A child saw her first.
June 1940, Fitzrovia: five oclock, and the sky overcast. The boy, six years old, had been running half-heartedly up and down the empty street, pretending to be an aeroplane, but it wasnt much good without the others. Hed been delighted when his mother came to take him away from the farm, with its pig-faced owner and the huge smelly animals that still chased him, snorting and steaming, through nightmares. His mother, smothering for the first few days, had soon tired of him under her feet and turned him outdoors to play, and three months on, with most of his friends still evacuated and his old school requisitioned by the ARP, he was bored.
He picked up a stick and ran it up and down the iron railings in front of the tall houses, then turned the corner and, sighing, sat down on the kerb and pulled both his socks up, hard.
Raising his head, he saw a sack of something draped over a set of railings further down. It hadnt been there when hed run down the road after his dinner, he was sure. He dawdled along for a closer look. It wasnt a sack, but a woman, impaled on the sharp black spikes. He stared at her, uncomprehending. Face down, her dress was caught up round her waist, and he could see her drawers. He extended a finger and poked her shoulder. Under the slippery material, she felt scraggy and bony, like the meat his mother sent him to fetch from the butchers. She seemed to have two lots of hair, one short, brown and stiff looking, on the back of her head, and the other, longer and yellow. This top hair had slipped forwards, hanging down on either side of her face so that he couldnt see what she looked like. He considered this for a moment, then looked down at the pavement, where a number of little round white things were scattered. He picked one up and rolled it between his fingers - hard and shiny. A sweet? He put it in his mouth, sucking first, then testing it against his teeth. It felt slightly rough when he bit it, but tasted of nothing. Spitting it into his palm, he squatted down and peered up at the face between the long yellow curls.
In shadow, upside down, one eye stared back at him. The other was closed - a long, lashless slit like a wound, its outer corner pulled upwards, as if by invisible thread. Then, with a groan, the mouth opened, a black, cavernous O, to swallow him whole.
He screamed. Someone else screamed, too, and for a moment he thought it must be the woman, bent on eating him alive. Then feet pounded towards him, and in a confusion of shouts, gasps and police whistles, an unknown hand pressed his head to an alien bosom. Howling and thrashing in terror, he was carried away down the road, pounding at his rescuer, the single pearl still clutched in his left fist.
The barrage balloons were shining in the evening sun. DI Ted
Stratton squinted up at them. He felt, as he always did, comforted by
their rotund, silvery serenity. Despite everything, he thought - first
Norway and Denmark, then Holland, Belgium, and now France,
like dominoes - it was hardly a picture of a country at war. For
Stratton, the word conjured up bullet-riddled scarecrows sprawled
across the wire in No Mans land, even though the Great War had
ended too soon for him to be called up, leaving him unable to tell
whether he was glad or sorry. That had been his brothers war; the
eldest had died. It had come as a shock to realise that, at thirty-five,
and in a reserved occupation, hed be too old for this war - for
the time being, at least. He was fit enough, strong and muscular,
but he certainly looked his age; a broken nose and a great deal of
night duty had given him a battered, serviceable appearance. In a
way, thought Stratton, this wars everybodys, even the nippers.
Terrible that it should have come to this, but exciting, that sense
of something happening, of being poised in history, alone, at the
very centre of the map, of the world tilting on its axis: shall we be
Excerpted from The Innocent Spy by Laura Wilson Copyright © 2009 by Laura Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books, a division of Macmillan, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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