The sun rose softly on the lazy town of Castelnau in the south of France. Gabriella quietly slipped out of bed, stretched, and ran her fingers through her thick mane of red hair. The tile floor felt cool to her bare feet. Peering down from her tiny room, she watched the empty streets begin to fill with people. Mme Leclerc, her landlady, was the first to enter the boulangerie just in view down the street to buy baguettes and gros pain, the bread essential for breakfast for her three boarding students.
She watched a moment longer, until a lanky young man in his midtwenties walked briskly up the street. There was no mistaking the next client who entered the boulangerie. Gabriella had recognized him the first time she saw him buying bread a few days earlier, from the description of the other boarders. This was David Hoffmann, the university’s handsome American instructor. Gabriella strained to get a closer look.
Castelnau was a pleasant town, she thought as she moved away from the window. She pulled the duvet up from the end of the bed and lightly fluffed her pillow. It wasn’t a bit like Dakar, or any other part of Senegal—except, of course, that the beach and ocean were not far away. Only here it was the Mediterranean Sea.
She tied back her unruly hair with a large ribbon and then washed her face in the small porcelain sink that stood neatly in the corner of the room. Opening a large oak armoire, she removed a freshly pressed blouse and a simple straight-lined navy skirt. As she dressed, she noted that the skirt hung loosely around her waist—in spite of the boulangerie’s bread and pastries.
She had come to Castelnau only two weeks earlier, excited and confident, ready to discover a new land and people. But as the days between her and her family lengthened, pangs of homesickness caught her by surprise. In the midst of a walk through town she would notice a woman with hair like her mother’s, or two lithe, tanned girls, carefree and laughing, like Jessica and Henrietta.
By afternoon she knew it would be blistering hot outside, but the morning was bright and crisp, with a hint of autumn in the air. At home there would be no fall smells. And at home she would not yet be starting her first day at university. But here, in this small French village separated by a sea from the African world she loved, Gabriella knew she must push away thoughts of the past. At twenty-one, she should know that no good would come from giving in to homesickness.
She reached for the large leather-bound Bible sitting on her wooden nightstand and leafed familiarly through the pages until she found the place she was seeking. Ten minutes later, as she carefully laid the book back on the nightstand, a letter fell from the Bible. She reached down and retrieved it, and as she tucked it back into the book, a line caught her eye: I give you this cross, which has always been for me a symbol of forgiveness and love.
A shadow swept across her. Instinctively she reached to touch the gold chain that hung around her neck. Paying no attention to
the cold, hard tile beneath her bare knees, she knelt on the floor and propped her folded hands on the side of the bed. She moved her lips without a sound escaping. It was only later, when she rose to her feet and smoothed her skirt, that she noticed her hands were wet from her warm tears.
Gabriella finished her breakfast of bread, butter, and jelly dipped into a huge bowl of rich hot chocolate. The first morning, she had barely managed to choke down the strong coffee the French drank in their wide bowls, diluting it with plenty of cream and four cubes of sugar. After that disaster, Mme Leclerc had offered her hot chocolate instead. Gabriella smiled now as she remembered her embarrassment, then swept the bread crumbs from her skirt, cleared the table, and let the dishes rattle in the small sink.
“Gabriella, please. You are always the last one, helping an old lady like me. But today you mustn’t be late. Allez! Go along now and catch up with the others.” Mme Leclerc shooed her out of the house.
Stephanie and Caroline, the two other boarders, had hurried off minutes before, and Gabriella appreciated Mme Leclerc’s friendly dismissal. She grabbed her small satchel that lay by the entrance of the apartment. Opening the door, she turned back and said “Au revoir,” then placed the expected quick kisses on her landlady’s cheeks. “And merci!”
She made her way down the dark, narrow staircase. On a good day Gabriella could descend the stairs two at a time, race back up, and come down again before the automatic light in the stairwell went off. It was her own childish game, played only when others weren’t
present. Today, however, she did not press the shining orange button. She needed these few seconds of darkness to collect her thoughts.
At the bottom of the staircase, a massive oak door opened onto the street. She stepped out into the sunlight and blinked. Quickly she trotted down the sidewalk, past the boulangerie with its smells of fresh bread, past the café, where paunchy men were already sipping an early-morning apéritif and women chatted noisily as their dogs strained on leashes. She liked the short walk through the village that led to the small yet imposing Church of St. Joseph. The church was built in the Romanesque style and seemed to Gabriella like a benevolent father surrounding a houseful of children, saying nothing but ever present and knowing.
She stepped through the red-washed wooden side door and down the steps into the hollow nave, where flickering candles testified to the early-morning fidelity of a few parishioners. The church was slowly filling up with young women. Gabriella took a seat on a wooden pew near the front, next to Stephanie.
“You made it!” her housemate said, too loudly. “I thought you’d be late.”
Gabriella smiled. “Fortunately it’s a short walk.”
“I’ve heard the first day is a little boring,” Stephanie said. Her husky voice echoed in the hollow room.
Gabriella nodded and put a finger to her lips.
By now many young women were scattered throughout the twenty rows of pews. A small woman wearing a black nun’s habit walked up the aisle and stood before them. Gabriella had heard that she was over seventy, but the nun’s green eyes were lively. She spoke in English, with a heavy French accent.
“Good morning, mesdemoiselles, and welcome to the Church of St. Joseph. I am Mother Griolet, the director of the Franco-American exchange program here in Castelnau. As you have already discovered during your week of orientation, this church is where you will meet each morning at eight thirty for announcements, after which you will go to your morning classes.
“This is my fourteenth year of working with the program, and by now I have, shall we say, gotten used to the ways of American women.” She lifted her eyebrows, and muffled laughter echoed through the church. “We try not to have too many rules, for we want you to soak up this region of France and learn the language. However, we do expect you to act becoming of your age and remember that you are representing your country.
“As is my custom, I will give a brief history of St. Joseph. The church dates back to the thirteenth century. The parsonage, as you call it, was added in the eighteenth century, as were the classrooms, refectory, and dormitory. At one time St. Joseph was used as a parochial school for French women. I came here in 1917 as a teacher and also opened a small orphanage at that time, which continues to function—I’m sure you have noticed the children about.
“During World War II the school was abandoned, though the church and orphanage remained open. After the war, with the help of some businessmen from America, St. Joseph was transformed into a school that offered classes in both French and English—an exchange program for young women during their university education.
“In 1947 I assumed the position of director and had to brush up on my English a bit.” She emphasized her last phrase with an exaggerated accent, and the young women laughed. “As I like to tell your parents, who are paying, as you say, ‘through the nose’ for you to be here, the school’s location on the Mediterranean offers an ideal setting for your cultural advancement. Several excursions are planned each quarter to visit the historical sites of the region. And there is, of course, springtime in Paris. Two weeks to soak up the charm of the city, lose oneself in the museums, and join the students from the Sorbonne in a café on the Left Bank. Doesn’t it sound grand?”
Gabriella and Stephanie nodded at Mother Griolet’s romantic description.
“This year there are forty-two of you representing seven different universities and three countries. Many of you are taking demi-pension, living with a French family and eating one meal a day with them. Others are housed at the university in Montpellier, only fifteen minutes away by bus. I hope you have already begun to meet one another.
“I would now like to introduce our professors.” She addressed the woman and three men seated in the front row. “If you will please stand after I introduce you. First, M. Claude Brunet, who will teach all three levels of French grammar, as well as the conversation class.” A thin, tall middle-aged man with an enormous mustache and heavy eyebrows rose and nodded slightly.
“They say he had an affair with a girl from Rhode Island last year. He’s a real playboy,” Stephanie whispered.
Gabriella gave her a look of disbelief, but Stephanie just shrugged.
“Next, M. Jean-Louis Vidal.” A balding man with wire glasses and a generous stomach, who looked at least sixty, stood quickly, a slightly flustered expression on his face. “M. Vidal will teach all of you European history—in French, of course.”
“Boring,” was Stephanie’s comment.
Mother Griolet continued. “We are privileged to have a professor from the Faculté des Lettres in Montpellier teaching eighteenth-century French literature and twentieth-century French novel. Madame Josephine Resch.” A woman of about thirty-five with black blunt-cut hair stood, looking poised and cool in her lightweight suit.
“She’s supposed to be tough but good,” came the running commentary from Stephanie.
“And finally, M. David Hoffmann, who will be teaching a course he first presented at St. Joseph last year: ‘Visions of Man, Past and Present.’ M. Hoffmann will teach in both French and English, since his course deals with art, history, and literature from both France and England.”
When David Hoffmann rose to his feet, every eye in the church followed him. His frame was lean and athletic, and his hair and eyes were jet black. He appeared calm and sophisticated for such a young professor.
Stephanie jabbed Gabriella in the ribs. “He is one charming man, I heard. But very distant.”
Mother Griolet thanked the professors, then turned her atten¬tion once again to the young women. “We are delighted to have you with us for the school year. I believe you have all received your course schedules and know where the classrooms are. I will end by saying that I am an old woman and have seen many things. Young ladies can get into all kinds of trouble. I cannot prevent it, but my office is open for a friendly chat if you should happen to need it. You are dismissed.”
She left the podium, her face a picture of joviality dusted with friendly concern. The girls offered a smattering of polite applause
before they stood up and filed out of the church and into the adjoining building.
Gabriella liked the firm yet humorous style of the director. I can see why Mother grew so fond of her, she thought. Then she hurried after Stephanie to find a place in the classroom of M. Hoffmann.
Mother Griolet closed the door to her small office and sat down behind the mahogany desk. She picked up the list in front of her, cursorily reading the forty-two girls’ names. Over the next few months they would become as familiar to her as her own. But one she already knew. Gabriella Madison. She closed her eyes and saw this now-grown young woman with the fiery hair as a child of six, trembling and sobbing, her face dirty as she clung to Mother Griolet’s black skirts.
Mother Griolet did not cry often, but the memory of that scene brought an unexpected sting to her green eyes and sent a sudden chill through her small frame.
“Dear child. Why did you come back here?” She was sure it was a mistake. She was equally sure that she would pray night and day that Gabriella Madison would never discover the story that an old nun had kept to herself for so long.
David Hoffmann stood before his class, a hint of a smile on his lips. The young women scurried excitedly into the room, clearly nervous in spite of their efforts to look mature and appealing. The rumors doubtless were the same as last year: M. Hoffmann would be a perfect match for one of these up-and-coming debutantes.
“Mesdemoiselles,” he said sternly, “please be seated. You may discuss the shortcomings of your professeurs later.”
Nervous laughter, and a few raised eyebrows.
“I have the distinct pleasure of presiding over this most fascinating course, ‘Visions of Man: Past and Present.’ It is a composite of several subject areas and will test your minds in the areas of French and English literature, poetry, the history of art, and the psychology of learning. You will soon see how marvelously these subjects flow together. Is that not right, Mlle Loudermilk?”
An impeccably dressed blonde in the third row looked up, surprised, and then beamed back. “Of course, M. Hoffmann. It sounds enchanting.”
Good, he thought. They aren’t quite sure what to think of me. But his eyes kept straying to the young woman sitting like a statue to his right. He had noticed her at once: mounds of red hair curling wildly about her head and bright, clear blue eyes with an innocence and luminosity that shone like an angel from one of Raphael’s paintings. In contrast to the other girls, she seemed childlike and fragile. An angel, he thought. A Raphaelite angel.
He realized then who she must be, so out of place among these sophisticated socialites-in-training. Yes, this must be the daughter of missionaries from the west coast of Africa. A wealthy relative was paying for her junior year abroad before she continued her education at a college in the States. That was the story, anyway. The poor girl was probably scared stiff.
Clearing his throat, David came around to the front of his desk and sat lightly on it. His dark eyes flashed as he began to recite:
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man …
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!”
When he finished, he returned to the other side of his desk and stared at the mesmerized girls, who seemed not to have understood a word of his soliloquy but nonetheless appreciated his charm and talent. “Mesdemoiselles, please! Who can tell me the poet’s name and the title of the work?”
Forty-two heads looked around nervously.
Then a hand went up. He almost didn’t see it, so little did he expect an answer. “Yes, Miss …” His voice trailed off as he searched the roll for the missionary girl’s name.
“Madison. Gabriella Madison.” Her voice was soft but calm.
Gabriella! Even the name of an angel.“Why, it’s from Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’!” she exclaimed excitedly, as if she were delighted to find someone else who shared her enthusiasm for the poet.
David felt himself blush, then regained his composure and began his lecture. But after class, his thoughts returned to the angel on his right. Worth investigating, this Gabriella Madison.
Everything in France seemed to close between noon and two. Gabriella had observed the daily routine: shop owners covered their windows with corrugated aluminum and locked their doors, and workers passed one another on the cobblestones in the center of town as they headed toward their homes.
The main meal of the day lasted two full hours and was eaten in leisurely fashion with plenty of bread and wine accompanying each of the four courses. Gabriella blushed slightly as she remembered her first taste of wine at Mme Leclerc’s dinner table.
“Mais, bien sûr, you must try a little red wine, ma chérie,” the proprietor had insisted. “What is a meal without wine?”
To be polite, Gabriella had lifted the glass to her lips and sipped the rich red liquid. It had burned her mouth and caused her eyes to fill with tears, and she coughed uncontrollably. Mme Leclerc, Stephanie, and Caroline had laughed loudly.
“The first sip is always surprising. But do not worry, ma chérie. You will come to appreciate it, I assure you.”
So far, all that Gabriella had come to appreciate about the red wine and ample noontime meal was how hard it was for her to keep her eyes open the rest of the afternoon. She did not want to fall asleep in her first European history class. Stephanie had reported that the history teacher spoke in a slow, droning voice that would lull even the staunchest teetotaler into dreamland. If only she had M. Hoffmann after lunch! No one in her right mind could have heavy eyes in his class.
She had found it hard to concentrate on his lecture that morn¬ing. He had seemed discerning and profound, and his dark, deep-set eyes made her feel uncomfortable. Were they dark blue or coffee brown or jet black? In any case, they were penetrating. The other girls called him handsome and mysterious, but Gabriella saw something different. Brilliant and sad, was her conclusion.
“Miss Madison! May I have a word with you?”
Gabriella turned to see M. Hoffmann striding toward her. A feeling of panic swept across her face, and she felt her cheeks turn crimson. What could he want with her? Had he read her mind? She considered ignoring his question and hurrying toward the door of Mme Leclerc’s apartment. Instead, she slowed her step to let him catch up. The brightness of the sun combined with her own embarrassment made her suddenly feel light-headed and weak. She tripped on the cobblestone street and stumbled awkwardly until M. Hoffmann’s strong hand grasped her arm and steadied her. She groaned inwardly. Every girl at school was longing for a tête-a-tête with this man, and she, at this golden opportunity, could only conduct herself like a clumsy adolescent.
He seemed unfazed as he matched her pace. “Where are you going? You don’t eat lunch at the cafeteria in town, I suppose?”
“Oh, no. I’m boarding with Mme Leclerc. We eat all our meals with her. She says we keep her company. It’s always delicious, but the wine and food make me sleepy.” She realized she was babbling.
He chuckled. “Bring some toothpicks, then, for M. Vidal’s class. You’ll need them to prop open your eyes!”
Although Gabriella disapproved of M. Hoffmann’s cutting remark, she struggled to suppress a grin.
Again M. Hoffmann seemed oblivious to her uneasiness. “I was impressed that you knew Mr. Pope and his poem. I didn’t expect anyone to recognize it … or to have any interest in my opening statement.”
“Oh, I’m sure everyone was interested. They just weren’t familiar with the work. My mother used to read to us all the time—classics, poetry, any books she could get her hands on. I mean, it was sometimes hard to have books … where we lived … in English.” Rambling again. “Anyway, I really like Pope’s poetry.”
“You’re from Africa, I hear. What do you think of St. Joseph and its charming young ladies?”
“I think it will be fine, interesting. Oh dear, there’s Mme Leclerc looking out the window for me. Good-bye.” With that she left his side and hurriedly walked toward her door. Racing up the stairs and entering the apartment, she caught a glimpse of her flushed face as she passed the mirror in the entranceway. Her heart was pounding so loudly she was sure the other girls would notice.
The first day of class at St. Joseph was over, and Mother Griolet slumped quietly into the black cushioned chair behind her desk. That went well for a first day, she concluded, satisfied. Not a bit like the old days, with all the nuns scurrying about. Now most of the professors were male. At times she had wondered if hiring each of them had been a mistake.
M. Brunet was a womanizer and everyone knew it, but he taught grammar better than anyone else. M. Vidal had needed a job when he applied four years ago. He spoke a pitiful English, but his knowledge of European history was vast, and she allowed him to teach in French. A position at St. Joseph would pay his bills, if he could manage to stay away from the café-bar on his way home after class.
But it was not M. Vidal’s drinking habits that bothered Mother Griolet today as she sat reflecting at her desk—it was the baffling personality of David Hoffmann. She had hired him on the spot eighteen months earlier. His references had been impeccable, a brilliant young man with an Ivy League education, twenty-three years old, the son of an ambassador. Well-traveled. Charming. Confident in his ability to assume his first teaching position. And in this, Mother Griolet had not been disappointed. Though he did not have the degrees to match the other professors, he was a gifted teacher. And it seemed to her as if he felt that he needed to be here.
Now, however, she suspected that David Hoffmann was not teaching at St. Joseph as an end in itself. He spoke beautiful French; his manners were polite, though aloof. But she sensed that he was hiding something.…
The bells in the chapel chimed five o’clock. She stood up, smoothed the black robe that had been her daily wardrobe for the past fifty years, and walked out the door and down the hall.
David walked briskly down the dark street, the click of his heels reverberating on the deserted cobblestones. He slipped into a phone booth, plunked a franc piece into the open slot, and dialed a number.
“It’s me,” he whispered. “I’ll be there. And listen, I’m bringing a girl.”
“A girl! Are you crazy? The last thing we need is someone else involved.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be a perfect cover for us. It will work out beautifully.”
“I’m not convinced.”
“Don’t worry, she doesn’t know a thing.” He continued quickly, not allowing the voice on the other end to interrupt. “We’ll be in Aigues-Mortes in two weeks. Oh, and my friend has red hair. Lots of it. A bientôt, mon ami.” He returned the receiver to its hook, then walked back up the street, deep in thought.
In the streets beyond the Seine on the Left Bank of Paris, a young child played alone while her mother looked on from their third-floor apartment. “Be careful, Ophélie!” called the woman, glancing down the street to where three men waited at the corner. Students from the Sorbonne, foreigners perhaps. The men began to move in her direction.
“Dinnertime, ma chérie,” said the mother. “Vite! Come upstairs quickly.”
“But, Mama,” the child protested, “you said I could play a while longer. The sun has not yet closed his eyes. A few more minutes, please, Mama?”
The young woman coughed weakly. Her face was pale and thin, and her dark, almost black, eyes, framed by rich, thick lashes, mirrored intense pain. Again she coughed and pleaded, “Now, Ophélie, you must come now.”
The three men drew closer, and she recognized their faces. Fear erased the pain in her eyes. “Now!”
Ophélie glanced over her shoulder at the men half a block away. For a moment, a look of fear flitted across her innocent face. Then she replaced it with a smile as she tossed her long brown hair over her shoulders. “Oui, Mama. I’m coming.”
Like an actress poised before her audience, she turned to face the shadows of the strangers. Ophélie would play her part well. For the sake of Mama, she would not be afraid. She would know nothing, no matter what they asked. If, of course, they came to the door, as so many others had done before in her short life.
She skipped into the apartment building, as if she hadn’t a care in the world, then ran up the stairs.
“You must leave at once, ma chérie,” whispered Mama as she pulled Ophélie inside the apartment and bolted the door. She handed her daughter the precious little blue sack that had been stored away, waiting for this fateful day. “Go out the secret way, Ophélie. Run fast to M. Gady’s shop. Tell him you must stay with him until I come. He will understand. Now go quickly.”
As Ophélie prepared to leave, her mother caught her up in her arms and hugged her fiercely against her breast. “Always you know that Mama loves you. Always. You’re a wonderful girl.”
Mother and child ran to the back bedroom, and Mama opened the window. Ophélie perched on the sill for only a moment, like a baby swallow before its first flight. Then, with the small sack crossed over her neck, she grabbed the thick rope her mother had tied to the outside railing months ago. The rope fell to the ground and Ophélie shimmied down gracefully, just as she had done in their many “secret practice sessions,” as Mama called them. Ophélie had felt a sense of adventure and excitement as she practiced for some unknown day. But as dusk settled in and she touched the cement of the street below, she knew that tonight was not a practice. She looked up for one last glimpse of Mama pulling in the rope and closing the window.
“Au revoir, Mama. A bientôt,” whispered Ophélie as she rushed down the side street and lost herself in the teeming crowd of the Left Bank of Paris at sunset.
Anne-Marie Duchemin could hear their footsteps as the three men raced up the stairs to her apartment. Oh, God, this is it. She would not let them find her daughter. She would delay them for the precious few minutes Ophélie needed to reach M. Gady’s shop. They would never find her there … unless they forced Anne-Marie to talk.
She had no doubt that she might talk if she were tortured. It had happened before. But this time she was prepared. Her life did not matter anymore.
Anne-Marie would not die for a lofty cause that, however important, was very flawed. No, she had discovered that there was only one cause worth dying for—love. She felt the tiny bottle sewn inside her sleeve. If necessary, she could slip a pill under her tongue, and she would reveal nothing.
She quickly untied the escape rope, fingers trembling, and ran to the kitchen, where she opened the small metal trash chute. Silently she let the rope fall into the trash bin in the basement.
By now the men were banging on the door, cursing loudly in Arabic. Anne-Marie stood frozen in the hallway. Only a few seconds now, and she will be safe. Again with shaking fingers, she unbolted the brass lock and grasped the door handle. Immediately two dark-skinned Arab men rushed in, shoving Anne-Marie aside. As Anne-Marie caught herself on a small table in the hall, she recognized the third man, who entered slowly.
“Moustafa!” she whispered.
The man lowered his head as she said his name. Anne-Marie read the look of guilt and sorrow in his eyes: I had no choice. She knew it was true. They had forced him to talk, and he was ashamed.
“Where is the girl? Bring her here now.” The tallest of the three directed the second man, whose young face was badly scarred, toward the kitchen.
Moustafa stood, riveted in his place, dark panic in his eyes.
“You coward! Help Rachid. Go find the girl!” The tall man pushed Moustafa down the hallway.
Anne-Marie followed Moustafa as he obediently, like a whipped puppy, walked toward the back of the apartment and briefly glanced around the sparse bedroom. It held an old mattress with springs but no headboard, two chairs with worn material, a cheap armoire, and a small bedside table. Moustafa stopped by the window to look out at the street below. The curtain fluttered slightly, and Anne-Marie saw that the window was not completely closed. Quietly Moustafa pushed it shut and turned the handle to lock it.
“There is nothing back here, Ali. She is not here,” he reported.
Ali turned his rage-filled face to Anne-Marie. “Where is your daughter? We have seen her. We know she is near.”
Anne-Marie said nothing, but she was sure her terror showed in her eyes. She remembered too well Ali’s penchant for sadistic pleasure.
He reached for her face, grabbing her chin. “Tell me, woman.” His voice filled with hatred. “I can make you talk.” He swung his other hand and hit her fiercely across the cheek.
Anne-Marie cried out as she fell backward, and Moustafa caught her. “Please.” She was on her knees. “You don’t need her. I’ll go with you! She’s nothing to you.” She was sobbing now, and Ali pulled her to her feet. He looked as if he might strike her again, but Moustafa interrupted.
“Ali, sir, I have seen them often at the meat stand, as I told you. The girl is only six. She knows nothing.”
“And have you lived with them?” He turned angrily to glare at Moustafa, relaxing his grip on Anne-Marie. “Have you heard every conversation? Of course not! You do not know. There is a war in your country. Algeria will be independent! And you would protect a disgusting whore and her bastard instead of the cause. You will die with them, fool.”
Finishing his search of the small apartment, the young man called Rachid came back to the hall. “Ali! Calm yourself. You will kill her, and then we’ll never find the others. Moustafa is right. What would a scared child know? Bring along the woman. She will talk. She’s talked before.”
Ophélie waited for her mother at M. Gady’s shop until well past dark. Each time a customer came through the doorway, pushing aside the long strands of colorful beads, she glanced up hopefully. But it was never Mama. They came and bought flour and couscous and rice from Thailand and hot little peppers. They laughed and joked with the stooped, graying shopkeeper. He winked back and shuffled behind the counter. Ophélie sat on a small stool and watched each face. She grew angry that they could laugh and joke while her life had stopped abruptly. She wondered when M. Gady would close the store. Her stomach rumbled, and she knew it must be past dinnertime.
As if reading her thoughts, M. Gady said, “Ah, little Ophélie, we will lock the store soon and have our supper, n’est-ce pas? Oh, such sadness in your big brown eyes! Come now, little one, do not worry.
M. Gady will care for you. And your mother will come soon. You will see.” But Ophélie read the fear in his tired eyes. She had seen such lines of concern often on Mama’s face. No, something was wrong.
The small blue velvet bag still hung on the white cord around her neck, hidden beneath her dress. She found an excuse to leave the watchful eye of M. Gady and go to the back of the shop and up the narrow steps that led to his apartment. Mama had said she should give the bag to M. Gady immediately, but she could not. What if he didn’t give it back? Then all that mattered would be lost, and she would not carry even the memory of her mother with her. Quickly she removed the bag from around her neck. Reaching inside, she fumbled through two folded envelopes until she touched a thin necklace at the bottom. Bringing it out, she examined the small gold cross that hung on the chain. She lifted it to her lips and kissed it gently, then put it away.
She crept back down the stairs as darkness closed its heavy curtain over the busy city. Out in the dust of the street behind the shop, she bent down and with her finger drew a crude picture of the cross she had just held. It was a thick cross, with a dove hanging below the lowest branch. “For you, Mama,” she whispered. “Here is hope.” Then she stood and brushed away the picture with the sole of her shoe.
Although only forty-six years of age, Ali Boudani looked more like a man of sixty. His face was weathered and his teeth crooked and broken. He carried his tall, lean frame with steely confidence, a look he had acquired through thirty years in the armed service. He was the spitting image of his father, whose military progress he had watched proudly at the end of World War I, when Ali was only four.
The musty basement where he paced back and forth was occupied by a handful of somber men, several of them dark-skinned Arabs like himself. Two others were unmistakably French.
Ali addressed the group. “Today, right here in Paris, we have found the woman we have been hunting these months. Anne-Marie Duchemin.” The face of a woman, delicate and beautiful, appeared on a screen at the front of the room. “We must thank our new friend, Moustafa, for this prize.” Ali chuckled as he pointed to the young man seated in the back of the small, smoke-filled room.
“A foolish woman. A disgusting pied-noir. Her parents were killed in the massacre of 1958. A most unfortunate accident.” A smile played around his lips. “Anne-Marie was of great help to us. She had the little child, and Jean-Claude was so kind to her.”
The men quietly laughed and nodded their heads. A few of the Arabs patted a handsome young Frenchman on the back.
“Very helpful, this woman, until she left Algeria six months ago. She wanted to protect her daughter, you understand. Perhaps she has succeeded in that for now. We did not find the child.” Another picture flashed on the screen: a young girl, fine and graceful, a reflection of a younger Anne-Marie, brown hair pulled back in a long braid, and a carefree smile on her face.
“We believe that Anne-Marie has information about the disturbing smuggling activities we have recently learned of and has had close ties in the past with several informers. We will have this information soon. We will take her back to Algeria with us.” He clicked off the projector, and the men rose to leave. “Jean-Claude and Emile. You will stay in France. There is work for you here.”
Bachir Karel crept through the streets of Algiers as the sun yawned and left a shimmering whisper across the face of the waters in the port. Its fading brilliance caught the silver on the Capitaine and sent a sharp glare out from the boat. Bachir crouched in the shadows and waited impatiently for darkness.
He glanced down at the slip of paper in his hand. A strange cross was scribbled in the top left-hand corner. It was a thick cross, with four arrows pointing inward and a bird drawn from the bottom arrow. Bachir reread the message scrawled on the paper: vendredi 20H15.
He stiffened as he heard a slight noise. Heart pounding, he pulled himself behind a small sailboat and watched. Silence. Only ten more minutes, and he would climb aboard the Capitaine and head to France. Ten more minutes to safety.
The boy had prepared the speech in his head. My father served your army well in the Second World War and Indochina. Now he has been killed by the Front de Libération Nationale. They called him a traitor. He was a harki. I am his son. We are on your side in this war. Please. My family have all been murdered. I am fleeing Algeria with only the clothes on my back. I was told by a friend that here I would be safe.
He knew the French did not want refugees, especially Algerian ones. They only wanted out of the war that was claiming their sons’ lives. Twenty years of fighting had taken their toll on France. First World War II, then Indochina, now Algeria.
But someone will understand, he thought. He would start a new life in France. He looked at the sky. Black. Now was the time!
Slowly Bachir left the cover of the small sailboat. Crouching, he hurried along the dock. Four hundred yards to freedom.
Out of the darkness another form appeared, blocking his way. A low laugh echoed in the stillness of the night. “And where do you think you are going, Bachir?”
The boy froze, then looked frantically about him. He dashed toward a small fishing rig, hoping to jump into the water. But even as he moved, a shot rang out. Pain seared through his chest as he fell back onto the planks. Still conscious, he pulled his body toward the water. Another shot. One foot from the edge of the dock, he stopped. Bachir Karel never moved again.
The dark form of a man bent down over the body. “Fool! No one escapes Ali! Now your whole family has paid for the traitorous act of your father.” He searched the body and found nothing of importance in Bachir’s pant pockets. He pried open the dead boy’s fist and smiled. “Thank you, Bachir. This is exactly what I was looking for. Ali will be most pleased.”
He shoved the body into the cool waters and walked back toward the lights of the city, while the Capitaine waited and waited in the dark.