He was given false papers, a gun disguised as a pen and the codename Paul. Additional tools and weapons would be given to him when he reported for duty at midnight. That left him only six hours to tidy away his meagre belongings and get whatever sleep he could. He would have to say his farewells too. Louisa was not going to be happy. Would she want to come? Would she be able to?
“We’ve got your will already, I see.” The commander closed the file on his desk. “Any questions?”
“Good luck, then. Dismissed.”
Paul saluted and went in search of Louisa. She didn’t often come out before sunset, but he found her in his room, hovering by the window. Her fists were clenched and she did not turn around when he entered.
“You’ve heard, then,” he said.
“I overheard the commander telling that one-eyed lieutenant. Why are you going?” Her voice was shaking and he had no doubt she would be screaming at him ere long. He did his best to keep his own voice down. The walls were thin and it wouldn’t do to have a shouting match here. The others already thought he was strange.
“I have to follow orders, you know I do.”
“But you promised, no, you swore to help me catch him!”
“I know, I know. But it’s only for a couple of months.”
They both knew the average life expectancy of an agent in the field was five weeks. Neither of them wanted to say it.
“I’ve written down everything we discovered,” Paul said after a while. “It’ll be sent to the police, in case I’m delayed.”
She whirled around to face him. “The police can’t do anything and you know it! And while you’re off gallivanting, he’ll kill again!”
“Gallivanting?” Paul tried to whisper but it came out as a hiss. “They’re sending me to blow up a railway! And if I survive that, I’ll probably be asked to assassinate a general or steal a battle plan or sabotage a factory. Again and again and again until I make a mistake.”
“And meanwhile he’s still out there, murdering people! Innocent people!”
“Innocent people are dying everywhere, Louisa! It’s war! I have to do what I can.”
“But others can blow up the railway, you’re the only one who can help me stop him!”
“So help me get through it alive!” He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. “Please, I’ll do what I can. I owe you, I know I do, but I can’t ignore orders.”
“Go and blow yourself up then!” she shouted.
Then she turned and whirled away through the wall, leaving a gust of cold air behind.
Just after midnight, Paul found himself in the noisy belly of an airplane. His pockets were stuffed with ammunition and maps. Crates of weapons and radio parts would be dropped along with him. He was going over the passwords one final time when he saw a shimmer in the air beside him. Louisa stepped through the crates and came to hover beside him.
“I’m glad you came,” he said, keeping his face turned away from the man who was hooking up the static line of his parachute.
“It’s you or no one. Do you think I’ll be able to jump?”
“Hold on to me, if it helps.”
He suppressed a shiver as she stepped halfway into him. The plane slowed down slightly, the hatch was opened, and he let himself fall into nothingness. The parachute blossomed into the night sky above him, pale as a cloud. Louisa was still clinging on to him and together they floated gently down towards the dark ground below. This was perhaps the most dangerous moment. If their messages had been intercepted and decoded, he wouldn’t be met by members of the resistance but by a squad of soldiers who would shoot him on sight, if he was lucky.
But all was quiet as he came down in a grassy field, already wet with dew. Louisa stood guard while he disentangled himself from the parachute. He pulled the jumpsuit off too. Underneath he wore a simple shirt and trousers. No one who saw him would think him anything other than a simple labourer, except for the fact that he was out after curfew and his pockets were stuffed with bullets and illegal maps.
“Someone’s coming,” Louisa said.
Paul crouched down by a hedge. He heard rustling, footsteps, and soft singing. It was a simple melody, a children’s song about the moon.
“There’s just one person,” Louisa said, peering through the hedge. “No visible weapons.”
It could still be a trap, but he would have to risk it. Paul stood up and let out a low whistle.
The singing stopped, and a woman with thick dark hair stepped out of the night and approached him. “Are you fond of singing?”
“I’m fond of the moon.”
“You are Paul?”
“Call me Lynx,” she said. They shook hands. “How many crates of supplies?”
“Six. They’ll be southwest from here. They were dropped after me.”
“Someone else will get them. Come on, you need to get under cover.”
She led him across fields and over stone walls. The ground was lumpy and uneven. Every rabbit hole threatened to twist Paul’s ankles. Louisa was a pale shimmer as she hovered in front. At the edge of one of the fields she stopped, bent down, and then came rushing back.
“There are people in a ditch,” she said. “About half a dozen of them. They don’t look like soldiers to me.”
Paul grabbed Lynx’s wrist. “I think I heard something, up there,” he said, pointing.
“Our people,” Lynx whispered. But she told him to hide anyway, while she crept forward, singing the same children’s song about the moon. There was an answering whistle and a moment later a handful of men and women climbed out of a ditch.
“Three fields across,” she whispered to the nearest. “Then southwest. Six crates.”
“We’ll get them.”
They crept away into the darkness, while Paul and Lynx continued in what Paul’s compass said was a northerly direction. After what felt like hours they came to an abandoned farmhouse. The door hung from its hinges and the windows were broken. They went around the back to a stable which looked even more decrepit.
“One of our safehouses,” Lynx said, taking a pistol from her jacket. She stopped by a side door and knocked, three times then two. There was an answering knock and the door swung open noiselessly on well-oiled hinges. An old man, armed with a pistol, pulled them inside and closed the door after them. It was darker inside than out. Only Louisa shone faintly, but it was enough for Paul to make out piles of straw. Lynx and the old man, who couldn’t see Louisa’s glow, shuffled forward with their hands in front of them and lowered themselves carefully into the straw. Paul did the same.
“We can’t have light here,” whispered Louisa. “The patrols could spot us. We’ll arrange another safehouse once the job is done.”
“This is fine,” Paul said. “Are we close to the railway?”
“It’s in the next valley. It passes through a tunnel a few hours from here.”
The others arrived not long after. They had already divided up the contents of the crates. Most of the weapons and all of the radio parts were taken by the other group members, who would distribute them among resistance fighters in neighbouring towns. They left without speaking a word to Paul. It was better this way. If they didn’t know each other, they couldn’t betray each other. The only one who spoke to him was the leader of the group, a man who called himself Bear. Paul told him about the most recent developments on the front lines and passed along messages that were too dangerous to send by radio.
When only Lynx and Paul were left, they crawled into the straw and got a few hours of fitful sleep. At the first light of dawn, they set to work preparing the explosives that had been dropped with Paul. Lynx had plenty of experience cobbling together bombs. Paul was explaining to her how the newly developed detonators worked when Louisa burst the door, shouting about a car that was heading up the valley towards them.
In an instant, Paul was on his feet. “I heard something outside!”
Lynx grabbed her pistol and slipped out through the door. She was back a moment later, her face pale. “A patrol car, heading here. Grab what you can.”
She put their bomb in a rucksack while Paul stuffed his pockets with ammunition and spare detonators. In less than a minute they were hurrying outside. It had been too dark the previous night to make out the landscape, but now Paul saw they were in a hilly area with small fields and patches of woodland. Below them the road wound down the slope like a ribbon. A small dust cloud showed the rapidly approaching patrol car.
Lynx led them straight to the nearest wood and they gained the safety of the trees before the car pulled up at the abandoned farmstead. They clambered up a steep slope that was criss-crossed by snaking tree roots. There was no sign of pursuit yet. How long would it take the patrol to search the stable, find the supplies they had left and call for backup to search the surrounding countryside? They had to reach the railway tunnel before that.
“How did you know that car was coming?” Lynx said, when the slope evened out and they had breath to spare to talk. “I could barely see it, let alone hear it.”
“Just lucky, I guess,” Paul said. Beside him, Louisa snorted.
His colleagues said he was the luckiest bastard alive. A lieutenant had once said he’d never seen anyone with a better instinct for spying and subterfuge. The commander said he didn’t want to know how Paul always managed to obtain secret information, as long as he kept doing so. It was all Louisa’s doing, of course.
The first time Louisa had helped him was near the start of the war, when he was a lowly intelligence agent. He met her on the day he was given orders to infiltrate a suspected spy ring. On the way there, he had stopped in a busy square to ask a screaming young lady whether she was all right, while thousands of commuters pushed past them, wondering about the strange man talking to himself. And so Louisa had joined him on his visit to the suspected spies. He had come away an hour later convinced they were just a group of harmless old pensioners playing backgammon. Louisa doubled back to listen in to their private conversation and came away with details of three upcoming sabotage actions and the name of their contact at the Ministry of Defence.
“Down here!” Lynx’s whisper shook Paul out of his reverie. They had come to the edge of the forest, and he had almost stepped out into the fields. Below them lay a deep valley that disappeared into the shadowy slopes of a steep hill.
“There’s the railway line,” she said, pointing. There was a glint of sunlight on metal from the valley floor. “The tunnel goes through that hill there.”
They kept to the edge of the forest until the trees thinned out. Then they rushed rushed from boulder to boulder, keeping an eye out for soldiers. There were farms dotted along the valley and a few roads. So far, it did not look like anyone had spotted them. Towards dusk they found themselves at the mouth of the tunnel. Paul sat down to finish the bomb and fasten it to the tracks just inside the mouth of the tunnel. Lynx set additional charges further inside.
“What’s so important about this railway anyway?” asked Louisa. She was perched on a nearby rock, keeping an eye on the roads in the valley.
“There are mines up in these hills. They supply about half of the copper for the war. And sulfur, too, I think.”
“Why is sulfur so important?”
“I’ll tell you later, all right?” He set the detonator in place. “Anyone coming up the valley?”
“Not from the valley, no,” said a voice behind him.
He spun around and found himself staring down the barrel of the gun, held by a grinning soldier. Five more soldiers marched out of the tunnel. Those in front were dragging Lynx along with them. She had a deep gash on her forehead and blood was pouring down her face. The first soldier was talking but his words were lost in the ringing in Paul’s ears. He could only stare dumbly at the gun while waves of panic crashed over him.
“Keep calm,” Louisa said. “You can talk your way out of this, I know you can. Tell him you’ve got information, or go with him and try to escape on the way, or …”
Lynx spat out a glob of blood. Paul looked over at her. She met his eyes, glanced at soldier pointing the gun at him, then at their bomb. Before he realised what she wanted from him, she had swung a kick at the soldier. He stumbled and his arm jerked aside. With Louisa and Lynx both yelling in his ears, Paul dropped onto the ground and fumbled for the detonator. The fuse ignited just as the first shot rang out. There was a scream, then more shots. Pain blossomed in his leg and his shoulder. He tried to crawl away. Someone grabbed his ankle. More shots. Then a deafening explosion tore through the sky. Paul threw an arm over his head as earth and rubble rained down on him.
Paul hadn’t expected to wake up. He wished he hadn’t. Pain shot up his leg and he couldn’t move his left arm. Breathe, he told himself. Where was he? He was lying on his side with his face pressed into the cold ground. There was a telltale shimmer in the darkness beside him and Louisa’s face swam into focus.
“How are you feeling?”
“Rubbish.” His voice was a croak. “Where are we?”
“Some sort of prison.”
He brushed his fingertips over the ground. It was concrete. He was lying on concrete.
“The tunnel was destroyed,” Louisa said softly. “But Lynx is dead. About half of the soldiers, too. The others brought you here.”
“Why is it so dark? Am I underground?”
“No, it’s night. There’s a window in the wall there.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to get more evidence to convict him.”
“Maybe what you found is enough.”
He was silent for a while as he tried to get his ragged breathing under control. He hoped the shoebox of letters, newspaper clippings and photographs would be enough for the police.
“Does it hurt to die?” he asked finally.
“I think it depends.” Louisa hugged her knees. “It did for me, when he killed me. It went on for so long.”
Paul wondered what information they thought he had, and how they might try to get it out of him. Louisa trailed her pale, translucent fingers through his hand.
“It might be easier for you,” she said. “They were putting up a gallows in the courtyard when they brought you in.”
He could see the window now. The darkness gave way to grey around it. Sunrise could not be far off.
“They hang people at dawn, don’t they?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
There were footsteps outside his cell. He didn’t want to hear them. He wanted to keep looking at Louisa’s face.
“Will you stay with me?”