The daily SNCF train from Perpignan and the Pyrénées puffed steadily against an ominous grey and black background as it neared the stone outline of the new multi-leveled Toulouse main railway station. As the engineer slowly eased the control of the steam powered engine, his attention was diverted to a group of uniformed men waiting at the end of the station platform. A uniformed figure waved a red flag in a downward movement to signal the train to come to a complete stop.
The stupid Vichy police again. This time they will board the train before we even enter the station. What difference would it have been for them to wait for us to stop inside the station? Their typical idiotic flair for the dramatic. Oh well. I am just an engineer…
The train came to a complete stop and the group hurried to board the coaches. It was important to the Vichy policemen and Milice operatives that no one aboard the train be allowed the chance to escape. Several trucks appeared around the station’s rear and came up to a spot just abreast of the lead carriage.
On board the train, the almost abrupt stop did not go unnoticed. In the lone first class coach, the second in line, Nancy Wake Fiocca looked out her window at the unfolding turn of events. Nattily dressed in a dark blue suit that would be considered a perfect traveling dress by most French women, she surveyed the scene in front of her. Obviously the Vichy police were looking for someone who had something to hide, and she certainly was well-qualified in that regard. As she weighed her options, she realized she had only a few moments to act. She remembered that she had fortunately worn flat shoes rather than heels, a factor that was in her favor. An instant later she decided to make a quick run for it. Nancy jumped off the train and headed for the last of the waiting trucks, athletically leaping over the tailboard. As she rounded a corner, a group of angry, shouting students holding protest cards presented a formidable barrier. She tried to make her way through the melee, but the crowd was too thick.
An instant later, the sweaty hand of a Vichy policeman grabbed her collar and roughly pulled her away from the crowd.
“Sorry Mademoiselle, you must come with me,” he muttered in a not-too-friendly tone. “We have some questions for you and the others on the train. You will be taken to the gendarmerie with the others.”
When the trucks were filled with all the passengers, they slowly lumbered to the main police station on the boulevard de l‘Embrochure a mere five minutes away. Upon arrival, the entire group of around eighty passengers were roughly shown into two large rooms and told to wait.
Nancy Wake Fiocca pondered her situation. As the wife of a wealthy Marseilles businessman, she should not have much of a problem explaining her presence on the train. But, as a secret operative of the French Resistance attempting to escape France, the Australian-raised brunette knew she was certainly snared in a decidedly dreadful setting.
No need to get all upset. I didn’t see the policeman who caught me say anything to anyone else about my attempted escape. I pray he thought I was just scared and ran at the thought of facing the police. I must hope for the best and put on a good show. After all, I am dressed well beyond the average Frenchwoman and that will help. I also have a current carte d’identite that is genuine, so I just need to come up with a story that makes some sense.
Bloody unlucky, what. Something must have happened to put the Vichy police on edge. They don’t usually stop trains before they reach the station. That was odd…
About an hour later, a number of the detainees were escorted out of the room for questioning. Nancy’s turn came about fifteen minutes later when a small, pock- marked man entered the room and signaled in her direction. He nodded for her to come with him.
He held the back of her arm and followed closely behind. At a doorway on the right, he beckoned for her to enter. The man turned the handle and opened the door, revealing another larger man in the standard Franc-Garde policeman’s uniform. His dark blue jacket covered a white button down collared shirt and a thin black tie. The Vichy insignia, a silver circle with a looping ‘V’ crossed down into it stood out against the dark blue coat. The man sat behind a table underneath a suspended light, the only illumination inside the smallish room. The oval-faced officer puffed on his Gitanes as the smaller man roughly pushed Nancy toward a chair facing him. Nancy looked distastefully at her captor and took the chair.
“What is this all about?,” she demanded with authority. “Why am I being detained? You have no right…”
“Shut up,” the seated man interrupted. I am the one who asks the questions here.”
“But, there must be some mistake. I…”
“I told you to shut up,” he repeated. He reached over the table and slapped her hard on the face. Next time I won’t be so gentle.”
Nancy recoiled, feeling genuine pain on her left cheek. The prick, he actually hit me.
“What were you doing on the train from Perpignan? Tell me the truth or it will be harder for you.”
Nancy considered her plight and began the story she had formulated while waiting for the interrogation.
“My husband and I were on a holiday in the mountains,” she began as earnestly as possible. “We had a dreadful fight and he left me. I don’t know where he went. I waited a day and then decided to return to Marseilles where we live. You can check with the authorities in Marseilles to insure my story is true. Go on, check it out then release me,” she demanded.
“And you know nothing about the explosion at the cinema?” he replied, looking directly into her face.
“What explosion? I was in Perpignan for the last four days. I don’t even know about any explosion. Are you insane accusing me of such a thing? I want to talk to your superior. We’ll get to the bottom of all this.”
The attractive young woman’s verbal attack took the seasoned officer back a bit. Maybe she is telling the truth, she is certainly adamant enough about it all. Perhaps I should give her a chance to cool off in the jail.. think about her circumstances…
The Vichy policeman looked at Nancy and gestured to his associate.
“Take her out and put her in a cell. And, be careful, Marcel. She seems to have a lot of spunk .”
The second policeman nodded, then grabbed Nancy’s elbow and jerked her to her feet. He pushed her out into the hallway and down a narrow corridor to where a series of individual cells was located. Finding an unoccupied one, he opened the cell door and gestured her inside.
Nancy Wake Fiocca looked around the grubby cell that was complete with a soiled mattress. The place was void of anything else.
Well, I’ve done it now. Fine mess I’m in. I’ve gotten myself captured and placed in this lousy cell. I guess I’ll just have to wait it out. Might as well try and rest a bit, no telling what will happen next. She removed her jacket and placed it as a pillow on which to place her head. There was no way she was going to let her face touch the soiled and greasy mattress. No way in hell.
After a disconcerting, and much-interrupted lie-down that scarcely resembled sleep, Nancy awoke to a soundless and almost totally black environment. She looked at her watch and realized she had been in the cell for more than six hours. Just before midnight, another Vichy officer came and removed her from the cell. He said nothing, but wasn’t nearly as rough and nasty as the first officer she had encountered earlier that day. He marched her back to the original interrogation room where the same large policeman from earlier in the day was seated. His uniform coat was missing and his collar was now unbuttoned. He looked up as she entered the room.
“Have you changed your mind and decided to tell me the truth?” the Garde officer spoke first. “You must realize that it will go much easier for you if you do.”
“I’ve already told you I know nothing about any bombing. Have you checked my story in Marseilles?” she again enquired as forcefully as she was capable of doing.
“No one has ever heard of you in Marseilles. Lies. Nothing but lies. You are lying to save yourself,” the policeman replied right back unconvincingly.
“I don’t believe you even took the time to check,” Nancy responded bravely. “If you had you would be setting me free.”
“T’es une pute” was the policeman’s agitated reply. “A prostitute is what you are.” He slapped her hard across her right cheek. The second policeman neared and grabbed her arms. The two officers pushed and shoved the helpless woman who attempted to push and shove back to little avail. Finally, the order was given to take her away. She was led down a different corridor from before and forcibly thrown into another room. The room reeked of a foul, earthy smell. Nancy gathered herself and sat up.
She had been thrown into a stinking toilet room with a hole in the floor. It would be her new home for the foreseeable future.
That evening, another gendarme entered the room. Nancy had noticed him earlier when entering the station, but up to now, he had not had a hand in her interrogation. He entered and placed his finger across his mouth for her to remain silent.
“Come with me,” he said softly, almost whispering. “They’ve gone home for the night.”
For some reason, the man’s calm demeanor reassured Nancy. She followed him into a small interior office. He pointed to a table in the middle of the room. “There is some coffee and a little something to eat.”
Nancy looked at him and rushed toward the coffee. “I haven’t had anything to eat or drink since I came here,” she confessed. “I am on the verge of starving.”
“Eat what you can and then you can rest on the table when you finish. “I will leave my greatcoat to cover you. I will return before the others arrive in the morning and take you back to la chiotte.”
Nancy regarded the man and shook her head in understanding. Under any circumstances, the prospect of spending the night on a desk with a coat for warmth certainly beat the prospect of lying on a cold concrete floor next to a stinking hole in the floor.
Maybe there is some hope after all she resolved. If my benefactor isn’t in the Resistance himself, at least he is a Frenchman who hasn’t lost all his senses. I must simply toughen myself to this situation and outlast the bastards. They are looking for someone to blame for the blasted bombing and I happen to be available. This must all run its course, it just must. Exhausted and weak from her ordeal, she quickly fell asleep. The hardness of her bed made no difference and Nancy Wake Fiocca slept soundly for the first time since she left Perpignan.
The same dreary charade lasted for the next four days, with Nancy being grilled by day and left in the stinking toilet room at night. The same gendarme came each evening and rescued her from her pitiful chamber. Each night he provided food and coffee for her to recharge herself. By now, her blue suit was torn and dirty and smelled from the time she spent in la chiotte.
For reasons she could not conceive, Nancy had come to the conclusion that the Vichy police actually believed she was a prostitute and that she had some involvement in the cinema bombing. Each day she was roughed up and yelled at constantly, but she determined to hold her ground on that matter. Giving in to them was never an option, and she determined to hold her ground at all costs.
On the fifth day, Nancy was again pulled into the interrogation room. She looked up and saw an additional face in the room. The face was part of a well- dressed, tall man in a business suit standing between two Vichy policemen. She looked more closely and saw that the face that was actually smiling at her.
It can’t be. O’Leary here? I must be hallucinating or something. Why would the head of the local French Resistance be smiling at me across the desk? Am I going crazy?
O’Leary continued smiling as several scenarios crossed Nancy’s flustered mind.
Why is he here? I must not show any recognition for the most active Resistance leader in the entire area. Then she reasoned more clearly to herself. He must be here as a free French citizen, not in the cause of the Resistance. The policemen are actually showing respect for him, or so it seems.
O’Leary mumbled something to the policemen who both laughed. He approached Nancy, kissed her on each cheek and whispered to her to start looking as if she was at least somewhat fond of him. He had just told the Vichy officers that Nancy was his mistress and it was all a big mistake.
Thirty minutes later, the pair walked hand in hand out of the police station. Still a bit wobbly from her ordeal, Nancy could not believe her sudden turn of fate.
“I told the police that you were a friend of Pierre Laval, the chief minister of Vichy,” O’Leary confessed. “Good thing he was on a holiday or something. I also told them you were my mistress.”
Nancy glanced up at him but quickly smiled. “Good show, Pat. It was downright disgusting in there. They thought I was a prostitute. A prostitute, me? Can you believe it?”
Pat O’Leary patted her arm in encouragement. “You are safe now,” he assured her. Unconvinced, Nancy glanced behind her back fully expecting a horde of gendarmes to come dashing from the station intent on undoing their mistake. She saw nothing and squeezed O’Leary’s arm in thanks. She was free again, but this episode had left a distinct mark on her psyche and Nancy Fiocca was determined to do something about it. A semblance of a plan was already starting to form in her weary mind.
Author: Jack DuArte
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Jack DuArte…. Biography
Jack DuArte is a native of New Orleans with a varied career in writing. DuArte attended Jesuit High School and worked for the Times-Picayune as a teenager. After attending the University of Kentucky and later graduating from the University of Evansville, DuArte served as an Air Force officer in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star for his efforts. He returned to New Orleans in 1971 and went into the wine business. He also authored a weekly column called Gastronomy for the Times-Picayune for a number of years and later hosted a radio talk show for WWL.
DuArte later enjoyed a full career in the wine business where he owned several Napa Valley wineries. DuArte always enjoyed a long time love affair for the thoroughbred horse industry and returned to Kentucky in 2001. He is an owner and breeder of thoroughbreds in Central Kentucky.
The Resistance was DuArte’s first novel, and was his seventh published work. The Resistance is part of DuArte’s World War II Series. Other WWII novels include Singapore, Spitfire and MALTA. All are historical novels and predominantly based on fact.
DuArte read from his work at the International Book Project’s Passport to Literacy in Lexington, KY. He also participated in the several Kentucky Book Fairs in Frankfort and numerous other book fairs around the country.
DuArte and his wife Susan reside in Lexington.