Before dark, the Austrians serve pork kidneys with whole tomatoes on hotel china, a single silver bee etched on the rim of every plate. Everyone sits on sandbags or ammunition boxes, and Bernd falls asleep over his bowl, and Volkheimer talks in the corner with the lieutenant about the radio in the cellar, and around the perimeter of the room the Austrians chew steadily beneath their steel helmets. Brisk, experienced men. Men who do not doubt their purpose.
When Werner is done with his food, he lets himself into the topfloor suite and stands in the hexagonal bathtub. He nudges the shutter, and it opens a few centimeters. The evening air is a benediction. Below the window, on one of the bastioned traces on the seaward side of the hotel, waits the big 88. Beyond the gun, beyond the embrasures, ramparts plunge forty feet to the green and white plumes of surf. To his left waits the city, gray and dense. Far in the east, a red glow rises from some battle just out of sight. The Americans have them pinned against the sea.
It seems to Werner that in the space between whatever has happened already and whatever is to come hovers an invisible borderland, the known on one side and the unknown on the other. He thinks of the girl who may or may not be in the city behind him. He envisions her running her cane along the runnels. Facing the world with her barren eyes, her wild hair, her bright face.
At least he protected the secrets of her house. At least he kept her safe.
New orders, signed by the garrison commander himself, have been posted on doors and market stalls and lampposts. No person must attempt to leave the old city. No one must walk in the streets without special authority.
Just before Werner closes the shutter, a single airplane comes through the dusk. From its belly issues a flock of white growing slowly larger.
The flock is sundering, scattering: it is paper. Thousands of sheets. They gust down the slope of the roof, skitter across the parapets, stick
flat in tidal eddies down on the beach.
Werner descends to the lobby, where an Austrian holds one to the light. “It’s in French,” he says.
Werner takes it. The ink so fresh it smudges beneath his fingers. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, it says. Depart immediately to open country.