Chasing the wind, p.10
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       Chasing the Wind, p.10

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  Ferency was looking at the board listing the Air Ministry’s departments and their floors. “Where would he keep this painting?” He sniffed. “In the cellar?”

  The words on the board were typically German—compounds of endless, near-unintelligible syllables. Only one stood out because it was a single word. And because it was borrowed from English. “No,” she replied. “Didn’t Jocco say he had an apartment in the ministry set aside for his seductions? What better line than ‘Come up and see my Bruegel’?” She grinned. “The painting will be in the penthouse.”

  “You are right.”

  Ferency took a step toward the stairs—but Roxy stopped him. “In these shoes?” She lifted her foot, displaying the four-inch spike. “I don’t think so.” Moving across to the elevator, she pushed the call button. It was only one floor up. It had a door, not a grille, and when he pulled it open, they saw it was one of the newer fangled ones that didn’t require an operator. They stepped in, the Hungarian pulled the door shut, and she hit P.

  He sneezed. “What if there are other guards up here?”

  “Bless you.” She’d thought the same thing. Now she could only shrug. “Too late. Get ready to act drunk.”

  The elevator rose rapidly, and glided to a smooth stop with a soft but distinct bing. They waited, listening. No one approached. “Tallyho,” she said.

  The door opened directly onto a room, not a corridor. It was dark in there, the light spill from the elevator and flashes from the party through tall windows revealing little more than larger shadows that could be furniture. No sounds came from inside the room, only the world beyond. The oompah music had recommenced. Voices rose again in laughter. No doubt the little unpleasantness had been dealt with discreetly. Painfully.

  “We’re okay,” said Roxy, running her hand up the wall beside the elevator. She found a switch.

  “What are you doing?” Ferency snapped. “If anyone looks up…”

  “Just getting my bearings.” She flicked it off. She’d seen enough to verify that the room was just an office, though a large and pretty ornate one. A huge desk dominated one end before a vast hearth, closed doors either side of it. Above the fireplace was a tall painting of Göring in full military flying gear, an elk hound at his feet. Smaller desks were positioned under the three windows. To the right were twin entranceways, their doors closed—though from under the right one came a faint gleam.

  “Let’s try there,” she said softly.

  They were halfway along the wall when the searchlights came on.

  They froze. The room was suddenly filled with bright light and deep shadows. The brightness wasn’t inside the room, though, but beyond it. She crossed to the windows, then glanced outside and along a beam.

  On the roof above them someone was playing with searchlights. Six powerful beams were directed onto the people below, some of whom screamed in shock, while others yelled in delight. The band struck up the “Horst Wessel Song”; people immediately joined in. Then, as one, the beams rose to the clouds above, like six columns holding up the heavens.

  “Göring playing God, that’s all,” Roxy said, moving back to the door.

  It opened easily to her touch, onto a bedroom. She flicked a switch and the ceiling light came on. To her left, a tall lamp stood behind a leather wing-backed chair, a small table beside it. She crossed to it, saw papers, reading glasses, a crystal decanter with snifters and a book. It was open, and she glimpsed some naked flesh in photos. Next to the book was a small leather whip.

  She shuddered. Across the room, there was a desk, with thick velvet curtains behind it, folded back before two windows that looked onto the unlit rear of the Air Ministry. Between her and those was a large sleigh bed, headboard and bottom curved and carved from dark wood. Three animal skins were spread near it—a brown bear on one side, a polar bear on the other, a huge tiger skin at the base.

  A closet stood beside the door, Göring tall, twice Göring wide. There was another door to the right of the bed, open; light spilled onto the black-and-white tiled floor of a bathroom.

  “So Jocco was right about the seduction room.” She swivelled, then pointed. “And I guess I’m right about one of its lures.” There was only one other object in the room. It was under the windows, behind the desk. It was out of place in all that polished smoothness—a rough-hewn trestle. Someone had thrown a blanket over it. It stuck out at four corners. “There,” Roxy said.

  Ferency carefully peeled back the blanket. He hadn’t gotten a third of the way down before he started sniffling—and cursing. The words were Hungarian, unknowable. His emotions were clear. When the blanket was all the way down, curses gave way to English. “Good God! I didn’t believe…I couldn’t…I am amazed…”

  “Yeah, it’s spiffy.”

  “Spiffy?” He shook his head. “I have been studying Pieter van Bruegel all my life. He is one of art’s true geniuses. And here is one of the first examples of that genius.” He slowly stretched a quivering finger out and laid it on the edge of the board. “It is like I am reaching down the centuries to touch him.”

  “Yeah, well, do you think you can reach down these next few minutes and copy him?” Roxy tipped her head to the distant party sounds. “Don’t want to rush your rapture, or anything…”

  Ferency straightened; wiped his nose. “Of course. I will get time to study. I will get time to…commune. When I recreate.” He reached into his coat, took out a small camera. “Bring that lamp over here, please.”

  It was easier said than done. It was heavy, all brass, and the nearest outlet was a little far away. She managed to tip it to shed some light on the subject. Grunting, muttering, sniffing, shooting, the Hungarian moved up and down the painting. After ten minutes, he took out a penknife and five tiny plastic bags, then scraped small amounts of paint off different parts.

  At last he just stared down again, totally still except for his eyes ceaselessly moving—and one wet drop forming on the end of his nose.

  “Hey. We better move.”

  “Ja, ja,” he muttered, and stooped for the blanket. But as he did, a clear sound came, a distant single bell—followed immediately by the sound of a motor.

  “The elevator!”

  Ferency quickly covered the painting and stepped back. “Where do we go?”

  His voice was panicky. Roxy tried to get calm into hers. “There have got to be stairs. Come on.”

  They went into the main room. After glancing at the floor indicator—the elevator had just reached the ground—Roxy led the way across to the door on the left of the hearth. It was locked. So was its twin on the right. “Windows. Maybe there’s a ledge.”

  She moved. He didn’t. “I cannot,” he said. “I have vertigo.”

  She crossed to the windows anyway, tried each one. All locked.

  Sounds rose from the elevator shaft. A door opened, closed. Gears engaged. The arrow moved. “They may not be coming up here,” Roxy breathed.

  The arrow pointed to 1. Kept going.

  “They’ll stop.”

  The arrow reached 2. Passed it.

  “We should hide.” Ferency grabbed her arm. “Behind the chairs!”

  “Are you crazy? Göring’s probably sent someone for papers.”

  The arrow hit 3. Sailed by.

  “Then the bedroom?” He pulled at her. “They come for papers, they go, we—”

  She jerked her arm free. “Wait!”

  The arrow moved to 4…and stopped. “Ha!” she exhaled on a long breath.

  They listened, waiting for the door to open on the floor below. Instead they heard a single word: “Scheisse.” Then the sound of the elevator, rising again.

  “Bedroom,” she said. They ran in; she closed the door behind her, continued to the bathroom. But it had only a bath, no shower, no curtain. She left it, knelt—the bed base was too close to the floor. They heard the elevator glide into place. She looked about. “Closet,” she said, hitting the ceiling light switch before moving to it.

 
He followed, too slowly. “But I have also claustrophobia,” he whimpered.

  “Of course you do,” she sighed. Voices came from the main room. “But we have no choice.”

  Seizing his arm, she shoved him in, and followed. As the bedroom door opened, she pulled the closet one almost closed, leaving only a crack.

  NINE

  THE CLOSET

  IT WAS TIGHT IN THERE.

  Though the closet was large, it was crammed with clothes. Heavy wool pressed them. Perfume combined horribly with the chemical stink of mothballs.

  “I cannot breathe,” Ferency whimpered.

  “Shh!” she said, pinching his arm.

  The bedroom door opened. Laughter came, followed by light. Three voices, she thought, the first of which she recognized when he spoke. In English.

  “Gentlemen,” Hermann Göring said, “welcome to the pleasure room. Where high art and low appetites combine.”

  More laughter. Through the crack she saw the Reichsmarschall move into the middle of the room. He was wearing some outlandish blend of hunting garb and court dress, leather trousers and strapping around a costume uniform that glittered with medals. She couldn’t see the other men—though when one of them spoke, she recognized his voice instantly. She’d heard it in a cellar in Madrid one week before, and it made her stomach spin.

  “The Reichsmarschall,” said Ernst Schlaben, “has one of the finest private collections of art in Germany. Perhaps in Europe. I know, because I have been acquiring it for him many years.”

  If this voice was a surprise, the next was a shock. Because she’d also last heard it in that same cellar—though then words had come on a high-pitched whine, as the speaker begged her not to shoot him. She hadn’t. It wasn’t her style. But she had certainly enjoyed the sight of Sydney Munroe curled into a sobbing ball under the table before she shot the lock out and ran up the stairs.

  His voice was calm now. “And I may claim to have one of the finest collections in the United States,” Munroe purred. “We are a match, sir.”

  “But is your collection not primarily degenerate art?”

  As he spoke, Göring crossed before her and she heard the pop of a stopper, the tinkling of liquid into glass. He crossed back with two brandy snifters and handed one to Munroe, still out of her sight, before continuing. “Jews, Communists, the insane, with their distorted view of the world? Cube-faced whores and green skies, nein?”

  “Some of it is. But I collect such works only for trade, since the current tastes run so that way, at least stateside.” Munroe shifted into view, but Roxy could only see his vast back. “Yet I suspect, Herr Reichsmarschall, that I despise the degenerates as much as you do. As I despise the Jews, with whom I must so often deal for the art. It is one of the reasons I so enjoy coming to Germany. What a bright new world you are creating here! The clean streets, the shining people. You seem to have found a way of—how shall I say—handling your degenerates, have you not?”

  “We have gone some way in that direction, certainly. There are many further steps to be taken. You may be sure we will take them, in good time. But come—” glasses were clinked “—this is not a night for politics but for pleasure. For the appreciation of the good things in life. This Armagnac, for example. I have the finest Havanas, if you would care to smoke. No? Well, how about other pleasures? It is what you came here for, is it not, Herr Munroe?” She saw Göring turn to the side, heard him switch to German. “Schlaben, show our American friend the painting.” Then he grunted and added, “Hmm! Strange. I do not remember moving the lamp to that position.”

  Roxy stiffened. Beside her, Ferency gave a little grunt as he suppressed a sneeze. But the sound was covered by that of the blanket being pulled back over the wood. With Göring distracted by the revelation of beauty, judging by his sigh.

  “Magnificent, is it not? I know you saw it before, Herr Munroe. And I do regret the actions of my subordinate in needing to secure the art for me. Take your time and study it now. I assure you, no gun will be pulled on you here.” He gave a coarse laugh. “At least not immediately.”

  Roxy saw Munroe cross, a vast bulk swathed in red.

  “Yes, yes,” he said. “As you say, truly magnificent. But the first glimpse I had of it enraptured me. I do not need to study it for long…now.” He stepped back. “How much can I pay you to let me take it back to America with me and study it forever?”

  Beside her, Ferency gave out a tortured wheeze. Even in the little light that reached into the closet, Roxy could see his face had turned a strange colour. She loosened his tie—it was all she could think of doing—then shifted as far away as she could before turning her attention outward once more.

  Göring laughed, then spoke again. “My dear Mr. Munroe, this painting is not for sale. First it will be presented to the Führer at the exhibition opening next week. Then experts from around the world will be allowed to come and examine it. After a suitable period, the painting will be removed—for further study, shall we say—to my forest home, Carinhall.” The sound came of large lips smacked together. “It is named for my first wife, my beloved Carin. I am creating a shrine of beauty for her there. It was she who taught me about such things. You’d never believe, but I was—how is the term?—a philostrate before we met.”

  “Philistine, Your Excellency,” Schlaben said.

  “Zo. Philistine.” A laugh came. “My beloved Carin loved this style of art. It will be my gift to her.”

  “One hundred fifty thousand dollars.” There was a gasp, but Munroe continued. “Now, sir, I like to get straight to the point.”

  “You ‘cut to the chase’—is that not what you Americans say? I am a hunter, so I appreciate the chase.” Göring chuckled. “But this painting is not for sale. At any price.”

  “I so enjoy it when someone says that to me, Herr Reichsmarschall. And then I buy what I want anyway. There is always a price. For anything—a woman’s body—” Roxy saw Munroe cross back “—a family business. A painting.” The bulk stopped. “How about a hundred fifty and a fine Edvard Munch? You like him?”

  “He sometimes leans to the degenerate—but at least he is a good Aryan, a Norwegian.” A grunt came. “But this is an undiscovered Bruegel, Herr Munroe.”

  “You see, sir?” There was no mistaking the satisfaction in the American’s voice. “We are negotiating.”

  Ferency’s wheezing had gotten louder. His face was mottled, flushed. She put a hand over his mouth.

  Göring’s rough laugh came again. “I am enjoying your, how you say it? Your Yankee directness, mein Herr. We will have further discussions. But I am neglecting my other foreign guests. Let us return to the party.” A glugging sound came, another smack of lips. “It appears you are right. Everything, even the finest Armagnac, has a price. Let us go!”

  Twin bulks moved past the crack in the door. Under her hand, the Hungarian was shaking. She pressed harder. She watched Schlaben pull the blanket over the art work, turn off the lamp and follow. In the distance she could hear the elevator door being opened. The overhead light went off. The door closed.

  “Aaaaaatchoo!”

  She kept her hand there, despite the stickiness. “Let me out,” moaned Ferency.

  “Just a—”

  The door opened. The light went on. Schlaben said, “…heard something.”

  Göring said, “There is no one here.”

  There was a moment’s silence. Then Ferency sneezed again. Louder.

  Roxy had no choice. There was the disaster, then there was the greater disaster. So she stepped out of the closet. “What? None of you gentlemen going to say gesundheit?” she said.

  The three gentlemen stared at her, mouths open. No one spoke. Until everyone did.

  “Fräulein Loewen!”

  “Gott im Himmel!”

  “Roxy!” It was Munroe who blurted the last. Then his piggy eyes narrowed in memory. “She has a gun.”

  Roxy raised her hands. “In this dress? You gotta be kidding me!”

&nb
sp; A gun did appear—Schlaben drew his Luger, came and lifted her small purse over her head. Stepped back and tipped the contents out onto the bed. Not much. Compact. Cigarette case. Lighter. Rabbit’s foot. Derringer.

  Göring stooped for it. “Interesting,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “An antique. I would like this for my collection.”

  “My grandfather’s. Not for sale.” She looked at Munroe. “At any price.”

  “What are you doing here, Fräulein?” Göring raised the pistol, aimed it at Roxy’s face.

  She pulled a curl off her forehead, put on her best coquette. “Didn’t I have a standing invitation?”

  “She’s here for the painting,” Munroe snapped. “Tell him, Schlaben.”

  The art expert lowered his gun but didn’t put it away. “I told you a little of this, Herr Reichsmarschall. A rival bidder for the Bruegel. How I had to extricate it.”

  Göring was staring at the gun again, turning it over and over in his hand. With luck it’ll go off and he’ll shoot someone, Roxy thought. The derringer wasn’t the most stable element in the periodic table.

  “So that was you, Fräulein Loewen?” He whistled. “You are a collector as well as a pilot?”

  “She is a thief. Working with the dealer Wilhelm Zomack,” Munroe rasped. “Or rather with his son, Jochen.”

  “Jochen Zomack?” Göring’s heavy brow creased. “I have seen this name on a list. He is a Communist, is he not? An agitator?” He looked at Roxy. “Tell me you are not a Communist, Fräulein Loewen.”

  “Not at all.” Roxy smiled and thought she’d play a card. “Just trying to make some bucks so I can buy one of your Focke-Wulf racers and enter it for the London-to-Melbourne race.”

  If she hoped the camaraderie of the flyer might make Göring sympathetic, she was wrong. His expression didn’t change.

  “She is lying,” Schlaben snapped. “Herr Munroe is right. She is here to steal the painting.”

  “I don’t think so. At least not on her own.”

  Göring smiled and tossed the derringer in the air, caught it. Roxy held her breath. Still no bang.

 
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