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Pantin

February 1, 1917

(From Murder in Belgravia)

Pantin, the French operative who’d been captured by the Germans two weeks ago, was rescued. Unconscious and gravely wounded, he’d been left to die in a shelled outbuilding near Maubeuge. He’d been discovered by one of our own, who’d crossed enemy lines to search for him. Miraculously, he smuggled Pantin back into unoccupied France. 

I rushed to the triage centre in Amiens, a church with the pews removed, where I found Pantin propped against the metal back of his hospital bed and staring out the window onto the snowy fields that lay just behind the hospital. His beard had been shaved off, and his head and one side of his face were covered in bandages. He was never large and had easily lost at least one stone, maybe more, making him look more like a frail lad than a man. His right arm was in a cast, and his chest was also bandaged. Both his legs were in casts.

I pulled up one of the wooden chairs and sat beside him. We conversed in French.

“Oh, it is you, Mademoiselle Lafleur.” His voice was raspy from disuse and perhaps from trauma to his neck, which appeared bruised. 

“It’s good to see you again,” I returned.

“Besides Webster, who saved me, you are the only one to visit me. Other than the hospital staff, no one has come to me.”

“I’m sure Captain Smithwick is on his way or will be when he’s told you’re alive. I’m not sure where he is now, though.” 

“Did they tell you I was in a coma until two days ago?”

“Yes. What do you remember?” 

“I remember the Bosche came before we could accomplish our mission and that I—” He glanced away, looking ashamed. 

“It’s not your fault, Pantin.” If anyone is to blame, it is Captain Smithwick. She’d expressed her concern about the nearby German garrison, but he’d brushed her off and pushed the operation through. 

“I can be thankful I’d hit my head,” Pantin said, “and that even when they slapped me around, I was unconscious most of the time and unable to tell them anything.”

He swallowed with difficulty, and I helped him sip tepid water from a glass. 

“I would be dead right now if it wasn’t for Araignée.”

Spider.

I know him now as Harry Webster. Spider’s nickname was an old one from his childhood and derived from his last name, but few knew that. We’d thought he had gone missing, but despite breaking his nose in the attack, he’d actually gone back for his friend.

“What else do you remember?”

Pantin sighed. “After I was captured, they took me to the garrison in Jemappes. They didn’t waste any time interrogating me. I don’t know if they had other prisoners, but they seemed to enjoy focusing on me.” He raised his good arm and pointed to his left cheek.” They started here, with a knife.”

Oh, mercy!

“They ask me who my compatriots are; what are the name of my superiors.” He stopped for a moment and looked at me. “I pretended to be out of my mind. I told them nothing.”

I let out a long breath. His silence had, without question, saved lives. 

“Then they started on my ribs with their rifle butts. Two are broken,” He looked down at his legs, “Then one of them started on my legs. The doctor tells me I may never walk again.”

I felt anger rising in me.

“After a while, I passed out for real. In the middle of the night, I awoke in a dark cell in great pain. I lay there for a time. It is hard to tell how long, maybe four hours. When you are in agony, time goes slowly.”

Carefully, I placed a hand on his arm. “I regret you had to go through this, Pantin.” 

“Just as I was begging God to take me, I heard scratching, and there was Spider. He picked me up and carried me out into the forest. I do not know how he did it, but he found a horse and wagon. It was a long, painful ride, mademoiselle, and I passed out several times. The next thing I remember, I was in this bed with bandages and casts and a constant need for morphine.”

A nurse had recently given him a shot of the medication, and it had kicked in. “Tell Estelle, I’m here, will you? Will you?”

I didn’t know who Estelle was, but as I squeezed his hand, I said, “I will.” 

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