Der Fliegender Bleistift
Thursday, March 26th, 1942
In the early evening of May 1942 a Dornier light bomber rumbled off the runway and climbed slowly into the blue Greek sky. The pilots breathed a sigh of relief and settled back for the five hour flight to Wien. The loading of the cargo at Athens had taken an age.
They had been ordered to taxi the aircraft to a remote corner of the airport. Security had been tight and the soldiers loading the crates were from a regiment the two pilots did not recognise. Greece had not long been occupied by the Axis powers and the Germans were now in full control.
The manifest they had been given stated the cargo consisted of files and documents seized from the defeated Greek government. They were destined for the German Kommandant in Wien where they would be analysed in order to discover details of Greek Resistance groups who had taken to the hills, but were still active.
“Alles fertig! Endlich! What the hell was all that security about? No way this cargo is just paperwork.”
Hauptmann Ulrich Reichenberg levelled the aircraft out at its cruising altitude and turned to speak to his co-pilot.
“What do you think, Walter?”
Oberleutnant Walter Lerner took off his headphones and rubbed his ears.
“Me? I think this an undercover operation. Did you see how that officer watched the whole thing from his car? I couldn't see him well, but I'm sure he was a General.”
“So, something more important than paper! Our flight plan is unusual too. We fly towards Lausanne in Switzerland and only then divert east to Wien.”
Lerner studied the chart strapped to his knee.
“That means we fly up the Adriatic mostly over the sea and avoid the Yugoslavian coast. Maybe safer at the moment. Although we've occupied it all there's still resistance.”
“We cross over northern Italy before we reach Switzerland. That should be safe enough.”
“Weather looks good. Should be an easy ride.”
Not for nothing was the the Dornier nicknamed the Flying Pencil. Though the cockpit was roomy enough, the fuselage was narrow and must have been cramped in the original civilian passenger version.
All the space aft was taken up now with the crates the soldiers had loaded.
“I'm going to take a look. I don't like not knowing what I'm carrying,” said the pilot. “Keep a watch out for fighters.”
Reichenberg left the cockpit and walked back down the plane among the crates. He prised off the tops of the nearest ones. What he saw inside caused him to replace the lids with care.
Back in the cockpit he sat down heavily in his seat and just stared out through the window ahead.
“So?” asked Lerner turning in his seat. “What is it? Just files of paperwork?”
“You could say that. I've never seen so many paintings close up before.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The crates are packed with old masters. There's a fortune back there.”
From under his flying jacket he carefully pulled out a small wooden object.
“Look at this.”
“Gott in Himmel! That's a Greek icon. Is it genuine?”
“Absolut! Ja! there's nothing fake in those crates,” Reichenberg replied.
“So, what now? Are you going to put it back?”
Lerner looked at his friend and tried to read his thoughts.
“Will they notice if it's missing?” he said finally.
“Glaub' nicht. There's so much there. I doubt it, Walter. ”
“Prima! Then it's our fee for doing their dirty work.”
He turned back to the controls and, with an automatic glance above and below looking out for enemy aircraft, he screwed up his eyes to peer out into the distance. The sky was darkening and he could see lightning in the distance over the Alps.
“Scheiß! Verdammt noch mal! We're heading into a storm. So much for the weather forecast.”
Both pilots concentrated on keeping the aircraft steady as it hit a patch of violent turbulence and was thrown about by the storm over the mountains. Freezing rain lashed at the cockpit window and it was hard to see out. A sudden down-draft took hold of the plane and they lost height rapidly. They could see the peaks of the mountains towered above them and knew the wings and engines were icing up fast.
“Seh' mal! Dahin! Over there! Der Gletscher. Can you see it?” shouted Lerner above the noise.
Reichenberg wrestled with the controls and dropped the plane further to attempt a belly landing. Lerner sent out a desperate mayday call.
The Dornier levelled out and Reichenberg breathed more easily as he felt the plane finally respond to his handling. For a moment he even contemplated trying to force the plane into a steep climb out of the valley. But it was too late, the mountains were too close. Their only chance was to land on the glacier.
The winter snow was deep and he was banking on it slowing their speed as they touched down, but he also knew that under the snow the glacier was far from smooth.
Keeping the nose up Reichenberg lost height rapidly. Visibility was almost nil as the plane hit the glacier, bounced once and slid barely under control across the surface. A maelstrom of snow and ice blotted out the light and smashed against the cockpit windows. The noise was deafening.
Reichenberg struggled desperately to hold the plane in a straight line as it careered up the glacier burying itself deep into the top layer of snow until it came to a shuddering halt as the nose slammed into an ice wall hidden below the surface shattering the windows and showing splinters into their faces and bodies.
Both men were hurled forward as the tail rose and were knocked unconscious when their heads struck the flight console. Only their seat straps saved them from being thrown out of the plane. The Dornier hesitated for a moment and then the weight of the cargo took over and it crashed back onto the ice almost level.
The sudden silence was broken by the sound of the frame cracking and the tail section breaking off.
Reichenberg and Lerner slowly regained consciousness despite their injuries. Neither had the strength to free himself from his seat. Slowly the cold seeped into their bodies and minds.
When the rescue party arrived hours later the plane was almost completely buried in the snow. The Oberstleutnant in charge dug his way through and climbed into the plane through the open tail section.
Outside, the soldiers were preparing their equipment when they heard two shots coming from inside the plane.
A few minutes later the officer climbed out and walked over to his men.
“The pilots. They survived the crash but were so badly injured they begged me to put them out of their agony. Verstanden?”
“Jawohl, Herr Oberstleutnant!”
“Also. The crates. Get them out. Schnell.”
Thursday, January 9th
“What are you reading?” Chief Inspector Antonia Antoniarchis of the Greek Art Fraud Squad took a break from writing up her report on her most recent fraud case. She had finally wrapped it up the week before, just in time to be able to take well-earned leave and travel to Bordeaux to be with Pierre.
Antonia's boss, Chief Superintendent Ioànnis Lytrás, perhaps because he was so near to retirement and felt great affection for Antonia, had allowed her to leave before completing her report.
With a twinkle in his eye he had nonetheless warned her not to become too distracted in Bordeaux and to send in the report within a week. He sent his best wishes to Pierre and hoped she would persuade him to come to Athens again where he would of course be most welcome.
She stood up, stretched the stiffness out of her back and repeated her question.
“What are you reading, Pierre?”
“Conan Doyle. Le Dernier Problème. The story where Sherlock Holmes goes to the Reichenbach Falls and meets Professor Moriaty for the final showdown.”
“You boys! You're a real live detective and yet you spend your time reading about fictional ones.”
“Are you so sure he was fictional? Many people believe he was real. You would be surprised at the number of people who go to look for his old rooms at 221B Baker Street in London,” protested Pierre, looking up from his book. “And his deductive method is fascinating – we can learn from it,” he continued, hoping to extricate himself from the hole he was digging.
“There you go again! I think you really do believe he wasn't fictional yourself. What sort of detective am I involved with?”
A grin spreading across her face, she wagged her finger at him: “And I bet you went to Baker Street the last time you were in London.”
Watching him squirm, she added:
“You did, didn't you?”
Commissaire Pierre Rousseau, formerly of the Police Judiciaire in Paris and now affected to the Interpol Art Fraud Team like Antonia, nodded, looking like a little boy caught out taking an extra biscuit. He pulled himself up in the armchair and looked at her, trying to force a serious expression onto his face.
“Well … but tell me about your last case,” he said.
“It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce you're trying to change the subject,” she replied, sitting down again and pulling her report on the table closer to her. “Are you really interested or would you prefer to finish your story?”
In reply, Pierre put down his book and gave her his full attention.
“I really am interested. You haven't told me how it all ended or how you persuaded Lýtras to let you come to Bordeaux before you had submitted your report.”
“Oh! That was easy. I just told him I was coming here to be with you. He has enormous respect for you after the Crusader's Chronicle case. You both really did surprise us all when we realised you and he were in league the whole way through.”
“Not quite the whole way through, but yes, we did liaise closely.”
“The sting you set up for the American Leontarakis when he returned to the States was brilliant.”
“Merci. I found out later Vinsauf studied in Paris and was a poet and a grammarian. I wonder what made him decide to go on the Crusade.”
“Well, I suppose we'll never know. Now, do you want to hear about my case or not?”
“Bien sûr, ma chère. Je m'excuse. Continue.”
“You're forgiven,” she said turning towards him in her chair. “It was an simple case really for a change. The Art Fraud Squad only asked me to investigate because it involved an icon which had disappeared years ago and my expertise from when I worked at the museum was needed to find the original owner.”
“How was it discovered?”
“It was one of those strange coincidences. There was a programme on the television in which a Greek pop singer was being interviewed in her own house. The icon was hanging on the wall behind her.
“A young fan was watching the programme and noticed the icon. Her father is an art expert mostly based in London, but who happened to be home in Volos and came into the room while the interview was on. His daughter had acquired some of the love her father had for icons and pointed it out to him.
“He at first thought it must be a copy of an icon which everyone thought had been lost when the Turks invaded northern Cyprus. But reasoned it would be difficult to make a copy of something that was lost!
“So he contacted my old office at the museum in Athens and they asked me to take it from there. In fact I gave most of the spade work to Eleni.”
“Patrick mentioned she was working on something. I have a feeling she asked him to contact our old friend Katja Kokoschka here in Bordeaux,” said Pierre.
“Well, she is an expert and owed us a favour. It turned out the singer had bought the icon from an antiquarian book dealer in Athens simply because she liked it. She didn't realise it was so old, just thought it was good quality.”
“She was right about that.”
“The book dealer said it had turned up in a box of books he had bought in an auction. Of course he had no idea it was genuine. Just thought it was a good copy.
“The auctioneers said they didn't know it was even in the box of books and their records had been destroyed in a flood in the building so they couldn't tell us who originally brought in the books to them for sale!”
“And so it goes on,” said Pierre with a weary grin. “What a world we live in. Is anyone honest?”
“We would be out of a job if everyone was, remember!”
“So what happens now?”
“That's easy. The icon was stolen from the Church of St Charalambos in Neo-Chorio-Kythrea in what is now in the Turkish area of Cyprus. it'll be returned to the Church of Cyprus.”
“How was Katja able to help?” asked Pierre.
“She knew about the looting of the church in Cyprus and had a old book of photographs showing the inside of the church taken at a wedding ceremony in the 60s. The icon was in the background.”
“I suppose she had photographs of churches there as part of her collection of architectural books.”
“Yes. That's what made Eleni think of contacting her. It seems there are not many photos of the Turkish sector and the authorities there are still reluctant to help.”
Antonia swivelled round on her chair and looked as if she was preparing to continue to draft her report.
“I'm glad we were able to rescue Katja after that business in Kythera. She and Bouvier make a nice couple. I see them here in Bordeaux from time to time,” mused Pierre. “Their architectural practice is doing well despite the economic climate and they are always pleased to have a chat whenever I am passing.”
“I think you have a soft spot for her ...”
“Yes. She has turned her life around after a rocky start and deserves her happiness.”
“You old romantic you. Perhaps that's what I like about you.”
“Talking of nice couples I assume Patrick is with Eleni on Kythera now?”
“No. They were planning to take a holiday up in the Dolomites. Eleni told me Patrick wanted to take her skiing and there are some good resorts on the Italian side.”
“I'd like to see some snow,” said Pierre. “I haven't skied for a couple of years. Perhaps we should go and find some.”
“I'm Greek. You don't really expect me to ski, do you?”
“There are lots of ski resorts in Greece! After all you have just told me Eleni skis. But we could simply walk in the mountains. Snow shoes or tobogganing if you like. Anyway I could teach you to cross-country ski. It's much less scary ...”
But I haven't the right clothes,” Antonia protested feebly.
Pouncing quickly, Pierre said: “No problem. We can hire everything on the spot. It's easy. Agreed then? Tu es d'accord?”
Antonia looked at him with that despairing expression she seemed to make more and more often as Pierre pushed her into doing things which she had not tried before.
“That's a yes then. Excellent! I'll make the arrangements.”
“Hang on! Where were you thinking of going?”
“There's a little place called Meiringen in Switzerland which has its own ski resort. It's not so touristy as some of the better known ones. Just perfect for you to learn.”
“Meiringen? Isn't that where the Reichenbach Falls … ?”
She leapt out of her chair and Pierre tried in vain to defend himself as she started pummelling him.
“You had this all planned from the start you devious Frenchman ...”
“I thought it was Greeks who were devious ...” he replied, trying to grab both her hands to save himself.
“Only when they are bearing gifts,” she replied.