The armory was as still as a mausoleum. The place smelled of cosmoline and petrol and the dank rot of ten thousand wooden crates. It smelled of defeat, thought Erich Seyss, as he stepped inside and a towel of moist air settled around his neck. The last time he'd come, a string of dying bulbs had provided some light. Tonight, the building lay shrouded in darkness. Electricity had been cut six hours ago. Looking into the craw of the building was like staring into the abyss, a black so complete it was without dimension.
Seyss helped Rizzo close the barn-size doors, then switched on his flashlight and whispered for his men to form up. A pool of beams grew at his feet as Bauer, Biederman, and Steiner formed a circle around him. The three had made their own way to Wiesbaden, uniting at a friendly bar a short distance from the armory where he and Rizzo had picked them up. "My associates," Seyss had explained succinctly, and in a tone which begged no elaboration. He'd ordered them not to speak in Rizzo's presence and so far they'd obeyed. He had no idea how the American would react if he knew he was arming four SS troopers. Seyss suspected Rizzo already had a hint. Two days ago, the American hadn't stopped talking the entire drive up from Heidelberg. The south side of Philly, the delicious German frauleins, Artie Shaw versus Harry James, Stalin versus Churchill – Rizzo had an opinion about everything and everybody. Tonight, he hadn't spoken two words.
"I take it our merchandise is where we left it?" Seyss asked.
"Sure," said Rizzo. "I mean, why shouldn't it be? Nobody's been here since the other day."
There it was again – the edginess.
"Simply asking, Captain. No need for worry."
Rizzo laughed apologetically. "I don't have too many museum curators looking for Russian machine guns."
"Pity. You'd be a rich man."
"Give me some time," cracked Rizzo, his voice steadier. "We just opened for business."
Seyss relaxed a notch. That was more like the Rizzo he knew. "Lead the way. Once we gather up everything, we'll take a look at the truck. You have it ready?"
"Yep. Gassed up and rarin' to go. She's a beaut. A Ford deuce and a half with Ivan's red star painted big as life on the hood and the doors. Must've been shipped over during Lend-Lease. Whatever you do, promise me you'll get it the hell out of town in a hurry. Anybody stops you, just speak a little Russkie and pretend you don't understand what they're saying."
Seyss smiled inwardly. That was precisely his plan. "Come the dawn, we'll be far from these gates. Don't be worrying yourself, Captain."
"That's what I wanted to hear, Mr Fitzpatrick. Follow me."
Rizzo set off as if on a forced march. From the entry, he turned left, counting off the stacks of crates as he passed them. Reaching six, he made an abrupt right turn and vanished into one of the narrow corridors that ran the length of the armory. Seyss followed close behind, then Bauer and the others. Their flashlights cut a shallow path, barely illuminating the concrete floor five feet in front of them. Above their shoulders, the crates brooded like crumbling statues to a pagan deity.
Seyss felt at home in the darkness, his incipient fear of tight spaces lost amid the trudging of rubber-soled feet and the hushed intake of breath. A frisson of excitement warmed his stomach, the same self-congratulatory sensation he experienced before a race when he sized up the competition and determined he would win. He reminded himself this was only a preliminary heat. The main event would engender a return to Berlin; a return to the city of his greatest triumphs and his greatest defeats.
Reaching a crossroads of sorts, Rizzo thrust his flashlight in front of him. "There you are, Mr Fitzpatrick. Your next exhibit."
Seyss stepped past Rizzo, making a sweep of the area with his flashlight. The guns and uniforms he'd picked out sat atop a pile of splintered palates in the center of a vast expanse of concrete. Fifteen meters to the left stood two flimsy iron doors separating this, the loading floor, from the garage. In the far corner, he could make out the chain link fence penning in the ammunition. For a moment longer, he listened to the silence, then satisfied they were truly alone, led his men across the floor.
Everything was exactly as he'd left it.
The Mosin-Nagant sniper's rifle with twenty-seven notches cut into the stock, the Pepshkas with their drum barrels, the Tokarev pistols, the pea green tunics with sky blue epaulets. A metal trunk rested on the ground next to the palates. He flipped open the locks to find the ammunition he'd requested. But all that was no longer enough. Proximity to his goal made him the greedier.
"Grenades," Seyss called. "For true authenticity, our exhibit will require a few dozen grenades."
Rizzo hesitated, looking lost. "They're in the ammo pen."
"Go get them."
Rizzo checked over his shoulder, looking toward the entrance to the garage as if expecting someone to answer for him. "They'll cost you more."
Seyss pulled an envelope from his jacket and handed it to Rizzo. "Surely, you'll toss them in gratis. It would be the gentlemanly thing to do."
Rizzo opened the envelope, running a thumb over ten hundred dollar bills. Again, he glanced over his shoulder toward the garage. "I don't know. Guns, a little ammunition, that's one thing. Grenades, they're a whole 'nother ball game. And if you don't mind my saying, your friends don't look too much like gentlemen."
Behind them, Bauer, Biederman and Steiner were sorting through the uniforms. Though they spoke in hushed tones, one could not mistake the clipped cadence of their language.
"The war has made rogues of us all, I'm afraid," said Seyss, his patience at an end. Something was wrong. He could feel it. Rizzo was too nervous, too much changed from their last visit. Removing Bauer's work-issue Luger from the lee of his back, he pointed it at Rizzo's chest and said "The grenades, Captain. It's not a point for discussion."
"Give me a break, will you?" Rizzo's hands scuttled from one pocket to another searching for his key ring.
"Front left," said Seyss. "Don't pretend you don't know where they are."
Rizzo muttered something about "fuckin' Nazis" and how "he never wanted to do this in the first place," then in a fit of frustration, threw the keys at Seyss. "Get 'em yourselves. They're free. All you want. Where do you think you're going, anyway?"
"_Where am I going_?" Seyss cringed at the remonstrative twang in Rizzo's voice. Staring hard at the American, he caught the man's gaze dart high above his shoulder, the brown eyes open wide in expectation. He knew the look.
Hope, impatience, desperation rolled into one. Spinning his head, he followed Rizzo's eyes, but saw only the fuzzy outline of crates receding into the darkness. Someone was there, though. He knew it. He yanked Rizzo by the collar and jabbed the pistol's snout under his jaw. "What's happening here, Captain?"
"Nothin's happening. What do ya mean?"
Seyss levered the barrel up, so that the gunsight punctured his skin. "Say again?"
Rizzo moved his mouth, but no words came out. Or if they did Seyss did not hear them. For at that moment, a siren wailed, a door flew open, and the midnight sun burst into the armory.
Which dumb son of a bitch turned on the kliegs?
Devlin Judge dug his face into the lee of his arm, squeezing his eyelids to block out the brilliant light. Who turned on the lights? Who ordered the siren? No one was supposed to have moved until he gave the signal.
Lifting his head, Judge pried open an eye. Spears of shimmering white punctured his dilated pupils. The light immobilized him, nailing him to his splintery perch on top of a stack of Sokoloy machine guns. One hand slid to the walkie-talkie by his waist. It stood upright, its antenna poking through a draft vent cut in the roof. No, he had not keyed in the signal by mistake.
For two hours, he'd been waiting for Seyss. Waiting for the White Lion to show his prized skin. From his vantage point high above the armory floor, he'd followed Seyss's progress through the building. Everything had been going according to plan – Seyss and his men arriving at twelve midnight on the nose, Rizzo keeping the conversation light, leading them directly to the guns and uniforms. Then Seyss had asked for the grenades and Rizzo had broken.A few more feet, Judge wanted to yell at him.A few more feet and we would have cast the net!
Once Seyss was safely inside the armory, a company of military police under Honey's provisional command had taken up position around the compound; 175 men in all. Mullins lay poised with another platoon inside the garage, two Jeep-mounted klieg lights with them to insure proper visibility. But no one was to have budged, no one was to have moved a muscle, until Judge keyed in the signal and Mullins blew his goddamned whistle.
Forcing open his eyes, Judge saw the armory floor awash in spectral light. Seyss stood directly below, a gun in his outstretched hand. He looked no different than he had a few days ago, hair dyed black, dressed in a navy work jacket and trousers. His plan withering around him, he appeared cool and relaxed. Rizzo cowered a few feet away, raising his hands to his face as if to defend himself against a blow. It struck Judge how they looked like actors on a stage, their every feature defined, their motions dramatized by the klieg's merciless vigil. Then, as if a casual afterthought, Seyss raised the pistol and fired it point blank into Rizzo's face. Rizzo dropped like a sack of manure. No thespian could replicate the ocean of blood advancing across the concrete floor from the back of his head.
For one long second, all was static; a beautifully lit diorama scored by a bullet's earsplitting report and a siren's undulating wail. Seyss stood poised above Rizzo's body, while his comrades were captured in various positions of distress. Bauer, the stockiest and oldest of them, stared blindly into the maw of the kleig; Steiner, the spindly clerk, checked the chamber of the sniper's rifle with a marksman's competence. And Biederman, blond and cagey, crouched behind the steamer trunk packed with ammunition. Then came the bone-crunching staccato of a heavy machine gun and all was motion.
Chunks of wood and tin and concrete erupted from the walls, the floor, the mountains of rotting crates, arcing through the air like exploding rock. Seyss ducked his head and dashed for protection behind the nearest box. With his pistol, he motioned for Steiner to fire at the light. His exhortations came too late. The lank dark-haired man managed only to lift the rifle to his shoulder when he was caught in the chest with a string of bullets. He had no time even to scream. Lifted off his feet, his thorax burst in an ejaculation of torn flesh and viscera. As his body hit the floor, Judge saw that he had been cut in two. Seyss was yelling for Bauer to get down and for Biederman to come to him. But Bauer was already down, digging his nails into the concrete floor as if he were hanging from a cliff. And Biederman, hiding behind the ammunition box, looked as if he wasn't going anywhere either. A thirty cal bullet penetrated the trunk setting off a chain reaction of small arms fire. A split-second later, rounds began to explode inside the box. Biederman looked this way and that, indecision creasing his features. Just as he began to move towards Seyss, a bullet exited the trunk, finding his jaw and, a microsecond later, his brain and skull. A cap of gore sprayed from his head and he collapsed.
Judge yanked his pistol from its holster and took aim at Seyss.Safety off, hammer back. All evening long, he'd been wondering how he'd react when he saw him, whether as Seyss himself had advised, he'd shoot first and ask questions later, or if he'd heed his commitment to an orderly arrest. But the turbulent events of the moment, the cacophonous sound and fury erupting all around him, freed him from the choice. Tightening his finger on the trigger, he acknowledged his darkest wish and swore to bring it to fruition.
The Colt bucked in his hand, the first shot going high and to the right, tearing a gaping hole in the crate above Seyss. He fired twice more, but the bullets went astray.
Seyss spun, bringing his pistol in line with his eye, trying at once to aim and to glimpse the man who wanted to kill him. For a split second, their eyes locked, the hunter and the hunted, the prosecutor and the pursued. The light cast Seyss's face with a crystalline clarity – the cut of the jaw, the flared nostrils, the determined set of his milky blue eyes. Nowhere could Judge read fear. The world was exploding around him, his comrades lay dead and dying, yet Seyss maintained an expression of absolute assurance.
Judge pulled the trigger again, missing, as Seyss let off four rounds in rapid succession. Flame spit from the pistol and Judge slammed his head onto the crate, raising an arm to protect his face from the shards of wood slicing through the air like broken glass. Two inches from his head yawned a jagged hole large as a pumpkin. He rolled away from it and brought his gun to bear on Seyss.
But Seyss was gone, running across the open floor toward Bauer, his last unwounded comrade. His excursion was short lived. Three MPs brandishing Thompson sub-machine guns darted through the door leading from the garage, their entry presaged by ragged bursts of fire. Seyss arrested his forward motion, skidding on a heel as he fought to return to the relative safety of his previous position. He fired twice, felling two of the policemen, and a third time shattering one of the kliegs.
Still the siren wailed.
Judge felt a reckless tide swelling inside him. Everything was going wrong. Rizzo was dead. So were Seyss's comrades, and now, two American MPs. The army had a term for this: FUBAR – fucked up beyond all recognition. All because some stupid sonuvabitch had turned on the kliegs before he'd been given the order. Overcome with anger, remorse, and most of all frustration, he jumped to his feet and yelled as loudly as he could, "Seyss! Stop you yellow bastard!"
Seyss turned as if slapped. Never compromising his stride, he raised his gun and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He was out of ammunition. Judge took dead aim at the moving figure and fired. The first bullet was high, showering Seyss with a barrage of splinters. The second appeared to pass right through him. A jagged chunk of wood spun from the crates behind his shoulder and struck him in the head. Seyss stumbled, bringing an hand to his face as he collapsed to the ground. Judge stepped close to the edge, craning his neck for the sight of blood, even as he contained a triumphant whoop. Had he shot him? With Seyss halfway to the unlit recesses of the armory, it was difficult to tell.
Yet even as Judge strained to make out the prostrate form, a bullet tore into the box at his feet and another passed so close to his head to make his ear stop up. Two more bullets creased the air above him and Judge flung himself to the rough surface. Suddenly, he was shaking with fear. A lightning peek around the armory revealed no errant marksmen. He focused once more on Seyss. The German lay still.
But then something else caught Judge's eye. From the far side of the building, down the row from where Seyss lay, the weakest of lights blinked, once, twice, three times. A firefly in the nocturnal gloom. The pattern repeated itself. Short. Long. Short. Dot. Dash. Dot.
Only then did Judge notice the siren had stopped.
His heart beat pounded furiously as an urgent voice shouted into the vaulted space. "Grenade!"
Two silver pineapple-shaped canisters sailed into the armory, bounding once, twice, three times across the floor. Judge's immediate response was to look toward the ammunition pen. There, behind a chain mesh fence, stacked to within inches of the armory ceiling, were crates of bullets, mortars, artillery shells, and every other god awful explosive device the gods of war had seen fit to deliver unto man in the twentieth century. He imagined a sliver of white-hot shrapnel cutting through a crate and piercing the sheath of metal that enclosed the gunpowder. First one crate would blow, then another and another. The whole armory would go up in a conflagration of Wagnerian proportions. The explosion would make "the Gotterdammerung" look like a scout's bonfire!
With a speed and finesse he did not know he possessed, Judge pulled himself through the draft vent and onto the corrugated roof. Lying on the cold surface, his breath coming in halting grasps, he dared a final glance into the armory. His last sight even as the first grenade exploded was of a bare slab of concrete decorated by a few specks of blood and a black Luger. Where a second before a man had lain, there was nothing.
Erich Seyss was gone.