The Sons of Raghnall: Hunting von Hentzau, part III

In which we consider the difficulty of proving a negative.

September 1st, 1941
Böblingen Airport, unoccupied Germany
After midnight

Er kommt nicht!” It was Not Done for an officer to shout with frustration, but it was either that or cry, which was even worse. To his dismay, Friedrich even felt a faint, sneaking sympathy for the Norwegian army, which had to deal with these people by the tens of thousands.

“Certainly he is coming,” the captain informed him blandly; his eyes had the peculiar blankness of men following orders they knew to be suicidal, but powerless to do otherwise – men, in other words, under the influence of Hentzau. “And even if he were not, I have orders to wait here until he does.”

Perhaps it was the thought of the Norwegian army that sparked the idea; Friedrich was intimately familiar with their method for dealing with men told to hold a hill to the last man. It involved massed artillery, which he didn’t have; but then, he was only dealing with one man. There was no need to flatten the whole area and leave no stone piled atop stone. His hand crept towards his pistol holster; but although he was deserting the sinking ship, he felt enough loyalty to his crewmates – if not to their captain – that he was reluctant to shoot a brother officer. Especially one who would, if he survived the Norwegian assault that was sure to come, be sitting at this desk, waiting for Hentzau, until old age carried him off.

If not force, then guile would have to do; Hentzau’s instructions were always obeyed to the letter, but that could be weakness when they involved something more difficult than not retreating from a certain hill. “What are your instructions, exactly?” Friedrich asked.

“Wait for Hentzau to come; fly him south to Venice.”

“In what aircraft?”

For answer, the captain gestured behind him, at the hangar. Friedrich nodded. “I will inspect the aircraft, to ensure it is fully fueled and operational.”

“I have no orders to prevent that,” the captain said. Was there, perhaps, a little less blankness in his eyes, even a hint of a bitter smile? Men under Hentzau’s influence could still exercise their initiative on tactical matters, such as moving around on their hill to make its fall as costly as possible. Might they also be able to resent the ridiculous, impossible orders that bound them to their deaths, far beyond the point where a moral government would have accepted defeat and saved its people? Might they, even, be able to relish a tiny measure of vengeance? Friedrich could picture the captain’s defense, should Hentzau by some miracle show up, these five minutes past the final hour: “I was only following orders, sir – how was I to know he would steal the aircraft?” And he could picture, too, the Schadenfreude a blank-eyed robot might take, in delivering such a report. But then, he might be imagining things; it was possible that the captain was just the hollow shell he seemed to be, with no shred of free will remaining. It hardly mattered, with the Norwegian army due to launch their assault at dawn. What mattered was that the two privates with automatic rifles, as blank-eyed as their officer, moved aside at his gesture, and Friedrich and his party were finally free to enter the hangar that held their hope of escape.

He had thought Hentzau’s getaway aircraft would be a standard-issue Iron Annie, the workhorse of the Bayerische Luftflotte; but the dim hangar lights, burning low both for concealment and because gas was as scarce as everything else in what remained of unoccupied Germany, revealed four, not three, engines. It was some custom job, or a prototype perhaps for the planned expansion of the transport arm in 1943. Friedrich grimaced at the thought of familiarising himself with a heavily-loaded aircraft without any briefing or documentation, with nobody to tell him its quirks or pitfalls, and at night; but the other choice was, at best, a prisoner-of-war camp. After all the reason it was heavily loaded was that it contained a large part of Hentzau’s – more accurately, Bavaria’s – gold reserves; little enough on the scale of battling nations, but enough for a man and his friends to live in luxury for years, or modestly for decades.

“Can you fly it?” Heinrich asked, a touch more nervously than Friedrich thought was really called for. He straightened his back; no use showing his own doubts on the issue.

“It has two wings, yes? So, get the hangar door open and we’ll see.”

Once he was in the cockpit his doubts faded; the plane might be a prototype, but at least it wasn’t customised. For a horrible moment he had entertained the idea that it might have been rebuilt for Hentzau to control personally, and that he’d have to sit in a saddle and use reins and stirrups for control. But no, it had a joystick and throttle, and the instrument board had all the usual dials and lights – except, he saw with satisfaction, that they had finally moved the airspeed indicator to where he could see it without taking his eyes off the altimeter. Maybe the designers had actually listened to the pilots for a change? If the War had held off for another two years they might have shown the Norwegians a thing or two… he shook the thought off. Better aircraft would not have won the war; the Norwegians would have had them too, and more to the point, the Russians.

Dietrich had got the hangar doors open and was running for the ladder, though it wasn’t likely that the spill of light would betray them to a passing Norwegian airplane. True, their ancient biplanes flew mostly by night, even now with the Luftflotte grounded by lack of fuel; but they were few and cautious. Their own side was another matter; the airport was surely patrolled, undermanned though it was, and who knew what a Hentzau-influenced soldier might decide was in contravention of his orders? Speed, therefore. Friedrich had the engines turning over even as Dietrich scrambled up the ladder and slammed the door; the heavy aircraft came forward willingly, not as fast as a fighter but much more responsive than the Iron Annie. The deep roar, without hiccup or stutter, was soothing balm to Friedrich’s nerves; evidently Hentzau got the good avgas. But then, he would.

Böblingen wasn’t intended for night operations; no friendly line of lights guided Friedrich to the runway. But it wasn’t far, and on this windless night it didn’t matter which direction he took off in; the running lights of the aircraft itself sufficed, barely, to show him the edges of the tarmac, which was all he needed. It was only a minute before he had the aircraft lined up and could push the throttle all the way forward. The immense noise and vibration of four thousand-horse engines at full extension filled the cockpit, and Friedrich grinned in satisfaction as the acceleration pushed him back in his seat. Freedom!

There were muzzle flashes, off to his left; Friedrich’s grin shrank to a tight smile, but here, sitting in the middle of many tons of shaped metal, he wasn’t very worried. So one of Hentzau’s sheep had found a bit of brain and initiative; no matter. Bullets meant for killing fragile men needed a lucky hit indeed to bend steel enough to make an engine stop working; and if by some miracle he lost one, he felt sure he could limp to Venice on three. He knew many men who’d kept Iron Annie flying on one, and lived to drink beer on the story; with four, and better ones at that, a little automatic rifle fire didn’t bother him.

He pulled back on the stick, and the aircraft responded by rising smoothly into the air, without a single bounce or judder. The hills south of the airport weren’t very high; he kept his ascent slow, conserving fuel. He’d done it, he was away from Hentzau and his zombies, out of dying Germany, and rich!

He didn’t have long to enjoy his triumph; a streak of fire rose from the hills below them – tracer bullets, indicating something much more serious than a soldier’s personal firearm. Friedrich drew his lips back in a snarl, jinking the aircraft slightly, but he still wasn’t too worried – it was only a machine gun, and although a hit by a huge 1.25cm bullet had a much better chance of knocking out even a sturdy BMW engine, it would still need to be fantastically lucky to hit all four. Even so, it was rather an unpleasant sensation to be shot at and unable to shoot back.

“Fire a recognition flare!” he shouted back into the cabin, and jinked left as his comrades scrambled to obey; the hills were still behind the Bavarian lines – in fact, why the devil were they shooting at him, anyway? They couldn’t know he was a fugitive. No, wait, the better question was how were they shooting at a black-painted aircraft at night? Then he realised – the running lights! The rifle fire at the airport had distracted him and he’d forgotten to flick the switch, and now he was showing white-red-white for all the world to see, as if he were flying over a peaceful countryside and not the most embattled piece of land on all the war-torn earth.

Cursing, he hunted in the unfamiliar dashboard for the right switch; it would be a bad time to, say, dump the fuel tanks. It took him perhaps five seconds to find it; and to realise, with an icy freezing of horror, that in his distraction he’d allowed the aircraft to fly straight and level for those five seconds, and that whoever was shooting at him knew the first rule of bringing down aircraft as well as Friedrich did.

Pilots are fragile.

The bullets came in through the nose, tearing with equal ease through aluminium skin not meant as armour, and human skin that armoured only against teeth and claws. A punch in the gut and screaming agony; another in the shoulder; and then only a few seconds of disorientation and utter, complete regret. No, wait, I should have… He slumped forward over the stick, and the plane, obedient to the last, went into a powered dive.

——————————————

September 1st
Hillside south of Böblingen airport
Morning

To the south, the roar of artillery indicated that the Norwegian attack was well underway, and that it was meeting the usual impossible resistance; but Tormod paid it no mind. His attention was reserved for the burnt-out shell of the aircraft, a four-engined model he didn’t know. It certainly looked like the kind of thing Hentzau would reserve for his own personal use, and what else was going to be flying over unoccupied Germany at midnight? And yet, there was a niggling doubt at the back of his mind. How could he be sure?

“Gold!” one of his men reported, exulting, and he left off his inspection of the fire damage. Gold was interesting not just as evidence, but for the prize money; as the officer in command of this action he’d get a full fifth of the loot.

“How much?” he asked sharply, quickly moving towards the man who’d spoken; no doubt some of it had already disappeared into sleeves and pockets, but he wanted to minimise the damage.

“Can’t tell, sir – no coin, it’s all in bars. Lots of it, though.”

The gold wasn’t just in bars, Tormod saw; the heat of the fire had melted them so they were sticking together, making a big lump of gold, roughly cubical, perhaps a foot on a side – half a ton of gold, and how were they going to move it? Perhaps they could just wait for the line to pass over them – he shook off the thought; that wasn’t his main problem now.

“It’s a lot of gold,” he said thoughtfully.

“Which one is von Hentzau, do you think?” The soldier who’d found the gold – Erik, that was his name – gestured at the charred bodies they’d drug out of the crash site. Tormod grimaced.

“I wish I knew. How can we be sure he was even on the damn thing?”

Erik blinked. “Well – where else would he be?” He gestured inarticulately at the south, where dust was rising a mile high over the dry hills; heavy combat, and coming closer. “If he left it much longer, we’d get him, no?”

“I’m sure he’s fled, yes,” Tormod agreed. “I’m not sure he fled on this particular aircraft.”

Erik rubbed his unshaven chin thoughtfully. “An aircraft of unknown type flies out in the middle of the night, loaded with gold,” he said. “The men inside are all officers, or at least that’s what their uniform insignia say. If it’s not Hentzau, fleeing defeat, then what the devil is it?”

“I agree, but… we’re talking about Hentzau,” Tormod said. “This is the man who had the Neckar re-routed to inconvenience his enemies. Let’s add some further facts: An aircraft flies out in the middle of the night, loaded with half a ton of gold. Now, yes, half a ton will make us all wealthy; but you cannot tell me that it’s all that Hentzau could lay his hands on. Then, note well: The aircraft has its running lights on. And the men are officers, yes – but captains, majors, middle ranks; not top men.”

“You think it’s a decoy?” Erik bit his lip, looking again at the burnt-out shell as if it would yield its secrets to renewed inspection.

“It’s a possibility. A suspicion. A hunch, perhaps.”

“But – how could we tell for sure? We have to know!”

“Yes.” Tormod pressed his lips together, grimly. “Dental records, if they were our own men; but to find any paperwork in what’s left of Germany… no.”

“Hentzau would be the one with dreadful teeth and broken bones from riding accidents,” Erik suggested hopefully; Tormod’s lips twitched.

“Well, yes, if you believe his propaganda. And we’ll look for that, we’ll have experts on everything from medieval history to maniacal psychology, but – no, in the end we won’t be sure.”

“But – we can’t let fucking Hentzau go free out into the world, can we? What are we going to do?”

“Well.” Tormod considered it; he himself wasn’t high in the counsels of the MacRaghnalls, but he knew those who were, and he knew how his kinsmen thought. “I’m not the King-General; but if I had to guess… I’d say we’ll go looking.” He gestured east, indicating the Urals, and beyond them the vastness of Asia. “If need be, one foreigner at a time.”

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