The Grand Hotel Cravat, Luxembourg, August 8, 1936
The re-orientation of Erich Stuhlenkamp ranked among Therese's minor successes. He hadn't liked it that Charlotte and Marie-Claude were sponsoring the Cross of Fire detachment which had beat him up. He was still, of course, financially dependent on Charlotte, and somewhat inclined to forgive her. But he savored the idea of revenge on the Cross of Fire. Having started him out with that carrot, Therese had gradually enlightened him as to Charlotte's more extensive plans. He had, in fact, been genuinely alarmed and shocked by the idea of the exploding boxcars. Eric was not normally someone who wanted to blow up anything.
The upshot was that Erich now took orders from Therese, even to the extent of remaining behind in France when the rest of his family had left, rather precipitously, for America. He had also been convinced, rather reluctantly, that it was time to do something about the exploding boxcars.
Shortly after arriving in Luxembourg on the train, Therese and Erich rented a car. That afternoon, after a seemingly aimless tour of the town and the surrounding countryside, they drove past the warehouse. Looking at it closely, but not stopping, they could see nothing unusual about it. Indeed, according to their inside source, its operations had changed little since the advent of the new owner.
The Tibodeaux brothers had sold the name of their business along with the buildings, and the large sign also remained unchanged. More important, they had left behind most of the personnel. These included the assistant manager, M. Flandin, the foremen, and some twenty assorted workmen. Naturally enough, the new owners had put a man of their own in charge, and he had arrived within a few days of the acquisition.
The new manager, M. Billette, was a tall and morose individual who said little and seemed unfamiliar with the operation of a warehouse. For the most part, he left things to M. Flandin.
The new clerk constituted the only other personnel change. The former one, a rather silly red-haired boy of nineteen, was related to the Tibodeaux brothers. He would scarcely have been employed otherwise. Indeed, because of his penchant for arithmetical mistakes, he had been a considerable thorn in M. Flandin's side.
Soon after the change in ownership, the former clerk, having left work early, was having a beer at a nearby tavern. He there encountered a kindly old gentleman who bought him two more beers. It turned out that the older man, a retired French officer, had a millinery business in Lille. He was, he said, looking for an ambitious young fellow to take hold of things there. The clerk, now in a thoroughly relaxed mood, talked loftily of his own ambitions and abilities. It wasn't long before his new acquaintance declared him just the man he needed, and then offered to double his salary with a month's advance on the spot. The only condition, one easily met, was that the young man proceed immediately to Lille.
M. Flandin hardly made a show of regret when informed of these developments. Indeed, he had much more difficulty concealing his surprise and certain other feelings. When the departing clerk informed him that there were two other Tibodeaux cousins who would like the job, Flandin made excuses.
A day later, he was glad he had. As luck would have it, a young man, M. Armand Couperin, walked in off the street and asked if there were any openings for clerks. It didn't take long to discover that his abilities were of an order far beyond anything to be encountered in any Tibodeaux cousin. M. Flandin asked the permission of his new boss, who seemed not to care, and then hired Armand on the spot.
The old factory building, unused otherwise, housed the office where Armand and M. Flandin worked. Next to it were the former private offices of the Tibodeaux brothers. When M. Billette arrived, he took over one of these offices. Then, muttering that he had no time to find himself suitable lodgings, he had a cot and camp stove put in the other.
Since he had no automobile, a rather monkish form of life was imposed on the new manager. There was nothing more interesting than the neighborhood bar-cafe within walking distance, and the trolleys were sparse at night. In point of fact, while M. Billette spent a good deal of time in the bar, he never went even there at night.
Once again driving by the factory, Erich was lucky enough to catch sight of M. Billette as he crossed the street on his daily pilgrimage. Even at some distance, Erich was able to positively identify him as the Cross of Fire leader he had previously encountered.
According to Armand, M. Billette had made only one change in operations. The factory building itself was again to be used to store freight cars with valuable loads. M. Flandin had objected briefly. They had never had a problem with theft, and it was much more convenient to leave the cars outside or in the sheds. The manager had nevertheless insisted. The old doors, rusted shut, were opened with crowbars and hammers. The little locomotive had then shunted in the first cars to enter the building in some time.
Since then, a series of cars, some belonging to chemical companies, had arrived by ones and twos, and been put in the factory. There were now eighteen of them, nine on each of the two inside tracks.
M. Flandin had taken to confiding to Armand some of his concerns. He was a smart man who had chafed under the dilatory management of the Tibodeaux brothers. The new manager, truculent though he was, didn't interfere as much, and was an improvement in that respect.
On the other hand, this business of the cars in the factory building was getting to be a problem. In a well-run warehouse, cars were unloaded expeditiously and sent back, thus avoiding demurrage charges. However, the cars inside the building had been there some time, and M. Billette had said just to leave them there. Oddly enough, the owners of these particular cars didn't seem to care if they ever got them back. There were no demurrage charges, nor, as far as Flandin could discover, were they being paid anything for storing them.
One day, he assembled a crew to unload the cars, only to discover that the padlocks on the doors were of an unusual kind that his keys didn't fit. When Billette came back from the bar, Flandin asked his permission to saw the locks off. As Flandin now described it to Armand,
"He went into a flaming rage, called me names, and made all sorts of nasty threats. He said no one was to touch those cars. You would've heard him if you hadn't been on an errand at the time."
Armand, safe as he had been from M. BIllette's anger, turned a peculiar color when he heard the account of this incident. He had replied,
"Those vans are quite old and not very valuable. Their owners probably use them only for storage. If their tracks are full, they may want us to keep them for some time."
It was the lamest explanation of anything that Flandin had ever heard from Armand, but he could do no better himself.
Later that day, Therese and Erich were waiting at the Hotel Cravat until it was time to meet Armand at the station cafe. Despite the fact that he dressed respectably, junior clerks didn't come to the Cravat. It was important to avoid doing anything which might be remembered later.
Erich wanted to make love to pass the time, but Therese refused. For the last two days he had been driving her crazy with his chatter, and she wanted only to get away from him. However, she consoled herself with the thought that Erich's endless empty talk would soon be exactly what was required. She then called down to the front desk for a deck of cards. When the boy brought them, she launched into a series of games of solitaire.
The problem all along had been that, no matter how late Armand worked, M. Flandin remained too. According to Armand,
"I don't think it's that he doesn't trust me. It's really a friendly gesture. He just thinks he should work as late as I do. Then he gives me a ride in his car."
Although Armand didn't have what anyone would call a demonstrative face, Therese could tell the moment she saw him that he had good news. It was probably something in his walk as he slid noiselessly across the crowded cafe to the table she and Erich had staked out.
The good news was that there was a party the following evening, a dinner
party being given by M. Flandin's wife. He certainly couldn't remain at
the warehouse after seven, and would probably leave before then. Armand
would arrange to hide some urgent work, and then discover it just as they
were about to leave. Armand and M. Billette would then be the only ones
remaining on the entire premises.
It had been Armand's practice every day to bring his lunch in his lunch bucket, accompanied by two long loaves of bread. The workday was long, and he often munched on a chunk of bread as he went through his accounts. Even though no one showed any inclination to pirate his bread, Armand took the precaution of placing one loaf in an inconspicuous position behind a cabinet until he was ready to eat it. On this day, he made a particular point of acting as he always did.
Events proceeded as usual until the mid-afternoon, when M. Billette returned from the bar in a foul mood. He also had a nasty black and blue bruise that was swelling visibly under his left eye. After Billette had stormed into his office and slammed the door, M. Flandin, rather uneasy, dispatched Armand to the bar to find out what had happened.
The account he brought back surprised neither Flandin nor the foreman with whom he was talking. M. Billette, after a few drinks, had fallen into conversation with a salesman from one of the suburbs. Billette made some disparaging remarks about the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The other responded with an equally disparaging comment about the low moral caliber of the French. Billette, infuriated, had jumped off the stool with his hand raised, seemingly intent on slapping the other for his insolence. The salesman, a rather slight middle-aged man, was quicker. Armand reported that the bartender had spoken in quite admiring terms of the salesman's straight right to the head. He might possibly have been a pugilist when young. The bartender was slightly concerned that he might lose Billette's business, but didn't seem to think that such an outcome would be an unmitigated disaster.
When M. Flandin left at half past six, he was quite concerned to leave Armand alone with Billette. Pointing to the latter's office, he said,
"That's a nasty violent man in there. A drunk one, too. If I know him, he's polished off at least one bottle in the last few hours. He was humiliated at the bar, and he's quite capable of taking it out on a boy."
"By now he'll either be asleep or in a stupor. I've less than an hour to do, and I doubt that he'll come out at all."
M. Flandin hadn't been convinced, but had acquiesced under protest.
When Flandin finally left, Armand was strongly tempted to use the office telephone to change some arrangements. It really was improbable that Billette would come out of his office. Even if he did, he would probably stumble around, find no one, and go back to sleep. He certainly wouldn't make a tour of the building. On the other hand, the plan was a well-conceived one, and there was always a risk in making last minute changes.
At precisely seven, Armand heard the telephone ring in the next office.
Listening at the door, he could hear Billette's voice, more cogent than
he would have expected. With that, Armand retrieved a loaf of bread from
its corner, picked up his lunch bucket, and moved out into the main part
of the building.
Erich had started his call by announcing himself as a representative of Marie-Claude Serrault. Therese, sitting across the room, gathered that he was having some difficulty establishing his legitimacy. Sounding rather testy, Erich displayed enough knowledge of Marie-Claude, and of Billette himself, to get past that hurdle.
He then embarked on a long series of questions about the detailed workings of the business. Erich seemed to Therese to be on the right track. He sounded like an accountant who didn't know about the hidden purpose of the business, but who wanted to be very sure that it was being run properly.
Erich now had the upper hand, and was obviously enjoying himself. He was the Parisian speaking to a provincial, sometimes condescending, sometimes encouraging, but always on the edge of poking fun at the other. They knew from Armand that Billette wouldn't be able to answer the sorts of questions Erich was asking, but, as far as Therese could make out, he was attempting to bluster his way through.
It occurred to Therese that Billette was probably being paid enough so that he had strong motivation to hold this position until war broke out. After all, it might be years, and he could accumulate something of a nest egg in the meantime.
Erich was now, she thought, overplaying his hand. In particular, he was making fun of Billette and then chiding him for not seeing the humor in it. While this maneuver was the essence of Parisian style, Billette was certainly not a sophisticated man. She therefore motioned to Erich to calm him.
The plan had been for Erich to keep Billette on the line until it seemed that he was about to hang up. Erich would then tell him that Marie-Claude herself wished to speak to him. At that point, Erich would hand the phone to Therese. She didn't know how well Billette knew Marie-Claude, and thus whether she could impersonate her. However, there was nothing to lose at that point.
Unfortunately, Erich waited a little too long and Billette hung up.
Therese called immediately, but Billette answered with an oath and hung
up again even before he heard her voice. She rang back at intervals, but
there was no answer. Evidently there was a limit to the amount of Erich
that Billette had been able to tolerate, even if he thought his job was
in jeopardy. Still, he had been on the line for twenty five minutes, and
that should have been more than enough.
At first, everything went well. Armand picked up his bread, his lunch bucket, and a small tool box. He then crossed the building to the freight cars. Walking around to the far track next to the wall, he selected a car in the middle of the string and ducked under it. Tearing apart the loaf of bread, he removed a stick of dynamite. Then, taking a roll of tape from the toolbox, he taped the stick securely to the bottom of the car. Next, he removed the detonator and timing devices from the lunch bucket.
Armand had constructed the timers himself, and had taken the precaution of duplicating them. If one timer didn't work, the other hopefully would. It was essential that the explosion occur that evening, and not when there would be workmen in the area. Armand knew that his timing devices, constructed out of small wind-up alarm clocks, were crude and not very accurate. But there was no need for anything more sophisticated. A few minutes one way or the other wouldn't matter. He set the first timer for an hour, plenty long enough for him to get well away.
Armand tested the timer before attaching it, and found it to work perfectly. He then twisted the wires securely together and taped it to the car bottom. The whole device was well out of the way of any casual inspection.
Armand prepared to set the second timer for two hours. Using the same battery, he made the connections and manipulated the timer to close the contacts. There was no spark. Puzzled, he tried it again. There was again no spark. It had worked as well as the other the night before, and he could see nothing wrong. This failure of equipment posed a double problem. It wasn't just that there might be no back-up timer. The one already in place was constructed in exactly the same way, and it, too, might fail. There was nothing for it but to take the device apart, and then reassemble it.
By the time Armand had gotten the second timer to work, it was almost half past seven. It would take more time to set the first timer back, and he was sure that it had a good while yet to run.
Armand moved quickly back to the main office with his empty lunch bucket, and replaced the tool box. In leaving, he closed the office door quietly, realizing too late that he could have left it open. At that moment, M. Billette came storming violently out of his office and laid his hand roughly on Armand's shoulder.
Billette, his face now a rather shocking sight, was more angry than drunk. It took Armand a minute to realize that he wasn't himself the object of the anger. Billette was shouting about some fool of an accountant who had asked stupid questions. Unfortunately, Billette seemed to think that they were questions which would return another day. He wanted nothing less than for Armand to explain the business to him.
There might, at the first instant, have been a chance to run. But M. Billette, seemingly sensing that Armand was reluctant, backed him into his own office and then sat somewhat nearer the door then his tutor.
Since the questions Erich asked Billette had come from Armand in the first place, he should have been able to answer them easily. The records were right at hand, and, anyway, Armand knew, almost to a percentage point, such things as the operating ratio and the percentage of empty space in the various categories. Unfortunately, Billette had so twisted and confused the concepts and questions that they had to be straightened out before the answers could be given.
Billette wasn't a quick learner, and Armand found himself representing
the warehouse as if it had been a retail shop in the hope that the other
would think that he understood.
The situation was now quite worrisome. Armand was to call from a cafe a half-mile from the warehouse to be picked up. If the line was engaged, he was to walk to the next cafe along the main road and call from there. However, the line had now been free for twenty minutes, and they hadn't heard from him. Therese wanted to drive along the route they knew that he would take and pick him up. Erich argued that it would be better to wait for the call.
After another ten minutes, Therese insisted. The car had been left by the side door, and they were away within a couple of minutes. There was still some light in the open, but the tall trees on the sides of the boulevard cast deep shadows into which it was hard to see. After crossing the bridge, they slowed down and examined everyone they passed. Several times, Therese thought she saw Armand, only to be absurdly wrong when they drew close. The first time it turned out to be a girl, and later a frail old man of about Armand's stature.
Erich went into the cafes to see if Armand might be inside, attempting to call them. At the one nearest the warehouse he asked for Armand, but no one of his description had been seen. It was then that Therese made up her mind. She was going to pose as Armand's mother, go to the warehouse, and make a scene. Armand was, after all, hours late. She would be almost hysterical. She would think he had been run over by a car or abducted by thugs. When she told Erich, he was horrified.
"The building may blow up when you're there, and Armand's probably home by now. Even if he's still there, you're likely to interrupt him while he's fuzing the charge."
"No. He would have followed the plan if he'd left. That Billette may have guessed something and be holding him there."
"If he is, there's not much you can do. I think Armand went home and just forgot to call."
The absurdity of this rejoinder was too much for Therese, and she grabbed Erich by the ear and pointed ahead. He would drive no nearer than the beginning of the gravel road which led to the warehouse building. Saying that he would wait for her at the last cafe, he sped off.
Therese ran as best she could in her heels over the gravel road. The warehouse looked entirely deserted, but she made for the only door in sight. To her surprise, it opened easily. Finding herself in the vast empty interior, she saw the freight cars immediately, but didn't have time to think about them. There were barely audible voices coming from the left, and she hurried in that direction. When she was half way there, Therese started screaming for Armand. She found it quite easy to work herself up to the appropriate state of hysteria.
Billette appeared almost immediately, and Therese could see Armand behind him. She abruptly and loudly accused Billette of inflicting sexual perversions on her child. Why else, she screamed, was Armand so late? Armand looked ghastly, but said nothing. Therese advanced on Billette with her long nails raised, ready to claw at the remains of his face. Billette retreated sideways as Armand slid past him. Taking the latter by the sleeve, Therese rushed for the exit, not forgetting to hurl epithets at Billette over her shoulder.
Once outside, Therese took off her shoes, clutched up her skirts, and ran. Despite the pain of the rough ground on her feet, she found that she could go just as fast as Armand. Only when they reached the shelter of a side street did she stop running and put her shoes back on. While one didn't want to be seen running from a building just before it exploded, there had been little help for it.
From there on, they proceeded quickly, but more decorously, to the corner by the cafe where Erich was supposed to be waiting. In fact, they arrived there a minute before Erich pulled up. It turned out that he had found a place a safe distance from the warehouse which still allowed him a view of it. He had seen Armand and Therese run from the building, and now reported that Billette hadn't come out at all.
Back at the Cravat, there was a new worry. According to Armand, the explosion should already have occurred.
"I'm afraid there might have been some moisture in my lunch bucket. That probably affected the contacts in the one timer, and it might render them both inoperable."
Therese opened the window that looked in the general direction of the warehouse with the words,
"If it does go off, we should be able to hear it from here."
She needn't have bothered to open the window. The shock was sufficient
to half knock them off their chairs and almost break the windows. The whole
horizon lit up.
Therese had been shocked the night before by the force of the explosion. She had expected nothing on that scale. For a horrifying moment, it seemed that all the houses in the neighborhood would be demolished, killing thousands. Armand was reassuring.
"Explosions go up and out, and the force diminishes radically as the distance increases."
But even Armand seemed worried as he added,
"However, there might be a problem with falling debris."
Therese had had an overpowering urge to go to the area to see what had happened. Erich, whose mood was one of petulance, absolutely refused to take the car out. Therese didn't drive herself, and was on the point of walking. Armand dissuaded her
"You won't be able to get through the crowds. Even if you could, you wouldn't be able to help."
With that, she settled into a chair and buried her head in her arms.
Fragmentary reports and rumors had came over the radio during the night. By mid-morning, the rumors had multiplied, but there were also more accurate surveys of the damage. It seemed that no one outside the factory building had been killed. Bricks and debris had rained down over a large area, and virtually every window in the vicinity had been shattered. Scores were injured by flying glass, but they were all expected to recover.
It was well known that Billette lived in the building, and he was presumed dead. It would, however, take days to dig out whatever remained of his body. M. Flandin came forward and raised fears over Armand. It seemed best to let Armand, under the name he had been using, be presumed dead. After all, he was only a boy. The interest centered on the missing Billette.
Soon after the explosion, Therese had mailed to the Paris press a series of anonymous releases. They laid bare the whole plot and attributed it directly to Colonel de la Roque and his financial backers. Billette was named as their agent on the spot, and as a leader of a Cross of Fire detachment. The explosion was the result of amateurs playing with high explosive.
There might not be enough evidence to convict the leaders of the Cross of Fire of anything serious, but they would be discredited. Everyone would perceive them as Fifth Columnists. Since the warehouse was registered under the name of Marie-Claude Serrault, she would come in for some additional unpleasantness. But she could claim to have been duped, and to have had no idea of Colonel de la Roque's real plan. She would be believed. Charlotte might never come into it at all. She had registered at the Hotel Cravat as a Madame Terriot of Paris. They might eventually trace her, but would again be able to prove nothing. Besides, she was safely back in America.
One of the unexpected casualties of the explosion was the nearby main line of the railway. The string of cars next to the warehouse wall had, by exploding, shot great chunks of bricks and mortar sideways, like a giant discharge of grape- shot from cannon. This fusillade had literally scraped a section of the main line off its embankment and plunged it into the ditch.
Therese remained in Luxembourg in order to reassure herself that no one other than Billette had been killed. However, since there was a search on for Armand's body at the site of the explosion, and it would be awkward if he ran across anyone he had known at the warehouse, Erich drove him across the border to the station at Longwy. When Erich returned to the Cravat, Therese told him,
"They're on the point of assuming Armand dead. M. Flandin seems to be very much upset, and has been telling the papers what a fine young fellow he was. Fortunately, no one seems to think Armand touched off the explosion."
"They aren't blaming Flandin for it, are they?"
"No. My press releases seem to have done the job. Billette has been identified as a member of the Cross of Fire, and Colonel de la Roque is being questioned."
Two days later, a temporary rail line had been laid. Therese and Erich, in a first-class compartment on the right side of the train, prepared to survey the damage. The train went slowly through the zone of reconstruction, but they could hardly make out where the warehouse had been. Amazingly enough, one wouldn't have known that there had been any explosion at all, much less the greatest one that Therese, for all her military background, could have imagined. It looked, simply, as if there had never been a Tibodeaux establishment.
There was a lot of rubbish scattered around, and bits of old masonry and brickwork, but that was true of much of the area around railway tracks. As Erich finally pointed out where the warehouse had been, it occurred to Therese that it would have been poetic justice if they had been on a train, exactly there, when the explosion had occurred.
Therese was also thankful that she hadn't told Klaus more. He would
have realized the risk to the neighboring population, and wouldn't have
permitted them to blow up the warehouse. It was, indeed, a little worrisome
to wonder whether Armand had realized that there had been a chance of raining
bricks on top of a crowd in front of a bar, or wiping out a passenger train.
If so, he seemed to have had no compunctions.