Bohemia, May 27 1942, 7.45 a.m.
Killing a top-ranking Nazi had to have a price, and Jean knew what the price would be. Reprisals would come. It was not his fault, just the natural consequence of military action in a filthy war.
He waited with the two Czech agents on the corner of a quiet Prague suburb and pulled up the collar of his long, brown overcoat to warm the back of his neck as he looked across the street. At twenty-two, he had a young man’s face but it belied his nature. He had not come through battle and pain without taking on the mental strengths flowing from that.
A cool, rising May sun began to shine, low on the horizon. It peeped out from behind spring billows above, casting long shadows of streetlamps across the cobbled street and reflected like gold from the tramlines in the centre of the roadway. Jean leaned his backside against the metal railings, while his two companions talked.
‘Five minutes,’ Gabcik said, shuffling from one foot to the other. He seemed undecided whether to keep his hands in his pockets or not. He pulled his trench coat collar up and pulled down the brim of his brown felt hat, as if retreating within. Jean thought the man was as nervous as he was.
‘I’ll move down the road,’ Kubis said. ‘If they try to reverse I’ll be ready.’
‘The bomb?’ Gabcik said, turning to face Jean.
Kubis, older than the other two, dropped his cigarette and stood on it. He ground it into the pavement like a man stepping on something poisonous, determined, but scared. He looked up at Jean. He had a hard face, one Jean felt he could trust, with steely azure eyes and dark rings beneath them.
He said, ‘You are sure it will work?’
‘Yes. I’ve rearranged the detonator. It will teach him to fly as soon as it makes impact,’ Jean said.
Gabcik wiped his forehead. In his thirties, he seemed to Jean to know what he was doing, but this trickle of sweat inspired little confidence. Gabcik held his sten gun clutched under the left side of his coat. It reminded Jean, for some reason, of Napoleon. The Czech sported a wisp of curly black hair, peeping out onto his forehead from beneath his beret, adding to the Frenchman’s mental portrait of the long dead Emperor.
‘What made you bring an anti-tank grenade?’ Gabcik said. ‘He’s not in a bloody tank. It must weigh a ton.’
‘It’s what they told me to do in London, because the car’s armoured. I’ve made it lighter. Don’t worry about me. I know what to do.’
‘Done this before, have you?’
Gabcik smiled and looked at his watch. ‘Almost time.’
He drew out the Sten gun from beneath his grey raincoat and cocked it. Kubis began walking towards the corner. They all knew the signal and took up their positions like clockwork. Reinhart Heydrich always rode in an open-topped Mercedes, which had surprised Jean, but HQ explained to him that the Obergruppenfürer seemed to have no fear of attack. It was as if he possessed such scorn for the Resistance he felt invulnerable.
A faint smell of gasoline reached Jean’s nostrils as he limped towards the edge of the road. Heavy in his hand, the metal of the grenade felt unyielding and cold. He held it in his right and stood with his left side towards the road, ready to lob the bomb as soon as the vehicle rounded the bend. Silence hung like a cloud around them but Jean questioned whether it was the thumping of his heart or heightened stimulation making him deaf to all around.
At that moment, any sound would have been welcome. Even a crow calling overhead would have sounded to Jean like a bird of Paradise. Then he became aware of the faint sounds of a car’s engine coming from around the corner.
Focus. Sweat moistened his forehead. His mouth became as arid as an Algerian summer.
Gabcik stepped into the road, holding his sten gun. Jean felt his back muscles tighten and his jaw clenched. Kubis whistled.The sound of the engine slowing as the car approached the acute bend in the road, seemed now to roar in Jean’s ears.
Then it happened.
A black Mercedes rounded the hairpin. Gabcik brought the muzzle to bear. A single shot rang out. The bullet ricocheted on the cobbles. Then nothing. Gabcik pulled at the weapon. His movements became frantic. Stationary in front of the approaching car, he tried to un-jam the weapon. The vehicle stopped.
To Jean, the scene unfolded in slow motion. Gabcik, as if he had given up, let his arms fall to his sides, still grasping the sten. A tall thin man stood up in the back of the black car on the left side. He pointed a shiny, black pistol at Gabcik.Jean threw the grenade. He aimed at the standing uniformed man, but miscalculated. The grenade was very heavy, Gabcik was right. Instead of landing inside the car, it fell short; it slammed into the nearside rear wheel. The explosion came with the sound of all of God’s angels trumpeting together. The blast was enough to throw Jean to the ground and he landed with his back to the railings. He watched as the Obergruppenfürer stumbled out of the vehicle.
Heydrich ignored him; perhaps he did not see the bomber. The Nazi fired a shot at Gabcik, and then collapsed. Blood stained his black uniform on the right side of his chest, but he still breathed.The driver kicked open the car’s door. He raised his weapon at Gabcik. A shot rang out but to Jean’s left and he realised Kubis was firing from behind. The driver turned. He fired at Kubis. Another shot from the Czech. Another returned by the driver.
As Jean lay still, he saw Gabcik run up the road, away from the smoking vehicle. The driver ran after Kubis who was now sprinting in the opposite direction, away from his comrades, on the far side of the bend. Jean lost sight of them both.
Shaking, he pulled himself to his feet and without looking at Heydrich again, vaulted over the railings behind. More shots. He had no time to ponder who might have fired as he landed six feet below road level. His right leg took the brunt of the fall, and he fell forward onto the leaf mold and pine needles.
Nestled against a grey, cold, block of granite was a hand. The fingers were tiny and chubby; the pulped wrist beneath, trailed tendons and nerves. It oozed drops of crimson. The realisation of what the tiny hand meant crept into his consciousness with accompanying horror. It was not Heydrich’s hand. It was a child’s hand. Heydrich must have brought one of his children with him. The plump little digits curled up towards him and the perfect nails appeared unscathed and clean.
Jean’s brain seemed slowed by the sight. The understanding of what the tiny hand meant, crept into his consciousness with a stark inevitability. Saliva washed his mouth and he swallowed the water brash. Jean felt nausea take him. He retched as he stood up. He limped away with as much speed as he could muster.
Breathless, he stopped at last, at the apex of the hill, where the trees ended and the road began. A vivid mental image still impinged. The child’s severed hand. Not the hand of that German killer, but that of his child. The vomit came then and he leaned against the tree to his left as he brought it up. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth and the bitter-sour taste seemed to bring back some semblance of lucidity.He jumped the railings.
With a simulated calm and measured step, Jean walked. He strode as if he had no cares in the world. A passer-by seeing his face might have seen a man at peace with the world; a man strolling home after a night shift in the munitions factory. But inside that mind, lurked blood-stained despair and his eyes saw only horror.
Rio de Janeiro; December 1937.
Jean clutched his sister’s hand as the two of them stared at the waning sun. Flat bars of cloud obscured the Sugar-loaf Mountain and only Cristo Redentor peeked above the cloud, looking down, disconsolate to some and hopeful to others. The statue of Christ atop the mountain radiated hope from across the bay, to the two young people, and as Jean held onto Rebecca’s hand, he felt he was gaining that hope somewhere deep inside himself.
‘Perhaps he will get better,’ he said.
‘Pedro said he was very ill and we have to wait for the doctors. Oh, Jean. What will we do if Papa dies?’
‘Nonsense, he won’t die. Only yesterday, he told me he had plans to stay here for many years. You will see. He will get better and we will laugh together as we did at the Theatro Municipal on your birthday. Remember how funny it was watching Papa run after the programmes when I dropped them?’
‘It seems so long ago. This is now. Will we have to go back to Paris?’
‘I don’t know. We should pray for Papa. Perhaps if we pray to Cristo Redentor he will hear us.’
Her brown eyes hardened. There was a look of disbelief in the eighteen-year-old girl’s eyes as she regarded her brother. Two years younger, the difference in age did not prevent her from showing him what she felt was a futile suggestion. Neither of them was religious. She dropped his hand. Turning, she began to walk away towards the waiting car. It was the road home. A way to return to the French Embassy, the only emotional terra firma her feet had known since the death of her mother two years before.
Turning her head towards her brother, she frowned.‘It’s not fair.’
She stamped her foot.
Jean turned and said, ‘What isn’t fair?’
‘Mother died; now Papa. Not fair.’
‘You know what Papa would say?
‘Life isn’t fair. Never look for fairness; always create it.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He meant we have to fight for fairness and justice.’
‘Will he die, Jean?’
‘I don’t know. Let’s go home. I’m hungry.’
‘I’m not. I can’t think about food when Papa is so ill.’
‘We don’t know what’s going to happen. Perhaps Miguel will talk to the doctors and tell us afterwards.’
‘He looked sad when he came out of the hospital,’ she said, ‘if it is bad news he wouldn’t be able to tell us. He would leave it to Maria.’
Jean stepped towards her and encircled her with his arms. His right hand patted her shoulder as he hugged her. A single drop of moisture from his eye widened and spread as it hit her blouse and he tightened his embrace.
‘We must hope. It is all we can do.’
He held her as her shoulders shook in silent shudders. In his heart, he experienced a grim feeling of reality. He had to be strong. If Papa died, there would only be the two of them.
He had to be strong. He was the elder, and Papa’s son.
He had now to be a man.