They parked the tank in the square as a show of who was in charge. It had been in the desert previously and they’d not bothered to repaint it for occupation of a small town, so it was beige and sandy, an eyesore against the muted green of the fig trees and the dark burgundy of old brickwork. An elderly woman came out of her house, staggering under the weight of the wet washing in her basket, came up to the tank and started to hang the clothes out on it. Children nearby laughed and pointed, and the other adults carefully didn’t notice so as not to annoy the soldiers. It made little difference; the Captain, a young man with a thin moustache on his upper lip, a prominent adam’s-apple that bobbed when he swallowed, and a dress uniform tailored for a man a good four inches taller than him, came out of the bar and swayed a little as he took the scene in. Then he called two soldiers over from where they’d been standing a poor guard outside the bar and gave them orders. Magritte, who was closest, turned white and scurried away, her head down, hoping that they’d not realised she’d understood what they’d said. Her shoes scuffed the flagstones of the square as she ran, and her headscarf fluttered madly in the breeze, finally pulling free and drifting to the ground behind her where it was a blazon of blue on the ground.
Two shots rang out, as both guards had fired. The elderly woman, Beatrice, slumped over the front of the tank onto her washing and didn’t move. The children’s laughter was cut short, and in the silence that followed the soldiers walked over to her and hauled her off the tank. The Captain turned on his heel and went back into the bar, while the soldier dropped the body beneath a fig tree and swept the bloodstained linen from the tank and mounded it up over it.
Inside the bar it was dark; the shutters were closed outside the window and blackout cloths were drawn inside. A single oil lantern was burning in front of a brass mirror above the bottle behind the bar, but it seemed only to intensify the shadows and darkness; nothing was distinguished in the dark. The Captain collided first with a table and then with a chair, each scrape of wood on stone met with a slight gasp. He kicked the chair when he hit it, and as it toppled over he realised that he might now fall over it again and had to stoop, comically sweeping his hand in front of him as he advanced, until he found it and threw it out of his way. It hit something, possibly a soldier, a little way away, but elicited only a grunt.
Past the bar were stairs, and he went up them with each hand on a wall, his feet stepping carefully up and checking for the next step, never assuming. At the top he probed delicately in case there was a landing and more steps, but then turned down the hallway and stopped at the first doorway.
“I heard the shots,” said a voice from inside the room. It was breathy and feminine, and after it had stopped speaking there was a sudden breath of warm air smelling of violets from the room. The Captain swallowed, his adam’s-apple bobbing in his throat.
“We are not a joke,” he said. “They need to remember that.”
“I’m sure Beatrice won’t,” said the voice. When the Captain didn’t reply it continued, “Beatrice was the name of the woman you ordered shot. She was eighty-five and had lived here her entire life. Her parents walked here from Rennes eight years before she was born, fleeing accusations of witchcraft.”
“How do you know?” The Captain didn’t sound curious, he sounded terrified. His voice wobbled a little as he spoke, and was higher than his normal contralto. “She’s dead. I ordered her shot.”
“Indeed you did, little Faustschen,” said the voice. “And am I not Mephistopheles for you? Shouldn’t I know these things?”
The Captain turned on one heel of his well-polished boots and hurried away down the corridor and back to the stairs where he felt his way down again, sweat running icy-cold down his spine, unable to shake the conviction that he was being watched all the way.
Inside the room the owner of the voice paused from her activities for a moment to allow Beatrice’s memories a moment to settle. Like butterflies descending on a flowering bush they gathered around her and she welcomed them in, riffling through them as though they were magazine pages, marking ones that interested her, and pushing others of no interest to one side. When she felt that she had them under control she returned to drawing on the floor in wet, sticky fluids, quietly muttering words of binding and power as each line completed.
The Captain sat at the bar alone. Around the room were his men, but they were either comatose or dead and he didn’t want to shake any of them to find out which they were. The woman upstairs, the Snail, had stated her requirements and he had received the letter from headquarters instructing him on the actions he was to take to fulfil them. His hands had shaken as he’d poured shot-glasses of sparkling liquids into the bottles of wine that he’d then served to the tables himself, and for a moment he’d wondered if he shouldn’t drink with them and lessen the burden somehow. But when he’d gone to fetch another glass from the bar she’d been standing there, misshapen and cold, and he’d dropped the glass on the floor in shock.
“Clean that up,” she’d said, the breath of violets coming a moment after she’d spoken.
He knocked back a tumbler of whiskey and shook as it burned its way down his throat, fighting the urge to throw up. He stared at the dark wood of the bar counter, unable in the gloom to make out any details, and then lifted his head up to stare behind the bar. What was the point of being here when abominations like the Snail were allowed to do as they please? Why did he have to shoot old women who protested by hanging out their washing on a tank that would be a target for any aircraft that flew overhead? Surely she’d been doing him a favour by camouflaging it.
His eyes rested on a shape in the gloom, and slowly his brain teased out the detail: a salt pig.
They call her the Snail, he thought, slowly, muzzily. L’escargot français, but I thought that escargot was masculine. Perhaps she won’t like the salt either.
Quietly, listening to his heart pound in his chest as though it were the parade’s drum, he stood up and went behind the bar again. The salt pig was quite full, and he spread the salt liberally around on the bottom three stairs. Probably it was just a waste of salt, but who knew? Perhaps the Escargot would take after her namesake.