His name was Otto Kirch, but everyone knew him as "the Octopus", said Hans-Christian Lenz, and he controlled the upper levels of the black market in the Frankfurt-Heidelberg corridor. He was a fat man, three hundred pounds if an ounce, bald as an egg with a schoolboy's apple cheeks and a rattlesnake's glassy eyes. Dangerous, Herr Major. Very dangerous. No one knew where he'd been or what he'd done during the war. Most guessed he'd laid up somewhere safe Vichy France, Portugal, maybe Denmark – waiting for the fighting to end.
Waiting for his time to begin, Seyss added silently.
The two men were driving south towards Mannheim in Rudy Lenz's battered pre-war Citroen truck. The previous night's haul was loaded in the back, concealed behind a pile of brick and masonry. The added weight slowed the truck to twenty miles an hour. It was good cover. The only Germans driving these days were those rebuilding their ravaged cities. Every few minutes an American Jeep or truck sped by, horn blaring. The victors owned the road along with everything else.
Traffic thinned as they entered the outskirts of Mannheim. Allied bombing had so completely destroyed the city that there were simply no more people living there. Lenz turned right off the main road and for the next forty minutes guided the truck onto a series of unpaved tracks, each bumpier than the last.
The Octopus ran his operation from the ruins of a turbine assembly plant in the center of town, a part of the city that looked to Seyss as if it had been hammered flat into a million tiny pieces. Where the plant had stood was a mystery, for nothing remained taller than five feet. Not a thing. It was a desert landscape, with miniature dunes of rubble and ash rising and falling as far as the eye could see. At eight o' clock on a clear and breezy morning, not a soul was visible.
In the midst of this wasteland, Lenz cut the engine and announced that they had arrived.
"Where the hell is everybody?" asked Seyss, as he climbed from the cabin.
"Wait and see. Whoever says the German is not a resourceful animal is mistaken."
Seyss walked to the rear of the truck, flipped down the tail, and began hoisting boxes to the ground. He couldn't share his companion's jovial mood until the transaction was completed and a thousand dollars or its equivalent in Reichsmarks lined his pockets.
"Don't bother," said Lenz, motioning at the boxes. "There's plenty enough men for that. We'reGrosschiebers, you and I. Big-timers. We don't do our own lifting."
Seyss shook his head and kept hauling boxes from the truck. If nothing else, the activity helped relieve his tension. He had not slept well the night before, despite the success of their "midnight raid". He was exposing himself too often. Walking too freely through cities rife with Americans and their lackeys, revealing his name to too many people. He had no right to such bravado. He wasn't worried about Bauer or Biederman or Steiner, but now Lenz, too, knew his identity. Yes, Lenz was aKamerad. Yes, he was doing him a great service by turning over the profits from his half of the take. But what about his brother, Rudy? It went without saying that he knew Seyss's name too. Could he be trusted? The chain was growing longer. Sooner or later there would be a weak link.
A loud thump interrupted Seyss from his work. He put down the box in his hands and turned to see a line of men emerging from what looked like the maw of a coal mine, just fifteen feet away. The men approached the truck, several doffing their caps, and wordlessly took over the job from Seyss. A few minutes later the truck was empty and they'd disappeared back into the ground.
"I told you," said Lenz. Standing with his arms crossed and his droopy mustache, he looked more than ever like an angry walrus. "It's all underground here. Like the route to Hades." Seyss smiled as he followed Lenz into the tunnel, but he was growing anxious. He didn't like confined spaces, much less ones controlled by the enemy. For some reason, that's where he had cubby-holed Mr Otto Kirch. Torches wired to shell-pocked walls lit the way. The place smelled of kerosene and tobacco, not cigarette smoke so much as the dusky scent of an old cigar. The ramp gave way to a large flat deck. Squinting in the half-light, Seyss saw that the area had once been a underground garage. The ceiling was awkwardly low, as if a bomb had landed on it dead center and not destroyed it, but by its sheer weight dropped it by five feet. Ahead, their boxes were visible, stacked neatly under a dim bulb.Electricity, mused Seyss.Somewhere there is a generator and the oil to run it. What else is down here?
Presently, a short, immensely obese man stepped from behind the boxes. He wore dark pants and a white shirt dotted with perspiration. A maroon beret sat atop his head like an egg cozy. Seyss needed no introduction. It was Otto Kirch. The Octopus.
"Welcome, gentlemen," he called, his voice high pitched and nasal. "I was just completing my final tally. I commend you, Herr Lenz. An excellent take. Excellent!" He tucked his clipboard under a meaty arm and walked over to where his two visitors stood. "Come to my office. I don't conduct business in the open." He hooked an arm with Lenz and guided him toward a steel door cut into the nearest wall.
Seyss followed at a polite distance. No doubt Kirch was questioning Lenz as to his colleague's identity. As much as Seyss did not like being here, Kirch must dislike his visiting. Each was a risk to the other's security. Ducking his head, Seyss passed through the steel portal into a short tunnel, maybe five feet long. He emerged into an airy chamber, mercifully with a higher ceiling, something akin to the hold of an ocean-going freighter but three times the length. His first instinct was to search for exits. On both walls he found steel doors similar to the one he had just passed through. A dozen circular ducts holed the ceiling, providing a steady flow of fresh air. Kirch, it seemed, had created his own underground complex, blasting his way from garage to bomb shelter to storm drain. The route to Hades, indeed. Who knew how big a maze he had created?
Advancing into the lighter recesses of the shelter, Seyss made out a grouping of long tables peopled by no fewer than two hundred men and women. Their bowed heads and precise motions spoke of feverish work. Looking closer, he noted a corroded trough filled with brown twine running through the center of each table. At one table, the workers would deliver the leafy substance into the trough. At others, the workers plucked it out again.
Lenz caught him staring. "Cigarettes, you idiot."
Seyss took a step toward the tables, putting a name to the bold scent he had noticed upon entering Kirch's world.
"Yes, cigarettes," said Kirch. "The currency of the new Germany. Every day our precious Reichsmark loses more of its value. The Allies forbid us to hold dollars. Still we must buy and sell. We must trade with one another. What are we left with? Cigarettes. Lucky Strike. Chesterfield. Craven A. They have all the qualities of paper money. There is constant demand, a regulated supply, the size is convenient, and they last a reasonable time. Best of all, if you are very hungry, you can smoke one and maybe you will forget about your stomach for a while."
Seyss smirked at Kirch's hollow benevolence. The grotesque pig looked like he hadn't missed a single course of a single meal his entire life.
The Octopus took up position at the head of the first table, motioning for Seyss and Lenz to approach. "Every day, I have an army of two thousand men scouring the streets of Frankfurt, Darmstadt, and Heidelberg for the butts of cigarettes. Waiters, policemen, prostitutes, each with their own patch of ground.Kippensammler, they're called. Butt collectors. The Americans toss away their smokes so indiscriminately. And why not? They are rich, no? Seven butts yield enough tobacco to make up one cigarette, which I can sell for four Reichsmarks. Tomorrow it may cost five. I set the price. It's my private treasure."
Kirch set off from his "treasury" with a new urgency, leading them across the shelter, through another steel door and down a gargantuan sewer pipe lined with burgundy carpeting. Like many fat men, he moved quickly, not ungracefully. Two guards stood at the far end of the pipe, framing a set of golden doors that had been salvaged from a luxury hotel. Seyss laughed when he read the name engraved on the door push:Vier Jahreseitzen Munich.
Kirch allowed his suppliers to catch up before nodding to one of his bodyguards to open the door. One glance at the Octopus's office was enough to answer anyone's questions about why such stringent security measures were necessary two stories below ground at the tail-end of an urban catacomb. King Solomon's mines, was Seyss's first thought. Then the tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy pharaoh, and finally, Carinhall, Hermann Goering's lavish estate near Berlin. The vast room was a cross of all three. Piles of women's furs occupied one corner, stacks of floor size tapestries another. Glass cabinets displayed a dozen diamond tiaras and below them, collections of lesser jewellery, every bit as spectacular in their own right. Gold bars loaded atop wooden pallets winked dully from inside a caged enclosure. A selection of masterpieces hung on stained maple walls. Rembrandt, Rubens, some decadent modernists.
"Take a seat," said Kirch, as he laid the clipboard on his desk and installed himself in a port leather captain's chair. "Mr Lenz. SergeantHasselbach, was it?"
"Erwin Hasselbach," clarified Seyss as he settled into his chair. Did Kirch sound suspicious or was it his imagination?
"Four boxes of margarine, two boxes of peaches, a box of Hershey bars…" Kirch read from his tally sheet, continuing until he had orally catalogued every box but one. "And finally, one thousand doses of penicillin. The women of Germany will be grateful."
Lenz gave Kirch the belly laugh he'd expected.
"You boys hit gold this time," said Kirch. "Eight hundred dollars or eight thousand Reichsmarks. Take your pick." He waited a second, then chuckled. "Or I could pay you in cigarettes."
"_Nein, nein_," rumbled Lenz, still in the throws of his merriment. "We'll take dollars.Danke."
"_Eight hundred dollars_?" Seyss cut in, sliding to the edge of his chair and engaging Kirch one on one. "That's all you propose paying us for the entire lot?" He scoffed to underscore his view of such a paltry offer. As he had to split the sum with Lenz, he wanted to goad Kirch into offering two thousand US. Anything less left his problem unsolved. "Why I can take the penicillin alone to my colleagues in Munich and receive twice that much. A thousand doses will bring ten thousand US on the street. I don't suppose you handle the retail end of things, so let's say you unload the entire crate for four thousand dollars. Is twenty percent all you see fit to pay your suppliers? And what about the rest? The peaches, the margarine, the spam…goodness, Herr Kirch, it is enough to stock a corner grocery for a month. Eight hundred dollars, you say? I'm afraid we cannot accept. Come, Hans-Christian, we have a little work in front of us, yet."
Seyss tapped Lenz on the arm, signaling for him to stand. Kirch followed them both through porcine eyes. He spoke as the two men reached the glass doors.
"That is enough, Herr Hasselbach," he called. "Herr Lenz, please instruct your impetuous colleague to retake his seat. You, too. If eight hundred is too little, perhaps you can tell me what is appropriate? And then you might wish to add why I shouldn't simply shoot you here and now? The cost of two bullets – even American ones – is significantly less than eight hundred dollars."
Seyss guided Lenz back to their chairs. When they were seated, he removed his glasses, polishing them with the tail of his shirt. "Let's be frank, Herr Kirch. Business is good. Prices are high. Demand even higher. It's hardly time for gentlemen to quibble. Shoot us if you like, but I imagine you'll have a harder time coming across medicinal stores of such undisputed quality. Otherwise, pay us three thousand US and we'll see you next week."
"Three thousand?" Kirch laughed. "I should shoot you both to rid the world of such arrogant pricks. Fifteen hundred. That's double my first offer. You'd be smart to take it and run."
"Twenty-five hundred," countered Seyss, "and I'll guarantee the penicillin."
Kirch licked his lips, his abundant cheeks glowing. He was enjoying the negotiations. "Two thousand and I won't hear another word."
"Twenty-two hundred and we'll be silent as the grave," said Seyss.
Seyss could not help but loose a short monumental weight lifted from his shoulders.
He would have his money.
He would have his truck.
He was as good as in Berlin.
Alone again in his subterranean treasure chest, Otto Kirch returned to his desk and withdrew a crudely printed flyer bearing the heading, "Wanted: Dead or Alive." He studied the photograph of Sturmbannfuhrer Erich Seyss and compared it to his mental image of the man who had been seated in his office five minutes earlier. Hasselbach was no sergeant, that was for certain. Only an officer had the balls to negotiate like that. But was he this man? The man on the flyer had light hair and wore no spectacles. Still, it was easy enough to change one's hair color and to put on a pair of glasses. Kirch traced Seyss's face with his finger, nodding his head as his certainty grew. Focusing on the eyes in the photo, he suddenly met Hasselbach's victorious gaze once again and jumped in his chair.
A minute later, he picked up his telephone and dialed a number. "Ja? Herr Altman. Good news. I think I've found the man who you've been looking for."