The Germans had brought their own interpreter with them this time. That was new.
"I'm not sure if I should be offended or not," Millie muttered to the Minister of State for Trade, but she put on her most winning smile and held the door open for the Germans. "Meine Damen und Herren, herzlich wilkommen in London..."
Contract negotiations were never exactly fun for Millie, but at least they made her feel useful. Today, though, she had to suffer not only the tedium of auto manufacturing logistics, but also the irritating sense that she had been displaced. Whenever she opened her mouth to translate, the Germans' interpreter had already begun a flawless translation filled with linguistic nuances that Millie often understood but sometimes didn't. Her usurper sat very upright in her chair—not leaning forward with the over-enthusiasm of someone trying to win praise, but balanced with the poise of someone who simply was very, very good at her job.
Millie envied her and resented her and admired her, all at the same time.
She didn't get a chance to speak to the interloper until the negotiators decided to break for lunch. By this point, Millie was famished and, because she was famished, in serious danger of bursting into tears of frustration. When she spotted the Germans' interpreter lighting up a cigarette on a balcony off the main hallway, she casually slipped out next to her.
"Sie können sehr gut Englisch," Millie said off-handedly. "Aber Sie sprechen wie eine Amerikanerin—warum?"
The other woman blinked at Millie with startlingly beautiful glass-green eyes and exhaled a billow of smoke.
"Seems your German isn't so bad, either," she said approvingly in her unexpected accent.
"I should hope so," Millie sniffed. "I am an interpreter."
"Are you?" The woman let out a bark of laughter. "Well, god, I'm sorry, I hope I haven't been stealing your thunder in there! I heard you welcome us at the beginning, but I didn't realise that you were at the meeting to translate. Assumed you worked for the Board of Trade in auto imports, or something."
"God, no, I'd be absolute rubbish at that." Millie hesitated when the German woman offered her a cigarette, then accepted it along with the woman's lighter. "You still haven't explained your accent, though."
"Oh, that." The woman shrugged. "Studied at the University of Chicago in my college years. Seems like a lifetime ago."
"Ah." Millie kicked herself for not making that connection on her own, because the second the woman's explanation was out, her slightly flat vowels were all too obvious. Millie didn't know a whole lot about American dialects, but even as a novice, she felt she should have recognised that most Midwestern of sounds. "I have a cousin in San Francisco. Have you ever been?"
"I wish, but it's half a continent away from Chicago," replied the woman. "You?"
"No," Millie said.
"Well, who knows, maybe we'll both get a chance to go, one day." The woman extended her free hand. "Anna Engel."
"Millie Harcourt," Millie replied, not taking Anna's hand. Her stomach rumbled loudly, and Anna fished an apple out of her bag and handed it to Millie, who accepted it begrudgingly but felt infinitely better after a bite or two.
"Any good recommendations for dinner around here?" Anna asked abruptly.
"Can't say I'm too familiar with Whitehall," Millie replied. "I'm fairly new to this job."
"Got it." Anna smiled. "Catching up with a friend after this meeting wraps. I told her I'd scout some restaurant options, since she's not down in London much."
"She's British?" Millie's curiosity was piqued, despite herself. Plus, she was slowly deciding that this particular German might not be so bad, after all.
"Technically American, but now based in Scotland."
"A friend from your Chicago days?"
"No," replied Anna quietly. She was silent for a moment, then continued: "She was a pilot during the war. Air Transport Auxiliary—flew planes to support the RAF. During the Blockade, she took a leave of absence from her medical studies to fly supplies into Tempelhof. I'll never be able to thank her enough for that."
"Well," said Millie, "dinner seems like a good start."
"I can only hope." Anna leaned on the balustrade of the balcony. "So, if you're not with the Board of Trade, how'd you end up with this gig, if it's not too nosy for me to ask?"
"After you," Millie replied.
"Used to do translation work in the British occupation zone. Someone who remembered my name called me in to come on this trip, I guess because Volkswagen was feeling suspicious."
"Suspicious?" Millie raised an eyebrow, on the verge of making some uncharitable comment about the company's less-than-laudable origins. Instead, she aggressively took another bite of apple.
"Yeah." Anna rolled her eyes and gestured with her cigarette towards the door back into the building. "They wanted to have a German national on hand, to verify anything that the Brits translated. No idea what this whole job has been like for you so far, but if all businessmen are as paranoid as these moneygrubbers, I'm really sorry."
In spite of herself, Millie laughed.
"Your turn," Anna told her.
"The typical story, I suppose," Millie shrugged. "Swiss finishing school meant German language proficiency, and a shortage of jobs meant this."
"Swiss finishing school, huh?" Anna's eyes had narrowed slightly, and she quirked her head to one side as she took another look at Millie, her cigarette stub emitting a curl of smoke from between two fingers. "This may sound like a totally crazy question, but did you ever meet any Scottish nobility out there?"
Anna was staring at Millie as if she wanted to say something, but instead she stubbed out her cigarette in an ashtray left on the balustrade, then gazed out over Westminster, a wistful smile flickering across her face.
"Just remembering something a friend told me once," she said. "Must've been a real experience. How'd you feel about it?"
"Fairly neutral," Millie answered, before reminding herself that joking with a German about Swiss neutrality was just about the stupidest thing she could do. "Really, it was lovely. Finishing school was what it was, but Switzerland's such a gorgeous country. I was last back there, oh, maybe six, seven years ago, visiting Bern, which hadn't changed a bit since before the..."
Damn. Millie clamped her mouth down on her cigarette and took another drag before she could say anything else idiotic.
But Anna simply nodded.
"It's nice to see that some places are still the same," she agreed. "Facially, at least."
Millie glanced at Anna, frowning.
"Don't you hate us?" she burst out finally. "We destroyed Berlin. I've seen the photos of Unter den Linden after the bombing. And then, with the occupation, and everything else..."
"No," replied Anna calmly. "Look, I won't pretend that I didn't hate the Brits at the height of the bombing, but then, I hated pretty much everything back then, Germany included. Do you think I should hate you for all of it?"
"I wouldn't blame you," shrugged Millie.
"Well, I don't." Anna sighed. "Wouldn't do any good, anyway, would it? Hating you or anyone else isn't going to bring people back." She lit up another cigarette, took a puff, and stared at Millie for a minute. "You wanna know where I met my friend Rose, the American ATA pilot I'm meeting for dinner? In Ravensbrück, starved half to death in the freezing cold. Jesus. If she could find it in her heart to fly for the Airlift and help save Berlin, after everything Berlin had done to her, then I certainly don't have any right to hate the Brits."
Millie's face had gone very white.
"And what were you doing in Ravensbrück when you met her?" she asked icily.
"Also starving half to death in the freezing cold." Anna smiled grimly. "Well. We were the lucky ones who survived."
Millie had no idea what to say to that, so instead she leaned her forearms on the balustrade and moodily stared out over her own rebuilt capital city.
"I know it's been nearly a decade now, but it's still not over for me," she admitted. "God knows I tried to outrun it, after everything was over, but..."
"But it doesn't go away. I know." Anna leaned on the balcony next to Millie and exhaled a plume of cigarette smoke. "I can't forget, either, much as I wish I could. So, since forgetting isn't an option, forgiving is the best I can do."
"Yes, I see," Millie answered softly. She shot Anna a searching look. "Look, I'm sorry to say that I'm so used to hating Germans on principle that I'm thrown for a bit of a loop by the fact I rather like you. I hope you're not about to confess to having personally blown a building apart during the war, or anything like that?"
"I certainly wasn't planning to." Anna quirked an odd smile at Millie. "I was a secretary before my stint in Ravensbrück. Lots of clerical work."
Millie nodded, because what else could she do? She knew that she could try to dig deeper into Anna Engel's history, knew that maybe Jean could ferret out something that would define exactly what wartime "clerical work" meant for someone like this cynically optimistic German. No doubt if she asked directly, she'd get an answer like "translations and logistics," which was the vague answer that Millie herself always gave when pressed. But Millie meant it when she said she liked Anna Engel more than she would have expected, and she wasn't sure she wanted to change that. Sometimes there was a comforting safety in leaving silences empty, certain definitions undefined.
"It sounds like they'll need you back in a minute," she said instead, nodding towards the hallway, where the negotiators were returning from their break.
"You mean, they'll need us." Anna smiled at Millie and stubbed out her most recent cigarette. "I'll stop jumping the gun."
"You're doing a very good job on your own," Millie admitted begrudgingly.
"Well, thanks, but really, this and French are all I can do. If we were back in Berlin right now, you'd have the definite edge with your Russian thrown into the mix."
Millie was about to follow Anna through the door off the balcony, but she paused, scowling.
"How did you know that I speak Russian?"
"Didn't you mention it?" said Anna with a slight frown, glancing over her shoulder at Millie before continuing down the hall towards the meeting room.
Millie was almost positive that she hadn't, and she felt somewhat rattled as she followed Anna back into the negotiations.
True to her word, Anna started leaving a second of space for Millie to gather her thoughts, in case she wanted to jump in and translate. But Millie kept missing her cue, her mind was now so focused on the perplexing German interpreter. How did she know things about Millie that she had no right to know? Had she been spying on Millie, and maybe on her other Bletchley friends, too? Was she working for the East Germans, or for the Soviets? And what of the odd clues that she had dropped throughout their conversation—Swiss finishing school, the Berlin Airlift, Ravensbrück, Scottish nobles, ATA pilots, Russian fluency?
Millie wished Anna Engel well with a smile at the end of the negotiations, as the German interpreter left the building to go meet her friend for dinner. But beneath the smile, the codebreaker's mind was still whirling. There was some pattern lurking beneath the surface of it all. Millie would have to sit down with Susan sometime soon and work it all out.
(But, of course, the following morning Jean arrived with questions about a recent murder, and by the next time Millie saw Susan, all of her thoughts were turned towards the curious case of one Alice Merren. And perhaps that was all for the best. Unless Jean had somehow managed to extract a few very key pieces of very secret information from a very particular old contact at SOE, Millie would have interpreted things all wrong, anyway.)