All my life, I was told sin was wrong; everything existed within a black and white box of what is evil and what is holy in the world—colored like a priest’s robe and collar—but I never believed it to be true. Sin was colorful: scarlet like rose blood, azure like oxygen-deprived skin, violet as bruises, jade as rot; a colorful contradiction to the darkness and blinding light we are taught sin and holiness to be.
Red as the handprint staining her cheek where I’d been slapped across the face and brown as the dirt stains on my scraped knees where the force of the blow knocked me down.
"Deutsch, Elsa. Du darfst nur Deutsch sprechen,” Major Phillips of the British Army, yelled in my ear. Hot, Earl Grey tainted breath eroding my skin, ordering me to only speak in German. I’d slipped and answered a question in English, an offense that which could cost my life while undercover in Austria. “You’ll be in Vienna in two days. Do you think they won’t notice if you speak English? Even the students won’t walk around speaking English, Elsa.”
Sin was who I’d become, possessed by the great temptation of deception. Transgress to destroy transgressors. I was living a lie to slay a dragon, and only the Fates could foresee if I’d succeed. The British agents I was training with were less forgiving than the gods, but I understood why. Their war would come soon.
“Do you think they’ll only slap you, Elsa? Do you think they’ll bloody well care when you’re crying out and mucus and blood runs down your face? Nein! They’ll push you until you lose all sanity and beg them to kill you. Is that what you want? Do you want your cyanide? Because that’s the only way you’ll save yourself if you slip up.”
“I think that’s enough for today.” A familiar voice rushed through my ears. I didn’t want to show my weakness, but I couldn’t contain my sigh of relief. New York joined me in England the week before, helping prepare me for what lay ahead. Our bond had formed and tightened in our time together, a relationship of guardian and mentor, and I an instrument of mortal infliction. I was grateful for his governance in my life, and each day I discovered a new piece of myself desiring his approval above all else.
“Sir,” Major Phillips stepped away from me and saluted the higher ranking officer. “She slipped into English again.”
New York took my hand and lifted me from the ground and toward the house. “Pearl, English will get you imprisoned, maybe even killed,” he chastised in a careful way which showed he cared only for my best interests. “I’ve had this discussion with you: If you’re captured, the United States doesn’t know you, the United Kingdom doesn’t know you, France and Canada and your own parents do not know you. Think about that for a minute, Pearl.”
“It’s breaking twenty-two years of English and German spoken side by side in only two months,” I argued, folding my arms across my breasts. Challenging. “How am I supposed to perfect this?”
“Should I send you home to your beloved husband?” he provoked, hitting a tender spot he knew would offend. My glaring response was answer enough. He studied me for a moment, lighting a cigarette and offering one to me. I declined with my nose in the air. “When it comes down to it, and you’re so immersed in their culture that you don’t have into translate your thoughts to German … then you’ll be there. Until that point, use your head. Use that fucking ingenious brain of yours.” I paused in our trek and stared up at the towering man, smiling with satisfaction at his admitted admiration of me.
“The adrenaline from always being on the edge of getting caught will make you do it,” he finished.
Be it the mission, the way he spoke, or the rush of my beating pulse, I wanted him and our camaraderie and this crazy world.
I stopped first in Ireland, training in the dark, cold, bitter weather to learn to survive. Eating raw potatoes and fish and wild mushrooms to understand basic wilderness survival tore me from silk and fineries to the dirt and toils of the earth. The transfer to England, with its beds and hot meals, was much preferred.
“You look cute,” he laughed, tugging on a golden braid hanging over my shoulder. “You look so German.”
“I am German, Colonel—”
“No, Pearl,” he scolded. “You’re still American. Always American. Don’t forget. And it’s not Colonel. New York. I’ll make you scream it—” a whisper of smoky breath “—a million times until you get it right. If my German was any good, I’d make sure I was the one going into Austria with you.” His eyes slid over my face like a bath of oil.
“Scream it? That won’t be necessary,” I snorted, purposefully ignorant to his insinuation. “Anyway, I’m supposed to look German, and you said yourself that you couldn’t pull off the Aryan look for anything, oh Greek god. Believe me, I feel like I should be yodeling throughout my training.”
“Greek god, hmm?” he raised an eyebrow and licked his lips.
In the two months I’d been in Europe, I’d assumed the life of Elsa Brenner, a woman from Bavaria, born and raised in Munich and educated at the university there, cousin of an Austrian man and moving permanently to Vienna. Unattached. Gone was the married Ginny Franc; I was only for myself.
The fact I didn’t know my supposed cousin left me uneasy, but New York promised the man would be there soon, and I hoped we had time enough to get to know each other. Putting on the pretenses of familial airs would be difficult with a stranger.
I hadn’t been in the sun for weeks, forbidden from tarnishing my Aryan complexion, and I was only allowed to style my hair in ways which screamed of my Bavarian heritage: curls, plaits, anything and everything Germanic. I felt like little Heidi from the children’s book. I read the German text as a child; the braided-haired girl remained with me all those years until I focused on becoming her. I was now Elsa Brenner: Spy.
The thought brought laughter bubbling to my throat.
“What’s so funny, Pearl?” New York asked as we neared our destination. “Your giggling is music to my ears, but I’d like to be in on the joke.”
“Did you read Heidi as a child?” I queried, smiling around the chuckles.
His brow wrinkled in confusion for a moment before understanding swept over his face. “Yep. It sure does fit you, Pearl,” he said, tugging my braid again, and not dropping the golden hair this time.
“Little Heidi grew up to be involved in espionage?”
“I followed you for months, yet you surprise me each day,” he laughed.
“You did what?” I exclaimed. “Followed me?”
His snort was the only answer I got from him, as he let my hair fall from his fingers. “I’m going to get inside for dinner, Pearl,” New York said, glancing over my shoulder. “Besides, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
He left me there to stare after him, the smoke of his cigarette trailing in wisps of white. Thoughts raced through my head of being followed and yodeling, of prison and torture, of inflections and perfection, and adrenaline spiked my blood and swirled in my mind. There was much to learn; much to do.
“Don’t worry about Major Phillips,” a mellow tenor voice spoke from beside me. I turned from my thoughts to study man beside me, assessing his German, accented from an Austrian hometown. Vienna, perhaps.
“Österreich?” I wondered.
“Ja,” he replied with a crooked-toothed grin, and his ashy, toasted marshmallow hair dropped over his brow. “Wien.” I smiled to myself in pride at the first use of the valuable skill of ascertaining regional dialects of the German language. The skill would prove invaluable as I made contacts across Europe. “München?”
“Ja,” Munich. The accent was filling out through my voice. My father and my new identity were from there, and I applauded myself for the littlest words I’d paid attention to which differentiated my accent from others. “Elsa Brenner,” I introduced myself.
“Niklas Böhm,” he echoed back, taking my proffered hand and grasping it lightly, as though I was a delicate flower that would wither and break. Didn’t he know I could have him on his back with the belt of my coat around his neck in seconds flat? I’d picked up on the physical skills needed to protect myself hastily in training, thriving as muscle built atop my petite frame. I was forced to kill a goat to learn the proper way to slice a throat and break the necks of several others. No longer was I a woman to be trifled with. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Fräulein Brenner. I’ve heard wonderful things about your skills, and I can’t say I’m not eager to see you beside me.”
So this was the man New York had promised—a partner to be in Austria beside me; to protect me. He’d be the only point of contact for me in the field, and the one standing with me as we rallied the students to call for Austrian unity against the Third Reich. Together, we’d stir up dissension in the public and pray to the gods of war that it made a difference.
Each passing day, my heart grew heavier as I feared the gods would only be appeased with that which was their dominion—war, an inevitable fiend.
“I’m sorry we haven’t met until now. I’ve been criticized for not being German enough. Apparently, growing up speaking it every day doesn’t make one German—”
“No fear, Fräulein Brenner,” Niklas interrupted, not releasing my hand but pulling me along toward an enormous mansion which served as a room and board for the dozen or so agents who’d been unofficially recruited to serve their governments. “We’ll continue to practice as we go, and I won’t leave your side in Austria.”
He studied at the London School of Economics, so he was prestigious and bright, and he’d grown up in the heart of their destination. During our time in Vienna, I would stay in a home not far from where he grew up. The mission was to get in, stir up dissent, and get out. The deepest our relationships with the students, rallied populace, and each other would descend was to a level of trust deep enough to stir the caldron of revolution. Friendships—affections—were forbidden, and I didn’t give two snaps about such rules, for I had no desire for dalliances or romances. Jack proved the weaknesses in my life, and now that I realized my own strength, I was certain I’d ever give into such weaknesses again.
“Danke, Herr Böhm.” His reassurance comforted me in the slightest of ways, as much as could be expected from a stranger I had no choice but to trust in.
He was a plain man—simple, with lips so thin they were nigh nonexistent, a pointed chin and large forehead completed the package like brown paper wrapping. The quiff he wore accentuated the space between his brow and his hairline further. Niklas’s eyes were blue and narrowed his face along with his sharp nose.
When he turned and smiled with reassurance, guilt filled my chest. I’d been judging the man sent to help me. I had to force down my old self and its notions of beauty. After all, Jack, though all things beautiful, was a beast inside. The outer seldom mirrored the soul.
We entered the main parlor of the old manor. It belonged to many famous English noblemen in its seven hundred year history, ruling over the countryside and moor. Poppies grew wild and free—as I wished to be—in the lush summer grass, I’d been told. Now it was a desert of frozen trees and soil and brooks, but orange and gray finches still sang a melodic tune across the shire, calling out to their friends and mates in a frenzy of joyful noises. They couldn’t know what was happing under their beaks. I envied their naïveté.
Niklas and I sat at the large banquet table, which had certainly hosted royalty in the past, and ate venison sausage and rye. There’d come a day in our future where meat would be a luxury, and I needed each bit of protein I could get to supplement what my body had burned in the days of running and climbing and crawling through the training grounds.
“Your face is much less round since you arrived,” Niklas commented, studying me with close consideration.
I put down her fork and lifted a golden-arched brow. “Was my face fat before, Herr Böhm?” I asked, disallowing the blunt words to bruise my confidence. Germans were a brusque people, and I’d do myself no favor to allow my pride to be hurt by a simple observation.
“Nein, Fräulein,” he insisted, shaking his head and smiling as humor danced in his cerulean eyes. “You don’t know how truly lovely you are. And, please, call me Niklas. This will never work unless we’re close with each other.”
I nodded, ignoring his overfamiliarity, and finished my meal and bitter coffee. When I stood, he did the same and followed along the corridor beside me until we reached the second-floor women’s quarters.
“This is me,” I said, stopping beside a thick oak door.
Niklas turned, placing a hand on the wall beside my head. “Ja, it is.”
“You knew what room was mine?” I asked, alarm seeping through my blood. A phantom memory of Jack’s scrutinization shifted around me.
“You must learn to be more attentive of who’s watching you, Elsa,” he told me with admonition. My hammering pulse slowed, and I relaxed against the wall. I’d been tested and failed. In Austria, if—when—the Nazis invaded, such a mistake could cost everything.
It had been a day of mistakes and regrets.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized around a tight knot in my throat. “It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t,” he ordered though a smile lit his eyes. “We leave for Switzerland before dawn, so please get some sleep. Vienna is only two days away.” I nodded and twisted the door handle, ready and needing escape. “Oh, and, Virginia?” he called out after me. I paused for only a brief moment before ignoring the call of my name and pushing the door closed behind me.
“Good girl.” I heard him chuckle through the wood. At least I’d passed that test.
My room was dank and cool, a perfect parallel of England; the furnace in the corner offered little heat and only a burning smell when it kicked on. I changed from my training fatigues, the drab and sweaty brown wool. After a soak, luxuriating in the soapy suds and tepid water, I slipped into a silk nightgown—one of the niceties I hadn’t left in Los Angeles. After plaiting her hair to keep its waves for the next morning, I stepped to the dresser and finished packing for my voyage into the heart of Europe.
A churn in my stomach told me what awaited inside an ivory envelope sitting atop the dresser. Jack had written again; it sat there opened and censored beside the rest of the correspondences from my family. He hadn’t taken well to the news of my leaving, though he remained in the dark over the true reason for my departure. Any letters posted were filtered through the chains of command to be sure they contained no sensitive information or anything the government didn’t want me to know or tell before being forwarded on. No one was privy to my true location, but New York made sure I got the letters.
He was the only contact I had stateside, and he dealt with my furious husband, placating him with the story me working for a diplomat as an interpreter. The rouse worked well, and I was surprised to see how easy Jack could be convinced of something so untrue. I wrote him once a week, filling page after page of ivory paper with my cover story, and each of his letters begged me to come home to him—never because he missed me or needed me, but because it was where I belonged.
I miss you so. This government brute won’t give me any information but to say you’ve been recruited to work as an interpreter. How could you leave without even discussing it with me? Don’t you know the agony I’m in with thinking of you walking out our door without a word?
My whanger has been aching for you, and you’ve forced me to turn to Ellie Peterson for relief. It’s your fault, you whore. You’re probably fucking some asshole over there while I, your Husband, am forced to live alone.
Come home to me, Ginny. I love you. I need you. You have to be here for the premiere. It’s a fortnight from now, and I need you looking beautiful beside me. Come home now, and I’ll forgive your wickedness.
You’re such an enchantress. I hate you...and I love you. Why do you torment me so?
I read and reread his last letter without feeling, though my cheeks flushed at the ideas of New York reading Jack’s vile words. Ellie Peterson. I scoffed at the thought. That ridiculous floozy could take Jack up the ass for all I cared. My husband was ill in his head, certainly, and in some other ways, so I folded the page and placed all the envelopes in a drawer that held my wedding rings, saying farewell to the ruby I hated so much.
December 23, 1937
I’d never been on an airship before, and despite the wonderful things I’d been told about air travel from Jack, it wasn’t suited for me. I was thankful we’d be traveling by train to Vienna as we stepped from the runway and onto the Zürich street.
Switzerland was a quaint, snowcapped country, filled with mountains and villages and cities. The citizens seemed merry and carefree; the opposite of how I felt. The air was brisk and chilly, as was my heart and mind, dreading the day I’d be caught in a land without neutrality.
“Elsa?” Niklas asked, staring at me through a pair of wire glasses which made his nose narrower and his eyes tinier. “Your mind wandered away. Are you ill? Shall I save the lady from fainting?” he jested, trying to be charming. While I didn’t find him attractive in the least, he did have a power about him that began to draw me in.
“Nein,” I replied, offering a tight smile and smoothing the wrinkles in my dress. “But I do love the beauty of the snow.” It was the first time I had a chance to look and enjoy the simplicity of the frozen flakes as they pirouetted like ballerinas in the frosty air. My time in England wasn’t meant for enjoyment, but this was a something new and wonderful for a woman who grew up in Los Angeles. But I forced herself to push that girl from my mind. I was her no longer.
“Ja, but you’ve lived in snow your whole life, and this is nothing new,” he reminded me gently of the part I played, and reached his gloved hand into a pile of the fluffy powder and lifted it to my face, offering her a taste.
I hesitated only a moment before curiosity captured me and I leaned down to capture some with my lips. Its tasteless consistency melted on impact with my hot mouth and dissolved onto my tongue. My eyes lit up in surprise and shot to his amused expression. “It tastes like nothing.”
Niklas’s laughter floated through the air as we made our way to the station and waited as a locomotive rolled to a stop. “This is our train, Elsa, so I apologize we won’t be able to eat more snow before we arrive in Vienna, but I’m told we can order sandwiches onboard to appease your hunger.”
“Thank heavens,” I sighed. When he raised an amused eyebrow, I added, “Unlike some women, I am unafraid of my appetite and find myself in dire need of something more substantial than rye bread and rabbit stew.”
“In this area, you won’t find many sandwiches on bread other than rye, Elsa,” he warned with a twinkle in his beady eyes. “And hare is a steady protein in the Austrian diet.”
“Lovely,” I grumbled but allowed Niklas to lift me onto the tall first step and place a hand on my back as he guided me to our car. The seats were plush and luxurious, but I was certain the rest of Europe would not hold the same opulence as I relaxed.
“Would you like a Reuben sandwich?” Niklas asked when a server came round to bring us drinks. “It’s on rye,” he teased. My mouth watered though I had no idea what kind of sandwich he referred to, and though I’d sworn to never eat that bread again, I nodded with eager anticipation. “Two,” he told the server, lifting two fingers.
We ate in relative silence, and I enjoyed the sweet and bitter tastes of the Russian inspired meat sandwich against my tongue. It was smoky and juicy, with dressing seeping out the sides, and the richness filled my mouth with the wonders of Eastern European culture and cuisine. Niklas and I grew comfortable in the hush, jostling against each another whenever the train bumped on the rails with an apologetic smile.
“You know,” Niklas whispered, bending close to my ear. “We can be comfortable in silence but must learn to become more casual with touching. You’re my cousin, ja?”
I leaned away and placed my sandwich back on the plate. “That isn’t something my mother or yours would easily allow me to forget, Niklas,” I said in character, speaking his name for the first time since our meeting the day before. I was expected to become comfortable with this stranger in hours of meeting.
“Ja, ja.” He nodded with a smile. “This dress is lovely on you, Elsa,” he said as he fingered the cotton trim laying on my collarbone. His fingers tickled through the fabric and danced over my skin. His eyes traveled over the navy fabric and white polka dots, up the line of pearl buttons rising over my chest. “Gorgeous.” It wasn’t the first time a man called me beautiful, and my instinctive flinch from his perusal required more training; coaching on his part as well. Cousins shouldn’t touch each other in such intimate ways—though each passing moment I sensed his deepening attraction. I reminded myself over again that this man was my cousin; it would have to be no different from the acting I’d done for Jack.
I rested back against the seat again, a grin gracing my lips. “Danke, cousin.” I was certain I’d never be done acting the parts assigned me.