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Release date: March 18, 2021
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 432
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The Night Gate
Emile Narcisse is pleased by his appearance. Vanity has always been a weakness. Where, perhaps, others see him as just another old man, he still perceives himself as the young Emile whose smile won hearts, whose blue-eyed looks turned heads. And after all, sixty-five is not so old. Vintage. Like a good wine, some men just get better with age. Were he not so focused on his reflection in the mirror as he adjusts his tie and straightens his collar, he might have been able to look beyond it and see the certainty of death that lies in wait. But pride and greed blind him to his fate.
He has chosen a room at the back of the hotel with a view of the river. Or, rather, its black slow-moving backwater broken only by the reflection of trees on the sliver of island beyond. On the far side of the island the River Dordogne, swollen by recent rains, makes a stately but more rapid progress towards the Atlantic two hundred and fifty kilometres to the west. But it is dark now, and he can see nothing beyond the glass.
He glances at his watch. Time to go. He feels a tiny, excited frisson of anticipation. But also doubt. Is it really possible that fate could have sent such good fortune his way? It is hard to believe. And, yet, here he is.
Floorboards creak softly beneath his shoes as he descends lightly to reception. The hotel is quiet, the tourist season a distant memory. A notice on the counter reminds customers that the hotel will be closed in just a few weeks for a full month. The annual congés. It will reopen in December in time for Christmas and la nouvelle année, if indeed Covid will allow for a celebration of either.
Narcisse glances through double French windows that open into the restaurant. Empty tables beneath cold yellow light, the chill October night pressing darkly against windows all along the far side. Not yet seven-thirty. Too early for the French to dine. But on his return he expects to eat, and crack open a celebratory bottle of Bordeaux. A car passes in the street outside. He drops his key on the counter, pleased that there is no one around requiring him to wear his mask. He fingers it in his pocket, glad to keep it there. He detests the damn thing, stuffy and claustrophobic. Yet, he knows, it is a significant barrier against the virus. And at his age he cannot afford to take any risks.
He does not see the man sitting in the bar, face obscured by a local newspaper, a half-drunk beer on the table in front of him. But as Narcisse steps out into the frosted air, the solitary drinker lowers his paper, rising to cross quickly to a door that leads to the terrace. From here he watches the art dealer make his way towards the palisade, breath billowing in the street lights. Anger burgeons in this man’s breast, a seething rage close to boiling point. The duplicitous peacock has no idea that Bauer is even here. Bauer knows he is not expected for another thirty minutes. But he knows, too, that beyond the gate opposite, a path will lead him through a garden straight to the top of the hill, where another gate will provide direct access to the terrace at the side of her house.
Narcisse turns left at the post office, before he reaches the palisade. Above it, the château cuts a shadow against the starlit sky, and Narcisse shivers, pulling his collar closer to his neck. Medieval shuttered stone dwellings crowd him on either side, reducing the sky to a ribbon of black overhead. The icy air is almost heady with the sweet-smoke smell of autumn oak, the cold of it burning his nostrils.
Where the road opens out left and right, the gate to the small park at the top of the hill lies open. Some work in progress near the war monument has been taped off, and Narcisse sees the thin strip of plastic catch light from the street lamps as it flutters gently in the cold air that snakes through these fifteenth-century streets. But before he reaches the park he turns off to climb the long flight of stone steps to the house that overlooks it. A small covered landing at the door lies in shadow. He pauses and takes a deep breath before slipping on his mask, as if to hide his identity. This is the moment of truth, perhaps the moment to which his entire career has led him. The window shutters to the left of the door stand open, but only darkness lies beyond. There is not a light to be seen anywhere in the house, and Narcisse experiences his first sense of apprehension. He lifts the cast-iron knocker and sharply raps it twice against the wood. Inside he hears the echo of it smothered by the dark. Apprehension gives way to irritation as he knocks again, louder this time. Irritation burgeoning to anger, and then frustration. Is it all just some elaborate hoax? He tries the door handle and to his surprise feels it yield to his hand. The door swings into darkness.
‘Hello?’ His voice seems strangely disconnected from his body.
There is no reply. He steps into the doorway and reaches around the wall, searching for a light switch with his fingers. He finds it. But it brings no light to this world. He curses softly behind his mask and calls again.
Still nothing. He takes another step forward. He knows that he is in the kitchen because he was here earlier. A door at the far end, beyond a long table, leads to a short hallway, and then the grand salon. But he can see almost nothing, his eyes made blind by the streets lights he has just left behind. The house feels cold and empty, and his anger becomes incandescent, as if that might light the way ahead. He takes less cautious steps further into the kitchen, his fingertips finding the tabletop to guide him. Shapes are starting to take form around him now.
A sound that whispers like the smooth passage of silk on silk startles him. Movement in the darkness ahead morphs into silhouette. Momentary light catches polished steel, before he feels the razor-like tip of it slash across his neck. There is no real pain, just an oddly invasive sensation of burning, and suddenly he cannot breathe. His hands fly to his neck, warm blood coursing between cold fingers. He presses both palms against the wound as if somehow they might keep the blood from spilling out of him. He hears it gurgling in his severed windpipe. Just moments earlier he had been consumed by anger. Now he understands that he is going to die, but somehow cannot accept it. It is simply not possible. Consciousness rapidly ebbs to darkness and he drops to his knees. The last thing he sees, before falling face-first to the floor, is his killer. Caught in a fleeting moment of moonlight. And he simply cannot believe it.
South-west France, October 2020
A notice pinned to the door warned that the maternity unit was open only from 7 a.m. until 8.30 p.m., and Enzo wondered what happened if a woman’s waters broke in the middle of the night. Or were all births scheduled to fit into working hours these days?
He held the door open for Sophie who stepped out carefully, her left arm linked through Dominique’s right. They all removed their masks, and watched their breath billow in the cold afternoon air that blew up the Rue Wilson from the River Lot and the historic Valentré bridge that spanned it.
Sophie was radiant and just six weeks from full term. Her check-up had gone well, and she had gazed in wonder at the ultrasound images of her baby boy. But she was thirty-five now, and with two miscarriages behind her, and a pandemic still sweeping the country, it was impossible to be too careful.
Enzo walked behind his daughter and the woman who had been such a large part of his life these past nine years and felt a wave of emotion wash over him. They were just like mother and daughter, even though Sophie’s birth mother, Pascale, had died giving birth to her all those years ago. He found himself fighting an internal conflict between happiness and regret. But only briefly. How could he be anything but happy for them both?
He listened to their excited chatter in the late autumn chill and felt a twinge of sadness for Dominique. They had both known from the start that she could not have children, and she had claimed to have come to terms with it. But he had seen that look in her eyes when glimpsing a baby in a pram, or a heavily pregnant woman, and knew that the absence of children would always mean there was something missing in her life.
In a way she had lived through Sophie’s pregnancy vicariously, and Enzo knew that she anticipated the imminent birth with the same unbridled joy of any grandmother. She had, too, been the only mother that Laurent had ever known beyond the first few months of his life. The child that he and Charlotte had made together. And even after all these years, Enzo could not shake off the image of Charlotte standing over the father of her son in the rain, a gun in her hand. Preparing to kill him.
They passed plasticised posters tied to rusted railings, and on the other side of the street the spreading branches of a pin parasol cast its shadow over the facade of the Banque de France. At the post office they took a right, and turned down towards the Place Gambetta.
‘Can’t wait till this is all over,’ he heard Sophie say, ‘and I can have a drink again!’ He grinned. Like father, like daughter.
In five minutes they were crossing the Boulevard Léon Gambetta opposite the Théatre de Cahors, to stroll down the Rue Georges Clemenceau to the little tree-lined square in front of La Halle. The trees were almost naked now, drifts of brittle, brown leaves blowing along the gutters. Tables and chairs still stood on the pavement outside La Lamparo pizzeria, peopled by a few hardy customers huddled in coats, to smoke or avoid wearing masks.
A familiar figure stood outside the door to Enzo’s apartment. She was in uniform, her brown hair neatly pinned beneath her hat. She had put on a little weight, but was still an attractive woman. Enzo had not seen her for some years, and his first thought was that something bad had happened. But her smile when she saw them allayed his misgivings. His instinct was to kiss her on each cheek, but he forced himself to leave a socially distanced two metres between them.
‘Hello, Hélène,’ he said, a little awkwardly. It must have been fifteen years since their nearly relationship.
‘Enzo!’ She beamed at him. ‘You’ve aged.’
He didn’t dare return the compliment.
Sophie said, ‘My dad’s always been old. Ever since I’ve known him.’
‘Ancient,’ Dominique chipped in.
Enzo spread his arms in despair. ‘My life is full of women who do nothing but abuse me.’
Hélène examined him more closely and frowned. ‘What happened to your hair?’
‘It’s still there,’ he said, reaching back to grasp his ponytail and run it through his hand, as if for reassurance.
‘A little thinner, perhaps. But that’s not what I meant. Your white stripe. It’s gone!’
Enzo pulled a face. The white stripe in dark hair running back from one side of his forehead had been a distinguishing feature for most of his life. A physical manifestation of a condition known as Waardenburg syndrome, which had also gifted him one brown eye and one blue, but left him otherwise unaffected. At school it had earned him the nickname Magpie. ‘It’s still there, too,’ he said. ‘You just can’t see it any more for all the grey.’
‘Shame.’ Hélène stifled a smile. ‘Now you’re just plain old Enzo Macleod. Nothing to distinguish you from any other Enzo Macleod.’
‘Except for the ponytail,’ Sophie said, ‘and the donkey jacket, and the cargoes.’
‘And the hippy canvas shoulder bag.’ Dominique gave it an affectionate tug.
And Sophie added, ‘He still looks like an exile from the sixties.’
Hélène seemed to notice her bump for the first time. ‘Looks like you and Bertrand have been busy.’
Sophie’s pleasure showed in her smile. ‘Due next month.’
‘Are you coming up?’ Enzo said.
But Hélène shook her head. ‘I won’t invade the Enzo bubble.’ It’s what the government was calling allowed family groupings to prevent spread of the Coronavirus. ‘I just came to pass on a message.’
‘See you upstairs, then,’ Sophie said, and she and Dominique pushed open the door of the brick tenement to release a breath of warm, damp air into the late October afternoon.
When they were alone, Enzo said, ‘So who’s trying to get a message to me?’
‘An old friend.’
‘Professor Magali Blanc.’
‘The forensic archaeologist? Why didn’t she get in touch herself?’
‘Lost your contact details it seems. She’s based in Paris these days, and her request for help in finding you landed on my desk.’
Enzo frowned. ‘What would she want with me? It’s years since I worked with her.’
‘She appears to be engaged on a rather interesting unsolved murder, not far from home. Your home, that is.’
Enzo let his eyes wander towards La Halle and the little bistro that had opened on the terrace. He and Dominique quite often caught lunch there. In the square beyond, in the shadow of the twin-domed cathedral, he still took coffee every morning at the Café Le Forum. Life in south-west France, in this 2000-year-old Roman town contained by a loop of the river, flowed by as gently as the Lot itself. No stress. And he was enjoying it. He sighed. ‘I’m retired from all that these days, Hélène. Five years since I packed in my position at Paul Sabatier.’
‘I thought cold cases were your speciality.’ There was mischief in this.
He narrowed his eyes. ‘Only when I get conned into it by accepting a bet after too many glasses of wine.’ He had solved all seven murders in journalist Roger Raffin’s book on French cold cases, but still lost his bet with Hélène and the préfet on a technicality.
‘I wouldn’t have thought that a man with your forensic talents would ever lose his appetite for the challenge.’
Enzo smiled wryly. ‘You’re a wind-up merchant, Hélène, you know that?’
‘Is that a technical term, or one of your quaint Scottish witticisms?’
He glared at her. ‘What’s the case?’
A smile divided her face, ear to ear. ‘I knew it.’
‘Hélène!’ The warning was clear in her growled name.
‘It’s an old one, Enzo.’
‘If Magali’s looking at it, it must be a very old one.’
‘Seventy-five years or more.’
He frowned. ‘That would make it Second World War. A lot of people died then. What makes anyone think it was a murder?’
‘The remains of a ranking officer of the Luftwaffe with a bullet hole in his skull, shallow-buried in a tiny medieval village on the banks of the River Dordogne, wouldn’t exactly fit a conventional wartime scenario.’
‘They’re not likely to catch whoever did it now.’ He was interested, in spite of himself.
‘I don’t think that’s the object of the exercise. Isn’t it the job of archaeologists to unravel the mysteries of history? I think she just wants you to cast a professional eye over the grave, if one could call it that. She’s been unable to visit the site herself.’
‘Where is it?’
‘The village is called Carennac. It’s in the north of the Département. Not much more than an hour away.’
The grey cast in the cold southern sky had been dispelled by the dark. Enzo came through from the kitchen to find Laurent sprawled in his father’s armchair by the light of a standard lamp at the window, idly picking out chords on his father’s guitar. He stopped in the doorway for a moment, gazing with unadorned affection at his son, who was oblivious to his presence.
He was a gangly kid, tall for an eleven-year-old, puppy fat shed during a recent sprouting. He took his hair from his mother, dark and falling across his forehead in luxuriant curls. He showed no signs of having inherited his father’s Waardenburg. Alexis, Enzo’s grandson by his Scottish daughter, Kirsty, had hearing issues, the faulty gene having skipped a generation. And although tests on Sophie’s unborn child had proved negative, it was still a niggling worry.
Laurent’s long fingers spidered across the fretboard of the guitar. He was showing real promise. Enzo approached silently from behind and suddenly lifted the guitar away.
‘Hey!’ Laurent protested.
Enzo arranged his fingers on the frets. ‘Try the A minor 7th diminished,’ he said. ‘It follows beautifully from the B.’ And he demonstrated by stroking his thumb across the strings.
Laurent sat up and looked at the shape of Enzo’s fingers, then snatched the guitar back. ‘Let me try it.’ He found the chord almost instantly, then slid down to it from the B. ‘Cool,’ he said.
‘It is,’ Enzo said and took the guitar away again.
Laurent reprised his objection. ‘Hey!’
‘You’ve got homework to do.’
‘Aw, Da-ad.’ And Enzo heard his own Scottish drawl in his son’s plea. They always spoke English together, and Laurent had quickly acquired his father’s accent. Like Sophie. But also like Sophie, he was truly French, culturally and linguistically.
‘Come on, Lo-Lo, I’ll give you hand with your maths.’ Dominique swept in from the hall and sat down at the table, placing both hands flat on its surface. She was well practised now at home-schooling. ‘Where’s your bag?’
‘In my room.’
‘Go get it, then.’
‘Aw, Mama, do I have to?’
She canted her head and raised one eyebrow, which was enough to force him out of his chair to slope off to his bedroom, hands pushed deep into his pockets.
Sophie, in coat and scarf, passed him in the doorway and went to the French windows that overlooked the square. She pressed her nose to the glass. ‘Bertrand’s late. I’ll expire from heat if he’s any longer.’ She turned back into the room. ‘So what are you going to do, Papa? Are you going to go and take a look at that burial site?’
Dominique cast an enquiring look in his direction. ‘Are you?’
He slumped into the chair that Laurent had vacated and strummed a chord on the guitar. ‘I don’t really feel like travelling far from Cahors during this bloody pandemic.’
‘You’ll be alright if you wear a mask,’ Sophie said.
‘It’s alright for you, Soph. You’re not in a high-risk age group.’
‘I’ll go with you, then,’ Dominique said. ‘We’ll go in the car. I’ll drive. We don’t have to mix with anyone.’
‘What about Laurent?’ The schools had been closed again after a spike in cases.
‘Bertrand and me can look after him,’ Sophie said. And they all turned at the sound of a whooping noise in the doorway.
A grinning Laurent, satchel hanging from one hand, punched the air with the other. ‘Yesss! Bertrand is ace at Resident Evil.’
Enzo glanced at the discarded PlayStation controller and thought that maybe escape from the house for a few hours might not be such a bad idea after all.
The old lady sits in her favourite rocker. To her listener it seems unyieldingly hard, softened for her fragile frame only by the thinnest of cushions at her back. Her hair, silver grey, has lost neither its lustre nor its abundance, but is pulled back into the severest of buns. The smooth, shiny-thin skin of her face is flushed from the heat of the fire, embers glowing in the blackened hearth of this vast cheminée that so dominates the end wall of the salon.
Her voice, like her frame, is slight, and he finds himself realising that at seventy-five she is really only ten years older than he. Will the next ten years reduce him as it has her?
But still, there is a clarity in her voice, confident and unwavering as she begins the story she has heard many times, and no doubt repeated as often for hushed gatherings of silent confidantes. Thought-through, honed and polished to a professional patina.
He crosses his legs in his comfortable armchair and folds his hands in his lap, mirroring the storyteller, inclining his head very slightly to one side as she relates her tale.
His name was Paul Lange. A man who never took life too seriously. I suppose he would have been in his forties. Forty-two or forty-three, perhaps, and so must have been born just after the turn of the century. I am sure that he had never expected, in his wildest dreams, to find himself in a peasant cottage in the north of France in the early hours of June 25th, 1940, on the day the Armistice took effect. But there he was, listening to Adolf Hitler’s account of negotiations in the Compiègne Wagon. And only there, apparently, because of his friendship with Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer.
A group of them, adoring artists and architects, gathered around the Führer as he expressed his pleasure at reversing the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, forced upon Germany after its defeat in the Great War. Hitler explained how he had taken the very railway carriage in which that treaty had been signed from a museum, and had it placed on the very same stretch of line in the Compiègne Forest, where he then forced the French to accept defeat and sign an armistice that would cut France in two.
Herr Hitler was very pleased with himself.
Lange was impressed. He had fought briefly in the last war, then lived through the years of degradation and spiralling inflation imposed on the German state by the victors. Dark, troubled years, swept aside now by victory over the French in just six short weeks. Honour restored. But it was after one in the morning, and Lange was desperate for a cigarette as were, he was sure, many of the others. No one would smoke in the presence of the Führer, a former smoker himself who had issued strict non-smoking instructions to uniformed police, SA and SS soldiers when seen in public, even when off duty. There was nothing worse, Lange thought, than a reformed smoker. Perhaps he would be able to slip out later for a quiet smoke in the garden.
But not yet. It was almost 1.35 a.m. Hitler ordered the windows thrown open and a rush of warm humid air filled the house. In the distance, above a chorus of frogs and insects, they heard the rumble of thunder. A summer storm somewhere beyond the next valley, lightning crackling in an ominous sky. And then they all heard it. Clear and true, resonating in the night air. The bugle call that heralded the end of the fighting.
Drinks were filled, glasses raised, and some of the party slipped off for that cigarette that Lange so craved. But Hitler caught his arm, dark blue eyes shining with the dew of victory. ‘A moment, please, Paul. I may call you that?’
Lange was astonished that Hitler even knew his given name. ‘Of course, Mein Führer.’
Hitler steered him towards the drinks cabinet and refilled both their glasses. Scotch for Lange, sparkling water for himself. ‘In a couple of days,’ he said, ‘I’m going to take a little tour of Paris. No gloating, no triumphal procession down the Champs Elysées. Just a tiny group of us. A very private tour. You know the city well, I’m told.’
Lange was both surprised and a little disquieted that the German leader had been discussing him with others. ‘Yes, I’ve been many times.’ He glanced up to see Speer watching them, listening intently. ‘No reputable art dealer could call himself a professional if he weren’t familiar with the galleries and sale rooms of the world’s capital of art.’
‘Good, good. So many places to go, so much to see, but so little time. The Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and of course Napoléon’s tomb at Les Invalides. Where would you recommend I begin?’
Lange drew a deep breath. This seemed like an onerous responsibility. ‘I would start with the Opéra, sir. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings to be found anywhere in the world.’
Hitler grinned, and Lange saw why this apparently insignificant little man had inspired such loyalty and following. A charisma finding extraordinary expression in a smile that seemed only for you, eyes that held you unwavering in their gaze. It made you feel special somehow. ‘Good man. That’s exactly the start I would have chosen myself. And, of course, we’ll finish with a visit to the Louvre. It’s been a lifelong ambition to become personally acquainted with the Mona Lisa. Whatever one might think of the Italians, da Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest artists in human history.’
Lange felt a knot of dread anticipation tighten in his stomach and he flicked a quick glance in Speer’s direction. He could see his own foreboding mirrored in the tightness around his friend’s mouth. Clearly no one had told the Führer.
It was three days later, on June 28th, that Hitler’s little entourage landed at the tiny airfield of Le Bourget, north-east of Paris, at 5.30 in the morning. Lange and the others had been provided with field-grey army uniforms to lend this disparate group of artists and architects and sculptors a military air.
Awaiting them on the tarmac were three black sedans, including Hitler’s specially built Mercedes-Benz Tourenwagen with its three rows of seats and fold-down roof. Hitler sat up front beside his driver, SS Officer Erich Kempka, while Lange sat on the jump seats with Speer and a sculptor called Breker. Hitler’s adjutants perched in the back.
Lange gazed in wonder at the bleak, deserted suburbs of this fallen city as the little procession drove through the drab early morning light. Soon, more familiar Parisian landmarks began to grow up around them and Lange found it oddly depressing to think of it having fallen under German control. It was such an irrepressibly French city. German utilitarianism could only take the shine off it, the joy out of its joie de vivre.
Kempka took them straight to the Palais Garnier in the Place de l’Opéra, in the ninth arrondissement, where a colonel of the German Occupation Authority awaited them at the entrance. Lange knew Charles Garnier’s great neo-baroque building well, and took delight in Hitler’s pleasure at the great stairway with its excessive ornamentation, the resplendent foyer, the elegantly gilded parterre. Before they left, Hitler caught Lange’s elbow and whispered, ‘Splendid choice, Paul.’
Afterward, they drove past the Madeleine, down the Champs Elysées and on to the Trocadero, before Hitler ordered a stop at the Eiffel Tower to have photographs taken. At Napoléon’s tomb he stood, head bowed, in solemn contemplation for several minutes. One dictator’s reverence for another.
Finally, they arrived at the Louvre, with its vast Place du Carrousel, and twin galleries linking the original palace with the Tuileries. Lange and Speer had not spoken since that night at the peasant cottage, and they shared now a silent tension as Hitler strode off across the Cour Napoléon demanding to know where he could see the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as the French called her. The colonel from the Occupation Authority struggled to keep up with him, head tilted down to one side, speaking in hushed and rapid tones. Lange and the rest followed behind apprehensively.
Suddenly Hitler stopped, his eyes darkening with fury. ‘Why was I not told?’ he shouted. And he turned towards his little coterie of artists. ‘Who knew?’
‘Knew what, Mein Führer?’ Lange thought Speer’s disingenuousness was horribly transparent.
‘The bloody French have emptied the entire museum. Ten months ago! Shipped every last piece of art off to châteaux in the Loire. In the Free French Zone. La Joconde among them.’
Lange watched the spittle of Hitler’s anger gather at the corners of his mouth. He said, ‘I imagine, sir, that they moved the art out of Paris to protect it from possible bombing. Who could have guessed that we would defeat them in six weeks with barely a fight?’
But Hitler was not to be mollified. His anger seethed in a long, dangerous silence, before he turned and marched back through his band of artists, dividing them like the Red Sea, shadows cast long across the cobbles as the sun rose above the skyline. ‘This tour is over! We will not be back to this accursed city.’ The royal we, it seemed.
And he never did return.
The old lady is silent for a long time, then, before turning to her listener. ‘Could you put a couple of logs on the fire, please? I feel the temperature falling.’
‘Of course.’ Her listener eases himself out of his armchair to take three fresh logs from the basket and throw them on to the embers. Red sparks fly up against the black, tarred stone, and the new logs crackle and spit and issue smoke into the upper reaches of the chimney.
When he sits down again, she watches the logs until the first flames lick up around them, and, satisfied that they have caught, settles back to continue her story.
It was a week later, after their return to Germany, that Lange received an unexpected summons to a meeting with Hitler at the Führer’s mountain residence, the Berghof, in the Obersalzberg of the Bavarian Alps.
He made the journey by rail from Berlin, arriving in the early afternoon at Berchtesgaden, where Hitler’s Tourenwagen was waiting for him. If Erich Kempka remembered him, he gave no sign of it, taking Lange’s overnight bag to place it in the boot before setting off on the relatively short drive up into the pine-clad foothills of the Hoher Göll mountain that straddles the border between Bavaria and the Austrian state of Salzburg.
It was hot, the summer mountain air alive with flying things, and Lange removed his hat and jacket to roll up his shirtsleeves, and enjoy the soft wind in his face. The road was narrow, and Kempka had to employ all his driving skills to manoeuvre the big Tourenwagen around the bends in it as they climbe
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