5:27 p.m., Wednesday, August 22, 1945
Winded and trembling from fleeing through the woods for most of the afternoon, Eleanor Cole finally felt safe enough to pause. She rested an arm on a maple tree and ripped off her shoe. A heel had snapped off her pump a ways back.
The air felt good across the sole of her foot, but she was in no position to wallow. She slipped the shoe back on and removed the other, pounding it against the tree several times until that heel broke off. It was better to have flats anyway. Her ankles had twisted several times when her heels had met with soft earth in the scramble of the past few hours.
She replaced the second shoe and squatted at the base of the tree, head in her hands, the bark grating into her back. She was trying to keep quiet, but the sobbing became uncontrollable in a moment where she finally felt alone. The dried leaves crunched into her tartan skirt as she dropped onto her butt.
She desperately wanted a drink of water. After so much running, her mouth was as dry as day old toast and a metallic taste of blood in the back of her throat extended all the way down to her lungs. The exertion from the afternoon must have robbed her of every ounce of spare moisture in her body.
There was a water bubbler two rooms down from her office, but that was a room she wasn’t likely to be seeing again. There was no fan to cool her, no air conditioning or ice cold soda pop.
The forest threatened to collapse around her under the weight of humid boughs and sagging leaves. The vines strangled the tree trunks and dangled down branches, nearly brushing her shoulders as another feeble wind cut through the area. The touch of muggy air offered inadequate relief from the heat steaming off of her body. The temperature was still in the upper 80s and a potent smell of baking leaves rose from the ground. Normally she loved the outdoors, but she was beginning to feel nauseous. Her untucked blouse was soaked through with sweat and had gone from pure white to a translucent dust rag gray.
This morning she had spent an hour fashioning her hair like Rita Hayworth’s, a new start, she figured, to motivate her out of her comfort zone and onto something beyond drone work. That had fallen to hell, too. People always said she resembled the movie star, so she tried to play it up, add a spark to things, but Rita wouldn’t look this disheveled after a month in the Amazon.
They were going to get her and she was frantic with thoughts of what they’d do. This morning she was nobody, a 25-year old country girl still living with her parents, tending to the chickens and struggling through a joyless job to save up for her own house in D.C. This afternoon, she was public enemy number one. The whole state—no, the whole country—would be looking for her. And there was no doubt the search had begun.
But they wouldn’t find the tom-tom. It was gone. She’d tossed the medallion into a stream earlier just in case they caught up with her. Col. Clay’s career would be ruined.
She tried to calm down, controlling the tears and raising her head. She needed to get her bearings. Her breathing slowed. The sobbing spasm in her diaphragm eased. Except for the occasional blustering of the forest floor, it was silent. There was no one else. Any approaching footsteps would be apparent across the leaf-strewn ground and she couldn’t hear anything, even when she strained to focus. She leaned around the tree and caught a glimpse of the lowering sun through the canopy. That meant she was still heading east. Good.
Twice a second her head throbbed with the beat of her heart. She rose to her feet and took a long, deep breath, trying to clear her mind. Even with the relative calm of the moment, she couldn’t stay put. Losing the heels would help. Pulling off her slip was a possibility. It would free up her movement, but she couldn’t risk leaving something that obvious lying on the ground. It would be far too blatant a clue and would make it easy to assess the direction she was heading. Tugging the blasted thing off anyway, she tucked it under her arm. It could be used to wipe sweat off her forehead.
She kicked some leaves over the discarded heel, then charged forward. She didn’t need to run anymore, but she couldn’t dawdle.
It dawned on her that she didn’t have her pocketbook, so no ID, no money. It seemed like such a minor detail when she thought about what was at stake, but her head was clearer now and she knew she needed a longer-term plan than just getting away. Home was out of the question. It was the first place anyone would look for her. Would they think to monitor her grandparents? Probably.
Who did she know in Amberton? That was in this general direction. No one. No one, besides Nellie. But they hadn’t spoken since Nellie’s family had moved fifteen years ago. The last she’d heard, Nellie was working in a shoe factory and had moved out of her parents’ home. A woman on her own might understand her predicament, particularly since they’d been inseparable when they were younger. All right, she’d try for her old childhood friend. She might not even recognize the woman if she ran smack dab into her and she certainly didn’t have an address for her. At this point, it didn’t matter. It was a destination and that was better than nothing. She’d make for Amberton and look up Nellie in the telephone book. And if she had married, well bad luck to her. The plan would have to change.
She marched to the east and after a long while, she could make out the sound of running water to the north—the Passaconic River. She couldn’t be that far from Route 36. It wasn’t a well-traveled road, but it led to Amberton. She could stick to the tree line and if a car approached, she’d try to determine if it was friendly. If it didn’t seem safe, she’d duck back into the woods before the driver could see her.
It took an hour and a half before she reached the road, a much longer hike than she had figured. And by now, the bugs had begun biting with abandon, attracted as they were to clammy skin. Swatting only seemed to attract more of them.
The blacktop cut through the thick of woods, a single sliver of civilization dividing miles and miles of forest. The pine trees had left layers of needles along the roadside, blown clear of the tar by the speeding motorists. Behind her, the sun was sinking into the horizon. She couldn’t see it through the trees, but the sky had gone a bluish gray with a thick cloud cover and the light was vanishing from the day. The air was muggy and still, the smell of cooking asphalt rising up from the tarmac. Like an oven, the road would continue to give off heat for hours. She could feel it from two feet away.
She considered a passing motorist’s perception, that she might be seen as a vagrant. Nobody in their right mind would pick her up. She straightened out her blouse and tucked it in, running her fingers through her hair in an attempt to rein it in. Then she set out north on the no-man’s land between the woods and the road. Every few minutes, when she heard a car or truck approaching, she would bound to the left and duck behind a tree, scrutinizing the vehicle and its occupants. If anything looked too military-like, she stayed hidden. Several cars in a row had been driven and occupied by young men with crew cuts. It might have been safe to try to stop them, but this wasn’t an instance where she could take a chance, so she let them pass.
She heard the telltale hum of another approaching car from the south. She was just past a bend in the road. It would be fifteen to twenty seconds before it was upon her, but because of the bend, she wouldn’t have much time to examine the car or its driver. And on top of that, the light had mostly faded, making an accurate appraisal harder.
She hopped over a marshy bit of ground and hid herself behind a pine tree, her feet squishing into the waterlogged soil. The car was just on the other side of the corner.
It puttered into view. The interior was dark, but Eleanor could make out the silhouette of a hat. At least she thought it was a hat. She squinted. Yes, it was a hat, a lady’s hat. The chances of spotting a woman driving on her own at this time of day were low, but it was the opportunity Eleanor was hoping for. She stepped into the road and waved an arm over her head. The headlights rose up to meet her and about ten yards away, the car crept to a stop, its engine idling. Eleanor was on display for the driver, the full power of the headlights shining directly on her, blinding her. She held up a hand to shade her eyes, fully aware that her grubby clothes, messy hair and the slip tucked under her left arm might scare the woman away.
For a few seconds nothing happened. She was like a deer in the light. Then she slogged to the driver’s side. The scarlet red Ford Deluxe seemed fairly new or was perhaps just well maintained, its exhaust billowing out from the tailpipe. The window was half-rolled down and as she approached, the older woman in the car discreetly locked the door. The woman was in her early- to mid-sixties wearing a small-brimmed hat with a large ribbon. She looked guarded.
“I’m so sorry,” Eleanor said. “My car’s broken down at our cabin and I’ve had to trudge through the woods on my own. I’m so sorry.”
The woman paused for a moment before easing up a bit. “Oh my dear, that’s all right. I’ll just let you in.” She stretched across the passenger seat and unlocked the door.
Eleanor smiled and circled around the nose of the car. “Thank you so much,” she said as she hopped in, her skirt gliding easily over the bench seat. She pulled her slip onto her lap breathing in the car’s new leather scent.
The woman slowly accelerated the car, the breeze through the windows refreshing Eleanor’s spirits, making her feel somewhat normal again, and helping to clear the feeling of mosquitoes on her skin.
“Were you heading into Amberton?” the woman asked, seeming feebler than Eleanor expected.
“Yes, that would be wonderful.” She stowed the slip between her hip and the door after catching the woman eyeing it. Then she checked herself and noticed the top buttons of her blouse had come undone. Trying not to draw attention, she buttoned them back up.
“Is your cabin close?” the woman asked. “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
Eleanor couldn’t leave a trail that anyone could follow. From this point forward she needed to become someone else. “I’m Evelyn, and no, we aren’t close at all. I must have walked through seven or eight miles of countryside.”
“Oh my! Is your husband not around? Did he leave you to find help on your own?”
Eleanor realized she had instinctively used “we,” and the woman must have picked up on it. There was a generally accepted rule that a woman would have found a husband by her mid-twenties. It should have been an outdated notion, but she fought the urge to stand up on her soapbox. This wasn’t the place for that. In fact she wondered if she’d ever be free enough to stand out in a crowd again. Blending in was the name of the game now.
“He’s in France. Been stationed there for the past eight months. I spruce up the cabin every month while he’s away. It keeps me busy and, honestly, I need to keep an eye on things, otherwise the cabin will look abandoned. Sometimes I wonder where all of the dust comes from.”
The woman nodded her head in commiseration. “By my age you’ll have cleaned enough dust to make another house.”
Eleanor’s new life took shape over the next twenty minutes as it was created from sentence to sentence. Her fabrication included a husband in the army and a Labrador retriever named Chester. And though the thought infuriated her, she had cast herself as a stay-at-home wife. She wouldn’t live anymore acquiescing to egotistical men. She couldn’t. But for the time being, it was best not to raise too many red flags. The older generation expected women in their mid-twenties to have a husband and she needed to avoid ruffling any feathers, especially with an older woman, who was likely to hold conservative views on marriage. Her right hand remained cupped over her left to hide her naked ring finger.
The woman at the car’s helm was named Margaret, her hair curled in starchy ringlets. She’d been married for forty years to a gentle stick of a man named Simon who managed a Sears and Roebuck Department Store. They had three grown daughters, and she was just returning from visiting her eldest, Carol, who had a husband serving in Japan.
The full darkness of evening had descended upon the women as they drove. A flaxen quarter moon occasionally made itself known, but it was mainly irradiating the cloud cover from above. Every few minutes a car or truck passed in the opposite direction, its lights causing temporary blindness for the women. The woods on either side of the road were black. Eleanor could only make out the first row of trees as the headlights of the Deluxe overexposed them, then they quickly disappeared into the darkness, flitting by the passenger window.
As they approached a hill, Eleanor noticed an increasing amount of light coming over its crest, more than just an oncoming vehicle. Something hit her as wrong. They had passed a sign for Amberton not long before and it said the town was still five miles away.
“Is that Amberton already?” she asked.
The car slowed a bit on the hill as the engine struggled. Margaret stayed silent for a few seconds longer than Eleanor would have liked. “Well, that shouldn’t be. Amberton’s still a couple miles from here. That’s someone’s headlights, dear.”
Eleanor instinctively braced herself as they neared the apex, clutching the side of the door. There was too much light. “Let me out,” she said.
Margaret turned toward her passenger. “What’s that?”
“Let me out. I need to get out!” Eleanor grabbed the door handle as the car climbed the hill at forty miles per hour. She placed her shoulder against the door. “Margaret please, stop the car!”
Margaret slowed a bit. “What’s the matter Evelyn? It’s just another car. Are you okay?”
“No, I need to get out now!” The Ford was still moving at a good clip. Eleanor wondered if she should chance leaping out.
“Oh my gosh Evelyn, what is it?”
The car crested the hill and a roadblock became evident fifty yards away, forest on both sides of the pavement. There were two cars, barricades, several very imposing men and a harsh light on a stand beating down on the road. One of the men was holding up a hand signaling for Margaret to stop.
Eleanor was trapped. If she jumped out now, the men would definitely give chase. This had been set up for her. She knew it. She’d managed to escape through the woods before, but she’d had a much more advantageous start earlier. Perhaps Margaret would convince the men she was a friend. Her vision narrowed, the fight or flight instinct fully engaged.
As the Ford rolled to a stop next to the lead man, Margaret lowered the window fully. The man was easily over six feet tall, a dark unbuttoned suit jacket and fedora pulled low to his eyebrows. “Good evening ma’am,” he said, glancing at Margaret and then at her passenger. But his eyes stayed a fraction of a second too long on Eleanor.
She yanked the handle and flung the door open, leaping out of the car and dropping her slip as she broke into a sprint for the woods.
The men at the roadblock straightened up and focused on the fleeing woman, the leader pulling a sidearm from beneath his jacket. He took aim at Eleanor and pulled the trigger. She went down face first just feet from the trees. The light was weaker where she had fallen, but there was enough bleeding over from the checkpoint to partially illuminate the spot where she’d fallen. The men all converged on her, the back of her dirty blouse steeped in blood, pumping from a wound in the center of the shirt, a hole blown right through the fabric. She moved her head to the right and her fingers twitched.
The lead man reached down and frisked her thoroughly. Then he wrenched her onto her back, her body limp, and he continued patting her down head to toe, without a thought for modesty. Eleanor’s eyes stared blankly at the sky, her lips parted. She was gurgling as much as breathing. There was no exit wound on her chest. The bullet was still inside her.
The man straightened himself and looked down at her. “It’s not here,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘it’s not here?’” The voice was Margaret’s, who was standing by the car in the crook of the driver’s door. Her tenderness had disappeared. This was the voice of authority.
The man didn’t pull his gaze from Eleanor. “I mean it’s not here.”
Margaret stomped around the car, a tight gray skirt restricting her gait. She hooked around the passenger door and lifted Eleanor’s slip from the pavement. “Here,” she said, rifling through it before dropping it. “Goddammit!” She peered into the Deluxe’s passenger seat. Her hat had slipped down a little and she snatched it off her head and threw it into the car, her stiff locks barely shifting. “Goddammit!” Her hair was gray, high and tight, her suit conservative. She spun around. “Why the hell did you shoot her?”
The man didn’t respond.
Margaret stepped toward them, stopping inches away from Eleanor’s feet and leered down at the bloody body beneath her. “Where is it?” she snarled.
Eleanor’s eyes didn’t move.
“I thought I shot her in the side,” said the man.
Margaret grabbed Eleanor’s shoulder and pulled, exposing a back caked in dried leaves and a bullet hole directly in its center spurting out blood. Then she let go and the injured woman flopped back onto the ground. Margaret shot the man an angry scowl. “Well, you missed.”
They glared at Eleanor. “Double check,” Margaret said.
The man bent over Eleanor and ripped open her blouse, buttons popping off with the force. Enraged, he reached down to the bottom of her skirt and yanked it up. Eleanor let out moans of pain as he pulled her torso off the ground and continued jerking at the garment until it was bunched up around her waist. “Look for yourself!” he bawled.
Margaret kicked Eleanor’s leg, which didn’t even get a reaction from the incapacitated woman. “What did you do with it?”
Eleanor’s breathing was short; her eyes had begun to glaze over. Margaret hovered over her for a few seconds, then leaned over and slapped Eleanor’s face, knocking it to the side. It didn’t rouse her. “Where is it?” Margaret seethed.
Margaret stood up straight, eyes widening, reached her arm out and took hold of the pistol the lead man had in his holster. The man relinquished the weapon without a word.
Margaret placed her foot in the center of Eleanor’s bra and shifted her weight onto it, causing moans of pain and increased gurgling.
Eleanor rolled her head toward Margaret. The added weight on her chest made it impossible to breath.
“Goddammit!” Margaret screamed, her eyes wild and piercing, dragging Eleanor out of her listlessness. The two women glared at each other. Margaret pointed the gun at Eleanor’s head, and put more of her weight on the dying woman’s chest. The pain was unbearable for Eleanor. Her eyes rolled up in her skull. And Margaret pulled the trigger.