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A cold spring rain made for Jason's final night in the room at the Hôtel de Badricourt on rue de la Hachette. It came steady past the supper hour, washing up a wormy, familiar stink from the cracks between the cobblestones outside ... a very Parisian stink, all dank and mouldering, like a year ago someone'd buried a privy, or maybe someone's aunt, under those stones. It would be good to be away in the morning; Jason didn't think he would miss Paris even a little once he took to the air. As long as the rain stopped, or at least let up a bit, it ought to be safe.
And even if it was a little stormy ... there would be nothing to fear.
As he smoked in his room, he regarded the droplets forming on the windowpanes, misting in the street lamps outside. Jason thought about the first storm he'd flown in. That was over France too, in the Nieuport. It had nearly killed him and, in another way, it had surely saved his life. The Eindecker on his tail either could not match him as he climbed into the black cloud, or the pilot had lost his nerve as they rose to face sheets of rain that turned to daggers on their flesh.
Either way, Jason and the Nieuport climbed together and alone into the limbo of the storm. It was freezing and black, rainwater smearing his goggles, in a way that seemed without end.
But — it did end, in the brilliance of the sun, atop a mountain range of cloud, all gold, purple, and blue....
He should not be sitting up smoking this late, and he knew it.
He would be flying again in the morning, and that was that. It wouldn't be a Nieuport. It would be a Latécoère 28, and he'd flown planes like it for many more years than he'd flown that tiny Nieuport, which in any case he hadn't flown for more than a decade now. The Latécoère was a big aircraft with a snug cockpit, and room for passengers and cargo in place of machine guns. It would carry him on a long, hopefully easy flight across the Mediterranean, not touching ground again until Algiers. And there he'd commence a new, or at least newer, life: an end to the long drought that had started for him in '29 — which was, no fooling, two years gone now.
In the morning, he'd be a flyer again.
Jason finished his cigarette in three deep drags, and dropped the butt in the old teacup he'd been using as an ashtray. The pack in his shirt pocket had two more. He didn't have to check to know that but he did anyhow, and then he pulled one of them out and regarded it, and having done that, put it between his lips, which were dry like his mouth.
There was nothing to be afraid of out there.
Jason found a box of matches in his overcoat, and lit his second-to-last cigarette.
His room was on the first storey of the Hôtel, a floor up from the street, its window situated above a canvas awning. So from where he sat, he could not easily see what was going on at the front door. Jason did not know why that should make him uneasy. When he'd returned after an early supper, he'd had to ring a bell to get in, same as he had the past three days here. The place was safer than most.
The smoke burned down Jason's throat. He should sleep, but he couldn't sleep.
Was it really the idea of flying that was getting to him?
He played through the coming day in his mind. At a quarter of four, a truck would be waiting out front. Jason should be there first, his duffel packed and himself presentable. He'd climb in the back or perhaps in the cab, depending on whether the driver had gathered his co-pilot and mechanic first. They would make their way out of the city before the sun rose, and south, to a little airfield at Villeneuve-Orly, aiming to arrive near seven.
Then, they would see to the aeroplane that M. Desrosiers had acquired for his fleet. If the mechanic found no surprises, they would be in the air well before the noon hour. Then off to Algiers, to fly passengers and cargo and mail across the African continent.
This was not what Jason was used to. Whenever he hired on with a carrier, when they were flush enough to hire, he'd expect to billet the night at a cottage near the air field, or even in the plane itself. Once, he'd just used his duffel for a pillow and found a corner in a hangar. Nothing like that for Desrosiers and his flight crew. He'd made that very clear, on their second meeting. Desrosiers was a veteran of the Great War himself — an officer for France — and he got sentimental about it.
"You are going to be gone for more than a year in my employ. And Africa, whatever you may have heard, is not known for its comforts. So it pleases me that you enjoy the City of Lights for a few days. After all, I recall that you went to a great deal of trouble, to keep it from the Hun."
"As did we all."
"As did we all."
A flash of light caught Jason's eye and he turned to look at the wardrobe next to that little writing desk in the far corner of his room, all shadows, feeling a nervous little smile bloom around the cigarette. There was nothing and he knew it, but that didn't stop him from walking over and opening up the wardrobe, jangling the coat hangers, knocking superstitiously on the back panel.
He slammed it shut. Hands jammed into his pockets, cigarette clamped between his lips, Jason stalked back to the window. He leaned against the sill, then looked back to the wardrobe. He'd slammed it too hard, he must have, because the door of the wardrobe was open again, just a crack.
Jason pulled the cigarette from between his lips. It was burned down to half length. He would need more of these before they took off the next day. If they took off. Jason let a finger hover over the ember of the cigarette, feeling the heat against the cuticles as another idea formed.
"Don't need to go," he whispered. He could, he knew, just miss the truck, take the money that Desrosiers had advanced him — spend it on a train ticket instead. Hire on a steamer to New Brunswick. Or New York. Wherever. But finally return.
It would mean breaking his word. Worse than that. He would be a thief, effectively stealing Desrosiers' advance payment. And it would mean setting foot on ground Jason hadn't visited once in more than a decade ... effectively resurrecting himself, in a country of nothing but drought and hardship.
He squinted through the strand of smoke rising from the cigarette. The wardrobe door was open wider now, yes? He thought it might be. And why not? The Hôtel de Badricourt was a better establishment than some in this part of Paris, but it was as old as any of them, and it was Jason's experience that floors in even new buildings warped soon enough.
I could just run, he thought, as the wardrobe door seemed to open wider still....
Jason took the cigarette from his mouth, turning it his fingers. With his left hand he found a smooth spot, high on his throat, right under his jawline.
"Hell with you," he said, and jammed the hot end of the cigarette into the soft flesh there. The pain was exquisite — set his eyes watering so bad he thought he could feel his teeth loosening. Bad enough, he knew, to do the trick.
It was all right, he thought as he staggered over to the empty wardrobe, shutting the door again.
He could not just run. And there was nothing to fear, not in staying this course, not in the clear skies he knew awaited, above this storm. That place wasn't Heaven — but it was home.
It was his way, one of the few he might have left — to go home.
The rains had turned to fog five hours later, when Jason made his way outside again.
He huddled under the hotel's awning all the same, resting his duffel on the stoop, out of the puddles and the muck. His last cigarette had made it through the night, and he vowed it would make it through the wait too. Jason shivered in the pre-dawn chill, yawned, and thought not for the first time that although the river-stink of a Paris street after a heavy rain was not the very worst thing he'd smelled, it surely was rank.
The truck pulled up late by a quarter hour, announcing itself as it turned the corner with a backfire that echoed through the neighbourhood like artillery. Still, it was better than Jason had feared: it looked to be an old grocery delivery truck, with a wooden cover over the back. The ride would be dry, then, and that was something.
"M. Thorn?" the driver shouted, leaning across the passenger seat. Jason nodded, hefting his duffel onto his shoulder. The driver had a thick, greying beard and wore his cap pulled low over his ears. Just in case Jason were to get any ideas about riding shotgun, he pointed with his thumb to the back of the truck.
"Bien," said Jason and stomped around the worst of the muck, pulled the double doors on the back of the truck open, and pushed his duffel in. He stretched his shoulders, hoisted himself up and in, and shut the door.
"Good morning," said a voice from the dark. "You look like you had a bad night, now."
"It's all right," said Jason, although he knew what the fellow was talking about; he'd not slept more than an hour straight. He'd put a wet handkerchief on the burn on his neck, after washing it pretty thoroughly, but he'd been on this road before and knew infection was in his future if he didn't get it seen to. His eyelids had that sandpapery feel, and the skin of his face felt ticklish, like fly wings were bumping up against it in the dark. If he said any of this, the fellow across from him would likely tell him he shouldn't be flying, and wouldn't believe Jason when he explained that he'd flown like this plenty. So Jason just found himself a spot and settled on his duffel. The other fellow was sitting across from him. He was smoking a pipe. It filled the truck with a sweet smell that, along with the truck exhaust, almost covered the dank Parisian stench.
"My name is Albert," he said and reached across, offering his hand. "Zimmermann."
"Jason Thorn," said Jason. He took Zimmermann's hand and shook it. "You German?"
"Barely can tell," said Jason. "Your English's good."
Zimmermann gave a chuckle and sat back. "As is yours."
"Vielen Dank," said Jason, in German. "If you get tired, my German is not that bad either."
"We are men of the world," said Zimmermann.
The truck lurched as the driver put it into gear and they began to move. Jason shifted the duffel around so it was more comfortable.
In the dark, Zimmermann fiddled with his pipe, reached into a pocket and produced a match, then struck it against the floor. In the brief light of the flame, Jason got his first good look at the man: slender, clean-shaven, with black hair slicked back close to his skull. His left cheek was marred by a line like a river on a map. Jason thought he might've had that scar from a sword fight, back in Germany, and if he'd got it that way, it meant that he went to a pretty fine school. His pipe was the sort you'd expect from someone who went to a good German school: a big porcelain thing, with a long ivory stem, and a picture of a man holding a sword in the air on the bell of it. That was as much as Jason could see before the flame disappeared inside it and Albert Zimmermann got his pipe going, but it was enough to give him a picture besides the one on the pipe, enough to make him wonder.
"They hired me as pilot," said Jason.
"So I have heard," said Zimmermann. "We will be flying out together."
"You're my engineer, then," said Jason.
"And your co-pilot. It will be a long flight. If you get weary ..." Zimmermann paused. "Oh! On that subject — I apologize for my rudeness. Desrosiers has provided us a morning meal. I have already been at it, I'm afraid. But there is plenty."
Zimmermann leaned to the front of the cab, right behind the driver's seat, and dragged out a big wicker picnic basket. He flipped open the top, and then drew a tea towel away, and Jason peered in and silently agreed: there was plenty. There were four baguettes — three and a half, really — and links of sausages, and a steel vacuum canister that Jason strongly suspected was filled with coffee. There was a tall steel cup beside it, with knives and spoons, and a bottle of milk and, near the bottom, a jar of honey and another of mustard. The only thing that Zimmermann had touched was the one baguette. Jason couldn't hold that against him.
"Bon appetit," said Zimmermann as he pulled the half-baguette out and, moving his pipe aside, tore a bite from it.
Jason unscrewed the bottle and took two steel cups from the top, then opened it. He was right: coffee. He poured one cup for Zimmermann, another for himself, and took a gulp from it straight away. It burned the inside of his throat to match the injury he'd put on the outside. But it helped. Zimmermann sipped at his and smiled.
"A bad night," he said. "Did you spend it with one of Desrosiers' girls?"
Jason shook his head. "Never had a taste for that."
"For prostitutes," said Jason.
"It is going to be a long time on this job. I am signed up for two years." He took another sip. "But I abstained also. Two years is a long time to suffer with the clap, yes?"
Now Jason laughed. "That it is," he said.
Jason drained his coffee, set the cup back on the flask and took a knife to one of the sausages. He offered the first two slices to Zimmermann but this time the other man politely refused. Jason put those and two more on some bread and ate them, until finally the food combined with the coffee and he began to feel himself again. Zimmermann, having finished his own coffee, returned to smoking, and Jason found himself wishing that Desrosiers had tucked a fresh package of cigarettes in the basket. He weighed the consequences for just a heartbeat or so before pulling out that last cigarette he'd been saving, clamping it in his teeth, and lighting up.
Zimmermann was peering over the driver's shoulder now, his absurdly ornate pipe dangled over one knee. The way was still dark — just the occasional lamplight, the glow from high windows. Jason wanted to ask Zimmermann straight: What in hell was he doing here on this job, him an Austrian fellow and Desrosiers a French patriot? But maybe that was a better question for Desrosiers.
"I will be very happy," said Zimmermann, "to be out of Paris."
"You have a bad night?"
"It was a good stay. Desrosiers is a very good host. He put me in an acceptable room, and offered presumably an allowance similar to the one he will have provided you. I enjoyed the fabled French wine and cheese. Strolled the banks of the Seine."
That wasn't what Jason had asked, but he decided that was all right.
"It is a good enough city. But I think it is a good time to be away from Paris and Berlin and everything else. Africa, now ... a man can still make his fortune there...."
"Desrosiers pays well," said Jason, "but it's not quite a fortune."
"For men such as we, it's a good start." Zimmermann took a puff from his pipe and regarded Jason.
"You flew in the Luftstreitkräfte," said Jason. "That so, isn't it?" Zimmermann shrugged, and smoked, and then nodded. "And you, Lieutenant Colonel Thorn, flew in the Royal Flying Corps. Two tours: one begun in 1915, lasting just under a year, and then again in the final push in 1918. You had a bit of a reputation. How many of our planes did you shoot down?" "Fifty-two."
"One a week."
"Haven't heard that one in a while," said Jason, and as Zimmermann laughed, Jason drew a deep lungful of smoke and held it a couple of heartbeats.
"Desrosiers told me," said Zimmermann. "Your name."
"Didn't tell me yours," said Jason. "Or your service record in such detail as that."
"Didn't he?" Zimmermann shrugged. "Well. There is not so much to tell. I did not fly as long as you. Just for three months, as the war ended. As a consequence, I did not shoot down nearly so many of your comrades as you did mine."
"It was war," said Zimmermann.
Jason had heard about the airfield at Villeneuve-Orly, but he had never visited it until that morning. As the truck pulled up in the grey dawn, it seemed like nothing so much as a farmer's field. They had come to it through a morning mist, past rows of cottages that were, so far as Jason could tell, completely deserted. The truck pulled up at a small cluster of buildings on the airfield's edge, and the driver climbed out, opened the back for them. He pointed to one building, a low wooden structure that looked like it held offices. A light burned in one of the windows. Jason and his co-pilot grabbed their bags, and at the driver's insistence left the picnic basket and the flask.
"Adieu," said the driver as he climbed into the truck and threw it into gear. He drove it in a wide circle and back out onto the laneway that had taken them here.
"So long," said Jason under his breath.
There were two other vehicles there: another truck, bigger than the one that'd dropped them off, and a Ford Roadster that Jason knew belonged to Desrosiers. Jason had ridden in it from the train station just a week ago, across the Seine to the hotel. It was a damn sight better than the back of that truck, he thought as he hefted his duffel onto his shoulder and headed to the door, just behind Zimmermann.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Volk"
Copyright © 2017 David Nickle.
Excerpted by permission of ChiZine Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I: The Inferno Conundrum,
Part II: The Decameron System,
Part III: The Elysium Deception,
Part IV: The Syncopation Gambit,
Part V: The Delirium Objective,
The Best of All Possible Worlds,