Erich Seyss was growing annoyed with the portly American sergeant.
"As you can see, I am from Heidelberg. I am only asking for what every discharged soldier has been promised: a one way ticket home. If you please, just have a look-"
The sergeant waved away the document giving Seyss's identity as one Erwin Hasselbach. "This is the last time I tell you, Fritz. Your de-Nazification papers aren't enough anymore. Too many of you boys are giving fake papers and using the trains like they were your own taxicabs. New system as of today. You need an actual ticket, and to get one of those you'll have to go back to the Center for Discharged Soldiers. Show them your papers and they'll issue you one pronto. You can be on this train tomorrow.Verstehen-sie?"
Seyss had too much experience traveling in areas newly liberated by German forces to be entirely surprised. The situation was dynamic, tacticians would say, though "chaotic" was the more appropriate term. Either way, he had been taught to deal with this kind of thing. In battle and its aftermath, change – rapid change – was the only constant.
He certainly couldn't blame Egon Bach for the development. He'd just have to find another way to board the train.
Seyss smiled obligingly as his mind worked the situation. The last thing he would do was present himself at a discharge center, especially now that Major Judge and his colleagues knew he was in Munich. Besides, not all soldiers received a train ticket home. Many were herded into outdoor holding pens to await transport by truck convoy. The wait often ran to days. Worse, if there was a problem with falsepersilscheins, as the American sergeant had mentioned, there were sure to be a host of intelligence officers checking those corralled at the discharge centers for false papers.
"Come on, Sarge," said Seyss, his smile stretched to the breaking point. "Let's be civil. Send me back to the center and I'll never make it to my sister's wedding tomorrow."
An anonymous hand shoved him in the back.
"_Beeilen-sie sich_," growled a man in a torn mackintosh, teeth black as coal. "Hurry up. We all have our tickets. Do as the sergeant says. Get out of the way."
Seyss glanced over his shoulder. A restless line of men, women and children snaked across the tracks and disappeared into the shadows of a warehouse. They were a slovenly lot: gaunt, ill-shaven, all of them looking as if they were dressed in someone else's clothing. Like him, they'd been waiting hours in the morning sun for the right to board the daily train to Heidelberg. With the Munichhauptbahnhof little more than a mangled husk, the Americans had shifted civilian traffic to the freight railway station. The place was not well suited to the task. There were no elevated platforms from which to board the trains, no public water closets, and certainly nobahnhof buffets where one could enjoy a beer while whiling away the minutes. Hundreds of people swarmed over the tracks, their anxious steps raising a curtain of dust and grit. Like stones in a rushing stream, American soldiers stood among them, directing the forlorn travelers this way and that. What a mess!
The sergeant cleared his throat and when Seyss returned his gaze, he saw that two soldiers had come up on either side of him. The sergeant tilted his head and shrugged. One hand fluttered, a closing of the fingers that would normally signal "come here".
Seyss looked from the beckoning hand to the weathered face and suddenly, he realized he'd been stupid hoping to persuade the bluff American. He'd scarcely have had better luck boarding the train with a valid ticket. With a single practiced motion, he unclasped Dr Hansen's watch and placed it in the sergeant's palm. "It's Swiss. Universal de Genève. Good for a round trip, I should think."
But the sergeant found no humor in the comment. Grunting, he thrust a thumb over his shoulder. "Private Rosen. Show Herr Fritz to his compartment."
Directly ahead, two trains sat side by side. The train on the left was reserved for Allied soldiers. Officers, first class. Enlisted, second class. Few men appeared to be boarding and as he passed, Seyss saw that the compartments were deserted. Rosen nudged his shoulder, indicating he should advance toward the other train. The train for Germans.
Seyss threaded his way through the crowd boarding the endless string of cars. Twenty or thirty people waited at each entry. Most cars were already full. Compartments meant for six persons held twelve, not counting the children peering down from the luggage racks. Corridors running the length of each car were packed as tightly as sardine cans. Seyss hurried his pace. He'd be damned if he had gotten this far only to find the train full.
Killing Colonel Janks had, indeed, provoked a serious response. The occupational police hadn't stopped at sending Major Judge and his partner to Lindenstrasse 21. Signs of heightened security were everywhere. Checkpoints had been established at the Ludwigsbrucke and along the Maximillianstrasse. Teams of military police patrolled the streets, demanding the identity papers of men who matched his description- mostly those under forty with blond hair. Two MPs had boarded a tram Seyss was riding. He'd looked each squarely in the eye as they'd passed down the aisle but neither gave him a second look. Black hair was an excellent diversionary measure, but it did little to change a man's physiognomy – his hair, his nose, his mouth. Emboldened, he'd offered his papers, but the policemen waved them away. A few more days and the uproar would die down. After that it wouldn't matter. Where he was going, the Americans couldn't follow.
Seyss finally spotted a passenger car with a few open places. He rushed toward it, only to be stopped by Private Rosen. "Keep moving," Rosen said. "You didn't think you're riding with the paying customers?"
Seyss had never seen so many jerry cans. The entire freight car was full of them. Twelve high, twenty across, at least fifty rows deep. He didn't bother calculating. Thousands, at least.
"Go on, then," said Rosen. "Up you go."
A ladder had been laid against the wall of metal containers. A man hunched in the space between the green cans and the roof of the car, holding steady the ladder. "_Komm jetzt_," he called down.
Seyss hesitated to join him. He'd had enough of tight spaces for a while and once the door was shut, he'd have no way out until it was opened in Heidelberg. To back out now, however, would appear suspicious. He'd traded a Swiss watch for this trip; a valuable commodity these days. The sergeant had outsmarted him. Seyss climbed a rung and ran a hand along the inside of the wooden door. An iron latch protruded from the rear of the locking mechanism. He leaned his weight on it and it gave way. Good. The door could be unlocked from within. It might take a while to clear a path through the jerry cans, but at least he wouldn't be left to starve on some forgotten sliding.
He continued up the ladder, accepting a helping hand to pull him into the car.
"Welcome aboard the petrol express," said a heavy-set man of thirty, give or take five years. The privations of war made it impossible to tell another's age with any accuracy. "Name's Lenz." He had cropped brown hair and a walrus mustache. A rumbling baritone matched the stern countenance. His accent placed him as a Berliner.
Seyss introduced himself as Erwin Hasselbach, and threw in a Wehrmacht unit and the name of a dead Heer colonel who'd commanded it. "I suppose we should count ourselves lucky we're not on the manure express," he said.
It was a long-standing tradition to award every route its own name, usually something to do with its cargo. The run from Berlin to Hamburg was known as "the silk stocking" express; Kiel to Cologne, "the cod express"; Munich to Ruhr, "the potato express". The fumes wafting from the mountain of empty five-gallon gasoline cans left no question as to how this particular train had earned its name.
"Ah, the manure express," said Lenz. "I know it well. That one steered a southerly course from Berlin to Berchtesgaden. But it wasn't manure they transported. It was bullshit."
Seyss wasn't sure if Lenz was baiting him or not, so he kept quiet. Too many of their countrymen were quick to declare themselves betrayed by their Fuhrer.We never wanted war, they said.Who dared speak against Hitler? Yet, the same men and women had presented themselves in droves to cheer the invasion of Poland and France and Russia. Hitler had coined an expression for such good weather supporters: March violets.
Seyss raised his head enough to find he could not bring himself to a sitting position. The space on top of the cans was tighter than he'd feared. He closed his eyes for a moment, ordering himself to be strong. Then leaning on an elbow, he made himself as comfortable as possible and tried to restrict his breathing. The trip to Heidelberg would take eight or nine hours, depending on the condition of the tracks. It was not going to be easy. His only consolation was that he'd arrive by midnight, twelve hours ahead of schedule.
A few minutes later, Rosen returned and took away the ladder. "_Bon voyage_," he called, then slammed the door closed.
The train lumbered out of the station, creaking and moaning with every rotation of the locomotive's wheels. A cool breeze cleansed the car of the noxious fumes and Seyss pressed his face against the wooden slats, grateful for some fresh air. He was glad to be moving. The familiar pitch and roll of train travel eased his discomfort, both real and imagined.
"So, you're from Heidelberg?" he asked Lenz, when his light-headedness had faded.
Lenz crawled across the unsteady metal carpet. "Yes. And you?"
Seyss shared his deceit. "Born and raised."
Lenz broke out laughing. "You're a fucking liar, you Swabian bootlicker."
"Say that to all the boys you pick up on the Ku'damm?"
Lenz laughed louder, but all the while Seyss could feel his eyes sizing him up. No doubt he was wondering what this other fool had done to find himself stuck on top of a few thousand stinking cans of gas. Lenz clambered toward him and Seyss could see his eyes. They were dark and pouchy, dragged down by doleful black circles.
"_Sind-sie Kamerade_?" Lenz asked with a grunt.
Seyss obeyed his gut instinct. "First SS Panzer Division."
"Ah, one of Sepp Dietrich's boys. I served in the Leibstandarte under him before I transferred toDas Reich. Unterscharffuhrer Hans-Christian Lenz at your service."
Seyss extended his arm to shake Lenz's hand. He wanted to say that he'd also served in the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, but he'd revealed too much as it was. He certainly could not tell Lenz his real name. "Why Heidelberg?"
"Darmstadt, actually. My brother has set up a little business for himself. He asked me if I might come and join him for a while. I said 'why not?'"
"A business of his own? Is that right?" Seyss could smell larceny a mile away and Lenz's flashing eyes did little to rob him of the notion. Still, he played along as his part demanded. "A baker, is he? We had a baker named Lenz in our company. Matter of fact he came from Berlin, too."
"Sorry, old man. My brother was in the Kriegsmarine. A submariner, if you can believe it. And still alive."
"He's a lucky one."
"And enterprising. Freddy keeps his fingers in a number of pies. A little of this, a little of that. It's not a bad time for a man who keeps his eyes open."
"Ah." Seyss thought Lenz a little too proud of his brother's role as a black marketeer. He'd never approved of the middlemen who made a living, and sometimes a fortune, trading on the miseries of others. As a rule, they were no different from carrion fowl, feeding off the bones of the sick and dying. Still, Lenz seemed a decent enough sort. Maybe his brother was the exception.
"And you?" asked Lenz. "What takes you to Heidelberg? Friends? Family?"
"Friends," said Seyss. When he didn't elaborate, Lenz gave an unpleasant guffaw. "A woman, then?"
"No." Seyss looked away, despising the man's assumption of familiarity. It had been foolish to engage a complete stranger in conversation. Just because Lenz had served in the same branch did not mean they had something in common. Hundreds of thousands had worn the uniform of the SS. Those that he had counted as friends were long dead. From now on, he really must learn to keep his mouth shut.
Lenz asked what was wrong, but Seyss did not reply. After a while, the Berliner scooted to the far side of the car and was quiet.
The train rolled west, passing through Augsburg, then Ulm. The cities appeared relatively undamaged. The spire of the cathedral in Friedrich Square rose majestically in the afternoon sky. Twice, the train stopped for an hour as cars behind him were shunted to a siding and others added in their place. The wait was interminable. The dizzying fumes and increasing temperature combined to make his cozy little spot a fulsome hell. Seyss fidgeted constantly, one eye for the roof lest it decide to collapse, the other on the sky, the dirt, any passing object that assured him that the outside world was only a few inches away. He needed all his willpower to keep from carving a path through the cans to the door and leaping from the car. And each time, just when he thought he could stand it no longer, the engineer sounded his whistle, the car lurched forward, and slowly, mercifully, they were on their way.
Stuttgart was a wasteland, a pile of rubble ten kilometers long. Chimneys of brick and mortar still stood, but the homes they had warmed were gone. Factories were a total loss. Stuttgart was the ball-bearing capital of Germany, and as such a principal target of Allied bombing missions throughout the war. How many raids had it taken to flatten the city? Twenty? Fifty? And how many bombers? Ten thousand? As if in a dream, he saw them passing overhead. Swarms of dull green insects floating across the sky, their shadows combining into a gray cape that carpeted the entire countryside. And the drone. God, he'd almost forgotten the drone. A low-pitched buzz that reverberated in your bones and set a stream of acid pissing in your gut. Louder and louder, until your entire body shook and you could scream, "Stop, you sons of bitches. Kill me, but there are women and children down here, too," and the man standing a foot away from you would put a hand to his ear and shout back, "What?" They dropped the HEs first – high explosive to concuss the walls, bring the buildings down on themselves; then the incendiaries – fire bombs to melt the glass and steel and ruined machinery into one giant gob of unsalvageable nothing.
"Let them come," he whispered in a melancholy voice. "If this is all that is left, the Reds can have it."
The sun was setting as they passed through Karlsruhe an hour later. Heidelberg lay eighty kilometers due north. Another two hours aboard the "petrol express". The air had cooled considerably. A thick cushion of cloud hovered low on the horizon. Far away, lightning flickered, but Seyss couldn't hear the thunder. He lay his head on an arm and closed his eyes.
A sudden thud awakened him. The car was completely dark. He could barely make out his companion's shadow at the far side of the car. "Lenz," he yelled. "What was that?"
"A new engine?"
"Too close. It came from the wagon in front of us." Seyss hustled toward the sound, picking his way over the jerry cans as nimbly as a cat. Men's voices carried from somewhere down the track. He peered from the car, searching for a clue to his anxiety. Something felt wrong. For a soldier, that was enough.
The train shuddered, then began rolling forward. He tapped his feet in rhythm to the pulse of the engine. Faster, faster. He slid to his left and stared from the slats. Stars shown from the ground. He squinted his eyes and saw that he was looking at the night sky's reflection in a body of water. They were headed toward a broad river.
"It's the Rhine," he said, as if announcing its discovery.
"We don't want to get off on the other side," said Lenz, who was staring at the river from the opposite end of the car. "The French control the Saar. That must be Ludwigshafen, we're looking at."
"The French aren't as forgiving as Uncle Sam or John Bull. Yourpersilschein means nothing to them. Haven't you heard? They're sending our men to labor camps in Biarritz and Avignon. I'm all for a holiday, but that's not exactly my style."
Seyss recalled Robert Weber telling him about the French government's policy of using captured German soldiers to man their factories and mine their ore. At the same moment, he remembered Rosen's words as he closed the wagon door.Bon voyage. And suddenly, it clicked. The Americans had put them into a car bound for the French zone. Two less mouths for the occupational army to feed. Who knew how many more men were in the cars behind them? As if to confirm his thoughts, the train veered left and he heard the hollow thump of the forward cars crossing onto the bridge.
"We're crossing the fucking Rhine!" shouted Lenz.
Seyss scuttled toward the door and began hoisting empty jerry cans and throwing them over his shoulder. Lenz joined him. When a small square had been cleared, Seyss jumped into the opening and began handing the cans up to his companion. He looked outside. The train was gathering speed, but their car had not yet come to the bridge. He lifted a can, then another. He jumped down a level. Empty gasoline cans fell onto his shoulders. The fumes were overpowering. The car jostled violently under him. They were on the bridge. Another few cans and he found the latch to the door. Wrapping his palms around the iron arm, he shoved it downward with all his strength. The lock disengaged and the door slid open. He swung from the car and looked ahead of him. Twenty yards further on a platoon of soldiers waited, strung out along the wooden ramparts leading to the far side of the bridge. The silhouette of their helmets identified them as French. Les Poilus. Thirty feet below flowed the Rhine. He smiled despite himself. The sergeant in Munich palming his watch. Private Rosen wishing him 'Bon voyage'. Brilliant! The men would have made the SS proud.
He looked up at Lenz, than back at the Frenchmen. Dammit. There was really no decision to be made. "Lenz, get your ass down here."
The stout man dangled over the edge of the shifting ledge. This was no time for hesitation. Seyss grabbed his feet and gave them a tremendous yank. Lenz tumbled down, all two hundred pounds of him and a dozen jerry cans, to boot. Seyss linked arms with him. "Ready?"
Seyss leapt from the train before Lenz could answer. The two men landed in a heap and rolled onto their backs. Fifteen feet away, a soldier raised his weapon. "Arretez!"
Seyss picked up Lenz and shoved him across the ramparts. Jump!"
A shot was fired, then another. Lenz took a step forward and disappeared from view. Seyss followed a half second later. The water was cold; the current faster than he expected. He glanced up and saw a dozen rifles pointed at him. Then he was in darkness, safe under the bridge.
"Are you hit?"
"By a lousy frog? Never."
"Kick against the current. We must remain under the bridge."
"My brother was the sailor. Me, I'm infantry all the way." The gargling of water replaced his voice, then "Shit. I can't keep this up."
Seyss swam toward the gravelly voice. A jagged piece of debris slammed into his cheek and he found himself sucking down a mouthful of water. Lenz was flailing now, arms slapping the water, head bobbing up and down, his motions growing more spasmodic, more hysterical. Seyss ducked under the water, surfacing behind the larger man. He positioned an arm around his shoulder, but Lenz knocked it off, spinning in the water, throwing both arms around Seyss as if hoping to climb up and over him. Christ, thought Seyss, it was like holding up a boulder. Frantic hands groped his shoulders, his shirt. He kicked violently, working to free Lenz, to turn him around so that he might drag him to a bridge support.
Suddenly, Lenz went under and a moment later, Seyss did too, dragged down by desperate fingers clawing at his waist and the frayed web belt that held his gold. Finally, he pried the fingers free, managing to wrap his forearm around Lenz's neck. Two firm kicks brought the men to the surface.
"Ruhe!" shouted Seyss through gasps for breath. Calm down! He laid an arm around Lenz's neck and began kicking towards the nearest pylon. Floodlights erupted from the western shore. Pale beams swept the water but did not penetrate beneath the bridge. He swam harder. After another minute, he pulled Lenz onto a rough concrete abutment, then joined him. Above them, footsteps pounded back and forth along the ramparts built to support the bridge. Voices called in French and English, but he could not make out what they said.
Seyss lay still, gathering his breath. One hand checked his breast pocket for the Russian Colonel Truchin's identification. Good. Still there. The other fell to his trousers and the web belt that no longer circled his waist. He was standing in a snap, eyes combing the abutment, running over the flowing green water. It was hopeless. The gold was gone. And to his horror, so was his wallet, and with it two thousand dollars. He was penniless.
A new round of cries forced him to postpone his mourning. His first priority was to get to safety. They had one option and one option only. They must drift north a mile or two under cover of darkness, then swim to shore. It was doubtful the Americans would search for a couple of Krauts trying to keep themselves out of French hands. He explained his idea to Lenz, who grunted his approval. One thing was certain: the man could not stay afloat long by himself. He would need assistance.
Seyss swam into the river and trod water until he could find a piece of debris large enough to support Sergeant Hans-Christian Lenz. Part of him wanted to abandon the man right here. Lenz could drown for all he cared. He'd already brought enough bad luck. The idea never took root. A German officer's foremost duty was to his men. Spotting a warped piece of wood large enough to have been a road sign or a section of flooring, he yanked it to his body and swam back to the pylon.
"Take this," he instructed Lenz. "Hold it above your chest and float under it. You must keep your head under the water for as long as possible until we are far from the bridge. Take a deep breath, then under you go.Alles klar?"
"_Ja. Alles klar_." Lenz pulled at the tips of his mustache. "I should have guessed you were a filthy officer. What? A captain? Major? Or were you one of the ambitious pricks they promoted to colonel?"
"Major was as high as they saw fit." "Maybe one day you'll tell me your real name."
"Maybe." Seyss offered a smile of good luck. "Off you go. I'll be right behind you."
Lenz held the piece of wood under his arm. With his free hand he grasped Seyss by the shoulder. "You saved me twice tonight. Once from a vacation on the Côte d'Azur, and then from a trip to a much hotter destination. Maybe one day, I can-"
"Shut up, Lenz. Time to swim."