January 16, 1917
(From Murder in Belgravia)
As Captain Smithwick and I entered the old farmhouse once again, I was hit with the smells of stale cigarette smoke, horse manure, and oakwood burning in the old pot belly stove, which filled the room with the sounds of crackling as the damp wood struggled to burn. Claude, the tall Frenchman I’d met the last time we gathered there, sat at the wooden table, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. His hand quivered as he lifted it to his mouth and inhaled. He ran a sleeve under his nose, and his watering eyes blinked rapidly as if he were trying to gather his wits.
Captain Smithwick presented a bottle of cheap whiskey. The glasses we’d used last time were still in the sink, and I quickly rinsed out three of them, drying them with the hem of my skirt.
“We did not stand a chance,” Claude said. He lifted the whiskey to his lips and took a big gulp. “Ces porcs, those swine! They appeared out of nowhere.”
“Do you think someone warned them?” Captain Smithwick asked. He hadn’t shaved for a few days and his blues eyes, usually sharp and clear, were red and puffy from lack of sleep. “We think there could have been a double agent, a spy that went to Jemappes to warn the garrison.”
I shot Captain Smithwick a look of surprise. I had heard no one present this as a theory.
“I do not know about that,” Claude said. “I assumed a German patrol had seen us and had raced back for support without us knowing.”
I recalled the concern I had voiced on the night the raid was planned, that the German outpost was too close. “It is only a short distance,” I said, looking straight at the French operative. I kept my eyes from Captain Smithwick as I didn’t want to appear to challenge my superior.
“Oui,” Claude agreed.
“How many of them were there, do you think?” I asked.
“At least forty, maybe more, mademoiselle. We heard zee sound of their vehicles first, then came zee lights, and shouting in German. We scattered in all directions as those blasted Maxim MGs opened on us. Bodies everywhere. We were outnumbered!”
Since coming to France, I’d become an expert at throwing back whiskey shots, and now seemed a good time to indulge. I let out a hot breath as the liquid burned down my throat.
“You are the only survivor that we know of,” Captain Smithwick said as he refilled our three glasses. “Did you see anyone taken prisoner?
Claude swore. “They got Pantin.”
His jaw clenched as he closed his eyes. Though he hadn’t moved, his breath became quick and short. “I ran into the forest, hid, and then raced to a lookout on the small mountain beside the railway route. From there, I saw a group of German soldiers heading back on the road towards Jemappes. Pantin, holding his head in agony, was being dragged along the road.”
He gulped his whiskey, wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “A moment later, the train came down the tracks. The one we were supposed to blow up.”
“Did you go back down to check for survivors?” Captain Smithwick asked.
“No, sir.” Claude turned his attention back to his cigarette and took a long drag. “Two Bosche were coming up the side of the mountain. They had tracked me through the snow. I ran down the other side of the mountain, and I didn’t stop running for hours. At one point, I ran a few hundred metres down a shallow brook to break my trail. I’m glad they didn’t have dogs with them.” He chuckled, but it was humourless. “As they will tell you in the village, I collapsed inside the door of the church. The parson found me soon after.”
Afterwards, once Claude had been dismissed, Captain Smithwick and I stood on the farmhouse’s porch. The captain lit his pipe and leaned against the wood siding while I leaned on the hewn railing.
“He could be lying,” he said as he waved out his match. “He could be the one that tipped off the Bosche.”
“I am not sure how,” I said. “How could he have gone to…”
“I don’t know,” he snapped. “Perhaps he informed them with the help of someone else. Perhaps even before the operation had started.”
I considered this for a moment,” I suppose so, but—”
“I think he’s telling the truth, at least about that.”
“I’m the one who taught you how to tell if a man is lying.”
I countered, “And everything you taught me tells me this man is not lying. I don’t think he knew about the German counterattack.”
There was a moment’s silence between us. Captain Smithwick sniffed in frustration, looked out into the night, and lifted the pipe to his mouth, holding it between his teeth. The embers burned red in the dark as he inhaled, giving his features a ghoulish look.
“Spider is missing.”
“Spider?” It was the first I’d heard this unusual handle.
“A British operative who joined the mission last minute. If he flipped…” The captain shook his head. “All of our operations could be compromised.”
“This Spider could be dead,” I said. “Even without a body to prove it.”
Captain Smithwick snorted. “It takes months to set up a network. People risk their lives just to allow for it. A bakery hires a certain helper, a mother suddenly encounters a long-lost sister, a city official brings on a new staff member. All under the watchful eye of the dratted Germans.”
“I know,” I said simply. I had helped set up such situations and was posing as someone else continually.
He looked at me, his expression grim. I wondered if the strain of leadership was taking its toll on him. It seemed he had seconded guess himself, a trait that could get people killed.
“I’ll find this Spider and find out what he knows.”
Captain Smithwick stared into the darkness. “Yes, Mademoiselle Lafleur. See to it.”