Louis moved from one dark doorway to another, dodging Nazis. A dangerous game best played in thick fog that wrapped the river banks in a wet mist, obscuring faces and facades. He could see the distorted outline of a neon sign belonging to Madame Morte’s Theater. Was the Gestapo close? He heard voices but couldn’t understand what they were saying. Cold and hungry, he was tempted to hail a taxi and head towards the new city center where he could pick a few pockets. But then he remembered what happened to Carlos when desperation triumphed over good sense. Six blocks behind him, Carlos lay dead on slick cobblestones. “Turn right on at La Mere Rouge and keep going until you reach the theater. Morte will pay well for news of the Chancellor’s boat,” Carlos said with his last painful breaths. Then blood bubbled up his throat and spilled out of his mouth and, like lava, dribbled down his chin , thinning into red ink as it mingled with the rain.
He took the envelope from Carlos’ stiff fingers and dug into his pants pockets for what was left of his sailor’s pay. Thirty francs. “You won’t need this,” he whispered to the dead man as he stuffed the money into his shirt pocket, hoping to keep it half dry.
The Nazis had cut Carlos down on sight, and they’d have cut him down too if they knew he carried news of dreadnaught Bismarck. He had no idea of the details. He didn’t read German. But he did know Carlos was a courier for the Free French, and if Morte was working that side of the street, she’d pay well for information on Germany’s greatest battleship. It was not invincible. Nothing is.
He slithered to the alley, skirting the halo of a street lamp, and paused again.
“Do you have a light?” a raspy voice said. In the dim glow, Louis saw the bright red lipstick and black mascara of a whore.
“I do if you have an extra fag,” he said.
She handed him a cigarette, and he pulled out a book of matches. “I watched you navigate the street,” she said as she sucked in the flame. “You’re running from the Nazis, but aren’t we all?”
He handed her ten francs. “Take me to Madame Morte’s and this is yours,” he said.
“It’s just up the street.”
“I’ll look less suspicious with a companion.”
“I see. Yes, I’ll be your girl.”
They started down the sidewalk, arm in arm. “What is your name, Mademoiselle? I’m Louis.”
“I’m Georgette. What do you do?”
“If you’re going to the theater for an audition, you must have an act. Yes?” A black car prowled past them, stopped, and waited for them to pass before crawling off.
“I have no talent,” Louis admitted, “but she’ll see me.”
“Every man has at least one talent,” Georgette said, letting her hand drop to his crotch.
“Not me.” He ‘d left his desire on the White Wind merchant ship.
“What a shame. You’re the youngest sailor I’ve seen in a year. These Germans. Always so indelicate to a working girl.”
“Thanks for the cigarette.” He left her on the street and headed down the alley to a dim neon sign that read Stage Door.
“You’ll be sorry,” she called after him.
He rapped lightly on the door, and it creaked open. Louis looked into the face that was as lumpy as a sack of potatoes and just as dark, with a forehead so large it all but hid two tiny eyes. “I’m Carlos. Here to audition.” He looked over the man’s shoulder into a dim warm room. “No show tonight?”
The door opened a little wider. “Come in,” the goblin said and stepped aside to let him pass. Louis turned to ask him to let Madame Morte know he’d arrived, but the man had disappeared.
“Hell-ooo.” No one answered. He walked towards the hazy light, and as he neared he could hear faint music. There was a show tonight. And what a show! From the wings he saw a scantily clad chorus line high-kicking to Der Alte Commarades, a rousing German march that let him know who the audience was. He looked at the dancers more closely. Were they women or men? They seemed bigger and taller than the French ladies he and Carlos had discussed at length on the trip from Bristol to Calais. These women seemed more like acrobats too as the music slowed to a waltz and the dance became a bawd of simulated sex acts.
“Henri says you’re here to audition,” a female voice said.
He looked around for a body. Who had spoken? The silence had returned and the stage was empty.
“I’m out here. Come on stage,” the voice said. He stepped into a blinding spotlight. If she was alone or part of an audience, he couldn’t tell. “Take off your coat.”
He shed his blue wool pea coat, as he was instructed. ‘You want to survive the war, don’t you?"
“Everyone does, Madame.”
“Poor Carlos. Things must have gone badly. Take off your shirt and your pants, too.”
Louis looked right and left, and saw the dancers watching him, jostling for a better view, squirming like worms in a fish-bait pail. Another spot light illuminated the middle-aged woman sitting in the fifth row center, wearing an open sheer blue-green caftan over a blue silk bra and panties. “Don’t be shy. Take off your clothes and I’ll tell you if you made the cut.”
“Wouldn’t you rather I sing or dance?”
“During war, manhood alone determines who lives and who dies.”
“You mean a man’s courage?”
A hideous laugh echoed from the balcony. “War isn’t about courage. Singing, dancing, and pantomime. These acts are courageous. Anyone can kill. Art takes courage. Show me your art.”
Louis took the letter from his crumpled coat. “This is my art.”
“So you were there. Georgette was right.”
“I hid from the Nazis to bring it to you.”
“That makes you an artful dodger. Now you’re dodging your audition.”
“I’m not as talented as the men in your chorus line.”
She stood and Louis saw her hobble towards the stage, leaning heavily on a wood and ivory cane, the spotlight walking with her. “Afraid you can’t measure up?”
“It’s absurd to judge a man by his privates.”
“Armies depend on the courage of their privates. God knows their generals aren’t worth a piss.”
Louis looked down. His plain white shorts had turned to lacey pink panties. Like the ones his cousin threw into stream when they’d stripped off their clothes to swim. The men in the wings began to grin and he heard girlish twitters. The young men were young women. He started to put on his clothes. “Madame. I’ve brought you the letter as Carlos asked me to. What you do with it is your business. I’m getting out of this madhouse.” “Not today, Louis Roberts.”
“You know my name?”
Madame Morte was coming up the stage stairs. Gone was the blue caftan and the silky underwear. She was wearing the blue uniform of the Luftwaffe. “That’s right, Louis, put on your clothes.” He dressed, but his clothes had changed. They were lose, light striped cotton pajamas. “Thank-you for delivering the letter. Now join the chorus line.” The young men filed on to the stage from the wings, all of them dressed as he was in the same pajamas, and formed a single line as they walked down the stairs and up the aisle. He fell in among them, slowly marching. “Keep your head down. Watch your step. Don’t fall.”
“You’ll never get up if you do,” the man behind him whispered.
“Halt!” he heard someone say. And the house lights came on.
Louis turned around. The man behind him was white as death, with thick black hair, and a big pink star sewn on his chest. “Where are we going?” Louis asked.
“To the train station,” the man said.
They line started moving up the aisle again. As they entered the lobby, Louis saw the misshapen man pushing a carpet sweeper back and forth over a spilled box of popcorn. The show must be over. That must be the reason the men were no longer dancing.
The clock coo-cooed three times. The audition hadn’t taken too long; had he been chosen? “Let’s get this show on the road,” his father used to say when he wanted the family to hurry. He never liked his father’s impatience, but now he understood it. He had 20 francs left and could really tie on a drunk if he could ever get these guys moving. They must not be sailors.
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University, who taught Political Science and Sociology. Her fiction, poetry, and photographs have been published in over a hundred and sixty print and on-line journals. She won the Eastern Kentucky English Department Award for graduate Non-fiction in 2011, and She won a Silver Pen Award in 2015 for her noir short story: Red’s Not your Color. Her serials Raphael Redcloak: Guardian of the Arts and Retrolands can be found on Jukepop.com.