Hurrying away from the farmhouse and heading for the track which leads across farm fields, Max wipes at the blood which is drying beneath his split lip. His half-closed eye is blurring his vision slightly and he is sore from the punch to his stomach and the hours of sitting cramped in the cellar but he keeps moving steadily forwards, almost breaking into a jog. His brain is a whirl of thoughts as he heads purposefully towards his destination.
His whole carefully-managed double life has crumbled into ruins during the last twenty-four hours. He cannot return to his career in the police force and nor is it safe for him to return to his childhood home. His time as the leader of a Resistance cell has ended with most of his friends dead and himself as a fugitive. His mother is God-knows-where between Palburg and Switzerland on a journey which is more likely than not to end with capture and arrest. There is no security any more, no certainty about the future – only the hope that escape may be possible. The other even more fragile hope – that one day his country will be free from occupation and that he may be able to build a future there – seems so remote that he hardly dares even to consider it.
Max has several tasks he wants to carry out before getting away from Palburg, and he is far from positive that he will be able to accomplish any of them. He is fairly sure that Anna will be efficient and successful at carrying out her task, but whether he will be able to reach their meeting point at the chapel later is less certain.
Even with all the worries and fears which weigh him down, Max cannot help feeling a rush of exhilaration when he remembers the feel of her arms around his neck, the softness of her lips against his and the look in her eyes as they held each other close. Yes, she had initiated their embrace as a means of distracting the guard, but Max cannot deny to himself that he has been wondering for days whether she shares his feelings and now - now he is sure that she does. His elation at knowing she cares about him is mingled with the pain of knowing that within hours she is due to return to England – to her own identity - and that their first embrace may very well be their last. He wonders what chance he has of persuading her to remain here and join him in his journey of escape. To do that, though, he would have to overcome the sense of duty to her mission which runs through her character like a silver thread.
Max is glad that Anna is not with him now. He has not told her about his plans for these last few hours he will spend in the district of his birth, perhaps for ever.
The rough track he is following runs along the side of a wall until it disappears into the copse. This is the place where Max has come to chop wood ever since he was a young boy helping his father. He heads through the trees, hardly noticing the birds singing loudly on all sides.
At the point where the woodland begins to peter out, there is a gate leading into another track which leads down to the Schmidts’ farmhouse. From where he is standing Max can only see the top of the roof of the house but there is an outbuilding quite close to him - an old wooden cowshed used for bringing the cows in for milking each morning and evening. The breeze carries the sound of clanking from the cowbells around the necks of the dairy herd who, since it is too early for the evening milking, are peacefully grazing in the next field. Behind the outbuilding there is the sound of human activity – a metallic clattering as someone moves milk churns or other equipment around.
Max stands still and silent for a few moments, considering the situation. The only people likely to be around the Schmidts’ farm at this hour are Herr and Frau Schmidt, Jens and perhaps Otto – the teenage boy with learning difficulties rejected by the Army of the Third Reich and paid a pittance for farm labour by the Schmidts. Frau Schmidt is much more likely to be working in or near the house, so whoever is out here must be one of the others. Max has come here hoping to catch Jens alone, but has he really had the good luck to find him so quickly, and with no one else around to witness their meeting?
A new sound comes to Max’s ears and lifts his spirits. The person moving equipment behind the cowshed has begun to sing cheerfully and tunelessly. Only one person Max knows has that particularly discordant singing voice – Jens. Max moves silently down the track and through an opening in the wall which takes him behind the cowshed. He reaches a place where he can just see out from behind the building without being seen himself. Only a few feet away from him, he can see the side of Jens’s fair head and sweat-stained shirt as the plump farmer’s son takes clean milk churns off a handcart and lines them up ready for use at one side of the cowshed. Fresh straw waits in the stalls where the cows will be brought in to be milked. Jens’s tuneless wail grows louder as he turns his back on Max to pull one of the last churns from the handcart.
Max sets down his rifle behind him and, in the next moment, acts so quickly that Jens is taken completely by surprise. He barely has time to register the sound of Max’s running feet before the taller man is upon him. The impact of Max’s full weight on his back leaves Jens flat on the ground, struggling to escape from his assailant. Max holds him down, twisting Jens’s arms behind his back and keeping them there in a merciless grip.
Jens twists his head sideways and quails as he sees the look on Max’s face. His pale blue eyes bulge with alarm. “Max! What – what the hell are you doing? Let go of me!”
“I’ve come to teach you a lesson, Jens,” Max hisses in his ear, “and it’s a shame I didn’t teach it to you years ago, before you turned into a traitorous little boot-licker for the Nazis.”
“I – I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Jens moans as Max jerks his arm back, causing pain to shoot through his shoulder. “Ow! Please – please stop that!”
“Oh, you don’t know what I’m talking about?” Max asks grimly. “I’m talking about you telling the Gestapo that they should search our house. Maybe you’ll remember if I do this…?” Another unmerciful jerk to Jens’s shoulder forces a scream from the plump man’s mouth.
“Argh! No! Did – did they search your house? If they did – can only have been with – good reason,” Jens pants, trying again unsuccessfully to heave Max’s weight off him. “You shouldn’t have been hiding anyone, Max – Anna told me – she confessed – that you were hiding children – she asked me not to tell – but I’m a good citizen of the Reich – I know – my duty!” His words end in another yelp of pain as Max bangs his head on the cobbled floor.
“And I know my duty as an Austrian!” Max hisses at him. “And it’s to deal with scum like you!” He drives his fist into the bridge of Jens’s nose and hears the satisfying crunch of bone breaking. Jens screams again and begins to sob.
“No! No – Max – please!”
Max ignores this pleading and lands more blows on the face and body of the man beneath him. “That’s for setting the Gestapo on me – and my mother! You didn’t give a fuck about what they might do to her, did you? And that’s for putting your greasy hands on Anna – you won’t ever get a chance to touch her again!” He pauses, panting, and Jens stares up at him in terror, his round face streaked with blood and tears, his nose a swollen mess.
“Please – p-please – don’t kill me!”
Max releases his hold on the other man and gets to his feet. He looks down at Jens in utter contempt. “I’m not going to kill you, though you hardly deserve to live. You’ll get what’s coming to you when the war’s over – when people go looking for collaborators and Nazi-lovers. I just hope I never have to set eyes on you again.”
He turns to leave and then, almost as an afterthought, turns back and aims a sharp kick into the crotch of Jens’s trousers. The plump man’s moans escalate into a shrill shriek as he curls himself into a defensive ball, blubbering and rocking in agony.
Max takes a last look at him – a look which contains no pity. Then he turns, picks up the rifle and begins to run, heading back through the woods and down the steep slopes in the direction of the town which lies beneath him. From this distance the clusters of houses and the winding green bends of the river present a picture of tranquillity, but Max knows that there is no peace to be found there, but only danger.
Twenty minutes later Max is concealed in a thicket at the side of the steep road which winds down from the Schloss to the town centre. He is hoping that Schneider and his guest, General Schwartz, have not yet left the Gestapo headquarters after enjoying their leisurely lunch together. If they have already begun their afternoon tour of the district, there will be no likelihood of Max succeeding in his next objective. He hopes that they have taken their time over the meal – perhaps enjoying a few drinks and a round of self-congratulation.
He waits for another half-hour, constantly checking his surroundings for any sign of anyone approaching him or searching the area. From his position on the hillside he can see some of the activity of the distant town below. A train pulls out of the station with a loud whistle. The smell of smoke from the engine drifts back on the breeze towards Max’s hiding place. Two cars rattle across the river bridge and disappear from sight behind the buildings. There are distant noises of voices, of engines and other everyday sounds of the place Max knows better than anywhere. He is hopeful that, if he is able to carry out the next part of his plan, his intimate knowledge of this countryside will help him to evade any pursuers.
At last he hears the sound he has been straining his ears to hear – the sound of powerful engines descending the steep, winding road from the Schloss. Max creeps forwards through the trees until he reaches a position where he is right next to a bend in the roadside, but still concealed by the undergrowth. The rifle feels warm and sweaty in his hand. Once more, he checks that it is loaded and that the trigger is ready.
Two military motorcycles come into view, leading a shining black Mercedes. On this warm summer’s day, the roof of the car is rolled down. All three vehicles slow to take a sharp corner, and Max catches his first glimpse of the back-seat passengers in the Mercedes. Schneider, still wearing his leather coat despite the hot weather, is talking and gesticulating to the heavily-built, balding man in the General’s uniform who sits beside him. Max leans forwards in his hiding place, trying to get a good sight on the car despite being hampered by his swollen eye. His finger rests on the rifle’s trigger.
The motorcade rolls down the road towards him and, as he expects, slows again to navigate the bend where Max lies hidden. He knows that he will only get one chance. He lets the two motorcycles roar past him, takes aim at the car and squeezes the trigger.
The sharp crack of the shot is followed by a cry, a startled shout and the squeal of brakes, but the big Mercedes continues to roll some way down the hill before the driver manages to bring it to a halt. Max drops the rifle and takes one quick look towards the car below him. Schneider seems to have slumped over to one side. The General is standing up in his seat, shouting and waving his arms. The driver is getting out of the car and running round to check on his passengers and, even further down the hill, Max can hear the sounds of the motorcycle escorts braking too.
I did it, Max thinks, I actually hit him.
He does not stay to see any more, but flees back into the thicket and keeps running as fast as he can, staying in the cover of trees and hedges and never looking back towards the sounds of confusion and panic behind him. Keeping moving may be the only way to stay alive. For a fleeting moment, as he runs, Max wonders what the Germans will think when they discover the rifle by the roadside and realise that it is one of their own.
After taking a fast, circuitous route through the fields, he reaches a little-used lane which is another route into the town. If he is very quick, and keeps only to the back alleys, he may be able to get to his next destination and complete his final task before all hell breaks loose and the streets of Palburg are thronged with German soldiers hunting for an assassin. After that, if he manages to avoid capture, he will need to find somewhere outside the town to hide until sunset. Somewhere he can stay undetected until he goes to the ruined chapel to meet Anna. Before that, though, there are several long hours through which he must survive.
Miranda lies concealed in the centre of a dense clump of trees, using her rucksack as a makeshift pillow. Since leaving Unterbach in the early afternoon, she has made her way gradually across country towards the meeting place – the ruined chapel halfway between the Resistance barn and Palburg. She has stopped to wait out the dragging hours in different places, and she has already eaten the bread and cheese she had, as an afterthought, stuffed into her rucksack during her last moments in the farmhouse. Twice, during her hike through the forests and down the hillsides, she has stopped to drink thirstily from the clear streams which bring water down from the mountains.
The shady trees have protected her from the heat of the summer afternoon, and now at last the temperature is dropping as the light begins to fade into twilight.
From her current hiding place she does not have a view down towards Palburg, but she can hear the distant sounds of vehicles and the occasional train passing below. It may be her imagination but there seems to be more noise than usual rising from the town this afternoon. Several times she has heard groups of revving vehicle engines racing along the nearest roads, going both to and from Palburg. She presumes they are German military vehicles. Are they all looking for us? she wonders. Or has something else happened to set the Germans swarming around the district like a hive of disturbed bees? Surely someone has reached the farmhouse by now and discovered one German guard dead in the kitchen, another guard beaten and bound in the cellar and two prisoners missing. Whatever the reason for all the activity, she feels safer staying hidden in the trees and does not even contemplate anything riskier, like finding a remote farmhouse and trying to steal more food.
Eventually Miranda judges that it is close enough to sunset for her to risk the final part of her journey to the ruined chapel. She stays in the cover of trees and walls where possible, and jogs the last few yards over the more exposed grassy hillside above Palburg where the grey stones of the chapel stand. She has a much better view of the countryside below now, and she keeps scanning her surroundings, constantly vigilant for any movements which might signal that she has unwanted company. The area around the chapel appears to be deserted, however, apart from a few cattle and some goats grazing several fields below her.
Shielding her eyes, Miranda looks to the west and sees the thin red line of the setting sun shrinking as it sets behind the distant mountains. Many of those mountains she can see to the west are in Switzerland, and she gazes at them longingly, wondering where Doro, Klaus and the children are now and whether the citizens in the safety of that neutral country realise how lucky they are not to be living under occupation. Despite her current worries and fears, the sheer beauty of the rolling hills and the towering rocky peaks around her does not fail, as always, to lift her spirits. It is the country where her mother was born – the country where her Welsh father met her Austrian mother – the country where she spent that brief happy period of childhood in Vienna, with those glorious holidays in the mountains. She is proud to be British, but she will always love Austria just as dearly.
Miranda finds a place to sit with her back against one of the ruined chapel walls, but she does not sit for long. She is too anxious, so she keeps pacing around, checking in all directions as the dazzling red line of sunset finally slips behind those western mountains and darkness begins to gather in earnest.
Just as the light finally becomes too dim for her to see further than a few hundred yards away, a faint sound makes her senses prickle with alertness. As it gets louder and closer, she identifies it as the chugging sound of a motorcycle engine – probably a fairly low-powered one. Her first instinct is to dive through a gap in the ruins and find a wall to conceal herself behind, rucksack at her feet and head down. She tries not to breathe too loudly and to calm her quickening heartbeat.
The noise of the motorcycle engine, as it draws very close to the chapel, is disturbingly loud in the quiet countryside. Then the sound cuts out completely and Miranda hears the quieter noise of footsteps swishing through the grass towards her. She remains silent and still behind the mossy stones of the tumbledown wall.
The sound of Max’s quiet call sends a rush of relief through Miranda, and she straightens up. “I’m here,” she says, in an equally low tone.
When she emerges from the chapel, there is just enough grey twilight remaining to see Max as a dark shadow coming towards her. He opens his arms to her and she walks straight into them, her cheek against his chest. “You made it,” she says, as his arms tighten around her.
When he speaks again, his voice is ragged and uneven, and she does not have to be able to see his face clearly to tell that he is buzzing with tension. “I killed Schneider. Well, I think I did. I hit him, anyway.”
Miranda takes a step back, startled. “You managed to shoot him? What - with the rifle?”
“Yes, I managed to ambush him in his car. I expect every German in the district is out looking for me now – well, looking for whoever shot him.”
“Max! I thought something else had happened – I could hear them driving all over the place. You need to get out of here quickly then.”
“I’m going to – as soon as we leave here.” He turns and points through the darkness to the place where he has left the motorcycle. “I broke into the back yard of Rico’s uncle, the undertaker. Rico’s motorcycle was still in the shed where he always kept it. I doubt anyone will miss it for a while. I took a few cans of fuel, too. If we run out of fuel, we can walk to Switzerland. I know enough ways through the mountains to get clear of this district, I hope. Christian and Rico and I – we used to climb and hike on these mountains. I know them a lot better than the Germans do. We’ve got a good chance.”
Miranda reaches out in the dim light and puts her hand on his wrist. “Max – I can’t come with you.”
“Anna, you must! I can’t leave you here by yourself, with the Germans out for blood!”
“I’ll be all right. They’re sending a plane for me tomorrow night. I only have to hide out for another day.”
“Anna – I know you think you owe it to them to go back to England, but – don’t you want to come with me? To find Mama and the others?”
“Of course I do, Max, but – I have to go back. It’s my duty. They’ve trained me, and I feel like I haven’t done enough for them here. There might be more I can do to help win the war if I go back -”
“Anna, you’ve already done your best –“
Miranda can’t explain why, but there is something about his words which make her temper rise. “How do you know I’ve done my best? You don’t know everything I’m capable of! You don’t – you don’t - you don’t even know my real name!” She stops, catching her breath and regretting her harshness almost as soon as the words are out of her mouth. She is about to say goodbye, perhaps forever, to this man she has come to care for, and here she is shouting at him.
There is a long pause. Miranda cannot see his face well enough in the semi-darkness to read his expression.
“I don’t know your real name, Anna,” he says, in a tone so sad and sincere that it brings startled tears to her eyes, “but I know that I love you, and that’s enough for me.”
“Max,” she says, feeling as guilty as if she has stabbed him, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go with you. I promise I’ll be careful. They’ll pick me up tomorrow – I’ll be all right, but I just need you to get away. If they find out it was you who shot Schneider – you need to go right now – please!”
He reaches for her, catching hold of her shoulder and pulling her into a fierce kiss, his hand cupping her face. From the faint taste of blood she suspects his cut lip has reopened again, but she doesn’t care. For a few moments she forgets the desperate situation around them and thinks only of him – trying to commit his touch, his taste, his smell to memory as he kisses her, murmuring words of love, stroking her dyed hair. Her arms go round his neck and she holds him close.
Miranda has no idea how long the embrace lasts before Max drags his lips reluctantly from hers. They cling together for another long moment before they slowly release each other.
“Auf wiedersehen, Anna,” he whispers, with a break in his voice.
It is too dark for her to see the yearning in the last look he gives her before he walks away towards the motorcycle. Moments later she hears the sound of the engine sputtering into life. The noise grows louder as he presses the throttle, before growing fainter again as the motorcycle moves off down the hillside, away from the direction of Palburg. Soon she cannot hear it at all.
Miranda lifts her fingers to her lips, where she can still taste Max’s kiss. But he is gone.
The following night, after a tense, hungry day spent hiding in the woods, Miranda waits at the edge of a field several miles from the town, obeying her final instructions from Palmer. This – the same field where she had been dropped by parachute on her arrival – is the only grassy area for several miles around which is long, level and treeless enough for a landing and take-off.
It is very dark, and Miranda can hear the trees rustling in the slight breeze and the owls softly hooting, just as they had done on the night when she arrived in Austria weeks ago. All her senses are alert for an ambush, remembering what had happened to the Resistance members in that other field only a few days ago. The Palburg district is still buzzing with German patrols searching for any sign of the audacious assassin who had shot dead Cornelius Schneider. The chances of enemies spotting a foreign plane in the skies are higher than ever. At the back of Miranda’s mind, she has a niggling worry that Palmer may have warned London that this is not a safe time to send a plane. If she has done so, Miranda knows that she will be waiting in vain tonight.
However, after what seems a long, long wait in the dark she does hear the sound she is hoping for – at first faintly, then increasing in volume. The steady drone of aircraft engines. Miranda runs out into the centre of the field and waves both the torches she had included in her scanty packing of essentials. She thinks back to the line of red lights the Resistance had used to signal to planes, and hopes that her two little lights will be sufficient.
The plane circles overhead once, checking out the location. Miranda feels a rush of relief as it comes in for a landing. She can feel the wind of the aircraft’s approach as it descends towards her. The wheels bounce on the rough grass a few times before the plane touches down and taxis across the field. Almost before it has stopped moving, a dark hatch opens in the aircraft’s belly and a metal ladder is lowered to the grass. A figure climbs down the ladder and looks around cautiously.
“Here! Anna Riegler!” she calls as she runs across the field towards him, her rucksack bouncing on her back.
“Anna Riegler? Good!” the crewman confirms. It seems very strange to hear an English voice after all this time.
The plane’s engines are still running. No British pilot wants to spend longer here than they can help. Who knows how many people have heard the plane in the dark, or when someone may arrive to investigate?
The crewman hauls Miranda and her bag up the ladder and on board the aircraft. Almost before the ladder is pulled up and the door is shut the plane is in motion again, taxiing to the far end of the field to turn as the pilot allows himself enough room for his take-off run. As on her previous flight, Miranda is still buckling herself into her seat harness when she feels the plane gathering speed across the grass. There are a few bumps before her stomach lurches as the plane hauls itself from the ground and climbs above the dark trees, gathering height rapidly and preparing for its journey over the mountains.
In the dim light inside the plane she can see the face of the crewman who hauled her on board. He wears RAF uniform, has a bushy blond moustache and seems ridiculously young. He reaches across to shake her hand, grinning at her.
“Good show,” he says. “Were you there long?”
“Nearly three months,” she says, knowing that she can’t tell him any other details about her mission. The English words feel odd on her tongue after all these weeks of speaking only German.
“Three months, eh? Expect you’ll be glad to get back to Blighty then. I’m Harker, by the way – Simon Harker. That’s old Townsend up there flying this kite, and Spud Simmons, our navigator. I say – I suppose your name’s not really Anna, is it?”
“No - it’s Miranda,” she says. The name sounds strange and almost unfamiliar now.
“You don’t even know my real name!” she had shouted at Max yesterday.
Anna Riegler is dead. The real Anna died in Vienna, months ago, and now the false Anna has died too, her identity discarded. She wonders what the townspeople of Palburg will think when they hear that she, Max, Doro and Klaus have all disappeared. What will happen to the empty farmhouse? Who will help themselves to the chickens? For how long will the Nazis continue to ransack the district in search of them? Will Max manage to cross the mountains and the Swiss border without being captured? What has happened to Doro, Klaus and the children?
“Nice to meet you, Miranda,” Harker says. “With any luck we’ll have a smooth ride home tonight – we’ve just got to pick up a chap in France on the way. I expect you’re looking forward to getting a proper cup of tea at debriefing, aren’t you?” He continues to chatter brightly, despite getting little response from Miranda. “I say – you look all in. No tea up here, but I’ve got a bit of chocolate in my pocket – want some?”
The plane climbs higher and higher and banks steeply to the left as the pilot begins steering a course towards Western France.
Miranda, as she accepts a square of chocolate from Harker, does not know whether she is heading for home, or leaving it behind.