In Nazi-occupied France, Marigold Jenkins, the daughter of ex-patriot Americans, must keep her identities—all three of them—a secret.
She navigates the streets of Paris armed with a bright red handbag, scarlet lipstick, and a compact tailor-made for her role as a courier in the resistance.
But when a train accident leaves her concussed and stranded in a provincial hospital, Mari must navigate a new reality, one that leaves her at the mercy of a German officer. She must decide whether she can trust this man—and what she must sacrifice in order to do so.
The sharpness that stabbed her lungs each time she pulled a breath did not scare Mari. The spike of pain in her temple was of little consequence. No, it was the clean sheets against her skin, the pillow that cradled her head, and the soft prayers of the Sisters that frightened her the most.
The last thing she remembered was the screech of the train. The last thing she saw was a spider web of cracked window glass splattered with brilliant red. After that, blue sky, crushed grass beneath her, stones stabbing her spine. Her purse, the straps looped through one arm. The tug when she refused to give it up. The last thing she heard were those orders barked in German.
The last thing she said?
Oh, God, not in English. Please, not in English. The panic sliced through the fog clouding her mind, but the clarity didn’t last. A new bank rolled in, doubt married to fear—and pain. The spike of it radiated across her skull, down her neck.
Even so, sounds penetrated. A rattling cart. Consoling murmurs. The gentle whisk of fabric against the floor.
With deep reluctance, Mari cracked open her eyes. The light assaulted her, the stab of it like something solid, something she could swallow, something that would choke her. She took quick, shallow breaths, and spread her arms until her fingertips reached each side of the bed, searching, searching. Her forearm felt naked without the purse’s straps. She came away with nothing but the clean edge of the sheets. Under, then? Or on a side table? Check everywhere. Oh, but that meant moving.
“You’re awake.” The nun wasn’t much older than she was, with hazel eyes and freckles far too frivolous for the somber wimple. “Would you like some water?”
The sister helped her sit. It was all Mari could do not to cry out when the water flooded her mouth, soothed her throat. Had she screamed when the train jumped the tracks? Her throat was raw enough for it.
“Better?” the nun asked.
Again, she nodded.
“Where am I?” The words came rough as if she hadn’t spoken for days.
“You’re in hospital.” The nun murmured the name of the town—somewhere between Paris and Blois.
“You should ask…” The nun glanced toward the entrance to the ward. She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t need to.
There, in shadows, stood a man. Even from this distance he was obviously German, and from his bearing, obviously an officer. Mari licked her lips, swallowed back the bile in her throat, and reached once again for the water.
The man’s footfalls echoed against the floor. A hush fell over the space, as if they all held their breaths for the length of his stroll down the center of the ward. The sister turned and busied herself with the cart of medication, the wings of her wimple hiding her face.
He halted at the foot of the bed with a single click of his heels and an almost gracious bow. “Fraulein.”
She nodded, squinted against the light, his form blurry.
“I am Major Messner,” he said.
She blinked. Was he the local commander, then? That would account for the hush, that collective intake of breath. Still, was he better or worse than the Gestapo? Better, certainly, although much depended upon what sort of man Major Messner was.
“I was hoping you could assist us.”
One who spoke passable French, at least.
“You were in a train wreck. The tracks were sabotaged,” he continued. “We are hoping those passengers riding on the west side might be able to … provide us with information.”
Images came flooding back. That spider web in red. Her purse clutched tight, even when the jolt threw her into the window. Had she been traveling north or south? This, she couldn’t remember. The uncertainty of that simmered in her belly like slow-acting poison.
“Do you remember anything, Fraulein?” the Major prompted. “Anything at all? Perhaps you were glancing out the window and saw something … someone?”
“I remember very little,” she said. This, blessedly, was true. Her words, however, betrayed the state of her throat. She reached a hand for the water glass only to find him plucking it from the side table and bringing it to her lips.
“Merci,” she managed.
“Let’s start with something easier, shall we? Where were you headed?”
The uncertainty returned, panic gripping her mind, rendering her mute. North or South? Which was it? Sweat bloomed along her limbs, the thin blanket and cool sheets suddenly stifling. Where she was headed depended so much on who she was. The name on her papers would tell her, and those would be in her purse.
She was … who then? Marguerite, the dancer? (Bless her mother’s insistence on ballet lessons.) No. Too flashy. Marguerite would never leave Paris for … she eyed the small ward … wherever here was. Too provincial. Françoise, the shop girl? Yes! She was little Françoise, almost certainly.
Mari hadn’t been herself, hadn’t been Marigold Jenkins since her mother planted a perfumed kiss on her cheek and fled Paris for the endless blue skies and palm trees of Hollywood, her father in tow. And then, of course, the Nazis came.
“I was returning to Paris after visiting my mother in the countryside,” she said, as if her mother would ever live in the countryside in any nation. “She’s … not well.”
“Returning?” The major cocked an eyebrow. A single word filled with doubt. A single gesture a death sentence.
But she was Françoise, a silly bit of fluff. Despite the ache, Mari tilted her head, trained her eyes on him, and in all innocence asked, “Was I going, Major?”
His jaw twitched. It was enough of a lifeline for her to continue.
“Truthfully, Major, I think only my throat remembers what happened.” She let her fingertips light on her neck.
Was it? And would this German officer understand when she provided no information, real or fabricated?
“I will return when you’re able to talk.”
Before he turned to leave, Mari called out, “Major Messner?”
He inclined his head, unfailingly polite. He was, she realized, not as young as she first assumed, his hair shined silver rather than gold, and the lines around his eyes and mouth spoke of a man who had seen a certain share of life before the war.
“My purse. I don’t suppose.” She glanced away, down at her hands folded demurely on the blanket. “It’s a … never mind.”
To her surprise, he took a knee at her bedside. “Go on.”
“It’s only.” And here, she peered up from beneath her lashes. “My lipstick, and compact.” Mari touched her cheek. “I only wanted … but it’s not important.”
Major Messner laughed, the sound indulgent. “You shall have your purse, Fraulein. I shall see to it personally.”
“Merci.” And thank you, Françoise, you silly, vain cow.
His footsteps echoed again on his walk up the ward. When he cleared the door, it was if everyone took their first breath in fifteen minutes. Mari’s heart thudded. Was her request bold or merely reckless? How closely would they inspect her purse before turning it over to her?
The nun returned with a pitcher of water. Under the cover of refilling Mari’s glass, she spoke.
“I should tell you, Mademoiselle, that Major Messner likes to … cultivate pretty brunettes.”
Mari raised her chin. Her hair, although tangled, looked nearly black against the white of her pillow.
“Despite this.” The nun’s fingers lighted on Mari’s temple. “And this.” They moved to her cheek. “You are very pretty indeed.”
“Is that a warning, Sister?”
“No.” The woman turned from her. “But it may be your salvation.”
* * *
Major Messner was a man who kept his promises, or at least ones made to pretty brunettes. The next morning, the purse was resting on the side table, its red crocodile skin far too brash for the hushed atmosphere of the ward.
Henri hated the purse, always said it called too much attention to her. What he meant was Nazi attention, in particular the sort of Nazi officer who cultivated pretty girls.
“We must fade into the background, one of a thousand Parisians made drab by the war. We do not want their attention.” Henri said this with the authority of a father figure and then continued with the persuasiveness of a lover. “You do not want their attention. You do not want to be thought a collaborator.”
“But I am frivolous,” Mari had argued, “either as Marguerite or Françoise. It marks me as a fool, not a collaborator.”
The purse was like a broadcast signal. It told the world, or at least, those here in France, that she was not a threat. She was silly and thoughtless and spent money she didn’t have for things she didn’t need. After last month’s successful run, even Henri had agreed. Mari was their best courier.
Now she reached a hand for her purse, her salvation. Inside, she encountered her papers. The air pent up in her lungs seeped out. No whoosh of breath. No obvious relief. But yes, she was Françoise.
She rummaged until her fingers encountered her compact and lipstick tube. The little brush was missing. No matter. She could dab some on, lightly, with her ring finger. To have him fetch her makeup and then not use it would invite folly, indeed. What she didn’t use on her lips, she could smear on her cheeks, give herself a schoolgirl blush.
Something told her that Major Messner would like that.
Mari ran her fingertips around the compact. Aside from her mother, only she knew of the false bottom. Not even Henri knew. She eased it open just enough to slip her pinky inside, to check to see if the contents were there.
They were. The slip of paper. With codes. Always a dangerous thing. Possibly the most dangerous thing of all. But necessary. And in this case, small. She could chew up the evidence and wash it down with the half glass of water that sat on the table.
Mari felt herself sink into the bed, her pillow soft beneath her head. She was safe. They all were safe. All she needed to do was slip the paper from the compact and send it down her throat. Her fingers inched toward the paper when a single thought froze her.
What if the Major had found the list? What if her purse, delivered so promptly, was bait? What if they were waiting to see what she would do, whether she was working for the resistance or was merely an empty-headed shop girl?
Leave the list in place or slip it out?
She eased the false bottom closed–for now–and opened the compact. A tiny yelp emerged from her throat. Oh, she wouldn’t need any additional color from the lipstick–she had far too much of it already, in ugly purples blooming across her cheek. Both eyes looked bruised. Her lips were uncommonly red, and she couldn’t account for it. Applying makeup to a face in such condition seemed nearly as foolish as keeping that slip of paper hidden.
She closed the compact without making a sound. Then she clutched it and the lipstick against her chest. It was like keeping a vigil.
Hold very still. Be very quiet. Act the part of the shop girl, so happy to have her things back. Stay alert. Do not sleep. Above all, do not sleep.
Only when the footsteps taken with military precision stopped at the end of her bed did she realize that she had succumbed to sleep, lipstick and compact loose in her grip.
* * *
Her hand convulsed around the compact. It was an instinctive move that Mari hoped the Major didn’t see. His gaze darted to her clenched hand and then met her eyes. This man missed very little.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Fraulein.”
“No, I … I merely dozed off.”
“The sisters said your head injury might make you sleepy.”
Did they? She supposed they had. Certainly that wasn’t a lie. And yet. The information, or perhaps the way it was phrased felt … dishonest. How many patients escaped interrogation due to sleepiness? Perhaps the sisters added something to the soup served earlier. Had it tasted odd? Mari blinked, trying to bring Major Messner into focus.
“I also made the mistake of looking into the mirror,” she said, for it sounded like something Françoise might confess.
“The bruises will heal.” He turned then, nodded at the nun attending the ward.
She rushed over with a straight-back chair and placed it next to Mari’s bed.
“Thank you, Sister.” He gave the perfunctory bow. So polite. So civilized. So deceptive. How could a nation of so unerringly correct individuals be so brutal as well?
The Major sat, arms resting on his thighs, hands clasped. He leaned forward. “The bruises will heal,” he said, again, this time his voice softer, as if the words he used might heal her face. “There won’t be any lasting damage, except, perhaps to your memory.”
“My memory, Major?”
“Of the accident. The doctor mentioned that head trauma can cause memory lapses, especially of the event itself.”
“I remember blood–I think it was blood. It was red.” Mari fingered the lipstick. “But then, so is my lipstick. And I remember hearing German, but that must have been after.”
Yes, after,” he echoed. “Those are … good details, good things to remember.”
Were they? What was this man about and what did he want from her, other than–to quote the sister–cultivate her?
“Your compact is quite intricate,” he said.
“It was my mother’s.” A truth among all the lies. Also something a shop girl like Françoise might not own. Or she might. With the war, one never knew, did they?
“I’m afraid my lipstick won’t last, at least not until…”
Until what, Mari, you fool? The end of the war? Yes, the perfect topic of conversation when speaking to a German officer.
“May I?” He held out his hand.
Mari unclenched her fingers, a slow unfurling that she hoped looked more like pain than reluctance. She passed him the tube–a precious commodity, that. He inspected it with clinical detachment.
“It should last,” he said. “If you’re frugal.”
“How frugal will I have to be, Major?”
“That depends,” he said. “I am not the only official interested in the train accident.” His gaze flickered toward the door and the presence that shadowed the entrance. Plain clothes, not military. Gestapo then?
“You might want to use your compact, freshen up before they speak with you.” He stood and turned his back as if to give her privacy for the task.
A trap or her salvation? And if she took that salvation, what was the cost? The shadows at the threshold stirred. She slipped the list from the false bottom, tore it once, twice, then shoved the pieces into her mouth. The paper was thin, like onionskin, but stuck everywhere–her molars, the roof of her mouth, against her tongue.
The sound that emerged from her throat was muted, barely a cough, but the Major handed her a glass of water. She washed away the list of codes, and he took the glass from her hand with one last bit of advice.
“Remember those good details, Fraulein.”
* * *
It wasn’t the first time silly Françoise had attracted the attention of the Gestapo. It was, however, the first time they asked her about one of their own.
“How well do you know Major Messner, Fraulein?”
“How … well?” Mari scrunched up her forehead, as if terminally confused by the man’s question. His gaunt face reminded her of a cadaver. The war had not been kind to him. She guessed that peace, when it arrived, would be less kind.
Her whole body trembled. But then, she reasoned, little Françoise would also tremble if confronted by the Gestapo.
“He … asked me about the train accident, what I remembered. Then he brought me my purse.” She displayed the compact and the lipstick in outstretched hands almost like making an offering.
“Yes,” the man said. He cast the items a disdainful look, but–opinion aside–swept them up and passed them to his partner. “We need them for our own investigation. This as well.” He caught up her purse and passed that along as well.
“So you’ve never met the Major before?”
“I don’t meet many Germans, only those that come into the shop, and then only Monsieur Reime deals with them because…” She glanced away, eyes downcast.
“Because why, Fraulein?”
She shook her head. “I’m not supposed to know.”
The man leaned forward. “Indeed. And why is that?”
Mari bit her lip. She cast a look at the nun who stood several feet away. In a flash of inspiration, she crossed herself. She pushed forward, and if on cue, the Gestapo agent leaned ever closer.
“Préservatifs.” She hid her face in her hands, peering at the men through a v in her fingers. Yes, silly Françoise barely knew what a condom was, never mind having cause to use one. “They … trade in Préservatifs.”
The man’s lips twitched, ever so slightly. His partner looked away, and she had the distinct impression he was laughing.
“Of course, Fraulein,” the man said. “You … shouldn’t know of such things.”
She regurgitated her good details. I remember seeing red–like my lipstick. It’s red, too. And hearing German. But that was after. You must have brought everyone here, to the hospital. That was kind of you.
“Yes, Fraulein, we brought everyone here,” the man said. He stood. “I will still need to take your things.”
“But you have been most helpful.”
She saw the look he gave his partner, a barely contained roll of the eyes for the silly French cow who had nothing on her mind but her bright red purse and lipstick.
Only when they cleared the door did she dare exhale and shut her eyes. And only when the lights were dimmed for the night did she allow herself to cry.
* * *
He was waiting for her when she left the hospital.
Mari walked the cobblestone path with care, oddly out of balance without her purse. Yes, the Gestapo had kept that, and her mother’s compact, and the bright red lipstick. They were no doubt in the hands of some other silly French cow or perhaps a German one. What a prize all three items would make.
The spoils of war.
Major Messner clicked his heels and gave her that slight bow. “You look well, Fraulein. Your bruises are healing.”
She touched her cheek. “Yes. They are.”
“I have something for you.”
What could that be? When he didn’t move, she knew it was her job, as the civilian, the lesser in this relationship, to step closer. So she did. Honestly, hadn’t she taken that step already, back in the hospital?
“Your hand,” he said.
She held it out. A moment later, the tube of bright red lipstick fell into her palm.
“I couldn’t retrieve your purse or the compact. Beautiful item. Lovely craftsmanship. Was it really your mother’s?”
“It was,” she admitted.
“For that, I am sorry.”
She let her fingers curl around the lipstick tube.
“I made the convincing case that I wanted to embark on my own little affair.” He spoke these words not to her, but just past her shoulder, as if absorbed in the sight of the road behind her. Mari nearly turned to see what had captured his attention, but knew she’d discern nothing.
“You might say my … proclivities are well known.” Now he looked at her. “Returning your lipstick would clinch the deal, as you Americans might say.”
Her heart lurched. Her vision tunneled to a single bright point. She stumbled, an ankle twisting beneath her weight. He caught her arm, steadied her.
“It’s all right,” he whispered.
Was it? How could it be? Her mouth dry, she stared up at him, his eyes shaded by the brim of his uniform hat.
“What gave me away?” she whispered.
“Nothing you need worry about.”
She exhaled a jagged rasp.
“Well, truthfully, your accent.”
She’d spoken French as a toddler. Henri always said she had a charming way with words. As Marguerite, she could croon, smoky and seductive.
“You sound like her, a distinct American twang.”
Had that one summer at her grandmother’s–roasting beneath the relentless Savannah sun–betrayed her?
“As I said,” he continued, “nothing you should worry about. I might be the only man in the Reich who might recognize such a thing.”
“Her?” she ventured.
He pressed his lips together, something like a sigh escaping him. “Her name was Rachel. Her father was an American, from Texas, I believe.”
That would account for the twang.
“Her mother was French.” He paused, considered the road behind Mari again. “And a Jew. And Rachel?” He shut his eyes for an instant. “She was stubborn. Even so, I could have saved her.”
Mari nodded, the love affair playing out before her eyes. A young German officer and a Jewess? Yes, that was destined to end badly.
“I chose not to.”
“Would she see it that way?”
His laugh was short and bitter. “I suspect that, if she could, she would ask me that very same thing.”
“What do you want from me?”
It was a bold question, here under the linden trees. Their leaves rattled as if they disapproved of that boldness, of the thought that had entered her head. Would she let this man, this German, this Nazi cultivate her?
Yes. Yes, she would.
“Do you pray, Fraulein?”
He nodded toward the church at the end of the street. Her mother had worshiped at the altar of Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, and then later, vodka. Her father paid homage to simile and metaphor, not that Hollywood appreciated either. Mari herself had no faith, unless it was the belief her lipstick would last until the end of the war.
“Do you want me to pray for you, Major Messner?”
“I want you to pray for a quick end to this war.”
“What will you do then?”
He stared past her again, his eyes ever alert. Slight movement caught her attention. His hand. His sidearm.
“Then I will pray for your soul,” she said
“Don’t waste your prayers on things that don’t exist.”
The rumble of an automobile caught her up short. The momentary flicker of panic in his eyes shot fear through her. A Citroën rumbled past, sleek and black, its pace slowing to a crawl, the sun glinting off the double chevrons of its grill. The Major leaned in, clutched her chin with a finger and thumb.
“You are so very much like her that I am nearly tempted,” he said a moment before he kissed her.
The car sped up.
In the quiet, he released her. He nodded once, bowed, and Mari took uncertain steps down the lane and toward the church. Her heels clicked, the leaves rattled, and the far off sound of a car backfiring–or of a gunshot–echoed.
The church was cool and dark. Mari covered her head, crossed herself, and collapsed into a pew. She stayed for hours. She thought he might come for her.
The weight of something, his soul perhaps, drove her to her knees. She knelt, forehead on clasped hands, and prayed to the saint of bright red things–of lipstick and handbags and filigrees of blood in cracked windows. It was far easier than praying for those things that didn’t exist–a French shop girl named Françoise, a Jewess named Rachel, a German officer named Major Messner.
And a lone American named Marigold Jenkins.
The Saint of Bright Red Things was first published in The Binge-Watching Cure.