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As Time Goes By
By Michael Walsh

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 As Time Goes By

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As Time Goes By
By Michael Walsh
ISBN: 0446607452
Genre: Fiction

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Chapter Excerpt from: As Time Goes By , by Michael Walsh

CHAPTER ONE

The Lisbon plane soared away from the dense, swirling fog of Casablanca, up and into the night. Below, the airport was plunged deep into the North African darkness, its only illumination the revolving beacon that perched atop the conning tower. The sirens of the French colonial police cars had faded into the night. Everything was quiet but the wind.

Almost lost in the mist, two men were walking together, away from the airport, away from the city, and into an uncertain future.

"...of a beautiful friendship," said Richard Blaine, tugging on a cigarette as he walked. His hat was pulled down low on his forehead, and his trench coat was cinched tightly against the damp. Rick felt calmer than he had in years. In fact, he tried to remember when he had felt this certain of what he had just done, and what he was about to do.

The shorter man walking beside him nodded. "Well, my friend, Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund are on their way to Lisbon," said Louis Renault. "I might have known you'd mix your newfound patriotism with a little larceny." He fished in his pocket and came up with ten thousand francs.

"That must have been very difficult for you, Ricky," he said. "Miss Lund is an extremely beautiful woman. I don't know that I should have been so gallant, even with money at stake."

"I guess that's the difference between me and you, Louie," Rick replied.

Ilsa Lund! Had it been only two days ago that she had walked back into his life?

It seemed like a year. How could a woman change a man's fate so much so fast? Now his duty was to follow that fate, no matter where it might lead him.

"Anyway, you were gallant enough not to have me arrested, even though I'd just given the letters of transit to the most wanted man in the Third Reich and shot a Gestapo officer. By rights I ought to be in your hoosegow, getting ready to face a firing squad. Why the sudden change of heart? I never let you win that much at roulette."

The little man, smart and well turned out in his black colonial policeman's uniform, trod so softly beside Rick Blaine that even in the stillness his footfalls were inaudible. Over the years, Louis Renault had found it preferable to leave as little a mark on his surroundings as possible.

"I don't know," Renault replied. "Maybe it's because I like you. Maybe it's because I didn't like the late Heinrich Strasser. Maybe it's because you've cheated me out of the favors of two lovely ladies who were in dire need of my services in obtaining exit visas, and I insist on proper retribution. Maybe it's because you won our bet, and I'd like a chance to get my money back."

"And maybe it's because you're cheap," said Rick. "What difference does it make?

You lost, fair and square." He finished his cigarette and sent the glowing butt sparking across the tarmac. He searched the sky, but her plane was long gone. "So did I."

Abruptly, Renault halted and grabbed Rick by the arm. "I was right: you are a rank sentimentalist," he exclaimed. "You're still in love with her, aren't you?"

"Why don't you mind your own business?" retorted Rick.

"This is my business--indeed, my two favorite businesses: money and women," answered Renault. "A less charitable man than I might claim he'd been cheated. You knew all along that you were going to give those letters of transit to Victor Laszlo and his wife. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the lady knew it, too."

"It's hard to know what women know, isn't it?" Rick replied, starting to walk again and picking up the pace. "It's even harder to know how they know it before we do."

Their path was taking them deeper into the darkness. "Where are we going, if you don't mind my asking?" asked Renault. His complicity in the death of Major Strasser was so spontaneous that he had little more than the clothes on his back and the francs in his wallet. He hoped his friend knew what he was doing. "If we really want to go to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville, we'd better think about commandeering a transport flight out before the Germans wake up. It's a long way to the Congo--three thousand miles, at least."

Rick scuffed the ground with his shoe. "Forget Brazzaville. I've got a better use for your money." His eyes stabbed the darkness. There it was! In the distance, he could make out the dimly defined shape of a large automobile parked at the far end of the airfield. Sacha and Sam, right in place and right on time.

Louis nodded appreciatively as Rick's Buick 81C convertible came more clearly into view. He tugged at his kepi and smoothed down his dark uniform. In Renault's opinion, to look anything other than one's best ill suited a Frenchman. Especially a newly Free Frenchman. Especially a really free Frenchman. "You leave nothing to chance, do you? Tell me, did you plan to kill Major Strasser all along, or was that just inspired improvisation?"

"Let's just say I got lucky when he drew first," replied Rick, opening the automobile's back door and climbing in.

"Where did you learn to handle a gun like that, if you don't mind my asking? One might think you had some wartime experience."

"I was in a lot of little wars around New York," said Rick.

"You weren't really going to shoot me back there, were you, Ricky?"

"Not if you didn't make me," replied Rick. "I try not to make a habit of killing my friends. I don't always succeed."

"Everything okay, Mister Rick?" Sam inquired anxiously from the driver's seat.

"Everything's just ducky," said Rick. "Now step on it. We've got to make Port Lyautey before daybreak."

"Right, boss," said Sam, and floored it.

Port Lyautey, north of Rabat, was about two hundred miles away. Founded by the French in 1912 when they established the protectorate, the city on the Sebou River was a major transportation hub, with a seaport at Mehdia, a railroad, and, best of all, an airfield. Come hell or high water, they were going to follow Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund to Lisbon.

Unfortunately, each and every one of those two hundred miles was bad road. Well, that's why God built Buicks and charged so much for them, thought Rick: shipped over from the States and smuggled into Casablanca, his had cost more than $2,000.

Sam Waters hit the accelerator so hard, Rick and Louis were thrust back into the leather rear seats as if they were in an airplane. In the front passenger seat, Sacha Yurchenko laughed and fondled the .38 Smith & Wesson that Rick had given him as a bonus the year before.

"You want I should shoot him, boss?" shouted Sacha, the big Russian bartender at Rick's place. Except for Yvonne, the girlfriend he had inherited from Rick, Sacha didn't much like the French. In truth, Sacha didn't much like anybody, and the feeling was mutual.

"Not yet," said Rick. "Maybe later. Maybe never. It all depends."

"Awww," said Sacha, disappointed.

Renault let out a long breath. Time to exhibit some of that famous French savoir faire.

"A beautiful car is like a beautiful woman, don't you think, Ricky?" he said. "The lines, the curves, the hidden power under the hood." Renault admired American cars, which was a good thing, since the European automakers had long since switched to war production. "So many exit visas, so little time." He gave a little shake of his head in regret.

"Speaking of which," said Rick, "we're going to need a few of those ourselves. Think you can help out?"

"I believe I still carry some authority in these parts," said Renault, reaching into the breast pocket of his uniform. Long ago he had learned that one should never travel without a valid ticket to safety secreted somewhere upon one's person. "Here they are: two exit visas."

"Make it three."

"Three?"

"One for me, one for you, and one for Sam."

"I see," said Renault. He counted them out as if they were legal tender, except more valuable. "All they require is an authorized signature, which fortunately--for the time being, at least--is mine." He scratched his name with a flourish, three times.

From his pocket Rick produced a flask of bourbon, took a tug on it, and offered it to Renault. The little Frenchman savored the liquor appreciatively. Rick didn't offer one to Sam. He knew better. Sam didn't drink with the customers, and Sam didn't drink with Rick. Sam didn't even drink with himself very often.

"Let's hope your John Hancock's good until tomorrow morning," said Rick.

Inside the Buick it was warm and dry. Renault could feel the night's chill starting to disperse. He had never liked Morocco all that much anyway. He wouldn't be sorry to leave it. "Things are becoming clearer to me now. You and Laszlo knew the end of the script before either of you said a line back there." He wished he had something to smoke. "When did you hatch this plan?"

"When you had Laszlo in the holding pen, of course." Rick lit another cigarette and offered the captain one as well. "After you'd arrested him for being at the Underground meeting. I told you that you couldn't hold him very long on that petty charge."

"And you promised that you'd entrap him for me by handing over the letters of transit," interrupted Renault.

"The setup was perfect for you," Rick continued. "When you saw Laszlo and Ilsa walk into my cafi, you must have thought you were in seventh heaven, because they were in the one place in the world where you had the power of life and death over them. I gave you the chance to nab Laszlo and make yourself a hero with Strasser, and you fell for it like a ton of bricks."

"I did indeed," admitted Renault. "There's one thing I don't understand, though. Why did you give the letters of transit to Laszlo and his wife? Why did you change your mind about helping him escape Casablanca for Lisbon and America? You, who always prided yourself on sticking your neck out for no man. Surely there must have been more in it for you than the relatively trifling sum of ten thousand francs."

Rick looked out the window, at nothing. "You might say I liked the potential payday. Or you might say I was tired of looking for the waters in Casablanca and coming up with nothing but sand." He took a deep drag on his Chesterfield and exhaled. "Or you just might say that destiny finally caught up with me."

Her letter was in his breast pocket. Sam had given it to him in the cafi, before he had left for the airport and his fatal encounter with Major Strasser. It had been hidden in Sam's piano, the same place Rick himself had hidden the stolen letters of transit that enabled Laszlo and Ilsa to get away.

My dearest Richard,

If you are reading this letter, it means that I have escaped with Victor.

I thought that after Paris I should never have to part from you this way again. Yet here we are, having to say good-bye twice, once with our lips and once more with our hearts.

You must believe me when I tell you that when we met I thought Victor was dead. We said no questions, and I never questioned the fact that I was free to love you. Some women search all their lives for a man to love. I have found two.

As I write these words, I don't know what will happen tonight at the airport. Like the last time we parted, I cannot be sure that we shall meet again. But unlike the last time, I can hope.

In Lisbon, we shall stay at the Hotel Aviz. After that, only God knows. Please come if you can. If not for my sake, then for Victor's. We both need you.

Ilsa--

The big car sailed through the damp night like an ocean liner on a calm sea, picking up speed despite the poor roadway. Sam piloted the vehicle expertly, the way he played the piano. He sensed rather than saw the turnoffs, reading them the way a blind man read Braille. They were well away from the city now.

"Turn on the radio, will you, Sacha?" asked Rick. He was tired of talking, and before they lost the signal he wanted to hear some music. Maybe something from Benny Goodman and his band. He was also wondering whether the news of Major Strasser's death had been broadcast yet.

"Sure, boss," said Sacha. He shot out one oversize hand and began worrying the radio dial until he managed to find a station. "Blah blah blah is all that's on."

"Then turn the blah blah blah up so we can at least hear it," Rick ordered. After all his time in Casablanca and in Paris, his French was still only passable, and sometimes he had trouble understanding on the telephone or over the radio. If anything important was going on, Louis would tell him soon enough. Or Sam, who learned languages the way he learned the piano, by ear.

Renault was about to say something when something caught his attention. "Quiet!" he shouted in a tone that shocked everybody into silence.

Sacha fiddled with the volume, and an excited voice suddenly filled the car. Even Rick knew what the announcer was saying. He just didn't want to believe it.

In far-off Hawaii, the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

"Boss, we got trouble," Sam said from the front seat.

"I know that," snapped Rick, trying to listen to the radio. He caught Sam's gaze in the rearview mirror.

"I mean we got company," Sam explained calmly, slamming the car into high gear.

Rick twisted in his seat. A pair of yellow headlamps was gaining on them.

The silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of automatic weapons. A bullet pinged off the trunk of the Buick.

"Gimme a clip, Sacha," Rick said.

"Right here, boss," said the Russian, happy at last.

Rick slammed it into his Colt .45. He had always wanted to see if a phaeton with a 141-horsepower engine could outrun a Mercedes-Benz, and now he was about to find out.

Excerpted from As Time Goes By , by Michael Walsh . Copyright (c) 1998 by Michael Walsh . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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