The last place Marie would have expected to be recruited as a secret agent (if indeed she could have anticipated it at all) was in the loo.
An hour earlier, Marie sat at a table by the window in the Town House, a quiet café on York Street she had come to frequent, savoring a few minutes of quiet after a day of endless clacking at the dingy War Office annex where she had taken a position as a typist. She thought of the coming weekend, just two days off, and smiled, imagining five-year-old Tess and the crooked tooth that surely would have come in a bit more by now. That was the thing about only seeing her daughter at the weekend—Marie seemed to miss years in the days in between. She wanted to be out in the country with Tess, playing by the brook and digging for stones. But someone had to stay here and make a few pounds in order to keep their aging row home in Maida Vale from falling into foreclosure or disrepair, assuming the bombs didn’t take it all first.
There was a booming noise in the distance, causing the dishes on the table to rattle. Marie started, reaching instinctively for the gas mask that no one carried anymore since the Blitz had ended. She lifted her gaze to the plate glass window of the café. Outside the rain-soaked street, a boy of no more than eight or nine was trying to scrape up bits of coal from the pavement. Her stomach ached. Where was his mother?
She remembered the day more than two years ago that she’d decided to send Tess away. At first, the notion of being separated from her daughter was almost unthinkable. Then a bomb had hit the flats across the street, killing seven children. But for the grace of God, that might have been Tess. The next morning, Marie began making arrangements.
At least Tess was with Aunt Hazel. The woman was more of a cousin and a bit dour to be sure, but was nevertheless fond of the little girl. And Tess loved the old vicarage in East Anglia with its endless cupboards and musty crawl spaces. She could run wild across the fens when the weather permitted, and help Hazel with her work at the post office when it did not. Marie couldn’t imagine putting her girl on a train to be sent off to the countryside to a cold convent or God-knows-where-else, into the arms of strangers. She had seen it at King’s Cross almost every Friday last year as she made her way north to visit Tess—mothers batting back tears as they adjusted coats and scarves on the little ones, younger siblings clinging to older, children with too-large suitcases crying openly, trying to escape through the carriage windows. It made the two-hour journey until she could reach Tess and wrap her arms around her almost unbearable. She stayed each Sunday until Hazel reminded her that she had best take the last train or miss curfew. Her daughter was safe and well and with family. But that didn’t make the fact that it was only Wednesday any more bearable.
Should she have brought Tess back already? That was the question that had dogged Marie these past few months as she had seen the trickle of children coming back to the city. the Blitz was long over and there was a kind of normalcy that had resumed now that they weren’t sleeping in the Tube stations at night. But the war was far from won, and Marie sensed that something far worse was yet to come.
Pushing her doubts aside, Marie pulled a book from her bag. It was poetry by Baudelaire, which she loved because his elegant verse took her back to happier times as a child summering on the coast in Brittany with her mother.
“Excuse me,” a man said a moment later. She looked up, annoyed by the interruption. He was fortyish, thin and unremarkable in a tweedy sport coat and glasses. A scone sat untouched on the plate at the table next to her from which he had risen. “I was curious about what you are reading.” She wondered if he were trying to make advances. The intrusions were everywhere now with all of the American GIs in the city, spilling from the pubs at midday and walking three abreast in the streets, their jarring laughter breaking the stillness.
But the man’s accent was British and his mild expression contained no hint of impropriety. Marie held up the book so that he could see.
“Would you mind reading me a bit?” he asked. “I’m afraid I don’t speak French.”
“Really, I don’t think…” she began to demur, surprised by the odd request.
“Please,” he said, cutting her off, his tone almost imploring. “You’d be doing me a kindness.”
She wondered why it meant so much to him. Perhaps he had lost someone French or was a veteran who had fought over there. “All right,” she relented. A few lines couldn’t hurt. She began to read from the poem, N’importe où hors du monde (Anywhere Out of the World). Her voice was self-conscious at first, but she felt herself slowly gain confidence.
After a few sentences, Marie stopped. “How was that?” She expected him to ask her to read further.
He did not. “You’ve studied French?”
She shook her head. “No, but I speak it. My mother was French and we spent summers there when I was a child.” In truth, the summers had been an escape from her father, an angry drunk unable to find work or hold down a job, resentful of her mother’s breeding and family money and disappointed that Marie wasn’t a boy. That was the reason Marie and her mother summered far away in France. And it was the reason Marie had run away from the Herefordshire manor where she’d been raised to London when she was eighteen, took her mother’s surname. She knew if she stayed in the house she had dreaded all her childhood with her father’s worsening temper, she wouldn’t make it out alive.
“Your accent is extraordinary,” the man said. “Nearly perfect.” How could he know that if he didn’t speak French, she wondered? “Are you working?” he asked.
“Yes,” she blurted. The transition in subject was abrupt, the question too personal. She stood hurried, fumbled in her purse for coins. “I’m sorry, but I really must go.”
The man reached up and when she looked back she saw he was holding a business card. “I didn’t mean to be rude. But I was wondering if you would like a job.” She took the card. Number 63 Baker Street, was all it said. No person or office named. “Ask for Eleanor Trigg.”
“Why should I?” she asked, perplexed. “I have a job.”
He shook his head slightly. “This is different. It’s important work and you’d be well suited—and well compensated. I’m afraid I can’t say any more.”
“When should I go there?” she asked, though certain that she never would.
“Now.” She’d expected an appointment. “So you’ll go?”
Marie left a few coins on the table and left the café without answering, eager to be away from the man and his intrusiveness. Outside, she opened her umbrella and adjusted her burgundy print scarf to protect against the chill. She rounded the corner, then stopped, peering over her shoulder to make sure he had not followed her. She looked down at the card, simple black and white. Official.
She could have told the man no, Marie realized. Even now, she could throw out the card and walk away. But she was curious; what kind of work, and for whom? Perhaps it was something more interesting than endless typing. The man had said it paid well, too, something she dearly needed.
Ten minutes later, Marie found herself standing at the end of Baker Street. She paused by a red post box at the corner. The storied home of Sherlock Holmes was meant to be on Baker Street, she recalled. She had always imagined it as mysterious, shrouded in fog. But the block was like any other, drab office buildings with ground floor shops. Farther down the row there were brick townhouses which had been converted for business use. She walked to Number 63, then hesitated. Inter-Services Research Bureau, the sign by the door read. What on earth was this all about?
Before she could knock the door flew open and a hand that did not seem attached to anybody pointed left. “Number One Dorset Square. Around the corner.”
“Excuse me,” Marie said, holding up the card though there seemed to be no one to see it. “I was told to come here and ask for Eleanor Trigg.” The door closed.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” she muttered, thinking of Tess’s favorite book, the illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland Marie read aloud to her when she visited. Around the corner there were more row houses. Number One was unmarked and less grand than the address on Baker Street she had been given. Marie knocked. There was no answer. The whole thing was starting to feel like a very odd prank. She turned, ready to go home and forget this folly.
Behind her, the door opened with a creak. She spun back to face a white-haired butler. “Yes?” He stared at her coldly, like she was a door-to-door salesman peddling something unwanted. Too nervous to speak, she held out the card.
He waved her inside. “Come.” His tone was impatient now, as though she was expected and late. He led her through a foyer, its high ceiling and chandelier giving the impression that it had once been the entranceway to a grand home. He opened a door on his right, then closed it again quickly. “Wait here,” he instructed.
Marie stood awkwardly in the foyer, feeling entirely as though she did not belong. She heard footsteps on the floor above and turned to see a handsome young man with a shock of blond hair descending a curved staircase. Noticing her, he stopped. “So, you’re part of the Racket?” he asked.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He smiled. “Just wandered in then?” He did not wait for an answer. “The Racket—that’s what we call all of this.” He gestured around the foyer.
The butler reappeared, clearing his throat. His stern expression gave Marie the undeniable sense that they were not supposed to be speaking with one another. Without another word, the blond man disappeared around the corner into another of what seemed to be an endless number of doors.
The butler led her down the hallway and opened the door to an onyx-and-white-tiled bathroom. She turned back, puzzled; she hadn’t asked for the loo. “Wait in here.”
Before Marie could protest, the butler closed the door, leaving her alone. She stood awkwardly, inhaling the smell of mildew lingering beneath cleaners. Asked to wait in a toilet! She needed to leave but was not quite sure how to manage it. She perched on the edge of a claw-footed bathtub, ankles neatly crossed. Five minutes passed, then ten.
At last the door opened with a click and a woman walked in. She was older than Marie by at least a decade, maybe two. Her face was grave. At first her dark hair appeared to be short, but closer Marie saw that it was pulled tightly in a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore no makeup or jewelry, and her starched white shirt was perfectly pressed, almost military.
“I’m Eleanor Trigg, chief recruitment officer. I’m sorry for the accommodations,” she said, her voice clipped. “We are short on space.” The explanation seemed odd, given the size of the house, the number of doors Marie had seen. But then she remembered the man whom the butler seemed to chastise for speaking with her. Perhaps the people who came here weren’t meant to see one another at all.
Want to keep reading? Click here to buy the book for your eReader, in print, or on Audible!