Miranda, riding Doro’s old bicycle, crosses the wide stone bridge which carries the main road out of Palburg. Beneath the bridge, a river swirls lazily along, the water an unusual pale green colour. She passes the small railway station, which is bathed in the late afternoon sunshine and very quiet. No trains are in sight. A red flag bearing a swastika flies from the tall flagpole in the station flowerbed, where the station master is pulling up weeds to pass the time.
After cycling for another fifteen minutes, Miranda sees on her right the narrow entrance to the lane she is seeking. When she leaves the main road and turns along this lane, it quickly becomes too rough and stony for her to ride. She dismounts and pushes the bicycle along a path which becomes narrower and more overgrown until it reaches a small stone bridge over a wide stream. To her left, rough rocky steps go down towards the water. Miranda pushes the bicycle behind some bushes, checks that it is properly concealed, and goes cautiously down the steps. Beneath the bridge there is a stone ledge along the side of the stream. Miranda, who is barely five-feet-five, can just stand upright in this space. She sits down on the flat ledge, tries to get comfortable, checks her watch and prepares to wait.
After about ten minutes - which Miranda spends dropping bits of twig into the water and watching the stream whisk them away - she hears the sound of quiet feet approaching on the path above. Someone comes slowly and carefully down the rocky steps, muttering to themselves. Alert, Miranda moves into a crouched position and feels for the gun which weighs down her coat pocket.
“Put that away,” says the tall woman crossly, ducking her head under the stonework of the bridge. “I suppose you’re Riegler?” She flips up the lapel of her coat and points to the edelweiss badge pinned to the underside of it. Miranda relaxes a little.
“Yes. And you’re -?”
“You can call me Palmer. It’s not my name.” The woman bangs her head on the stones above her, swears, sits herself down beside Miranda on the ledge and pulls out a packet of cigarettes. “Smoke?”
Miranda shakes her head.
“Well, let’s get this over with.” She has a deep, deliberate voice. “Tell your friends in the local Resistance that the next armaments train is due on Sunday night. It’ll be going through the target zone – they know where – between eleven-thirty and midnight. Got that?”
Miranda nods. “Sunday night, between eleven-thirty and midnight.”
“Right.” Palmer makes as if to stand up, but Miranda stops her.
“Can you tell me – I met a contact yesterday – I was giving her radio valves – in a café in town. The Germans arrested her. Do you know what happened to her?”
“She’s dead,” Palmer says flatly. “Took her suicide pill rather than get tortured by the Gestapo at the Schloss. Pity. I liked her. She trusted the wrong person. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake.” She stands up carefully, ducks her head to get out from under the bridge, and starts to climb the stone steps. “Don’t leave for twenty minutes,” she calls back to Miranda. “And be here on Tuesday at the same time.”
Left alone under the bridge, Miranda stares into the water again and thinks about the woman in the blue coat, who was speaking to her in a café yesterday and is dead today.
“The Germans and Mussolini are fighting a rear-guard action in the north of Italy,” Max explains. “The Allies are all over the south of Italy now. Berlin keeps sending more equipment – tanks, troops, guns, ammunition – to northern Italy to try to help the Germans there hold out.”
“And the armament trains are crossing Austria on their way to Italy.” Miranda understands now. “And you’re going to blow this one up?”
“We’re going to blow this one up.”
Max, his shirt sleeves rolled up, is chopping wood in a small copse two fields away from the farmhouse. Miranda is gathering up the chopped wood and loading it into the elderly wheelbarrow. Doro has asked them to top up the supply of fuel for the kitchen stove.
Miranda frowns as she bends down to gather some stout sticks which may come in useful for kindling. “Won’t something like that put the Germans in a fury? They’ll be all over Palburg looking for revenge.”
Max shrugs, and swings the axe again. “They will. But if we’re careful, and lucky, they won’t catch up with us. It’s been a while since we carried out a big operation like this. It’s time to show them the Resistance is still active here.”
His attitude seems a little reckless to Miranda, but the operation does seem to have the approval of Palmer’s superiors in London. In addition, one of the orders Miranda has been given is to help the Resistance with any sabotage they carry out, so she says no more.
From some distance away, she hears the unexpected sound of tuneless singing. Someone is approaching them along the footpath which leads through these woods towards the farmhouse. Miranda does not need Max’s warning look to know that they need to stop talking about anything confidential.
The tuneless singing gets louder, and now Miranda can hear heavy footsteps crunching twigs on the footpath, although trees and bushes block her view.
“It’s Jens,” Max says in an undertone. “The son of the Schmidts who have the next farm.” He raises his voice. “Hey, Jens! Over here!”
The singing stops, and a voice says, “Max?” A few moments later, a man appears from behind the bushes. He is young and fair-haired, with a round, babyish face. The braces which hold up his trousers are struggling to restrain his bulging figure. He smiles broadly as he sees them, and looks admiringly at Miranda. “Hello! You must be Max’s cousin from Wien. My mother told me she’d met you in town.”
“Yes, I’m Anna.” She shakes Jen’s hand. “You live next door?”
“Yes. Jens Schmidt.” He puts down the covered basket he is carrying and seems ready to stay for a chat. “It’s nice to see a new face. Life’s so boring here these days.”
Max lays the axe down on top of the wood in the wheelbarrow. “I suppose you’ve come for eggs, Jens?”
“Oh – yes, but I’m in no hurry.” Jens beams again at Miranda, but something about his wide, childish smile sends prickles of uneasiness down her spine. She wonders he has managed to maintain such an ample figure in these days of food shortages and rationing.
“That’s fine, we’ve finished here. We can go with you to the house. I’m sure my mother has the eggs ready for you.”
“Thanks, Max. Mutti is cross that her own hens are laying so few eggs. She has sent your mother some butter in exchange, though. Our cows are milking well.”
Miranda has a strong impression that Max wants to get rid of Jens as soon as possible – not surprising, perhaps, if the Schmidt family are all dedicated Nazis. But Max chats amiably enough with Jens as they walk down the footpath together, pushing the barrow between them. Miranda, following the two men, looks up at the blue sky, feels the warmth of the sun on her face and wonders what Sunday night will bring.
This section of railway line, several miles from Palburg, runs through thick woodland. Miranda sits in the undergrowth of a small clearing between the trees and watches boxes of equipment being unpacked and assembled. She has already handed over the reel of fuse wire she had carried from their meeting point in the barn. The dim light of the torches shows her the busy hands of those who are checking detonators and counting sticks of explosives. Outside the clearing, the woods are very dark, with clouds obscuring the thin sliver of new moon most of the time.
Eventually the equipment is gathered up again and they make their way down through the trees towards the railway line. They spread out into a long line along the track, several feet apart, and kneel to fasten the explosives to the metals. Miranda makes a neat job of tying her bundle and waits for Rico, on one side of her, to unroll the fuse wire and thread it through his own bundle of explosives before passing it to her so that she can do the same. When she has finished, she carries the reel of wire onwards to Maria, steps back from the railway line and waits until the final bundle has been fastened to the track and connected to the fuse wire.
All this has been done in silence, but when the task is complete Max gives a quiet order. Heinrich, the last in line, picks up the reel of fuse wire and continues to unroll it as he heads back up through the trees to the clearing where Christian waits with the detonators, a safe distance away. Rico and Max follow Heinrich into the woods, but Maria and Miranda sit down beside the railway line, each with one hand on the metal rails. They are both fast runners, and as soon as they feel any vibration from the approaching train, they are to give the signal to the others and then flee to safety before the moment when the train will pass and the charges will be detonated.
Through the darkness, Miranda can just see Maria’s smile. “Not long to wait now,” Maria says.
“Yvonne’s not here tonight?” Miranda asks, realising that she has not seen the older woman at all.
Maria shrugs. “She couldn’t get away. It’s difficult for her. Do you know about her husband?”
“No.” Now that she has spent more time with Max, Miranda has realised that by nature – when he is not risking his life – he is an open, chatty person, but, probably out of caution, he does not tend to tell her much about his Resistance friends and their everyday lives.
“Have you seen the inn by the river bridge, in town? That’s where she lives. Her father owns it, really. Hans Weber. He’s a grumpy old man. Leads Yvonne a dog’s life, running round after him. Then there’s Rainer Schröder – her husband. He runs the inn now. He’s all friendly with the customers but he’s no good to Yvonne. Everyone knows he’s sleeping with Margareta, the barmaid in the other inn. He doesn’t even try to hide his cheating.”
“Why does she stay? It sounds miserable.”
Maria shrugs again. “It’s not so simple. Where would she go? What about her father? And she has a little girl. She adores her.”
They fall silent again, while Miranda thinks about this information and remembers the tired, kind expression she has seen on Yvonne’s face.
It seems like a long time before Miranda feels the beginning of a gentle vibration through the metal rail under her fingertips. She looks up at Maria, and knows the other woman has felt it too. They hurry upwards through the trees, flashing the torches they hold in the direction of the clearing where the men are waiting. By the time Miranda and Maria reach the others, they can all hear the sound of the train’s approach in the distance and everything is connected and prepared. Heinrich’s hands are poised over the trigger of the main detonator and his eyes are on Max beside him, waiting for the signal.
As the sound of the steam train grows louder, Miranda peers through the darkness and the trees until the huge black bulk of the German locomotive can be seen below, outlined against the night sky, thundering along with sparks rising from the boiler and funnel. She cannot see it clearly, but she knows it is a long train with many freight wagons attached, loaded with tanks, guns, crates of ammunition and troops – although she does not know how many men. She tries not to think too much about those soldiers, sitting close together on the wooden floors of the rattling troop-wagons, sleepy or bored or hungry after hours of travel from Germany – and with no idea what is about to befall them.
The roar of the locomotive grows louder. A long train whistle sounds. The first freight wagons begin to pass by beneath them.
Heinrich pushes down the trigger of the detonator with all his might.
There is a second’s pause, and then a huge explosion. The dark sky is suddenly illuminated by a massive orange flash and a wave of noise and pressure hits Miranda’s eardrums. The first explosion is followed by a series of others, and a ball of fire and smoke rolls upwards into the night sky. The ground shakes as large pieces of debris are flung upwards into the woods. There are bangs and crackling sounds followed by rising yellow flames as the trees catch fire, one after another. Even though they are some distance from the track, Miranda can feel the heat on her face.
As they flee from the clearing, Miranda looks behind her. Utter pandemonium has broken out. There are more massive explosions as the fire reaches more wagons filled with ammunition. Large metal objects are still raining into the trees. The sky is no longer dark, but red and orange and full of smoke. Men, their bodies wrapped in flames, are screaming as they fall or are blasted from the train. Tree after tree is burning or exploding like a firework. There are shouts of panic and fury, and the sound of men crashing through the woods in their direction. Gunshots are being fired now.
As they reach the top of the woods and pull each other over a stone wall into a lane, the Resistance members pause briefly to catch their breath. Heinrich is swearing quietly and clutching his upper left arm. In the flickering orange light from the fires Miranda can see the dark stain spreading as blood soaks through his sleeve. Maria is close beside him, examining his arm in concern.
“It’s nothing – something grazed me – I don’t know if it was a bullet or a bit of flying metal,” Heinrich mutters, through gritted teeth.
Max and Christian hesitate by the side of their injured friend, but Maria looks up and says quickly, “It’s all right, I’ll make sure he gets home. Go.”
The others nod, and they scatter to go their different ways in ones and twos. Max jerks his head to indicate to Miranda the direction in which she should follow him, and they run to the right down the lane, then through a gate and down a grassy slope, Miranda easily keeping pace with him. Behind them, they can still hear explosions, shouts, screams and gunshots, but these noises gradually fade into the distance as they run.
Max guides them back to the farmhouse by a very roundabout route, and it takes them the best part of an hour to get there. When they finally reach the warm, lamp-lit kitchen, they are both exhausted and fall into chairs to regain their breath.
After a few minutes, Max drags himself up from his chair and opens a nearby cupboard. He reaches for a bottle of schnapps and places it on the table with two small glasses. Pouring two measures, he pushes one glass across the table to Miranda and drains the other himself, immediately filling it again.
Miranda tips back her head and lets the fiery liquid burn her throat. She shuts her eyes and sees, seemingly printed on the inside of her eyelids, vivid images of the burning men falling from the train. She cannot suppress a shudder.
As she places her empty glass on the table, Max refills it. “Yes,” he insists, when she shakes her head slightly. “One more. It will help you to sleep.”
“I knew that people would die,” Miranda says in a low, intense voice, “and I know they’re the enemy – but it’s different when you see it.”
“It’s always a shock the first time,” Max says.
“You mean – you get used to it?”
“No, you don’t get used to it. And you shouldn’t get used to it. If we become hardened to death, we are no better than the Nazis. I don’t mean those who kill soldiers in battle. I mean those who send thousands of innocent people to their deaths in the work camps. The men who run those have lost their souls.”
His face is very serious and his eyes are very blue. They stare at each other for a long moment before he sighs and says, “Tomorrow the Gestapo will be swarming all over the district. I expect the police force will be called on to make searches, or provide an escort, or some such thing. We will be kept busy. I’d better try to get some sleep.”
“Me too,” Miranda says, and she pulls herself up from her chair, hoping that the schnapps will save her from dreams of burning bodies.