Down, down, down, they walked, through a white-tiled catacomb lit by stuttering bulbs in steel mesh cages, a passage so narrow and dank that Seyss nearly succumbed to his recently acquired claustrophobia. Now, three hundred and thirty-seven stairs later, they had arrived. Barring their path was a gray steel door large enough to have locked down the boiler room of the battleshipBismarck. Above it, the words LUFTSCHUTZBUNKER 50 PERSONEN were painted in perfect black script. Air raid shelter. Fifty persons.
Egon leaned his shoulder into the door and gave a shove. "A little dramatic, perhaps, but necessary. Hard for my colleagues to visit the main house."
"You mean they couldn't fit into the trunk of the Mercedes?" Seyss asked dryly.
Egon did not laugh. "Go on, then. These are not men one keeps waiting."
Seyss's first thought was that he'd never seen a shelter decorated so opulently. The underground refuge was done up like the lobby of the Adlon in Berlin: navy carpets, teak coffee tables, sleek sofas. All that was missing was the Babylonian fountain spewing water from an elephant's trunk and an unctuousmaitre d'hotel eager to show them to a table.
Two older men stood waiting in the center of the room. Greeting them Egon turned to Erich and said, "I believe you know Mr Weber and Mr Schnitzel."
"Good evening, gentlemen. It's been some time." Seyss delivered a firm handshake to each man, punctuated by a curt nod and a crisp click of the heels. He had worked with both during the war and if they weren't friends, they were certainly well acquainted. Robert Weber was vice-chairman of North German Aluminium, the country's largest metals company. Arthur Schnitzel was finance director of FEBA, a monolithic chemical concern.
"You're looking well, Major," said Weber. "May I offer my congratulations on your escape."
"Yes, congratulations," cawed Schnitzel, "though we could have done without the theatrics."
Seyss answered with a clipped smile, staring daggers into the old man's gray eyes until he averted his gaze. During his tenure as SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler's adjutant for industrial affairs, his brief had been to ensure that manpower requirements necessary to run their plants at full capacity were met. He was Himmler's golden boy in those days, in charge of negotiating contracts between Germany's most important industrial concerns and the SS Main Office for the transport and delivery of foreign impressed labor, mostly Jews andMischlings from Poland and Russia. Suddenly, it was clear why they were meeting in an air raid bunker and not in Egon's living room. Like him, Weber and Schnitzel were wanted by the Allied powers for war crimes. Slave labor, no doubt. Not everyone could be declared "necessary to the rebuilding of Germany."
"Gentlemen, this isn't a coffee klatsch," said Egon, flitting between them at his usual frenetic pace. "We have much to discuss and little time. Help yourself to brandy and cigars, then let's get started." Schnitzel and Weber poured themselves generous snifters of YSOP, then took their places on a maroon velvet couch. Seyss sat across from them, choosing an antique armchair. Nothing like a little discomfort to focus the mind on matters at hand.
"Germany is in ruins," declared Egon Bach, as he slipped down between Schnitzel and Weber. "We have no electricity. Sewage is kaput. No mail has been delivered since April. We no longer have a government, a police force, or even a soccer team. Coal is more expensive than caviar and cigarettes are worth more than both of them together.Verrückt! Crazy!"
"We are a divided people," said Weber, picking up the baton. Dressed in a severe black suit, monocle in his eye, he was the embodiment of his native Prussia. "The Allies have split the country into four zones of occupation. The British have taken the Ruhr and the north. The French, the Rhineland and Saar. The Americans control the center from Bavaria to Niedersachsen, and the Russians have stolen the east."
"Our industry is in ruins," continued Schnitzel. "Frankfurt, Cologne, Mannheim – all leveled. Young Bach here lost seventy of his ninety plants. Sixty percent of his production capability wiped out." A short, white-haired man who had lost his right leg at the Somme in 1916, Schnitzel wore his crutches and neatly pinned trousers more proudly than any medal. Friends and enemies alike knew him as "the Stork". "I'm hardly better off. Fifty-five percent of my factories have been damaged beyond repair."
"But salvageable," added Weber. "None of our companies have been forced to stop production completely. Give us five years and we can bring our output back to what it was before the war. The key to the revival of Germany is the re-building of our industry."
"If we are permitted to do so," said Egon. "The Allies have forbidden us to reconstruct our plants. They want to dismantle the forges, blast furnaces and steel works that survived the war and cart them off to France and England, even, God forbid, to Russia. A crew of American engineers is scheduled to dismantle our 15,000-ton press next week. They'll probably ship the damn thing to New Jersey and use it to make guns for their battleships."
Perched on the edge of his seat, Seyss listened with a rapt silence. The recounting of his country's pillage stoked his anger as a breeze fans a fire. And though he said nothing, his mind was churning. What could be so important that Weber and Schnitzel had risked arrest to see him? Why this lengthy preamble? Why the persuasive pitch to their voices, the pleading gleam to their eyes? There was no need to convince him. He was a soldier. He did what he was told.
He'd imagined that he'd been summoned from Garmisch to help aKamerad escape the country – Bormann, perhaps Eichmann, maybe even the Fuhrer. There were rumors Hitler was alive, that the corpses in the Reich Chancellery belonged to his double and Eva Braun's sister. Clearly that wasn't the case. The conversation was more concerned with the state of the economy than any military objective. Confused, he was left with the same question as when he'd jumped into the back of Egon's Mercedes nearly twenty-four hours earlier. What did they have in store for him?
"Rumor has it they're going to flood the coal mines," Weber was saying. "Send our soldiers to France as forced labor."
"A permanent end to our war-making ability," lamented Schnitzel. "Germany is to become a pastoral state, an agrarian economy."
"Think of Denmark," said Egon. "Without Tivoli Gardens." Standing, he walked to a side table where a scale model ofGrosse Gertie, the Bach's monstrous two hundred millimeter cannon, rested. He picked up the field gun, admiring it from every angle as if it were a Faberge egg. "The Allies have confiscated our weaponry. It is against the law for a German to possess so much as a sidearm. We're not even allowed the keep the grease from our stoves, lest we use it to manufacture explosives. We will be left nothing with which to defend ourselves."
Weber plucked the monocle from his eye. "And that, Herr Seyss, is our problem. We haven't gathered here today to bemoan our financial losses. We have larger issues at heart. Look around you. The Americans are withdrawing their troops from our country and sending them to the Pacific in preparation for the invasion of Japan. The war has bankrupted the British. There's an election in a few weeks' time and talk is Churchill is for the dung heap. You can imagine where that will leave us and our agrarian economy."
Seyss nodded, quick to draw his own inferences.
"You've fought against the Russians," said Egon. "What do you think Mr Stalin will do with the tanks and cannons which now line the Elbe? Do you think he will send them back to Mother Russia? Of course not. He will move them to our border and he will wait. He will wait for the Americans to go home and for the British to withdraw. He will wait until our factories are no more and our presses are dismantled and the lot of us are in the fields milking Holsteins and tending flocks of sheep with our thumbs up our agrarian asses. That is what he will do. And then he will attack. I give him two days until he is at the Rhine."
Weber lectured Seyss with the butt of his monocle, his voice crackling with a fevered intensity. "Today we live as a conquered people. But the Americans are like us. They are not an evil race. Each day, they work to make sure we have enough to eat and that our sewers no longer back up and that we can have a few hours of electricity. The Bolsheviks are not cut from the same cloth. They are from the east.Untermenschen. Sub-humans. The descendants of Genghis Khan. It would be better to die than to submit to their will!"
Weber sounded like an editorial from Der Sturmer, thought Seyss. Unfortunately, everything he said was true.
"I agree that Stalin is a bastard," Seyss burst out, no longer able to bottle his frustration. "I agree that the dismantling of our industrial capacity poses a grave threat to our nation's ability to defend itself. And that we cannot permit our mines to be flooded. But, gentlemen, what do you wish me to do about it? I am a soldier, not a politician. Tell me to take an enemy ridge, I can assemble my men, put together a plan, and attack. Ask me to convince the Americans not to make Germany an agrarian state, I don't know how I can help."
"The two aren't as far removed as you might think," said Weber, eyes bright.
Egon Bach lifted a calming hand. "We understand your confusion. Just hear us out. At first, we, too, were skeptical as to our ability to color the final outcome. But the situation is too important to let fate run its course unchallenged." "Then tell me what you want me to do." Despite its size, the room was beginning to close in upon him. A pallor of smoke hung in the air. Even with bulbs burning in four lamps, the shelter seemed to be growing dimmer and dimmer.
Egon raised both hands in front of him, patting the air. "In due time, Erich. In due time." Seyss sat ramrod straight. He knew the longer the preface, the more dangerous the mission.Sachlichkeit, he whispered, drawing a heavy breath.Discipline.
"Thirteen years ago, my father convened a group of gentlemen unhappy with the complexion of German politics," said Egon. "The depression had silenced our country's factories. Our own firm was on the verge of collapse. Father's guests shared the same bleak prospects. Krupp. Thyssen. Rocher. Men who had constructed the steel works, rolling mills, foundries, and shipyards that power our nation."
Egon paused, sweeping his owl's head to look each man in the eye. He was a mesmerizing little creep, Seyss would give him that much.
"Father recognized that only one man could save them. Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist Workers' Party. Hitler would rearm the nation and lead us to war. And though war wasn't a pleasant prospect, as a businessman, he recognized it was the only solution to their problems. But in November of 1932, the Nazi party was in danger of collapse. They had lost thirty-five seats to the communists in the most recent elections. Worse, they were all but bankrupt. Goering came to Father and confided that without an immediate cash infusion the party would be unable to pay the mountain of bills it had run up in the election. A failure to meet their obligations would be catastrophic. Ernst Roehm and his storm troopers were threatening to rebel and throw Hitler out. If that happened, President Hindenburg would have no choice but to seek a chancellor from the left. An entente with the communists was even possible, God forbid.
"Father proposed that his colleagues join him in a new league of industrialists. Not a luncheon group who would waste their time quibbling about quotas and tariffs over seven-course meals at Horchers. But one that would focus their efforts on influencing the proper political direction of the Fatherland. He had even thought of a name for his secret assembly of coal barons, steel magnates, and iron makers:the Circle of Fire."
"The Circle of Fire," repeated Schnitzel, the words rolling off his tongue in a cloud of blue smoke.
Egon's grateful smile was like a doff of the hat. "Father's solution was simple. First they would pay the Nazis' debts. Then, as one, they would travel to Berlin and demand that Hindenburg make Hitler chancellor. The old man was a landowner like them. He would listen. The rest, as they say, is history. Two months later, on 30 January 1933, Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor of Germany. Bach Industries was saved."
Seyss smiled inwardly, recalling a phrase every schoolboy knew by heart.Wenn Bach bluht, so bluht Deutschland; when Bach prospers, so prospers Germany. So much for destiny and the will of the people.
"Over the past weeks, we have brought the Circle of Fire back to life," said Egon. "Friends, colleagues, even former competitors who share our worries have joined us. Why, you ask? For one reason and one reason only. To ensure that Germany remains intact long after our occupiers have departed."
If Seyss had been alone with Egon, he would have thought the younger man joking.To ensure Germany remains intact. That kind of bluster was his trademark. But when spoken in the company of Schnitzel and Weber, men as hardened by the war as any veteran of the front, his words adopted a gravitas usually denied by his youth.
The Stork laughed and the tension in the room dissipated. "That's when the answer came to us. Germany must become indispensable to the Americans."
"Indispensable?" asked Seyss.
"Indispensable," repeated Schnitzel, smiling. "An ally."
Seyss smiled, too, but in disbelief. "_An ally?_"
"Yes," said Schnitzel. "Their soldiers dote on our women and children. Many of their families come from the Fatherland. Why are you so shocked?"
Seyss clamped his jaw shut, eyeing the Stork as if he were mad. "The Amis have just spent the past three years beating the living shit out of us and you expect them to turn around and give us a kiss on the cheek?"
Weber coughed once, a rude honk that passed for a laugh in Prussia. "Of course not. We'll have to give them a kick in the ass first."
Exasperated, Seyss raised his hands, then let them fall. "If the German people are to become the Americans' ally, who's to be our mutual enemy?"
The three men found the remark humorous, their conjoined laughs rumbling long and low like distant thunder.
"Relations between the Americans and the Russians are touchy," said Weber, when their mirth had been exhausted. "The Red Army has limited the Americans' and Brits' access to Berlin, yet the city is to be governed by all three powers. The first American troops will arrive in two days to take up their permanent station. How long before they are at each others' throats?"
Schnitzel's cheeks glowed with excitement. "Stalin has overstepped himself in Poland and Czechoslovakia. He has promised free elections yet he's seen to it that his puppets are in place in both countries. He has violated the agreement he made with Mr Roosevelt and Mr Churchill at Yalta four months ago. We have it on good authority the Americans aren't pleased."
Seyss shrugged his shoulders. "So? Do you expect Eisenhower to cross the Elbe because Stalin has thrown up a few roadblocks and taken a little more land than agreed upon?"
"Of course not," the Stork retorted. "We expect you to give him a much better reason."
"_Yes, you_," hissed Egon, and the room fell silent. "Terminal. It is the Americans' code name for the conference to be held in Potsdam in a week's time. There, the provisions governing reparations – measures which will include the settling of our borders and the emasculation of our industrial might – will be settled. The new American president, Truman, will attend, as will Churchill and Stalin. It would be a pity if something should happen to flare the tensions between these three great allies. Personally, I can think of only one thing. And it is a soldier's job, not a politician's."
A soldier's job.
Seyss stood and paced the room's perimeter. So there it was: another foray behind enemy lines. He should have known it was something of the kind. Why else single him out? He spoke Russian like a commissar. His English was his mother's. He'd spent practically the entire war roaming unfriendly territory. Strangely, he felt relieved, the burden of ignorance lifted from his chest at last.
"What exactly do you have in mind?"
Egon Bach drew a cigar from his pocket and lit it. "Sooner or later, the flame of democracy will ignite the cradle of communism. We want you to provide the spark."