Southern Cross

by T. C. Isbell

Southern Cross has consistently been listed within the top twenty books under WW2 Historical Fiction on Amazon. I hope you find these excerpts from Southern Cross interesting.


Chapter One

 

December 2, 1938

Hamburg, Germany

 

A rush of apprehension inexplicably shot through Chris Schulte’s mind as the key slid past the worn tumblers and the aged brass lock snapped open. Two telegrams lay just beyond the threshold of the darkened studio apartment, but went neglected when the door swept them into an encampment of spiderwebs beneath the rusty cast iron radiator.

Settling into a well-seasoned leather chair, Chris stared into the darkness outside the window as fatigue from a difficult espionage mission in Madrid engulfed the room. The rumblings from the coal furnace in the basement went unnoticed, until a series of loud water hammers shook the steam pipes on the second floor and slammed through the ice-cold radiator. Flinching, Chris turned toward the noise and spotted the half-hidden telegrams.

The first telegram was delivered last Friday and the second two days ago. Drawing in a hesitant breath, Chris carefully tore the edge from the first envelope and fished out the message. It was from Elsa:

 

WESTERN UNION Nov 23 – New York - Possible unstable business partner. Investigating. E

 

Elsa wouldn’t have made contact except under the gravest of circumstances. Chris rushed over to the floor lamp standing beside the bed and ripped open the second envelope:

 

WESTERN UNION Nov 29 – New York - Worst fears realized. Trust no one. E

 

Lighting a cigarette and sloshing the last of the Starka vodka into a water glass, Chris lay back against the bed and studied a picture of Elsa displayed at the rear of the nightstand. Memories of the last night they spent together . . . her soft touch, the scent of English lavender in her golden hair, and her moist lips . . . welled up seeming as if they had happened just yesterday.

Damn it. What have you gotten into ?

Chris banged the empty glass on the nightstand, and began undressing, but stopped at the thud of hobnailed boots on the stairs and squeaking floorboards in the hallway. The sounds halted abruptly as a heavy fist pounded against the door.

“Telegram for Chris Schulte.”

 

* * * *

 

Chapter Two

 

December 3, 1938

A bar in Germany

 

The overpowering stench from smoldering cigarette butts and decaying sea life assured no one could mistake the Blue Marlin for a gentlemen’s club. The low-life dive in the seediest area of Hamburg’s waterfront had a reputation for collecting bodies along with the trash under the pier, keeping all but the most desperate hookers away. The mood in the room was somber and depressed; laughter departed years ago. The Marlin was empty except for the bartender and his solitary customer sitting on a stool in near darkness at the far end of the bar. A row of blood red candles flickered as a cold draft intruded between the worn oaken floorboards. The silence of the night was broken by the roar of waves crashing past the pylons beneath the Marlin.

As if trying to stay as far from his patron as he could, the bartender leaned against the service counter near the front door and watched the sheets of water cascade from the warehouse across the street. Ordinarily he would be seen listening to problems and giving sage advice, but tonight this customer didn’t want to talk and did not want counseling.

The lone drinker had sat in the same place for more than two hours without saying a word, holding a crumpled telegram in one hand and a whiskey glass in the other:

 

WESTERN UNION Nov 30 – Baltimore - Elsa Gable struck last night by subway train in New York City. Could not claim body. Condolences, Karl Reinhardt

 

It seemed like only yesterday that Chris Schulte and Elsa Gable were children growing up in Hamburg, and now the last link to the past was gone.

Schulte placed the telegram on the bar and pulled out a rosewood and ivory handled stiletto. Studying the intricate inlay pattern, Schulte listened to the pounding waves and felt the pier shudder under their mounting attack. Tonight, nothing was right with the world.

The front door crashed open and a drunk merchant marine staggered in wearing a tattered peacoat and the paint-stained clothes of a deckhand. He stomped his feet and shook the water from his sou’wester as he peered into the dim candlelight.

“I’ll serve you over here,” the bartender said, gesturing to the sailor while he wiped a spot at the bar near the front door.

The sailor stumbled past the bartender and flopped onto the stool beside Schulte. He reeked of urine and several nights spent sleeping in back alleys. A layer of chewing tobacco encrusted his knotted beard.

“I said . . . I will serve you over here.” The bartender wet his lips and motioned toward an empty stool.

“I’ll have my drink next to this cute little piss-ant. Gimme a shot a whiskey with a beer chaser and be quick about it,” the sailor said in a gravelly voice, revealing rotting black teeth under his untrimmed mustache.

The bartender hesitated and then reluctantly slid a schooner of beer in front of the sailor and started pouring rot-gut whiskey into a shot glass. The sailor snatched the glass from the bartender before he could finish filling it and dropped it into the schooner, causing a rush of beer to spill onto the bar. His hands shook as he swilled the mixture down.

“Hit me again.” The sailor slammed his fist on the bar. His lips stayed parted as if he intended to speak, but he remained silent except for the raspy staccato of air oozing through his mouth. He turned toward Schulte and spit a wad of tobacco on the floor.

“Damn Jews are everywhere.” He cocked his head and scowled “You’re not a Jew are you?”

Schulte continued to examine the knife.

The sailor’s nostrils flared and his chest puffed up as he eyed Schulte.

“Effeminate little shitter. No prissy son of a bitch is going to ignore me,” he mumbled as he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his peacoat and shifted hard against Schulte. “Say, what have you got there?”

“None of your damn business.”

A seven-inch blade snapped out of the stiletto. Schulte shredded the telegram until it was a pile of pulp and snatched a nearby candle from the bar. The flame flickered with the movement and was almost extinguished. Turning the candle sideways, Schulte watched the molten wax drip onto the pile, and then held the burning wick against it, causing the flame to spread.

“Hey, asshole, what the hell ya think you’re doing?” the bartender demanded, charging at the flames. Schulte flicked the point of the blade toward the movement.

The bartender stopped cold when the steel blade flashed in the light. Tiny beads of sweat formed and trickled down his brow. His ashen face mirrored a sudden realization of his mortality as he silently withdrew and gazed into the darkness beneath the sink.

Schulte’s thoughts returned to Elsa as the symbolic funeral pyre began to char the oaken countertop. The Marlin remained hushed except for the thunder of the waves and a distant ship’s bell tolling the hour.

The sailor’s gaze shifted to the flames as he continued to gawk with the glazed eyes and dull face of a man who always drank too much and never knew when to shut up.

“Barkeep, set up a beer for my little friend.”

“Get out of here and quit staring at me, or I’ll cut your eyes out and feed them to the fish,” Schulte hissed as the reflection of the last of the yellow-blue flames died out on the silver blade.

Pale smoke from the smoldering embers rose and blended with the smell of stale beer, forming a thin, gray haze that floated listlessly through the room.

The sailor’s breath became shallow as he silently pulled back. His hands began to tremble and his eyes darted from side to side, finally focusing on the front door. His fingers groped to pull the change from his pockets and, without counting the coins, he tossed them on the bar.

“Devil damn me for coming in here,” he muttered as he lurched toward the front door.

The bartender quickly swept the money into his cashbox. “Hey, you forgot your drink.”

“Keep it.”

We all make choices, and tonight the sailor made the right one. Some people are killer-crazy; like a coiled snake, they are best left undisturbed. He had been a knife-blade away from his open grave and a second away from eternity. He didn’t know it, but he was lucky. Schulte was leaving for America in the morning and didn’t feel like killing anyone tonight. Tomorrow might be a different story.

 

* * * *

 

AVAILABILITY

The paperback and eBook editions of Southern Cross are available in many countries including US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, Spain and Italy through Amazon. Google Play lists an ePub edition of Southern Cross that is compatible with many eReaders, such as Sony and Kobo. There may be some limitations on availability due to country. Barnes & Noble can supply either the paperback or eBook editions. In addition, any independent bookstore can order Southern Cross for you.

If you would like to purchase Southern Cross please use the links below or contact your local independent bookstore.

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