We Were Soldiers
111. Sympathy for the Devil
Steve was lost. The straightforward mission had suddenly banked hard left, leaving him standing outside an enemy residence looking in at a walking, talking, singing dead woman. As Jacques continued to press his face against the window despite how his breath fogged it up, Steve asked the only—and in hindsight, stupidest—question his confused mind could come up with.
"Are you sure it's Céleste?"
"Of course. She is my sister, I would know her anywhere. But how can this be? They said she was dead. How can she be dead if she is here? Mon dieu… is she a ghost?"
He didn't know much about ghosts—wasn't even sure that he believed in them—but he was pretty sure that woman wasn't one. "Obviously the Resistance got some bad intel."
It was all too much for Jacques. He sank to the ground, practically sliding down the wall for support, wrapping his arms around his knees as he rocked slowly back and forth. Steve wished he could allow his friend a few precious moments of shock and distress, but this was possibly the worst place in the world for someone to have a mental breakdown. Just because the guards hadn't passed by this area yet didn't mean they wouldn't, and something still had to be done about the mission.
Kneeling down in front of Jacques, Steve gently shook his friend's shoulder until the man's eyes locked onto his. "Jacques, buddy, I need your input right now. This is your mission. It's your call. But I really think we need to hold off on the fireworks until we're able to find out exactly what's going on here. Clearly, someone in the Resistance has been lying. And I don't like operating under circumstances like these. Do you still wanna go through with the mission?"
His words roused the Frenchman from his state of shock. Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet. "Non. You are right. We must learn the truth. Not all is as it seems here. And I must try to find a way to speak to Céleste. She will be able to shed some light on this." He stared up at the windowsill. "I will retrieve the bomb."
One look at Jacques' trembling hands was all Steve needed to know that him going up there was possibly the worst idea in the world. "Not a chance, pal. I'll go get the bomb, you keep a lookout down here."
Jacques looked back at the window. The woman… Céleste… was gone from view, and the door at the end of the corridor had been closed. "Very well. I watch."
Whether through luck or providence, the drainpipe was sturdy, and it held beneath Steve's weight. It groaned more than it had done for Jacques, but it didn't budge as he shimmied his way up it. At the top, he collected the bomb then realised he'd forgotten to bring up something to carry it down with. He was forced to cradle it to his chest with one arm, as he fervently prayed that the device was stable and would not randomly explode. Thanks to Dr Erskine, Steve was a lot tougher than he used to be, but he doubted even he could survive a bomb exploding against his chest.
He didn't realise he'd been holding his breath until his feet touched solid ground and his lungs expelled their deep sigh of stale air. From there, Jacques took over, securing the bomb and detaching it from its detonator. Steve wiped away the tiny beads of perspiration from his forehead. He'd breathe a little easier, now that he knew the bomb couldn't accidentally go off.
"Let's get back to the rest of the team," he said. "We need to give them a sitrep and work out where we go from here."
Jacques took one last look through the window at the now-dark corridor, then nodded. For the first time in two days, his posture wasn't one of a broken man. Now, he stood a little straighter, and there was a glint of determination in his eyes.
As they made their way back to the fence, then over the fence, and in the direction they'd left the team waiting for an explosion that would now never come, Steve wished he shared that determination. On the bright side of things, by the time this war was over he'd be able to write a book on What To Do When Your Mission Goes Sideways. He couldn't even remember the last time a mission went as planned.
In fact, none of them had! From rescuing Bucky, to finding Céleste, every single mission—authorised or not—had been full of unexpected twists and turns. And it was only at that moment he realised the full rightness of Dr Erskine's decision to put Steve forward as the candidate for Project Rebirth. Hodge and the other men, they made good soldiers. They knew how to carry out instructions, and they could run and swim and shoot and fight with the best of them. But none had the unique way of looking at things that Steve himself possessed. Like the flag pole, back at Camp Lehigh. All the other men saw the pole as an obstacle to be overcome. But Steve, who'd spent a lifetime dealing with bullies and braggarts, knew that sometimes, when faced with a bigger opponent, you just had to bring him down to your level.
It was one of the reasons, he realised, that the Commandos' missions were always successful despite those twists and turns and unexpected hiccups. He, and the rest of the team, were the type of men who could adapt. Could look at things in different ways and see what others might not always see.
Steve was so engrossed with his introspection that he didn't even realised they'd rendezvoused with the rest of the team until he and Jacques trotted into the clearing where the group waited. For a moment, they just stared at him, their expressions blank. Then Peggy held up her hands and asked, "Well?"
"Oh." Yeah. The mission. "There's been a change of plans. I'll explain shortly, but for now we need to head back to our hiding place. Morita, lead the way."
So they trudged back to their hiding place, pushing their bikes in silence. Probably cursing Steve for making them do all this silent bike-pushing. And when they got there, Steve explained—with occasional interjections from Jacques—about what and who they'd seen at the house. At the end of his report, Dugan whistled quietly.
"Whew. I'm relieved for you and your family, Dernier," he said. "This is great news, even if it does confuse the mission somewhat."
Everybody else echoed the sentiment. Bucky was beaming, like it was his own sister who'd just been miraculously snatched from death's claws. Unshed tears pooled in Peggy's eyes. Morita clapped Jacques on the shoulder. Freddie lifted his camera to capture the moment, but Steve reached out and held it down. This wasn't the time for pictures.
"I have been thinking," said Jacques, once the celebration had grown quieter, "and it must be the man who said he saw Céleste killed. He must be a traitor."
"How d'ya figure that?" Jones asked. He sat sideways across his bike's seat and rested his elbow on the handlebars. Steve didn't have the heart to tell him to stay more alert. He'd asked a lot of the team, this week.
"Somebody has lied," Jacques explained. "If it was the man who enlisted Céleste who was the traitor, then he would not have sent us out here. He would have turned us over to the Germans while we were still in Marseilles, surrounded by enemies and unable to shoot back because of risking civilian casualties. And there would be no need to lie about the defences of the house. So, it must be the man who claimed to see my sister tortured and killed. He probably provided false information about the security of the house, also."
Monty scratched his chin in a ponderous fashion. "It does make sense," he said at last. "But why wouldn't Céleste have carried out her mission?"
Jacques shrugged. "Could be many things. Maybe she has no chance to be alone to get the bomb from where the Resistance hid it away. Or maybe she tried but the bomb was faulty and did not detonate. It would not be the first time a bomb does not explode as planned. Perhaps even the man who was the traitor moved it before Céleste could get to it, so now she is trapped."
"But if that man was a traitor, why didn't he just expose Céleste and turn her over to the Germans?"
"It would blow his cover as a double-agent," Jacques explained. "Or perhaps he intended to expose her but was killed before he got the chance. I do not think our contact was lying about that man's death."
"Either way," said Steve, "our priority now is to make contact with Céleste, ascertain whether she's in any danger and needs us to extract her, and find out what the Resistance wants us to do about this commandant."
"I feel compelled to point out," Peggy spoke up, "that at this stage in the mission and with no need to commit further resources, Colonel Phillips would execute a strategic withdrawal."
"And what do you think we should do?"
She smiled quickly, then forced the corners of her lips back down. But a ghost of the smile lingered in her eyes. "I think we should try to make contact with Céleste, ascertain whether she's in any danger and needs us to extract her, and find out what the Resistance wants us to do about this commandant."
Her words were all the approval Steve wanted. "Good. Then we'll set two-man teams to keep watch on the house. So far, we've only seen two guards, but there could be more, and we know there are children and the commandant there was well. Ideally we need to wait until Céleste is alone—preferably while the children are occupied and the guards are away. Bucky, Jones, you'll take the first watch an hour before dawn. For now, let's use what's left of the night to get some rest.
: - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - : - - - — — — - - - :
The team got luckier than Steve ever could've hoped for. The very next morning, Dugan and Morita came rushing back from their observation of the house to report that the commandant and his children—a young boy and girl—had been picked up by a car and, along with the guards, been driven away from the house. Céleste had not gone with them.
"This is our chance, Cap," said Dugan. He removed his bowler hat and wiped a thin sheen of sweat from his forehead. The guys had really double-timed it to get back. "She's all alone in that house, and will probably be alone for a few hours."
"What makes you think that?" Steve asked.
"The kids were in their finery, and the commandant was wearing his dress uniform. I reckon they've gone to some swanky Nazi soirée. Maybe even hob-nobbing with the Führer."
Jacques thumped his hand with his fist. "We cannot waste a moment!"
"Much as I hate to be the voice of reason," Bucky spoke up, "but what if this is a trap?"
"I am willing to take risk alone." Jacques' tone oozed a confidence that Steve wished he could share. Still, if this really was a trap, it was a pretty dumb one. The best time to get the jump on the team would've been back in the warehouse in Marseille. Steve's instincts told him that this wasn't some elaborate Nazi plot; just a piece of good fortune they were long overdue.
"We'll take precautions," he assured his best friend. "When we get to the house, Morita and Freddie will stand watch at the road, and Jones will—"
"Err, Cap," Freddie interrupted, "far be it from me to question your decisions, but the brass wanted me along on this mission to get the lowdown on Nazi activity in France. Now, I'm thinking that Mr Commandant-guy probably keeps a lot of official-type documents in his room or his study or whatever, and this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do some quality snoopin' around." He held up his camera for emphasis.
"He has a point, Captain," said Peggy. "I can go with him. I know the types of things we'll be looking for, what information will hold most value for our allies, and I can ensure everything is put back exactly as it was after Freddie's finished taking pictures."
Steve had to admit that they were both right. If the team came back with that sort of high-priority intel, it would show the top brass that the Commandos weren't just some curiosity show. It would also probably make Phillips want to send Freddie on more missions, but that was just the trade-off he'd have to settle for.
"Alright," he agreed. "Agent Carter, Freddie, gather all the intel you can. Let's make the most out of this. Morita, keep watch from the road. Jones, you'll be stationed at the front door; Monty, you take the back. I want to hear about any uninvited guests before they're within a hundred feet of the house."
Confident that his team knew what was needed, he gave the order to move out. Bucky clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. "Gotta admit, I didn't expect this mission to have a happy ending. For once, I'm glad to be surprised."
"You and me both," Steve agreed.
They made the trek back to the house in silence, but it was a different sort of silence this time. The shadow of the grim reaper didn't hang over the team like a malevolent spectre, as it had the past times they'd made this journey. There would be no lives taken today.
At the house, Monty, Jones and Morita took up their positions as ordered. To Steve's surprise, the ground-floor window at the rear of the house was still slightly ajar, and it didn't take much effort from him to prise it all the way open, wide enough for each remaining member of the team to clamber through. Steve went first, in case his instincts were wrong and this really was a trap.
It wasn't a trap. It was just a hallway, with a burgundy carpet and mint-green wallpaper—a horrible combination of colours that should never have been allowed to meet. Even the TB ward on the hospital where Mom had lived and died had a better colour scheme than this.
With the team inside, they made their way down the hall. The place had an old, slightly damp, slightly mothballs smell about it. Maybe it had been empty before the commandant and his family moved in. It was certainly remote. Steve could imagine some old French aristocrat living here. Probably somebody eccentric, judging by the decor.
He froze as a new sound reached his ears. A musical sound; a woman, humming. It came from a door to his right, so he nodded to the rest of the team and slowly pushed it open just wide enough to peep around.
Another corridor. The humming grew louder. He let the sound guide him to another door, this one rather less ornate than the others. From behind the old wood, he heard a splashing sound. Hopefully this wasn't the bathing room.
He lifted the handle and pushed the door gently. The room opened up to him; not a bathing room, but a laundry room. A woman stood in front of a large metal bucket on a table, wringing out clothes she'd just rinsed in warm water. Even with her back to him, he could tell this was the same woman from last night; her hair was the same, and her hum matched her voice.
"Céleste?" he asked.
She spun and screamed when she saw him, her bright blue eyes—Jacques' eyes—wide with fright. Fear made her step back, bumping into the table, sending the bucket and its contents toppling. The metal container landed with a clang that was painful to his sensitive ears, and the grey water slooshed all over the brick-tiled floor.
"It's okay, we're not here to hurt you," he said.
At that moment, Jacques pushed passed him, rushing to take his sister by the shoulders and shake her gently. "Céleste, Céleste, do not worry, it is me," he said.
That seemed to do it. The next scream died on her lips, her mouth opening and closing as she struggled to work past her shock. Finally, realisation dawned, and a hint of colour came back to cheeks that had gone pale with fright. "J—Jacques?" He nodded and pulled her into his arms. Seeing them embrace so fiercely was worth every moment of peril. After a moment, Céleste pulled back and stared at him as if seeing him all over again. "Mon dieu! Wh—what are you doing here?"
Peggy stepped forward, nudging Steve gently aside. He moved, because he was pretty sure that even with his enhanced strength, she could probably knock him on his ass if she wanted to. "Before we answer that, can you tell us where the commandant's study is?"
It was as if Peggy had just asked her to fly to the moon. Poor girl was clearly in shock; she goggled at Peggy as if she'd never seen a woman before, then licked her lips to work moisture through her mouth. "The… study? Why?"
"We'd just like to take a look around. Don't worry, we'll leave everything as it is. Your cover won't be blown."
Talk of the Resistance seemed to rouse Céleste from her daze. Her blue eyes became sharper, more focused. She reminded Steve of Jacques, whenever he was coming up with some new plan for blowing things up. "Up the stairs and to the left. It's the last door on the right. But please, make sure everything is left as you found it. I am not permitted in the study, not even to clean up. If documents are moved, he will know."
"Where have the Germans gone?" Peggy asked. "How long do we have?"
"Generalmajor Sommer, his children and their guards are being entertained by the overseer of this region. I'm not expecting them back until late tonight."
Peggy turned to Steve, her face a mask of professionalism. "Still, best not to dally. Come along, Freddie; let's see what we can take back for the Colonel. We'll meet back here as soon as we're done."
Steve didn't tell her to be careful. Didn't need to. Peggy knew what she was doing.
"Jacques," said Céleste, after Peggy and Freddie had gone, "what is all this? Why have you come here?"
"Why have I come?" Jacques took a step back, and Steve recognised 'older brother mode' from the many years he'd been friends with Bucky. "Did I not forbid you from joining the Resistance? Did I not tell you to stay safe? Gaspard wrote to me. When he did not hear from you for many weeks, he was worried for you."
"Gaspard… told you? I made him swear secrecy." She plucked at the hem of her damp apron, her whole posture exuding guilt. Her eyes darted to Steve, then to Dugan, and Bucky. "May we… ah… talk about this in private?"
Steve was already mentally halfway through the door. This was now a family matter, and the last thing the siblings needed was a trio of Commandos listening in on their personal affairs. But Jacques, it seemed, had other ideas.
"We may not!" He stamped his foot for emphasis, splashing water halfway up his leg. But then, he didn't appear to notice the state of the floor. "These men are my friends, Céleste, and they have risked their lives to help me rescue you. The time for personal talk was before you went against my wishes and joined the Resistance. Now, you will explain yourself to all of us."
"Explain myself?!" Those blue eyes, only a moment ago so filled with fear, suddenly became two icy daggers. "Brother, you were gone for almost a year! We thought you were dead! And then we received a message saying only 'I am alive'. What were we to think? What were we to do? Every day our people are starved and deprived of their freedoms. And you? I did not even know where you were! So yes, I joined the Resistance. When you are gone from our lives, you do not get to give me 'orders'."
"Enough!" Jacques' shout was loud enough to cause Steve to wince in pain. Hopefully, one day, he would get used to loud noises. Maybe one day, they wouldn't hurt his head so much. "We will continue this later, ma soeur. We are not here to talk, but to act. We will carry out your mission, and take you back to Marseilles."
"You will not." The air in the room took on a somewhat frosty tone as Céleste folded her arms across her chest and aimed at Jacques a scowl so frightening that Steve was just glad he wasn't on the receiving end of it. "I can take care of myself, Jacques. Leave me alone."
"With all due respect, ma'am," said Dugan as he stepped forward and tipped his hat, "but your position here may already have been compromised. We have strong reason to believe that one of the men working for the Resistance was a traitor, and may have divulged your mission to the enemy."
"What do you mean?"
"They told us you were dead," said Jacques.
It was as if some invisible person had come along and punched her right in the gut. Her air of defiance fled, and she seemed to shrink on the spot as she stepped back and groped for the nearest solid surface to grasp. "They… they said I was dead?"
"They told us you were caught carrying the bomb," Bucky elaborated. "That you were… tortured and executed, your body 'disposed of' in the extermination camp overseen by the commandant."
Jacques stepped forward to take his sister by the arm and lead her to a nearby stool. Probably wise; she looked like she might faint at any minute. The poor woman had obviously been placed under enormous strain.
"Can you tell us what went wrong?" Steve asked her.
She looked at him with confusion in her eyes. "What… went wrong?"
"I mean, with the bomb. Was if faulty? Or has it been to dangerous too retrieve it from where the Resistance hid it?"
"It… nothing is as it seems," she replied.
"What do you mean?"
"Only that this is not the first time the Resistance has lied."
"Lied about what?" demanded Jacques.
"Why do you talk in riddles?!"
Steve stepped forward. "Jacques, calm down, Céleste has obviously been through a lot. Shouting at her won't help."
"Oui. You are right, mon ami." He reached out to take his sister's hand. "Céleste, please tell me what is happening. We can make this right. Together. I promise."
It was hard to guess what was going through Céleste's mind. She looked simultaneously terrified and on the verge of being sick. Her face was so pale that Steve worried she might faint at any moment. Overall, she was not behaving like a woman who was glad to see her brother again and be rescued from a dangerous situation. The whole thing was starting to give Steve that familiar uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach.
She took a deep breath. Finally met Jacques' eyes with her own. "The reason I haven't carried out my mission yet is that the Resistance lied about Generalmajor Sommer. He is not the monster they described."
"Céleste, they are all monsters," Jacques insisted. "And he runs an extermination camp—he is worse than most!"
"He doesn't run an extermination camp. He oversees a work camp. They are logging for timber, Jacques. I have seen it myself. The conditions there are basic, but the prisoners who work there have food, water, bathing and medical facilities. In fact, they are better off than the poorest of Marseilles."
A scowl crept across Jacques' face. "It doesn't matter. This is not their country, they have no right to be here. No right to force our people to work in their labour camps regardless of what work they are doing."
"It wouldn't be the first time that Resistance intelligence dropped the ball," Bucky spoke up. "After all, they did tell us you were dead. Maybe the same guy who reported your death also reported on Sommer's role here."
"But it is not important," Jacques pressed. "Our people deserve freedom and justice. Whether this man oversees an extermination camp or whether he polishes the Führer's boots, he should not be here and he deserves whatever he gets."
"But Generalmajor Sommer is a vocal opponent of the Nazi presence in France," Céleste explained. "He has fallen out of favour with Hitler's inner circle because he speaks out against their operations here. He says the whole war has been pointless and too costly. That the Germans should return to their home and focus on building a strong economy instead of invading other countries."
"And he says that while forcing helpless Frenchmen to work against their will," Dugan pointed out.
"Because if he does not obey, they will hurt his children to punish him."
Steve saw it then. The first glimmer of anger in her eyes. Hell hath no fury like a woman protecting children, even if they weren't hers. Even if they were children of the enemy.
"Céleste, you are not a real governess," said Jacques. "The children are not your responsibility. We risked our lives to come here to complete your mission and take you home. Gather anything you want to bring, and be quick. We must go now."
The look on her face was Peggy when somebody told her what a woman could not do. It was Mary-Ann when a boy she was courting got too forward. It was twenty percent anger and eighty percent defiance. It was a look no sane man would argue against. But Jacques wasn't a hundred percent sane right then. In the space of forty-eight hours he'd lost and mourned the sister that he loved, then found out she was still alive. He'd been grief's plaything, and now he was at the end of his tether.
"Then I will drag you back to Marseilles on the back of my bike and lock you in your room until the end of the war. If you are going to act like a child, you will be treated like one."
She wrenched her hand from his grip and stood up with such force that her stool toppled backwards and landed with a crash on the tiled floor. "I am not the one acting like a child, brother. You expect that Gaspard and I will just do everything you say, but you are not Papa. I am a grown woman and I do not need to listen to you or to anyone. If you carry out this mission then you are a fool, a stupid fool. Generalmajor Sommer is not our enemy, he is one of the few German officers speaking out against Hitler—that is why he was sent here to oversee an unimportant logging camp, out here where there are few who will listen to him. The Resistance needs men like Kurt, who are sympathetic to our cause. If you kill him, then you are doing the Germans a favour."
The word came out with the force and malevolence of a knife-stab to the stomach. In the deathly silence that followed, both Bucky and Dugan looked like they wished they were somewhere else—anywhere else—and Steve wished he was right there with them.
"You are on first-name terms with the enemy now?"
"I told you, he is not our enemy, and if you got to know him you would see that. He is not a bad man, Jacques. He is a soldier doing his job, but he is not cruel or harsh and he certainly does not order people to their deaths. All he wants is for his children to be safe, and for the war to be ended so they can all go home."
"And he just told you all of this, did he? You are both nanny and confident now?"
"Yes, he talks to me about these things. He misses his home and his wife. He has nobody else to discuss his hopes and fears with. Sometimes, his dreams are so troubled that he will toss and turn all night. Other times he can't sleep at all, and can only pace around the room with worry."
"It sounds like you have sympathy for this man," Jacques accused through narrowed eyes. "It even sounds like you have feelings for him." When she remained silent, he asked, "Do you?"
"That is none of your concern."
Just as it seemed something—or someone—might break, footsteps thudding down the staircase provided a much-needed distraction. A few seconds later, Freddie appeared in the doorway, cradling his camera in his arms like it was a precious child.
"Got everything we need, Steve. Agent Carter is just putting the finishing touches on the study. You know, making sure everything is back in its place to the exact millimetre. She has an impressive eye for detail. And coming from me, that's a huge compliment."
"Thanks, Freddie," said Steve. "Go tell Falsworth that we're going to wrap things up here and we'll meet him outside shortly."
"Roger, Captain Rogers." He grinned like an idiot, totally oblivious to the frosty atmosphere permeating the room. "Oh, hey, Miss Dernier, is there another woman living here?"
Genuine puzzlement crept across her face, temporarily extinguishing the flames of anger and defiance. "No, just me. Why do you ask?"
"Well, as Agent Carter was tidying up, I did a little snooping in the master bedroom. I found a woman's nightgown hanging in the wardrobe, figured maybe he had a new woman in his life. Guess it was just one of his wife's old things. Mementos and all that, right? Well, I'll go find Monty."
As Freddie's footsteps grew fainter, Céleste seemed to wilt on the spot. All defiance was gone, now, replaced by a defeated slump of her shoulders and a gaze that did not rise from the floor. If the air was frosty before, it was positively icy now.
"This is you?" Jacques demanded. "You are… you are… sleeping with this Nazi murderer?"
This time, she had no words. Her silence was confirmation enough.
"It's you." Jacques' tone was frightening in its intensity, his face slowly turning a deep, angry shade of red. "You are the traitor. You are a collaborator, Céleste. If Mama and Papa knew… if Gaspard knew… you would be dead to them. As you are dead to me."
He turned and stormed out, slamming the door as he left. Céleste sank down onto the floor, tears spilling from her eyes. Steve didn't think she even noticed that her dress was soaking up the water she'd spilled earlier. Poor woman. He couldn't condone what she had done, but he couldn't condemn her for it, either.
"Help her up, Buck," he said. "Dugan, come with me."
"Where are we going, Cap?"
"After Jacques. I think he could use a friend right now."
Author's note: So, I mixed up my day off from work, hence the mid-week update. C'est la vie! I now have 2 weeks off work and intend to aim for 5 hours of writing per day, so let's see how far I can get. Wish me luck!
Thanks to anonymous user Soldat for your advice on American terminology. I usually catch the obvious ones like hood and trunk and jungle gym thanks to a fine American TV education (I owe everything I know to the Winchesters) but there will always be some words that get through. Hopefully it doesn't spoil the immersion too much for my readers from the U.S.
I wish I could take credit for the phrase 'two-fingered salute' because I love it so much, but it was something I picked up from an online article I read whilst doing some initial research into what life was like for U.S. troops at NYPOE. I have no explanation for the author's un-American ways, but I sense this troubles you greatly, so would recommend tracking down the former soldier who wrote the article and asking him for an explanation. If you google terms like Camp Shanks and NYPOE and do a ctrl-f of the websites that come back you should be able to find the one. Sorry I can't be more specific, but it was over three years ago (how time flies...) and I lost all the bookmarks I'd saved when I got a new job last year. Good luck, and happy hunting!