Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

BOOK: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


To my daughter, Kirsten—I cannot give you forever, but I promise to love you for that long.


Strength lies not in defense but in attack.

Adolf Hitler


bicycled down the country lane. Desolate fields, their grasses winter-brown and glistening from the afternoon’s rainfall, stretched out on either side of the road. The first strains of twilight darkened the distant hills to black, and nearby a few muddy sheep grazed, pausing to gaze blank-eyed at Gretchen as she pedaled past.

Beyond the long line of poplar trees rose the Oxford Psychoanalytical Clinic, a stone lion of a building turning gray in the dusk. Gretchen coasted down the drive and stopped under the portico, leaving her bicycle leaning against a pillar. The front door handle was cold in her hand as she twisted it open and stepped inside.

Walking into the mental clinic’s reception hall felt like walking into a luxurious hotel lobby. The wood-paneled walls were
dotted with watercolor paintings, the parquet floor covered with red Turkish carpets. The first time Gretchen had seen it, she’d been shocked, for she had expected stark white walls, men and women writhing in straitjackets, and the throbbing hum of an electric current machine. Her guardian had smiled at her confusion, saying the clinic was designed to treat its patients, not imprison them.

A nurse sat behind the front desk, going through a sheaf of papers. “Good afternoon, Miss Whitestone,” she said in the clipped accent that Gretchen had found so difficult to understand when she’d first arrived in England. “Your father should be finished seeing patients for the day, so you may go right up.”

“Thank you.” Gretchen didn’t bother correcting the nurse—Dr. Alfred Whitestone wasn’t her father; her real papa had been dead more than nine years—but it was best not to discuss the matter, and thus encourage questions that were too dangerous for her to answer. As far as the staff knew, she was an ordinary German immigrant who had been taken in by a kindly English family. If only the truth were that simple.

Gretchen hurried up the twisting stairwell to Alfred’s office. The third-floor corridor stretched out, its yellow-and-white tiled walls broken by a succession of closed doors. The patients were downstairs for their painting and flower-arranging therapeutic classes, so the place was quiet. A house of lunatics, Gretchen’s school friends had whispered, but she knew better. She’d spent too many years at her honorary uncle Dolf’s side not to recognize true darkness—and this was not it.

Just thinking of Adolf Hitler threw her heart against her ribs.
, she ordered herself, walking faster. She hated the way he still
crept into her head. Worrying about him was foolish: Hundreds of miles and the gray waters of the English Channel separated them. Even if he was looking for her, he’d never find her. She’d hidden herself too carefully for him to pick up her trail.

But she still had to pause outside the office door, waiting for her pulse to slow, before she knocked.

“Come in!” Her guardian sounded distracted; he was probably lost in a case study or a patient file, struggling to untie the dark knots in the minds of those he had pledged to help. Gretchen hoped that someday she could be half as accomplished a psychoanalyst as him.

“Hello, Dr. Whitestone,” Gretchen said, stepping into his office and squinting in the sudden muted light. A single green-shaded lamp burned, leaving most of the room in shadow. The doctor sat at his desk, tidying a stack of manila folders. “I’ve just gotten back from town. The study session went well,” she added, knowing he would ask, although it still seemed strange to have a parent who inquired about her schooling.

These conversations between the two of them had become a daily habit; she would stop by his office after school and they would chat for a few minutes before walking home together, leaving her bicycle at the clinic for her to pick up on her way to school the next morning. They rarely talked about anything but school or the clinic, but, even so, it was nice to have someone’s full attention and to know that if she did want to discuss something else, he was willing to listen.

“Now, Gretchen,” he said gently, “we’ve been over this before. Please call me Alfred.”

Gretchen flushed. Even though she’d been a member of the
Whitestone household for seventeen months, she still sometimes forgot to call her guardian by his first name. Addressing an adult so informally—especially one she hadn’t known since girlhood—went against everything she’d been taught by her parents.

Most of her parents’ rules were wrong, she reminded herself, and forced a smile. “Yes, Alfred.”

His gaze held hers for a moment longer, his expression serious. “I don’t make the request lightly. You’re my daughter in every sense of the word that matters.”

Gretchen swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat, thinking of her father. He had never said such things to her, but she had known he had loved her by the way he danced with her around the kitchen or sat with her when she woke up from a nightmare. Loving Alfred wasn’t being disloyal to Papa, she reminded herself for the thousandth time. It was finding a way to keep living, no matter what happened. “I know,” she managed to say.

Whitestone blinked several times and turned away, busying himself with the folders in a filing cabinet. “You said the study session went well?”

“Yes. Though the French exam will probably still be dreadful. Anyway, it’s half past six, and Julia must be frantic that the rolls have gone cold by now.”

“Poor Julia.” Whitestone locked the cabinet and turned to Gretchen, smiling. Cold rolls were a long-running family joke—Alfred was frequently late to supper, and once had been so wrapped up in work that he’d forgotten about a lavish dinner party his wife was throwing, resulting in the infamous cold-as-rock rolls. “We’d best get home, then,” he added, ushering her out of the office.

Together, they started down the hall. Although Gretchen tried not to see them, she couldn’t help noticing the missing wall tiles, the scuff marks on the floor, the flickering bulbs in the electric light fixtures. Up here on the third floor, far from the probing gazes of potential patients and their families, the clinic’s meager finances showed themselves.

As their footsteps echoed up and down the hall, Gretchen glanced at Alfred. As always, he was his comfortable, dapper self: a thatch of black hair above a square of a face, dark eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles, and a blue suit that somehow managed to appear freshly pressed although it had been worn all day. He looked just the same as he had when they’d met months ago at her mother’s boardinghouse in Munich. Then he’d been a stranger on sabbatical, wishing to observe the psychological oddity of rising politician Adolf Hitler. He’d planned to write a profile on Hitler for a medical journal, one that would garner him enough professional acclaim that he’d be invited to serve on the staff of a prominent London hospital.

But he’d never written it. In order for her to be safe, she had to remain anonymous, which meant the Whitestones had to, as well. So Alfred had continued trudging along at his job at this mediocre clinic, and kept his article on Hitler locked in a desk drawer. Because he cared for her, she knew.

“Do you ever regret it?” she asked as they entered the stairwell. “Staying here, I mean, when you could have gotten a job somewhere else.”

“Of course not.” Whitestone spoke briskly. “If I’d written about Hitler, we could have attracted a lot of attention. We mustn’t give anyone a reason to look at us too closely. Your safety is more important than anything.”

What had she done to warrant such unwavering love and self-sacrifice from this family? There were no ties of blood or years of shared memories between them. But there was something deeper, something she hadn’t experienced until she’d met Daniel.

The thought of her beau relaxed the clenched muscles of her stomach. She pictured his eyes, brown mixed with gold, watching hers while he grinned, the left side of his mouth lifting higher than the right.
It’s all right
, she heard him saying in his sharp Berliner accent.
Nobody but my family knows where we are, and they’ll never tell anyone.
He would cup her chin in his hand, propelling her closer until their lips were almost touching, and say the words she desperately wanted to believe.
We made it. You’ll never have to see Adolf Hitler again.

She needed him to be right. Because she knew if she and Uncle Dolf met again, he would have her killed immediately. If not for her “blood sin” of loving a Jew, then for the secret she’d uncovered about him. The one that had broken them apart. The thing that ripped her from sleep, night after night, leaving her gasping in the dark, pressing a hand over her mouth so nobody would hear her.

“We should hurry,” she said through numb lips. “The boys must be hungry.”

They collected spare mackintoshes, umbrellas, and galoshes from the front hall and set off across the damp fields. Light from the clinic’s windows tossed gold onto the ground, turning the drying raindrops to flecks of glitter. About two hundred yards away stood the Whitestones’ home, a large brick house perched alongside a rutted lane that gradually widened as it stretched into the
city. On the back porch, Gretchen and Dr. Whitestone kicked off their galoshes, then stepped into the warm kitchen where Cook bustled over the Aga stove.

“Get on with you,” Cook grumbled. “Keeping poor Mrs. Whitestone waiting these twenty minutes.”

Gretchen tried not to smile. She found Cook’s complaints soothing, for she heard them at least a couple of times every week, but here no one ever sighed with disapproval or said one thing while meaning another. Unlike Mama.

Her stomach twisted. She joined Dr. Whitestone at the sink, gazing at the water sluicing across her hands until her worries about her mother slipped away.

Dr. Whitestone took Gretchen’s arm. “Come along.” There was a slight catch in his voice that made her peer at him, but his face was calm.

From the dining room, Gretchen caught a giggle and someone whispering, “Hush!” She frowned. Ordinarily, suppers at the Whitestones’ were noisy affairs, between her three foster brothers chattering about their day, Julia chiding them about their table manners, and the boys’ governess sighing into her soup about yet another stupid comment her beau from the greengrocer’s had made. The quiet felt unnatural.

Was something wrong? Gretchen hurried across the kitchen, hearing Papa’s old warning in her head:
Silence means someone’s waiting to hurt you
. Had something happened to Julia and the boys? She pushed the dining room door open, ready to run inside, and stopped short.

Paper streamers dangled from the chandelier. Candles flickered from Julia’s best silver candlesticks, which were set on the
lace-trimmed tablecloth that normally came out only on Sundays and Christmas. A hand-printed sign reading
—the boys’ work, no doubt; she recognized the shaky
as Jack’s—had been hung over the green-and-gold-striped wallpaper. Beaming under their party hats were Julia and her three sons, Colin, Andrew, and Jack, aged twelve, ten, and eight like stepping-stones, all flame-haired and freckled like their mother. Sitting next to Julia was Gretchen’s friend Mary. The governess must have been given the night off.

“Happy birthday!” they shouted.

“But . . .” Today wasn’t her birthday. She had turned eighteen back in July.

Then she saw Julia’s small frown. Of course. Her old self, Gretchen Müller, had been born on 18 July 1914. Gisela Schröder—the name on the false identity papers she’d bought in Switzerland two autumns ago, when she and Daniel had fled Germany—had been born seven months later, so today, 21 February 1933, was indeed her eighteenth “birthday.” She’d kept her real first name, reasoning that no one would look for her here, but she’d assumed parts of the fictitious Gisela’s identity, including her birth date, to fill in the holes in her own.

Confusion wrinkled Mary’s forehead, and the boys looked bewildered. They didn’t know who she truly was, or that it wasn’t her birthday. She had to react, and fast, before they started to wonder at her silence.

“Thank you,” she said. “This is lovely. I’ve never had a birthday supper before.” Last year, Julia had tried to give her one, but she’d declined, feeling uncomfortable at the thought of the Whitestones going to that much expense for her. Apparently,
Julia hadn’t wanted to give her the chance to refuse again.

“Never?” The boys goggled and everybody laughed.

“It isn’t just supper,” Julia said. “There will be presents and cake afterward.”

Tonight she wore a patterned silk dress and had forced her hair into a sleek chignon, a marked change from her usual tweed skirts, lace-up shoes, and unruly curls. The boys wore their typical short trousers, kneesocks, and sweaters, but everything was clean, without a single stain or rip, practically a miracle in the rambunctious Whitestone household.

Something brilliant and warm unfolded in Gretchen’s chest. They had dressed up for her sake.

“We have one surprise that won’t wait.” Julia beamed. “You can come in now,” she called.

Gretchen’s heart leapt. She turned toward the doorway. In the hall beyond the dining room, she glimpsed a tall young man. He moved so fast toward her, he was little more than a blur of a black suit jacket and trousers. But she recognized the muscular line of his shoulders, the confident tilt of his head.
. Everything within her blazed to life.

BOOK: Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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