Prologue: January 1943
The church clock struck seven. Somewhere, in the cold, still evening, a dog barked. Having lit the candles, Father Claudel arranged the six chairs in a semi-circle. He rubbed his hands; it was chilly in the vestry. He checked, yet again, the curtains – making sure they were drawn shut. The vestry window overlooked the cemetery but he wanted to ensure not a hint of light escaped. Curfew was at nine. Woe-betide anyone caught out after curfew. He paced up and down, breathing in the smell of candle wax and the deeply-ingrained damp that permeated the whole church. Why had he agreed to this; what had possessed him? He was a simple priest, no one expected him to be anything different; it was not for him to play the hero. He’d been forced into it. The Germans wouldn’t suspect a church, they said; they’d be safe there.
Although he was expecting it, the gentle knock on the door still made him jump. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ he said on seeing the familiar figure of Doctor Le Vau. ‘Did anyone follow you?’
‘Not that I noticed,’ said the doctor, removing his coat. ‘I brought some wine.’
‘Why? It’s not a social occasion.’
‘Come on now, I always find a bit of drink helps me think clearer.’
‘And you, a doctor,’ snorted the priest. ‘Ah, here’s Leconte. Welcome, Inspector.’
Three others soon arrived. Six men sat in the vestry: a priest, a doctor, a policeman, a soldier, a teacher and a postman. They all knew each other to varying degrees, and together they believed they could do something, anything, to diminish the authority of the Nazi overlords. They chatted amongst themselves, sipping their wine, catching up on gossip, relishing in their complaints. Only the priest remained anxious, conscious of time slipping away; aware that if caught, the repercussions would be serious.
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, could we make a start?’ he said.
‘Right,’ said Roger Béart, a former soldier. ‘So, what do we do? Blow up a train? Kill the colonel? Bomb the prison?’
‘Are you serious?’ asked Gustave Garnier, the teacher. ‘You might as well suggest we go to Berlin and assassinate Hitler.’
‘Now there’s an idea.’
‘We need to start small,’ said Henri Moreau, the postman.
‘Please, gentlemen,’ said the priest. ‘We have to tackle this methodically. First, we need to decide what the objective is, and then decide on a course of action.’
‘And determine whether we have the material and the means,’ added the policeman.
‘Do you want me to take notes?’ asked Moreau.
‘No, no notes,’ said the policeman.
‘Shall we open another bottle?’ asked the doctor.
An hour later, with the church clock striking eight, the six men had come no closer on coming up with any coherent ideas of what they wanted or what they could do. Leconte, the policeman, rubbed his eyes. He knew they had no chance. The Germans, loathsome though they were, were an impressive lot and not likely to be hampered by half a dozen middle-aged amateurs. Moreau, the postman, thought much the same – they needed someone with experience, someone to lead the way.
‘If that’s eight o’clock,’ said Garnier, the teacher, ‘I’d better go. It took me three quarters of an hour to get here.’
‘But we haven’t decided anything yet,’ said the doctor.
‘What’s that noise?’ said the priest, rising from his chair.
The priest was right; there was someone in the church; no, several people, the sound of boots on the flagstones. The realisation hit them all at once. ‘Shit,’ screeched the postman. ‘It’s them.’
On their feet, they cursed and looked for a means to escape. ‘There’s no other door,’ said the priest.
‘You’ve brought us to a room with no escape,’ said the soldier.
‘I… I didn’t think.’
The door burst open.
‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,’ cried Garnier.
‘Hands up, hands up,’ yelled the two German soldiers in French barging in, rifles at the ready, kicking over the chairs.
Within moments, the six Frenchmen were pinned against the vestry wall, their shadows dancing in the candlelight; their hands up in the air.
From behind the German privates, appeared a lieutenant, a young man not yet thirty, a clean-shaven man, his scrubbed skin positively beaming. ‘Well, well, well,’ he said gleefully. ‘What have we here? Quite a gathering.’
‘Please, lieutenant,’ said the priest. ‘We’re having a prayer meeting.’
The lieutenant couldn’t help but laugh. ‘More like a chimps’ tea party. Don’t play the innocent with me, Father, I know what you’re doing.’ Upon clicking his fingers, the two privates lifted their rifles to the eyes, their fingers on their triggers.
The soldier swore, the teacher’s knees gave way, the priest crossed himself.
The lieutenant raised his hand. ‘What’s to stop me from shooting you now, eh? I drop my hand and you’re dead.’
‘Lieutenant, please,’ said the priest. ‘This is a house of God…’
‘Your God; not mine.’ He looked at his men. ‘OK, lower arms.’ He heard the collective sigh of relief. He looked at each of them. A more pathetic rabble of nonentities one couldn’t wish to meet, unshaven, meek and shifty. He’d come to hate the French – all of them cowards, ne’er do wells and cheats. Couldn’t trust any of them. He glanced at his watch. He had a date at nine, dinner with a pretty mademoiselle, all painted nails and bleached hair. It was time to go. It wouldn’t do to keep her waiting; a German officer knows how to conduct himself. ‘Right, you miserable lot, you’re all under arrest.’
Read the first three chapters of The Sixth Man here.