The Chain of Chance (6 page)

How we made it to the surface again I’ll never know. All I can remember is the frantic struggle, the huge bubbles I kept wiping from her face, the awful metallic taste of the water, how I kept swearing under my breath, and how I managed to shove her over the edge of the funnel—a thick, rubberlike embankment. When she was safely on the other side, I hung there for a while before getting out, standing up to my neck in the softly hissing foam and trying to get my breath while the howling continued in the background. I had the illusion that it was raining—a warm, fine sort of rain. I could even feel a few drops falling on me. You’re hallucinating, I thought. Rain? In here? Arching back my head I caught sight of the bridge: aluminum sheets were dangling from it like rags, the floor was riddled like a sieve, and the stairs looked like a honeycomb cast in metal, deliberately perforated to filter the air blast and catch any flying debris.

I heaved myself up over the curved embankment in the gentle downpour and laid the girl face down across my knee. She was not as far gone as I thought, because she was starting to vomit. As I rhythmically massaged her back and sides, I could feel her laboring with all her little bones. She was still choking and gasping, but at least she was breathing normally again. I felt like vomiting, too, so I helped it along with my finger. Though it left me feeling better, I still didn’t have the nerve to get up. For the first time I was able to make out where I was, though the poor visibility was made even worse by the blowout of a section of the fluorescent lighting. The howling overhead was giving way to sounds of groaning and gurgling. People are dying up there, I thought—why isn’t anyone coming to their aid? There was a lot of racket nearby, mostly clanking, as if someone was trying to get the stalled escalator in service again. I could hear people crying out—healthy people, uninjured people. I couldn’t figure out what was happening up there. The entire length of the escalator was jammed with people who had piled on top of one another out of panic. There was no way of reaching the dying without first removing those in a state of shock. Shoes and articles of clothing had become wedged between the steps. There was no access from the side: the bridge had turned out to be a trap.

Meanwhile I looked after myself and the girl. She was obviously conscious now and sitting up. I told her not to worry, that everything would be OK, that we’d be out of there in no time. And sure enough, once my eyes got accustomed to the dark it wasn’t long before I spotted an exit: a hatchway that had inadvertently been left open. If it hadn’t been for someone’s negligence, we might have been stranded there like a couple of trapped mice. The hatchway opened up onto a sewerlike tunnel in which another hatchway, or, rather, a convex shield, also stood ajar. A corridor lined with recessed-light cages led us into a squat, bunkerlike basement full of cables, pipes, and plumbing installations.

“These pipes might lead to the rest rooms.”

I turned to the girl, but she was gone.

“Hey … where are you?” I yelled, at the same time scouting the entire length and width of the basement. I caught sight of her as she was running barefoot from one concrete pillar to another. Backache or no backache, I caught up with her in a couple of leaps, grabbed her by the hand, and said in a stem voice:

“What’s the big idea, honey? You and I have to stick together, or we’ll both get lost.”

She tagged along after me in silence. It was starting to get brighter up ahead: a ramp flanked by white-tiled walls. We came out and found ourselves standing on a higher level. One glance at our surroundings and I knew where we were. A short distance away was the very same ramp I’d pushed my luggage cart down an hour ago. Around the corner was a corridor lined with doors. I took some change from my pocket, dropped a coin in the first door, and grabbed the little girl’s hand on the hunch she was planning to run away again. She still looked to be in a state of shock. Small wonder. I dragged her into the bathroom. She said nothing, and when I saw in the light how she was covered all over with blood I stopped talking, too: I knew now what the warm rain was. I must have looked a sight, too. After stripping both of us down, I dumped all our things into the tub, turned on the faucet, and, dressed only in my underwear, I shoved her under the shower. The hot water had a soothing effect on my backache and ran off our bodies in red streams. I rubbed her small back and sides. Not only to wash off the blood, but also to revive her. She submitted willingly, even passively, while I rinsed her hair as best I could.

When we came out of the shower, I asked her casually what her name was.

“Annabella.”

“English?”

“French.”

“From Paris?”

“No, from Clermont.”

I switched to French, and started fishing our things out of the tub one by one to give them a rinse.

“If you feel up to it,” I suggested, “would you mind rinsing out your dress?” She bent over the tub obediently.

While I was wringing out my pants and shirt, I contemplated our next move. By this time the airport would be shut down and crawling with police. So now what? Go merrily on our way till we got stopped somewhere? The Italian authorities weren’t wise to my little game yet. The only other person in the know was du Bois Fenner, the embassy’s first secretary. My airplane ticket was made out to a different name from the one on the hotel bill, and
it
was somewhere back in the hall along with my jacket. The automatic and the electrodes were still at the Hilton, all packaged and ready to be picked up by Randy that same evening. If they intercepted the package, I’d make a damned nice suspect, which I probably was anyway after making such a slick getaway and after going to such trouble to get rid of the blood. They might even accuse me of being an accomplice. No one was above suspicion, not since some respectable lawyers and a few other big shots had been caught in the act of smuggling bombs out of ideological sympathy, Eventually I’d be cleared of everything, but only after landing behind bars. Nothing like being helpless to get the police all excited. I gave Annabella a thorough inspection. A black eye, wet hair hanging down in strands, dress drying under the hand dryer; a bright kid, I started formulating a plan.

“Listen, honey,” I said, “do you know who I am? An American astronaut, and I’m here incognito on a very important mission. Follow me? I’ve got to be in Paris by today at the latest, but if we stick around well be interrogated and that’ll mean a delay. So I have to phone the embassy right away to get the first secretary to come down. He’s going to help us. The airport’s shut down, but there are other planes besides the normal ones, special planes they use for taking out the embassy mail. That’s the kind we’ll be flying on. You and me. Wouldn’t you like that?”

She just stood there and stared. Not yet recovered, I thought. I started getting dressed. Thanks to the laces I still had my shoes, but Annabella had lost her sandals, though nowadays it was nothing to see girls running around barefoot in the street, and if worst came to worst her slip could pass for a blouse. I helped her straighten the pleats on her dress, now almost dry.

“Now we’re going to play father and daughter,” I said. “That way we won’t have any trouble getting to a telephone. OK?”

She nodded, and off we went, hand in hand, to face the world. We ran into the first barricade the moment we stepped off the ramp. Some reporters armed with cameras were being forced back outside by the
carabinieri;
firemen, their helmets already on, were charging in the other direction. No one took any notice of us. One of the
carabinieri
—the one I happened to be talking to—could even get along in English. I fed him a story about how we’d been swimming, but without listening to a word I said, he told us to take escalator B upstairs to the European section, where all the passengers were being assembled. We started for the escalator, but the moment it blocked us from view I turned down a side corridor, leaving all the commotion behind. We entered a deserted waiting room where passengers came to claim their luggage. A row of telephone booths stood on the other side of some conveyor belts now moving quietly along. I took Annabella with me into one of the booths and dialed Randy’s number. My call jolted him out of his sleep. Standing in a yellow glare, with my hand cupped around the receiver, I told him the whole story. He interrupted me only once, thinking possibly he’d misunderstood me. Then all I could hear was his heavy breathing, followed by a long pause as if he’d suddenly gone numb.

“Still there?” I asked when I was finished.

“Man!” he said. Then a second time: “Man!” Nothing else.

Then I came to the most critical part. He was to get Fenner from the embassy and drive down in the car with him right away. They’d have to make it fast; otherwise we’d be caught between two barricades. The airport would be shut down, but Fenner would find a way to get through. The girl would be right here with me. In the left wing of the building, next to luggage claim counter E10, right by the telephone booths. In case we weren’t there, they could find us together with the other passengers in the European section, or else, for sure, in the custody of the police. I got him to recapitulate, then hung up, hoping the girl would acknowledge our success with a smile, or at least a look of relief, but she remained just as remote and tight-lipped as before. Several times I caught her spying on me, as if she were expecting something. An upholstered bench stood between the booths. We sat down. Through the plate-glass walls in the distance, the airport’s approach ramps could be seen. Ambulance after ambulance kept pulling up in front; the continual racket of sirens and alarms was punctuated by women’s spasmodic cries coming from inside the building. To make conversation I inquired about the girl’s parents, about her trip, about who had brought her out to the airport. Her answers were evasive, monosyllabic; not even her Clermont address could I pry out of her. It was starting to get on my nerves. It was 1:40 by my watch. A half hour had gone by since my talk with Randy on the phone. Some guys dressed in overalls and wheeling what looked like an electric welding machine came trotting through the waiting room, but without so much as a glance in our direction. Again the sound of footsteps. A technician wearing earphones came in and started moving down the row of telephone booths, holding the little round plate attached to the mine detector up close to the doors as he went. He stopped in his tracks the moment he saw us. Two policemen closed in from behind till we were surrounded by all three.

“What are you doing here?”

“We’re waiting.”

I was telling the truth.

One of the
carabinieri
rushed off somewhere and came back a few minutes later accompanied by a tall man in civilian clothes. When I was asked the same question again, I replied that we were waiting for a representative from the American embassy. The plainclothesman asked to see my papers. As I was reaching for my wallet, the technician pointed to the booth adjacent to us. Its glass panels were fogged up on the inside—the steam left by our wet clothes. They were all eyes. The other
carabinieri
touched my pants.

“Wet!”

“Right!” I snapped back. “Sopping wet!”

They pointed their rifles at us.

“Don’t worry,” I whispered to Annabella.

The man in civilian clothes took a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket. Without wasting any time on formalities, he handcuffed me to himself while one of the other policemen looked after Annabella, who kept giving me a funny look. The plain-clothesman had a walkie-talkie strapped over his shoulder; lifting it up close to his mouth, he said something in Italian, but so fast I couldn’t catch a word of it. He seemed pleased with the reply. Then we were escorted through a side exit where three more
carabinieri
joined the procession. The escalator was still out of order. A generous flight of stairs brought us out into the departure area. On the way I caught a glimpse of the patrol cars lined up outside, and had just begun pondering our fate when a black Continental bearing the embassy banner pulled up in front. I can’t remember when the sight of the Stars and Stripes has ever given me such a thrill. The scene that followed could only have happened on stage: just as we were making our way downstairs toward a glass door, du Bois, Randy, and one of the embassy interpreters entered the building. They were a strange sight—Randy in his Levis, the others in their dinner jackets. Randy started when he saw me and leaned over to Fenner, who turned to the interpreter, and it was he who approached us first.

Both groups halted, and a short, picturesque scene followed. The spokesman for the rescue team started up a conversation with the plainclothesman, the one I was chained to. The talking was done in a staccato manner; forgetting he was impeded by the handcuffs, my Italian escort kept yanking my hand up every time he made a gesture. I didn’t understand a thing except “
astronauto americano
” and “
presto, presto!
” When my escort appeared satisfied, he again resorted to the portable radio. Even Fenner was granted the privilege of talking into it. Then the agent spoke a few more words into the set, which responded in a way that made him snap to attention; the situation was becoming more farcical by the moment. The cuffs were taken off, there was an about-face, and, falling into the same formation as before, only now with the roles completely reversed—those arrested were now acting as honorary escort—we headed upstairs to the first floor. On the way we passed a waiting room filled with passengers bivouacked on whatever was at hand, crossed a line of uniforms, filed through two leather-upholstered doors, and finally wound up in a crowded office.

With our arrival an apoplectic-looking giant started chasing people out the door. All but about ten people actually left the room. The hoarse, apoplectic-looking man turned out to be a deputy police chief. Someone offered me an armchair; Annabella was already seated. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight outside, all the lights in the room were on. Cross sections of the Labyrinth on the wall, a model of same on a portable stand next to the desk, glistening wet photos in the process of drying on the desk top. It wasn’t hard to guess what was in the photos. Fenner, who was sitting behind me, gave my arm a slight squeeze: things had gone so well because he’d phoned the police chief directly from the embassy. There were a few people huddled around the desk, some others perched on the window sill, and the deputy police chief paced the floor in silent concentration. A teary-eyed secretary was ushered in from the next room. The interpreter kept shifting his head back and forth between me and the girl, ready to come to our rescue, but somehow my Italian improved significantly. I learned that my jacket, along with Annabella’s purse, had been salvaged by a team of frogmen, thanks to which I was now a chief suspect, because in the meantime they’d already got in touch with the Hilton. I was suspected of being an accomplice of the Japanese. After releasing the grenade, we had planned to make a getaway toward the front, which was why we’d been among the first to board the escalator. But somehow there must have been a mixup in plans: the Japanese was killed in the explosion, while I saved myself by jumping over the bridge. On this point there was a difference of opinion. Some took Annabella to be a terrorist, others claimed I’d taken her as a hostage.

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