Chasing the wind, p.24
Chasing the Wind, p.24C. C. Humphreys
Jesus, Roxy, she thought, get out of your head. But she couldn’t and they fumbled apart. “Here,” she said, and pulled him down onto a banquette.
The red light was still dim, but she was able to study with her eyes what she’d felt on her lips, in her arms. His face, which she’d teased him was that of a Saxon farmer, so wide and ruddy, had thinned. His hair, the cowlick gone, was now the crop of a soldier’s. Or prisoner’s. But it was the eyes that had changed most. There was a look to them that she couldn’t place; until she did. She’d seen it for months, staring back at her from hospital mirrors. Haunted. “Baby,” she said, reaching a hand to cradle the side of his face, “what have they done to you?”
He turned, kissed her palm, then mirrored her, cupped her face. “And you, Roxy?” He touched the shiny skin on her cheek and jaw. “The crash?”
“Your hair?” He looked up at the strands that peeked from under her scarf. “You are black now?”
“It got burned. Grew back white. So…this.”
His jaw tightened. “That bastard Ferency.”
She took his hand, kissed it. “Did you kill him?”
“No.” He shook his head vigorously. “I wish it had been me. But someone else got to him first.”
“Who?” She shook the hand she held. “What the hell’s going on? Why…how are you here?”
“I tell you everything. But first, can we smoke one of your cigarettes?”
“I’d rather you rolled me one of your specials.”
“I would but—” He withdrew his right hand from her grip, lifted it into the light, and she saw one other of the things she’d known was wrong.
His hand was misshapen. All the joints looked swollen, and the thumb and forefinger were bent. The nails were ragged, with dirt under all of them that looked like blood in the red light.
“They broke it, Roxy,” he said, his voice low. “And it was the least of what they did. They—”
“Wait.” She went out to the bar, poured two large whiskies, came back and sat down again. Handing him one, she said, “Mud in your eye,” and drank. She snatched up her Player’s, put two into her mouth, lit them, then slipped one between his lips. “Now,” she said, and drew deep. “Tell me everything. From Templehof.”
He inhaled, blew a stream out over her head. “The forger betrayed us.”
“He gave us the fake and the real Icarus to Munroe. But Ferency didn’t know or didn’t care that Munroe wanted you alive. So, the bomb on the plane. He told me in the jail that he waited for you to take off before calling the police.”
“I knew he was lying, the bastard.”
“They arrested me and gave me to the Gestapo, who took me to their cells. There they…” He pulled in a deep breath. “They worked on me.”
She took his shattered hand again. “Did they use that drug on you?”
“No. They stuck to old-fashioned methods.” He swallowed. “I lasted maybe two days. But then I broke.” She saw moisture come into his eyes. “Roxy,” he continued, his voice choked, “I told them everything.”
She kissed his hand. “Of course you did! You had to.”
“There was not so much to tell, in the end. All about us, our conspiracy. Some comrades.” He wiped his nose. “When they’d gotten all they could, they…just left me.”
There were horrors in his eyes. She couldn’t think of any way to even begin to take them away. He stared above her, then went on, his voice soft.
“Winter came. I had one blanket. I froze, was surprised when I woke up each morning. No one to talk to when I did, nothing to do but think. Remember. Never a bath, the stench was—” He paused, looked at her. “I am sorry. I know my cologne is not of the best. But I stank so much in there I still smell that place upon me, and the only way I can get rid of it is…” He sighed. “I despaired. I would have done anything to get away from there. And then I was given the chance. Offered freedom for one more betrayal.” He looked at her. “Yours.”
“The letter?” He nodded. “Your writing—”
“I did not write it. Could not.” He held up his hand. “Only the signature, and that took me five times.”
“I thought it looked different.”
He nodded. “Ferency did the rest. I told him what to say, what might bring you. Then, when my father had given Göring the Van Gogh, they let me go.” He shook his head. “I was surprised. They kept the bargain. I was driven to the border with Belgium. Told to go and die for my cause in Spain. I waited two days and then I crossed back in the middle of the night.”
“I didn’t know what they planned for you. Munroe had told me it was only to get you to America, to serve his papers on you. But I couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t harm you. And I couldn’t live with myself if he did.”
“Oh, my love.” She kissed his hand again. “But how did you get on board the Hindenburg?”
“I have a friend. He works for the Zeppelin company, in hiring. He arranged it. A cook was suddenly sick. Well—” he shrugged “—we made him sick. I was his replacement.”
“This friend? Is he on board too?”
“No. But another comrade is.” He shook his head. “It is the second reason I had to be here.”
“What do you mean?”
Jocco leaned forward and stubbed out the cigarette. She did the same. “This other comrade is cold, confident, efficient—”
“Like I was, perhaps.” He held up his mangled hand. It shook. “He is also fanatical. I am a believer in the cause, but he believes that only by great actions will we bring down the Reich. Something spectacular. Roxy, he has a bomb. And he is going to blow up the Hindenburg.” Over her gasp, he continued, “He arranged for me to be on board to help him. And I will. But I was determined that you would be safe first.”
“How will you delay him?”
“There is one way.” He reached into his trouser pocket, pulled out a small piece of metal, wires attached. “He cannot set his bomb without this timer. I took it…but I cannot keep it. He will know it is me.”
“Why not just get rid of it?”
“Because I believe in the cause. I would like to see this symbol of the Nazis destroyed—only not with you on board.”
“Does this guy know about us?”
“Then give it to me.”
“Listen, I’d like to see this big Nazi bird destroyed nearly as much as you would. So give it to me and I’ll return it when we are docking. Blow the sucker up in its hangar, swastikas and all.”
He studied her for a moment, then shook his head, tucked the switch away. “No. I will keep it. Who knows what will happen when we dock? You are already under suspicion. Perhaps we will not be able to meet before—”
He broke off. He was shaking. She just wanted to take him away somewhere hot, like that beach hut in Africa. Bathe in the ocean. Smoke. Make love. Heal them both. But the dream was too much, too far away. All she could say was “Did this guy kill Ferency?”
“Perhaps. He knew the forger was my enemy.” He bit his lip. “My comrade is not completely well in the head.”
Again, she thought, a little like you. But she said, “Who is he?”
“I cannot tell you.” He squeezed her hand. “It is not that I do not trust you. But if you do not know, you cannot tell. No matter…what they do to you.” He shuddered. “Do you remember Reinhardt?”
It took a moment. “Your wounded friend. The one you couldn’t—”
He finished for her. “Couldn’t kill. I left him to the Italians to be taken alive. Later that week, we recaptured the air base. His body was there, hanging…” He closed his eyes. “The things they did to him. He betrayed us all. Like I have now done. Many more died. All because I didn’t have the courage to put him from his misery.”
“Oh, baby,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “To kill a friend?
He let her hold him for a few moments, then pulled away. “And now, with the Gestapo on board—”
“Schreiber and Kloff.”
“He told me they were Luftwaffe Intelligence.”
“He lied. They are here because there have been rumours of an anarchist outrage. They will be watching everyone. They will be watching you. Which means—” He stood. “We must not be seen together again. I must go.”
“Hey.” She stood too. “What will you do now?”
“Watch. Wait. Restrain my comrade.”
“And if you do? If we dock, disembark, and you blow up the Hindenburg? Then what?”
“Then…I do not know. I learned in the prison to think only of surviving today. Tomorrow, do the same.”
“Then let me think for us.” She put her arms around him again. “The fifth cavalry may be at Lakehurst Aerodrome to rescue me.”
“An American expression. But if they can save one, they can save two.”
“Perhaps.” He let a little smile come. “Is it not a cowboy expression that we ‘take to the hills’? Shall we do that, Roxy?”
“I’ll take to the hills with you anytime, Jocco. In fact, I even own some hills to take you to.”
He bent. They kissed again. It was better. Then, too soon, he pulled away. “Don’t follow immediately,” he said, and left.
She barely moved for the two minutes it took to light and finish another cigarette. She just stood staring through the cloud they’d created, swirling in the red light. There was something wrong, about everything. Everything Jocco had said, everything Ferency had told her and the Gestapo weren’t saying. Something beyond the obvious.
What’s going to happen? she thought, exhaling hard. What the hell is going to happen now?
SURPRISINGLY, SHE SLEPT.
A dreamless sleep, mostly, until the end, when images assailed her. Her mouth was dry, and that brought memories like shards of a broken mirror from her time in Berlin. A polar bear talked to her. A rat confided. Icarus fell again and again, while his father wept. Her father wept. The painted sky darkened to the tolling of some far away bell that got closer, closer…
“Lunch! Please take your places for the second sitting! Last call! Lunch is served!” The voice from the corridor alternated with a bell being struck.
She sat up fast, swayed woozily. Lunch? Clearly, she’d slept through breakfast.
She checked her watch. Three p.m. Seemed late for lunch. Then she remembered: they put the clocks back every day by two hours, to account for the time difference. It was one of the boasts of the flight—no lag. You adjusted from European to US time as you crossed the Atlantic.
She ran her tongue around her mouth and tasted stale cigarettes and Scotch. They woke her fully. “Jocco,” she murmured, half amazement, half joy. Then she remembered how he was. What he’d been through; what he was doing there; what was to come. Joy faded, replaced by fear. It held her for a moment. Then, “Well,” she told herself aloud, “no point in facing all that on an empty stomach.”
She thought of having a shower—the cubicle was right opposite her cabin. But when she stepped out into the corridor and pressed the door, she found that it was locked. Water ran within. Cursing, she stepped back inside and dressed swiftly, again in her faun slacks and blouse. Her hair was the same mess and she hid it the same way: under a scarf.
The dining room, on the port side of the craft, looked full. However, once she’d given the steward her name, he led her across to a vacant table in the far corner. Her route took her past the family who occupied the one larger cabin and one other cabin on B deck—a middle-aged father and wife, a daughter about sixteen years old, two boys about seven or eight. She smiled, said, “Hi!” but only the youngest of the boys said hi back—and the mother grabbed his arm when he did. They’d been woken by the ruckus in the night, of course. They probably thought she was some kind of trouble. She couldn’t blame them.
There was a bowl of cold green soup before her, a swirl of cream making an apostrophe at its centre. She shuddered. Since she’d just woken, this was breakfast and she’d prefer her usual: black coffee, ham and eggs, cigarette. She knew she wouldn’t get the last till she slipped down to the smoking room later. So she settled for ignoring the soup and reaching for a bread roll. It was fresh, still warm, obviously baked aboard. She wondered if Jocco the assistant chef had a hand in its creation, and decided to believe he did. She split it, and ladled on the churned butter.
She was halfway through a second, when she noticed the steward approaching again with Willie from Washington in tow.
“Excuse, Fräulein. This gentleman is known to you?”
The gentleman peered around the white coat. “I’m so sorry. I was busy. Missed the first sitting.”
“Busy with poetry?”
“Yeah. It’s hell!” He smiled. “Guy says if you take pity on me, I can join you.”
“Pity taken,” she said, and nodded to the steward.
He looked less than pleased at this disruption to his routine. “I bring soup,” he said, then swivelled.
“No, that’s okay, he can have mine. But can you bring me a coffee?”
The man nodded, walked away.
“You sure?” said Willie, sitting. On her nod he reached over and took her plate. “Man, I could eat a horse.”
“But could you drink the pond that it swam in?”
He looked down, made a face. “Well, now that you mention it—”
“Go ahead, I’m sure it’s great.”
“If you insist.”
While he attacked it, breaking up a roll to dip in, she studied him. So, Mr. Umlaut, she wondered, what’s your story? A thought came: maybe he was Jocco’s fanatical accomplice. Willie’s looks were just so clean-cut—though she knew that meant nothing. His Wasp-y face was shiny with sweat. His hair was wet; recently washed, hastily dried.
“Oh, so you were the one hogging the only shower!”
He looked up, spoon halfway to mouth. “Sorry. I’d done some exercise and—”
“Twice around the deck?”
“Hardly, no. Just a few things in my cabin. Push-ups and the like.”
He shovelled up the soup again—and she stiffened. Each knuckle of his right hand was red, raw and scraped. The skin had been recently broken.
He looked up, and noticed her stare. “Oh yeah,” he said, putting down the spoon. “Stupid, huh? Jumping jacks—I banged it on the bunk.” He flexed his hand. “Must have thought I was in the gym back home.” He lowered it. “And by the way, it’s impossible to hog that shower. It’s on a timer. Two minutes and it cuts out. German efficiency, huh?” He put on the accent. “Vun minute for zee soap, one for zee rinsing. Any more: verboten!”
She breathed out slowly. Was she sitting with the guy who’d killed Ferency? Calmly, she said, “I thought you were half German?”
“Yeah, but my American half likes ten-minute showers.”
The steward returned, put her coffee down and glared at Willie for not finishing the soup faster. He scraped a last bit of bread around the sides of the bowl before surrendering it.
“See what I mean? Efficient.”
Back came the steward once more to set down plates. On them was filet of poached salmon, with parslied potatoes and a cucumber salad with dill. “May we have a bottle of Riesling, please?” Willie asked.
The steward nodded, went and returned immediately. Once Willie had sipped, and nodded his approval, the wine was poured and the man left. “To horses and ponds,” said Willie.
Roxy raised her glass, began her usual rejoinder. “Mud—” she began. But the toast froze on her lips. She’d toasted with it only a few hours before. And the memory of who she’d saluted overcame her. This—the dining room, the food, the dark-haired family, floating above the Atlantic, the cold green soup—it was all suddenly as u
She thought of a sentence. It had an umlaut in it. “Übergeben Sie das Salz, bitte,” she said.
Willie reached for the salt cellar, as requested. Then his hand halted halfway there. “Uh, sorry, what did you say?”
Gotcha, she thought. “Salt, please.”
He passed it over, went back to his buttering. She used the salt, then focused back on his face. It had flushed again. He began to talk some more about the glories of the Zeppelin, but she didn’t pay much attention. After a few mouthfuls, she put her fork down and stood. “Cigarette time,” she said.
He stood too. “I don’t smoke, but I could—”
“No, no. You finish your lunch.”
“Okay. But I’ll see you later. On the tour.”
“Sure. They do tours of the interior. You get to go up into the sack itself. Visit the captain in the gondola. See those engines.”
“I’m not sure, I—”
“Oh, come on! You gotta see how this bird stays aloft. Didn’t you say you were a pilot?”
“Sure you did. On the bus to the aerodrome.” He laughed. “Anyway, you gotta see the hydrogen bags. They—”
He was about to launch into more airship wonders. But she’d learned enough already about him. “I’ll see you on the tour, Willie.”
“Promenade deck, 4:00 p.m.”
She moved off. At the entrance to the dining room she looked back. He’d sat again, but he was no longer eating. Just staring ahead. In his right, scraped, hand he was still holding the butter knife.
After ordering a second black coffee from the barman—she’d decided against the Scotch—she passed through the airlock. The smoking room was full because of the post-lunch rush, its fan labouring to disperse the fog. In one corner sat the Luftwaffe Intelli—no, the Gestapo officers, Jocco had told her that. Schreiber rose, and indicated the empty chair before him. She crossed.
Chasing the Wind by C. C. Humphreys / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes