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A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
(Book 1)
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
First USA Edition 2015
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US; 192pp
ISBN 978-1-62268-072-6
LCCN 2015948686



A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
(Book 1)
Author: Sarah R. Shaber


June 1942
Marseille, Vichy France

Rachel grabbed Pierre's wrist before he poured the scoopful of lentils into her basket.
    "That's not three hundred grams," she said.
    "Close enough," he muttered.
    "I paid for three hundred grams of lentils," she said, "and I expect to get no less than three hundred grams of lentils."
    "That little bit of gold doesn't buy what it used to," he said.
    "We had an agreement."
    "All right, I'll measure again."
    "And this loaf of bread, it has mold on it."
    "Cut it off."
    "I want another loaf, no mold."
    He didn't answer her, but replaced the bread. She knew what he was thinking. These Jews, they would bargain until their last breaths.
    For one link of a gold bracelet she'd bought four eggs, a wedge of cheese, lentils, and potatoes. Her basket was not even half full. Two years ago she would have come home from market with fresh duck, wine, asparagus, butter, and a bouquet of fragrant roses for the dinner table. After dinner she and Gerald would sit out on the terrace that overlooked the Old Port, sip a digestif, and watch the sun set over the Château d'If. And Pierre, he was once just a farmer who drove a dogcart and tipped his hat to her. Now he was draining her dry of everything she owned.
"Is there any soap?" Rachel asked Pierre.
    "No soap today," he said.
    Little Claude dragged on her arm, whining.
    "Don't," she said, "you know how that hurts Maman." She arched back to relieve the ache in her back. The baby had settled low, right into the bowl of her pelvis.     She felt like she was walking with a melon between her legs.
    "Help Maman with the basket," she said to Claude.
    The little boy grabbed one handle of the basket with both hands and together they struggled home in the midday summer sun. Sweat soaked Rachel's body by the time they'd walked two blocks. Her threadbare cotton dress clung to her bare legs and outlined her bulging belly. Stringy damp hair plastered her head. And there was no soap at home.
    At last she turned the last corner before entering her street, where the boarded-up patisserie once offered the most mouth-watering pain au chocolat in Marseille. The baker and his family fled to Switzerland weeks ago. Rachel's doorway beckoned to her, a short block away from where she stood resting, breathing hard, before taking her final few steps toward home. But then she spotted two policemen, leaning up against a lamppost, between her and her doorway. One of them noticed her, dropped his cigarette on the ground and crushed it with his boot. He pointed her out to his partner, and they both moved toward her. They would want to inspect her papers.
    She set the basket down and clutched Claude's hand. Then she remembered, and fear filled her heart. Before she'd left home she'd forgotten to pin the yellow star to her breast.

Chapter One

June 26, 1942
"Two Trees", a boarding house
Washington, DC

I slept naked last night, like everyone else in this city. But despite lying flat out on my bed in my birthday suit with the fan blowing straight on me, I couldn't cool off enough to fall asleep.
    The heat wasn't the only thing keeping me from my rest. The Top Secret document I'd locked in the office safe before I'd left work worried me to the point that I'd been fretting about it all evening and into the night. Before I'd slid the document onto the shelf inside the safe, I'd noticed the surname on the memorandum subject line: Bloch. My stomach seized and a shiver of apprehension scurried down my spine. It couldn't be Rachel's family, could it? Bloch was a common French surname, there must be thousands of families named Bloch trapped in France.
    I managed to banish my worries for Rachel until morning, telling myself I could do nothing until I got to work. But around two in the morning I realized that without relief from the smothering heat I might well be awake all night.
    Finally I got out of the bed, slipped a cotton housecoat over my sticky body, pulled the top sheet off the bed, went into the bathroom, opened the bathtub tap, and soaked the sheet in the tub. I wrung out the sheet until it stopped dripping, carried it back to my bedroom, and stretched it between the tall bedposts at the foot of my bed, tying the corners to the bedpost caps so that the sheet hung its full wet length down to the floor. I turned the fan on high, trained it directly on the sheet and stretched out on my bed. Cool air brushed my body, drying my skin. For a few minutes I listened to fat June bugs popping and buzzing against my window screens and the rhythmic clicking of a loose fan blade, until, blessedly, I fell asleep.

* * *

The morning queue at the bus stop was so long I figured I had no hope of catching a bus anytime soon. So I walked the ten blocks from my boarding house on "I" Street to the agency's headquarters in Foggy Bottom. I shaded my eyes from the harsh glare with a straw fedora and my first pair of prescription sunglasses, and soaked three handkerchiefs sopping up perspiration from my neck and any other part of my body I could reach without exposing myself.
    The security officer at the front entrance to my building stopped me at the door. He was an army private who compulsively shrugged every few minutes to resettle his rifle on his shoulder, as if he wasn't comfortable with it yet. Private Cooper knew me well by now, but he still squinted at my ID badge. Satisfied that I was the same person I'd always been, the soldier opened the door to the anonymous building, a converted apartment house at the corner of 23rd and "E" Street without a sign or a street number, and nodded at me to enter.
    "Good morning, Mrs. Pearlie," he said. As he did nearly every day, he looked down at my feet, sensibly shod in cotton anklets and canvas shoes, and said, "I know it's hot, but I wish you girls would start wearing stockings and heels again."
    I didn't respond. I'd decided a long time ago that it was best not to say out loud much of what crossed my mind. I could think what I liked, though, and I thought the guard would wait a long time before he'd catch me wearing stockings in one-hundred-degree heat ever again.
    I was here to work, not be whistle bait for teenaged GIs.
    The heavy wood doors that opened off the hall of the old apartment building weren't identified or even numbered. The first one on the right led to my office, which I'd worked in alone for the last few days, since the three girls who clerked for me got food poisoning at a USO picnic last Sunday. Doing their jobs as well as my own was exhausting, though it was a relief to have some respite from the incessant clatter of typewriters and mimeographs.
    I switched both floor fans on low, to keep the breeze from blowing papers everywhere, and raised the shades in what was once the living room of a two-bedroom apartment, now crowded with four desks, banks of index-card file cabinets, and a massive Yale floor safe.
    I went straight to the safe, entered the combination, twirled the dial and used both hands to haul open the heavy door. Top Secret files and papers crowded it. I extracted a thin file off one shelf and shut the safe door behind me. The lock engaged with a solid click.
    As the only clerk in the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services with a Top Secret clearance, all documents referred from General Donovan's office came directly to me, stamped "your eyes only" in red. Oh so secret, and oh so silly, as the pundits editorializing in the Republican newspapers often described our infant spy agency. I wished I could put those jerks to work in my office. I'd make them file index cards until their fingers bled!
    The document I held had arrived at General Donovan's office from London OSS headquarters by way of a creased leather diplomatic pouch, but the message originated with an intelligence operative in Marseille, deep inside Vichy France.
    The original French message was scrawled on a fragment of brown waxed paper, the kind a village charcuterie might use to wrap up a housewife's breakfast bacon. A typed translation, single-spaced to conserve paper, was clipped to the original. The mesage read: "Met with Gerald Bloch, of the Marseille Hydrography Office, expert on the coastline of French North Africa, free to work with the Resistance if OSS evacuates his family to safety." That was all. A memo from General Donovan's aides directed us to forward the file and any information about Bloch we could find to the Europe/Africa desk for further study.
    Gerald Bloch. My dearest friend in the world, Rachel Foa, had married a Gerald Bloch after she and her father, an officer of the New York branch of a French bank, returned home to Marseille in 1933. I'd last heard from Rachel in the summer of 1940, when France fell to the Nazis. She wrote to tell me that her father had died of heart failure after the Nazis occupied Paris and seized his apartment and his bank accounts. She reassured me that she was safe in Marseille, but I was desperately worried about her.
    The Nazis occupied half of France, including Paris. But France was supposedly free and independent with a president, Marshal Pétain, and an administrative center in Vichy. For political and diplomatic reasons it suited the Germans to allow a puppet French state to exist, for now, anyway.
    I'd known Rachel was Jewish before I met her, since the Dean of St. Martha's, the junior college we attended, wrote and asked me if I had any objection to rooming with a French Jewish girl. Of course I didn't. I felt so blessed to go to college, especially during the depression, I would have roomed with a Hottentot. As it happened the only thing about Rachel that appeared remotely Jewish to me was that she didn't eat bacon on Saturday and played mah-jongg obsessively.
    Could the Gerald Bloch of this file be Rachel's husband? Surely it was a coincidence. I forced myself to stay calm and read the file as if the name Bloch meant nothing to me.
    This Bloch must be Jewish, too, or he wouldn't be trading his expertise for his family's escape from Vichy France. And French North Africa would soon be the target of a massive Allied campaign, the first offensive in the Mediterranean theater since the United States entered the war six months ago. I'd even overheard its code name, Torch, whispered in the women's restroom. Outside OSS all us typists and secretaries and file clerks kept the nature of our work to ourselves or risked being shot. Inside we gossiped shamelessly. Besides, most of the scholar spies from the Europe/Africa desk had been camped out at the Library of Congress for the past few weeks, feverishly writing reports about Tunisian railway track gauges and Algerian tribal cultures. I'd have to be blind and deaf not to realize the Allies were preparing to invade French North Africa through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, to join forces with the British Eighth Army, already battling Rommel in Egypt and Libya.
    I pictured Monsieur Bloch desperately bartering his expertise for his family's safety, and it made my eyes sting. If I remembered the conversation at yesterday's coffee break correctly, he didn't have much time to close the deal. Internment of refugees and Jews had begun in Paris and the rest of Nazi-occupied France. How long before Vichy France followed Paris's example?
    I knew Rachel's husband was a scientist, but the letters that Rachel sent me were one page, thin, almost transparent sheets folded in half and sealed, to save postage, and there wasn't much space for her to elaborate on her husband's work beyond using the French word to describe it, a word I hadn't bothered to translate. She wrote more about her baby son Claude, the view of the Old Port from her apartment balcony, and the diminishing supply of butter and cheese in the local shops. But her family had been French citizens for generations, and since she lived in unoccupied Marseille, in Vichy France, that meant she was safe, didn't it?
    Donald Murray rapped on my open door, interrupting my brooding, and I turned my attention to my work. Don was one of those perfectly nice people who make you cringe without knowing why. I think perhaps his slight Boston accent seemed snobbish to me, although many of the people I'd met and liked had heavier Yankee accents than his. A thirtyish economist from Yale, he wore the summer civilian uniform of male Washington bureaucrats, khaki trousers, short-sleeved white cotton shirt, and white wingtips. He wasn't bad looking by any means. He was slender, with blue eyes and light-brown hair. He wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses with rims the same shade as his hair and affected a military-style crew cut, as did most of the young men in Washington who didn't want to look like slackers. Betty, one of my junior clerks, was sure Don had a crush on me, and that the "third" after his name meant he had money. She kept telling me I could do worse, but the way he hung around my office irritated me. On a slow day a few months ago I read one of his journal articles on file in the office. Then I understood why economics was called the dismal science.
    "I need the London telephone book," he said.
    "Come on in," I said to him.
    I went to the safe, spun the dial, blocking it from Don's view with my body, and opened the heavy door again. I retrieved the telephone book and plunked it on the library table in the middle of the room and shoved the safe door closed again.
    "Please," Don said. "Let me take it to my office."
    "Sorry," I said. "You know the rules. I can't let it leave this room."
    "You know I'll bring it back."
    "Stop grumbling. You know how scarce the London phone book is. If this one goes missing, we might not be able to replace it. We'll have to ask the London office for phone numbers by way of diplomatic pouch."
    Don sat down at the work table and went through the familiar ritual of lighting his pipe, knocking old ash into an ashtray, filling the bowl with fresh Captain Black, tamping it down, drawing his first mouthful of smoke and exhaling it slowly. He settled the pipe in a corner of his mouth and opened the telephone book.
    I pushed the library ladder over to the "B" index card stack and climbed to the top rung, keeping my skirt tucked close to my body. At work I wore a khaki dress with narrow lapels and no pockets, thanks to fabric shortages, hemmed at the knee. I'd heard rumors we'd be allowed to wear trousers to work soon, thank God. I already owned two new pairs I'd bought at J.C. Penney. I was used to trousers, since I wore overalls while working at my family's fish camp, but I'd met girls here who'd never owned a pair in their lives.
    My office contained a minute fraction of the acres of index files that filled entire buildings in Washington. Even so, small square wooden file drawers, holding thousands of five-by-eight index cards, climbed the ten-foot walls of my office to the ceiling, blanketing every vertical surface of the stripped kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms.
    The powers that be had left us the toilet and bathroom sink, a deference to our sex that I appreciated.
    Sure enough, one Gerald Bloch, a hydrographer, had an index card in our files. This meant we had a subject file on him somewhere in the building. This wasn't as unlikely as it seemed. After the war began, my branch of OSS, Research and Analysis, asked every academic in the country to send us information on experts they knew, including foreigners, who might be helpful to the war effort. Later we collected even more names from the foreign publications our agents bought in neutral capitals like Stockholm and Lisbon. OSS had rooms full of file clerks to stow away the stacks of paper that found their way to the agency.
    I paused at the door, on my way to the "B" main file, and looked back at Don. He didn't even remove his pipe from his mouth. He tapped the phone book with his pencil.
    "I'll guard it with my life," he said.

copyright ©2011 Sarah R. Shaber

A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
(Book 1)
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
First USA Edition 2015
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US; 192pp
ISBN 978-1-62268-072-6
LCCN 2015948686

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