The Dante Deception - Chapter Three

The Dante Deception – Chapter Three

In The Dante Deception, The Natalie Brandon Series by Jenni0 Comments

October 1972
The Black Forest, West Germany

The Mercedes rumbled down the dark forest lane, black smoke billowing from the tailpipe. Sinclair glanced at the temperature gauge and grimaced. Time was running out and he still hadn’t found the turnoff to the old man’s cottage.

The last time he’d come, they met in town for a drink. Best beer he’d ever had—thick as Marmite, and sweeter the warmer it got. But the man was nearly eighty now and rarely left home. His memory isn’t what it used to be, his wife said. That nosy bartender asks what you’re doing, and Gerhardt’s likely to tell him. How long do you think we’ll last if that happens?

Sinclair stepped on the brake and looked out the window. At this point, he could keep going and hope the engine didn’t overheat, or turn around and find someone to guide him. The sun was setting big and round, like the pool of blood on the floor of the Luton van.

He gripped the steering wheel and slid his knuckles toward the sky. It couldn’t be helped, he thought. They made you do it. The engine made a noise that sounded like a moan. It would be dark soon, and cold. There were no lights along the road.

He shifted into reverse and backed from the dirt road to the paved. A hundred yards down the road, something caught his eye—a flash of yellow against the forest’s unrelenting gray. He slowed the car as he approached and leaned over to roll down the passenger window. “Guten Abend,” he said.

The boy—not yet a teenager, still wearing a child’s rucksack—gave him a cold stare. “What do you want?”

The boy—not yet a teenager, still wearing a child’s rucksack—gave him a cold stare. “What do you want?”

“I’m supposed to meet a friend of mine, but I think I’ve lost my way. I’m a tourist, you see, and these unmarked roads are difficult to navigate.”

“A tourist wouldn’t have friends here.” The boy paused. “No one does.”

“Call it business, then.”

The boy dipped his chin into the neck of his parka. Sharp cheekbones echoed the fierce look in his blue eyes. “Did you come to see her? If you did, you’re a few years too late.”

“I came to see a man.”

“Tourists always ask about her. They want to see where she lived.”

“Who?”

“They think she’s a Russian princess. They call her Anna Anderson.”

Sinclair tilted his head. There had been quite a row in London over this woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia: Is she, isn’t she, did anyone survive the massacre in Ekaterinburg, was there really a secret tsarist fortune hidden away? “She was here? In this godforsaken place?”

Sinclair tilted his head. There had been quite a row in London over this woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia: Is she, isn’t she, did anyone survive the massacre in Ekaterinburg, was there really a secret tsarist fortune hidden away? “She was here? In this godforsaken place?”

“I could take you there.” The boy’s eyes swept the length of the car, taking in the make, model, and generally deplorable condition.

Sinclair recognized that mercenary glint, along with the sudden desire to be helpful. It might have been Harrow, eighteen years ago, when he’d been the forgotten boy angry at the whole world. “I’m late for a meeting, but perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

The boy shifted his weight. “What do you want?”

“I want you to get in the car.” Sinclair felt the boy’s eyes travel from his gloved hands to his wool overcoat to the leather attaché case on the floor. “I’m harmless, I assure you.”

“Even if you aren’t, I can handle myself.” The boy reached for the door handle and slipped inside. “So who’s your friend?”

“What’s your name?”

“Christof.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“Aren’t you going to ask me what my name is?”

“I don’t care,” the boy said. “This car isn’t yours, is it?”

“I don’t care,” the boy said. “This car isn’t yours, is it?”

“No,” Sinclair said. “It’s not.”

“It needs work. I might be able to help, for the right price.”

Sinclair laughed. “Let’s just get to Brodbeckgasse, shall we?”

“Turn around, take your first right, go about five hundred meters. The house you’re looking for is in a grove of pine trees on the right. You can’t see it from the road.”

“How do you know that’s the house I’m looking for?”

“There’s no such place as Brodbeckgasse, but there is such a person as Gerhardt Brodbeck.”

“Fair enough,” Sinclair said. “Let’s see how far this car will take us, shall we?” He followed Christof’s directions, which led him precisely to Brodbeck’s door. He switched off the engine and a cloud of steam billowed from the bonnet. “Best to let it rest a bit, I think. Do you mind waiting here while I meet my friend? Is there anyone who’ll be worried about you?”

The boy turned and stared into the forest. “No.”

“I’ll try to be quick,” he said, glancing at Christof’s ungloved hands and bare head. “We’ll get something to eat before you show me where your grand duchess lived.”

“I’ll try to be quick,” he said, glancing at Christof’s ungloved hands and bare head. “We’ll get something to eat before you show me where your grand duchess lived.”

“She’s not my—” the boy began. “That is, she’s not here anymore. But she did leave some things behind. No one knows I have them. I’ll show them to you if…”

“If the price is right,” Sinclair said, smiling. “I think we can work something out.”

***

The boy ate as if he’d never tasted spätzle before. The tavern didn’t have anything other than schnitzel and spätzle, but Christof devoured a plate of each. Sinclair sipped his doppelbock—Good God, how did they get it so thick?—and kept up an easy chatter devoid of significance. The room was warm, thanks to the logs smoldering in the fireplace, and he was in no hurry. The package from the old man was in the boot of the Mercedes, wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied with string the color of Christof’s parka. He didn’t believe in signs and had no superstitions. He preferred to think of such occurrences as happy reminders of things he already knew.

The boy was a find.

He’d come out of the old man’s cottage to find Christof in the passenger seat with the heater on, the car’s engine purring. “That’ll be a thousand marks,” the boy said, looking up at him without a shred of guilt. He’d gladly paid the car’s ransom, dropping the bills into the boy’s oil-streaked hand.

At least he’d thought it was oil until the boy returned from the toilets, hands washed, with round black specks still dotting his right fingers. It was all he could do to hide the smile that threatened to splash across his face. Gerhardt was finished; his hands shook with a palsy that had almost turned the Corot into a Monet.

Sinclair waited until Christof pressed his fork over a single crumb. Then he sat back, crossed his legs, and raised his glass. “Now, what can you tell me about that grand duchess?”

Sinclair waited until Christof pressed his fork over a single crumb. Then he sat back, crossed his legs, and raised his glass. “Now, what can you tell me about that grand duchess?”

Christof’s jawline hardened. “She lived in a barracks. Local women would come to take care of her. She moved away a few years ago, but everyone still wants to know something about her. Or touch something she touched.” He glanced at the bartender, drying beer steins with a towel. “Sometimes they want to buy things that belonged to her.”

“And you can make that happen?” Sinclair said softly.

Christof’s gaze stayed with the bartender. His left hand slipped down to his rucksack. A few deft movements of his fingers and he pulled something up to the table.

A photograph.

Sinclair slid the photo toward him, inspecting it under the table. It was old, printed on thick corrugated paper. It showed two girls in white dresses, sitting primly on fauteuil chairs. Both had chubby cheeks, but only one was beautiful. “Which one is she?”

“The pretty one,” the boy said quickly. “She signed it for me.”

Sinclair looked at the signature. Deep black ink, probably iron gall, thick nib, Cyrillic characters. The “A” was sharply pointed, but the “Я” was loose and unformed. He looked the boy in the eye. “Did she…sign…anything else for you?”

Christof reached into his rucksack. He brought up three more photographs and slid them across the table: one glossy, one matte, and a postcard on cream-colored stock. Each bore the same signature: Анастазия. Sinclair made sure to frown as he asked, “How did you get these?”

Christof reached into his rucksack. He brought up three more photographs and slid them across the table: one glossy, one matte, and a postcard on cream-colored stock. Each bore the same signature: Анастазия. Sinclair made sure to frown as he asked, “How did you get these?”

“My mother worked for her.”

“And she liked you?”

The boy’s thin lips quivered. “She would have done anything for me.”

He can’t lie, Sinclair thought, not with his voice and not with his face. But on paper, he was brilliant. For a twelve-year-old to forge a believable signature in a foreign alphabet was quite an achievement. To do it consistently from photo to photo was another thing entirely. The signatures weren’t the product of a stamp—they were each hand drawn, yet nearly identical. The control exhibited in letter formation, spacing, stroke width, and height was unbelievable. “These are good,” he said. “Very good.”

Christof’s eyes flashed toward the bartender. “I’ll give you a fair price to say thank you for buying me dinner.”

“I’m sure we can make a deal.”

“Not a deal.” The boy shook his head. “I’ll name my price, and you’ll accept or decline.”

“Not a deal.” The boy shook his head. “I’ll name my price, and you’ll accept or decline.”

“Tell me how you learned to forge this signature and I won’t tell your mother that her little boy is robbing helpless tourists.”

“You don’t believe these signatures are real?”

“My dear boy, I know they aren’t.”

“Prove it.”

He pointed at Christof’s hand. “The ink is still on your fingers because you made these in the car while I met with Mr. Brodbeck. You had to camouflage the ink stains, so you fiddled with the engine, and by luck or other means, you actually fixed it. Were I to look in that rucksack, I’d probably find the pen, ink, and nib you used to make these fine trinkets here, along with—stop me if I’m wrong—a fresh supply of unsigned photos and cards?”

The boy’s cheeks reddened. His hands gripped the seat of his chair.

“Don’t be afraid,” Sinclair said softly. Across the room, a fire popped and hissed, sending orange sparks in asymmetrical arcs toward the floor. He could have sworn they all imitated the sweep of the boy’s A. “I have no intention of turning you in. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

“What do you want, then?”

He picked up his stein and drained the last delicious gulp. “Isn’t your mother worried about her boy having dinner with a strange man after dark?”

“My mother is dead,” Christof said. “I do what I want.”

“My mother is dead,” Christof said. “I do what I want.”

“Who takes care of you?”

“No one.”

“What do you mean, no one?”

“I’m dead, too.”

“You look real to me.”

“I meant on paper.”

Sinclair set down his stein. “Do you mean to tell me you forged your own death certificate?”

The boy smiled. “And paid a man to file it for me.”

“So you’re a ghost.”

“So you’re a ghost.”

“I like it that way.”

“How would you like to be a ghost who paints?”

“Oil or watercolor?”

This gets better and better, Sinclair thought. The beer had brought a haze to the room, but it wasn’t the only reason he felt like laughing. The boy was small for twelve, with the sallow skin of the undernourished. Dark blond hair hung to his ears. The ends were uneven, as if he cut them himself with scissors.

He held up his empty stein to catch the bartender’s attention. “Bring me another,” he said. And then, with a glance at Christof, “Make that two.”


Stay tuned for the next few chapters…


The Dante Deception: A Natalie Brandon Thriller by Jenni WiltzCan’t get enough? I posted character photos, a playlist, a reading list, and more on the book page!

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I write thrillers, romance, historical fiction, tiara posts, and more. Right now, I'm working on a series of Natalie Brandon thrillers. To find out when new books are released, click here to sign up for my mailing list.

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