Page 1

Prologue J u n e 20 , 1 94 4 — P a r i s : G e sta p o P r i s o n

The shackles binding my arms and legs to the chair scour my blistered skin to a bloody mash. Firm hands clasp my hair and forcibly lower my head. Ice water envelops my face, flowing up my nose, devouring my head whole. A thousand pinpricks of pain spark across my raw cheeks. Panic wrings the air from my lungs, and it climbs my throat, claws of desperation sinking deep. Fingers wind tighter through my tangled hair, raising me to the surface. Above me, my interrogator shouts in French, “You are a spy! You are an agent of the Special Operations Executive! You are the American, Betty Sweeney!” “Non,” I gasp, catching my breath. “Je m’appelle Adele Blanchard.” “You worked with the British agents Denise Langford and Timothy Bishop! Where are they?”

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 1

10/28/11 2:56 AM

2 • A my M c A u l e y

“Je ne connais personne de ces noms.” I know no one by those names. “You do! Who is assisting them?” “Je ne sais pas.” I do not know. My head plunges, displacing jagged chunks of ice. The sting becomes excruciating, as if my face has been turned inside out. “You do know them! You will give us their locations! You will tell us where the weapon drops take place!” I spit a mouthful of water on the floor in the direction of the shiny pair of army boots I see there. I draw a long breath. Down I go again. Garbled voices bounce back and forth above me. I strain against the chains, screaming on the inside. Fear eats what little oxygen I have left. I am about to drown. There is nothing I can do about it.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 2

10/28/11 2:56 AM

One May 194 4—S omewhere over France

I sit at the edge of the plane’s trapdoor, feet dangling into the abyss of the moonlit night. The plane wobbles, unstable at such a low altitude. My hands press to the metal on either side of me, gripping tighter. My parachute is too big for me, and with the added bulk of the million francs stashed in the back of my jump overalls, I have to sit closer to the edge than I would like. But I can’t fall. Not yet, anyway. When the time comes, Denise and I will jump fi rst. If we girls have the courage to jump, there will be no good excuse for Bishop and Shepherd to stay in the plane. They can’t be upstaged by “the weaker sex.” From the day my training began it seems as if I’ve been carried along on a swiftly moving conveyer belt. I’ve reached the end with expectations of parachuting into Nazi- occupied France, and I’ll go through with it. I’ve come too far to turn back now.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 3

10/28/11 2:56 AM

4 • A my M c A u l e y

I sneak a peek across from me, at Bishop’s fearless demeanor. He’s already completed one mission in France and is about to drop back in for more. When we prepared to board the Halifax, the pilot took one look at the rest of us and jokingly referred to Bishop as Grandpa. What a mistake to be fooled by his silvery sideburns. If only boys my age had this same kind of rugged strength and maturity I secretly swoon over. Shepherd, on the other hand, looks hardly old enough to shave, with his baby-smooth skin. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me he was twenty-three. The great pains he takes to keep his boyish haircut neatly combed only makes me want to run my hands through and muss it all up. Again the plane wobbles. My queasy stomach wobbles with it. Sandwiches and rum were supposed to have been served on the fl ight. We got nothing, which is okay with me. They might have ended up raining down on some Frenchman’s rooftop. Next to me, Denise dreamily stares forward when I try to catch her attention, as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. If her hands weren’t covered by leather gloves, she’d probably be inspecting her polished nails, even as we wait to jump onto death’s doormat. Denise and I met at the Special Operations Executive’s paramilitary school in Inverness-Shire Scotland. I went to the school after the preliminary stage of having my character and potential assessed, without knowing much about what would go on there. They purposely kept us volunteers in the dark, in case we didn’t make the cut. The deeper we went in our training, the more secrets we learned. Incompetent trainees were weeded out and sent to a detention center called “the cooler,” where they were encouraged to

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 4

10/28/11 2:56 AM

V i o l i n s o f A u tu m n • 5

forget about the cloak-and- dagger stuff going on in the English and Scottish hillsides before being dropped back into regular life. I wasn’t one of those incompetents sent off to the cooler. I passed and continued on. Just to be set apart like that, placed in the worthy group, was motivation enough for me to stick with the training. The funny thing is I don’t know what I said or did to impress them. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. The lamp above our heads continues to glow scarlet, warning us to stay put. Waiting on pins and needles for the lamp to flash green, I press the silk lining of my gloves between fingers that tingle to the point of numbness. At Ringway airport, near Manchester, they did their best to prepare us for this moment. On ropes and swings, we learned to coordinate our jumps and land properly without injuring ourselves. They had the old fuselage of a plane set up, where we practiced correct jump techniques. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but with so many of us looking gawky and ridiculous all at once, it wasn’t too embarrassing. The instructor said my face looked white as a sheet before the two practice jumps from a real plane. The scariest part was that fi rst step into thin air several hundred feet off the ground. I was convinced I wouldn’t survive. Once there was nowhere to go but down, the fear of dying was suddenly replaced by a new kind of fear that made me feel more alive. I imagined free fall felt like a roller- coaster drop, but instead it was like flying. I wished my instructor could have seen the smile I wore, lips and cheeks contorting like rubber in the wind, all the way to the landing. Thanks to horrible weather my third required jump was called off. Would my confidence have been higher tonight with one more jump under my belt? Doubtful. German soldiers weren’t

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 5

10/28/11 2:56 AM

6 • A my M c A u l e y

waiting on the ground during the practice run. Botching tonight’s jump would have far more serious consequences. After a few moments the red lamp switches to a jolly green, giving the go-ahead to plummet into danger. “I don’t think I can go through with this. It’s madness,” Shepherd says. No one else appears to have heard him above the roar of the engines. It’s the worst thing anyone could say before my jump. Full-blown panic replaces the butterfl ies in my stomach. He’s right. Leaping into black nothingness is crazy. My heart races. The dispatcher roars, “Go, go, go!” The words fi re out of him like cannonballs. Denise leans against me. A thin lock of auburn hair has escaped from under her helmet, and it lays coiled over her mouth like a dashing moustache. “Let’s give ’em hell, Adele!” she shouts. Then she’s gone, vanished through the hole in the Halifax’s floor. Adele. When we jump we leave our real names behind. As a matter of security we’ll refer to each other only by our aliases. I have to be Adele, through and through. My name, Betty, never really suited me anyway. “Go, go, go!” the dispatcher continues to roar. It’s now or never. And never isn’t an option. I swallow one last time to clear my ears, aching hard from the plane’s lack of pressurization. If I wait another second, whatever fumes of courage I have left might evaporate. I need to separate action from thought and just go. I inch forward until I’m seated at the edge. Go out straight to avoid the slipstream. Don’t bash your nose on the other side of the hole.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 6

10/28/11 2:56 AM

V i o l i n s o f A u tu m n • 7

I push myself up on my hands and drop through the hole in the plane’s fuselage. I fall through empty space. Alice through the rabbit hole. Above me, I hear my static line quickly unraveling, segment by segment—pop, pop, pop. Even though they showed us we were well hitched to a hook in the plane, a voice breezes through my mind saying, “I hope your line is really attached.” It comes to me with a f lood of cold sweat that I might die in this position. Feet together, soaring through the silent night without another word to anyone. But then, after a few seconds of free-fall, the static line yanks my parachute open. The shock jolts my entire body, as if I’ve jumped feet-fi rst into a pool of cold water. As I drift, claiming a piece of the sky all to myself, the overwhelming joy I remember from my practice jumps rushes through me. I search the sky, unable to see Denise’s parachute anywhere. We’re to be met on the ground by members of a local Maquis—a cell of the French Resistance. They should be marking the landing area with red- capped flashlights. I see no lights. The full moon has slipped behind a cloud. Everything beneath me is black. “Don’t panic,” I whisper to myself, as if that might help. I realize just then that this mission won’t be “like dropping into an easy chair,” as I was told. Somehow I fell for that line at the time. Now it sounds like pure nonsense. All I have to do is drop into foreign country, aid and train members of the ever- growing Resistance movement, sabotage railways, travel the country on a bicycle while concealing top-secret information, blow things up, and try not to get killed. Sure, easy as pie. Things already seem to be going wrong, and I haven’t even reached the ground yet.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 7

10/28/11 2:56 AM

8 • A my M c A u l e y

I continue to fall toward a wide- open field. And while I know logically that I’m soaring through the air at an insane speed with only a rubber helmet for protection, the descent somehow feels slow and peaceful. Like I’m a tuft of dandelion fluff. That all changes in a snap. I reach a certain height and suddenly the ground speeds up to greet me. It doesn’t seem possible that we can come together without one of us getting severely crushed, and I’m pretty sure the earth will hold up better than I will. Most girls my age are fresh out of school, working in typing pools and factories. And here I am, seconds from touching down in enemy territory. There are no brakes to pull. No going back. I brace myself for the hard landing. It isn’t until my feet collide with the fi rst branches that I realize the expanse of shadow beneath me isn’t a field at all. I’m crash-landing into a forest.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 8

10/28/11 2:56 AM


I cover my face, not because I remember that instruction, but because vanity takes charge. I also don’t want to lose an eye. That’s just common sense. Other instructions come flooding back. I keep my legs together and fall freely into the trees. My parachute catches, bringing me to a bouncy stop. Right away, I move my arms and legs. I wiggle my fingers and toes. Only a small spot on my right side hurts. I breathe deeply in relief. For a while I hang suspended, listening for the drone of the plane’s engine. The sky is silent. Where is Denise? Where are the Maquis members? In the distance, a dog barks. My muscles tense. Barking dogs are never a good thing. Where there are dogs, there are people. I don’t have contacts in France yet, and no sense of who to safely trust. People who are nice to your face can easily turn against you behind your back. I learned that at boarding school, long before joining the SOE.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 9

10/28/11 2:56 AM

10 • A my M c A u l e y

I twist in my harness, gauging the distance to shades of gray and black ground. I didn’t come all this way to die or injure myself within the fi rst hour. I swear under my breath, hoping Denise and the men are searching for me. I look up to the parachute hopelessly entangled in the treetop. What to do? My gloved fingers fumble with the buckle of my harness. It refuses to budge. I go back to hanging and listening. The snowcapped mountains of France were visible from the large window in my dormitory room at boarding school. How much time did I fritter away daydreaming about life on the other side of those mountains? More than the headmistress approved of, I know that much. I’m finally in France, where I’ve longed to be. But I’m no tourist. The SOE offered me the experience of a lifetime, an adventure more daring than most people can ever hope for, and I willingly accepted. Nobody forced me into this. At seventeen, I’m plenty old enough to take charge of my life. As I hang from the tree, the reality of my adventure starts to sink in. I’m stuck in a strange country, in the dark, without supplies. Agents don’t last long here. I could be killed or find myself in the kind of circumstances my emergency cyanide pill is meant to rescue me from. None of that seems romantic or exciting now. I press my gloved hands to my face, feeling foolish for getting swept up by the recruiters’ enthusiasm. The coolness of the leather against my warm cheeks helps to clear my head. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I can’t hang around in the forest until dawn. I have to get myself out of this mess. I grab my knife from a pocket in my overalls. The blade slices through the harness with a freeing zip. I fall through the air, hit

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 10

10/28/11 2:56 AM

V i o l i n s o f A u tu m n • 11

the uneven ground hard, and collapse in a clumsy heap. For a good half-minute I lie there with my hand clamped over my mouth, moaning away head-to-toe achiness. I crawl to the base of a thick tree to catch my breath. To my left, the trees are sparse. I’ve landed near a country road. I wait, my heart thumping like a kick drum. Huddled small and out of sight, no one will ever find me. I listen for signs of life but hear nothing. What if the rest of the group has banded together and left me behind? Just as I decide to dart for the road to find help, the rhythmic footfalls of a solitary person puncture the cool night air. Arms wheeling, I scramble backward. Gripping my knife, I sneak to the thick undergrowth near the forest’s edge. The approaching footsteps close in on my hiding place. Within the shadows I raise my head, shocked to see Shepherd marching down the country road, arms purposefully swinging at his sides. He’s a civilian volunteer, not a military man, but that’s exactly what he looks like: a British officer on a parade square and nothing like an ordinary Frenchman. Did he completely lose his mind between the plane and the ground? I don’t know what to do. Dressed in my jumpsuit, I risk capture if I join him on the road or call out to him. Time to consider my options runs out. Four men leap from the ditch on the other side of the road. Gendarmes—the French police. They’re on Shepherd before he has time to react. He struggles and puts up a good fight, but against four armed men he has no chance. I hold my breath as he gives up and they lead him away down the road. The police were waiting. They know about our drop, and now they’re looking for us. They’re looking for me.

212-48893_ch01_1P.indd 11

10/28/11 2:56 AM

Violins of Autumn, by Amy McAuley  
Violins of Autumn, by Amy McAuley  

When the Germans begin bombing London in World War II, Betty is determined to do her part. Instead of running air raid drills like most girl...