This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Start writingLexa Horne’s friends often teased about her obsession with Generalmajor Karl Heinz Leutpold Graf von Wittelsbach. She had pictures of the Bavarian general from the First World War all over her home and had written her dissertation on his tactics for her doctorate in military history. Their needling irritated; probably for the reason that she knew they were right. From the first moment she had seen his face in a picture in a text book at fourteen, she had felt an undeniable bond. As if she knew him somehow.
To be sure, he was a very handsome man, in a black and white sort of way. There were no colour pictures of him as he disappeared in the meat grinder known as the Somme in 1916. Of course she had seen the painted portraits of his youth, but they suffered from the artistic idiosyncrasies of their time. Lexa knew he had dark hair and blue eyes, like many Bavarians. A mix of northern German and southern German. He was a distant cousin of the king of Bavaria, and owed so much of his meteoric rise in the military to royal patronage. At the same time, there was no doubt he was a brilliant strategist on his own merit. He had an uncanny ability to prevail in battle despite the many challenges of trench warfare.
Lexa used her fingers to enlarge the picture on her iPad. Oh yes. He was handsome in an overdone sort of a way. The aristocratic uniform. The moustache. Tight clipped hair; a softer look than the Germans he served. No perfect flat-top as was the fashion of the general staff. He always looked straight into the camera and so often it felt like he was looking into her soul. As if he knew her and she knew him. Sometimes those flat, black and white eyes made her blush. She could never understand why.
“Aren’t you quite finished with the good Jerry yet?”
Lexa looked up from her desk at the Imperial War Museum to see her mentor staring down at her. Dr. Charles Forsythe took her obsession in stride. Lexa was positive that somewhere in his desk he had a picture of the first Duke of Wellington which made him feel just the littlest bit girly. In fact, people liked to joke that Forsythe was old enough to have met the Iron Duke in person. Everyone in the acquisitions department of the War Museum had their pets conflicts, and Forsythe was known to hold court on the Napoleonic conflicts for hours. His white, walrus moustache positively vibrated when uniforms were brought in.
She smiled. “Jerry indeed! In your war, the Germans were our allies, and in my war, the enemy.”
“What a difference one hundred years makes!” Rheumy blue eyes gleamed at her through ancient glasses. “But not all Jerries are the same!” Dr. Forsythe was both a relic and legend in his own right. Known for being a bit of a fusty old crank, he was always gentle with her. Then again, he was an old friend of the family and had shepherded her through her education. He absolutely approved of her choice- a female military historian was a rare enough thing- but he seemed disappointed with her choice of specialisation. At the same time, he seemed to take her foibles in stride.
Lexa was a little different. At 34, she had once been a full on, black hair and makeup wearing goth. With the end of university and the advent of real life, she had scaled down her look to a retro, almost turn of the century vibe. She wore Victorian blouses and calf length skirts. Normally she braided her naturally red hair and left it running down her back, but when she was up to the effort, she made elaborate buns on the back of her head. It worked in a Stevie Nicks sort of a way. Maybe that is why Forsythe liked her. She reminded him of the ’80s when he was merely ancient instead of prehistoric.
“All the difference in the world. But to answer your question, the general just guards my iPad. Hold over from university, I suppose,” Lexa answered him with a shrug. Good thing Forsythe couldn’t see the lock screen on her phone. Photo manipulations were so much fun!
He nodded before changing the subject. “I just popped by to tell you all the paperwork has come back for your trip to France tomorrow, and everything has been approved. Dr. Bennett of the dig team seemed pleased that you were the World War One specialist we were sending over. His German isn’t very good, so he was chuffed to have someone who could read any paperwork in situ.” Forsythe put his palms down on her desk and leaned in. “This is a big find, my girl! A whole command trench system? Buried for 98 years? From the first room they entered, it seems to be rather large. They should be finished shoring up the tunnels when you arrive on Friday morning. I envy you! Not much left to find from my war.”
“This is like a dream come true for me. I have been studying up. To actually walk into a German command trench. To see it! Undamaged!” A thought came to her. “How many bodies have they found?”
Forsythe nodded; his moustache fluttering with his breath. “Yes. That. Five in the first room, but they are mostly skeletonized. Some dried skin but nothing too gruesome. That doesn’t bother you, m’girl?”
Lexa wasn’t going to admit that seeing actual remains did put her off a bit. She was a historian, not an archeologist. The remains she saw were in pictures; safe black and white pictures. No more lifelike than her pictures of the general. Safely sanitised for her sanity. How would she feel seeing the skeletons of those poor men? Trapped underground for a hundred years?
“Of course not,” she said with far more confidence than she felt. “But why aren’t we turning the dig over to the Germans? Don’t they want their men back?”
The old man rolled his eyes. “You know the Hun. Always angst over World War Two and it affects their reaction to Great War discoveries. Someone has a big World War One find and they are quite content to let literally anyone else do the work and then rebury the remains with a depressingly little amount of fanfare. We found another trench system a few years ago and they had scant to do with it! That’s why Dr. Bennett asked for our best Great War chap! Especially with this being around the Somme area, you were at the top of the list.”
“Always happy to be the top chap!” Lexa flipped the cover over on her iPad. It had taken a lot of scut work to be accepted into this very male dominated world of military history. To be honest, she was almost blushingly pleased to be called ‘top chap’ by Forsythe.
“Well, Dr. Davenport used to be the top chap for these things, but since he’s in a wheelchair now, our top chap is you.” Forsythe leaned so close she could see the tracery of purple capillaries in his bulbous nose. “So don’t let me down! My moustache is on the line for sending my protégé!”
“I promise I won’t! No dishonour shall occur to your moustache!”
“Very good!” Forsythe winked at her. “Near the Somme, what? They never found your General von Wittelsbach! Maybe he’s down in all that mess! I bet that is what you are dreaming of, aren’t you?”
Lexa laughed at the thought. “Nowhere near his sector! How grim would that be? To find myself nose to nose with his bones?” She drifted for a moment on that thought. No. He was killed around there somewhere, but what would the chances of that be?
A hard glint appeared in Forsythe’s face. “Probably many bad things would happen!” Then his face softened and took on a sly cast. “Oh, I don’t know what might it be like to see the body of one’s inspiration. They say that Julius Caesar sat with Alexander the Great and even Hitler went to see Napoleon.”
“But Alexander and Napoleon were in sarcophagi. This would be his corpse, laid bare and desiccated. I have far too much respect for his remains to want to gawk at them. No matter if he was the enemy, he was a man with friends who loved him. That should be respected,” Lexa told him.
The old man nodded. “Quite agree with you. A fair point, but still! It’s all a grand adventure! I wish I could go, but they don’t let me out of the museum these days.”
“You are too important to lose! I am a minor cog in the machine.” The new girl on the block, as some in the department were very quick to point out.
“I’ve had my share of adventures. It’s true. But never think you are a cog. You are here because you earned it. Just as you have earned this adventure you are about to go on. Don’t put yourself down, Fraulein Doctor, or you will never get my position,” Forsythe said with a broad smile. “And above all things, you want my job.”
Lexa laughed, feeling her eyes crinkling with mirth. “Somehow I have the feeling you will be Director of Acquisitions long after I am in my tomb.”
“Oh, I might get tired one of these days. All old warhorses want the pasture at some time or another. I know you young pups like to talk about just how far the old man is in his dotage.” He leaned over and patted her arm. “Are you all packed for tomorrow?”
“Yes,” she paused and bit her lip before looking up him through her lashes. “I started laying things out the moment that you mentioned it. And I have loaded my iPad up with any files and references I think I might need in the field.”
“You and your technology! So much information in something the size of a pad of paper.” Forsythe frowned at the iPad. “I still think it’s cheating somehow.”
“Gives me something to read on the Eurostar. You know, it’s the first time I have been through the Chunnel. One might call that cheating too.”
Forsythe frowned darkly. Everyone knew that mentioning the Eurostar was enough to set the old man off in a serious rant. “Absolutely. Technological marvel it may be, the only thing that kept Hitler and Boney out of England was our channel. Big mistake. One time in my entire life I’ve vehemently disagreed with the Tories. Can’t undig it now, can we?”
“I suppose in time of war, we could destroy it and have our isolation back,” Lexa shrugged. “But I think it’s a bit moot with current military aviation technology. If Hitler had had Harriers, we would have been toast.”
Forsythe pursed his lips and his cheeks turned pink. “Toast, indeed. Is that the technical term, Dr. Horne?”
“Absolutely, Dr. Forsythe!”
“Somehow, I don’t think I ever read ‘toast’ in Churchill’s The Gathering Storm.”
Lexa nodded solemnly. “He wanted to but his editor scratched it out. Sad foolishness.”
Forsythe looked at her sternly, and then laughed helplessly. “In my day, I would not have spoken to a superior in such a way.”
“I do believe that in your day, Dr. Forsythe, that taking Churchill’s name in vain was a hanging offence.” Lexa knew she wasn’t going too far. Just far enough, but not over the line.
“Drawing and quartering as well as hanging.” The walrus moustache quivered again. “Well, I see you are set, m’girl. You talk to my assistant at the end of the day and all your travel documents will be ready. Do have an excellent trip and take care. Don’t disturb any ghosts!”
She laughed again, but there was something about it which made her nervous. It was a trench filled with dead men. That part was a tad unnerving. “I promise I will leave the dead in France., Uncle Charles.”
“Good girl!” Then he gave her a pained look. “No Uncle Charles at the office. Bad form, wot?” With those words, Forsythe toddled off down the hall. Lexa found herself considering his tweed covered back as he disappeared. He was as much an honorary grandfather as he was a superior. A friend of her grandmother, he had very nearly adopted her when her own home life became tenuous.
Lexa’s father, Rupert Horne, was almost an anachronism for the time he was born. He was the illegitimate child of a prominent married Earl during his time in the army and Joanne Horne, an American nurse during the Korean war. Even though he had disgraced the nurse, the Earl had brought this second family to the UK and set them up substantially with a property and trust fund in London. Otherwise, the Earl was uninvolved once the affair was over.
Her father had a very comfortable childhood, despite the lack of a father figure. He had gone to Oxford and even completed a pupillage as a barrister but his interest in being a lawyer had been tenuous at best. Her father could never get over the circumstances of his bastardy and the fact that he would never inherit the title and the prestige which went with it. As the ‘if it feels good, do it’ 1970’s took over London, he fell right into the scene of women and parties.
Her mother was a Canadian model who went by the name of Allegra in the 1970s. Discovered walking down the street in Toronto at 16, she came to London in 1978 at 17, looking a little Jerry Hall with a river of naturally curly red hair. She was not overly successful, but her hard partying and penchant for debauchery put her right in the path of the 28 year old Rupert. Lexa came promptly in November of 1980.
As far as Lexa was concerned, about the only decent thing her father ever did was marry her mother; perhaps his own bastardy required it. Lexa had seen the pictures of their wedding, her mother hugely pregnant in a fashionable, peasant-style dress with a crown of pale pink flowers on her head. It was probably the last time her mother was even somewhat sober.
Due to wise property investments of her grandmother, one house and a trust fund became a portfolio of fifteen buildings. The couple had enough funds to live a drugged out life on the London D-list in the 1980s. Lexa could remember being looked after by Joanna as a child, but cancer took her grandmother in 1987. A huge loss for Lexa. Her grandmother had been the only stabilising factor in her life. A heroin overdose took her mother in late 1990. It was a loss tempered by the fact they were virtual strangers. Allegra had neither the time nor inclination to involve herself with her daughter. Drugging was all consuming by the end.
The death of Allegra had little effect on Rupert. He continued to party with his set, burning through the family war chest at breakneck speed until a catastrophic stroke felled him in 1998. Not enough to kill him, but enough to render him permanently incapacitated. Lexa had found him half naked and insensate on his desk with two lines of coke smeared into his collapsed cheek. She had thought it was another OD, but a cocaine induced ischemic stroke had brought him low. Partially paralysed, wracked with regular seizures and with the mental capacity of a small child, the prognosis for Rupert to ever recover was nonexistent.
Dr. Forsythe had entered her life in earnest then. Lexa had met him many times with her grandmother, and had had birthday and Christmas cards from him since her death. Like a long lost uncle, he took over the reins of her world. A very old, very rigid, very strict great uncle. But having someone in her life who actually cared, who actually gave a damn if she woke up in the morning was a wonderful change. Of course, she chafed at it at first. She was practically abandoned when her grandmother died, but having some structure had done her a world of good. It was a comfort to be cared for.
After having her father declared mentally unfit to manage his own affairs, her life changed even more. On Lexa’s 19th birthday, she inherited what was left of the family resources with the court ordered guidance of Forsythe. They sold one of the remaining two properties in London to create a trust which would pay for her father’s medical institutionalisation until his death, her university fees and a small investment to help her survive until she could support herself.
Fifteen years later, Rupert was still alive. As an invalid, her father had far more will to cling on to life then he ever had as a compos mentis adult. Lexa hadn’t seen him in eight years and she felt very little guilt about that. The odd moment of sadness of what could have been from time to time but nothing otherwise. At first she had gone diligently, but she never felt much connection to the man who sired her, and to see him now was too painful. She hadn’t been a part of his life before the stroke, and she felt little interest in being part of his life after.
The last property, the original three bedroom house in Camden Town which was bought by the Earl in 1952 was her last asset and home. It was interesting how things could go around and come around in a mere sixty years. Her lack of involvement with her father drew a line under her childhood. She almost felt disconnected with her past as she focussed her life on the past of others. Lexa pulled out her phone and found herself smiling down at the picture on her lock screen. General von Wittelsbach’s life was far more interesting anyway!
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