Krüger removed his monocle and polished it on a silk
handkerchief from his breast pocket. He returned the handkerchief and fitted
the monocle back over his eye.
“We have it on good authority that you came to Stuttgart close on the heels of one Axel Küstermeier, is that not so?”
“You tell me,” said Alec. He noted that there had been no mention of Sarah. Perhaps they didn’t realize she had accompanied him, he thought. That would be good.
“We have no time for playing games.” Rikka drew on her cigarette and blew smoke in Alec’s direction. “You are here because Lord Sunbury ordered you here. You are to watch Küstermeier and report back. Am I right?”
“You obviously know everything so why do you even need me here?” Alec got up as though to leave.
“Sit down!” snapped Krüger. “You are going nowhere. The door is locked.”
“You are protecting Küstermeier,” said Alec. “I can see that. That is why you want me here . . . to allow your friend to act without my observation.”
“Ha!” Krüger spat out the expletive.
“We are no friends of Herr Küstermeier,” said Rikka.
From the tone of her voice, Alec believed her.
“He and his sort are not on our level,” she continued.
“Genug!” snapped Krüger. “Enough!” He swung away abruptly, and bumped into the packing case bearing the oil lamp. The lamp swayed for a moment and then fell. It shattered on the floor, sending burning oil in all directions and setting fire to the loose straw and paper.
Rikka rushed forward, as though to catch the lamp as it fell. At the same time Krüger tried to save it. They bumped into one another and Rikka slipped and fell. Her dress immediately caught fire and burst into flames. She beat at it with her bare hands.
Alec leapt up from the chair and ran to the window, tearing down the drapes. He turned and tried to beat at the flames that were quickly engulfing the blonde woman. It flashed through his mind that she was not uttering a sound. Most people – women and men – would be screaming in that situation, he thought.
Krüger grabbed the curtain from Alec and tried to help, but the lower end of it caught fire and he dropped it. Rikka tried to regain her feet but slipped on the burning oil and fell again. Now she screamed. The fire spread quickly across the room.
Alec picked up the chair he had been sitting on and
ran at the French windows. The legs smashed through some of the panes but the
doors themselves did not open. He was aware now of Rikka’s increased screaming
and smashed repeatedly at the multi-paned doors. Glancing back over his
shoulder, Alec saw Krüger on the far side of the room, having grabbed up
Rikka’s reticule, searching feverishly for the key to the room doors. Alec
turned back and slammed the chair into the framework, which finally
disintegrated. As he fell through the doors, carried by his own impetus, the
air rushed into the room and the fire inside exploded like a bomb. He heard
Rikka’s scream and then it was cut short. All was silent but for the fierce
roaring of what had now become a major fire. All he could do was back away from
the heat. He fell to his knees. He was shaking.