Chasing the wind, p.21
Chasing the Wind, p.21C. C. Humphreys
Willie touched her arm, and they headed toward the set of stairs just being driven up to meet those lowered from the ship. Despite the encouragement of the attendant, she felt strange stepping onto them, leaving the ground—she, who would pilot anything, eagerly, without a qualm. Truth was, she never much liked being flown. And in something so unfeasible…
Then she forced herself to remember why she was there. Who she was there for. This wasn’t a jaunt; it wasn’t about pleasure in any way. She was there for her enemy. What she would do about him she hadn’t figured out yet. She just assumed that the answer would be somewhere at the top of these metal stairs. Where Munroe was.
She was wrong. She realized it when she reached the platform and glanced back before entering the body of the ship. A Hispano-Suiza J12 roared into the hangar. Laughing at its wheel was Hermann Göring. Grinning back at him was Sydney Munroe.
The flight attendant urged her on. But Roxy didn’t move, only stood and stared as the two big men levered themselves from the vehicle. The Reichsmarschall was dressed as if for hunting, in a cap with pheasant feathers in the band, a grey jacket with leather shoulder patches, and tweed trousers. A white linen suit swathed Munroe’s bulk. The two men shook hands, slapped each other’s backs, and the impression of Tweedledum and Tweedledee returned. But she couldn’t find a smile now. Nor could she find that place inside where her courage usually lay. The sight of Munroe, the memory of all he’d done, all he’d meant to her and her family over the years, made her dizzy.
“Shall we?” said Willie, offering his arm.
“Gladly,” she replied, taking it. Turning away from the two monsters, she entered the belly of the third.
Five stewards in white coats and black ties awaited them. A sixth man, in a dark suit, was speaking as she and Willie came onto the platform within the hull. His English was clear, lightly accented. “…accompany you to your cabins, where your luggage has already been placed. Once you are situated, we encourage you to unpack, and make yourself at home, as you say. Very shortly a steward will come by to explain about the cabin. Again, my name is Chief Steward Kubis.” As someone spoke, he raised a white-gloved hand. “Please, Captain Lehmann has indicated that he wishes to make a speedy departure. Save all questions for later—perhaps over a nice glass of chilled Riesling in the salon, ja?” He smiled. “Tickets, please.”
The passengers shuffled forward. All were asked again if they had any lighters, though none did, those having been taken away at the hotel. Cameras were also confiscated.
“Air regulations,” murmured Willie, handing over a Leica. “They are given back once we pass the three-mile limit beyond Frankfurt. Germans don’t want snaps of the air base being built.”
Having no lighter and no camera, Roxy held out her ticket. It was studied and handed back. She took a step after the other passengers up the next flight of stairs, but Chief Steward Kubis halted her. “You are on this deck, mademoiselle. The B deck,” he said, his French as flawless as his English. “We added these cabins only this year and they have several advantages. Larger, and they also have windows to look out from, as they are on the side of the vessel, not in the centre, as above.” He glanced down at her yellow-stained fingers. “Also, the smoking room is on this deck, if mademoiselle and monsieur are smokers.”
“Mademoiselle sure is,” she replied. “Not sure about monsieur.”
“Oh. I am sorry, I—” Kubis looked at Willie’s ticket, adding in German, “Ah, apologies, sir. It is A deck for you.”
“Come again?” Willie replied in English, putting a hand behind his ear. “German name, no German. Got ‘A deck’—that’s about it.”
The family and she were the only ones who were bound for B deck. As Willie headed up the stairs, he called back, “Drink later?”
“Drink soon,” she answered, and followed the white coat of a younger steward around a corner and down a corridor. Her cabin was the fifth down, opposite the WCs. The steward opened the door for her, and said, in heavily accented French, “I will return in a moment, mademoiselle.” Then he took the family on to the end of the corridor.
She went in, closed the door behind her and leaned against it. If this was a larger cabin, what the hell size was on A deck? It was perhaps a hair bigger than the train compartment she’d taken from London. About seven feet deep, five and a half across. The walls were lined in pearl-coloured fabric. No bunk beds like on the train, but a single to her left, running along and flush to the outer wall; her suitcase was on it. She flung her singed satchel beside it. What gave the sense of more space was the window, which ran the width of the cabin, alongside the bed. She was startled to look out and see the sides of the hangar passing; she hadn’t felt any movement at all. But the chief steward had said that the captain wanted a speedy departure. Within ten seconds, the hangar wall had given way to a different shade of grey—drizzle. They passed a marching band, the men’s blue-and-yellow uniforms dulled by the wet. Beside them, in their brown shirts and shorts, was a troop of Hitler Youth. Both troops fell into their ranks and, at a shouted command, began to march beside the ship.
Roxy sank onto the end of the bed. She suddenly felt queasy, and she wasn’t sure if it was motion, exhaustion, her ongoing balance problems or the sight of Sydney Munroe. Her course had seemed so clear when she’d read about his return to the States. She was certain that he’d be accompanied by the booty he’d stolen from them. She’d also read the omens to boost her certainty: a ticket for the Hindenburg had arrived in the same mail as money from Herr Bochner, for god’s sake. But the journey had taxed her diminished strength to its limit. And her faith had waned with the simple sight of her nemesis saying farewell to the second most powerful man in Germany, the man who’d nearly caused her death. Who was she to oppose these guys? And, truly—what did she intend to do now that she was on board? Kill Munroe? He certainly deserved it, for her father’s death alone, for all the pain he’d caused since. But she’d had that chance in a Madrid cellar and hadn’t taken it. Roxy knew that she was not a killer. A thief, though? She’d helped steal the Bruegel once. Could she steal it again? It didn’t seem likely. Seeing how she could barely lift herself, she wasn’t sure how she would manage that hefty slab of wood. She could recruit—her new friend, Willie, appeared taken with her. But enough to be her accomplice in grand larceny while she kept him at arm’s length?
A knock. “Come in,” she called.
Her young guide—he couldn’t have been more than nineteen—put his head around the door. She’d spoken English so he replied in the same, which was better than his French. “Is all clear with your cabin, miss?”
“Uh, not really.”
He took her on a swift tour: the basin, with its hot and cold taps; the narrow closet, curtained off on the corridor side, with a rail from which she could hang her dresses. There was a fold-down writing table. “The shower is opposite in the corridor, but I should warn you it is not so strong and it is on a timer. The yellow light goes off and—phft!—the water stops, no matter how much soap you have still on your head. On this deck, at the very end of this corridor, you also find the smoking room and the bar. Restaurant and lounges are upstairs.” A bell sounded and he smiled. “Excuse me, but I must get to my station for departure. Any other questions you will be kind enough to keep for later? Most passengers meet in the promenade on A deck—” he pointed to the ceiling “—to watch the ‘up ship.’ ”
“ ‘Up ship’?”
“It is the command. It is logical, no?” He laughed. “ ‘Up, ship.’ ” He turned to go. “Wait,” she said, standing and reaching for her purse.
“No, miss. All tips included in your fare. We are forbidden.”
“Well, let it be our secret, eh?” she said, and crammed a five-dollar bill in his hands.
He stared at it a moment, then pocketed it. “Auf Wiedersehen,” he called cheerfully as he left.
Outside, the band began to play and the Hitler Youth to sing. Some folk song—she didn’t know it.
The song changed tempo and mood. This one she recognized: the “Horst Wessel.” Jocco had told her that it was named for some thug killed in a street fight with the Commies. The first Nazi martyr. This one piece of patriotism led to the next. From below and, chorused within the structure, she heard the national anthem:
“ ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’…”
It was reprised. It ended with drums and timpani. And then the cheering began. There was no other sound, no motor. There was barely any movement. Except there was, because she looked out the window and people began to recede.
“Up, ship,” she murmured.
She’d lain down and slept. When she woke, it was past ten, the voyage already three hours in. She still could hear only the faintest purr of an engine. Below, the lights of some city shimmered; the airship was flying low enough and she could see the bulk of buildings.
Waking brought its usual pangs. Once she’d smoothed down her dress—which did about as much for the wrinkles as her fingers did for her crazy hair—she slipped into her shoes, grabbed her purse and followed the corridor. Quite soon she came to a small room on her right. There was a counter, a man in a white jacket. He was wielding a cocktail shaker. “Madam needs a drink?” he inquired.
What she most needed was nicotine. But alcohol sounded good too. “Can you make me a Rusty Nail?”
“Of course. Which whisky would madam like?”
“Johnnie Walker, if you’ve got it. And shaken, straight up.”
“Sure. Where can I smoke? Here?”
“No, madam.” He pointed to another door. “This takes you to the airlock. Close it behind you before you open the next door. No leaking hydrogen to get through to fire, yes?”
“Does hydrogen leak?”
“Never. But we do not take this chance.” He finished shaking and poured white frothy liquid into two stemmed glasses. “I will bring your drink,” he said.
Roxy opened the door, stepped into the small space and closed the door behind her. There was noise from beyond the next one, a party heard through a thick wall. When she opened the door, that sound exploded, and though she was craving a smoke, she was almost overcome by what hit her.
She entered a head-height cloud. She didn’t know how big the room was since she couldn’t see the other walls. Big enough, she realized, as there were at least half a dozen pairs of trousered legs over stools. A few were unoccupied and she took a step toward one.
The door opened behind her. The action swirled the smoke as the bartender walked in, and he parted it, heading toward the vacant stool she’d spotted. On the other side of the stool was a table and banquette, currently occupied.
“Hello, Roxy,” said Sydney Munroe. “I’ve been expecting you.”
THOUGH SHE TRIED NOT TO SHOW IT, ROXY WAS STARTLED. Not by him—she knew Munroe would be on the Hindenburg; it was why she was there.
But how did he know she’d be aboard?
Yet the man she turned to now, sitting next to Munroe, did surprise her, and she couldn’t help showing it. She had the sudden urge to grab the heavy ashtray and dash it into Ferency’s face.
She didn’t. Instead she picked up the frothy drink the bartender had just put down and threw it at him, glass and all.
The Hungarian jumped up, shrieking fury in his native tongue. Conversations at the other tables stopped.
“Lover’s tiff,” Munroe called, causing laughter, reaching a vast hand to pull Ferency down beside him again. “Drinks on me for the disturbance my young friends have caused.” As the hubbub returned, he continued, softer, “Of course you know each other, don’t you? And please, won’t you sit?”
“I don’t sit with murderers and betrayers.”
“Oh, you mean the explosion in the plane?” Munroe tsked. “I was angry about that. My friend here acted…precipitously. I was so relieved when I heard you’d survived.” He beamed. “Indeed, Roxy, I have only ever wanted you alive. Alive—and in America. Which now I will get.”
“It was not personal,” Ferency muttered, wiping his face with a huge polka-dotted handkerchief. “It was…business. We needed to destroy the evidence.” He looked straight at Roxy. “Once you delivered the painting to Wilhelm Zomack he would discover it was a fake. He would make it an international scandal and all paintings would be closely considered. My swift work, which the Reichsmarschall now possesses, would not have stood up to intense scrutiny. He already knows it is fake. But he does not want anyone else to know it.” He put the handkerchief away. “But the bomb was set by an idiot. It was meant to explode on the ground, before you took off. I meant to give you a chance. I would never want to hurt you.” His eyes went moony. “You of all people, Roxy.”
His lies were as thick as his pomade. But Roxy swallowed her anger. Anger would have its place, as would some form of revenge, that was for damn sure. But there was context here she didn’t understand, which was of more importance than her feelings for this Hungarian weasel.
She turned to Munroe. “So you’re saying I’m on this Zeppelin because of you? Not how I see it.”
“No?” The big man smiled. “Did you never think to question why your lover suddenly wrote to you? And with such a strange offer?” He gave a little chuckle. “I must admit I thought you were smarter than that, and that it would not work. But my young friend here convinced me otherwise. Said he’d observed you with this Zomack. And do they not say that love is blind?” He chuckled again. “Sit, Roxy, please. You look like you need to.”
She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, but she had to hear this, about Jocco. There was no question he’d written the letter she’d gotten. Now she needed to know why—and what had happened to him next. “So where is Mr. Zomack?” she asked, as she sat.
Munroe shrugged. “I don’t know. Spain, perhaps. Once he agreed to do what we asked of him…”
“He agreed to betray me?” She snorted. “Sure. Even you don’t have that kind of money.”
“You are right. Money would never have done it. Your friend has ideals. But suffering?” He smiled. “Even for the toughest man, that can be harder to withstand.”
Roxy’s stomach did a flip. “Suffering?”
Instead of answering directly, Munroe laid a meaty hand on Ferency’s shoulder. “Perhaps I should let my young friend explain the rest. Since he was so involved.”
“Well, I’d certainly like to know why I’m being forced to share a table with this cockroach. Why’s he even aboard?”
The hand stayed on the shoulder, rubbed a little. “He is my personal art expert and portrait painter. Áttila is most talented. I think he felt you did not appreciate that.” He reached for his glass. “But tell Roxy about her lover now. Why he cooperated.”
A smirk replaced the glare Ferency had been giving her. “It is simple. He did not know I had betrayed him. So when I was ‘allowed’ to visit him on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse—”
“It is the street where the Gestapo headquarters and their jail cells are situated. Zomack was caught at the airfield, after you had flown.” Munroe waved a hand. “Sorry to interrupt. Please continue.”
Roxy felt bile rise in her throat as Ferency spoke again.
“Your lover had been there a long while when I visited. He was not well. It is not a pleasant place. After six months he was, uh, open to an offer. But they’d broken his right hand—he’d punched too many guards. And they’d done…other things to him as well. So it was required of me to forge the letter.”
“Why didn’t you just do that, and leave him be?”
“We felt that unless he drafted the letter, with all the personal things that only he would know, you would not come.”
“I still c
“It comes back to suffering and hope.” Munroe leaned forward. “I do not think you understand what the taking away and then the giving of hope can do, even to the strongest man. He dictated, signed—yes, he could do that much—and the Reichsmarschall had him released.”
She thought back. The signature had seemed shaky. “That seems out of character for you. Why would you and Göring honour that bargain and let him go?”
“Hmm.” Munroe licked his lips. “The Van Gogh landscape his father donated to Hermann’s private collection may have helped.”
So it comes back to art, she thought. Coupled with torture. And desperation.
The bartender returned, bearing her Rusty Nail and a refill for Ferency. There was an electric lighter on the table. She lit a cigarette. “And why do you think he went to Spain?”
“Is it not where the comrades are mustering?” Munroe replied.
She dragged smoke deep. She still couldn’t believe that Jocco had broken, and lured her into this trap. And yet? Munroe was right—suffering and hope were mighty persuaders. And she suddenly remembered the story of his best friend, Reinhardt, and how Jocco had failed to put him out of his misery, left him to be tortured to death by the Italians. No one was there on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse to do that kindness for her man. He’d broken. But what she didn’t understand was why he’d gone to Spain, not come looking for her. How, in the end, he’d chosen Joe Stalin and a cause over her and their love.
She didn’t let her hurt show, however. Because there was one other thing she needed to find out. “Okay, so you got me here. Bravo. But why? Why do you want me in the States so badly?” He started to speak, but she rolled on. “You bankrupted my father, and sure, you can probably do the same to me. But what I am wearing is about all I possess. So good luck. And I know you don’t like to be crossed. But this, all this, getting me on board—” she waved her hand, circulating smoke “—it seems a little elaborate, even for a spiteful sonofabitch like you.”
Chasing the Wind by C. C. Humphreys / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes