Frankie's Letter - By Dolores Gordon-Smith


Kiel, Germany, April 1915

Terence Cavanaugh steadied himself against the rain-sheened wall. The pain in his chest, where the bullet had struck home, flared into agony as he tried to move. He had to get to Anthony Brooke. He just had to get to Anthony Brooke.

He scrunched his fist against the wound, steeling himself to walk. For virtually the first time in his life, he felt helpless. He had always been tough, a fifty-year-old fighter of a man. Now his eyes blurred and he felt his way along the wall, sensing the rough, uneven bricks under his fingers. A few steps more . . .

Jagged fingers of pain clutched his heart in an intense, serrated grip and he whimpered out loud, forcing himself to stay upright by willpower alone. He had to get to Brooke. The rain slashed down, a vicious icy squall from the Baltic. The violence of the rain cleared his head and he saw the steps of the house. He grasped the railing and climbed. One, two, three – my God, that third step was a long way – and through the front door.

He leant against the door in the hall, gathering himself for a final effort. Brooke had lodgings here, on the first floor, and he had to climb the stairs. The hall, with its shiny oilcloth and its solid dark furniture, was deathly quiet but, from a room close by, he could hear voices. He looked at the staircase with its polished wooden banister and, calling up the last remnants of his strength, with his fist clenched against the white fire in his chest, staggered across the hall.

Dr Conrad Etriech hurried up the steps, opened the door and stepped into the hall with relief. It was a miserable day. It was April, but the rain, driving in from the sea in ill-tempered gusts, was very far from springlike. It was a relief to be home. Not, he thought, as he put his wet umbrella in the stand, peeled off his gloves, unbuttoned his coat and took off his hat, that this was exactly home.

He was one of four tenants who lived in this tall, thin and quietly respectable house in the Wilhelminenstrasse, together with their tall, thin and quietly respectable landlady, Frau Kappelhoff.

It suited his purposes. The house was in the centre of Kiel, close enough to the docks for the mournful sound of the ships’ sirens to be heard but near enough to be in walking distance of the university where he worked. And he was comfortable, as comfortable as Frau Kappelhoff could make him.

Frau Kappelhoff thought the world of him. She was a widow with two sons in the merchant fleet. She was proud of her sons but the person she loved best in the world was her eleven-year-old daughter, Lottie. Dr Etriech hadn’t been in the house a month when Lottie was taken gravely ill with pneumonia.

It was a tough struggle, but the little girl pulled through. Dr Etriech’s speciality wasn’t respiratory diseases but he saved her. Any doctor, he said, to the tearful Frau Kappelhoff, would have done the same, but from then on, Frau Kappelhoff treated him with awestruck devotion.

Dr Etriech looked up with a smile as the kitchen door opened and Frau Kappelhoff peered out hesitantly. His smile became a puzzled frown. One of the ways Frau Kappelhoff showed her gratitude was to look for his homecoming, help him off with his coat and fuss over his gloves and hat. However, just for once she didn’t rush into exclamations as to how wet it was or offer to dry his things in the kitchen. Instead she greeted him with downright relief.

‘Herr Doktor! I’m so glad you’ve come home.’ She looked scared.

‘What is it?’ he asked, shaking off his wet coat. ‘It’s not Lottie, is it?’

‘No.’ Her face softened. ‘Lottie’s in the kitchen. Herr Doktor, I heard someone go upstairs.’

In a house with four lodgers, this didn’t strike Dr Etriech as odd. ‘It’s probably one of your guests,’ he said, remembering, with instinctive courtesy, that she didn’t like the word lodgers.

She shook her head vigorously. ‘No, it isn’t. Herr Lehmann and Frau Hirsch are in and Herr Klein won’t be back till eight o’clock.’ She twisted her hands together. ‘Herr Doktor, there’s someone in the house, I know there is.’ She twisted her hands together. ‘Their footsteps were heavy and there was a noise as if they were dragging something. It could have been a sack, a heavy sack.’ She glanced anxiously