As the soft gray dawn slithered over the prairie that Chicago had been, the Green Valley was in turmoil. Ursula was missing. There were rumors everywhere, and no one seemed to know what to believe. There was actually one rumor that she had eloped with the old man who lived across the street. When it was further discovered that no one had seen him for two days, some people took it for confirmation. Rebecca, infuriated at knowing no more than anyone else, was running people down with her wheel chair.
Paul Hamilton, hardly aware of the bagel in his hand, was guided gently away from the rumors, and down the street, by Dr. Narrison. Paul kept saying,
"I'm just afraid she might be dead, Doc."
"It's certainly a possibility."
"That's why I didn't go to a big retirement home. They've always got people dying. I thought no one would die here."
Paul was too upset to be asked whether he thought the Green Valley residents had a special lock on immortality. Dr. Narrison, walking quickly, said,
"The frost on the ground makes this neighborhood more attractive than usual."
Paul shivered inside his heavy coat, as if he had just noticed the cold for the first time, and replied,
"It's enough to make me think of leaving the home and setting up by myself."
"The home satisfies our needs in many ways, Paul. This will blow over. Besides, Ursula may turn up at any time."
Paul said nothing, but they continued to walk. In the flat suburban landscape with thousands of quite dull houses and very little life, either animal or human, to be seen, there was little to point out to distract Paul. Dr. Narrison was about to remark on a freshly painted bus a block away when they came to a small bridge over a drainage culvert. They were now in territory they hadn't previously explored, and the culvert was certainly more noteworthy than the bus. Seeing that it had no water and only patches of ice on the flat concrete bottom, Dr. Narrison said,
"It probably takes a flash flood in spring to fill it."
Paul looked vacantly down, and then away. Dr. Narrison, nearer the rail, noticed something dark on the bottom, some thirty feet below him. He looked again briefly, and then hurried along with his hand behind Paul's elbow. But Paul had noticed his hesitation and wanted to see what Dr. Narrison had been looking at. When he did see, he recoiled in horror and would have collapsed if his friend hadn't caught him. Dr. Narrison said,
"I'm not even sure it's a body, and it probably isn't Ursula."
Looking down, he saw a largely shapeless mass which was partly covered with one of the pieces of cardboard packing case which were strewn over the culvert. It did look like a coat with a hood which might be covering a body face-down on the concrete. And then he saw, sticking out from the other side of the cardboard, what would have to be the tip of a shoe. Half-supporting the weeping Paul, he said,
"Anyhow, we'll have to get back and report what we've seen."
Dr. Narrison had to get down to the office, and there was nothing for it but to take Paul with him. He had also called Rosie and persuaded her, despite the reservations she had recently expressed, to entertain Paul that afternoon. As they rode along, and Paul continued to talk about Ursula, Dr. Narrison took the bull by the horns and said,
"I'm pretty sure that the body in the culvert is Ursula's, and that she jumped intending to kill herself."
"But, why, doc? She was full of piss and vinegar just the other day."
Paul didn't usually talk in that way, and it seemed to be an odd result of his agitation. Dr. Narrison explained,
"Ursula was half of a couple, and with some couples, married or not, the mental balance of each person depends on the relation with the other. If something affects that balance, it may destroy one or both."
"But nothing affected the balance between Rebecca and Ursula, did it?"
"Rebecca broke her hip. She and Ursula competed to see who could get the most special favors from the staff. Rebecca's injury gave her an advantage, and she was winning. Ursula couldn't stand it, and she did something to redress the balance. The talk now is about Ursula, not Rebecca."
That fairly took Paul's breath away. Dr. Narrison slowed down just enough to cause the car behind him to miss the light. As he went through on the yellow, he took advantage of the chance to distract Paul.
"I saw something similar before the war, it must have been thirty six, when I was in command of a merchant ship sailing from Buenos Aires to Hamburg."
It was one of Dr. Narrison's more vivid memories, not least because, apart from the HEIKE HEIDLER, it was his first command.
The command of the ANNALIESE ESSBURGER was, however, a mixed triumph. The ship dated from the turn of the century, and, when they reached Hamburg and unloaded, she was to be broken up. With world shipping in the doldrums, her captain would then, in all probability, have to go back to being a mate. Still, one took such opportunities as presented themselves.
The ESSBURGER was big, and had once been a crack ship. She still carried passengers along with her general cargo, and, while the machinery was in need of constant repair, the passenger quarters remained almost as sumptuous as they had been at her christening. On her last voyage, the only passengers were the son of a Ruhr industrialist and his wife. As Dr. Narrison said to Paul,
"I could tell at a glance that the man hadn't made the money himself, and would never have a hand in managing it. He was part playboy but part something else which became clear later. His wife was rather strange looking. She had a strong sharp face with a small upside-down mouth and small deeply- set eyes. Whether she was handsome or ugly all depended on how you looked at her. But it helped that she had the most beautiful clothes I've ever seen on any woman."
"Money can do a lot, but it couldn't have made Ursula beautiful, even when she was young."
"No, probably not. But this woman had a strong supple body, and she moved with grace. Oddly, her name was Annaliese, just like the ship. She was balanced against her husband, just as Ursula was balanced against Rebecca. Unlike Rebecca, he had a thin weak body. But, of course, he had the advantage of the money."
"Could he have divorced her if he tired of her?"
"In some of the very frank discussions that later took place at the dinner table, it turned out that he had often threatened to turn her loose with a pittance. I suppose it was true that he could have. She didn't dispute it. However, his money, which, on shore, allowed his weakness to balance her strength, turned out to work against him when we got to sea."
"How did you get to know so much about them?"
"There was the tradition of the captain having the passengers sit at his table, usually in alternation. But they were the only ones, and I ate most of my meals with them."
When they cleared the River Plate estuary, a place that had some memories for Leif, they poked their bow into the Brazil current and a moderate head wind and sea. The ESSBURGER's engines were running well for once, but her straight stem with little or no reserve bouyancy caused her to pitch like a rocking horse. The noble baron was sick the first afternoon out, and required the services of two stewards. The baroness showed him scant sympathy, particularly when he was again sick at dinner. Dr. Narrison explained,
"It was really being sea-sick that doomed him. It would have been embarrassing for anyone to throw up practically into his soup, but their balance was very delicate, and it wasn't possible for him to recover his position."
"Were they married or at war?"
"Both, really. The honeymoon, whatever that had been like, was long past. He was probably forty, and she wasn't much younger. Whatever games they'd been playing, they were becoming much more intense. And Annaliese knew she had a lot to lose."
The voyage of over seven thousand miles normally took some twenty eight days, and, at the end of the first week, the baron was still sea-sick a good deal of the time. He also took to serious drinking, and, as the ship began to roll as well as pitch, it became difficult to distinguish the effects of the ocean waves on him from those of the liquid cargo sloshing around in his stomach. It was over brandy after dinner that, in his wife's presence, the baron told Leif that she was planning to murder him.
"I began by laughing. I knew it wasn't a joke, but I could pretend to think it was. And, anyway, I couldn't imagine that she really would."
"It sounds as if she had a motive. He might have disinherited her later, but not if she killed him first."
"Yes. He was foolish enough to point that out. He also said that she was stronger than he, which I could believe. He went on to say that, in his weakened condition, she could simply throw him overboard. He actually appealed to me to protect him."
"How did his wife take that?"
"She was delighted. She kissed him right at the table. It was the only tender, or even friendly, thing I ever saw her do toward him. I went on acting as if it were all a joke. The baron became very frustrated and angry. He even suggested that I was in on the plot with her."
"No. But I was beginning to get concerned. I certainly didn't want to be accused of helping murder him if he disappeared. Thinking that things were going too far, I saw to it that one of the mates was at dinner with us from then on."
"Would it have been possible for her to throw him overboard without any help, and without being seen?"
"She might have managed to get him over the rail on a dark stormy night, but it would've been a battle. She would probably have had scratches and bruises, and the stewards were always in the area. I also had the lookouts on the wings of the bridge keep an eye out on the deck below them at night."
"Did she kill him?"
Ignoring Paul's question, Dr. Narrison continued,
"My mates were big young men, one English and two Scandinavian, who spoke only fragments of German. They also had an obvious contempt for someone so little like a seaman as the baron. But Annaliese flirted with them. They'd never met anyone like her, and they were pleased."
"My wife used to try to flirt with other men. It bothered me, particularly when I saw that the men didn't like it. She was rather plain, and they just wanted her to leave them alone. Did this baron mind?"
Surprised by this revelation from Paul, Dr. Narrison hesitated before answering the question,
"I'm sure he did mind. But much more was involved. He wasn't at all stupid, and he knew that it was a very dangerous sign for him when she belittled and humiliated him. It wouldn't have been rational for her to treat him so badly if she hadn't planned to kill him. And there was nothing to suggest that she wasn't rational."
"I wonder what I would've done in the baron's place."
"People are attracted to you, Paul. They like you. People didn't like the baron. On shore, he probably cultivated arrogance. The result was that, on the ship, there was no one willing to protect him. There weren't even people who'd be willing to testify against her if they saw anything. He was perfectly aware of that."
"That would be awful, having no one to turn to."
"Meanwhile, his wife was dressed to kill every night. The officers and I would dance with her to the victrola while the baron watched. The steward kept by his side to mop up in case he was sick."
"Can you dance on a ship that's rolling around?"
"It was interesting. Annaliese balanced very well on her high heels, but we'd go swooping across the deck and bounce up against a bulkhead or be caught by the others. It was like dancing with a big jungle cat covered with a few layers of silk."
There were many other minute stages in the progressive demoralization of the baron. Although passengers were usually spared the rough ceremonies associated with the crossing of the Equator, Annaliese had heard of them and insisted that her husband be properly initiated. King Neptune, in the shape of the bosun, came on board and washed the baron's mouth out with soap to cure his seasickness. The poor man retched pitifully for some time, but didn't otherwise throw up for the rest of the day. Paul remarked,
"It sounds as if the whole crew of you turned against him."
"In a way we did. You see, when a couple loses its internal balance, the loser will always behave in unattractive ways that alienate others."
"Yeah, Ursula was real mean lately."
"She was desperately demanding attention, and that makes people run away."
"I guess I did myself."
Fearing that Paul might find himself guilty, Dr. Narrison continued,
"Each night the baron was very slightly worse and drank a little more."
"Couldn't you have cut off his liquor?"
"I suppose so. I didn't think of it. Anyway, I was thinking mostly about Annaliese at that point."
Dr. Narrison was wondering whether Paul was still thinking about Ursula as he went on,
"More things began to happen when we got even with the Cap Verde Islands. Annaliese often came up to the bridge with us in the evening. It was the second mate's watch, but, not having a regular watch, I went up whenever I felt like it. We hadn't seen land for some time, and, since it was a clear night, we shifted course slightly to bring us in view of Santo Antao. It was an impressive sight, looming up out of the black water in the moonlight, and Annaliese seemed to appreciate it. After a while, she asked me quietly when I was going down. I told her and asked if she'd like a drink in the lounge. She said she would. We often did have one, and I didn't think much about it."
There was a brief emergency when an impatient car passed them without much room to spare, but Dr. Narrison cursed briefly and returned to his account.
"When I came down, there wasn't anyone in the lounge. I thought it odd, but I went to my cabin. I'd hardly gone in when there was a knock on my door. Annaliese was standing in the corridor, but she'd taken off her dress and was in her slip. Just beyond her, on the other side of the corridor, the baron was in the open door of their cabin, bracing himself against the roll of the ship. He looked half-sick as usual, but his eyes were different. I remember thinking that it was unlikely that he'd brought a gun on board. I then looked at Annaliese. I'd never seen her with her arms and shoulders bare, and she looked very muscular, probably strong enough to strangle the baron and then heave him overboard. She asked if she could come in. I let her, of course."
As Paul's eyes rolled at him in expectation, Dr. Narrison turned south on Clark.
"She glided by me, and then pushed me gently into my desk chair. She sat on the bunk. It turned out that she wanted to talk politics."
Dr. Narrison nodded as he captured the visual image in his memory. Annaliese still had on her jewelled earrings, her perfume, and her delicate little shoes remarkably engineered to support her not inconsiderable weight. She then crossed her legs to advantage and leaned her head with its luxuriant black hair back against the bulkhead. As she twisted one slim ankle and aimed the sharp point of her shoe at him, she explained that she and the baron had ideological differences. She, like any youthful vibrant forward-looking German, was a Nazi. She made, not the Nazi salute, but a little movement of her shoulders as she pouted with her thick short lips and placed both hands in her lap. It had looked to his younger self as if she were reporting for duty in a bordello run along strict military lines.
The baron, unfortunately, wasn't part of the new centrally organized society which provided such clean and efficient, not to say elegant, bordellos. He was stodgy and backward-looking, much worse than his relatives, and he thought that Hitler and the Nazis were plebian upstarts. It was a political problem because the baron, the only child of his father and the sole heir to so much money and power, didn't get on with men such as Albert Speer and Dr. Hjalmar Schacht. Explaining this to Paul, Dr. Narrison concluded,
"I began to realize that powerful people in Germany would rather have a loyal party member like Annaliese in that position than an unreliable reactionary like her husband. Not only that, it turned out that she got on well with her father-in-law, who had made an accomodation with the Nazis."
Paul burst out,
"I hope the poor man's father didn't also want him killed!"
"I never met the father, of course. He probably didn't want his son killed. But it began to look increasingly as if no very serious investigation would be undertaken if the baron disappeared."
"Was the baron aware of all that as well?"
"I suppose he probably was. I didn't think things through so thoroughly at the time, and I didn't have any politics then anyway. I just humored Annaliese and agreed with all her opinions."
"Were you rewarded?"
"By degrees. She apparently didn't want me to see her naked, but she removed her brassiere from under her slip and tossed it on to my desk as she approached me. That was a reward for some anti-Semitic sentiments that I generated on the spot. I then said some kind things about Hitler, but she still wouldn't let me pull down her pants. She said that I needed to do more."
"Did she want you to murder her husband?"
"I suppose so, but I didn't trust her enough to do that."
In the event, it had been possible to arrange something satisfactory. Dr. Narrison explained it carefully to Paul, lest he give the wrong impression.
"A couple of nights later, Annaliese was dancing with one of the mates when the baron moved next to me at the table and spoke quietly. For once, he was neither drunk nor sick. He appealed to me as the captain and said that he found the situation intolerable. He asked me how long it would be before we made Hamburg. I told him ten days, give or take a day. He said that he thought he was going to be killed, and that he couldn't stand the suspense."
"He'd said that to you before, hadn't he?"
"Yes, but this was different. I didn't laugh or pretend that it was a joke. He asked me if I had a pistol. I did, but I couldn't take the risk of giving it to him. He then asked how cold the water was. Of course, it wasn't very cold in that latitude, and, anyway, there would have to be an investigation if he went missing. I advised that the simplest and most painless death could be achieved by climbing to the top of the foremast and diving from it to the deck. I also advised that it would have to be done quickly before one of the lookouts tried to stop him."
"Did he do it?"
"That very night. The second officer came rushing down from the bridge, very surprised and shocked, even rather scandalized. He kept saying that he'd never seen anything like it. I assured him that the baron had climbed the mast to get a good vantage point, and that his fall had been an accident. The mate had the sense not to argue with me. Annaliese was smiling pleasantly the whole time, as if she had just been told that a Hitler Youth fund-raising drive had exceeded its goal."
"So then you got your reward."
"I went on being rewarded the rest of the voyage. I knew that it would end when we got to Hamburg, but she had a going away present. Within weeks, I was taken back into the German navy with the rank of commander. That was something. And she did it with political pull."
"Hadn't you been a captain before?"
"My rank had only been that of a lieutenant, and I commanded the HEIKE HEIDLER only because the senior officers had been killed. Those things happen in war, but, when the peace comes and the services contract, everyone goes back down to their original ranks. To be a peacetime commander is another thing altogether. But that's another story."
Paul seemed hardly satisfied with the outcome, and said,
"This woman still lost her balancing partner. Even if she hated him and more or less killed him. What became of her?"
"I don't know. But I'm sure she found someone else in some way or other."
"Will Rebecca find someone else?"
"I would certainly expect her to."