Chasing the wind, p.26
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       Chasing the Wind, p.26

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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Towelling, she stepped out into the corridor and straight into the back of the younger Gestapo officer, Kloff. He was standing with his hand raised in front of her door. “You will come with me, please, Fräulein.”

  She peered up at him. “Why?”

  “The colonel wishes a conversation.”

  “Then give me a second, will ya?” She squeezed past him into her cabin, shut the door and leaned against it for a moment. So, she thought, it begins.

  Schreiber was where she’d left him, behind a table in the officers’ mess. He did not ask her to sit down. Nor did he beat around the bush.

  “Who is this man?” he said, spinning a photograph around.

  She looked at a recent shot of Jocco, with his short hair and his haunted eyes. “No idea. You want to tell me?”

  The colonel didn’t answer, just spun something else around to land beside the portrait. This was a news clipping, and she recognized it straightaway because it was special. From the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 17, 1929, when she’d won her first big race, the St. Patrick’s Day Derby, bringing crates of Guinness from Boston to Philly. Her smile in the photo was ecstatic.

  “So, Miss…Loewen. I am not going to ask you to explain why you are travelling on a false passport. We do not really have time for another one of your stories. We have evidence enough to arrest you now.”

  “Oh yeah? Since when did the Luftwaffe get the power to arrest folk?”

  “We will hold you till we can hand you to authorities. Perhaps in America or—” his eyes glinted “—perhaps we keep you quiet on board and take you back to Germany with us. It is there your offences were committed, after all. And I think our punishments might be more severe. The Americans are a soft nation.”

  “So you got me.” Roxy leaned down, placing her hands on the table. “But I think you’ll find my soft country would take it pretty hard if they found out that you had kidnapped one of their citizens.”

  “We have Americans on board. Not one with the name Madeleine Lille. There will not even be a murmur.” He nodded toward the table. “Now, do not waste my time. Tell me about this man.”

  She didn’t even look at the photo. “Told ya. Never seen him before.”

  Schreiber nodded but not to her. Kloff grabbed her, twisting her arms behind her back. She yelped, swung her heel into his shin. The man grunted, but he didn’t let her go, just pushed her face down till she was nose to nose with the man in the photo.

  “I did not ask you if you know him. I asked you to tell me about him. On the Hindenburg, he is called Helmut Mandt, an assistant chef. You know him as the Communist agitator Jochen Zomack.”

  Roxy squirmed; she couldn’t shift the iron grip. “You know so much, why do you need me?”

  “Because he is missing. And we need you to tell us where he is.”

  “I don’t know. Ow! Jesus, you bastard, my arm.” She struggled but couldn’t move. “How can he be missing? The Hindenburg‘s big but not that big. Search for him.”

  “We would if we did not feel we would alarm the passengers. This is a very special flight. Important men are on board who will, ah, help forge the unity between our two nations.”

  Sydney Munroe, she thought, as Schreiber continued, “So the orders have come from on high that there will be no disruption. This Communist is a disruption.” He leaned till his face was a few inches from hers. “Tell me where he is.”

  She thought of telling him that Jocco was dead, but dismissed the idea when she remembered that she had no body to prove it. She thought of sharing Jocco’s news about a fanatical comrade not right in the head who by now might, or might not, have the timer to a bomb. But the idea of telling this guy anything did not appeal. Besides, tell him any of that and she could be found guilty by association. She didn’t know where this little chase was leading, but incriminating herself further wasn’t going to help.

  So she managed the best smile she could under the circumstances before saying, “Can’t help you, buddy,” and waited for the pain to double.

  It didn’t. Instead another nod saw her released—thrown forward so she only just stopped her face planting on the table. She stood straight, rubbed her wrists, glared at both men.

  “If we were in Germany now, there would be more options for you,” Schreiber said softly. “But here we have only one.” He looked up at his subordinate and snarled, in German, “Take her to her cabin. Lock her in.” He looked at her, smiled sourly. “Oh yes, we know you speak German, Miss Loewen.”

  Kloff reached for her again. She shrugged his hand off. “I’ve got rights, you know. And friends on board.”

  “Like Mr. Munroe? He has been most helpful in identifying you to us and explaining some of his feelings toward you. Or are you referring to Herr Willie Schmidt? We know he desires you. Perhaps he will do so less when he is informed, along with the crew, that you have come down with a nasty touch of Spanish flu.” He nodded. “You will be kept in your cabin till we dock. Maybe afterwards too. We will decide later whether to hand you over to American authorities or return you to Germany with us.”

  “Till we dock? But that’s…that’s not till tomorrow morning. You’re going to keep me in my cabin for twenty-four hours?”

  “No.” He smiled, a sight without humour. “Headwinds over the ocean have delayed the flight. We do not dock now till the late afternoon of the sixth. So we keep you even longer.” He looked at Kloff. “Take her.”

  Ignoring her outrage, Kloff grabbed an arm. A couple of the chefs were standing outside the kitchen and eyed her curiously as they passed. Kloff murmured something about her not being able to hold her drink and they laughed. She thought of making a fuss and complaining, but to whom? The captain? A few words from the Gestapo and she was cooked. Either way. She hadn’t thought of an alternative by the time they reached her cabin door. And then it was too late.

  “I’m hungry,” she called, as the door slammed shut.

  There was no reply. It was back to the gulls’ screams. Except now she realized she wasn’t entirely alone.

  She delved into her pockets, then pulled out her cigarette case and the lighter she’d retrieved from her bag in the hold. She lit up and blew the smoke at the door. She wasn’t worried. She was about as low in the Zeppelin as she could get, and hadn’t the tour guide said that hydrogen rises? There wasn’t going to be any down here. Almost no chance that a cigarette would set it off.

  Her hand paused halfway to her mouth. A cigarette, maybe not. But a bomb?

  TWENTY-FIVE

  THE LAST DAY OF THE HINDENBURG

  SHE HAD NOTHING ELSE TO DO, SO ROXY SLEPT WHEN SHE could. When she was awake, which was most of the time, she sat up in the bed, staring out, thinking, remembering. Coming up with all kinds of plans. Ditching every one.

  In the early evening she saw the familiar coastline of Newfoundland below. She watched the sun sink, and was awake again to watch the light come up. All she could do was consume her cigarettes. The little half window she could open took most of the smoke but not all. Four times the steward, always accompanied by Kloff, came with sandwiches and water. He’d sniff the air and glare. She smiled. What was he going to do? Confine her to her cabin? But she smoked so hard that her stock was swiftly reduced. She began rationing, alternating smokes with a good chew of her nails. Neither helped much.

  Each time they visited, they let her out for the toilet, the Gestapo man and the steward forming a man-made corridor between the cubicle and the room. Yet even if she could slip by them, run, outdistance the pursuit, where would she go? She’d be caught. There had to be a better way to do what she had to do.

  Which is what, Roxy? she wondered, for the hundredth time, as she stared down at the coastline passing below, the one she knew so well from all her training flights. Her options had boiled down to a few, all bad. Over Boston, she’d thought that she should just tell the captain: “Look, there may be a bomb aboard—it may be armed, set by an anarchist buddy of my old lover, whose body is hidden somewhere on the ship.” It
sounded absurd, and anyway, what were they going to do? Set down at the nearest airport? It was one of the great drawbacks of the Zeppelin as opposed to a normal bird: problems with her plane, she could at least try to make a runway or at worst a field. But the Hindenburg needed a specialized place to land, mooring towers, winches. There was one in Frankfurt, one somewhere in Brazil and one at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Where they were headed. If she ran around screaming “A bomb! A bomb!” what were people going to do? Put on parachutes and jump? She doubted they had any. And you couldn’t jump from seven hundred feet anyway—the chute wouldn’t deploy.

  She supposed they could search the ship. But she’d been in that cavernous interior. Plus, looking for a small bomb? How many days would that take? On his last visit, Kloff had curtly informed her that they were now due to dock at 6:00 p.m. But a storm had shadowed them all the way down from Boston. A few miles to the west, towering cumulonimbus clouds shot lightning bolts to the ground and quaked with thunder. The storm was creeping ever closer to the ship.

  She hadn’t reached a decision by 3:00 p.m. But the ship had reached New York, and for a few relieving moments she lost herself looking over the city she loved, the home she had not visited since she’d fled it eight years earlier.

  She didn’t think of herself as sentimental. So Roxy was surprised to find tears in her eyes as the Hindenburg came in over the Hudson and she got her first sight of the most spectacular cityscape in the world. They were so low she could see individual people on the packed sidewalks, almost all of them staring up and waving. She could hear, very faintly, the car horns in the gridlocked traffic, some drivers no doubt saluting, others, especially the cabbies, no doubt yelling “So it’s a Zeppelin. Big deal. Move your ass already!”

  It was easy to trace the avenue arteries down from Central Park, follow Fifth, count the blocks until she could see Fifty-Second Street. It was as choked as any of the roads. There was a streetcar outside what she figured had to be the 21 Club. It was stopped so all could observe the marvel overhead. Not stopped so all could look down and gawk at the horror under the front wheels.

  “Dad,” Roxy whispered, turning away, allowing the tears to fall now. What had begun there that day was somehow ending on this one eight years later. The man who’d caused Richard Loewen’s death was on this airship, about to get the last remainder of the dead man’s legacy. No doubt the sheriffs were standing by to take her into custody, while Munroe’s servants waited to drive his new Mercedes from the airfield, with the Fall of Icarus in its trunk, destined for a secret room in his mansion.

  Of course, an anarchist’s bomb might get them all first. But if it didn’t? She was damned if she’d see Sydney Munroe gloat over a painting that had caused death and a lot of hurt. Or gain the last inheritance she had, to turn one thousand acres of Adirondack forest into a titanium mine whose product would build German bombers that would destroy more lives.

  She wiped her eyes. Fury focused her and cleared her head. With the clarity came certainty. Suddenly, she knew why Jocco had died where he did. Where he had hidden the bomb.

  Right where Icarus fell.

  She went and tried the door. It was still locked, of course, with no give to jerk it free even if she’d had the strength to do that. She bent, studied the lock and fetched her penknife from her clutch. She contemplated inserting it, jiggling it about—she might get lucky. More likely she’d snap the blade. And she had a feeling she’d need that. That and the one bullet in her derringer were the only weapons she possessed.

  She looked away, to the sink, and thought of wrenching it off the wall to see what was behind. But the mounting looked solid and there was no shift when she tugged. Beside that was the small alcove that served as her closet. She pulled the curtain across, removed the single dress that hung there and laid that on the bed. The closet’s back panel had the same fabric covering, creamy off-white, as the rest of the cabin. She reached in and tapped, expecting metal or wood.

  She pressed. Her finger sank in. Another, thicker, layer of insulation? She took her penknife, ran it along the top edge of the alcove. Gripping with both hands, she pulled. It was difficult at first, until the whole fabric backing gave and she peeled it away to reveal…foam.

  The entire wall was made of plastic foam.

  Roxy smiled. Every fixture on the Hindenburg was light. The chairs in the dining room, on the promenade, in the writing room, were all aluminum. So were the tables. She’d heard that on previous flights they’d carried an aluminum piano. But even that had been removed to free up the weight for what the company really wanted: paying customers and their goods.

  She heard faint cheering from below her, more concentrated than had come from the streets. She went to the window, looked down, and recognized the sight instantly. It was Ebbets Field, Brooklyn. Home of the Dodgers. A baseball game was in progress, the Loewens’ favourite team playing one she couldn’t identify. She saw the scoreboard though. The home team was down 3–5. “Come on, Bums,” she whispered, then added, “and come on, Roxy.”

  She put her ear to the door and heard voices, footsteps. During the last food visit, the steward had confirmed the landing time of 6:00 p.m. This last hour, the passengers would be packing still, getting their landing papers sorted. The airship was going to turn around, and be on its way back to Germany by midnight. The crew would be preparing for that, moving up and down the B-deck corridor and the gantry beyond it. She had no intention of cutting her way out of her cabin and falling into the arms of the Gestapo or anyone else. Closer to landing, all crew would be at their stations, all passengers up on the promenade to observe the docking. Kind of like her derringer, she knew she only had one shot. She settled back on her bunk and smoked her second-to-last cigarette as the airship made the turn south, heading for Jersey.

  She recognized Lakehurst when they reached it. She’d flown in there a few times. Now she watched it come and she watched it go. They sailed on over, and began cruising down the Jersey shore, its beaches white in afternoon sun. But beyond them, to the west, the clouds had only gotten denser, drawn nearer. Lightning still flashed in their roiling depths. Thunder growled, and though the Zeppelin was still cruising smoothly, seemingly invulnerable to the weather, she knew that no captain would try to land a plane or moor an airship in such conditions. And yet, there was something about the Germans, their efficiency, their sense of timing. The Hindenburg was already some hours off schedule and had just missed another docking. Six o’clock had changed to seven. If Captain Lehmann needed to head back to the fatherland by midnight, he’d have to dock soon—even if conditions weren’t perfect.

  Roxy had her sense of timing too. When, at quarter to seven, the airship turned north, she suspected this would have to be it. So she slipped into her dress, tucked her loaded derringer into one stocking top and her passports into the other, flicked her last cigarette out into the New Jersey evening and picked up her knife.

  The foam wall gave like butter under her blade. She cut parallel to the alcove wall, an inch from each edge though leaving the bottom, withdrawing the knife whenever she heard people in the corridor. The steward passed twice, each time calling, “Damen und Herren, time to vacate the cabins. Please, the checking for all personal items. Docking in fifteen minutes.” She heard footsteps, some conversations in Spanish as the Mexican family passed and went up the stairs. When all was silent for five minutes, at 7:00 p.m. exactly, she slit the bottom of the alcove and pushed her carving out.

  There was no point in lingering. After throwing her shoes out, grabbing the curtain rod, putting as little weight on it as possible—it was anchored in foam too—she swung her legs up and thrust them through. She teetered, the rod gave, and for one moment she was on her back, her head in the cabin, her legs in the corridor. She managed to dig her hands into the cut foam rim and propel herself forward. Her feet hit the corridor’s far wall, and she arched and slid out, falling to the floor.

  She sat there for a moment, then stood, smoothed her dress down,
put on her shoes and set out along the corridor.

  It was empty, all the crew at their landing stations, front and aft. She passed the bar and smoking room on one side, the kitchen on the other, and edged into the chief steward’s tiny cabin. As she opened the far door, once more the cathedral of the airship’s interior was before her. It was nearly as dark as night; she could hear that they’d entered the clouds, rain hammering on the canvas. All the auxiliary lights were on. Ahead, she could see the crew quarters, beyond them the area of the post office and radio room. She set out, wondering if she’d ever gotten an answer to the telegram she’d sent to the Ninety-Nines.

  He moved quietly for a big guy.

  “Hello, Roxy,” Munroe said, as he rose from the shadows on the offside of his car.

  “Hello, Sydney,” she said, looking not at his face but at the .38 in his hand. “Didn’t they tell you that you shouldn’t play with guns on a Zeppelin? How did you get it aboard?”

  “You can hide a lot of things in a vehicle.”

  “Like a painting?”

  His eyes narrowed. “I wondered if you’d snooped around and found it. Can’t help yourself, can you? That makes it…awkward for me. For you too. Because if you were to tell the authorities about it, after I hand you over to them—”

  “I see your problem.” She tsked. “Whatever are we going to do?”

  “For now, this.” He flicked the barrel. “Get in the car.”

  What was her choice? Start screaming, Munroe could plug her and disappear before anyone came. But even if she somehow got away, there were things here she needed to know. So when he opened the door, she slid onto the back seat.

  Munroe leaned in the window, gun leading. “Of course, you’re the second person I’ve found snooping around my car. Imagine my surprise when I saw who that first one was. That goddamn Commie Zomack.” He chuckled. “Well, I fixed him good.”

  Roxy went cold. He’d just confirmed it. The man who had caused the death of her father had also killed the only man she’d loved since.

 
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