Maggie Hope was feeling her way through thick darkness. She was panting after shimmying up a rickety drainpipe, knocking out a screen in an upper-story window, avoiding several trip wires, and then sliding silently onto the floor of a dark hallway. She took a deep breath and rose to her feet, every nerve alert.
Beneath her foot, a parquet floorboard creaked. Oh, come now, she thought. She waited for a moment, slowing her breathing, feeling her heart thunder in her chest. All around her was impenetrable black. The only sounds were the creaks of an ancient manor house.
Maggie could feel dampness under her arms and hot drops of sweat trickling down the small of her back. Aware of each and every sound, she continued down the hall until she reached the home's library. The door was locked. Well, of course it is, Maggie thought. She picked the lock in seconds with one of her hairpins.
Once she'd ascertained no one was there, she turned on her tiny flashlight and made her way to the desk. The safe was supposed to be under it. And it was, just as her handler had described.
Good, she thought, sitting down on the carpet next to it. All right, let's talk. That was how she pictured safecracking: a nice little chat with the safe. It was how the Glaswegian safecracker Johnny Ramensky--released from prison to do his part for the war effort--had taught her. She spun the dial and listened. When she could hear the tumblers dropping into place--not hear, but feel the vibrations with her fingertips--she knew she had the first number correct. Now, for the second.
Biting her lower lip in concentration, immersed in safecracking, Maggie didn't hear the room's closet door open.
Out from the shadows emerged a man. He was tall and lean, and wearing an SS uniform. "You're never going to get away with this, you know," he lisped, like Paul Lukas in Confessions of a Nazi Spy.
Maggie didn't bother to answer, saving her energy for the last twist of the dial, the safe's thick metal door clicking open.
In a single move, she gathered the files from the safe under her arm and sprang to her feet. She turned the flashlight on the intruder. He squinted at the light in his eyes.
Maggie ran at him, kneeing him in the groin, hard. While he was doubled over, she elbowed him in the back of the head. Satisfied he was unconscious, she ran to the door, folders still in hand.
Except that he wasn't unconscious. An arm shot out and a hand grabbed Maggie's ankle. She fell, files sliding across the floor. She kicked his hand off and scrambled for the door.
He struggled to his feet and ran after her, catching and holding her easily with his left arm while he wrapped his right hand around her throat. She gasped for breath, trying to throw him off, but she couldn't get the proper leverage. He threw her up against the wall, pinning her--
Then, again--the voice amplified by a megaphone, louder this time: "OH, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, STOP!"
The man's arms around Maggie relaxed and released her.
"What on earth . . . ?" she muttered in exasperation.
The hall's lights blinked on, bare bulbs in elaborate molded ceilings. It wasn't actually the home of a high-ranking Nazi in Berlin but the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire, England. Beaulieu was considered the "finishing school" of SOE--Special Operations Executive--Winston Churchill's black ops division. Some of the recruits joked that SOE didn't stand for Special Operations Executive as much as "Stately 'omes of England," where all the training seemed to take place.
"What now?" Maggie grumbled and started to pace the hallway.
A severe-looking man in his late forties with a full head of gray hair walked out into the hall with a clipboard. "All right, Miss Hope--would you like to tell us what you did wrong?"
Maggie stopped, hands on hips. "Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Thornley." Maggie had to remember not to call him Thorny, which was his unfortunate nickname among the trainees. "I picked the lock, cracked the safe, took the folders, disarmed the enemy--"
"Disarmed. Didn't kill."
Maggie stopped herself from rolling her eyes. "I was just about to do the honors, sir."
"You were about to be killed yourself, young lady," Thornley barked.
The tall man in the SS uniform walked up behind Maggie, rubbing the back of his head. "Not bad technique there, Maggie. But they told me that if you only knocked me out and didn't fake-kill me I'd have to come after you again."
She gave him her most winning smile. "Sorry about the knee, Phil."
"Not at all."
Thornley was not amused. "Not killing the enemy is the worst mistake because . . ."
Maggie and Phil looked at each other.
From behind Thornley came a loud, high-pitched nasal voice: "Because the only safe enemy is a dead enemy."
"Oh, Colonel Gubbins--we didn't know you were there," Thornley said, as Gubbins stepped out of the shadows.
"There is nothing more deadly than an angry Nazi--remember that--you're not killing a person, you're killing a Nazi. A Kraut. A Jerry."
Colonel Colin McVean Gubbins was Head of Training and Operations at Beaulieu--a haunted-looking man with dark, recessed eyes, thick eyebrows, and wispy mustache. "Only sixty percent of agents dropped behind enemy lines survive, Miss Hope. You're the first woman to be dropped into Germany--the first woman to be dropped behind enemy lines in this war, period. Lord only knows what your odds are. We're taking an ungodly risk. And we want you to be prepared."
Maggie's frustration cooled. This wasn't about her--it was about the mission succeeding. "Yes, sir."
"You're going in to deliver a radio part to a resistance group in Berlin, and also to plant a bug at a high-ranking Abwehr officer's home. For whatever reason, the Prime Minister has asked for you for this mission specifically. And if you take out a Nazi or two in the process, so be it. This is no time to be squeamish or sentimental. Do you understand?"
The P.M. asked for me specifically for this mission! Maggie glowed with pride but tried to damp it down so Gubbins wouldn't notice. "I do, sir."
"With your fluency in German, and the skills you've been working on, you just might pull it off," he said. "But it's dangerous work and that's why you can leave nothing--and no one--to chance."
"Yes, sir." Maggie had dreamed about becoming a spy sent on a foreign mission. She'd dreamed of it working as a typist to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and she dreamed about it while she was acting as a maths tutor to the Princess Elizabeth. Now, finally, was her chance.
"Let's try it again," Gubbins said. "And this time, Miss Hope, I want you to finish the Nazi off. Kill the damned Kraut."
It was ungodly hot and humid, even though it was still early morning. The skies were dark and swollen with bloated clouds. Above the buildings soared the baroque verdigris roof of the Berliner Dom, its golden cross pointing heavenward like an accusing finger.
Elise Hess navigated the narrow cobblestone side streets of Berlin-Mitte in order to avoid the parade on Unter den Linden, fast approaching the Brandenburg Gate.
The Nazis had reason to celebrate. Not only had they already seized Holland, Belgium, and France, but now German troops had invaded Russia, destroying Russia's 16th and 20th Armies in the "Smolensk pocket" and triumphing at Roslavl, near Smolensk. The German military seemed invincible. Despite the Atlantic Charter with the United States, Britain's defeat was clearly only a matter of time.
Elise could hear the steady beating drums of the Hitler Youth and the coarse clamor of the crowd in the distance, singing the Horst Wessel Song. She could see the scarlet banners with their white circles and black hakenkreuz--broken crosses--which the Volk had hung from their windows. Papering the limestone walls were tattered posters of Adolf Hitler in medieval armor, on horseback like a Teutonic knight, captioned Dem Fuhrer die Treue: Be True to the Fuhrer. Trash, cigarette butts, and broken glass from the rally the night before lined the gutters, and the air stank of stale beer and urine.
The ground was marked with chalk squares for the children's hopping game Heaven and Hell. Boys and girls were playing, throwing a small stone, then hopping on the chalked squares, trying to make it from one end to the other and back again. The boys were well scrubbed, the girls had intricate braids. All had round, rosy cheeks.
As one, they spied a small boy with a clubfoot, walking with a crutch, twisted ankle dragging behind him. He hobbled as close to the wall as he could, trying not to be noticed. But like a pack, the group set on him, herding him away from the wall. They formed a circle around him, holding hands, as the boy's eyes darted, trying to find a way to escape. One of the older boys started singing a familiar nursery rhyme:
Fox, you've stolen the goose
Give it back!
Give it back!
Or the hunter will get you
With his gun,
Or the hunter will get you
With his gun.
The other children joined in:
His big, long gun,
Takes a little shot at you,
Takes a little shot at you,
So, you're tinged with red
And then you're dead.
So, you're tinged with red
And then you're dead.
In the distance, church bells tolled the hour.
"Children!" Elise said, clapping her hands together. "Stop! That's enough!" They looked over at her, angry.
The boy with the clubfoot took their momentary distraction as an opportunity to burst through the circle and make a hard right into an alley, staggering as fast as he could with his crutch. The children picked up rocks and flung them after him but didn't bother to give chase. "Are you going to the parade, Fraulein?" one girl called to Elise.
"Nein," she replied. "I have to work."
"Too bad!" the girl called back, skipping and laughing, as the boys slapped one another's backs.
Walking away, Elise shook her head. "Gott im Himmel help us."
Elise took one of the many bridges over the Spree and arrived at Charite Mitte Hospital damp with sweat.
She went to the nurses' changing room. It was small, with walls of gray lockers and a low wooden bench. There was a poster on the wall, of a handsome doctor and a mentally disabled man in a wheelchair, with the caption This hereditarily sick person costs the Volksgemeinschaft 60,000 R.M. for life. Comrade, it's your money, too.
Elise slipped out of her skirt and blouse. She kept on her necklace with the tiny gold cross, a diamond chip in its center. The door opened. It was Frieda Klein, another nurse. "Hallo!" Elise said, smiling. Shifts were always better when Frieda was working.
"Hallo," Frieda replied. She put down her things and began to change. "Gott, I wish I had breasts like yours, Elise," she said, looking down at her own flat chest. "You're the perfect Rhine maiden."
"I'm too fat," Elise moaned. "As my mother loves to remind me. Often. I wish I had collarbones like yours--so elegant."
Whereas Elise was curvaceous, Frieda was thin and all angles. Whereas Elise had dark blue eyes and chestnut-brown curls, Frieda was blond and pale. And whereas Frieda was phlegmatic, Elise had a habit of speaking too quickly and bouncing up and down on her toes when she became excited about a finer point of medicine, swing music, or anything at all to do with American movie stars. The two young women, friends since school, had both wanted to be nurses since they were young girls.
They put on their gray uniforms, with starched white aprons and linen winged caps. "Do you mind?" Elise asked, indicating the back strings on her apron.
"Not at all," Frieda said and tied them into a bow. She turned around. "Now do mine?"
Elise did, then slapped Frieda on the bottom. They laughed as they walked out together to the nurses' station to begin their shift.
In an examination room that smelled of rubbing alcohol and lye soap, a tiny blond girl in a hospital gown asked, "Will there be blood?"
The only picture on the wall was Heinrich Knirr's official portrait of Adolf Hitler--the Fuhrer's figure stiff, his hard eyes gazing impassively over the proceedings.
Elise smiled and shook her head. "Nein," she answered. "No blood work today. The doctor just wants to take a look at your ears. To make sure the infection's gone."
The girl, Gretel Paulus, was sitting on a hospital bed. She held a small brown, well-loved teddy bear and spoke with a slight speech impediment. Her thick lower lip protruded and glistened with saliva, her tongue overlarge. She had a round face, pointy chin, and almond-shaped eyes behind thick, distorting eyeglasses.
Elise smiled. "What goes ninety-nine thump, ninety-nine thump, ninety-nine thump?"
"A centipede with a wooden leg, of course!"
That won a weak smile out of the young girl. Elise took an otoscope from the cabinet, cleaned the earpiece with alcohol, and then put it to the girl's right ear. Then the left.
"When it's just you and I, you may call me Elise."
"Elise--why do my ears always hurt?" Gretel wanted to know.
Elise knew all too well that ear infections were common with Down syndrome patients. "It's just something that happens sometimes," she said, putting the otoscope away and returning to rub the girl's back. "And you feel better now, yes? The medicine worked?"
"If I feel better, why do I still have to see the doctor? The new doctor?"
Gretel didn't miss a thing, Elise realized. "His name is Doktor Brandt. And he wants to make sure you don't have any more ear infections."
The door to the examination room opened, and in walked Dr. Karl Brandt. He was relatively new to Charite, one of the SS doctors who came in the late winter of 1941, with their red armbands with black swastikas, and their new rules and regulations. Young, handsome, with thick, dark hair and impeccable posture, Brandt radiated authority.
Elise handed Gretel's chart to him. Without preamble, he marked the black box in the lower left-hand corner of the medical history chart with a bold red X, the last of three. He looked out the door and beckoned. Two orderlies arrived, strong and broad-shouldered in white coats with swastika armbands.
"Am I going home?" Gretel asked the doctor.
"Not yet, Mauschen," Brandt replied, smiling. "We're going to make sure this never happens to you again."
Gretel beamed. "Oh, thank you, Herr Doktor!" she lisped as the two orderlies escorted her back to her room to get dressed. She hugged her teddy bear to her small body.
Excerpted from His Majesty's Hope by Susan Elia MacNeal. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Elia MacNeal. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.