Agent handler, John Noble, can never be sure his asset, Miss Tyler, is still alive. Not until he sees her in the flesh, on rare encounters between missions. Every coded message she sends by telegraph from occupied France, he has to suspect could come from an enemy impersonating her to gain information. Each meeting confirms she is still alive. Each meeting, he carries orders for her next mission. Each meeting could be their last.
The rendezvous point, set by his superior, is a dance hall in the West End. It’s one of those supposedly safer, underground clubs. Strings of Union Jack pennants criss-cross the low ceiling. John doesn’t think much of it, he meets his agents in all sorts of places. But what he hasn’t foreseen is that Miss Tyler would dress up for the occasion: pink dress with black trims and buttons, fire-red lipstick, hair in soft waves. She’s cut it and dyed it blond for her next mission, and it frames her lovely face like a halo.
She smiles at him across the dance floor.
She’s alive. So alive.
He crosses the room in long strides as she bounds towards him, and they stop short of jumping in each other’s arms.
“Doctor! It’s so good to see a familiar face.” She touches his cheek briefly.
He takes off his fedora and fiddles with the brim.
She only knows him by his codename, one he inherited after his first undercover mission in 1916.
“Miss Tyler, you look… you look a picture.”
“Thank you. After five months over there I wasn’t going to miss a chance to dress up.”
But no amount of makeup, nor the dim lights and heavy cigarette smoke in the dance hall, can hide her emaciated figure and the dark circles under her eyes. Every time he sees her, she looks wiser.
At 19 (now 23), she was the youngest of his recruits. He’d doubted she would make it through his rigorous training. Week after week she’d proved her worth, although not without defying him at every turn. She was hot-headed but never foolish. If an ability to think for oneself wasn’t high on the list of qualities sought by the military, it was necessary for intelligence work. She and other girls had spent months in a manor in York, requisitioned by MI6, enduring countless drills and exercises in abhorrent conditions. Some girls quit, some failed. Rose had persevered. Her courage, he discovered on those quiet nights when they had sat alone under the stars, didn’t stem from youthful innocence, but from compassion. It’s what drove her. It’s what would cause her to suffer. He knew firsthand how war wrecks a person with good intentions. Yet he’d agreed to send her behind enemy lines.
The dance hall is packed with Canadian and American soldiers and British girls, many of them in uniforms. Between rationing, threat of air raids and intensive work shifts, dancing is one of the few escapes left, necessary to maintain morale. He could use some of that himself, but they are here to conduct important, top secret business. Rose, however, has other things in mind.
“You’ll buy me a drink, yeah?” she says. “It would look suspicious if we didn’t drink when everyone else is.”
John bows down to her logic and heads for the bar as she secures a corner table.
She drinks the watered-down beer from her pint glass until she is out of breath, then rolls her eyes in delight. “Oh, it’s gorgeous.”
“Don’t tell me you haven’t been gorging yourself on great French wines and pastries,” he says sarcastically.
“Only on weekends.”
She gives him that tongue-touched smile that reduces enemy spies to obliging puppies.
He asks her the usual questions though he’s read all the details in her report. She’d single-handedly took down Oberführer Van Statten’s operation in Poitiers. Yet, she talks more about the people who helped her along the way.
He readies himself for the transfer of documents, for the moment their legs and hands will meet under the table.
But Rose is distracted. Her gaze keeps drifting to the couples Lindy hopping on the dance floor to the jazz tunes of an energetic quartet. A mix of sweat, cheap cologne and hormones arises from them.
“Oh, won’t you dance with me, Doctor?”
“Miss Tyler, I’m trying to impart vital information to you.”
“It will look suspicious if we don’t dance in a dance hall. It’s like you taught me: blend in.”
“How many times are you going to use that excuse?”
“As often as it takes,” she says, shamelessly. “Just one song, please. Unless you’d rather I ask someone else.”
She scans the room. When her gaze lands on a group of GIs, a burning sensation radiates through his chest.
“That won’t be necessary,” he declares, promptly standing up. “Need I remind you, you’re forbidden from forming attachments?”
“Too late for that.”
He barely hears her over the music. His stomach drops.
“In France?” he asks.
She shakes her head and looks at him with something close to pleading in her eyes. For a moment he can almost believe she means— no, surely not.
The saxophonist launches into the opening arpeggio of “In the Mood”. The dancers cheer.
Rose grabs his hand. “Show me your moves, Doctor.” She pulls him towards the lively crowd.
Though stiff at first, the catchy melody and Rose’s encouragement soon loosen his limbs. They swing and jive and jitterbug, and he twirls her through a second and a third song.
She’s losing herself in the music, closing her eyes and thinking of nothing else. Carefree. Light-hearted. Brilliant.
The next song is “I don’t want to set the world on fire”, a fast-paced rendition, not the original ballad from which he would have walked away. The lyrics hit him nonetheless.
I don't want to set the world on fire
I just want to start a flame in your heart
In my heart I have but one desire
And that one is you, no other will do
I've lost all ambition for worldly acclaim
I just want to be the one you love
And with your admission that you'd feel the same
I'll have reached the goal I'm dreaming of, believe me
The tempo decreases, and she rests her head on his chest, just above where his heart beats wildly.
Oh, to keep Rose like this forever, safe in his arms, sheltered. Sod MI6 and the next mission. He could hide her, keep her. And then what? Wrap her in cotton wool? Tell her, “Here, I could let you fight fascism, but I’m not going to in case you get hurt? There’s so much you can do, you’re fantastic, but I want you to stay at home and work in a shop?”
He breaks their embrace abruptly.
“We have work to do.”
And he sets about following protocol, describing her next target. When he hands her the documents under the table, he doesn’t let his fingers brush hers. But Rose grabs his hand. He shakes her off and avoids her gaze full of confusion and hurt.
John’s efficiency means the meeting ends too soon.
On the pavement, in front of the dance hall, they say their goodbyes.
“I’ll see you in six months or so? If all goes well,” she says. “It will be Christmas!” She smiles, but it’s tight-lipped.
Christmas. Around them, magnolias are in bloom and a warm breeze stirs Rose’s hair. He can barely imagine what it will be like in such a long time. So many things could happen until then.
They could win the war. Tides are turning in the Allies’ favor lately.
They could win, but still lose her.
“Do you really want to go on this mission?” he asks as professionally as he can. “You could refuse, ask to stay here.”
“No. Not after everything I’ve seen.”
“Of course.” He takes in a deep ragged breath and tips his hat. “Be safe, Miss Tyler.”
He watches her walk away. Her arms swing at her sides, her fists are clenched and she rubs her thumb over her knuckles.
After about a minute, he follows her as he has done before. He keeps a long distance between them, longer than he would usually keep. After all, he taught her himself how to tell she’s been followed, and she’s his best student. He only wants to make sure she arrives safely at her boarding house. Of course, she faces more dangerous streets as a spy in occupied France, than at home in London, especially now they aren’t bombed every night, but here, should something happen, he can be there for her.
It’s dark outside, more so with the blackout in place. No streetlights or neons, heavy black curtains obscure windows. White paint on the curb and on top of mailboxes reflects moonlight and dots the way like Little Thumb’s rocks in the tale. They say cars driving without their headlights on has caused more fatalities than bombs.
As per official guidelines, Rose keeps her torchlight beam aimed at the ground. He follows her pink shoes.
She turns left, and he loses sight of her. He slows his pace. Footsteps that keep following when you turn onto a street is a dead giveaway. He’ll wait a beat, remove his hat, then he’ll resume walking, but with a different gait. She can’t know he’s following her, or that he’ll watch her window until he’s smoked a whole cigarette. How would he explain? What would she think of him? What would his superiors think?
Blood drains from his face. He doesn’t hesitate and dashes in the direction of her voice; she’s cried his name.
Her torchlight lies discarded on the ground.
To his right, behind that shop.
He sprints across the street. Struggling noises. Silhouettes hunched behind a dumpster. A man.
“Don’t you dare touch her!”
John rages and groans, topples him over. Teeth clenched, blood boiling. He could rip the man’s head clean off.
Rose moans in pain, and John pushes off the man to rush to her side.
She’s slouched on the ground, eyes closed.
Suddenly he’s back at the Somme, half-sunk in mud, gunfire echoing around him, and Adric in his arms, dying.
A loud noise brings him back to reality. The assailant is fleeing. John stands up to run after him. He needs to know who he works for. But Rose…
He squats back beside her. A syringe sticks out of her arm, plunger depressed, barrel emptied out.
What did he give her? Drugs? Poison?
His fingertips seek her pulse on her wrist. Nothing. On her neck. Yes, there. Weak. Tears well up in his eyes.
“Miss Tyler, can you hear me?”
In his distressed state of mind, there’s only one person he thinks of who can help. Someone he hasn’t talked to since 1918.
The stolen car’s brakes screech to a halt in front of a quiet herbalist shop. Adrenaline helping, John lifts Rose in his arms and runs to the front door. He knocks loudly, relentlessly.
The door cracks open, revealing a middle-aged black woman holding a cast iron pan. John pushes past her, into the front room and carefully lays Rose on the floral couch.
“Doctor?” the woman says. “Is that you? But that’s impossible.”
Kneeling beside the couch, he speaks without taking his eyes off Rose, “Jabe, I need your help. Someone injected her with this.”
Jabe takes the syringe from his hand.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. You’ve helped us with poisons before.”
“I made them. I didn’t identify them.”
“Take a shot at it.”
He gently wipes Rose’s hair away from her face. She’s still breathing. For now.
“But Doctor, poison in her food or drink, she could throw it up, but in her blood—”
John springs up and towers over Jabe menacingly.
Fear spurs her into action, not her own fear, but his.
Jabe pushes on a bookcase, it slides aside, revealing a small workshop. Dried herbs, tiny brown glass bottles and antique apothecary cabinets hide lethal drugs and modern chemistry equipment.
She gets to work, to concoct a generic, broad-spectrum antidote.
“I heard about your unit. It’s remarkable that you’re even still alive," Jabe says carefully. "I just want to say how sorry I am.”
John swallows thickly. He doesn’t need grief on top of distress.
“I’m not losing her too,” he declares to convince himself.
Jabe stirs droplets of a pink liquid into a vial.
“Why did they attack your wife?” she asks.
“She’s not my wife.”
He glares at her.
Rose remains unconscious.
Reluctantly, he leaves her side to fetch a flannel damp with cold water. He dabs it over her forehead and cheek.
“I promised her mother I would always keep her safe. She was just a kid. Nineteen, she was, when I met her. She was fighting off looters in a bombed-out shop.”
“Am I a ghost?” Rose mumbles.
Relief floods his veins. He engulfs her in a hug.
“You’re talking like I’m not here anymore,” she slurs.
“No, love. You’re not a ghost.” Still cradling her head, he leans back, just enough to see her face. “Rose, look at me. Talk to me.”
Her eyelids flutter open with great difficulty.
“Your eyes are so beautiful,” she says. “You’re so handsome. I miss you when I’m in France. Why aren’t you in France with me? I miss you.”
“Shh, I’m here now.”
He kisses her forehead, but Rose seeks his mouth. He doesn’t fight his desire. Their lips meet in a slow, desperate kiss. A sluggish kiss. She’s too limp in his arms. Her eyes have closed again.
“No!” He shakes her. “I miss you too, okay. Rose, do you hear me? I love you.”
“You’re like a storm.” Her speech is lethargic. “There was a storm when we crossed the Channel. The pilot was scared. He ate my sarnies. I don’t want the pilot to eat my sarnies. Tell him not to do that. Mum made those. Where’s she? I’ve to get back home before ten. Don’t go. I love you.”
John laughs through his tears. Rose babbles on, none of what she says makes sense.
“Jabe, I know what it is: sodium pentothal. It’s a barbiturate. They keep trying to use it as a truth serum.”
“Does that really work?” Jabe asks, joining him beside Rose.
“It’s not as simple as that. It reduces inhibition. People talk without thinking. The problem isn’t getting information, is you get too much of it, you can’t tell reality from imagination. Listen to her.”
Rose is talking about a boat trip that may or may not have been a dream. John smiles fondly.
“And they’re highly suggestible,” he adds. “Miss Tyler, have you ever been to Russia? When did you go to Russia?”
Her eyebrows are drawn together. “I’ve been to Russia. It was cold.”
“No you haven’t been to Russia.”
“No, I haven’t been. We went to York.”
“Yes, we did.”
“You taught me how to pick a lock. I knew how to do it, but I failed. ‘Cause when I couldn’t do it, you stood beside me. Close. To show me. I went to a castle. There were no crocodiles.”
With the new mission orders fresh in her mind, who knows what she could have revealed to their enemies? And it wouldn’t have been her fault.
“How do you know that’s what it is?” Jabe asks.
“I’ve used it.”
It’s not the whole truth.
After the Great War, psychiatrists used it to treat soldiers with acute shell shock. A lower dose than what Rose had received reduced anxiety. With a conscientious doctor, it allowed patients to talk about their trauma and eventually recover from it. He had been one such patient.
“She’ll be fine, she only needs to rest. Can we stay here?”
“Is it safe?”
“I don’t think they’ll come after her again. But as soon as she's out of danger, I will go after him.”
Jabe leaves them alone for a moment.
He moves, but Rose grapples blindly with his shirt. Carefully, he sits on the couch to hold her in his arms. Her pulse is still slow, but close to a normal rate. He keeps caressing and kissing her hair. He rocks her, like the slow dance he denied them earlier.
Jabe comes back with two cups of herbal tea and sets one down on the coffee table for John. She sits in the armchair and studies him. Fine wrinkles now surround her piercing almond-shaped eyes.
“You’re still working for them, aren’t you? After everything that happened,” she says accusingly.
“I couldn’t go back to a normal life. I needed… action.”
“Perhaps a man only enjoys trouble when there is nothing else left,” she says. “Although, sounds like you have Miss Tyler now. That’s good, isn’t it?”
John sighs and his gaze moves to the syringe. “A dose like that… I think they aimed to learn everything they could about her new mission, then release her. Let the mission take its course, then thwart it in the worst possible way.”
“How could they have let her go?”
“Because a dose like that, Jabe, it causes memory loss.”
“She wouldn’t have remembered being interrogated… She won’t remember any of this. Your confession…”
“Will you tell her?”
He looks down at Rose, safe in his arms as he had wished. He tightens his embrace.
“After the war. Maybe.”