The average life expectancy for a radio operator in occupied France was six weeks. Marie Claire was going on six months. Although time had long run out, she was still transmitting. The SS had already captured every other wireless operator, and she knew it was just a short while until the van circling Paris would detect her signal too. She had repeatedly been called back to London by her supervisor, the indomitable Miss Chapman, but Marie Claire knew that without her, the vital communications between the French resistance and its London headquarters would be severed.
The carefree Paris of her youth was now littered with giant red and black swastika flags. Gangly German soldiers on leave from the Eastern front didn’t think twice about asking her to the Deutsches Soldatenkino to see propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ latest anti-Semitic offering.
She tried to remain inconspicuous as she carried the thirty-pound suitcase of equipment that pulled her slightly down to one side like a bombardier fixing on its target. Walk straight; she commanded herself as she painfully leveled out her gait, ignoring the ache in her arm. One would think that after six months of lugging the wireless transmitter, she'd have gotten used to this, but there were many things she still hadn't gotten used to, like the SS military band marching up the Champs-Élysées every day at noon, blasting out the peppy, almost friendly, military march "Preussens Gloria.”
Conscious that the wooden soles of her shoes (all the rubber had gone to the war effort) made a sound akin to a lame horse on cobblestone, Marie Claire felt even more vulnerable that morning. She turned a corner and almost walked into a street cleaner plucking a cigarette butt from the midst of his circle of detritus. She watched as he put it into his pocket to save for later. Like most men left in Paris, he was old, the young ones deported to work for the Third Reich in Germany. She walked on until she reached the address that had given to her by Michel. This was to be her last transmission; she'd be picked up within the week. Miss Chapman wanted her back, and this time, she wasn't taking no for an answer. One last transmission and she'd be in London, living a monotonous life with her mother.
Michel had passed her the information as they walked arm in arm like a pair of lovers in the Jardin de Tuileries. He gave her a list of coordinates and what ammunition was needed to derail a train carrying supplies to the German troops in the East. Afterward, he pressed a key into her hand and whispered the address of the safe house from which to transmit. Then he kissed her once on each cheek and left. The exchange took less than a minute, but Marie Claire still felt the stubble of his five o’clock shadow as she walked out the park gates onto the Rue de Rivoli, made ugly by the giant swastika flags flapping in the wind.
Marie Claire pushed open the heavy door of the six-story building on Rue Laurent-Pichat. A silent, zaftig concierge cracked open her door and watched as Marie Claire ascended the steps to the third floor. Unlocking the door to apartment number seven, Marie Claire noticed everything was in disarray, and for a moment she wondered if it was indeed safe to transmit. Something told her to leave immediately, but she promised Michel that she would do this one last thing. She unlatched the suitcase and adjusted the crystals within the wireless set. Holding up the steel antenna, she unbolted the casement windows and slapped the metal bars behind laundry hanging from a line. The antenna was barely noticeable, but if anyone looked closely from the street below it could be seen when the laundry shifted with the wind. The SS van turned on Rue Victor Hugo, coming closer, but far enough away still as to not pick up her signal.
She sat cross-legged on the bed and began to tap carefully. First, her handle and then her safety word. The latter's absence would tell London she had been captured and someone else was in control of the wireless. Her transmissions were known to be clear and precise. She tapped out the list of what was needed to derail the trains moving supplies to the East, and where the drop was to take place.
The van circled closer picking up her signal, but the lead went dead.
Inside the apartment, Marie Claire waited for acknowledgment that her information was received. She watched as the seconds ticked by, and then the minutes, and then an hour on her wrist watch. Finally, the reply: "Received. Wednesday usual spot."
Marie Claire tapped back her response and removed the crystals, grabbed the antenna, and shut the case. Her job was finished; now she had only to wait two days to get out. After closing the case, she heard the concierge yell downstairs—warning her. She stashed the suitcase under the bed and pushed open the window. It was a straight drop down. If she jumped she'd die, but if captured, she'd be tortured. She decided to jump. As she was about to leap, the polka-dotted bow on the front of her shoe caught between the window and the ledge. She was trying to disentangle herself when the SS men stormed into the room. Seeing her half out the window, they lunged, grabbing her before she could jump. Marie Claire remembered what Miss Chapman taught her: if captured, play for time. She ceased struggling and went limp in their arms.
Slim awoke to the sunlight hitting her eyes through the open shutter. Next, to her, Daniel lay on his back; her nail marks dug deep into his shoulders. She playfully bit his neck, then his shoulder, and then his arm, but stopped at the tattooed numbers on his forearm. She couldn't kiss that one bit of skin. The first time they had gone to bed, Daniel noticed Slim shy away from the blue numbers crudely engraved into his skin.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” he told her.
Still, she could not bring herself to touch that part of him. Daniel pulled her on top of him and kissed her long and languorously. Afterward, he lit two cigarettes. "You screw like a man," he said, placing the unfiltered stick into her mouth.
“You’re not the first person to tell me that,” Slim replied in the American-accented French she’d learned at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City.
She took a long drag and blew smoke straight towards the ceiling. Daniel got up and pulled on his pants.
“Where are you going? I’m not done with you yet,” she said, grabbing the belt loop and embracing him from behind, licking the salt off his back.
“Enough, Slim, I have to go,” Daniel said impatiently.
“Where to besides here? Wouldn’t you rather stay in my arms right now?”
Daniel picked up her freckled hands and kissed her palms. "Efraim wants to meet. I must go, or I will be late."
Slim pulled her hands away. “What is it now?” Anything to do with Efraim meant trouble.
“Slim, I have to go.”
“What about the agency? What about our work?”
They had started the Pitchipoi Agency six months after the Red Cross had closed the repatriation center where Slim had been employed tirelessly for three years. The center had been located in the Hotel Lutetia, in the Saint-Germain-de-Prés section of Paris, which had, ironically, been the headquarters for the SS during the occupation. Slim’s job was to help repatriate prisoners of war, find homes for displaced persons, and learn what happened to the families of returnees from the German concentration camps. Even though the Red Cross had closed down their repatriation center, Slim knew there were people still to be found. She and Daniel started the Pitchipoi Agency, so called because, as Daniel told her, it was the term the Polish Jews used in the Drancy transport camp when someone asked where they were being sent. He said it meant “imaginary place” in Yiddish or Polish; he wasn’t sure which language. It certainly sounded better than where they’d end up, Auschwitz.
Their agency had one purpose only: to find out what happened to people who had been lost during the war. So far they had solved only two cases. The first, a man who'd been sent to Germany to work in a factory in 1941 and wanted to find out what happened to his wife and two children. The news was not good, but not the bad news he thought it would be; she was shacked up with his best friend who was bringing up her husband's children as his own. The man thanked Slim and Daniel, then promptly hung himself. The other case, a woman searching for her child who had been hidden with neighbors during the war, had a slightly more positive outcome. Slim located her daughter in an orphanage in Toulouse. Mother and child were reunited, and they were happily planning to emigrate to the new nation of Israel.
Bringing together a lost family struck a deep and primal chord with Slim. As the only child of the feckless Irish movie star Tyrone Moran, she had grown up motherless and if one looked closely, fatherless as well. With a penchant for underaged girls and hard liquor, Tyrone had wisely sent his daughter away almost as soon she could swear and curse God. Tyrone Moran may have been a drunk, he may have been a womanizer, but he wasn't going to have a daughter with a foul mouth taking the Lord's name in vain. So Slim was shipped off to the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an all-girl school in New York City, where Tyrone would visit her when he wasn't playing a swashbuckling hero on a movie set. Slim received a first-rate education, and when the time came, her father sent her to Trinity, a Catholic women's college in Washington, D.C., where she majored in French literature and Georgetown boys. Her senior year, she fell deeply in love with one of them, a redhead named Patrick McCarthy who enlisted in the Navy and became a fighter pilot. He had proposed before he shipped out overseas. When his B2 disappeared in a raid over Germany, Slim's life as she knew it disappeared as well. Unable to accept that Patrick was gone and believing he was somehow lost in a POW camp, she went to France in 1945 to work for the Red Cross with the hope of finding him.
Before she took off to war-torn Europe, Tyrone Moran begged his daughter to stay stateside, but not because he feared for her safety. Unbeknownst to her, he was dying of cirrhosis and wanted to spend the time he had left with the child he barely knew. Ignoring his tearful entreaties, Slim went anyway, hopeful that maybe she could find Patrick. When her father died a month after she arrived in Paris, he left his fortune to his only known child. At the tender age of twenty-two, she found herself an heiress, albeit a brokenhearted one. She met Daniel in 1949 at the infamous Left Bank hangout Cafe Le Select. Their attraction was immediate, and some could say it bordered on the animalistic. In addition to her father's lustrous auburn hair and green eyes, she had also inherited his libido. With Daniel, she met her match.
“You’re not going to tell me where you’re going or who you’re going with?” Slim was annoyed, ravenous from the night of lovemaking, and nauseous from the cigarettes.
"I'm not running off with some other woman if that's what's worrying you. I told you I am meeting Efraim," Daniel said as he blew rings of smoke towards the painted tin ceiling. He reached over and stroked her arm playfully. Slim pulled it away. She was in no mood to be placated.
“I am not going away with another woman. I am going away because I have a job to do. That’s all I’m going to tell you.” Daniel stood up and buttoned his pants.
“I wish you would trust me,” Slim said.
“It’s not about trust, Slim. It’s about survival: yours and mine. When you need to know, I will tell you.” Daniel cupped her chin in his hands and kissed Slim roughly on her lips.
“But what if something happens to you?” Slim hated herself for sounding so needy.
“If something happens to me, you will know. Everyone will know. The world will know.”
Slim suddenly felt a chill go up to her spine. "Promise me you won't do anything foolish, Daniel."
"I don't make promises, Slim, especially not to women." With that, he kissed her again, this time chastely on both cheeks, and left. Naked and alone, Slim punched the bed. As a young child, she willed herself not to care, not to show emotion, not to be hurt. She knew that despite her best efforts, she was in love with Daniel, and it physically hurt her to be so dependent on someone who gave so little back.
Daniel ran toward the building where his extended family all lived on Rue de Sevigne. His father and uncles were in the barbershop cutting hair when he burst in dripping with sweat. It was the middle of August, and the air was humid and dank.
“Papa, they’ve rounded up the foreigners,” Daniel said, out of breath.
“Shh,” his father said, annoyed. “You’ll scare Adrienne.”
His five-year-old sister, Adrienne, sat in a chair patiently combing through her doll's hair.
“What am I supposed to be scared of, Daniel?” Unconcerned, Adrienne’s blue eyes remained fixed on her doll’s head. “There are so many knots, Papa!”
“First we do your hair, then bebe’s.” His father shot Daniel a look of warning. His father’s brother, Uncle Marcel, whose barber seat was empty, ushered Daniel outside. He took a precious cigarette butt out a tin container and lit it.
“Has the shop been busy?” Daniel asked. He had been at Ephraim’s, his friend from the Sorbonne, where they would have been in their second year if they hadn’t been expelled for being Jewish. They tried to continue their work by studying together, but often their sessions would devolve into how they could get back at their enemy occupiers. That afternoon, they had taken a break from their books and discussion and walked over to the bakery when they heard the news.
Marcel took another drag. “No, it has been almost empty. Unusual for Shabbat, but what day is usual anymore?” He tugged at the star on his smock and rolled his eyes. “So who has been rounded up?”
“They’ve rounded up all the foreign Jews and sent them to the Vel’ d’Hiv,” Daniel said.
“The Vel’ d’Hiv?” Marcel asked, his curiosity piqued. Why would they send the foreign Jews to the enormous cycling velodrome outside of Paris? It didn’t make sense.
“On the line outside of Sascha Finkelstein's bakery, Madame Bernheim told me that ten thousand foreign Jews are being held without any food or water. The bathrooms are overflowing, and there is raw sewage everywhere. People are committing suicide by jumping from the upper levels."
"Madame Bernheim exaggerates when she tells the time. Enough. They're probably sending them back to their countries or refugee camps. The Marais is crowded enough without every Jew from Poland knocking on our door."
“What if they come for us?” Daniel asked, feeling panicked now.
"How many times do I have to tell you, the Cohens are French. Yes, we are Jews. But first, we are French." Marcel clipped the end of the cigarette butt with his fingers and put it into the tin and snapped it shut. "Enough, it's almost Shabbat. Did you bring a challah?"
Daniel handed his uncle the meager loaf he had managed to secure. His grandparents lived on the first floor; his aunt and uncle lived on the second floor with their three young children; the third floor was inhabited by his other uncle, aunt, and widowed uncle and their developmentally disabled son; and finally on the fourth lived fifteen-year-old Daniel, his five-year-old sister Adrienne, and his beloved parents. In the front on the first floor was the family business, a barbershop where all the men worked daily except Friday afternoons until Saturday sunset. On Fridays they would convene in his grandparents’ apartment, light the candles and eat Shabbat dinner together. Even with the roundups, or “rafles,” as they would come to be known, this Shabbat would not be any different.
Daniel did not broach the subject again until outside of Finkelstein's bakery a week later, when he heard from Madame Bernheim that the foreign Jews had been sent to an abandoned, Dada-inspired housing project in Drancy, a suburb outside of Paris, and were then being herded onto trains and shipped east. Daniel could no longer keep quiet. He went straight to his father and uncles in the barbershop and told them what he had heard. This time they did not take the news so lightly. It was too late to hide, and the entire extended Cohen family began to panic. If Drancy was being emptied of the foreign Jews, surely the French Jews would be next.
The roundup of the French Jews began in September, and the sixteen members of the Cohen family were sent to Drancy and then onto Auschwitz when Daniel was the only one to survive.
It took months for Slim to coax the story of his family's fate out of Daniel, and even then he gave her only the barest of facts. When she asked what Auschwitz was like, Daniel put his hand over her mouth and said only, "Don't." She never brought up Auschwitz again, but she did try to heal Daniel's heart; she bought the building where his family had lived and worked together and gave it to him. Expecting him to cry out with joy, or tears, or even anger, he took the keys from her and simply nodded. When over drinks at the Ritz she told her father's old lover, Marlene Dietrich, what she had done, Dietrich asked if one of her ex- lovers, Francoise Derrain, could reopen her famous lesbian bar La Silhouette on the bottom floor where the barbershop had been. The Gestapo had shut it down soon after the Germans had entered Paris, and Dietrich reasoned that it was time for La Silhouette to open its doors again. As her father's longtime lover, Dietrich had been the closest thing to a mother she'd ever had, so although she wanted to say yes, it wasn't her decision. Slim thought Daniel would want to keep the barbershop shuttered as a memorial to his family, but much to her surprise, he agreed.
“We will take the money made from the bar and help the Jews get to Palestine,” he said, referring to the mass exodus of European Jews to the newly minted Jewish State of Israel. She and Marlene’s ex-lover, Francoise, a trim, chain-smoking, handsome woman who favored well-tailored men’s suits, set to work and transformed the barbershop into one of the hottest lesbian clubs in Paris.
Six months later, the bar was an assured success, and Slim was again at loose ends. She came down to the bar to try and help Francoise close up for the night, but was shooed away. Feeling useless, she went upstairs and found Daniel smoking and studying a map of Germany.
“What are you doing?” she asked, a bit concerned by the marks he was making with a greaseless pencil.
"Nothing," he replied, making Slim feel anxious. Their affair had settled, not quite into a routine, but steady enough so that the initial excitement and newness was gone. They were both a bit bored with the lack of direction their lives were taking.
“Francoise doesn’t want my help,” Slim began.
“Why would she need your help? She’s got Remy,” he said, referring to the Gypsy woman Slim had taken pity on and hired after finding her mopping the floors at the Hotel Lutetia.
“I just don’t know what to do with myself now that the Red Cross closed my displaced person’s center. I thought the bar would give me something to do, but . . .” Slim trailed off.
“There are still people who need to be found. Why don’t you set up your own agency? I’ll help you.”
Slim opened an office above the bar and placed an ad in Le Parisien Libéré. The first two cases came one after another, and then a week went by, and then another without a single inquiry.
After saying a quick goodbye to Daniel, Slim wandered downstairs to the bar. At the bottom of the stairs, she saw Remy, mopping the floor. Inside the bar, Francoise was going over inventory with her ever-present cigarette dangling from her lip.
“Daniel left,” Slim said as she slid into a chair.
"You need to forget him," Francoise shot back and continued to count bottles of liquor. "Look, the thing is about the soap people . . ." (Francoise called all survivors soap people because it was rumored the Nazis took the fat of the Jews and turned them into bars of soap.)
“I wish you wouldn’t call them that. It’s disrespectful,” Slim countered.
Francoise shrugged. She stopped counting, went behind the counter, and started making them each a cafe au lait. Slim looked around. Dark and smelling of stale cigarettes and sour red wine, in daylight the bar made her feel depressed. She asked Remy to open the large widows to let in air. Francoise came back and placed a bowl of cafe au lait in front of Slim and pulled up a chair.
“I call them soap people not to be disrespectful.”
“But, it sounds so . . .”
"I know how it sounds. It sounds so . . . dismissive." Francoise searched for a word. Her English was tinged with a posh British accent; no doubt picked up from some titled lover whom she bedded before the war had started. "But I'm not trying to be dismissive. I want to throw what happened into everyone's face."
“You mean the Germans?” The steamed milk burnt Slim’s tongue.
"Not only the Germans but also the French,” Francoise said.
“The French? What are you talking about?” Slim asked. “You were the ones who were occupied.”
"Before de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Élysées, Coco Chanel was holed up in the Ritz with her Gestapo Officer," Francoise continued. "Oh, I know now, everyone pretends they were part of the resistance, but deep in here," Francoise stabbed her cigarette out in a tray and tapped her temple, "we know who did what."
Slim sipped her cafe au lait. “What does Daniel have to do with the soap people?”
“Did Daniel ever tell you how he survived in the camp? The job they gave him?” Francoise asked.
“Yes, of course, he was nearly worked to death in a Krupp munitions factory, why?”
“It is not for me to say then. You love this man Slim?” Francoise lit another cigarette and blew out her match.
“I’m not one for love. Maybe it would be easier if I was a lesbian.” Slim smiled.
"Women are brutal with one another, tender in bed, but once out, they will tear your heart out and serve it to you on brioche for breakfast."
Slim looked up at Francoise to see if she was kidding; she wasn’t.
“Look, I know you care for Daniel, but be careful. He’s damaged goods.”
“Aren’t we all?”
"No, not like that. There are some soap people no one can help."
“But . . .”
“Be careful. People like Daniel live as ghosts in this world. In his mind, Slim, he’s already dead.”
While Slim considered this, the front door opened, and a short woman in her late forties wearing a smart gray suit walked in.
“The bar doesn’t open until eight. Come back later,” Francoise said as she turned away and started barking orders at Remy.
“I’m not looking for the bar. I’m looking for the Pitchipoi Agency.” The woman took a piece of folded newspaper from her purse and showed Slim the ad: Need to find someone lost during 1940-1945? We can help. Agency Pitchipoi. 37 Rue de Sevigne.
“Who do you need to find?” Slim asked as she motioned to the woman to sit. She was suddenly grateful that she had someone to distract her from her problems with Daniel.
"During the war, I was part of the Special Operations Executive. The SOE, stationed out of London. I was in charge of thirty-eight women who were sent into France as couriers and wireless operators."
“You ran spies into France who were women?“ Slim was impressed and also relieved that this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill missing spouse case.
“Their jobs were to find out what supplies were needed by the resistance so they could commit acts of sabotage against the Nazis.”
Slim wasn’t sure where this was going, but it was certainly more interesting than moaning over some man who viewed her more as an option than a priority.
“I sent thirty-eight women into France. Twelve did not return. After the war, I promised their families I would find out what happened to them. I have tracked down eleven of them.”
“But not the twelfth?”
The woman pulled an envelope out of her purse, opened it, and took out a snapshot.
“I need you to find out what happened to Marya Vyrubova. Her mother is dying. She wants to know what happened to her daughter.”
Slim studied the picture of the young woman in uniform. “Surely if you found the eleven you lost, you tried to find her as well?”
“I’ve exhausted every avenue, every lead. At this point, I think a pair of fresh eyes would help.”
Slim laid down the picture. "Well, Mrs.?"
“Miss Chapman. Flora Chapman.”
“Miss Chapman, I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise anything. I think it’s admirable that you want to find out what happened to her.”
"It's not me being admirable. It's me being responsible. I was the last person to see these women off from England; I sent them all to their deaths. Marya is the final piece of the puzzle I need to solve."
Slim looked up, a bit startled by this frank admission. “Where do I start?”
“Tomorrow, there is a gathering of some of the survivors of the French section of the SOE at 84 Avenue de Foch at noon.”
“Why there?” Slim asked.
“That’s where the Gestapo brought them to be tortured by the Sicherheitsdienst, or the SD, as they were known. They were an offshoot of the Gestapo that dealt with the gathering of intelligence."
“What will the surviving agents tell me that they haven’t already told you? I assume you’ve interviewed them,” Slim asked, wondering why would they reveal anything to her, a stranger they did not know.
“I’ve interviewed them more times than I can count. I’ve turned over every rock, every rumor, but nothing leads to Marya.”
“What makes you think I can do it?”
"I'm running out of time—my office is closing at the end of the month, and as I said, Marya's mother has but weeks to live. I need to find out now what's happened to her if she's still alive."
“I can try, but I can’t imagine I’ll do better than you already have.”
“Tomorrow, you’re going to be introduced to four SOE agents: two men, two women. One of them is the one who betrayed Marya. Once you find out who, you will find Marya.”
“You mean the body, of course?”
“No, I mean Marya. I think she is still alive.”
"Why do you say that?" Slim was confused. "Surely, she must be dead. It's been almost five years since the war ended."
“Someone has been calling and transmitting messages in Morse code to me over the telephone.” When Slim didn’t respond, Miss Chapman read her mind. “You think I’m mad, but I’m not.”
“What do those messages say?”
“They say, ‘You promised you would find me, now keep your word.’ ”
“But how do you know it is Marya?”
“Because the transmitter uses Marya’s safety word.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
"The safety word was used to make sure that the person transmitting was indeed the transmitter. Without it, we would know the agent had been arrested, and someone else was transmitting in her place."
“But couldn’t someone find that out somehow and . . .”
Chapman stopped her before she could continue. “It’s also her fist.”
“Fist? I don’t understand.”
"Every transmitter has their own way of tapping keys. She had long pauses between her words. And that's not all; she transmitted using Playfair Cypher."
Realizing by Slim's look of confusion that she had no idea what she was talking about, Miss Chapman explained, "It's an encryption technique where one letter of the alphabet is omitted. Most agents encrypt using their favorite poem, but we didn't have enough time to train Marya."
“And she’s sending these messages where?” Slim asked.
“To my office, which is being shut down next month. The British government’s post-war austerity scheme has no room for extraneous spending. That’s part of the reason I want to hire you. I have to go back to London and organize the files to be archived. But I can’t do that and have the time to look for Marya.”
Francoise came over with another bowl of cafe au lait, leaned between the two of them, and picked up the photo of the missing agent. “Sacrebleu.”
“What?” Slim asked. “Did you know Marya Vyrubova?”
“I knew her, but her name wasn't Marya, it was Marie Claire.”
"Marie Claire?" Slim said, incredulous. The story was getting more and more bizarre.
“Her alias was Marie Claire. How did you know her?” Miss Chapman asked, intrigued.
“I knew her because she was my lover.” Francoise’s gaze lingered on the worn photograph.
The trim woman did not blink at this information but continued. "Tomorrow, Miss Moran, is July 14th, the day of the Liberation of Paris. The surviving members of Marya's network will meet at 84 Avenue Foch, and from there they will go to a celebratory luncheon at Tour D'Argent. I've let them know that you will be joining them."
Slim smiled at the mention of the famed restaurant. She had only been once when she was a small child.
“Now I must go home to London, and you must start your work, Miss Moran.”
“How did you know my name?” Slim asked, surprised. The ad did not mention her name.
“I asked around. Is it true that you’re Tyrone Moran’s daughter?”
When Slim nodded, the older woman continued, “ I thought so. You’re the spitting image of him, and most times what’s handsome on a man is ugly on a woman. You seem to be the exception. What’s your fee?”
Slim told her, and the woman wrote out a check and handed it to her.
“If Marya is alive, as I think she is, she must be found before her mother dies. You have three weeks at most.”
“May I keep the photo?”
“Yes, but it’s the only one I have of her, so please don’t lose it.” With that, Miss Chapman got up and left.
Slim handed the photo to Francoise and asked, “What do you think?”
“I think if Marya were alive, she would have contacted me by now.”
“Were you very much in love?”
"No, it wasn't love. It was something far more desperate than that," Francoise said ruefully, and Slim wondered what exactly had happened to Marie-Claire.
Marya knocked on the door of a flat located off Baker Street in London’s West End, still confused as to why she had been summoned there. Two days ago, she had been working as a typist for the Royal Air Force. Perhaps she was being transferred, but from the look of the building, it didn’t seem like a government office at all. The door was opened by a butler in tails who led her up in a lift, then into a small water closet, and told her to wait. Marya looked around at the black marble sink and the red silk Japanese-inspired wallpaper lining the walls. She closed the toilet seat, sat down and wondered why she had been summoned.
She reviewed her work; she was a competent typist, she never was late, she kept to herself and went home to her widowed White Russian mother every night. So, why in the world was she here? The door opened just as Marya was contemplating whether or not she had time for a quick piss, and the butler asked her to follow him. He led her across a carpeted hall, opened a door, and a friendly man in mismatched Harris tweed waved her in.
“My dear girl, please take a seat!” The man who looked to be in his mid-forties almost fell off his chair as he stood to greet her. He appeared like an absent-minded schoolteacher in his rumpled, stained tie with the Etonian stripe that looked more like a hangman’s noose than a Windsor knot. Marya decided he was more of an avuncular, bumbling uncle than whatever he was supposed to be.
“Excuse me . . .” Marya began, “I think there’s been some sort of . . .”