Welcome to Murder at Christmas!The holiday play-by-email game with more than just cheer...
At the conclusion of dinner, Chetwyn Glyde’s table rose first.
“I’m going to the casino,” he announced. “Nellie, you’ll come with me. Miranda, Olson will see you to your room.”
And so saying he swept out.
Miranda and Flora had already established where their respective rooms were, and Miranda had insisted over dinner that Flora should transfer down to one of the larger rooms the following day. Now, as she was leaving the casino, Miranda suddenly gave Flora a fierce hug, and then a little smile before she left obediently with David Olson.
Or at least she started to.
Olson paused by the Count’s table – it seemed natural to call it that, for the Count was such a commanding presence – and pointed an accusing finger the bottle of Bourbon on the table.
“What the hell is that doing there? It’s reserved for Mr Glyde’s personal use – we arranged the deal especially!”
“I am sure that it is not Herr Glyde alone who enjoys the privilege,” responded the Count, who had taken more than a sip of the bourbon himself. “I believe Miss Nolan and yourself enjoy evening tipples, ne c’est pas?” And he gave his full laugh.
Karl seemed to enjoy this riposte and chuckled lightly. Notably he had not tried the bourbon himself, preferring the full-bodied wine.
Jack just looked up and shook his head. “Why, I merely asked for it and the servant brought it to me.” Innocence personified. Well, save for having a healthy amount of bourbon with his meal. “I’m sure they were just trying to accommodate a rush of guests and as the Count says, everyone enjoys a little of what they fancy.”
Joseph straightened his cuffs, and stayed clear of the territorial dispute about the bottle of bourbon.
Just then there was a feminine shriek from further along the corridor, in the direction of the writing room.
“Eine Schlange! Ich sah eine Schlange!”
“No Schlange but a Eidechse, I suspect,” said Franz von Essen to Alder Bishop, rising to his feet. “I fear your lizard is alarming the staff once more.”
“That does appear to be your cue, Mr. Bishop,” Samantha said regretfully.
“It does indeed,” Alder said, rising. “Sadly, he does have that habit. I could swear it’s part of his sense of humor.” Alder sighed, remembering the incident with Mike and the substitute cabin steward. The man had never been persuaded to darken Alder’s door again. He turned to Fritzel. “I don’t suppose I could trouble your staff for some diced fruit? Fresh, by choice? – he doesn’t chew, you see, he just swallows, and dried fruit would just, er, ah, plug him up. I’d use the crickets – he’s very fond of crickets — but I’m afraid your good mother would throw me, Mike and the crickets all out into the street, and that’s no way to spend Christmas.”
“Dried fruit is popular here…” Samantha announced. “There’s so much fruit cake…” she added in a quieter, more despondent tone.
“Anyway… I should probably stay out of the way and let you catch poor Mike,” Samantha added in a brighter tone. “Unless you need a smaller pair of hands… my room is just off the stairs on the second floor.” She stood from the table, laid her napkin on her plate.
“Much appreciated,” Alder said to her retreating back, watching after her with a smile on his face.
Jack looked up towards the writing room and sighed. “And now I’m thinking it’s time to do some lizard wrangling. Sadly lacking in appropriately sized lassos. ” Yes, jovial as ever, despite his meal being disturbed at the end by several things. He rose, smiles at Olson as if the man couldn’t possibly argue with him and made his exit, off towards the noise.
Joseph didn’t really see himself running after a lizard. “Perhaps we can set a trap to catch him when he gets chased out of the writing room?” He suggested to no-one in particular. “I think there was an empty crate among my luggage after all, I’ll go fetch it. It’s bigger than his traveling box, maybe he’ll run into it?”
“I don’t think chasing him will do any good – if he’s scared, he’ll go hide in an area too small for any of us to reach. I think if I bribe him with fruit to go into his traveling box, he’ll go there instead. It’s familiar, and I’m sure he’s tired, cold and hungry by now.” Alder headed to his room to fetch the box.
Joseph was off as well, presumably to change.
Karl sighed, rose from his seat and bowed slightly to the Count. “A pleasure to meet you, Sir. If we are stuck here together as long as I suspect, perhaps I can practice my Russian. For now, please excuse me.” He then headed off to locate some of the staff not engaged in lizard-catching and find out what happened to Judy.
Flora DeWilde had, by this time, disappeared up the stairs, presumably to her room.
Frau Blauer was at the reception desk, wearing a singularly grim expression as Karl approached and made his enquiry.
“Miss Novak? She has taken a light supper in her room.”
Karl knew that Judy’s room was on the same floor as his, as they had gone up together when the first gong sounded.
Karl climbed the stairs and, locating the appropriate door knocked lightly. “Miss Nowak? It’s Karl. I just wanted to check you were alright. Is there anything I can get you?”
Judy, ever helpful, was emerging from her room with her soup bowl and bread plate as Karl walked along the corridor. She opened the door as he finished speaking, then hesitated, immediately flustered in his presence and aware of her travel stained clothing. “Herr Stransky!” Her bob of acknowledgement looked like a curtailed curtsy. She looked down at her dishes.
“I thought to return these to the kitchen, Herr Blauer was so kind as to bring them.” Blushing, she risked a glance at his face. “I had not realised that this was so grand a place. My mother stayed here many years ago, when it was so much smaller. I had not been expecting …” she hesitated and gestured, then hastily grabbed at the sliding dishes.
“Allow me to help you with those,” Karl offered, moving to intercept any crockery that risked falling to the floor. “I was worried you might be sick.”
“You are a guest, you should dine with us….” he struggled with the English words to express himself, eventually settling on: “We don’t bite!”
“My mother stayed here many years ago, when it was so much smaller. Herr Stransky, you are very kind, but I have neither the clothes, nor the manners for such company!” Blushing, she bobbed her head once more, collected her dishes and scuttled past him along the corridor that led to the stairs to the kitchen.
Karl watched her go, not wishing to press the point further. He lifted the pocket watch from his waistcoat by its chain to check the time then retreated to his room. He would change into something less formal. It was too early to retire, and there was too much to discuss.
A short time later, Alder met with his fellow lizard-retrievers in the hotel lobby.
In fact, several were already in the Library where a tearful maid was recounting – to anyone who would listen to her – how she had felt she was being watched as she tidied the newspapers while people were at dinner. How she had turned slowly around … and then had seen a snake’s head poking out from under the great ceramic stove, watching her.
At this point in the tale she would – every time – let out a shriek of horror (to demonstrate how she had responded) – which caused everyone in the room to jump slightly.
Alder was now wearing a casual shirt with the sleeves rolled up, jeans and sturdy lace-up boots, and carried the smallish travel box that the others recognized from earlier, as well as an object bundled in a towel that proved to be a hot-water bottle.
“Danke,” he said with a grateful smile to the shy kitchen-maid who proffered a small plate of diced fruit. He turned to the others. “I may need you gentlemen to herd him toward me if he tries to make a break for it… Hopefully it won’t come to that.” He crept to the closed door of the writing room / library. Placing a careful boot against the jamb in an attempt to forestall further lizard escapades, he balanced box, bottle and fruit in one long arm as he eased open the door and carefully slithered into the room, handing the door off to Franz von Essen, who was just behind him.
Where he promptly tripped on…the edge of the rug? A pencil? Something else? It was difficult to tell; the only thing for certain was that it was not a green lizard. For a moment Alder did some frantic cartwheeling with his free arm before regaining his balance. He stood absolutely still for a moment, catching his breath.
At the point he noticed that the wooden partition between the writing room and the library had been pushed back, and various people crowded into the gap, including the Count, David Olson and Miranda Glyde (Olson, with a stern look at the count, had set the opened Bourbon bottle down on a side table), and Jack Adler.
Joseph was there, still in a suit, albeit a very slightly more casual one. He had also brought his crate, just in case, and was clearly trying to find the perfect place to position it, in case the lizard bolted from his hidey-hole.
Finally Alder began making his way toward the stove with slow, careful and – it must be confessed – exaggerated stalking motions. Reaching it, he dropped to his haunches, set down his accoutrements, put the wrapped hot water bottle on top of the box, opened the box at one end and put some food into it, then dropped to hands and knees and peered under the stove.
Fritzel Blauer was already there and also on his knees. He silently gestured towards the area where he believed the lizard to be – having already taken a look, it appeared. But clearly he was content to allow Mike’s owner to do the actual catching.
“There you are, Mike,” Alder said in a soothing tone of voice. “You had me worried.”
Franz von Essen approached the garrulous maid from behind and clapped a hand over her mouth, effectively muffling her. Even as she continued to make muffled protests, he leaned forward and murmured something quietly in her ear. She fell silent and stopped struggling immediately.
Satisfied, he released her.
Alder picked up a piece of fruit and extended his hand slowly toward the stove. A green head darted out, grabbed the treat, and retreated back under the stove. Alder reached for the box, moved it closer and offered the lizard another piece of fruit, continuing to speak gently and addressing the lizard by name. “I bet you’re tired, Mike. Wouldn’t you like to go home and get some rest? The nice people here have your home all ready for you.” The lizard grabbed two more pieces of fruit before darting toward the box and then inside it. As the tail vanished into the box, Alder’s large hand came to rest on the end, softly swung it shut and firmly threw the latches.
“There,” he said with satisfaction, and sat back on his heels.
“Oh well done, Mr Bishop!” said Miranda admiringly.
“Very effective,” said David Olson. “Now, if the wild beast show is over, let me take you to your room, Miranda.
She shrugged a pettish shoulder as he picked up the bourbon, and then followed him out of the room.
Joseph gave the retreating pair a long look, pitying the poor girl, before laughing and picking up the unneeded crate. “Well done, indeed, and you are obviously the expert. I’ll get this thing out of the way. If you ever want to give him some space to run around without having to chase him again, you are free to use it, of course!” He nodded at those present, and retreated to his room. A crate isn’t a stylish accesory. He mentioned he could probably be found in this very room later, to read the papers.
“Well done, Mr Bishop!” said the Count, striding forward to clap him on the shoulder. “What do you say – shall we all go and have a drink in the casino?”
“Let me put this trouble-maker safely in his habitat,” Alder said, picking up the box and getting to his feet. “Then I’d be glad to join you. Won’t be long.”
At seven o’clock (nineteen hundred European times) a gong was sounded, and Frau Blauer announced to the still-crowded reception that this was the warning sign for dinner; guests had half an hour to dress.
There were enough free rooms for everyone, although the additional influx from the people from the train meant that almost all the rooms were taken; Chetwyn Glyde and his party had claimed all but one of the available suites, and the remaining one had – on the strength of Fritzel’s message to his mother – been secured to Alder Bishop (in the light of his escaped lizard, it was possible that she was now regretting this).
The remaining three rooms on the first floor had been claimed by Franz von Essen, Jack Adler and Joseph Lawrence.
Interestingly, the Count had one of the smaller rooms on the second floor. Judy Novak’s room proved to be the farthest from the staircase (and the bathrooms).
Half an hour to dress for dinner was a short space of time but the helpful servants had unpacked for the guests, as far as they were able. Alder Bishop’s luggage was, perhaps unsurprisingly, untouched.
And then a second gong rang. It was time to put in an appearance in the dining room.
The room was large and well-lit. The tables were arranged in groups of six diners; Chetwyn Glyde occupied one, along with Nellie Nolan, his daughter Miranda and David Olson. He waved Joseph Lawrence over to join him.
Joseph’s hesitation before joining the Glyde-party was hardly noticeable. One wouldn’t want to be impolite, after all. So he greeted those sitting already, adding a small bow for Miss Nolan and Miss Glyde, and sat down easily.
“I say, the hotel is already living up to its reputation,” the art dealer said. “Especially if you consider what little warning they had before a whole trainload of passengers came to stay.” He wore his dress suit – waistcoat, tailcoat, and everything, and apparently tailor-made – in an easy manner, obviously having dressed for dinner without even thinking about it.
The Count too was early and established at a table near the centre of the room (and next to the Glydes), where he could clearly see who was entering the room; he hospitably beckoned people to join him.
There were three other tables, all within hearing distance of each other.
Karl was dressed in a black tuxedo with cravat, perhaps a little more formal than the occasion demanded. He was happy to accept the Count’s invitation to join him and tried out a few phrases of Russian. He had earlier invited Miss Nowak to join him if she wished, but she had mumbled that she had no appetite and escaped to her room.
The Count was delighted to be addressed in his native tongue, and responded volubly, shooting out queries at Karl: Had he visited Russia? In the good old days of course, not under the current barbarians! Had he experienced the White Nights in St Petersberg? Where had he stayed? Who did he know?
Karl apologised that he does not know much Russian, reverting to German.
“I went to St Petersburg as a child, and learnt a few phrases,” he explained. “Father insisted I see the Mariinsky, saying there was nowhere else in the world where I would see such beauty. It was this time of year; the Nutcracker. There was still magic in the world, back then.”
“Ah yes,” said the Count. “ I remember that performance … “ He recalled a few details of the staging, and then passed to reminiscences of his friends in St Petersburg in those days, always members of the best families.
Jack also went for the table with the Count, with smiles and an easy charm about him. He was dressed for the occasion, but a little less formally than the others present, jacket, American style cravat and matching pants and dress shirt. His mood was jovial, with an easy charm to him that tended towards a boyish appearance. And all of this was new and interesting! He was particularly keen to hear what brought people, and indeed other Americans, up to a place like this in the middle of winter. There were no invites or leanings from him, happy it would appear to let the cards fall where they might.
Samantha Smith entered the room a moment after Jack. She wore a white satin dress, elegant but perhaps a few years out of style. She looked around the room hesitantly, noted the placement of people. Then decided to sit in the table nearest to the stairs. Her seat gave her a good view of the Glyde party’s table, and allowed her to people watch the rest of the room. “I’m Samantha,” she politely introduced herself to the rest of the table as she sat down.
Flora DeWilde arrived in the dining room looking more like the daughter of a wealthy New York City family that she’d been born as, than like the aspiring journalist of her chosen career path. She wore a fashionably cut evening gown in a dark-green velvet that closely matched her eyes and set off her auburn hair, which was adorned with a diamond clip. The pearls in her opera-length necklace were obviously genuine.
After one glance around the room, she made a beeline for the one remaining seat at Chetwyn Glyde’s table, near her friend Miranda.
Joseph rose as soon as he saw Flora appear in the doorway. He went over to her, with the intention of inviting him to the table, but she already went for it herself. This resulted in him having to make an very close to comical about-turn on his heels, but her recovered with a good-natured, self-directed laugh, pulling out a chair for her to sit upon. This was a man who might just be used to daughters of wealthy families, and the way they interacted with the world.
The food was good and hearty – a rich meaty soup was followed by lake trout, and then by venison. The wines were excellent, although – unless guests chose to order champagne – tending to the hearty and full-bodied.
There were a choice of rich creamy cakes for dessert, and a delicious selection of ice creams.
Joseph clearly enjoyed tasting the local cuisine, and had no objections to trying out the local wine, either. But he conformed to what the rest of the table is drinking. If he had a chance to steer the conversation, he focused mostly on the ladies at their table, asking them whether they were enjoying Bad Bernsdorff, what the local attractions were, and things like that.
Samantha sampled everything, but didn’t fill up her plate. She had a glass of sweet German white wine to go with her meal.
Midway through the first course, the remarked-upon-but-rarely-seen Alder Bishop appeared in the doorway. He proved to be a tall, ruggedly handsome man in his early thirties, with thick tousled dark hair, greyish-blue eyes, and deeply flushed cheeks; he wore a jacket over a sweater and a shirt, with dress pants. “Good evening, everyone,” he said. His gaze flickered about the room, taking note of the groupings. “Apologies for being late.” He then added, possibly apropos of nothing, “We got the horse out, it’ll be fine.” He made his way to the nearest open seat, stumbling slightly over a rug in the process.
He introduced himself to the others at his table: “Alder Bishop. Pleased to meet you.”
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Bishop,” A blonde with an east coast accent at the table nodded with a smile. “I’m Samantha Smith. It’s a real pleasure to meet you,” she added. She looked as if to say more, then cut herself off and smiled at the rest of the table.
“Long Island?” he inquired, as a bowl of stew was set before him. He acknowledged the server with what appeared to be a grateful smile, then attacked the food as though he had not eaten in a year – or perhaps, as though he had recently been digging a horse out of an avalanche.
Samantha’s eyes widened. She took breath to respond, but Mr. Sherman answered his introduction first. Samantha picked up her wine glass and took a sip.
“Ashton Sherman, pleased to meet you”, replied Ashton, “Glad to hear the horse will be fine. Nasty things avalanches.” As someone who enjoyed skiing, he was well aware of the dangers of being caught up in an avalanche. He continued, “It was fortunate the train wasn’t any closer when it happened. Will avalanches and remote snowy villages be featuring in your next book, Mr Bishop?”
“Always glad to meet a reader,” Alder said with a boyish grin. “Well, not the next one, um, actually, four. I’ve got two books at the publisher…and two more under contract, plots and all. Maybe the one after that.” He looked thoughtful for a moment; his eyes unfocused…then, as he was addressed by Franz, he snapped back to attention.
“Franz von Essen,” said the final person at the table, with Prussian formality. “I came by one of your novels in Copenhagen last year, and enjoyed it immensely. Tell me – are any of your novels available in German?”
“All of them,” Alder replied promptly. “My agent’s been very busy with foreign sales, the last couple of years. The latest one is at the translator now; couldn’t ask for anyone better. I do speak German,” he added in that language before switching back to English, “but not well enough to translate either the technical information or most of the colloquial phrasing.”
Flora DeWilde turned around in her seat when Alder Bishop arrived, and called over to him cheerfully, “Alder Bishop, I thought I recognized you running away from the train! After the escaped lizard incident, of course, I was sure!”
Alder halted, the spoon halfway to his mouth. “Good Lord,” he said. “Hello, Flora.” After a moment, with a look of dread on his face (and more than a touch of resignation in his voice), he added “What escaped lizard incident?”
“Miss De Wilde,” said Nellie Nolan, very sweetly, “if the conversation here on this table isn’t sufficiently engaging, perhaps you would like to join your other friend?”
Chetwyn Glyde was glaring at Flora, unused to people giving him less than their full attention. David Olson gave her a faint, sardonic smile. Miranda was gazing at her plate, biting her lip.
Flora just laughed. “He is a very interesting man… but right now I think he’s more interested in his dinner. The lizard is new, though.”
“There was a largish green lizard in a box in the luggage brought from the train,” Samantha said in an aside to Bishop. “It escaped its box in the lobby and is apparently at large in the hotel. Poor thing probably won’t survive the night in the cold unless it gets into the kitchen or such,” she added regretfully.
Looking incredibly guilty, Alder dropped his spoon into his soup bowl. “Ah…that’s my lizard,” he said apologetically. “I’m afraid he’s a bit of an escape artist.” He appeared to unfold in sections from his chair as he stood up. “Can’t have him wreaking havoc. If you’ll excuse me…”
“Mr. Bishop,” Samantha protested. “I’m sure your lizard will be all right for a little while. And I’m sure the kitchen staff won’t appreciate you searching around as they’re trying to serve dinner. I suspect,” she added nicely, “that they’ll let you know as soon as they see it.”
Alder hesitated for some moments, considering her words, then slowly sat back down. “I suppose you’re right, Miss Smith.” He picked up his spoon again and said, almost plaintively, “And I am awfully hungry,” before continuing with the soup.
Flora DeWilde – currently talking to Alder Bishop on Table 3
Franz von Essen
Judy Nowak is eating in her room.
Given the opportunity Karl was happy to talk endlessly about the music and night-life of Vienna. He had a long list of anecdotes about film stars and rich friends few people had heard of, and deployed them when the opportunity presented to keep the conversation flowing.
There was a slight hesitation with the food, fancier fare than Jack was used to, but he still went at it with that boyish air of aplomb. As for drinks? Wine apparently would suffice, though there might be a small murmur enquiring after bourbon, which would no doubt thwarted by a lack of said item.
But the waiter was eager to oblige and brought an almost full bottle of fine old bourbon to the table for Jack to help himself.
A tall fair-haired man paused at the table, where he was collecting the plates of those who had finished the fish course. It was Fritzel Blauer – who Alder would recognise as his companion in digging out the horse from the avalanche, and then travelling back to the hotel. Clearly over-hearing this conversation, he said, “I tried to capture your lizard earlier, Herr Bishop. However it ran into the Library and I believe it has taken refuge under the stove there. Once dinner is over, we should be able to rescue him – but I would advise changing into something less formal.”
There was something curious in the way Fritzel spoke. It was precise and formal, and yet there was little of the deference that some might expect of a member of the hotel staff. It might be because Fritzel had already met Alder Bishop in a situation that has necessitated a measure of equality. Yet his manner was similar with other guests. Perhaps it was because he was the owner’s son and thus in a position of some superiority to the other staff. And yet, to the observant, there was a sense that Fritzel Blauer was someone you would expect to encounter in discussions across the table, not standing behind your chair to serve you.
Samantha smiled at Blauer. “Why Fritzel… how kind of you to try to capture Mr. Bishop’s lizard. Very much in the Christmas spirit if you ask me. Don’t you agree?” Samantha turned to ask the rest of the table.
“Couldn’t agree more, Mr. Blauer. And thank you.” He glanced around at the rest of the table. “I suppose I should explain why I’m traveling with a lizard in the dead of winter.
“My editor — the one who’s been handling my foreign sales — a friend of a friend of hers is,” and he named a lovely starlet of recent but not inconsiderable fame. “Seems she likes my books, and wanted to meet me. And I, ah, wanted to meet her. I like her movies,” he added too quickly. “So when we met — she invited me for lunch — she said at the end of it, she had a surprise for me. She rang a bell, and her major-domo, guy named Guy –” Alder gave the name the French pronunciation. “–showed up carrying Mike, who was wearing (if you’ll believe it) a fancy gold harness and a leash. She said she really liked my book =The Seven Salamanders,= and she wanted to give me something special to show her appreciation. I guess she thought salamanders and lizards were the same thing.” He sighed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise. Besides, she’d seen fit to get me a terrarium and lights and food and things, even written instructions from a local zookeeper, everything I needed to take care of him…and I’ve become, ah, rather fond of Mike. He doesn’t speak much, but he’s good company.”
“At least he doesn’t want revisions or autographs I’m guessing,” Samantha smiled at the table. “How long have you had.. Mike? That’s his name, yes?” she asked in an interested tone.
Alder found himself smiling back. “Yes, Mike. He, um, looked a lot like my father’s old desk sergeant, so I just…well. I’ve had him a couple of months now. He’s pretty smart, really. He knows his name, and he’s good about letting me handle him. But I’ve figured out that I’ve got to put a heavy book on top of the terrarium or he figures a way out… I’m having a custom enclosure built for him, for when we get home.”
Chetwyn Glyde addressed Joseph Lawrence directly as they ate.
“The thing is, I’ve had an approach. A group of … gentlemen and their families, who are desirous of leaving the country in something of a hurry, and are prohibited from taking their wealth with them. You understand me? They all have some interesting pieces they are anxious to sell, and have the money deposited where they may get at it later. Some of the pieces are modern – what the Nazis call “degenerate”. Some are older pieces. I need someone I can trust to check these out And to negotiate a price. I’m not prepared to pay top dollar or this, you understand? But let’s not make ’em sweat too much. It’s in the nature of things that these people may have family stateside, who I could be doing business with later. Hell, I might even be doing business with some of these gentlemen themselves. So let’s go for a hard price, but not unfair. You catch my drift?”
He spoke in a low tome which he intended to be heard by no-one but Joseph. Others sitting close, if they listened hard, might have caught some of this (but it would look very odd is the whole room fell silent).
Flora, sitting at the same table, seemed to be focusing her attention on Miranda and Mr. Lawrence … but she was good at listening.
Joseph felt the muscles in his back knot for a moment, but he forced himself to relax, making him just a second late in answering. That might also have to do with the fact that he had to work through several possible answers, and their fall-out, in his mind. His face, which had showed great animation before, was now carefully neutral, and his voice reflected that he was trying to strike a balance between several feelings here. “I am always happy to assist, Mr Glyde, but I do feel obliged to remind you that in the past, you have criticised my business acumen, saying that I bought too high and sold too low.” He sighed. “Even so, I understand these gentlemen,” there was no hesitation when he pronounced the refugees as such, “will have to sell anyway, and as such they could do worse than someone who had future business opportunities in mind. So, I will do it, provided you will acceed to my fee.”
Now Joseph’s face actually looked quite hard. “My fee is that I will inform the other parties of the retail value of their collections as well, and that, if I know of a place where they can get a better deal, I will have an opportunity to inform them about it. Acceed, and I will not ask for monetary recompensation.”
He had spoken softly as well, and he was curious to see Chetwyn’s reaction.
Once she was sure everyone was seated, Judy scurried towards the kitchen. She had washed her spare underclothes and blouse, but her only other garment, a long black skirt, was too creased to wear and appearing in her traveling clothes would not be acceptable.
As she opened the door, Frau Blauer turned to see who had intruded, her expression unwelcoming.
“Excuse me,” Judy gestured to her clothing, “I am unable to dine with the guests. May I take some soup and a little bread perhaps?”
Frau Blauer frowned. “It would be more normal to have it sent to your room. There would, of course be a small change.”
Mutti,” said someone behind Judy. “This Fraulein has had a terrible experience – let us be hospitable.”
As Judy turned round she saw a handsome fair young German with short blonde hair and very blue eyes. On seeing Judy fully he started, and stared for what felt like a long time. Then he said, with something of an effort, “Please go to your room. I will bring you soup and bread myself.”
“Oh. What kind of creature is it?” Judy moved immediately, but toward the box instead of away. She crouched beside the box, lifting it gently and attempting to peer within. She glanced around her companions, “Would he or she be safe if I let them out?”
Just lifting the box seemed to dislodge the lid in some way – or perhaps the occupant had discovered the trick of it.
As the box opened the contents blinked alert dark eyes back at her. He was a handsome green lizard, mostly leaf-green in color, about twelve inches long from tip of nose to base of tail with another eighteen inches of delicate tapering curve trailing behind. That he had strong splayed feet was evident as he nudged the top of the box further aside and bounded up Judy’s arm. In a flash he had scrambled to her shoulder, taken a flying leap from there to the top of the nearest counter, then down to the floor and straight toward the now hysterical maid, who scrambled away from him, tripped over a nearby rug and fell upon her well-padded behind. Seeming a friendly sort, the lizard jumped on her and — avoiding the screeching woman’s ineffectual swats — raced up to her hair. From there he sprang down to the rug and skittered across the lobby.
“I’d get it back in the box quickly,” the American nurse called out as she pulled her own long coat off and hung it on one of the pegs near the doors.. “If it escapes outside it will probably die. Lizards can’t take cold weather like this,” she added practically.
“Plus it might be poisonous,” Samantha pointed out factually. “Who does it belong to?” she asked calmly, looking around. She removed her gloves from her coat pocket and started to put them back on.
Joseph recovered from his surprise at this sudden action just in time to lift up his hands in a clear ‘not me’-gesture. He looked around, trying to see where the animal went.
Unfortunately, it had darted down the nearest hallway and was completely out of sight.
“We’ll I’ll be…!” Damned? Probably. Jack looked amused rather than scared. “Seen critters like that down in Mexico. Can’t say I know much about them save they can be slippery..” Some mental editing of phrasing clearly took place before he continued. “Creatures.”
Karl ignored the fuss over the live luggage and took a long look at the reception register before signing in. As he took an appraising look at each of the residents in turn, some of his former good humour subsided.
The intellectual gymnastics Jack was doing seemed to amuse Joseph, and he flashed the Texan a grin. “Not my area either, but the lady is probably right. This weather can’t be good for it….” Yet he didn’t move, apparently at a loss as to how to go about capturing lizards. It looked like he was hoping very fervently that someone else would be more adept at such a thing.
Finally, Joseph did what he could do, which was walking over to the maid, quietly telling her all would be well. “Maybe you have some fruit or something in the kitchen our brave hunters can use to lure the lizard?” he asked, giving her an excuse to retreat for a bit to compose herself.
Samantha pulled on her gloves as she walked over to the box. She leaned over, picked up the lid, and examined it for any name or any other indicators. “Poor thing is probably looking for someplace warm.” Then she saw the luggage marked ‘ALDER BISHOP’ and her blue eyes grew wide. “Alder Bishop? Is here? The writer?” she asked in a surprised voice, looking around the room, the box lid forgotten in her hands.
It took a while, but the wagons for the passengers were eventually filled. The first two were bound for the Hotel de Saxe, the others were to transport lesser mortals, and one the farmer and his son who had been rescued from the avalanche. Neither were badly injured, and Samantha Smith (who had ridden out on one of the wagons to help) was able to travel back on one of the wagons for the Hotel, assured that her patients were in the good hands of the village nurse).
Karl was as good as his word and procured seats in the first wagon for himself and Judy. Flora and Joseph were there too; Ashton chose to ski back to the hotel, but, as the horses moved at a walking pace, it was easy for most of the journey to ski alongside the wagon and exchange a little shouted conversation with Flora and Joseph – although, as they approached the hotel, he offered to ski ahead and arrange suitable accommodation, for the Hotel de Saxe was not that large.
“That would be so kind of you, Mr. Sherman,” Flora told him. “You’d better prepare them for quite the crowd!”
Joseph was enjoying the romanticism of a lantern-lit ride through the snow, and quite happy to see the local architecture. “I’ll have to get back here when it’s light,” he enthused, “but this is wonderful, isn’t it. Oh, I’m sorry, perhaps you had plans for Christmas you are missing?”
The question was addressed to Ms DeWilde, as Mr Sherman was here already, so presumably this was his Christmas plan.
Jack Adler was offered a ride back to the village in the second wagon with Samantha; of the passengers only Alder Bishop remained at the site of the avalanche. It appeared that the horse that had been caught in the avalanche had not been killed, and Adler remained, with a few of the villagers, to dig it out. Fritzel was one of those remaining – he scribbled a hasty note to his mother, which he sent by the first wagon, to inform her that a distinguished guest would shortly be arriving, and to make sure that she kept back one of the best rooms for him, and he assured Alder they could walk back together once the horse was freed.
“Much appreciated,” Alder replied in German. “Now, let’s see to this poor beast.” With the driver holding the horse’s head and crooning to him in some language Alder didn’t speak, but what appeared to possess a calming influence, the group bent to the task.
The diggers found their rhythm soon enough in the form of Christmas carols, most chorusing in German. Alder joined in, slightly off key but enthusiastic, in English. Snow flew, enthusiastically, everywhere.
In the second wagon wagon heading for the village, Jack was pleasant company at least, getting to know those he worked with and keeping jovial despite the situation.
The American nurse, Samantha Smith, was mostly quiet on the travel back. She listened to the conversations, nodding when appropriate, but seemed to have little to say at the time.
The open wagons progressed at a stately pace through the crisp night air (although it was still early evening), but the village of Bad Bernsdorf was not far, and it was not long before they saw the lights and then found themselves making their way through the streets of the village, lined on each side by the picturesque Untergebingenhausen, characteristic of that part of the world. Despite the hour, villagers came into the street to cheer the arrival of the wagons.
At last they drew up at the Hotel de Saxe, a welcoming sight with its lanterns and the older retainers ready, with old world courtesy, to assist the ladies to alight.
All the passengers were ushered into the main room while the retainers ferried their luggage in, piling it into the centre of the room.
Frau Blauer was at the reception desk, a welcoming smile on her face, ready to check all the guests in. As they did so, the retainers asked them to point to their baggage so that it could be taken to their rooms, and their rooms prepared, although the guests were offered glasses of an excellent Glühwein to warm them after their cold excursion.
“That one’s mine,” Flora let them know, pointing to a single large steamer trunk pasted with labels acquired during her European trip so far.
Once the others had been greeted, Judi stepped hesitantly forward.
“Frau Blauer?” Outside the hotel a horse could be heard whinnying, no doubt unnerved by the storm. Judi proffered her paper again. “I made arrangements with your husband for a room.” She hesitated at the woman’s stern look, “The letter was signed, Fritzel Blauer?”
Frau Blauer frowned suddenly and seemed as though she was about to make a sharp reply when there was an intervention.
“Fritzel is the son,” Karl explained with a chuckle, appearing at Judy’s shoulder.
Frau Blauer seemed to relax, to medium frosty.
“Guten Abend Gutrun,” he continued smoothly in German. “You must forgive our English rose. She was not to know. So Fritzel is once more in the family business. You must be so proud.”
This elicited a genuine smile.
“Ja,” she said in the same language. “Fritzel is a good boy. He is helping at the hotel and continuing his studies as well. They thought very highly of him at the University. He was assisting Professor Szilard before … all that unfortunate business.”
“I know you never truly get time off,” Karl continued in German, “but if you can spare me a few moments we must talk later, once you have seen to your guests. It has been too long.”
Joseph was writing his name in the guest book. He kept his face neutral, as it would be impolite to listen in, but even though Professor Szilard was very much outside his own field of expertise, he recognised the name from the papers. As he straightened he smiled at Frau Blauer and Mr Stransky. He could understand the former being proud of a son who must be very smart indeed, and he was once again favourably impressed by the way the gentleman seemed to smooth things over.
“I apologize for our sudden appearance,” Joseph’s German was excellent. “I hope we’re not too much of an inconvenience, but I must say I’m happy to be able to see this place. Not just to get out of the cold! I’m looking forward to staying in the Hotel de Saxe; you have a stellar reputation.”
Ashton wandered back into the reception after changing out of his skiing clothes and into a modest suit. He had spoken to Frau Blauer hastily on his arrival at the hotel as Flora had suggested to warn her of the number of guests arriving. He gratefully accepted a warm glass of Glühwein and watched the arrival of the guests from the train with interest.
Attracted by the noise of a large number of arrivals, other guests began to appear – and there were some signs of recognition. A slight, handsome, fair-haired man, lounging near the door to the room set aside as a library (for reading newspapers and writing letters), nodded at Ashton – this wasFranz von Essen, a well-known German skier (for those who followed such things).
Ashton looked with surprise at Franz. Ashton intended his stay at the Hotel de Saxe to be low-key and private, but people he already knew were popping up everywhere. Ashton had met Franz von Essen while taking part in skiing competitions but found his presence here to be a less than pleasant surprise.
Franz inclined his head in recognition of Ashton. He seemed no more pleased to see Ashton than Ashton was to see him.
From the door of the Casino, several people appeared. A tall, moustachioed man who, despite the warmth of the inn, appeared to be wearing a fur lined cloak, spotted the tray of mugs of Glühwein stationed near the fire, gave a deep, thankful bellow of “Aha!” and headed forward to claim a mug for himself and, incidentally, the best seat by the fire. Only then did he glance around at the guests. He appeared to recognise no-one but, after taking a long sip – one might almost call it a swig – at the Glühwein, announced in a booming voice, “I am Count Vasily Dolgorukov, and I am honoured to make your acquaintances!”
Behind him were a man and a woman, both well-known to any who followed the newspaper reports: Chetwyn Glyde, the media tycoon, and his beautiful long-term mistress, Nellie Nolan, clinging to his arm. Chetwyn’s sharp glance swept the room – and rested on Joseph Lawrence.
“Ah good,” he said. “Don’t know why you are here, but you’ve saved me the bother of telegraphing. I’ve come across some of this so-called decadent art, and I want your opinion on it.”
“Mr Glyde,” Joseph replied, his voice a polite neutral as he spoke the name. He knew the man was in Europe, didn’t know he would be here. But the invitation to examine the works he brought warmed him up. “Of course, I would be happy to look them over. I think they said we would be here until after Christmas, so I am available.” His face was now far from neutral, and his expression clearly showed the inner debate he had about how polite it would be to offer to look at them right away.
“Miss Nolan,” he added, perhaps a tad later than Joseph would have if there hadn’t been any art in the offering.
“Ah, Herr Glyde has been to a Schandausstellungen. How daring,” Karl observed, speaking again in German. “No doubt the artists were keen to part with their work for a fraction of its value.”
“Actually,” Joseph postulated mildly, and in really quite accentless German, “Decadent art is an art movement of the end of the last century, mostly in France.” Less mildly, he continued, “A Schandausstellung is where I’m going. To several, I hope. The artists may not be compensated adequately, but at least if I buy it, it will be preserved, and I will try to help them as much I can. Should we just let it all be destroyed, instead?”
“Oh, I very much doubt it will be destroyed,” Karl replies lightly. “Not when it provides such a lucrative trade. It is just another means of exploiting those who don’t conform, nicht wahr?
“The German government will be so grateful for your contribution. Perhaps they will even film your visit for posterity.”
Joseph looked bleak. “They will destroy it. When Savonarola lighted the Bonfire of the Vanities, Botticelli came and burned his own paintings.” He spoke with the certainty of someone who had seen it happen before. Then he mde an effort to smile. “But perhaps this is not a discussion for this moment. My name is Joseph Lawrence, andI’m always available to discuss it later, Mr …?”
“Stransky, Karl Stransky.” Karl said, extending a hand. “A pleasure to meet you, Herr Lawrence. I would be delighted if you kept me abreast of anything you recover. I am always interested in the fate of beautiful things.”
He cast a glance in Ms Nolan’s direction and offered a knowing smile.
Joseph gave Karl a firm handshake. “Likewise,” he said, “it seems we’re both interested in beauty.” He reached into his pocket and handed the other man a card with his name, and the address of his Chicago gallery.
As soon as he stepped back into the hotel Jack’s sodden hat was swept smartly off his head again and a polite nod given to the those present with appropriate greetings of ‘Sir’ ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Miss’ given out, even to the Count who for some reason drew a longer look. “I’d be mighty glad not to drink and something to line my stomach. Hard, cold work out there… And here’s me forgetting my manners again. Jack Adler the second. Pleased to meet y’all.”
The Count was clearly not unaware of Jack’s longer look. In response he gave a genial smile and called out, “Welcome! Welcome, Mr Adler! I am sure dinner will be served shortly … but in the mean-time, will you not join me in a drink?”
He gestured expansively – so that anyone might assume this was a party supplied by the Count’s generosity, rather than a kind gesture by the Hotel’s owner.
“I’d right be delighted to,” Jack replied with one last glance around the place before his coat was dispensed appropriately and he moved to the heat of the fire. But not to the Glühwein yet, for he was far too busy watching the various interactions and those occupying the hotel. Not that his gaze ever lingered too long, except maybe on Miss Miranda Glyde.
Down the stairs came two more people, the fragile young Miranda Glyde and, following her, the saturnine David Olson. Both paused near the foot of the stairs to survey the scene … and then Miranda gave a little cry, seemingly of joy, before racing across the room and positively throwing herself on to Flora de Wilde.
“You’ve come, you’ve come!” she was saying, half laughing and half crying.
“Good heavens! Randi!” Flora shrieked, catching up the other woman in surprised, but welcoming embrace. “Darling, it seems an age since I heard from you, and then it was ever such a queer letter. What are you doing here?”
David Olson looked at Miranda sharply at the reference to the letter, and then took a leisurely step towards the reception desk. It might have been to remove himself into the background. It also, however, placed him in an excellent position to read the register, albeit upside down.
Samantha Smith entered the lobby as with the last of the second cart. She watched the reunion with interest as she unbuttoned her long woollen# coat.
Miranda hugged her closer and breathed into her ear, “We must talk – soon.”
Flora responded to this suggestion with a firm nod.
Then she released Flora and stood at arm’s length, holding her hands and smiling at her.
“Daddy took it into his head to spend a few months touring Europe. And this is remote – but so friendly! The people are just to die for.”
“Are they really? They were very obliging about the avalanche, I must say,” Flora replied.
David Olson moved back towards them and said, smiling. “I believe it’s Miss De Wilde, isn’t it? Miranda’s journalist friend?”
Perhaps he laid a little unnecessary emphasis on the word “journalist”. It certainly had an effect on several present. Nellie Nolan released her breath in a sharp hiss; Chetwyn Glyde turned from Joseph Lawrence and frowned at his daughter. The Count coughed on his Glühwein (which might, of course, have been wholly co-incidental).
Flora turned to Olson with a faintly challenging air. “Why, yes. That is, naturally I wasn’t a journalist when Miranda and I were at school together, but I decided I’d rather be that than a dilettante. Maybe I’ll get a few good travel pieces out of this European junket,” she added hopefully.
Joseph had been aware of the two ladies greeting each other, of course (as he was aware of Mr Adler’s entrance, but not in a position to react right away), so as his conversational partners turned, following their look was natural. The look he had for the reunion was very different from the reactions of the others; he seemed mostly happy that other people were happy, and the young blonde woman did seem very happy to meet the lady he himself just met on the train. Yet, as he surveyed the room and the other guests, that contented look changed into something more quiet. Well, the reactions of those around him were hard to miss.
“Miss DeWilde, how nice for you to meet a friend,” Joseph chose to emphasise the other word in
Olson’s sentence. He, too, accepted a glass of Glühwein. “With good company, and beautiful things to look at, this will hopefully be a very enjoyable Christmas, yes?”
The presence of a journalist seemed to be of no note to the Texan Jack Adler at least, and finally at this exchange he helped himself to some wine, but remained standing. Perhaps he knows some manners after all.
Chetwyn seemed about to remonstrate with his daughter, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden scream from the middle of the room.
Most of the luggage had been cleared away; only a trunk, a hardshell case, two boxes and a medium-sized leather bag remained (and those closest could see they were labelled “ALDER BISHOP”. A maid who had been removing Joseph Lawrence’s bags, had sprung to a safe distance as she screamed and was now staring with horror at a small box with a series of holes drilled into it along both sides.
“Es bewegt sich!” she shouted. “Es bewegt sich!”
And, true to her words, the little box rocked to and fro.
The express from Vienna to Berlin seemed to be a singularly ill-named train. It dawdled across Austria, delayed at starter by apparent coal shortages, delayed later on by snow of the line. Passengers in Third Class carriages shivered in their coats as the heating proved inadequate; passengers in First Class were only a few degrees better off – unless they had provided themselves with footwarmers.
For Alder Bishop, this trip had so far been a busman’s holiday.
Nine long months he had toiled in the artificially glittered, soul-sucking morass known as Hollywood, USA. Someone – he suspected his evil agent in collusion with God-alone-knew-whom from the studios – had come up with the brilliant idea that a prolific mystery novelist could supply the movie industry with enough written material to keep the insatiable maw of the film industry stuffed full.
Then they got him out there and never let him write.
Instead he went to meetings. He was given assignments. To write romances. Where the bold hero was a dashing sea captain. But two days later was a hard-bitten police officer. Until it mysteriously became a period piece starring, it was guaranteed, the next Errol Flynn.
And the heroine was of course in turns plucky and scatter-brained, bluestocking and unconsciously sensual.
While you’re at it, Alder, don’t forget the Hays Code.
And the sun! All day every day without letup! Hateful! How did they bear it?
Finally Alder had escaped – though not home to the Big Apple. He’d felt too restless and unclean to desecrate the brownstone for long with his unhappy presence. Not, God knew, to accompany his father southward to the latest stage of his Floridian retirement contentment. No, he would stay well away from all he knew and loved until he yanked himself out of this funk.
So Alder booked passage on the first available ocean liner and set sail for Europe, there to catch the first train that came along.
If other than mere fancy was directing Alder’s decision to pass time on the Continent — the contents of a thick Manila envelope liberally spangled with foreign stamps, perhaps — his father had given him a shrewd ice-blue gaze, muttered “Hm,” and said nothing more.
Had Dad said something about…? No, whatever it was couldn’t be that important.
Alder’s journey had wound its way ever northward. Then, with the first snowflake…
The title and its twist bloomed redly in his mind: “The Cerebrus Assignment.”
He dove for his Remington Noiseless.
But then, for the train and its passengers, there were the border crossings.
On some journeys, the border guards would board the trains to inspect passports and visas; on this journey, the guards preferred to stay snug and warm in their building; the passengers were required to disembark and queue twice in the cold – at the Austrian/Czech border, and then again at the Czech/German border.
“There’s a lot of tension at the moment,” one tall, lanky Englishman said to his stockier companion. “All this Sudentenland business has people on edge.”
Joseph Lawrence had travelled enough to know that he didn’t want to get into a political conversation with a stranger, certainly not a stranger who he might have to spend some more time with in confined quarters (like a train), and even more when you can’t be sure who is listening in. He was travelling on to Berlin, after all.
Flora DeWilde, as a journalist, had been keeping abreast of the news, so she listened interestedly to the two men’s conversation, but didn’t attempt to say anything about it.
The journey should have seen them arriving in Berlin in time for dinner; instead by 4pm on Christmas Eve, they were still moving through the mountains that bordered Northern Czechoslovakia and Southern Saxony.
And if that wasn’t enough ….
There was a sudden loud, long blow on the whistle and the train came to a precipitate halt. Anyone standing would have been knocked off their feet.
Alder never noticed the whistle, being as he was, as he had been for some days, Possessed by Story. Stories, actually. Three short stories and several plot twists.
What he did notice was the Remington Noiseless sliding out from under his finger-tips. Only a quick reflexive grab was all that stopped the faithful machine from upending itself and the tale in progress onto the limited floor-apace.
“Good God!” he said, sliding the Remington back into place. He stared at it, but his train of thought was irrevocably broken.
Belatedly he glanced at his recently acquired travel companion, whose habitat was well padded with blankets and hot water bottles. “Mike, are you all right-?”
His companion blinked large dark eyes at him reproachfully.
“Be right back. I’m going to see what is going on.”
The carriage attendants moved swiftly through the train, offering reassurance.
“Meine Damen und Herren … a n avalanche has brought down snow on the line. We regret … it cannot be cleared today – or until after Christmas.”
Flora had long since despaired of making Paris by Christmas, as she had hoped; on her European trip so far she had spent enough time on trains to realize that the kind of punctuality American railroads prided themselves on could not be hoped for. Nevertheless, it was a blow.
“However, there is a village ahead – Bad Bernsdorf,” the attendant continued. “There are inns there where you might stay … the Hotel de Saxe will provide admirable accommodation for First Class passengers. Wagons will be arriving shortly. Please remain in your compartments.”
Shortly after this, however, by the strange osmosis of gossip that strangely affects stranded travellers, they learned that it was not quite as simple as the attendants had led them to believe. The avalanche had not only blocked the railway track, but also a country road that ran next to it and it was feared that a farmer and his two sons had been caught in the avalanche and buried, together with their horse and wagon. Even now frantic efforts were being made to save them … indeed, despite the gathering gloom, these efforts could be witnessed by those bold enough to open the windows or, indeed, the doors.
Alder caught up with his cabin steward in the hall only a few steps from his door and quickly took in the news.
“I’ll help, Johan, of course,” he said quickly before the offer could be denied – and the steward was not that averse to denying him; Alder was a tall, muscular man in the prime of his life, well suited to handling a snow-shovel and other tools. “Let me grab my coat.” He dug in his pocket, pulled out a wad of notes and pressed them into the steward’s hand. “See that my things get to the hotel, would you? Get me a room with some natural light. Don’t move the paper in the typewriter.” After a moment’s further thought he added another folded bill. “Mike has a traveling case – you remember, that’s how I brought him here. Put a few crickets in first, he should go in just fine. Don’t catch his tail. Put the case under your coat, make sure he stays warm.” After another moment — possibly spurred by the steward’s incredulous expression – he added more money to the stack, dived back into his cabin and quickly pulled on his parka and accoutrements
Johan, the cabin steward who had been looking after Alder and that verdamnt lizard for some weeks now, gazed dazedly after his charge, then stared down at the not inconsiderable sum of money in his hand.
Any other proposals to lend assistance were quickly scotched by the attendants, who were eager to ensure an orderly departure for their passengers. They were not quick enough to prevent one passenger – the tall, lanky athletic figure of Alder Bishop – who headed off, presumably to lend assistance, before he could be prevented.
Flora’s eyes widened in recognition as she peered out the window at the tall, lanky man.
Joseph was cold. He was bundled up in his overcoat, a large book, old-looking and exquisitely illustrated on his lap, and his face scrunched up in concentration as he studied it. In fact, examining one page took him so long, he had time to absend-mindedly fiddle with his gloves – on, off, on, off – before he had to turn in. He did so without thinking, to an almost comical effect to anyone watching him. When the train abruptly stopped, he instinctively clutched the volume to his chest with one hand, using his other one to push back the spectacles that came gliding down his nose.
First Class had its benefits, but Karl Stransky had long since pulled on boots as the cold began to creep across the floor of the compartment. He rubbed his hands and considered lighting a pipe.
He gazed out over the unblemished carpet of snow. The sudden stop hadn’t surprised him, and he was well-prepared for it. After all, he’d done this journey dozens of times before. Of course, it wasn’t so long ago there were no border guards to contend with, only the long sweeping expanse of Austria-Hungary from Vienna to Galicia. Perhaps soon this journey would become impossible.
He had a lot to say about Sudetenland, but didn’t engage the Englishmen in conversation, having neither the necessary command of the language nor the inclination to talk politics. Better to consider more peasant diversions.
The arrival of the news of the avalanche, and their proximity to the village made him smile. Bad Bernsdorf, and that meant the Hotel de Saxe. Ah, he wouldn’t mind staying there, not at all.
Karl rose from his seat, pulling on his gloves and dragged a small, perfectly buffed suitcase from the rack. He made his way out of the train both to see how best to proceed and to perhaps offer assistance to any unaccompanied young ladies who might need a hand.
Hunched and miserably cold in third class, Judy heard the announcement with dismay. Hotel de Saxe was designated for First Class passengers and there was no way that she would pass as one of Them. She anxiously scanned the road beside the track for any sign of a wagon. Perhaps she could persuade a driver to let her ride outside with him, although that meant risking frostbite.
She grabbed her small cardboard case and desperately hurried after the attendant, “Please? Hotel de Saxe. I must get there.”
“Pft,” he dismissed her with a hiss, “FIRST. Class. Only” He spoke slowly, as though to an imbecile, grimacing with narrow-faced scorn.
“Please!” She scrabbled through her purse, “I have a booking …” but he had already moved away and let the door to the next carriage slam in her face.
Then the attendant turned, and found him face to face with Karl Stransky (who should have been able to catch a glimpse of Judy’s face as the door slammed on it).
“A third class passenger,” he said to Karl, recovering his usual deference quickly. “They will be found alternative accommodation.”
Somehow, he managed to make the “alternative accommodation” sound singularly insalubrious.
“*Nonsense!* In this weather?” Karl replied in his perfect and most imperious German. “Are we barbarians?”
He grabbed the door handle and yanked it open, gesturing for Judy to disembark.
“Fraulein…Mademoiselle….My Lady?” He ventured, hoping this would elicit a response that would reveal the native language of the young woman.
“Sir, I’m Miss Judy Nowak, I speak English, I was raised there.” She bit her lip which momentarily stopped the nervous babbling, but did nothing to quell her shivers. “I have a booking for Hotel de Saxe. It’s a small room, nothing that anyone else would want.” She did not add that it was the cheapest, that was obvious from the thin wool suit she wore and pitifully battered case.
“Ah, eine Engländerin! Pardon me, my English is not so good. I am Karl, may I help? I know the Hotel de Saxe.” Karl smiled encouragingly,and unwinding his scarf he offered it to Judy. “Please, take.”
“Come to where the wagons will be arriving. We must get you somewhere warm, quickly! I can carry your bag, perhaps?”
After his initial look of confusion, Joseph quickly, but carefully, packed the book into a bag. A chance to see the local architecture with my own eyes! was one of his thoughts, before hearing about the farmer and his sons. He, too, rose to see whether he could be of help, slower than Karl and Alder had been, but no less sincere. His suitcase and bag seemed rather large, but from the way he handled them it was clear they didn’t weigh much. They reflected his traveling life, but they were of good quality and obviously well-cared for.
Steadying his glasses once more, he made his way to, and out of, the doors of the train.
Joseph sent the other gentleman an appreciative glance, agreeing with his actions. He looked around to see whether there was anything he could do for someone, keeping only half an eye on Karl and Judy, as things seem to progressing well there. He was, of course, available to translate, or to help with bags (and cardboard boxes), as the train attendants seemed to be busy.
The train attendants were mostly endeavouring – with a fair measure of success, to keep the passenger on or near the train until the wagons arrived to take them onwards to the inns of Bad Bernsdorf. Joseph inclined his head to the woman standing near him. “Joseph Lawrence. It seems we’ll have a chance to visit the renowned Hotel the Saxe, which I’ve heard is very nice.” He glanced towards the avalanche blocking their path. If there were people trapped there, he would very much like to help. But the train attendants kept telling him that, without knowledge of the snow and the mountains, he would only be in the way. It grated, but if he was more helpful standing here, stand here he would.
Flora was traveling with a trunk which was (she hoped) more or less safely stowed in the baggage car. Clutching her handbag, she made her way out of the carriage and looked up and down the line, spying out the lie of the land and exactly where the baggage car was.
When she appeared in the door behind him, Joseph held out his hand to help Flora down. The gesture was automatic, the smile as he looked at her was genuine. “Can I be of assistance, miss?” he asked politely.
“Thank you, kind sir,” Flora replied, returning the gentleman’s smile as she accepted the proffered assistance. “Do you happen to remember which one is the baggage car?”
“Over there, I think, at the back of the train. May I accompany you?” Joseph answered, arranging his own luggage with a practised gesture, leaving one arm free to assist the lady in the treacherous snow.
Ashton Sherman glided to a halt on his skis near the train attendants. He was a fairly unremarkable looking man and could often be missed in a crowd. He called out to train attendants in his best broken German “Can I help?”
He glanced along the train carriages that were slowly being emptied of their passengers. He noticed one well-dressed gentlemen that he thought he recognised from somewhere. Maybe an art gallery somewhere. Then with surprise he saw a young lady that he didn’t expect to see again.
“Good heavens, Miss DeWilde! What are you doing here?” he exclaimed aloud.
It took a moment for Flora to recognize Ashton Sherman in his skiing gear; it was actually more his voice than his appearance that she recognized. “Why, Mr. Sherman! I should be less surprised to see you here, I suppose. You look considerably more prepared for the conditions than I do!” she laughed. “As you can see, our train has been delayed by the snow. Do you know anything about this Hotel Saxe they’re talking about?”
“What a coincidence,” Joseph said, wonder at how the universe works in his voice. The name Sherman, combined with the face looking at them from the young man on ski’s, was familiar to him as well. “Mr Sherman, who would have thought to see you here? Did you enjoy the rest of the day at the Bellier Gallery in Paris?”
“Mr Lawrence. What a small world this is. Yes, I did enjoy my time at the Bellier Gallery, it was a most fascinating visit.” Ashton turned to look at the mass of snow in front of the train. “If you would both excuse me I should see if I can lend any assistance before heading back to the Hotel.” He moved off towards the train attendants to see what help he could offer them.
Of course he left room for the other man to answer Miss DeWilde’s question about the hotel, although the information he recalled about the fascinating Umgebindehäuser was burning on his lips.
It was about an hour later when the lights of five stout carts could be seen approaching. Well, not so much lights as lanterns, swinging from poles attached to the carts.
The train attendants could be seen to be sighing with relief that soon the passengers would be safely on their way to Bad Bernsdorf. The baggage car attendants had already piled up the cases to be taken to the inns.
At the exclamation Karl turned, made a quick assessment of the passengers, then returned his attention to where the lights are coming from.
He intended to be on the lead cart.
“Quickly, Miss Nowak! Let’s get out of this snow.”
A small smile spread across Joseph’s face. “Well, we may not be here by choice, but that is a beautiful, dreamlike, sight, isn’t it?”
After a moment of silently gazing at the dancing lights, Joseph shook himself awake, and made his way to the baggage car. “Leave those for now,” he suggested to the attendants, indicating several large crates bearing his name. “They are empty anyway, and I’m sure there are others who need their luggage.”
Flora was one of the people who certainly would need her luggage. She was curious about why anyone would be travelling with empty crates.
Joseph would be glad to assist her, and would be oblivious to her questions unless she made them more clear, as to him it’s so obvious. The crates are large, marked with his name, and seem to be custom-made.
Flora was never shy about asking questions when she wanted to know something, which was practically all the time.
“Why on earth are you traveling about with these very handsome crates, with nothing in them, Mr. Sherman?” she asked him. She gave a mischievous smile. “Will they have something in them eventually?”
“I hope so,” Joseph said, sounding hopeful as well. There was a curious mixture of anticipation and other emotions going on, briefly suspended as he first located Ms DeWilde’s bag, only to discover that it had been taken by the attendants, who put it in the carts. “” I’m travelling to Berlin, where I hope to buy some paintings and maybe some other pieces as well. I’m sure they have crates there, but these are made to preserve the art, so I can protect it from wear during travel.” He smiled broadly, fully expecting her to be as excited about preserving something beautiful as he is.
“Oh, I see! That makes perfect sense!” Flora said, an expression of enlightenment coming to her face.
Evening came early in winter to the little villages that lie in the foothills of the Zittau Mountains, where Germany meets its borders with Poland and Czechoslovakia. On Christmas Eve of 1937, snow had fallen heavily in the passes and on the mountains. The little villages it had turned into the perfect representations of dwellings from folktales of long ago. Those wealthy enough to own cars had solicitously shut them up in garages till the weather should turn – even the much lauded people’s car, the manufacturing miracle of the Volkswagen, was jealously protected from the sharp bite of the winter weather. Once more the older formers of transport came into their own – horses and oxen were turned out to pull wagons and carriages for those who needed to be abroad.
In contrast to the cold white world outside, the great stoves of the local homes ensured that inside was snug and cosy. Even the largest building in the village of Bad Bernsdorf, the famous Hotel de Saxe, glowed with inviting warmth and cheer.
Of course, the maintenance of such heat as radiated from the great enamel stoves in all the public rooms could not be maintained without considerable labour. And Frau Gutrun Blauer, the owner of the Hotel de Saxe, looked up and pursed her lips as she saw that Fritzel, her only son, had brought up a pile of logs to supply the stove in the Saal that formed the reception and waiting area of the hotel, with comfortable cushioned wooden chairs as well as her own desk.
“Why are you doing that?” she called to him crossly. “You should let Hans do that!”
Fritzel straightened, pushing his butter-coloured hair back from his forehead, and smiled at her. “Hans is chopping the wood,” he told her. “And I’ve finished all the accounts … Johan has the casino in good order too.”
She sniffed, as though reluctant to acknowledge he had acted for the best. But as he turned to add the last of the logs to the firebox, she gave him a look of maternal pride.
“You should spend some time at your books,” she said now. “There won’t be much work this evening, Liebchen. Apart from the casino … ”
He nodded as he came across to her and swung the book to look at the names of those already staying there.
Mr Chetwyn Glyde and Party;
Count Vasily Dolgorukov;
Franz von Essen.
Then there was the name Samantha Smith; the American woman who’d come a week earlier. And – according to Frau Blauer – spent far too much time distracting Johan the dealer in the casino. Apparently, she had told her son, with a dismissive sniff, she was Johan’s cousin.
Another guest staying was Ashton Sherman. He’d been staying for the last few days and spent his time out skiing round the local area
“There may be some more, Mutti,” Fritzel said, still examining the register. “There’s usually a few strays when the snow’s this heavy.”
Before he could say any more, the door from the Eingangshalle banged open and a tall, beautiful woman, swathed in furs and smelling of heavenly luxury in her scent, stalked into the room and across to the desk, ignoring Fritzel entirely.
“Where is he?” she demanded, speaking in English.
“Mr Glyde is in the Salon, Madame Nolan,” said Frau Blauer in the same language.
“Not him!” she snapped. “Olson! Where’s Olson?”
“I believe he has taken Fraulein Glyde for a walk to see the village houses in the snow,” said Fritzel.
Nellie Nolan fixed him with a withering glare, then swept her furs about her body in a magnificent gesture that would have them open-mouthed in the fifty cent seats, and stalked off in the direction of the Salon.
Fritzel and his mother exchanged speaking glances.
“What a temper!” she said.
Fritzel nodded, and then hesitated. “Yet don’t you think, Mutti, sometimes … the way she says something in German … I would almost call it a local accent.”
“Perhaps it’s something she’s picked up here,” suggested his mother. “Actresses, they say, have to have a good ear … ”
“Perhaps,” agreed Fritzel, but he sounded unconvinced.
“And so jealous of that poor little girl,” his mother went on. “It was kind of that Mr Olson to take her for a walk. It’s a quiet life she lives here!”
“Yes but … ” Fritzel began and then stopped. The church bells were ringing loudly – a wild, uncontrolled ringing. Fritzel and his mother stood frozen for a moment.
“Avalanche!” they said it together, and then Fritzel was racing for the door, grabbing the warm jacket and hat that hung on a peg beside it.
“Be careful!” his mother called. He paused only for the briefest nod, and then hurried away into the darkening evening.
As Fritzel bolted from the inn a blonde short haired woman hurried into the lobby from the direction of the casino. “Is everything all right?” Samantha Smith asked anxiously in English, looking toward the main doors. “I heard a dreadful noise,” she added in passable German, addressing Frau Blauer directly.
Samantha Smith was dressed in a nice but plain blue sweater and matching dark blue woolen slacks. Unlike Miss Nolan her makeup was restrained, and her manner far more hesitant. “Is there anything that needs to be done?” she asked the Frau deferentially.
“Nein, Fraulein,” said Frau Blauer. “The men will look after things.”
Without saying so, her tone implied that it was clearly no job for a woman.
Before she could say any more, the door swung open again.
“Hell’s bells!” came the intonated drawl as a man, dressed in a full waxed coat, hat and all the accoutrements of winter exclaimed as he stepped through the door. “What in all that’s godly’s name is that racket?!” A Texan drawl, no less. At least Jack was quick to remove his hat once inside the place and on noting the presence of a woman.
“Begging your pardon, Ma’am,” he nodded with a smile that slowly dawned and began to warm his features. “But you have the most interesting weather around these parts. And what IS that noise?”
“There’s been an avalanche,” said Frau Blauer, acquiring a welcoming smile at the prospect of a paying guest arriving – and an American too!
“Oh my!” Samantha exclaimed.
“Avalanches are common of course,” continued Frau Blauer, “but if there’s a prospect of the main road or the railway line being blocked, the men of the village will go out to help. You may have passed my son as you came in.
“Now, how may I help you?”
Jack considered the door with a worried look, before popping his hat smartly back on his head again. “Man’s work it is, right enough. I’ll be needing a room and some of that fancy spiced wine you people are so good at. And a room with a good, deep hot bath. Fancy I’ll be needing it after this. Jack Alder’s the name, figuring you’ll need that at the very least. I’ll be back once I’ve helped out some. Bags were supposed to be along shortly, but I’m guessing they’re gonna wait a while now.”
There was a beaming smile for Miss Smith too, a tip of the hat before the American started to take his leave to help out in the snow.
“Mr. Alder!” the blonde called in an American accent as he moved toward the front door. “If there’s anyone hurt….” She took a step forward. “Please… I’m a nurse. If anyone is injured… Maybe I should go also,” she stated, pointedly ignoring Frau Blauer in favour of the Texan. “I can get my coat…” she added anxiously.
Frau Blauer gave Miss Smith a very hard look but said nothing.
The door opened again andin came a tall dark haired man with a faintly sneering expression, accompanied by an ethereally fair and beautiful girl, with wide cornflower blue eyes and a look of delicacy. Frau Blauer greeted them.
“Herr Olson. Fraulein Glyde.” Her voice noticeably warmed as she said the girl’s name.
“We heard the bells,” the girl said a little breathlessly. “That means there’s been an avalanche, doesn’t it? Was anyone hurt?”
“You don’t need to get into a fever fit over it,” said the man addressed as Olson. “There’s avalanches all the time round these parts.”
Miss Glyde ignored him. “Was anyone hurt?” she repeated.
“We don’t know as yet,” said Frau Blauer. “But my Fritzel he is gone to help – ja, and all the strong boys and men from the village. All will be well!”
“You see?” said Olson. “You should go up to your room and rest, Miranda. You wouldn’t want to upset your father.”
At this, Miranda Glyde turned away from the desk. The nervous excitement that had animated her dropped away – she drooped like a delicate flower.
“I guess not,” she said dully, and turned to make her way towards the main staircase. As she did so, she seemed to notice Samantha and Jack for the first time and gave them a shy, hesitant smile.
Samantha hesitated, then gave Miranda a small friendly nod. The glance she gave Olsen was a bit more frosty. Then she turned back to Jack Alder for his response to her query.
“Well Miss, I’m sure they’d be grateful of any help offered, but p’raps waiting down in the village might be best so you don’t get cold in the snow?” The Texan suggested with a smile that would melt the coldest of hearts, reassuring and glad at the same time. Jack’s gaze drifted sharply up to the new arrivals, that same emotion displayed upon his features. “Sir. Miss.” A hat dip greeted both of the new arrivals too. “If y’all will excuse me, I’ll go see if I can lend a hand.” And without further ado he headed out the door.
“If you are a nurse,” said Frau Blauer to Samantha, “you could travel out on one of the wagons that will be going out to collect passengers.” Her tone was grudging, as if she doubted that a reputable nurse would be quite so fond of a casino.