Chasing the wind, p.27
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       Chasing the Wind, p.27

           C. C. Humphreys
 
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  Munroe kept talking. “One punch was all it took.”

  Roxy shook her head hard, found words. “You killed Jocco with one punch?”

  “Killed? Don’t be ridiculous. I knocked him over the door and into the back seat. Busted his jaw, though, I bet.” He laughed, waved his big hands. “Princeton, Golden Gloves, Class of ’99.”

  “You killed him, Munroe. I found him—”

  “I didn’t. But I had to leave him here. Damn crew came along. When I returned, he was gone.”

  “I don’t believe you. Because if he’s not dead, then where the hell is he?”

  Another voice came, accompanying the Luger barrel that slid in behind Munroe’s ear. “I am here, Roxy,” Jocco said.

  “Jocco,” she cried. “I thought you were…I was sure—”

  “I know. It is always so with you, isn’t it, my love? Whenever you see death. Or think you do.”

  The shock of it. The joy of it. She pushed herself up from the seat.

  “Do not move!” he shouted. “And you—” he jerked Munroe by his collar “—into the car. Fast!”

  He screamed the last word, stripping Munroe of his pistol, opening the back door, shoving him in. Munroe fell on her, crushing, forcing out her air. She gasped, and tried to push him off, with no chance of success. Then Jocco yanked Munroe to the side. He fell off her, into one corner.

  Jocco opened the door and slid into the front seat, dropping Munroe’s pistol onto the floor. “Baby,” she said, and tried to move toward him again. But the Luger now swung to her.

  “No, Roxy,” he said, rubbing at a huge blue swelling on his jaw. “You have to stay there. Because I fear you may try to stop what I must do. You, who are always for the little people.” His voice was slurred, as if he’d had too many whiskies.

  “Stop you doing what?” she asked.

  Except she knew. Jocco merely confirmed it with a smile. It wasn’t his normal one, that rare gift she’d get from him sometimes. This one wasn’t for her anyway. This smile was aimed up into the Hindenburg’s immense interior and she knew exactly what it meant.

  She swallowed. She had to keep him talking while she figured a way out. She thought of one thing, one desperate thing, and began to execute it, shifting back against the seat. “Where’s your friend?” she asked softly. “Has he got the bomb?”

  “There is no friend. Or perhaps I am my friend also. That cold, efficient man you said I used to be?” A faint smile came. “Perhaps that is me still, inside.”

  “No comrade on board?”

  He shook his head.

  “Then who killed Ferency?”

  “I did!” He jerked the barrel of his Luger at himself. “I did. For his betrayal of us. For what he tried to do to you. For what he helped them do to me in…in that cell.” His eyes fluttered half closed and she shifted again. They opened, and he looked up. “Listen!” He tipped his head to the roof.

  For a moment, all she heard was the rain on the airship’s shell, and the faint hum of the engines. Then those all but vanished, leaving just the rain.

  “They have dropped the engines to idling,” he continued. “This means they are in position over the mooring mast. Soon the yaw lines will be dropped, fore and aft. The vessel will be winched down, drawn into the hangar. Unless—” He shook his head. “It is my time.”

  Roxy was staring at the Luger’s mouth, aimed straight at her. She took a deep breath. “For what?”

  “The destruction of the Hindenburg, while it is still in the air.” His voice got stronger. “Think! All the newspapermen down there, the radio guys, the film cameras. What a great show it will make as the swastikas dissolve into flame! What a blow against Fascism everywhere!”

  Roxy looked into Jocco’s eyes as he spoke. They reflected the lamp hanging directly above the car, but that wasn’t what caused the fierceness of the glow. It was his fervour. And she saw, just as she had in his smile, that he was not with her anymore. He was in a place she couldn’t reach—where the martyrs lived. Still, she had to try, for all they’d been to each other, for all she still felt. Before she made her one move.

  “Jocco,” she said quietly, “you’ll die as well.”

  He shrugged. “I do not matter. I think…I think that I am maybe half dead already. That only half of me came out of their prison.”

  “But all the others? The women and children?”

  He swallowed. “It is unfortunate. Yet some may live. I will wait till we are as close as we can be to the ground. The ship will fall fast. Some may live,” he said again. “Besides, innocents must suffer sometimes. For the greater cause. Those who died last week in Guernica were innocent, yet the Fascists claimed them as the enemy. I will claim all these rich pigs as mine.” His eyes, which had hardened as he spoke, now softened again as they moved onto her. “But you may live, Roxy. Go low in the ship. Jump when you can.”

  “And where will you be?”

  He smiled. “With my other baby. With my bomb.” He raised another hand. Something was now in it. “This is the ignition cap. When this scum hit me—” he moved the barrel to Munroe, who was sweating heavily beside her “—it must have fallen out of my pocket. I searched everywhere, until I realized it could only be in the car.”

  Munroe was staring almost cross-eyed at the muzzle pointed at him. “Listen,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Take the painting. Sell it for a fortune. If that’s not enough I’ll—” He coughed. “I’ll give you anything. Just don’t—”

  “Always with the money, Herr Munroe.” Jocco’s mouth tightened. “Don’t you understand that for some people, money is not enough? Roxy knows this. I do.” He raised the Luger again, till it was in line with Munroe’s eyes. “You will.”

  “Stop!” Roxy yelled. “What are you doing?”

  He gave a grim smile. “This capitalist pig—my enemy, your enemy, Roxy. The man who killed your father.”

  His knuckles whitened. “No!” She shouted it again, then continued softly, “Don’t do this. You’re not well right now. Let’s get off this bird together. Take Munroe’s money. Buy two planes. Go to Spain. Fight more of your enemies. There’ll be a beach, a hut. You can roll me your cigarettes.” She leaned forward. “Baby, I’ll get you help.”

  “Help?” That same half smile came. “There is no help for me now. There is only sacrifice. Mine. His.” He turned again. His eyes, which had burned before, were ice now. “Herr Munroe? This is the workers’ punishment for all your crimes.”

  “Please!” Munroe’s voice broke as he squirmed. “Please don’t. Don’t!”

  “Goodbye,” Jocco said.

  A blast. There was a moment when Jocco’s brow crinkled, a puzzled look coming into his eyes as the Luger slipped from his hand. When they rose, they fixed on only one person. “Roxy?” he whispered, then fell backward onto the steering wheel.

  The horn sounded, shockingly loud in the silence of that vast space. The stench of cordite rose around them. She lowered the derringer’s smoking mouth to the floor. She stared at him, knowing he was dead. And yet, for the first time in her life, she didn’t blank out when she realized it. “So long, my love,” she whispered. “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

  Munroe was gasping next to her. “My God! My God! You shot him. We’re safe. Safe!” he cried.

  They were—for the five seconds before the Hindenburg exploded.

  Roxy saw it begin. She’d looked away from Jocco, back and up to the roof. A flash there caught her eye—one of the huge gas bags near the fin simply dissolved. Flames dropped, rather than climbed. Then some kind of further combustion occurred; the fire doubled, quadrupled and burst out of the roof. Balloons on either side caught, ignited, exploded. The ship began to sink at its stern and a giant blowtorch of fire shot past the car, singeing them as it soared for the cone.

  “Jesus!” Munroe cried, trying to stand. But the car lurched, the sudden gravity behind it snapping ties that were only meant to hold it level. Then they were shooting backward, held by the forc
e against the seat. The car smashed into something—the stairwell, Roxy thought.

  She tried to get up, but a heavy hand shoved her down as Munroe forced himself up and out the car door, and staggered off into the smoke. She stood to follow—as the Zeppelin hit the ground, rose, then fell to the ground again. She swayed, somehow kept her balance. When the ship settled the second time, she took a huge breath and plunged into the smoke where Munroe had vanished.

  She couldn’t see it, but she could feel the hard edge of the steward’s door. The corridor beyond was filled with smoke, and she lurched down it and down the next one, fast, debris falling all around her. Beyond the cabins was a gangway. The door was locked, but as she reached it, all its surrounds dissolved in flames. She saw the ground about ten feet below, readied herself for the jump.

  “Help me!”

  The voice was right behind her. She turned.

  Sydney Munroe was pinned under a twist of fallen girder. He had one hand free, stretched toward her. “Help me,” he cried again.

  She was almost out of air. Still she reached, and a huge hand clamped over her wrist.

  “Save me!” he commanded.

  His eyes were still piggy, still cold. She looked into them and saw nothing there. Nothing she cared about, anyway.

  “Save yourself,” she said.

  Wrenching herself clear, she turned and fell from the airship.

  There were so many screams now she couldn’t tell if one of them was his.

  She landed badly, an ankle twisting. But there was no staying where she was, not with hot metal and burning fabric showering down. She got up, hopped, cried out, hopped more. When she was clear of the worst of the flaming debris, she turned back, sobbing.

  The Hindenburg was already a blackened shell. Flames still ravaged its length. All the skin was gone, and most of the skeleton. The cone was the only thing with any shape to it.

  She couldn’t understand how she’d survived. How anyone had. But there were people staggering or crawling away from it, men and women still emerging from the smoke, backlit by fire. Others, some in uniform, were rushing past her to help the passengers.

  She looked down at her hands. They were pretty badly burned. At the hangar, she saw people gathering. There would be emergency aid there, doctors. There would also be the law. Once she was tended there would be questions. None of which she cared to answer.

  She swivelled left and saw the aerodrome she knew, before it had been equipped to receive Zeppelins. She started to limp toward the hangars.

  She’d gone twenty paces, when she had to step around something in her path. Something that smoked. It was a corpse, burned almost beyond recognition. Not quite, though. She saw the bones of a hand. Some charred clothing. A woman’s shoe. She was two paces past when she stopped and turned back. She reached under her dress, filled with holes now, burned beyond use—and pulled out one of the items under her left stocking. Then, bending, she shoved Roxanne Loewen’s singed but intact passport into the centre of the body.

  She had to stop a few times before she got to the other hangars. People were about, pilots and crew all staring, horror on their faces. She studied them for a moment and recognized one. “Louise?” she asked.

  The aviatrix turned, started, and ran to her—just in time to catch her.

  “Roxy?” Louise Thaden said, laying her gently down. “You’re alive!”

  “Just.”

  “Kid, I’ll get you to a doc.” She began to rise, looking to the hangars.

  Roxy grabbed her arm. “No, Lou, please. Get me out of here. Get me out of here fast.”

  They were the last words she spoke, before she surrendered to the smoky dark.

  TWENTY-SIX

  IN THE HILLS

  Blood Hill, near Newcomb, New York. July 5, 1937.

  IT WAS PLEASANT AMONG THE TREES, ESPECIALLY IN THE birch grove by the stream. The cabin had been built close to seventy years before by miners who wanted to get through tough winters. When the sun beat down, it got hot inside fast, and after her two experiences of extreme heat in the previous twelve months Roxy found that she preferred it cool. For the first two weeks, she’d spent a lot of time with her burned feet and her burned hands in the water, sometimes following the stream down a ways to the small pool it made deeper in the woods, to immerse herself. Lately, though, since her skin had healed and her ankle was mended, she’d noticed that, conversely, she liked to move even less. Just lie in the clearing, watch the leaves dance against the bluest of skies, listen for the voices in the water as it gurgled through the banks. Sometimes she brought a book; her dad had left a lot of old ones in the cabin—Tom Sawyer, some Dickens, some O. Henry. But her concentration wasn’t great. She’d found that though her body had healed fast enough, her soul was not so swift.

  Jocco. She thought about him a lot during the day, and dreamed of him each night. Sometimes the dreams were lovely: cool memories of hot nights, making love where they had and in places they’d never been. Mostly, though, it was the later Jocco who came, the one with the Gestapo prison and its memories in his eyes; the fanatic who only had his cause left, and his hatred. And then she’d wake and remember the story he’d told her in Africa. About his friend Reinhardt, who he couldn’t shoot when he’d had to leave him behind. Who the Italians had then tortured before they killed him. It wasn’t the same, her killing of Jocco. Yet, in a way it was. She couldn’t leave him behind. She had to stop him, and he’d been tortured enough.

  In other dreams, she blamed him; confused the disaster with his actions, what he’d wanted to do. For a while she’d believed it was his fault, that the bomb had gone off even without his ignition cap. Then she’d made her first trip into Newcomb for supplies and, in a diner, found a pair of week-old newspapers. One was the Washington Post and had the headline “Preliminary Investigation on Disaster Only Reveals Doubt.”

  Back at the cabin, she’d read the article obsessively. Sabotage was ruled completely out; the randomness of storms was in. Soon she knew the stats by heart, along with the names of all the living and the dead. Of the sixty-one crewmen, twenty-two had died. Of the thirty-six passengers, thirteen had perished. People thought it a miracle of sorts, considering the speed and intensity of the conflagration. She wondered if the dead thought it a miracle, in whatever afterlife they dwelled. The Gestapo officers, Schreiber and Kloff. The Mexican father and his daughter. Captain Lehmann, going down with his ship. Of the others, most she hadn’t known. She was pretty certain of one thing, though: that Sydney Aloysius Munroe, in whichever Circle of Hell he resided, was not grateful for the miracle of the survivors.

  There was one other name she recognized. It was on one of the lists—but it really leaped at her from the front page of the second paper she’d found, a sensationalist rag called the New York Bugle. Under the headline “How I Survived Hindenburg Hell!” was the byline “Willie Schmidt—Ace Undercover Reporter.” Willie, with his fluent German, was on board to investigate Nazis and their American pals, especially the millionaire Sydney Munroe. “I saved half a dozen dames myself!” he wrote, and described in detail his heroic actions during the disaster.

  But he lamented one he couldn’t save:

  I used to cover the flying races. So I spotted her in Frankfurt straightaway despite her disguise—Roxy Loewen, who’d fled America back in ’29. I was making nice, getting close, and was going to find out what her story was. Until the bigger story took over. A shame she died, though. She was one good-looking broad.

  There was a photo of her beside her plane Asteria 1, at some airfield. Smiling away. She didn’t recognize herself.

  So it’s official, she thought, laying the paper down again after a third read. I’m dead. Has to be true if the Bugle says so. And how do I feel about that?

  Confused, she had to admit. Pretty damn confused.

  It was unusual being dead but not. She wasn’t quite sure how she was going to handle it. And she was going to have to, sooner rather than later. Louise Thaden had taken a
collection of the other Ninety-Nines. The gals had been generous. Forty bucks was a princely sum, but it wasn’t going to last forever. Not with cigarettes now twenty cents a pack, and whisky nearing two bucks a quart. She supposed she could economize, and delay the inevitable. But after her year, and figuring all the ways she could have died during it, she’d concluded that life was way too tenuous to smoke cheap cigarettes and drink bad Scotch.

  Which left her with two choices: the resurrection of Roxy Loewen…or her real demise. Neither appealed. Though she wasn’t ruling either of them out just yet.

  She stubbed out her smoke and put the butt into the pack. She had just one pack left. Sighing, she rose and headed up the deer trail toward the cabin to fetch it.

  She was halfway there, when she heard the motor—a car coming up the rough dirt track from the road. She’d thought that eventually someone would spot her cooking-fire smoke, come to check on the “abandoned” cabin. Sheriff, probably. She didn’t see any point in hiding. So she sat down on the front stoop to wait.

  It was no police cruiser, though, that rounded the bend and pulled up but a friend in her sleek Packard Coupe. “Louise,” said Roxy, standing. “I hope you brought some cigarettes.”

  Louise Thaden got out. “Good to see you too, Roxy. I did.” She hefted a carton of Camels. “And this—” She shook a bottle of Johnnie Walker. Then her smile faded. “I also brought something else.” She lifted a copy of the New York Times from the seat beside her. “Yesterday’s,” she said. “But I stopped in a hotel on the way up for some food and heard an update on the radio.”

  “Update on what?”

  “You haven’t heard?”

  “Heard what? Jeez, Louise, tell me, will ya?”

  Her friend didn’t reply, just took a step nearer and held up the front page. Its headline read: “Amelia Earhart Still Missing: Rescue Planes and Boats Seek Shelter from Storm as Hopes Fade.”

  Roxy swallowed. “You better come in,” she said.

  Roxy had known some of it. Louise had filled her in on her one previous visit to the cabin. Roxy had thought of asking for another map, pinning down some blue thread. But she found she could picture it all pretty well in her head. The most recent news that Roxy had heard, on Louise’s last drop-in at the end of June, was that Amelia had made it as far as Singapore.

 
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