church. A familiar figure rose from one of the side alcoves and approached. Despite his surprise, Jake noticed the respectful greetings and formal half bows with which many people greeted Jasmyn. Madame Servais smiled sadly at the dark beauty, patted Jake's arm, and joined her husband outside the church.
Jake followed Jasmyn back to the side alcove. When they were seated and alone, she asked him quietly, “Do you believe in God, Colonel Burnes?”
“That's a strange question to hear in this place,” he replied. “And the name is Jake.”
“I come here to see Pierre's mother,” she said, “and to know a moment's peace. That is such a hard thing to find in my life that I dare not doubt or question or search too deeply.”
As gentle as the beat of dove's wings, as powerful as the rain, Jake felt a gift of words descend into his mind and heart. In the instant of receiving, he knew that by sharing the words he could make the Invisible real. “Perhaps if you dared to search and question, the peace would not be so fleeting.”
“I see you have answered my question,” she said softly.
But the giving was not yet complete. “True peace carries with it the gifts of healing and of forgiveness. Not for an instant, but for a lifetime.”
She was silent for a time, then asked, “And what if the forgiveness I seek is not from God? What if I pray to be forgiven by one who can never do so?”
Jake waited, but further words did not come. Instead, his
heart filled with a silent compassion. For her, for Pierre, for a world awakening from the tragedy of war. He tried to make the feeling live for her as well by giving words of his own. “Then I will pray for you both.”
“I wonder if Pierre understands,” she said softly, “just how special a friend you truly are.”
To that Jake had no reply.
They sat in shared stillness for a moment until she asked, “I have heard of your conflict with the smugglers yesterday.”
She waved it aside. “I will speak to friends. Pierre's family will be guarded against attack. Can you tell him that?”
“I don't see how,” Jake replied. “Not without telling him about you andâ”
She interrupted him with, “What will you do now?”
Jake sighed acceptance of her refusal. “We have heard from the smugglers that the hunters have traveled on to Gibraltar. Pierre wants to leave tonight on the train for Madrid, and travel on from there as swiftly as we can.”
She thought for a moment, then decided. “I shall take a compartment well away from yours.”
“How?” Jake looked down on her. “From the sound of things, unless you have a military pass, seats on the international trains are booked solid for months.”
She rose to her feet. “I have very few contacts in Gibraltar, but perhaps another pair of eyes and ears will be of help. And if your way leads from there to Morocco, I will be able to do more for Pierre.”
“You still love him,” Jake said quietly.
“Love?” Sorrow filled every pore of her being. “Last night I dreamed of holding his hand once again. I knew contentment for the first time in years. As I sat there, I looked down at the hands in my lap, and I could not tell which fingers were my own.”
“Pierre,” Jake said, then stopped. He was going to say, Pierre is a lucky guy, but caught himself just in time.
“Pierre,” she sighed, and reached out one hand to steady herself upon the back of the pew. “Pierre was more than a part of me. He was all of me.”
“If I hear of something, I will search you out,” she said, and raised the hood to veil herself once again. “The shadows have become my friends, Colonel Burnes. There is a chance that I can find what remains hidden to you.”
Beyond the CerbÃ¨re border station, the track changed gauge. All passengers alighted and carried their bags through customs before boarding the Spanish train. The French customs' search was perfunctory. The Spaniards' inspection was anything but. Fascist soldiers in gleaming black leather and funny feathered caps watched over the scowling customs officers. Above them all hung a brooding portrait of General Francisco Franco, undisputed leader of fascist Spain.
The mountainous terrain was far more arid on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. Beyond Barcelona they entered the vast plains of the Spanish heartland, which baked under a sun already eager for another summer.
At Madrid, before boarding the Gibraltar-bound train, Pierre and Jake scoured the area for food. Like many of the Spanish towns through which their train had passed, Madrid was a patchwork of normalcy and war-torn destruction. For several blocks they saw little indication that the country had recently suffered through a horrific civil war. Then scars emerged, destruction so severe Jake doubted if the country could ever recover.
The streets near the city's central station were so jammed with people it was almost possible for Jake to lift his feet and be carried along. Police and black-belted military were everywhere. The atmosphere was tensely unsettling, yet without any clear indication that anything was wrong. The entire region held a sense of forced gaiety, like the laughter heard at a wake.
There was little automobile traffic. Jake saw a number of army transports, a few ancient cars hung together with rust and baling wire, the occasional overloaded truck, sporadic tired and wheezy buses. But in truth the streets belonged to the pedestrians and the bicyclists and the soldiers.
There was little food to be had until Jake entered an apparently empty store and pulled out American dollars. Then everything was laid out before himâflagons of wine, a huge pie-shaped hunk of cheese, smoked beef, dried tomatoes, the season's first fruits, bread still warm from the oven. What the shopkeeper himself did not have, he scurried out and obtained from his neighbors. Pierre and Jake filled two sacks, in case provisions were scarce in Gibraltar, and hurried back.
As they entered the station, Pierre confessed, “I thought I would be leaving a great burden behind in Marseille, but I find I carry it with me still.”
Jake swerved around a porter struggling to maneuver a bulky wheeled wagon through the crowds. “Why's that?”
“I have been so afraid,” Pierre said.
The words sounded so alien, coming as they did from Pierre's mouth, that Jake had no idea what to say except, “You?”
“All the while that we were in Marseille. Strange, yes?” Pierre's smile meant nothing. “Every time we went into town, I was filled with terror at the thought that this street, this cafe, this turning, would reveal her.”
“Jasmyn,” Jake said, hating the subterfuge more than ever. It was there on his tongue to say that she was here, on the train, to push Pierre to go and find her, speak with her, make peace with her. But he could not. Something held him back. Amid the clamor of the Madrid station came a calm understanding that they themselves would have to choose their own time, their own way.
“So often I imagined seeing her,” Pierre went on, his eyes pained by the vision of what only he could see. “My mind would become filled with the sight of her, and I would be so terrified I could scarcely go forward. There she would be, walking toward me, looking as only she could look. And the thought alone would be enough to almost shatter my world. Break it into a million pieces that would never fit together ever again.”
“You should have sought her out,” Jake said quietly.
“You think so?” Pierre turned sorrowful eyes toward him.
“You can't go through the rest of your life like this.”
To his surprise, Pierre did not object. Instead, he set down his sack like an old man releasing a too-heavy burden. Slowly he straightened and said, “There was a voice in my heart which said the same. But my mind would scream, what if I did and it destroyed me?”
“It's a risk you need to take,” Jake said, wondering at the strength that let him say such things with such confidence.
“You speak as though it is still a possibility,” Pierre said. “Do you think I should give up this search for my brother? Return to Marseille and seek her out? Is that what you are saying?”
There in a silent thunderbolt of power came the answer. Unbidden, unexpected, yet in his heart to be spoken, given, shared with one in need. “You don't need to see her to forgive her,” Jake replied.
The words seemed to strip Pierre bare. “Forgive,” he said.
“It's the only way you will ever leave the burden behind,” Jake said, knowing it was the truth, yet wondering still.
“You know what she did,” Pierre protested.
“I know,” Jake said.
“Then how can you speak of such a thing?”
“Because I want to see you healed,” Jake said. “If you punish her, you punish yourself.” As suddenly as the power had arrived, it departed, leaving him embarrassed for having spoken at all. He hefted his sack and walked away. “Let's get on board.”