Number 61 Rudolf Krehlstrasse sat at the end of a wooded lane high on a steep mountain near the outskirts of Heidelberg. It was an unremarkable house, leaves of faded yellow paint falling from its neglected woodwork, birch shingles curled with age. Set back from the street amongst a clutch of leafy oaks, it cowered like the shy girl at a party, the homely lass who went home with her dance card empty. Erich Seyss double-checked the number, then strolled up the walk and rapped on the door. Heavy feet sounded from the rear of the house. Waiting, he gazed at the city below.
Heidelberg had escaped the war unscathed. Declaring it a hospital city seven months earlier, the high command had transferred the local garrison – by then a Volksturm detachment peopled with elderly men and teenage boys fifteen kilometers north to Mannheim. Red crosses painted on fields of white decorated dozens of city roofs, mute pleas to the Allied bombers who by then held mastery of the sky. It was a quaint convention, and one, to his surprise, the Allies had honored. Looking to his left, he made out the medieval red brick ruins of theSchloss, at once majestic and crestfallen, slumbering in the morning haze. And below them, the Neckar flowing lazily under a half-dozen crumbling bridges, bisecting the city into old town and new. The view had looked the same in 1938, in 1838, and a hundred years b2fore that. It was the Germany of Martin Luther, the Great Elector, and the Kaiser; the Germany of Hegel, Bismarck and Hindenburg.
Twisting his head, he peered north. On the horizon, a plain of ash and rubble interrupted lush fields of green. Mannheim, an industrial city of half a million had been razed from the map by Allied bombs. A cigarette burn on the fertile landscape.And whose Germany was that? he wondered. The answer came to him as the front door squeaked open. It was his.
Peeking from behind the door was a husky man with dark, accusing eyes, a slow wit's underbite, and short black hair glistening with tonic. He wore a white shirt buttoned to the neck and a black blazer riddled with mothbites.
Seyss pushed open the door and walked into the house. "Jesus, Bauer," he said. "You look like you're headed to a funeral. You must learn to relax. It's summertime. Birds are singing, the sun is shining."
Bauer bowed, his stubborn features finding no humor in the remark. "It is an honor to welcome you to my home, Herr Major."
Seyss patted him on the shoulder. "Call me Erich. We left our ranks behind with our uniforms and our pride. How have you been keeping yourself?"
"There is still work, at least for now. Rumor is the Americans will shut down our factories any day. You'd think with so few plants still working, the Allies would leave us with what we have. But no, they want to bring the entire country to its knees."
"Don't worry, Bauer. Egon won't let that happen. He's a fighter, isn't he?" Bauer nodded, but his furrowed brow betrayed his doubts.
Heinz Bauer was a man whose life was defined by his work, the third generation of the Heidelberg Bauers to give his life to Bach Industries. As chief of factory police at Bach Munitions Work No.4, his mandate was simple: keep the imported labor, or "ostarbeit", working. Storming the floor in the black uniform of the civilian SS, truncheon in hand, he was a sight to behold. The smallest complaint, the slightest slowdown in work, was met with a blow from Bauer's truncheon or a kick from his gleaming jackboots. A single word always punctuated the warning. Arbeit! His nickname was "Heinz the Terrible," and he treasured it more than a commendation from the Fuhrer himself. The interior of the house was as shabby as its façade, but fastidiously clean. Threadbare carpets beaten to within an inch of their lives covered cracked wooden floors. Faux Louis XV chairs lurked in dark corners. Somewhere there was an immaculate sterling tea set sitting atop a polished coffee table. Seyss was sure of it. He'd find the same sad paeans to respectability in every house along the block. The German working class was obedient, if not original. A photograph of the Fuhrer held pride of place on a wooden dresser in the living room. Next to it lay his copy ofMein Kampf. And behind them, a photograph of his deceased wife. State first. Family second.
"I understand you've rounded up a few of my men?" Seyss asked, peeking his head round a corner.
"Just two, I'm afraid. Biederman and Steiner. They're in back. Kuprecht and De l'Etraz didn't show."
"Just as well. We'll be better off as a squad of four. Let's go say our hellos. I'm anxious to see the boys." Seyss was moving faster now, a blur of decision, an officer of the Reich once again.
"Please, Herr Major, one moment," called Bauer. "Herr Bach phoned earlier. He demanded that you call at once. The phone is this way."
"Demanded, did he?" Seyss asked in amusement. The prospect was out of the question. He didn't want Egon to learn he'd lost the two thousand in cash he'd been given. Terminal, he would say, was your first and only responsibility. Egon could sod off. A civilian couldn't understand an officer's duties to his men. Seyss would get the money himself. It was a question of pride. "Later, Bauer. Right now, we have more pressing matters."
"Jawohl, Herr Major."
Bauer lowered a shoulder and led the way to a musty salon at the rear of the house. Two men sat smoking on a worn couch. The nearer one was blond and broad-shouldered with a fair complexion. His name was Richard Biederman. He was a handsome man, if one could forgive the kidney-red scar meandering from his chin to his right ear. Shrapnel posed difficulties for even the best battlefield surgeon. Hermann Steiner was less imposing, a paper-pusher by the look of him. Short and thin, with greasy black hair, rimless spectacles and a rat's inquisitive snout. Seyss knew better. Steiner was the battalion sniper. He'd never known a better shot.
"Good morning, boys," he said. "It's been a long time. Keeping yourselves out of trouble?"
Both men rose sharply from the couch, shaking Seyss's hand while wishing him a buoyant "good morning". Seyss patted each on the arm, asking how they had made out since the end of the war. Both had served under him during the Ardennes offensive and through the last months of fighting. Both were wanted in connection with the affair in Malmedy.
"Forget about us," said Richard Biederman. "We're worried about you." Members of Seyss's unit had nicknamed Biederman "the Cub" for his close physical resemblance to Seyss and his cloying habit of sticking near his commanding officer.
Biederman handed Seyss a newspaper. "This morning's edition."
Seyss gazed at the front page of the Stars and Stripes and found his own picture staring back at him. It was the photograph taken upon his incarceration in Garmisch, better even than the one in his soldbuch. He forced a smile, even as his stomach dropped. Was this Judge's doing, too? He should have shot the man when he had the chance.
"Once a star, always a star," said Hermann Steiner. "It seems, Major, you are famous again."
Seyss tried to laugh, but managed only to groan. "Be serious. Do I look anything like the man in that photograph?" He plucked the spectacles from Steiner's nose and put them on. " And now?" He lost his posture and shuffled from one side of the room to the other. just another poor German looking for something to eat. How many of us are there? A million? Two million? Ten? Do you think this photograph is enough to see me captured? Besides where we are going, there are no Americans to look for us."
"It's not the Americans we are worried about," said Biederman. "There is a reward, too. A hundred dollars at the American post exchange. Not bad, these days."
Seyss kept his smile glued to his face, but inside he acknowledged a swell of disappointment. Biederman was right. These days a German would sell his mother for a hundred dollars, then ask how much he could get for his father. Access to the post exchange was an even better idea. With a hundred dollars, a man could purchase enough cigarettes to earn a fortune on the black market. This was, he had to admit, very bad news.
Casting an eye at Bauer, Biederman and Steiner, he wondered just how quick one of them might be to turn him in to the authorities. None of them knew the true nature of their mission. They'd been asked to accompany Seyss to Berlin, no reason given save on a matter of importance to the Fatherland, and they'd accepted. Six years of war had conditioned them not to ask questions. For their services, they'd been promised a one-way ticket to South America via the port of Naples. A Croatian priest in the Vatican, the Reverend Doctor Krunoslav Draganovic, was providing travel visas to all those who could prove themselves good Catholics of blameless character and morals. It turned out members of the SS were a particularly religious lot. Along with a certificate attesting to their unblemished souls, an administrative fee was required. Fifteen hundred dollars was deemed adequate to cover the Reverend Doctor's travails. The proceeds to be earned on the black market from Seyss's reward would cover that fee twofold. The Americans were proving cleverer than he had expected.
"Even the Kripo is looking for you," added Steiner. " An inspector came round the bar asking too many questions. He was a real bumbler, but others might not be."
Seyss decided to confront any hesitation head-on. "If any of you men want out, you can go. I know plenty of Germans willing to take a risk for the benefit of our country. We have lost the war, true. But L for one, am not willing to lose the peace."
Heinz Bauer stepped forward and clapped his hand on Biederman's muscled shoulder. "We're not going anywhere."
Biederman shook his head. "_Kein angst_, Herr Major." Don't worry, Major. "We wouldn't desert you."
Steiner sat down on the couch, nonchalant as ever. "Jesus, with all this talk we could be in Berlin already."
Seyss thanked the men, then pulled up a chair. "So what have you got for me?"
Bauer licked his lips and leaned forward. "What we're looking for is in Wiesbaden, fifty kilometers up the road. The Wehrmacht kept a lock-up for Russian prisoners there until late last year. Everything taken from them is stored there: guns, ammunition, uniforms."
"And the price is still a thousand US?"
"Including the truck?"
"Yes, of course. Everything exactly as I told Herr Bach." His eyes creased with worry and Seyss knew he'd have to tell Bauer soon about losing the money.
"Go on, now. You've got me excited."
"Our contact is an American officer," continued Bauer. "What with the military police in an uproar and half their army looking for the dreaded criminal, Erich Seyss, he won't go near the usual spots. I had a hard time convincing him not to cancel our agreement. He's agreed to meet at the Europaischer Hof. A group of music professors from the university plays for athé-dansant every afternoon at four."
"The Europaischer Hof is out of the question," Seyss scoffed, more irritably than he'd wanted. "The only ones there will be American troops."
"Actually, just officers. My contact decided a meeting would be more inconspicuous among his colleagues."
"And you agreed? Jesus Christ, Bauer, what about the non-fraternization rules? No Germans will be allowed inside."
"Oh, he wouldn't sell these guns to a German," reported Bauer. "I told him I was representing a Britisher. A private collector. Your motheris English or something, right?"
Seyss sighed loudly while running a hand along the back of his neck. He imagined himself walking into a salon packed full of American officers, trading quips with a colonel from Milwaukee while slugging back a couple of drinks. He couldn't pass himself off as an Englishman. He didn't have the manners, the jargon, or the sickening self-effacement that came so easily to a Brit. An Irishman, though, was a different story. With a decent blazer, a haircut, and a pair of glasses, no one would recognize him. Besides who would dare think he'd infiltrate their ranks? Seyss caught himself. He'd said the same thing about his returning to Lindenstrasse.
"Bring me your best suit," he said to Bauer. "Whatever you'd wear to your daughter's wedding. Hurry up, then."
"Already done, sir." Bauer shuffled from the room, returning a minute later with a navy suit folded over one arm, and a shirt and tie on the other. "Size forty long. Neck fifteen and a half. Shoes an eleven."
Seyss tried on the jacket. A little loose but more than passable. Bauer might look like a half-wit, but he was sharp as a tack. Something to keep in mind. "So tell me, what name does our man go by?"