Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


THE MOTHER

When the cruise ended, we took our guests to the airport in the evening and saw them off, with the usual expressions of delight with the coral sea and with Sinbad on their part, and determination to come back one day. Then I parted from Bob, Ilan, and Ron, who were getting an extended weekend leave because our next group of tourists was not due for another week, and from Nava who was leaving us for good. She had failed to find her sea legs; the work was too hard, the galley too hot, and, I suspected, the romance with Ron had not turned out all she had hoped it would be. Sinbad was thus left without a cook again, but this time I had a full week in which to find one. On my way back from the airport I would stop at the Caravan hotel to collect any letters which might have arrived for me, and would also ask the manager whether he could recommend anyone suitable.

While I was still at the airport, having just parted from Nava, Mustaffa, a young Bedouin boy who worked at the Caravan, walked into the lobby, looked around, and came up to me.

"Good evening, Captain Cobi" he said. "The manager sent me to tell you that there is a German lady at the hotel who would like to see you. Her name is something like Ilka or Elka ... I'm afraid I forgot the second name."

My heart gave a jump.

"Helga Schmidt?"
"I think so; I am not quite sure but it does sound like it."
"A young woman with greenish-blue eyes and long hair?"
"I have not seen her, Captain Cobi; I have been working in the kitchen the whole afternoon and only know what the manager told me to tell you. Your boat was back in port but there was nobody there so he decided you must be taking your guests to the airport and sent me here."
"He was right; thank you, Mustaffa; can I give you a lift back to the hotel?"
"No, thank you, Captain Cobi; it's my evening off."
"Have a nice evening off, then."
"Thank you, Captain Cobi; good night."

I drove to the Caravan fast but carefully and walked into the almost empty lobby. Helga was not there; only an elderly woman in one of the armchairs, and two local Israelis watching football on the TV.

The manager was behind the reception desk.

"Oh, hello, Cobi" he said. "These have arrived for you." He gave me three letters, two of them printed matter and one with a German stamp, probably from an ex-guest or an inquiry about the cruises, which I put in my pocket. "There is also this lady who arrived this afternoon and would like to see you. There she is, over there."

I looked around but there was still no Helga. Instead, at a sign from the manager, the elderly lady got up and came towards us. There was something vaguely familiar about her face although I did not think we have met before.

"Captain Ehrlich?" she asked.
"Yes?"
"My name is Olga Hoffmann; I am the mother of Max Hoffmann who was your guest on a diving cruise two weeks ago."
"Oh, yes; how is he? I see he has talked you into taking a vacation down here as well, and I hope you will enjoy it."
"I ... can we talk somewhere quietly?"
"Perhaps over there by the pool; can I get you a drink or a cup of something?"
"Not just now, thank you."

We sat down at a small round table near the corner of the pool.

"Captain Ehrlich," she said. "Max has not returned home from his vacation."

"I beg your pardon?"

"He has not come back. Everything seems to indicate that he did land in Frankfurt on that direct plane from Eilat but I have not seen anything of him. I have been making inquiries ever since but to no avail. I am getting rather desperate, and have decided to come and see you, who must have been one of the last people to be with him before he left, in case you could shed some light on it."

"I ... let me see. We got back from our cruise and he had a seat booked on the evening plane, but the mother of a German girl on our boat, also from Frankfurt, had to have an urgent operation, and, as there were no other seats available, he very kindly gave up his seat for her and got one for himself on the plane leaving at ten o'clock the next morning."

"Yes, he made a long-distance call that evening and told me about the change in plans. He sounded very cheerful; said he'd had a wonderful vacation and would tell me all about it the next day when he got home. That was the last time I heard from him."
"Were you at the airport to meet him?"
"Yes, I was; the plane landed on time and all the passengers came through the passport control but he wasn't among them. Did you personally see him get on that plane?"
"Yes, I did."
"That's what's so strange. The airline also says he was on it and got off with the others. He was on the passenger list, and both stewardesses remembered him well when I showed them his photograph. You see, I always carry one with me. It seems he chatted and joked with them a little during the flight, so they remembered him and recognized him at once from the picture. One of the officials at the passport control also thought he remembered him passing through, but I ... I did not see him that day, nor since, and there was no sign of life from him. "

She sat there, dejected and tired, holding in her hand an almost postcard-size leather-framed photograph of Max with the blond lock of hair he was later to cut off with his diving knife. She reminded me of the famous post-war photograph, when surviving German prisoners of war were returning from Russia, of a mother standing at the exit of a railway station, holding up a large photograph of her missing son, in uniform, in the hope that one of the returning men might be able to tell her something about his fate.

A slim stooped figure passed slowly along the edge of the pool, with a casual glance at the three or four people swimming in it and at others stretched out in the deckchairs under the bright lights. It was Mr. Goldberg The Nazi Hunter. He nodded to me almost imperceptibly, a conspirator's greeting, and passed on without a glance at Max's mother. He must have assumed that the few women who had served in the SS were not tattooed like the men, and furthermore she was fully dressed. "So you waited at the exit and he did not show up?"

"No. I waited until all the passengers left and then asked at the information desk in case there was a message but there wasn't any, and then I phoned home in case we had somehow missed each other but he was not there either. So I talked to the airline officials and they checked the passenger list and told me Max had definitely been on the plane, and arranged for me to talk to the two stewardesses who were still at the airport and who, it transpired, remembered him well..."
"Lufthansa stewardesses, German girls, both of them?"
"Yes, of course. The next day I made several phone calls, to his friends and even to his office but they haven't heard from him either. Then I went to the police, and they checked the records on their computer but there wasn't anyone answering his description, so they put him on the missing list and said they would get in touch if they heard anything. I've been phoning them every day since then, but there is no news. On the afternoon of the second day a friend of his telephoned wanting to speak to him - I had rushed to the phone with a beating heart, thinking it might at long last be Max or some news of him - but no, it was only this friend wanting to speak to him."
"Was his name Rudi by any chance? I remember Max telling me about a friend called Rudi."
"He didn't leave a name, just said he would call again, but hasn't. I had the impression that he was in a hurry to end the conversation as soon as he'd heard that Max has disappeared. Then a little later a young lady named Maria phoned; said she was on that cruise and wanted to know how Max was, but of course I couldn't tell her. "
"Maria? Did she say anything about her mother who was due for an operation?"
"No; only that Max was very kind to let her have his seat on that evening plane. Captain Ehrlich, can you think of anything that could help to explain his disappearance?"
"I am trying to, but nothing occurs to me, Mrs. Hoffmann. We had dinner in Eilat and then went back to spend the night on board, and in the morning I saw him with my own eyes getting on that plane."
"That fits with what everyone else tells me. But what on earth could have happened to him?"
"I can't think of anything. By the way, has Max any brothers or sisters?"
"No, he ... is my only child. His father died a few years ago."

Was she on the point of saying "was"? A mother's intuition, or the despair of having no one else left to ask? She sat there, staring at the dark sea beyond the swimming pool, and two tears gathered slowly in the corners of her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

"I am sorry," she said with a slight sob, drying her eyes. "I... I just don't know who else to turn to; everyone has been so kind, including you, Captain Ehrlich. I think I shall fly back tomorrow and continue with my inquiries in Frankfurt. Thank you ever so much again; I am sorry to have bothered you."

We exchanged addresses and phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. I said I hoped Max would show up soon, and drop me a line when he did, and perhaps come down for another diving vacation one day. When we shook hands, she tried a feeble smile, and clung to my hand with both of hers for a while.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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