Today's Reading

CHAPTER THREE

The lobby of the Picardie remains still and silent. Outside, nothing stirs as Max watches. No shadows shift in the overgrown grounds, the thin moon drifts behind cloud, no reflection disturbing rue de la République.

Suddenly the silence is broken. Two sharp cracks, like firecrackers, echo somewhere in the night. They are not near, but the sound is magnified by the silence that preceded them.

Nor are they firecrackers. They are gunshots.

Now there is further gunfire—a rapid sequence of several shots; a brief pause, a single shot; finally, another volley.

They are happening in Dinon.

From upstairs come sounds of frantic movement. The gunfire has woken Wolff and his aide, their windows open wide for any breath of air on this stifling night.

Max hears doors being flung open. The Germans call loudly, urgently, to each other, a floor apart. Doors slam shut, then strike walls as they are flung open again. Now there is the thud of running feet overhead—heavy, booted feet—and both men come hurtling down the stairs, fastening tunics and gun belts as they descend.

Neither man notices Max, who has retreated to the shadows. They make for the courtyard and garage block. Seconds later he hears the roar of an engine and the screech of tires as Wolff's armored car accelerates away.

* * *

Silence settles over the Picardie again. Max returns to his vigil at the window.

Those gunshots. Despite Wolff's seizure of all firearms held in civilian hands, despite his regular threats and edicts against illegal weapons, there will always be guns in Dinon, hidden in barns or milking parlors, stashed away under eaves, beneath floorboards, behind kitchen stoves. They are a fact of life in this community.

Guns have their different voices. The shots fired tonight were from handguns, not rifles. An illicit night-time poaching expedition would require rifles. And it would take place deep in the countryside, not in Dinon town.

So the gunfire tonight was not poachers at work.

Max searches for other explanations. He searches hard. He wants an explanation he can believe. Perhaps there was a quarrel between citizens. Serious enough as explanations go, but not the very worst. Not the explanation he would fear most. He would like to believe anything but that.

He extinguishes the light over the staircase and returns to the window. He opens it and listens. What he hears does not reassure him. In the distance, down in Dinon, many vehicles are on the move, their engines whining and revving. There is the racket of truck doors slamming, tailgates crashing open or closed. Coarse voices bellow commands. He hears the clank of machinery, then the thump of heavy equipment, a pattern of sound that is repeated and repeated as he listens. He fits images to the noises, picturing roadblocks being set in place, streets and lanes being cut off, armed troopers taking up position, their boots ringing on cobblestones.

If the gunfire was a shoot-out between citizens, it would be a matter for Dinon's irascible police chief, a stunted little individual by the name of Jacques Dompnier, and his louts. Perhaps they are already involved. The gunfire might even have been theirs—they are armed and roam Dinon and its environs at all hours of the night, theoretically under Wolff's control. Theoretically only, for Dompnier is not a man to be easily or willingly constrained. But even if his men were responsible for the gunfire, the police chief has no heavy equipment that would make the din that Max is currently hearing.

No, this is far beyond Dompnier and his gang. A major operation is being mounted. A military operation.

Which means that Egon Wolff is sealing Dinon tight, locking it shut, making it a cage that no one can enter or leave.

Now Max becomes aware of another sound. It is the rising note of a train pulling away from rest, the rhythm growing steadily faster as the locomotive gathers speed. His gaze goes to the silhouette of the high railway embankment on the other side of rue de la République. Out of sight in the deep cutting beyond it, a freight train must have been stationary and silent, freight being the only rail transport permitted during curfew on those nights when the Germans move troops, equipment and supplies. Tonight is evidently such a night.

And now the train is under way again.

Gradually the sound fades. Max closes the window. But he stays there, watching.


This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, December 12th, we begin the book The Lipstick Bureau by Michelle Gable.
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