Authors: T. Davis Bunn
Once the train was under way, he left Pierre in their compartment and maneuvered down the jammed hall to the back of the railcar. A narrow door opened onto a gangway connecting to the next car. The passage was metal floored and open to the wind and the heat and the train's rattling roar. Jake stood with two other young men and swayed in rhythm with the train. It was far too noisy for conversation. The
engine's smoke blew past in great swirling puffs, except on the slower curves, when it forced its way into the gangway and made breathing difficult. The two other men soon had enough and returned to the train's more protected interior.
Jake stared out over the brilliantly lit Spanish landscape and felt ashamed for having spoken with such authority. Now that it was over, he wondered how he could ever have felt so sure of anything. Especially faith. Even more, how faith could be applied to someone else's problems. First Jasmyn at the church, and now Pierre. Spouting off answers as though he knew everything, even though he had more questions than answers about his own life. Jake stared at the earth rushing by just below his feet and shook his head. It did not make any sense at all.
Words chanted through his brain in time to the train's rhythmic rattle. Sally is gone. Sally is gone. Jake rubbed his face, tried to squeeze silence in through his temples. How could he give advice about relationships when his own love life was in shambles? Sally is gone. Sally is gone. Sally is gone.
At the frontier between Spain and Gibraltar, Jake was jerked upright by the sight of an officer in American naval whites passing their compartment. The man was clearly as surprised as Jake to see a fellow American, for he was already out of sight before the facts clicked into place. He backpedaled, inspected Jake with widening eyes, then pushed open the compartment door. “Afternoon, Colonel.”
Jake was on his feet. “Commander. Care to join us?”
“Don't mind if I do. Seats are as scarce as hen's teeth on this train.” He cast a glance at Jake's medals, then said, “Don't believe I've seen you around here before.”
“Official leave. First time in these parts. Like to introduce Major Pierre Servais, commander of the French garrison at Badenburg.”
“Major.” He nodded toward Pierre, then offered Jake his hand. “Harry Teaves. Adjunct to the supply depot on Gibraltar.”
“Jake Burnes. I run the Karlsruhe base.”
Commander Teaves seated himself, asked, “So what brings you fellows to Gibraltar?”
Jake cast a glance Pierre's way. The Frenchman's mobile features furrowed momentarily before he gave Jake a single nod. Jake turned back to Teaves. “It's a long story, Commander. Might take awhile.”
“We've got half an hour before we arrive. If the train's on time, which it hasn't been since sometime last century.”
Jake recounted their search, beginning with Lilliana's disclosure. Harry Teaves proved to have two of the most expressive eyebrows Jake had ever come across. By the time Jake finished his explanation, the eyebrows had crawled up so high they were almost touching his hairline.
“That's some tale,” Commander Teaves said, looking from
one to the other. “So you think maybe there are a couple of thugs hunting your brother in Gibraltar?”
“We do not even know if my brother is alive,” Pierre replied. “But the barkeeper in Marseille did say they were coming here.”
“Got any description?”
“Again, we're not sure, but they might be the same people I was warned against,” Jake replied.
“By the woman who just happens to find you in the middle of the night, did I get that one straight?” Teaves shook his head. “Lemme tell you. If you two weren't about the soberest looking officers I'd ever met, with a string of ribbons suggesting you're on the up and up, I'd say it was time to pop you in the loony bin.”
“I realize the chances are long,” Pierre said. “But I must at least try to check this out.”
The commander nodded as he mulled it over, then said to Jake, “Mind if I ask what's in it for you, Colonel?”
“Pierre is a good friend,” Jake said, then after a struggle he went on. “I lost my own brother at Normandy. If it was Jeff we were talking about here, I'd travel to hell and back on the breath of a chance.”
“Not me,” Teaves replied conversationally. “My brother sat out the war in a cushy office, pushing papers for the war effort. We never got along.”
“You saw action?” Pierre asked.
“Little bit. Here and there. Joined up in '41. Got to see some too-hot Pacific islands I don't ever want to visit, not ever again.” He inspected Pierre. “You?”
“North Africa. Then the push through Belgium.”
“Heard it was nip and tuck there for a while.”
“As you say,” Pierre replied, “I have no desire to retrace my steps.”
“What about you, Colonel?”
“The name's Jake. I spent more time than I wanted walking Italian back roads.”
“Between the three of us, we've got just about the whole world covered,” Teaves said. “Sounds like a pretty good reason to offer my help. That and the fact that you've told me the biggest whopper I've heard since getting assigned to shore duty.”
“It's the truth,” Pierre declared. “All of it.”
“It better be,” Teaves said, his tone easy. “One thing I discovered while dodging incoming shells was life's too short to go goose hunting unless there's a goose to be caught.”
Even in its tatty post-war state, Gibraltar was a monument to British imperialism. The official buildings were strong and sturdy as the cliffs towering overhead. Porticoes were supported by great pillars atop flights of steps fifty feet wide. Sweeping parade grounds of immaculate green were bordered by flowers and flagpoles. The air was a strange mixture of Spanish spice and British formality. Uniforms were everywhere.
Teaves led them to the main British depot. Beyond endless rows of squat warehouses stretched the combined might of the Allied navy. The war-gray battleships were too numerous to count. Flags fluttered in the strong sea breeze. Klaxons sounded their whoop-whoop in a continual shout of comings and goings. Tugs worked frantically to maneuver the great warships to and from anchor.
He left them at the main gates and returned a quarter hour later to announce, “Admiral Bingham of the Royal Navy wants to check you out.”
As they followed him down the rank of weary buildings, Jake asked, “How do we handle it?”
“Straight as an arrow. Bingham is rumored to keep a set of bone-handled skinning knives for people who waste his time. I've been careful not to find out if it's true.”
They were ushered into a room dominated by a crusty old warrior with a manner as clipped as his moustache. “Teaves reports you are here on unofficial business.”
“Strictly, sir,” Jake agreed, remaining at rigid attention.
“May I be so bold as to see your papers?”
Together he and Pierre handed over their leave and travel documents. The admiral inspected them carefully before announcing, “They appear to be in order.” He raised his eyes. “Very well. I'm listening.”
Jake went through their story much more concisely with the admiral. When he was through, Bingham inspected them thoughtfully for a moment, then declared, “I am in full agreement with Commander Teaves. Yours is an admirable quest. Nasty business, this destruction of families. How can I help?”
Jake was caught flat-footed. “To be honest, sir, I don't have any idea. This was the last thing we expected.”
“Well, if something arises, don't hesitate to contact me through Teaves here.” He looked at the commander. “I assume you were going to assign them berths.”
“With your permission, sir.”
“See to it.” He turned back to Jake. “The governor is giving a little do this evening. Seven sharp. Did you bring a dress kit?”
“Bound to be a bit rumpled after your travels. I'll have my aide stop by and give your kit a good pressing and polishing.”
“That won'tâ” Jake was stopped by the commander's discreet cough. He immediately changed tack. “That's most kind, sir. Thank you.”
“Right. Until seven then.”
When they were back outside, Jake and Pierre released a joint sigh. “I didn't realize what a chance you were taking,” Jake said, “bringing us in like that.”
“We are in your debt,” Pierre agreed.
“Now that's what I like to hear,” Teaves said cheerfully. “Nothing like a little gratitude to set the day straight. Let's see you to your quarters, then I'll have to get to work. As you can see, Bingham keeps this place running like a top.”
“The whole of Gibraltar is a fortress town,” Teaves told
them. “Its population has lived under the shadow of attack for over a thousand years.”
A gentle spring dusk painted Main Street with swatches of gay pastels. The thoroughfare was crowded with people taking their traditional evening stroll. Jake spotted uniforms from half a dozen different nations.
Commander Teaves kept up a running commentary as they walked toward the Governor's House. Above their heads, the Rock was a timeless gray bastion that dominated the peninsula. Its peak remained enshrouded in a faint veil made multicolored by the setting sun. The high ridge stretched out like the bleached backbone of some great prehistoric beast.
“Gibraltar was one of the two ancient pillars of Hercules,” Harry Teaves explained, “and has been fought over since the dawn of history. Whoever controls Gibraltar controls entry into the Mediterranean. Modern Gibraltan history began with its Moorish capture in the eighth century. Since then it has belonged to the Spanish, the Portuguese, and now the British for the past two hundred years.”
At the great iron gates flanking the Governor's House, Teaves stopped before two honor guards in burnished helmets and presented their names. “Don't know if you'll find anything of use here,” he said, “but contacts like these can never hurt.”
“We are truly grateful,” Pierre replied solemnly and followed Teaves through the semitropical garden surrounding the palace.
“I'll have to leave you to your own devices for a while,” Teaves said as they mounted the great steps. “This is my chance to bend the ear of the ones in power. Come find me if there's anything you need. I'll join you as soon as I can.”
The British High Commissioner's residence was a former Franciscan convent. Its formal gardens overlooked a cream-colored palace of Spanish-Moorish design.
Jake and Pierre repeated their names to the majordomo, heard themselves announced as they entered the reception
line, and allowed themselves to be passed down from hand to hand. Then they were released into the crowd.
The great reception hall was lit by chandeliers holding hundreds of flickering gas flames. The light was caught and reflected by the medals and gold braid and shining dress scabbards worn by many of the officers, as well as by the king's ransom of jewelry worn by many of the women. Yet no amount of refined dress could mask the fact that most of the people here looked exhausted.
Jake moved from group to group, smiling and bowing and shaking hands. Inwardly he reflected that almost everyone looked as though they had been old all their lives.
“Colonel Burnes,” a voice said from beside him, and instinctively Jake stiffened. “Good of you to join us.”
“Nice of you to invite us, Admiral Bingham,” Jake replied.
“Not at all, not at all.” Bingham walked up and said, “Perhaps you would allow me to introduce you to an old friend.”
A husky voice behind Jake said, “What an utterly dastardly thing to say about a lady.”
Admiral Bingham looked behind Jake and smiled, a feat Jake would not have thought possible. “Now, Millicent, you know exactly what I meant.”
“That does not excuse your ill manners.” A diminutive woman of extremely advanced years tottered into view and looked up at Jake. “Why is it, sir, that you Yanks insist on growing your men so overly tall?”
“Colonel Burnes, allow me to present Lady Millicent Haskins, the grande dame of Gibraltar society.”
“Nonsense. I am simply an old busybody who does not have the good sense to lie down and give up the ghost, as most people around here wish I would.”
“None of that.” Admiral Bingham's bark was softened by his second smile of the evening. “We would all be positively lost without you.”
“Very well, you are forgiven.” She patted the admiral's
arm. “Now, run along and let me wring this picture-perfect officer of all his gossip.”
Admiral Bingham bowed and spun on his heel. Millicent Haskins then guided Jake toward an empty sofa by the side wall. “I do hope you will permit me to sit down, Colonel. One of the greatest afflictions of old age is the inability to remain comfortable upon my feet for more than a few moments at a time.”
“I feel that way already,” Jake replied, “and you must have a good ten years on me.”
Age-spotted cheeks dimpled with a smile. “Why, how gallant.” She eased herself down. “Ah, that is much better. Now then, Colonel. Tell me about this quest of yours.”
“It is my friend's really.” Swiftly Jake recounted his tale. Then he allowed himself to be taken back through the story in far greater detail.
When he finished to his companion's satisfaction, she was silent a moment, then said, “I am not sure how much I can help you, Colonel. You see, I have only returned here to my homeland three months ago.”
“You've been away?”
“We have all been away. In 1940, the entire civilian population of Gibraltar, some thirteen thousand people, was evacuated. The main reason was defense. The Rock was the key to passage into the Mediterranean, you see, and way had to be made for the incoming soldiers.
“First we went to French Morocco, but we were there scarcely a month before France fell. We were then shipped to England. It was only this past winter that we were permitted to return.” She looked out over the swirling, sparkling crowd and smiled at the memory. “When the ship neared the strait and we first caught sight of the Rock, the feeling was indescribable. It was a dream come true. I had been so afraid that I would not live to see the day.”