Friday, October 23, 2009

DBTL 44A: The Long Auf Wiederseh'n - Book One

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. In the absence of our timeline's Manhattan Project, nuclear weapons have been developed independently in Italy, France, Great Britain, and the Polish Commonwealth. To avoid a European nuclear arms race, the four nations join together in September 1946 to create the Atomic Control Commission . . .

Book One
Hello, My Lovely

Danzig, Polish Devo, Polish Commonwealth
4 September 1947

It had been a good long while since anybody had come through my office door except me and the cleaning lady. I had gotten into the habit of spending my days conducting research on how long it took a bottle of schnapps to put me under my desk.

I usually postponed my chemical research until after the day's mail came, and it had been late that Thursday morning, so I was in an unaccustomed state of sobriety when the girl came through the door.

If she had waited until the afternoon I might have fooled myself into thinking I was schnappsgoggling, but when I saw her I knew that it was nature and not alcohol that had given her a face like an angel. She had dark hair and a pair of eyes that could have given the sky lessons on how to be blue. A modestly tailored skirt and jacket were arranged across an immodest figure, and sensible shoes supported legs that deserved better.

Those astonishing eyes quickly swept across the architectural disappointment that was my office before coming to rest on my face. I couldn't help wishing I'd bothered to shave sometime in the last few days. A pair of lips that were unenhanced by lipstick and didn't need it parted, and a breathy voice said, "I'm looking for Herr Bednarski."

"You've found him," I said. "What can I do for you, Fraulein ..."

"Strassmann. Maria Strassmann. I'm hoping you can locate my father."

"If you want to find a missing person, Fraulein Strassmann, you should go to the police," I said. "I understand some of them specialize in that kind of thing."

"My father has been missing now for three years, Herr Bednarski," said Fraulein Strassmann.

I was about to make a witty remark about how the police usually needed that long just to fill out a missing persons report when my mind suddenly connected the name Strassmann to the year 1944. What I ended up saying was, "Are we talking about Professor Fritz Strassmann?"

The look of hope that brightened her face made her look like an angel that had just remembered where it had misplaced its halo. "You've heard of my father then, Herr Bednarski?"

"Everybody in Danzig has heard of your father, Fraulein Strassmann. If you want my advice, you'll walk out that door and carry on with your life. Fritz Strassmann is dead."

Fraulein Strassmann's eyebrows drew together, and her face now resembled an angel that had just decided to invade Hell and beat the stuffing out of every devil it met. "That's what everybody else says, but they never found his body, or the bodies of any of the other passengers, or any wreckage from the ship. I'm determined to find him, Herr Bednarski, alive or dead. If you won't help me, then I'll just find another private investigator who will."

She had turned on the heels of her sensible shoes and had her hand on the doorknob when I said, "All right, Fraulein Strassmann, you've talked me into it. I charge two hundred złotys a day plus expenses, with a thousand up front." After all, if she was determined to waste her money, better she should waste it on me than on one of my less scrupulous colleagues. And there was even a small chance that I might find her father.

* * *

With Fraulein Strassmann's thousand złotys adding some comforting heft to my billfold, I set out for the Danzig Municipal Lending Library. There, after payment of a nominal sum, I spent a fascinating afternoon reading three-year-old newspaper accounts of the disappearance of Professor Strassmann and his fellow passengers.

On the morning of 6 June 1944, Strassmann and four other passengers had set out from Danzig on what was supposed to be a three hour tour of the Baltic coastline. A storm had blown up during those three hours, and when it ended the next day the tiny ship had vanished from the face of the earth. In addition to Strassmann, who was a respected member of the Maria Sklodowska Institute in Berlin, the passengers had included a wealthy industrialist from Breslau named Max Silberberg and his wife, the film actress Emmy Sonnemann, and a farm girl from Czechowice named Janina Wojas. In addition, the ship's captain, Joachim Gromburg, and first mate, Adolf McGillicuddy, were also missing and presumed dead.

The disappearance of the ship (which Gromburg had unaccountably named the Minnie after the American cartoon mouse) had created a considerable stir. The Silberbergs, Sonnemann and Strassmann would each have merited the two week search and rescue operation that followed. The three of them together had insured that no metaphorical stone was left unturned by the Polish Navy.

At any rate, no stone that had been within the Navy's reach had been left unturned. The Minnie had disappeared during President Smetona's final illness, when Poland and Lithuania were literally not on speaking terms with each other. I ran across a line in one story quoting a Navy spokesman named Canaris denouncing the Lithuanians' refusal to allow Polish ships to search in Lithuania's territorial waters. Then had come the Second Polish-Soviet War, and everyone had forgotten about the Minnie. As far as I could tell, nobody had ever actually conducted a search of the area around the Lithuanian coast. Now that Prime Minister Raczyński had sweet-talked the Lithuanians into rejoining the Polish Commonwealth, the way was clear.

I left the library a contented man. When I reported to Fraulein Strassmann the next day, I'd be able to give her a hopeful report, and present her with clear evidence that I was doing my level best to earn my fee. Of course, the chance of turning up anything by searching the Lithuanian coast was practically zero, but I had a feeling my client wouldn't let that deter her. I might well be looking at a good week's work, maybe two, before Fraulein Strassman's patience or money gave out. I could catch up on a lot of overdue bills, return to my landlord's good graces, and spend a leisurely time relaxing at sea.

* * *

Danzig, Polish Devo, Polish Commonwealth
5 September 1947

I was in my office the next morning looking up charter boats in the telephone classifieds when there was a knock on my door. At first I thought it might be another client, but my luck is never that good. As soon as my door opened and I got a good look at the man who entered, the word "police" popped out of my brain like a punch card from General Kowalewski's talos.

"Herr Bednarski?" he said, in that accusing way of confirming your identity that all policemen quickly master.

"What tipped you off?" I asked. "Was it that big sign on my door that says 'Bednarski Investigations'?"

"A wise guy," he sneered, making it clear that in his world being a wise guy was only one step up from running pyramid schemes. "My name's Wolfgang Hochstetter," he continued, pulling an ID card from an inside pocket of his cheap suit jacket. "Atomic Control Commission."

The ID card had that silly orbiting-electrons sigil that the ACC uses, along with Agent Hochstetter's name and a blurry photo of a vaguely humanoid being. I gave it a cool once-over even though both of us knew that I'd never be able to tell the real thing from a library card.

"If you're here about my atom bomb," I said, "I already sold it to the Belgians."

"I'm here to talk to you about your new client," Hochstetter said, ignoring my sally.

"Specifically, you're here to tell me that she's not really Fritz Strassmann's daughter," I said. "I figured that one out a while back. Professor Strassmann' daughter Maria is nine years old."

Hochstetter glared at me, but I could tell I'd gone up a tiny notch in his estimation.

"All right then, smart guy, who is she?"

"Since you know and I don't," I said, "it would be pointless for me to answer. How about you?"

The conversation wasn't going quite the way Hochstetter wanted it to, but he evidently decided to let that pass. He said, "Her name is Norma Jean Baker. She works for the American Office of Strategic Services."

"So why would the OSS want to find the Minnie? Do they want Emmy Sonnemann to do training films for them?"

Hochstetter gave me another look at his Glare face. "They want Fritz Strassmann to help them design their own atom bomb."

"Then they're in for a disappointment. Like I told Fraulein Baker, Professor Strassmann is dead. They all are."

"If that's what you believe," said Hochstetter, "then why are you looking for him?"

"For two hundred złotys a day plus expenses," I said with what I hoped was disarming honesty. "I get paid the same whether I find him or not."

"Taking money from a foreign government doesn't sound very patriotic to me."

Now it was my turn to glare at the ACC spook. "I figure that the year I spent in a Polish Army uniform being shot at by the Brownshirts is all the patriotism I need to show. You're about my age, Agent Hochstetter. Were you in the war? Which side?"

"I spent the war in Dachau, with my wife," said Hochstetter quietly. "She was Jewish."

If Hochstetter was hoping to elevate my opinion of him, he succeeded. There was a long silence, and I finally broke it by saying, "Is that it?"

Hochstetter said, "That's it. But we're going to be watching you, gumshoe, and don't you forget it."

"I'll be sure to include it in my diary," I said.

He sneered at me again and left my office.

* * *

I rang up Fraulein Strassmann/Agent Baker that afternoon to give her a status report. I told her that I'd chartered a boat to follow the Minnie's old course, and that I'd be departing the next morning.

"That's wonderful," she replied in that breathy voice. "Where should I meet you?"

"You're not meeting me anywhere, Fraulein Strassmann. An investigation is no place for a woman."

"Oh, Herr Bednarski," she sobbed, "I've waited so long to find my father. I couldn't bear to wait here by myself, not knowing what was going on! Please let me go with you, Herr Bednarski! Please!" Agent Baker had missed her calling; she should have been an actress.

"Very well, Fraulein Strassmann. Be at pier 94 tomorrow at seven o'clock sharp."

Agent Baker showered me with profuse thanks before hanging up. I had three reasons for letting her come along. First, if I turned her down she would just follow me anyway. Second, I wanted to have her where I could see her. And third, I knew it would annoy Hochstetter.

(to be continued)

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