Chasing the wind, p.16
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       Chasing the Wind, p.16

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  “Is he gone?” Jocco hissed.

  “Yes.”

  “Quickly! The weight is killing us.”

  Ferency let go. Jocco gave a huge groan as the Hungarian scrambled over the wall, turned and bent back down. Jocco pushed the painting up; the forger took it and managed to lever it over the wall before collapsing with a moan. A few seconds later Jocco pulled himself over, to fall also. “Shit!” he said. “I thought we were finished. One more minute and the Bruegel was in the Spree.”

  For some reason the sentence struck her as funny, and she laughed. Ferency glared at her, which made her laugh more. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get this in.” Roxy put out a hand and hauled Jocco up. “When’s the boat coming back?”

  “Betsy will have to wait till the police circle again, before she picks Ferency up.”

  “Ferency and you.”

  “No. Change of plan. I stay now.” He raised a hand to still her protest. “Betsy was in a riverman’s bar. For the ceremony tomorrow they are doubling the boats circling the island. To get back and forth once will be difficult. Twice, impossible. So I will stay and she will come for us once.”

  He bent over, lifted the painting, grunted and carried it across and through the doorway. Ferency hung back by the wall. The exercise hadn’t done him any favours, judging by his colour—red and a queasy yellow. She remembered his nickname—“Chameleon”—and wondered if he was in mid-transformation. “You okay?” she asked.

  “No. This is madness,” he moaned, then looked down and clutched his trouser cuffs. “And my suit is ruined.”

  “With your cut you can buy yourself a dozen suits. Don’t miss your ride.” She nodded toward the water, then joined Jocco in the doorway.

  They went in; she relocked the door, then led him along the corridor to Müller’s office. With a relieved groan he set the painting down just inside the door. From the cot came some muttering. Jocco’s eyes narrowed. Roxy went and checked. More drool, no light in the eye when she peeled one lid back. “Out for the count. Poor bastard’s probably chasing cube-headed girls through sunflower fields.”

  “Good.” Jocco spotted the schnapps, and poured himself a tot, shot it back. “That,” he said, holding up a shaking hand, “was too close.”

  “It’s only going to get closer,” she said, crossing to him, pouring two more tots and then handing him one. “There are four guards upstairs, not two.”

  “Scheisse!”

  “Yeah and they are Leibstandarte—Hitler’s own bodyguard.”

  “What?”

  “I know. Scheisse.” She raised her glass. “Here’s some in your eye.” They both drank and she continued, “But you suspected there might be some guards. You never told me your plan to get rid of them.”

  He put down his glass, then started undoing the buttons of the greatcoat he was wearing. It was unfamiliar, battle grey and winter heavy. Crazy on a summer’s night. It partly explained the sweat, the thick wool adding to all the exercise and the panic. She smiled when she saw what was underneath. “Well hello, soldier boy!”

  Jocco took the greatcoat off, dropped it over the chair. “Heil Hitler!” he said, making the salute. “Obersturmführer Proltz, at your service, Fräulein.”

  She’d never seen him in uniform. It suited him. His tall frame filled out the field grey. He’d had his hair cut short and he’d shaved, something he was usually careless about. The grey brought out the intense cerulean blue of his eyes. From the peaked cap he pulled from a satchel and put on, to the tip of his knee-high leather boots, via the polished gun holster at his hip, he could have been on one of the posters she’d seen around Berlin, the epitome of Aryan military might. She looked him up and down three times and asked, “Where the hell did you get it?”

  “It belonged to my cousin Helmut. He died last year—influenza, nothing heroic. My widowed aunt asked me to return this to his unit. I thought it might come in useful, so I kept it. And I was right.”

  He turned, peacocking a little. She touched one side of the collar. She’d seen enough of the insignia to know. “SS, huh? Hitler’s elite.”

  “That’s right.” He took her hand, placed it on the other collar patch—three pips and a stripe. “An Obersturmführer would be a first lieutenant in your army.”

  “Officer, eh? I’m liking you better and better.”

  “Roxy, this soldier you met upstairs? Did you see his comrades also?”

  “Yeah. Müller showed me the Bruegel before he brought me here. That’s when I saw the four guards.”

  “Were any of them officers?”

  “I wouldn’t be able to tell. But I doubt it. They were all standing to attention in corners. Would an officer do that?”

  “It is unlikely. Good.” He nodded.

  Roxy ran her hand from the collar down his arm. “So, you are going to be their officer?”

  “Correct. When Hitler arrives, there will be much commotion.” He smiled. “German soldiers are trained to obey on the instant. I will march in there and command them to line the stairs outside the gallery. Then you and I will bring the painting in, switch them. Easy.”

  “Oh, a breeze.”

  Jocco took off his hat, placed it on the desk by her cigarettes. He extracted one. “Hey, buddy, didn’t you read the sign? ‘Rauchen Verboten.’ ”

  He paused, cigarette on lip. “Oh, and do you forbid me to smoke?”

  “Why take the chance? I smoked one earlier. But that was before I met the soldier. He’s the only smoker among ’em. He’ll already be feeling it and smoke travels to a nicotine fiend. Trust me, I know. He sniffs it, comes to tell the Fräulein to obey the rules—”

  “Damn. But you are right.” He put the lighter down, slipped the cigarette back into the packet. “And I could really use one now.”

  “Nervous?”

  “We are going to steal one of the most expensive works of art ever, in the most heavily policed country in the world, from under the nose of Adolf Hitler.” He shook his head. “Why would I be nervous?”

  “So we can’t smoke, and we shouldn’t drink.” Roxy pulled her lower lip between her teeth. “Hmm. What could we do?”

  His eyes went wide. “Roxy.”

  “Jocco?”

  “We can’t.”

  “We can.”

  “The guards?”

  “You’ll just have to be quiet.”

  “I’ll have to be?” He looked behind the desk. “And Müller?”

  “Sound asleep. May as well not be there.”

  “Roxy…” he said again. Though this time he sounded less certain.

  “Obersturmführer Proltz?”

  His eyes widened. “Are you asking me to—”

  “Oh no.” She put a finger between her teeth. “Who am I to ask anything from such a brave soldier?” She ran her gaze up his uniform, from boot tip to face. “You’re the officer. You’re in command.” She put her finger to his lips. “Command me.”

  His eyes narrowed. “Young woman. You will take off this expensive dress.”

  As he spoke, he lifted the holster strap over his head. She was glad he hadn’t just started to pull her dress off—it was too expensive to muss and she was going to need it. “Help me?” she said, turning her back to him, lifting her hair. He pulled the zipper down. “Danke,” she murmured, not turning around, hoping for what came—his breath, then his lips on her neck.

  She stepped out of the dress, laid it carefully across the chair. She took her derringer from the stocking, put it down, then turned to him. She crossed her arms over her chest, opened her eyes wide. “And now, sir? The rest? Start with the shoes?”

  “No. I like the shoes, Fräulein. I like…the spike.” It was his turn for his gaze to climb her. As it rose, she lifted her slip with it, over her knees, up to the clasp that held the stockings. His voice, when it came now, had thickened. “Leave the shoes. Leave everything.”

  He reached up to his neck, the buttons there.

  “Please, sir, if I may be allo
wed just one request?”

  “State it.”

  “Leave the uniform.”

  He growled, seized her shoulders, spun her fast to face the desk. While he fumbled at buttons, she pushed everything aside—cigarettes, lighter, art books. Clearing space.

  His hands were at her ankles. He ran them up each leg, following the seam of her stockings. When he got to the straps of her garter belt, he slipped his fingers behind them, pulled, snapped them. She gave a little cry. “Silence,” he hissed, his breath hot behind her ear, and he wrapped a hand around her mouth. She took his thumb into her mouth, bit it.

  His cry now. A stifled oath. He pushed her down onto the desk. There was some movement as he dealt with the cloth between them. And then…

  Field-grey serge chafed her skin as he pressed deep.

  It didn’t take long. Explosions shuddered through her, and, soon after, through him. He was in control—until he wasn’t.

  Eventually pain, and not the good kind, displaced the pleasure of just lying there linked. “Baby,” she said, and he raised himself, stepped back.

  She turned and looked him slowly up and down. “Thank you, Obersturmführer,” she said.

  The voice startled them both, and she jumped off the desk. Both of them looked—at Herr Müller, rolling over on his cot.

  “Degenerates,” he muttered.

  Roxy turned away, burying her mouth and her laughter in her hand. Jocco eyed her, and shook his head.

  “What?” she said, grinning. “He’s got a point.”

  FIFTEEN

  FÜHRER SURPRISE

  JOCCO HAD BROUGHT SOME BREAD AND CHEESE IN HIS satchel, some water and, blessedly, a mickey of Scotch. She slept some, curled up in her slip in the chair, while Jocco sat by the window and stared out into the night. She was awake by seven, her neck stiff, her mouth a desert. They didn’t talk much, though Müller’s muttering increased by the hour. Yet it was only when the minute hand on the desk clock hit quarter to eleven that Roxy really started to feel nervous. She felt that she would actually kill someone for a cigarette, but she couldn’t risk meeting the smoking soldier again on the terrace or lighting up inside.

  It didn’t help that Jocco was pacing up and down, checking and rechecking his wristwatch, pausing to look out the window at the Spree below and curse the two patrol vessels that buzzed around the island like flies. Under the growl of their engines, sounds had been building from the front of the museum—vehicles drawing up, men in shod boots marching in formation across the Friedrichs Bridge, the swelling noise of a crowd. Adolf Hitler was visiting the museum, and wherever he went, mobs formed to adore him.

  “For crissake, Jocco, will you just sit already?”

  He stopped. “I can’t. If I sit, I think too much. If I think too much—” He broke off.

  “You wonder just what the hell we’re doing?”

  “Precisely.” He peered down at her, rubbed the morning shadow on his chin, a sound like sandpaper, eerily loud. For a pale northern European he sure grew a fast beard.

  She crossed to him, took his hands. “Don’t think of the risk. Think of the result. All that money. Think what we can do with it. You can buy guns to free the workers from their oppressive overlords, while I…I can’t decide between Lockheed or Boeing. Monoplane or biplane? Which do you think will get me to Australia faster?”

  He finally cracked a smile. And as the minute hand crept toward the hour and the crowd noise swelled, they talked world revolution and stalling speeds.

  It was at five to eleven that Müller woke up.

  His muttering hadn’t increased. There was no sign. One moment he was out, and the next he bolted upright and was staring at them. “Who are you?” he demanded in German. “What are you doing here?”

  Roxy took a step toward him. “Remember me, Herr Direktor? Frau Winter? We had a helluva—”

  It was as far as she got before Jocco moved past her. He didn’t talk. He just dipped his huge frame and uncoiled it, putting everything he had into the punch. His fist connected with Müller’s jaw and the man’s head snapped back. His body followed, rearing back from the cot to smash into the wall under the window.

  “Jocco! What the hell?” Roxy was around the desk fast and bent over the crumpled German. His head lolled and blood ran between his shattered lips. That bubbled, so at least he was breathing. She took his body, lowered him to the ground, turning him on his side. “What have you done?” she shouted. “You might have killed him. It wasn’t necessary.”

  “It was.” Jocco joined her and grabbed her arm, jerking her to her feet. “Look. Look!”

  She looked where Jocco pointed—to the Friedrichs Bridge. Saw the soldiers, double ranked on each side of it, holding back the ecstatic mobs behind them, who screamed in joy just the one refrain, their arms shot out in one salute. “Heil Hitler!” they cried, again and again at the man dressed simply in battlefield grey, sitting in the open-topped Mercedes. Though perhaps some of the acclamation was for the man who sat beside him, who made him look small and perhaps a little dull—Reichsmarschall Göring, in his sky-blue uniform, sunlight refracting off the starburst of medals with which his chest was studded. Trumpets started blowing a fanfare of welcome.

  “Quickly,” Jocco said, bending to lift the fake Bruegel.

  She opened the door and led the way down the corridor. They were halfway along, when the voice came.

  “Herr Direktor Müller?”

  They froze—but Roxy only for a moment. Because she recognized the voice. Waving Jocco to a stop, she continued, turned the bend and saw her smoking companion of the night before, descending the stairs from the gallery. “Hey, just the guy I wanted to see,” she said, moving fast up to him. “Got a light?”

  The soldier frowned at her. “What are you yet doing here, Fräulein?” he asked, doubt clear in his eyes. “Der Führer arrives. Der Direktor is requested. I must bring him.”

  He went to step around her. She blocked him. Her heart was thumping so hard she thought he must hear it. She knew her face was wet with sweat, and her hand shaking like she had a palsy. “He’s, uh, he’s just getting ready. Asked me to stay. To meet der Führer.”

  Something else came into the young man’s eyes. Contempt replaced doubt. He glanced down. “In this dress?” he said. “It is not…respectful.”

  He was right. Herr Bochner had made a dress for a classy seduction, not a demure reception. “True. I’ll go back and get my coat, I promise. That, uh, light? I’m gasping for a smoke.”

  His stare was as cold as his words. “There is no time. Der Führer is here. You and the director will come immediately.”

  He went back up but stopped on the landing to yell “Rauchen Verboten” at her before he opened the gallery door and stepped through. Göring’s distinctive voice came, echoing through the galleries, amplified and a little distorted, some speech of welcome from the front steps of the museum. The door closed again, muffling the voice. She leaned over the stairs. “Quick now,” she said. Jocco came up and passed her, grunting. She followed.

  Göring concluded his oration just as she opened the door set in the gallery wall. The excited buzz of people reached her, then quadrupled in volume as the front door opened. Hitler was entering the building. They had two minutes, if that.

  She closed the door quietly, turned back. Jocco had put the painting down. “You’re up,” she said.

  “I know. I…”

  His voice sounded fragile. She peered at him in the corridor gloom. His face looked fragile too. He was running his tongue over his lips as if he was trying to lick them off. “It is the moment. I must—”

  In all their time together, through some pretty hairy episodes, she’d never seen him hesitate. She didn’t want to see it now. “Baby,” she said, “let me do that.”

  She took his face in her hands and kissed him hard. He held back for a moment—then gave, sinking into her. She pulled away a couple of inches, dropped her hands to his collar and did up the top button there, be
tween the skull and the silver pips. “Off you go, Lieutenant,” she said. “Do your duty.”

  He stretched to his full height, adjusted his cap, shot his cuffs. “I go,” he said, and marched out the door. Ten seconds later his voice came clear, cutting through the noise of the approaching party. The German was fast, barked-out militaristic commands she didn’t understand. She got the gist, though.

  “The Führer approaches. You will line the balcony and greet him with salutes.”

  “Jawohl, Obersturmführer.”

  Four voices chorused their obedience; four pairs of heels clicked. She heard men marching away on the wooden floor. And one coming toward her fast. Jocco.

  “Hurry!” he said.

  He came through the door and set down his burden. She caught the briefest of glimpses—the anguish on Daedalus’s face as he watched his son die. Hoisting the fake again, Jocco made for the gallery. She followed.

  A swelling noise came from the stairs. Jocco stumbled, nearly falling, but Roxy stepped up, took some of the weight. Together they ran the painting to the empty easel and heaved it up. As another chorus of “Heil Hitler” rose from behind them, they stepped back, preparing to flee—and gasped.

  They’d hung the painting upside down.

  Roxy had her hands on it one second before Jocco. They lifted, swivelled, placed. It wasn’t perfectly centred, but it would have to do. Flinging the shroud over the painting, they turned and ran.

  As they left the gallery by one entrance, others came into it by another. And Roxy had the strangest sensation: that though all eyes were on the hero entering the space, the hero’s own eyes, Adolf Hitler’s, were on her, centred on her teal dress. Yet no cry came, no pack was unleashed to pursue them. They went through the doorway, closed it softly. Both sagged, leaning their butts against the wall. From the gallery behind them, his voice unamplified this time, they heard Göring speechifying again.

  “Come,” Jocco said, bending, heaving.

  Roxy lifted the back of the Bruegel and somehow they negotiated the stairs down. She unlocked and opened the terrace door, as Jocco hoisted the painting alone and ran it to the perimeter wall. He set it down as they crouched, peering over the parapet.

 
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