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Authors: Peter King

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BOOK: Dine and Die on the Danube Express
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I went to Coach Six, compartment J-4, Kramer’s “office.” He was deep into the contents of a colored folder as I entered, but he looked up. “Ah, come in,” he called. “You too, Hirsch,” he added to the steward who had brought me.

“Please sit,” he invited me, and when I was seated, he said to the steward, “Now, Hirsch, tell us again your story.”

Hirsch was white-haired, a capable-looking man in his smart uniform. He had just the right balance for a responsible job as steward on the prestigious Danube Express—competent but not presumptuous. He stood at what was the nonmilitary equivalent of attention. In Germany, the difference between the military and the nonmilitary versions is minute.

He told his story, looking at Kramer but with an occasional glance in my direction.

“When I was seeing passengers onto the train and helping them to their compartments, one of the station staff brought me what he said was an urgent message for Fraulein Malescu. I delivered it to her just as she was going into her compartment.”

“Describe the message,” rapped Kramer.

“It was in an ordinary white envelope. There was nothing written on it except, ‘Fraulein Malescu,’ and in the corner in large letters ‘URGENT.’ I waited to see if there was an answer she would wish sent at once. She opened the envelope, took out a single sheet of paper, and read it.”

“Go on.”

“Well, she stared at me for a moment—as if she was looking right through me. Her face turned pale. I mean, her makeup showed clearly—underneath it, her face went white as if she had seen a ghost.”

“Did she say anything?”

“No.”

“Then what happened?”

“I asked the
Fräulein
if there was any answer. After a moment, she shook her head. I asked her if she was all right. She asked me what I had said, and I repeated it. She said, ‘Yes’ in a low voice. I asked if there was anything I could do, and she shook her head. She said I could go.”

“What did she do with the letter and the envelope?”

“I don’t know—she still held them as I left.”

“Any conclusions, Hirsch?”

“She was terrified,
Meinherr
—I assumed that whatever was in that note terrified her.”

“Anything else, Hirsch?”

“No,
Meinherr
.”

“Thank you, Hirsch. You can go. You will not, of course, speak of this to anyone.”

Hirsch bowed obediently and left.

Kramer looked at me expectantly.

“It sounds like a threat of some kind,” I said.

He nodded.

“The compartment has been searched for the note?”

“Yes,” he said. “There is no trace of it or the envelope.”

“And I’m sure you tried to track its origin on Munich station?”

“Yes, but it had passed through too many hands.”

“Any indication of where the smell of bitter almonds in the compartment came from?”

“No,” Kramer said. “It is still noticeable, though it is now faint. But there is nothing to suggest where the odor came from. Nor did we find anything else unusual.”

“I was talking to Larouge,” I told him, “when a thought occurred to me. That journalist, Czerny, seems to have concentrated much of his venom on Malescu. Apparently, he didn’t write about anyone else as critically as he did about her. Is it possible that there was something personal between them? Perhaps from an earlier time?”

“A motive for him, you mean?”

“Yes.”

He looked thoughtful. “I have Thomas digging deeper. I will suggest this to him. Anything else?”

“I was talking to Friedlander also. I asked him what will happen to the Mozart manuscript when it arrives in Bucharest—he said, the question was
if
it arrives in Bucharest.”

“That is strange. Friedlander is conductor of the Swabian State Symphony Orchestra. Such a man should be considered as above suspicion.”

I recalled a line from a Charlie Chan movie. “‘No one on the train can be considered as above suspicion,’” I said sternly.

“You are right. I must read his file again.”

Not for the first time, I wondered exactly what was in my own file, but I was not going to rock the boat by asking. Kramer had accepted me as his trusted assistant, and I wanted to keep it that way.

While I was cogitating along those lines, Kramer was rubbing his chin. I had noticed that he did that when he was thinking more intensely. “There have been rumors …”

“What kind of rumors?” I asked.

“We have many informants. A large number of persons are associated with the railroad in one way or another. Persons who pass along to us any whispers that they hear that affect—or could affect—the railroad. Much of what they tell us is useless but, now and then, fragments may fit together, and what emerges may be a clue.”

“And you have heard some fragments concerning the Mozart manuscript?”

“Yes, but that is what they are—just fragments, not substantial enough to act upon. Still, such rumblings may indicate that something is—what is the English expression—afoot?”

“That is the expression,” I admitted.

“You should also know that we have picked up similar fragments about a threat to the vines. Not as many, but some.”

“I’m surprised at that,” I told him. “The vines are invaluable to the future of the Romanian wine industry, but they can’t be of much interest to anyone else.”

“Yes,” said Kramer, “but what about the reverse?”

“Reverse?”

“Yes,” Kramer said. “Could someone want to stop Romania getting the vines?”

I thought for a moment

“Hungary, the nations of the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria? They all compete for the same export market in white wines. But that’s too far-fetched.”

He frowned. “Far-fetched?”

“Improbable, unreasonable, unlikely.”

“Because they are governments, you mean?”

“Well, yes. You sound skeptical—I suppose in your job, you run into a lot of international intrigue along such lines?”

He nodded. “More than you would imagine.”

“Have you had attempts on cargoes previously?”

“Yes,” he said. “Just a few. We have prevented them occurring in most cases. One or two have come close to an actual theft and those we stopped. We have an excellent record.”

“It sounds as if you are going to have a busy trip on this occasion. The vines, the Mozart manuscript, and the Malescu mystery.”

He nodded glumly. “It appears so.”

“One other thought—doesn’t a famous actress like Malescu usually travel with a maid? Someone to set out her clothes and attend to details for her? It seems odd that Malescu should be alone.”

Kramer looked pleased with himself. “I can see I picked the right man as my assistant. That is a very good point. Yes, I thought of that myself, and asked Thomas to check previous reports of Fraulein Malescu’s travels. She does, indeed, have a personal maid who is always with her.”

“Always?”

“Yes, always—except on this occasion.”

“Do you know where the maid is now?”

“The Budapest police made inquiries for me at the National Theatre, where Malescu appears often. The maid is flying to Bucharest to meet Malescu there.”

“Is the maid afraid of trains?”

Kramer’s sense of humor didn’t extend that far, or perhaps he was too caught up in this aspect of the investigation. “No,” he answered seriously. “The theatre said she had some personal matter to attend to before leaving Munich.”

“Interesting,” I said. “You’re having the maid checked out, too, I’m sure.”

“Of course.”

“We are dining in Vienna tonight, I believe?” I said.

“Yes, although there was almost a change of plans. Because of the Malescu mystery, the police in Vienna wanted to take control of the investigation. That would have meant holding the train there.”

“But that is not going to happen now?” I asked.

“No. Herr Brenner believes that if we stop there, the Austrian police may not let us leave until the mystery is solved.”

He paused, evidently weighing if he should say more. He decided. “I will tell you. The franchise under which the Danube Express is allowed to use the railroad lines of various countries states that delay in arrival in Bucharest may be cause for cancellation of the contract.”

“Herr Brenner must have a lot of pull to override the Austrian police.”

Kramer was enjoying learning these slang English expressions. “Pull!
Ja!
like that!”

He rubbed his chin again. “Herr Brenner expects us—that is, you and me, to solve this quickly.” He gave a small smile of satisfaction at the thought of Brenner overriding the Vienna police. “He has friends in Berlin—influential friends—and Germany still has power to influence Austrian decisions.”

“So we just attend the banquet, then we return to the train. Is everyone attending?”

“We have arranged it thus. That will give us the opportunity to search the train once more—very thoroughly”

“Good thinking,” I told him. “That will be important in knowing how to proceed with the investigation—if we know for sure that Malescu is or is not on the train.”

“Just so.” He rose from the desk. “Now I must go and talk further with Thomas in the communication center.”

“And I’ll spend the time before dinner in the lounge coach. Maybe I can pick up some more gossip.”

We both left, Kramer going in one direction and I in the other. I stood in the corridor watching the Austrian scenery unfold and thinking over what I had recently learned.

What I was looking for were clues although this was made more difficult by having three possible events to consider: the theft of the vines, the theft of the Mozart manuscript, and the death or disappearance of Magda Malescu. Could there be any connection?

I was still pondering these various puzzles when I heard the soft booming of the gong that announced meals. “Cocktails are now being served in the lounge car,” came the announcement in several languages. “We will be arriving in Vienna in two hours.”

I bathed, changed, and went to the lounge coach. The Walburgs were there, so was Elisha Tabor, the Hungarian editor with, I was surprised to note, Paolo Conti. The two of them were deep in conversation.

Irena Koslova, the Romanian girl who was doing something she had
always wanted to do
, was drinking a glass of clear liquid. It could have been anything from Alpine springwater to straight vodka. She was alone. Henri Larouge was chattering away in French with a woman I hadn’t seen before, a blonde in a severe evening dress.

Erich Brenner came into the coach with the Sundvalls.

“Professor Sundvall and Mrs. Sundvall,” said Brenner. “The professor is with Upsala University in Sweden. He is the DS Bahn official historian.”

“We have met,” I told Brenner, but I shook hands with the Swedish couple anyway. “I enjoyed talking to you, Professor,” I said. “I look forward to learning more.”

“As I enjoy this assignment,” he assured me. “Continually, I am finding new information on the early days of the railway.” He had the slightly singsong intonation of Swedes but, like most of them, his mastery of English was excellent.

“And now that he has retired from the university,” said his wife, “I am able to travel with him. We were very fortunate that this allowed us to be here on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the DS Bahn.”

“And my next assignment will be to tell you a short history of Vienna,” said the professor. “I may consider having a fortifying drink first however.”

“We will take care of that immediately,” said Erich Brenner, and signaled imperiously to a waiter.

I looked for Friedlander, the conductor, anxious to know why he had used “if” instead of “when” in referring to the manuscript arriving in Bucharest but he was not present. I didn’t see Lydecker either, so I took the opportunity to sit at the small window table opposite Irena Koslova, who sat pensive, a glass of clear liquid in front of her.

“I’ll join you in one of those,” I said, “providing it’s not water.”

“It’s Bulgarian vodka,” she said. “Have you ever drunk it?”

“No. But I will now.”

The service was, as expected from the superbly operated Danube Express, prompt, and a glass of the clear liquid appeared in front of me. I tasted it.

“It is the belief in my country that any alcoholic drink that is clear and without color cannot cause a hangover,” she said.

“I wouldn’t have thought that hangovers were your problem.”

“They are not,” she said.

“It’s a very pleasant drink. I’m not surprised you like it. Powerful but not overwhelming.”

“I like the Zubrowka vodka, too, although it has a yellow color.”

“That’s the buffalo grass that is added to it,” I told her.

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

She was a very attractive girl. She had a flawless complexion that almost glowed, it was so smooth. Her features were delicate, and her soft brown eyes were demure at the moment, though they could probably become resolute very quickly. Her hair was a light chestnut shade and shiny as silk.

Her face was heart-shaped making it more gentle. Her two-piece outfit was light brown with wooden buttons, and it fitted snugly—but not tightly—to a slender but curvy body.

“There’s a new vodka out now—it’s flavored with Arctic cranberries,” I commented.

“I haven’t tried that. Is vodka a hobby of yours?” she asked.

“More of a business,” I said.

“Oh? Do you make vodka or sell it?”

I had my mouth half-open to describe my food-finder role and explain just what I did, but I paused in time.

“Neither, I just drink it.”

“So how is it part of your business?”

The brown eyes were astute, assessing me over the rim of the glass, now frosting with moisture.

“I conduct investigations in the food and drink businesses,” I said carefully.

“Are you conducting an investigation now?” she wanted to know.

I decided to confide in her to a limited extent. My role would have to become known soon, and if I was going to investigate, I wanted to do it with the full cooperation of the people on the train.

“Herr Kramer, the head of security on the Danube Express, has asked me to assist him.”

“So you are a detective?” Her eyes were wide.

BOOK: Dine and Die on the Danube Express
12.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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