THE BLACK SWAN OF PARIS
Author: Karen Robards
Publication Date: June 30, 2020
For fans of The Alice Network and The Lost Girls of Paris comes a thrilling standalone by New York Times bestselling author Karen Robards about a celebrated singer in WWII occupied France who joins the Resistance to save her estranged family from being killed in a German prison.
In Occupied France, the Resistance trembles on the brink of destruction. Its operatives, its secrets, its plans, all will be revealed. One of its leaders, wealthy aristocrat Baron Paul de Rocheford, has been killed in a raid and the surviving members of his cell, including his wife the elegant Baronness Lillian de Rocheford, have been arrested and transported to Germany for interrogation and, inevitably, execution.
Captain Max Ryan, British SOE, is given the job of penetrating the impregnable German prison where the Baroness and the remnants of the cell are being held and tortured. If they can't be rescued he must kill them before they can give up their secrets.
Max is in Paris, currently living under a cover identity as a show business impresario whose star attraction is Genevieve Dumont. Young, beautiful Genevieve is the toast of Europe, an icon of the glittering entertainment world that the Nazis celebrate so that the arts can be seen to be thriving in the occupied territories under their rule.
What no one knows about Genevieve is that she is Lillian and Paul de Rocheford's younger daughter. Her feelings toward her family are bitter since they were estranged twelve years ago. But when she finds out from Max just what his new assignment entails, old, long-buried feelings are rekindled and she knows that no matter what she can't allow her mother to be killed, not by the Nazis and not by Max. She secretly establishes contact with those in the Resistance who can help her. Through them she is able to contact her sister Emmy, and the sisters put aside their estrangement to work together to rescue their mother.
It all hinges on a command performance that Genevieve is to give for a Gestapo General in the Bavarian town where her mother and the others are imprisoned. While Genevieve sings and the show goes on, a daring rescue is underway that involves terrible danger, heartbreaking choices, and the realization that some ties, like the love between a mother and her daughters and between sisters, are forever.
When the worst thing that could ever happen to you had already happened, nothing that came after really mattered. The resultant state of apathy was almost pleasant, as long as she didn’t allow herself to think about it—any of it—too much.
She was Genevieve Dumont, a singer, a star. Her latest sold-out performance at one of Paris’s great theaters had ended in a five-minute standing ovation less than an hour before. She was acclaimed, admired, celebrated wherever she went. The Nazis loved her.
She was not quite twenty-five years old. Beautiful when, like now, she was dolled up in all her after-show finery. Not in want, not unhappy.
In this time of fear and mass starvation, of worldwide deaths on a scale never seen before in the whole course of human history, that made her lucky. She knew it.
Whom she had been before, what had almost destroyed her—that life belonged to someone else. Most of the time, she didn’t even remember it herself.
She refused to remember it.
A siren screamed to life just meters behind the car she was traveling in. Startled, she sat upright in the back seat, heart lurching as she looked around.
Do they know? Are they after us?
A small knot of fans had been waiting outside the stage door as she’d left. One of them had thrust a program at her, requesting an autograph for Francoise. She’d signed—May your heart always sing, Genevieve Dumont—as previously instructed. What it meant she didn’t know. What she did know was that it meant something: it was a prearranged encounter, and the coded message she’d scribbled down was intended for the Resistance.
And now, mere minutes later, here were the Milice, the despised French police who had long since thrown in their lot with the Nazis, on their tail.
Even as icy jets of fear spurted through her, a pair of police cars followed by a military truck flew by. Running without lights, they appeared as no more than hulking black shapes whose passage rattled the big Citroën that up until then had been alone on the road. A split second later, her driver—his name was Otto Cordier; he worked for Max, her manager—slammed on the brakes. The car jerked to a stop.
“Sacre bleu!” Flying forward, she barely stopped herself from smacking into the back of the front seat by throwing her arms out in front of her. “What’s happening?”
“A raid, I think.” Peering out through the windshield, Otto clutched the steering wheel with both hands. He was an old man, short and wiry with white hair. She could read tension in every line of his body. In front of the car, washed by the pale moonlight that painted the scene in ghostly shades of gray, the cavalcade that had passed them was now blocking the road. A screech of brakes and the throwing of a shadow across the nearest building had her casting a quick look over her shoulder. Another military truck shuddered to a halt, filling the road behind them, stopping it up like a cork in a bottle. Men—German soldiers along with officers of the Milice—spilled out of the stopped vehicles. The ones behind swarmed past the Citroën, and all rushed toward what Genevieve tentatively identified as an apartment building. Six stories tall, it squatted, dark and silent, in its own walled garden.
“Oh, no,” she said. Her fear for herself and Otto subsided, but sympathy for the targets of the raid made her chest feel tight. People who were taken away by the Nazis in the middle of the night seldom came back.
The officers banged on the front door. “Open up! Police!”
It was just after 10:00 p.m. Until the siren had ripped it apart, the silence blanketing the city had been close to absolute. Thanks to the strictly enforced blackout, the streets were as dark and mysterious as the nearby Seine. It had rained earlier in the day, and before the siren the big Citroën had been the noisiest thing around, splashing through puddles as they headed back to the Ritz, where she was staying for the duration of her Paris run.
“If they keep arresting people, soon there will be no one left.” Genevieve’s gaze locked on a contingent of soldiers spreading out around the building, apparently looking for another way in—or for exits they could block. One rattled a gate of tall iron spikes that led into the brick-walled garden. It didn’t open, and he moved on, disappearing around the side of the building. She was able to follow the soldiers’ movements by the torches they carried. Fitted with slotted covers intended to direct their light downward so as to make them invisible to the Allied air-raid pilots whose increasingly frequent forays over Paris aroused both joy and dread in the city’s war-weary citizens, the torches’ bobbing looked like the erratic flitting of fireflies in the dark.
“They’re afraid, and that makes them all the more dangerous.” Otto rolled down his window a crack, the better to hear what was happening as they followed the soldiers’ movements. The earthy scent of the rain mixed with the faint smell of cigarette smoke, which, thanks to Max’s never-ending Gauloises, was a permanent feature of the car. The yellow card that was the pass they needed to be on the streets after curfew, prominently displayed on the windshield, blocked her view of the far side of the building, but she thought soldiers were running that way, too. “They know the Allies are coming. The bombings of the Luftwaffe installations right here in France, the Allied victories on the eastern front—they’re being backed into a corner. They’ll do whatever they must to survive.”
“Open the door, or we will break it down!”
The policeman hammered on the door with his nightstick. The staccato beat echoed through the night. Genevieve shivered, imagining the terror of the people inside.
Thin lines of light appeared in the cracks around some of the thick curtains covering the windows up and down the building as, at a guess, tenants dared to peek out. A woman, old and stooped—there was enough light in the hall behind her to allow Genevieve to see that much—opened the front door.
“Out of the way!”
She was shoved roughly back inside the building as the police and the soldiers stormed in. Her frightened cry changed to a shrill scream that was quickly cut off.
Genevieve’s mouth went dry. She clasped her suddenly cold hands in her lap.
There’s nothing to be done. It was the mantra of her life.
“Can we drive on?” She had learned in a hard school that there was no point in agonizing over what couldn’t be cured. To stay and watch what she knew was coming—the arrest of partisans, who would face immediate execution upon arrival at wherever they would be taken, or, perhaps and arguably worse, civilians, in some combination of women, children, old people, clutching what few belongings they’d managed to grab, marched at gunpoint out of the building and loaded into the trucks for deportation—would tear at her heart for days without helping them at all.
“We’re blocked in.” Otto looked around at her. She didn’t know what he saw in her face, but whatever it was made him grimace and reach for the door handle. “I’ll go see if I can get one of them to move.”
When he exited the car, she let her head drop back to rest against the rolled top of the Citroën’s leather seat, stared at the ceiling and tried not to think about what might be happening to the people in the building. Taking deep breaths, she did her best to block out the muffled shouts and thuds that reached her ears and focused on the physical, which, as a performer, she had experience doing. She was so tired she was limp with it. Her temples throbbed. Her legs ached. Her feet hurt. Her throat—that golden throat that had allowed her to survive—felt tight. Deliberately she relaxed her muscles and tugged the scarf tucked into the neckline of her coat higher to warm herself.
A flash of light in the darkness caught her eye. Her head turned as she sought the source. Looking through the iron bars of the garden gate, she discovered a side door in the building that was slowly, stealthily opening.
“Is anyone else in there? Come out or I’ll shoot.” The volume of the soldiers’ shouts increased exponentially with this new gap in the walls. That guttural threat rang out above others less distinct, and she gathered from what she heard that they were searching the building.
The side door opened wider. Light from inside spilled past a figure slipping out: a girl, tall and thin with dark curly hair, wearing what appeared to be an unbuttoned coat thrown on over nightclothes. In her arms she carried a small child with the same dark, curly hair.
The light went out. The door had closed. Genevieve discovered that she was sitting with her nose all but pressed against the window as she tried to find the girl in the darkness. It took her a second, but then she spotted the now shadowy figure as it fled through the garden toward the gate, trying to escape.
They’ll shoot her if they catch her. The child, too.
The Germans had no mercy for those for whom they came.
The girl reached the gate, paused. A pale hand grabbed a bar. From the metallic rattle that reached her ears, Genevieve thought she must be shoving at the gate, shaking it. She assumed it was locked. In any event, it didn’t open. Then that same hand reached through the bars, along with a too-thin arm, stretching and straining.
Toward what? It was too dark to tell.
With the Citroën stopped in the middle of the narrow street and the garden set back only a meter or so from the front facade of the building, the girl was close enough so that Genevieve could read the desperation in her body language, see the way she kept looking back at the now closed door. The child, who appeared to be around ten months old, seemed to be asleep. The small curly head rested trustingly on the girl’s shoulder.
It wasn’t a conscious decision to leave the car. Genevieve just did it, then realized the risk she was taking when her pumps clickety-clacked on the cobblestones. The sound seemed to tear through the night and sent a lightning bolt of panic through her.
Get back in the car. Her sense of self-preservation screamed it at her, but she didn’t. Shivering at the latent menace of the big military trucks looming so close on either side of the Citroën, the police car parked askew in the street, the light spilling from the still open front door and the sounds of the raid going on inside the building, she kept going, taking care to be quiet now as she darted toward the trapped girl.
You’re putting yourself in danger. You’re putting Otto, Max, everyone in danger. The whole network—
Heart thudding, she reached the gate. Even as she and the girl locked eyes through it, the girl jerked her arm back inside and drew herself up.
The sweet scent of flowers from the garden felt obscene in contrast with the fear and despair she sensed in the girl.
“It’s all right. I’m here to help,” Genevieve whispered. She grasped the gate, pulling, pushing as she spoke. The iron bars were solid and cold and slippery with the moisture that still hung in the air. The gate didn’t budge for her, either. The clanking sound it made as she joggled it against its moorings made her break out in a cold sweat. Darkness enfolded her, but it was leavened by moonlight and she didn’t trust it to keep her safe. After all, she’d seen the girl from the car. All it would take was one sharp-eyed soldier, one policeman to come around a corner, or step out of the building and look her way—and she could be seen, too. Caught. Helping a fugitive escape.
The consequences would be dire. Imprisonment, deportation, even death.
Her pulse raced.
She thought of Max, what he would say.
On the other side of the gate, moonlight touched on wide dark eyes set in a face so thin the bones seemed about to push through the skin. The girl appeared to be about her own age, and she thought she must be the child’s mother. The sleeping child—Genevieve couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy—was wearing footed pajamas.
Her heart turned over.
“Oh, thank God. Thank you.” Whispering, too, the girl reached through the bars to touch Genevieve’s arm in gratitude. “There’s a key. In the fountainhead. In the mouth. It unlocks the gate.” She cast another of those lightning glances over her shoulder. Shifting from foot to foot, she could hardly stand still in her agitation. Fear rolled off her in waves. “Hurry. Please.”
Genevieve looked in the direction the girl had been reaching, saw the oval stone of the fountainhead set into the brick near the gate, saw the carved lion’s head in its center with its open mouth from which, presumably, water was meant to pour out. Reaching inside, she probed the cavity, ran her fingers over the worn-smooth stone, then did it again.
“There’s no key,” she said. “It’s not here.”
“It has to be. It has to be!” The girl’s voice rose, trembled. The child’s head moved. The girl made a soothing sound, rocked back and forth, patted the small back, and the child settled down again with a sigh. Watching, a pit yawned in Genevieve’s stomach. Glancing hastily down, she crouched to check the ground beneath the fountainhead, in case the key might have fallen out. It was too dark; she couldn’t see. She ran her hand over the cobblestones. Nothing.
“It’s not—” she began, standing up, only to break off with a swiftly indrawn breath as the door through which the girl had exited flew open. This time, in the rectangle of light, a soldier stood.
“My God.” The girl’s whisper as she turned her head to look was scarcely louder than a breath, but it was so loaded with terror that it made the hair stand up on the back of Genevieve’s neck. “What do I do?”
“Who is out there?” the soldier roared. Pistol ready in his hand, he pointed his torch toward the garden. The light played over a tattered cluster of pink peonies, over overgrown green shrubs, over red tulips thrusting their heads through weeds, as it came their way. “Don’t think to hide from me.”
“Take the baby. Please.” Voice hoarse with dread, the girl thrust the child toward her. Genevieve felt a flutter of panic: if this girl only knew, she would be the last person she would ever trust with her child. But there was no one else, and thus no choice to be made. As a little leg and arm came through the gate, Genevieve reached out to help, taking part and then all of the baby’s weight as between them she and the girl maneuvered the little one through the bars. As their hands touched, she could feel the cold clamminess of the girl’s skin, feel her trembling. With the child no longer clutched in her arms, the dark shape of a six-pointed yellow star on her coat became visible. The true horror of what was happening struck Genevieve like a blow.
The girl whispered, “Her name’s Anna. Anna Katz. Leave word of where I’m to come for her in the fountainhead—”
The light flashed toward them.
“You there, by the gate,” the soldier shouted.
With a gasp, the girl whirled away.
“Halt! Stay where you are!”
Heart in her throat, blood turning to ice, Genevieve whirled away, too, in the opposite direction. Cloaked by night, she ran as lightly as she could for the car, careful to keep her heels from striking the cobblestones, holding the child close to her chest, one hand splayed against short, silky curls. The soft baby smell, the feel of the firm little body against her, triggered such an explosion of emotion that she went briefly light-headed. The panicky flutter in her stomach solidified into a knot—and then the child’s wriggling and soft sounds of discontent brought the present sharply back into focus.
If she cried…
Terror tasted sharp and bitter in Genevieve’s mouth.
“Shh. Shh, Anna,” she crooned desperately. “Shh.”
“I said halt!” The soldier’s roar came as Genevieve reached the car, grabbed the door handle, wrenched the door open—
Bang. The bark of a pistol.
A woman’s piercing cry. The girl’s piercing cry.
No. Genevieve screamed it, but only in her mind. The guilt of running away, of leaving the girl behind, crashed into her like a speeding car.
Blowing his whistle furiously, the soldier ran down the steps. More soldiers burst through the door, following the first one down the steps and out of sight.
Had the girl been shot? Was she dead?
My God, my God. Genevieve’s heart slammed in her chest.
She threw herself and the child into the back seat and—softly, carefully—closed the door. Because she didn’t dare do anything else.
The baby started to cry.
Staring out the window in petrified expectation of seeing the soldiers come charging after her at any second, she found herself panting with fear even as she did her best to quiet the now wailing child.
Could anyone hear? Did the soldiers know the girl had been carrying a baby?
If she was caught with the child…
What else could I have done?
Max would say she should have stayed out of it, stayed in the car. That the common good was more important than the plight of any single individual.
Even a terrified girl. Even a baby.
“It’s all right, Anna. I’ve got you safe. Shh.” Settling back in the seat to position the child more comfortably in her arms, she murmured and patted and rocked. Instinctive actions, long forgotten, reemerged in this moment of crisis.
Through the gate she could see the soldiers clustering around something on the ground. The girl, she had little doubt, although the darkness and the garden’s riotous blooms blocked her view. With Anna, quiet now, sprawled against her chest, a delayed reaction set in and she started to shake.
Otto got back into the car.
“They’re going to be moving the truck in front as soon as it’s loaded up.” His voice was gritty with emotion. Anger? Bitterness? “Someone tipped them off that Jews were hiding in the building, and they’re arresting everybody. Once they’re—”
Otto broke off as the child made a sound.
“Shh.” Genevieve patted, rocked. “Shh, shh.”
His face a study in incredulity, Otto leaned around in the seat to look. “Holy hell, is that a baby?”
“Her mother was trapped in the garden. She couldn’t get out.”
Otto shot an alarmed look at the building, where soldiers now marched a line of people, young and old, including a couple of small children clutching adults’ hands, out the front door.
“My God,” he said, sounding appalled. “We’ve got to get—”
Appearing out of seemingly nowhere, a soldier rapped on the driver’s window. With his knuckles, hard.
Oh, no. Please no.
Genevieve’s heart pounded. Her stomach dropped like a rock as she stared at the shadowy figure on the other side of the glass.
We’re going to be arrested. Or shot.
Whipping the scarf out of her neckline, she draped the brightly printed square across her shoulder and over the child.
Otto cranked the window down.
“Papers,” the soldier barked.
Fear formed a hard knot under Genevieve’s breastbone. Despite the night’s chilly temperature, she could feel sweat popping out on her forehead and upper lip. On penalty of arrest, everyone in Occupied France, from the oldest to the youngest, was required to have identity documents readily available at all times. Hers were in her handbag, beside her on the seat.
But Anna had none.
Otto passed his cards to the soldier, who turned his torch on them.
As she picked up her handbag, Genevieve felt Anna stir.
Please, God, don’t let her cry.
“Here.” Quickly she thrust her handbag over the top of the seat to Otto. Anna was squirming now. Genevieve had to grab and secure the scarf from underneath to make sure the baby’s movements didn’t knock it askew.
If the soldier saw her…
Anna whimpered. Muffled by the scarf, the sound wasn’t loud, but its effect on Genevieve was electric. She caught her breath as her heart shot into her throat—and reacted instinctively, as, once upon a time, it had been second nature to do.
She slid the tip of her little finger between Anna’s lips.
The baby responded as babies typically did: she latched on and sucked.
Genevieve felt the world start to slide out of focus. The familiarity of it, the bittersweet memories it evoked, made her dizzy. She had to force herself to stay in the present, to concentrate on this child and this moment to the exclusion of all else.
Otto had handed her identity cards over. The soldier examined them with his torch, then bent closer to the window and looked into the back seat.
She almost expired on the spot.
“Mademoiselle Dumont. It is a pleasure. I have enjoyed your singing very much.”
Anna’s hungry little mouth tugged vigorously at her finger.
“Thank you,” Genevieve said, and smiled.
The soldier smiled back. Then he straightened, handed the papers back and, with a thump on the roof, stepped away from the car. Otto cranked the window up.
The tension inside the car was so thick she could almost physically feel the weight of it.
“Let them through,” the soldier called to someone near the first truck. Now loaded with the unfortunate new prisoners, it was just starting to pull out.
With a wave for the soldier, Otto followed, although far too slowly for Genevieve’s peace of mind. As the car crawled after the truck, she cast a last, quick glance at the garden: she could see nothing, not even soldiers.
Was the girl—Anna’s mother—still there on the ground? Or had she already been taken away?
Was she dead?
Genevieve felt sick to her stomach. But once again, there was nothing to be done.
Acutely aware of the truck’s large side and rear mirrors and what might be able to be seen through them, Genevieve managed to stay upright and keep the baby hidden until the Citroën turned a corner and went its own way.
Then, feeling as though her bones had turned to jelly, she slumped against the door.
Anna gave up on the finger and started to cry, shrill, distressed wails that filled the car. With what felt like the last bit of her strength, Genevieve pushed the scarf away and gathered her up and rocked and patted and crooned to her. Just like she had long ago done with—
Do not think about it.
“Shh, Anna. Shh.”
“That was almost a disaster.” Otto’s voice, tight with reaction, was nonetheless soft for fear of disturbing the quieting child. “What do we do now? You can’t take a baby back to the hotel. Think questions won’t be asked? What do you bet that soldier won’t talk about having met Genevieve Dumont? All it takes is one person to make the connection between the raid and you showing up with a baby and it will ruin us all. It will ruin everything.”
“I know.” Genevieve was limp. “Find Max. He’ll know what to do.”
Excerpted from The Black Swan of Paris by Karen Robards, Copyright © 2020 by Karen Robards. Published by MIRA Books.
Karen Robards is the New York Times, USA TODAY and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of more than fifty novels and one novella. She is the winner of six Silver Pen awards and numerous other awards.
Author Website: http://karenrobards.com/