9th of December 1938
Gare du Colmar
“Cold as it were
Cold as it came
The dashing of war
Was nobody’s gain”
It echoed inside his mind for years, those faint, whispered words from the rough voice of a war veteran. He heard stories of the Great War from almost everyone older than him, but he was a small child back then, he had no personal recollection of the war. Except for that poem. He heard it from the veteran on the bombed-out streets of Amiens in the north of France, injured and ignored by passers-by, begging on the street where his uncles lived. Alexandre came up to him and gave him some money to which the veteran only gave a faint smile and the utterance of that poem he kept remembering. That was in 1920. He was eight years old. All he could do was grow up and do his bit to avoid another one.
Eighteen years have passed since then. Dark skies once more loomed over France’s horizon.
Horns blared in the distance, twice then, thrice even, shattering the utter silence that engulfed the little train station where he waited. The shrill of the blaring train made his spine tingle, forcing him upright and making him forget for a fleeting moment the bitter cold that crept under his heavy woollen overcoat, somehow inadequate against the galloping winter. It was a cold December evening, all alone on a small train station platform right on the border with Germany. France was tingling with worry, the newspapers were rolling out in record numbers, global diplomacy was failing and here he was waiting on the border with a hostile country. Alexandre sighed. Small snowflakes gently fell on the train tracks in front of him, illuminated by a half-moon that made joyful light pockets around his leather boots. Everything else however was a dark, lifeless maze. Around him were six illumination lampposts, each one of them holding a small oil lamp, but only two of them were lit. None of that mattered now. The train was coming.
Horns blared again. The train was getting closer. His fingers dug deeper inside the side pocket of his overcoat and reached for a cigarette. He brought the cigarette to his mouth and fumbled about for an entire minute until the wind died down to allow him to light up the heavy Turkish blend. Flurries of snow wafted around the station with increasing intensity. He was curious. And his curiosity would be quenched once that singular train would stop in the station.
Moments later, he caught a glimpse of the steel behemoth. In the darkness of that December evening, there was not much to distinguish from a nondescript black locomotive that chugged along on the railway lines. But the red stripes on the side of the locomotive were evident, causing him to frown a bit. Red stripes usually indicated trains that would stop in big cities, not local train stations. And Colmar was far from being a city. At most, it was a local town, a border outpost. Despite his sudden anxiety, the train stopped in the station as planned, dropping off one single passenger who waved meekly as he approached.
“Good evening, Alexandre.”
The man from the train shook Alexandre’s hand firmly. Dressed in a similar woollen overcoat, he wore a generic brown fedora on his head and twisted the collar of his overcoat upwards to protect himself from the rushing flurries that swept through the station. Somewhat shorter than his station guest, he bowed his head slightly, indicating Alexandre as his superior, even if on paper he was the one of higher rank. His fellow Frenchman gave a curt nod.
“I see you have changed trains, Klaus,” replied Alexandre.
“Sort of. There was a murder on the train from Strasbourg to Colmar, so they sent over one of the trains chugging on the Geneva – Paris route.”
“Nothing related to our concerns. A triangle of love, as is rather the norm these days.”
“Ha, a triangle of love. The gutter press loves those kinds of stories.” Reythier flicked his cigarette in the snow.
“Indeed they do.”
“So you came with the red stripes?”
Klaus smiled. “That was not a red stripe or any special train of the sort. I’ve asked the Bureau to add a special marker to the train.” Klaus glanced at Alexandre. “It got me here faster.”
“Fast it was. I was expecting to be another twenty, maybe thirty minutes alone on that desolate station.”
Klaus nodded. “Quite. I got here in record time, I did not expect to arrive at 6:40.”
Alexandre gave a cursory glance to his gold wristwatch. The sleek line of the bezel stood out in the darkness, the two thin hands showing fifteen minutes to 7. He slid his hand back into his pocket and nudged his fellow companion onwards. Fresh, powdery snow crunched beneath their boots with a satisfying sound. They walked away from the station in silence, crackles of snow echoing in the devoid absence of any person on the street. Colmar was a quiet place, with rows of timber-framed houses huddled around a small bridge over the narrow Lauch river. Small pockets of lights could be seen in various houses, the inhabitants still awake, the snow gently frosting over the city. Most of the population lay their sympathies with the French republic, but they received police reports of more than than just a vocal minority who would be more than happy to see the Nazi Party install the swastikas on the roof of the town hall. Alexandre knew. Klaus as well, but neither of them spoke of this openly. They trodded through the beaten path from the station down to the centre of the village, whisking themselves to the snow-capped bridge over the Lauch.
Alexandre caught one of the bridge rails and stopped for a moment.
“It’s been one month, Klaus.”
Klaus nodded, more to himself rather than for Alexandre to see. He stopped close to the guard rail, peering down into the frozen river.
“One month since that night. Not what we wanted to hear about but I guess we are more prepared now for what will come.”
“I hope so. I rather hope so. Don’t you?”
Alexandre nodded. “That night, what was it you called it, Kristallnacht?” he said, accentuating the German word with a particular Parisian twist.
Klaus smiled to himself but nodded in agreement. “Yes, that night. A shame it was. The outlook is grim, Monsieur Reythier, it’s grim.” He glanced to his French companion, but the man only stared at him back. “But I suppose you already know that.”
Alexandre nodded. “Kristallnacht scared some of the locals away. Colmar is now turning into a ghost town, afraid to live on the border. Some still remember the Rhineland incident. No matter how we put it, we cannot convince the locals to stay around these places unless they’re committed to our cause or committed to their families.”
“This place sits right on the border, I would expect them not to stay around.”
“And some don’t. Most don’t in fact, we had to give specific orders to those around the Rhineland border to stay in their places.” Klaus sighed. “We don’t have a choice. And we cannot blame those in the way of the beast either.”
Alexandre sighed. “Why have I been called here?”
Klaus stopped. For a moment he stood silent, unsure of what to say. He fumbled his hands in the air, trying to force his words to come out, to express at least some semblance of a coherent idea, but nothing came out of it except for a meek, guttural sound. He felt Alexandre’s stare on him. Klaus sighed and pointed towards a row of houses, even if they were not what he wanted to convey.
“We caught two Germans trying to infiltrate themselves around these places by the border. Colmar is a target in itself. They went right under our noses, and worse even, we caught them with a Frenchman who lived in the villages down the south of the Maginot line.”
“That’s all they’ve done?”
Klaus shook his head. “The plan was not well thought out. They posed as tourists from the Far East, even if they looked as every bit from here as possible, and tried to ask around about the Maginot line. It was rather clumsy but it worked.”
“One of the local farmers took them to a deserted area of the line that we have not even bothered to repair since the war. One huge hole in the wall we know about and we did nothing to repair.”
“More than that. Something is going on around these places, and I don’t like it.”
“More than spies?”
“Not infiltrators, but close. At the very least they are doing terrain reconnaissance, drawing maps and sending the information back over the border. Not a welcome idea to Paris, and clearly not to our military brass.”
Alexandre rolled his eyes. “And what am I supposed to do?”
“We caught and locked them in the prison of the Colmar police station. Don’t imagine a whole group of policemen guarding them, it’s four men manning the station plus the chief. We will go there now. As for you, well, we want you to interrogate them.”
Alexandre frowned. A criminal inquiry, a hands-on at that, was not something he particularly enjoyed, his visible frown causing Klaus to tap rather nervously on the rail twice and eventually turn his back. Silent, Alexandre glanced over the bridge, down the length of the Lauch, watching the snowfall caress the slanted tiled roofs of houses built about a century ago. By now it was bitterly cold, the snow had picked up in intensity and the weight of the interrogation was enough to force another heavy silence.
They snaked their way down the length of the riverbank in silence until they reached a small plaza close to the city hall. The junction connected four smaller side streets, but Klaus led Alexandre into a timber-framed two-story house right on the edge of the riverbank. A small light above the door waned and flickered as the wind blew. Klaus twisted the weathered door handle and pushed the door aside, closing it behind them with the wind howling one last time in their ears. A small flight of stairs led them to the first floor, nothing more than a room adjoined by four separate doors in the dim glow of another flickering light. Klaus pointed to the first door on the right.
“After you, Alexandre.”
Reythier raised an eyebrow for a moment but said nothing. He quickly twisted the door handle and entered the room, a rectangle-shaped assemblage area with two windows overlooking the plaza below and a large table with eight chairs occupying most of the space. Two wooden bookcases occupied the back of the room, filled with binders of documents which Alexandre speculated were local police records.
Two men stood at the table, both of them lazily puffing from their cigarettes, their eyes fixed on this tall newcomer and his more known companion. At first, they did not pay much attention to Reythier, dressed rather similar to his companion with the heavy overcoat and evening stubble. Klaus intervened rather quickly and ordered them to a quick salute. The policemen rose from their seats and did so as they were ordered, receiving a curt nod from Alexandre in return.
“Where are they?”
“Locked in the prison below, Monsieur,” replied one of the policemen.
“Bring them. Let us have a chat with them.”
The two policemen nodded in approval and left the room, leaving Alexandre Reythier, a lieutenant of the French intelligence agencies, standing by the desk with his direct superior. They spoke nothing before the policemen returned with two young adults, no more than twenty years old each, dirty and ragged, dressed in brown tattered clothes and reeking of body odour. The policemen threw the prisoners onto the desk with brutality, chaining them down to the small wooden chairs underneath. Not content just with the chain, they pinned them down to the edge of the table and took out their pistols, sticking the barrels against the prisoners’ necks. Reythier said nothing, and neither did Klaus, watching the scene unfold with uneasy composure. The policemen nodded.
Eyeing both of the boys, Reythier took up a chair and sat down beside them.
“I’ve been told some stories, some fascinating stories about you two going on a field trip. Something about a wall. Can I ask why were you so curious about it?” asked Reythier in perfect German.
Neither of the boys said anything. Their eyes were fixed on Reythier, but he only returned an elegant smile with the corner of his mouth. He turned his head to Klaus and nodded, to which his superior produced from his overcoat a small notebook. Alexandre took the notebook and opened it on the table, hunching closer to his prisoners.
“Two weeks, that’s all it took you. Two weeks in which you bought rifles, war grenades, stabbed two innocent farmers and proceeded to investigate the south part of the line. And on top of that…” Reythier paused, extracting two files from the back of the notebook. “You two are part of the Nazi youth. Top recruits.”
Reythier expected no reaction. He got none from them, except two dismissive shrugs and a roll of the eyes. Alexandre flipped the notebook around.
“All this gets you a one-way train to prison for life. Or, in the worst case, a quick hanging in the woods just down the river.”
The remark hit a soft spot. One of the boys, a short-haired blonde with scratch marks all over his face, hissed towards Reythier.
“Herr Hitler will save us.”
Reythier laughed. “Your superiors won’t even know you’re missing by the time the local judge orders your execution. So, in case you want to live, help us and spill the information to me. I believe you can help us answer the question of what were you doing around the Maginot.”
“We were doing nothing. We are tourists, nothing more!”
Reythier sighed. He nodded off to one of the policemen, who saluted and left the room, leaving Klaus to attend to one of the prisoners. Alexandre closed the notebook, rose from the table and headed for the window behind him. The window’s handles were black, rotten bits of wood, forcing him to twist the mechanism before the window finally budged from its position. Cold winter air swept inside the room with an almost destructive force. The unsecured papers on the shelves quickly flew through the room. It didn’t bother Klaus, or Reythier for that matter, who lighted up another one of his Turkish cigarettes at the edge of the window. It was only a short puff before he heard the crackle of the gun echo in the Colmar silence.
Before Reythier reacted, and before Klaus even understood what happened, the door swung wide open and crashed violently against the edge of the wall. A lone gunman, dressed in a beige overcoat, held up a large calibre revolver and barged inside the room. With quick, agile movements, he shot the other policeman in the head before turning to aim at Klaus who ducked underneath the table. The gunman shot but missed his target, dropping the last bullets in the two prisoners chained to the table. That was enough time for Reythier to take own his own issued gun, firing two quick shots towards the gunman. The bullets hit the assailant in the chest and the neck, severing the carotid artery before he collapsed in a pool of blood by the edge of the door.
It lasted less than twenty seconds. The policemen were dead but so was the gunman. And so were the two prisoners they needed information from.