If you fell in love with the characters in Dodging Africa by D. Lou Raymond, Pulayana Press know you will also love Raymond’s work-in-progress, Opal Pretending. Here’s a little taste of this novel of love, revenge and hope set against the backdrop of World War II, and a young woman, Opal Rhinegold, who infiltrates the Nazi regime as a deeply embedded spy. [This chapter subject to change prior to publication.]
When the blindfold came off it took her a moment to orient herself. The driver, who had not given his name, turned and walked back to his truck. He simply pointed at a wooded path through a forest glen, got in the truck and left. Tires kicking up leaves and dirt, he disappeared quickly on the road. The smell of gasoline lingered.
Opal watched and listened closely for anyone or anything as she crunched along a path thick with fir needles and a forest layer cake of soil and pinecones and seasons of dried leaves. Moss lined the edges of the path and snuck onto the trail in the dampest areas. After she had walked for ten minutes, Opal thought she must have missed a path. She was deep into the wooded area now and it had grown darker as the tree branches blocked out the grey light of the early fall day.
But then as she continued along the path, more light filtered in and leaves fell here and there, little poems with stories of the seasons to tell before they touched the earth. The beauty of it made her hesitate on the path. What were the sounds on this day when her new life would begin? The day that she went away and another Opal took her place.
Her life was over. It had to be because everyone she loved was gone. Now there was only one important act that had to be done: vengeance. For mother and father and little Joey. For the Spiegel family. For what they gave her and what they took away.
In front of her the path was widening and she could see a meadow sprinkled with wildflowers. A small house stood on the other side of it, amid large, sheltering trees.
All of the open space around her made her pace quicken. Open spaces were not safe. Opal searched around for the nearest sheltered area and realized at that point, that was the house in the distance. Her fast walk became a run through the grasses and wildflowers, which slapped against her boots, a fertile symphony that joined the thumping of her feet against the ground, ringing in her head. Why am I suddenly panicking? Two minutes later she stood in front of the cottage, her breath coming quickly from the meadow sprint and the growing weight of the pack on her shoulder.
There was no one visible through the windows and no sound inside or out. Opal climbed the three steps to the porch and knocked on the front door, weathered and worn and unbothered with paint. The house was quaint and simple, although not well attended to. The flowers in the window boxes had not been tended recently and grew half-heartedly amid weeds and dead growth. The porch squeaked as she shifted her weight. Birds eager for a meal or complaining about intruders chirped frantically in the yard. She had disturbed their quiet afternoon of tending their nest and pulling worms from the damp fall soil.
Opal knocked again, but still heard nothing inside and tried the door handle. It turned easily and she pushed the door lightly with her foot.
“Hello, anybody home?” She spoke French, assuming that would be the language of her teacher, whose name she still did not know.
The room was dark, large and open, a stone fireplace against one wall with a sitting area and a small dining table nearby. A kitchen area held a wood stove, sink and storage cabinets which looked hand hewn but well crafted, and a second door to a side yard. A single coffee cup and plate were on the drainboard, as well as a few dry goods cannisters. Off the living room area, two doors, both ajar, showed a quilt-covered bed in one and a bathtub in another from what she could see from her vantage point near the front door.
Opal readily assessed that this was a solitary male’s domain, with its smell of tobacco, wood smoke and dust. There were no fresh flowers on the table, no color in the curtains or the furniture, no books on the table stand next to the sofa, no pictures on the mantel, no attempt to bring more light into the space. Opal could hear her maternal Grandmother in her ear saying, ‘My goodness, this could certainly use a good airing out,’ and for the first time agreeing with her on something.
Returning to the front porch, Opal walked towards the back of the cottage to look for any signs of life. A pile of wood next to the porch sent up a pine perfume from being recently cut. Against the side of the house were a miscellany of garden and yard tools, buckets and a broken chair. As she rounded the edge of the cottage, a clothesline holding a few towels and shirts moved gently in the breeze.
A sudden gust blew the sleeve of a shirt across her face, startling her, but then she laughed nervously. As she brushed it aside, there he was. My teacher.
Opal had not been given his name or a description of what he looked like. She knew only that he was to be her teacher in the precise art of spying. The contact in Paris had told her that this teacher had been in other wars, as a guerilla fighter, spy and assassin, whispering the last item of his vitae despite no one else being near them as they met on the discrete park bench. Why had her contact even mentioned that the spy master was an assassin? That seemed the type of secret that should be kept out of all conversations, more than a name, which could always be changed. It was in case she was ever tortured, the contact in the park explained. If she knew nothing she could provide nothing. She would die without giving anything away to the enemy, except that he was a killer.
That line of thought then led her to another: was any of what they told her about this teacher real? Was there a maze within a maze within in a maze of information so that no one could be traced to another? So that the network would not disappear even before it would be needed the most, once the inevitable war would begin?
The man stood very still and just looked at her. Not an up and down look, but a steady, cool look. For a moment Opal did the same, trying to determine from his look whether he was expecting anyone. Is it possible that she was at the wrong house.
She spoke in French. “Hello…teacher.” She shifted her weight as he began to walk towards her.
“Call me Peter. You are Rita now, my cousin from America. We’ll speak in English while you’re here. Your French is terrible.”
He passed Opal as she rolled her eyes, his look of watchful impatience the only welcome to his tutelage.
Not knowing what else to do she followed him into the cottage like a reluctant puppy running after its mother.
“So you’ve already made yourself at home I see.” Peter pointed to the pack resting against one of the kitchen chairs.
“If you can call putting down my pack making myself at home, then yes, I guess I have.” She said it without emotion, a return volley from her teacher.
He laughed. “You’re not staying in here so don’t get too comfortable. You’ll be sleeping in the shed out back. I’ll show you in a minute.” He dropped a small cloth sack that he had been carrying into the sink and then went into the bathroom and shut the door.
Opal threw up her hands when the door shut and gave him a dirty look through the door.
“This should be fun.” She said it aloud under her breath, then sat in the chair and pulled up her pack. She had brought some coffee with her, as well as fresh bread wrapped in cheesecloth, jam and chocolate, and a bottle of very expensive whiskey as a contribution to the host. She put all of it on the table, but then pulled back the chocolate and whiskey, which she may need for leverage later.
Opal knew that he was testing her already. She was good at reading others, including their own hidden agendas that loomed beneath the surface of what they were showing others. That gave her power or at least leverage points that could be stored and used as needed, especially if she did not show an awareness that he was playing a game with her. But was it chess, hide and seek or poker? Or some other game, more complex than that?
Well, she could play games too, if that is how this relationship was going to start. She was in spy training, and she guessed this was today’s lesson just to see how she would react. Opal wondered what Peter knew about her. How would someone summarize her to him, if they did? Spoiled, rich girl with unknown American and German allegiances and bent on revenge, who could perhaps be helpful? As she said it to herself, it suddenly seemed a less credible resume for a spy. Could she be trusted with just revenge as her motivation? Was Peter’s unwelcome a sign of that?
Revenge was her driving force, she could not deny it. But embedded in the murder of her family was the sheer depth of evil that made up the dark threat of the Reich. Their willingness to create a movement of evil, arterial throughout Germany, was a cancer spreading with no end except for domination of the fatal sickness. In her own family it had killed her parents, brother and grandfather. The Jewish community was being destroyed methodically from a playbook written by the devil himself: Hitler.
While Peter was still in the bathroom, Opal left the cottage with her pack to find the shed and see how big of a test her sleeping arrangements would be. No matter what, she told herself, she was not going to complain or act like it was a hardship. That is what he would watch for. And if he was the master spy he was supposed to be, then he would be able to tell if she was putting on a show.
That was the moment the actress was born. Opal was gone. Rita had arrived.
The shed was partially hidden in vines and overgrown bushes, with one window peeping through with a view of the backyard, and a clearing around the door. The old shed door squeaked when she opened it, the smells of moss, metal and wood greeting her arrival. While it was dark, the windows provided enough light for her to see a cot against the back wall and an oil lantern on an ancient worktable with hammer and saw marks from a hundred years passed. Pulling out her father’s lighter from the pack, she lit the lantern and walked with it around the rest of the shed. It was about half the size of her bedroom back in Worchester and filled with the usual assortment of workman’s and gardening tools, gunny sacks filled with unknown contents, a pile of bricks against a wall and two worktables. The dirt floor had been partially covered in steppingstones, but a damp earthy smell hit her nose with every step. Next to the cot was a small side table with another lantern. Straw peeked out through the edges of the old mattress cover, which showed water and other stains of unknown origin. A folded quilt and a thinner blanket rested at the end of bed, providing the only color in the shed.
Opal set her pack down on the bed and looked around. If this was it, she thought, it would have to be fixed up a bit to make it tolerable and warm enough so she would not get sick when the weather worsened. Her Oma’s words came back to her then: sometimes you just have to make the best of a bad situation. That was after Opal’s first try at making lemon meringue pie turned out more like soup. Of course, Oma had a solution: ice cream topping! And so that is what they had transformed her mistake into, and her father raved about dessert that night. What delicious ice cream, and lemon sauce too, he had said.
So Opal would take her lemon sauce and turn it into something of value.
Just then the room darkened. Peter stood in the doorway blocking the light.
“I see you’ve found your bedroom.”
“Yes, thank you, it will do fine.” She said it in a flat, neutral voice.
Peter took a mallet off the wall where it rested on two rusty nails. The sound must have disturbed a nearby mouse as it ran across the floor of the shed towards Opal. She willed herself not to scream and instead plopped down on the cot and lifted her feet up.
Peter snickered. “Hope you don’t mind a few roommates.” He looked at her face waiting to see her reaction.
“No problem. I’m like Cinderella. Mice are my little buddies. I’m sure we’ll all get along fine.”
“Right.” He snickered, as he turned to leave but then stopped. “Oh, come back into the house when you want. I have a few things to tell you.”
And not tell me, Opal thought.
“Sure, I’ll be right in.” Again, flat and neutral.
She watched him walk back to the house, pleased with her reaction to the mouse. He’ll not see me as weak.
Peter reminded her of someone she had seen before, but she could not quite remember who. She guessed he was probably in his early forties, but it was hard to tell. Her mother might say he was handsome, but Opal only saw a grizzled, suspicious man who seemed more hermit than spy master. He was badly in need of a haircut and days of stubble threatened to be a beard. Peter was tall, well over six foot, and she could tell he was muscular under the flannel shirt he wore, which had seen better days and was fraying at the cuffs and hem.
Purposely delaying her return to the house, she focused on making her “bedroom” into something that was not quite as dusty and damp. After using the edge of a putty knife and a hammer to break apart the dried paint from an ancient window, Opal managed to pry it open to provide some cross ventilation with the open door. A homemade broom behind the door worked well to get some of the dirt off the steppingstone floor, and old undershirts hanging on a hook served as dust rags to clear off the tool tables and the small side table next to the cot.
With dust flying everywhere, she dropped the rag and ran out the door, breathing in the fresh air and coughing out years of the shed’s accumulated detritus. After brushing off her blouse and shaking out her skirt and hair, Opal walked towards the cottage. The front door was open, and she entered to find Peter with half of the loaf of bread in his hand and ripping off a large piece with his teeth.
With his mouth full he could not speak but he made noises and pointed to the chair across from him.
“I see you found your bread.” Opal said it in the same tone as he had when he pointed out she had found her “room.” As she pulled the chair out and sat at the small table, Peter finally swallowed the bread chunk.
“You know the difference between a man and a woman is that a woman brings bread and coffee when a man would bring cigarettes and whiskey.” He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.
Opal met his eyes. “And how do you know I also didn’t bring cigarettes and whiskey?” She then pulled two packs of Gauloises from her skirt pocket and tossed them on the table near Peter.
He let out such a loud guffaw that Opal could not help but grin back at him.
“Oh, you are very American, my pupil. So independent. So undeferential.” Peter tsked and picked up one of the cigarette packs and opened it, eyeing her with a cocked head.
“Well, I am American. You must have been told that.” She kept her tone matter-of-fact.
“I thought you were German too. I’m told your uncle is an influential member of the Nazi party as well as a producer of military machinery. Is that not the case?”
“Yes, that is true about my uncle. But I was born and raised in the states and my father was proud of becoming an American citizen. I was raised with German traditions, like holiday foods, and my father spoke German sometimes but only because he thought I should know a second language, not because he was a patriot. He left his family and Germany behind to find his own way. He was twenty-one when he left.”
Peter offered Opal one of the cigarettes and she took it. He lit a match from the small box on the table then leaned forward to light her Gauloises. She looked first at the cigarette as the flame hit it, then she raised her eyes, meeting his stare. He lit his cigarette with the same match before it fizzled out as it reached his fingers.
“An independent man who raised an independent daughter who now wants to spy on the Germans.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to just spy on them. I want to bring them down.”
“Ah, just a simple task, bringing down the Reich. One little American girl bringing down the Nazis and saving the world.”
“Oh, come on,” Opal said, clearly exasperated by the spymaster. “Of course I don’t believe I’m doing it single handedly. I know I’m a cog in the wheel of information that will help us stop them. I’m hoping you can help me be an effective cog.”
“Well, we’ll see how this goes.” For a minute, neither of them said anything. They each smoked in silence.
“I just have one question for you, Rita.” Peter looked intently at Opal. “So is the whiskey in your other pocket?” Peter said it wryly with half a smile turned up his mouth.
“Did I say that the whiskey was a gift?”
Peter laughed again.
“I may have to keep it now to adapt to my new living situation in the shed. The mice and I may have a hard time getting to sleep.”
Peter shook his finger at her. “You are funny. A funny American.”
Now it was Opal’s turn to smile wryly.
“But can a funny American be a good spy?” Peter rubbed his chin as though in deep thought.
“Yes.” Opal said it firmly and looked at Peter with an intensity that he felt, physically. He kept his body very still, fighting how she had affected him. Then he cleared his throat.
“Let’s see if you still agree after I explain the ground rules.” Peter rose and walked over to the fireplace, flicking his cigarette ash into the grate and leaning against the mantel. Opal felt his presence fill the cottage. He was large. Not just tall, but large in ruling the space and owning the very oxygen in the room. It was his, as would any place be if he wanted it. And now she was here.
Peter kicked at a blackened log in the fireplace and flicked his cigarette butt. He looked up at Opal and suddenly she felt the heat rise in her cheeks. This is really happening.
“First, you can’t question what I ask you to do. Period. Every step of your training is done for a reason. Done because it will prepare you for any situation you find yourself in, and allow you to steal the information you need, pass it to contacts, and not get caught. And it will keep you alive. If you’re lucky.
“Second, you must be willing to stop being who you are now, and fully become who you need to be. Opal is dead. Now you are Rita. She is your new personality and may be nothing like who you are now. Your values, your likes and dislikes, your politics, and your history are dead. A new person now inhabits your body in all ways.
“Third, you are a woman, a beautiful woman, and you’ll have to use your sex to get access to the men who have the information that you need. Whatever morals you had about giving yourself over to men are dead. You are Rita while you are here and in training. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about then let me know and I’ll give you more details, right now.” Opal shook her head.
“And lastly, you are now my pupil in all of these areas and I will teach you how to become a spymaster in your own right. I will train you in the fine arts of how to steal, manipulate, murder, betray and to drive men crazy with desire for you. This will be the hardest thing you have ever done and some of it will probably make you sick. But unless you agree to all of it, walk away now. You will never speak of this to anyone, and I will forget that you were even here.”
Opal gulped and then stopped breathing at Peter’s last point. Taking a quick breath in, she slowly stood and met his eyes.
“When do we start.”
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