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Authors: Peter King

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BOOK: Dine and Die on the Danube Express
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The three of us stood and stared at each other.

“Where did this information come from?” Brenner asked.

“Thomas picked it up from the Budapest
.” Kramer was still searching the compartment with his eyes, trying to discern a hiding place.

“What did it say?” Brenner persisted.

“It said that Magda Malescu had been murdered in her compartment on the Danube Express. It also said that further details would follow later.”

Brenner shook his head, bewildered. “Nothing seems unusual,” he said.

“There is one thing …” I said.

Both looked at me.

“An aroma,” I said. “I know that there is a smell of perfume in the air—that is what might be expected in the room of a famous actress. But there is also another aroma.”

In my job as a food-finder, my senses of taste and smell have become developed well beyond normal levels. I didn’t use this opportunity to mention that as it might trigger off second thoughts about my presence on the scene at all. It could come later. Right then, I had both men sniffing. It was Karl Kramer who was the first to nod.

“You are right. I smell it, too.”

“I believe I do also,” said Brenner, but I didn’t know if he could smell it or if he didn’t want to be left out.

Kramer and I moved around the room. Without any words, we had decided to trace the origin of the aroma. I was the first to pause by the table in the ‘living’ area of the compartment.

“It’s strongest here.”

Kramer came over, Brenner close behind. The sense of smell is the most ephemeral of man’s senses. Aromas are difficult to put into words and almost impossible to communicate to others. A smell that is strong to one person may be undetectable to another. Different persons will rate them quite differently.

Kramer moved around the room, then came back. Brenner paused, not sure what he should do.

“Do you recognize it?” Kramer asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Bitter almonds—prussic acid—cyanide.”

Brenner exhaled loudly. Kramer said nothing, but his manner showed agreement.

After Brenner’s initial expression of astonishment, he circled the table. “But where does it come from? We see no glasses, no bottles …”

The table was indeed empty. Kramer bent low, looking at the polished wood surface at an angle, searching for marks. He shook his head. He opened a cabinet built into the wall. It contained glasses of various kinds, but none showed signs of recent use. He went into the bathroom and came back.

“This is very puzzling.”

He could say that again. I was about to make a further comment, but Brenner beat me to it.

“The door from the corridor was locked. You had to use your master key,” he said to Kramer. “Where is the key that belongs to this compartment?”

A search revealed nothing.

Erich Brenner’s instructions to me were absolute. “Do not say a word of this—not to anyone.” The big, beefy president had wilted visibly under the strain, and it was understandable. A high-visibility crime such as this—whether it was murder or disappearance—could damage the reputation of the DS Bahn significantly.

Karl Kramer, on the other hand, grew in stature with every revelation. He became more determined, more resolute. His blondness seemed blonder and his Germanic attitude more pronounced. He was responding to the challenge.

“Act as if nothing has happened,” he ordered. “We’ll check the rest of the train manually, then we’ll go through the compartment again.”

The two of them stalked off, and, as I turned to go, too, another figure entered the corridor. It was Gerhardt Vollmer, the oil man. He looked at me, standing uncertainly in front of Magda Malescu’s compartment door.

“What is it?” he asked. “What is wrong?”

“Why do you think something is wrong?”

He looked from me to the door. “I heard you and Kramer and Erich Brenner talking; you sounded alarmed.”

I hesitated, not knowing what to say. I didn’t doubt that Kramer would not want the word of either a death or a disappearance spread at this stage. Vollmer ended my indecision. He raised a fist to knock on Malescu’s door.

I laid a restraining hand on his arm. “She’s not in there,” I said.

He lowered his fist. “Is that a cause for alarm?”

“We don’t know yet,” I said.

“You were in her compartment?”

“Yes, all three of us.”

I wanted to make sure Vollmer knew I wasn’t acting alone, but my words had the opposite effect. His eyes grew stern. “It must be serious for all three of you to go into her compartment.”

“What did you want with her?” I asked, trying to reverse the initiative.

The question, surprisingly enough, disconcerted him although he covered it too late. I dived in with another question. “Do you know her?”

He could have told me to mind my own business, but I suppose he was associating me with Brenner and Kramer, so I appeared to have a modicum of authority.

“I did,” he said in a lowered voice. “I did know her.”

He looked again at the compartment door. “She’s not in there, you say?”

“No, she is not.”

“And you’re looking for her?”

“That’s right.”

“Is that all?” He was getting accusatory again.

“As far as we know,” I said, “until we find her.”

He thought about that for a moment, then gave a brief nod and left me standing there.

It was lunchtime as we concluded yet another examination of the scene in the star’s compartment. Before we began, I told Kramer and Brenner of my conversation with Gerhardt Vollmer.

“Vollmer says he knows her?” Kramer asked.

“He said so.” The two of them digested that but made no further comment.

Our third search yielded no information that had not already become evident, and I headed for the restaurant coach looking as normal as I could.

I had been enchanted by my brief encounter with Magda Malescu and hoped desperately that she was safe, unlikely as that seemed. Yet how could she disappear on the Danube Express? Karl Kramer had selected two stewards and given them specific instructions to search the train without making it obvious. I had no doubt that it would be done with Teutonic thoroughness.

The restaurant car was sparkling and bright in the noonday sun that slanted in through the windows on the south side. The damask tablecloths were pristine white, the napkins were artistically folded in butterfly patterns, the cutlery glittered silver, and the glasses shone—they were made, I learned, from the finest Baccarat crystal.

I was a little early, and as I did not see anyone to join, I took a table alone. I did not mind on this occasion as I was still pondering the extraordinary event of the morning. I chose a green bean, leek, and red lettuce salad with warm onion and mustard dressing for the first course. It is a popular Bavarian starter. It was crisp and delicious and I followed that with
Kalbsleben Berliner Art
, calves’ liver in the Berlin style. Berliners prepare the dish with onions and apples. It is simple in preparation and brings out the full taste of the liver.

Continuing to keep the meal light so as not to dull my mind, I finished the meal with mango slices in champagne. A half bottle of Piesporter from the Reinhold Haart vineyard in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region went very well with the liver, its barely discernible sweetness balancing its overall elegant dryness.

I was leaving the restaurant car as a waiter approached me and confirmed my identity. “Herr Kramer wishes to speak to you,” he told me. “As soon as you complete your meal, he said. Coach Six, compartment J-4.”

Was I the first passenger to be interrogated? I wondered. Was I under suspicion for being on the scene? The tough security chief was not wasting any time. I walked through several coaches on my way to Coach Six. Outside, the flat scenery persisted. Small farms with neat fences and old stone walls, vineyards covering acres, occasional vehicles, mainly farm trucks, tractors, and white-painted storage barns.

I wasn’t looking forward to the grilling I was about to get from Karl Kramer. He looked as if he knew all the tricks of interrogation, although at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that he could hardly have a coach full of thumbscrews, dental forceps, and pointed tweezers—well, surely not on the Danube Express?

The swoosh of the train changed in tone, and I saw that we were traversing a bridge over a sizable river. No vessels were in sight, but a few fishermen sat immobile on the river bank, rods out over the water, which they obviously hoped teemed with fish.

I was stalling, pausing to note every detail. I walked on, though not rapidly.
Coach Seven, one more to go
. A couple passed me, smiling an acknowledgment as they went to lunch. A steward passed with a loaded tray—someone was not feeling companionable and was eating in the compartment.

I went on and knocked at J-4. A barked command told me to enter. The compartment was set up as an office. A large teak desk was the centerpiece, and Karl sat at it, studying a green folder. On the desk were two telephones, one black, one white, several other folders in various colors, a tray full of papers, and a beer stein filled with pens and pencils.

Two teak filing cabinets stood by the wall, and a fax machine and computer were on an adjacent desk. Two large document boxes were underneath it. The walls were unadorned, giving the compartment an austere look.

Kramer motioned to the only chair other than the one in which he was sitting. It faced him across the desk, and I took it. His attention returned to the open file before him.

“So you are a detective.”

I groaned inwardly. This happens to me frequently. I am a food-finder, I seek out rare food ingredients, advise on the use of little-known food specialties, recommend menus for theme banquets, and suggest substitutes when delicacies become hard to get. But food and wine have become big businesses and it is inevitable that greed and avarice have crept in, sometimes to the extent of unlawful activities.

I have managed to get myself mixed up in some of these nefarious doings and have been lucky enough to work them out satisfactorily. I had been dubbed “The Gourmet Detective,” and the sobriquet had stuck. Some in the official police departments of several countries had questioned my title, and I always start the rebuttal with the same disclaimer—“I’m not really a detective, the way it happens is that—”

My intention now was to trot out that same line but before I could do so, I looked again at the way Kramer was examining the file on the desk before him.

“Is that my dossier you have there?”

“A very interesting career. You have been present when crimes have been committed on previous occasions, is that not so?”

“Yes but—”

“Several occasions, in fact.”

“Well, yes, I—”

“And several crimes.”

“Not of my making—”

“How is that you are so often present when a crime is committed?”

It was time for a more vigorous defense. “Any multimillion-dollar enterprise attracts unscrupulous people. Food is such an enterprise, and it grows every year. Rare spices, for instance, are more valuable by weight than silver. The more important a business becomes, the more money is involved—and that brings in more unscrupulous people. I have never committed a crime, and I have no intention of ever doing so; but sometimes, when I am involved in such a case, I have to help in order to clear myself.”

“You have to help,” Kramer echoed, putting the green folder down at last.

“Yes. I have helped the police from time to time.”

As soon as I had said that, I knew it was a mistake. It opened for him the opportunity to tell me to keep out of this affair and mind my own business or he’d have me behind bars as soon as the Danube Express reached a station. I hoped that at least he was too civilized actually to throw me off it before we reached one.

He pushed the folder away from him. His pale blue eyes searched my psyche—or so it seemed. He leaned back, his spine as straight as a ramrod.

“This is a very strange concern,
nicht wahr

He was going to draw it out. In order to hammer home his message about noninterference, he was going to keep me on the rack a while longer. Well, two could play at that game.

“Very strange,” I agreed.


His German was beginning to emerge here and there, but as he presumably knew I understood the language, it mattered less.

“Mysterious, too, yes.”

It would come any minute now. He was just building me up before kicking my feet from under me and then opening up with both barrels …

“So you are a detective …”

I didn’t answer that, it was an item we had already covered.

“I wish to ask you something.” Finally he was getting to the point. I waited politely.

“I would like you to help me in this investigation. I would like you to be my assistant.”


my mind a couple of times, just making sure I had heard it right. I murmured an “Aha” as an invitation for him to continue.

“I have spoken with Herr Brenner, the president of the DS Bahn. He is in agreement with this request.”

His manner relaxed—not much, but enough to notice.

“You see, this is my first assignment in the field. I have been the security chief for three years now, but in the DS Bahn office in Munich. I was given the opportunity of making this trip as it was such a special occasion—the twenty-fifth anniversary. It was never expected that we could have such a happening as this. As it is so unusual and, well, I think the English word is ‘bizarre’—”

I nodded. It certainly was the word.

“Yes? Well, in the circumstances I felt I should have the assistance of someone who has had the experience of such crimes as this in the field, so to speak.” He tapped the green folder. “You have worked with Scotland Yard, I see.”

I nodded again, this time looking modest.

“So?” he asked. “You will accept?”

I was recovering from the surprise. “Yes, I will be glad to help.”

He smiled. It was the first smile I had seen from him. It indicated satisfaction and though it fell short of 90 percent of smiles, it gave me a great sense of relief. I was spared not only Kramer’s suspicions but also his interrogation, which I had been dreading. The puzzle he was facing was an intriguing one, too, and it would be a challenge to help him unravel it.

BOOK: Dine and Die on the Danube Express
3.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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