Chapter 63 – The Rabbi

London, England



Kat watched as the dour Tudor blocks rolled by, all Renaissance buildings with pinched sharp edges rising up to dominate the streets, crowding together amongst brightly coloured advertising that seemed perfectly out of place. The cabbie had attempted to engage them in friendly conversation, but she left it to Fisher to play the part of avid American tourist. He burbled on about their honeymoon in Florida, which had really only been a few days aboard an ocean liner before they’d absconded in the night on a PT boat. 

They’d spent a week at the base, mostly out doors cultivating their tans in the 70-degree Florida weather. The purpose was to make them look like affluent Americans, and the conditioning was made all the more effective by the native British pallor of everyone around them. They stood out, which was the point, but it also made Kat feel uneasy. 

She’d never wanted to open her mouth less, because it meant having to explain her legend, the story Fisher had helped her create to justify her German accent. It meant owning to a Communist father she’d never had, mourning for him after his fictional murder by the brownshirts, and her subsequent fictional escape from the fatherland. 

She didn’t resent the lie so much as the delicate nerves of those who seemed to require it of her. It reminded her of being in graduate school, and all of those unpleasant memories. She wanted to snap that it was just possible not every tow-headed German wasn’t a retired Nazi, but then she would catch herself and remember that it was just that assumption that acted as the foundation for their own investigation. It was a contradiction she hadn’t prepared herself for.

Neither did she like it when Fisher left her at the hotel to run a solitary errand, but the staff were all polite and no one seemed to take her accent amiss. Her instinct had been to dress dully, to appear penitent, but then she’d decided to hell with it. She was an American. It said so on her passport. She was a new bride, and she was happy. 

So she dressed in a dignified black cocktail dress, tied a deep crimson ribbon into her blonde hair, left a message for Fisher with the desk, and made her way down to the restaurant. The Savoy was as fancy a hotel as she’d ever visited, and in spite of London’s poor culinary reputation, the smell of steak and cigarettes that came from the lounge made a familiar bouquet. It reminded her of Keen’s in Manhattan, which she had loved, and she felt her cane and game leg gave her a kind of authority in its venerable polished wood and green leather aesthetic. 

She ordered a leg of lamb and a glass of the house-made stout, both of which turned out to be excellent. The collection of Britishers, mostly men, paused to give her a look, but it was not with the same awe or envy of her American contemporaries. British gentlemen did not, she supposed, gawp at pretty young women in places where eating, smoking and perusing the Times was the accepted order of things. She suspected her gender was the first disruption in that order, and her beauty and lameness were distant seconds. It was an oddly refreshing change from the usual prejudices.

Miles Fisher arrived a half hour later looking unusually troubled. The booths in this place were tall, so he did not spot her at once, and she was able to enjoy the pleasure of seeing him before he saw her. He’d changed into a tweed construction that matched the local uniform, but as usual still managed to appear more plush and luxuriant than the materials used by the lesser tailors of the other diners. He too was the beneficiary of a brief examination by the other tweed-clad men, and she could guess their assessment: yankee. 

He doffed his flat cap to the men at the bar, then went to join her, bending to kiss her just a little too long for polite company. She wanted to tangle her fingers in his Saville Row lapels and drag him a little closer, but refrained, allowing him to sit across from her. 

“Smells good,” he turned to the waiter. “I’ll have the same. And a whiskey. Single malt.”

“Bad news?” she inquired.

“Not precisely,” he said. “Apparently the rabbi wants to meet you.”

She blinked. “Me?”

“Us, actually. I only got as far as his secretary. She’s concerned that our source might be hesitant about meeting with us without certain assurances that he wishes to secure himself.”

Kat felt her contentedness begin to erode. “Because I’m German.”

“That’s what I thought,” Fisher said, accepting the glass from the waiter and taking a contemplative sip. “But he wouldn’t see me, and I’m card carrying. Feels like tradecraft to me.”

“You’re positive E. Max didn’t have more information on this person?”

Fisher shook his head. “There’s no question of him disclosing a name someone has chosen to discard. Some people don’t want to recover what they’ve been forced to leave behind.”

“I suppose I understand,” Kat said contemplatively, aware that she’d never had to adopt a pseudonym beyond taking Fisher’s surname. Then she considered that wasn’t entirely true — code names had been chosen for her by E. Max, and by Miles Fisher and the department. She didn’t know what they were, but they still protected her.

“What are you thinking, gorgeous?” Fisher teased, making his tone deliberately cloying. 

“What was E. Max’s name for me? In official communications, I mean.”

Fisher shrugged. “In cipher he referred to you by name. I don’t know what name he gave the rabbi, but they trust each other, which I consider a good sign. Where Frühlingsmorgen comes in, I still have no idea”

“When will we meet him?”

“In an hour, in a little teahouse down the road,” Fisher said, perking up a little as his meal was set before him. He thanked the waiter, flashing that big smile, and slipped him a generous tip before digging in.

Kat, already finished eating, sat back and lit a cigarette, one of the spicy Indonesian ones from a pack she’d bought from the nearby news stand. She always enjoyed watching Fisher eat, because he always enjoyed himself. Even his gestures were deft and exact as he carved the pink meat from the bone and conveyed it to his mouth. 

They sat in silence this way for a little while, companionable but distinct in their focus. When he was done, she expected him to suggest they attempt to make up the twenty-minutes by breaking in the queen sized bed in their room, but he was still in a pensive mood. They did return upstairs, stayed as long as it took to wash, and for her to change into a more conservative dress — this one a pale blue churchgoing type which had the effects of squaring her curves. 

It was strange to see Fisher hesitant to lavish affection on her, but he was performing some kind of personal ritual, cleansing his face, washing his hands. She knew he was hardly pious or precious about such things, but it was clear to her that something about meeting an ordained officer of his own ancestral faith made him a little uneasy. Still, as usual, he hadn’t been able to resist buying her a gift — a dark blue patterned scarf with a lighter damask pattern on it. He tied it about her neck, briefly pressing his face into her hair as he looked over her shoulder into the mirror. 

“Thank you,” she said, feeling the pleasantly soft texture of the material. It felt weightless against her skin, and she knew he’d chosen it for that reason as much as the pattern.

He kissed the back of her neck. “Let’s go.”

It was a short walk to the cafe. Fisher had learned by now that she didn’t like to get in and out of cars any more than she liked walking long distances, but it still amazed her how much more quickly she could move. She was beginning to truly enjoy it, the way her body no longer seemed to swing with each step, the way she only needed to move forward, and forward, and there was no sideways battle with her centre of gravity. She was still awkward, but no longer was she stared at with pity. She only carried her cane now when she needed it for effect, for defence, or if she was going a long way. She had it with her now for the first two reasons.

The man waiting at the table was much younger than she had expected. He was in his thirties, wore a simple black suit cut to his broad shoulders, was clean-shaven and had receding, almost-totally grey hair, neatly trimmed. There was an almost schoolmasterish cast to him, but his prematurely lined face was not hard. His dark eyes were warm, confident. 

As he rose from his table, stepped out and offered his hand first to her, Kat felt something shake loose beneath her, and then felt her reclaimed sense of balance disintegrate as her knees almost went out from under her. 

“Frédéric,” she whispered, her intuition crystallizing as she watched the same effect mirrored in his expression. His lips parted and he blinked rapidly.

“Kat,” he whispered, his eyes going wide. “Katerina Bergmann.”

Beside her, Miles Fisher touched her shoulder gently. He didn’t make the gesture possessive, just a light touch to anchor her. She could see him, Frédéric — Frédéric — carefully assessing nature of that touch, and refraining from attempting to impose in any way. Unbidden, she thought of him as he had been, the way he had always asked, using it as a means to tease — may I …here? Lower?

There was a wedding band on his finger now, she saw, and felt grateful. She wouldn’t have known how to embrace him, not here in on the other side of god’s own massacre. 

“I think we’d all better have a cup of tea,” Fisher said amiably, taking the matter in stride. Kat was grateful to him as he went to order tea and biscuits for them. She sat down, no longer trusting her feet to hold her. 

Recovering something of his calm, Frédéric Monteux, alias Frederick Morston, took his seat, carefully folding his hands together in a gesture that was so bizarrely unlike him that for an instant she was unsure of him. But of course, when had they ever sat across from each other like this? It was safer to kiss a Jewish boy in a barn than it was to be seen with him in a Freiburg restaurant. 

“You’re still a knockout,” he said, his smile not without a little of that old mischief. He nodded to Fisher, who was loitering at the counter. “He’s very lucky.” 

His English, she noticed, was flawless. Like Fisher, he had become a citizen of his host nation, indistinguishable from the genuine article. If she had passed him on the street, or heard him speaking in a shop, she would never have rumbled him.

But here, in close quarters, his eyes lighting on her with confusion, with affection, and yes, with a kindling of that old teenage intoxication, she knew him. And as Fisher returned to them, she felt for the first time since Washington that she wished he would go away. Not far, not forever, but just long enough for her to come to grips with this man. The first to kiss her, to put his hands on her with her invitation, to show her his limited, yet potent knowledge of erotic pleasure. Even as she perceived him in his ascetic new posture, she couldn’t help but wonder what he’d added to that knowledge. 

But as Fisher took his place beside her, his silent observation of the moment restraining him from attempting to distract her attention, to touch her in a way that would show possessiveness or intent, she was grateful for his presence. He understood people so much better than she did, and that held true even now, when he was unaware of the facts. 

“Miles Fisher,” he said, reaching out to grip the other man’s hand. “We haven’t had the pleasure.”

Frédéric shook it, then glanced at Kat, who suddenly couldn’t suppress the desire to laugh. She had to duck her head and cover her mouth with her hand. When she looked up, she was relieved to see him grinning at her. Laughter had always been the sweetest part of their friendship. 

“I’m sorry,” Kat said, breathless. “I’m so… Fisher, this is… ”

“I typically go by Fred Morston,” he clarified with a smile. “For every day. But Frédéric Monteux in the days before the war. I think I am safe with you in owning that.”

Fisher did not betray it on his face, but Kat could sense him putting the pieces together. She’d never given him much detail about Frédéric beyond his name, and that she considered him her first real inauguration to the world of sex, but they had discussed him. 

“What happened to you?” Frédéric asked, his focus narrowing on her now. “You disappeared so completely.”

“It wasn’t by choice,” she said, trying hard not to think about the last time she’d seen him, the way she’d been so cruel to him, so eager to torment him. “If I’d known where they were taking me I would’ve run much sooner.”

“I remember that big property. We did some repairs after that fatcat SS took it over. That’s where they sent you?”

In short detail, and omitting as much as she could, she explained how she had been taken to Frühlingsmorgen, and later run afoul of her recruiters. She briefly described her escape, and the intercession of the Alsatian nuns, whom his family had known slightly. 

“You saved my life,” Frédéric said when she had finished, and she could see that his eyes were moist. “We escaped because of you. Sister Veronica told me that it was you who asked Jerome Masson to warn us about the invasion.”

“We’re searching for the men who ran that operation,” Fisher said, now leaning in. “Not just for tzedakah. What they were doing on that property goes further. We need to find them, or their surviving kin. Do you know of anyone else who might have been in place at Frühlingsmorgen?”

Frédéric blushed a little, then offered a small smile. “I only ever interacted with one person who was part of the regular staff there. The housekeeper’s daughter, her name was Elisabet.”

“Elsie,” Kat recalled her, a dumpy little house maid. “Elsie Kestler.”

“Close friend of yours?” Fisher prompted, and now Kat felt his touch, just a light sweep of his knuckles against her shoulder. It seemed now that the rabbi had admitted to another indiscretion, he felt entitled to commit one of his own.

“As close as a nineteen year boy could manage,” Frédéric said, shrugging. “She didn’t know who they were at first, because it wasn’t rented by an SS department. But that’s not unusual.”

Kat knew she ought to be wondering about Baier’s rental arrangements but she was too busy thinking about her then-boyfriend playing around with dumpy little Elsie. It surprised her a little that the image pleased her. She’d dismissed Elsie as she had most members of the servant class, but the idea of the young man with enough looks and charisma to get above himself making a pass at her defied her idea of his vanity. But then, she didn’t think Fisher wouldn’t have hesitated either, so many she didn’t understand men as well as she’d believed. 

“You wouldn’t happen to know where Miss Kestler is at this moment?”

Frédéric checked his watch. “At home, probably fighting with our eldest over curling tongs or taffeta or whatever’s on the schedule this week.”

“You married her,” Kat said, her face warming a little. “I thought you were engaged to that… what was her name?”

He sighed. “When we had your warning, father decided we should move into the German side. We already had family there, and they believed they were protected. Being German speaking French, we had no records, and we blended well. It was suggested that I marry a local, and Elsie had already laid down the law about her…well.” He blushed a little. “I asked her and she said yes. We were married in a Lutheran church.”

“Wedding night confession?” Fisher asked with a grin.

“I’m sure you made a good case for yourself,” Kat said with a smile. “I hope you’re very happy.”

“Yes,” he nodded, but then his face clouded. “My parents were overjoyed when she agreed to convert. They sent us to the country for a holiday, then we went to Dusseldorf to see my sister. But it turned out her German boyfriend was a Gestapo asset. It was a close thing.”

He did not show emotion as he said this, just as Fisher hadn’t shown emotion in revealing his own bereavement. But it was Fisher who reached out, put his hand over the rabbi’s. He said nothing, because nothing needed to be said, even though Kat could feel the compassionate words trying to escape her closed throat. The look Fisher gave Frédéric was gentle, the shake of his head almost imperceptible.

Frédéric turned to her. “I don’t know what happened to you in Alsace, Kat, but I knew you were hurt badly by those men. Sister Veronica told me it was you that warned us of the men of Frühlingsmorgen. Elsie told me they’d vacated, so I supposed they’d been called back to Berlin, or sent to commands. Kat, your warning allowed us to avoid being swept up and deported by the Vichy orders. I have two daughters and a roof over their head because of you.”

“Stop,” she whispered. “Please.”

“I need you to ask your wife,” Fisher said, his tone drawing a firm line through the anguished moment. “About the time she worked at Frühlingsmorgen. In particular, I need information about the women she might have encountered while there.”

“Of course,” Frédéric nodded. “She has an excellent memory.”

“Names,” Fisher confirmed. “Descriptions too, but names and ages. These women are likely without parentage, which means they’ll have records of a distinctive kind. Our people will know what to look for.”

“Come to dinner tomorrow night,” Frédéric said decisively. “The girls have choir practice that evening, so they’ll be out from underfoot. Elsie talks best when she’s fussing over guests.” 

They agreed to this, though Kat felt hideously uneasy about it. As they rose to leave, she paused, turned to Fisher. 

“I need a moment. I’ll catch up with you.” 

“Of course,” he bent to kiss her. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” He offered his hand to Frédéric. “Rabbi.”

It wasn’t until he had disappeared around the corner that Frédéric Monteux turned to her, a sad smile on his face. He nodded to her cane, to her no-longer twisted, but now mostly immobilized foot. 

“Is that what they did to you?”

“Some of what they did,” she admitted. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“It must,” he said, switching now to French, putting his voice into the language they’d spoken together as teenagers. “It’s connected to this business. But please, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“You don’t want to slip away into the bushes?” she teased.

“Tempting, Kat,” he smiled, and offered his arm. “I used to dream about your body, even after the war. I always hoped that you’d made it, that you would endure to afflict some fortunate man.”

“I think I’m the afflicted one,” she muttered, thinking of Fisher, the way he could make every quiet moment into a carnal suggestion with just one sideways look. He’d been very well behaved for the past hour. 

“Whatever happened to Jerome Masson, anyway?” he said, sending a bolt of fear through her heart. “He was the one who delivered your warning. Veronica told us later she’d sent him with a message from you.”

Kat decided on a partial truth. “He didn’t make it. He was unlucky.”

“I’m sorry for it. He was a good man.”

“He was,” she agreed, not wanting to disabuse him of his fond memories.

“And you,” he pressed. “Were you lucky?”

As they walked slowly towards the hotel, she gave him the abridged version of what she’d done. He listened attentively, showing awe and anxiety in all of the right places. When finally they arrived at the doors, he paused, taking her hand in his.

“In another life, I would slip away into the bushes with you any day, Kat,” he said with a smile as he bent to kiss it. “Would that we’d lived in less bloody times.”

She nodded, squeezed his hand, and then went into the brightly lit lobby, leaving him lingering after her on the sidewalk. Or so she imagined, because she did not turn her head to look back.