MISS WEST’S FIRST CASE


By


Eve Fisher


January 6, 1947, and I hadn’t seen my boss, Ron Conroy, since January first, when he’d sneaked out of my flat at dawn holding his shoes and socks. “The least he could have done,” I sobbed, “was kiss me good-bye and lie that he’d see me later…” Johann Dreher, best friend and coworker, handed me a handkerchief and waited until I’d blown my nose and mopped up a bit. “Men are cowards, they really are. Give me a cigarette. He wasn’t at work Monday. Ethel said he was over in the Russian sector. He hasn’t been in the office all week. The only thing I’ve heard from him is this.” I handed him the memo. “He’s sending me to the Meidling Sanatorium. They need a bookkeeper. The bastard. The absolute bastard.”
Johann blew a smoke ring leisurely at the ceiling, and commented, “It’s an assignment.”
“It’s a temporary job. At a TB sanatorium.”
“The Meidling is not so bad. I spend a lot of time there these days.”
“Your ‘cousin’ Alexis?”
He smiled. “A distant cousin. Yes.”
“Socializing, while I’ll be stuck in a stuffy back room over a pile of books.”
“Really, I am ashamed of you, Alice. Was it not you who told me that he who controls the books controls the world? There are things going on at the Meidling. You may be able to find out more than I, with your ‘nothing but books.’” He ordered us another round.
“What sort of things? What are you working on there?”
He shrugged. “Many things. Money, that washes around the Meidling like water. And people. They come and they go, and many of them have no business to be there. Very interesting. Very mixed. Vienna society in a nutshell, but everyone is coughing. Dying. Very fin de siècle. Wait until you see Mademoiselle d’Antin’s Sunday brunch. Marvelous champagne cocktails. You’ll have to buy yourself a new cocktail frock. Wine colored, please. No lace. No more lace!”
“She’ll never invite me. I’m a bookkeeper.”
“Who is an Elliot of Minto.”
“Distantly.”
“Your father is an Honourable, is he not? That is sufficient. You will be invited. They are all snobs, there, here, at the office.” A pang shot through me – was that the real reason Ron had pursued me? “Mademoiselle invites everyone, even the orderlies. You will not believe them – rough characters, my dear – more suitable for the penitentiary
than for the Meidling. And Mrs. Pugh holds Thursday afternoon teas. Gossip and parading the young Paula, her niece, who is the loveliest thing one ever saw outside a fairy tale. She is waiting desperately for her Prince Charming to come and set her free from the castle and the dragon. The soft-scented, wide-lapped, lizard-lipped, fringe-topped, Devon dragon Mrs. Pugh.” I choked on my drink, laughing. “That’s better.”
“Ron’s just trying to get rid of me,” I said, after I calmed down. “He thinks this is the easiest way out.”
“Perhaps.” Johann reached over and grabbed my chin. “Stop crying. Listen to me. You want our American ally to want you, to desire you, to love you? Prove your independence. That’s what they really worship, all of them. So. Take this assignment –”
“I have no choice but to take it.”
“Take this assignment and do it well. Do the books. And look. I tell you, there is something going on at the Meidling. My nose knows. We will help each other. Discreetly. You will discover something, be something. You will earn Mr. Conroy’s respect. And perhaps his desire, it will come back to you. And if it does not – you will have done something worthwhile.”
#
So I went to work at the Meidling. Some parts of it were lovely. My office had a large window and two doors, one leading to the CFO’s office (Herr Laurens Hoffner), the other to the front office, where Sissy and Kristen typed, talked and smoked endless cigarettes. The Director, Willy Tressler, had his own office, his own assistant and his own secretary across the way, far from any actual work.
Some parts were worse: My embezzling predecessor, Herr Weber, had left nothing but wreckage behind. I don’t know if you have ever tried to recreate accounts from miscellaneous scraps of paper, receipts, cheque counter-foils, etc., but it is miserable work. CFO Hoffner was deeply apologetic.
“I know it will be a job of infinite difficulty, but we must get things back in order as soon as possible. The Meidling is one of the finest sanatoriums in Europe, and we must, how do you say? Make a restoration. Become fiscally sound again. Return to our standards.”
And left me to do a job more suited to an archaeologist than a bookkeeper.
I had so many questions: The orderlies and nurses were on a flat salary, while the administration – Hoffner smiled blandly when I mentioned that their salaries appeared to be on an upwardly sliding scale.
“He who works with his mind earns more than he who works with his hands. This is true everywhere, nein?”
“Of course. By the way, Herr Hoffner, what’s this about plumbing?”
“Huh?”
“Here, this list under Dr. Groen’s name, and Dr. Braun’s. And a few others. Listed under expenses, bonuses. P-L-M-B, P-L-M-B, over and over again. Twenty-four of them in the last two weeks. Are they fixing the pipes as well?” I stopped, because Hoffner was laughing himself sick. “Not plumbing. So, may I ask what it is?”
“It is plombage, not plumbing. It is a surgical procedure for tuberculosis, to collapse the lung. It rests it. Many times it stops the disease altogether.”
“You must be joking.” He wasn’t. “Well, we learn something every day. Thank you.” I looked over the list. “There seem to be quite a lot of these procedures...”
“My dear Miss West, that is the decision of the surgeon. And our doctors, they are the finest in Europe. One does not ask the finest surgeon in Europe what he is or is not doing. He does it, and is paid for his services.”
“Sounds more like a stud than a surgeon,” I muttered.
“What did you say?”
“Sounds like a stunningly good idea.” I smiled. He smiled. And I returned to the books.
#
Of course, my name spread throughout the Meidling as the girl who did not know plumbing from surgery… But Johann was right, and I received invitations to everything. I officially made my debut at Marguerite d’Antin’s Sunday brunch, which was heavy on drink and redolent of sex. She talked constantly about her fiancé, Robert, while her hands went up and down an orderly. Any orderly.
“My grandmamma always told me that consumption made people randy,” I told Johann a couple of nights later. “Now I’ve proof.”
“Never mind d’Antin. How is the plumbing coming along?”
“Much too much of it. You have never seen so many leaky pipes. Almost everyone has apparently gotten a plumber, from Mademoiselle to the divine Paula. By the way, is her father the Victorian chaplain who roams the halls of Meidling?”
“One and the same. He is the soldier, home from the wars.”
“Mm. He’s the dead spit of Coventry Patmore in papa’s copy of ‘The Angel in the House’.”
“Really? Well, he has had more than one angel – I hear he has been married more than once.”
“So was Patmore.”
“Ah, the Victorians. Prunes, prisms, and prurience. And Paula. I cannot believe that she needed a plumber.”
“The books say she did. Almost every patient has had a plumbing incident, at least on paper. Including indigent patients, which is interesting, because who gives expensive surgery to the poor?”
“A religious benefactor fulfilling his charitable duty?”
“To Schmidt, Jones and Martin?”
“Three men went into a hotel…” Johann paused. “I see. Good girl, Alice. Keep on the hunt. I must go. I will be out of town for a few days, but I will be attending Alexis’ Theosophy Society meeting on Tuesday. I will see you there.”
“Must I?”
“Consider it educational.”
#
“’Whatever reality things possess must be looked for in them before or after they have passed like a flash through the material world; but we cannot cognise any such existence directly, so long as we have sense-instruments which bring only material existence into the field of our consciousness.’”
Alexis Engelhardt, reading from “The Secret Doctrine.” Only the coffee was keeping me awake. Attendance was… eclectic. A few doctors, a number of administrators, a scattering of women, including Paula Charthouse (chaperoned by Mrs. Pugh) and a couple of nurses. I came because of Johann, who wasn’t there. I’d seen him coming in the Meidling, but he’d turned aside, answering someone, and then disappeared down a hallway. It was a shame: I was wearing a claret-colored cocktail frock, silk, probably from a dyed parachute, but it looked lovely, and no lace.
Alexis’ lungs lasted ten minutes. He coughed his way down from the podium and Herr Jungfeld rose to drone on about the Universe as the periodical manifestation of the unknown Absolute Essence.
Drs. Groen, Braun, Muller and others arrived late, in time for coffee. Mrs. Pugh latched onto Dr. Groen, and I joined Alexis and Paula Charthouse, asking after her health.
Paula smiled weakly. “The illusion of my material existence is being an infernal nuisance tonight.”
“Perhaps you should go back to your room and lie down.”
“Oh, I am so sick of being in my room, of lying down, of being ill… What I want is to be well, to live, to be strong and active and lovely. Like you.”
I glanced around quickly to see who she was talking about.
“The lovely Miss West is certainly an addition to our circle,” Alexis said. “But take courage, little Paula. You will get well. You are better than you were. And you are altogether lovely.”
She looked at him with large blue eyes in a heart-shaped face in a halo of blonde hair – no wonder all the men were crazy about her. Although it was a bit of a waste on Alexis.
“Ah, Miss West!” Dr. Groen said. “Have you learned any new medical terms lately?” He turned to Mrs. Pugh and said, “You have heard about how Miss West decided that I must be a plumber, not a surgeon.”
Mrs. Pugh eyed me from head to foot with a reptilian smile. “That is a lovely frock; I hadn’t realized the pay here was sufficient for clerical staff to afford silk.”
“I receive a small allowance from my family back in Roxburghshire,” I replied. Play that card shamelessly. “Scotland.”
“Ah, yes. The seat of the Earl of Minto. I saw that you are related. Distantly, of course. I always check DeBrett’s. There are so many poseurs in Vienna, especially since the war has ended. Welcome, Miss West, to the Meidling.” Then she turned to Paula, “We must leave now. It is late. You need to rest.”
“The poor child –” Dr. Groen said, watching them leave. “A long struggle with the disease. But we are winning. Someday she will have a normal life.”
“I believe she would prefer a Cinderella’s life with Prince Charming.”
“Very true. Who will it be? You, Alexis?” Alexis blushed. “No.”
“It won’t be a patient,” I said. “She has been in sanatoriums all her life. Whoever will be her Prince Charming will not spit blood.” The gentlemen winced at my crudeness. “It will be someone distinguished, chivalrous, strong, true – after all, there is no more certain way of winning a woman’s heart than to save her life.” I gave Dr. Groen the admiring look that always charmed Uncle Minto. “All women are romantics at heart.”
The doctor bowed, and left smiling.
“You are discerning,” Alexis said. “He wants to marry die schöne Paula with all his heart. But first she must be cured.”
“Why wait that long?” I asked. “I would think it better to let her have some fun before she dies.”
#
I’d already made a list of names and dates of “plmb” procedures, and I began to cross-check them against the actual patient files. But when Herr Hoffner, who had so far been cooperative and even complimentary, found me looking through Paula Charthouse’s file, he snatched it out of my hands.
“What are you doing with this?”
“I’m double checking the procedures listed against her actual file. To make sure the billing is accurate. And the receipts.”
“Why would you question that?”
“Because. I’m an accountant, and that’s what accountants do. We double-check, especially when it’s a matter of significant bonuses based on expensive procedures –”
“I have told you that our surgeons are the best in Europe. All of these procedures were approved, completed, done. I must ask that you cease this waste of time and energy and return to the job for which you were hired. Or is this a matter of personal animosity towards Drs. Groen, Braun and others?”
“Not at all, I am just trying to be thorough –”
“And I appreciate your dedication. However, patient files are none of your business. They are private. Is that understood?”
“Yes.”
#
Early that evening, after everyone had gone, I sat in the midst of my archaeological digs and considered. The bookkeeper had vanished. Certain records had been destroyed, but others had been left intact – such as the plumbing list. But what if there had been no embezzlement? What if it was just that, the war over, the Nazis gone, money had to be accounted for? Money stolen, money wasted, money pocketed, money from and for bribes, or dead people, or… But why account for it at all?
Because there were going to be major reviews coming of every major institution in Vienna, which would include an audit.
So a new set of books, carefully prepared and vetted by an outside accountant – an English accountant, supplied by the Americans – would be very useful.
After the Anschluss, the Nazis had put their own personnel at the head of those organizations they didn’t simply shut down and loot. But Tressler and Hoffner had been at the Meidling for decades. Why had the Meidling been spared? I’d heard the Nazis were scared out of their uniforms by contagion. And it undoubtedly helped that almost every patient was wealthy enough to pay for their health and safety, in some cases (such as Mademoiselle d’Antin) despite the fact that they were not pure Aryan stock.
And not every resident was or had been a patient. Sissy had gossiped that the Meidling isolation ward saw some interesting “patients” during the war, from Jewish bankers to ladies from the best brothel in Vienna. And of course Mrs. Pugh, that good Devon widow, had ridden out the war comfortably and safely at the Meidling thanks to her consumptive niece. What would she have done if Paula had suddenly been cured? Or married Dr. Groen? And why was he taking so long with his courtship? Of course, it might be… what about the doctors?
I went over the plombage records again and again. Why hadn’t I noticed before that Dr. Braun’s receipts only began in 1939, Dr. Groen’s in 1940? After the Anschluss…
I leaned back in my chair and heard the church bells chime seven. Much past time to go home. Everyone else was gone. I gathered my belongings, and went into the front office. On my right were the locked file cabinets, with patient and personnel records. I knew a few things about locks, and was about to apply them when a rough voice growled,
“Was machst du hier?”
It was one of the giant orderlies.
“Ich war spӓt arbeiten,” I stammered out. “Ich gehe nun in meine wohnung.”
“Du bist –”
“Nicht ‘du’ mich,” I snapped. “Verwenden ‘Sie’ wenn -”
“Working?” I jumped a mile as another orderly, shorter, thinner, older, came from behind the other. “So late? Alone?”
“I am the bookkeeper. I was just leaving.”
The new one was standing between me and the door. His mouth twisted. “What every mädel says when she meets a lover. Nicht wahr?”
I drew back my shoulders and said, “I am going home now.” And walked, heart pounding, past the first one. The second one reached for my arm and turned me. “Let go of me!”
“I say, what’s going on here?” A tall man, with silver temples, silver moustache, lean British face, and a clerical collar: Paula’s father, the Reverend James Charthouse. He looked at the two orderlies. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing? Get your hands off of her! Get out of here!”
The two men jumped away from me, and the second said, “We were only wondering, what she was doing, so late in such a confidential –”
“Nonsense! Who are you? What are your names? I’m going to report you!”
The two men took off running; my rescuer watched them go, jaw clenched. He turned back to me and said, “Don’t worry. I know who they are. I’ll report them first thing to the personnel manager. Are you all right?”
“Yes. Just a little shaken.”
“I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself –”
“I know who you are,” I said. “I’m Alice West, the bookkeeper.”
“I know. I’ve heard of you from my daughter. I was visiting her, that’s why I’m still here.”
“Of course.”
“You look shaken. Allow me take you to dinner. A good meal and a drink, that’s what you need.”
Well, you don’t turn down a knight, do you? Although I could almost hear Johann saying, “Charming man. But a very convenient rescue…” But it was a free meal…
#
Over dinner, I told him a version of the story of my life, which included the Austrian chap I fell for, but it didn’t work out. He told me a great deal about Paula, and of his first wife, who died in childbirth, and his second, who died in an air raid. He also asked how I came to be at the Meidling.
“Through a coordinating agency, a minor branch of the USACA. They sent me over to do the books.”
“And how are they?”
“That’s confidential.”
“Well, all I can say is thank God you’re here. Word is there are going to be reviews coming of every institution in Vienna, finances, personnel, the whole ball of wax. I was rather hoping you were the forerunner.”
“If I were, it would be terribly indiscreet for me to tell you.”
“Well, it may be indiscreet, but Groen and half the surgeons are Nazis. Braun came with the Anschluss. Assigned by Nazi headquarters.”
“Has anyone notified the Regional Courts?”
“Oh, yes. First thing I did when I came here. But Nazis or not, surgeons are surgeons. I was told the Meidling was lucky to have them. Hah!”
“Mm. Speaking of surgeons, did your daughter ever have a plombage treatment?” He looked blankly at me. “Surgery for her tuberculosis.”
“No. Thank God we were spared that. Why?”
“Because, it appears that a number of patients were listed – wrongly – as having surgical procedures. Now I need to go back and ascertain if they were also charged for those procedures.” I looked at him over my wine. “Would you care to help me?” A sudden surge of eagerness took years from his face. “My supervisor –”
“Hoffner or the Americans?”
I ignored that – “feels that I am wasting valuable time, but it might be important…”
“I am entirely at your service.”
I took a sip of wine, a bite of veal. Delicious. Charthouse was watching me, interested, curious, attracted... That was delicious, too.
#
The next day I had lunch with Alexis, which made an interesting contrast. We discussed Mozart, Trollope, Tolstoy, the new Dior collection – there was a little black cocktail dress that Alexis highly recommended, now that he thought I was a Minto with money – and, of course, the sanatorium.
“Everyone is talking about the incident last night. How you were threatened! How the brave English pastor came to your rescue! By the way, have no fear. The two have been fired, thrown out of the Meidling forever. I understand they have been causing problems with the female staff all along, but this incident with you… The final straw.”
“Do you know who they were?”
Alexis smiled cattily. “I am sure Mademoiselle d’Antin would know.”
I shook my head. “For shame.” He snickered. “Tell me, whatever happened to your cousin?” Alexis shifted in his chair. “Wasn’t he being treated here as well?”
“Oh, no. He merely came to visit. Did you know him?”
“I met him at a d’Antin Sunday. He told me about the Theosophy lectures.”
“Really?” A hesitation. “He attended a couple of them, but he was, sadly, called away a while ago. Back to Strasbourg, where he is working on a fat goose, I have no doubt.”
“Perhaps he’ll come and visit again.”
“I doubt it. If I ever leave here alive, I will never return. Why should he?”
I thought to tell him that I knew my proverbs as well as anyone – but I could hear Johann’s voice saying, “Totally untrustworthy, my dear.”
God, I missed him.
#
Sissy told me the names of the two orderlies: Franz Weber and Heinrich Pollard.
My chaplain told me that a significant number of patients, including Paula, had not had surgery, nor been billed for it. And yet money had been passed, from somewhere, to somewhere, at least on paper, for a procedure that had not been done…
He also asked me out to dinner again. I accepted, but for a later date. Never seem too eager.
#
From the bastard: “You still work here. Regular reports are expected. RC.”
From Ethel Toplady: “Nothing from JD. Boss furious. Keep it up.”
From Johann: nothing.
#
That night I went over to Johann’s flat after work and let myself in with the spare key. His flat was smaller than mine, one room with a gas ring in the corner, but far more luxurious, real Turkish carpets, rich drapes, plummy furniture. I locked the door behind me and searched the place as thoroughly as I knew how. As far as I could tell, nothing was missing. Wherever he had gone, he had taken nothing except the clothes on his back. The plants were almost dead, so I watered them.
I gathered everything with even a scrap of writing on it and took it home, where I sat down with a glass of wine and read. Nothing too embarrassing. Nothing indiscreet. Nothing political. But, tucked in his address book, under “W” for West, a sheet of doodles:
“Schmidt, Jones and Martin went into a…”
[doodled: a transport van, a knife, a swastika, a hammer and sickle.]
And then “Borders? Boarders?”
Separate line: “Scots wha’ hae?”
“W” for West, indeed. Oh, where the hell was he?
#
The anonymous note left on my desk said:
“Who do you think you’re fooling? You’re nothing but a slut and a trollop. Everyone knows you’re raking in the money, on your backside and on your back. You deserve whatever you get.”
The handwriting did look familiar, but whose?
#
“It is very simple. ” Mademoiselle d’Antin told me over an afternoon champagne cocktail. Actually, quite a few of them. “They are all mad. Theosophy. Bah! Madame Blavatsky, that woman with the face of a cow. If they had anything else worth the doing, they would do it. Now they are all studying Russian to read Madame in the original. Little Alexis, he is leading it all. Him and that doctor with the nose of a renard. Now that Germany has lost, they are all fascinated with Russia.”
“Why not with Britain? Or America?”
“The Americans are savages,” she said, and I nodded sympathetically, thinking of Ron. “The British… ah, well. If they were all like our Pére Charthouse. He is very attractive. C’est sa bouche. If it were not for Robert, even I… But do not pity me. I have my fiancé. And I have my distractions… It would be better if they were here longer, but… they come and they go and there is no time to train them properly.”
“Where do they go?”
She leaned in to me. “Who knows. Pft. Poor Alexis. He is an invert. Like Proust. He looks very like him, does he not? Even worse, he is a Communist. No one knows that. His cousin was an invert as well. I do not think he was a Communist.”
She passed out, spilling her drink on the carpet.
#
Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Pugh’s High Tea: Dr. Braun, eating his weight in cream cakes; Dr. Groen, hovering over Paula; Herr Hoffner, pontificating; Mlle. d’Antin, looking desperately for something alcoholic; Mrs. Pugh, talking to me.
“She has always borne her treatments bravely.”
“I am sure she has. I don’t know what she would have done all these years, if it were not for your support.”
That satisfied smile. “I have always done my duty. And I love my niece.”
“I’m sure you do. You are aware that Dr. Groen is in love with her? Has he always been?”
“Many men have been enamored of my niece. And many women have been attracted to my brother-in-law. He was married, you know, to my sister.”
“I assumed that, since Paula is your niece.”
“She… Louise… died young.”
“In childbirth? Or afterwards?”
“In childbirth. A great tragedy.” It burst out, like pus from a wound: “He married her best friend. Very precipitately. Shortly thereafter, she died as well. Drowned in the Irish Sea.”
“How tragic. What was her name?”
“Beryl. And then there was Violet. She died in the air raid.” Mrs. Pugh was trembling. “There was another… All his wives die young.”
“It sounds very sad.” And sinister. I had to look into this. I’d had dinner with him the night before. Ethel would pull his dossier for me. But Mrs. Pugh – was she trying to warn me or traduce him?
#
I was writing up my weekly report that Sunday afternoon when Ron walked in.
“Where have you been lately?” he asked.
“At work.”
“I saw you at the Gasthaus Kopp the other night with that priest. What was that about?”
“Nostalgia. ‘Give me just a country cottage, Where the soot of ages falls, And to crown a perfect morning, look! An English vicar calls!’ Besides, a priest can be a perfect mine of information. Access to everything.”
“So have you gotten anything out of this paragon?”
“Access to patients and religious instruction. In fact, as a licensed Eucharistic lay minister, I will be able to go around with him on Sundays and meet them all.”
Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. And suddenly it all fell into place: Schmidt, Jones, and Martin; denazification; the four zones; the orderlies… it all made sense, except Alexis. But I didn’t give a damn about him. I wanted to find Johann.
“Alice!”
I jumped. “What?”
Ron was glaring at me. “I asked what the hell do you know about religious instruction?”
“My father is rector at St. Cuthbert’s in Hawick.”
“Does he do confessions? Charthouse, I mean, not your father.”
“I have no idea.”
“No, you wouldn’t. Hardly your style, is it?”
I tossed him my report and left.
#
I didn’t like being told that Charthouse wasn’t my type, style, whatever. Especially because he was, more than Ron would ever be, in background, upbringing, class. So he was older than I. What Ron would never understand – even if I told him, which I would never do – was that with that Victorian looking pastor came a whole childhood of playing on wet lawns under scudding skies, reading Charlotte Yonge in dark rooms smelling of old books and pipes, singing hymns in a church redolent of candles, damp, and human bodies. Quiet, peaceful, safe. And so dull and stifling that I practically rejoiced when war broke out. How was I to know what I’d see, hear, do? I could never go back.
But Charthouse had a husky voice, gentle hands, and a passion that would surprise only those who believe that Englishmen are their illusion. Being with him was like balm in Gilead.
Of course, there were those wives.
What was I going to do with him?
Oh, the hell with it. I could figure that out after I found Johann.
#
“Schmidt, Jones, and Martin,” I said.
“What was that?” Herr Hoffner asked.
“It’s an old joke,” I said. “Schmidt, Jones, and Martin? Three men went into a hotel – ” I told the clean version, with the puzzle.
“I have heard that before. Very clever.”
“By the way, isn’t there anything we can do about the orderlies?”
“What do you mean?”
“The turnover. It’s atrocious. And most of them have no medical background whatsoever –”
“Miss West, we have just gone through the worst war in the history –”
“I’m well aware there’s been a war. That’s what I mean. There are people lined up five deep to get any job at all, many of them trained medical personnel, who would be happy to begin as an orderly at the Meidling. Instead, you’re hiring common toughs who come and go at the drop of a hat.”
“If there is a problem, take it up with Herr Bouman. He is in charge of personnel. I have heard no complaints.”
“You mean you haven’t heard how the patients have to keep everything under lock and key? All the petty thefts? The incidents with female staff?”
“If this is true…” He glared at Sissy who was snorting. “Obviously we must beef up security.”
“You need to hire people who are qualified for the job,” I said.
But then, if I was right, they were exactly qualified, just in the wrong place…
#
“I received a new housekeeper,” Charthouse said.
“Received?”
“She said she was sent by the – what was the coordinating agency you mentioned?”
Damn Ron, was what I thought. Putting a spy into Charthouse’s house was fairly low. What I said was, “Were you looking for a housekeeper?”
“Well, of course. Everyone is.”
“Then they finally found one. Lovely for you. Two questions.”
“Yes?”
“First of all, What do you know about Theosophy?”
“I don’t think much of it, I’m afraid. And even less of the little group here.”
“They seem to take it quite seriously: I heard they’re planning to read Blavatsky in the original Russian.”
“Hah! She wrote most of her indigestible prose in English.”
Well, that opened up another train of thought.
“And your second question?” he asked, almost in my ear.
He did have a sweet mouth… “I was wondering if you could use a Eucharistic lay minister? Myself? I am licensed, at least I was, in Scotland. My father is a parish priest –”
“Yes, I remember you telling me.” The expression on his face was very strange.
“And I thought, as this place is not exactly humming with C of E help…” I waited. “What do you think? I really would love to help out.”
“Might I ask why?”
“Does it matter?”
“No,” he said, and his eyes glowed like sapphires.
#
Sunday morning. The isolation ward was as locked and shuttered and barred as an insane asylum, but with more comfortable rooms. At least the walls were painted white, and the beds were soft. It had taken some persuading to get my chaplain to let me accompany him here. To the terrible sound of tubercular coughing, he laid his hands upon them and prayed – “to drive away all sickness of body and spirit” – anointed them – “and restore you to wholeness and strength” – and, when they could receive it, gave them Communion.
The rite, repeated from body to body, soul to soul, was hypnotic, comforting, peaceful. Josef Ahlers; David Hendricks; Kristin Hetzel; name after name, room after room.
Then we came to the indigents: Karl Schmidt was a large German who played mute and looked like he actually needed a bloodletting. Amon Martin wasn’t even there. Aaron Jones was unconscious, drugged to keep down his pain. He was also Johann, or rather what was left of him. I nearly cried as Charthouse put his hands on his wasted head and he never even moved.
“I need to leave, now,” I whispered out in the hallway.
“But there are three more patients.”
“Of course.” I didn’t dare arouse any suspicion at this point.
“If you need to go and get a breath of fresh air…”
His eyes were sympathetic above his mask. He thought I couldn’t handle the ward, the sick, the dying, and I instantly wanted to impress him with my toughness – but Johann’s welfare had to come first.
“Just for a moment.”
He nodded, and I left. I glanced down the hallway. Sister was up at the other end, and the nurse’s station was empty, so I used her telephone and dialed the emergency number.
“Yes?” Ron growled.
“Johann is here, in the isolation ward, near death. Send help. Now.”
I hung up, my heart pounding, thinking: I’d found Johann. He was alive. I had found him. He was alive.
Charthouse came out of the last room and saw me standing by the nurse’s station.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Much.”
“Shall we wash our hands and go to dinner?”
“In a few minutes.” I had no intention of going anywhere until I was sure that Johann would be safe. “I must ask you something. When I first came to work here, Mademoiselle d’Antin said that you had been married twice.”
“Ah, a great tragedy, that poor young woman. I feel so sorry for her.”
“And you agreed. On the other hand, your sister-in-law took pains to inform me that you have been married four times. Could you please tell me how many times you’ve been married?”
He blushed like fire. “Must we really speak of this now?”
“It’s vital that I know. After all that has happened between us…”
He began a long, stammering explanation that was interrupted when Dr. Groen burst in through the doors of the isolation ward, calling to Sister to help him move one of the patients at once.
“Quick,” I hissed at Charthouse. “Stop him. Distract him. Anything. NOW.”
Bless him, he turned on his heel immediately and went over to Groen. “I say, is there anything wrong? Is there anything I can do? I’ve got a bit of medical training, you know.”
“Nothing,” Dr. Groen snapped. “This is an emergency.” I had maneuvered myself in front of Johann’s room. “You must move! Now!”
“But what kind of emergency? I was just in there,” Charthouse continued.
Groen lunged at and past me, with enough violence so that I could make it look as if he had knocked me down. Charthouse grabbed him, turned him, and hit him hard in the jaw – a punch straight out of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Groen slammed into the wall as the police swarmed in, Ron bringing up the rear.
“Johann’s in there,” I told Ron as a couple of officers got control of Groen and Charthouse helped me to my feet. “He’s almost dead.”
“Are you all right?” Charthouse asked me.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get him out of here at once,” Ron said. “The AKH should be safe. I’ll put a guard on him.”
“Are you all right?” Charthouse repeated.
“I’m fine. How about you?”
“Perfectly well.” His blue eyes bored into mine. “Johann? Is he your Austrian chap?”
“No. We work together, and we’re friends, but that’s all. Why are you smiling?”
“Because.”
#
Johann was close to dying for a couple of days, and he was weak as water for almost a month. I was the one who explained to Ron that Dr. Groen (at least) had been using the sanatorium as an employer of ex-Nazis (such as the orderlies) and the isolation ward as a place to hide them - and from which to transport them - when and if the denazification sections caught up with them.
“Also handy get rid of people who were a problem. Like Johann.”
“I knew you could do it,” Johann breathed.
“Mm. Did you know anything about this?” Ron asked Johann.
Johann shook his head. “I had a suspicion. But I was looking into the Communists. Alexis. And his friends. They…” he ran out of breath and looked at me, so I took over.
“They’ve been using the Theosophical Society meetings to transmit information to one another and the Russians. And using the impenetrable works of Madame Blavatsky as a code –”
“Which I’d almost broken,” Johann gasped his boast. “But then Alexis found out. Told Groen. Something or other.” Johann gave a weak smile. “He performed an unhygienic plombage on me. With a knife.”
“In other words, he stabbed Johann,” I continued, “and put him in the isolation ward. Drugged, starved, and left to become just another tubercular corpse.”
“But all is well. Thanks to Alice.” Johann kissed my hand and went back to sleep.
“Another damn thing to investigate,” Ron growled, but quietly, so as not to disturb Johann.
Dr. Groen and Dr. Braun were put into custody, half the orderlies were arrested, and the other half vanished like rats off a ship. Alexis and many others were taken in custody and interrogated at length. Three Russian agents were quickly liquidated. Chief Inspector Shchapov was furious.
Of course anyone who had attended the society meetings was questioned. Even Mrs. Pugh, who disdainfully described the Theosophical Society as “Absolute rubbish. The only reason I attended was to be civil.” She held her own until Dr. Groen’s name was brought up, and then went into hysterics before she admitted that she’d been bribing him to be her personal physician throughout the war.
“I believe she’s telling the truth,” I told Ron. “But don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“You’re not needed at the sanatorium any more.”
“I know that. She’s going to be my sister-in-law.”
“What?”
“James and I are going to be married.”
“James?”
“James Charthouse. The chaplain.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Not at all.”
“You do know he’s been married before.”
“Four times. Three deaths, one divorce. Ethel ran a background check on him for me. I’ve already updated his dossier.”
“Marry - Why?”
“Because. He amuses me. He knows when to do what he’s told. And he is rather attractive.”
“That’s ridiculous! Insane!” he bellowed. He grabbed me by the arms and asked, “What do you want? A raise? A promotion? A ring?”
“Respect, a raise, and a rise might be nice. James at least provides respect.”
“He might kill you. My God, I could kill you.”
“But it would be the perfect cover. As a chaplain’s wife, I could go anywhere, do anything, ask all sorts of questions – it’s ideal. I thought you’d be pleased.”
“If you think I won’t call your bluff…”
And that’s how I got my first case.

THE END