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Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
First USA Edition 2015
5.5"x8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $14.95US; 192pp
A Louise Pearlie WWII Mystery
Author: Sarah R. Shaber
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
June 26, 1942
"Two Trees", a boarding house
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
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
I was here to work, not be whistle bait for teenaged
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,"
"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.
©2011 Sarah R. Shaber