(2008) No infringement upon the rightful owners of "Combat!" and the characters thereof, is intended.  This piece of fan fiction is for enjoyment only, and in no way will the author gain monetary profit from its existence.

Author's note:  "Ashes, Ashes" is the conclusion to "Hide and Seek" and "Finders, Keepers."

 

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 "Ashes, Ashes"

By White Queen

 

 

Rolfe Weidman strolled down the cold, muddy street, hands in the pockets of his American-issue coat.  He enjoyed assignments like this; they made a nice break from his usual routine.  His mark was not a high-ranking Allied officer or a brilliant Resistance leader this time, yet he needed to be eliminated no less than the more prestigious marks.  Rolfe's superior had told him of the man's exploits, the property he had destroyed, the plans he had ruined, and the SS officer he had butchered.  The vermin had to be exterminated before he could do any more harm.

Which was why Rolfe had been given this assignment.  He was rapidly becoming one of the finest SS assassins, the kind they sent after the important marks.  Not bad for someone who had turned twenty-two a month ago.  Of course, this mark would not be difficult to kill.  He might even have been assigned to someone less skilled, if the SS officer he had killed had not had a father who was friends with Himmler.  The bereaved parent demanded that Orion be sent on the hunt.  No one else could be trusted to avenge his son's death.

Orion -- the Allies believed him to be one man, an efficient killer who moved with lightning speed from one mark to another.  Most Germans believed the same thing, and Orion was quickly becoming a morale-boosting legend for the Wermacht.  Only a select few members of the SS knew the truth:  Orion was really several men, each a talented assassin in his own right.  Only two months ago, after completing his fifth assignment, Rolfe had become the fourth member of the deadly group, and he wore the Orion mantle with pride.  He was now the legendary hunter; whether his hunting ground was an Allied headquarters or a small French town like St. Vitonus, Orion's prey never escaped.  In thirteen months, Orion had claimed responsibility for killing nineteen prominent Allies, and many of those kills had involved eliminating an extra annoyance or two as well.  It was not healthy to come between the hunter and his prey.

As Rolfe strode along, he reflected on the fact that Allied Intelligence -- if you could call it that -- had never come near Orion.  He was always long gone by the time his kills were discovered.  The last time a disguised Rolfe had casually discussed Orion with two talkative GIs, they said no one had any idea what the assassin looked like.  Some said he was tall, others thought he was short.  Some described seeing a dark-haired stranger near the scene of a kill, while others claimed to have seen a fair man.  Stupid Americans.  They never realized why Orion had so many faces.

Rolfe sighed.  He was so bored.  He had set up his base of operations, done reconnaissance for days, and formed his plans.  Now he was waiting for the right time to strike.  So to keep in practice, since he had nothing better to do, he was mingling with the enemy.  Walking among them, interacting, secure in his knowledge that his disguise was foolproof. 

This was the hardest part of his profession:  waiting.  Waiting for the prey to enter the trap.  Waiting for the adrenaline to surge through his veins.  Waiting for the triumphant thrill as he informed his superior of another success.  Waiting.  Being Orion required much patience.

 

*****

 

Lt. Hanley toyed with a half-full glass of cognac on the table in front of him, but his attention remained more or less on the door leading into the little establishment.  It wasn't a café, but it wasn't really a bar either.  Could a place with only nine tables be called a restaurant, or should he stick with calling it a café?  Perhaps a pub?  The ones he'd frequented in England had contained both a bar and tables, liquor and good food -- or as good as English food got, anyway.

Perhaps he should just call it Le Maison des Anges -- that's what the sign over the doorway said.  Hanley's French had never been good, but he was pretty sure that meant "house of angels" or something to that effect.  He looked around the little room -- if there were any angels in the house, they were keeping a pretty low profile.  The other eight tables were crowded with soldiers and a few local girls.  Outside the door, several more GIs waited for a table to open up.  Hanley'd had to use those looey bars on his collar to full effect to convince a couple corporals that they were ready to leave.

The French town of St. Vitonus was still in decent condition, despite being so near to the German border, and the Army had decided it was a great place to send people on forty-eight-hour passes.  Local businesses were making good money off all the carousing soldiers, especially businesses that either sold refreshments or replaced windows and furniture.  Hanley had only been in Le Maison des Anges for fifteen minutes, and already two soldiers had been tossed out on their ears for getting into a row over the overworked waitress's scanty attentions.  The rotund man behind the long wooden bar served as both bartender and bouncer, and seemed equally adept at both tasks.  Although shaped like one of the beer kegs lining the wall behind him, he obviously had enough muscle beneath his layers of flesh to protect the establishment.

Hanley checked the watch strapped to the arm he still dangled over the chair back, then returned his attention to the door.  Saunders should have been there ten minutes ago -- he'd agreed to let Hanley buy him a drink just as soon as he found their billets.  Maybe he'd misunderstood and was waiting at one of the town's other busy bars.  But no, Saunders only misunderstood the things he wanted to -- and letting Hanley buy him a drink wouldn't be one of them.  He'd probably just gotten delayed.

Before Hanley could work up any real curiosity over the sergeant's tardiness, he was distracted by the entrance of an attractive young woman.  She wore a long black coat belted around her waist and a black beret perched on short, dark curls that bounced gently as she walked.  A green skirt and an elegant pair of ankles peeked out from under the coat's bottom hem.  Hanley watched appreciatively as the woman moved to the bar with a dancer's athletic grace. 

Although his table was too far from the bar for Hanley to overhear the conversation clearly, he guessed the woman was asking if the bartender had seen someone.  At least, that's what Hanley gleaned from the one or two words he managed to understand -- why hadn't he learned more French from his college roommate Raymond?  He should have taken a little time out from the co-eds....  

It seemed the bartender's answer was not what the woman had hoped for, because she threw up her gloved hands with an exasperated cry and turned back toward the door, her eyebrows puckering together.  Hanley slid out of his chair and stepped between her and the exit with a swiftness his lazy pose had belied.  "Pardon moi," he said, hoping the smile he flashed would make up for his lousy pronunciation of her language. 

She smiled back, a sparkle in her brown eyes momentarily replacing her concerned expression.  She was not conventionally pretty, but her round face held so much vitality and apparent delight in life that she was more attractive than many more beautiful women.  "For what should I pardon you?" 

Hanley's smile widened.  Her English was good, touched with a French accent that made her sound stylish and sophisticated.  So much the better -- he wouldn't have to rely solely on his looks and manners.  "I couldn't help overhearing," he explained, gesturing toward the bar.  "I'm sorry you didn't find what you were after.  Were you looking for anyone in particular, or would I do?"

"How sweet to offer your services, Lieutenant," she responded, touching his arm with one gloved hand. 

Hanley felt about twelve feet tall, and not just because her head barely came up to his shoulders.   

"However," she continued, "I regret to inform you that I am looking for someone in particular."

"I see."  Hanley considered offering his assistance in her search -- if he wasn't here when Saunders arrived, surely the sergeant would understand.  But while he hesitated, she stepped closer to the door and arched her eyebrows at him as if wondering if he meant to hold her prisoner there.  So Hanley made a polite almost-bow and moved out of her path.  "I hope you find him soon.  An evening like this is too fine to waste by being alone."  He gallantly opened the door for her.  The air outside was crisp and cold, but clear.  After the smoky interior of the pub, it felt refreshing. 

As the woman passed him, Hanley added, "If you should have the misfortune of not finding him, I plan to spend the evening here.  You're welcome to join me."

"Thank you, but I am confident I will find him.  I always do."  With a little wave, she turned and walked down the street.  An appreciative blond, curly-haired corporal dawdling near the doorway gave a sharp whistle, then looked up, noticed the bars on Hanley's collar, and tried to turn his wolf whistle into the opening notes of "Begin the Beguine."

Hanley glared at the soldier, then turned to go back to his table before someone else commandeered it.  He had the door half closed when he heard a familiar voice with a slow Southern accent drawl, "Well, if it ain't Lieutenant Hanley!"

Sure enough, here came Moseby Lovelace, waving his left hand... wasn't that the one the SS had broken a few months back?  Or had it been his right?  So much had happened since then, so many soldiers coming and going, fighting and dying, that Hanley couldn't remember.  In fact, he had nearly forgotten the three-storied inn and the night he and Pvt. Kirby had spent imprisoned there.  "Well, if it isn't Corporal Lovelace," Hanley copy-catted.

"Sergeant Lovelace," the gangly soldier corrected him, pointing to the added stripe on his sleeve.

"Sergeant!  I'd say that calls for a drink."  Hanley ushered the Intelligence man into the pub.  A few months earlier, Hanley would have said Lovelace wasn't cut out for the Army, and now the Georgia boy had made sergeant. 

"Well, I thank you for that, Lieutenant, but I'll just warm up a bit an' then be on my way.  The fact is, I'm on duty.  I just happened to be passin' by an' thought I'd say hey."

Hanley hadn't noticed the door opening again, as he'd been standing protectively near his table with his back turned to the entrance.  So he was startled to hear Sgt. Saunders' voice beside him.

"You buying drinks for the whole army, Hanley?" Saunders asked, removing his helmet and running his hand through his hair in that familiar motion that Hanley had never understood.  Was it supposed to make his hair less messy?  Because it seemed to accomplish the exact opposite.

Hanley said, "Only for the sergeants."

"Just the sergeants, eh?"  Saunders grinned at Lovelace.  "Guess you got that stripe just in time then, Tiger."

"I reckon so.  An' just between y'all an' me, I didn't earn it for bein' able to shoot a squirrel through the eye at fifty paces.  Though I'm sure that didn't hurt none."

"It's good to know S2 recognizes talent."  Hanley pulled back his chair, but didn't sit down.  "Sure you can't join us for just one celebratory round?"

"No, I figure I've dawdled long enough as it is."

Saunders raised his eyebrows.  "Keep your boots on, Lovelace.  Why the rush?"

"Not everyone's as lucky as you fellers.  Some of us've got work to do."

"You're in town on business?"

"Sure am."

"Anything we can help you with?" Saunders offered.

Lovelace frowned, glancing around at all the other soldiers cluttering the pub.  He sat down at Hanley's hard-won table and waited for Saunders and Hanley to join him, then beckoned them closer and lowered his voice.  "Did y'all ever hear of a Nazi called Orion?"

Hanley blinked.  "The assassin?"

"We think he's in town."

Saunders frowned.  "Also on... business?"

Lovelace nodded.

"Wait a minute," Hanley said.  "Orion goes after important people.  Generals, colonels, people like that.  What's he doing in St. Vitonus?  I doubt there's anyone above a captain here."

Lovelace said, "I ain't exactly at liberty to discuss it.  Just don't be surprised if'n you don't see me around after this.  I'm apt to be a mite busy."  He raised his voice and said, "Sorry, fellers, guess you'll have to owe me that drink."

Hanley followed his lead.  "Like I said, come back and join us when you're free," he said loudly.

"Will do."  Sgt. Lovelace shoved his chair back from the table.

"So long," Saunders said.

"Be seein' ya."  Lovelace stood, saluted Hanley, and headed back outside.

"Uh, about the billets...." Saunders said once Lovelace had gone.  "They're full.  We'll have to find private lodging."

"What?  Aren't our names on the list?"

"No."

"Are you sure?  Who'd you talk to?"

"Corporal Cassotto -- you remember him, used to deliver our mail a few months ago?  Seems he's in charge of billets now."

Hanley frowned.  "Did he remember you?"

"Sure."

"And you said we both should be on that list?"

"Yes."

"What about your men?"

"They're all squared away."

Hanley sighed.  "Great.  Maybe I should go talk to him."  But he'd told that girl he'd be there all evening.  What if she came back and he missed her?  Only a few words had passed between them, but Hanley felt more interested in her than in any woman he'd seen in months.  Just the memory of her pert, upturned nose made him smile.  "I don't like to leave this table, though.  You don't know what I had to go through to get it."

Saunders glanced around the roomful of enlisted soldiers and noncoms.  "Flashing those bars on your collar must've been difficult," he teased with a straight face.

Hanley didn't bother dignifying that remark with a response.  On the other hand, it shouldn't take very long for him to convince Cpl. Cassotto to get them a spot to stay.  They might be back here before the girl returned.  If she returned.  "Fine, let's go."  He removed his coat from the back of his chair and pulled it on reluctantly.

As Hanley and Saunders headed for the door, two soldiers pushed their way in, leaving a muddy trail as they headed straight for the table Hanley had relinquished.  He gave them a baleful glare as he exited.

 

*****

 

Rolfe snugged his jeep cap down over his blond curls and sauntered away into the darkness.  He did not need to follow the woman -- he knew where she would go.  He had been to the building where she shared an apartment with her brother and her lover.  He would have liked to enter the shop below, get a better idea how things lay, but he had not seen any other American soldiers do so, and he knew better than to make himself conspicuous when he was this close.  The French were more suspicious than the Americans -- he could pass himself off as a GI in any American camp as easily as his grandmother could make kopfwurst.  The French were harder to fool.  They did not even trust the real Americans, suspecting them of helping themselves to French wine, women, and food whenever possible.

But every assignment had its challenges.  He had studied the building from the outside, scouted the area for possible hiding places, and formulated no fewer than six escape plans.  As usual, Orion would be far away by the time his kill was discovered.

Rolfe stuffed his hands back into the pockets of his American coat, just another fresh-faced young soldier on leave chasing that elusive good time.  He nodded to his fellow enlisted men, half-heartedly saluted the occasional American officer.  Behaved just as every other GI with two stripes on his shoulder behaved.  At times like these, he himself nearly believed he was an American.  Not Rolfe Weidmann.  Not Orion.  Just Corporal Fred Benson from Franklin, Pennsylvania.

He even thought in English, at least most of the time; he berated himself for the occasional mental lapse into German.  When he was deep undercover, he began to dream in English as well.  This was the safest way --  it was difficult to detect the lie when the liar himself believed it was true. 

Rolfe rounded a corner and ducked into a recessed doorway.  Checking for tails was automatic, routine, but he knew it to be unnecessary tonight.  No one would suspect the young corporal with the innocent blue eyes and snub nose might be a spy.  Why, he barely looked old enough to carry a rifle.  He probably had made corporal because he had shined his boots better than anyone else during Basic Training.

When he was certain no one had followed him, not even the tall lieutenant who had glared at him for whistling at the woman, Rolfe walked a few yards farther, then slipped into a narrow alley that led to the abandoned house where he had set up his base of operations.  He would strike tonight and be back behind German lines in no time.

 

*****

 

Hanley followed Saunders down the street, their boots crunching on the mixture of frozen mud that covered the town's main thoroughfare.  "How far to the billets?"  Hanley noticed Saunders had flipped up his collar against the bitter night air, and he did the same.

"Just at the end of this street."  Saunders pointed to a two-story building about a block away.  "Used to be a hotel before the war."

Hanley didn't say anything.  He was watching the few civilians passing them, searching for dark curls and a black coat.  Maybe he would be lucky and meet up with her on the way.

They were halfway to the erstwhile hotel when two teenage boys bolted out of a dark alley between two storefronts.  They were laughing and shoving something in their pockets.  When they saw Hanley and Saunders, they sped up. 

"Hey!" Hanley called after them, not sure why he did, but convinced the two were up to no good.  Where were the MPs when you needed them?  Those hoodlums had probably rolled some drunken GI in the alley, taking his pay and cigarettes and anything else they could grab.  Hanley hesitated, not sure if he wanted to chase down the boys or go investigate the alley.  He reached for his sidearm, just in case of trouble, then remembered he was unarmed.  Since they were going on a 48-hour pass in a secure area, they had left their weapons back at the lines. 

Saunders made up his mind much quicker than Hanley; he was already in the alley by the time the boys ducked around a corner up the street.  The sergeant had knelt beside a man lying facedown on the pavement.  In the darkness, Hanley had trouble distinguishing details, but he thought the man was wearing a black overcoat, not an American uniform.

"Well?"  If the guy was a civilian, they shouldn't interfere.  Unless he was hurt, then they should try to find a doctor.

"He's alive."  Saunders grunted, struggling to turn the man onto his back.

Hanley looked out into the street to see if he could spot any civilians who could get the man some help.  A sharp intake of breath from Saunders pulled his attention back into the alley.  "What?" Hanley asked, then saw the face of the man sprawled on the ground.  "Oh."  Even in that dim light, he could make out the thin mustache, unruly black hair, and handsome features of Marc d'Yae.

"Yeah."  Saunders leaned back on his heels and studied the unconscious Frenchman. 

"I might have known," Hanley muttered.  It seemed wherever Moseby Lovelace turned up, so did d'Yae.  But they were hundreds of miles from the area in northern France where their lives had tangled before.  What was d'Yae doing here near the border between France and Germany? 

"He's out cold," Saunders reported.  "But I don't think those two kids had anything to do with it."  He wrinkled his nose. 

"Hmm."  Hanley squatted beside them.  Once he got that close, he too could smell the stale, cheap wine.  It was hard to tell if d'Yae had poured more down his throat or on his clothes.  "Guess we should get him out of here."  There was a time when Marc d'Yae had greatly annoyed Hanley, but now all he felt for the Frenchman was pity.  Disowned by his father, hated by the people of his hometown... alcohol was probably his only friend now.  Hanley helped Saunders hoist d'Yae's body off the ground.

Saunders slung d'Yae's left arm over his own shoulders, and Hanley did the same with the right.  Together, they pulled and dragged the Frenchman out of the alley.  As they reached the street, d'Yae's head moved of its own accord.  "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" he slurred.

Hanley and Saunders stopped.  Gently, Saunders said, "It's us, d'Yae."  When there was no response, he said, "Marc?  It's me.  Saunders."

Marc turned his head a few inches and opened his eyes.  "Saunders?" he slurred.  "Pourquoi es-tu ici?"  He blinked several times, then repeated, "Why are you here?"

Saunders said, "Someone has to take you home."

"Ah, yes."  Marc looked down at his dirty clothes.  Beneath his open coat, his shirt was untucked, his tie loosened. 

Hanley shifted his weight a little; the difference between his height and d'Yae's made him stoop to hold the Frenchmen up.  Saunders was closer to d'Yae's height and having a much easier time.  "Where do you live?"  Hanley kept his words slow and distinct so they would have a better chance of penetrating the drunken fog filling d'Yae's head.

D'Yae turned to face Hanley for the first time.  "Oh, you are here too."  He tried to straighten up, but only succeeded in tipping them all off-balance for a moment.  When they'd regained their footing, d'Yae said, "Well?  Here to gloat over the miserable failure?  Have I come to a bad end like you always expected?"

Hanley frowned.  "I think you're confusing me with--" he almost said your father, but realized that would be less than tactful, so changed it to, "--someone else."

"Oh, no."  D'Yae shook his head, making his wavy hair even more unruly.  "I know exactly who you are, Lieutenant.  I do not think for one minute that you are my father."

So much for tact, Hanley thought.

"If you were my father," d'Yae continued, "I would be dead already.  That is what he promised, you remember.  The next time he sees me, he will kill me."  He turned to Saunders.  "Sometimes I wish he would be quicker about it."

Saunders changed the subject, his voice soothing.  "Let's get you home.  You'll feel better in the morning."

"I will not!" d'Yae protested.  "In the morning I will feel as if a German had drove... drived... had driven a Panzer over my head.  And I will wish he had.  Right now, I feel nothing.  I like to feel nothing."

Hanley started walking again, and Saunders followed, with d'Yae stumbling between them.  The last thing they needed was to stand around in the street listening to the ex-Resistance fighter's drunken ramblings.  Hanley wasn't sure where he was going, but he figured if they walked around long enough, d'Yae would tell them where he lived.  If all else failed, they could go back to Le Maison des Anges for a while.  Anything would be better, and warmer, than standing in the street.

"No, no, no!" d'Yae cried when he noticed what direction they were walking.  "We must turn around -- we are going the wrong way.  Or better yet, take me back to the alley and let me sleep where no one will find me."

Behind them, a woman's voice said, "It is too late for that, Marc." 

Hanley's eyes widened.  He'd bet a month's pay that was the same woman he'd been hoping to meet again.  The three men slowly turned around, d'Yae's inability to maintain his own balance complicating the procedure.

Sure enough, there stood the same tiny woman with the soft curls framing her face, the same clear dark eyes... but not the same flirtatious sparkle.  She crossed her arms and gave d'Yae a glare that would have wilted Hanley on the spot.  "Two hours, I have been looking for you," she admonished.  "Two."

"You should have gone home."  D'Yae sounded as if he wanted to be defiant but was just too tired and drunk to pull it off.

The woman recognized Hanley; she gave a little shake of her head, sending her curls bouncing again.  "Thank you for finding him for me, Lieutenant," she said.  "And thank you too, Sergeant."  She tipped her head at Saunders.  "I will take him from here."

Hanley wondered just how she planned to get the inebriated d'Yae home by herself.  Before he could say anything, Saunders offered, "Why don't we help you get him home?"

"That will not be necessary."  She smiled, although her eyes looked uncertain.  Or maybe suspicious?

"It is all right, Isabelle."  D'Yae gave her a lopsided smile.  "I know these men.  Sergeant Saunders, Lieutenant Hanley, meet Mademoiselle Isabelle Audel, my zookeeper."

"Hello," Saunders said with a short nod.

"How nice to see you again."  Hanley kept his smile from being too eager, but locked eyes with Isabelle for a moment to let her know he was still interested.  But until he figured out what her relationship to d'Yae was, he'd better keep things simple. 

"They are friends of yours, Marc?" Isabelle asked.

"They are."

"Very well.  This way, gentlemen."  She led them down a small side street.

Hanley wondered why Isabelle Audel seemed suspicious of them.  Was she concerned for d'Yae's safety, afraid they would ask him to go on some dangerous mission?  He had to admit that was plausible.  But how could he convince her they were nothing of the sort -- that they hadn't known d'Yae was even in the area until they found him in the alley?  How could he allay her fears, whatever they were?

As they turned off the side street onto one that ran parallel with the town's main road, Hanley reminded himself that it might not even be his place to try to allay Isabelle Audel's fears.  For all he knew, she and d'Yae were more than friends.  Was he her suitor?  Lover?  Fiancé?  She had seemed exasperated with him, but not uncaring.  And who wouldn't be exasperated to find her man in such a condition?  They might even be married -- her gloves covered up any engagement or wedding rings.  A lot could happen in a few months, especially during a war. 

But before Hanley could pursue those thoughts, Isabelle stopped and motioned for them to do so as well.  She moved out of the street and stood in a shop front's shadow.

"What is it?" Saunders asked.

"A man.  You see him?  Across the street."  Isabelle pointed to where an American soldier stood in front of a two-story building on the corner.

"Is that--" d'Yae mumbled, squinting.

"It is."  Hanley raised his voice and called, "Lovelace!"

The soldier turned and waved. 

Isabelle gave a sigh of relief.  "That is Moseby Lovelace?" she asked.

"Sure is."  Saunders led them out to join the S2 sergeant.

"Well, I'll be," Lovelace said.  "Reckon you done helped me after all."  His face was split with that easy grin that seemed to appear just as quickly now as it had back in June when he had been a green private.  "Hey, Marc," he said.

D'Yae's face widened into a goofy smile.  "Another old friend," he slurred.  "I regret to inform you I have no useful information."

Lovelace shrugged.  "That ain't why I came to see you nohow."

"Oh."  D'Yae managed to stand a little straighter without unbalancing Hanley and Saunders.  "Permit me to present Mademoiselle Isabelle Audel.  Isabelle, this is Moseby Lovelace.  Sergeant Lovelace now, I see."

"I am pleased to meet you."  Isabelle bestowed a warm smile on Lovelace, the kind Hanley would have liked to receive.  She added, "Marc speaks of you often. Will you come up to our apartment?  All of you?  My brother will be home soon, but if we are quick, I can pour you some of his brandy before he arrives to protest."  Without waiting for them to answer, she led the way over to the building Lovelace had been scrutinizing.

It had two stories, a store on the bottom and living quarters above, and occupied the corner of the block.  As he neared it, Hanley could tell the wooden outer walls hadn't been painted for several years, probably since the Occupation.  But the display windows flanking the front door were spotless.  To the right of the store stood a stone house, and beyond that Hanley could tell there were other structures, but it was too dark to make them out.

D'Yae seemed to regain some control over his limbs.  As they crossed the street, he hardly stumbled at all.  When they reached the door that Isabelle had unlocked, he pulled his arm away from Hanley's shoulders, although he still leaned on Saunders.  "My thanks to you, Lieutenant," he said with exaggerated formality. 

"You're welcome," Hanley said, although d'Yae had already turned away and allowed Saunders to draw him through the doorway sideways.

Isabelle relocked the door when they were all inside.  They had entered a spacious, darkened room filled with lumpy objects that Hanley couldn't quite make out.

"One moment, I will light a lamp."  Isabelle moved over behind what appeared to be a long counter.  She struck a match, its fierce golden flare replaced in a moment by an oil lamp's warm glow.  The small halo of light around Isabelle showed that the lumpy objects were open barrels full of nails, shelves lined with shoes and boots, and bolts of cloth on the twin wooden counters that ran in front of the two long walls perpendicular to the street front.  Hanley realized it was an old-fashioned dry goods store.

"This way, please."  Isabelle led them down the empty aisle in the middle of the store toward a door in the back wall.  The door led into what appeared to be a storage room, the walls lined with stacks of boxes and a few barrels.  To the right were narrow wooden stairs with a handrail on one side.  Opposite the door to the store was another door presumably leading to the street out back.

Isabelle nimbly mounted the steep steps, but d'Yae and Saunders stopped at the foot of them, Hanley and Lovelace waiting behind.  "Ah," d'Yae said, "my old enemy:  the staircase of doom."  He pulled his arm off Saunders' shoulders and placed one shaky hand on the railing.  "They say facing a loaded rifle is the way to learn if you have courage, but I think these stairs are a truer test." 

Isabelle called down, "Stop complaining and come up before I get tired of waiting and leave you in the dark."

"You see what I put up with?" d'Yae lamented, but he placed one foot on the bottom step and, using both hands on the railing, hauled himself up the stairs.  The others followed until they all stood in a neat little kitchen.

Isabelle had removed her brown shoes and put on a pair of slippers that looked almost like those worn by a ballerina.  "Take off your boots here," she commanded.  "I do not want to clean mud out of the carpets in the other rooms.  And you may hang your coats there."  She indicated a row of hooks by the door, where her own long, black coat already hung. 

Obediently, the four men hung up their coats, then pulled off their boots and lined them up on the bare wooden floor.  While they did so, Isabelle lit a candle from her oil lamp and moved into the room beyond, lighting other candles until the room filled with a cozy glow.  "Come sit down, gentlemen."  She gestured to the sofa and three overstuffed chairs that filled the room.

Hanley was glad he'd put on a hole-less pair of socks that morning.  As he walked to the nearest chair, his feet sank into the rug in a way that brought memories of home and peacetime.  Isabelle Audel and her brother didn't live in luxury, but the room spoke of people accustomed to a comfortable life.  Two tasteful paintings, both landscapes, complimented the rug's muted blues and greens and the earthy tones of the furniture.  It struck Hanley as a masculine room, the chairs upholstered in smooth leather unadorned with antimacassars or other frilly things to indicate a feminine presence.  The floor-length curtains at the window that overlooked the street were simple beige muslin, no lace or satin there either.  And the only furniture besides the sofa and chairs were one tall bookcase built into the opposite wall and a low liquor cabinet between Hanley's chair and the door to the kitchen.  Hanley wondered if Isabelle had lived there long, or recently joined her brother due to the war.

Marc d'Yae settled into a chair in the corner between the window and the bookcase, while Lovelace and Saunders took opposite ends of the ample sofa, Saunders by the bookcase and Lovelace by a hallway with a small window near the end.  Hanley assumed the hall led to the bedrooms.

Isabelle opened the liquor cabinet and brought out four tumblers and a glass decanter three-quarters full of amber liquid.  "I regret that we have no proper glasses," she said while filling each tumbler.  "We traded them away long ago.  But we have discovered that brandy does not taste so very different when sipped from these rather than a snifter."  She handed a tumbler to Hanley, who sat nearest the cabinet, then took two to Saunders and Lovelace.  She kept the fourth for herself as she perched on the empty chair between Hanley and the window, tucking one foot beneath her.

D'Yae had nearly fallen asleep, his head lolling on the back of his chair, but when Isabelle sat down nearby, he complained, "What?  No brandy for me?"

"You have had your share already tonight," Isabelle said.

Hanley rolled a sip of brandy around in his mouth.  It wasn't cheap or hastily manufactured for the thirsty Americans pouring through the country.  It was real brandy aged properly, and as he swallowed, it warmed him through and through.  He smiled, his eyes half-closed.  This one tumbler might be the highlight of his whole 48-hour pass.  It and the light scent of lilacs that reminded him Isabelle Audel sat temptingly near.

He still hadn't figured out whether Miss Audel and Marc d'Yae were a couple or not.  Since they'd joined up in the street, neither had touched the other, not even one's hand brushing the other's sleeve.  But they could be keeping their distance to preserve propriety.  He had noticed the way Isabelle's gaze softened when it rested on d'Yae for a moment, her eyes glowing in a way that was absent when she looked at anyone else.  As for d'Yae, he didn't even disguise the way he watched Isabelle's every move.  At any rate, Hanley felt much less sorry for d'Yae than he had earlier.

Suddenly, no one had anything to say.  Hanley savored his liquor, d'Yae watched Isabelle from under half-closed eyelids, Saunders and Lovelace politely sipped from their tumblers, and Isabelle stared into her untasted brandy.

Finally, Saunders said, "Lovelace, I think it's time you told Marc why you're here."

"Reckon so.  Marc, how 'bout you an' me go in the next room for a minute?"

D'Yae shook his head with inebriated fervor.  "You can speak freely."  He gestured at the room's other occupants.  "I have no secrets from any of you.  Not anymore."  In a near-whisper, he added, "I have kept too many secrets.  I am through with them."

Isabelle arched her eyebrows, as if she didn't quite believe d'Yae's avowal.  Come to think of it, neither did Hanley.

Lovelace said, "All right, then.  You ain't out of danger like you think you are.  Thing is, the SS get a mite hot under them high collars of theirs when your name comes up.  Seems that Lieutenant Erhard you done killed, well, his daddy is buddies with ol' Himmler himself.  Fact is, we hear the SS want to return the favor an' kill you." 

D'Yae said, "I thank you for the warning, but this is the last place the SS will look.  My friendship with Mademoiselle Audel is from before the war, and I had no contact with her after the Nazis invaded.  Most of the people at my home would never have heard of her."

"It ain't no good, Marc.  They've sent Orion after you, an' he knows you're here."

Isabelle drained her brandy, her hands trembling.

D'Yae froze, his eyes locked on Lovelace's face.  "Orion.  You are sure?"

"He might even be in town already."

D'Yae stood up, only swaying a little.  "I will leave.  I will disappear, lose myself in the forests.  He will never find me there."

"Maybe not.  Then again, maybe he will.  You figure you can outrun a skilled hunter like him?"

"What other choice do I have?"  Marc nodded toward Isabelle.  "I will not put my friends in danger.  Orion has no scruples -- he will kill any who get in his way.  He has done so before."

"I can't argue that.  But when you say you ain't got a choice, you're wrong."

"Am I?"

"I didn't come here just to warn you," Lovelace said.  "I come to ask for your help.  Orion's killed too many people, not just the important officers you've heard about, but French folks like you that've helped the Allies.  We been followin' him for months now, but he's one smart feller.  Always gets to his target before we can stop him, half the time before we even know who his target might be.

"But this time, it's different, on account of this time we know who he's been sent to kill an' we got here first.  I ain't got no right to ask you what I'm about to, an' if you refuse an' still want to head for the hills, I don't guess I'll blame you."

D'Yae frowned.  "You wish to trap Orion."

"You always did catch on quick."

"And I am to be your bait."

"Right again."

D'Yae sat down again and crossed his arms.  "How do you know Orion comes to kill me?  Why do you know his plans this time?"

Lovelace smiled.  "We had a little help from someone you might know, a French feller by the name of Emile d'Yae."

"My cousin."

"One an' the same.  Wouldn't tell me his sources, but he swore it was true."

"Emile has many contacts.  Even I do not know of them all."

"He's been on the lookout for any news of you.  Passes it on to Jean when he hears anything."

D'Yae sat up straighter.  "Jean?"  The mention of his youngest brother seemed to sober him up even more than hearing he was Orion's latest prey had.  "You have seen Jean?"

"I have."  Lovelace leaned forward on the sofa, closer to d'Yae.  "He's doin' just fine, shoulder healin' up an' all.  He an' your pa're livin' with your kin on the coast."

D'Yae leaned back again.  "I expected they would go there.  They are safe, then?"

"Safe as they can be.  Your cousins're workin' with the Allies now, transportin' supplies with that fleet of theirs."

"And Jean helps our cousin Auguste keep the books while Claude runs the docks and Emile makes all the right contacts with the Americans, am I correct?"

"That's about it.  An' your pa keeps a close eye on Jean."

D'Yae looked down at the carpet.  "I am glad to hear Jean is safe."

"Safe, but worried about you.  'Specially now." 

"Emile told Jean about Orion?"

"I expect he knew Jean would contact me."

Before the discussion could continue, loud footsteps tramped up the stairs from the store below.  Everyone froze for an instant, except Lovelace, who put his hand on his sidearm.  Then Isabelle relaxed and said, "It is my brother Albert.  He always makes too much noise when he is angry.  I am afraid we may be in for some unpleasantness."  She smiled an apology and hurried to the kitchen.

The door opened, then banged shut again.  A deep, raspy voice demanded, "Est-il revenu?"

Isabelle calmly replied, "Oui. Ne t'inquiète pas."

"Je ne suis pas inquiété.  Je ne m'inquiète jamais de cet imbecile ivre."  Isabelle's brother clomped through the kitchen, not bothering to remove his boots at the door the way Isabelle had requested the others do.  But he did halt before stepping on the rug.  He filled the doorway between the two rooms, glaring at the strangers occupying his furniture.  He had a broad chest and powerful build, and was taller than both Saunders and d'Yae.  His short, light brown hair stood straight up like bristles on a brush, as if it too was disgusted with Marc d'Yae and the world in general.

Hanley rose, and Saunders and Lovelace followed his example.  D'Yae remained lounging in his chair, his lips twisting into a smirk below his dapper mustache. 

"Monsieur Audel," Hanley said, "I'm Lieutenant Hanley, and this is--"

Albert Audel didn't let Hanley finish.  "Where did she find you this time?" he roared at d'Yae.  "Les Anges?  In an alley with a bottle or--"

"Albert, please, we have guests," Isabelle said, quietly moving past him into the living room.

Albert said, "Ah, yes, our guests.  And who are they, anyway?  Friends of d'Yae's, eh?  More drunks?  Are these the only kinds of people my sister associates with?"

D'Yae said, "I may not have your head for alcohol, Audel, but perhaps that is because I have had more to do these past few years than build up a tolerance for fine liquor."

Albert clenched his formidable fists.  "Not everyone needs to play hero to justify his existence."

Saunders stepped between them and set his half-empty tumbler on top of the liquor cabinet.  "We'll be going," he told Albert, looking him in the eye.  Hanley had always envied the way the sergeant could look someone taller or more powerful in the eye and seem to be on equal footing.  Saunders gave Isabelle a polite smile.  "Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Audel." 

"No!"  D'Yae rose.  "I will not have my friends thrown out in this rude way."

Albert glared at him.  "So now you are making demands?"

D'Yae reached behind his back and pulled a Walther PPK from his waistband.  "I am, Albert.  These men are here to help me, and to help you as well.  You do not know it, but you and Isabelle are in great danger."  He swayed a little, but the hand holding the pistol was steady. 

"You dare point a gun at me in my own house?" Albert bellowed. 

Lovelace said, "Hey, how 'bout we all just sit back down an' talk this out?"

"What do you say, Audel?" d'Yae sneered.  "It is your house, they are your chairs.  May we rest our unworthy selves in them?"

Isabelle glared at them both.  "It is my home too.  Both of you, behave yourselves."  She didn't raise her voice, but both Albert and Marc fell silent at once.  Marc lowered his pistol until it was pointed more at the floor than any particular person.

Finally, Albert growled, "Fine.  Sit.  Talk."  He stomped back through the kitchen to pull off his boots by the door.

D'Yae tucked the pistol back into his waistband and returned to his chair, stumbling a little over the edge of the carpet on the way.  The others resumed their seats as well.

Lovelace stood in the middle of the room and put his arms behind his back like a boy reciting the Gettysburg Address in school.  "Like I said earlier, if Orion's already in town, I reckon we got two options."

"Wait, who is this Orion?" Albert asked, standing bootless in the kitchen doorway.

Saunders answered, "An assassin the SS sent after Marc."

Albert laughed, a short bark-like sound that held no mirth.  "After him?"

"Yes."

"Congratulations, d'Yae.  It seems someone wants you after all.  Even if they only want you dead."

D'Yae glared at him. 

Isabelle said, "Albert...."

Albert scowled.  "Go on, tell us about this scary assassin come to relieve me of my drunken houseguest."   He took Lovelace's seat on the sofa.

Lovelace continued, "They ain't foolin' around.  Orion's the best they got for infiltratin', sneakin' in, shootin' someone before we know he's even around, then sneakin' out before we know anything's wrong.  A feller I been workin' with has been tryin' for months to just get us a picture of Orion, an' all we got are some blurry shots of the back of his head. 

"Accordin' to Emile, Orion's promised to kill Marc before the end of the week, so he's only got a couple days left.  So here's our options:  One, we can try to get Marc outta here without Orion gettin' wind of it.  But it's a sure bet Orion'll realize soon enough his mark is gone, an' he'll just track him down again.  Two, we turn the trap on him, wait for him to come after Marc, an' take Orion out instead."

Hanley leaned forward.  "If there's a chance to trap Orion, why are you the only Intelligence man here?  Why isn't this town crawling with S2 men?"

"Because not everyone at S2 thinks he's here.  We also got reports he's down south huntin' a general.  An' it seems some folks at S2 don't cotton much to Cousin Emile's sources.  So I come on out to confirm it one way or t'other."

Saunders asked, "So what's your plan?"

Lovelace said, "For right now, I figure we should just wait.  Orion might not know we're here -- he might think it's just Marc and the Audels.  I was thinkin' we could set up a perimeter, take turns on watch.  That is, if'n y'all's offer of help is still good."

Saunders said, "Of course," and Hanley nodded.

"Right, then," said Lovelace.  "Orion has a habit of killin' at night.  Gives him a chance to get himself long gone before anyone sounds any alarms.  If'n we stay here tonight, we might just catch him when he's tryin' to sneak in."  He turned to Albert and Isabelle.  "If that's all right with y'all, of course."

Albert grunted noncommittally.  Isabelle nodded, her dark curls bouncing around her face once more.  "We can bring up some blankets from the store.  That is, if you do not mind sleeping on the sofa and floor."

"I was thinkin' one man out on the street an' one down in the store.  Other one up here could sleep.  Change off ever' three hours?"

Saunders looked at Hanley.  "Guess we've solved our billeting problem."

"Guess so."  Hanley frowned.  He could think of more pleasant ways to spend a 48-hour pass than guarding Marc d'Yae from the wrath of the SS, despite the prospect of enjoying Isabelle Audel's company in the meantime.

"Do you not forget something?"  D'Yae rose unsteadily from his chair.  "I have not agreed to be your bait.  I am not a man who sits and waits for his doom to find him.  You may stay here tonight if my hosts make you welcome, but I am leaving."

Albert snorted.  "I expected no less.  You try to convince my sister what a brave man you are, but when danger nears, you flee.  I have told her many times you would do so."

"I leave to protect your sister, Audel!  You should realize that, since you are so experienced at protecting yourself."  D'Yae glared at the others.  "And the rest of you -- you know I am no coward.  Have I not lost enough of the people I love?"  His voice faltered as he sought Isabelle's eyes, but she kept them on her hands folded in her lap.

"But Orion--" Lovelace began.

D'Yae interrupted him.  "No!  I have done enough!  Find another way to trap your assassin, Moseby.  I leave as soon as it is dark.  Do not try to stop me."

Hanley was watching Isabelle more than d'Yae, and he saw her face blanch when Marc announced his departure.

So far, Saunders had listened in silence, but now he said, "And what happens to your friends when Orion discovers your gone?"

"They will be safe if I am not here."

"Are you sure?  We know Orion is ruthless -- he's probably proud too.  You think he'll just leave when he finds out you're gone?"

"I told you!"  Albert glared at his sister.  "I said he would bring nothing but trouble.  But no, you must listen to his soft words.  Who is he, that you endanger yourself and your brother for him?  A drunk.  A reckless coward whose own family thinks that he is worthless.  What hold does he have over you?  Why can you not see him for what he is?"

Isabelle returned Albert's glare.  "I know what he is."  Her voice never increased in volume, although her tone equaled his in vehemence.  "He is a friend.  And I will not worry so much about my own comfort that I will refuse to help a friend."

"He is not my friend."

"But he is mine, and this is as much my home as it is yours."  Isabelle turned to Lovelace.  "I will help you any way I am able, if you can protect Marc from this Orion."

Albert jumped up.  "You are fools, and d'Yae will destroy you all."  He stomped down the hall to his room and slammed the door.

D'Yae rose as well.  "Your brother is right, Isabelle.  Whatever I touch, I destroy.  Much as I wish to stay with you, I must draw Orion away from here, from you, before I ruin your life like I have ruined everyone else's."

Saunders said, "Not everyone's, Marc.  If it wasn't for you, I'd be dead.  You may have forgotten that, but I haven't."

"The lieutenant would have saved you without my help."

"Maybe, maybe not.  The way I see it, if we can trap Orion--"

"No.  I am leaving, and that is my final decision."  D'Yae headed for the hall.  "I will tell Albert the good news, pack a few things, and go."

Isabelle stood.  "Marc...."

D'Yae turned.  "Yes?"

"I... are you sure?"

"I am."  Marc left.  After an awkward silence, Isabelle followed.

Lovelace paced between the kitchen doorway and the hall.  "I never expected... I thought he'd...."  He crossed his arms and stood still.  "This ain't how I planned this."

"He's had too much time to sit and worry over what's happened to his family."  Saunders lit a cigarette.  "It doesn't matter if any of it was his fault or not -- he's convinced himself it was."

Hanley said, "If Orion's half as good as they say, what makes you think we have a chance?"

Saunders said, "Even if it's only half a chance, if we trap Orion, we're not just saving Marc -- think about all Orion's future victims too."

Lovelace snapped his fingers.  "That's it!  Marc don't care none 'bout savin' himself, but other people...."  He headed down the hall and knocked on the bedroom door until someone let him in.

Hanley raised his eyebrows.  "This is how we're going to spend our pass?  Doing S2's work for them?"

"Can you think of anything better?" said Saunders.

"Yes.  Sleeping, for one.  Not getting killed, for another."

"Next time."

"We don't even have our weapons along."

"If I know d'Yae, he has more than one pistol."

"That's just it, Saunders.  We don't know d'Yae.  Not at all.  We've met up with him twice, but I still don't really trust him.  How do we know even if Lovelace convinces him to stay that he won't just slip out the back anyway and leave us with an empty trap?"

"When has he ever gone back on his word?"  Saunders stood up.  "I know you've never liked him, Lieutenant.  You don't have to.  Just because you don't like him, that's no reason to leave him to Orion.  And the Audels too."

Hanley folded his arms and stared at the ceiling, hoping d'Yae would stick to his plan and leave.

A minute or two later, Albert came out, shouting, "--and do not expect any help from me!" He went into the kitchen and out the door, on down the stairs to his store.

D'Yae slouched out after him, one hand on the wall to maintain his balance.  "I have never asked for your help before, Audel, and I will not now!"  Then he looked at Saunders and Hanley.  "Lovelace and Isabelle have persuaded me to stay.  I do not think you will be able to trap Orion, but if he kills me, I will be very little worse off than I am now."

Lovelace appeared behind d'Yae.  "Well, that's surely one way of lookin' at it."

Saunders sat down again.  "Are we sticking to the same plan?"

Lovelace said, "One man on the street, one downstairs, one up here, like I said before."

Isabelle joined them at last.  "Thank you again.  I will bring you some blankets."  When she passed Lovelace, she put her hand on his arm.  "Thank you especially, Sergeant Lovelace.  Marc was right to call you his friend."

Lovelace smiled bashfully.

Saunders volunteered, "I'll take the first watch outside."

Lovelace said, "Let me -- I've scouted out some fine hidin' spots already anyway.  You stay down in the store."

"Okay." 

Hanley asked Isabelle, "Can I give you a hand carrying things up?"

"No thank you, Lieutenant, I can manage.  I will return in a few moments."  She headed for the kitchen, Saunders close behind.

"Wait," d'Yae called after them.  He pulled out his pistol again.  "Take this."  He offered it to Saunders.  "I regret to say I have no extra ammunition." 

Saunders took the pistol.  "Sure you won't want it?" 

"I have another."

"Right."  Saunders stuck it in his waistband.  Then he donned his boots and coat before following Isabelle down the stairs into the darkness.  Lovelace gathered up his things and walked down in his stocking feet.  D'Yae headed back through the kitchen and living room and on down the little hall.

Once again, Hanley wished he'd brought a weapon along, at least worn his sidearm like Lovelace.

Albert came up from the store as the others descended, and he seemed to read Hanley's mind.  "I see d'Yae gave the sergeant one of his precious pistols.  I suppose you would like some protection too."  His deep voice rasped mockingly over the word 'protection.'

Hanley refused to respond to the tone.  "As a matter of fact, I would." 

Albert left the room, and returned carrying a box of ammo and a handsome hunting rifle, complete with an engraving of a splendid stag on the stock.  "Here." 

Hanley took the rifle and couldn't help smiling at the way it balanced in his hands.

"You like that?" Albert asked, his rough voice softening.

"It's magnificent," Hanley said honestly, examining the engraving.

"Before the Bosche came, I sold such rifles in my store.  Skilled hunters from across France came here to buy weapons, boots, ammunition.  We managed to hide much before the Germans arrived."  He grunted.  "Now I sell blankets for a few coins, trade shoes and tools for apples or cheese." 

"Won't be long before the Germans will be gone."  Hanley ran his hand over the smooth, polished wood that supported the glossy black barrel.

"No one has money now for decorated rifles or riding boots."

"They will again someday."

Albert laughed a short, mocking laugh.  "You Americans are all so full of hope."

Isabelle appeared in the doorway, her arms filled with blankets and pillows.  Hanley hadn't even heard the stairs creak once.  "I hope these will do," she said, smiling an apology.  "They are not so beautiful as my brother's rifles, but I think they will keep you warmer."

Hanley smiled back.  "They're perfect."  He put the rifle on the floor beside the sofa and took two blankets and a pillow from Isabelle. 

"Sergeant Lovelace has gone out front.  Sergeant Saunders is near the stairs.  He said to tell you, so that you will not step on him should you for some reason decide to go down there in the dark."

Hanley's smile widened a little.  "I'll remember."

"Then, if you gentlemen will pardon me, I will say good night."

"Of course.  Sleep well," Hanley said.

"I think I will sleep better than I have in many weeks." 

"I get up early," Albert growled, following Isabelle down the hall.

Hanley loaded the rifle, blew out all but one candle, then began unbuttoning his shirt.  He hated sleeping fully clothed.  Pants were one thing, but his shirts always seemed to get bunched up and twisted around while he slept.  He never used to be such a restless sleeper.  Back before the war, he'd often awakened after a full night's sleep in exactly the same position he'd fallen asleep in.  Not any more.

While pulling off his shirt, Hanley noticed Saunders' half-full brandy glass still standing on the liquor cabinet.  No sense in wasting good brandy.  He tossed it back, then blew out the last candle.  He settled down on the sofa in the darkness, made certain the rifle lay on the floor within reach, then pulled the blanket up over his bare arms.  The sofa wasn't long enough to accommodate his long frame, but then, neither was his army cot.

 

*****

 

He could see almost as well in the dark as most men could with a lantern or flashlight to aid them.  Rolfe had always prided himself on that strength.  It made his night kills enjoyable, the knowledge that he could see when his marks could not, that he was superior to even the strongest warrior in that respect.  Not that he had eliminated many true warriors -- most of his marks so far had been high-ranking officers, flabby and slow of reflex from too many years lounging behind desks.  Most never put up a struggle because they never saw him coming.  Even when he struck in the daylight, they did not suspect his presence.  Which made an assignment like this, taking down someone who posed a physical threat to the Reich and himself, such an enjoyable challenge.

Rolfe slipped up to the little shop's back door, one more shadow in a dark town filled with shadows.  The door did not creak as he eased it open.  The people who harbored d'Yae cared for their property -- they even oiled the hinges on the back door.  Rolfe smiled in the darkness.  No doubt the store would be orderly, no heaps of merchandise tossed on the floor for him to avoid.  Just what he would expect from the tidy, well-groomed woman.

Rolfe crept inside and closed the door so gently the latch did not even click as it fastened.  Then he stood still, letting his eyes wander around the room, getting his bearings.  He seemed to be in some sort of storage room, not the store itself.  Boxes and crates lined the wall to his right, with barrels in front of them.  A tall stack of crates stood on his left too, but there was no wall immediately behind them.  Another door in the wall opposite him no doubt led from the storeroom to the shop itself. 

The stairs leading to the apartment above must be in this back room, then, not in the storefront.  That would allow the proprietors a little privacy for their comings and goings.  It was probably on the other side of the boxes to his left.  Rolfe pulled out his Luger, made sure the silencer was secured to the barrel, and stepped toward the boxes.  Then he froze.

He'd heard a noise, he was sure of it.  Something other than his near-silent footfall on the bare wooden floor.  He stood still, trying to remember exactly what it had sounded like.  Almost like cloth rubbing against cloth -- yes, that was it!  Two pieces of cloth touching for less than a second, as if someone had raised their arm or taken a step forward.  Could it have been his own movement echoing off the objects around him?

Gripping his Luger, Rolfe took another step forward.  He could see the stairs now, with yet more crates and barrels beside them.  Another step, and he was clear of the pile of boxes.

A spurt of flame, a quick bang, and a bullet embedded itself in the wall directly in line with where Rolfe's head had been an instant before.  Instinctively, he'd flung himself onto the floor and rolled away, seeking protection behind a large barrel even while he fired two return shots at his assailant.  His shots made very little noise, sounding like an angry cat spitting at a bothersome dog.  He heard both bullets thud into wood and knew neither had found their target.

This couldn't be happening.  No one knew he was in town, certainly not that he had been sent after Marc d'Yae.  Perhaps the Frenchman was by nature suspicious and had taken to sleeping in the storeroom instead of upstairs.  Or perhaps he had friends.

Whoever was crouched by the stairs took another shot at him.  The bullet struck the barrel's rim and ricocheted off into the darkness.  Rolfe fired back from between the barrel and the wall, more to keep the unknown gunman busy than in any real hope of hitting him. 

Then he heard the store's front door open and footsteps inside.  So d'Yae did have friends guarding him.  Rolfe shoved the barrel in front of the storeroom door.  Then he rolled across the floor toward the back door, even as the door at the top of the stairs opened and someone up there fired down at him with what sounded like a rifle.

The person in the store crashed against the storeroom door, trying to push the barrel out of his way.  Rolfe took advantage of the noise to open the back door, and then he was outside, running, ducking into a friendly alley and following one of his escape routes.

For the first time in his short but glorious career, Rolfe Weidmann had failed.  Orion had not bagged his prey, and the knowledge stung like a fresh wound.  They would pay for this, that was certain.  Orion would not fail again.  And Marc d'Yae would not die alone.

 

*****

 

Saunders stood in the doorway, d'Yae's pistol in his right hand, staring out into the empty street.

"He's gone?" Hanley asked.

Saunders didn't turn around.  "He'll be back."

"Not tonight, I don't expect."  Lovelace joined Saunders in the doorway and pointed at the sky.  "Be light before long."

Hanley relaxed a little and cradled the rifle under his arm.  It felt comfortable there, familiar, balancing just right against his forearm. 

Behind Hanley, Marc d'Yae said, "You are not pursuing him?"

Hanley jumped a little, surprised that d'Yae could have crept down those creaky stairs in silence when a few hours ago he could barely stand upright. 

"I didn't see which way he went."  Saunders turned and came back inside.

Hanley squinted at Saunders in the dim light that came from the open doorway above them.  "Why don't you go get some sleep," he suggested.  "It's about time to switch watches anyway."  Considering they were supposed to be getting 48 hours of rest and relaxation, Saunders looked as worn out as if he'd been on patrol all night.  Which, in a way, he had. 

"All right."  Saunders headed up the stairs without another word, the pistol still in his hand.

Lovelace waited until Saunders was up in the apartment, then said, "I'll find me a better spot outside.  Might as well keep watchin' 'til the sun's good an' risen."  He headed out the back door as d'Yae started up the stairs, clutching at the handrail a few times.  Hanley suspected his silent trip down had had more to do with adrenaline than sobriety.

 

*****

 

Saunders opened his eyes, not yet fully aware of what had awakened him.  Weak sunlight peeked under the long curtains.  What had he heard?  Why had his half-alert senses decided he should wake up?

Then it came again:  the soft clink of a doorknob turning.  Saunders grabbed d'Yae's pistol and rolled off the couch onto his stocking-clad feet.  If someone had managed to sneak past Lovelace, enter the building, subdue Hanley, and climb the stairs.... 

Then Albert Audel appeared in the doorway to the kitchen.  "You are awake, eh?"

Saunders relaxed.  "I am now."  He should have heard the Frenchman pass through the living room on his way out, but then, it was Albert's home; he probably knew where every squeaky board lurked.  Saunders tucked the pistol into his waistband.

"Good.  My sister sent me to get fresh eggs."  Albert returned to the kitchen.  "The lieutenant went to find the other sergeant and tell him breakfast will be ready soon."

"Right."  It seemed Albert's mood had improved -- he was no longer snarling at everything that moved.  Saunders didn't bother speculating on possible reasons for the change.  He folded up the blankets they'd used and stacked them on the sofa, with the pillow on top.  He heard the door in the kitchen close again, and Albert's footsteps descending the stairs. 

Isabelle Audel entered from her room down the hall just as Saunders was tucking his shirt in and wondering if there was any point in trying to comb his hair.  "Good morning, Sergeant," she said.  She wore a long charcoal-grey skirt and a pale pink blouse with the sleeves rolled up past the elbows. 

"Good morning, Miss Audel."  Saunders settled for running a hand through his hair and hoping that made it lie down, not stand up.

"Did my brother bring the eggs?"

"Just now."

Isabelle went into the kitchen.  "Oh, but he forgot to bring up the butter."  She pulled a white apron off a peg near the stove and tied it around her waist.  "Would you run down and ask him for some?"

"Anything you say."  Saunders headed for the stairs.  When he returned a minute or so later, bearing a small crockery dish of butter, he stopped in the doorway and breathed deeply.  "Is that coffee I smell?"

"It is."  Isabelle hurried to take the butter from him.

"It is not," Marc d'Yae said from his seat on one of the three wooden chairs by the little table.  "It is more like flavored mud, but Isabelle insists on making it that way.  I warn you, Saunders, you will find it too strong."

"Stop," Isabelle scolded, her cheeks flushing until they matched her blouse.  She scooped some butter into a frying pan on the stove, and it hissed and crackled on the hot metal.

Marc explained, "Isabelle learned to make coffee when she studied art in Italy.  I find it abominable, but will she make good French coffee for me?  She will not."

"Albert likes how I make it," Isabelle said.  "I have been cooking for him much longer than for you."

"Italian coffee?"  Saunders closed the door.  "You mean what they call espresso?"

Isabelle looked over her shoulder.  "You know what espresso is?" 

Saunders took the seat opposite d'Yae.  "Sure.  Couldn't get enough when I was in Italy.  The stronger, the better."

"Oh, thank you, Saunders," Marc said.  "Now she will never stop making it.  You could have a little consideration for me."  But he smiled.  It seemed Albert was not the only one whose mood had improved after a night's rest. 

"You were in Italy?"  Isabelle took the little, side-handled pot from the polished machine on the counter and poured thick, black liquid into three white demitasse cups.

"Last year."  Saunders took a tiny cup and saucer from Isabelle and sipped the strong coffee.  "Perfect."

Marc groaned again, but drained his in three swallows.

The door to the stairs opened, and in walked Hanley.  His hair was neatly combed, although he needed a shave.  "Good morning."  He kicked off his boots.  "That wouldn't be coffee I smell, would it?"

Marc muttered, "Drink it at your own risk."

Isabelle handed the third cup to Hanley, then poured another for herself.

Hanley frowned at the tiny porcelain mug that disappeared behind his long fingers.  But he shrugged, took a swig, then grimaced.  After swallowing, he sputtered, "I see what you mean, d'Yae."

Saunders chuckled and took another sip, savoring the bitter warmth flooding his mouth.

"You like this stuff?" Hanley asked, eyes wide.  "I always wondered how you could stand that motor oil the Army calls coffee.  I guess you'll drink anything."

Lovelace came up the stairs at last.  When he entered, he removed a black knit cap, making his hair stick up in forty different directions.  "Hey," he greeted everyone, pulling off his boots and dropping them near the door with a thud. 

"Coffee, Sergeant Lovelace?"  Isabelle got out another demitasse cup and saucer.

"There's a reason the cups are so small," Hanley informed Lovelace.  "You only get one swallow before your tongue goes numb."

"That good?"  Lovelace took the cup from Isabelle and lifted it by its delicate handle.  "Won't be no stronger'n my mama's, I expect.  We had neighbors that used to run their tractor on her coffee."  Taking a swig, he smiled.  "Not bad."

"All sergeants must be crazy," Marc said.

"What's the plan for today?" Saunders asked Lovelace.  Not that chatting over espresso, with the smell of frying eggs teasing his appetite, wasn't a pleasant way to pass the morning.

"Y'all stay here while I go out, make a couple calls, check around a little.  Orion must be plenty angry about last night, an' maybe he'll slip up somewhere, give me some idea what his next plan'll be."

"Right."  Saunders drained the last of his espresso.  He hated waiting, but this was Lovelace's show right now.  Not like St. Vitonus had much to offer by way of amusement, anyway.  And Isabelle might be persuaded to make more Italian coffee with lunch.

Marc frowned, but said nothing.  Saunders watched the way Marc fiddled with his cup and saucer, turning the cup around and around on the tiny plate.  He was getting worse at hiding his impatience. 

The attack last night had impressed the situation's severity on them all.  And Marc hadn't even gotten to participate in driving off his attacker.  If Saunders had been in his place, he'd be itching to take the fight to Orion, even if he had no idea where the assassin was.  Saunders hoped Lovelace would be back soon.  If Marc got too impatient, he might try leaving again. 

After a hearty breakfast of fried eggs and thick brown bread spread with a thin sheen of butter, Lovelace left and Hanley headed for the living room sofa to catch a little more sleep.  D'Yae retreated to his room with a book that Saunders felt certain would never get opened.

"Need help with those?"  Saunders indicated the dishes piled next to the small sink Isabelle was filling with soapy water.

"There are quite a few, are there not?"

"That's what you get for offering to feed three extra men."  Saunders rolled up his sleeves.  "Would you rather I wash or dry?"

"Wash.  Then you will not have to try to find where things go."

"Good plan."  It'd been quite a while since he'd washed dishes, and when he plunged his hands into the soapy water, Saunders closed his eyes.  The Audel's apartment was less than half the size of the house where he'd grown up, but the homey kitchen gave him a fleeting sense of familiarity. 

Isabelle interrupted Saunders' reminiscence.  "I want to thank you, Sergeant."

"If I let you do all these alone, you'd be here 'til lunch."

"No, I mean for staying here, for helping Marc.  I am not sure how to say this -- you and the others, you make me feel safe.  Safer than I have felt since... in a long time."

"You're welcome."  Saunders handed her another clean plate and began transferring the teetering pile of demitasse cups and saucers into the sink.  "How long has Marc been here?"

"Over a month.  Six weeks?  I have not kept track."

So Marc must have come almost straight here after he disappeared the day they rescued his brother Jean and Lovelace from the SS.  "Nice of you to take him in."

"He is a friend in trouble."

"More your friend than Albert's."

Isabelle hesitated.  "I met Marc in University."

Saunders handed her another tiny cup.  "He's lucky to have someone like you to turn to."

"Thank you."  Isabelle blushed again.  "He is... he has been a good friend too."

So he'd been right in thinking there was more than friendship between Marc and Isabelle.  Saunders had watched her last night, the way she would glance Marc's way whenever she thought no one was paying attention.  And she kept thanking them for helping him.  Not for helping her, for helping Marc.

D'Yae's attraction to her had been obvious; the anguish he had felt when he had decided to leave had been visible.  But until now, Saunders hadn't been sure if Isabelle returned Marc's affections.  She had remained distant, almost cool toward him.  But maybe that had more to do with her brother's dislike of Marc, or to the presence of strangers.  Now, Saunders was certain Isabelle cared for Marc as more than just a friend.  He wondered if Marc knew.

Then there was Hanley.  Saunders knew the lieutenant was interested in Isabelle.  Even if he hadn't known the lieutenant for months now, he would still have picked up on that.  Not that any of this was Saunders' business.  But he needed to figure out if there was a relationship between Isabelle and Marc that might complicate whatever Lovelace planned.  If they needed to sneak Marc out of St. Vitonus after all, things like protracted goodbyes could cause dangerous delays.

Isabelle said, "But do not think that Marc lives here on charity.  He helps me with the housework, and sometimes he helps Albert mind the store."

"Sometimes?"

Isabelle twisted the towel in her hands.  "There are days when he sleeps too much, yes, or sits and stares at nothing.  He thinks much of his brothers, of his father, I know.  But some days he is fine.  He plays chess with Albert or me some evenings."

"And others he spends in alleyways?"  Saunders kept his voice even, not blaming Marc for his behavior, just confirming a fact.

Isabelle sighed.  "He was better until a few days ago.  When the Americans arrived, he...."  She raised her hands and let them drop to her sides again. 

Before she could continue, Hanley appeared in the doorway.  "Need any more help with the dishes?"  He flashed a handsome smile at Isabelle.

"No, thank you, Lieutenant.  The sergeant and I are nearly finished.  I thought you wanted to rest?"  Isabelle turned away to put a stack of saucers into the cupboard.

"I do, but I can't seem to settle down.  I guess that coffee of yours was even stronger than I thought."  Hanley leaned against the door frame, crossing one long leg over the other. 

"In that case, here."  Isabelle went to her tiny pantry and pulled out a feather duster.  "Make yourself useful in the living room."  She handed the duster to Hanley.

Saunders concentrated on a stubborn bit of egg stuck to the frying pan, trying hard not to crack a smile.  When Hanley stayed in the doorway for a moment or two, Saunders couldn't help grinning at the lieutenant's chagrined expression.  "Getting sleepier already?"

Hanley shot him a dirty look, then told Isabelle, "Your wish is my command, Mademoiselle."  He saluted her with the feather duster as if it were a sword and he a knight, then ducked back into the living room.

Isabelle caught Saunders' eye and laughed softly.  "I am sorry, but I could not resist.  He was so...."

"Smug?" Saunders suggested.

"Something like that."  Isabelle took the clean pan from him and began drying it.  "You will not tell him I said that?"

"Never." 

 

*****

 

It was a crude plan, lacking the finesse of his usual attacks.  There was an elegance in the way he would infiltrate a command post, sometimes brazenly scheduling a meeting with his mark, completing his assignment, and then leaving before any aides came to announce the next visitor.  There was a certain sophistication to his night kills, the silent way he would slink into a mark's room and eliminate them without anyone being aware he had been there.  Rolfe knew that a few more of them, and he'd be acknowledged as the best of the Orion assassins.

But the time for a graceful, stylish kill had passed.  While Rolfe was certain no one could have learned of his assignment to take out Marc d'Yae, the Frenchman certainly had been expecting trouble.  And trouble was what he would get, he and all his friends.  Orion would not get the credit for this kill, at least not from anyone but his immediate superiors.  And it would not advance Rolfe's career the way an efficient, unseen kill would have.  But he would be victorious all the same.

Rolfe grinned at the Motor Pool corporal as he signed "Cpl. Fred Benson" on the grease-smudged paper.  "Thanks, Mac."  He stooped to pick up the two gasoline cans that rested in the mud beside him.  "The captain would chew my rear off if he found out I used up all the gas in his jeep showing some French girl a good time."

"Officers -- they're all the same, ain't they?"  The corporal picked up the paper, adding a few more smudges to it.  "Don't worry 'bout the rest of this form, I'll fill it in myself."

"Thanks again."

"Glad to help."

Americans.  So easy to convince, so ready to believe a sad story.  Especially if it involved a girl.  And they said the years he'd spent growing up in the United States had been a waste of a good German life -- in reality, they had been the perfect training.  Rolfe walked away, the cans bumping against his legs, their contents sloshing with each step.  If you wanted to conquer an enemy, you needed to understand them first.  The sooner some of his superiors realized that, the sooner they could drive the Americans back out of Europe.

 

*****

 

Lovelace returned mid-afternoon.  Saunders, napping on the sofa, heard footsteps on the stairs and was in the kitchen before the door even opened.  He stretched and eyed the chess game Hanley and d'Yae were playing on the kitchen table.  Hanley had captured almost twice as many enemy pieces, but his frown was deeper than d'Yae's, and his queen had been backed into a corner by the Frenchman's knights.

"Are we too loud?  I hope we didn't wake you."  Hanley took his eyes off the chessboard. 

"Lovelace is back."  Saunders yawned and gestured toward the door, which opened even as he spoke.  He was too tired, and too focused on the problems at hand, to return the lieutenant's banter.

"Good."

D'Yae moved a bishop, then leaned back with a brief, triumphant smile.

Lovelace closed the door and began removing his boots.  "Well, I got good news and I got bad news.  Which do y'all want first?"

"The bad news," Hanley said at the same moment Saunders and d'Yae said, "The good news."

Lovelace said, "I heard two votes for the good news, so here it is:  S2 is convinced Orion is after you, Marc, not that general south of here."

"And the bad news?"  D'Yae folded his hands behind his head, only his twitching right foot belying the relaxed attitude.

"Soonest they can get anyone else out here to help get Orion is tomorrow.  We're on our own again tonight."

Saunders crossed his arms and slouched against the stove.  "Same set-up as last night?"

"Yep, but with two of us outside this time, one in front an' one in back.  Seems Monsieur Audel don't take too kindly to havin' his store busted into.  He wants to help guard it."  Lovelace peeled off his thick coat and hung it up.  "An' no switchin' on an' off tonight -- we stay where we are.  That way Orion can't slip past us while we're changin' positions."

Hanley stood up.  "In that case, we should all get as much sleep as we can before dark."  He gestured to the chess game.  "Guess we won't get to finish this after all."  He almost sounded sorry. 

"Such a shame," d'Yae said, equally unsuccessful in his attempt to sound regretful.

 

*****

 

Rolfe loved the hour just before dusk.  Even the dreariest town took on a glow in the waning light.  People were happy and relieved that another workday had ended.  They grew careless, too.  It could be much easier to surprise a mark when they were tired and thinking about what they would do that evening.

Not that Rolfe intended to strike this early.  He had his gasoline cans hidden, he had gone over his new plan a dozen times, and he had even had time to get some rest.  Now he was wide awake, filled with restless energy.  Which explained why he was wandering the cold streets of St. Vitonus once again, rather than holing up in his snug base.  He knew that if he did not work off some energy, he would become so jittery he would start making stupid mistakes.

Rolfe whistled a snatch of Bing Crosby's "Moonlight Becomes You" as he walked.  He didn't have to pretend he was wandering, for he honestly paid no attention to where his feet took him.  He'd been down every street and alley in town -- he would not get lost.

As he rounded a corner, he nearly ran into an American.  A quick glance at the three stripes on the soldier's coat sleeve told Rolfe he didn't have to salute.  He gave an eager-to-please smile instead.  "Excuse me, Sarge."

"Hey, hold up a minute."  The sergeant stopped.

Rolfe paused too, remaining casual.  "Yeah?"

"Got a light?"  The man pulled out a pack of Luckys and shook one loose.

"Uh, sure."  Rolfe reached into his left coat pocket.  No lighter.  But that was where he always kept it!  Had he left it with the gasoline cans?  Just so he'd be sure to have it when the time came?  No, he was sure he'd left it in his coat.  "Uh, hang on, it has to be here somewhere."  He patted his other coat pockets, a little panicked.  He needed that lighter later -- where could he get another one this late?  Or even some matches? 

The sergeant shrugged.  "That's all right, Corporal."  He started putting the cigarette back in its package.

"No, I swear I have a lighter!"  Rolfe dug in his pants pockets, cold fingers fumbling.  Too jittery still -- he needed to calm down.  Take a deep breath.

"Don't worry about it."  The sergeant looked at him sideways, eyes half-closed.

"No, honest, I--"  There it was!  In his left pants pocket, amid a jumble of bits of string and French coins:  the lighter he'd won in a poker game on his very first undercover mission.  He held it out, doing his best to seem sheepish, not panicked.  "Sorry about that."

"That's all right," the sergeant said again.  He took the lighter, lit his cigarette, then handed it back.  "Want one?"  He held out the Luckys.

"Sure."  Rolfe shook one out, stuck it between his lips, lit it.  He inhaled, forced to admit that however inferior a mixed-breed people they were, the Americans could make superior cigarettes.  "L.S.M.F.T.," he joked.

"What?"  The sergeant gave him that curious sideways look again.

"L.S.M.F.T. -- Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco.  The radio jingle, you know?"  He didn't listen to American radio for the fun of it, after all -- he had to keep up on the latest jingles, popular songs, personalities.  Infiltration took a lot more than an American uniform and the ability to speak English.  Another reason why he would soon be the SS's best assassin.

"Oh, right."  The sergeant took a long drag and let the smoke stream from his nostrils.  "Guess I don't get much time to listen to the radio."

"I know what you mean."

"Say, you look familiar."

"Sorry, I can't say the same about you."  Rolfe enjoyed playing with the Americans, fooling them.  And he had lots of time to kill.  Why not indulge this sergeant with his funny camouflage-covered helmet? 

"What outfit you with?"

Dangerous territory.  But he'd done a little research as to what units were in St. Vitonus on leave.  The trick was to pick one this sergeant wasn't in.  "Three sixty-first."

"Yeah?  Me too -- guess I've seen you around."

"Probably."  Gott in Himmel, why had he not picked the other division using St. Vitonus for R&R this week?  Then again, this sergeant was obviously an out-in-the-field man.  Too rugged to pal around with the clerks, too lowly to know the officers.  "I am an aide for Captain Henderson.  Corporal Fred Benson."  Rolfe held out his hand.

"Sergeant Saunders."  He shook hands, then asked, "Where you from, Benson?"

"Franklin, Pennsylvania."  That was true, in a way -- he'd spent fourteen years in Franklin before his father died and his mother took him back to her native Germany.

"Never been to Franklin.  What's it like?"

"We have the swellest nightclubs this side of New York City!"  Rolfe puffed on his cigarette.  "I sure do miss it."  That part was not true.  He had hated Franklin, with its dingy rows of tenements, its overcrowded schools.  His father had promised his mother a better life in his homeland, and she had married him even before the Great War had ended.  But what had she found in America?  Dirt, hard work, and a tiny apartment far from the green trees and open sky she loved.  When her husband died in a factory accident, Rolfe's mother had packed their bags and headed straight back to beautiful Germany and her family's dairy farm, taking adolescent Rolfe with her.

"Sounds great."

The sergeant took a final pull on his cigarette and flicked the butt away.  He nodded once at Rolfe.  "Thanks for the light, Benson."  Then he headed off down the street.

"See you around, Sarge."  Rolfe walked away in the opposite direction, fighting the urge to check over his shoulder and see if the sergeant was watching him.  The man had been friendly enough, but still Rolfe worried that he had been suspicious of young Cpl. Benson from Franklin, PA.  As soon as he could, Rolfe turned a corner, dodged between a few buildings, turned another corner, and ducked into a dark alley.  He hid behind a pile of discarded furniture, glad he had spent so much time roaming the streets, learning them so he could lose any possible tails.

But the sergeant had not followed him, or if he had, not very far.  Rolfe waited, crouching, for ten minutes, just in case.  Then he rose and stepped out from behind the broken chairs and tables.  He was just jittery -- the American could not have suspected a thing.  And now it was nearly dark.  Time to begin making his circuitous way back to the stashed gasoline.  Rolfe pulled the jeep cap snug over his blond curls and set out.

 

*****

 

Saunders opened the door to the Audel kitchen and obediently removed his boots.  The room was deserted, but he could hear Hanley and Isabelle talking in the next room.  After hanging up his coat, he crossed the bare wooden floor and leaned against the door frame.  "I thought we were supposed to be guarding this place," he commented.

Hanley looked up from the oversized book Isabelle held across her knees.  "I'd know your footsteps anywhere.  Besides, you came in the front downstairs, and I doubt Audel would let Orion get through the store without at least giving his sister a warning shout."

Marc d'Yae snorted.  He sat slumped in a chair by the window, glaring at Hanley and Isabelle, who occupied the couch.  He seemed to have lost the cheerful mood of that morning, and it didn't take a genius to guess why.

"Lieutenant, can I talk to you a minute?" Saunders asked.

Hanley looked up again.  "Sure."  He smiled at Isabelle.  "Thanks for the education."

Isabelle closed the huge book, which had a picture of a marble statue on the cover, along with a lot of French words.  "My pleasure, Lieutenant.  It is such a joy to speak with someone who appreciates art."  She glanced over at Marc, who was now studying the carpet.

Hanley rose and joined Saunders in the kitchen.  "What is it?"

"You know a captain named Henderson in our division?"

"Henderson?  No, I don't think so."

Saunders swore quietly.  "I knew it."  He'd sensed something was off about that kid.  Too eager, too fresh for someone out here.  "I think I ran into Orion out there."

"Posing as Captain Henderson?"

"No, as a corporal."

"What'd he look like?"

Saunders ran a hand through his hair.  "Me ten years ago."

 

*****

 

Rolfe Weidmann lay hidden among the dead plants of a rooftop garden diagonally across the street from the Audel store.  From here he could see the front of the building, as well as the side with all the apartment's windows.  He had retrieved the gasoline cans from his stash in a small shed nearby.  From his vantage, he watched two men exit the store at dusk and take up sentry positions.  To his surprise, they both wore American uniforms.  Perhaps they suspected his identity after all.  No matter.  The two Americans would serve his purposes just as well as two civilians. 

Rolfe waited as the darkness deepened and the air grew colder.  The inhabitants of St. Vitonus prepared and ate supper and went to their beds.  Still Rolfe waited.  The stars began their journey across the sky, his namesake dominating the area above him.  He accepted this as a sign from the heavens that he was destined to succeed.

Rolfe waited nearly two hours past midnight, when he was certain the majority of the street's inhabitants would be asleep and the two sentries would be stiff and sleepy.  He had to blow on his own hands and swing his arms a bit to warm up before he could climb down to the ground via a rickety ladder the building's inhabitants used to access their rooftop garden in the warmer seasons. 

He made no noise as he crept up behind the first sentry.  The thin American crouched behind a pile of refuse in the alley, so intent on the street before him that Rolfe's pistol struck him without warning.  The American slumped to the ground.  He would be unconscious at least long enough for Rolfe to complete his assignment.  Rolfe tugged the body farther back into the alley and made certain it was hidden. 

The second American was a little more difficult to dispatch.  He had taken up a position in a recessed doorway.  The only way Rolfe would be able to reach him unnoticed would be through the house, and he did not have time to deal with the logistical problems that posed.  He would have to settle for a less subtle approach.

In an alley near the American, Rolfe found a stack of empty crates.  They made an obvious hiding place that afforded a clear view of the store and the street.  Rolfe shifted the bottom crate.  The wood grated on the pavement, and the stack teetered. 

Sure enough, the American came to investigate, a rifle ready in his hands.  The stack was still swaying as he whipped around to the far side, ready to attack whoever hid behind the crates.  Rolfe leapt from his hiding spot on the other side of the alley, his pistol butt felling this soldier just as easily as the other.  To his surprise, he caught the gleam of metal on the man's collar as he rolled the body behind the crates.  An officer.  Perhaps the Frenchman was not as trivial a mark as he had assumed. 

There would be someone on watch inside again, since that had proved so effective the night before.  Rolfe would have to settle for splashing fuel on the outer walls and doors.  He emptied the first can on the outside of the building, then poured the gasoline from the second can where it would run under the shop's front door.  The door did not meet the pavement completely, and a great deal of the fuel flowed under it.  He reserved a small amount in that can for the second stage of his plan.

Stepping back from the building and making sure his feet were clear of the gasoline, Rolfe relit the remains of the cigarette the sergeant had given him earlier.  He tossed it toward the puddle formed around the door.  The gasoline ignited with a whoosh, flames shooting up the accelerant-soaked door and spreading inside.  The fuel he had splashed all around the building caught fire in seconds.

Rolfe did not wait to admire his handiwork.  He rushed back to the unconscious officer hidden behind the crates.  He dropped the empty can beside the man's outstretched hand, then poured a little of his remaining gasoline on the man's shoes, the bottom of his trousers, and dabbed some on both hands and coat sleeves as well.  Then he raced around to the other side of the burning building.  There, he anointed the other American in a similar way, and abandoned the second can.  It would not do to have such an obviously set fire erupt without someone to take the blame.  With the two Americans clearly at fault, neither the French townspeople nor the American Army would look for another culprit.

Rolfe climbed back up onto the roof, settled himself between the dead vegetable plants, and watched the effects of his plan.  He had to be sure his mark did not escape the fire. 

 

*****

 

Someone was shaking Hanley by the shoulders, as if trying to detach his head from the rest of his body.  A rasping voice said something he couldn't quite understand.  Hanley put up a hand to try to stop this overenthusiastic alarm clock from worsening the ache pounding through his head.

The voice came again, understandable this time.  "The store, it is on fire!  Wake up, Lieutenant, help me!"

Fire!  Hanley opened his eyes at last and stared up at Albert Audel.  The Frenchman was bathed in an eerie orange glow from the flames across the street.  Hanley pushed Audel away and sat up a little too quickly, causing his head to throb harder.  He shook it, trying to clear his blurred vision, willing himself to ignore the pain.  He raised a cold hand, felt the back of his head.  He'd been sapped, all right.  "Where are the others?" 

"Inside.  They are still inside!"

Hanley slowly got to his feet.  "Then we'll get them out."

"We cannot -- the stairs, they are on fire also."

Hanley took a few steps and kicked something metallic as he did so.  A gas can.  But what was it doing beside him?  He stumbled out into the street, blinking, still trying to clear his vision.  When he rubbed his eyes, the smell of gasoline made him gag.  He sniffed his hands.  Soaked with gas.  "Orion."

"What?"  Albert was halfway across the street already, as close as he could get to the fire.

 "He tried to set me up, make it look like I started the fire."  Hanley realized they weren't alone.  A dozen half-dressed townspeople were out, pointing at the flames and jabbering.  "Where's Lovelace?"

"I do not know."  Albert paced in front of the building, trying to get closer, only to be forced back by the heat time and again.

"Go find him.  He was across the street.  By that brown building, the..."  His brain was still sluggish -- he probably had a concussion.  "...the bakery.  And don't you have a fire department here?"

"Fire department?"

"Fire brigade, someone who puts out the fire."

"Oh, yes, yes, a neighbor has gone to wake them."

"Good."  Hanley watched the fire in growing horror.  Saunders, d'Yae, and Isabelle were still inside, maybe even asleep or losing consciousness from the smoke.  He saw that Albert was still pacing in the street.  "Audel!  Go find Lovelace!" he ordered.

Albert headed across the street.

Hanley shielded his eyes from the glare with one hand and squinted, trying to see if there was any movement behind the windows.  For several seconds, there was nothing.  The flames licked higher, and Hanley expected them to appear from the kitchen window at any moment.  Albert and Lovelace crossed the street toward him, the sergeant rubbing his head in about the same place where Hanley's ached the most.  His pants and shirtsleeves were also soaked.  The second fall guy.

A cry went up from the growing crowd of civilians.  Isabelle appeared at the living room window, wearing a pale violet bathrobe and looking terrified.

"Mon Dieu!  Ma soeur -- Je dois sauver ma soeur!"  Albert hurled himself closer to the fire, heading for the back door he had left open when escaping. 

Hanley grabbed Albert's arm, Lovelace grabbed the other, and together they struggled to haul the powerful man away from the fire.  Albert snarled, "Let go!  My sister will die!"  He thrashed about, trying to shake them off, but both soldiers hung on.

"Albert!" Hanley yelled.  "Your sister is fine.  Look!"

Marc d'Yae had appeared at the window as well and was fastening a rope around Isabelle.  He kissed her cheek, then helped her sit down on the window ledge.  She dangled her feet over the street.

The local fire brigade had arrived with an ancient fire truck pulled by three frightened horses.  They concentrated their one hose on the fire beneath the window, beating the flames down enough that Isabelle wouldn't catch fire during her descent.

Isabelle pushed away from the building, and d'Yae began lowering her.  Albert stopped struggling and watched, his hands clenching and unclenching as if he himself held his sister's lifeline.  When she reached the ground at last, he helped her out of the rope, then guided her away from the burning building.  A helpful neighbor draped a blanket around Isabelle's shoulders, and together the Audels joined Hanley and Lovelace a safe distance from the fire.

Flames were shooting from the kitchen window now, and a dull glow illuminated the living room as well.  The roof above the kitchen began to burn. 

Hanley took Isabelle by the arm.  "Saunders -- is he...?"

Isabelle coughed several times.  "Yes."  Her voice was almost as scratchy as her brother's.  She coughed again and pointed toward the fire.  "You see?"

Sure enough, Saunders had appeared in the window beside d'Yae.  He gestured to the flames below, which leapt higher now despite the firemen's efforts.  The two men moved back, pulling the rope with them.  Obviously, they hoped to find the flames lower below the other windows.

The entire roof was now on fire, and the structure made ominous cracking noises over the sound of the conflagration.  It wouldn't be long before it began falling in on itself.

"Hurry, Marc," Isabelle whispered, her words so soft Hanley barely heard them.  A minute passed, then another.  Suddenly, with a shuddering crash, the roof collapsed in on the upper story.

Isabelle shrieked and, like her brother before her, tried to rush toward the building, which burned more furiously than ever.  Albert grabbed her arm, and she fought him for a moment, then turned and clung to him, sobbing.  Albert held his sister, rocking her back and forth.  He did not try to soothe her with words, but let her grieve, her sooty face pressed against his shirt.

 

*****

 

Once d'Yae had lowered Isabelle to the ground, Saunders said, "Got a plan?"

"Yes.  I will find Orion and kill him."

"That's not a plan."

"What do you suggest?"

"Is there any other way we can get out of here?"  Saunders forced himself to keep talking, keep thinking of possible escape plans.  It helped him ignore the remembered smell of charred flesh. 

"Maybe the window in the hall -- it overlooks an alley.  The house next door is very close."

"How close?"

"A little more than a meter." 

"Close enough to jump?"

"For me, it would be easy."

Saunders gestured at the flames below.  "We don't have much time."

"Right."  Marc led the way out of the room, pulling the rope with them.

Out in the hallway, the heat and smoke were much worse.  Saunders' hands began to tingle, but he ignored them.  It was a risky enough plan without him fighting panic as well.  He followed Marc to the small window at the end of the hallway.  It faced the stone wall of the house next door.  Whoever built this store hadn't expected to have such close neighbors. 

D'Yae coiled the rope around himself, over one shoulder and under the other arm.  He opened the window, climbed out and, with a little jump, he was clinging to the opposite wall.  With practiced ease, he clambered up to the steep roof.  There he wound the rope around the chimney and tossed the free end back down.

Saunders grabbed the rope and climbed out of the window.  He pushed away from the Audel's store and swung free for a moment before bracing his feet on the stone wall opposite.  Hand-over-hand on the rope, one foot after another against the wall, it didn’t take long for him to be crouched beside d'Yae on the neighbor's gutter.

No spectators thronged this side of the street; everyone was watching the windows to see if the two trapped men would climb down.  Hopefully, Orion was doing the same.  Saunders took a deep breath of clean air.  The fire was still too close for his liking. 

As they crept along the neighbor's roof, staying as low as they could so as not to present a profile against the flames, the Audel's roof collapsed.  Even above the crash of timbers and slate tiles, they could hear a woman scream.

D'Yae stopped and turned.  "Isabelle!  She will think I am dead!  That we are still in there!"

"She might not be the only one."  Saunders laid a hand on Marc's shoulder for a moment.

"You think Orion believes he has succeeded?"

"Let's stay up here.  See who leaves."  With any luck, Orion would clear out now that d'Yae appeared to have died in the fire.  It should be easy to spot his exit from their perch.  As long as he didn't spot them first.

D'Yae nodded slowly.  "Even so, he would not be careless enough to allow us to follow him.  Not Orion."

"We all make mistakes sometimes." 

 

*****

 

Rolfe relaxed as he watched the roof fall, a little puff of steam escaping his lips as he released the breath he'd been holding.  Although parts of his plan had failed -- the Audels had escaped unharmed, and no one seemed to suspect the soldiers had set the fire -- he had accomplished his main objective.  The troublesome Marc d'Yae had not escaped before the roof crashed in.  There was no doubt he had been consumed by the fire.

So Rolfe climbed down, making sure no spectators would see him.  He walked off into the night, hands warm in his pockets, smug with success.  He could report to his superiors, pack up his equipment, and be gone before the fire subsided.  Everyone's attention would be focused there, and no one would notice one GI with a radio slipping out of town.

He did not even bother taking a circuitous route back to his base.  Although he did check twice to make sure no one followed him, the precaution was a complete waste of time, as he knew it would be.  The streets were filled with shadows, nothing else.  In minutes, Rolfe reached the abandoned house in the poorer section of St. Vitonus.  He opened the front door as if he had lived there all his life, climbed the stairs, and entered the bedroom where his equipment lay hidden. 

He had already packed what little there was:  an extra battery for the radio and some personal items, all American-issue.  He pulled his radio out from under a loose floorboard, extended its antenna, and tuned to the correct frequency.  "Wolf to Woodman, Wolf to Woodman," he said into the mouthpiece.  Even if the Americans picked up his call, it would sound like one of their own absurd codes.  "Come in, Woodman.  Over."

"Wolf, this is Woodman, over."  The reply was faint.  Perhaps his battery was lower than he had thought.

"The hunter has bagged the hare.  Repeat, the hunter has bagged the hare, over."

"Good.  Wolf may return to the pack.  Over."

"Understood.  Wolf out."  Rolfe slid the wire antenna back into the set.  Another kill chalked up for Orion.  Time to get back to his comrades and celebrate.

"Thank you."  The words came out of the darkness so close to Rolfe's ear that he jumped.  His right hand moved toward the silenced Luger at his side.

"Do not bother."  A hand appeared from behind him and held a knife to his throat. 

This was impossible -- no one had followed him, no one had ever seen him enter this house.  And yet he distinctly felt the blade's warm edge pressing against his skin.

The man spoke again, close to Rolfe's ear.  His words were English, but his accent was French.  "It is a great relief to be dead."

"D'Yae," Rolfe guessed.

"Correct." 

"But you died -- you never climbed down.  The roof, it collapsed."

"And you have now reported me dead, so it must be true."  D'Yae took the radio from Rolfe's hand and hurled it against a wall, where it smashed into unusable bits.  Then he removed Rolfe's pistol from its holster and tossed it away.  "How does it feel to be the prey instead of the hunter, Orion?"

Rolfe lurched backwards, hoping to throw d'Yae off balance.  It was a desperate gamble, but even as he tried to ram his elbow into the Frenchman's stomach, Rolfe felt the knife slice into him, his blood warm as it ran down his chest.  The last words he heard were, "Alors, c'est fini."  A shame he had never learned French.

 

*****

 

Hanley shoved his cold hands deep into his coat pockets.  Funny how a fire could be so mesmerizing.  Although the flames were dying down, several townspeople still remained, foregoing sleep to watch the tragedy play out.  Ashes and cinders still swirled through the air.

There was no longer any doubt in his mind about whether or not Isabelle Audel had harbored feelings for d'Yae.  When the roof collapsed on him, sealing his fate with a roar, her cries left no question that she had loved him a great deal.  Once her sobs had subsided somewhat, her brother had led her over to sit on some stone steps across the street.  Hanley and Lovelace followed, and now they huddled there, not saying anything, simply staring at the fire.

Of all the ways for Saunders to die... the sergeant and fire had been old enemies.  What terror must he have felt, surrounded by smoke and flames?  This time, there had been no escape.  Hanley watched the fire until the sight was forever seared on his memory, a blazing memorial to his friend.

Finally, Lovelace broke the silence.  "What'll you do now?  Y'all got someplace to go?"

Albert said, "We will return to our family's farm."  He stroked Isabelle's hair, her head cradled on his broad shoulder.  "Jules and Joseph will be surprised to see us, will they not?"

A smooth voice beside Hanley said, "As surprised, perhaps, as you will be to see me?"

All four whirled around and stared at the ghost stepping out of the shadows. 

Marc d'Yae said, "Forgive me.  I should perhaps have made my presence known a little less... abruptly?  But I had to wait until you were away from the others, where no one would see I am still alive."  He moved back into the shadows beside the steps, becoming nearly invisible once more.

Behind him, another ghost appeared.  "Surprised, Lieutenant?"  The soot-covered Saunders touched the brim of his helmet.

Hanley said, "Pleasantly."  He felt a little ashamed for not having figured the sergeant would find some way to escape.  But all he said was, "You think Orion will fall for it?"

D'Yae said, "He has already reported me dead.  I am a free man."

"And you know this because--"  Lovelace waited for them to explain.

D'Yae said, "Because we were there when he radioed the news to his superiors.  Marc d'Yae is dead."

Albert asked, "And if he finds out you are still alive?"

"He knows already.  I should say, he knew.  I am afraid it is the last thing he will ever know."

Lovelace grinned.  "Got any proof of that I can take on back to S2?"

Saunders said, "There's a body in an abandoned house, second story.  Near the railroad tracks on the edge of town.  He's disguised as an American, but I'm sure you'll find some way to identify him."

Lovelace said, "Well, I sure do apologize, Marc.  Here I meant to come rescue you from Orion, and you done all the rescuing your own self."

"I would have died last night if it had not been for you.  And please, from now on my name is not Marc.  Marc d'Yae is dead in that fire.  Andre Tailleur has risen from his ashes."  He looked directly at Isabelle for the first time.  "He is, perhaps, a better man for the change.  Or he could be."

Isabelle rose and joined him in the shadows.  "I could not imagine a better man than Marc d'Yae," she said.  "But I am eager to get to know this Andre Tailleur."  She glanced over at Albert.  "I think our brothers would not be adverse to another pair of hands to help work the farm, do you?"

Albert looked his sister's rescuer up and down.  "There is always something to do," he growled, a grudging note of acceptance softening his tone.

"My thanks."  Andre/Marc slipped an arm around Isabelle's waist and pulled her to his side.  "Though I do not think you could keep me away."

Isabelle smiled.  "Isabelle Tailleur has a pleasant sound."

Hanley stood up.  The stone steps weren't growing any warmer, and he was starting to feel like a third wheel anyway.  "The sooner you leave the better," he suggested.  "Before it gets light and someone recognizes you."

Lovelace rose too.  "Just one thing, Mar -- I mean, Andre.  How'd you get out before that roof fell?"

Andre shrugged.  "We climbed out the hall window and jumped across to the next building.  Then it was but a matter of climbing down and following Orion when he left the scene."  

Lovelace held out his hand.  "Well, I wish you all the luck in the world.  If there's anything I can ever do for you, just give me a holler."

Andre took Lovelace's hand and shook it.  "There is one thing.  My father, uncle, cousins, all must believe I am dead.  But Jean...."

"I'll tell him myself."

"If he ever wishes to reach me, tell him to leave word with Luc.  I will visit his grave as soon as it is safe."

"Sure thing."  Lovelace stepped back.

Hanley reached out his own hand.  "Andre, Isabelle."  He shook both their hands.  "Good luck."

Beside him, Saunders moved forward.  "Take care of him," he told Isabelle.

"I will, Sergeant, do not worry." 

"Thanks for the loan."  Saunders handed Andre the pistol he had borrowed.  "So long."

"Au revoir, Saunders.  It is I who should thank you."  Andre took the pistol and tucked it into the back waistband of his black trousers.  "For everything."

Albert joined his sister and Andre Tailleur.  "It will be light in a few hours.  You should go."  He gestured at the burning store.  "I will stay and see what can be salvaged.  Tell Jules and Joseph I will arrive in a day or two."  He walked back toward the fire, carrying the rifle he had loaned Hanley.

As Andre and Isabelle headed down a dark side street, Hanley turned to Lovelace and Saunders.  "Looks like we're out of a place to sleep."

Lovelace grinned.  "Who wants to sleep?  Remember, you still owe us sergeants a drink."

Hanley laughed.  "You think Les Anges might be open already?"

"If it ain't, I know a couple fellers who make their own liquor."  As Lovelace led them away from the fire, snow began to fall.  Hanley took a last look down the side street d'Yae/Tailleur and Isabelle had taken.  They had nearly disappeared behind a curtain of snow and ash.

 

 end

 

 

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