an excerpt >>>
larger view of cover
buy the book
A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
First USA Edition 2015
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US; 156pp
A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
Was it an "h"? Or just a smudge? I pulled a magnifying glass
out of my desk drawer. The mark in "St. Leonard" did look something
like an "h", or "St. Leonhard", although the rest
of the address was in English. Mr. Leroy Martin, near St. Leonard,
Maryland, United States of America, the address read.
"I just don't know," I said. "It
"Obviously, we would like to know why a postcard
written in English and mailed from occupied France to an American contains
a German word," the lieutenant said. "If that's what it is."
The message seemed harmless enough. Dear Leroy,
I read, I am well and working here, no need to worry. Mother is safe
too. Wishing your wife Anne a happy birthday on February 13th. Your cousin,
Thousands of people living in Axis-occupied Europe
used a neutral mail service through Lisbon to correspond with friends
and family in Allied countries. But I could see why the censor had passed
this particular postcard to OSSthe Office of Strategic Services.
If the writer was French, and Richard Martin could be a French name, why
would he spell "St. Leonard" as "St. Leonhard"?
Every odd or suspect piece of mail the U.S. censor
intercepted could be an Axis coded message. Who were Leroy and Anne Martin?
Who was Richard Martin? Who was "Mother"? Was that a German
spelling of "St. Leonard", and why did the writer include the
date of Leroy's wife's birthday? Surely the woman knew the date of her
"I'm Art Collins, by the way," the thin
lieutenant said, extending his hand to shake mine. "Foreign Nationalities
Branch. I mean, Lieutenant Arthur Collins. I'm not used to being in the
Collins's uniform was brand new. I could still
see the creases where his shirt had been folded over cardboard. He was
quite young, attempting but failing to grow a mustache.
Most of the men at OSS were in uniform now. The
Army had taken to drafting everyone in sight, including the staff of the
Office of Strategic Services. After boot camp the draftees were returned
to "temporary" duty at their old stations. So now most of the
men in the building wore uniforms. And got paid less! Women weren't being
drafted yet, or I'd be in a WAC uniform myself and living in a barracks
"The postmark," Collins said, tapping
the card, "is from Nantes, not far from the St. Nazaire submarine
pens in Brittany. We can't ignore any questionable mail that comes from
that area." Collins ran his hand through his short hair and bit his
lip, distracted by worry and exhaustion. Hitler's U-boat Wolf Pack was
stalking Allied convoys in the North Atlantic, sinking so many transport
and supply ships that our victory against Rommel in North Africa and our
future European invasion plans were in serious jeopardy.
The OSS mission had shifted substantially since
the early days. Instead of writing and distributing broad reports, we
were now engaged in target analysis and estimates of enemy forces. OSS
had reorganized appropriately.
The Research and Analysis Branch, where I'd worked
since coming to Washington, was split into four desks: Europe/Africa,
Far East, USSR, and Latin America. Each had an Economics, Political, and
Geographic Section. The Central Information Division, or Registry, where
I now worked, was created as the reference library of OSS, where all classified
and unclassified material was cataloged and stored. I was one of dozens
of women who worked long days analyzing and indexing intelligence so that
it could be accessed by generals, assistant secretaries of state and our
own OSS operatives. Our vast card catalog contained two million index
cards at last count. We maintained a War Room and a Reading Room for OSS
staff. The Registry held thousands of intelligence documents, the best
map collection in the world, almost a million maps, a library of 50,000
books on specialized subjects and countless captioned photographs. We
maintained and added new information to thousands of biographical files.
Most of our resources these days were spent acquiring
and reviewing the intelligence needed to defeat the Nazi U-boat assault
on our convoys in the North Atlantic.
"This could be important," Collins said,
tapping the postcard.
As if I didn't know that. Every request that passed
through this office was critical, vital to the war effort, and needed
to be completed yesterday! I had an inbox full of critical documents to
analyze and index. Fine, I would deal with Collins's job first thing tomorrow.
I was too tired right now to even focus my eyes.
After work I waited
with my fellow employees, shivering in the glacial cold, for a bus. Despite
wearing wool trousers, a heavy cardigan, my beloved fur-collared wool
coat, a scarf wound so many times around my face that I could barely see,
and heavy gloves over the fingerless mittens I wore all day every day
to keep my joints warm, I still shivered. Phoebe's thermometer had read
six degrees this morning. Six degrees! I'd grown up on the coast of North
Carolina, and I'd never experienced these kinds of temperatures before.
Noticing my dismayed expression, a young woman
in a WAC uniform and cloak spoke up. "It's going to be a long wait,"
she said. "The streetcars still aren't running. Ice has shorted out
the electric current to the rails."
Last night I'd eaten the macaroni and cheese special
at a diner nearby and waited until the crowds thinned out to catch a bus,
finally boarding one an hour after dark. I'd stood up in the aisle all
the way and arrived at my boarding house about eleven. I couldn't tolerate
the thought of waiting that long again! It wasn't that I was afraid; I
still carried the Schrade switchblade I'd been issued at the Farm, the
OSS training camp outside Washington, and often practiced the close fighting
techniques I'd learned there.
An icy gust of wind blew through the crowd, and
we all muttered and huddled together in misery. I didn't want to walk
home, damn it! I had a sudden mental picture of myself frozen solid waiting
for the light to change at the corner of "K" Street and Pennsylvania
"I heard the Army is sending extra buses
from Fort Myer, and the police are ticketing anyone driving a car without
passengers," said a man standing near me with his head scrunched
deep into his coat. His breath froze into frost on his collar.
"Maybe when the Pentagon gets out,"
someone else said. "All those cars headed north, they'll have to
pick people up off the slug lines, or they'll get pulled over."
"Pentagon traffic doesn't come this way,"
another voice responded. "They use the highway bridge further south."
A gay jingling interrupted us. Two sleds appeared,
each drawn by a matched pair of Belgian horses, occupied by a crowd of
bright young things headed for any fancy hotel or supper club that might
be open. The horses, blowing steam from their nostrils, wore red plaid
blankets and harnesses with bells. Their passengers, wrapped in blankets,
held martini glasses aloft as the horses thundered by us, cheering and
laughing as they went by. The sight raised all our spirits, but as soon
as the bells and laughter ebbed away and the sleds turned onto 23rd Street,
our collective mood crashed again.
Just as I despaired of a warm and early night,
I heard a familiar jolly voice calling out to me.
"Halloo, Louise!" It was Joan Adams,
my closest friend at OSS. Since I'd been promoted I had seen little of
her, or of the scholar/spies who once worked on my floor.
"Over here!" Joan called out again,
and I stood on my toes to see her waving at me from the back seat of an
Army Jeep. "Come on! We'll take you home!" Joan was General
Donovan's secretary, which came in handy at times. I pushed my way through
the crowd to the curb and stepped cautiously into the icy street.
An Army corporal at the wheel of the Jeep extended
a hand to help me climb into the back seat. "Isn't this swell!"
Joan said, pulling me further into the seat beside her. The Jeep's top
was up, but afforded little protection from the cold. Joan drew half of
her motor blanket over my lap, and we snuggled together to combat the
cold. "General Donovan requisitioned a ride for me as long as this
arctic weather lasts. We'll have you home in no time."
"Thank you," I said. "I was about
to go back to my office and curl up on my desk to sleep, I'm so damn tired!"
"You would have frozen solid," she said.
"They turn off the heat at nine."
the whistling kettle off the range and poured steaming water into the
mixing bowl, quickly dissolving the Epsom salts mounded in the bottom.
I waited for the water to cool, spending the time
peeling bandage tape off my fingers after stripping my mittens and gloves
from my aching hands.
"Best wait longer, baby," Dellaphine
said, but I ignored her and shoved my sore fingers into the hot water,
massaging the pain away. Flipping through index cards and file jackets
all day every day caused more pain in my hands, arms and shoulders than
anyone who'd never done it before could possibly imagine. And then there
was the typing. By the end of a workweek my hands and fingers felt like
they barely belonged to my body.
"Better?" Dellaphine asked.
"Much," I said, drying my hands on a
dishtowel. I'd feel even better once I got upstairs to my bedroom and
applied my own home remedy.
"So how was your day?" Dellaphine asked.
Which was a rhetorical question, seeing how she had no idea where I worked.
Few people in Washington were free to share any information about their
jobs. I was a government girl, just a file clerk, one of thousands jammed
into office buildings all over the city, typing and filing endlessly.
It was a miracle the city didn't slide into the Potomac from the weight
of all those file cabinets!
I was different from most government girls, though.
I worked for the Office of Strategic Services, America's spy agency, created
after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I had real secrets to protect. I had
even more to keep my mouth shut about now that my job had changed from
supervising a branch clerical office to analyzing and cataloging intelligence.
This was a big career jump for me. Most of the female analysts in the
Registry had college educations from places like Smith or Vassar. I had
a junior college degree in businesscode words for advanced
"My day was the same as always," I answered.
"Typing, filing. How was yours?"
"I queued at the Western Market all morning
and ironed sheets in the afternoon," Dellaphine said. "I reckon
my feet are sore as your hands."
Dellaphine was Phoebe Holcombe's colored housekeeper
and cook. She and Phoebe managed the boarding house on "I" Street
where I lived. "Two Trees" had been Phoebe's home since she
was a young married woman with children. Somehow she had hung on to it
despite the Depression and her husband's death.
"At least when we get our ration books everyone
will get their fair share without having to get up at the crack of dawn
to wait in the cold all day," I said.
Dellaphine opened the oven door, and the savory aroma of pot roast wafted
into the kitchen.
"Is that beef?" I asked. "Where
did you find it?"
Dellaphine rolled her eyes. "Mr. Henry,"
she said. "He bought it out in the country over the weekend."
Black-market beef. Purchased directly from a farm
instead of through a butcher or a grocery store in town, where shortages
drove up the price.
"It's supposed to be Grade A Prime. It ain't,
I know grass fed beef when I see it," Dellaphine said. "But
we be eating it anyway. I've cooked it long and slow. It should be tender
enough even for Mr. Henry."
"Henry will be lucky if he doesn't wind up
in jail," Phoebe said, coming up from the basement. "Dellaphine,"
Phoebe said, "the towels are washed, and I hung them on clothes line
near the furnace. I don't know if they'll dry any time soon, but they're
"It's been over a month, Phoebe," I
said. "If Henry was going to get arrested they'd have come for him
In January Henry had asked Phoebe if he could
borrow her car. She agreed. She didn't drive much herself and the car
needed to be driven. Henry was gone a long time; he'd gone over a hundred
miles away, because Joe had checked the car's odometer after he'd returned.
Henry returned from wherever he went with jerry cans of gasoline packed
into the trunk and the back seat. Without saying a word he'd unloaded
them all and lined them up against the back wall of the garage. We didn't
say anything to him either. What could we do? Clearly, he'd bought them
on the black market. If we reported him to the Office of Price Administration
he'd be arrested, and none of us wanted to be a part of that. I wasn't
without guilt myself. I bought sugar on the black market; I couldn't learn
to drink coffee or tea without it.
We just prayed that no one from the Gas Rationing
Board or the Tire Allotment Committee decided to inspect Phoebe's garage.
We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we had plenty of gasoline!
The comforting warmth
of the cozy old townhouse vanished as I climbed the stairs to my room.
All the radiators upstairs were shut off to conserve fuel oil. For about
an hour before bedtime, Phoebe, Ada, and I would cheat, pulling the rug
off the floor vent in the hall to allow some heat to rise from the first
floor so that we could sponge off and get ready for bed. A real bath was
out of the question. Which was why we didn't need Phoebe's clean towels
Henry Post and Joe Prager, our two men boarders,
had slept downstairs in the lounge the last few nights. Their third floor
attic bedroom had gotten so frigid that frost settled on their bedcovers.
I was willing to tolerate the chill for the chance
to be alone and quiet for a time at the end of my workday. Thank God I
had my own room. Most government girls had at least one roommate, but
Phoebe wasn't in the boarding-house business for the money. She opened
her home to four boarders out of patriotism, and to help keep her mind
off her two sons, who were stationed with the Navy in the Pacific.
I took a couple of aspirin tablets and mixed myself
a martini from the bottle of Gordon's gin I kept in my underwear drawer.
Phoebe didn't allow drinking unless she suggested it, and then only downstairs.
But I knew for a fact that Henry hid a bottle of bourbon in his room.
And I'd caught Phoebe herself with a glass of sherry in her bedroom once.
I'd bought a record player recently, so I slid
a Carter Family record out of its sleeve and set the needle gently on
one of my favorite songs, "Wildwood Flower". I was the only
one in the house who liked hillbilly music. With my own record player
I could listen to Roy Acuff and Bob Wills whenever I wanted.
Sipping the martini and listening to my hillbilly
music, I couldn't help but think of my parents, who would be horrified
to learn that I enjoyed a cocktail almost every day. I was a bit surprised
I'd taken so quickly to some of the temptations of the big city myself!
Like not going to church. And shopping. I had
my own charge account at Woodies! Making enough money to save for my future.
I bought fifty dollars a month in war bonds. I planned to use it after
the war to finish college or get an apartment. That is, if I could keep
working. All of us government girls had been hired "for the duration".
Last fall the government surveyed working women
to see how many planned to keep working after the war. Everyone was shocked
when three-quarters of the women surveyed said they intended to keep their
jobs. That wouldn't be possible. Men returning from the war would need
those jobs to support their families. Most women would be discharged and
sent home to keep house.
I intended to be one government girl who didn't
get a pink slip.
My paycheck had just gotten larger, too, now that
I'd been promoted to Research Assistant. Two thousand dollars a year!
Not that I didn't earn it, mind you. I'd never worked so hard in my life,
not even at my parents' fish camp when the blues were running.
My pulse quickened. I so wished it wouldn't! My
attraction to Joe made my life so complicated. The man was a refugee,
a foreigner, and I knew nothing about him except what he told me, and
I'd already discovered much of that was untrue. Joe was worldly, educated,
and to my mind handsome, in a dark, mature, unaffected way. I on the other
hand was a thirty-year-old widow with glasses and an advanced secretarial
"Joe called a couple of hours ago and said
he'd be working late tonight," Phoebe said, dishing up the fragrant
pot roast, doling out roughly the same amount to each of us. Potatoes,
onions, and carrots weren't scarce, so we could serve ourselves as much
of the side dishes as we wanted. I heaped butter on my vegetables, since
we still had a hoarded couple of pounds in the refrigerator. I loathed
Dellaphine and her grown daughter Madeleine ate
in the kitchen, of course, but Phoebe made sure they had the same portions
"This is delicious pot roast," I said,
steering the conversation away from Joe. I was afraid someone would notice
me flushing when his name was mentioned.
"Yes," Phoebe said, "thank you
for buying this for us, Henry."
Henry nodded. "Glad to do it," he said.
Phoebe might disapprove of Henry purchasing beef on the black market,
we all did, but once it was stowed in her refrigerator she was more than
happy to cook and serve it!
"Best enjoy it while we can still get it,"
Henry said. "When does rationing start?"
"In two weeks," Phoebe said. "We'll
each get a little less than two pounds of beef a week, depending on grade."
"How does a university lecturer work late?"
Ada asked, returning the conversation to Joe. "What is he doing?"
"Working with his students, I'm sure,"
"Who needs to learn Czech anyway?" Ada
asked. "The Nazis occupy Czechoslovakia."
"We don't know the government's plans, do
we?" said Henry. "If the Allies invade through Greece, we'll
be in Eastern Europe in no time."
I kept my mouth shut. I was the only person at
the table who knew that Joe Prager wasn't teaching anyone anything, much
less the Czech language, because he actually worked for the American Joint
Distribution Committee, struggling to help Jews escape from Europe. The
college professor story was his cover. Oh, he had an academic backgroundhe'd
been teaching Slavic literature in London when war broke outbut
now he'd joined the war against Hitler, just like the rest of us. And
I'd been attracted to him from the moment I'd met him, and him to me.
"Aren't you working tonight?" I asked
Ada, steering the conversation away from Joe again.
Ada Herman was an accomplished clarinetist who
played in the house band at the Statler Hotel. She'd taught music lessons
to children until the war. Now she made more money than Henry, Joe and
me combined! Bandleaders paid plenty to replace their male musicians who
were drafted. Americans had jobs and cash now, and they wanted to go out
at night and swing!
Ada partied most nights long after her shift ended.
She was buxom, a platinum blonde from a bottle, and had plenty of beaus.
She had a secret, too, a frightening one she'd confided to me months ago.
One night, terrified to see a police car parked on our street, she broke
down and told me she was the wife of a German Luftwaffe pilot. They'd
married before the war, when he was working for a civilian airline. They'd
lived happily in New York. When Hitler took power he moved to Germany
to join the Luftwaffe. She refused to go with him, but was afraid to file
for divorce for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities. As
the wife of a German officer she might be sent to an internment camp.
Ada trusted me to keep her secret, and I intended to, although I was breaking
the law by doing it.
Ada shook her head. "The Willard ballroom's
dark tonight," she said. "No one is going out in this weather."
Dellaphine brought in our dessert: canned peaches
with a couple of tablespoons of vanilla ice cream. I was so used to going
without sugar that it tasted like peach pie to me. Even Henry didn't grumble
much any more.
Phoebe twirled the
radio dial, but we only heard static.
"All the stations are still off the air,
I guess," she said. "What did the evening paper say about the
"No end to freezing temperatures in sight,"
Henry said. "I can't imagine what it's like for our boys off Greenland.
They're escorting our ship convoys through gales, blizzards, and ice.
I don't understand how any of our ships make it to England, what with
the weather and Nazi submarines."
I knew, but couldn't say, that Nazi U-boats had
sunk a troop transport and two fuel tankers last week, that most of the
ships' crews had drowned amidst the chunks of ice floating in the Gulf
of Greenland, and that the British had fuel oil reserves for just three
We'd gathered in Phoebe's front room on the threadbare
lounge suite she'd bought back before the Depression, passing the time
before we could go to bed. Gloom kept us company, like a spinster great
aunt who was always in mourning. What with the weather, and daily bad
news from the North Atlantic, and the Allied invasion stalled in North
Africa, the specter of Axis victory in this war haunted the country again.
"Can we have a fire, Phoebe?" Ada asked.
"Yes, Phoebe, can we?" I asked.
"What a good idea," she said, and began
"You stay there," Henry said. "I'll
fetch the wood and get it started."
Phoebe sat back in her chair, her hands primly
resting palm down on her thighs. She'd lost weight; I could see her knees
jutting through the silk folds of her fringed caftan. A dowdy crochet
shawl wrapped around her shoulders. A web of blue veins marred her fine
hands, and her crimped hair was streaked with gray that wasn't evident
when I moved in last year. She couldn't be very oldher sons
were in their early twenties, and she'd married young, so she must be
less than fifty. She seemed older, a relic of a distant time, when flappers
danced the Charleston and millionaires lit cigars with twenty-dollar bills.
So much had happened in the world during the last twenty years, most of
Henry stacked wood on top of crumpled newspaper
in the fireplace and poked a flaming match deep into the pile. The fire
blazed into life, its flames leaping high.
"Wish we had some hot chocolate," Ada
"Me, too," I answered.
"If you find any chocolate bars, pick them
up and we'll make some this weekend."
Phoebe rose and went to the front window, parting
the blackout curtains and looking out into the dark street. "It's
getting late," she said, saying what we were all thinking. "I
hate to think of Joe coming home at this hour. It's frigid outside!"
"Maybe he's staying with a friend,"
"He would have called," I said, remembering
the morning newspaper's account of two frozen bodies found sitting upright
on a bus stop bench a couple of days ago. "Is the telephone still
Henry went out into the hall and picked up the
telephone receiver. "Dial tone," he called back to us as he
hung up. "It's working." So why didn't Joe call?
Then we heard Joe's key turn in the front door
lock and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Phoebe and I met him in the hall.
"Well, this is a nice welcome," Joe
said in his Czech accented English, which I found so appealing in spite
of myself, stripping off his gloves and scarf. Ice crusted his dark beard,
and when I took his hands they were so cold! Automatically, I began to
rub them, then stopped when I remembered Phoebe's presence.
"We were worried about you," Phoebe
said, taking Joe's coat.
"I almost stayed with a friend, but then
a taxi passed by. Naturally, the heater wasn't working."
"I'll go hang this in the kitchen, it's warmer
there," Phoebe said, carrying Joe's coat down the hallway.
In the seconds between Phoebe turning her back
to us and Henry coming out of the lounge, Joe brushed his lips against
mine and whispered in my ear. "I found a place," he said.
©2013 Sarah R. Shaber