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June 30, 1915

First Assignment

I’m exhausted! Every morning the recruits are awakened at dawn, run through rigorous calisthenics, then given a simple breakfast, before instruction begins. We’re being trained for a life ahead that will likely lack the comforts of home, and will require quick thinking and spontaneous action. Life or death! My pulse races at the thought of what’s to come.

A month later, I’m on my first assignment. Having been thoroughly assimilated, I’m now Mademoiselle Antoinette LaFleur; the only child of Francois and Marie LaFleur from Toulouse, my fictional parents, sadly, deceased. However, Antoinette does have a beloved cousin and my ruse is that I’m to meet up with Gizelle at the Hotel Durand.

Some of the prettiest hotels I’ve ever seen are here in France. I said as much to the French concierge in the most effervescent tone I could muster; hands flailing with freshly painted nails. “Ooo! Cet hôtel est tellement pittoresque!”

This earned glances from the French and German soldiers sitting in the foyer, of course, but not the kind that told me they were suspicious. 

That’s right, gentlemen, this lady is much too simple to be a dangerous spy. 

At least I can confirm that my French is in top shape as no one so far seems to have noticed an accent. Thank goodness for the linguistics training I received under Captain Smithwick’s command. I’ve worked hard to lose any trace of my American, or even British, intonations. 

The Hotel Durand is a family run establishment in a pastoral setting, not fair from the train tracks. Generally, the patrons stay one or two nights before continuing on to their primary destination, which was why cousine Gizelle was invented. My assignment required that I stay longer, so I could watch the tracks behind the hotel, and more importantly, what trains ran on it. Before unpacking my bags, I pushed the window curtains aside and made sure I had a clear view. 

Captain Smithwick ardently believes that the outcome of the war depends on the massive railway network across Europe, and we spent an entire day in training discussing the rail network and it’s importance in this “modern” type of warfare we are now engaged in. Horses, carriages, and even automobiles don’t compare to the speed and efficiency of the locomotive.   

One wonders how fast we can adapt to all the new innovations that have come along in the last few years. The face of war has changed dramatically, and if we hope to have the upper hand, we have to be ready to adapt in everything from machine production to intelligence strategy. I just pray that our generals, some of which were involved in the last Boer war, are forward thinking enough for the job at hand. 

Listen to me. After one month of training, I have turned into a war analyst! 

In particular, I’m to watch for a German train that will make a brief stop here to board more soldiers—which explains the growing number of Bosche in the hotel—instead of merely passing through to make its way toward the frontlines. Captain Smithwick wants to know if the train is filled with supplies and what kind? Artillery? Or is it merely passengers and soldiers? It will take cunning on my part, to ingratiate with the waiting Bosche and hopefully overhear useful conversation. Because what they don’t know is that I’m also fluent in German, thanks to my linguistic interests during my time as a student at Boston University.

After looking out the window for a few moments I started to unpack my things when I heard a knock at the door. 

An attractive young lady, close in age to myself, stood in the corridor. With a warm smile she said, “Bonjour, my name is Julia Durand. We are pleased to have you as our guest. Is there anything that you require?”  

“Not at the moment,” I said. “Might I assume that this is your family’s hotel?” 

“It is, however,” Mademoiselle Durand glanced about to ensure we were alone, and lowered her voice.  “For as long as the Germans allow us the privilege. The Bosche of course, have decided they get to run things, for now.” 

I nodded soberly in solidarity. “Indeed, it is the way of things. For now.” I extended my hand. “I’m Antoinette La Fleur. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

It’s an odd feeling to assume a secret identity. Deceit doesn’t come naturally to me, though we were excised thoroughly in speaking aloud things that aren’t true. My name is Antoinette La Fleur. My parents are dead.  

“The pleasure is mine, Mademoiselle La Fleur,” Mademoiselle Durand said. “So that we can more effectively attend to your needs, may I inquire, what is the purpose of your stay?” 

It was entirely possible that Mademoiselle Durand was working for the Germans, though I sincerely hoped not. However, one never knew who could be convinced to side with the enemy.  We’ve been told their techniques to gain cooperation could be very motivating. As much as I craved friendship, I had to remain cautious.

“I’m meeting my cousine here. She should arrive before the end of the week!” 

“Oh, I hope you enjoy our village. I would be happy to suggest some good spots for dining, those that are still allowed to open, that is. There’s a wonderful place just across the street, actually.  And of course, there are a number of areas for pleasant evening walks. Just be mindful of the curfews.” 

She smiled, but her eyes were reserved. 

“Please enjoy the room,” she continued, her gaze veering to the window overlooking the railway. “I am sorry about the noise of the trains. But one does get used to them, and they don’t run all day at least, and rarely past midnight.” 

My heart raced a little when she said this. Did she suspect something? Could she be an informer to the Bosche?  Nonsense, I thought calming myselfHow on earth could she know the reason why I was there. 

I had to be diligent, though. One wrong action or word could mean imprisonment… or worse.

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