The night is close and airless. Dinon town is in blackout, not a single street lamp lit and every window shuttered. The waning moon, in its third quarter and only a slim crescent, is obscured by cloud, making the darkness complete.
A young woman waits restlessly in the shadows at one end of a narrow alleyway. She hates this darkness, distrusts it, this alien blackness such as never prevails in Paris, not even during its blackout, for in the city the pale stone of the buildings, the store windows, the theatre and restaurant awnings, the billboards and advertising pillars, postboxes, even road surfaces—all these catch and reflect and concentrate the slightest glimmers of light. The Seine too and its bridges, with every ripple that passes along the great river.
But nothing alleviates this darkness here in Dinon. She shudders. Yet the darkness is what she needs for the task that has brought her here.
She has never killed before. That is what she is ready to do tonight. That is why she is here. Tonight she will kill for Gérard. Tonight is for retribution. God willing, she will not fail.
She wonders what time it is. Close to midnight, certainly, but how close? The timing matters but it is too dark in these shadows to check her watch. So she waits, her eyes burning as they strain against the evil darkness.
Her task for the moment is to watch for anyone entering the alley from behind them. Up ahead is Jean-Luc. He is the one in charge. He will decide when they should make their move. He will also decide if they have to abort. She hopes that does not happen.
She is tall enough to pass for a man. As she traveled here today on the train with Jean-Luc, in separate compartments from each other, she wore a skirt and her hair was loose. Now, in the simplest of disguises, she is wearing trousers and her hair is hidden from view inside a battered black beret. If she is seen tonight, she hopes this is how she will be recalled and described—as a man.
At last, from around the corner at Jean-Luc's end of the alleyway, there is the sound of a door creaking open. A glimmer of light shows for a moment, then vanishes as the door slams shut. Male laughter drifts into the alley, accompanied by the clatter of boots on cobbles. The Germans who have emerged from the brothel stand in the street, still out of sight, laughing and talking in their unmelodic language.
There are only two voices, therefore hopefully only two men. Taking on more than two would be too risky. But it is still important to wait until they begin to move away, their backs turned, to make the most of the element of surprise. This is what she was taught in Paris.
As she moves closer to Jean-Luc she hears the scrape of a match being struck. There is a small burst of light as it flares. She smells cigarette smoke. She hears heavy footsteps. The men are on the move.
Jean-Luc steps forward, peers around the corner. He half turns towards her, his face a pale blur in the darkness, and gives a single emphatic nod. Then he is out of the alley. She follows immediately, taking up position beside him, exactly as planned, exactly as they practiced. Relief, to be in action.
One of the Germans is still laughing but the other hears the movement behind them and wheels around. His cigarette spins to the ground in a tiny explosion of sparks. Jean-Luc fires twice. She hears the ricochet as one bullet strikes the wall of the brothel but the German staggers backward with the force of the other bullet.
Then everything goes wrong.
The German is shooting as he falls—three shots, close together. He sprawls on the pavement, the gun slipping from his hand. But Jean-Luc also falls, his head smashing against the cobbles. With a sick feeling she knows that he is as dead as the German.
The other man has turned to face her. His hand descends to his holster. He draws his pistol.
She has both her hands clamped about her own weapon, is braced for the recoil, and now she squeezes the trigger.
No shot, no recoil. The gun has jammed.
She wrenches at the slide of her weapon but cannot tell if it has freed itself properly. In desperation she squeezes the trigger again.
A shot rings out. It is from her pistol. The recoil jolts along her arm like an electric shock. The shot is wild, not aimed, but the German cries out. The bullet has hit him. He lurches to one side.
She can try—should try—to finish the job, which means gambling that her gun does not jam again. But the wounded German is steadying himself. His pistol sweeps upward. She knows that, unlike her weapon, his will not misfire.
And any second now the door of the brothel will burst open, disgorging God knows how many armed soldiers to investigate the shots they heard.
The German opens fire but he is too late. She has already flung herself back into the alley. She seizes her bicycle and flees.