- Published: 17 September 2018
- ISBN: 9781405927741
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $26.00
The Romanov Ransom
Fargo Adventures #9
Laguna Mountains San Diego County, California
“To the left!” “Copy that. Moving to the left. Five . . . four . . .” The helicopter hovered near the sheer rock face, the tethered basket swinging from the cable, as one of the rescuers radioed, “Don’t come any closer. You’re one-zero from the wall.”
Sam Fargo watched as the two search-and-rescue volunteers, a man and woman, both wearing khaki uniforms and yellow helmets, guided the helicopter basket closer to where his wife, Remi, lay on an outcropping of rock, her left leg stabilized with a makeshift splint. The turbulence from the rotors whipped her auburn hair about her face, her green eyes tearing up from all the dirt blowing around. The man glanced up at the hovering helicopter. “We got it!” he radioed.
Sam took note of every move they made, resisting the urge to step in and take over. And even though he knew his wife was in good hands, it was difficult to stand there and do nothing. Within a few minutes, they had her secured in the basket, then stood back as she was lifted from the mountainside. No sooner was she safely on her way than his phone rang. He wanted to ignore it, but when he saw it was Selma Wondrash, the head of his and Remi’s research team, he answered. “Selma.”
“How’s Mrs. Fargo?”
“Doing better than the rest of us. She at least gets to ride out of here. The rest of us have to climb.”
“You can always volunteer to be the victim next time,” she said, then got right to the point. “You recall my cousin’s nephews you and Mrs. Fargo were backing for that documentary they were making on the ratlines?”
Because he and Remi sponsored so many educational and archaeological ventures through the Fargo Foundation, the charitable organization that they had founded, he sometimes lost track of who they were funding. In this case, though, being a World War II history buff, he distinctly recalled the young men and their project, a documentary on the ratline—a system of escape routes used by the Nazis and Fascists who fled Europe after the war. Even so, it took him a moment to bring up their names. “Karl and Brand. I remember. Why?”
“Their uncle hasn’t been able to get in touch with them for a couple of days. He’s worried. Especially after getting an odd message on his voice mail.”
“Any idea what it was?”
“Something about them finding a lost plane in Morocco, and people were after them. He can’t get any help from the authorities, because the boys didn’t register with the consulate, and no one seems to know where they are. I told him that you might be able to pull some strings and get someone to look into it. I know you and Remi have a date tonight, but—”
“Your family’s our family,” he said, grabbing his backpack from the ground and slinging it over his shoulder. “Have our plane ready to go. As soon as Remi and I get home, we’ll pack and head to the airport.”
Sam and Remi Fargo were not the usual multimillionaires content to rest on the laurels of good business decisions that had netted them more money than they could spend in several lifetimes. Sam had earned an engineering degree from Caltech, spent seven years at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, then left to start his own company, where he’d made a fortune developing a number of inventions used by the military and intelligence agencies. Remi, an anthropologist and historian with a focus on ancient trade routes, graduated from Boston College. Her background came in handy during the pursuit of their particular passion, searching for lost treasures around the world. It also helped that she had a near-photographic memory, was proficient in several languages, and was a world-class sharpshooter when it came to firearms. As many scrapes as they’d been in over the years, there was no one Sam would rather have as his partner than Remi.
There was, however, one slight issue about leaving tonight. It happened to be the anniversary of the day they met at the Lighthouse Cafe, a jazz bistro in Hermosa Beach. To them, it was even more important than their wedding anniversary, and they honored it each year by having a date at the very table where they’d spent their first evening talking the night away.
Remi was waiting for Sam at the car when he finally got there after the climb up the cliffside with the volunteers.
“Took you long enough,” she said, looking at her watch. “We’re going to get stuck in commuter traffic if we don’t hit the road soon.”
Sam tossed his climbing gear into the back of their Range Rover.
“Any chance you wouldn’t mind a slight change of plans . . . ?” He left the question hanging, noting the disappointment on her face.
“We’ve never missed date night at the Lighthouse.”
“Maybe we could mix it up a bit. A week of date nights somewhere else? Like Morocco?” Before she had a chance to respond, he added, “Selma’s family might be in trouble.”
“I love date night in Morocco.”
It was late morning, the bright sun shining on the snow-peaked Atlas Mountains in the distance, when Sam and Remi landed in Marrakesh. They rented a black four-wheel-drive Toyota Prado, then drove out to meet Selma’s cousin Albert Hoffler, who was waiting in front of the hotel as they pulled up.
“He looks like Selma,” Remi said as Sam turned the key fob over to the valet. “At least in the eyes.”
In fact, he was also about the same age as Selma, in his fifties, with brown hair, and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache flecked with gray. His smile seemed strained—understandable, considering the circumstances. “Mr. and Mrs. Fargo. I can’t thank you enough for flying all the way out here.”
“Please. It’s Sam and Remi. Save the formalities for Selma,” Sam said, shaking his hand.
“Cousin Selma’s been that way her whole life.” His smile was fleeting, and he gave a tired sigh. “We can talk over lunch. I’ve reserved us a table.”
He led them through the hotel’s spacious courtyard lobby, with a fountain and reflecting pool in the center. The restaurant was on the far side, the tables overlooking the pool. When they were seated, he said, “How much has Selma told you?”
Sam replied, “Something about a voice mail you received while the boys were here working on the documentary. And that you haven’t gotten much cooperation from the authorities.”
“It’s not that they’re not cooperating, more that they have nothing to go on. The truth is, they’re not officially missing yet, since they’re not due back for a day or so. But after that voice mail . . .”
“What can you tell us?” Sam asked.
“They landed here after finishing up in Spain, documenting the lines of escape taken by some high-ranking Nazi officers who were fleeing to South America. I believe this is the project you were funding. They were looking for shipping records in Casablanca but got sidetracked after hearing a legend about a Nazi pilot rescued after the war. Apparently, he’d parachuted from the plane before it crashed, wandered the desert for days, and was rambling on about a map.”
Sam noticed Remi perk up at the mention. Maps intrigued her. “What was it of?” she asked.
“That’s just it. Nobody knows if the story’s even real. The boys thought it might be a map of the ratline route. Naturally, they wanted it for their documentary. They left Casablanca for Marrakesh, and, from there, to a few villages located below the Atlas Mountains, to determine where the legend originated from and who knew of it. The last I heard, they were following a very promising lead on locating the plane. I’ve called their cell phones but it goes straight to voice mail, and they haven’t called back. The hotel staff here has been very gracious, letting me into their room to look for anything that might help. Their suitcases, extra cameras and equipment are there, but their backpacks and climbing gear are gone. They’re excellent climbers.” He stopped to thank the waiter who poured water infused with mint leaves into their glasses. When they were alone again, he said, “Their rooms are booked until the end of the week, and the hotel manager feels that if they don’t return by then, he would be more concerned. They told him they were going to be gone for a while.”
“How long ago was this?” Sam asked.
“He thinks about five days. I know what you’re thinking. They said they were going to be gone. But if you’d heard that message . . .”
“Do you have it?”
“I can play it for you. I think their reception was poor. Some of it cuts out. It’s in German, though.”
“Remi speaks German.”
He took out his cell phone, pulled up the voice mail message, then hit PLAY, laying it on the table.
They leaned in close to listen. Remi asked him to play it a second time so that she could write it down for Sam. “We found it! The plane! At camel . . . not sure. Shooting at . . . Maybe someone . . . out there . . . days.”
“You hear the excitement?” Albert asked her.
“Or panic,” Remi said.
“Panic. That’s what I meant. And why I came. With the spotty reception, who knows what really happened.”
Sam asked, “When did this message come in?”
“Maybe two days after they left the hotel for the trip to the mountains.” He picked up the phone, giving a ragged sigh. “That’s the last I heard from them.” He looked away a moment, his gaze drifting to the lobby. Suddenly, he stiffened. “That’s who they were with! I’m sure of it!”
He pointed through the potted palms into the lobby. “That man in the blue shirt talking to the girl at the desk.” Albert accessed the pictures on his phone and showed them a photo of three young men sitting on a rough-hewn wooden bench, each lifting a beer mug in a toast. “My nephews,” he said, pointing to the men seated on the right. Sam eyed the photo, noting the two boys, one wearing a red jacket, both with sun-streaked brown hair and brown eyes. “This man on the left,” Albert said. “That’s who they hired to take them out to the Berber Villages.”
Sam compared the photo to the dark-haired man at the desk. “Definitely him. Let’s find out what he knows.”
The three got up and walked toward the desk. When the man saw them heading toward him, he bolted out the doors.
Sam gave chase. Remi was right behind him, ignoring the curious stares of the other guests milling about the lobby. Sam ran to the right, across the cobbled drive. The man darted around the corner, then down a side street, racing toward a red Renault as he dug the key from his pocket. He held out the key, and the doors beeped as the car unlocked. Just as he opened the door, Sam caught up to him, grabbing the back of his shirt, then swinging him around, slamming him against the car.
“Please!” the man said in French. “I don’t know anything.”
Sam shot his hand up to the man’s neck, gripping it. “You speak English?” He nodded. “Some.” “Your name?” “Z—Zakaria.” “Zakaria. We’re looking for Karl and Brand Hoffler.” “I—I’ve only spoken to them on the phone.” “We have a picture that says otherwise.” “A very old picture. I swear, I don’t know anything.” Remi wandered closer to the faded-red Renault. She peered into the window as Sam asked, “You’re saying you talked to them by phone, but you never met with either of them on this trip?”
“I think they took up with another guide. They didn’t tell me who. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I don’t know.”
Sam eyed the twists of cables on the backseat, turning back toward Zakaria. “What do you know about audiovisual equipment?” he asked.
“Just the camera on my cell phone.”
“Then why do you have a bundle of AV cords in the back of your car?”
A sheen of perspiration appeared on Zakaria’s brow as he shook his head. “I—I don’t know.”
Sam leaned into him, pressing his fingers into his neck. “Maybe you need a little help with your memory. Where are they?”
His eyes widened in fear. “I don’t know! I swear!”
“We don’t like being lied to,” Sam said. “Not when it comes to our family being endangered.” He glanced at Remi. “In French, in case there’s any question.”
The young man’s gaze shifted to Remi’s as she translated. When she finished, Sam added, “And they’re making a film that we’re paying for. If anything happens to them—”
“Wait. You are the Fargos?”
Sam loosened his grip on Zakaria’s neck. “You know who we are?”
He nodded, then his gaze caught on Albert. “Who’s that?”
The young man closed his eyes, sinking down as though suddenly relieved. “Please. You have to understand. I only wanted to protect them.”
“From who?” Sam asked, finally letting him go and stepping back.
Zakaria reached up, rubbing his neck, trying to swallow. “I don’t know. They called me and said they were being chased. Someone was shooting at them, but they got away. They thought it was because of their search for the plane.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About four days ago.”
“They’re not back?”
“That’s what I came here to find out. I was hoping they’d been back by now. Or called. We expect them anytime.”
“Durin Kahrs. A friend of theirs from school in Germany. He was with them when they took off to look for the plane. He came back early, and when I told him what happened, that they were shot at, he warned me not to talk to anyone. He worried about someone trying to find them. He thinks someone doesn’t want them to find the plane.”
“They’re okay?” Albert asked.
“They were when I talked to them.”
“Maybe,” Sam said, “you should start at the beginning.”
He nodded, looking at each of them, in turn, as though to assure himself they weren’t about to attack him further. “They hired me to act as a guide, to take them out to some of the remote villages, because they’d heard the story about this downed World War Two pilot dragging his parachute through the desert.”
“How’d they get your name?” Sam asked.
“I wrote an article about the pilot that was published in the university paper when I was a student. They found a reference to it on the internet and looked me up.”
“There had to have been a lot of soldiers traipsing around the continent after the war,” Sam said. “What makes this story stand out?”
“The legend is that the pilot offered a great reward if someone could find his downed plane and take him to it. But he died, and the plane was never found. Naturally, everyone assumed it must contain gold stolen during the war. But after talking with the villagers, it seems more likely that the story was embellished over the years. None of them mentioned gold.”
“And no one’s looked since?”
“Of course they have. There are even groups that advertise it as the highlight of their tour.”
“I have a question,” Remi said. “How is it that Karl and Brand found it when no one else could?”
“I think because their interest differed from everyone else’s,” he said. “Everyone else, without exception, wanted only to know where the plane was located because they hoped to find gold. The villagers were always very happy to point them in the right direction. Of course the direction varied, depending on which villager they happened to ask. What all these people failed to realize was that anyone who saw the pilot is no longer alive. I think that’s why the directions varied so greatly.” He glanced toward Albert, then back at Sam, saying, “Unlike everyone who came before them, Karl and Brand weren’t interested in the plane right off. They were thinking documentary. Filming candid responses. They’re the first to ask if anyone was related to the villagers who actually found the pilot or those who spoke to him.”
“They were filming?” Sam asked.
He nodded. “They wanted to document how the legend was passed down from generation to generation. But later, when they went through the film footage, they realized that these particular villagers spoke of a specific place in the upper desert mountains where the pilot was found. One villager even produced the parachute. And so they thought that it was worth pursuing.” He gave a tired shrug. “No one thought they’d find it, but they did.”
“Where is this place?” Sam asked.
“The villagers called it Camel Rock. It’s somewhere up in the Atlas Mountains.”
“Can you take us?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know where it is. I wasn’t with them when they found it. But I think Durin went out with them, at some point.
He might be able to show you.”
“How do we get in touch with him?”
Zakaria tried calling. “It goes right to voice mail. He’s usually with his sister. She’s very sick. Cancer. But he’s supposed to call me this evening when he returns from visiting her. I’ll set up a meeting.”
They exchanged numbers, Zakaria telling them he’d telephone as soon as he heard anything at all. As promised, he called later that afternoon, saying that Durin would meet them in the main square at the medina that night at seven.
The Pratt & Whitney radial engines rasped and hunted as they struggled to inhale the high-altitude air.
They gave him the gun in New York, he was pretty certain, and he thought some money too.
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria. The mud brick dwellings burst with anguish, as the sorrow swirled into the night desert.
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings.
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses.
Late for work, Reginald Oren raced across the street, the cobblestones slick from the night’s rain.