Erich Seyss was collecting cigarette butts. So far this morning, he'd scraped six off the pavement, and it was still early, just a few minutes before eight. Yesterday, he'd gathered one hundred and twenty-three, enough to make twenty "fresh" cigarettes and earn him a little more than fifty marks. Twenty hours scouting a thirty-meter stretch of concrete for the equivalent of half a dollar. The prospect of such an existence quelled any desire he harbored to rejoin the civilian world.
Tucking his hands into his pockets, Seyss took up position against a shrapnel-scarred column inside the portico of the Frankfurt Grand, a once opulent hotel now consigned to boarding American officers. French doors stood open granting him full view of the hotel lobby. At this time of day, the place was a sea of khaki and green. Officers crowded the reception baying like a pack of dogs for their room keys. They camped on every chaise and divan, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and flagging down waiters with a shrill whistle and a shout. They flooded from the stairs, the elevators, the men's room and the kiosk.
Locusts! thought Seyss. Worse than any plague.
Two of the offenders sauntered from the hotel, flicking their cigarettes at his feet.
"Merry Christmas, Fritz," muttered one.
"Yeah, happy birthday," added the other.
Seyss bowed and scraped as befitted his beggar's status, knocking the embers from the saliva-soaked butts before dropping them into his jacket pocket. Eyes scanning the lobby, he caught sight of a slim officer emerging from the elevator, scuffed pigskin briefcase in hand. He checked the man's epaulets for a pair of silver captain's bars and his lapels for the twin castles that denoted the corps of engineers, then studied his features. Yes, it was his man. One last time, he compared the breadth of the shoulders, the size of the waist, the man's height to his own. He smiled inwardly. A perfect match.
When the captain's key had been placed in the box below the number 421, Seyss left the shade of the portico. A short stroll took him to a newspaper kiosk at the corner, and there, he waited for his man to exit the hotel.
Frankfurt was a-bustle with grim prosperity. A turn-of-the-century steam engine dragged a lone streetcar up Mainzstrasse.Trümmerfrauen crowded every corner chiseling mortar from an ever-growing stack of bricks. Newspaper boys shouted the day's headlines while a gang of laborers trudged down the side of the road escorted by GIs front and rear. Watching it all through a sun-scratched haze of dust and grit, Seyss acknowledged a long absent warmth blossom in his chest. Hope. And he knew that Germany would survive.
The realization sharpened his urgency to reach Berlin.
Two days had passed since the nightmare at the armory. Two days he'd earmarked for travel to the German capital and establishing local cover. Sunday was spent walking the forty kilometers to Frankfurt. Arriving, he phoned the contact Egon had given him, but the party did not answer. A check of the neighborhood showed it to have been resettled by American officers. Exhausted, he passed the night huddled in a vacant boxcar.
Venturing into thestadtzentrum the next morning at dawn, he expected to find the city crawling with military police, his face plastered on the front page of every paper. After Wiesbaden, he was certain the American would have pulled out all the stops. Curiously, there were no signs of heightened security. Neither his name nor face graced the daily papers. No more than the regular complement of MPs patrolled the streets and not a single Jeep blared his name, description, or the details of his reward. It was as if the Americans believed him dead, alongside Biedermann, Bauer, and Steiner. The conceit was difficult to swallow. At least one man knew he was alive.
Seyss called to mind the taciturn figure who'd guided him from the armory. He was neither short nor tall, his features hidden beneath the brim of a sweat-stained fedora. Even his nationality was a mystery. Providing Seyss with an olive field jacket and a peaked campaign cap, he'd rushed him to an unlocked gate in the perimeter fence and told him of a safe route to Frankfurt. Seyss knew better than to ask who he was.Ein Kamerad. That was enough.
Just then, his captain appeared in front of the hotel, hand raised to ward off the morning sun. Bounding down the stairs, he turned right and passed Seyss at an officious clip. Seyss fell in behind him, sure to guard a distance of at least five paces. Unconsciously, he found himself matching the American's step, his arms swinging in a parody of a march. He could hear the steady click of the officer's spit-shined shoes stamping the pavement, their brisk tap-tap smacking of duty, honor, and to his German ear, the will to conquer. But Seyss didn't envy him his smart uniform and rakish cap. He no longer gave a damn about the trappings of glory. He envied the captain only one thing: his victor's elan. He had known it once. He swore he would know it again.
Seyss followed the American two blocks to the tram stop at the corner of Mittelweg and Humboldstrasse. Ducking into a shadowy corner, he waited until the number thirteen tram appeared and the captain climbed aboard. Seyss knew his destination without having to follow him: I.G. Farben, Germany's largest chemicals manufacturer. Dwight Eisenhower had declared the sprawling complex of modem buildings set within an idyllic park-like setting headquarters of the American Occupational Government. As for Farben, well, they were out of business. Demand for Zyklon-B wasn't what it used to be.
Seyss watched the tram trundle off, then retraced his steps to the hotel. He circled to the employee entrance and passed unnoticed into the employee locker room. One hour after the morning shift had begun, the place was deserted. He made his way through the maze of dented metal lockers, stopping at the farthest corner. He drew his knife and one by one began prying open lockers. He found what he needed on the third try: a clean white shirt, a matching waiter's jacket and a black bow tie. Removing the clothes, he caught a glimpse of himself in a nearby mirror. His hair was matted and greasy, the blond beginning to show in desultory patches, his clothing stained with sweat, soot and blood. Three days' growth of beard dirtied his face and, Lord knew, he smelled like a Jew in a cattle car. He offered his slovenly reflection a wink and a nod. Just your average German male.
Seyss knocked on the door to room 421, then stepped back into the center of the hallway and waited. Chin raised just so, white towel draped over an arm, he looked like any other waiter in the hotel. He raised his hand to knock again, but thought twice. Silence bred suspicion, but best not to take it too far. He looked over both shoulders, then dropped to one knee and examined the lock. It was an old brass affair with a keyhole capacious enough to see into the room. Undoing his belt, he threaded its metal tongue into the lock, feeling the smooth mass of the tumbler. Raising the tongue, he wedged the tip of his knife into the keyhole, so that it acted as a fulcrum upon which he could exert greater pressure on the tumbler. With a jerk, he flicked the knife downward, forcing the tongue against the tumbler and freeing the lock. He depressed the handle and swept inside.
The room was dark, curtains drawn against the morning light. Back pressed to the door, Seyss trained his ear for the sound of another man's breathing. Only colonels and above claimed a room for themselves. Everyone else doubled up. He heard nothing. Turning on the light, he walked to the center of the room, taking in the furnishings with a sweep of his head. Twin beds were pressed against either wall, a night table separating them. Only one had been slept in. A desk and chair decorated another wall. He walked back to the alcove and opened the closet. Several freshly laundered uniforms hung from one side of the rack. He removed one, then took a pressed shirt, a tie, socks and underwear from the shelf above it. He threw all of it onto the bed and began to undress. Catching another glimpse of himself in the mirror, he realized he couldn't don the uniform without at least shaving. The sight of his scraggly hair and beard begged explanation. The Americans were a well-groomed lot, he'd grant them that.
If the bedroom was cramped, the bathroom was fit for a king. Marble floors and counters, gold-plated fixtures, a tub large enough to swim in and, directly above it, a shower head the size of a pie tin. Seyss stripped to the waist, then filled a mug with hot water. He added a dollop of shaving cream and, using a lovely badger-hair brush, brought the soapy mix to a lather. Raising the brush to his face, he heard a sound at the front door, the unmistakable tinkle of metal against metal. "Move!" he ordered himself. He turned off the water, dumping the foam into the sink even as he bent and scooped up his shirt and jacket. The noise came again and he imagined a drunken hand fumbling for the lock.Mach Schnell! Sweeping a hand across the light switch, he bolted into the bedroom, eyes darting to every corner for a place to hide. Again he noted the untouched bedspread and cursed his carelessness.
Only a colonel draws a single room!
Behind him, the tumblers fell and the door opened a notch, froze, then closed again. A clumsy voice echoed in the hallway, "And next time, Stupak, the pot will be mine."
Seyss tiptoed to the alcove, knife drawn and resting at his side. He darted a glance to his left. The closet. He imagined the dark, the confinement, the close company of his breathing. His skin ruffled. What choice did he have? Finally free of the American military police, he could risk nothing to alert them to his survival. Two feet away, the door handle began to turn. Seyss drew a breath, opened the closet and climbed inside.
Seconds later, the door to room 421 burst open, banging against the wall, then slamming shut. Inside the closet, the sounds were amplified tenfold and hit Seyss's ears with the raucous clap of a shellburst. He stood hunched over, head brushing the shelf above him, half-wrapped in the uniform he'd come to steal. The American walked into the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed. He weighed a hundred kilos easy if the chorus of screaming bedsprings were to be believed. He had a woman with him and soon the two were laughing and giggling like a couple of horny teenagers. Their shoes came off, each thrown to a different corner of the room.
"_Musik? Ja. Ist gut_?" the lady asked.
Seyss heard a soft brushing noise that could only be the drawing of curtains, then the fuzz and static of a radio warming up. A female singer's voice drifted across the room.
"Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate, Darling, I remember the way you used to wait."
It was Dietrich herself singing "Lilli Marlene" in English for the Americans.Christ, thought Seyss,they've even taken our music. Locusts!
Despite the absolute dark, he stood with his eyes open, arguing to himself that his sentence inside the closet would be of short duration. Five minutes, ten at the most. The two would make love, then drift off. He could slip out unnoticed, maybe even with a uniform draped over his arm. But as the minutes crawled by, and the sounds of the two pigs' lovemaking grew more fevered, he realized that was not to be. He might be trapped inside this god awful prison for hours, maybe the entire day. He breathed deeply, repeating the same word over and over.Ruhe. Ruhe. Calm. Calm. He was sweating, yet his skin was cool to the touch, bordering on clammy. Every moment the air was growing warmer, his heart beating faster. He felt a bonnet descending over his head, boxing his ears and smothering his mouth. Cold hands closed around his neck. Pressure. Everywhere pressure.
He blinked, and once more he was in Camp 8, trapped beneath the kitchen while Janks bartered away the prisoners' supplies. He was at the Villa Ludwig walking down a sterile, white-tiled corridor with Egon Bach, descending deeper and deeper into the earth. He closed his eyes, hoping for a measure of peace, but was confronted instead with a kaleidoscope of his own memories, the confines of the closet allowing him no escape.
"Just one bullet!" His own voice screamed at him as if he were a bald recruit.
"Did you hear me, Gruber? One bullet per person. We must conserve ammunition."
Seyss was standing on a muddy ridge overlooking a dense forest in the rolling hills outside of Kiev. A ravine called Babi Yar. It was October of 1941, the height of autumn's magnificent pageant. The leaves burned red, yellow, orange and every shade in between. A cool wind brushed his face, the acrid smell of spent powder making his eyes water. He heard another volley of shots and he blinked involuntarily. Then came the sniping that enraged him, single shots, here and there.
He turned and strode down the hill into the ravine, past the line of women. They were all ages: children, teenagers, mothers, the very old and the very young. They were naked, white as ghosts. One grabbed his cuff, pleading, "I am twenty-three. Please." Seyss did not look at her. He pulled free and walked to Sergeant Gruber, slapping him hard on the shoulder.
"Gruber, one bullet per person. Have your men take better aim, goddammit. We must conserve ammunition." He was saying the same things over and over. He knew it but could not stop himself. What else was there to say? He had orders. From the Reichsfuhrer SS himself. One bullet per Jew. No more. He must enforce them. "Gruber, do you understand?"
"_Jawohl, Herr Major_."
Below Seyss was the pit, a strip of excavated land one hundred meters long, thirty meters wide and five meters deep. He didn't know what idiot imagined they could place all the bodies there. The pile was already ten deep the length of it, and the women were still arriving, truck after truck. Two days now. How many were there? Ten thousand? Fifteen? A few of his men were walking over the corpses as if they were stones, skipping here and there, then bending over and placing their pistols to the back of a neck and pulling the trigger.
"You see, Gruber," Seyss was saying, pointing at an offender. "One bullet, only. Get that man. Bring him here. Now!"
"But, Herr Major, the woman was still alive."
"Get him!" Seyss could not allow logic to interfere with his orders. He heard a whistle blow and another twenty women were jogged into the pit. Two carried infants.Funny, he thought,why don't they make more fuss? A squad of soldiers lined up behind them. They raised their rifles and fired. The women collapsed. A baby cried and one of the soldiers ran into the pit and fired off a few shots.
"There," shouted Seyss, gesturing madly at the extermination squad, "Look, Gruber, that man is firing indiscriminately. One bullet. What is so hard to understand? Replace him at once."
Gruber averted his gaze. "With who?"
"Someone from Erhardt's company."
"They've been dismissed. Some of the men are upset. They are no longer fit."
No longer fit. Seyss knew what that meant. A little killing and they'd broken like children.
"Upset?" he yelled. "What about me? I am upset, too. What am I to say to Himmler when I return to Berlin – 'the men refused your order'?"
He remembered his last meeting with the Reichsfuhrer SS. A leisurely perusal of the statistics just in fromEinsatz Kommando A in Riga, his pal Otto Ohlendorf's command. 138,500 Jews killed. Fifty-five communists. Six Gypsies. 400,000 rounds of ammunition expended at a cost of two Reichsmarks per bullet. Himmler inquiring in his unhurried professional voice, "Unacceptable. Wouldn't you agree, Herr Sturmbannfuhrer?" He flicked a paper or two, his finger coming to rest at a particularly bothersome figure. "Fifty thousand children. That's fine. But can you explain to me why our men require two bullets to eliminate a child? Solve the problem, Seyss. One bullet. See to it. The waste makes me sick."
Seyss strode to the endless line of women and pushed another twenty into the pit. "Take proper aim and use a single round," he shouted to theeinsatz squad. "Reichsfuhrer Himmler is giving you a direct order. Do you understand?" He drew his pistol and passed behind the line of women, brushing the nose of his pistol against the bare nape of their necks. He stopped at the last woman. She had fine blonde hair and a fair complexion. Hardly the semite to look at. But he'd been fooled before. And placing the gun to the base of her skull, he pulled the trigger.
"You see. It's not so hard. One bullet!"
Inside the closet, Seyss cringed as the words reverberated inside his skull. Yet even as the tattered vestiges of his conscience hung in the dark beside him, he twirled the knife in his hand, turning the blade up to deliver a slashing blow, willing the officer to open the closet door.
Inches away, the American stood in the alcove, asking if the woman wanted a glass of water. She said sure, and he walked into the bathroom, humming along with the radio. Something about "sitting under an apple tree". Seyss couldn't make out the lyrics. His mind was fuzzy. He was hot and his muscles ached. The soldier returned to the bedroom. Seyss heard a bottle being set down on the desk and a glass to go with it. Then the bedsprings again. The woman made a terrible braying noise as she was being fucked.
"Sachlichkeit," he whispered through gritted teeth.Objectivity. Control. Discipline. You are a man standing inside a wooden box. The darkness is temporary. Consider it a test of your stamina, a measure of your physical abilities. But reason was no cure for his untethered anxiety.
Suddenly, the closet was unbearable. The jacket scuffing the back of his neck, the shelf collapsing upon his head, the musty odor scratching his nostrils, invading his throat. Worst, though, was the smell of his own body. He could no longer remain so close to himself. Still, for one more agonizing second, he managed to choke down his fears. He ignored the clothing crawling all over him, and his olfactory distress. Squeezing his eyelids tightly, he even dredged up a moment of calm, if calm is what you call it when your skin is covered with goosebumps and your heart beating hard enough to crack a rib.
And then, like a frayed cord, his discipline snapped.
"To hell with it," he said, and quietly hauled himself out of the closet.
The two were splayed across the bed, the American on top of his German whore, copulating vigorously. Seyss crossed the room in two strides, planting his knee in the crook of the soldier's back before he could turn his head. Dropping his knife to the bed, Seyss threw his left arm around the American's neck and took firm hold of the jaw. He braced his right arm across the rim of the man's shoulders, pulled the body taut against his knee, and gave a single ferocious twist to the left. The vertebrae snapped instantly and the body fell limp.
It was over in three seconds.
If the whore was screaming, Seyss couldn't tell. Her labored gasps sounded no different to her annoying bray. Shoving the American corpse off her, he sat down on the bed, sure to retrieve his knife.
"Shh," he said, covering her mouth with a hand. "Relax. I'm not going to hurt you."
She was very pretty, no more than eighteen beneath all that cheap makeup. She had blonde hair and deep blue eyes and for a moment she reminded him of one of the maidens he'd slept with in the Lebensborn hostel, some busty zealot from theBund Deutscher Mädchen eager to provide the Reich with a parcel of racially superior children. He looked at her again and realized he'd been mistaken. She looked like Ingrid Bach.
And as she ventured a smile, nervously nodding her cooperation, he kissed her on the forehead and plunged the knife into her chest.
The uniform fit better than he had expected. The trousers fell to his heel and not a millimeter below it. The waist was a few sizes too large, but a belt cinched it nicely. And the jacket fit as if tailor-made. He had shaved and showered, taking pains to doctor the raw groove where Judge's bullet had nicked his scalp. He had shampooed his hair thoroughly, so that no longer was it the same inkbottle black, but a dark, lustrous brown. Using a pair of nail scissors, he had cut it very short, then doused it with witch hazel and parted it directly above his left eye.
After giving his tie a final going over, Seyss buttoned up his jacket. In one pocket, he carried a little more than two hundred dollars and a picture of his sweetheart back home. In another, the few dog tags and identification cards he'd picked up in Munich. He looked damned sharp clad in khaki. What a wonder it did for his soul to be in uniform once again. The wrong uniform, to be sure, but who was he to argue? These days everything was upside down.
Adjusting the cap squarely on his head, he stood at attention. Something was wrong. He checked the uniform the tie. Everything was in order. What was it, then? He looked himself up and down until he found the problem. His posture. He looked as if he were waiting for the Fuhrer to pass in review.Relax, old man. He dropped a shoulder and forced his stomach to droop. And in a moment he'd achieved the indolent attitude, at once cocksure and uncertain, of the citizen soldier.
Better, but not perfect.
Then he saw it.
It was his face. It was too closed. Too private. Too German. Americans were so trusting, so wide-eyed, so eager. Every feeling they'd had – every heartbreak, every crush, every promotion, every setback – was there to see, smack in the middle of their face. Smile, he told himself, and taking a deep breath, he stretched his cheeks from ear to ear. Raise your eyebrows. Open your eyes a shade wider. He thought of his childhood, a day at the carnival, the prospect of the Ferris Wheel. He pictured himself at the top gazing over all Munich, then gave himself a fat sausage for good measure. Bliss!
He looked in the mirror and saw an American officer staring back.
Bringing himself to attention, he raised his right arm and laid his rigidly aligned fingers to the tip of his brow.
"Good morning," he said aloud, "Captain Erich Seyss reporting for duty."