Chasing the wind, p.23
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       Chasing the Wind, p.23

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  They both turned to the approaching men—two, Roxy could see through the film over her sight. There were others behind.

  “What are you doing here? What is happening?”

  It was the chief steward, Kubis. She focused on recovering her breath, while Ferency blustered, “This lady left the bar. I thought perhaps she had a little much to drink. Then I saw her come the wrong way. I followed to…to help her. I think she fainted.”

  Kubis turned to her. “Is this true, Fräulein Lille?”

  Breath had returned; the mist had cleared from her eyes and from her mind. There was her, and all these guys. Had he actually been about to rape her? Well, one thing she knew—guys believed each other. If she claimed rape, there’d be denial, questioning, lies. Her word against his. Perhaps Ferency would reveal who she really was, and that she didn’t need. Besides, she thought, taking a deeper breath, she owed this guy. Even more so now. And the way to pay him back was not to give him a chance to wiggle out of this. The way to pay him back was when she had him alone. With a weapon in her hand.

  “Yeah. Came over a little blurry. Sorry.” She stood away from the guardrail. “Phew. Better now.”

  She could see doubt in the chief steward’s eyes. He looked between her and Ferency again. Then he shrugged and said, “No one is allowed here without a guide. Why are you here?”

  “I wanted to send a telegram. Still do.”

  “For this you must make an appointment. In the morning. Tell the purser.”

  “Oh, please. It’s urgent.”

  She lowered her head, opened her eyes deliberately wide. They had their effect. He sighed. “It is okay. Only this once, you understand. But you do not tell your fellow passengers.”

  “Our secret, Herr Kubis.”

  She was led on in the direction she’d been heading, crewmen staring then dispersing as she approached. Ferency was escorted the opposite way. She’d glanced at him before he turned. He looked smug again. She supposed that since she hadn’t ratted him out this time, he might think that left him free to try again. Well, she’d be ready next time.

  Kubis showed her into the radio room, bowed and left her to the operator. She saw that they had both a short- and a long-wave transmitter. For a moment she was tempted to try to track Louise Thaden down, speak to her direct on long wave. But the time it would take and the chances of finding her or any of the other girls were slim. Morse was the better system. It was guaranteed to get through.

  In the end she wrote down a simple message and got it sent to the last address she’d had for the Ninety-Nines:

  ROXY ON HINDENBURG STOP SAME DEAL AS CURTISS FIELD TWENTY-NINE STOP FAST BIRD REQUESTED STOP

  If Louise didn’t get it, one of the other girls in the association might. She felt her name alone would set off alarm bells. Anyone who knew it would remember her precipitous departure eight years before, and read between the dots and the dashes. Then, she hoped, they’d be standing by for a speedy getaway.

  The telegram went. She was escorted back to her cabin. Her heart had settled—and it had been a pretty busy day. She lay down and was asleep in moments.

  And awake faster. Hard to sleep through the insistent knocking. She staggered up, threw on a gown and opened the door.

  Three men were standing there: Kubis, and the soldiers in plain clothes who Willie had spotted earlier on at customs. The older one of the two, with greying temples and greyer eyes, spoke straightaway, English in a German accent.

  “How long have you been in bed, Fräulein Lille?”

  Roxy rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know. What time is it?”

  “Three thirty-five a.m.”

  “I went to bed at eleven.”

  “Can you prove it?”

  “Well, there’s no one in here to testify, if that’s what you’re asking.” She opened the door wide. “See for yourself.” The younger officer peered around the door, checked, shook his head. “What’s going on?”

  “We are looking for a passenger. A Hungarian by the name of Ferency.”

  At the end of the corridor, a door opened on the larger cabin there. Two dark-haired boys glanced sleepily from under their father’s arm. The older officer saw them. “Please,” he said, waving Roxy back.

  She didn’t budge. “Gentlemen,” she said, “my reputation.”

  The officer turned to Kubis. “You will stay here. The door will remain open.”

  “Yes, Colonel.”

  Colonel, eh? Roxy thought, stepping aside. She went and sat on her bunk. The two men loomed over her. Quietly, the colonel spoke. “My name is Colonel Schreiber. Luftwaffe Intelligence. This is Lieutenant Kloff.”

  “How can I help?”

  “This Hungarian passenger. Witnesses say that earlier this evening you two were found either in an embrace or a confrontation. Can you tell me which it was?”

  “I could. If you can tell me why it matters?”

  “Why?” The colonel glanced behind him. There was murmuring now in the corridor; Kubis’s voice raised to reassure. The colonel continued softly.

  “Because Áttila Ferency is not missing. We know where he is. He is in his cabin. He has been murdered.”

  TWENTY-ONE

  SUSPECT

  THOUGHTS TUMBLED THROUGH HER HEAD.

  She had no love for Ferency. The bastard had attacked her. Before that he’d tried to kill her. He was—had been—traitorous scum, and good riddance to him.

  But murdered? That meant there was someone else on board who also hated the Hungarian. Or who wanted him out of the way for some reason. Her mind leaped to Munroe—though the forger had been his new pet and ally. Also, Munroe wasn’t the kind who would do his own killing. He could have an ally on board, though, a henchman to do the dirty work. Though why get his victim on board the Hindenburg before killing him? It didn’t make sense.

  Not much did at 3:30 a.m., seven hundred feet up in the air, after she’d been jolted from sleep. She needed a moment. The two officers had crowded into her room, while the steward kept guard at the door. “Listen,” she said, “I’d be happy to answer your questions.” She drew her silk gown tighter around her. “But not in my lingerie.”

  The colonel swallowed. “And we do not wish to disturb the passengers. So you will accompany us to a place where we can talk?”

  “Then, I’ll get dressed.”

  “Quickly, if you please. The lieutenant will wait with you while you change.”

  He stepped out, but his subordinate didn’t budge. “Does he have to wait inside?”

  “He does. And you will bring your passport.”

  He closed the door behind him. The lieutenant—he looked like he’d stepped off a Nazi recruiting poster, with his shaved head and a duelling scar on his cheek—regarded her till she arched an eyebrow at him and he turned away. She changed fast, into faun slacks and a blouse. A glimpse in her mirror revealed her night face as a blizzard of white cream. She grabbed a towel, wiped that off and went to work. The officer turned, tsked. She ignored him. If she was going to be interrogated in the middle of the night, she might as well look reasonable. She ran lipstick over her mouth; dabbed some rouge on her cheeks, and a hint of shadow behind her eyes. Applying the makeup also gave her time to look at herself in the mirror and think. How much did they know about her? Would they already have questioned Munroe? Would he have revealed who she really was? Unlikely. He wanted her on US soil so he could get her served, get her into court. She’d come aboard as Madeleine Lille. She’d better stick to that. Speaking of, she thought. After checking that the lieutenant was still looking the other way, she took out her American passport and tucked it into the elasticated top of her slacks. Chances were, they’d search her room, and she didn’t want them to know who she really was. She could only hope they wouldn’t frisk her as well.

  There was little she could do with the mess that was her hair. She merely wrapped a scarf around it, picked up her purse and said, “Let’s go.”

  He led her back down the corridor, p
ast the now-silent bar and smoking room, the kitchen. There she was ushered into the room she’d noticed earlier, the nicely furnished one. Colonel Schreiber was sitting on a banquette behind a table. He beckoned her to the seat opposite him, before nodding at Kloff, who turned and left.

  “Passport.”

  She reached into her purse. First thing she pulled out were her cigarettes. “May I smoke?” Roxy asked.

  “No.”

  He held out his hand and she put the passport into it. She hoped he wasn’t going to examine the photo any more closely than the official had in Frankfurt.

  “French,” he stated.

  “Yes. But I was raised in America.”

  “You do not have an American passport?”

  “Expired.”

  “Would you rather speak in French?”

  “Up to you.”

  “Do you speak German?”

  “I can say bitte and danke. That’s it.”

  “We speak English, then.” He rifled through the pages.

  She hadn’t travelled much as Maddie Lille. In and out of England, Belgium. The stamps in her US passport—all over Africa, Spain and the rest—would have been a lot harder to explain. She knew she didn’t have to be on the defensive here. Perhaps there was a way of steering the conversation. “So, uh…who are you again?”

  “I have told you. Colonel Schreiber.”

  “Not a policeman, then?”

  He shook his head.

  “So why are you the one asking me questions in the middle of the night?”

  His grey eyes narrowed. “There are no policemen aboard. But I am in Luftwaffe Intelligence.”

  “A spy? How thrilling! I wish I’d worn my red dress.”

  “I am not a spy. But information came that there may be some threat to the airship. So I and my colleague are aboard.”

  “Threat, eh? Do tell.”

  “Fräulein, I am not here to tell you things. You are here to tell me things.” He dropped the passport onto the table. “How well did you know Herr Ferency?”

  She’d already prepared the answer to that. “I didn’t know him at all.”

  “No? Do you always throw drinks over strangers in bars?”

  She’d been prepared for that one too. “If they are rude to me, I do.”

  “How was he rude?”

  “He was drunk. And he made an obscene suggestion.” She leaned a little across, lowered her voice. “Would you like me to tell you what it was?”

  “There is no need. And did he repeat this suggestion on the gantry?”

  “No. He came up with a few others there. Before he lunged at me.”

  “And yet Chief Steward Kubis says you told him there was no problem. Why did you not report this assault?”

  “Ferency would have denied it. Claimed I was the one giving him the eye. And, Colonel, I’ve found that you guys tend to believe each other, rather than a girl who dresses like me.”

  He absorbed this for a moment. “So perhaps you thought you would wait, and take your own revenge later?”

  Roxy laughed. “Colonel, if I murdered every drunk who made a pass at me, you’d have to call me Jane the Ripper.”

  At that moment, Kloff returned. Schreiber, having informed his subordinate that she didn’t speak German—in German—then received his report. Roxy learned that there were no traces of blood on her clothes or in the cabin. Nothing suspicious—apart from a lack of possessions. Kloff was sent off again.

  “Give me your hands,” Schreiber said, returning to English.

  “Why, Colonel, you sweet thing.”

  He grunted, took her hands, examined them. Her polish was a deep scarlet, but she knew there was no trace of the real thing under her nails.

  He released her. Time for offence, she thought. “Find any blood?”

  “I thought you did not speak German,” he said, releasing her.

  “Come on. I heard your colleague say the word Blut. Can’t be that different. And I don’t believe you’re considering a career as a manicurist if the Luftwaffe Intelligence thing doesn’t pan out.”

  “I will remind you, Fräulein, that a man is dead. This joking is not appropriate.”

  “He was a shithead. However, I apologize.”

  He frowned. “Herr Ferency was quite brutally murdered with a knife. There were also—” he held up his hands “—how do you call these? Defend wounds? Here.” He lowered his hands. “He fought to live. And I do not think that you would have had the strength to overcome him.”

  “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been told that I punch above my weight.” She smiled. “Does that mean I can go?”

  “In a moment. First, I am to tell you that though I do not think you killed him yourself, I also do not believe that you only just met.” He raised a hand against her interruption. “I think there was anger between you. That maybe you have a colleague—”

  “I don’t—”

  “So we will be keeping an eye on you, Fräulein Lille. There is no jail aboard, and we are not going to confine you to your cabin. Where would you go?” He nodded. “Also, we do not want the passengers disturbed with any fuss. But the authorities in both Germany and the US have been informed, and they may wish to question you on landing in America.” He stood. “Now you may leave.”

  She stood, so he did too. “May I have that cigarette now?”

  “The smoking room is closed.”

  “Come on! You wake a girl in the middle of the night and accuse her of murder—I think she deserves a break, don’t you?”

  He thought for a few seconds, then went to the door, called down the corridor. In a moment, the steward appeared. The colonel told him to open the smoking room. Though he looked less than pleased, Kubis nodded.

  Roxy smiled at Schreiber and left. But as soon as she hit the corridor, she stopped, because coming toward her, escorted by Kloff, was Sydney Munroe. He glared at her, raising his meaty hands as if he sought to wrap them round her neck. But he didn’t say anything, and she just gave him a look.

  Theirs was a private war, she knew. Ferency may have been a casualty of it, in a way she had yet to figure out. But it would help neither of them to get caught up in all this more than they were.

  Out of earshot of the colonel, the steward grumbled. But he unlocked the door to the bar, held it aside for her. “The other doors are open. May I remind the Fräulein not to bring a cigarette from the room. And the bar is closed. Drinking forbidden.” He reached in, flicked on a light. “I will be in my office at the end of the corridor. Please let me know when you leave. I close the door. No more passengers to come in now. Good evening,” he said, beckoned her in, shut the door behind her.

  She eyed the bar. The only thing that would taste better than a Navy Cut was a Navy Cut with Scotch on the side. She spotted her old friend Johnnie Walker and stepped around to pour herself a large dram. Then she went to the airlock door, closed the bar side and opened the room side. The scent of stale tobacco assailed her nostrils. There was a small red night light, making the place dim, but she couldn’t find a switch. She decided not to go back, though; she quite liked the idea of sitting in the semi-dark.

  She found the electric lighter, fell into a banquette, lit up and inhaled deeply. “Ah!” she sighed, on a plume of smoke.

  She took a swig of the whisky, smoked the cigarette to the butt and lit another from it. She held up her hand to watch the smoke curl up into the red light and wondered at how she shook. Jeez, she thought, it’s been a night. Now that she didn’t have to keep up a front, she allowed herself to sag a little. There was a murderer on the Hindenburg—that was clear. And whoever he was—has to be a he, she thought, given the type of murder the colonel had indicated—he hadn’t struck randomly. Ferency was connected with her, with Munroe, with all that happened in Berlin. Which either made the killer an ally—or her one of his next victims.

  She had drained the Scotch and was considering another, when she heard, very faintly, through two doors, a sound. For a moment, the
lights went on. Someone had thrown the switch. Whoever it was changed their mind, because the light went off again, the sudden change making the room seem darker than it was before. At the same time, she heard the airlock door on the bar side open.

  She looked around. There was no place to hide. No point either. Whoever was coming in knew she was there. Munroe? She’d been trapped with him in that cellar in Madrid and he’d tried to attack her. There, she’d had her derringer to fend him off. Here, she had nothing except for the heavy, cut-glass whisky tumbler. Not much, but she hefted it anyway, and stood.

  The door opened. She took three steps back, pressed herself against the wall. She thought of shouting but found she couldn’t get her mouth to work.

  A man came through the door. Tall, but not wide enough for Munroe. His jacket was white, a steward’s, but he was the wrong shape for Kubis. A stranger then—yet there was something about him that seemed familiar, even in dim red light.

  She found her voice. “I’m warning you. I got a really loud scream.”

  The man paused, then turned to close the door behind him. “I know,” he said, turning back. “It got us thrown out of that hotel in Tripoli.”

  She gasped as the tumbler slipped from her hand.

  TWENTY-TWO

  BROKEN LOVER

  SHE STARED AT JOCCO, TOO STUNNED TO MOVE, TO SPEAK.

  He took a step farther in. “Hello, Roxy,” he said.

  His voice broke the spell. She was moving, then she was in his arms. “How…How?”

  “Shh,” he replied, and kissed her.

  It was strange. It was like kissing a wraith. He didn’t feel real. Even as she wanted to dissolve into it, as she always had with him, to lose herself, her mind stayed separate. Questions overwhelmed her. Too much had happened, to both of them.

  The embrace didn’t feel the same and neither did he. The body she squeezed? Her Jocco was huge—big hands, barrel chest, shoulders that went forever. But the man she held now was thin, wire taut, not brick built. Also, and this was the strangest thing, he didn’t smell like he had. There had been a scent to him, a good one, a musk all his own, a touch of aviation fuel and tobacco. Now he smelled of cooking oil, overlain with cheap cologne.

 
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