Chasing the wind, p.20
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       Chasing the Wind, p.20

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  She read the letter again. Behind the call to arms, did he want her to go? Did he understand their natures as well as she did? He’d find her a plane, something she’d not be able to afford on her own. He’d find them a bedroom. He’d roll her one of his special cigarettes.

  She picked up the news clipping.

  Someone—Jocco, perhaps, though it wasn’t similar to his letter style—had written across the top: “American Gazette. Berlin, March 10, 1937.” Just above a photograph of a man on some steps.

  The man was Sydney Munroe.

  AMERICAN LEARNS HIS GERMAN LESSONS

  As she read the headline, Roxy flushed hot.

  After nine months in Germany, the American businessman and millionaire Sydney Munroe is going home.

  “It has been a real eye-opener spending time here,” says Munroe, 59, from Albany, New York. “I have been so impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of the people, and the acumen of their leaders, in both the business and the political worlds. Germany is thriving because of sensible political policies and the encouragement of industry to do what it does best: make money. I am hoping to take many of the ideas of National Socialism—that last word I used to abhor, by the way—and persuade my own government to adopt them. The US could certainly use some help to get it out of its current mess.”

  When asked if he himself intended to run for office, however, Mr. Munroe was coy. “People always ask—and I don’t entirely rule it out. For now, though, I intend only to run my businesses. This includes some exciting new adventures in art. In my time here I have managed to purchase several incredible works from Germany’s finest contemporary realist artists as well as some choice historical ones.”

  The Gazette inquired if he was taking the leisurely way home, by boat.

  “Certainly not! I am too excited to get home fast and begin work. So I will be travelling in that other great German gift to the world, the good Zeppelin Hindenburg.”

  The Hindenburg departs from Frankfurt for Lakehurst, New Jersey, on May 3. Of course we shall be sorry to see such a good friend leave us. But Germany’s loss will, perhaps, be America’s gain.

  Roxy read the clipping twice more, calmer each time. It wasn’t the absurdity of a self-aggrandizing, gaseous windbag like Munroe running for office that struck her most, or the pro-Nazi posturing. It was the talk about art. Because she was certain about one thing: if he was only now returning to the USA, he would not be leaving his prize behind. Munroe might be going first class on the Hindenburg—but Bruegel would be travelling storage.

  She sighed. What did Jocco mean that he offered her a choice? Spain? Or did he mean America? Pursue Munroe back there. How the hell was she meant to do that? Also, she hadn’t been home since she’d left so precipitously in 1929. Eight years of exile.

  She shook her head—never a smart thing to do, as she’d get dizzy, as if her brain was a little loose in her skull. She looked down, focused on the coverlet again, waited for the whirring to pass. And then she saw that the envelope wasn’t empty.

  She reached in and pulled out a folded piece of card.

  It took her a while to understand what she held. It wasn’t that her German was all that rusty. Besides, when she looked closer, she could see that most of the writing was also in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese. It was the word that stuck out, its first letter a capital Z in blue. A word she’d just read in the newspaper article.

  Zeppelin.

  It was only when she glanced down that she realized what she held.

  Billete. Bilhete. Contrat de passage. Ticket.

  Beneath that was a passenger’s name: Madeleine Lille. Beneath that, the name of the ship.

  Hindenburg.

  She was holding a ticket for the Zeppelin. And the date of departure was the same date as Munroe’s.

  She laughed. “Jocco, you old—”

  That’s what he’d meant by a choice. But was it also some kind of test? Follow him to Spain and rekindle their love? Follow Munroe aboard the Hindenburg and…

  She was thinking too far ahead. Either choice was insane for a girl who could barely walk and was totally broke.

  She moved to the chest of drawers and opened the lowest one. Her satchel was still there, blackened with smoke and singed from the flaming crash. Herr Bochner had pulled it out when he’d pulled her out.

  It contained all she had left. She’d smoked the cigarettes, injected the morphine when the Belgians hadn’t given her enough. What remained was her Luger, her derringer and her IDs. Two weapons. Two passports.

  She took the bag back to the bed, sat and pulled out her US passport. It had just over a year to run. The photo in it was of the younger her, during her “bottle blonde” phase. The second passport was French, had three years left, and this photo showed her in full Gallic pout. Madeleine Lille was the name she’d chosen. The document had gotten her over borders where the American passport would have caused problems. It was the name Jocco knew she travelled by.

  In the back of the passport was a ten-dollar bill. Her worldly wealth. She’d stared at it for ages, hoping it might multiply. It wouldn’t get her very far. And a Hindenburg ticket without cash was just paper. Ten dollars might get her to the coast of England if she was lucky, never mind the rest of the way. Besides, she couldn’t board the cruise liner of the air in the only clothes she had—nurses’ castoffs.

  Through all the pain of her rehabilitation, every operation, every exercise, Roxy had rarely cried. But she thought she might cry now at the cruelty of the two choices Jocco had offered her, because she didn’t have the means to act on either of them.

  Her hand was on something. In all the excitement and tragedy, she’d forgotten about the other letter, from Herr Bochner.

  She sniffed, then ran her finger under the flap. She needed cheering up and the old tailor had always succeeded in doing so in the three previous letters he’d sent her. Perhaps he felt that was his job, because he didn’t dwell on what still had to be his terrible loss: the death of his wife. Instead he was enthusiastic all the time, with life a succession of miracles to him. They began when he’d walked away from the plane crash with nothing more than bruises. Continued with a cousin sponsoring him to come to the US, where another relative found him work straightaway in a high-end design house.

  He had embraced everything American. He watched the Brooklyn Dodgers play every Saturday, munched his kosher hot dogs, cheered on “die Bums.” In his last letter, he’d told Roxy that his daughters would be arriving very soon from Belgium.

  She pulled out the pages, prepared to be cheered with that news. But like Jocco’s letter, this too had an enclosure. As she unfolded the sheets, something fell onto the coverlet. A separate envelope. She opened that and withdrew a single piece of paper.

  It was a banker’s draft, made out to her. And it was for three hundred dollars. More than what she’d given to Herr Bochner to bribe the guard to free his wife.

  Roxy did start to cry then, careful not to get any liquid on the draft. Because now she had the money to go wherever she wanted. Though, she thought, as she wiped her nose, there really was only one choice, and one way to travel.

  One step at a time. Brick by brick.

  EIGHTEEN

  ZEPPELIN

  “FRÄULEIN LILLE? FRÄULEIN LILLE?”

  Roxy was distracted by the mirrors in the Frankfurter Hof’s ballroom. They were vast, gilt framed, opulent, as befitted one of Europe’s finest hotels. They were also vintage, which meant that there was significant corroding and some distortion of her reflection. Either that, or she truly wasn’t looking her best. Her mirror image seemed to accentuate the side of her face where she’d had the plastic surgery. Her hair, dyed midnight black now, had looked reasonable in the cut she’d gotten in London before catching the night train from Victoria Station. But tossing and turning all night on the narrow bunk had sculpted it into strange spikes. That, together with the dark glasses she wore for her new-found light sensitivity and her extremely pale s
kin, gave her a ghoulish quality. What was that German movie she’d seen, the last of the great silents? Nosferatu? That was it—she was one of the Undead.

  She looked up. Aside from the customs officials in their uniforms, there were two other men standing by, scanning the passengers, appearing uncomfortable in their dark suits. Military or police, she guessed, posing as civilians. They returned her stare and she looked away.

  The whisper came from right beside her. “Excuse me! Miss? Isn’t that you?”

  She turned to the whisperer. She couldn’t remember his name, though he’d introduced himself just two minutes before. A fellow Yank, she knew that, though he had a German name. Hans? Wolfgang?

  He was jerking his head, indicating the table about ten feet away before which they sat. She looked and saw the official in his tight black uniform beckoning her. “That’s ‘Frau Lille’ to you,” she said, rising, moving forward to sink again into the chair right before the customs table.

  “ ‘Frau’?” The officer lifted her passport and peered at it. “It is written here—”

  “I know, I know! But ‘Fräulein’? At my age? May as well call me ‘spinster.’ ” She beamed at the official. “Know anyone round here who might care to change that status?” She glanced at the youngest of the two military men in mufti. “How about you? You married, sweetheart?”

  The man just stared back before turning to whisper to his colleague. The customs man waved at her. “Please to take off your glasses.”

  She took off her glasses. She’d been smiling in the photographer’s store near Victoria Station when the picture was taken, so she smiled now. She’d rather the guy focused on her face, not the photo. She wasn’t sure she’d done her usual bang-up job replacing the old one.

  He studied her for a long moment before closing the passport and handing it back. Then he nodded to a uniformed porter standing to the side, holding a small valise. “This is all you have?” the official asked.

  There hadn’t been a lot of time to shop in London—she’d arrived at noon and had had to be on the night train by eight. She’d hit Harrods and bought a few items, but they weren’t up to Bochner standards. “And this,” she replied, putting her satchel up. He frowned at the burned canvas, the dirt. Shaking his head, he opened it and tipped it upside down.

  “Hey!” she snapped. “Go easy there.”

  The man just grunted.

  Only a few essentials fell out of the bag. Lipstick, compact, her small penknife, cigarette case, a carton of Player’s Navy Cut, change purse. A few essentials—and one weapon.

  “What is this?” the official said, holding the derringer up by its pearl handle.

  “Cigarette lighter.”

  “This?” He peered at it, turning it every way.

  “It’s a novelty, uh, a keepsake,” she said, praying that he wouldn’t attempt to bring forth flame. She’d removed the bullet as a precaution, had that stashed somewhere she felt sure no gentleman would ever look. But the lie could be pretty speedily exposed, nonetheless. “May I keep it?”

  “Fräulein, you are going on an airship filled with hydrogen gas. There are no open flames allowed.”

  “You’re telling me I can’t smoke?”

  “No. Yes, you can smoke. In the sealed smoking room. Using an electric lighter. Everything else—verboten.” He dropped the gun into a separate cloth bag, with “Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei” printed on the front, before slipping the rest back into the satchel. This he then slid across the table. “Your suitcase will be searched and any other unsuitable items removed and also placed here.” He tapped the cloth bag.

  “But—” She wasn’t happy with the idea of her only weapon being taken away. “If I promise not to use it?”

  He shook his head. “Nein. This will be returned to you in America.” He gestured to a woman standing at his right. “Now, you will please to go with Frau Gruber.”

  Watched by the two men she was now convinced were military, Roxy followed Frau Gruber. The woman led her into a curtained cubicle and ordered her to take off her dress, then searched it before running her hands up and down Roxy’s slip. She was rough and thorough.

  As they exited the cubicle, Frau Gruber nodded, and the male officer rose, clicked his heels together and handed her the passport. Even managed a smile. “Enjoy your flight, Fräulein Lille. Heil Hitler.”

  “Yes, indeed,” Roxy replied, grabbing her satchel. The young American man she had spoken to earlier was waiting there. “Your turn,” she said.

  “Oh, I’ve already been. I was just waiting for you and wondering if you wanted to travel on the coach to the airship together.”

  He smiled bashfully and she looked at him a little more closely. Tall, about her age, floppy hair, a wide grin, blue eyes behind bifocal glasses, tweed suit. Willie, she remembered now. He was a little Ivy League for her tastes. But since her sole plan so far was to keep a low profile and surprise Munroe only once they were in flight, when neither would have anywhere to go, she realized she might stand out less in a couple.

  “Let’s,” she said, linking arms.

  Willie grinned and led her through the revolving doors—he was one of those who liked to go two per cubicle—and onto the second of the two coaches that waited beyond, just as the first one pulled away. They were seen aboard by another uniformed guard.

  The coach was nearly full—she’d been one of the last examined. But keeping her head down as she made her way back, she could not see Munroe anywhere. The size of him, he’d be kinda hard to miss. First coach or…

  Please, she thought, don’t tell me he’s changed his plans. She knew she didn’t have a solid one, not yet. She just trusted that since God and Jocco had placed them on an airship together, something would come up. Odds had a way of evening out and she was owed some luck.

  They found seats near the back. The coach was just starting to roll, when the two soldiers in poor disguise ran up. One hit the side, the driver opened the doors, they came aboard and then the vehicle moved off again.

  “Those guys?” said Willie, pointing with his chin. “They must be security of some kind.”

  “Think so?”

  “Yeah. I’ve been on Zeppelins twice and never been searched before. Bags, yeah, but everyone seems a little more on edge. Hope nothing’s up.”

  “Like what?”

  “I don’t know.” He pushed his glasses up his nose. “You gotta figure there are some pretty crazy types around in Germany right now.”

  “You mean someone might try to sabotage the airship?” When he only shrugged, she laughed and said, “Well, thanks a lot. I’m nervous enough about my first flight without that.”

  “Oh,” he said quickly. “I wouldn’t worry. Germans, right. Too efficient to allow that to happen.” He smiled. “Where did you say you were from again, uh, Madeleine Lille? French name, right?”

  “French father. French passport. US born and raised. You?”

  “Philadelphia. German parents. Though I live in DC now.”

  The short journey to the airport passed in a swift exchange of information. Hers was all false, the story she’d made up to go with the passport. His sounded ordinary, a little dull—commerce degree, rich dad, in paper. Then again, she thought, he could be lying too.

  She looked away as the bus stopped a short time later under a sign that read FLUGHAFEN: FRANKFURT AM MAIN. It always gave her a little lift, an airport. She sought out the window for a plane, any plane. She saw one landing in the distance, but once through the gates the coach was driven at speed past several buildings and finally into a hangar that was larger than any she’d ever seen. Which was necessary, she supposed, as gasps arose all around her from adults, kids, old and young, bound together in wonder. Because this hangar also housed the biggest bird she’d ever seen.

  The Hindenburg.

  Roxy couldn’t help her own gasp. She knew her aerodynamics, the physics of flight. So how the hell anything as huge as this could ever get into the air was beyond her. And
she’d seen it in the air, at the Olympics opening ceremony. On that occasion, though, it had just been up above; she didn’t know how high; there had been no way to contrast it with anything. Here, people moving about below it looked like ants beneath a giant slug. A locomotive engine was opposite her, near the behemoth’s tip—and it resembled a kid’s toy. She was good at calculating distance—she needed to be for some of the landings she’d made in less than ideal circumstances. So now, as she stepped down from the coach steps, she didn’t look up any more but along. Reckoned that the fuel truck to her left was one hundred yards away—a football field. The set of stairs even now being wheeled up to a gantry near the ship’s aft was another gridiron away, perhaps a little more. “Two hundred twenty yards long,” she murmured.

  “You doing the stats?” Willie had followed her out, and stood beside her now. “They do metres here, of course, but you’re close. Two hundred forty-five metres makes, uh, about 268 yards. Or eight hundred feet.” He pointed. “The diameter is 41.2 metres. That’s, uh, uh—”

  “One hundred thirty-five feet.” She looked up at the height, whistled, then smiled at his surprise. “Oh, I do metres. Have to when—” She broke off. She’d decided to keep her flying, and everything else personal, to herself. “When you’re raised partly in France,” she explained, then looked back up. “So that makes it about, what, ten storeys high?”

  “Uh-huh. Quite something, ain’t she?”

  “Sure. Apart from one thing—there’s no possibility that something that size could ever fly.” She shuddered. “So I’m not going on board.”

  “On board it gets even better.” He grinned. “You just wait till you see her on the inside.”

  Roxy didn’t have to wait long. She and Willie joined the mob of passengers—mainly older, mostly men, a few women, and there was a family with younger boys. Munroe was still not among them.

 
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