There are flickering torch lights in the darkness below, marking her landing site, and Miranda tries to steer herself towards them. The ground comes up to meet her with a rush, and she barely has time to remember what she has been taught about landing, to bend her knees and roll as her feet hit the grass. She is winded by the impact but unhurt, and she lies on the damp grass for a few moments, getting her breath back. The plane which dropped her has also dropped several small packages of supplies for the Resistance, and she can hear soft thuds as these land in the distance, each carried by its own tiny parachute. Finally the sound of the aircraft engine recedes into the distance, becoming fainter and fainter until she can no longer hear it. In just a few hours the plane will be landing back in England. The crew will be breathing safe English air and probably going off to drink strong tea from RAF enamel mugs. But Miranda will be here, far away from safety.
She struggles to her feet and she is just beginning to try to wriggle out of her harness when she hears quick, soft footsteps thudding across the grass towards her. Four – no, five – figures come out of the darkness. She tenses for a moment before she realises they are not German soldiers, but the promised members of the Austrian Resistance meeting her.
“Sind Sie Anna?” one of them hisses in a whisper. It is too dark for her to see his face, but he is a short, stocky figure against the gloom.
“Ja, Anna Riegler,” she replies. Several pairs of hands hurry to prise her out of her harness, flight suit and helmet. They hustle her across the grass towards a place where a stile crosses a rough stone wall. Having scrambled over this, Miranda finds herself standing in a dark lane. The short man is still holding one of her arms and a woman – Miranda can smell her perfume – is holding her other arm. Another man is following behind them, laden with some of the packages dropped by the plane. Two other men have gathered up the other packages, plus her parachute and other accessories. They disappear into the darkness carrying these things bundled up between them. Miranda presumes that they are going to hide or dispose of her parachute and flying gear somewhere.
It is very quiet in the darkness of the sunken lane. Tall trees on either side of them make blacker shapes against the black night. The only sounds are the quick scraping noises of their feet on the earth and stones as she is hurried down the lane. There is a squeak nearby as some rodent is caught by a hunting owl. A few times Miranda stumbles over ruts or stones she cannot see. She takes a big lungful of the countryside smells. I’m finally here. Back in Austria.
Eventually, her guides lead her through a rickety wooden gate which takes them away from the lane and down a steep, narrow path through a woodland. Below them, Miranda can just make out the black outline of a building. When they reach it, she can see it is not a house but a small barn or outbuilding – rather tumbledown, but with a stout-looking wooden door. The woman next to Miranda taps lightly on the door, making a pattern of knocks. The door is opened to them by another woman, and they enter.
Inside the barn, it is lighter. A hurricane lantern glows softly from the top of a wooden crate. Bales of straw are piled up on one side. There is a strong, pungent mixture of farming smells. Miranda is directed to sit on a bale of straw, and she looks around at the people who have brought her here, able to see their faces for the first time.
The woman who let them into the barn is stirring a pan over a very small camping stove. Miranda can smell coffee, and the methylated spirits which have been used to light the stove. This woman is in her forties with a thin, careworn face and straight hair pulled back into a knot.
The woman who came in with Miranda is quite different. She is tall and young, with a mass of wild black hair tied up in a red headscarf, from which curls are constantly escaping. She has a lively face and bright eyes. Even in this dangerous and secretive situation, she is chatting in whispers and laughing with the short, stocky man while they sort through some boxes on the far side of the barn. Miranda can now see that this man has a cheerful round face and prominent front teeth, untidy longish hair and a brown beard.
The other man who had followed them is busy stacking the packages he had been carrying and pulling off their parachutes. He has a thin, serious, clean-shaven face, greying hair and round metal-rimmed glasses.
The woman stirring the pan takes it off the stove and turns off the heat. She pours coffee into the seven tin mugs which are on the floor beside her and offers one to Miranda. “It’s cold out at night, even in June,” she says. Miranda is just taking her first cautious sip of the hot, bitter brew – she has always hated strong coffee – when there is another soft pattern of knocks at the door. The curly-haired girl unbolts it and two more men enter, carrying more packages. Miranda presumes these are the two who went off to dispose of her parachute. They nod to the others and take their mugs of coffee, then lean against the barn wall and discuss something in low voices.
Miranda feels impatience rising in her, and wonders how long they will be here before she is taken to her billet. Mentally she reviews the list of tasks she needs to complete during her mission. These people, drinking coffee and chatting together, do not seem to feel her sense of urgency - although they are risking their necks conspiring against their Nazi occupiers, so they must have courage.
“Do you have your papers, Anna?”
The taller of the two men who is standing by the barn wall leans towards her and speaks to her for the first time. Miranda had noticed him when he came in, partly because of his height – he must be over six feet – and partly because of his piercing blue eyes. He has a short light-brown beard and is wearing a grey woollen sweater and old canvas trousers.
Miranda fumbles in her pockets and hands over her false identity papers. The tall man looks through them carefully and then nods, apparently satisfied with them. He passes the papers back to her. “Good. Well, we’re glad you got here safely. I’m Max.”
“He’s the boss,” puts in the dark-haired man next to him. He leans towards Miranda and holds out his hand to her with a wide grin, showing very white teeth. “Rico,” he introduces himself. “Well, Friedrich, really, but everyone calls me Rico. That’s Yvonne who made the coffee.”
Yvonne, who is packing away the camping stove, gives Miranda a kind, tired smile.
“This is Heinrich –“ Rico points to the thin, serious man in glasses “- and over there, that’s Maria and that’s Christian.” Maria, of course, is the curly-haired girl, and Christian is the short, stocky man with the brown beard.
“Rico always has a lot to say for himself,” says Maria. “He’s a terrible flirt so just ignore him.” Her smile is teasing. Rico looks wounded.
Heinrich has finished sorting the packages and has put some of them into two sacks. Miranda watches as he lifts a couple of hay bales and reveals a loose board behind them. Christian passes the other packages to him and these are concealed in a space behind the loose board. The hay bales are replaced over the hiding place.
Yvonne has finished packing the mugs, stove and pan in her backpack. “I must go,” she says. “Rainer will be wondering where I am.”
“We must all get out of here,” the tall man – Max – says. He looks at Miranda. “You’re coming with me, Anna. I’ll explain everything on the way.” He picks up her backpack, despite her protests that she can carry it herself very easily. Behind him, Heinrich and Rico are shouldering the two sacks containing packages.
Christian reaches forward to grip Max’s arm briefly. “Take care, my friend. I’ll see you soon.”
Miranda follows Max out of the barn into the darkness, which seems even darker now after the lantern-light of the barn. They do not go back up the steep woodland path to the lane, but follow the path further down in the other direction. Max has a torch but keeps the dim light pointed at the ground.
“You’re my cousin Anna from Wien,” he tells her, as she scrambles to keep up with his long stride. “That will explain your Wiener accent.”
“I lived in Wien as a child,” she explains rather breathlessly. He is setting a fast pace. “I thought the real Anna Riegler died in an air raid there?”
“She did, with her mother, in the American bombing raid in March, but no one in Palburg knows that. Her mother was my father’s sister, but they had hardly kept in touch with us since my father died. I don’t think they’d visited us here since Anna was about six.”
“We’re going to tell people that you didn’t want to stay in Wien in case of more air raids, so you decided to come here to stay with your uncle’s family and look for work.”
They walk for about twenty minutes to reach Max’s home, and they do not talk much, saving their breath for walking. Miranda follows him down lanes and footpaths, until she hears the sound of running water and realises they are climbing a steep path which runs alongside a stream. This path leads to a broken gate, hanging off its hinges. They cross a cobbled yard where a large house looms out of the darkness on their left. Then Max is stopping at a door and opening it to wave her into a dimly-lit kitchen, where it is clean, warm and smells of food. A lamp burns low in the middle of the scrubbed wooden table and a pan of soup waits on the old black kitchen range. Miranda suddenly realises that she is hungry.
In the kitchen, she sits at the table and watches as he moves around making coffee, reheating the soup and cutting bread. His curly hair falls in untidy strands over his forehead.
“This is a farm, or what’s left of one,” he explains, after he has placed coffee, bread and soup in front of Miranda and sat down facing her. “You’ll see, tomorrow. We used to have four or five men working here, but they’ve all been conscripted into the German army now. So it’s just me living here, and Mama – she’s in bed upstairs. There are a couple of young boys who come and help out, too.”
Miranda takes a moment to savour the thick, well-seasoned soup. “You and your friends haven’t been conscripted?”
“A lot of my friends have been. We – our group – all have some reason why we’ve escaped that. Heinrich is as blind as a bat without his glasses. Christian has a club foot. Rico works with his uncle in the undertakers. His uncle’s managed to get him out of conscription so far by claiming they can’t function without him. Got to have someone to deal with the bodies.” Max’s face twists in a rather mirthless smile. “But the Nazis are losing the war. They’ve started to call up everyone – by the time it’s over, they’ll be sending old men and kids in the Hitler Youth to the front lines.”
“How about you?” Miranda asks, wrapping her hands around the warm coffee cup.
“Oh, I’m exempt from the Army because I’m a police officer.”
“A police officer?” Miranda can’t hide her tone of surprise. If she had been asked to guess his profession, this is not what she would have guessed. “But aren’t the Austrian police - ?”
“Run by the Nazis now, yes. But it’s surprising how useful I can be, working on the inside. I can find out when people are going to be arrested, and try to get warning to them. My bosses have been quite frustrated these last few years by how many people seem to have disappeared when they go looking for them.” He smiles – a real smile, this time, which lights up his face. “I just hope they don’t catch up with my activities before the war’s over.”
When Miranda has finished her meal, Max takes two candlesticks from a shelf, lights both the candles and passes one to her. “No electricity in this house, I’m afraid.” He leads her out of the kitchen, along a stone-flagged passageway, through a door and up some steep, uncarpeted stairs. The room he shows her into is clean but sparsely-furnished. The metal bedstead is made up ready for her, the flowered curtains are drawn, there is a battered chest of drawers and a wooden chair. Miranda puts her candlestick down on top of the chest of drawers and places her rucksack on the chair.
“The bathroom is next door – that way.” Max points. “My mother will wake you. I am on duty early tomorrow.”
“Does your mother know - ?”
“She knows what I do, and she knows you are an agent. You can trust her completely. She will take you into Palburg tomorrow and she will tell anyone who asks that you are my father’s niece. You have a contact to make?”
“Yes, at four o’clock.”
He nods. As he turns towards the door, he looks back at her suddenly and gives her another of those smiles which light up his whole face and make his eyes crinkle at the edges. “Sleep well, Anna.”
The door closes behind him.
Miranda looks around the room again, and at the flickering flame of the candle which lights it. She sits down on the bed and lets out a long breath. For better or worse, her mission has begun.
Miranda thinks that she will be too full of adrenalin to sleep, but as soon as her head hits the feather pillow she falls into a deep slumber. She is roused by someone shaking her shoulder and the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
“Anna? Wake up, my dear.”
Miranda sits up, blinking, and sees a woman standing beside her bed. She is in her late fifties, perhaps, with bobbed dark brown hair streaked with grey and a kind, round face. Apart from her clear blue eyes, there is not much resemblance between her and Max.
“I’m Doro Winter. Welcome to our home. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you.” Miranda watches as the older woman pulls back the curtains and lets the morning sunlight flood into the room. “It’s very kind of you to let me stay here, Frau Winter.”
“Please – call me Doro. We all have to do what we can. Max says you have to be in the town this afternoon, so perhaps I can show you the farm this morning? There is breakfast in the kitchen when you are ready.”
The breakfast is delicious. Food is scarce these days in Austria, as it is everywhere, but there is fresh bread, and real eggs from Doro’s chickens. During rationing, Miranda has become accustomed to the taste of powdered eggs. “Our neighbour, Herr Schmidt, killed a pig recently, so we have some bacon and ham. We all try to share what we can.”
Doro takes Miranda outside after breakfast and shows her around the farm. “When my husband was alive, before all the men went away to fight for the Germans, this farm did well. But Max and I can’t manage it all, not with him at work all day, so Herr Schmidt has taken over half the land. Some boys come to help bring in the harvest each year. And we keep very few animals now.” Miranda can see that, though Doro keeps the inside of the house spotless, the outside of the house and the fields nearby are showing signs of neglect. The hedges are overgrown and there are holes in the roofs of several disused outbuildings. In the farmyard, there are potholes and missing cobbles, and ivy grows thickly on the stone walls of the farmhouse. A broken water pipe drips into a mossy trough. “Max does as much as he can. But he has so little time.” They walk past an orchard where many apples are ripening on the trees. “We still have plenty of fruit. In a couple of months I’ll be making pies and strudels out of these, if I can get the sugar and butter.”
Miranda remembers her own mother making strudel, in years gone by, but she does not share this with Doro. She is Anna Riegler now, and she is not free to share stories about the life of someone called Miranda Blake.
After lunch, they leave the farmyard through the broken gate and walk down the steep field beside the stream, the route by which Max had brought her here. There is an elderly brown horse in this field, who comes trotting over to Doro in the hope she has something for him.
At the bottom of the field they turn left, and walk down a lane which brings them eventually into the outskirts of the little town of Palburg. In daylight, Miranda can see the mountains which rise in the distance above the town, their heads capped with snow even though it is summer. On a hillside she can see a handsome Schloss or castle overlooking the houses. The town is busy with people walking, chatting, riding bicycles and queuing outside shops where rationed goods are on offer. Miranda takes a sniff of the fresh Tyrolean air and knows she is a world away from the bombsites of battered London.
There are German soldiers here and there on the streets, and she eyes them warily. The swastika flags hang from many buildings. Having learned the map of the town by heart, she recognises the square building at the corner of the next street as the police station. A Nazi flag hangs on each of the poles which flank the door. Further down the street, there is a long queue outside a butcher’s shop.
“That’s where Max’s friend Christian works,” Doro says. “His father is the butcher.” Through the window, Miranda glimpses Christian behind the counter, laughing and joking with a customer.
“Frau Winter!” A sharp female voice behind them stops Doro and Miranda in their tracks. Doro turns with a polite smile on her face for the plump middle-aged woman who is standing there, a shopping basket on her arm.
“Frau Schmidt, how nice to see you. I’m on my way to the grocer to see if he has any flour.”
“I believe he has had a delivery,” Frau Schmidt says. She looks Miranda up and down. Something about her curious stare puts Miranda on her guard. “I don’t know your friend?”
Doro smiles, and touches Miranda’s arm. “This is my niece, Anna Riegler. You remember that my husband had a sister, living in Wien? She died in the bombing in March, and Anna was lucky to escape with her life, so she has come to us, in the hope that Palburg will be safer.”
“Ah.” Frau Schmidt shakes Miranda’s hand. “You have never visited Palburg before, Fräulein Riegler? Never come to see your uncle?”
“Yes, I have, but not since I was a small child,” Miranda explains. “My aunt is very kind to allow me to stay with her.”
“Anna is looking for work,” Doro explains. “Do you know of anything?”
“She might find work in a shop,” Frau Schmidt says, “but there are many more important things a young woman could be doing to help the Reich. My own nieces are working in a factory in Linz, making munitions. It is vital work. And the Army always needs nurses, too.”
“I will consider that, Frau Schmidt. Thank you,” Miranda replies carefully. She is glad when Frau Schmidt leaves them and hurries off in the opposite direction.
“She and her husband have always been good neighbours and farmers,” Doro says in an undertone as they continue down the street, “but they are Nazis and still believe in the ideals of the Third Reich. Be very careful when you meet them.”
“I will leave you here. Do you know where to go?”
Miranda nods again. She knows exactly how to find the café where she is to meet her contact and complete her first handover. A small box of radio valves is tucked into the deep pocket of her coat.
“Goodbye, then,” says Doro. She looks at her watch. It is nearly four o’clock. “You can find your own way back to the farm? Good luck.”
Miranda finds the café easily. It is nearly empty, with only a few customers dotted around the tables. She asks for coffee, and takes it to a table with a good view of the door, getting out a paperback book and pretending to read it. She does not have to wait long before the door opens and a young woman in a blue coat enters, looking rather worried. She glances around and spots Miranda. Moving casually, she makes her way to the counter, gets a drink and sits down at the table next to Miranda’s, sitting sideways so that she can talk to her without being too obvious. She seems nervous, and her eyes keep darting back to the door.
“What is the weather like in Wien?” she asks quietly. She lights a cigarette with hands which shake a little.
“It’s very warm for June,” Miranda replies, not lifting her eyes from her book.
“The Germans are following me,” the woman breathes. “I tried to lose them, but I don’t think-“ As she speaks, a black car screeches to a halt outside the café door. All the customers look up uneasily as the door is thrown open and a group of soldiers enter.
“Papers, please!” says the officer in charge, and they begin to move among the tables checking the identity documents of the customers.
“Do you have the valves?” the woman whispers. When Miranda nods, she mutters urgently, “Give them to me – under the table – quickly!”
Miranda hesitates, watching the German soldiers get closer to them. But she slips the box out of her pocket and passes it under the table to the other woman.
Two soldiers stop by the woman in the blue coat. Miranda has a strong feeling that they were not really interested in any of the other customers. “Your papers, please.”
Miranda and the woman both pass their identity papers to the officer in charge. He glances quickly through Miranda’s documents and passes them back to her, but he keeps the other woman’s papers in his hand. “Empty your pockets, please,” he orders her.
The woman immediately empties her pockets on to the table in front of her. A handkerchief, a wrapped sweet, empty sweet wrappers, a pencil, a few coins, some cigarettes, a lighter – and the small cardboard box containing the radio valves.
The German officer points at the box. “What is this?”
“A present,” the woman replies, in a voice which hardly shakes at all.
“Open it.” She does so. He gazes at the radio valves, then looks towards Miranda. “Are you together?”
“No,” the woman says firmly, and Miranda shakes her head.
He nods, and makes a gesture to the soldiers behind him. “Take her away.” The woman is grasped by the arms and hustled out of the café towards the waiting car. She does not look at Miranda at all. Nor does the officer as he picks up the cardboard box and walks to the door.
When the Germans have driven away with their prisoner, Miranda forces herself to finish her coffee and spend another ten minutes in the café before she makes her escape. As she hurries back through the streets of the town, trying not to break into a run, she finds herself shaking. She knows, of course she knows, about the dangers of life in Austria under Nazi occupation. But this is the first time she has seen it with her own eyes.
She does not go straight back from the café to the farm, but takes several detours around the streets, even though she does not think anyone is watching her. At last she decides it is safe to head back. As she passes the police station, she hardly notices the two police officers who are talking in the doorway until she hears her name called.
“Anna!” She turns and sees that one of the two officers is Max, although it takes her a moment to recognise him in uniform. He looks tall and handsome. He beckons to her, and she walks towards him.
“Pfeiffer, this is my cousin I told you about.” He introduces her to the other officer, who clicks his heels and bows to her with a look of admiration on his face.
“You didn’t tell me your cousin was beautiful, Winter.”
“That’s because I know your reputation with women, Pfeiffer. Are you on your way home, Anna? I’ve just finished my shift so I can walk with you.”
“I will look forward to seeing you again, Fraulein Anna,” Pfeiffer says to Miranda with a smile. She manages a smile in return, although she is still so shaken by the café incident that it is a struggle. Max glances at her, and she can tell he knows something is wrong.
“Goodbye, Pfeiffer. See you tomorrow.” Max clicks his heels and returns the other officer’s Nazi salute smartly, before taking Miranda’s elbow and guiding her up the street. He waits until they are out of the town and walking along the lane before he asks, “Did something go wrong?”
“Yes.” Miranda wonders how he can read her expression so easily when he hardly knows her. “I made the handover, but my contact was arrested just afterwards and taken away by soldiers.”
“Schieße. Did they suspect you?”
“I don’t think so. They asked if we were together, but they believed her when she said we weren’t. I took the long way back from the café. I don’t think anyone followed me.”
“Let’s hope not.” He is frowning.
“I have to meet my English contact tomorrow,” Miranda tells him. “I will have to tell them about the arrest.”
They have reached the stream, and the start of the steep footpath uphill to the farm. “This isn’t good. The Gestapo unit based at the Schloss is getting too interested in what’s happening in this area, and we have some big operations planned. We can’t afford for them to go wrong. You’ll have to see if your English contact knows anything about why they might have suspected this woman. I’ll send out some messages too.”
Miranda nods as they pass through the broken gate into the farmyard. “I want to help. What else can I do, apart from waiting to meet my contact tomorrow?”
Max relaxes a little, and smiles at her. “Well, you can help me collect the eggs and shut up the chickens for the night. And I expect Mama could use our help in preparing dinner.”
It is not the answer Miranda had expected. But then, Max Winter is not really what she had expected from a Resistance leader either. She is not sure what to make of him.