“Hold it!” came a shout.
A jeep swerved around the tank and pulled up beside Grace. A young captain jumped to the road. “Did you say your name is Cahill?”
“Grace Cahill. I’ve come a long way to see the general.”
The man looked her up and down. “I’ll say.”
He loaded her into the jeep, wheeled off the pavement, and began to plow through the sand, passing a procession of soldiers, tanks, and equipment that easily stretched back thirty miles. The BBC broadcast had estimated that the Western Task Force numbered 34,000 troops. Grace was not surprised. The jeep’s spinning tires must have kicked dust and dirt over at least that many.
After what seemed like an endless ride, they pulled back onto the road, blocking the path of a very large staff car.
The driver stuck his head out the open window. “What’s the holdup?”
The captain snapped a rigid salute. “Grace Cahill to see the general!”
“Cahill?” echoed a gruff voice.
The door opened and two shiny boots hit the tarmac.
Grace stared dumbly. The officer who stood before her radiated confidence and command, from his ramrod-straight posture to his armor-piercing gaze. Although he had just finished masterminding and directing a three-day battle, his uniform looked clean and pressed. On his helmet gleamed two stars.
It was General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton.
Bodies littered Casablanca’s beachfront, and spilled fuel burned in the waters of the harbor.
The battle was over.
The Vichy French defenders had surrendered, so the city was peaceful. The tranquillity belied the brutal reality of a bloody invasion that had cost nearly two thousand lives, more than a quarter of them American.
Grace rode into town in the staff car next to Patton himself. Although she was champing at the bit to tell him about the Morse code message, she kept quiet. The commander was surrounded by aides and bodyguards. There was no way to be sure who — if anyone — could be trusted to hear the top secret communication that had been meant for James Cahill. Her only option was to wait until she was alone with the general.
When they reached the building that had been selected for Patton’s headquarters, Grace was attended to by his personal physician. Her broken wrist was set in a plaster cast, and she was given food, water, and a room to rest in. She slept for the first time in more than thirty hours and awoke to find fresh new clothes ready for her. On the dresser sat her briefcase. A good sign — it meant the contents of the plane had been recovered, including the body of the pilot. She popped open the lid. There was the money, every dollar, franc, and mark. The soldiers of Operation Torch were men of honor. It brought her a measure of relief. She could trust the US Army to give Drago a proper burial.
The general came in to see her at 1900. Finally, Grace had what she was looking for — a private audience with General George S. Patton. She explained who her father was and told the general of the mysterious boat that had flashed its Morse code at the villa in Monte Carlo.
“GSP — that’s you, right? You’re one of the Cahills, like Abraham Lincoln and Mozart. White house is Casablanca, and torch is the invasion.”
He nodded, amazed. “And you tracked me down in the middle of my own war! You’re just a kid!”
She bristled. “I’m thirteen.”
“Well, the fact that you made it here is better identification than a passport and a blood test,” he said with a laugh. “You’re a Cahill, all right.”
“But what does the message mean?” she asked. “Who are the Vs?”
“There’s a group called the Vespers,” he explained. “They go back as far as the Cahills. We’ve been rivals for centuries.”
Grace nodded thoughtfully. “They must be the people we have to protect the ring from. But what ring? And what’s this bull’s-eye the Vespers know about?”
The general held up his hand. “Grace, listen to me. I don’t want you to worry about it anymore. You brought me the message. No one could ask you to do anything beyond that. What you’ve accomplished is a miracle. Leave the rest to me. I’m going to get you, your sister, and your baby brother home to Boston. And it may take some doing, but I’ll find your dad as well. You’ve got George Patton’s word on that.”
Never before had Grace met anyone so totally in control, so impressive. From the powerful set of his jaw to the forest of ribbons, medals, and decorations on his chest, he was the ultimate American hero.
She didn’t mean to cry, yet once the tears began, she couldn’t hold them back — the sheer relief of having so much burden lifted from her shoulders. She wept for Drago, for her poor parents, for the very world itself suffering under this awful war. How strange that now — when she was finally safe — the emotion should pour out.
The general’s legendary efficiency was evident in his plan for her. Tomorrow morning, she would be on a six o’clock plane to Lisbon; from there, on to London, where she would be joined by her family. Beatrice was going to have a lot to say about her disappearing act. But nothing could spoil the prospect of seeing Fiske again….
Yet there was something vaguely unsatisfying about the whole business. She had made an improbable journey at an impossible time; a man was dead, his aircraft destroyed. And now she was expected to walk away and forget any of it had ever happened.
That’s good news! she admonished herself. You have your life; you’re being reunited with your family; you’ve placed the message in the hands of the most competent, confidence-inspiring military man on the face of the earth. How could things possibly go any better?
Well, for starters, she reflected, the general could have been more specific about his strategy. He’d promised to handle it; what he hadn’t mentioned was how. Not that she didn’t have faith in him. But Cahill business wasn’t Patton’s top priority in Casablanca. He was the commander of a conquered city. Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of urgent matters would require his attention. What if Grace’s message just slipped his mind?
Sure enough, the general was gone all evening, assessing casualties and equipment losses after the invasion. That left Grace to stew in her doubts, wandering around headquarters under the watchful eyes of officers and sentries.
The place was really a large mansion. Patton’s aide had told her that a wealthy Casablanca family had graciously offered their home to the US Army. She couldn’t help wondering how much choice the “gracious” owners had in the matter. Then again — she thought of Father’s many residences around the globe — the rich usually had someplace else to go. So many had sacrificed during this terrible war. Her sympathies were probably wasted on a single displaced millionaire.
Besides the men in uniform, the only other sign that the mansion had become an army installation was the large city map spread out on a vast dining table. A number of locations were marked with colored tacks — headquarters itself, the officers’ billets, and troop deployments. There were pins all over town, except for a central district not far from the beach, filled with very narrow, winding streets. It was surrounded by a solid line on which someone had scribbled the word WALL.
She squinted. The area had a name, printed on the paper in paler ink:
She recalled from Madame Fourchette’s French lessons that this meant the old Arab quarter, or casbah.
Her heart began to pound. Ancienne Medina — AM!
So it doesn’t mean morning. When the message said White House AM, it was a reference to Casablanca’s old casbah!
She had to inform the general!
“I’m sorry, Miss Grace,” said Patton’s aide. “He’s tied up with military matters. I don’t know when he’ll be available again.”
She returned to her room, growing more restless by the second. The Morse code pointed to the Ancienne Medina, but Patton didn’t know that. And by the time she had a chance to tell him, it might be too late. There could be a Vesper in town at this very moment. And the Vespers knew about the bull’s-eye, which was a lot more than Grace could say for herself. How could she be certain of what bull’s-eye might mean in the middle of a shooting war fought with weapon scopes, rifle sights, crosshairs, and targeting systems?
She was positive that the answer lay somewhere in the casbah.
But the general had said her part was over….
Well, that was then; this is now.
She could not stand idly by, giving their rivals a chance to find the bull’s-eye first while Patton was distracted by military matters. She had to help. She owed it to the general; she owed it to her family; and she especially owed it to Drago, who had lost his life getting her here. Somehow, she had to make that meaningful.
She’d never be able to explain this to the sentries stationed about the mansion. Luckily, Grace was an expert at sneaking in and out of places — training from her role as the younger sister of tattletale Beatrice.
She opened the shutters and eased herself over the windowsill, contemplating the eight-foot drop. Hanging on with her good hand, she lowered herself as far as she could and then jumped the remaining distance to the ground. Keeping to the shrubbery, she sneaked across the property and vaulted a low wall.
For a place that had just been seized by foreign invaders, Casablanca seemed very much business-as-usual. The streets were bustling with veiled women, turbaned and white-robed men, and visitors of a wide variety of nationalities. With war raging on the continent to the north, this part of Africa had been the first stop for many civilians trying to escape the conflict. People went about their business, heads down, never making eye contact. It was perfect for Grace’s purposes — nobody looked at her. But it contributed to an overall sense that something secret was going on.
She had memorized the route between headquarters and the Ancienne Medina, although she questioned her navigation skills more than once along the way. The roads did not appear to be laid out on any kind of grid. They twisted and turned, and the exotic arabesque architecture, with its elaborate designs, made it impossible to fix on any landmarks.
She was relieved when at last she arrived at the stone wall, weathered by centuries of sand and dust storms, surrounding the Ancienne Medina.
She had made it — but where to go from here?
Inside the casbah’s gates, the neighborhoods were older and more crowded. Some of the alleyways were so narrow that the upper floors of the Moorish buildings almost met above the road, creating a tunnel effect. There were no cars here, just swarms of pedestrians and a few bicycles and carts. Tiny stalls and shops sold everything from live chickens to expensive jewelry. Saloons, restaurants, and cafés lined both sides of the street as far as the eye could see.
1001 NIGHTS proclaimed a pink neon sign. Open shutters revealed tiny tables and dim flickering candles that made it nearly impossible to see the food. This, thought Grace with a shudder, might be a plus. Two men were playing darts in the back room, and money was changing hands.
Grace stared. A dartboard.
Bull’s-eye — the center circle of a dartboard!