Okay, you caught me. I am literally so bogged down with #NaNoWriMo prep, working on new stuff for the #CreateLounge blog, and just everything else that I'm too busy to blog about, well, anything else. So, I'm continuing to post excerpts from "Fatales". But, in my defense, I'm in full-on fiction mode right, and, also, I just really really want you to read it.
So, here you go.
(Disclaimer: I do not condone or support cigarette use, or excessive drinking for that matter, but these were real people, and it was the 40's, so stuff happened. Don't smoke, kids.)
London, a burning city still standing.
The pub was noisy, but, then again, it always managed to be. The air was celebratory, despite the circumstances, or, more likely, very much because of them. There’s a spirit to being “the only one left standing”, and it was one England, London especially, had mastered.
The pub itself certainly had reason to be glad, being one of the few buildings left intact on the block. Its patrons regularly toasted to this fact and nearly everything else, happy, as always, for any reason to celebrate.
Tonight, though, these patrons had good reason to eat, drink, and be merry, for they knew what tomorrow held. So they had eagerly complied with the spirit and sang and drank into the early hours, willing the day, the morning, to come a little later, if it could.
Now, however, the room had taken on a calmer, if no less buoyant, tone, almost tense. All eyes focused on two drinkers on opposite sides of one of the tables. The mugs crowded the surface so much they had started stacking them. By all accounts, it should have ended three pints of bitters ago, but Jameson couldn’t help himself. Masculine pride demanded it, and the generous portion of alcohol he had already consumed prevented him from seeing he was licked.
The crowd chanted steadily but quietly, astounded as much as excited, as yet another pair of pints was presented to the combatants and subsequently tipped. Bottoms up. The glass hit the table, and they cheered. Another round.
It was getting ridiculous and dangerous, even as drinking games go. A wary friend placed a hand to Jameson’s shoulder, but he never got to his word of caution as the man quickly and angrily shrugged him off and reached for the new pint before him. He missed the handle on the first try. His competitor, much to his annoyance, politely waited for him to get hold of it before they downed their drinks. The mugs landed on the table to another round of roars from the audience and a replacement round of bitters from the bar.
Jameson stared down his opponent, or tried to, but his gaze also captured the back wall so it was far less intimidating than he would have liked. He reached for the new drink only to see the opposite mug was empty. It managed to dawn quickly on his beer-addled brain that his rival had already finished this round. With horror quickly turning to nausea he gaped at the sight. With a finger, the cocky upstart challenger pushed Jameson’s mug towards him.
“You’re down by one, mate,” the voice came soft and lilting. In a clearer frame of mind, he’d have thanked his lucky stars the beautiful woman sitting across the table was even talking to him. But he was losing. Worse still, he was heading to the floor.
Jameson made a feeble attempt for the mug, missed, and seemingly out of balance, slipped from his stool and was out like a light before he hit the boards. The crowd erupted, out of equal parts astonishment and excitement.
“Bloody hell, Wake!” was the popular response as everyone took a chance to congratulate the champion of the evening. Nancy seemed quietly amused by the whole incident. Of course, it was not surprising to her. Poor Jameson, though, if he remembered tonight at all in the morning it would only be with regret, but it didn’t matter if he remembered or not, no one would ever let him forget it.
Nancy accepted the congratulations and excused herself to reapply her lipstick. That many drinks had taken its toll.
She’d miss the pub, she decided. London was not her favorite city, but it had its charms, and in times like these, it had become a second home to her, to so many. Nevertheless, she had long since decided she preferred wine to beer. English pubs were friendly enough, but give her a little French brasserie for her troubles.
And a cool Marseille night, she thought, and a radio and a man staring at her in the candlelight. She sighed and sniffed the air. And a pack of Gitanes, she added. She had never liked British cigarettes. But they were all she could get, and everything had to be rationed, of course. But she could sure use one now.
Maybe when she landed. But of course not. The Bosch would see to that, wouldn’t they? Still she had never been a stranger to the black market. There had been that one little bistro in Marseilles and that owner who always got her Gitanes. Gitanes and champagne. She wondered if he and that place were still there.
She shook her head to cast the thought away. No, she couldn’t think about Marseilles. If she thought about Marseilles, next thing she’d be thinking of the sea, and their flat with a view, and little Picon, and… Henri.
She couldn’t help herself.
She shook her head again. It had been a long time since she had tasted the Mediterranean air, but she wouldn’t be doing herself any favors bringing it up now. It had been a long time, and it would likely be a while more.
She sighed again. She wouldn’t be far. By tomorrow, she wouldn’t be that far away at all, but it might as well be a million miles. It wasn’t as if she could borrow a car and go visit. Besides being incredibly dangerous, it was damn foolish. She could miss it all later. She could miss it all when the job was done.
But she didn’t want to think about that either. That was tomorrow and this was tonight. And tonight it was indeed eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow they jumped into hell.
Nancy rejoined the rabble-rousers. She noticed someone had been kind enough to hoist Jameson off the floor and lean him nicely on a stool against the wall.
“Let him sleep it off,” someone remarked.
“Tell me something, Wake,” another, Rourke, commented as he waved a hand for her to join him. “Where’d you learn to drink like that?”
“Learn?” Nancy answered with a red-lipped smirk. “I don’t think I ever learned. It comes naturally.”
“The only people I know who can drink like that are the French.”
“That’s because the French drink French wine,” Nancy replied. “British beer is not much, by comparison.”
“I knew it,” he roared and slapped the table. “I knew you were French.”
She shook her head in reply. “Afraid not.”
“Half?” he ventured. “Just a bit?”
“Distant relations, perhaps,” Nancy answered with a smile. “I’m afraid I’m only French by sheer force of will. But if you’re wondering if my drinking prowess has any correlation whatsoever to my heritage, the answer is yes.” She helped herself to a sip from Rourke’s drink. It was hard, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She had to smile again at the lipstick stain she left on the glass as she set it down. “I’m Australian.”
Rourke pounded the table in response. “Yes, that’s it! I knew there was something about you.”
“Many things, I can assure you,” she added and then mingled back into the crowd. The night was drawing on but she had absolutely no desire to let it end. Happily, neither did anyone else. They all were more or less in the same boat. Or plane, as it were.
Unfortunately, as nights do, this one did end. They closed the pub down, then found themselves wandering the streets of London into the wee hours. They sang what songs they could remember, but mostly they strode, desperate for any excuse to prolong this, whatever last bit of joy they could muster.
At long last, though, it became clear that time was against them. They exchanged their goodbyes. More than a few of the gentlemen asked Nancy for a customary kiss of good luck. She obliged them. She could use some of her own. But then it really was the end, and they each found themselves in whatever directing was “home” for the evening.
Nancy made it back to her room without much trouble. Rourke, and Jameson, had observed correctly. Drink had never been much of an issue before. She figured that might be an asset in the days to come. It certainly had been in the days before.
It had been a good night, she decided. As good a send-off as she could ask for. When she did return to her place, however, she found reality waiting for her. The doorman had a message for her. The urgent kind that she was sure someone had sternly made him promise to give her but under no circumstances tell her who had sent it.
The Hotel. 9 o’clock.
That was all. But she knew. It was all she needed.
She thanked the doorman and found her way to her room, where she immediately fell to the bed, only discarding her coat before she did. Nancy caught a few hours of sleep but was up with plenty of time. The hangover wasn’t much to deal with, though she couldn’t help the anxiety.
She grabbed her coat. Camel hair, her favorite, and her purse. Everything else she knew would be waiting for her at the airfield, neatly packed for the drop. She let herself out of the building like it was any other day, even wishing a good day to the doorman, as if she would see him tonight. She decided to risk a cab to make it her appointment.
She knew a meeting like this wasn’t uncommon. Maurice liked to prep all his agents personally. But they always met at the Flat. She knew the company had other spots, but she had never been to the Hotel before.
The cab dropped in front of the Northumberland at 9 o’clock sharp. It certainly wasn’t the shiniest of hotels, but, then again, it didn’t need to be, did it? She went up to the front desk, but, clearly, she was expected as the man at the counter only nodded and led her to the lift. They got off at the third floor and he motioned her towards a closed door just down the hall. Nancy knocked twice.
“Come in,” came a raspy voice from the other side. Nancy recognized it, which surprised her. Her suspicion was confirmed when she opened the door and found the room empty except for a single table, behind which sat Vera Atkins.
“Nancy Wake,” Atkins said, almost announcing her. She tapped her cigarette against an ashtray and pointed at the chair opposite her. “Have a seat.”