Jean somehow always was cast as the pragmatic, sensible one, and this was generally perfectly correct. She enjoyed order, and professionalism, and thoroughly assessing what was realistic and what wasn't. What really ruffled her, though, was the frequent assumption that this all meant that she had no imagination whatsoever. Jean had plenty of imagination to spare, as was somewhat inevitable for a woman who had spent most of her life with her nose buried in one novel or another. Stories were Jean's specialty.
If that hadn't been the case, the Special Operations Executive never would have recruited her to help create cover stories for their agents going to France.
It was the ideal job, in many ways. Jean was far from extroverted with strangers, but she liked getting to know people. Creating a solid cover meant sitting down face-to-face with whatever SOE F Section agent had been assigned to her for the time being; dissecting their family history, French relatives especially; figuring out which elements could be safely used, and which needed to be discarded and reinvented. Simple data collection and analysis, plus a dash of creativity. Jean, with her detail-oriented mind and encyclopaedic knowledge of character archetypes, was incredibly good at it.
But it was draining, working for weeks with SOE agents, calmly unraveling the intimate details of their childhoods and educations and romances, weaving all the threads back together into a slightly different pattern. The SOE still only gave wireless operators and transmitters in France an estimated six weeks before they were captured. Jean knew that her agents were well aware of the danger, but it didn't make it any easier to send them straight into the lion's den.
"Peter and Odette?" Jean repeated one night in April 1943, her voice constricting.
"The Abwehr infiltrated the Spindle Circuit," her superior officer explained heavily, folding his hands on his desk. "King and country, Miss McBrien. They knew the risk."
Jean bowed her head.
"We have another agent for you..."
"I can't." Jean was surprised to hear herself say the words. "I can't help yet another person sign their own death warrant."
Her superior officer stared at her through his thick spectacles.
"You must," he told her simply. "This is war, Miss McBrien. Soldiers are dying by the hour. Someone must send them into battle. And someone must prepare them as best they can to survive."
He slid a manila envelope across his desk to Jean.
"One of your countrywomen," he told her with a faint smile. "I think you'll like her."
Jean picked up the envelope, nodded stiffly, and walked out of the room.
First impressions usually didn't matter much to Jean, but for an SOE agent, making the right first impression was crucial. Anything even slightly "off" could doom an agent or an entire circuit: wearing clothes that were too British, counting under one's breath in English, even simply walking the wrong way. So Jean was doubly alarmed when, as she sat in her office awaiting the new agent, a severe-looking young woman with her blonde hair pulled tightly back into a bun walked briskly through the door and seated herself rigidly across from Jean.
"Ich höre, dass ich bald nach Frankreich fliege," she declared.
Jean was a second from pulling open her desk drawer and seizing the pistol inside of it when the woman laughed.
"The look on your face!" she grinned, her entire bearing softening in an instant. "If anyone from the Abwehr really were marching down the hallway of the SOE, looking quite so Teutonic, don't you think someone would have raised the alarm by now?"
"Miss Beaufort-Stuart, I presume?" grumbled Jean, not at all amused.
"Julie, please," said the woman. "Thought I'd arrive as my current alter ego Eva, hence the humourless appearance."
"Well, Julie." Jean raised an eyebrow. "I can see you're already quite adept at embodying a role. Tell me about yourself."
"My grandmother's family is in Ormaie, which is where I'll be stationed," Julie began, sprawling backwards in her chair.
"Fluent French, then?"
"Mais oui, bien sûr."
"But you also speak fluent German?"
"My alias doesn't have to," Julie pointed out. "Could make it easier for me to listen in on conversations."
"If you do, then your alias certainly does," Jean explained. "At the centre of each lie must be some truth—remember that. One tiny reaction on your part to a conversation held in German, and your entire cover could be blown, unless your alias also speaks German. You went to school in Switzerland?"
Julie nodded. Then her eyes lit up, and she leaned forward eagerly.
"But," she offered, "what if I weren't Swiss, but Alsatian. We could even give me a German name! That'd do the bastards' heads in, wouldn't it?"
Jean stared at Julie as if she'd sprouted another head herself.
"We could," she conceded neutrally. "But first, let's back up just a little and discuss you as yourself, shall we?"
Julie cavalierly waltzed into Jean's office precisely on time once a day for the next two weeks. Over two-hour sessions, they hashed out a backstory for the character that Julie eventually named Katharina "Käthe" Habicht, as a salute to her pilot best friend ("German for 'Kittyhawk,' like the beach where the first plane was tested, see?"). Jean was consistently bewildered by the freewheeling young aristocrat, with her accent that could switch between plummy Oxbridge and Scottish Highlander on a whim. Ideas, vacillating wildly between utterly daft and shockingly brilliant, ricocheted from Julie like bullets from a machine gun. But once the young lady had proven herself more genius than mad, even Jean allowed herself to smile at Julie's careening wit.
"You'll need a code name, too," Jean reminded her one day.
"I get to choose?" Julie looked delighted.
"You get some input," Jean corrected her. "And these proposals, you can make as outlandish as you'd like. Your code name's a part of the life you'll be living in Ormaie, but not a part of the lie."
"I choose not to think of my alias as a lie," said Julie whimsically.
"Well, dear, it's certainly not the truth," snorted Jean.
"Au centre de chaque mensonge reste la vérité," Julie reminded her solemnly. "Et ça, c'est moi."
Jean shook her head, charmed in spite of herself.
"Then just be sure you only let the Abwehr see the mensonge, Mademoiselle Verity."
Finally, when Absolutely Every Last Detail of Käthe Habicht's history and demeanour had been worked out and diligently memorised and drilled to exhaustion, it was time for Julie to depart for yet another parachute course, as the first part of her practical training for her stint abroad.
"Thanks so much for everything," Julie said on their last day.
"Don't thank me just yet," Jean warned her, "not until after they've put you through various drills to make sure you can keep your story straight when woken up at all hours of the night!"
"Well, if that doesn't go well, it's all on me, isn't it?" Julie threw her arms around Jean, to the latter's bewilderment. "It's been a jolly good time working with you, it really has."
"Good luck, dear," said Jean, resigning herself to Julie's hug and returning it. "Do try to stay out of trouble?"
"Natürlich." Julie tossed Jean one of her signature grins. "I'll look you up when I'm back and regale you with all of my adventures, shall I? Even more stories to add to your collection."
Jean found herself at a loss for words, and merely nodded. Six weeks, she thought, watching Lady Julia Lindsay MacKenzie Wallace Beaufort-Stuart—alias Käthe Habicht, code name Verity—depart with a jaunty bounce in her step.
When Jean's superior officer found her later that evening, she shook her head before he could say a single word.
"I won't do another," she insisted, surprised to find tears stinging at the corners of her eyes. "I don't care what you say, I can't and I won't keep sending bright young girls like her off to die. I'll resign first."
"I know," sighed her superior officer, rubbing his eyelids with a thumb and a forefinger beneath his spectacles. "That's why I'm having you transferred."
Jean looked at him in alarm.
"Clerical work," he said, and when Jean's expression became one of horror, he chuckled. "By which I mean, the most interesting accounting you'll ever be asked to do in your life. Tell me, Miss McBrien, how much do you know about the work that's being done at Bletchley Park?"