Posted on 2014-12-02
It was Harville who brought him the bad news.
"Boss!" Harville called, grinning toothily. "Boss, good news!"
"Have the Nazis surrendered?" he asked - not that he believed it. Europeans had been at war in North Africa for over a year and with no end in sight. The African campaign had started right after WWII was declared with Italy's invasion of Egypt. Business at Avamposto Calce had been sinking from the very beginning of the conflict and while it didn't have much further to go, Axis forces were making their second big push to capture Cairo.
"Nothing to do with Nazis," Harville said, losing a bit of steam. "We got a telegram." He handed over the check of colored paper for Frederick to read for himself.
It was customers, wiring ahead to secure two rooms under the name of Elliot. Guests, paying guests -- and there was no reason to suppose anyone who wired ahead was going to skip out on the bill -- were all too rare in Avamposto Calce, but the name Elliot filled him with uneasiness. The odds were astronomical, but fate had a sense of humor like that.
He examined every fiber of the printed paper looking for clues, some hint that this was indeed an Elliot he had crossed paths with. It was Russell Elliot and his family he had forsworn. The rooms were for a "G. Wilkes" and an "E. Elliot." Close, very close. How close, only time would tell.
After two weeks, he convinced himself that he had forgotten about them, the customers that got away. They were late by a week and a thousand things could have permanently prevented them from arriving. They could have changed course; they could be lost or sitting in some prison camp or unmarked grave; they could have been captured by either side and awaiting a hearing; or they could have skipped this stop on their tour and were already cruising home through mined waters.
Frederick didn't relax, not fully, not until he'd quit dreaming about her. It had taken him a month the last time something had set him off, so he held that up as his timeline.
He thought he was vigilant. He thought he was on guard. But when he walked into a cloud of her perfume one day, his heart stopped for so long he didn't know if it would ever start again. He felt like a reformed junky stumbling into an opium den, not truly reformed but merely lucky to have heretofore avoided temptation when the cravings hit. His luck had just run out.
She was standing with her back to him, a man at her side. They were checking in and talking with Harville.
Frederick had gotten rid of her photograph in the first wave of bitterness, and he had dreamed of her so many different ways, imagined all the circuitous paths fate would lead her back to him, that he had almost forgotten what she really looked like.
With her wide-brimmed hat, she could have been anyone. Her clothes, likewise, were fashionable and European-made, and definitely reduced the number of women she could be, but there was nothing distinctive about them. Her voice was low, audible to her travelling companion and Harville but not to Frederick, facing away from him as she was. But the perfume sealed it. That was Anne's scent, and the last time he had buried his face in her hair to drink it in he had been a happy man.
Anne and her man signed the book. Harville made some pleasant comment and she laughed. It was too lilting and artificial to be Anne's.
For a split second, he wondered if he had remembered it wrong, on which account he was mistaken: the perfume or the laugh. He could feel his heart hammering again in his chest, making up for lost time. He heard the blood rushing in his ears as it finally resumed its rounds. And as she turned to face him, he realized once and for all it wasn't Anne.
Six long years and she continued to haunt him. Six years too many! He gave himself leave to get drunk tonight, maybe let Lulu give him a private concert like she had offered countless times. It was time to bury her ghost with his dreams and to move on.
It was a good plan as plans went but it evaporated as soon as the woman opened her mouth.
"Anne!" she called in an accent he knew well. "Anne, where are you? Get away from that urchin before he picks your pockets. His scalp is probably crawling with lice."
A woman not three feet from him began to stand from where she had been kneeling next to a young native boy named Benny. This was her; here was Anne. Idiot, how could he think he would smell her perfume clear across the room?
"Elizabeth, let's make a good first impression." He could hear the gentle smile in her voice for the boy's benefit, in case Benny understood her tone but not her words. "We don't know how long we'll be staying here."
"Stranded here, you mean." Elizabeth Elliot was as cuddly as an angry wasp.
"Better in here than on the streets," Anne said with a tilt of her head to refer to the hotel.
Frederick backed himself out of the doorway, moving slowly so as not to attract their attention. Anne was here after all. He needed to think. He needed to drink.
Of all the gin joints in all the world, fate had finally led her to his.
He avoided her for three straight days, a feat made more impressive by how small The American really was, how few other guests they had, and how close he came at times to running into her.
On the fourth day, however he walked into his private office to find her seated on the guest chair.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of this ambush?" he asked after shutting the door with more force than necessary.
"Hello, Freddy," she said, her voice calm in the face of his ill humor. "I thought we should have an initial meeting alone to avoid any awkwardness in public." Her voice might not betray her, but her hands were restless in her lap.
"What makes you think I've got anything to feel awkward about?" He poured himself a drink, then offered one to her. He wanted to show that he had moved on and forgotten details about her like how she never drank.
"Freddy, I just wanted to say--"
"Unless you're here to say adieu, I don't want to hear it," he cut her off. "The only thing I want, really want, that is still in your power to provide is this: I want you to leave as soon as possible. I want you to take your lovely sister, and whoever that man is, and I want the three of you to go as far away from here as you can and never come back. Can you do that for me, sweetheart?"
He had forgotten how big her eyes could get when someone upset her. She stared at him for a minute before blinking and looking down and promising in that small voice of hers that they would leave as soon as they could.
How he hated that small voice. It had once prodded him to take up arms against injustice. Now it made him dig in his heels. "You can't go tonight, but there's a flight out tomorrow morning, every Thursday in fact. It brings in supplies and then flies straight back to Marrakech. You may not be able to get to civilization from there, but at least you won't be here."
"We'll leave as soon as we can," she reiterated with more strength, "but we're waiting for someone. Had I known you were here, I would have insisted on a different rendezvous point. But it's too late now. We were separated in Egypt, and I don't know what's happened to him. I promise to stay in my room as much as I can, and I'll try to keep Elizabeth with me."
"Anne, who are you waiting for?" She could leave word at the front desk or write a letter he could keep in his own safe until whatever friend arrived to claim it.
Again with the eyes! She already knew he wouldn't like it. "Russell."
Frederick felt himself go cold with anger. It wasn't enough that she was here but she had to crown it by bringing Russell with her.
"Won't we make a jolly reunion!" he remarked bitterly. "I look forward to the satisfaction of throwing him out with my bare hands. I bet Herr Hemmert would love to take ole Russell in when he comes to town!" Hemmert ran the Gestapo office in town, responsible for all government functions, from recording births and deaths, to officiating weddings, to maintaining order and enforcing the law.
Anne Elliot didn't give over to hysterics often. She didn't raise her voice, and she didn't insist. Frederick used to think she was impossibly good, more than he deserved. Russell had come to the same conclusion.
That was the old Anne. Maybe she had changed or maybe he just remembered it wrong.
The new Anne was instantly on her feet, a loud supplicant. "No, Freddy, no! You can't do that!"
"This is my establishment," he shot back, his own voice raised. "I make the rules here. I call the shots." It was foolish to let her provoke him, and he paid for it the next second.
The door opened without a knock and an older Englishman bounded in. "Ah, Wentworth," he offered in airy greeting. "I thought I heard your dulcet tones within. Oh, hello there. I didn't realise you were entertaining in here, Wentworth; I would've knocked. You must be a member of the English party my wife is so keen to meet. God save the King, and so on."
"God save us all," Anne answered shakily.
"I say," the newcomer spoke cheerfully, "why don't you pop out to the bar? The love of my life is dying to make your acquaintance, and I never deny her any good thing that is in my power to bestow."
Anne eyed the men warily and spoke in carefully measured tones. "That sounds lovely. To be honest, after the week I've had, I could go for a Lime Rickey."
Both men stared at her in surprise. Anne was not a cocktail drinker. At least, she hadn't been when Frederick thought he knew her.
Croft recovered first. "Personally, I fancy a crème de violette. But you won't find either at the bar tonight. Wentworth's stock is depleted until morning. The missus might have something suitable at home though, if you two hit it off well." He smiled at Anne and with a flick of his wrist shooed her out of harm's way.
Alone, he turned to Frederick. "That was out of character," he remarked.
"What are you doing here, Croft?" His anger at Anne was lessening but not gone yet, and he would not be held accountable if someone else acted as his target.
"It's Wednesday." Croft paused to light his cigarette. "Where else would I be? And who is it that has you so riled up? I don't think I've ever heard you raise your voice to a woman before; Sophie says that's one of your good qualities. She'll be so disappointed."
Frederick glared at him. Croft, the resident Briton who had lived in self-imposed exile in Tunisia since the end of the last war, loved England the way some men loved their mothers. It defied sense to a man like Frederick, but Croft demonstrated this affection in a chivalric code that was written in the days of King Arthur. That Anne was also English only provoked him to greater courtesy. It was usually more endearing.
"Your card game doesn't start for hours," Frederick growled.
"Yes, but as I mentioned to that pretty young lady, the missus wanted to meet her, so we walked over early for formal introductions. If we're lucky, perhaps the girls will go home with Sophie for a spell; she gets so lonely for proper female companionship out here."
Having played the Samaritan for a stranger, Croft did not linger in Frederick's office. He tipped his hat and showed himself out, rejoining his wife at the bar.
Posted on 2014-12-05
The American Hotel and Café stretched along one side of the main square. A ramble of shops and offices flanked it, and a broken line of buildings stood facing it. Hemmert's office sat directly across the square from Frederick's own private office, in a building decorated with German flags and posters and other propaganda. The view, however, was blocked by an anemic fountain that had lured Frederick into the square over five years ago.
When he first realized that Anne had left him, he had tried to kick about Europe with no aim in mind but even he could smell a rotten change on the wind. His lack of real direction explained how he had ended up in Northern Africa, and then finally here, a forsaken little outpost, the terminus of the train tracks from Tunis.
When he had staggered in, he was so weakened by sun, hunger and thirst, that he had just collapsed at the fountain's edge, cupping water to his parched lips.
It was Croft who found him -- Croft and Schiavo, Hemmert's Italian predecessor. As much as Hemmert was a devoted soldier, absolutely convinced in the glory and superiority of Germany, Schiavo had been a bored, corrupt Italian bureaucrat, willing to bend or soften the rules to make his own existence more bearable. His lax approach to rules had gotten him replaced as soon as the Germans joined Italy's African campaign.
While Schiavo was there, he and Croft were thick as thieves and just as honest. They had picked him up and dusted him off and walked him into the bar of The American. It was a Wednesday after all, and a card game was waiting.
In those days, the owner of The American was named Fogarty, and he sat at the table and played every week. Frederick had no money, nothing of value, nothing to offer as a stake in the game, so he stayed at the bar where Croft and Schiavo had sat him to watch. The two men had even bought him a drink of something. Frederick knocked it back, and promptly fell off his stool.
He slept for two solid days.
When he woke, Fogarty offered him a job to pay for his expenses. Two months later and flush from his first real paycheck, Frederick sat down at the card table.
Frederick was no sharp. He wasn't particularly lucky even, at least not as he measured it lately, but Fogarty had invited him, so Frederick felt obligated to join.
He needn't have worried about luck. Fogarty had already stacked the deck in his favor. When the owner of The American put the deed on the table, Frederick had been drunk and naive enough to want it, which is how he won it.
Released from his obligation to The American, Fogarty left on the supply plane the next morning, and Frederick ran the hotel and café from then on.
Frederick stayed in his office and stewed for an hour at least. That Russell Elliot was coming here! He ought to boobytrap the welcome mat. He ought to tip off the local pickpockets and the German too. What the Nazi would make of the man was anybody's guess, but the suggestion had upset Anne deeply. Even if Russell was sufficiently neutral to satisfy Hemmert, she would hate Frederick for ratting out her half-brother but after so long, there was no love lost between them.
He emerged from his lair at last and engaged Harville for the details of the day, anything he might have missed. Harville told him nothing he didn't already know or suspect, though. Mrs. Croft had arrived with her husband, and had left with the Elliot sisters. Croft and Hemmert had already begun their game with the two most prosperous native merchants for the week. Lacking companionship in more pleasant form, the newcomer Wilkes had joined them.
Frederick went into the bar to keep an eye on things. The card game rarely got out of control, but he rarely didn't keep an eye on it. Hemmert and Croft were always there. They were surrounded by an ever-revolving collection of lesser characters. The other players were self-selecting, based on which locals had had the best week in their shops or whatever hotel guests had gotten tired of playing rummy with their wives. Frederick could remember times when seven or eight people sat at the table, but the war was taking its toll; fewer travelers came to this remote location, and fewer businesses thrived.
Croft made a point of turning away anyone who couldn't afford to lose although no one ever lost big. The game tended to redistribute wealth which then trickled to the remaining shops and families in the outpost over the next six days. Croft called it an act of benevolence; Hemmert might consider it outreach and intelligence gathering; Frederick saw it as a battle for souls, with England and her allies on one side of the table and Germany on the other.
What the natives thought was a mystery. Frederick didn't know if they were too stupid to realize they were being manipulated, or too cagey to let on that they knew. As he watched the faces parade week after week at his table, he suspected it was a mixture of both.
Wilkes was his own wildcard. Hemmert and Croft had been playing against each other for so long, and were so intimately acquainted with each other's tells, that even though they appeared inscrutable to the others, one of them almost always folded after the first raise. The locals, changing so often, were harder for Frederick to predict. They often communicated with each other in a collection of odd gestures and references to local lore spoken in a harsh, untranslatable pidgin. Clearly they were cheating, but as long as they kept their greed in check and stole equally from both sides, the white men ignored it.
But Wilkes was unknown to everyone. Even his accent was difficult to place, his rich English vocabulary sometimes sounding French and sometimes Italian, saving a few ungentlemanly oaths from his harsh German. Where he came from, what he brought to the table, his weaknesses and strengths, they were for the moment a valuable enigma. If he was a sharp, he could upset a delicate balance in town; if he was a rube, Croft would probably step in before it was too late.
Wednesday night was the slowest of the week in the bar. Religious observances were quaint in this part of the world, so no one who came to drink avoided the bar at God's insistence. No, they avoided the bar because The American's supplies were depleted. People fasted and stayed sober because they didn't have the resources for gluttony. In contrast, Thursday nights were like Easter morning and New Year's Eve. Thursday paid his bills and Wednesday was his favorite.
Besides the card players, a few die hards sat at the bar drinking whatever Charlie found to pour, probably a vile schnapps that Hemmert pretended not to like. Lulu stood on the stage, going over the rough spots in her act with the pianist.
The native boy, Benny, sat near the stage on the floor, his eyes fixed on the chanteuse, his posture limp, his mouth slightly agape. Frederick knew the boy too well to believe the picture he made, and knew him too well to throw the boy out. The Harvilles had all but adopted the orphan since their daughter Jenny had befriended him. When Jenny had died, the Harvilles clung tightly to Benny in their grief, and the boy had squirmed out of their clutches. Still, they treated him as something like a foster son, feeding him food from the kitchens and giving him free rein in the hotel. If Frederick threw him out, Benny'd be back in his seat before Frederick returned to his position behind the bar. Though the boy spoke only a rudimentary, heavily accented English, French, German, and Italian, Frederick knew he understood every word spoken in his presence. He would be a useful spy for the first person to turn him, provided he didn't get himself killed too quickly.
"So which sister are you marrying, again?" asked Croft as he began to deal. Frederick didn't want to eavesdrop but with an opening like that, he was hooked.
"The nice one," Wilkes joked and Frederick nearly dropped the glass he was holding. "We were supposed to get married in Alexandria, but then the rioting started and we had to flee. We got separated from Rusty -- that's Anne's brother -- the next day. He's supposed to meet up with us here. If he doesn't show, I don't know what we'll do."
"And why is that?" asked the German, meeting the raise from the olive merchant.
"He has our letters of transit to return to England," Wilkes admitted like a rube. "And he has promised to give away the bride. I don't think Anne will go through with it if Rusty isn't there. Two cards, please."
"And is he supposed to come here?" asked Croft as he dealt out additional cards.
"Yes, absolutely!" Wilkes was confident in Anne's family, less so in his hand. He folded. "We'll get married as soon as he shows. I've already checked with Herr Hemmert about the requirements for a civil ceremony and he said he can perform the ceremony with a day's notice. We can have a nice celebration at their home in Kellynch when we get back to England."
"You can still have a nice party here, if you like," suggested Croft.
Frederick found that thought anathema, and muttered as much before he could stop himself. Three white faces turned to him in surprise. Two darker faces slowly followed suit. "I don't close the bar down for private parties," he said gruffly in explanation.
Again Croft recovered first. "Just as well," said the Englishman, "for my wife will no doubt offer to host it before she lets your dear fiancée leave tonight. How did the two of you meet? Was it in England? Wilkes is an English name." Hemmert raked in his winnings and Croft passed the deck to the olive merchant.
"I know her brother, Rusty. That's how we met. As my grandmother would say, it was Liebe auf den ersten Blick." His eyes bulged for a moment and he glanced nervously at the German.
Hemmert seemed to have picked up the clue Wilkes had unwittingly dropped. "Where do you come from, Herr Wilkes?" he asked as the native shuffled.
Wilkes shrugged nervously. "Mussolini would say I am Italian; de Gaulle would claim I'm French."
"De Gaulle doesn't have much say in the matter," Hemmert smiled inwardly. "He won't even be able to claim his dog by the time Germany is through with him." Hemmert adjusted his cards. "And you are part German too?"
"Not very," he downplayed it.
"But you can speak it," Hemmert pointed out.
Wilkes shrugged. "Was soll ich sagen?"
"Deutschland über alles will do for now."
Wilkes was not the only one uncomfortable with the suggestion. "I have never felt loyal to one nation over another," he said, trying to be diplomatic.
"You sound just like Herr Wentworth," Hemmert chided, "neutral to a fault."
"And yet the Americans came through in the end," Croft said calmly.
Frederick frowned. The reference to America joining the Allies after Pearl Harbor or anything to do with the larger war was uncharacteristically martial. The conversation around the card table was usually limited to local gossip. Wilkes had truly thrown off the balance. Croft was too old, too much a pacifist to strike the first blow, but Hemmert was not. Still, that did not mean Croft would sit there quietly if provoked.
"New topic," directed Frederick warily.
"So how do you know Wilkes' fiancée, Wentworth?" asked Hemmert with a cold glint in his eye, desiring to rattle the table again.
"I -- Who told you that?" Frederick asked. The only plausible answer was Croft, but that man looked innocently surprised.
"Harville heard you shouting at her in your office," Hemmert remarked. "I thought everyone knew."
Frederick thought fast. He wasn't about to admit to being briefly engaged to another man's fiancée. "She wanted to reserve a room for her brother. I told her I wouldn't honor the reservation without some cash. She didn't think I was being fair." He shut his mouth before he embellished the lie too much. If Anne was being similarly questioned by Croft's wife, would she give the same story?
"If it's money you need," said Wilkes, "let me pay you now, before I lose the next hand. Although you didn't need a deposit to hold the first two rooms."
"Who says I held them?" Frederick asked, piqued. "You were two weeks late. It's just that nobody else had offered to pay for the rooms before you showed up."
Wilkes frowned. Frederick knew he really needed to tone down the hostility in his voice. As far as anyone knew, it was completely undeserved.
The two natives shared a joke, the end result being that the olive merchant folded and the launderer soon won the hand.
Posted on 2014-12-09
The airstrip was the only show in town on Thursday mornings. The strip was a couple miles from the square, on a flat stretch of land next to the train tracks. In addition to the tarmac and runway, there was a hangar and a building it shared with the train where people could buy tickets and wait impatiently to leave for Tunis.
The aircraft, laden with supplies from Marrakech, arrived amid cheers and applause. It was quickly voided of its cargo by native porters, and it took on a ragtag collection of correspondence, marketable goods, and debris in exchange. Occasionally, and with great fanfare, people travelled to and from Avamposto Calce via plane.
Frederick was always there, making sure bottles or even whole crates of his shipment didn't sprout legs and walk away. He also had payment and a new list of supplies for the next week to hand to the pilot.
Like clockwork, Hemmert was there too. The German had a telegraph station in his office but there were some letters and official communications that did not transmit on a wire. He also liked to be seen keeping an eye on things.
Croft was there as often as not, which included today. He and his wife were voracious readers and curious of current events even though they were so far removed from them as to be gruesome fairy tales. They subscribed to a number of newspapers and periodicals, and enjoyed a far-reaching web of literary correspondents. Every week brought a new stack of papers and, as Croft pointed out, the already dated news would be ancient history if he sat at home and waited for it to be delivered.
Croft was quick today. He did not linger to chat but swapped one parcel for another and returned to his wife.
Frederick's stay was longer, to match the size of his delivery. He noticed Hemmert trying to catch his eye and decided it would be faster and more prudent to let the German have his say now, rather than dragging it back to the café.
At a slight nod from Frederick, Hemmert began. "What do you think of Herr Wilkes?"
He had been too open last night and it was coming back to haunt him. "I like his money." That was true enough.
"We are the same, you and I, Wentworth. I do not trust him. He is hiding something, I am sure of it."
Frederick felt a moment of pity. The larger war had absorbed all available men. Avamposto Calce was too remote, lacking in resources or any strategic importance to merit more than a token show of force. As the sole Gestapo at this assignment, Hemmert had a lonely existence. There was none of his own kind here to whom he might unburden himself. The native population reviled him quietly but in equal measure to his own convictions of a supreme race. His closest relationships were with Croft, with whom he shared an amiable enmity, and Frederick, who did all in his power to stay uninvolved.
"You were at a poker game. Of course he was hiding something." Even Frederick had felt the paranoia of desolation from time to time out here.
"It is more than that. There is something about him. A look... It reminds me of a dangerous man. Help me investigate him."
"No," Frederick refused. It was one thing to be united in dislike against Anne's fiancé. Frederick was honest enough with himself to admit that he would despise on principle whatever man she eventually married.
Since he had learned last night that Anne was to marry Wilkes, Frederick had reexamined every stray observation he had heard of the couple from the staff at The American, trying to figure out why Anne had decided to marry this man and not him. He had heard of no tender scenes being interrupted, no warm looks passing between them despite Wilkes' claim of love at first sight. It made such a sharp contrast with Frederick's own whirlwind courtship of Anne, when he had kissed her in front of every fountain in Rome, that it looked suspicious. But perhaps she was being circumspect to spare Frederick's feelings, not that she had cared much about them when she had broken off their engagement. Or perhaps he was remembering her wrong, or perhaps she had grown colder with age.
But as much as he hated the thought that she had moved on, he wouldn't spy on the man for Germany. It was wrong of Croft to remind him last night, but America had taken a side, and if Frederick were to help anyone, it wouldn't be the Axis.
"I'm not asking you to do much," Hemmert clarified.
"I'm not doing anything. I'm not turning my customers over to the Gestapo!"
Hemmert hissed at him. "Keep your voice down. I don't want word getting back to him. I want your help, Herr Wentworth, but I do not need it. I will investigate him regardless. And if I find out you have been aiding and abetting a traitor ro a criminal--"
"You know me better than that," Frederick reminded him. "I help nobody but myself."
Returning to the hotel from the airstrip, Frederick saw the pacing shadow of a woman stretching out of his office door.
This was a paradox. Obviously, it was Anne waiting to talk to him. Equally obvious were the orders and threats he had levelled at Harville to keep her out of his office.
"Get out, Anne," he told her as he strode in angrily, leaving the door ajar for her convenience. "You weren't welcome here yesterday, and you aren't welcome here today."
It was not Anne after all. It was Elizabeth Elliot, and it was not just her cigarette fuming after a greeting like that.
"I can see why my sister refused to speak with you," she stifled a sneer. "Tell me, Mr. Wentworth, are you intentionally rude to your guests or have you spent so much time beyond the reach of civilization that you've forgotten how to act around a lady?"
"Show me a lady and we'll find out."
She glared venomously. Honestly, what response did she expect with a loaded question like that?
"I see I've wasted my time trying to talk with you," she grit out. "I should have gone straight to Herr Hemmert to report the thief in your hotel." She stood up and would have walked out but he blocked her way.
"What's this about a thief?" Much as he resented it, she had his full and undivided attention. As a rule, thieves were bad for business.
She smiled thinly from her position of superiority and took a seat. "Someone broke into our hotel room yesterday evening while we were with Mrs. Croft and stole items from my sister and myself. Who knows what else they may have taken from your other guests?"
"What did they take?"
"Jewelry and a scarf from me," she listed. "Anne's perfume and passport."
"Her passport!" The rest could be lumped in as trinkets, but the passport was another matter. If he didn't find it quickly, Hemmert would have to be called in.
"And some of my jewelry," Elizabeth reiterated with annoyance. "Obviously I didn't bring the important family pieces to Africa, but I found a pair of ruby earrings in a bazaar that I've grown quite attached to. Are you aware there is a thief preying upon your guests, Mr. Wentworth?"
"Let me do some digging," he said. "Chances are, it was all a misunderstanding." If he could find the items quickly, he might be able to pass it off as an accident or a joke.
"A misunderstanding! You really have grown out of touch out here."
"Give me until one o'clock. If I don't find your property by then, I'll go to Hemmert myself." It was a stall, but she bought it and returned to her room to await his failure.
Frederick sat in his office, wracking his brain, for as long as it took her to climb the stairs to the second floor. Then he was off like a shot, hunting down Harville to see if either of the maids hadn't shown up for work this morning. The maids checked out, so he went to the bar to see if Charlie had noticed anything suspicious. A few steps in and he stopped. Anne was here in the café, he could feel it.
He cast about for a sight of her but she was hidden behind the Thursday lunch crowd. The only woman he saw was Lulu coming toward him.
Lulu Argile, the French chanteuse, had been at The American for almost eight years. Brought here by her sugar daddy, then abandoned by him, she was always on the lookout for her next provider. Her interest in Frederick dated from the morning he had taken over the café but memories of his heartbreak were still fresh. Lulu had a cursory resemblance to Anne and he didn't want to feel like he was settling for a poor substitute. Over time, he had come to realize that Lulu was inferior in other ways -- even more fickle and duplicitous -- making her completely unsuitable for him. In all this time, he had never met someone to outshine the Anne he remembered, and now it struck him as a wasteful comparison. The Anne he remembered didn't exist, and the Anne who did exist had moved on.
Lulu continued to approach him. Always a magpie in search of sparkly trinkets and new things, she was no doubt hoping that something had arrived for her in the morning's shipment. Suddenly, his senses were overwhelmed by the presence of Anne. It was just like the trick she pulled when she had checked in. The air was thick with her perfume.
Her perfume was stolen last night, the rational part of his brain whispered as Lulu reached him.
"Patron," she said, "did my new sheet music arrive?"
He looked at her in wonder. There was something different about her, if only he could put his finger in it.
"Lu--" he began and stopped. The air was thick with Anne's perfume, as if she was standing before him. He leaned into the chanteuse and inhaled.
There it was! The scent! Memories washed over him almost faster than he could contain them: the first time they had bumped into each other, throwing coins into the fountain, kissing her to make her wish come true despite the approving wolf whistles of the Italian men who saw them.
"You like my new perfume." His reaction was too blatant to question it.
"In my office, now."
She smiled coquettishly. "It's not even noon." The timing didn't thwart her.
Frederick gripped her upper arm. "Toute de suite!" he repeated with quiet force, pulling her through the crowd to his private room.
Lulu went along, not exactly willingly, not exactly putting up a fight. There was no cause yet to make a scene, and she had her dignity to maintain.
Behind a closed door, however, she quickly yanked her arm free and scolded him for laying a hand on her. "What if there's a bruise?" she snapped.
"Who gave you that perfume?" Frederick demanded.
Lulu showed a little nervousness. "An admirer," was all she would admit to.
"An admirer who's a thief," he expanded for her. "One who's going to bring Hemmert down hard on The American, and you can bet you're the first person to be sacrificed for protecting him."
Lulu was rattled, but not yet enough to confess. Frederick pressed on.
"One of the Elliot sisters just came to see me, said their room had been burgled. We have an hour to return their property before she takes the case to Hemmert: earrings, scarf, passport and perfume."
"I only have the bottle of perfume." She was cracking.
"But you know who has the rest, and you can bet that's what I'll tell Hemmert when he comes calling. Who is to say you aren't in cahoots?"
He could read the thoughts flitting across her face. "I could tell him you did it." As far as threats went, it was empty.
"Then he'd know you were lying. I was in the bar all last night keeping an eye on Hemmert and the rest of them."
He let her absorb her options, because there was really only one outcome.
"Let me ask him," she said simply and let herself out.
It was implied that Frederick should not follow, but had he been forced to swear on his mother's grave, he would still have broken that vow to trail after her. There was a thief stealing from his customers and he needed to know who. It was bad for business. When he found out who it was, he'd have a quiet talk with the guy and see to it he was never allowed in The American again.
Posted on 2014-12-12
Frederick gave Lulu a minute's head start, enough time so she wouldn't see or suspect him.
He found her standing outside the hotel, at one if the café tables perfect for a morning coffee or an evening cigarette. She was scolding Benny fiercely, and Frederick wished she'd quit wasting time.
Then the boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of fabric: the scarf. Lulu took it, unwrapped it, and held up a small red earring in the sun. She admired it briefly before returning to her lecture. The boy shrugged and dropped his head again but gave her nothing more. Prompted by nothing Frederick could detect, Benny broke into a run and disappeared across the square. Lulu shouted after him but did not pursue him. Frederick shrank back in time to be fully hidden when the singer spun on her heels and marched back through the hotel lobby to Frederick's empty office.
"Harville," she then called out, "où est le patron? I need to see him."
Harville shrugged behind his desk. "He was just in his office."
"If you see him, tell him I went to speak with the sisters in room 4," she called over her shoulder as she sped up the stairs.
Frederick watched her go with uneasiness. There was just something about those women meeting that didn't bode well for him but he couldn't very well stop it now.
He went back outside to have a smoke as the sun climbed to its zenith. The patter of the fountain was inaudible over the murmur of trade and the buzzing of insects.
He thought back over the game last night, while Lulu stood on the stage and Benny had gaped at her. The boy looked too young to be interested in girls, especially one as old as Lulu, but he was. It explained the trinkets but not the passport. Then again, Frederick hadn't seen Benny hand over the passport. There was obviously more going on here, but how much more?
There was a flurry of activity across the square, originating at the laundry next to Hemmert's office. It worked its way around through the throng until Frederick could see what was going on. Benny was being chased by a small collection of business owners with Hemmert trailing in their wake.
Wanting to question the boy himself, Frederick was tempted to get involved. He stood up and moved to intercept the boy. Benny saw him and adjusted course but not enough.
Frederick grabbed at the collar of his tunic. The boy pushed back hard. For a moment, Frederick thought he was winning but then he was down in a cloud of dust and Benny continued his escape.
He lay in the dirt for a moment, dazed. The boy was stronger than he looked. After the impromptu parade had passed and the shouting died down, he thought that at least this meant that Hemmert would be out of his office when Anne's sister tried to report the theft.
He stood finally and dusted himself off with a grimace. From the looks of his suit, the launderer would be back at the poker table next week. As he brushed some dirt from his suit pocket, he stopped. There was something in that pocket that he didn't remember putting in there. He reached his hand in and pulled out a small leather-bound book: Anne's passport. He flipped through it, disbelieving, but it only confirmed itself to be Anne Elliot's passport.
Had Benny intended to give this away? If so, why the chase? Why not return it to Lulu when she had asked?
Frederick could have stood there all day trying to unravel the mystery, but he needed to return the little book to its owner. He sighed and went inside.
The sound of women gossiping greeted him in the upstairs hall. Lulu was still visiting; apparently, they had hit it off.
Wishing he had stopped to wash his face at least, he knocked.
The voices quieted immediately, then he heard high-heeled footsteps cross the floor. It opened, barely, and Elizabeth Elliot greeted him in her fashion.
"Mr. Wentworth, have you come to walk me over to Herr Hemmert's office, save him the trouble of hunting you down?"
He held up Anne's passport. "Ma'am," he drawled in the American accent that always set Mrs. Croft's nose twitching.
The woman before him was no different, wrinkling her nose in disgust. She opened the door another few inches and tried to take the passport from him but he merely tightened his grip.
"This belongs to Anne Elliot," he said. "And I'd like to encourage all of you to keep your irreplaceable valuables in the hotel safe inside my office."
Elizabeth puckered her mouth for a tart reply but the door swung open fully and Anne was there, pulling her passport out of his fingers and squeezing herself between the two of them.
"I'll talk with him," she told her sister and pulled the door shut behind her.
Obviously he was standing too close to her now but that was hardly his fault. And it was by no account his responsibility to add more distance; that was Anne's specialty.
"Miss Lulu has explained the entire misunderstanding to our satisfaction." Despite their proximity, she spoke loud enough to be heard in the room behind her. "Nevertheless, I am eager to avoid any additional confusion. Can I see the safe?"
He nodded and moved past her to the stairs, asking her to follow him as an afterthought.
Harville called out that someone had been looking for him as they walked past. His timing was execrable and Frederick ignored him.
The safe owned one corner of his office. Anne could not have missed it when she sat waiting for him yesterday. Still she approached it as if she had never seen it before. It was locked, as always. While Anne inspected the exterior of the safe, Frederick shut and locked his office door. It was a safety precaution: never open the safe when anyone could walk into or out of his office. It had always kept him out of trouble before.
"What are you doing?" he asked her as she continued to pat the top and sides of the safe and try the handle.
"You'd be surprised what passes for security in other places," she told him over her shoulder. "In one hotel in Vichy France, they had a safe but never locked it. Can you imagine? I mean, what is the point? And in Cairo, they had a safe, but the combination was written on a piece of paper where absolutely anyone could find it."
"Lucky for you, I've got trust issues."
Anne wisely did not take the bait. "Who else has the combination? Does Mr. Harville have it?"
"No. No one but me. Me and Fogarty," he amended.
"Who's that?" She was sharply curious and turned to face him.
"The previous owner of The American," he told her. "He left five years ago. I got a letter from his lawyer six months ago that he died." He was still trying to figure out if that news meant anything to him.
"So how does anyone get into the safe if something happens to you?"
"I'm sure you can bring in a safecracker from Tunis or Marrakech if you need to." The only reason to do so would be Frederick's death. He could surely recover from a cold long before such a man could be found who would agree to travel to Avamposto Calce for the job.
She turned to him, her eyes luminous and powerful. "Can I have the combination, Freddy?" She looked as if, had he tried to take her in his arms and kiss her, she wouldn't have very much minded it.
"Did I not mention my trust issues?" Of all the people in a 500-mile radius, she was the last one he would trust.
At least she had the decency not to pretend she didn't understand him. "I tried to tell you about Guillaume yesterday, Freddy. But you started shouting about Russell and then that nice Mr. Croft interrupted us."
"Well I'm just glad you found someone Russell approves of. I wish you both all the happiness in the world." He didn't mean it. Not even his tone was convincing, but that he managed to contort his mouth to make those sounds was a major accomplishment.
"It's complicated," she told him.
"Welcome to the big leagues, sweetheart."
He brushed her away and she averted her eyes as he spun the dial back and forth. With a grunt of satisfaction, he turned the handle and pulled the door open. Anne was quick to peek inside but she kept her hands to herself.
"What do you keep in here?" she asked, trying to make sense of the boxes arrayed neatly on shelves therein.
"Whatever I'm asked to," he said, removing a metal box labeled "4". He lifted the lid and showed her the inside: it was empty. Then he dropped her passport in it, replaced the lid, and returned the box to its proper place.
Content that her passport would not be stolen again during her stay, she leaned down and began to examine the bottom row.
Before she could snoop further, there was a sharp rap at the door. It startled her and she stepped back. Frederick shut the safe and spun the dial before testing the lever once more. Then he crossed the room and unlocked the office door.
"Herr Hemmert," he greeted. "Even your knock sounds German."
"Herr Wentworth," Hemmert responded in kind, walking into the room and preparing for a chat. "Fraulein Elliot," he added with some surprise, "I did not know you were in here. I hope I am not interrupting anything important?"
"No," Frederick answered. "The fraulein was just putting her passport in the safe."
Hemmert's astonishment was plain. "Her-- But I thought she had lost it. Has it been found already?"
"Yes," Anne volunteered. "It was all a silly misunderstanding. I hope my sister didn't lead you on a wild goose chase."
"Haven't you heard?" asked Frederick. "The Gestapo loves to goose-step."
The other two frowned at his poor attempt at humor.
"So it was alles für die Katz?" remarked Hemmert, choosing to ignore Frederick's comment. "I cannot say I am displeased. And have you inspected it to make sure it is perfectly right? There is nothing wrong? May I see it?"
"No, thank you. I looked through it and it's fine. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to rejoin my sister. Mr. Wentworth, I'll speak to her and Mr. Wilkes about keeping their passports in the safe as well."
She did not linger. Being in the same room as Hemmert made her uncomfortable, especially when Hemmert attempted to act friendly and concerned for her.
With Anne gone, Hemmert shut the door and, forgetting the original purpose of his errand, tried to convince Frederick to let him look through Wilkes' passport when the man handed it over. For all his cajoling, Frederick refused, and Hemmert was forced to return to his side of the square, unsuccessful. Still, he only viewed this as a temporary setback. "I am going to investigate Wilkes," he announced. "There is something wrong about him and I am going to find it out, with or without your help, Wentworth. But it will go better for you if you help me."
Frederick wouldn't lift a finger.
Posted on 2014-12-16
Anne kept her word to stay out of sight by continuing to keep to her room or visiting Mrs. Croft. Frederick saw no sign of her but her sister appeared in the evenings to watch parts of Lulu's show. From the looks of it, the two were getting on well.
And so Thursday bled into Saturday.
That night, Harville approached him looking agitated.
"Marie has a man in the kitchen, boss."
Frederick merely patted him on the shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear it. I know how attached you were but c'est la guerre."
Harville blinked. "No, boss. That's not what I meant. Some guy showed up at the kitchen door all beat up something awful. He's a real mess."
Frederick sighed, which turned into a groan. People rarely showed up at random so far from civilization, at least on foot. The act of getting to Avamposto Calce was arduous enough that all but the fools and the desperate turned back. When Frederick had arrived here five years ago, he had been so dehydrated, a single drink had put him under for days. Chances are, this idiot was similarly circumstanced. With one last glance at the crowd in the bar, he headed to the kitchen.
Marie Harville was the head cook at The American. She was also the closest thing to a doctor at the outpost. Whoever this stranger was, he was in the best hands available. Mrs. Harville had the man sitting in a chair as she cleaned his face. Under layers of sweat, sand and blood, she uncovered sunburn and exhaustion. He moaned intermittently as she touched a tender spot, his eyes fluttering open briefly.
He was a picture deserving of abject pity, but Frederick felt a distinct lack of sympathy. "Tell Charlie to send back two doubles of our strongest whisky. Then send someone over to Croft's," he instructed Harville. "We ought to tell the Elliot sisters that their brother finally showed up."
He watched in silence for a little longer, chewing through the bitterness that rose up within him like a spring. Then he came closer to the figure in the chair and raised his voice. "Russell Elliot, you're a sight for sore eyes." It felt a little like justice to see him looking like that.
Russell looked up, bewildered. There was a lack of recognition in his expression, a delay as he sought to piece it together. "Wentworth?" he said at last in a dry croak. He coughed before continuing. "What are you doing here?"
"I live here. I own this hotel," Frederick answered. "You know, when Anne first told me you were coming, I was angry. But now that you're here, I find the whole thing very gratifying."
The rancor in his tone attracted an astonished stare from Mrs. Harville, but Russell only noticed his words.
"Anne?" he repeated hopefully. "Anne made it? What of Guy and Elizabeth?"
"They're here too," he admitted.
A waiter entered the kitchen with a tray of drinks from the bar. Frederick took them both and handed one to Russell.
"Here's mud in your eye!" Frederick toasted and took a drink. Russell followed suit cautiously.
"How long have they been here waiting for me?" asked Russell when he had worked enough moisture back into his mouth.
"About a week, two weeks later than they expected."
Russell flinched, but not from Mrs. Harville's tender ministrations. "That's too long. They must have run into more trouble on the way here," he reasoned quietly and nursed his drink.
"Let Mrs. Harville finish cleaning you up and I'll have someone show you to your room."
Frederick drained his glass and Russell did the same in an incongruous show of friendship. Frederick then turned to go.
Anne was standing in the doorway, her eyes bright with unshed tears for her brother. "Russell!" was all she said.
"Anne." His voice was warm, much like it used to be. Heedless of Mrs. Harville's warnings, he got up to greet her.
His body moved along a parabolic arc. First he raised himself up to a standing height. Just before he reached the apex, however, he realized he couldn't maintain it. The fuse, lit by the exertions of his journey and accelerated by the whisky, finally burned out. He lost consciousness on the way down, and his body hit the floor with a satisfying thud.
Anne did not display hysterics. She had always been sensible and practical, and time had yet to dent those qualities. She emitted a small exclamation of surprise and fear as she rushed to her brother's body and turned it over to check his breathing. Harville's wife was equally quick and, between the two of them, they were able to confirm that Russell Elliot was alive and as well as possible given the circumstances.
Frederick just laughed. That a man who had taken on mythic proportions in his imagination could be felled without Frederick even applying a single blow... Well, it was funny.
Anne did not see the humor in the situation. The look she shot at Frederick would have been at home on Elizabeth's face. "What did you do to him?" she accused.
Frederick shook his head. "Nothing but the local custom of welcome. Croft did the same to me when I first showed up. He'll be fine when he wakes up in a day or two."
"He's out cold?" Now her voice rose appreciably. "For a whole day?"
"I slept for two solid days," he told her. "Ole Russell looks as bad as I did, so my money's on two."
"We have to wake him up. We have to leave as soon as possible." Anne began to tap Russell's cheeks and to coax him awake.
"Anne, where are you going?" He tried to be kind. "How do you think you're going to get there? If you're headed to Marrakech, you're not leaving until Thursday morning. If you're trying to get back to Egypt, you're stuck until the fighting dies down. Let the man rest. He's been through enough for now."
His words had some effect. Anne stopped trying to wake her brother and began to go through his pockets. She issued questions to Mrs. Harville to identify any luggage Russell had brought with him, but the other woman told her there was none.
Frederick had gone through the same purge himself on his trek here. Suitcases were the first to go. He packed only what he knew he needed -- food and water -- into a satchel he could carry on his back. But those supplies only lasted so long, and so even the satchel was discarded in time.
Anne discovered a traveller's money belt under Russell's shirt. She removed a heavily creased set of papers and examined them intently. There was a coldness to her practicality that mesmerised. Satisfied with what she had found, she looked up at Frederick. "These need to go into your safe immediately," she said.
"I'll be back for my brother in a moment," she informed Mrs. Harville as she stood and stepped over her brother's supine form. "Just as soon as I see these papers put away."
"You're just going to leave him here?" Frederick asked. He had expected her to show more care.
"You told me he's going to be out cold for the next 48 hours. If anyone else gets ahold of these papers, he might as well not wake up. Come on, Freddy, let's go."
She left the kitchen and moved through the crowd like a person avoiding attention: ducking, swerving, hiding, until she reached his office. Once there, she was almost impatient to have him go through his routine of locking the door before unlocking the safe. She put the papers into the box for room 4 and sighed in relief as the door swung shut again.
"Those are your travel papers?" Frederick asked, curious in spite of himself.
"Among other things," she conceded. "I can't tell you more than that. Just promise me you won't look at them."
"What makes you think that promises between the two of us mean anything?"
The question wounded her, and she made no response. As soon as she could, she returned to the kitchen. Mrs. Harville gave two waiters leave to carry Mr. Elliot upstairs, and Anne directed them to Mr. Wilkes room. She then sent word discretely to her fiancé who joined her upstairs and they were not seen again until Sunday afternoon.
On Monday, Russell woke with his sister and friend keeping vigil over him. He was weak and sore but much improved over when he had first stumbled into The American's kitchen. They shared their stories and conferred. The end result was that Wilkes would speak to Hemmert again about the wedding as soon as possible, and they would leave on the supply plane on Thursday.
As soon as possible was always a relative term. Hemmert could not possibly accommodate them so late on Monday. Tuesday was a much better day for him. In the afternoon was preferred by Mrs. Croft who had indeed offered to host the reception and still needed time to roll more paper roses for the bride's bouquet.
Frederick was unaware of all this. He had adjusted himself to Anne being there, hidden in the background, tending to her brother and generally staying out of sight, so that when he didn't see her on Tuesday, there was no suspicion that she might be doing something of importance.
Lulu strolled in on Tuesday and told him she might be late for her set that evening. "Mlle Elliot invited me to the wedding luncheon at the Crofts and I'm not sure when I'll be back. It must be awful when a younger sister marries first."
Frederick took it in. "Today?" he asked, disbelieving.
"They leave Thursday," she said as if that explained everything.
"Be on time," he said at last. "And stay sober."
"I'll try to watch the clock," she almost promised, refusing to address the second concern. With a breezy, "merci patron," she was gone.
Frederick shuffled some papers for a moment then got up to go in search of his piano player. The man needed forewarning that Lulu was going to be late and drunk for her set. However, before he got out of his office, Hemmert found him.
"Herr Wentworth," he began, "I come to you again for assistance. You pride yourself on being fair; well, listen to my evidence and determine if you will help me bring Wilkes to justice."
"Come now, Hemmert. You know I strive for impartiality, not fairness."
"Wilkes is a criminal!" Hemmert raised his voice passionately. "He is a Jew, and worse, much worse beyond that. He is a spy against Germany, and he has been seduced by the Elliots to divulge his knowledge to England in exchange for asylum. The proof is right behind you, in your safe. Let me show it to you!"
"I am not going to open the safe for you," Frederick said firmly. "It is for myself and the guests of The American."
"Then let me rent a room tonight," Hemmert suggested in a stroke of inspiration. "The most expensive one you have. I will need to keep my pistol in the safe, of course. And you could get distracted while we were locking it up--"
"Or the evidence could accidentally fall to the floor and while I helped you put it back--"
"No," Frederick repeated with thinly veiled annoyance.
Hemmert was growing increasingly desperate, increasingly aggravated . "I have a warrant arriving on Thursday for Herr und Frau Wilkes, as well for Herr und Fräulien Elliot. I only need the evidence to detain them until then. It is a forgone conclusion that Guillaume Wilkes is a traitor and Russell Elliot is a spy. There is a firing squad waiting for both of them, if only I can lay my hands on them."
It was a long speech, but Frederick had only half taken it in upon hearing Herr und Frau. And so she had done it. She had finally married someone her brother approved of, someone handpicked for his strategic advantage.
Frederick had a sister, married to a sailor, back in Virginia. He hadn't seen her in years but they still exchanged letters at Christmas. Frederick thought they got on well as far as brothers and sisters went, but the relationship between Anne and Russell took the cake; the sacrifices she made for her brother were far out of bounds from what any brother had a right to hope for. There must be some key behind her submission to explain it all, but it was not normal.
He should pity her, but he pitied himself more. He never really had a chance with her, not with her brother calling the shots.
"I am not letting you into this safe," he said.
Hemmert stood up and drew his pistol. "What about now?" he asked as he aiming the barrel at Frederick. "No one can blame you." While the German was never seen without his gun at his side, Frederick had never heard of him actually firing it. At this distance, however, aim didn't matter much.
"No," Frederick repeated holding his hands up.
"If you won't do it for me, do it for Wilkes' bride," pleaded Hemmert. "I can tell there is something between you. Save her from the fate that awaits her when news of their wedding gets out. She will be as bad as a Jew herself. Her sex will not preserve her from capture, or torture or death in our camps. In fact, her treatment will no doubt be worse because she willingly chose to marry such a man." He had walked around the desk during this speech so that he was close enough now to touch the safe. "All you have to do is open it, and I'll let you keep the woman -- both women!"
Both was hardly an inducement. Elizabeth was the sort of woman that any man would be sorry to end up with. And as for Anne, he would have walked through fire for her once. But she had chosen Russell over him, and would doubtlessly hate Frederick forever for handing her brother and husband over to the Gestapo.
"No thanks," he refused.
"Heaven preserve me from a fool with principles!" Hemmert cursed. "Now open the safe!"
The man was at the end of his tether. He was fixated on getting into the safe. He didn't seem to realize that preventing the foursome from accessing their passports and papers inside was probably just as effective as confiscating them. Given the implied importance of the documents Anne had removed from Russell on Saturday, they couldn't leave without them.
Frederick was the only one who knew the combination. Without him, the others were effectively trapped here, but pointing that out to Hemmert wasn't a wise idea. If Hemmert realized that shooting Frederick was the surest way to prevent Anne and the rest of them from going anywhere, it might tip the balance.
Refusing now was suicide but surprisingly easy. Frederick stood, his hands still up in front of him. "Bitte, Hemmert, I can't."
Before he could shut his eyes, his world went black.
Posted on 2014-12-19
Wentworth woke with a throbbing head. A quick inspection of his forehead revealed a sharp pain and blood still wet.
Hemmert had not shot him after all. He had merely brought the butt of his pistol down upon Frederick's head hard enough to knock him out. The German had then ransacked the office, looking for the combination to open the safe but, as Anne had already discovered, it was a pointless exercise.
In his frustration, he had left the place a mess. It would be best to avoid Hemmert for a while, give him a chance to cool off.
Frederick supposed he should be grateful to be alive. Maybe he was but it was hard to tell with such a headache.
He picked himself up off the floor of his office and made his way to the kitchen. Harville stopped him almost immediately to exclaim over his injury, fretting over him like a mother hen.
Frederick explained that he was on his way to see Harville's wife, with a brief detour to Charlie to grab a bottle or two of whisky for medicinal purposes.
"You can't go into the café looking like that, boss!" Harville warned. "What will our customers think when they see you? Let me go to the bar while you take the back way to the kitchen."
He might be a fool with principles, but he recognized the soundness of Harville's suggestion and followed it.
His cook was surprised to see him come in through the back door in such a state. She clucked and fussed rather like her husband before she patched him up as well as she could. The stitches were not her best work but she didn't let him drink his way through it and he had squirmed more than usual.
As she wrapped a bandage around his head, he told her to pass onto Lulu the invitation to join him in the Presidential suite tonight. He had never bothered sleeping upstairs in one of the guest rooms before, but he'd had a hard day and he could use a little droit de seigneur right about now. Mrs. Harville didn't approve of Lulu, not since she had caught the French singer flirting with Mr. Harville; odds were that Lulu wouldn't get the message, but Frederick's head probably hurt too much anyway.
He took the two opened bottles of whisky sent from the bar and ducked out the back way to his room to change into a clean shirt. The laundry really was making a killing this week. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and decided to avoid mirrors over the next few days. Halfway presentable once more, he snuck in through the front door and got the key to the suite from Harville. The man wanted to chitchat about what had happened to Frederick's forehead and whether the hotel should make a report to Hemmert, but all Frederick wanted to do was go upstairs and lie down. He wasn't trying to be rude but he couldn't help it.
He started up the stairs with a spring in his step but quickly rethought it when his head started pounding. Revising his plan, he climbed each tread slowly. It took longer and he could hear the mattress calling to him, but he was silent as a cat and his head did not feel any worse.
The top of the stairs ended abruptly. People could turn left or right to reach their rooms. Two steps below the top, Frederick heard noises and stopped to listen.
The sounds were of giggling, fumbling with keys, and kissing. After taking a moment to decipher the sounds, he clearly heard a man -- Wilkes! -- whisper, "I never thought this night would come!"
Frederick mentally groaned. The last thing he needed right now was to see Anne's husband pawing at her and carrying her over the threshold for their wedding night. He leaned against the wall and shut his eyes, waiting for the happy couple to clear the hall.
While the newlyweds were still slobbering over each other, he felt a gentle tap on his arm. He propped one eye open to see what was going on and saw Anne standing on the step below, looking up at him with concern writ deeply across her face.
He blinked and stared at her with both eyes as he tried to figure out who was with Wilkes, and what kind of man cheated on his wedding night.
Then came a quiet snicker that sounded like Russell Elliot. Had Frederick only imagined he had been listening to Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes when he had, in fact, overheard Russell instead? And who was with Russell? The only logical answer was Lulu, which would have ended Frederick's hope for the evening had he been serious about it.
However, it removed any squeamishness he had about looking upon the pair.
He poked his head into the hall to confirm his hypothesis. He was completely unprepared for what he saw.
It was indeed Russell Elliot, and it was also Guillaume Wilkes. They were grasping each other, embracing tightly, like lovers.
Frederick immediately pulled his head back into the stairway in a panic, nearly dropping the bottles he carried. Anne's hand covered his mouth before he could make a sound. Her face betrayed none of the surprise he felt. He started to speak but she merely increased the pressure from her hand.
Time passed, maybe a minute. The men in the hall finally unlocked a door and disappeared into their hotel room.
Anne released her hold on him. "What the devil is going on here?" he hissed angrily.
"We can talk in private," she replied, her eyes promising a full accounting.
As he had been on his way to a room, and as going down and up the stairs one more time tonight seemed like one time too many, he took her to the Presidential suite on the opposite end of the hall from the room now occupied by Wilkes and Elliot.
Anne's answers were not immediately forthcoming. She began by locking the door and walking through the suite, shutting the curtains, looking under the bed and peeking in the wardrobe and small en-suite bath.
When she was confident of their privacy, she faced him once more. "What would you like to know?"
"You're a spy." It was the only thing that made his day make any sense at all.
Anne blinked, momentarily taken aback. "I was not expecting you to lead with that."
Her calm lack of a disavowal angered him. "How about, did you realize your husband was having an affair with your brother when you married him?"
"Of course. I wouldn't have married him otherwise." She was matter-of-fact as she began pacing the room. "I've always known Russell was special. It's just that I never thought he'd find someone to make him truly happy. And then he met Guillaume, and it was an immediate and profound change for him. But then Russell got scared it wasn't going to work: they would get caught, or Guillaume wouldn't be able to tolerate the danger or suspense. Russell was going to give him up, you know.
"It reminded me so much of you and Rome; he was about to make the same mistake I did. I couldn't let him do it," she said, slowing her steps and thinking too much of her own past. "It was Guillaume who came up with the idea of immigrating to England but England refused to admit him. We were unable to use our contacts to cut through the red tape, and Guillaume's position in Alexandria was becoming more and more precarious."
She shook her head at the difficulties they had faced. "In the end, it made everything so much simpler if I just married him. Being my husband guarantees him citizenship. He can move to England and live at Kellynch for the duration of the war, and no one will suspect a thing. And when it's over, really over, they'll have each other."
"And you're okay with this... arrangement?"
Her smile now was sad, wistful. "It's not like I had hopes for my own marital bliss. I walked away from love once; I'm not supposed to get a second chance."
That last line was meant as an apology for him but he still felt too bitter to swallow it. "This is the kind of man you marry? Guillaume Wilkes is a --"
"Keep your voice down," she cautioned him. "If anyone finds out--"
"The Gestapo already believe that Russell is a spy and Wilkes is a Jew. There's not much room for worse."
She betrayed the first flicker of panic. "How do you know that?"
"Hemmert confided in me just before he tried to cave in my skull for not opening the safe to him."
Every line of his appearance confirmed this as truth. She stepped forward and reached out a hand to his forehead but stopped herself. She had already hurt him enough. "I'm so very sorry. I meant to spare you pain all those years ago. Seeing you suffer now makes all that sacrifice seem meaningless."
Frederick's mouth twisted in a frown. "Don't tell me you did anything for me. Don't tell me I meant anything more to you than a convenient prop. You used me, Anne; you and Russell both. And when you were done with me you sent me on my way without a backward glance."
"Freddy, that's not true, not a word of it. I had to cut out my heart to give you up. That's the only way I could keep going, that's the only choice I had."
He did not bother to speak his disbelief but she read it in his looks all the same.
"Freddy, please understand me," pleaded Anne. "When you proposed, I didn't think about my answer. I didn't need to. I wanted to marry you more than anything else I had ever wanted."
"But you changed your mind quick enough."
"That's not what happened," she disagreed. "Russell told... Well, names don't matter. Suffice it to say that there was a man living in Rome whom we could call upon for aid if we needed it in the course of our activities. He was well-connected with members of the Italian government but his loyalties were completely with England. Russell told him that you and I had decided to get married and this man called me into his office, such as it was, for a long chat. He wanted to know how well I knew you, whether I could trust you, whether I had already confided any secrets. When I told him I planned on quitting and moving to America with you, he disabused me of the notion. Espionage is not a career from which one can easily retire. I wasn't allowed to walk away."
"So he's the one who decided for you?" asked Frederick. "The one who ordered you to ditch me?" It made it no better to know that it was not Russell Elliot but some faceless Englishman.
Anne was quiet. Her face was stony and vulnerable by turns. "It wasn't that simple. I don't think I can explain it satisfactorily. In the end, I made the decision. I thought it was for the best. I made the sacrifice for Russell, and England, and you too."
This made him angry. "Don't tell me you did it for me!"
"I couldn't walk away; they made that clear to me," Anne pleaded with him, taking a step or two closer to him. "Which meant I'd continue as before: long periods of tedium interspersed with moments of danger, and all of it covered by the pall of secrecy. Going to America, even briefly, was out of the question. Imagine it, Freddy: friends I'd never let you meet, whole swaths of my life I'd never discuss. Out of nowhere, I'd disappear for a couple days or weeks and then return with nothing to say for myself, like it never happened. How would you have stood it?"
He saw it from her perspective and felt his anger softening. "I would've figured it out eventually."
"Yes, but what if you weren't the only one?" she asked quietly. "This is a brutish business, and there's all sorts of stories of family and friends being hurt or killed. Sometimes it's just an accident, just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, the sort of thing that can happen to anybody in a war. But at other times, it is well-planned, almost surgical. I was forbidden from telling you the whole truth. You would have been defenseless. If anything had happened to you, I don't think I'd ever forgive myself."
She reached up and loosely fingered the bandage wrapped around his head. "And that's the grand irony of it," she admitted. "Had I realized it wouldn't have made a difference, I would never have given you up."
Anne was giving him a look that Frederick recognized from the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi. One afternoon, they had stood before the fountain and emptied their pockets, tossing coins into the water to wish for a kiss.
Finally he spoke. "Nineteen, four, twenty-six."
As romantic gestures went, it didn't appear to go very far. Anne knit her brows and looked at him with concern. "Freddy, are you concussed?"
"Nineteen, four, twenty-six is the combination to the safe," he explained. "Mrs. Wilkes, you need to leave. Hemmert will surely be here first thing in the morning to take you all into custody until his warrants arrive on Thursday. If you don't leave now, you may not get another chance."
"I can't abandon the others, and I can't take them with me," reasoned Anne. "Russell is hardly in any condition to wander in the desert right now; he's not fully recovered from the last time. And Elizabeth would turn us in before she'd ever consent to such a thing."
"And your husband?" Frederick prompted. He felt the need to stress Anne's relationship with the man. Little as it meant, it was too easy to forget just now. Opportunity had crept up on him and he was practically holding her in his arms as it was.
"You expect me to march down the hall and inform him that he needs to cut short his wedding night?" She lifted an eyebrow mischievously as Frederick tried not to look uncomfortable with the question.
Before he could come up with a reply, she continued, "Besides, you said it yourself the other day: you're the only one who knows the combination. When Hemmert forces you to open the safe tomorrow, he'll know you helped us if I empty it tonight. Don't provoke him. You're in enough trouble as it is with him and I don't want you hurt any more."
"Am I supposed to hand you over to him instead?" asked he. "No, Anne, that's not happening. You need to go. Get your things from the safe. I'll have to involve Mrs. Harville, but we can hide you in the cellar until we can smuggle you back on the train to Cairo."
"Don't involve Mrs. Harville, and don't worry about us. We've been in tight places before; we know how to handle ourselves. It's yourself you should be worried about. If Hemmert suspects you of helping us, even if you're innocent, you could get in big trouble, Freddy. Stay safe. Now that I know where to find you I plan on coming back here one day, all by myself, just to make sure you're staying out of trouble."
"Just you?" he asked, noticing that detail.
"I couldn't possibly bring my sister; after this trip, I doubt she'll go abroad ever again. And as a known spy, it isn't smart for Russell to wander far from home. And I'm afraid that after all the pains we've taken to get Guillaume into England, it would be ungrateful for him to leave it. No, I shall be quite alone next time. Promise me you'll take care until we see each other again?"
"I promise." He kissed her, and six long years came rushing back.
Posted on 2014-12-23
Frederick Wentworth did not treat his position of owner as a sinecure. There was always a lot of hard work to do and, if he didn't do it himself, he at least set the example of hard work for others to follow. He had never taken a vacation in all his years at The American. There had been no point; he had nowhere else to go, invitations from his sister notwithstanding.
While he was above taking time for his own pleasure, he had fallen ill from time to time, and been tended to by Mrs. Harville either at his bedside or in his office, depending on the severity.
Both Harvilles could attest that when the boss had gone to bed the night before, he had been in no condition to rise at his usual early hour. They knew where to find him in case of an emergency, and they shielded him from the morning's mundane travails. What they could not handle between the two of them, they could delay until the boss felt well enough to show his face.
And so, aided by the Harvilles, Frederick slept late. When he woke, Anne was gone, along with any visible sign that she had been there. With sadness he realized he might never see her again, but it was a pain not weighted down by the bitterness that had plagued him for years, and so it was exceedingly light. She had loved him; she loved him still. She had not been some cruelly fickle female falling in and out of love with the fashions. It had been his fate to fall in love with a woman of principles and convictions. It was a hard fate but he could live with it now.
The sounds of life in the building and outside his windows coaxed him from his bed at last. He drew a bath in the small en-suite and washed off the accumulated blood, sweat and dirt. Feeling more and more like a new man, he toweled off and put on his clothes from yesterday. He wanted to duck into his room downstairs for clean clothes and a shave before slinking into his office, but he at least looked presentable enough to leave the room.
He was just about to wind the bandage around his head when he was startled by a loud knocking on his hotel room door. He could hear Hemmert barking at him in German to open the door. It seemed Hemmert had finally discovered that the Elliots and the Wilkes had gone.
Frederick opened the door with a gruff salutation and was surprised to find not just Hemmert but also Harville and Croft standing there.
Croft was equally surprised, exclaiming, "Good grief, Wentworth, were you attacked?" No one had warned him of Frederick's forehead.
"Don't worry," Frederick answered. "Hemmert was there when it happened. In fact, if you've got a report for me to sign, I'm willing to swear."
He hoped the German would respond to the dig, but the man's attention was focused elsewhere.
"Your Gäste are gone!" he announced.
Frederick decided to act as if he didn't fully understand. Harville read his look and filled him in. "The Elliots and the Wilkes are gone, boss. No one's seen them all morning, and they didn't answer when we knocked."
"It did occur to you they got married yesterday?" Frederick pointed out. "They may not be in the mood for early morning callers."
"They are gone, Herr Wentworth," Hemmert grit out, quickly tiring of this conversation.
"Have they paid their bill?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
"Yes, boss, through tomorrow morning," confirmed Harville.
Frederick fixed his gaze upon the Gestapo. "Then I don't care where they are."
"If they are not here then it is a certain admission of guilt. They are criminals, absconding in the night. I shall have warrants in my hand tomorrow morning to prove it to you, incontrovertibly. Their property in your hotel will be forfeited. I insist that you open the safe for me and let me collect their belongings."
"If they've paid through till tomorrow, and you have no warrant today, I don't have to do anything for you now." He could feel his day sliding downhill. Leave it to the German to ruin his mood.
"Jetzt!" barked Hemmert in barely contained fury, grabbing Frederick by his collar and pulling him into the hall. Croft and Harville, who had initially seemed competent enough as witnesses to stall Hemmert's rage, now seemed powerless to offer any protection at all.
"At least let me shave first."
Hemmert looked ready to slit Frederick's throat if offered, or to throw him down the stairs as a consolation prize. He shoved Frederick in the direction of the staircase.
Frederick decided the best course of action for now was to go along. There was no reasoning with the Gestapo at this point and he had promised Anne to take care of himself while she was gone. They promenaded down to his office: Frederick with Hemmert close behind, ready to push and prod should he move too slowly, and Croft and Harville bringing up the rear.
Once inside his office, however, Frederick stood his ground. "This is as close as you get without a warrant," he announced.
Hemmert put his hand on his gun. "Wentworth!"
"Now, now, old chap," Croft interrupted with a ghost of a stutter. "Let's not be hasty, any of us. No one doubts your bravery, Wentworth, but I'd rather you not get yourself killed over this."
"He has no warrant, Croft, ergo he has no right," Frederick explained with irritation. "What if he decided that you and Mrs. Croft were hiding illegal goods in your home and decided to search it. Would you just roll over and let him?"
The possibility gave the Englishman pause and made his pink skin pale slightly.
Frederick turned back to Hemmert. "The Wilkes and the Elliots are gone. They're not getting into this safe. Your warrant arrives in 24 hours. You can wait."
Hemmert glowered at him, trying to determine how he could motivate this obstinate American. At last he drew his pistol. "Then I insist you wait with me," he said. "Come with me, across the square. I had prepared to host four guests today but one will do for now."
"What?" asked Croft. "You're taking him into custody? On what grounds?"
Hemmert turned to glare. "I do not need your consent." He added a subtle wave of the gun for emphasis. "Herr Wentworth, beweg dich!"
Frederick again led the parade across the square. Croft followed closely behind Hemmert, informing the German that he was going home immediately to write a very sternly worded letter to Hemmert's supervisor which would go out on tomorrow's plane. Hemmert only laughed. "Go ahead," he goaded. "They will probably give me a commendation for it."
Hemmert locked Frederick in his lone cell, handcuffing him to a bar of the cell for good measure.
"Come on," protested Frederick against the extra measures. "This is ridiculous."
"Should I find them today I will certainly free you. Otherwise you can stay here until you agree to open the safe for me."
"What do you want me to do, boss?" asked Harville, hapless.
"Run the hotel," snapped Frederick. "I'll be in here for a day, 24 hours. Think you can keep the place running that long?"
The look Harville gave him did not fill him with confidence but there was no alternative from where he now stood. "If anyone needs me, I'll be right here. You can find me," he said as a comfort to both of them.
With a nod and wishes for a quick stay, Harville turned around and returned to The American. Hemmert stayed briefly to press him to capitulate but, now that Frederick was locked up and unable to open the safe for anyone, his motivation was waning. Once convinced that Frederick would not be turned, he left him unattended to see if he could find out where the English spies had gone.
An hour later, Mrs. Harville brought a tray of breakfast with her apologies for not coming sooner. As it was, she had come as soon as she had heard the news; her husband had been too immediately overwhelmed to send word to the kitchen earlier.
He thanked her for her kindness and sent her back. He had wanted to ask if Anne was hiding in the cellar like he had suggested but he knew that to speak the suggestion to another person was to betray everyone involved, so he said nothing on the topic.
The day passed slowly with no other company. The cell was spartan, without privacy or much of dignity, and he was glad at times for the lack of witnesses.
When his stomach was getting uncomfortably empty again, another emissary from The American brought his dinner. It was Lulu Argile.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in lieu of a friendly greeting. "You're supposed to be on stage." He blamed Harville for this. It had been less than half a day and already things were falling apart.
"There is no show tonight," she informed him of the obvious with a disinterested shrug.
"Madame Harville has closed the café. There is only room service tonight in solidarity with you, patron. And Monsieur Charlie has closed the bar and cancelled the poker. He says it is because he does not trust Monsieur Massoud without you to keep an eye on him, but between you and me..." She looked around to see if the coast was clear and then leaned close to the bars to whisper, "c'est le Gestapo."
Frederick wanted to swear.
"And I have one more bad news for you, patron," continued Lulu in her regular voice. "I am leaving you."
"What do you mean?"
"I am going to quit The American and go somewhere else," she said matter-of-factly. "I have been talking with Miss Elliot, and I think I will go to England. They will appreciate me there."
The arrogance and simplicity of the woman angered him. "You can't just sprout wings and fly away."
She looked at him coldly. "How do you know what I am capable of, when you have never bothered to find out? Just because you are not interested in me does not mean no one is."
"Elizabeth Elliot is not the kind of woman to mean what she says when she is this far from civilization. She might have invited you to come visit when you're in the neighborhood, but she didn't actually mean it. You'd be a sucker to chase after her."
"We talked about you, she and I," explained Lulu with a puckered frown. "We agree you are not right in the head. I meant what I said. I am leaving you, patron. You are blind for me; blind and stupid. If you had any sense at all, you would be weeping like a child right now, to lose me. The only pity is that I will not be here to see your spirit crushed when you experience true remorse at what you have thrown away."
"Oh, I'm sure you'll be here for months and months, trying to get the paperwork to get into England," he told her, reaching for the upper hand. "You'd have better luck trying to get back to France, such as it is."
"Think what you like, patron, but I am done working at The American. By the time you get out of here, I'll be a distant memory."
"I'll be out of here tomorrow morning, Lu," Frederick warned her. "I'm sure you'll be here for a while. Best not to burn those bridges until you're on the other side."
She looked like she wanted to argue with him but then decided to rise above it. "Adieu, patron."
And so she left him.
Frederick spent the night alone, chained to the bars of his cell. It did him no good to contrast this night with the night before, when he had slept in the best room in his hotel -- nor had he been alone, at least for part of it -- but memories would intrude before he could stop them. He could only hope, with a fervency that bordered on prayer, that Hemmert's continued absence spelled good tidings for Anne.
Posted on 2014-12-26
Morning dawned. Frederick was awake earlier than his usual hour. The cot available to him was sagging and uncomfortable. His neck, back and arm ached from resting on it as long as he did. His clothes were rumpled beyond wear. And if he didn't get a shave this morning, he might as well not bother.
He half-expected Hemmert to remove him from his cell and march him to the station where the warrant would be delivered. He got his hopes up briefly when the German entered the office whistling cheerfully, but Hemmert ignored him completely, despite Frederick's attempts to gain attention, and shut himself up in his private office momentarily before appearing flushed and angry, muttering under his breath in German and exiting once more to the square.
Frederick was by now officially tired of this incarceration. He hoped there was a warrant so that he could get out of the cell and open the safe, and rub in Hemmert's nose that there was nothing in it to support his claims. Anne had been vague the other night as to when she would remove their things, but surely she took them with her when she cleared out. Surely there was nothing in it now to get her or the rest of her family in trouble.
As he sat ruminating, there was a knock on the outer door and then Harville let himself in.
"Boss!" he exclaimed in relief to find Frederick exactly where he had left him. He carried a breakfast tray over to the cell and held out a ring of keys. "I've come to spring you!"
"Hemmert sent you?" asked Frederick in disbelief. Hemmert did not seem like the kind of man to lend out such keys to anyone.
"N-no," Harville stuttered, a bad sign. "I got the keys from Mrs. Wilkes. Her whole party just showed up again at the hotel like nothing happened and she said she wanted to speak with you. I told her that Mr. Hemmert had you locked up on account of your not opening the safe without a warrant even though her brother is supposed to be a spy. And she said that's impossible; she would know if her own brother was a spy or not. Then she gave me Mr. Hemmert's keys and said to let you out, and she went into your office and shut the door." Harville paused with key almost in the lock of the cell door. "Why do you suppose Mr. Hemmert gave her the keys?"
The thought of Anne so close to Hemmert, so close to danger, nearly drove him wild. "Get me out of here!" he bellowed at Harville, straining at his handcuff, unable to grab the keys from his hand.
Harville took a step back. "You gotta calm down, boss. Mrs. Wilkes said I wasn't allowed to let you go if you were going to get into trouble right away. She was quite clear on that. She said if you were going to do anything stupid, you'd be better off locked up."
Frederick wanted to yell, but stopped himself. Yelling at Harville wasn't going to get him out of this cell. He needed to convince his concierge that he was a calm and reasonable man. Once he was out, he could drop his mask. After a few deep breaths, he announced, "I'm calm. Now let me out."
Harville needed no more proof. First the cell door, then the handcuffs fell open.
Frederick wasted no time with thanks but pushed past his rescuer and out of the office into the square. Harville followed close at his heels.
The standoff had already started. Hemmert stood in the center of the square, near the fountain, his gun already drawn and aimed at the foursome standing in front of The American. From his vantage point, Frederick could see Elizabeth, Anne, and Wilkes lined up and wearing the same clothes they had worn on the day they arrived. Next to Wilkes stood Russell Elliot in a suit he had borrowed from his brother-in-law. From this distance, it was hard for Frederick to tell the men apart. The morning crowd that typically milled about the square, flowing from storefront to storefront before ebbing away as the heat of the day grew stronger, had clustered around the perimeter of the square, as far away from Hemmert as they could get while still observing the action.
"Give up, Elliot, and I'll spare your companions," Hemmert offered. "This is your last chance. I'll give you to the count of three. Eins. Zwei."
The sound of "drei" was drowned by the report of the pistol finally firing. In all the time that Frederick had known the German, Hemmert had never actually fired that pistol. It had been a decorative piece on his uniform, no more functional than a shiny gold button. It was not until two days ago, when Hemmert had wielded it like a club, that the gun had shown any utility at all.
It was Anne who fell. It was Elizabeth who screamed, a sound that pierced Frederick's heart. She observed the fallen form of her sister and screamed a second time while Wilkes dropped to his knees to give what aid he could to his wife.
Frederick started to run across the square but Harville tackled him before the second step. The mood of the crowd had been hushed, subdued, observant, but watching a murder -- and Frederick did not doubt the shot would prove fatal -- made them skittish and uneasy. The murmuring grew to random shouts. There was a powderkeg here if someone would provide a match.
The spark came from an unlikely source. Benny, the thieving orphan, ran from the fringes and latched onto Hemmert's arm before he aimed for a second shot. The boy was strong and wiry for his size as Frederick could attest, and Hemmert had a tough time shaking him off. But they were unequally matched and it was only a matter of time. With a hard shove, Hemmert sent the boy sprawling across the sand. As the boy started to get up for a second attack, Hemmert fired, and fired again.
The crowd fell deathly silent, and Frederick heard in that silence the orders for Hemmert's execution. A few merchants began to advance on him and he whipped his gun around to them to stave them off. It worked for a time, but just as Benny stood no chance against Hemmert, so Hemmert stood no chance against a native crowd aching for his blood. As the menace grew closer, Hemmert fired another shot. A man fell.
Then a different shot rang out, from another part of the square, close enough to Frederick that it might have come from on top of him. The German's neck whipped forward sharply and he fell lifeless to the sand as the crowd rushed in to claim his body.
Harville kept his head buried but Frederick craned his neck to see who had assassinated the Gestapo. Croft was standing by him with a hard look on his face that Frederick had never seen. In his hand the metallic flash of a gun appeared briefly and was gone.
Croft caught Frederick's eye and grunted in satisfaction. "I've been waiting for that for ages."
It was always Edward Wentworth, Frederick's brother, who was meant to travel the world. Edward, with his quiet curiosity, his innate grasp of almost any situation, had seemed to possess a calling in life.
When Edward announced to his family that he had finally saved enough to go to Italy, his siblings greeted the news with a content inevitability. In a look shared between the two, Frederick and Sarah wondered if their brother would ever come home from such a trip. Both suspected he would join the first religious order to admit him, and then they would receive a cable stating their brother was remaining in Europe indefinitely.
Edward had saved his money. He had bought a ticket on a trans-Atlantic steamer. His passport was ready, his visas were in order. He had learned passable Italian from an immigrant who worked on his line. He had even arranged a leave of absence at the factory: as long as he returned in four months, they would take him back.
And then the unthinkable happened. He met a girl. This was not just any girl; she was the girl who changed everything.
"You've got to meet Angela," Sarah informed Frederick as the day of Edward's departure drew closer. "I believe she's the one, and I think Edward believes it too. I'll bet you he doesn't stay in Italy after all. I'll bet you he even cuts short his stay. Ha! It wouldn't surprise me if he popped the question before he left."
Frederick had not observed his brother with this mystery woman, so he was skeptical. "Don't make Edward out to be someone he's not," he cautioned his sister. "He's never been girl crazy."
"That's exactly my point!" Sarah exclaimed, undeterred. "You know how he is: it's like pulling teeth to get him to express any interest at all. But not with Angela! He's in love! For the first time in his life, he's in love. Do you know what this means?"
Frederick only thought that it meant his sister was imagining things, but Edward brought up the topic himself the next week.
"Frederick, I have a problem," he said, getting quickly to the point. "I can't go to Italy. You see, it's Angie..."
Frederick was disappointed. "She told you not to go?!"
"No, nothing like that," Edward assured him. "She'd never do something like that. It's me; I don't want to leave her. I can't go."
Frederick thought it was wrong for his brother not to trust this woman for the few months he'd be gone. If Angela would wait for him, then surely Edward could go. And if she wouldn't wait for him, then surely Edward would be better off leaving, and getting the messy part over with.
"I didn't expect you to understand," Edward said, sadly smug. "I'm not going, and you can't change my mind. I just wanted to ask you a favor."
Frederick abused his brother's stupidity a little longer, berating him for all that wasted expense. "You can be sure you won't get any money back now. Even if you found a sucker to buy your ticket from you -- at a heavy discount -- you can't cash in that passport. And what are you going to do about a job, and a place to live? They've already found someone to take your shift, and you can't afford rent without a paycheck."
This was exactly the segue that Edward was hoping for. "That's where my favor comes in," said he, finally interrupting Frederick's harangue. "I want you to go in my place. If you go, it'll all work out. I'll take your shift at the factory, and you'll take my berth on the ship. Use my passport; we look enough alike. Whether it's Ed or Fred Wentworth, what do they care?"
Frederick was not quickly persuaded, but in the end he capitulated. He would go to Europe and his brother would stay behind and get engaged. If Edward planned it correctly, Frederick would be back in plenty of time to stand up as best man at the wedding.
Of course, Frederick never made it home. Instead he fell in love, just as utterly and even more rapidly than his brother. For a while, he could see the sense in what Edward had done, abandoning an outmoded dream and reaching for the new. It seemed like a greater sacrifice to walk away from Anne than to turn his back on anything else.
But then Anne had walked away from him. The daydream of introducing his family to Mrs. Frederick Wentworth twisted painfully into the galling act of witnessing his brother's joy. He didn't know how he would bear it without throwing gloom over Edward's wedding. Upon reflection, he realized he didn't have to. It was far easier to miss his return voyage than to deal with well-meaning friends and family heaping pity on him when they learned of his disappointment.
He missed Edward's wedding, and Sarah's the year following. He missed christenings and promotions. He missed his brother-in-law being transferred to Virginia. He missed so many mundane things that he didn't even realize how they added up.
He passed himself off as a man who didn't care. For the most part, it was true. Life had lost a lot of worth in Italy. Something he didn't even know he cherished had been exposed as a cheap sham, and he had borne the loss for so long that it seemed normal. It wasn't until two nights ago that he could feel the true value of things seep back into the world but watching Anne's life snuffed out sent him right back to where he started.
He was adrift again. He might as well die on the sand for all that it mattered. And if someone didn't rescue him soon, he probably would.
Posted on 2014-12-30
Croft helped Harville and Frederick to their feet as the square erupted into pandemonium. "Come quickly now," the Englishman hurried them. "We need to get out of here."
Croft pulled them back into the Nazi office and bolted the door. Even those few yards were a battle as the native population, having decided now to rise up, viewed every white face as a target. Frederick found himself attacked by men who, if they did not call themselves his friends, had at least never had reason to think of him as an enemy before.
Once locked inside, the three quickly realized they were still in danger. Natives beat upon the door and it was only a matter of time before someone broke a window or set the building ablaze.
"We need to get back to the hotel," said Harville as they moved to the back of the building. "Marie will be worried about me."
The employees and guests of The American could no doubt use their figurehead at a time like this. Charlie knew how to defuse bar fights and Mrs. Harville was not a woman to lose her head. They would have locked and barricaded the doors by now, and rounded up everyone to a safe place like the pantry. Nonetheless, they would appreciate Frederick and Harville being there.
"How did you even get out of your cell?" Croft asked, suddenly realizing the discontinuity.
"Mrs. Wilkes gave me the keys," supplied Harville.
The Englishman looked like he was going to have a medical fit. "Impossible! That woman won't be happy until we're all in German crosshairs!"
Harville stuttered a question. He had too much to live for to feel incurious.
"Before noonday, half the people rioting outside will be shot dead by German soldiers, but that won't be the end of it," answered Croft. "They'll interrogate the survivors and if they find out you got the keys from a known spy, you'll be lucky to live long enough to be shipped off to one of their camps. No, Mrs. Wilkes never gave you the keys; you never saw her today."
Harville gaped for a moment, trying to take it all in. "But nobody said anything about her being a spy. It's Mr. Elliot that Mr. Hemmert suspected."
"I think, given the situation, prudence dictates we assume they are all involved." Frederick thought, given what he had just seen in the square, that Croft knew far more than he was ever willing to admit. And it was probably a good idea not to press him for details.
Harville looked at Frederick for leadership "Boss, what do we do?"
Frederick found he had no voice, or at least no inclination to speak.
After a moment, Croft spoke instead. "Did anyone actually see her give you the keys?"
Harville thought back with a shake of his head. "No. Just her sister and Miss Lulu."
"Then it just might work" muttered the Englishman. "No one saw anything. She never gave you the keys. You found them sitting on the desk when you came to deliver Wentworth's breakfast. And you let him out after the shooting started."
Harville nodded in agreement, committing the story to memory, leaving it for Frederick to point out the flaw.
"But that won't work," he said. "Too many people saw me outside when the gun went off."
Croft glared at him for being so unhelpful, but Harville's fretting was painful to watch. Frederick took pity on him. "Let's tell them that Hemmert left his keys on his desk and I talked you into letting me out. The rest of Croft's story fits the way it is."
Harville's relief was palpable, lasting as long as it took to notice the shouts and other sounds coming from outside. The story was not good enough to bring them back from the dead if the native throng got hold of them.
"Let us split up," suggested Croft as Harville opened a back window and checked the alley. "Harville, you go to the right. Wentworth and I shall go to the left. Stick to the alleys and avoid everyone. If the mob intercepts one of us, perhaps the other will still get through."
It was a good plan and Harville put it into execution as quickly as he could. Croft tried to exit through the window but it was difficult for the Englishman to hoist himself up and through the opening, even with Frederick's assistance. After a few failed attempts, he stopped.
"Wentworth, I must speak with you," he said, panting slightly.
"Not now, Croft!" Frederick had already heard the sound of glass breaking and the noise of the rioters was louder, less muffled.
"No, Wentworth. Now!" The older man was adamant. "I know what you're thinking. It's written all over your face. She's not there."
"I don't know what you're talking about." His voice was almost gritty with denial. Frederick didn't want to think of what was waiting for him back at The American. Whether Anne was barely alive or recently dead when he reached her didn't change the outcome.
"Mrs. Wilkes, man!" Croft had not been deceived about his regard, not from the very beginning.
Frederick could have continued to dissemble but Croft saw through him. Besides, it hardly mattered anymore. "You saw her get shot," Frederick pointed out. "Even if the other three escaped the riot, they'd be fools to take her with them. She'd only slow them down and be dead before the hour is up."
"That wasn't Mrs. Wilkes," said Croft as if it pained him to be so open. "That was Miss Lulu. The women had arranged it amongst themselves that Lulu Argile would swap places with Anne Wilkes. It was an incredibly foolish and risky plan, but Miss Elliot had already brought Lulu into her confidence. It's only blind chance that Hemmert was such a bad shot."
Frederick's jaw dropped open. Lulu had warned him in her fashion last night, and Anne had said that she wanted to return to Avamposto Calce one day. Had she known then what was going to happen?
He immediately cast that question aside. There were more important things to know. "Where is Anne?" If she was alive and unharmed, it changed everything.
"First, realize I'm only telling you this to keep you from betraying yourself back at the hotel. Once Hemmert's reinforcements arrive and start imposing order, it's going to be every man for himself. If you show up at the hotel ready to embarrass yourself, someone is going to notice, and they're going to drop the wrong words in the wrong ears."
"Where is she?" He needed to find her, at once.
Croft glared in exasperation. "I am not telling you these things so you can insist upon some long, drawn out goodbye until you both end up in German custody. I am telling you this so that you will not make the sort of scene that encourages Nazis to ask nosy questions that will get more people in trouble than just yourself. There are more lives at stake than just your own."
The two men were ready to stare it out, but a commotion in the front room distracted them and drew their attention back to the more immediate peril. There would be nothing to fear from being sent to a German prison camp if they were already murdered by the mob. Despite his earlier difficulty, Croft scampered through the window before Frederick had a chance to help him.
Frederick swiftly followed through the opening, then stood in the alley watching Croft run away. If Frederick continued to follow him, Croft would absolutely ensure that he didn't see Anne one last time. Likewise, once he made it back to The American, the needs of his guests and employees would prevent him from going out again in search of her.
He took off down the alley, running away from Croft, trying to figure out where he ought to go. His responsibility to The American required him to return to it and to protect his employees and guests. The Harvilles, Charlie, and the rest of the staff depended on him, whether it made sense for them to do so or not. On the other hand, Anne didn't need him now; if she was depending on him in any way, it was to stay out of trouble and they had already said their goodbyes two nights ago. But he couldn't shake the image he had seen in the square of Anne getting shot. Hearing Croft tell him that it had been Lulu in disguise had solaced him, but now he was beginning to doubt. Croft was full of surprises today; was he trustworthy?
The Elliots and Wilkes were obviously at the airstrip or at least headed way, which was in the exact opposite direction of the hotel. The riot would slow them down but he got the feeling that all four had been in tight spots before and would've planned or improvised accordingly. He needed to think faster than he ran, and to figure out where he wanted to be before he had to choose his path.
Fate dealt him a good hand. As he approached the last intersection that would determine his direction, he heard an engine approach. He stopped and waited, hiding until he knew if it was a friend or foe. The vehicle came into view: it was the truck used by The American to transport weekly supplies from the airstrip, but it was not being driven by one of Frederick's employees. Russell Elliot had stolen it and, along with the rest of his group, was making his escape.
Frederick instinctively called out a greeting and stepped into view. When Anne recognized him, she leapt out of the cab while it was still moving and ran to him. Russell had little choice but to slam on the brake and wait for her.
"Freddy, you're unharmed," she told him as she hugged him fiercely.
"And you're still alive," he answered in relief, content to let her crush him just as long as she was well. To feel her alive and unhurt was indescribable. His throat tightened.
She stepped back, enough to look him in the eye. "I'm so very sorry about what happened to Miss Lulu," she began, speaking quickly. "It wasn't meant to happen like that. She never should have gone out the front door."
"I understand," he said. "Croft explained a bit to me. I'm just glad it wasn't you."
"Come on, Anne." Her sister had left the truck by now and interrupted the scene. "We have a plane to catch. We need to get out of here while we still can."
Anne looked at the idling truck, then back at Frederick, clearly struggling with the decision of what to do now. If Croft was right, and now Frederick was inclined to believe him, Anne had tried to stay here. Lulu's death ruined that plan but she appeared unwilling to abandon it.
Had Hemmert lived past the morning, still he could not have lived long with Anne remaining behind. It would have been too dangerous for her, impossible for her to evade detection indefinitely. Even if she could hide from the Nazi contingent come to collect her, Hemmert would recognize her when she appeared in public again be she ever so clever and her appearance so elastic. No, to stay was to court detection and death. And while Anne might be willing to shorten her life considerably for the sake of being near him, it was simply not worth it to Frederick who was yet recovering from the sight of seeing her fall in front of his hotel.
He saw the indecision and reluctance dance across her features, but as much as it broke his heart, he knew she couldn't stay. "Go and get on the plane, Anne," he said quietly.
"What?" She turned to him in shock.
"I want you to live, Annie. Go. Get on the plane."
She looked at him as her eyes filled with tears. To find him again, to be forced to give him up one more time and in the middle of such danger, was more than she could bear. "I don't think I can lose you again."
"You're not. This is just temporary," he assured her. He couldn't expect her to return after this. Travelling again would be too dangerous for her. No. If they were to be reunited, Frederick would be the one to move mountains. "When things calm down, I'll come for you but only if I can find you. Go back to England. Go home to Kellynch and be safe. Would you do that for me? Would you stay out of harm's way until I can find you again?"
"Would I!" was all her answer, but the accent was decisive enough.
Frederick gave her one last kiss. It would need to last them throughout their separation of months or years, and together they made the most of it.
"Anne, now!" shouted her sister finally. "We have to go now! Get back in the truck before I shoot you myself!" Elizabeth tugged at her arm to pull her back to the vehicle where the men were waiting with increasing anxiety.
The women bundled themselves into the cab, which set into motion again even before the door was shut.
That was it. She was gone.
He stood bereft and unmoving in the alley, counting off seconds then minutes in his head, imagining the truck as it travelled the narrow and rutted road to the waiting plane. They would need to tread carefully to avoid the Germans looking for them, but Frederick had overheard Russell quizzing Charlie on how to drive that stretch, and now understood why.
Once at the hangar, they'd have to disable any guard the Germans left behind, which wouldn't be more than two men, and secure the plane and possibly the pilot. Anne had not told him where they were going, but they couldn't fly back to Marrakech or even Tripoli. Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and even Libya were too hot right now. If they could reach past the battlefront now deep in Egypt, they could find a safe passage back to England if their paperwork was in order and they had enough cash.
He stood there until the sound of automatic machine gun fire in the square spurred him into action. He raced the remaining distance to The American's back entrance and pounded on the door until Charlie let him in.
Everyone else was cowering in the pantry, huddled and hushed as angry roars of gunfire occasionally broke out. Seeing him calmed the staff, which rippled through the few guests, although the relief was short lived before the next round of shots were fired. They stayed in there for an hour after it grew silent. Then Frederick went out to survey the damage and subjugate himself as necessary to the Germans.
When the foursome had found themselves on the wrong side of the battle line, it had been Russell's original plan to regroup at Avamposto Calce where England had placed another agent long ago, someone they could call upon for aid should the situation warrant it, and to leave as discreetly as possible. That formula, however, proved untenable when Hemmert convinced Benny to break into Guillaume Wilkes' hotel room and steal his passport and any papers that might be incriminating. Benny had his own idea and decided to steal from the sisters instead; their room had more trinkets worth stealing and besides, Benny couldn't read. Anne's passport had not been enough in and of itself to prove anything, but the dates and locations, along with the surname "Elliot," had allowed the German authorities to piece together the prize waiting for them in the Tunisian backwater. From that point on, they had to draft a new plan and they had far more experience at this game, and recognized they had far more at stake, than Herr Hemmert.
Russell Elliot had secretly cut the telegraph line from Hemmert's office the night before their escape, and they had destroyed the other device at the hangar before they took off, leaving the area incommunicado until the lines could be restored. Once the foursome flew out on the plane, there was no way for anyone remaining in Avamposto Calce to contact other German forces except by following the rail line to the next station and sending word from there of what had happened. By then, it was too late. They had successfully fled.
The area remained under strict control for weeks in retaliation. Between Hemmert's murder and the escape of four allied spies, the Nazis showed no leniency in dealing with the residents of the outpost. A large number of rioters had been shot on sight. Between the mob's initial violence and the Nazis' countering response, no business was left whole. Windows were broken, doors battered in, signs ripped down, merchandise absconded, employees and customers killed.
No one could come or go without a thorough search and seizure. Frederick was questioned, roughly and repeatedly starting on the second day, but he betrayed nothing. Even Harville kept mum despite his treatment. Never having seen Frederick directly give aid to Anne and the others, and having witnessed some of Frederick's more negative reactions to the spies, his testimony could not prove anything damning. The Germans released them both after a week or so, and they spent another week recuperating under the care of Mrs. Harville before returning to their desks. Even at their lowest point, they were grateful to have avoided the camps, so that was something.
Business at The American was effectively ruined. With almost nothing and no one allowed into the area, there was no alcohol at the bar, and there were no guests in the rooms beyond some senior German officers who were exempt from paying their bills. With Lulu dead, the small band was not half as entertaining. The quality of the kitchen slowly declined as the stores of rare ingredients withered away. Wednesday night card games were also ended, perhaps permanently.
The natives were more cowed now than ever in the wake of their uprising. Those who could, left. Even Charlie packed his bags in anticipation of being allowed to leave. The Crofts planned to stay but they were seldom seen; Mr. Croft has been spotted near the fountain shortly before Hemmert was shot and, as a result, had been questioned as well. He had endured much.
Throughout it all, Frederick took comfort in the fact that it was neither better nor worse than it was. Had Anne and the others been captured, he could imagine the Germans would have relaxed considerably, unless one of them had revealed that Frederick had helped them in some way. In that case, he'd be dead already.
Slowly, the Germans began to pull out of the area, reducing their presence until it was only a handful of troops.
Then came the news of the fall of Bizerte. Frederick felt for all the lives lost in the African campaign, but it meant that the end was closer than ever before. And if he could live to see that, certainly he could live to see Anne again.The End