Chasing the wind, p.17
Chasing the Wind, p.17C. C. Humphreys
One patrol vessel was almost directly before her. One glimpse before she ducked showed her the faces of the crew—the helmsman staring ahead; two soldiers at the bow poised around a mounted heavy-calibre machine gun; an officer, judging by his braid and sleeve stripes, his hand sheltering his eyes, scanning the far bank. She peeped until its stern disappeared around the tip of the island to her left and then she looked right—where the bow of the other vessel appeared almost immediately. It had the same four-man crew, same set-up, but was moving a little faster, she thought.
As it passed them, approached the island’s tip, Jocco looked at his wristwatch and said, “Tell me when it vanishes.”
She watched. “Now,” she said.
She reckoned it was about a minute and a half before the first boat reappeared. It was less. “Eighty-three seconds,” he said.
They waited, until the second boat came and went again. “Now,” she said. He stood up and waved frantically. There was an immediate roar of an engine and in a moment the Fromer boat was powering toward them. There in less than thirty. Fifty left, Roxy thought, as Ferency jumped onto the steps, took the painting. Jocco leaped down and reached up for her. She used his hands but still landed heavily, her left stiletto heel snapping cleanly off. She kicked the other shoe into the river and climbed over the gunwale after the two men.
“Grab hold!” came a woman’s shouted command.
Which Roxy failed to obey, and thus tumbled into Ferency as the boat reversed fast away from the steps, bringing them both down. He cursed her in Hungarian, either for the pain of her landing on top of him or the further spoiling of his beautiful suit, stained now with diesel-rich water.
“Under, all of you!” the woman yelled.
Ferency grabbed Roxy and pulled her none too gently to a wooden hatching, a cover to some hold below. Jocco grabbed a large tarpaulin, flung himself down beside them and pulled the heavy, greasy material over them.
“What the hell,” Roxy began.
“Shsst!” Jocco hissed. “It is planned. Shsst!”
That’s when the engine cut out.
This time he didn’t cut her off with a hiss but by laying his hand over her mouth. “What are you doing?” she whispered. There was no reply. Roxy just listened—to water lapping against the vessel, to her two companions’ strained breathing.
To the engine. Not theirs. A far more powerful one, getting nearer fast. Then voices came, muddled by thick cloth and shouting. One male voice, strident and demanding. A softer female one, cajoling. They spoke in thickly accented German—that and the speed of their talk, together with fear enhanced by her lack of air, rendered the conversation all but incomprehensible to her.
The strident voice got less so. She heard something lifted, thrown back; a hatch, perhaps. Then there came a banging, metal on metal. Some female cursing, as crude as any man’s. Some male laughter at it. The hatch went down—and the engine fired up.
“Dankeschön, dankeschön!” Frau Fromer cried.
The engine went up a notch in power and Roxy felt the boat shifting. She made a tent of the tarp in the hope of more air, but Jocco pulled her hand away.
“Not yet,” he whispered.
They lay there for several more breathless minutes that felt like an age. Finally, she heard Betsy call the all-clear. Ferency and Jocco threw the tarp back and they emerged, gasping like newborn chicks. “What was that?” Roxy asked.
“She claimed we were broken down. There was no way to flee without this bluff.” As he spoke, Jocco got up and moved toward the wheelhouse, letting forth a burst of enthusiastic German. As she followed, Ferency bent over the painting, lifted it and carried it to the boat’s stern.
When Roxy reached the wheelhouse, Jocco hastily stepped back, releasing a woman from his clasp. Betsy Fromer was dressed in shabby worker’s overalls, had a dirty red bandana around her neck and a seaman’s cap wedged onto a mass of curly hair. Her face—makeupless, an almost perfect oval, with unruly eyebrows and a ski-jump nose—was smudged with diesel. She looked like a movie star acting the role of a tramp. And she didn’t look too displeased at Jocco’s thank-you. Gave Roxy one swift, appraising glance before turning her eyes ahead to the business of steering the boat under the Friedrichs Bridge.
Jocco at least had the courtesy to look a little abashed. “Roxy, this is Betsy. I was just congratulating her on her brilliance.”
“Is that what you were doing?” Roxy replied. “Charmed,” she added, holding out a hand.
Which Betsy ignored, only grunting while she turned the wheel. They moved from light into dark as they passed beneath a bridge arch.
“Betsy speaks no English, I am afraid,” Jocco continued, as Roxy lowered her hand.
“Well, I’m sure we’ll get along fine.” Roxy turned to him. “Where’s my gear?”
“In the back there. Under those tarps.”
“Thanks.” She stepped out of the wheelhouse, adding, “You two kids be good now.”
As she moved to the stern of the boat, she heard them start up again, her querying voice, his soft answers.
She found her gear, such as it was—her satchel and her valise which held her few clothes; flying trousers, boots, shirts, spare dresses. She looked around, at the banks of the Spree, the city passing by. The boat moved fast; they were already nearly under a second bridge, the vast bulk of the cathedral on her right. She needed to change but didn’t really want to go back and ask the captain where she could. Shrugging, she lifted the dress to her hips—then noticed Ferency sitting with his back to the bulk of the painting. He was watching her keenly.
“Hey,” she said, “care to give a girl a little privacy?” He shrugged, made a pretense of looking away. She sighed, and stepped into her trousers, then hoisted them up and over her stockings, before pulling the dress over her head and laying it on top of her case. She put on the cleaner of her two shirts, though it was a narrow choice, then pulled on her flying jacket. She’d be warm for a while, but she’d be grateful for warmth soon enough, up in the air. If all went to plan. After rolling her dress, she shoved it into the suitcase. She’d press it when she got to somewhere civilized. Herr Bochner would be annoyed, but nothing to be done.
“Hey, Mr. Chameleon,” she called. “Know where we are?”
“Funny. Do you know the city?”
“I live here three years. From 1929 to—”
“So?” She gestured to the bank passing fast to their right. “Where are we?”
He squinted. “This area we approach is called Treptow. There is a big park—”
“Treptow. Heard of it. Beyond that there’s another park, uh, Plant-something.”
“Plänterwald. Isn’t it a little late for sightseeing?”
“How will I know when we reach Plänterwald?”
He looked ahead. “The river widens. A—how you say?—narrow land comes in from the left.”
“Perhaps. Opposite its tip is Berlin Island. You will see a church on that, a square tower. Just beyond is Plänterwald.”
“I am no sailor—”
He shrugged. “Fifteen minutes?”
“Good.” She looked at the draped painting he rested against. “Why did you bring that back here?”
“Spray at the front. Excuse me.”
He rose, gave a curt bow, then moved back toward the wheelhouse. Roxy sat on the least dirty bollard she could find and pulled on her boots. There was a breeze off the water that cooled her a little, but she was still hot. She leaned out over the side, peered ahead, scanning for landmarks. Fifteen minutes, the forger had said, but she couldn’t relax. Not yet.
It was nearer twenty before she noted the yacht coming out of another body of water to her left; saw the sunlight reflecting off a spire to her right, on an island. It was time to act.
“We gotta make a stop,” Roxy said.
“No. There is a toilet below here.” He gestured to a small doorway behind him, some stairs.
“Not that kind of stop.” Roxy stepped into Betsy’s eye line, spoke in her clear German. “We have to pull in to the Plänterwald dock.”
“What?” The blue eyes swivelled to her. “No,” she replied, “we make no stops.”
“Roxy?” Jocco came off his shelf, took her arm. “What is this nonsense?”
“You’ll see. Just pull over to the dock.”
She said it without any edge. But Jocco took his hand away as if he’d been burned. “No. You know the plan. We go straight to Templehof. If things go wrong and they somehow discover the fake—”
“Plans change,” she said in English. “And if we don’t stop, you’ll have to change them again, because you’re going to have to fly the plane out. I won’t do it.”
“You must. I cannot leave now.” Jocco’s eyes narrowed in anger, his strong jaw set.
She leaned into him, lowered her voice. “This is part of my deal. Take it or leave it.”
He noted the look in her eye, one he recognized. “But why this stop?”
She smiled. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
They held each other’s gaze, neither blinking—until he did. “We pull into Plänterwald.” Betsy started to speak. “We pull in,” he said, and pushed past Roxy to leave the cabin.
Roxy grinned. “He’s got such a temper, don’t you find?”
“No English,” Betsy said, sourly. But Roxy thought Frau Fromer understood well enough.
Two minutes later, Betsy was spinning the wheel, heading for a dock. A small ferry was just pulling away from it, filled with families out for a day’s fun. Roxy moved to the bow, scanning the crowd on the dock. She spotted Herr Bochner straightaway, because, unlike the gay, summer-clad crowds around them, he was dressed drably in a heavy coat and wore a hat. Frau Bochner had to be one of the women near him. Relief flooded her. So many things could have gone wrong. But they’d made it.
She stood tall, started waving. It took him a while to spot her, but when he did, Herr Bochner gave her one short wave back.
Jocco came to stand beside her. “What is this? Who is that man?”
“His name is Bochner. He made the dresses.”
She turned to him. “I helped get his wife released from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I promised I’d fly them out.”
“You did what? Fuck, Roxy! You take this risk?”
“A small one, considering what we’ve just done.” She tried for a joke. “C’mon, Jocco, you know the score. Always go for a mixed cargo. Guns. Rum. Bruegel. Refugees.”
He did not smile. “But no one is released from such places.”
“She was. I used your dollars well.” She smiled, squeezed his arm, held on to brace herself as the boat bumped into the car tires set into the dock wall. Betsy shouted something. Shaking his head, Jocco grabbed a rope, leaped off and wound it around a thwart.
The boat steadied and Roxy jumped off. Bochner was moving to her and they met at the dock’s edge. “You made it,” she said, then peered past him. “Where’s your wife? Washroom? Let’s get her. We gotta go.”
She went to step around him. He raised the arm that held the small case he carried, blocking her. “She is not coming,” he said.
“What?” Roxy went cold. “That sonofabitch cheated you? Then we need to—”
“No, Fräulein.” He swallowed and lifted eyes she now noticed were swollen and red. “My Marthe is dead.”
There was no corpse before her. Yet the sensations that came were almost the same as when she saw one. The world’s noises almost all gone, a high-pitched whine in their place. A pain in the stomach as if something had kicked her, taking her air away. She looked up and saw that Bochner was still speaking, but she couldn’t make out the words. Though from somewhere distant she heard her name being called insistently. She managed a breath, tried to focus on what the tailor was saying.
“What?” she said. “Stop. What?”
Herr Bochner closed his eyes. “She died in the camp.”
Roxy staggered, clutched the man’s arm to stay upright. Because it hit her now, what she’d done. She’d sought to save a life. But by trying to strong-arm the guard, she’d killed Frau Bochner, almost as directly as if she’d held the gun.
The world fully returned on the thought, the terrible thought. Jocco hissing her name from the boat. Tears squeezing between the tailor’s reddened eyes. “I killed her. Oh God, this is my fault.”
She still held his arm, the only thing keeping her up. Now he reversed the grip, took hers. “No, no. Marthe died last week. I got the official letter. Influenza.”
She shook her head, trying to clear it. “So that scumbag—”
“He was trying to get money. He knew I would not know yet.”
Anger focused her. “That bastard. What can we—”
“Nothing. We can do nothing.” He shook his head. “I thought to stay, to punish him when he came for more money. Maybe…” He shrugged, a helpless gesture. “But I am not them. I am not a murderer. And I thought of my daughters in Belgium, orphans if I did. So I came alone.”
“Roxy!” Jocco’s voice, his hand on her other arm. “We have to go now. Police are coming.”
She looked. Two policemen were indeed walking down the wharf toward them. So she let him help her aboard. Bochner followed and a moment later Jocco cast off. Betsy pulled away fast and they were soon in midstream.
Roxy found she was still unsteady, lowered herself to sit on a hatch cover. Bochner joined her. They sat for a long moment, unmoving, until the tailor took her hand.
Quite soon after the Plänterwald, a waterway opened from the river to their right. A canal, Roxy knew, though the name had slipped her mind. Bochner supplied it. “Der Britzer Zweigkanal,” he said. “Where are we—” His brow unfurrowed. “Of course! It leads near to Templehof, the airfield, ja?”
“That’s right.” It was Roxy’s turn to frown. “Though, a canal has locks, right? How long will this take?”
“Locks?” When she’d explained the word, he said, “No. This canal has no locks.”
“Good.” Roxy found she didn’t want to move just yet. Or speak. She realized with a sudden, intense clarity that all she wanted, all she needed to do now, was to fly.
The canal was narrow. There were times when they scraped sides with boats that came the other way, or the slower cargo barges they had to pass. The crews on those, and the strollers on the towpaths, glanced at them as they went by. An occasional greeting was called, to which Betsy always grunted a reply.
The canal entered a wider basin. Lots of boats were there, mainly barges, lined up on the dockside. Workers unloaded vessels. Jocco went to the prow, and beckoned to Roxy. “Templehof is over there,” he said. “Do you see the cranes?” She nodded. “Hitler has ordered a massive expansion of the airfield. It is one large construction site. It is how we planned to get the painting in. But now?” He looked past her to the refugee, hesitated. “What happened here?”
She told him fast. Her hope. Her failure.
“Roxy, what were you thinking?”
She swallowed. “I wasn’t. I was…I thought I could help and I just…just screwed things up.”
She looked away. After a moment, she felt him touch her shoulder. She turned into his arms.
“You care, Roxy. You pretend you don’t, but you do.” He put a hand on her hair, stroked. “And you have had this success. We will get him out.”
He kissed the top of her head, then moved away. She watched him go, watched as he picked up a rope. Jesus, she thought, startled by the sudden force of it. I love this guy.
“What now?” she said.
He bent over, lifted the painting and moved off. She and Bochner followed. “Hungarian not coming?”
Jocco didn’t stop. “He waits with Betsy. They both wait for me. I return here after you take off.”
She stopped, looked back. “Good luck, Mr. Chameleon,” she called.
Ferency didn’t reply for a moment, simply stared at her. Then he said, “Have a safe flight, Miss Loewen,” before turning and moving away.
Betsy was not in sight. Aw, Roxy thought, no fond goodbyes? Still, if she’d lost Jocco to another woman, she’d probably be less than gracious too.
She caught up with the two men at the gate out of the small dock. Beyond was a line of trucks, freight from the barges being loaded onto them. Jocco, having set down his burden for a moment, hoisted it again and strode to a truck at the far end. It was smaller than the others, an outsized van, open backed, with a lot of house painter’s junk in it—cans, brushes, stepladders, paint-spattered sheets. He carefully lowered the painting into it all, stood back and stretched.
“Herr Bochner, we will have to cover you back here. You will keep very quiet, yes?”
“Roxy, you will ride in the cab with me. You have your papers?”
“Then let us help your friend in.”
There was nowhere in the back that could be comfortable, but Roxy folded some of the tarps for padding and placed them in one corner. Herr Bochner slid in. Roxy covered him with a couple of sheets and helped Jocco build a ramshackle nest of paint tins, buckets and stepladders around him. “Not for long,” she whispered, then jumped down.
Chasing the Wind by C. C. Humphreys / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes