FLICK LANDED AT RAF Tempsford, an airstrip fifty miles north of London, near the village of Sandy in Bedfordshire.

She would have known, just from the cool, damp taste of the night air in her mouth, that she was back in England.

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She loved France, but this was home.

Walking across the airfield, she remembered coming back from holidays as a child.

Her mother would always say the same thing as the house came into view: "It's nice to go away, but it's nice to come home." The things her mother said came back to her at the oddest moments.

A young woman in the uniform of a FANY corporal was waiting with a powerful Jaguar to drive her to London.

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"This is luxurious," Flick said as she settled into the leather seat.

"I'm to take you directly to Orchard Court," the driver said.

"They're waiting to debrief you." Flick rubbed her eyes.

"Christ," she said feelingly.

"Do they think we don't need sleep?" The driver did not respond to that.

Instead she said, "I hope the mission went well, Major." "It was a snafu." "I beg pardon?" "Snafu," Flick repeated.

"It's an acronym.

It stands for Situation Normal All Fucked Up." The woman fell silent.

Flick guessed she was embarrassed.

It was nice, she thought ruefully, that there were still girls to whom the language of the barracks was shocking.

Dawn broke as the fast car sped through the Hertfordshire villages of Stevenage and Knebworth.

Flick looked out at the modest houses with vegetables growing in the front gardens, the country post offices where grumpy postmistresses resentfully doled out penny stamps, and the assorted pubs with their warm beer and battered pianos, and she felt profoundly grateful that the Nazis had not got this far.

The feeling made her all the more determined to return to France.

She wanted another chance to attack the chateau.

She pictured the people she had left behind at Sainte-Cecile: Albert, young Bertrand, beautiful Genevieve, and the others dead or captured.

She thought of their families, distraught with worry or stunned by grief.

She resolved that their sacrifice should not have been fruitless.

She would have to start right away.

It was a good thing she was to be debriefed immediately: she would have a chance to propose her new plan today.

The men who ran SOE would be wary at first, for no one had ever sent an all-female team on such a mission.

There were all sorts of snags.

But there were always snags.

By the time they reached the north London suburbs it was full daylight, and the special people of the early morning were out and about: postmen and milkmen making their deliveries, train drivers and bus conductors walking to work.

The signs of war were everywhere: a poster warning against waste, a notice in a butcher's window saying No Meat Today, a woman driving a rubbish cart, a whole row of small houses bombed into rubble.

But no one here would stop Flick, and demand to see her papers, and put her in a cell, and torture her for information, then send her in a cattle truck to a camp where she would starve.

She felt the high-voltage tension of living undercover drain slowly out of her, and she slumped in the car seat and closed her eyes.

She woke up when the car turned into Baker Street.

It went past No.

64: agents were kept out of the headquarters building so that they could not reveal its Secrets under interrogation.

Indeed, many agents did not know its address.

The car turned into Portman Square and stopped outside Orchard Court, an apartment building.

The driver sprang out to hold the door open.

Flick went inside and made her way to SOE's flat.

Her spirits lifted when she saw Percy Thwaite.

A balding man of fifty with a toothbrush mustache, he was paternally fond of Flick.

He wore civilian clothing, and neither of them saluted, for SOE was impatient of military formalities.

"I can tell by your face that it went badly," Percy said.

His sympathetic tone of voice was too much for Flick to bear.

The tragedy of what had happened overwhelmed her suddenly, and she burst into tears.

Percy put his arms around her and patted her back.

She buried her face in his old tweed jacket.

"All right," he said.

"I know you did your best." "Oh, God, I'm sorry to be such a girl." "I wish all my men were such girls," Percy said with a catch in his voice.

She detached herself from his embrace and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.

"Take no notice." He turned away and blew his nose into a big handkerchief "Tea or whisky?" he said.

"Tea, I think." She looked around.

The room was full of shabby furniture, hastily installed in 1940 and never replaced: a cheap desk, a worn rug, mismatched chairs.

She sank into a sagging armchair.

"I'll fall asleep if I have booze." She watched Percy as he made tea.

He could be tough as well as compassionate.

Much decorated in the First World War, he had become a rabble-rousing labor organizer in the twenties, and was a veteran of the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when Cockneys attacked Fascists who were trying to march through a Jewish neighborhood in London's East End.

He would ask searching questions about her plan, but he would be open minded.

He handed her a mug of tea with milk and sugar.

"There's a meeting later this morning," he said.

"I have to get a briefing note to the boss by nine ack emma.

Hence the hurry." She sipped the sweet tea and felt a pleasant jolt of energy.

She told him what had happened in the square at Sainte-Cecile.

He sat at the desk and made notes with a sharp pencil.

"I should have called it off," she finished.

"Based on Antoinette's misgivings about the intelligence, I should have postponed the raid and sent you a radio message saying we were outnumbered." Percy shook his head sadly.

"This is no time for postponements.

The invasion can't be more than a few days away.

If you had consulted us, I doubt it would have made any difference.

What could we do? We couldn't send you more men.

I think we would have ordered you to go ahead regardless.

It had to be tried.

The telephone exchange is too important." "Well, that's some consolation." Flick was glad she did not have to believe Albert had died because she had made a tactical error.

But that would not bring him back.

"And Michel is all right?" Percy said.

"Mortified, but recovering." When SOE had recruited Flick, she had not told them her husband was in the Resistance.

If they had known, they might have steered her toward different work.

But she had not really known it herself, though she had guessed.

In May 1940 she had been in England, visiting her mother, and Michel had been in the army, like most able-bodied young Frenchmen, so the fall of France had left them stranded in different countries.

By the time she returned as a secret agent, and learned for certain what role her husband was playing, too much training had been invested in her, and she was already too useful to SOE, for her to be fired on account of hypothetical emotional distractions.

"Everyone hates a bullet in the backside," Percy mused.

"People think you must have been running away." He stood up.

"Well, you'd better go home and get some sleep." "Not yet," Flick said.

"First I want to know what we're going to do next." "I'm going to write this report- "No I mean about the telephone exchange.

If it s so important, we have to knock it out." He sat down again and looked at her shrewdly.

"What have you got in mind?" She took Antoinette's pass out of her bag and threw it on his desk.

"Here's a better way to get inside.

That's used by the cleaners who go in every night at seven o'clock." Percy picked up the pass and scrutinized it.

"Clever girl," he said with something like admiration in his voice.

"Go on." "I want to go back." A look of pain passed briefly over Percy's face, and Flick knew he was dreading her risking her life again.

But he said nothing.

"This time I'll take a full team with me," she went on.

"Each of them will have a pass like that.

We'll substitute for the cleaners in order to get into the chateau." "I take it the cleaners are women?" "Yes.

I'd need an all-female team." He nodded.

"Not many people around here will object to that-you girls have proved yourselves.

But where would you find the women? Virtually all our trained people are over there already." "Get approval for my plan, and I'll find the women.

I'll take SOE rejects, people who failed the training course, anybody.

We must have a file of people who have dropped out for one reason or another." "Yes-because they were physically unfit, or couldn't keep their mouths shut, or enjoyed violence too much, or lost their nerve in parachute training and refused to jump out of the plane." "It doesn't matter if they're second-raters," Flick argued earnestly.

"I can deal with that." At the back of her mind, a voice said Can you, really? But she ignored it.

"If the invasion fails, we've lost Europe.

We won't try again for years.

This is the turning point, we have to throw everything at the enemy." "You couldn't use French women who are already there, Resistance fighters?" Flick had already considered and rejected that idea.

"If I had a few weeks, I might put together a team from women in half a dozen different Resistance circuits, but it would take too long to find them and get them to Reims." "It might still be possible." "And then we have to have a forged pass with a photo for each woman.

That's hard to arrange over there.

Here, we can do it in a day or two." "It's not that easy." Percy held Antoinette's pass up to the light of a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.

"But you're right, our people do work miracles in that department." He put it down.

"All right.

It has to be SOE rejects, then." Flick felt a surge of triumph.

He was going for it.

Percy went on, "But assuming you can find enough French-speaking girls, will it work? What about the German guards? Don't they know the cleaners?" "It's probably not the same women every night-they must have days off.

And men never notice who cleans up after them." "I'm not sure.

Soldiers are generally sex-hungry youngsters who pay great attention to all the women with whom they come into contact.

I imagine the men in this chateau flirt with the younger ones, at least." "I watched these women entering the chateau last night.

and I didn't see any signs of flirting." "Still, you can't be sure the men won't notice the appearance of a completely strange crew." "I can't be certain, but I'm confident enough to take the chance." "All right, what about the French people inside? The telephone operators are local women, aren't they?" "Some are local, but most are brought in from Reims by bus." "Not every French person likes the Resistance, we both know that.

There are some who approve of the Nazis' ideas.

God knows, there were plenty of fools in Britain who thought Hitler offered the kind of strong modernizing government we all needed-although you don't hear much from those people nowadays." Flick shook her head.

Percy had not been to occupied France.

"The French have had four years of Nazi rule, remember.

Everyone over there is hoping desperately for the invasion.

The switchboard girls will keep mum." "Even though the RAF bombed them?" Flick shrugged.

"There may be a few hostile ones, but the majority will keep them under control." "You hope." "Once again, I think it's a chance worth taking." "You still don't know how heavily guarded that basement entrance is." "That didn't stop us trying yesterday." "Yesterday you had fifteen Resistance fighters, some of them seasoned.

Next time, you'll have a handful of dropouts and rejects." Flick played her trump card.

"Listen, all kinds of things could go wrong, but so what? The operation is low-cost, and we're risking the lives of people who aren't contributing to the war effort anyway.

What have we got to lose?" "I was coming to that.

Look, I like this plan.

I'm going to put it up to the boss.

But I think he will reject it, for a reason we haven't yet discussed." "What?" "No one but you could lead this team.

But the trip you've just returned from should be your last.

You know too much.

You've been going in and out for two years.

You've had contact with most of the Resistance circuits in northern France.

We can't send you back.

If you were captured, you could give them all away." "I know," Flick said grimly.

"That's why I carry a suicide pill."

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