Chasing the wind, p.4
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       Chasing the Wind, p.4

           C. C. Humphreys
 

  “No, listen.” He squeezed her hand. “The fight here is over. Mussolini has triumphed. The world looked away and waved him on. It will only make him and every other fascista bolder. They will already be seeking the next triumph elsewhere. Then the next. Until everywhere is painted black.”

  “I get it.” She swallowed. She had seen the dead children stacked like firewood because Italian pilots needed some bombing practice; the old men and women with their skins peeling off because of the mustard-gas canisters dropped on their villages. “I know what they do. I just don’t see what I can do about it. On May Day or any other day.”

  “There is something you can do. And get well paid for it too.” He smiled. “Though I know you care more than you admit. That Italian general? He offered you double what you could make here to be his personal pilot.”

  “Since he made the offer with his hand on my ass, I chose to decline.”

  “And those three kids you flew out of Malco Dube?”

  “They were badly burned. They needed a doctor fast.”

  “You had to dump three boxes of expensive ammo to make room for them.”

  “I figured I’d pick ’em up on the next trip.”

  “Did you?”

  “No, but—”

  “Roxy…”

  “Ah, shuddup,” she said, “and go back to what I could do. Especially the ‘well-paid’ part.”

  “Okay.” Jocco reached for his tin, took out a paper, began slowly to roll another cigarette. “The next fight has already begun, even as this one ends. In Spain. The country is falling into revolution.”

  “Uh-huh. Sounds like a place to avoid. Unless—”

  “Unless you can take something in to sell for a high price. Then take something out the next day that will pay you even more.”

  “I’m listening. What would I take in?”

  “The three hundred rifles in your hold.”

  “What? Two thousand miles with that hold searched at every touchdown?”

  “There are ways. You know there are ways. Night landings. The right officials bribed.” He grinned, then ran his tongue along the paper’s sticky edge. “Roxy, it’s what you have been doing for the last two years.”

  “Good point. You got someone waiting to buy at the other end?”

  “I do.”

  “Well, hell, I’ll consider it.” She eyed his handicraft hungrily. But this time he was fashioning a masterpiece. He was even ripping cardboard for a filter. She hated when he did that. “So now tell me about the ‘even better paid’ part.”

  “Right.” He considered the end of the paper tube. “You know my father.”

  “You ever going to light that thing?”

  “He’s an art dealer. In Cologne.”

  “You told me. You hate him.”

  “I do not hate him. I hate his part in the system. His hoarding of money. He is a quiet man. What is it you say in English?” He frowned. “Ungentle? No. He does not show much affection. But I know he loves me, though I have caused him some pains.”

  “I bet.”

  “I got a letter from him. Krueger brought it from Addis. It was written last week.”

  “Really? That got here fast.”

  “German efficiency.” He smiled briefly. “My father has found something in Madrid. Something very special. Lost for centuries.” He slipped the cardboard in, crimped the other end. “Do you know art?”

  “Some. My dad collected a little.” It was an understatement. Before the Great Crash, Richard Loewen had had one of the finest private collections of post-impressionists in the United States.

  “Do you know Bruegel?”

  “Dutch guy?”

  “Yes. Sixteenth century.”

  “You are going to light that now, right?”

  He ignored her plea. “He painted the Fall of Icarus.”

  “I saw it, in Brussels.” She considered. “Legs disappear into the sea, while everyone looks the other way.”

  “That is it. Except, the one in Brussels is a copy. No, that is not quite right. But it is not the original.” He reached for the matchbox, shook it as if accompanying a band. “Because Bruegel worked in the period when artists were changing from painting on wood panels with oils to painting on canvas with tempera. The first Fall was painted on wood. Then it was lost.”

  “Until your father found it. In Madrid.”

  “He thinks so, yes.” Jocco slid the box open, pulled a match out. “In his letter he tells some of what I already knew: that Madrid and Spain are slipping toward chaos. He would like the panel flown out of the chaos. And the only one he trusts to do this is me.”

  “And what’s in it for you?”

  “He has promised me a share—a 10 percent share—in the sale. To put to whatever cause I want.”

  “Ten percent of—”

  He shrugged. “Maybe one hundred thousand.”

  “Deutschmarks?”

  “Dollars.”

  “Hosanna. And you are offering me?”

  “Half. Half, if you get it to Berlin.”

  “Why Berlin?”

  “He has a buyer already lined up.”

  “Five Gs, eh?” She whistled. That was the down payment on a new bird right there. There’d been talk of a second London-to-Melbourne race. Win that and she’d quadruple her five grand. But there was a catch here. “Why not fly it yourself and keep all the dough?”

  “I am, uh, known to authorities in Spain. I was involved in the miners’ strike in Asturias in ’34. I would never get it out openly. But I will come, after you. I will help.”

  “To Madrid?”

  “To Berlin.”

  She studied him. His chest. Those blue eyes in his tanned face. The white laugh lines. For a Commie bent on the serious business of world revolution he sure laughed a lot. She realized she hadn’t looked forward to seeing the last of all that. Now she might not need to.

  “I will write again to my father. Tell him to have a banker’s draft to pay for Icarus waiting for you in Madrid,” Jocco continued. “Also for an art expert to meet you there. Together you will go and see the bishop of Valladolid. He has the painting. The expert verifies…no, ah, authenticates—is this the word? You pay, fly the goods out. I meet you in Berlin, we collect our reward.” He smiled. “Simple, yes?”

  It was anything but. Yet she’d done things as tricky in the last few years. And the money was good. Really good.

  Roxy looked down at his hands. “Put that down, will ya?”

  “I thought you wanted to smoke it.”

  “Later,” she replied, taking the cigarette, dropping it to the floor. “First you got to tell me a story.”

  “What story?”

  “How did you get that scar?”

  “Which one?”

  “This one,” she said, and ran her tongue along it.

  * * *

  She put a foot on the plane step and one hand on the door frame. She never liked goodbyes. They’d said everything—done everything—in the hut one hour before.

  Or so she thought. “Roxy,” Jocco said, putting one hand on top of hers, halting her ascent.

  “Jocco?”

  “A present.”

  He held out three cigarettes. She could see they were his fancy ones, filters and all. He must have rolled them when she went to the ocean for a rinse.

  “It is the last of my tobacco.”

  “My, ain’t you gallant.”

  She knew he’d be okay. There were all the ends in that tin, saved for such desperate times. And he’d be flying into Addis that night.

  She tucked the cigarettes into the top pocket of her jacket, next to the three hundred dollars in mixed bills he’d given her for bribes and gas along the way. He’d be okay there too. For an avowed member of the proletariat, Jocco was never short of ready cash.

  He gestured to the money as she buttoned up the pocket. “You sure it will be enough?”

  “A gal could always use more. You have more?”

  “Not
till Addis.”

  “Kidding.” She patted his cheek. “I’ll be fine. I don’t always pay for gas. I have favours to call in.”

  “Favours?”

  “Yeah. First stop, Wajir. The RAF lieutenant there is a little in love with me. He’ll fill the bird for free if I promise him a night of dancing in Nairobi on his next leave.”

  “Just dancing?”

  Wow, she thought, that’s not jealousy I see in those baby blues, is it? “Just dancing. He’s one of those English guys. Stutters. Is ‘ever so pr-proper.’ ”

  She said it in her best faux-Brit accent. Jocco didn’t smile; he looked away to the jungle. “And after Kenya? More favours?”

  Wow, she thought again, he’s got it bad. It pleased and frightened her in equal measure. Two flyers should not fall for each other. Not this hard.

  “I’ll be fine. Safe.” She reached up, took his chin, turned him back. “And I’ll preserve ma honour, sir.”

  The phrase, the Dixie accent she said it in, at last brought the smile back to his eyes.

  “Good. And you remember? Captain Vásquez is your contact at the aerodrome in Madrid. He will pay you fifteen hundred for the guns—” He raised his voice to still her protest. “I know, it is not the best price. Call it a—” he smiled “—a good-cause tax. More important, he will get you into the city. When I know the name of the expert, I will wire you. Also, the bank for the draft.”

  “Baby, you told me this already. It’s easy.”

  “Easy? Two thousand miles with a hold full of guns? Two dozen aerodromes with Brits, French, Italians, Spaniards to get past? In a world marching fast to hell?”

  There was anger in his voice and his smile had gone—but she still had a hold of his chin. She pulled it down. “Easy,” she breathed, and kissed him. He was a little stiff at first, until he wasn’t, until he melted, until he sank into her and lifted her at the same time. Breathless, she finally pulled away. “Wow,” she said, running her hand over her curls, “you sure know how to mess with a gal.”

  “And you with a guy.”

  His voice had gone husky and he bent again. She put a finger to his lips. “Berlin. Two months,” she said. “Will this last you?”

  He kissed her finger, then nodded. “I will wait for you in Berlin.”

  The way he said it, promised it, sent another wave through her, the same mix of joy and doubt. “See you above the clouds,” she said.

  He released her, and she moved through the hold, pausing only to check the straps around the gun cases, then up into the cockpit. She dropped her bag to the side, took her helmet from it and pulled it on. Her goggles she left up on her forehead. One of his boys had fixed her lap straps and she clicked them over her. The Lockheed 227 sat high, so she leaned out of the window to see Jocco, positioned now at the prop.

  “Contact?” he yelled.

  She turned the switch. “Contact.”

  He swung those big arms and the engine caught straightaway. It wasn’t only the lap straps his boys had fixed. The engine gave off a contented, throaty purr.

  “Clear,” he yelled, stepping away.

  She looked at him as she held the bird on its brakes, building her revs till the engine sang its warmest song. Had to look away to taxi along the short edge of the clearing. She gathered speed, and lost almost none of it on the turn. On the straight she pulled back easy on the stick. The 227 had a 420 HP engine with a twelve hundred feet-per-minute climb. Even weighted with all those guns, she lifted effortlessly over the acacia.

  As she cleared them, she glanced back. Jocco stood in the middle of the runway, hand sheltering his eyes from the sun. She saluted, but he didn’t wave, just stood there, and she lost him fast to flight.

  She pulled her goggles down, looked ahead, seeking a landmark. First stop Kenya and then…all she had to do was fly a payload of guns all the way to Spain. Be a miracle if she made it.

  “Hell,” she said, aloud. “I’ve survived two years of war in Africa and made Jochen Zomack fall in love with me. One more miracle isn’t too much to ask, is it?”

  THREE

  MAÑANA

  Two months later. July 27, 1936.

  AS SHE CUT THE ENGINE OUTSIDE HANGAR 7 OF GETAFE military aerodrome in Madrid, Roxy slumped back and watched the propeller feather down to stillness. She couldn’t remember ever being this tired. She couldn’t really remember much of anything about this last flight—apart from falling asleep twice and jerking awake as the bird went into a stall and headed for the ground. She’d craved a few hours of sleep in Lisbon. But when she’d finally reached Captain Vásquez at Getafe, he’d urged her on. “The revolution changes things every day,” he’d shouted down the crackling phone line. “I do not know if I will be here tomorrow.”

  Now she watched a man in uniform emerge from the hangar and scurry toward her. It may have taken more miracles than a minor messiah could manage, but she’d made it. And she also knew that despite it being a city in revolution, Madrid would have everything she craved. No matter how desperate the times, people with enough money could always buy what they wanted; she’d seen it time and again in war zones across the world. The uniformed man approaching would give her all the money she needed—for a room in the best hotel in town, with a bath so deep she could drown; which, after drinking the finest whisky available and gorging on the finest steak, she might well do. She’d brought three hundred M1 Garand self-loading rifles with ammo to spare two thousand miles to a country at war. She’d done enough gun-running in Abyssinia, and spent enough time with Jocco, to know their value. Hell—she smiled—I might even take a suite.

  She reached, pulled the cockpit window open. “Captain Vásquez?”

  “Comrade Vásquez, please.” He saluted, clenched hand rising to his temple. “You are Comrade Loewen?”

  His English was good, if thick and lispy. “Just call me ‘Roxy,’ ” she said, as she unstrapped, moved into the hold and sprang the door.

  The captain–comrade offered a hand. She took it and jumped down. He was the same size as her—and she wasn’t the tallest poplar in the grove. He had a thin moustache; his hair was pure black and glistened with pomade. He wiped a palm nervously over both sides, smoothing it. “You wish to rest before—” he swallowed and an overlarge Adam’s apple bobbed up and down “—business?”

  “No, let’s do the business. I’ve got a date.”

  “Who with?”

  “Johnnie Walker.”

  She reached inside the Lockheed and pulled down the small steps set inside. Vásquez mounted, and she followed and opened a case for him. He lifted a rifle and gave an appreciative grunt. He checked another couple of cases at random, then nodded. “I will call my men to unload the plane.”

  He took a step to the door. She laid a hand on his arm. “Not so fast, Captain. Where’s my money?”

  “Business in my office,” he said curtly. Frowning, she followed.

  His office had a desk, two chairs, a wall-mounted telephone and a steel cabinet. As Vásquez went to that and took out a key, Roxy stepped to the grimy window and watched as a dozen men began unloading the oblong boxes from her plane. “Like wooden coffins,” she murmured, yawning. For the first time she wondered how many coffins her delivery might help fill—and shivered.

  “¡Señorita!”

  She jumped, turned. Vásquez had taken his hat off and was pouring wine into two glasses. He lifted both, handed her one and raised his. “To the Republic!” he said.

  “Mud in your eye,” she replied.

  He shot, and she sipped, grateful that she did—the wine could have pickled herring. Putting her glass down, she said, “And my money?”

  He reached back into the open cabinet, pulled out an envelope. It was suspiciously thin.

  Banker’s draft, she thought. Shit. Cash—dollars—was the universal currency for guns.

  “Lo siento,” he said.

  And she knew enough Spanish to understand he was apologizing. Then saw something in his eyes and recog
nized that he wasn’t apologizing for the draft. She snatched the envelope and ripped it open. A single sheet, poorly printed with some sort of ink-blotched seal stamped on it. Her Spanish wasn’t good enough to translate.

  “What the hell’s this?” she asked.

  “It is the gratitude of the Republican government.”

  “The gratitude?”

  “For your contribution to the glorious cause.”

  “Yeah. And where’s your contribution to my glorious cause?”

  “¿Qué?”

  She leaned down to rest her hands on the desk and eyeball him. “Where’s my money, pal?”

  He flinched at the steeliness in her tone. “This—” he waved at the paper “—is also a—what you call this?—IOU. So. You will be paid…”

  “I know I will. Right now.”

  “Lo siento,” he said again. “But you will be paid when the Glorious Revolution is complete.”

  “Then that’s when you’ll get your guns.” She took a step to the open door, put her fingers into her lips. The loudness of her whistle made the soldiers stop and twitch like bird dogs. “Put those back in the plane,” she yelled, “pronto.”

  Vásquez grabbed her wrist, pulled her back inside, closed the door. “Let go of me, you son—” She jerked her hand free. “You are not screwing me here, buddy. You are screwing Jochen Zomack. These guns belong to him. You know him, right?”

  He nodded.

  “Then you also know that if your Glorious Revolution is to succeed, you are going to need him and his buddies to bring you a lot more than three hundred rifles. Which they won’t if I don’t get paid now.” She glared at him. “And you won’t get your cut, right?”

  He flinched. “Many regrets. But we must all make sacrifices. It is only a week since the rebellion of the Fascist General Franco. The committee has said all deals made before then must be delayed. ¡Qué lástima! What a pity, no? But if you will wait a little, arrangements will be made to your satisfaction.”

  “How little?”

  He shrugged. “Perhaps a week?”

  He might as well have said mañana, which they did all the time in Spain. Meaning “whenever.” But anyway, she couldn’t hang around, not even a week. Jocco had a telegram waiting for her in Lisbon. The German art guy was in play. He’d make contact, through Vásquez. She’d meet him, collect the banker’s draft, verify the painting, pay the money then get the hell out of Dodge. This time tomorrow night she should be flying her booty out. To Jocco and the real payday.

 
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