Chasing the wind, p.7
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       Chasing the Wind, p.7

           C. C. Humphreys
 

  “There will be a big spectacle now. The Nazis will put on a show for the world. So this gives us an opportunity,” he said.

  “For what?”

  “To steal the painting back.”

  “Yeah?” In a snatched phone call with Jocco two days before, he’d cryptically indicated that it was the new game plan. Grabbing the cigarette, she took a last drag till her finger burned, and stubbed what remained of the butt into the ashtray. Even Jocco would struggle to get any more out of that one. “And have you used your time in Berlin to figure out just how we do that?”

  “I have.” He stood again, began collecting clothes from the floor where frenzy had hurled them. “Get dressed. You must meet our forger.”

  “Uh-uh.” She glared at him. “I’m meeting no one smelling like a Cairo whore. Not until I get the bath you promised me.”

  He looked like he would argue, then shrugged. “The bathroom is left, down the hall. I am not sure there will still be hot water, but—”

  “Oh, there had better be.”

  He continued dressing. “There is a café on the ground floor. Meet you there in twenty minutes.”

  “An hour.” She glared at him. “You owe me that, Zomack.”

  * * *

  She didn’t get the hour. The water was lukewarm. Will I never get to soak in a tub again? she wondered, angrily scrubbing. But at least she didn’t have to don her filthy flying suit afterwards. Jocco had brought her valise all the way from Africa. The day looked hot so she pulled on a light floral dress, and tied on a headscarf.

  The air in the café was blue with smoke. Some of it shifted to a waving arm. She crossed to Jocco.

  Two men stood. “Miss Loewen. Herr Ferency.”

  She held out a hand. Ferency took it, turned it, kissed it. “Please—‘Attila.’ Charmed,” he said.

  “Attila as in Hun?”

  “As in Hungarian, yes. Many in my land are named after him. Though if I may correct so beautiful a lady, the pronunciation is Áttila, not Attíla.”

  His accent was light, his voice velvety. He still gripped her hand. She took it back. “ ‘Roxy.’ Only one way to say it.”

  “I am also known as ‘Chameleon.’ Because I, uh, alter colours so often.” He tipped his head. “You may call me that if you prefer.”

  “I’ll stick with Áttila, thanks.”

  He looked disappointed. Then his face creased up and he sneezed. “Aychoo—ah!” He was one of those sneezers who made a meal of it: loud and on a clear sound.

  “Gesundheit.”

  “Danke.”

  “Coffee, Roxy?”

  “As a matter of urgency, Jocco. To accompany your finest tobacco. Ham and eggs to follow in swiftest order.”

  While Jocco conferred with the waiter, Roxy and Ferency studied each other. He wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting. Jocco, in a passing sentence, had given the impression that the forger was weaselly, so Roxy had been imagining someone small, middle-aged, bespectacled. Someone ash-on-the-collar dishevelled like that Austrian actor always playing creeps in Hollywood, Peter Lorre. But the Hungarian was nearly as tall as her man, if half his width. He couldn’t have been much older than her, and his clothes were stylish, if flamboyant—a loud check on the brown suit, a pale-lavender neckerchief. His face sloped down from eyebrows that were so thin they looked teased, above droopy-lidded hazel eyes. He had a cleft above his mouth that rivalled the one on his chin. Only his nose and his lips were a little larger, disproportionately fleshy. The whole look shouted “artist” at her. And the hand that had turned hers for the kiss had flecks of paint under the nails.

  The coffee came, thick and bitter and glorious. She gulped it, alternating it with drags from one of Ferency’s slim cigarettes—gold banded, offered from a leather-and-gold case. It had a filter, forcing her to suck hard. Hell, she thought, back to civilization.

  While the waiter fussed and carried, they chatted of the games, of the weather, of half a dozen inconsequential things. It was only when the ham and eggs appeared and Roxy assaulted them that talk turned to business.

  “Herr Ferency says he will be done in three days.”

  “Done?”

  “With the copy, Roxy. The Fall of Icarus.”

  She chewed, swallowed. “Why do we need a copy?”

  There hadn’t been much time to talk since he’d collected her at Templehof Aerodrome that morning, what with the fucking and all. She knew the heist was on but knew little else.

  “Because the painting is still concealed. It is being saved for the big art opening before Hitler next week. So we steal the original and substitute the fake one.” Jocco turned to Ferency. “Are you sure the paint will be dry?”

  “Paint is not the problem. It is making the panel look old that is the main difficulty.” The Hungarian waved his cigarette about as if he were conducting an orchestra. “I had to destroy a very valuable antique table, distress it, and create special stains and varnishes that would duplicate the original panels used.” He sniffed. “Sometimes I think I am more chemist than artist. The painting itself is—” he shrugged, entirely failing to look modest “—easy.”

  “Easy, huh? So you think you are as good as Bruegel?”

  Something combative in Roxy’s voice made Jocco intervene before Ferency could reply. “Our friend spent five years at the Brussels Art Institute, studying the masters, emulating them,” he said.

  “I have copied the original Fall of Icarus half a dozen times.” Ferency gestured as if bringing in the woodwind section. “I could do it in my sleep.”

  “The original?” Roxy halted the passing of the last piece of ham to her mouth. “The original is the one I saw in Madrid.”

  “And Bruegel reproduced that on canvas. He copied himself and I copied him.” He nodded, adding airily, “It is what we artists do. We pattern ourselves on masters then we—”

  Roxy dropped the fork with a clatter, interrupting, “But he didn’t just copy it.” The expert Schlaben’s words from the cellar came back to her. “He changed it.”

  “What? An extra sheep? My dear young lady—”

  “Icarus’s father. Daede…”

  “Daedalus?”

  “Him. He’s in the painting now. He witnesses his son’s death.” She thought back. “Top left.”

  “What?” Ferency’s suavity deserted him. “You are certain?”

  “I think I’d remember that. Oh, and the plowman, looking into an empty sky? He’s not. He’s looking at Daedalus.”

  “Sheisse!” Ferency slumped back and carried on swearing, switching from German to some language that sounded like stones caught in a gearbox.

  Jocco leaned forward, anxiety on his face. “But this is all right, yes? Roxy describes this new figure, you recreate in the style—”

  “No. If I do not see the exact figure, the experts will spot it straightaway. And your plan depended on at least a week before it is discovered to be a fake, no?”

  “It did. The buyer can’t be in Berlin until then.” Jocco chewed his lip. “So, we hide it better.”

  “With every policeman in Berlin looking for it? You have only been here a week. You do not understand how ruthlessly this city is controlled. You would not hide it two days. Two hours!”

  While they bickered, Roxy chewed the last of her ham. Then she reached for one of the Hungarian’s cigarettes and one of the German’s matches. After lighting up, she blew a stream of smoke between the two faces, which had gotten closer as the men had gotten angrier. “Hey, fellas,” she said, as they both leaned back and looked at her. “Seems the only answer is to get our friend acquainted with the new old painting.”

  “Impossible. It is hidden away and well guarded.”

  “Impossible, eh?” She smiled. “Where is it so well guarded?”

  “In the new Air Ministry, on the Leipziger Platz.”

  “Air Ministry? Why there?”

  It was Ferency who replied. “Because the man who is springing this surprise on Hitler is
der Führer’s chief deputy, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.” He sniffed. “Göring considers himself an art connoisseur.”

  “Göring?” Roxy leaned back. “Heard of him. Flyer, ain’t he?”

  “A war hero. Shot down twenty planes. Among his many roles he is also commander of the Reich’s air force, the Luftwaffe.” Jocco shook his head. “He is a notorious seducer of women, and has an apartment at the ministry for this purpose. And, like every other capitalist exploiter, he feasts off the sweat of the workers to throw huge parties that always end as orgies, with him as the main hog rooting at the trough—”

  “Jocco!” She snapped her fingers and he stopped. Sometimes she found his Commie rants quite sweet; he was so passionate. But there was a time and place. “Parties, eh? Is he throwing one for the Olympics?”

  “The press is filled with little else,” Ferency said. “All the Nazi leaders below the Führer are trying to outdo each other in splendour. Göring has been outfitting the Air Ministry for weeks. There are rumours of a whole Bavarian village. His party is tomorrow night—”

  “The Air Ministry? Where the painting is?”

  “Yes. Why?”

  They stared at her, at the smile spreading across her face. “You know,” she said, “I’ve heard of him. Being a flyer, there’s a chance he’s heard of me too.” She leaned back, shaped an O and shot a smoky circle above their heads. “Stand back, fellas. Roxy’s going to a party.”

  SIX

  SHOPPING

  THERE WERE TWO THINGS A GIRL NEEDED FOR THE BEST party in Berlin. An invitation and a dress.

  “More?” Jocco looked pained. He’d already placed a sizable pile of dollars on her palm.

  “Baby,” she replied, “fashion costs, in New York or Berlin. Great fashion, that is. And I’m going to need the best. So, yes—” she closed then opened her hand, making the greenbacks crinkle “—more.”

  They left at ten, opposite ways, same mission. He knew someone, he said, who could get her close to Göring. She would have to do the rest, and get that invitation.

  She had exactly three dresses—you didn’t fly in bias-cut. All of them were a few years old and hopelessly out of style. The least glaring one of them she restored to a reasonable state with a few licks of the hotel’s iron. She’d lost weight on her journeys and it hung off her like a potato sack. But the silk was still good and she wore her nicest Schiaparelli up-thrust brassiere. Tits and teeth, she thought, studying herself in a mirror as she applied lipstick. Often does the trick.

  But not at the first two dressmakers she visited on the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s liveliest, most fashionable street. Cafés sprawled over the sidewalks, each one of them packed with revellers. Champagne flowed, though it wasn’t much past ten. Her charms failed to move the first two proprietors—one clearly homosexual, the next in too much of a hurry. “I am sorry, Fräulein,” the man burbled, tearing his eyes from her chest to place his hands on the store’s metal shutters. “Come back tomorrow and we shall see. Today we celebrate our Führer’s gift to the nation. The Olympic Games!” Slamming the shutters as if he was shot-putting for Germany, he gave her a salute and a cry of “Heil Hitler!”

  All the other shops were also either closing or closed. Starting to despair, she walked away from the central area and the more elegant cafés. The clothes of the clientele got a little more workmanlike. Though each building still sported the Nazi symbol of the swastika—she thought it had to be a regulation, because every single business had one—the ones farther from the centre were less prominently displayed, a little smaller. She looked down a side street—more shops there, more flags, more shutters. Still, she’d often found what she was looking for off the beaten path. It was almost her life rule. So she walked ten paces down it…and saw it immediately. A word that wasn’t there.

  Jude.

  Even if she hadn’t spoken German, she’d have known that word.

  Jew.

  It wasn’t there because someone had obviously tried to scrape off the paint from the window. But either the paint was too tough, or the person doing the scraping had given up. Jude still stood out on the unshuttered window. As she stepped closer, she saw above it an equally spectral Star of David.

  Above that was the name of the shop: Bochner für Mode—Bochner for Fashion.

  Roxy turned the door handle. The door was unlocked. She went in.

  A bell tinkled. A man, leaning with his head on his hands behind a counter, reading, looked up sharply. Even at half a dozen paces, Roxy could see fear flash in his eyes. Replaced by sullenness as he saw her.

  “Closed,” he said in German.

  “Do you speak English?”

  He took a moment before he replied. “I speak.” She shut the door behind her. “And I say to you in English the same. We are closed.”

  “You haven’t got your shutters up.”

  “I wait for someone.” He flinched, like he wished he hadn’t said anything. Stepped around the counter, waved his hand. “You go, please.”

  Everything about the guy was big—a cannonball head, a broad chest, a prominent stomach. Everything except the hand he waved. It was disproportionately small. Delicate.

  “You opening later?”

  “No. Yes. Maybe. We see.” He made the shooing gesture again.

  She didn’t move. Looked around. The room was quite empty—a low table, some well-thumbed fashion magazines on it, German and American; a leather couch with its back to the window. One wall had cupboards, sets of drawers. The opposite wall was lined with clothes racks. They held nothing but wooden hangers—and one fabulous green dress.

  “Wouldn’t that one fit me?”

  He appraised her. “No. It is a ten. You are an eight.”

  “I used to be a ten. Hard times.” She smiled. He still had his hand out. She ignored it, crossed to the dress and ran a finger down it. She’d been right. “Chenille.”

  “Yes.”

  “Hard to work with, right?”

  He shrugged, said nothing. But he lowered his hand. So she went up to him, took it. She’d been right about that too. It was delicate. When she shook it vigorously, he winced.

  “Roxy Loewen. Pleased to meet you. Herr—?”

  He hesitated, then returned a limp shake before withdrawing his hand as if bruised. “Bochner,” he said.

  “The proprietor?” She gestured outside. “As in Bochner für Mode?”

  She mangled the German, more than it deserved. A hint of a smile came.

  “You do not speak our language, Fräulein Loewen?”

  “Call me ‘Roxy,’ please. And I do speak it, a little. But I speak fashion more. You make the dress?” He shrugged, said nothing. “Awaiting collection?”

  There was a slight hesitation before he replied. “No. She…the lady…she has gone away.” There was something in the way he said it. The smile went, the eyes hooded. “Now, please.”

  The hand rose again. She ignored it again. “So it’s going spare? And one size out? So you could adapt it, am I right?”

  He ran a hand through thinning hair. “Fräulein—”

  “ ‘Roxy.’ ”

  “Fräulein, I am not truly open for business. I may not be open again for a time.”

  “Thing is, I’m kind of desperate, Herr Bochner.” She stepped closer to him again. She had the feeling that tits and teeth weren’t going to cut it here. But studying the store had told her something might. “And I can pay.”

  A faint gleam came to the eyes. “How? I cannot…I take no American cheques.”

  “I can pay cash.”

  “When?”

  “Now. Because I need the dress now. Today.”

  He exhaled loudly. “Impossible.”

  “Herr Bochner, ‘impossible’ is not a word I speak. In any language.”

  He studied her for a moment before he spoke. “You are very—how you say this—forceful, Fräulein. Do you always get what you want?”

  “Always.”

  He put on some gla
sses, took a few steps around her, studying. “This cash you pay—”

  “We haven’t agreed on a price.”

  “I will make you a fair price. The dress is already made so…” He sucked at his lower lip. “You have Deutschmarks?”

  “Dollars. Is that a problem?”

  “No. I need dollars, I—” He broke off. “You will please take off your dress.”

  “Gee, you’re fast. Guy usually buys me dinner first.”

  This actually got a laugh. It was clear laughing wasn’t something he did very often. Or maybe he’d forgotten how. Anyway it took him by surprise and he covered it up fast.

  “This dress you wear. You buy it off the rack or it was made for you?”

  “Made. In New York.”

  “All is clear. Well made, but a little rushed. The fault of American designers. Of Americans.” He peered at her over his glasses. “But it will tell me a little of how clothes hang on you. Is today absolutely necessary?”

  “Absolutely. Early afternoon. One o’clock.”

  “One?” He looked ceilingward. “Good god! You want a dress or a potato sack?”

  “A dress. A very, very nice dress. There’s someone I need to impress.”

  “I think you could do this without a dress. Oh!” He blinked. “I do not mean. That is not to say…”

  “Why, you sweet thing, you’re blushing.” She laughed. “Take the dress off here?”

  “No, no. In the back, there is a curtain. Behind you find—ach, was heissen Sie—a sleep?”

  “Slip? For under the dress?”

  “Zo. A slip. You put on, I look at your dress, then we measure.”

  Roxy went back, took off her dress, handed it through the curtains, put on a filmy wrap she found there. When she emerged, Bochner was bent over his cutting table, her dress spread before him. “You come here.” He raised a measuring tape. “You permit?”

  “Sure. But touch me in a certain way and you’ll have to marry me.”

  He laughed again, finding it easier this time. “I am already married, Fräulein. Forty years. And you are younger even than my daughters.”

  The laughter died on the last word. “Do they live with you, your daughters?”

 
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