Not more than two or three minutes after I’d finished reading what Andrew had sent to me, a voice from behind whispered my name.
“Coco?” I said, turning to see Luc’s anguished face.
Then he was in my arms, his head on my shoulder, weeping as hard as he had on the night he’d killed his first man in Édouard’s garden, not long after we’d first met him.
“Steve told me,” I whispered against his ear, drawing him into the corner of the hotel foyer and behind a very large jardinière. He wasn’t old enough yet to have any instilled sense of appropriate behaviour when it came to showing emotions in public. Even though he’d been fighting alongside the Resistance since the age of fifteen, it seemed as if there was still a lot of the needy, lonely boy lurking underneath his tough-guy exterior. We’d become close during my time in occupied France last year and he’d “adopted” me. I’d long ago stopped trying to fight it.
“I’m all alone now,” he said eventually, wiping his nose with his forearm.
“Shorty and I are still here …”
“Until you fuck off again and leave me by myself.” He managed a grin as he said it.
“It’s the war—”
“Putain! I know it’s the war, but can’t we just pretend that it’s not happening for five minutes? I just need someone I care about to hold me and to let me behave like a kid again.”
“Come,” I said. “Upstairs. You can tell me all about it.”
“But you’re busy, aren’t you? Gavin told me you were interrogating the German. It doesn’t look like any sort of interrogation I’ve ever been part of.”
“I can’t pick you up any more,” I said, his arms still around my waist.
“I could probably pick you up now.”
“Most likely. Luc, I’m so sorry—”
“I killed him.”
“The German with the bladder problem?”
He nodded. “Papa’s body was never recovered, but the town put up a wooden cross in the graveyard for him—I had to go there to say goodbye, despite how dangerous it was. I was about to head back towards La Roche and had got as far as our house, thinking I’d see if there was anything of Papa’s I could take with me as a memory when I saw Löwe throwing all the furniture onto a bonfire. I crept up behind him in the dark and slit his throat, then pushed him into the fire. He couldn’t scream but he thrashed about for a bit.”
He said it just as any man in wartime would speak about the way the men they’d killed had died. Factual, unemotional, as if it was an everyday event. Part of me hated the fact that someone so young could already be so hardened.
“I’ve done worse,” he added.
“You and me both,” I replied then, after a moment or two when we just stood quietly, his head resting on my shoulder, I said, “You’ve got hairs on your chest now.”
He chuckled. “You should see the bushes below.”
“No, thank you.” I tousled his hair, as I’d always done.
“Given it a trial run yet?” Shorty said, coming up behind us.
“Are you serious, mon américain? For French men, it’s a rite of passage. My father couldn’t take me to a brothel on my sixteenth birthday, so Talley accompanied me and sat in the waiting room playing cards with the ladies for an hour.”
“An hour? Was that your first time?”
Luc nodded. “And second, and third, and I nearly managed a fourth.”
Although Shorty and I laughed, it wasn’t hard to see that Luc was putting on a brave face. We’d find time, as we had done on the night I’d said goodbye to him in Bayonne, wondering when and if we’d ever meet again. Damn me if Luc hadn’t crept his way into my heart, in the same way Gladys and Steve had done. Maybe it was fate: we were meant to be lifelong friends … as long as we all somehow managed to survive until the end of the war.