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by Aaron Paul Lazar
Description: When Gus's brother-in-law Siegfried is framed for a neo-Nazi's murder, Gus LeGarde and his wife, Camille, plunge into a cat-and-mouse game where the stakes are lethal.
eBook Publisher: Twilight Times Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [302 KB]
Reading time: 172-241 min.
"Lazar delivers a masterful display of heartfelt emotions, need, and compassion. That he wraps this present in a thrilling, mysterious package for us just makes it all the more enjoyable." ~ Thomas Fortenberry, Literary Critic
"You'll be looking for other books by this imaginative author and enjoy every one of them." ~ Anne K. Edwards, author of Shadows over Paradise
We're going to die on our wedding day.
The right wing dipped and the storm raged, battering the massive Boeing 747. Overhead bins snapped open, disgorging travel bags and paraphernalia into the aisle. Cries of alarm filled the air and cold sweat wet my brow.
Camille grabbed my arm.
"Talk to me, Gus. Take my mind off it."
Her complexion waxed green and she brushed damp curls from her forehead, leaning back with eyes squeezed shut. A bolt of lightning burst against the window as the aircraft wobbled its way toward Paris.
I forced a smile. "I think we're over land now. Almost there."
Her eyes blinked open, searching mine. Hope glinted momentarily until the plane shuddered again, reinforcing her deep-seated flying phobia. I wondered how I'd ever get her back on the plane for the return trip to East Goodland, New York.
I twisted the overhead air vent, letting the tepid air ruffle my hair. With a deep breath, I collected myself and tried to sound natural.
"You'll love Paris, honey. It's so full of color and motion and ... people. An amazing assortment of people."
Her eyes darted to the window. "Uh-huh. Tell me more."
Another bolt of lightning flickered, blinding me. I braced myself as the plane rocked. The wing quivered in counterpoint to my heartbeat; its metallic stutter growling in protest.
"Notre Dame is spectacular, dark and mysterious. The view from the bell tower is incredible. It'll take your breath away."
She shifted in her seat and shot me a glance.
"You were there with Elsbeth, right?"
I looked into her eyes. No jealousy lurked there.
"Yes. Ten years ago. Our anniversary."
My throat clogged. Elsbeth, my soul mate, my fiery partner, had been murdered five years earlier--shoved from the cliffs of the Letchworth Gorge.
Camille kissed her fingertips and gently pressed them to my mouth. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you sad."
I flashed a half smile.
She sat up with interest, ignoring the rocking aircraft.
"Let's talk about Paris."
I turned to her, taking her hands in mine. "What's the first thing you want to do when we arrive?"
"Besides kiss the ground?" she asked.
I laughed. "Yeah. Besides that."
Rain splattered against the window, dancing in parallel conga lines as the high wind smeared it against the glass.
"I want to walk along the Seine and find a café. I was craving fresh croissants and strawberries before my stomach started to flip flop."
A sudden gust caught the plane, sheering it sideways. I nearly lost my lunch. Mopping my forehead with my sleeve, I tightened my seatbelt. Camille froze, plastered against her seat. When the plane stabilized, the captain's voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
"Folks, this is Captain Wilcox. Sorry for the bumpy ride. I'm going to try to fly above the storm. Meanwhile, please remain calm. Observe the seatbelt sign and stay in your seats. As soon as it's safe to move about the cabin, I'll let you know."
Camille took a deep breath.
"Where's our hotel?"
"On the right bank. Just around the corner from Notre Dame. Walking distance to the Musée D'Orsay, the Louvre, the Jardin de Tuileries. A perfect location."
The left wing dropped and the plane pitched. She grabbed my hand.
"If we make it at all," she said.
Without warning, the jet plunged, diving through the clouds. A volley of flames erupted from the engine outside our window. Camille's eyes widened and a sob burst from her lips. My head snapped against the headrest and the force of the descent pinned me to the seat.
Oxygen masks dropped and dangled elusively in the air. I pried one hand from the armrest and fumbled for my mask. Reaching for it, I snagged it and stretched the elastic strap around my head. Camille caught her mask, placed it over her mouth, and looked at me. Terror flared in her eyes.
I clutched her hand as a kaleidoscope of images flitted through my brain: Camille in her wedding dress, my grandson's impish smile, our dogs, Max and Boris, asleep by the fire.
We plummeted through a time continuum that blended slow motion with eternity. I struggled to remember the crash position and my heart drummed beneath my ribs. The captain's voice thundered over the loudspeaker, words muffled beneath the roar of the descent. Craning my head against the heavy force, I faced Camille. It was surreal. A dream. A nightmare.
Abruptly, the aircraft stabilized. A stainless steel coffeepot rolled down the aisle and lodged against my foot. The fire in the engine extinguished and the plane ascended as innocuously as it had hours earlier from Dulles Airport.
* * * *
The air filled with a hubbub of shouts in assorted languages. The nearest attendant unsnapped her belt and walked the aisle, scooping up items that had become airborne during the dive. As she deftly comforted passengers, I marveled at her rapid recovery. A faint, haunted expression lingered in her eyes as she went about her duties.
The captain's voice blasted through tinny speakers.
"It's okay now, folks. We made it through the worst of it. If anyone needs help, press the button for your attendant. Sorry for the drop. We have mechanical failures, but nothing we can't handle. Just breathe normally and ignore the masks until we come around and pack them back into the consoles. We'll be touching down in about an hour. The temperature in Paris is sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit."
I released Camille's hand and unfastened the mask, shaking my head to clear it. She ran her fingers through her hair, stifling a sob. Her hand flew to her mouth and she exploded with emotion.
I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her to me. She convulsed against my neck, gulping through tears. Stroking her back, I inhaled the familiar scent of her. Relief shuddered through me as we collapsed against each other.
She lifted her tear-stained face to mine. Urgently, I pressed my lips to hers. She kissed me back, let out another small sob, and lay her head against my chest. After a while, she settled back in her seat and leaned against my shoulder. Her eyes glazed over as she stared into the black night. Fat raindrops slid along the glass, intertwining in black ribbons that pelleted and split in the wind. With sudden resolve, Camille sat up and looked at me. Strength and purpose returned to her eyes. I watched her pull herself together as she dabbed at the tears and pulled her hair into a ponytail.
The plane banked slowly to the right. A field of lights twinkled below.
"We're almost there," I said. The words sounded trite, yet vibrated with magnitude born of near disaster.
She snaked her arm through mine and leaned against me. I reached for her hand, needing the closeness of her touch, and rubbed my thumb across the soft skin on her hand. She was warm and real. Alive. We lay back against the seats as the rest of the plane returned to a semblance of normalcy.
The calming aroma of coffee filled the air. Without warning, the giant figure across the aisle sat up and threw back the blanket partially covering his enormous body.
"Professor? Was ist passiert? (What happened?)" Siegfried asked in his thick German accent.
He pushed his long blond ponytail over his shoulder and rubbed huge fingers over sleep-soggy eyes, resembling a child waking from a nap. I turned to face the brother of my departed wife and smiled. He'd slept through the whole thing.
"A little turbulence, Sig."
The word wasn't in his vocabulary. I raised one hand in the air and mimicked a plane flying rapidly up and down. He nodded briefly and flashed a drowsy half-smile, closing his eyes again as he snuggled under his blanket. While the passengers queued at the restrooms, I decided to follow his example and closed my eyes. Memories of the bizarre phone call that caused Siegfried to join us on our honeymoon panned across my brain like a flickering eight millimeter movie.
Frieda Hirsch, Siegfried's great aunt, summoned Sig to Germany when the cancer within her claimed her future. Her doctors gave her only months to live, thus prompting the middle-of-the-night phone call that shocked me from my sleep.
"Siegfried must come to Germany," she pleaded. "I have something very important to give him." Her stumbling English was translated with the help of her grandson on the extension. After the long and complicated call, Camille and I agreed to deliver Siegfried to Germany en route to our honeymoon in Vienna.
I tried to shake myself from the reverie, but couldn't wrench my eyelids open. They were weighted closed, sealed as if with sticky taffy. The plane's engines thrummed with a steady whir, as if we hadn't been plunging toward the earth moments earlier with fireballs erupting from the engine outside our window.
Across the aisle, Siegfried began to snore. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the quiet rhythm of the sound.
* * * *
I forced my eyes open and glanced at my watch. Almost eight in the morning, Parisian time. I'd been asleep for twenty minutes. The flight attendant offered a steaming face cloth with a pair of tongs. Smiling thanks, I accepted and tossed it from hand to hand to cool it, wiping it across my face. The warm, moist heat felt soothing. Camille did the same with her towel and stretched as if waking from a long nap. She smiled at me with her eyes, reached for her toiletries bag, slipped past me, and headed for the tail of the plane. I decided to follow her example. In the tiny restroom, I washed my hands with fancy eucalyptus-scented lotion soap and brushed my teeth. Feeling a bit more human, I wiped the sink with paper towels and looked in the mirror.
The fellow who looked back appeared haggard. Smudgy gray circles beneath my eyes reflected the hectic days before the wedding and the near-calamitous ocean crossing. I wet my comb and pulled it through my wavy black hair, inspecting the crop of silver sprouting near my temples.
After straightening my clothes, I opened the door and collided with a pale-eyed blond in a black leather bomber jacket. He stumbled and fell against the bulkhead, cursing in German.
I'd heard the same word escape Siegfried's mouth when he accidentally hit a thumb with a hammer or stubbed a toe. I reached to apologize and help him up. Grasping his hand, I pulled. His jacket receded, revealing a swastika tattoo on his wrist. Startled, I let go of his hand as if it burned my fingers. He got to his feet and glared, then shoved past me into the restroom. A cold sensation pooled in my stomach.
Black bomber jacket? Swastika tattoo?
Is he a Nazi? It had been over sixty years since World War II and the horrors that had invaded Germany and the surrounding countries.
I shook the thought from my brain like a dog shaking off bathwater.
Probably just a rebellious teenager who thinks it's cool.
Camille perched sideways on my seat, chatting with Siegfried. I leaned against the seat back and listened to her explain our plans.
Most of Siegfried's life revolved around our hometown of East Goodland. Located in the rolling hills of the Genesee Valley in upstate New York, the quiet farming town was flanked on one side by the valley and on the other by Conesus Lake. North of the village sprawled the historic college town of Conaroga. Ten Finger Lakes spread over the state in an easterly direction, their hills dotted with dozens of wineries.
The idea of traveling abroad unnerved him. When Camille and I offered to accompany him to Germany, he gratefully accepted. The last time he'd flown, his family had emigrated from East Germany. He'd been only four years old--years before the head injury that left him mentally impaired.
I flattened myself against the seat as an elderly gentleman passed, aiding his wife. He guided her with loving hands toward the restrooms.
My fond memories of Siegfried continued.
Sig and his twin sister, Elsbeth, had thrived in East Goodland. They lived next door and became my best friends. At the age of twelve, however, our small world changed. A boating accident left him with diminished mental capacities. Eventually, and with much difficulty, Siegfried graduated from high school, in spite of having lost most of his knowledge of the English language. When his parents passed away years later, he moved in with us and began to work with my daughter Frederica in her veterinary clinic. His gentle spirit and love for animals made him perfectly suited for the job.
Camille's musical voice interrupted my reverie.
"We'll spend a couple days in Paris, then we'll drive you to Denkendorf. Once you're settled with Frieda, Gus and I will head for Vienna."
She smiled and her eyes flirted with mine. A worried look crossed Siegfried's brow.
"But, you are just married. I don't want to be--to be in the way."
He looked at me with apprehension. Acutely aware that he'd never enjoyed the warmth of a romantic relationship, I reached over to comfort him.
"Don't worry, Sig," I said. "We want to spend time with you. You're part of the family."
He looked at Camille for reassurance.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," she said.
He brightened with relief. As Camille reviewed her planned itinerary, I lounged beside them on the armrest of an empty aisle seat, observing the passengers around us. They bustled about, gathering belongings and drinking coffee. My gaze connected with the elderly man who had returned to his seatthree rows behind Siegfried. He flashed an ethereal smile and reached to take his wife's hand. I returned his smile as a lump formed in my throat.
Would our lives change after our near-death experience?
The Nazi wannabe scowled two rows behind the couple. Rooting around in his knapsack, he finally raised his head with ear buds and an iPod tucked in his pocket. His head began to bang to the beat. I frowned, thinking about his probable choice of music.
Chastising myself, I squelched the sarcasm and uncharitable thoughts.
Who am I to judge? Maybe he's a really decent kid.
We'd been granted a second chance at life. Silently, I vowed to make it count.
"Sir? Excuse me, sir; you'll need to take your seat now. We'll be landing soon."
The flight attendant politely shepherded me into my seat and continued down the aisle, asking passengers to raise their seat backs and return their trays to their upright position. I gathered my personal belongings, including the first five chapters of the book I had begun to write on Frederick Chopin. It was to be a complete analysis of his works, and I hoped to squeeze in some research as we worked our way from Paris to Vienna.
I zipped the briefcase, shoved it under the seat, and handed my headphones to the attendant. Camille nudged me gently.
I snapped the belt into place, linked arms with her, and whispered in her ear.
"Thanks, love. What would I do without you?"