The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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As the big plane cruised slowly above the city of Frankfurt, waiting to turn onto its final approach path, Jimmy tried to identify the streets and buildings that were passing below. At first he saw only the patternless sprawl of the suburbs stretching westwards towards Höchst, orange sodium lights picking out the line of every road and casting a sickly radiance over the whole scene. Then, in the gathering dusk, the maze of railway lines north of the river drew his eye to the Hauptbahnhof and the broad square beyond and he began to recognise many familiar landmarks.
There was the Kaiserstrasse, opposite the station, near it the hotel where Jimmy hoped to find a room. It was convenient for his mission and in an area he knew well, while Keller's favourite Bierstübe was in the next street to the north. Further on, he saw the busy square surrounding the old watch house, where one can sit on the roof sipping coffee and listening to the squeal of tyres as the highly competitive German drivers go about their daily business. The cars are hidden from view by a screen of trees and it is easy to imagine that disaster is due at any moment, but crashes are rare. When they do occur, the drivers swear at each other and go on their way, only treating the incident as important if someone is killed or seriously injured.
Jimmy had once sat on the watch house roof discussing arrangements for a very interesting expedition. He wondered if Franz Einemann still lived in Frankfurt. If he did, and if his habits were unchanged, he would be dining at the Bruckenkeller that evening, his regular weekly indulgence. It would be nice to turn up there and surprise him, if Keller had no objections.
The wings tilted and the plane began its wide turn over Offenbach, coming round to the line of the main runway of the airport and descending steadily towards the dizzy convolutions of the complicated clover leaf road junction called the Frankfurter Kreuz. The sense of speed increasing as the ground grew near, the plane glided in to a perfect landing. A few minutes later, Jimmy was in a bus on his way into the city.
Having found a room at the hotel of his choice, he settled in, refreshed himself with a quick shower, and put his call through to Herr Keller's number. He had to wait some time before he heard a guttural 'Ja?', but the subsequent conversation was short and to the point. Jimmy was soon standing on the pavement looking for a taxi, a slight frown creasing his forehead.
For a man who had sent an urgent call for assistance, Keller had seemed strangely surly and offhand. Perhaps that was his usual manner. He had agreed to a meeting readily enough, but had invited Jimmy to select the rendezvous. The assumption that his visitor would know of a suitable place seemed odd. For all Keller knew, Jimmy had never been to Frankfurt before.
The oddest point of all, however, was that Keller had not suggested meeting Jimmy at the Elk, which was as close to his flat as it was to Jimmy's hotel and which would have made an ideal meeting place. After a moment's thought, Jimmy had decided not to make the suggestion himself and had said that he would like to eat at the Bruckenkeller. This was natural enough, for the wonderful underground restaurant, said to have been patronised by Goethe, has been rated as one of the best in the world. Keller had accepted the suggestion without hesitation.
There was nothing definite that Jimmy could call grounds for suspicion, but it all seemed just a little odd. Of course, if the man he had spoken to had not been Keller at all, all the little oddities would be explained.
The taxi driver made short work of the journey across the city, dodging trams with an expertise born of long practice, bringing Jimmy safely to the quiet street near the river in which the Bruckenkeller is to be found. Passing through the insignificant-looking entrance, Jimmy found his man waiting inconspicuously at the far end of the long hallway. Bull necked and curt in manner, the man looked Jimmy over with an insultingly arrogant eye, but did nothing to inflame or extinguish his visitor's suspicions. Having exchanged perfunctory courtesies, they walked side by side down the long flight of wooden stairs leading to the lofty stone arched cellar.
Before they were half way down, Jimmy spotted Franz Einemann sitting alone at a small table beside the enormous barrel that fills one of the arches of the cellar. The sight of his old friend's silver hair gleaming pink in the Bruckenkeller's lighting gave him a sense of renewed confidence.
Franz was intent on his food and only looked up as Jimmy and his companion were approaching on the way to their own table. He began a welcoming smile, but his face suddenly went blank and he seemed merely puzzled as he bent over his food again. Dropping back naturally in the narrow aisle, Jimmy quickly stooped and muttered, 'Stand by. I may need your help.' Then he was walking on as if his sole interest was the prospect of great food.
Though Franz had said nothing, he had looked up and nodded, conveying quite clearly that he thought Jimmy was understating the position. Jimmy's spirits were soaring. The fact that Franz was unwilling to recognise him openly in the present circumstances was ominous, but he felt a glow of pure delight as he analysed the situation. He now knew for certain that something was wrong, while his companion did not know that he knew. That was a position of strength, for the other man would not realise that he needed to be careful. He would think that Jimmy had accepted him at face value.
The next question was whether the man was Keller or not. If he was, then he was not the sort of man Geoff Farnfield thought he was. Jimmy was inclined to think the man was an impostor, because he remembered that Pat had spoken of Keller as if she had liked him. She could never have liked this boorish oaf, arrogant and mannerless in a tradition most Germans would prefer to forget.
If the man was not Keller, the urgent question was where Keller himself was. Perhaps his request for help had come too late.
Despite his speculations, Jimmy intended to enjoy his meal to the full. He was no fastidious gourmet, but he liked to eat really good food now and then. The food set before him was much too good to be spoilt by worrying about the future.
A little more than food was set before him. He noticed the waiter positioning his plate with slightly exaggerated precision, and saw that a slip of paper was projecting from under it. Removing the paper carefully, he waited until his companion was occupied with the choice of wine before he glanced at the message.
'Rastmann is dangerous. I hope you know what you are doing. Would prefer not to be involved, but I will follow when you leave.'
That, Jimmy thought, was more than he deserved. Good old Franz. If he hadn't been around, things might have been awkward. They might still be awkward. Jimmy was unarmed and had no real idea of what to expect. However, it would be nice to know that Franz was standing by.
In response to Rastmann's suggestion that they should talk business, Jimmy temporised. 'Not here. There are things I have to show you first. That cannot be done in public.'
He was willing enough to talk generally, soon realising that Rastmann was in difficulties. The impostor seemed to have no idea what views would fit the part he was trying to play. Now and then his own opinions emerged clearly, opinions that were glaringly incongruous with his chosen role. Jimmy came to the conclusion that he was dealing with a man the Colonel would regard as an ideal assistant for crude tasks. There was a savage ruthlessness combined with absolute insensitivity that marked Rastmann was a born killer. His brain was by no means agile, but he would find that no handicap, relying on brute instincts rather than on civilised reasoning.
Though Rastmann was not a congenial companion, Jimmy found the conversation fascinating. It would be useful to know as much as possible about his adversary, particularly the way his mind worked. The knowledge might suggest his weaknesses, the vulnerable areas in which it would be wise to concentrate an attack.
The meal over, they went out to look for a taxi, Jimmy delaying the process long enough to give Franz time to slip out ahead of them and take the first that appeared. Then came another fast drive through the centre of the city to a turning off the Mainzer Landstrasse, quite close to the Elk. Jimmy was relieved to see that Franz had been able to stay in touch and was wisely continuing round a nearby corner before getting out.
Once again he contrived a delay by insisting on paying for the taxi and pretending to get into a tangle with the German coins. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Franz stroll across the road, coming towards them so that he would be able to see which house they entered. It was a very quiet street, but Franz walked inaudibly. Rastmann was too impatient to notice his presence.
The house was not prepossessing. It may once have been quite impressive, but now the paint was peeling and the small front garden was a wilderness. Rastmann opened the door with a latchkey, but made no objection when Jimmy shut it again, or pretended to. He knew that Franz would realise it could be opened again by a gentle push.
The light of a single unshaded bulb revealed a gaunt and dusty passageway and a bare flight of stairs leading upwards. The place seemed deserted. Jimmy was now very wary indeed, though he took care to hide the fact. Rastmann led the way up to the first floor without a word and then stood aside to let Jimmy enter the back room first. Guessing that revelations were almost due, he wondered whether Rastmann intended to hit him from behind. To make this difficult, he moved forward suddenly, pausing again as he saw a man lying on the bed, hands and feet securely tied.
Rastmann chuckled throatily. 'So, Herr Ferguson, we can get down to business. You can ignore that fellow. He is not important.'
Jimmy considered the position. Franz would probably be coming upstairs now. There was creaky stair near the top that might catch him out. Rastmann must be brought a little further into the room. Looking into the watchful eyes of the man on the bed, Jimmy asked who he was.
This brought a growl from Rastmann. 'It does not matter. He is unimportant. What have you got for me?'
The stupid crudity of the approach made Jimmy smile grimly, but he saw that Rastmann had taken a pace forward in his eagerness. One more would do very nicely. Jimmy had his pocket knife in his hand now, the sharpest blade open. Rastmann had not noticed. Taking a step nearer to the bed, Jimmy peered closely into the bound man's face. 'I think I recognise him. If he knows me, it may be bad.'
Rastmann was derisive. 'What does it matter? He'll be dead before morning.'
Jimmy stooped quickly and slashed the ropes round the captive's wrists, dropping the knife onto the bed so that he could cut his own ankle bonds. Then, swinging round with an impudent grin, 'Are you sure of that, Herr Rastmann?'
He had judged that the bull necked man might be stung into rashness by the sudden revelation that he had been identified. This proved to be an accurate assessment. There was a moment of stillness, then Rastmann lunged forward. Jimmy dodged easily and stuck out a foot. The German came down with a resounding crash that would have knocked out most men, but he was twisting and lumbering to his feet immediately, hands clutching for Jimmy with more fury than science. Wriggling like an eel, Jimmy eluded him without much difficulty, then caught him off balance with a thrusting blow that sent him reeling back towards the doorway. A hand appeared, struck suddenly, and Rastmann crumpled where he stood.
Franz appeared in the door and smiled at the man on the bed. 'Well, well. Gerd Keller! In trouble again, I see.'
Keller, who was rubbing his limbs to restore his circulation, looked up in amazement. 'Einemann! How on earth did you get here?'
'Our young friend brought me along. I'm glad he did. You're worth saving, if he isn't.'
'Thank you very much.' Jimmy abandoned his inspection of the recumbent Rastmann and grinned. 'Where do we go from here? Is this your home, Herr Keller?'
Keller, a smallish bundle of a man, produced a broad smile. 'No, it isn't, and I find the suggestion no compliment. This is one of Rastmann's hideouts, one of the places where he does his dirty work. I think, Franz, that our friend Pfaffenberger would like a chance to look round it, don't you?'
Franz chuckled and said he thought the opportunity was not to be missed. He went off in search of a telephone, while Jimmy and Gerd Keller tied Rastmann securely with strips torn from the bedding.
Keller returned Jimmy's knife with a flourish. 'When I saw you come in with Rastmann and heard your name, I thought at first that there would be two graves for him to dig tomorrow. I was surprised that Herr Farnfield would send someone who would walk into a trap so easily. Now I know that you walked in because you were sure that you could walk out when you wished. My gratitude and respects.'
'The respect is mutual.' Jimmy grinned happily. 'After all, I knew Franz was following. It was mainly a matter of timing.'
'How did you know something was wrong? You must have known to bring Franz into the matter. Or did Franz tell you?'
'More or less, but I suspected him before that. He didn't suggest meeting me at the Elk.'
'Ah!' Keller beamed. 'You have been checking up on me. I wonder who told you about that. When Franz returns, we will go there and celebrate. It is only just round the corner.'
They left the bound man on the floor and the front door ajar, presumably for the convenience of the mysterious Herr Pfaffenberger. Jimmy felt that this gentleman was no business of his and neither asked any questions about him nor was encouraged to.
When they arrived at the Elk, Pat's warning made Jimmy turn his attention to the Finnish barmaid first of all. The girl fully justified Pat's caution and Jimmy grinned. Keller said his visitor seemed to be very well briefed and Jimmy had to explain that his fiancée had warned him about the charms of the place. When they found he was talking about Pat, who had worked with both Gerd and Franz during her year of overseas duty, they began working up a real celebration.
Jimmy said it was surprising how they all knew each other, directly or indirectly, but Franz shook his head in disagreement.
'No, my friend, it is not surprising. Only a little sad. It means that there are so few of us, we who know how to make the most of our lives. If I told you the name of every man that I know well, not that I would be so indiscreet, you would probably recognise at least a third of the names.'
Taking a long draught from his glass, he smiled reminiscently. 'You and I met over a youthful foolishness, but even then I knew you would one day do something more. I am too old for such expeditions now and I use my money in other ways, I hope usefully.'
'There is no doubt about that.' Keller spoke with serious emphasis. 'We have no equivalent of your Herr Farnfield over here. His ways would be too easy going for our formal outlook and his powers might worry those who remember how such powers can be misused. Instead, we have your old friend Franz Einemann, who uses his own money instead of the government's.'
'Mind you,' said Franz a little apologetically, 'I often manage to make more money out of it than I spend, so it doesn't really cost me very much.'
Finding the thought of an amateur Geoff Farnfield interesting, Jimmy ventured to ask if Rastmann had been the reason for Keller's message.
The little man glanced around idly to see if anyone was near and then nodded. 'In a way, yes. He is connected with the matter.'
'Don't talk here if you'd rather not.'
Keller laughed. 'It is as good a place as any, especially if I set the juke box going. Then it will be difficult to hear across the width of the table and our talk will be secret unless we shout at each other.'
When the juke box had been brought to life and Keller had sat down again, Franz hesitated. 'You are going to speak of the Studentmeister? Ach, so. You will not mind me listening, then.'
The little man smiled quietly. 'Since you have made the whole investigation possible, I am scarcely likely to raise any objections.'
Turning to Jimmy, he began to explain. 'As in many other countries, we have had trouble with young people who express themselves in rather violent and unorthodox ways. These youngsters are often spoken of as students, though what most of them study I do not know. I think it is simply a useful group word for those who are no longer children, but who have not yet reached full intellectual maturity. They are old enough to have strong opinions, but not old enough to be able to express their views wisely. Many are passionately sincere, claiming they wish to set the world to rights. They think their actions show a necessary freedom of thought.
'Yet many of their demonstrations have been convenient for certain political interests. They have been timed with a perfection rarely achieved by the politicians themselves. The connection is not always clear. Sometimes, a particularly violent outburst will turn public opinion against the views it seeks to express, providing a politician opposed to those views with excellent material where he might otherwise have little to say. Nevertheless, the link is there and it is brilliantly organised.
'Stage by stage, we worked our way back from the demonstrators themselves, through those who inspired them, through those who had inspired the inspiration, and so on, until we came at last to a highly sophisticated group of organisers who were the source of it all. The man in charge of the group we called the Studentmeister, the Master of Students.
'His activities were businesslike. He collected information regarding young people who were likely to be useful to him in various capacities and gave them discreet encouragement and assistance in the planning of their demonstrations. I doubt if one in a thousand of those listed in his files had the slightest idea that he existed. Few of these knew his real objectives.
'We were able to do a little to make his work more difficult, but not as much as we could have wished. Just as we were planning a new attack, we learned that his activities were dwindling rapidly. A number of the centres where he kept his files closed down and lines of communication were severed. This could scarcely have been a result of our action, which had been no real threat. We came to the conclusion that it part of a deliberate plan.
'For some time, we were at a loss, and then, only a few days ago, I was able to examine a building which had been one of his centres. I searched every millimetre of the place and at last found something useful. It was a scrap of paper, torn from a duplicated sheet, giving instructions that all records were to be sent to Britain.'
Keller paused to smile impishly at Jimmy. 'Perhaps, being a Briton yourself, you see nothing odd in that. You may feel that anyone who wants a job done properly should send it to your country to be done. Not being British, that explanation does not appeal to us. We looked for something more sensible, some reason why records of our foolish youth should be sent abroad. Can you suggest such a reason?'
Returning the smile gently, Jimmy said that he could think of many ideas, but none that would convince anyone who held such biased views. 'Perhaps one of our computer firms offered to handle the information cheaply, so that your Studentmeister could cut down on his expenses.'
He was surprised at the reaction his words produced. Gerd and Franz grinned at each other, looking quite excited, the older man especially so. 'There! I told you it would help to ask Herr Farnfield to send a man to assist us! How strange that he should make that suggestion!'
Keller nodded happily. 'It fits so well. You see, Herr Ferguson, I also found something else when I searched that building. It was something that I did not understand at first, something I did not recognise. Everything had been cleaned up carefully, but when I scraped out the dust and dirt between the floorboards, I found hundreds of tiny oblongs of card. I showed them to different people, but no one recognised them until I asked a man who makes business machines. He laughed and called them 'chad'. That meant nothing to me until he showed me a punched card, the kind a computer can read. I saw that my little scraps fitted perfectly into the holes.'
'Good work! Someone had been punching the data into cards.'
'And wanted to conceal the fact.' Franz was eager. 'That is the interesting point. They swept up all that they could see, leaving only the little pieces that had lodged between the floorboards. Why should they take so much care?'
'I can only see one possible answer.' Jimmy spoke slowly. 'They were anxious to conceal the fact that computer cards had been punched, because that would suggest that there was a computer somewhere. No, wait a moment, let me think. If you knew there was a computer, and told us, we would look for it, and a computer is hard to hide.'
Franz grinned broadly. 'That sounds reasonable. I will not ask you if you already know that there is a computer, since you would not tell me if you did, but I cannot forget that you suggested there might be one...'
'It seemed possible.' Jimmy felt he could safely tell them a little more. 'I don't think it exists yet, but we know of a secret place that may well be turned into a computer office. What you've told me strengthens the idea, to say the least.'
'Good. We have helped each other. That is what I hoped would happen.' Keller was evidently pleased. 'There is one more thing. I asked for someone to come over both to discuss the question of this information going to Britain, and also to take back some dossiers relating to the matter, giving data that I hope Herr Farnfield will find useful. They are in my flat, not a hundred yards away. I will go and fetch them.'
'Let us go together.' Franz smiled broadly. 'You may need protection. I don't want to have to get you out of trouble again.'
'All right, if you want to.' Keller smiled back. 'I doubt if I have any need to worry now that Rastmann has been dealt with.'
Jimmy asked if Rastmann was anything to do with the Studentmeister.
Keller pulled a long face. 'Not especially. He is like a vulture, looking for carcasses to pick over. From something he said, I think he may have been acting in the Master's interests, but I doubt if he was seen as more than a hired killer. He came to my house this afternoon. I thought he was only cadging information and I was careless. Another man appeared and they put me into a big basket and took me away. I was gagged but I could see through the basket enough to guess where he was taking me. Not that the knowledge looked like being very useful. I knew that he intended to kill me. He was too willing to talk. Then he brought you in and was even more careless with you than I had been with him. It was a relief to my mind. But let us talk no longer of such unpleasant matters. Franz, here is a young man about to be wed. We must make the most of the occasion. There are a few other matters that I must mention to him and a few questions I must ask, but that can be done at my flat and on the way there.'
Franz smiled happily. 'And then we will see if he can still drink me under the table, as he did once before. Come, my friends.'
They went out into the night. The air was warm, fresh after the stuffiness of the bar. It was pleasant to stroll along the broad pavement discussing the matters that Keller had mentioned, matters quite unconcerned with the main purpose of Jimmy's visit. Across the street, a car pulled into the kerb abruptly with a howl from the tyres. A girl ran to it and jumped in. Before they had covered a dozen paces the same thing happened again, but none of them took any notice. There are some things that men of the world take as a matter of course, not worth comment. What other men and women do is not their concern.
Keller's flat was a mess. He regarded the chaos gloomily and said he should have made Rastmann tidy up. Franz said it was a bit late for that now and Keller nodded.
'He was probably looking for the dossiers, but he didn't find them. Not his lucky day.'
Feeling that this was perhaps an understatement, Jimmy merely remarked that Rastmann must have been in the middle of his search when the telephone rang. 'He was probably quite startled. He certainly took his time about deciding to answer it.'
When the little packet of flimsy papers was safely tucked into Jimmy's inner pocket, he told them to lead him to his doom.
It was quite a party. They started, for the sake of convenience, in a club almost opposite Keller's flat, where a very modern floor show was incidental to the important business of serious drinking, but the music was surprisingly well played. After a while, Franz said the female form no longer interested him as much as it used to. He must be getting old, or something. Couldn't they try somewhere else?
Walking the few yards to the Kaiserstrasse, they sampled several bars in quick succession. One was a Bavarian style dance hall, where a band played the original version of Roll Out the Barrel with great enthusiasm and verve. In another, a beat group played so loudly that they had to give their orders by sign language. A third went to the opposite extreme, the music being provided by a solitary fiddler whose unaccompanied playing was a rare delight.
At about four in the morning they went back to the Elk, joking with the barmaid and making faces at the enormous antlered trophy on the wall that gave the place its name. The landlord was yawning and though he delayed closing the bar for a while to give them time to spend a little more money, he had to turn them out in the end, expressing his regret and pointing out that he would be opening again in less than twelve hours.
Back in his hotel room, Jimmy sprawled on the bed and wondered if it had been worth the cost. He really had no need for bed or room. He could have gone out to the airport and slept there quite happily. After his night out with Franz Einemann and Gerd Keller, he could have slept anywhere.
Chapters | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 |
| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|