Chasing the wind, p.3
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       Chasing the Wind, p.3

           C. C. Humphreys
 

  TWO

  GUNS, RUM AND A COMMIE CALLED JOCCO

  Seven years later. Somewhere over British Somaliland, Africa. May 1, 1936.

  THERE’S NOTHING LIKE DYING TO MAKE A GIRL APPRECIATE living.

  As she stared down into the pitiless black of the night, seeking, forever seeking, the one pinpoint of light that might yet save her—but it had better hurry up—Roxy Loewen thought about what was waiting for her.

  A straw-roofed hut with a tin bath filled with tepid water on its third use that would feel like a clawfoot tub at the Plaza. Rum so raw it hurt your eyes but when mixed with tamarind juice would taste like a Negroni at the Ritz. Steak from a camel or an ass surpassing the finest filet mignon that Rex’s 110th Street chop house could serve.

  And at the end of all those, a German. Jochen Zomack—Jocco—with his big hands and his big laugh and the hank of brown hair that, when he let it fall over his face just so and in the right light, made him look like Cary Grant. Jocco, down there somewhere, scanning the black skies as she scanned the black ground, ready with his light.

  If her message had gotten through. Communications had been sketchy since the Italians had begun what many were saying would be their final offensive. The gallant, heavily outgunned Ethiopians—guns, hell, a lot of them still fought with spears—would make their last stand against the invader near their capital, Addis Ababa.

  The rumours had decided her. To fly her cargo of rifles west into that war zone was suicide. If the Italians didn’t shoot her out of the sky, there probably wouldn’t be an airfield left to land on. The one where she waited at Malco Dube would also be bombed again. Even if her Lockheed 227—Asteria 6, Roxy called her—wasn’t hit on the ground, there wouldn’t be enough time to fill in the craters on the runway that was already more gopher burrow than the racetrack it once had been. But if she could get her cargo to Jocco, he’d know what to do with it. He’d know where some of his comrades might still be fighting. He had run guns all over this continent. All over the world, truly. Hell, he might even get her paid. Though it wasn’t so much the money she’d been thinking of as she’d taken off from the foothills of the mountains and headed toward a moon just peeking in the east. It was him. Lying with him. There was a time she might have blushed at that thought. But she didn’t blush so much anymore.

  Night fell fast this close to the equator, but the moon was a day off full and that had given her hope. Three hours’ flight and a landing by moonlight? She’d done that before, half a dozen times.

  What she hadn’t reckoned on were the thick cumulus clouds rolling in from the Indian Ocean. She was under them now, halfway between the ceiling and the floor about two hundred feet below her. Flying star quadrants, covering ground above what she hoped was still the airfield at Dubaro. There were no lights. Italian pilots were so bored they would drop a bomb on a fella lighting a cheroot in his cupped hand. The terrain was featureless enough in daylight—arid, scrubby hills or thick jungle, especially this close to the coast. At night there was…nothing.

  As she swung the bird again, dipping the wings each side and scanning the dark, the engine gave a cough, picked up, then coughed again. A small block in the intake valve, she prayed. That would, with luck, clear itself. The alternative? She truly had no clue how much gas was in the tanks. The gauge was busted, and though she’d woken from a snatched hour’s sleep to be told they’d given her the last of what they had, she hadn’t been able to confirm exactly how much that was before she made the decision to go.

  It coughed yet again and she pushed the stick forward, dropped lower. If she ran out of juice, she would have to glide. Then it would be a choice between which piece of blackness looked most appealing. Trees would finish her. Scrub could break her undercarriage, flip her and hurl her through the windshield. She really wished she’d insisted they fixed her lap straps the last time a mechanic checked the bird over.

  Waggling her wings, looking either side for even the flare of a match, she then glanced at the leather saddlebag at her feet. It didn’t hold much. Compact and lipstick. A mickey of rum. Her Luger pistol. Three vials of morphine. One was for pain if she was hurt and had to wait for a rescue. Three were for when hope ran out. Between them and the Luger she was pretty much set.

  The engine coughed anew—then kept coughing like a patient in a TB ward. Not long now.

  She dipped her right wing…and saw them! Pulses of light.

  Short. Long. Long. Long.

  They came a second time. Short. Long. Long. Long. J.

  J for Jocco.

  She pressed hard on the rudder bar, swung the stick and the plane left. Too sharp! She slid outward on her seat, skidding, then corrected, but only just. If she had gas, she’d correct harder, shove the stick all the way forward, lighten up on the rudder, pass over and come in again. But since that cough was close to a death rattle now, she didn’t have any choice. Her only prayer was that Jocco had more than a flashlight to guide her in.

  He had better—he had fire. Hidden from flying eyes until now, exposed in sudden revelation. It was a view that got even clearer as the engine gave one last, great groan and cut out. It meant that she could hear the wind—and a knocking she realized could only be her heart.

  She opened the cockpit window. She needed to hear that wind clearly. At night, with no moon, she couldn’t use the horizon to judge her angle of descent. She could only use her ears. The hum from the bracing wires was high. Too high. Meant she was coming in too steep. She eased the stick back, brought the nose up a touch. The hum lowered and she held it on that note, like Caruso holding a high C at Carnegie Hall.

  The fire, maybe a quarter mile ahead now, spread. Men were running different ways, holding torches. The last ones stopped. So soon? Flame demarcated the quadrangle of an airstrip, as short and narrow as any she’d seen. It had to be new, cut out of the scrub. That meant rough ground, divots and potholes, a horror of a landing by day, when you could see something. At night?

  “Hail Mary,” Roxy breathed, pressing the rudder to bring herself in line, pushing the stick forward. She wasn’t thinking religion, though, but football. This was her last play. “Don’t stretch the glide,” she coached herself. “Don’t flatten out too soon.”

  The first torches were coming close, fast. Caruso went off key as she put the bird into a sharper descent, pulling the stick back to level as she glimpsed an acacia tree, her front wheel clipping its top, its apex tickling the fuselage beneath her feet as she passed.

  The first torches were to her left and right. The last was ahead, so near. She was coming in too fast. She’d take the wings off in the trees beyond the final flames. And one thing she knew—if she survived this, she’d need her wings.

  It always surprised her how much time there was when there was no time at all.

  Slow down! She kicked the rudder, now left, now right, fishtailing the Lockheed. Caruso sang higher. She pulled the stick to her a touch, levelled, and the note dropped again.

  It was all or nothing now. Too slow and she’d flip. Too fast and she’d be picking leaves out of her teeth.

  The bird slipped near sideways between the flames. Roxy couldn’t see the ground over her engine. She could only sense it. Straightening up, she put the silent plane down onto earth that—Hail be to Mary!—was only a few inches beneath her wheels.

  Her exhilaration lasted until the moment the left wheel hit a hole. The plane swerved sharply and thrust its nose into the hard, hard earth.

  She’d been prepared to brace, since a rough landing wasn’t entirely unexpected on a strip carved hastily from jungle. She took the jolt with one hand on the dash. But she still flew from her seat, the flight ended by her forehead hitting the windshield, her body folded by gravity into the frame. “Ouch,” she said. She didn’t black out, but she found it hard to move, near upside down as she was. Through the glass she saw a single flaring torch jiggling toward her. Every other one was already out. Not a moment too soon, she thought, trying to push herself upright. Bec
ause from somewhere not far off she could hear another plane engine. Though she was sure it was only her fancy that made its high-pitched whine Italian.

  “Roxy?”

  The voice, his, Jocco’s, right next to her through the glass.

  “Roxy? You okay?”

  “Never better,” she replied, and pushed herself out of the windshield. Jocco opened the canopy, plucked her out with one arm, set her on her feet, then thrust the torch into the ground, extinguishing it. In the sudden darkness she wobbled, and fell into him. “Well,” she breathed, “that might be a slight exaggeration.”

  He picked her up again and she thought that was just fine. She liked his smell—Douwe Egberts tobacco, some hair tonic that always failed to control his mop. As he took a step away, though, she said, “Bag!” and, one-handed, he reached up and grabbed it.

  It glugged. “Rum?” Jocco asked.

  “Thought my baby might be thirsty. I’ll trade you for a cigarette and a bath.”

  “I’ll roll you one. The other?” He shrugged.

  He strode to the clearing edge. She peered over his shoulder, and could still see the dark outline of her bird, its nose in the dirt. “You got someone here who can fix that? Wherever the hell ‘here’ is?”

  “Yeah. Damn Eyeties destroyed the aerodrome. So all the boys are here. We carved this out today. Just in case you came.”

  “Kind of you.”

  They reached the tree line. Men were there, and Jocco spoke to them in rapid Swahili. She caught a little. Get the plane beneath the trees. Fix it. Then he looked down at her.

  “You wanna walk?”

  “How far?”

  “Not far.”

  “Then I’m fine here.” She nuzzled in as he set off. “And did you say something about a bath, and a cigarette, and a steak, and a drink?”

  “You brought the drink. I’ve been saving a steak just for you, though it may be a day past its best. As for a bath…” He pushed through a stand of trees and she heard it before she saw it. “Will this do?”

  He swivelled and she saw the beach. The moon poked through the clouds just enough to light the foam on the waves sweeping in. “Yeah,” she said, as he set her down. “This’ll do just fine.”

  * * *

  She woke near dawn to the sound of waves and the taste of salt. Her sweat, his, the ocean they’d swum in—the only bath she was going to get.

  He was sitting naked on the end of the camp bed, framed against the entrance of the tent. He’d thrown open the mosquito netting and was smoking one of his roll-up cigarettes, holding it in that way of his, his chin resting on his hand, his elbow on his knees, so the smoke would curl up into a trail and he could look at the world through narrowed, Meissen-blue eyes. She studied his back, her eyes going where her fingers had in the dark, tracing the raised lines of his scars, one map of his life. She’d wondered at it the first time they’d made love: how a twenty-six-year-old floppy-haired German had gotten himself into so much trouble. He’d laughed the scars off. “Skiing,” he’d said. “I fell in a race.” An angry cat. But something would flash through his eyes as he told the lies, something haunted, so she knew different; but she didn’t probe. After all, were he to answer all her questions truthfully, she just might have to answer his.

  “Roll me one.”

  He turned. “Good morning, Fräulein. Did you sleep well?” He was always formal first thing. He was “an inquiry after your health” kind of guy. A “hold your chair” guy. For all that he was a goddamn godless Commie, he’d gone to the best schools that big money could buy. “Breakfast first? There’s mangosteen. I saved a custard apple.”

  “Tobacco,” she growled. “Now.”

  He nipped the stub of the cigarette and put it in the tin with the dozen others—a last smoke if all else failed. He slipped in beside her on the narrow metal-frame bed, reached for his fixings and worked his effortless magic. Lit the result and held it between her lips so she didn’t even have to move, just take a deep, life-sustaining drag. “Ah!” She breathed smoke out on her sigh. The day had begun and she was ready to think.

  And remember. “How’s my bird?”

  She knew he’d left her after they’d made love. He was also one of those guys: get up straightaway and check that all was well. Primal, she’d teased him once. As if the moment right after lovemaking was when a man was at his most vulnerable, with beasts about, waiting for the opportunity to attack. In Africa, maybe not too far-fetched an idea.

  “Prop is bent. The boys have been hammering it out for the last two hours—they just finished. I’m surprised they didn’t wake you.”

  “I’ve barely slept in a week. I could sleep through a ground assault.” She took the cigarette from his mouth, inhaled deeply. “Engine good? It cut out as I was flying in.”

  “I heard.” He shook his head. “Engine works fine. But you have to remember to put gas in it.” He looked down at her. “You only just made it, kid.”

  “Kid!” She snorted. He was just the one year older. He only called her “kid” because he was near a foot taller. “You got any?”

  “In my bird. Half a tank. I’ll give you half of that.”

  “Obliged. Where we going?”

  “I’m going to Addis.”

  “What? We can still get in?” She sat up and put her bare back to the earth wall. “Then I’m coming too. Got three hundred rifles in the hold.”

  “Three hundred?” He whistled. “No wonder you looked so heavy. I thought it was just your flying.” When she punched his arm, he laughed, and took the cigarette. “But it’s too late for your guns. War’s over.”

  “Hell it is!”

  “Over.” His eyes narrowed as he inhaled. “Fascism has triumphed. The Italians have won. Emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile tomorrow.”

  “And how do you know this?”

  “Krueger. Came through yesterday, just before the Italians bombed the ’drome. Everyone left. Aside from you and me.”

  “Well, shit.”

  “I know—you won’t get paid.”

  He said it as a statement, not a challenge. They’d had that fight too many times. When they first met, in that bar in Alexandria where mercenary flyers were gathering like kites over a new corpse called Abyssinia. Some, like Jocco, were going down for a cause. Most, like Roxy, were headed for the money. Big money, commensurate to the risk, flying guns to the overmatched Ethiopians.

  “The first stand against the Fascists,” he’d called it.

  “Causes are for suckers,” she’d mocked.

  “Dollars are for exploiters,” he’d replied.

  The argument had continued whenever they met—Addis Ababa, Khartoum, Djibouti. She’d slapped him in Nairobi. He’d kissed the slapping hand. They’d slept together for the first time that night.

  And was last night their last? she suddenly wondered. Wasn’t it always meant to be just a fling? It was a law of the skies, nearly as important as gravity: You don’t fall in love with flyers. You could only be in love with flight.

  This war was over, he’d said. They would all be going their separate ways. Getting their birds to safety first. Figuring out where the next score or the next cause was after that.

  Separate ways. In the past, she’d felt relief when such a thing ended. Yet was that what she’d feel—in Nairobi, in Alexandria—when the saloon door opened and Jocco Zomack didn’t walk in?

  “Hey, make a bit of room, will ya?”

  He raised his arm to enfold her. There, pressed into his big chest, with the scent of tobacco, the ocean, the jungle and him all blended, she thought: I don’t want this to end. Not yet. But how do I say that without sounding like a sap?

  She peeled the cigarette from his lips, dodging her own thoughts in smoke and questions. “So why Addis if it’s all over? Italians aren’t going to treat any of us too well if they catch us. They won’t make much distinction between Commies like you and mercenaries like me. Except me, they’ll just shoot. You, they’ll torture then shoot.


  He shifted and she cut herself off. Damn, it was too early in the day and her tongue was loose. So she’d forgotten for a moment that this was his weakness; his sadness too. His best friend, a German flyer named Reinhardt, had been captured by the Italians and tortured to death. All because Jocco had refused to kill his wounded comrade when he’d had to flee or also be taken. It was a story he’d told her once when they were very drunk. It was the only time she’d seen him cry. He’d begged her that if it ever came to it, she wouldn’t make the same mistake. “Put me out of my misery,” he’d said, like he was some kind of mad dog.

  Now he grunted. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed. “I’ll go to Addis, but I won’t stay. Benedetti and MacBride are waiting at the one ’drome that still has a runway, according to Krueger. I’ll collect them, then head for Egypt.”

  So there it was. He wasn’t thinking about her. He was going to get his Red buddies. Cause had triumphed over…whatever it was he felt for her.

  And then Jocco swung off the bed to kneel and take her hand. There was a look in his eyes. Jesus, she thought, he’s not going to propose, is he?

  “Roxy,” he said gently.

  She inhaled deep, and carefully stubbed out the cigarette in the tin. “Jocco?”

  “Do you know what day it is?”

  “Monday.”

  “The date.”

  “Uh, April…no, May. May 1.”

  “Exactly. May Day. International Workers’ Day.”

  “Oh, come on!” She laughed, at least partly out of relief. He was prone to giving her lectures on various aspects of the world revolution. Kept making the mistake that she might learn to give a damn. Though usually there were at least a few rums as provocation.

 
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