Headlights pierced the falling rain. First one set, then another, until an entire column was winding through the darkness and Seyss knew it was the convoy they'd been waiting for. The trucks were still far away, at least three kilometers by his reckoning, too distant even to hear the grumble of their engines. The parade of lights passed through the village of Kronberg, then traversed the flat countryside. He counted seven trucks in all. His eyes left them, advancing along the ribbon of black a shade darker than everything surrounding it. The road wound through a hamlet of barns and farmhouses, crossed a brook, then began the climb into the mountains towards his position.
"Sit tight," whispered Hans-Christian Lenz. "They'll be here in ten minutes. All we have to do is wait. My brother will take care of the rest. Tonight, we're garbage men. We pick up all the trash that falls from the trucks!"
"What's on the agenda for tomorrow night?" asked Seyss. "Cleaning the sewers?"
Lenz grinned wolfishly. "It would give me great pleasure to tell an esteemed officer of the Waffen SS to fuck himself."
"Would it, now?"
"Yes. Immense, in fact." Lenz wiped the water dripping from his mustache. "Know where I can find one?"
Seyss laughed dryly, hunkering down in the waist high brush. Thank Christ for Lenz, he whispered to himself. He had found his traveling companion in a dingy two room flat in Darmstadt, exactly where he'd said he'd be should Seyss ever pass through town. It had been harder to convince Bauer to lend a hand with the operation without spilling news of it to Egon Bach. Ingenuity and improvisation were not words in Bauer's everyday lexicon. Pride was, however, and once Seyss had shared his personal reasons for not wanting to approach the Circle of Fire for assistance so early in the mission, Bauer had agreed to go along.
The Americans appeared firm in their desire. Jeeps with loudspeakers mounted on their hoods patrolled the streets of Heidelberg, and, he assumed, every other large city, blaring his name and description and the crimes for which he was wanted. Some enterprising Yanks had even posted "Wanted: Dead or Alive" flyers bearing his photo all over Darmstadt and Frankfurt. Had anyone recognized him, they would have happily broken a bottle over his head and dragged him to the authorities to claim their cash reward. As it was, few people gave him a second look. With his black hair, borrowed spectacles, and adopted slouch, he looked like any other bedraggled survivor. Germans were too concerned with their own plight to keep an eye on their neighbors.
Seyss pulled his jacket closer around, shivering in the foul weather. "Biederman, Bauer," he sad in a tight whisper, "spread out along this side of the road. Steiner, you go with Lenz across the road."
"Who the hell is running this operation?" protested Lenz. "Me or you?" He shook his head and after muttering something about officers not knowing their proper place, turned to Steiner and said, "Come on, then, didn't you hear what the Fuhrer said?"
Seyss watched as the two men shuffled across the slick road and disappeared into the undergrowth fifteen feet away. Lenz was too sarcastic for his taste, but a trueKamerad. When informed of Seyss's dilemma earlier that evening, the stout Berliner had tugged at his mustache and shaken his head.
"A thousand American? That's ten thousand Reichsmarks these days. Certainly more than my lousy life is worth."
"I won't argue with you there," Seyss had said. "But can you help?"
"Yes, but on one condition. I have a right to know who I am working with. You've told me your rank, now tell me your name."
Without hesitating, Seyss spoke his true name and explained why the entire US army was looking for him. He told him about killing Janks and Vlassov and nearly being captured by Judge. He required a thousand dollars to escape the country. While not the entire truth, it was all Lenz needed to know.
"You're that Seyss – the White Lion?" Lenz had crowed in disbelief. "I was at the Olympic Stadium the day you ran. My entire family had crowded on to the U-Bahn for the trip. It seemed like all of Berlin was there. You were magnificent."
"I was fourth and no such thing." But Lenz would not be deterred in expressing his admiration. "You ran in the Olympic Games. You were our national champion. Don't be modest." He shook Seyss by the shoulders. "'The White Lion' himself. It's an honor to know you."
Politely, Seyss had beaten him back. "What about the money?"
"I can't give you a thousand dollars I don't have. But with a little luck, I can help you get your hands on something just as good." And with that, Lenz had gone on to explain the neat "business" his brother, Rudy, had set up for himself.
Every few days, a convoy of trucks left the American airbase at Darmstadt for the German army hospital in Koningstein, seventy miles away. The trucks carried medicine, canned food, and other hospital supplies – all of it packed into cartons weighing between fifty and one hundred pounds. Through an American pal, Rudy Lenz had wangled a job where he not only supervised the loading and unloading of the trucks, but chose the five-man team that did the actual lifting. His instructions to his men were simple: stow the choicest items in the last truck, where the loading crew would ride to the hospital atop the sea of swaying boxes. The rest, Lenz had explained, was easy. "A milk run," in the slang of the American flyers.
Or so he had said five hours ago.
Seyss kept his eyes glued to the straight expanse of road leading from the village of Hoechs on the flats below them. The spill of beams rounded a corner, a kilometer away. The first truck emerged from behind a stone wall and began climbing the hill. Its engine's lusty growl turned to a whine, then a howl as the driver worked his way through the gears. Soon the air was abuzz with the angry attack of seven two and a half-ton trucks struggling up a steep incline.
Seyss flattened his body in the sopping grass, keeping his head raised just high enough to see Lenz across from him. The night smelled of jasmine and pine and a hundred other scents he knew and loved. The ground began to tremble, and he was unable to keep his stomach from trembling along with it. How many times had he lain like this during the war, sub-machine gun cradled in his arms, a company of men awaiting his command to attack? Each time he'd been paralyzed with fright, sure that when he'd raise his arm and cry for his men to attack, his voice would fail him and he'd collapse bawling back onto the ground. The same fragility accosted him now.
Running his hands through the damp grass, he forced his breath to come slowly, deeply. The mechanized roar of the approaching convoy cleared his mind of his old fears. Never once had he flinched from battle. Never once had he failed at the decisive moment. But since leaving Villa Ludwig in Munich, a discomfiting question had haunted his mind's periphery: why was he taking this last and greatest risk? To whom did he owe this service? To the Fatherland? To the memory of Adolf Hitler? To the German people? At one time or another, he had told himself that it was for anyone of them. Horseshit, all of it! He had served. He had wept. He had bled. He owed no one a thing. Sensing the ground shake under him, ears scratched by the scream of twenty-eight wheels lumbering up a slick hill in the dark of the night, Erich Seyss faced down the answer he knew had been lurking inside him. He was doing it for himself. To keep whatever was left of him alive.
Lenz raised a hand, his signal to be ready to move. Seyss nodded his head in response. The lead truck was twenty meters away. Suddenly it sounded its horn, a sharp, earsplitting bleat. Seyss spun his head to check if any of his men were visible. Biederman and Bauer lay flat on their bellies, head to the ground. He looked back towards the road as the horn blared again. A pair of deer – a buck and a doe escaped the truck's beams, darting into the treeline.
The first truck thundered past, then the second. All Seyss could see of the drivers was a fleeting glimpse of a cigarette's ember glowing in the pitch dark cabin. The fourth truck passed, and the fifth. He brought himself to his knees. The last truck rumbled by. He rose and began running up the hill behind the truck. Around him, Biederman and Bauer were doing the same. Lenz trotted up the incline, Steiner close behind.
As if on cue, the tarpaulin at the rear of the truck fell. Two men stood at either side of the bay. Seyss guessed the fat one waving was Rudy Lenz. Suddenly, a torrent of boxes tumbled onto the slick asphalt. Seyss picked up the closest to his feet and carried it into the brush. The word " oleomargarine" was stenciled on the cardboard. He dropped it, then went back for another. The five men scrambled back and forth, slipping on the pavement, hoisting boxes, throwing them into the undergrowth, then advancing up the hill and doing it again. It was back breaking work and before the tail lamps of the last truck were out of sight, Bauer and Lenz were doubled over, gulping down air as if they'd been punched in the gut. Seyss ran all the harder for them. Corned beef, tinned milk, Hershey bars, lard, sardines, something called peanut butter, chicken, pickled herring, more corned beef, peaches, cherries, and flour. Finally, even he had to stop for breath.
He stood for a few seconds, hands resting on his knees, staring up the dark slope. In the pounding rain, the trail of boxes looked like stepping stones climbing a waterfall.
"It is straw," Lenz had said, earlier. "And we will spin it into gold."
Seyss gathered his breath and went after another carton. He didn't need gold. Just a thousand dollars and a Russian GAZ.