Thursday, May 3, 2012

Flash Fiction: Cloak and Dagger

Fanny never answered her telephone at night.  In her book, late night calls were synonymous with bad news.  Still, there was nothing she could do to avoid the panic that flooded her senses as the ringing of her phone startled her awake at 3 o’clock in the morning.  After the 9th ring, it was clear the caller was not going to give up. Leaving the warmth of her bed, she stumbled in the darkness to silence her telephone by taking it off the hook.  But as she lifted the receiver, she heard a distant, pleading voice. A voice from her past.

“Fanny!  Fanny!  Can you hear me?  Fanny!”

Her heart still pounding, Fanny scrambled to position the receiver next to her ear.  “Hello?  Pauline?  Is that you?  Where are…"

“Yes, it’s me.”  The familiar voice, closer now, cut Fanny off mid sentence.   “Look Fanny, I haven’t much time. Don’t ask me to explain, but I need you to listen to something. ”  Fanny struggled to shake off the muddled state of her head, brought on by the interruption of her slumber, and compounded by confusion.  She sensed the urgency, the need to pay attention, as Pauline sang, using a series of dees and dums instead of words, a simple tune, repeating  it a second time.

“It’s absolutely vital that you remember this tune exactly the way I sing it,”  Pauline admonished.    “I can’t stress that enough.  Now listen once again, and then sing it back to me.”

Fanny’s voice was certainly not its best at this hour, or  any hour for that matter.   But still, obediently, she sang.  Pauline seemed satisfied.

“I’ve got to go now-but DON’T FORGET THAT TUNE!”


The connection was terminated.

“Pauline!  Pauline!  Wait!  Don’t hang up!” 

But Pauline was gone.

Several days later, shortly before Fanny boarded the train that took her to her job as a file clerk at the OSS, (Office of Strategic Services), near Washington DC, she bought her daily copy of the Washington Star.  Having the newspaper to read helped pass the time during the 30 minute ride.   As Fanny’s eyes scanned the front page for an interesting article, she was stunned by a small headline in the bottom left hand corner.

Dead Woman Identified as Area Resident

In cooperation with local authorities, the body of a woman found murdered in Paris, France has been identified as that of Pauline Ethel Wilson…

They’d first met at Wellesley two years earlier, in 1942.    Taking an instant liking to each other, they’d happily agreed to being roommates.  Initially, Pauline seemed to be a nice girl and a dedicated scholar.   But then her habit of keeping odd hours began-staying out late at night, and disappearing for entire weekends.  Fanny worried about Pauline, but worried more about the problems Pauline’s curious behavior might create between them. When Pauline refused to offer any explanation, Fanny had been forced to make a decision.   The parting was  painful, and after finding a new roommate, Fanny had no longer been in touch with Pauline.   Until the night of the phone call.  And now Pauline was dead.

“It’s all so strange,”  Fanny remarked later that same day to her supervisor, Mr. Bentley, as she brought up the subject of  the newspaper article.  “I knew this girl.   In fact she telephoned me the other night and told me to remember some tune she sang over the phone.  I didn’t quite know what to make of it.”
This revelation evidently came as a shock.   Mr. Bentley turned as white as plaster.  “This tune you are talking about, could you sing it for me?”

Fanny searched her memory for a few minutes.  Then, in spite of feeling rather self conscious about her voice, sang what she could recall, trying her best to duplicate the correct placement of the dees and dums.  “I don’t remember the tune precisely, but I think that was a fair approximation of it.”  Mr. Bentley managed to smile.  “Good work, Fanny.  Now sing it once more, if you would.”   Mr. Bentley closed his eyes in concentration.   It was evident he was trying to memorize the tune himself.  Rather abruptly, he hurried to his office and shut the door.

Fanny stared after him, and shook her head. 

After Pauline's funeral, Fanny reviewed the events of the past week, hoping to glean even the tiniest grain of insight into her friend’s life.  Pauline had been a spy-that seemed like a reasonable assumption.  Perhaps she had been recruited at Wellesley, attending, on those late nights and  long weekends, some sort of spy training.  But why, that night, did Pauline choose to call Fanny, and not someone else?  Was Fanny herself unwittingly a part of some spy plot?  Or was Pauline simply aware that Fanny also worked for the OSS and would be sure to tell someone like Mr. Bentley about the telephone call, and the tune?  And what about that tune?  Obviously some sort of a message.   Morse Code perhaps?

There were so many questions left unanswered, but of one thing, Fanny was dead certain.  Secrecy was tantamount in the OSS.  More so than friendship.  More so than truth.  It had to be, or there were disturbing consequences.  Fanny shivered.
Pauline was proof of that.

This piece is fiction, but based upon factual events.
I am in awe of the courage shown by the men and women whose espionage activities in World War II inspired this piece.
In real life, Fanny would not have been able to learn the truth about Pauline until decades later, when much of this information was finally declassified.  Before that time, the individuals who worked for the OSS were sworn to secrecy, and violating that oath was punishable by death.  At the same time, those agents working under cover faced the same fate when their true identities were discovered by the enemy.
( Fanny’s assumptions though, all turned out to be correct.)
Shortly after WW2, the OSS became the CIA.

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