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Authors: Aleksandr Voinov

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BOOK: Nightingale
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Chapter 9

 

If he’d never be saluted again by a German soldier, it would be too soon. Of course, they didn’t salute him at all, but von Starck.

Or
Heinrich
, as von Starck insisted he be called, which, to a French tongue, was a near impossible feat. It sounded nothing like when von Starck pronounced his own name, and Yves found his own attempts—and von Starck’s goading, or,
encouraging
him—more embarrassing than it was worth.
‘Einrisch
it was, his best approximation of the long and guttural name chockfull of so-very-German sounds.

With every passing German soldier and NCO saluting von Starck, Yves wondered how the French mistresses felt beyond the odd pride to have acquired a powerful lover like this season’s coveted
accessoire
. Did they cringe too when a soldier snapped a salute to their higher-ranking officer, paying homage to a superior and his virility?

But at least all he could be in the eyes of these soldiers was a friend. A lunch guest. Or even a
pet
, indulged and pampered as long as he didn’t sing any patriotic, anti-German songs. Never before had dignity been tied up into his nationality, but the bond was becoming inexorable. Not that Maurice had any such issues; he’d had his menus translated into German before the ink on the capitulation had dried.

Getting away from it all was a tremendous relief, and at least von Starck usually worked long hours, and then often engaged in functions at the embassy or other social gatherings. He even accepted that Yves still needed to earn a living and hence couldn’t cancel shows from one moment to the next.

Singing at Chez Martine and the other cabarets had suddenly become a rare luxury, even though they offered only a fraction of what Maurice paid him for an evening. Yet, even though he sung a very similar roster of songs, at the bars and cabarets they tasted of honest labor rather than pocket money to keep him happy as he, in turn, kept the German content.

On one Wednesday evening, Yves noticed a face in the crowd. The man sat among the Germans in a gray uniform and watched Yves with an intensity that gave him pause. Wherever he looked, whatever he did, that young, heated face followed him, not once relenting in the demand to be seen in turn.

Yves dismissed the insistence as drunken stupor, especially because the young soldier never laughed, never so much as swayed on his chair, not even during
My Vélo
. Yves could only do so much to evade the attention—the soldier sat right at the front, close enough to be able to place his beer glass at Yves’s feet.

Yves played along with the crowd and sang his two extra songs, but vanished before they could demand a third. Something about the German’s detached, yet intensely focused concentration made him feel hunted.

He grabbed his things and, after Martine had paid him, rushed out the back to the alley where he nearly ran into the man who’d stared at him.

A furtive sound of surprise—even a call for help—died in his throat when he recognized the face. His eyes darted to the mouth of the alley, where, only a few weeks ago, the same man had collapsed in a bloody heap.
I still have his hat
.

“Do you remember me?” The German soldier asked in heavily accented French.

Yves looked up, trying to calm his racing heart. He’d forgotten the exact lines of the man’s face, had barely seen him in the dark, but now the pale blue eyes, pale blond hair and broad angular jaw jolted him. He’d forgotten how attractive he was, and how scary. Hitler’s Teutonic Beast in perfection. The hesitation had already given him away. “Yes, I do,” he admitted.

The German made a guttural sound and remained standing in his way. Too close. Yves stepped back and jerked away when the heel of his foot scraped against the door behind him.
Oh God.
He stood there, heart racing. “You . . . survived?”

The man frowned, then demanded: “Again.”

Damnable Germans with their shoddy French. “You’re alive.” Yves gestured to the end of the alley. The German’s gaze flickered to the place where he’d almost died, and then returned, with full force, to his face. “Yes, I live.” His grim-faced determination, though, belonged to an avenger, and Yves’s stomach plummeted. He glanced around, half-expecting Gestapo goons to drag him away now. But they were alone.

He pressed his lips together and tried to meet that gaze, but every passing moment felt like a knife to his throat.

“Excuse me, my French is not good,” the German said. Was that possible? That brooding, threatening silence was just because he was struggling with his school French?

“That’s fine, I don’t mind.” Faced with a conqueror, it wasn’t his place to mind anything.

The German nodded without a hint of irony. “Ah, so . . . thank you.”

Yves blinked. “Why?”

“You saved my life.” As simple as that sentence was, it seemed rehearsed, painstakingly composed out of a dictionary.

Yes, and I was a fool. A scared fool.
Yves reached into his pocket for a cigarette. He snapped the lighter open, giving himself a little space, as the German stepped back—not nearly as smartly or stiffly as
that other German
.

“That’s . . . I’m glad you made it.” Blank stare again, but intent on understanding. God, like speaking to an imbecile. “I couldn’t exactly let you lie there.” Oddly, knowing the German had indeed survived, a weight seemed to shift from his soul. He had wondered, even worried somewhat, but had been too busy to check, too nervous about the Gestapo or revenge, too tied up in his own life.

The German smiled at him, his whole face lighting up, and he reached out to pat Yves’s shoulder. With nowhere else to go, Yves didn’t move away, and an odd chill raced through him when the German pulled him into an awkward embrace.

All Yves could do was slide the cigarette out of the way while that powerful body pressed against his. The soldier smelled of smoke, damp like rain or tears, like autumn, and joyless barracks life. Uniform smell.

The embrace lasted a few seconds too long, and Yves wondered what it meant, whether he should push back, or whether he should make the most of it and enjoy, perversely, in a corner of his being, that restrained strength measured against his.

He pushed against the man’s chest, and, miraculously, the German let him go, grinning at him like an overgrown schoolboy.

Yves cleared his throat. “It’s all right. I’m glad they fixed you right up.” Making it sound like the man was an automobile. He shrugged, pulled from the cigarette. “I need to go home; it’s almost curfew.”

“Curfew?” The German frowned. “
Sperrstunde
.”

“Or that.” German was the language to make curfew sound as ugly as it was. “Well, I’ll see you around.” Yves pushed past the soldier, emboldened by the embrace that seemed to mean the man held no grudges.

He left the alley, not surprised when the soldier followed him. There was just one way out. But when the soldier also turned left, his stomach tightened. He glanced back to find the soldier following him and seemingly not thinking anything bad about it. He stopped, shoring up his courage to confront him. Maybe he had been too brusque. All the German had wanted was to thank him for getting him to a hospital. It wasn’t really like he’d saved his life at all—that must have been the work of the surgeons.

“I found your hat,” Yves said, because that was the easiest way to start the conversation. “You lost it in the alley.” He pointed, using the exaggerated body movements he employed onstage to underscore his jokes.

“I go with you,” the man said.

Having an SS soldier stomp around in his house wasn’t a prospect he relished, but then, this was just one of them, and he had nothing to hide.

Yves kept his face neutral, guarded now in public, because the last thing he wanted was for fellow French to see he was getting friendly with the conquerors. It was bad enough that von Starck spent so much time with him in public. Many French flat-out refused to speak to the Germans or look them in the face, hunkering down and reserving all friendliness for their countrymen. Not that he had much of a choice, though.

So he led the soldier to his house and then up the elevator to his flat. They didn’t speak; maybe the man was only too aware of the limitations of language. It certainly wasn’t due to manners.

His fingers fumbled with the keys when he tried to open the door. What if von Starck or Édith chose this moment to pay a visit? Of course, Heinrich was busy most evenings of the week, but his sister was less predictable.

It will be but a minute.
Nobody would see anything, and nobody would suspect anything.

Finally, the door opened, and Yves pushed his way in, allowing the German soldier to pass after him. He closed the door behind them, took a deep breath, and continued into the living room, where he switched on the light.

The
boche
stood there, smiling somewhat tentatively, but the red swastika armband leached all humor and goodwill from the room. Yves gave him wide berth as he walked to the bedroom and hurried to pull the brown package out by its piece of twine and then return to the living room.

“Your hat.” He held it out to the soldier.

The soldier took it, hands quickly tracing the shape inside the paper, and another smile bloomed on his face. He was so much less guarded than Heinrich. Compared to von Starck’s solidity, this man was physically more imposing, but didn’t exude that old-world nobility. This man? An overgrown farm boy, recruited for his Aryan looks. It was near impossible to hate him while he smiled like that.

Yves folded his arms in front of his chest, waited for the no doubt awkward “thank you and goodbye” slaughter of his language. But it wasn’t forthcoming. And wasn’t that familiar? Once the Germans occupied a space, they weren’t giving it up. He’d been a fool.

“Is there anything else you want?”

“Slower.”

Yves repeated his question, gesticulated, even, part of his comical stage persona seeping into his behavior. Clown for the Germans. Dance, monkey.

The German smiled again at him, tapped the hat with his fingers, then nodded.
That will be all
.

“I am Falk Harfner.” The man touched his chest like he was reenacting
Tarzan the Ape Man
. Shame that he was just as attractive and imposing as Weissmuller.

Yves bit down on a sarcastic “And I’m Jane” comment. What was he supposed to do? Certainly not make fun of the harsh “alk-arf” sounds there. “
Monsieur
‘arfner.”
My pleasure. No, really. Shiniest pair of jackboots I’ve seen in my life,
monsieur
.

He took heart and began herding the German out the door, noticing the man’s reluctance, as if there were more words that needed to be said. But every passing moment just reinforced how dangerous the situation was. He’d been caught out once with the Germans—he certainly wasn’t going to turn this into a habit.

Chapter 10

 

Sitting through the four hours of
Lohengrin
was only bearable because of the powerful, yet smooth German tenor singing the title role. For one, Yves barely understood a word that was spoken. The performance went with the original German libretto rather than the French or Italian translations.

In an ironic but certainly deliberate twist, Elsa of Brabant was sung by a Frenchwoman, who rather believably swooned in the arms of her German grail knight. The medieval tale took on new barbs as a German production in Paris under the auspice of Dr. Abetz and the censors. Wagner, of course, was beyond reproach, and Yves struggled to ignore how the story of an outside messiah bringing deliverance to a beleaguered duke’s daughter had become something sinister. Hard to forget that the opera was set in Antwerp, which, like Paris, was occupied by the Germans.

The German notables who seemed to make up at least half of the audience clearly saw those parallels. There was a smugness and self-satisfaction in their faces that not even the enjoyment of the music’s beauty could wipe away. And seeing the Hitler salute executed in these hallowed halls turned Yves’s stomach to cold iron. Never mind how good German opera was, he’d never get beyond their arrogance over it.

“How are you liking it?” Heinrich asked him in the first intermission, offering him a glass of champagne.

Yves accepted it with a nod, but before he could answer, he saw that another officer was trying to attract Heinrich’s attention. For the amount of high-ranking officers present, it seemed expedient to believe that the tickets for this had never even left the German Embassy and the Army Headquarters.


Heil Hitler
!” boomed the other officer, and Heinrich clicked his heels, though he did not mirror the German greeting. Yves slunk to the side like any other dog. He knew it and resented it, but as a civilian, he was a note in the margins in this company, and that was vital for his survival, too. Any suspicion of something untoward between Heinrich and him could be dangerous, and Yves wished he’d just stayed at home. It was one thing to go to a restaurant—even an expensive one—and another to flaunt their connection in front of the Nazi elite at the Paris Opéra.

“Von Grimmstein,” Heinrich addressed the other officer, face blank and unfailingly polite, but there was a hint of tension—propriety? Distaste?—in his demeanor. “I don’t believe you’ve met Yves Lacroix yet.”

Yves swallowed and met the younger officer’s gaze. Von Grimmstein was tall, blond, blue-eyed, not unlike Falk Harfner, but where Falk looked fresh-faced, von Grimmstein looked like he’d overseen executions for most of his life. Cold, not a hint of emotion in those dark-rimmed eyes. His least attractive feature was the sharp, cynical pale mouth that looked like it easily pursed in disgust when confronted with anything even slightly less Aryan than he was. A pagan god of destruction, a machine-man, soulless and proud of it.

The moments stretched into what felt like a month of dread, and Yves wished he were a child who could just pull on Heinrich’s hand and ask him to go home.

“He looks southern. Mediterranean,” von Grimmstein said with a hint of distaste. Just where in the hierarchy of racial purity did that place him?

Von Starck seemed unfazed. “You wanted to talk to me,
Herr Hauptsturmführer
?” Was that a hint of sarcasm in Heinrich’s voice? Certainly, going from the man’s last name to his rank did express some resentment.

Von Grimmstein’s lips moved into a smile as sharp and unpleasant as the whole man. “Would you do us the honor of joining us for a post-opera meal?”

Heinrich glanced at Yves, who felt his stomach sink. He wanted to shake his head and excuse himself but drew blank after blank what might be a good excuse. Heinrich did not actually consider taking him along, did he?

“Your French friend must be too tired,” von Grimmstein said with a smirk that said he wasn’t surprised that the French would already falter. Yves wasn’t sure whether to simply take the insult, pretend he hadn’t noticed, or make an attempt at resistance and endure what would no doubt be excruciating, German-speaking company for the rest of the night. Disturbingly, von Grimmstein’s French so far was clean, grammatically correct and soulless.

Heinrich nodded, seemingly after much consideration. “We’ll follow your car.”

“Excellent.” Von Grimmstein turned to nod toward some friends who also wore SS uniforms and had gathered to the side. “We’re looking forward to it.” He clicked his heels again and turned like on the parade ground.

Heinrich watched him closely. “Yves, beware of this man. He’s dangerous. A fanatic.”

“I gathered,” Yves said, resentful that he was being further involved. “Why did you agree?”

“Maybe I can see what he’s up to.”

Murder and mayhem, Yves would bet, but couldn’t say it out loud. “Who is he?”

“He’s an axe for a man desperate for an axe. Originally an SS enforcer, first into the fray and enjoying himself rather splendidly, considering what I’ve heard about him and his time in Poland. He’s a true believer, a Party member. He’s connected to Abwehr, too. His brother is serving there.”

“Abwehr?”

“Secret service types. You don’t want to know.”

No, actually, he didn’t. Yves was relieved when the bell sounded to end the interval. Dealing with Wagner was easier than with the Nietzschean
Übermensch
. If only these saviors would, like Lohengrin, step on a boat and sail away into the light. But there was very little hope of that.

Yet, after Lohengrin had sailed back to the grail fortress under the guidance of the dove, leaving lesser mortals to their fates and Elsa dead from a broken heart, reaching out to her retreating beloved with her last breath, Yves sat there stunned, like he’d grasped at something profound without truly understanding it. It, too, vanished into the distance as Heinrich stood and applauded, and, belatedly, he scrambled to his feet, his mind a whirlwind of half-formulated insights, his own voice shaken from the impact of another’s.

“Did you enjoy it?” Heinrich asked him when they were making their way out of the opera hall. His smile spoke of pride more than enjoyment, or maybe those were the same for him.

“Yes. Thank you for the invitation.” He lit a cigarette when they’d stepped outside, and breathed the smoke deep into his lungs, as far as it would go, while the other members of the audience streamed past, some talking about the performance while others had already fully returned to the banality of life.

Heinrich waited with him, accepting salutes from lesser soldiers, then ushered Yves to the car when his driver brought it around. Only when the door closed behind them did Heinrich touch him again. Yves half-closed his hand when Heinrich brushed the back of it. “I’ll get you home, but don’t wait for me. I have a feeling it will be a long night.”

Yves nodded and sucked on the cigarette. He was restless and fully expected to be tossing and turning, a condition that would have been tamed by the German’s strong presence in his bed. Heinrich calmed him—despite being part of the reason for the agitation. This was only one of the many absurdities that Yves had not yet grown used to. Maybe he could instead go to the Palace for a chat with Maurice. But while he felt unable to deal with the silence of his bedroom, facing Maurice’s riot and laughter seemed almost like the more unbearable option.

When they arrived, Heinrich reached for a brown-wrapped package settled next to the door and took it with him when they stepped out of the car. Yves led the way and pointedly looked at the package under Heinrich’s arm, but if he’d expected an explanation, he’d been mistaken. Von Starck kept a thoughtful silence, maybe still feeling the music vibrate in his soul, or steeling himself for the meeting with von Grimmstein.

Yves unlocked the door and paused in the dark hallway, leaving von Starck to fumble for the light switch. When the light came on, he was facing the large, gilt-framed mirror in the hall, and he thought he looked inappropriately tired and haunted for bringing an illicit lover to his apartment.

Von Starck lifted the package under his arm. “I’ll need to store these here for a little while.”

“What are they?”

“Just gifts.” Von Starck looked around, as though searching for something, then advanced into the living room. His gaze swept the room; then he lifted one of the heavy curtains away from the wall and slotted the package into the space between. “Keep an eye on them for me, will you?”

“If they are valuable, you could rent a box at the bank.”

Heinrich shook his head. “They aren’t. In fact, they are all but worthless.”

The denial came too fast. Yves kept looking at the folds of the curtains, saw that the heavy drapes were a little scuffed around the edges and looked dusty in the light. He should really hire somebody to clean up, beat the dust out of the upholstery and wash the curtains; somebody who’d remember to do it regularly unprompted. Yet the idea of having his privacy invaded by a stranger—someone with keys, who might spy or notice something—held no appeal and, in fact, a great deal of revulsion. He nodded, mechanically, without looking into Heinrich’s eyes.

“Very well, then.” Heinrich straightened in that gesture that said he was readying himself for something, then stepped closer and kissed the corner of his mouth. “I shall sup with much less pleasant company.”

“Where are you going?”

“Tour d’Argent, I believe. It’s neutral ground; everybody goes there, Wehrmacht, Gestapo, Luftwaffe . . .”

And a few French who could still afford to, or who were indulged by, their German protectors. Artists, musicians, publishers. Society ladies and denizens of the literary and musical salon, courtesans of both genders. It was respectable, expensive, and offered a sweeping glance of Notre Dame, the Seine, and people who ducked away under the gaze of the elite and the conqueror.

Yves walked him to the door, not, as he observed, out of politeness or good manners, but to close the door himself, as if only that ensured that it was sealed—and that the German was on the other side of it.

BOOK: Nightingale
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