September 15, 2014
In the old days, if a horse stumbled three times you shot it in the head.
As far as I was concerned, our driver had just made his second stumble.
Well, arguably it was his third if you counted a certain slip of the tongue earlier in the late-morning. I’d wondered at Billy’s fluent German before, but now?
Following the twisting, mounting road toward the Alps, we were still thirty miles from our unstated destination. I was chewing my lip and weighing when best to kill our traitorous driver.
From the seat behind us, Gertrude Stein yelled over the Renault’s engine’s roar, “Hector, perhaps we will at last have the windows up. It looks like rain, does it not?” She was tugging the window crank on her side with no success.
More bellyaching. I twisted further around in my seat and said, “Sorry, darlin’, but this heap’s side and rear windows are all broken out. As a humble war correspondent moving in enemy territory, this Juvaquatre van was all I could wrangle under the gun.”
That was true enough. I’d doffed my correspondent’s duds for native street clothes, and then stolen our current ride. According to my hastily forged papers, I was Günther Hess of Lyon, one of the guys in charge of retooling Renault for German war production.
I had a smattering of rusty, Great War-era German and figured to get by just fine if chitchat didn’t go far beyond basic weather, bathroom and sporting house directions or drink orders. I said, “Still, you’re maybe right about the weather turning. I’ve got some rain slickers stowed behind you there. We’ll stop and break those out, just in case.”
Might as well get the bloody deed over with now, I told myself. I glanced at Billy, finding little stomach for the wicked task to come. I promised myself that for both our sakes, I’d try to make it quick. That was a sop to my sometimes not-elusive-enough conscience.
To distract myself, I smiled at Alice B. Toklas. Alice had never cared for me, not a lick, but the same was true of all the men that Gertrude doted over—all the male fiction writers and poets Gertrude had mentored or fed through the poorer times in older, better days in long-gone Paris.
Alice and I had exchanged perhaps a half-dozen frosty words since we’d hit the road seven hours ago. Now I said to the little bird-like woman with the dark, hairy upper lip, “Think we might even have an extra-petit raincoat that will fit you, Miss Toklas.”
Turning back around, I tapped my driver on the arm and above the wind’s sheer hollered, “You find a shoulder that looks firm enough, you pull over, okay, Billy? We’re going to need to stretch our legs and get some provisions out of the back.”
Blond, blue-eyed Billy, looking very Aryan to my own pale blue eyes now, shot me this suspicious look and said, “We’re making good time, Hec. How much further do we have to go? Where are we going, exactly?”
Not subtle. But then subtle and Billy didn’t seem to be acquainted. I shrugged and smiled. “Told you, kid, I’m only allowed to go where we’re going so long as I keep my secrets until we get there. And it’s far enough away yet to warrant a break from this kidney-busting heap of ours, son.” The Renault’s shocks were well past shot.
Yessir, I had decided now. Billy was going to be going further away than the rest of us, quite soon and for keeps.
I shook out a cigarette, offered one to Billy — his last, after all. I fired him up with my windproof Zippo. Alice coughed as our smoke blew back past her face. The little dame would just have to tough it out. Gertrude was diverting-enough company when she wasn’t complaining, but Alice? I could feel her hateful stare at the back of my head, even now.
Billy nodded at a wide spot in the road ahead, a scenic pull-off at an ascending curve, and said, “It’ll do?”
It was a picturesque place to die with that mountain valley view.
“If you think it’ll bear the weight, why not, kiddo,” I said thickly.
He pulled over and set the brake against the incline. Last moves.
I swung out and stalked around to the back of the van; dropped the tailgate. “Gonna need a hand with this, son.”
Billy sighed and hauled himself out from behind the wheel. It was just starting to rain now, cold and stinging. Blinking back the rain and fumbling with the fasteners, I stepped aside as Billy said, “Here, Hec, let me.” He got her open and I loaded his arms with stuff. Billy was now burdened with tarps and rain ponchos. Perfect. My stomach churned.
Gertrude had moved around in her seat to try and watch us. That was too bad for her. She was going to hate was she was about to see. Probably be haunted by it. She held her hand out the broken back window, palm up against the needle-spray rain and said, “Hector, hurry, the weather.” She said it like it was news. Well, that was Gertrude in a nutshell, always discovering the world for the rest of us. Or at least presuming that she did that.
In the distance, I could hear truck engines. Those coming our way precluded me taking a gunshot at Billy. The sound of the approaching caravan also put the boot to my backside to take action, now.
I dipped my hand in my coat pocket and wrapped it around the bone handle of the SS knife I’d taken off a dead Kraut a few days ago. Sudden-like, I got around behind Billy, or maybe he secretly was a “Wilhelm,” and wrapped my left hand around his forehead. I jerked his head back hard to expose his throat.
Gertrude gasped; Alice turned.
Billy, who evidently had some commando training, dropped his load and, snarling, elbowed me in the gut. He stamped on my foot with his heel, then he twisted in my arms. He forced his forearm against my neck, pushing at my windpipe. With his other hand, Billy went for my souvenir Nazi knife.
He was half my age and all my height. Billy was also trained in hand-to-hand combat—that was all-too-evident now. More wisdom come my way too late.
Billy snarled, said, “You Jew-lover! I’m going to kill you slow with that knife, Lassiter!” He smiled meanly and said, “Werner Höttl sends his regards.”
Höttl: Would-be German film expressionist and auteur turned Hitler stooge.
So, it was Höttl behind this chase after the women. Hell, I’d suspected as much.
Billy’s hand of a sudden clutched at his own throat. The curved handle of a walking stick was digging into his windpipe now. Gertrude and Alice were pulling on the other end of the cane, bless ’em.
I kicked Billy hard between the legs, three times though the second two kicks were admittedly meanly gratuitous. Clutching at his crotch, Billy fell gasping to his knees in what was quickly turning to mud. I got around behind Billy and slit his throat down to bone. I let his corpse fall face first into a blood-spritzed puddle.
Gertrude said, “What is this, Hector? Why did you kill that young man?”
“He’s a spy,” I said. “New Yorker from his accent, but Billy was German American Bund, or something, I’m guessing. One way or another, Billy-boy here somehow threw in with der Fatherland. Had my suspicions about him the past couple of days. I sorely owe someone in intelligence on our side for saddling me with this one. Close as we’re getting, well, to keep you two safe in this new, good place, this had to happen, bloody as it was. Sorry, ladies. And thanks a million for the assist. Billy was a tough little traitor, sure enough.”
I looked at the boy’s body bleeding into the mud. Now he looked like just another luckless young one undone by our latest World War. Kid was going to stalk my dreams.
Gertrude said, “We do not care for these times.”
“Ain’t lately finding much to love myself,” I said, standing over the dead boy in the stinging rain.
Those trucks were rumbling closer. Chewing my lip, I planted a boot against Billy’s hip, pushed hard and sent his body tumbling down the muddy mountainside.
Shaking my head and wiping the kid’s blood from the back of my hand, I said, “Yep, moments like this, I ain’t remotely crazy about times myself, Ma’am. Now we best get moving, vite.”
I helped the ladies out from the Juvaquatre and passed out the raincoats and some tarps to spread over their legs.
Alice reluctantly accepted my steadying hand as she climbed back into the rear of the Renault. Helping in short, stout Gertrude took a bit more effort. She finally opted to sit up front alongside me, wrapped up like a damp mummy. I handed Gertrude the cane she stumped around on and she stowed it between our seats. Gertrude said, “You know how to get us there, my Hector? I mean, without his help?” She nodded in the direction of the hillside I’d sent Billy tumbling down.
I released the brake, got us going again. “I was checking the maps,” I called above the engine’s roar. “Yeah, I can do it. Should be there before late afternoon. Hold on tight now, you two. We’ll see if we maybe can’t outrun this rain.”
Gertrude and Alice were settling into their new home. Rich friends were sworn to protect the women from the Nazis here in the so-called Free Zone. The village mayor said, “Though we’re not occupied, I am still under strict orders to provide the names of all those living here to the Germans. Regardless of the risk, I will of course omit Miss Stein’s and Miss Toklas’ names from that list, Monsieur Lassiter.”
I slapped his arm and said, “You’re a good man, brother. Maybe the only politician on God’s crazy earth I admire.” I grinned, added, “I mean, besides Churchill.”
He said, “Not your own president?”
FDR? I had longstanding reservations about that one.
I looked around: Gertrude and Alice’s new home was on the banks of the River Rhône, near the foothills of the Alps. It was a good and pretty place for a couple of famous female Jewish American lesbians to hide from Hitler’s minions until we kicked Adolph’s ass.
The mayor said, “You’ll stay the night, yes? I’m a fan of your novels. And of the films. We’ll have some good wine and you can tell me of your books, and how the battle truly goes. You can tell me when your countrymen will at last join the war. You can—”
I shook my head. “Glad you like the books. The movies are for money. Sorry, but I’m kind of AWOL from my reporting duties smuggling those ladies here, Sir. Have a lot of ground to cover, fast. Dreadfully late getting to Lyon.” It wasn’t quite a lie.
The mayor smiled. “Another time, then?”
“Count on it, buddy,” I said. He saw to a refueling of my jalopy. They finished up that task as the rain returned. As I settled in for the long wet ride to Lyon, a middle-age woman handed me a wicker picnic basket.
“Provisions, for your trip back.” I was surprised to see Gertrude and Alice behind her.
Leaning hard on her cane, Gertrude said, “Again, much gratitude for bringing us, my star.”
I waved that away. “De rien,” I said. “Just keep a low-profile and stay well until we hand Hitler his head, right ladies?”
Alice surprised me by passing me a bottle of red wine. She said, “Please try not to get yourself killed in this war, Hector. It seems to again be a time for men like you.”
When we first met in Paris after the Great War, when I was just a kid struggling to make a name as a writer, I still had a bum leg from the German-inflicted wound that nearly killed me.
I squeezed Alice’s hand and hefted the bottle. “I’m going to save this, darlin’. We’ll toast the death of Hitler and Germany’s defeat with this very bottle of vino.”
After stowing the wine in my picnic basket, I turned over the engine. The mayor said, “I’m more than surprised you weren’t assigned a driver.”
Gertrude and Alice exchanged uneasy looks. I said, “Men are in too-short supply to be hauling around American war correspondents. And I lived in France for several years after the Great War, so I know my way around your country well enough.”
Smiling at Gertrude, I said, “Take care, Miss Stein,” then tore off down the road. As I left, I shoved an arm out the window and held my hand up in the V for Victory sign; cheers at my back.
I’d lied to Gertrude. For me, these were very good times, heady and satisfying.
At the edge of the village I slammed on the brakes, sliding a bit in the mud. Standing there in the middle of the road, straddling water-filled tire tracks, was a half-starved black Labrador Retriever.
I swung out and walked slowly toward the dog, one hand out. Tail down, the stray smelled then licked my hand. Fella had no collar and looked as though he had gone many days without food. Still some puppy in him: he hadn’t yet grown into his own big feet.
As I headed back to the Juvaquatre, the dog followed on unsteady legs. I rooted around the basket of food and stripped a sandwich of slices of ham and fed morsels to the dog. He weakly wagged his tail while he wolfed it down. When he was done, I swung up into the Renault. “You get clear now, old pal,” I told him.
The Lab tried to jump into the car with me through the window, but his back legs were too weak to do the job. His front legs, now hooked over the Renault’s open passenger-side window, began to fail him. He sat down and scratched weakly at the door with a clumsy front paw, whimpering.
Behind us, some trucks were headed our way. I thought about it, then reached over and opened the passenger-side door. I grabbed the dog by the scruff and hauled him up into the Juvaquatre with me. He collapsed onto the floorboards on the passenger’s side and looked up at me with grateful dark eyes, panting tiredly.
I grabbed one of the tarps Gertrude had wrapped herself in and swaddled the dog in that to keep him warm and dry from the now harder rain. We tore off down the sodden road as the impatient truck drivers on our tail began to lay on their horns.
Close by Lyon, German troop trucks began to ride my bumper. The Kraut soldiers sounded drunk, boisterously singing “Drei Lilien, Drei Lilien” and cursing at me.
I scratched the black dog behind his ears and ground my teeth.
I thought to myself, If I only had a machine gun and enough ammo, I’d fix all this world’s sorry present troubles.