By Christian Olmeda
It was still dark out. A chill in the air and a cold and wet feel to the surface of the buildings and rubble told of an early morning rain. The dark hid the worst of the destruction and it seemed almost like existing among the ruins of a great Roman city long ago collapsed. The Dutch had seen their fair share of blood since the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands began just a few grueling years before. The sad remains of the city that lay bare and broken this morning were a credit to the unrelenting bombing by the Germans. These ruins, more than just the sad remnants of a city, were a representation of her heart, and the heart of the Dutch people that rebelled against the Nazi occupation. They were hurt, broken even, but there they remained, defiant. Well, at least some of them, even when the government and military had surrendered after the Rotterdam Blitz. She took in this sight, knowing she had only until sunrise. Although she had faced overwhelming odds before, this morning felt different. The cold and unexpectedly soothing caress of the wind told her it was time, that there was no other secret plan, no escape and there would be no turning back. Not this time.
As she awaits certain death, Renee Janssen thinks of what could have been her life, had she been able to live long enough to see her children grow into adults. Known as “Red” to the German invaders, she had struck fear in their hearts and sent so many of them straight to the kind of hell they deserved. She became a sort of grand myth among the Nazi soldiers. The blood red-haired Dutch saboteur and assassin, guerilla fighter and clandestine operative. She was in fact, one of two redheads in their team. Because the two struck simultaneously, the myth grew into the stories of a fighter so powerful, she could mow down a dozen men in but a few moments. The red-haired woman was but a shadow. That is until they came upon a picture. One photograph they found by chance. One she reluctantly agreed to during a celebration after a successful sabotage of Nazi supply lines. That one picture finally put a face to the shadowy redhead and would ultimately put a name to the face and seal her fate forever.
“I would so spoil them,” she thought to herself. “I wonder what they will look like when they get to my age,” she thought of her children. As the sun began to rise, the soldiers assembled and began to go through the motions and pageantry involved in their grim task. At this moment, Renee Janssen thought of her husband, Lucas. Red remembered her last words with her husband in what now seems a distant reality, a different world. “I know this is something that is taking you farther and farther away from us,” said Lucas. “I also understand you need to be involved, that you need to do something, but what about the kids?” he continued in a frustrated tone. “I know,” said Renee, “I know this isn’t easy, but I imagine it never is… in such situations. We can’t afford to do anything. You are more visible, you need to be at work, you need to protect the kids. So, it must be me. If we do nothing, what world are we leaving them?” she pleaded. “I’m hearing they took the Cohens. Our neighbors, our friends, our countrymen. They are gone and I imagine they will eventually start on the sympathizers. It’s never enough for them.” She took his hands and held them close to her chest, her heart beating so fast he could immediately feel it. “Lucas, my love, I can’t stop now. I’ve done things… things I don’t regret but things that can surely come back to me, to us. I need to know you will be here, far removed from me, to protect the kids.” Lucas began making his way towards the kitchen, “I know and I would go with you if I didn’t have the kids to protect. We can’t trust anyone” he said with a noticeable tremble in his whispered tone. He looked out the family’s kitchen window and took a deep breath.
“I think it should be sooner rather than later. We could say you left or have gone missing, either way, this works because I’m still here, they’ll think you ran off… that should work.” Renee leans against the kitchen table and takes it all in. “I have documents the British prepared for me in case I needed a hasty egress. I could just use those if I’m stopped. I would find a way to reach you later… when It’s safe.” In the dark of the early hours of a Sunday morning, Renee kissed the foreheads of her sleeping children and contemplated their sleep, their safety, and their vulnerability. She turned to find her husband, tears rolling down his cheeks standing behind her. They both walked to the front door. She held his hands in hers, kissed each one and then embraced him. They held that embrace for what seemed to be an eternity and whispered into his ear. “Remember me. Remember that no matter what, this is who I am and I loved you always. What I do, I do for you, I do for them. I love you.” She had closed her eyes tight, and somehow, by the time she opened them, she was walking down the street. For her kids, for their safety, she never looked back. This was the only way.
Red thought back to when she lost her fellow fighter, the other redhead and allied recruiter, her friend Lita Dubois. She thought of her lifeless body on the ground of that destroyed, shell of a town. Red remembered how deeply upset she was with her for trying to fight off those German soldiers on her own without waiting for her or the rest of the women for backup. It was true she could fight like the best of the men in official rank. Red knew that she died content because she fought for what she believed in. She fought for the life she knew before the Nazi occupation in France. One note recognizable in the blackened, smoking rubble that could now be seen where life used to occupy the same space. Red knew deep down inside she couldn’t hold any ill will towards her friend. Deep down, Red knew then that she too would have to make the same call, sooner or later. This was after all a woman that sacrificed leaving France and her family to work for the British from within the Netherlands, feeding information to the allies until she joined the fight herself.
“Montieren!” Red snaps back to the moment. “Assemble!” called out an apparently highly ranked SS commander from what Red could appreciate given the decorations on his chest. She made sure to spit on him twice since he surely must have done some terrible things to reach such a rank within the Schutzstaffel. The soldiers started organizing. Even with this well uninformed and highly decorated certainty of death assembling before her, she became less concerned and less nervous. Her attention was elsewhere. Red visualized a future beyond her own life and found a deep satisfaction. The sort of satisfaction that comes from a sense of certainty. She knew that just like her dearest fallen friend Lita, she wouldn’t live to see it, but Hitler’s failure was inevitable. These men that stood before her would be dead soon enough, rotting meat on the ground. Europe would be free of these animals and her death would not be in vain. As they form a line, Red is doing the exact opposite of what other people facing a firing squad would do. This petite, red-haired woman is taunting her would-be executioners. The rogue fighter, the intelligence courier, the saboteur, the mother, and wife, bursts into uncontrollable laughter as she taunts the men with how many of them it took to stop her. The woman known as Red is victorious, even mocking death itself as it comes for her.
Weeks before, just as her group was in a firefight with a German detachment, the last shot rang out and she could feel something was wrong. Through the thick, grayish lingering smoke of gunfire, she could see that Lita had fallen. She knew in an instant that she could not leave here there… not there. She instantly found within herself a unique strength, a rush of energy, an electric fury – like a deity would summon some elemental power and she just took off running before she knew it was happening. She loved Lita deeply, and so it was love that fueled her muscle memory to react. Her mind was struggling to keep up with her legs. As she approached Lita, who lay motionless in the tarpit-like dirt, she turned her body and saw her friend’s expression. Lita did not have a sad or even frightened look. She looked weary but seemed to have a faint smile. At that moment, Red stopped caring about crouching or running. There was no fear; there was only the lifeless body of her comrade, now like a sister, gone forever. She did not hear the cries of pain of the wounded enemies that lay near or the distant rumblings of the tanks that surely rolled her way.
You see, in this seemingly sad moment, Red understood that she too would die, but wanted Lita to provide her with a hint, an idea, perhaps some good advice as to how to achieve it as gracefully as she did; even in the hell on earth they found themselves in. Maybe others would see a woman, dead in the dirt, a life cut short in a gruesome way. But Red saw it differently; a hero, lay in rest admirably, on the ground where she fought and now died so valiantly. Red was jealous.
“You. You had to go and be a hero. And you had to leave us here to try and measure up, knowing we can’t. Goddamn you… I love you” Red whispered as she kissed her friend’s forehead. She proceeded to rip the hand-made dog tags that hung from Lita’s neck. From within her shirt, she pulled a leather-bound sleeve. Inside a French passport and a worn piece of paper. A letter for her husband and children along with some instructions. Red sat there for an unending moment, holding her friend without knowing how to let go. “Red!” yelled Big Leila in her southern American draw from behind a half-destroyed building. “You need to focus now sweetheart! She’s gone! Go’n, giddyup and move! We don’t have much time now and the krauts are getting’ awful close!”
Red took a deep breath, starting to figure out how she would take Lita’s body. Not for one second had she thought of leaving her there. But she quickly took stock of her surroundings and realized she couldn’t. They were already running far behind and needed to move out. They had acquired the sort of fame you don’t want if you intend to survive to mobilize through the Nazi-occupied territory. She understood the nervous restraint in Leila’s voice, who didn’t dare come close. Red started toward the sad excuse of a building they used as momentary shelter after the firefight.
Most of the women had taken the time to mend their own wounds and tend to each other in the calm after the gunfight. They had realized she was dead long before Red did. They also knew the redheads had become close, there was to be no question she would be the one to secure the tags and letter for her family. When Red arrived at the house Bridget and Leila showed her to a bathroom which was miraculously untouched by the shelling. They handed her some rags as makeshift towels and there was some water for her to clean herself up a bit and take care of her growing collection of wounds.
“They are five of us now” Red thought to herself. “No, it’s four now. Just four of the original ten.” There were indeed just four of the original team left: Bridget Longfield was a British intelligence asset working in the Netherlands when the Nazi’s invaded. She was forced to go, rogue, when the Dutch surrendered to the Germans and continued to be an off-the-books asset for the allies. Anna Van Buren is a Dutch intelligence officer and was secretly a resistance fighter based in Rotterdam working with Bridget’s British handlers. Leila Manning who the team lovingly called Big Leila, because she made them, was a towering woman who was a lead American intelligence operative working for the British allied operation in the Netherlands. Then there was Lita. Mariella “Lita” Dubois was French, working for allied intelligence in Amsterdam at the onset of the war. She was not someone who wanted to be involved in the fight and remained on the sidelines until she saw what the Nazi’s were capable of. When Red and Lita met, an unspoken agreement took place, they were inseparable and pushed each other further. Perhaps it was because the two women were married and both had children, that they helped enable each other to do what needed to be done. The two would become the truly lethal elements in the group. They rose to the bloody challenge because they had something to lose because they truly loved life and respected it. They understood the peace these invaders had violated and it made these women deadly and they showed the Germans no mercy.
As Red finished up in the bathroom, the team was ready to move out of the area. The Germans had established a checkpoint no more than two miles from their location and must have heard the gunfire. The women had been quietly cutting through the destroyed city when they were spotted by a small Nazi detachment. They made quick work of the first lot but had not realized there was more following suit. While they eliminated them all, it was not without Lita’s loss. Red splashed some water on her face and padded it dry, the dirty rags traded the blood they wiped off with different smudges of dirt and God knows what else. But the kind of hell they had endured… nothing could wipe that much compromise, sacrifice, and death off their skin. There was a grime, a layer of soot that covered absolutely everything, inside and out. Lita noticed the mirror in the bathroom again. The woman in the mirror stared back with a blank look. She looked familiar but was not easily recognizable. Her bruised, swollen and dirty face, her blood-stained clothes and constant pain was the toll of war. “How many years of suffering can you pack into a few months?” she asked herself out loud. “Too Many. Like these fucking Germans, too many.” Lita had a sense of what she set out to be when she left her family to totally commit to fighting the invaders but had not a sense of who she had become. She wondered if the woman in the mirror had children as she once did. A love back home, like she once had. She wondered if that woman would ever see them again because she knew that she might not.
This self-interrogation was interrupted by a knock on the frame where the door surely once stood. “We have to move, now, ” said Bridget. She put her hand out and unexpectedly fixed a loose lock of hair on Red’s head, kind of forced it behind her ear and gave her a quick squeeze of her shoulder. “We won’t forget her Red, but if we don’t move quickly, no one will live to tell her story. We have to go, now.” And they started making their way through the area. They walk out of the battered building, almost like a tomb full of not quite dead women. Women who had been through the worst war and human cruelty have to offer and somehow survived it better than most men could.
They quickly made their way off the path the Germans had carved into the shelled ruins. A sense of relief came upon the group, as the area fell silent. As they walked through this ghost town, they could see the doors that were marked for Jewish businesses that must have existed just a few months before. They thought of the people that lived there at some point. Now long deserted, these structures were not only a reminder of what they set out to defend, but what seemed to be a certain future for all the world if they didn’t. Red continued to think about Lita and the life she left behind and wondered about her own uncertain future.
As the women made their way through the back alleys of the destroyed town, only the crunching sound of their footsteps accompany their labored breaths. Red laughed and mumbled, almost inaudibly but Big Laila heard her. “What?” she prodded. “Oh nothing, I just remember this time that I was in a park much like the one across the street with my husband and I had baked him a cake” She responded. “Was it good?” asked Laila. “I don’t remember, we never ate it!” she replied with a smile. Big Laila chuckled. “Well, it must have been good because you have two little ones at home, right?” Laila burst to laugh, now smiling quite visibly. “That we do!” After a few moments, she noticed movement parallel to their position.
“Eyes right! Movement, 3 o’clock!” Red lets out in a frantic whisper that was more a muffled, throaty scream. They pull out weapons and head toward the area where they find a lady and a boy, both crouching behind a small fence. They quickly throw their arms up, violently shaking with fear. Van Buren tells the team to lower the weapons and goes to the lady and kneeling speaks to the pair in a calm low voice. The lady only whispers and Van Buren turns around with a terrified look on her face and points to a small apartment building across the street, signaling in a way that could only mean there is a threat, that there are German soldiers inside.
The team moves quickly to hide and establish a plan. Not long after, they hear what could only be vehicles approaching and they know that there is no clear path out. Red realizes they seem to be converging on the area and need to be drawn elsewhere. She tells the team to hold back. She gets close to Van Buren, puts something in the pack she’s carrying and tells her to duck. “Listen, you all keep quiet and take positions behind the fence” she whispers. “I’ll signal when you can run towards that alley on the far side, but we can’t do it while those vehicles are down there.” Van Buren nods and directs the team to take positions behind the thick cement fence in front of the apartment building. Without warning, the team sees Red running towards the building. She turned back for a moment and looked at them. She gave them a big smile and held her hand on her heart. She turned once again and kept moving towards the building. In an instant, the women knew what she would do. The wife and mother of two. The resistance fighter and friend. The human being who had sacrificed so much of her humanity understood that without her complete sacrifice, her friends would not be able to survive this trap.
She used a blade. As she entered the front door, she found a wholly unprepared young German soldier who was sort of perplexed at her bold entrance. This expression remained on his face well after she had stabbed his neck with her blade. A blade which had a beautiful butterfly carving on the handle, a birthday gift from her father when she was a young girl. “Hold her steady Butterfly, hold her true as you use her to cut through anything! This way you don’t get cut yourself my love” her father would say as he taught her to wield the sharp, small blade. And so she did, just like her father taught her. The young German lay on the floor, blood pumping out of the precise gaping wound. She took off for the second floor only to find two officers coming down the stairs. She stabbed one in the groin while the other leaped on top of her, causing all three to tumble to the floor below, where the first officer, still choked on his own blood. She managed to get control of the blade once more and went to work; she stabbed the third officer in the eye socket. It took some effort to retrieve her now stuck blade, but she managed to secure it again. The immobilized man tried to scream, but his will to live paled in comparison to her will to kill and save her own. This left her with little choice but to finish the job. She might as well have been working a complex carving. With a cool and effective technique, the woman worked on the two men as they aggressively fought for their lives, to no avail.
As she took a moment to really process what she was doing, she looked at her hands. These were the same hands that lovingly prepared that beautiful cake for her husband on that sunny day. This thought occurred to Red and she could feel herself slip into a mad chuckle as she walked towards the front door of the building. The women saw her appear at the front door, waving at a distance for her friends to push forward. Indeed, they all quickly started for the alley. Bridget suddenly realizes that her backpack is open. Red placed something inside. She found not only Lita’s letter and tags but also Red’s own. Bridget now realizes. Red was not coming back. Once she sees they are moving, Red walks back inside the building. The redhead walks to the now lifeless body of the first German officer and retrieves his sidearm. She opens the front door, walks squarely to the middle of the road and fires the gun exactly 6 times. A round for each of her fallen friends. Then she fires one more towards the vehicle that now lights the dark street, ensuring maximum visibility of her blood-soaked presence. As she is intercepted, the women make a break for it and manage to escape.
Red snaps out of it and realizes the men are in formation now. The commander raises his hand and yells “Fire!”. She replies with a loud “lafaard!”, “cowards!” and they were. She can see Big Leila cracking a joke and laughing heartily, she can see her husband, walking their children through the park they both loved, and she can see Lita’s smile. She found herself smiling the same smile her friend had when she sacrificed herself. At that moment, she understood. She saw it all red now.
A victory red, inevitable and glorious.