The painting … was taken and passed into German possession.
André Lefèvre, his face blankly belligerent, barely even bothering to glance at Sophie’s image. And McCafferty. Every time she remembers Paul McCafferty in that meeting room her brain hums with anger. Sometimes she feels as if she is burning with it, as if she is permanently overheating. How can she just hand over Sophie?
Liv pulls out her running shoes from the box under the bed, changes into sweatpants and, shoving her key and phone into her pocket, sets off at a run.
She passes Fran, sitting on her upturned crate, watching silently as she heads off along the river, and lifts a hand in greeting. She doesn’t want to talk.
It is early afternoon, and the edges of the Thames are mottled with stray meandering office workers going back after long lunches, groups of schoolchildren, bossed and herded by harassed teachers, bored young mothers with ignored babies, texting distractedly as they push buggies. She runs, ducking in and out of them, slowed only by her own tight lungs and the occasional stitch, running until she is just another body in the crowd, invisible, indistinguishable. She pushes through it. She runs until her shins burn, until sweat forms a dark T across her back, until her face glistens. She runs until it hurts, until she can think of nothing but the simple, physical pain.
She is finally walking back alongside Somerset House when her phone signals a text message. She stops and pulls it from her pocket, wiping away the sweat that stings her eyes.
Liv. Call me.
Liv half walks, half runs to the edge of the water, and then, before she can think about it, she swings her arm in a fluid motion and hurls her phone into the Thames. It is gone without sound, without anybody even noticing, into the slate-grey swirling waters that rush towards the centre.
It is three weeks and four days since you left. I don’t know if this letter will find you or, indeed, if the others did; the mayor has set up a new line of communication and promises he will send this on once he gets word that it is secure. So I wait, and I pray.
It has rained for fourteen days, turning what remained of the roads to mud that sucks at our legs and pulls the horses’ shoes from their hoofs. We have rarely ventured out beyond the square: it is too cold and too difficult, and in truth I no longer wish to leave the children, even if just for a few minutes. Édith sat by the window for three days after you left, refusing to move, until I feared she would be ill and physically forced her to come to the table and, later, to bed. She no longer speaks, her face set in hollow-eyed watchfulness, her hands permanently attached to my skirts as if she is fully expecting someone to come and snatch me away too. I’m afraid I have barely had time to comfort her. There are fewer Germans coming in the evenings now, but enough that I have to work every night until midnight just to feed and clear up after them.
Aurélien disappeared. He left shortly after you did. I hear from Madame Louvier that he is still in St Péronne, staying with Jacques Arriège above the tabac, but in truth I have no appetite to see him. He is no better than Kommandant Hencken in his betrayal of you. For all your faith in people’s goodness, I cannot believe that if Herr Kommandant genuinely wished you well he would have torn you from our embrace in such a manner, so that the whole town might become aware of your alleged sins. I cannot see any evidence of humanity in either of their actions. I simply cannot.
I pray for you, Sophie. I see your face when I wake in the morning, and when I turn over some part of me startles that you are not there on the other pillow, your hair tied in a fat plait, making me laugh and conjuring food from your imagination. I turn to call for you at the bar and there is just a silence where you should be. Mimi climbs up to your bedroom and peers in as if she, too, expects to find you, seated before your bureau, writing or gazing into the middle distance, your head full of dreams. Do you remember when we used to stand at that window and imagine what lay beyond it? When we dreamed of fairies and princesses and those noblemen who might come to rescue us? I wonder what our childish selves would have made of this place now, with its pocked roads, its men like wraiths in rags, and its starving children.
The town has been so quiet since you left. It is as if its very spirit left with you. Madame Louvier comes in, perverse to the last, and insists that your name must still be heard. She harangues anyone who will listen. Herr Kommandant is not among the handful of Germans who arrive for their meal in the evening. I truly believe he cannot meet my gaze. Or perhaps he knows I should like to run him through with my good paring knife and has decided to stay away.
Little snippets of information still find their way through: a scrap of paper under my door told of another outbreak of influenza near Lille, a convoy of Allied soldiers captured near Douai, horses killed for meat on the Belgian border. No word from Jean-Michel. No word from you.
Some days I feel as if I am buried in a mine and can hear only the echoes of voices at some distance. All those I love, aside from the children, have been taken away from me and I no longer know whether any of you are alive or dead. Sometimes my fear for you grows so great that I find myself paralysed, and I will be in the middle of stirring some soup or laying a table and I have to force myself to breathe, to tell myself I must be strong for the children. Most of all, I must have faith. What would Sophie do? I ask myself firmly, and the answer is always clear.
Please, beloved sister, take care. Do not inflame the Germans further, even if they are your captors. Do not take risks, no matter how great the impulse. All that matters is that you return to us safely; you and Jean-Michel and your beloved Édouard. I tell myself that this letter will reach you. I tell myself that perhaps, just perhaps, the two of you are together, and not in the way that I fear most. I tell myself God must be just, however He chooses to toy with our futures this dark day.
Stay safe, Sophie.
Your loving sister
Paul puts down the letter, obtained from a cache of correspondence stockpiled by resistance operatives during the First World War. It is the only piece of evidence he has found of Sophie Lefèvre’s family and it, like the others, appears not to have reached her.
The Girl You Left Behind is now Paul’s priority case. He ploughs through his usual sources: museums, archivists, auction houses, experts in international art cases. Off the record, he speaks to less benign sources: old acquaintances at Scotland Yard, contacts from the world of art crime, a Romanian known for recording almost mathematically the underground movement of a whole swathe of stolen European art.
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