by Brian K. Asbury
As his motorcycle pulled up in front of the comfortable suburban house, Ted Grant could not help drawing a mental contrast with the crowded tenement where the house’s owners had grown up in near poverty. That was the great thing about sport, he mused. It gave dead-end kids like himself and like Johnny “Red Hot” Coles a chance in life that they’d never have had anywhere else.
He took off his helmet and secured it and the bike, then strode purposefully up to the house. Before he reached the door, it flew open, and a handsome African-American woman in her mid-fifties rushed out to take him in a warm embrace. “Ted, Ted. It’s good to see you, hon. So good. I knew you’d come.”
Ted extricated himself from her grip, took her by the hands, and stood back to look her over. “Yeah, how could I refuse, Martha? Man, you’re lookin’ good, doll. Just like I remember you.”
Martha Coles punched him playfully. “Lookin’ good, my ass! Look at yourself, Ted Grant. Jeesus, Mary and Joseph, honey, just look at you. You look twenty years younger! Hell, you look younger ‘n me, and I know you’re at least ten years older!”
Ted puffed. “Uh… it’s a long story, Martha. Not somethin’ I really wanna discuss out here in the street, you know what I mean?”
Martha nodded. “Say no more, Teddy. Something t’ do with your… other self, I don’t doubt. You’d better come inside.”
Ted grinned and followed her. The house was as comfortable and welcoming on the inside as it had looked to be on the outside, and there could be little doubt about whose home it was. Martha’s feminine influence was everywhere, but pride of place was given to a massive display cabinet that proudly showed off the many trophies won by her boxer husband during his career. It was a career that had included two bouts with then-heavyweight champ Ted Grant, the second of which had come within a whisker of taking the title. Ted had always said that no one had ever hit him harder in the ring than “Red Hot” Coles.
The trophies, however, were run a close second by dozens of photographs of a smiling young man, whom Ted realized must be their son, Garfield. He whistled softly. The last time he’d seen Gar, he had been only three years old. Now he must be at least nineteen, and a big, strong man like his father. Pictures of him in a quarterback’s uniform suggested that he was putting that physique to good use.
Martha had moved into the kitchen to make coffee. Now she returned with two steaming mugs and handed one to Ted.
“So, what’s the story, Martha?” Ted asked. “Why’d you call me over here? You suggested on the phone it was pretty urgent. And where’s Johnny?”
Martha’s face was suddenly grim. “That’s just it, Ted. I don’t know. You heard ’bout those missing students in Europe?”
“The bus that vanished? Yeah, I heard.” It had been in all the papers, how a busload of students, mainly Americans studying in Vienna, had disappeared without trace on a skiing trip to the Tyrol more than a week before. The Austrian authorities had launched a massive search operation, but so far no trace had been found of the bus, its driver, or the fifty-two missing teenagers.
“Gar was one of the youngsters on that bus, Ted.”
Ted jumped up out of his seat. “Holy–! Oh, jeez, I’m sorry, Martha. I didn’t know.”
“No reason why you should, Ted. But Johnny went out to Austria to try an’ find him. And now he’s disappeared, too.”
Martha looked up at him through tear-streaked eyes. “That’s why I called you, Ted. I don’t know who else to turn to. Will you help me, Ted? I think Johnny discovered something, an’ whatever happened to those kids has happened to him, too. I need your help to find out the truth — your help as Wildcat!”
The last time Ted Grant had been in Austria was the late 1940s, when the country was in a pitiful state and still recovering from the price it had paid for supporting Hitler’s Germany. However, in some respects little had changed. The Tyrol was still a land of soaring mountains, lush green forests, and quaint little picture-postcard villages with chalet-style houses decorated with bright floral murals.
Innsbruck was the capital of the region and the largest city for a good distance around, yet Ted had seen a great many American small towns that were larger. Not so pretty, though, he mused. And even the Rockies failed to compare to the mighty Alps rising majestically toward the clouds on either side of the town.
He turned to Martha as they stepped down off the train. “Y’know, I’m still not sure this was a good idea, you stringin’ along.”
“If you find my husband and son, Ted, I want to be here to meet ’em,” she replied. “Don’t you worry ’bout me, now. I’ll just wait in the hotel ’till you get me some news. Or maybe,” she added with a twinkle, “I just might pass the time by going skiing!”
“Skiing? You gotta be kidding, doll!” laughed Ted.
“Well, maybe not skiing. But I might take a cable car up and watch. It keeps me young, watching young people do their stuff.”
Ted sighed. Martha was trying her best to be cheerful on the outside, but her eyes could not sustain the lie. Inside she was hurting, worried sick for the safety of Johnny and Gar, wherever they were.
“Do you ski, Ted?”
Ted huffed. “Me? C’mon, Martha. When was a rich guy’s sport like skiin’ ever for dead-end kids from the slums like us?”
“It’s been a long time since you were that, Ted.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve done a lotta stuff I’d never’ve dreamed of when I was growin’ up. Guess I’ve been lucky.” And as a matter of fact, he reminded himself, he did know how to ski. Mister Terrific had coached him back in the ’40s. In fact, he’d gotten to be pretty good. Been a long time since he’d last done it, though.
OK, he thought, let’s get to business. Order of the day was to get Martha and himself booked into a hotel. Then pick up the rental car he’d booked and hit the road, trying to retrace the route Gar’s bus had been known to have taken.
And who knows? he thought to himself as he hailed a cab. If I can get this cleared up quick enough, maybe I’ll take the four of us skiing.
The journey so far had taken Ted from Innsbruck to Salzburg, crossing briefly into Germany at one point, and now he was on his way back again, retracing the route that the students’ bus had taken. At one point, the road had passed almost under the shadow of Hitler’s famous Berchtesgaden retreat, a location he might have suspected had some involvement in the students’ disappearance, had he not known that they had travelled a lot farther than that before they had vanished.
So far, the details that Ted had obtained from Interpol through his JSA connections had checked out one-hundred-percent accurate. And now he was entering Bad Waldstein, a small spa town where the bus had stopped for lunch on that fateful day. As he drove along the picturesque high street, he sought out a hotel called the Waldsteinerhof. Finding it, he parked his car and walked into the building.
“Ah, guten morgen, mein herr,” said a dapper little man who approached him.
“D’you speak English?” asked Ted, whose German was a little rusty these days.
“Of course, mein herr. You are Amerikaner, yes? Do you have a reservation? Or perhaps you wish to sample the fine cuisine in our restaurant?”
“I’d just like a coffee. That OK?” asked Ted.
“But of course, mein herr. This way, please.” He showed Ted through to the restaurant, took his coat, and steered him to a table. A waiter approached and took his order. Ted looked around; apart from himself, there were only three other people in the room — an obviously besotted couple and a man in a business suit sitting alone. The waiter returned with Ted’s coffee and a slice of strudel. “Compliments of the house, mein herr.”
“That’s real nice of ya,” said Ted. “But listen, I wonder if you could help me.”
“I’m tryin’ to find out some information ’bout the students who disappeared. Y’know? Whole busload of ’em? They stopped here for lunch, didn’t they?”
“Mein herr, I–”
“Das ist in ordnung, Heinrich,” said the man in the suit, striding up to Ted’s table. He nodded to the waiter, who shrugged and moved away, and then he turned to Ted. “Heinrich does not speak good English, mein herr. Perhaps I can help you. My name is Martin Grunewald, and I own a business in this town. You are perhaps a relative of one of the missing students?”
“Ted Grant. A friend of a relative.”
“It is a bad business, mein herr — a tragic business. I was here in the restaurant when they took lunch here. They seemed so full of life, so cheerful, so looking forward to their trip to Innsbruck.”
“Yeah,” said Ted. “I daresay. But I ain’t writin’ ’em off yet. Listen, you see or hear anything that might’a suggested something was wrong? Anythin’, no matter how small or trivial?”
Grunewald shrugged. “Nothing, Herr Grant.”
“What about the driver? Anything about him seem unusual?”
“Not that I observed, Herr Grant. He sat alone at that table there, eating his own lunch. All seemed normal.”
Ted produced a picture of Johnny Coles. “You seen this guy in here? He’d’ve been askin’ about the bus, too.”
“No, Herr Grant.” Grunewald rose and bowed. “Well, I must go now. I wish you well in your search, mein herr, but I fear you will not find your answers in Bad Waldstein. Farewell.”
Ted was lost in thought as he finished up, paid the waiter, and walked back to the car. Something about Grunewald didn’t quite add up; he’d have sworn there was a flicker of recognition when he showed the guy Johnny’s photo.
He shook his head. It wasn’t enough to justify his hanging around here right now, but if he drew a blank farther along the line, he just might come back and have another word with the guy. If only he were a better detective, though; he was beginning to feel out of his depth in a case like this.
“Oh, Batman,” he muttered to himself, “where are ya now when I need ya, buddy?”
Before starting away from Bad Waldstein, Ted used his JSA communicator to make a couple of calls to the States. He then set off on the road again. An hour and a half later saw him at yet another picturesque little Tyrolean village, Auffingbach. According to the report from Interpol, this was the place where the bus had been last sighted, before it had seemingly vanished into thin air.
He found a parking space near the village church and left the car. Where to begin, though? The bus had not stopped here, but two local people, when questioned, had reported seeing it. He scanned through the report; neither witness had noticed anything strange or unusual about the bus or the people on it. But perhaps other villagers had. There was a small supermarket just down the street; that seemed as good a place as any to start asking questions. He just hoped the locals’ command of English was better than his German.
However, an hour later found Ted almost on the verge of giving up. He had asked at the village shops, the church, the school, the police station, and found that, being a tourist center, most people spoke at least a little English. Unfortunately, he had not managed to find anyone who remembered seeing the bus, and most had already been questioned about it by the police.
I’ve gotta find a new approach to this, he thought. This just isn’t my style. I’m a two-fisted slugger, not a detective. I need somebody I can fight, not people to question.
So far he had avoided the hotels and gasthofs; the bus had not stopped here, and most of the people in those establishments would be tourists who had not been here then. There was a chance the staff might have seen the bus, though.
With a sigh, he headed for the largest hotel, the Auffingbacherhof. If nothing else, he could get a cup of coffee in there. A brief questioning of the staff, though, produced the same shrugs and comments of, “sorry, mein herr, I saw nothing,” which he had found elsewhere. He sat sipping his coffee and wondering what to do next. This was the end of the trail, the last place the bus had been sighted. And according to the map, there was practically nothing between here and Innsbruck — nowhere the bus could have gone.
“Gruss Gott, mein herr. I know you, do I not?”
Ted looked up, startled by the sudden interruption to his thoughts. “Uh… sorry, buddy?” The speaker was a man in his sixties, with thinning white hair and a pugilist’s nose.
“Ja. I do know you. But mein Gott, how kind time has been to you. You are Ted Grant, yes? Ted Grant, the Amerikaner boxer? Former world heavyweight champion? I cannot believe how young you still look, mein freund.”
“Yeah. I’m Ted Grant. But–”
“But you do not recognize me.” The old man sighed. “Alas, mein freund, the years have not been so kind to me. Horst von Thaler.” He held out his hand. “You know me now?”
“Horst von–? Aw, geez!” Ted leaped to his feet and pumped the newcomer’s hand. “The Tyrolean Tiger! We fought in… uh, when would it be?”
“After the War, mein freund — 1949.” Von Thaler released Ted’s hand and sat down. “You gave me quite a beating, you know? My head still rings from some of those punches.”
“Yeah, yeah. You punched pretty hard yourself in those days, buddy.” Ted regained his seat and called over the waiter to order fresh coffee for himself and his old friend. “This is where you live, then?”
“I have lived in Auffingbach all of my life, Ted. But tell me — what brings you to Austria?”
“Now that,” said Ted, “is a long story…”