Chasing the wind, p.18
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       Chasing the Wind, p.18

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  “What?” she said, to Jocco’s amused look, as she climbed into the cab.

  He shook his head. “Roxy Loewen. Always for the little people.”

  “Well, you guys with your revolutions and your wars always forget who you are fighting for.” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “It’s for him.” She slapped the dashboard. “Now, drive. I’ve been on the ground way too long.”

  Jocco pulled his truck into a line of them, all heading slowly away from the wharf on a narrow road that soon joined a bigger one. They followed, heading toward the cranes. They passed a shiny new sign, which sported a swastika and a picture of happy Teutonic workers labouring on the ground while planes flew off in all directions overhead. “Templehof Field: Gateway to the New Reich.”

  There were two gates ahead admitting traffic. One had a smaller line. Jocco pulled into the longer one. She raised a querying eyebrow. “Watch,” he said in reply.

  She watched. The other line may have been smaller, but it moved more slowly. Three guards came out and poked around the bed of every vehicle. While at the head of theirs she could see a man in uniform, waving papers wildly at the driver of a cement truck, who just kept shrugging.

  “And watch this,” Jocco said, hitting the horn.

  He started a fanfare, an orchestra of discord, high and low, staccato and stately, a crescendo of sound that first froze the gate guard ahead, who turned and stared, slack jawed, and then started shaking his fist with one hand while shoving the papers back at the cement driver with the other. The man climbed into his cab, accelerated away; the next pulled up and was even more cursorily dismissed. With Jocco and some of the others still plying their horns—the orchestra had switched to a more free-form jazz style—a swifter appraisal of papers and goods continued. Their line moved. It was only when they were one back that someone at the other gate noticed and Roxy saw an officer—her lessons in collars and cuffs back at the museum telling her his rank was lieutenant—emerge from the hut and start toward them. As he did, the truck ahead pulled away and Jocco was on.

  “Well, friend,” he said, “what crime did you commit to land the worst job in Germany?”

  The guard had to be in his late fifties, his pudgy features slick with sweat. Thick white hair, revealed when he took off his cap and wiped his brow on his sleeve, lay dank on his head. “It’s the truth, friend. Five hours I’ve been standing here. No cigarette break. Everyone angry. It’s the shits.”

  “It is good and necessary that the state banned trade unions, of course,” Jocco said. “But it’s a pity that some of our protections went with them, no?”

  The man’s eyes, shifting between the approaching and now-shouting officer and the tooting line of trucks, focused on Jocco’s for a long few seconds. “A pity indeed.” He glanced once at the papers Jocco held, once more at the bed of the truck, then looked again at the officer, in range now and making his displeasure known in a stream of foul language. Slapping the roof of the cab, he said, “Proceed, comrade.”

  As the officer strode up, swearing, Jocco pulled away. “Comrade?” Roxy asked.

  Jocco gave a swift grin. “When Hitler took power, there were nearly as many Communists in Germany as Nazis. We’d killed one another for years—now they’d triumphed. But they couldn’t kill all of us, or throw everyone in camps. Who would work in their factories, build their coliseums? The leaders, yes. The workers?” He shrugged. “They adapted. They took jobs if they wanted to survive.”

  “You knew the guard?”

  “No. But friends did.”

  On the other side of the fence, several roads diverged and progress was faster. The whole area looked like some kid had spilled his toy building set. Trucks were parked higgledy-piggledy everywhere; piles of stacked wood and twisted mountains of metal wire lay scattered about. They drove toward what Roxy recognized as a control tower, standing proud of the chaos. “That’s not what I remember it looking like,” she said.

  “It’s not the one you saw,” he replied, swinging the wheel left at a junction. “That one is.”

  She peered ahead. A smaller tower was there. Jocco’s words confirmed her memory. “Separate runways. One for freight and one—” he turned again onto a slip road, making for a big hangar “—for passengers.”

  They pulled in at its side. Roxy looked anxiously all around, didn’t spot Asteria where she’d left her. “There,” Jocco said, leaning across her, pointing. “I called ahead, told them to prepare her. You go speak to the mechanic. I will deal with the papers.”

  She gave a happy little cry and stepped out of the cab, then remembered. “Are you all right?” she asked, leaning over the truck-bed wall.

  Herr Bochner’s reply came, muffled. “I am all right.”

  “Not long now.”

  She moved away, trying to stop herself running. “Hey, baby,” she said, laying her fingers on the Lockheed’s propeller blade, “how you been?”

  A young mechanic in overalls as dirty as his blond hair and face appeared from under one wing. He had sullen eyes, a tic in the corner of the left one. He was chewing gum. “Yours?” he asked in German.

  “Mine,” she replied, in the same tongue.

  He had a clipboard under one arm, which he now flourished. “Instructions were to perform only a top overhaul. I have done so.” He re-ticked each item on the checklist, telling how he had inspected every valve, screen and rod, replaced all the spark plugs and two piston rings. He was mechanical, precise—and yet there was a tension to him Roxy couldn’t quite understand. But then she decided that she must just be giving him her butterflies. They’d returned to her stomach and, like her, all they wanted to do was fly.

  The mechanic coughed abruptly, and thrust the clipboard at her. “I am sorry, uh, what is your name?”

  “Jürgen,” he replied, as if doing her a favour.

  “Thanks for all you’ve done. Will you help me start her?”

  He looked away, to the control tower. “Okay.”

  She climbed up through the cabin hatch, hung her jacket and slid into her seat.

  The ignition switch was on Off. She set the gasoline switch to On.

  “On,” she called. As Jürgen turned the propeller slowly, she pumped the primer three times, then shut the primer valve and opened the throttle a touch.

  She could see the mechanic’s hands on the propeller.

  “Contact?” he called.

  Roxy flipped the magneto switch to Both, then repeated, “Contact!”

  She saw the propeller swing fast through, heard Jürgen cry “Clear!” She turned the magneto booster fast.

  Asteria breathed into life. She could hear immediately that Jürgen, although he was taciturn, had done good work. The engine moved smoothly, no knocks. She took the revs up to 550 per minute. Within half a minute, the oil pressure gauge began to register. All was well, and she advanced the throttle, took the rpm up to 1,000. The engine would need to run like that for ten minutes.

  She flipped open her hatch window. “Thanks, Jürgen,” she shouted.

  He stared at her for a long moment, then pivoted and walked away.

  She sat back, felt the hum passing through her like an electric current, charging her up. Closed her eyes and smiled.

  “Hey!”

  The shout brought her from her reverie. She looked back down the cabin. Jocco had his head thrust through the hatchway.

  “All good?” he called.

  “All perfect,” she replied. “Mechanic was a bit of a pill but…” She rose, went back. As she went, she noticed a foot-square steel box that hadn’t been there before, against the plane’s right side. Saw that someone had scrawled Ersatzteile across it in black pen. “Spare parts.” A good mechanic would include a box of what a pilot might need for running repairs. Jürgen, for all his grouchiness, was clearly one of the best.

  Jocco had pulled the truck up close to the plane, its rear facing the stairs. He got out and looked around, then pulled down the truck’s back flap. She grabbed her v
alise and threw it in the hold. Then came the painting. Jocco rested it on the edge of the hatch, Roxy held it there until he could climb up. He brought it up near the cockpit, strapped it tight into the side wall to the pilot’s right, just in front of the spare-parts box. “Quickly now,” he said, and jumped down. Roxy followed.

  Bochner blinked into the bright sunlight. He was stiff and Roxy helped him up the steep, narrow stairs. The Lockheed had been fully adapted for cargo, but there was a row of four webbing seats down the left side. She lowered one and strapped the tailor in. When she turned, she saw that Jocco sat in the co-pilot’s seat.

  She flopped into hers. “Joining me?”

  “You know I hate it when you drive. You take too many risks.”

  “Ha!” She grabbed his arm. “Damn! We have to go back to the gallery. Now!”

  “What? Why?”

  “The Braque painting. I left it there. It’s worth five grand.”

  “Heh,” he said, shaking his head. “What do you take me for? A thief?”

  They laughed. Then both fell silent for a time. “Did we do it?” she asked finally.

  “Nearly. You remember all I have told you.”

  “Yeah, yeah. Your father meets me at Liège Airport. He’s bribed the airport personnel—”

  “Shh!” Jocco glanced back at Bochner, though there was no chance of him hearing above the engine’s purr.

  “I’m sorry, Jocco. I just had to.”

  “Always for the little guys, Roxy.”

  “Not always,” she said, reaching for him. “Sometimes I like the big guys too.”

  The kiss was long, fervent. It sent a different shudder through her, along the same currents the engine had opened up. Both made her glow. She broke away. “I mean it—why not come with me?”

  He pulled back. “I cannot. I have things to do.”

  She raised an eyebrow. “Things to do like Betsy?”

  He shook his head. “No. Betsy and I are long finished. Besides—” he grinned, shaking his head “—I think you would actually kill me.”

  She ran her fingers along his chin. Then she lifted them away and slapped him lightly. “Better believe it,” she said. “Hey, didn’t I need to show a passport or something?”

  “The manifest says it is me who is flying. And only for a sightseeing tour over Berlin. With so many tourists here for the Olympics, it is most common. It is why we are at the end of the passenger terminal. They are overworked, so they do not check so much. Put on your helmet, lower your voice—they will not be able to tell.”

  “Well then.” There were so many things she wanted to say and no way to say them all. So she put her fingers on his face again and pushed. “Get outta here already. I gotta fly.”

  He levered himself out of the seat, paused to stare down. “I see you in Brussels in three weeks.”

  “Don’t be late.” She reached back to her satchel, pulled out her flying goggles and helmet, and slipped them on. Her flying jacket was on the hook beside her seat where she’d hung it. She shrugged into it, began buttoning. Looked up. “You still here?”

  He nodded. She knew he knew that she hated goodbyes.

  “Be careful, Roxy.” He glanced back at the painting. “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

  “Me?” she replied, then shooed him away. She followed him to the back hatch, pulled it shut, locked it and returned to her seat. Opening the throttle to full, she murmured, “Let’s go, baby,” and leaned out the window. “Chocks away?” she called loud.

  “Chocks away!” he shouted.

  When she saw him step clear, she pushed the throttle a little way forward, and the plane began to taxi. There was only one plane ahead of her, an older Boeing 80-A. It had twenty seats, each one was taken by tourists, no doubt. Just as she pulled in behind, it must have received clearance, because it lumbered forward and swung onto the runway. She pulled a little farther forward, and watched the departing bird for clues as it took off into the wind. Satisfied, she reached for the radio and switched it on. Someone—Jürgen, no doubt—had already tuned it to the correct frequency.

  Guttural German came from her headset, clear enough to understand: “Lockheed 227. Mark 3A DDD, you are cleared for takeoff.”

  She growled a “Received. Out.” And replaced the radio.

  The plane before hers had made it look easy. She glanced at the windsock. It showed a light wind blowing nearly straight on. She taxied to the runway, then turned into it, advancing the throttle steadily, increasing her revs. The engine dropped into a throaty roar.

  As she built speed, she pushed the stick forward to lift the tail wheel, then eased it back. The Lockheed had a light load—a Bochner and a Bruegel. So she hit the right speed fast and smoothly pulled the stick. At two hundred feet she glanced at her compass. Liège, her destination, was only two points off due west and about 360 miles away. With this load, a full tank and this purring engine, she could fly her top speed all the way and be there in just over two hours. This time, with Jocco’s advance in her pocket, she was going to check into the best hotel. She’d have a steak brought to her while she bathed. They wouldn’t even have to cook it.

  Her heading took her back over the airfield. She was probably three hundred feet up as she passed, low enough to see the dock, with Betsy’s barge still there and what looked like Jocco’s truck pulling up. Then she thought she saw a body of uniformed men moving toward it—but the low cloud she entered took away her sight.

  She shivered. It was probably nothing, just her nerves. Besides, Jocco was a big boy, and he’d take care of himself. Her part of the deal was taking care of Icarus. All their futures depended on that. She glanced at the compass again and headed west.

  About an hour and a half in, the clouds had gone and she could look down on the big industrial sprawl of Cologne. Beyond it, a river widened; she’d found the Meuse. Follow that and it would lead her straight to her destination. She could almost taste the Scotch.

  She heard a faint popping sound. A scream reached her a second before the smoke.

  Whipping around, she saw flames. They were just behind her, on the right side of the plane. Herr Bochner had unstrapped himself and was beating at them with his coat. His efforts only seemed to spread them. That, and the accelerant she could smell—gas, stingingly sharp. “Leave it!” she yelled. “Strap yourself in!”

  Roxy pushed the stick forward. She knew only one thing. Flames on a plane meant she had to get to ground—quick.

  She glanced back. Bochner was strapped in again. But before him, the flames were spreading from their source—that box of spares, all consumed now. They reached and dissolved the shroud over the painting. She had a sudden sense of Icarus plunging to his death; of Daedalus, his father, screaming his anguish.

  She touched the parachute under her seat but knew she could never use it. It would mean death for Bochner.

  She’d closed her throttle, about all she could do to sustain her glide, which was still way too fast. She tried all she could to slow it.

  The ground had to be close. She turned and screamed “Brace yourself!” even as the first wheel struck. But for a brief, terrible second she didn’t turn back. She could only stare at the painting, fully revealed now, dissolving in fire. She saw Daedalus; saw that instead of a father’s anguished scream, this Daedalus’s face revealed only a wild and triumphant glee. And seeing it, she knew in a moment what Ferency the forger had done; knew what Jürgen the mechanic had done. Knew what betrayal was.

  The second wheel struck. Opening her throttle wide and pulling hard back on the stick, she tried to jump over the barn that was suddenly, certainly, there.

  SEVENTEEN

  LETTERS

  Eight months later. April 16, 1937. Hazelhurst Manor, Northamptonshire, England.

  HEY, KIDDO! WHAT TROUBLE YOU IN TODAY?

  Roxy closed her eyes. She didn’t actually need to read her friend’s letter again. She’d gone over it so many times since its arrival one month before she thought she had
it by heart.

  “And where are you now, Amelia?” she murmured.

  She opened her eyes. Clutching the letter, she stood, wobbled a little, then crossed to the wall opposite her bed, and the map of the world that was on it.

  She’d borrowed woollen threads in two colours from Nurse Watkins. A short red one ran from Oakland, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii. A pin thrust into the island had a tiny scrap of paper wrapped around it to form a banner, neatly printed: March 17: begin first leg. March 20: crash.

  She moved her eyes and her mind to better words and a brighter colour. Blue—this thread crossing America from Oakland to Miami. Because her friend wasn’t going to let a bump in Honolulu stop her plans. She’d fixed her plane and changed her mind.

  Amelia Earhart was still going to fly around the world, but now she was going to do it eastward.

  Roxy looked down at the letter. Not because she needed to remind herself of the route and the timings, but because, in her friend’s tight black letters, she could feel Amelia in the ink, her excitement transferred from heart to hand:

  If my mechanics and me get the Electra all tickety-boo, we’ll be in Miami the third week in May. Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Surinam in short order. I want to be in Brazil by June 5. Then it’s the short hop to Senegal.

  Typical Amelia. Two thousand miles of Atlantic, fourteen hours in the air, another continent…a hop?

  Roxy studied the map again. She was glad she’d picked blue thread for the journey. The wild blue yonder. That was what Amelia was chasing. What they were all chasing. Though the straightness of the threads was misleading. You didn’t fly straight across jungles—you zigzagged; found the best strips, where the best mechanics were. It all took time. But her new bird, the Lockheed Electra, was a twin-engine beauty, the most modern in the air. Her navigator was Fred Noonan, and there was none better—if he could keep off the sauce. He’d zig and zag her down those blue, blue lines.

  Roxy ran her fingers along the map, along the threads, intoning the names: “Chad. Gulf of Aden. Karachi. Calcutta, Bangkok. Java. Darwin. New Guinea…”

 
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