Chasing the wind, p.1
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       Chasing the Wind, p.1

           C. C. Humphreys
Chasing the Wind

  Copyright © 2018 C.C. Humphreys

  All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication, reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system without the prior written consent of the publisher—or in the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, license from the Canadian Copyright Licensing agency—is an infringement of the copyright law.

  Doubleday Canada and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

  Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

  Humphreys, C. C. (Chris C.), author

  Chasing the wind / C.C. Humphreys.

  Issued in print and electronic formats.

  ISBN 978-0-385-69048-5 (softcover). ISBN 978-0-385-69049-2 (EPUB)

  I. Title.

  PS8565.U5576C53 2018   C813′.6   C2017-906668-4


  Ebook ISBN 9780385690492

  This book is a work of historical fiction. Apart from well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.

  Cover and book design by Rachel Cooper

  Cover images: (woman) Ilina Simeonova / Trevillion Images; (propeller)

  Wisconsinart, (mist) CC0, (clouds) Positiveflash, all;

  (blimp) Hindenburg, 1936 / Wikimedia Commons

  Interior images: (part openers) Graphic Ornaments, The Pepin Press

  Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited





  Title Page




  Part One: Loop-De-Loop

  Chapter One: Crash

  Chapter Two: Guns, Rum and a Commie Called Jocco

  Chapter Three: Mañana

  Chapter Four: Death in the Afternoon

  Part Two: Olympiad

  Chapter Five: Reunion

  Chapter Six: Shopping

  Chapter Seven: The Master Races

  Chapter Eight: The Party

  Chapter Nine: The Closet

  Chapter Ten: A Tiny Prick

  Chapter Eleven: Visions

  Part Three: Heist

  Chapter Twelve: Plans

  Chapter Thirteen: Disguises

  Chapter Fourteen: Seduction

  Chapter Fifteen: Führer Surprise

  Chapter Sixteen: Mixed Cargo

  Part Four: Zeppelin

  Chapter Seventeen: Letters

  Chapter Eighteen: Zeppelin

  Chapter Nineteen: Nemesis

  Chapter Twenty: The Hun

  Chapter Twenty-One: Suspect

  Chapter Twenty-Two: Broken Lover

  Chapter Twenty-Three: The Tour

  Chapter Twenty-Four: Killer, Loose

  Chapter Twenty-Five: The Last Day Of the Hindenburg

  Chapter Twenty-Six: In the Hills

  Author’s Note

  To my father, Flight Lieutenant Peter Humphreys,

  Royal Air Force, Hurricane pilot. 1939–1945

  Per ardua ad astra

  Once having tasted flight you will walk this earth with your eyes turned skyward. For there you have been and there you long to return.

  —Leonardo da Vinci



  Curtiss Field Aerodrome, Long Island. November 2, 1929.


  The storm had struck like a sudden military assault—the phosphorus flash of lightning, the cannon crump of thunder, hail hammering the tin roof like bullets from a Tommy gun. Having pounded the aerodrome, it gathered ferocity and headed west, to fall on New York City and wreak its havoc there.

  Everyone moved to the wide doorway, straining to listen beyond the departing storm for the sound they all wanted and needed to hear.


  One pilot stepped out, and the rest followed, their leather jackets instantly glistening in the rain that was softening to mist. They squinted against it to the low grey ceiling of cloud. Now they all heard it—an engine’s throaty cry.

  “Travel Air?” called one of the pilots.

  “That growl? Wright Whirlwind J-5.” The first pilot smiled. “Without a manifold. It’s a Vega—and it’s who we’ve been waiting for.” The grin widened. “Get to your birds.”

  They moved out to the planes lined up along the single runway’s edge. Twenty-seven of them, wing tip to wing tip. Monoplanes, biplanes, open cockpit and closed. Some pilots leaned against the nose of their plane as they would against a horse’s flank. Others reached up to gently hold the tip of a propeller as if it were a bridle. All looked to the wind sock, whipping like a silk dragon in the storm’s coattails. Catholics crossed themselves, and the rest just shook their heads. Then all turned their attention to the heavens.

  The plane came, stooping like a red hawk, falling steeply toward the ground. Everyone there knew the pilot had no choice; it was the only way to land in such a high wind. As the plane levelled for its glide, each flyer unconsciously mirrored the movements of their colleague in the sky—fingers opening the throttle a little so the engine would pick up fast if an overshoot was needed, toes shifting in their boots to adjust the rudder and keep the nose straight into the wind, hand gently but firmly pulling back on the stick.

  The Vega levelled thirty feet from the ground—too high for the short runway. A hand raised inside the glass, a brief acknowledgement of the error even as the throttle was pushed hard forward, the plane gaining speed, rising, banking. It circled back smoothly despite the wind’s buffets. Levelling again beyond the runway’s end, the bird descended faster, lower. Few of the pilots there had flown a Vega—one of the swiftest, most exciting rides in the sky. But into a headwind on the short grass strip of Curtiss Field, the plane’s strengths could make for a bumpy landing, and a crash in the long grass beyond.

  Again they heard the throttle open a hair; again they mirrored the pilot’s gentle caresses on stick and rudder, watched for the two-wheel touchdown, and held their breath against the third. If the rear wheel went down rough, the plane would bounce up; the whole sequence would have to be repeated.

  The front wheels touched the grass as if leaning in for the softest kiss. Immediately, the throttle was closed off, the engine’s roar diminishing to a purr. As the third wheel dropped, all the pilots released the breath they didn’t realize they’d been holding. The Vega swung; the right wheel bumped through the old rabbit burrows on the perimeter, straightened, then taxied back down the runway. Finally, with a last burst of throttle and a panache several considered excessive, the pilot brought the Vega into the end of the line, sweeping the wing tip around until it was a hand’s breadth from the plane next to it. As thunder rolled in the distance, the pilot cut the engine, slid back the canopy, climbed out, hovered for a moment on the narrow step, then dropped to the ground.

  The crowd moved forward. The one who’d landed was, in some ways, their leader. It would have been harder to do what they needed to do today without the leader’s endorsement.

  “Damn tight,” someone called.

  “Damn Vega,” called someone else.

  The pilot stopped before them, pulled off gauntlets and goggles. A smile came as the other hand peeled off the helmet. “Fastest bird on this field,” Amelia Earhart replied, running finger
s through her flattened brown hair. “You should try it before you’re a day older, Louise.”

  “What, and make that day my last? Not me, lady.” As she spoke, Louise Thaden stepped forward, pulling her own helmet over her black curls and thrusting out her hand. “Better late than never, Amelia.” She grinned. “A little like you in the Powder Puff Derby this summer, huh? Remind me. You were, what, third in your Vega? While I was—oh yeah, first, in my slow old Travel Air?”

  Amelia joined in the laughter, gripping Louise’s hand, then looking past her to the other pilots, every one of them a woman. “This it?”

  “Yup. Twenty-seven including you.”

  Amelia searched over her friend’s shoulder. “Roxy?”

  “No-show.” Louise shrugged. “You shouldn’t count on her. I never do.”

  “Give the kid a break.”

  Louise grinned. “You might not be so charitable when you see her latest gag. She may not be here, but her plane is.”

  She swept her arm to the left. Amelia craned her neck and saw, at the far end of the row, the Breda BC. 33. She’d seen it the week before. Then, it had been painted grey. Now, it was red—the exact same shade as Amelia’s Vega.

  Amelia cursed, then laughed. “You could view it as tribute.”

  “Or you could view it as Roxy Loewen trying to steal your thunder. Again.”

  “Aw, hell.” Amelia waved her hand, acknowledging the others as they set out for the hangar’s back room, where refreshments were laid out and the meeting was to be held. Louise dropped into step beside her. “So, twenty-seven here. How many more pledged?”


  “Including Roxy?”

  Louise shook her head. “She didn’t pledge. I think her exact words were ‘I’ll be damned if I’ll join any association that would have me as a member.’ ”

  “She’d have joined,” Amelia said quietly. “For me.” She sighed. “Are we still going to name it after the number who did pledge?”

  Louise nodded. “Looks like we’re calling ourselves the Ninety-Nines.”

  “There you have it.” Amelia smiled. “That’s why Roxy stayed away. She knew it’s a helluva better name than the Hundreds.” The smile fell. “I just hope she isn’t in too much trouble.”

  * * *

  The storm pounding New York on November 2 was the second to batter the city in five days. It toppled telegraph poles, brought down street signs, smashed windows. But the first storm had been far more devastating. It had nearly destroyed the country. Hell, it had nearly destroyed the world.

  October 29, 1929. The Wall Street Crash.

  Roxy Loewen didn’t care too much. But Roxy wasn’t caring too much about anything as the winds raged outside, face down as she was on the bar of the 21 Club, New York’s finest speakeasy.

  The man beside her cared, though less for himself. Richard Loewen cared about the people who worked for him—or used to work for him, now that the shutters in his three factories were down. He cared for the people he’d borrowed money from to try and stop the collapse. When everything was liquidated—the New York brownstone, the house in Sag Harbor, the yacht, the cars, the horses—those people who’d trusted him would be lucky to see ten cents on the dollar.

  Mostly, though, Richard Loewen cared about his daughter.

  He reached out a hand, ran it through her tight blond curls. “Hey, Rabbit!” he murmured.

  He supposed he’d spoiled her. Made up for her mother’s early death by denying Roxy nothing. When she’d wanted to ride, he bought her ponies, then colts, then hunters. When she’d wanted to sail, he bought her a yacht. And when, that January, she’d wanted to fly? Even then he’d known he was tapped out, that every last cent he had should be thrown into the widening hole. But the hole was so wide and the plea in his daughter’s green eyes so hard to refuse. Besides, planes were the coming thing. A plane might even hold its value—if she didn’t destroy it first. Which she’d tried to do the first time she’d soloed, and on several occasions since.

  “Roxy!” This time he called louder.

  She sat up quite suddenly, eyes blurry. “I’m not asleep,” she said. She pushed a curl off her forehead and grinned at him. “What were you saying, Pops?”

  “I was saying…” What had he been saying? Something important. About inheritance. “Here it is,” he said, reaching for the whisky bottle. “Enjoy it, Rabbit,” he continued, pouring the last of the amber liquid into the two shot glasses before them. The whisky filled both to the brim, with no room left to take more and none to leave in the bottle. A perfect measure—though a helluva cruel way to treat so fine a Scotch. Still, it was one thing his creditors would not get.

  “That the last of it?”

  “The very last.” He held the bottle upside down to prove the point, then up into the grey afternoon light that filtered through the filthy window set high above the door. The only window, as speakeasies didn’t advertise their presence during Prohibition. “Macallan-Glenlivet 1904,” he intoned, with reverence. “Paid one hundred bucks for it at auction.”

  “Worth every cent.” Roxy took great care stretching for the glass, and as much care bringing it to her mouth. “What’s the toast this time?”

  “Wait.” Richard lowered his glass to the wood, so his daughter did the same. “A few things to say first.” He cleared his throat. Beyond the door he could hear the storm rising in savagery, cracks of thunder drawing nearer. The wind whining down Manhattan’s stone canyons. Within the howl, there was the distant bell of a tram. “Roxy, my child, you are a credit to your old man.”

  “I thank you, sir.” She tipped her head. “Drink now? Damn, but I’m still thirsty.”

  “In a moment.” He frowned, focused. “Times are going to get hard. For everyone. You know what’s happened. What I’ve done. Failed to do.” He took a breath. “They’ll come for it all. The houses and everything in ’em. Even that worthless cabin up near Newcomb. The yacht, your horses—”

  “Nah! Blaze and Flame?”

  “Gotta go.” He licked his lips. “And they’ll come for your plane.”

  “Asteria?” She let out a snort. “Let ’em try.”

  “But I have saved something for you, aside from the Scotch.” From his jacket pocket he pulled out an envelope. “Ten bucks. And a train ticket to Montreal. Leaves from Penn Station at nine tomorrow morning.”

  “Canada? We’re not going to Canada, are we? What the hell’s there?”

  “Canadians. And your mother’s sister, Estelle. Oh, and we’re not going. You are.”

  “Where will you be?”

  “Here. Trying to put things right.”

  “I’m staying with you.” She stared at him defiantly. “I’m not leaving without you.”

  “Sure you’re not.” He tucked the envelope into the pocket of the coat she hadn’t taken off. It was cold in the 21 because it wasn’t open; Max had opened it especially for him. Richard picked up his glass. “So a last toast, Rabbit. To the day. You know what today is?”

  “ ’Course I do. It’s uh, uh—”

  “November 2.”

  “November 2?” She slapped the bar. “Shoot! I’m meant to be with the girls at Curtiss Field. Forming an…an association.”

  “Max here was just telling me. Know what November 2 is in his native France?”


  “Jour des morts.”

  “Day of the Dead? Well, I have to say, father mine, that’s one hell of a depressing last toast!”

  “Nah, it’s a celebration, kid. Memories of people we loved, who are still with us in memory.” He looked at her over the brimming rim. “To your uncle Pete, killed in Flanders. To your ma.” He peered at her. “Do you still wear it?”

  She knew what he meant. “Always have it near.” She reached under the neckline of her dress and pulled out the rabbit’s foot, its grey fur capped in silver, attached to a chain. It had been her mother’s, though how much luck it had brought Mabel Loewen, dead of influenza wh
en Roxy was two, was hard to say. Still, it was all Roxy had left of her. And it had given Roxy a nickname.

  Richard touched it. His eyes welled and Roxy shifted. “Come on, Dad. Too much talk.”

  He sniffed, then laughed. “You’re damn right.”

  Both raised their glasses higher and spoke it together: “Jour des morts.”

  They both shot. Roxy coughed, smiled, and lowered her head once again to the wood. “ ‘Good night, sweet prince,’ ” she murmured. “Flights of angels, and all that.”

  He looked down at her for a long moment, then up at the bartender, a deeper shadow within the shadows of the speakeasy. “Take care of her, Max. Let her sleep it off in the back. I packed her a bag. Get her on that train.”

  “You can count on this, Monsieur Loewen.”

  Richard lifted his fedora from the bar and shrugged into his greatcoat. Outside, the wind gusted louder and the tram’s bell sounded nearer. “Nighty-night, Rabbit,” he whispered, as he bent and kissed her head through the thick curls.

  She muttered something but didn’t wake, and he didn’t look at her. He stood with his back to the room as Max shot the bolts and opened the door, letting in a great cold swirl of air, a spattering of rain.

  Richard stepped out. West Fifty-Second was jammed with people hurrying for shelter, clutching coats, heads bent, hats clamped down. A woman shrieked as her umbrella skeletoned. She dropped it and ran on. That tram was getting closer and he thought of getting on, taking it anywhere. It would be the first time he’d dodged a fare since he’d come to New York in ’05 with about as much change in his pocket as he had now.

  Then he noticed them, the only people on the street not moving, not running from the storm. They were in the doorway opposite the bar, crowding it, three big men in dark coats, and hats with brims pulled low. Two he didn’t know, though he could guess their profession by the one man he did.

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