No further incidents occurred as the mud-spattered Citroen pulled up to the elegant porte-cochere of the Bel Air Kasserine Hotel. Jack and Danny carried their own suitcases into the lobby. A number of Vichy French officers were milling around, smoking, drinking, laughing and giving the impression of relaxing in an upper echelon military retreat. There appeared to be no evidences of a war zone.
Danny, admiring the art nouveau décor, said, “This is more like it. I would enlist in this Frog army—if I could speak the lingo.”
At the registration desk, Jack was filling out forms when Danny tapped his shoulder and whispered, “There’s a delegation of the French Foreign Legion coming toward us.” Jack turned to look.
A major in dress uniform accompanied by two non-coms approached them.
“Pardonnez moi, monsieur, avez vous une cigarette, peut-etre?” The major’s steely eyes made a rapid assessment of Jack.
“You’ll have to forgive me, Sir, my French is poor. If you’d like a cigarette, I’d be happy to oblige.” Jack reached for his pack of Pall Mall but had already decided that the request was a ruse. This guy with his immaculate uniform and smooth manners really wants conversation and more probably, he wants information.
The major accepted the cigarette that was immediately lit by one of the non-coms. He inhaled deeply, lifted his chin to exhale a gust of smoke. “Merci, Monsieur.” He looked at the cigarette in his hand. “American cigarettes are the finest. Our communication will be no problem. I speak English fluently. Would you be so kind as to follow me?” Before Jack or Danny could resist, the non-coms closed in on them while the major made an about-face. Jack and Danny wanted to pick up their suitcases, when the major said, “No, no. Leave your valises. We will bring them up to your room later. For now, follow me, s’il vous plait.”
“Hey, wait a minute! We need our suitcases. Danny protested. “We can’t leave them behind. We’ve got valuable stuff in them.” He resisted being prodded by the gendarme and looked over his shoulder at the suitcases left unattended near the registration desk. He started to turn back but was pushed forcibly and made to follow the major. “Watch who you’re shovin’, Frenchie.”
The major walked on ignoring Danny’s protests, then stopped in front of one of three elevator doors. When the door opened two officers stepped out and nodded to the major. The five men stepped into the elevator, and before the door closed two men in mufti hurried to enter. One of the non-coms spread his arms to bar their entrance. “Prenez l’autre,” he said tilting his head to direct them to another elevator. He stepped back and pushed the button marked three.
“You must forgive our abrupt manners,” the major said. “Our leader, the man we are going to see upstairs is pressed for time, and we cannot detain him.” When the elevator stopped, the major led the group down a long hallway decorated with art nouveau wall sconces. The major halted the group in front of an unmarked door and rapped three times, paused, then knocked twice more.
The door opened, a corporal saluted the major, then stepped aside to permit the group of five to enter an anteroom. The major removed his hat, placed it under his arm, and followed the corporal to another room with a closed door. Before entering that room, the major dismissed his non-coms.
Jack and Danny looked about the spacious anteroom furnished with objets d’artes and pictures on the walls. The remaining corporal stationed himself at the closed hallway door and watched the two men. Jack studied a smaller copy of the famous David portrait that hung in the Louvre showing Napoleon with Josephine at his side as he was being crowned Emperor of France. Jack’s ostensible interest in the painting belied his worries about what was happening beyond the closed door, and what were the possibilities of Danny and him escaping.
Danny moved closer to Jack and whispered, “What the hell do you think is going on in there? They gonna use us for target practice?”
“Calm down. Remember we’re anthropologists studying the culture of the nomadic tribes. Act nonchalant—not like you’re a scared rabbit.”
“Are you kidding? I’m scared shitless.” In an attempt to conceal his fear, he pointed casually to a portrait. “Who’s this old walrus?”
Jack looked at the printed card below the painting. “That’s Marshall Henri Philippe Pétain, Premier of Vichy France, another kiss-ass puppet for Hitler.”
A knock on the hallway door preceded the entrance of a soldier who said something in French to the corporal, then walked to the closed door through which the major had disappeared minutes ago. The soldier knocked, waited for a response, then entered the room and closed the door behind him.
“I hope that’s our last-minute reprieve,” Danny said.
“Reprieve from what? You’re jumping to conclusions. We’re here to do academic studies for the university. Now, like I said—relax.”
Danny whispered again into Jack’s ear, “We’re enemy aliens—remember? They could shoot our asses out of a cannon if they wanted to; there’s no one here to stop them.” He looked at the corporal standing guard, then looked at Jack. “I’m telling you right now: I don’t like this. I’m not waiting around for them to chop me into some fuckin’ French fricassee.”
The door to the inner room opened, and the soldier who had entered a moment before left. The major standing in the doorway signaled Jack and Danny to enter.
At a large ornately carved desk, an elderly officer in immaculate attire sat and glared as Jack and Danny entered the room. His jacket stacked with bars of multi-colored ribbons and gold battle stars attested to many campaigns. His sleeve cuffs had half a dozen gold embroidered rings. The major, standing to his left, pointed to two chairs in front of the desk for Jack and Danny. A large photograph on the wall behind the desk was that of the man seated in front of them. The engraved title below the picture read, François Darlan, Admiral de la flotte.
Jack remembered from his orientation lectures on current affairs at the O.S.S. camp that Admiral Darlan was the de facto head of the Vichy government and was regarded by the Allies as a despicable enemy. He was described as a wavering opportunist, a pompous, untrustworthy ass who always acted in his own self- interest. On more than one occasion, he would form an alliance with the Allies, change his mind and collaborate with the Nazis. Churchill did not trust him to make the French fleet based in Africa available to the Allies, so he ordered the Royal Navy to attack the French Fleet. Torpedoing several of the French warships, the British caused the deaths of thirteen hundred French sailors. Darlan developed a bitter hatred for the English and their allies from that time on.
Jack recalled that only the year before, 1941, the Nazis became suspicious of Darlan’s vacillating position and forced him to surrender many of his responsibilities back to Pierre Laval whom he had succeeded as Prime Minister. Darlan, however, retained his post as commander of the French Armed Forces. With unconcealed contempt, Darlan looked at the two Americans sitting before him.
Pointing to Jack, and speaking English with a thick French accent, Darlan asked, “What are you doing in this country?” Before Jack could respond, Darlan looked at Danny and said, “And what is your interest here?”
Jack’s well-rehearsed spiel about research among the nomadic people was received with skepticism by the admiral, who closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. Perceiving the admiral’s negative response, Jack had a sense of foreboding; his speech slowed to a stop. At that point, Darlan’s eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. “Aha, monsieur, even you cannot go on with that charade.” With a strident voice he shouted, “You are lying. You are engaging in a deadly game. You and your partner are spies, n’ est-ce pas? You are aware of a spy’s destiny?” He stared at the squirming Danny. “Of course, you are. You will be hanged or shot to death.”
Danny sat on the edge of his chair and fidgeted while beads of perspiration formed on his brow. He looked at the admiral’s smug demeanor and then at Jack, praying for a sign of relief from a dreadful heart-pounding anxiety.
“Admiral, you are mistaken about us,” Jack said. “We come here as…”
The admiral cut him off. “Young man, do not insult my intelligence.”
Jack tried to maintain his composure to conceal his mounting alarm. Danny blanched; his shoulders sagged as the admiral continued.
Darlan looked at a paper on his desk. “The soldier who came into my office minutes ago gave me a list of rather curious objects found in your suitcases downstairs. Among the items were: radio equipment for sending and receiving messages, guns with U.S. Army identification and cameras with telescopic lenses.” He handed the list to the major standing to his left, then glared at the captives in front of him. “We have every right to kill you as spies. First, we will interrogate you, and depending on your cooperation, we may merely have you put in prison. But if you do not cooperate we will have no alternative but to put you before a firing squad. Is that understood?”
The admiral was interrupted by the ringing of his desk phone. Listening briefly, he said, “Oui,” then stood, took his hat off a coat rack and ordered the major to follow him. The major ordered the corporal in the anteroom to guard Jack and Danny. After the officers left, Danny whispered to Jack, “Let’s jump this sonofabitch and get the hell out of here.”
Danny approached the non-com. “Parlee vooz, English?”
“That’s good,” Danny said, ‘cause you don’t need to know what I’m saying.”
The puzzled soldier struck a defensive position and reached for his gun when Danny taunted him with shadowboxing maneuvers. Distracted, the soldier allowed Jack to slip behind him and apply a sleeper hold with his forearm across the throat that cut off the soldier’s breathing. Jack kneed him in the back; the force caused an audible crunch like a fracture of a vertebra or rib. The soldier crumpled; his eyes rolled upward, and his gun fell to the floor.
Jack lunged at the gun while the soldier started to regain consciousness but exhibited breathing difficulty; his complexion turned chalky; he grimaced with pain and shut his eyes tightly.
“What the hell do we do with him now?” Danny asked while going through the soldier’s pockets.
“Get that braided rope from the window drapes.” Jack grabbed the rope from Danny and tied the soldier’s wrists behind his back; he cut the rope with his pocketknife and tossed the remainder to Danny. “Tie his ankles.”
Danny about to tie the rope ends, said, “I don’t have enough to make a square knot.”
“Tie his boot laces together. But dammit, hurry! Someone’ll come through that door any minute.”
The soldier began moaning. Jack pulled his lower jaw downward to force his mouth open. “Ouvrez la bouche!” He remembered enough classroom French to shout the command. “Danny jam your handkerchief into his mouth.” He took his own handkerchief and tied it around the soldier’s mouth and neck. “That ought to keep him quiet.” Looking around, Jack focused on the closet door. “We’ll put him in there. Grab his feet. I’ve got this end.”
With the soldier in the sitting position and the closet door closed, only his muffled protests could be heard. Danny looked at Jack. “C’mon, let’s get the hell outta here. They could be coming back with a firing squad. Jeezus, I don’t want to die out here with all these fuckin’ heathens.”
Jack ran toward the hallway door and opened it enough to peer in both directions. The major and a non-com were walking out of the elevator, a distance of about 100 feet.
Closing the door hurriedly, Jack turned the lock on the door then tilted a chair under the knob. “Let’s go!” He ran toward the window facing an outside balcony with a wrought iron balustrade. He remembered seeing the hotel from the outside with its balconies on all three floors. They encircled the hotel making it look like a three-tiered layer cake. “Danny, quick, give me a hand with this window.” Straining to pull the window up proved futile. It was painted stuck to the sill and the sides.
Frantic, Jack looked around the room, grabbed a chair and smashed the window. Both cleared enough of the jagged glass to crawl through the space. On the balcony they heard the rattling of the hallway doorknob.
They walked at a normal pace so as not to arouse suspicion. Jack said, “They’ll be looking for two men. Let’s separate. You walk ahead, find an exit, walk north for a city block or two, then wait for me outside some hotel entrance.” Jack looked at his watch. “Let’s plan on meeting in a half hour or so. If I don’t show up in an hour, take off. Act like a tourist. Don’t panic if you’re stopped and questioned—and for God’s sake, don’t pick a fight.”
Tense and wary, Jack knew he and Danny would be the object of a massive manhunt. They had violated the dictates of Wild Bill Donovan’s two cardinal rules: first, don’t get caught by the enemy; second, kill the enemy before he kills you. Sure, that’s easier said than done.
Jack tried to recollect what had led them to their predicament. They’d had no warning that Vichy officers would be lying in wait when they entered the hotel. Then he remembered that the sentry at the roadblock had a telephone and probably had informed the post command of their intended arrival. As for the need to kill the enemy, they hadn’t been able to kill anyone, not even the non-com they’d left bound in the closet. And why kill him? He was no threat. They had neutralized him.
Jack’s heart thumped as he struggled to maintain a normal walking pace. Like a hunted animal, he became keenly aware of his surroundings. Strangely, nothing of an extraordinary nature was happening—no frenzied yelling, no general alarm and no soldiers rushing about. The cliché about the quiet before the storm kept bouncing around in his head. A red arrow at a door indicating elevators and stairs drew him inside. He looked down the hallway in both directions before stepping into a waiting elevator. Before pushing the down button, he stepped out of the elevator thinking the stairwell was a safer option.
Racing two steps at a time, he reached the main floor where he opened the door partially and saw soldiers stationed at each of the three elevators. He closed the door quickly and continued downstairs. A sign on the wall read: beismant, an underground parking facility. He surveyed the area for an attendant. No one was there. Crouching among the cars, he tried opening the doors of several before he found one that was unlocked, a late model Peugeot sedan. Among the tricks taught at the O.S.S. camp was the art of hot-wiring a car.
As he lay on the seat looking under the dashboard, he heard footsteps of two or more people approaching. Now what? He held his breath until the footsteps stopped… car doors closed… a car started and left. Beads of perspiration dripped into his eyes clouding his vision. Using his sleeve to wipe his eyes and forehead, he looked under the dashboard for the wires. Only blackness. Be patient, your eyes will adjust. Ah, here it is, the wire loom. He located the ground wire and the wire to the starter motor. With his pocket knife he scraped the insulation off to twist the wire ends together. As soon as the wires touched, both he and the car jumped as the engine turned over. Untwisting his torso to sit behind the steering wheel, he put the car in reverse and slowly backed out of the parking space.
A traffic signal at the first intersection made him stop. Nervous and still sweaty, he looked around; nothing appeared unusual until he looked in the rear view mirror. The lights on a police car were flashing. “Dammit.” He pounded the steering wheel and cursed. When the signal changed, he drove across the intersection and veered to the curb where he waited in dread anticipation. This was no time to be questioned by the police. The police car followed closely, then suddenly sped past sounding its repetitive sing-song two-note siren. Jack’s near panic subsided until he heard continuous and multiple siren sounds that seemed to be converging toward him. They’re back. Are they coming for me after all? He slumped back and down in his seat attempting to hide. Two police cars rushed by. Thank God, they’re gone. Another thought gripped him: what if they’re responding to something that happened to Danny? He was capable of trouble with little or no provocation.
When that last police car sped past, Jack pulled the Peugeot away from the curb and continued slowly scouting for Danny. He watched each hotel entryway, then stopped in front of one to wait and look about. Before moving on, he heard the right rear door open. He looked over his shoulder—a beaten and bloodied Danny lay sprawled on the seat.