Red Cross Surgical Outpost
December 7, 1941
The jungle’s heart quit beating.
Katarina Stahl froze on the hacked-out jungle path, lantern swinging in her right hand, listening for a sign of danger. Local Filipinos paid close attention to the sudden hush of insect song and feral animal noises. She experienced the same tunnel vision, cold hands, and pounding pulse as when a patient stopped breathing. Her muscles tensed awaiting a cry for help that never came.
“Where is Miss Stahl?” Doctor von Wettin’s muffled shout came from behind her.
Katarina took a deep breath and quickened her pace, hoping to avoid him. Two years ago, she’d left behind home, family, and all her regrets to be a Red Cross nurse in Manila. In paradise, her nightmares slowly became tranquil dreams. Then Jack Gallagher came back into her life. Unwilling to let the past threaten her future again, she traded in her newfound peace for the sweeter agonies of lying in his familiar arms. She hoped he wasn’t a mistake.
“Wait,” Doctor von Wettin yelled, but she ducked inside her tent.
Keeping the lamp dim, she changed into a swishy blue dress and slipped into heels. A metallic glint from underneath her discarded clothing caught her eye. Jack, you dope.
Smiling, she grabbed his gift to wear for good luck. A sharp piece stung her finger and she dropped it. Oh, swell. She stared at the puncture mark; no itching or swelling, just a bead of crimson. Licking the blood off, she turned up the light and then leaned over to examine the primitive necklace using a discarded sax reed.
“Miss Stahl,” von Wettin said in a loud voice from outside the tent, “how dare you plot to kidnap my wife? I will issue charges.”
Minka kept the letter? “Sir, a moment, please?”
Drat that man! Two weeks in the jungle doing medical charity work, and he picked the last night to stir conflict? She took a deep breath and concentrated on the odd necklace.
The leather cord held a rock wrapped in red silk, a shark’s tooth, and three metal medallions in shapes of a circle, a triangle, and a square. Etchings and inscriptions covered the medals. Jack wouldn’t have given her a native amulet that Filipino’s called anting-anting. Anting-anting was similar to the more familiar voodoo gris-gris from her New Orleans childhood. Both required blood to sanctify their magic. Katarina knew such charms were meant for the superstitious, but couldn’t help flinching as chills goosed her neck.
Did someone mean to frighten her? Well, hexed or not, she was going on stage to play jazz in public. Feeling punchy, she put on the anting, grabbed the sax, and confronted von Wettin. “You’re confused, doctor.”
He lifted his lantern while his gaze swept up her body. Flushed, he waved a fistful of letters in the air. “Nein. I have proof.”
“Can this wait? I’m due on stage.”
He smacked the letters against his thigh. “No, cousin, it cannot.”
His careless words chilled her. “We agreed to keep our connection quiet.”
“It no longer amuses me. Did Minka ask you to smuggle her to Honolulu?”
Von Wettin would never be called charming, but imposing would be accurate. Tall and barrel-chested, he wore civilian clothes like a military uniform. His sharp blue eyes behind round glasses lent him a piercing gaze and a commanding presence. Katarina knew his eyes were colorblind to red hues, and to her, the flaw lessened his impact.
Applause from the amateur show interrupted their silence.
Her skin prickled under his glare. “Minka panicked. She expected you to be recalled to Germany. War and raising babies don’t mix. Good thing she had a false alarm.”
“You blame my wife?” Anger stuttered his words, and the letters brushed her cheek.
She stepped back and shoved his arm away. “I tried to help my cousin.”
Minka von Wettin had let slip at a bridge tournament that his stammer preceded violence. Katarina observed clenched fists, gritted teeth, and stormy eyes. He wouldn’t have to strike her to cause harm—no, he could ruin her happiness with whispered words.
“Your hand is icy.” He looked amused. “You fear me?”
The larger envelope with official stamps caught her attention. She squinted at the address. Katarina grabbed the letter out of his hand and stared at the expensive stationery. The words blurred as more chills swept up her spine.
The German Consul in Manila had addressed it to her father in New York. Katarina’s vision blurred as she considered the consequences of such a letter arriving at her parent’s modest home. Her younger brothers’ sweet faces flitted through her mind, and her nervous tension erupted. She kicked von Wettin in the kneecap.
He dropped the lantern and letters before doubling over. Curses followed in German. “Why?” he shouted, glancing up.
She rammed the sax bow into his forehead, snapping his black glasses. He staggered backward against another tent as blood seeped down his buttoned white shirt. Oh, no. Reacting without thought of consequences was a family curse. Katarina gathered the other letters he dropped. “Never interfere with my family! Thanks to you, my friendship with Minka is over.”
She fled to the alfresco stage lights.
Jack Gallagher quit pacing when he saw her and grinned. He wore black pants and a white cotton shirt open to the chest. His dark hair had been slicked back, but a wayward lock fell like a spike between shiny green eyes. Her insides warmed. God, she loved this man.
“Those my love letters . . . what’s wrong, baby?”
She took a deep breath. “I’ll play sax, you sing.”
“Girls can’t play jazz. Not even in N’awlins.”
“I can bust the notes same as you.”
A smile tugged at his lips. “Trouble follows when people break rules.”
“Who makes the rules? I want to do what I love with the man I love.”
The onstage act concluded to applause.
He stepped closer and pressed his lips against her neck. Her breath caught and the spot felt red hot. He examined the anting necklace. “Scared of something?”
She kissed his lopsided chin dimple. “Not with you around.”
“You’re on,” Jack said, and jumped on the stage. Two men joined him, and Jack informed them of the change. They nodded. Excited, she tucked the letters under a chair leg.
Jack turned to face the crowd and raised his arms. “Ladies and gents, give us a moment to warm up. Tonight we’re playing some good ole boogie-woogie from N’awlins.”
The crowd hollered and clapped.
Heart stampeding, Katarina took the stage. She tried to moisten the reed, but her spit had dried. Her first notes sounded flat—nerves. Ignoring catcalls, she looked past the crowd to feel the vibe. Then she was in the tube, notes flowing out like rippled satin.
Jack’s head bobbed as he counted, “One anda two anda three.”
Katarina took lead and blasted out the first song.
Some people cheered, others stared with mouths agape.
Confident now, she began to pour it on, hitting the sweet notes. The drummer and trumpet player followed her lead without missing a beat.
Jack shouted, “Yeah, baby.”
Her squabble with von Wettin faded with every note. She was sick of him. Staff missed meals to avoid his chronic boasts of being descended from royalty. Minka was a fantastic bridge partner, but her friendship wasn’t worth enduring one more day of him. She rued the day Minka uncovered their common relatives in Dresden, Germany.
They concluded the number to wild applause. Jack shouted, “Wasn’t my girl grand?”
Nurses cheered her. Laughing, Katarina blew a kiss to them.
Jack winked and finger snapped the next count. He sang, “You lied to me,” and shot an ardent glance at her—“kitten.”
Katarina saw her friend and fellow Red Cross nurse, Corazon Castillo, burst into laughter. She poured her heart into the music and wondered if women would ever play instruments in bands. After Jack concluded the song, she and the trumpet player bowed.
When she looked up, instead of a dazzling, starry sky, she saw an orange fireball flanked on both sides by smaller flame trails dropping from the heavens. It headed straight for the stage. As people cheered for more, she couldn’t react. The impending disaster petrified her.
Laughing, Jack slipped an arm around her waist and stiffened. “What the hell?”
They both heard the engine cough as it sputtered under the flames. People in the audience glanced aorund, unaware danger hurtled from behind.
Katarina couldn’t tear her eyes away from the fearsome sight. Military planes never flew at night due to the treacherous mountains. What emergency made this pilot dare a night flight and attempt a jungle landing?
“Take cover,” Jack yelled, and pushed her down.
People screamed and crashed into chairs, and someone knocked over the drums.
The engine popped and squealed.
“He mistook camp lights for the airfield,” Jack said into her ear. “Be ready to run.”
As the plane dropped lower, a thumping sound rattled overhead. She glanced up and saw the fuselage swinging left to right. It dropped lower. A whistling sound popped her ears. The plane sailed past them, showering sparks. It crashed in the jungle.
Jack stood and helped Katarina stand. He said, “Pilot pulled up to pass over us. Get the operating room ready.” He leaped off the stage.
“I’ll prep OR, Kat,” a scrub nurse shouted.
Corazon Castillo stomped burning grass, and Katarina ran over to help. Corazon crossed herself. “Poor man.”
“Yes,” Katarina agreed and shuddered.
Corazon’s heritage combined Filipino and Old Spanish, which gave her an expressive face, doe eyes, and the quick, fluid elegance of a dancer. As she moved, she diffused jasmine scent in her wake. She gripped Katarina’s arm. “Is it war with Japan?”
After military dependents had been evacuated, people became jumpy. “No, they’re in the middle of peace talks with us.” They walked back to the stage, and Katarina hid von Wettin’s letters in the saxophone’s bell.
Corazon touched the anting-anting. “Someone knows you believe in magic.”
She grew up around Aunt Hilda, a woman prone to superstitions. “That’s absurd.”
“You slept with Jack’s picture under your pillow to pull him to Manila, yes?”
Heat flamed her face. “That’s not magic; it’s having your prayers answered.”
Corazon’s laugh sounded mischievous. “I’ve put Roberto’s picture under mine.”
Katarina grinned. “It took two years to get Jack here. Better alert Irineo. Von Wettin knows he offered to smuggle Minka to Hawaii.”
“I warned you.”
“I know. I’m going to change.” She retrieved the sax and went to her tent.
The medical teams gathered in the mess tent. For two weeks, they had endured jungle hardships to bring medical care to rural people. One patient remained, a diabetic girl. Jack intended to fly her to FortStotsenbergMilitaryHospital in the morning.
The staff snacked on peanuts and sipped cold San Miguel beer instead of having their scheduled party. Men played darts and nurses huddled in groups and gossiped.
Their boss, Doctor Gerard Bienville, came to the tent an hour later. “Pilot’s dead,” he announced. “Fire burned out fast, but we’ve asked locals to watch for flare-ups. Go get some sleep, so we can leave on schedule.”
The night nurse shook Katarina awake. “Jack needs you in Recovery. Trouble’s brewing.”
She dressed and put on the anting necklace. Katarina hoped by wearing it the giver would come forward. Grabbing a flashlight, she kept an eye out for snakes on the path. She noticed the heartbeat of the jungle had restarted. The insect noise was deafening. A man staggered out of the recovery tent and tripped over a palmetto mat. He sprawled on the ground, groaning.
Stunned, she stopped and trained the light on him. Von Wettin looked up, face bloody and bruised, with both eyes almost swollen shut. “Help me.”
He sounded as arrogant as ever despite hands twisted and tied behind his back with surgical gauze. Jack and the other volunteer doctors followed him outside. Bienville leaned over to pick him up and shoved von Wettin forward.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
Jack looked dehydrated and weary. Dark hair plastered his scalp and sweat rings saturated his white shirt. Scarlet blotches covered his neck, marking his ire. “The plane was Japanese.”
Her skin chilled as she followed the men into the mess tent. “Are you sure?”
“Positive.” He showed her a scorched leather satchel. “We removed classified documents before they burned. They’re for the German Consul.”
She stared at the satchel and then at von Wettin. “You blame Doctor von Wettin?”
“When I realized the plane was a Zero, I ran back to the communications tent to warn the Air Force,” Doctor Bienville explained. “I heard von Wettin relaying our coordinates in German on the shortwave. We think he planned to meet the plane at the airfield after the show.”
Jack added. “Plus, he’s German and he didn’t deny it. Why does he want you for his witness?”
Katarina stared at Jack’s abraded knuckles. “His wife and I are friends. Are you saying he’s a spy?”
“He accepted our invitation to join us here at the last minute,” Bienville reminded her. “The peace talks may have failed.”
His words made her feel faint. “Have you confirmed it?” she asked.
Jack shook his head. “When Gerard confronted him, he destroyed the radio.”
Von Wettin spat blood on the floor and said, “I knocked it over defending myself. I was trying to contact Minka to check on her mother’s health.”
Doctor Bienville kicked him in the side. “Liar!”
“You gave him permission to keep in touch with his family by radio,” Katarina whispered.
Bienville flushed but nodded. “My mistake.”
“C’mon Kat, do you really think he contacted his wife every night?”
“Being German makes him a spy?” Katarina asked Jack.
“Fifth columnists pave the way for war,” Bienville explained. “In France, they hid in secret waiting to aid German invaders. My countrymen learned that lesson too late.”
“America isn’t at war,” Katarina pointed out.
“My gut tells me he’s lying, baby. Why are you defending him?”
Jack’s voice combined the mellow blend of southern aristocracy with the rougher tones of Bourbon Street. Now, it sounded tense and void of beloved accent. “I’m not,” she said, holding out her hand. “His wife asked me to look out for him because no one likes him.”
“You feel responsible?” Jack clenched his fists. “He said your parents are German born. He’s called you a liar and claimed two of your uncles are Nazi officers.”
Heat scorched her cheeks. “Would it matter? New Orleans is my birthplace too.”
Jack nodded. “Truth matters.”
“My family emigrated from Switzerland.”
Von Wettin raised his head and coughed.
She glared at him. Her parents had concealed the truth for so long a lie took its place. She wasn’t about to let von Wettin ruin everything. But why did she feel so slimy?
The insect noise fell silent and overhead a high-pitched rumble began. Lanterns vibrated on hooks and salt shakers fell over.
“Air Force scrambled a full squadron?” someone guessed.
“Planes flying at night means war,” Bienville said.
An empty bowl rattled on the table and they all ran out to look at the night sky.
Jack shouted to Bienville, “I’ll fly him to Clark Air Field in the morning. Let the military question him and translate the documents. Agreed?”
“I’m innocent,” von Wettin shouted. “Who are the Nazis now?”