The Excelsior Hotel. Seven o'clock. The bar.
Arriving at the appointed hour, Erich Seyss sauntered into the dimly lit lounge and shouldered his way through the dense, boisterous crowd. Their bubbly chatter had the relentless quality of an incoming tide, ebbing and flowing, growing ever louder. It was the sound of men and women getting drunk and not giving a damn. He took a seat at the far end of the mahogany bar and ordered a beer – a HackerPschorr, thank you. Only his favorite would do tonight. If he were in Munich he'd ask for a plate of pretzels and a little mustard, too, but this was Berlin – American Berlin – so he settled for a bowl of stale peanuts.
The beer came and he took a great big draught. Eyes closed, he savored the frosty suds coasting down his throat, cooling his belly. He took a deep breath and tried to relax for a minute or two. It was an anxious time. The time between heats. The time to keep his muscles warm. The time to concentrate on the final event.
It was impossible. Too much had happened during the day. Too much was yet to come.
He'd stayed at thegemeindehaus in Wedding long enough to see a groggy Judge carted away in handcuffs and Ingrid taken into custody with him. She'd made the mistake of screaming that Judge was an American while insisting with equal vigor that Seyss was a German, a war criminal, and an assassin who wanted to kill the President, to boot. The soldiers had looked at her as if she were crazy, but a minute later, one produced a flyer bearing Judge's photograph stating that he was wanted by the Provost Marshal for desertion and obstruction of justice. Maybe she wasn't so crazy after all. Regardless, Judge would be held in custody for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Thanks to darling Ingrid, that was all the time Seyss needed.
Finishing his beer, he slammed the mug onto the counter, snapped his fingers and made his way into the hubbub. Time to move. He was looking for a portly little American with a beer belly and goatee, a reporter named Rossi. Great, he thought, another Italian, and wondered if there were any left in Sicily. The men in the crowd were half military, half civilian, but they were all talking about the same thing: Stalin, the god damned Russians, and how they had better watch who they were pushing around.
Adopting a friendly attitude, he coasted through the throng, tapping the odd forearm and asking its owner if he'd seen Rossi around. The third man he approached fit Ingrid's description to a tee. "I'm Hal Rossi. Who's looking?"
Seyss disliked him immediately. The greasy smile, the dancing eyes. He was too glib by half. "Dan Gavin," he replied, in a voice loud enough to make any self-respecting German cringe. "I understand you ran into a close friend this afternoon, Ingrid Bach?"
"Yeah, yeah, I sure did," said Rossi. "She's a lovely gal. Coming soon, is she? We're due to leave anytime."
Seyss gave an earnest shake of the head. "I'm afraid she won't be joining you this evening. She turned ill around five. Something she ate. What do they call it? Berlin Tummy?"
Rossi looked like his mother had dropped dead while kissing him goodnight. "No. Really? Jeez, I'm sorry to hear that. Make sure you give her my best wishes for a speedy recovery."
Seyss promised to give her the message. "Listen, Hal," he added before the forlorn Ami could get away. "Ingrid wondered if I might go in her place. I'm sure she told you she had something important to tell Chip DeHaven. I've known Chip forever and I don't want to let Ingrid down. It would mean so much to her. Got room for another body?"
Rossi tapped his forearm, signaling to come closer. "Is it all that serious?" he whispered, "Ingrid was pretty worked up about having to see DeHaven. She said it might make a decent story."
Seyss looked this way and that, as if afraid of prying ears. "Without being too dramatic, I have to admit it is. But hardly anything newsworthy. A family matter, actually."
"Figures." Rossi shrugged, pepping up a second later as he rediscovered some spark of inner cheer. "Well, Danny boy, you're not as pretty as your sister, but if I'm lucky, after you talk to Chip you'll spot me a hand or two of five card stud."
Seyss smiled inwardly. To hell with Patton and the rendezvous at the Ceclienhof tomorrow morning at eleven. He was going to Potsdam tonight. "Kind of you to take me along, Hal, but that might be asking too much."
And together they headed to the bar to cement their new friendship.
Seyss had just one question. What the hell was "five card stud"?
The Ford carrying Erich Seyss, Hal Rossi, and three other half-sotted American newshounds pulled into the drive of Kaiserstrasse 2 at 9:15. If they were an hour late, at least they'd made good use of the time. Five better chums weren't to be found anywhere in Germany. A quartet of soldiers surrounded the car, opening the doors on cue. Climbing from the sedan, Seyss saluted the ranking officer and followed Rossi and the others into the house.
The "Little White House" was an ungainly toad of a home; an unsmiling three-storey palace painted a tepid mustard with narrow windows and a sloping red shingle roof. Sitting on a broad knoll overlooking the Wannsee, it did, however, have a wonderful lake view.
Seyss paused on the front landing, wanting to survey the grounds. A dozen soldiers milled around the courtyard chatting with the newly arrived chauffeurs. A pair of Russian sentries stood at the gate, their rigid posture attesting to a largely ceremonial role. No threat there. But nearby in the lavender twilight waited Stalin's crack troops, patrolling the wooded hills and dales of Babelsberg and its adjacent community, Potsdam.
Crossing the border into Potsdam, Seyss had been amazed at the sheer number of Red Army troops Stalin had shipped in to provide security. The entire route to the Little White House was lined with pea green. Yet his searching eye hadn't stopped at the side of the road. He was quick to discern bands of soldiers roaming the wooded hills. He'd read a note in Patton's dossier stating that "Stalin promises to have a man behind every tree". The author might have added" and a sub-machine gun, too".
Inside, the party was in full swing. Lights blazed from the main salon and Seyss could see a group of gray-haired men sitting round a card table engrossed in their hands. Someone was playing the piano badly and singing even worse. He let his companions lead the way down the corridor, making sure he stayed comfortably to the rear. His first order of business was to get out of the house. Leave immediately and he'd have ten or fifteen minutes until one of his new cronies remarked upon his absence. If luck was with him, they'd be either too tight or too involved with a good set of cards to notice.
God forbid he see Chip DeHaven. He had no idea what the man looked like, whether he was young or old, fat or thin. How to explain his fraud did not bear imagining. No words could gild his suspect presence. Someone would ask to see his identification or his orders and all he could provide was the dogtag of a GI killed nine months ago in France. It was a situation from which there was no escape. No, he decided, he could not see Chip DeHaven.
Mumbling something about needing the commode, he backtracked to the foyer and ran upstairs. He found a bathroom halfway down the hall and locked the door behind him. Moving to the sink, he washed his face with cold water, willing away the effects of the alcohol he'd drunk. He raised a hand in front of him, trying to hold it steady. Its reflection in the mirror betrayed a constant tremor, and suddenly, he could feel his heart pounding inside of his chest as if it were straining to break free of its mooring. He took several deep breaths and the palsy disappeared.Stand straighter, he told himself.Chin up. You're in your element. Behind the lines in another man's uniform. A Brandenburger.
And as he stared at his countenance, daring himself to accept this final challenge, he began setting forth his plan to reach Ringstrasse 2, Stalin's private residence no more than five kilometers away, where this evening the Grand Marshal of the Soviet Union was entertaining Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and their highest advisors. No doubt it was a fete of some opulence. Seyss had attended a similar dinner three years earlier, when Hitler had feted Mussolini in Berlin upon the latter's daring escape from Gran Sasso and he knew that it would be a ritzy affair – vodka, caviar, music, the works. No one had an inferiority complex like the Bolshies. More importantly, he knew that security would not just be tight, it would be impossible. A formal guest list would exist and no matter the emergency no one not properly vetted would be admitted. An unknown American, therefore, would have no chance of gaining entry. The right Russian, though, might make it.
Seyss's attention fell to his pocket, where he held between his fingers a firm piece of paper the size of a passport. Removing it, he read over the name and the unit designation. Colonel Ivan Truchin, Fifty-fifth Police Division NKVD. Born 2 August 1915, Stalingrad. For two months in the summer of forty-three, he'd posed as the great Truchin, defender of Stalingrad, parading up and down the streets of Minsk, offering the district commander his advice on the proper placement of artillery, tanks, and troops in defense of the coming German attack. He had come unannounced with neither orders nor adjutant, just an unquestioned confidence the equal of divine right. And they listened to his advice. Was it not the NKVD who, fearing the mass desertion during the battle for Stalingrad, lined up every platoon, every company, every battalion and shot every tenth man in the head to teach a stern but much needed lesson? If they don't get you, we will. Was it not the NKVD who had liquidated the entire officer corps in the purges of thirty-six and thirty-seven. One million or two, who was counting? Was not Lavrenti Beria, chief of the NKVD, Stalin's closest confidant? One ignored a colonel of the Soviet Secret Police at his peril – his very great peril.
So then, Truchin it would be.
He gave himself a final looking over in the mirror. "Live dangerously," he whispered and, smiling grimly, left the bathroom. In the courtyard, he collared Sergeant Schneider, the chauffeur who'd driven them from Berlin.
"Get in the car," he said. "I've got to get back to town. General Patton phoned. He needs me right away."
Schneider was a bluff country boy from the mountains of Vermont, a "Green Mountain Raider", he'd said proudly, who'd arrived in Germany only the month before. Not one to question an officer's orders, he fired off a salute and opened the rear door. Seyss climbed in, settling into the wide leather banquette. When Schneider had guided the automobile out of the gates and onto Kaiserstrasse, he leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Change of plan, sport. We're headed to Stalin's house. I've got a message for President Truman."
Schneider beamed with excitement, his eyes darting to the rearview mirror. "But you're a public affairs officer, aren't you? I mean that's what I heard you telling everyone on the way out."
Apparently, Schneider listened as well as he talked.
"Don't believe everything you hear," said Seyss, with just the right mixture of pride and disinterest. "Ringstrasse 2. Know where it is? President's waiting on me."
"Yessir." As Schneider accelerated the Buick along the winding road, Seyss peered from the window into the shadowy hills, searching for signs of increased security. He saw them immediately. Whole platoons of infantry resting to the side of the road. A sudden profusion of armored personnel carriers. A bounty of barbed wire strung at fifteen-foot intervals along the ground. They were getting close. Very close.
Cresting a rise, they came upon a guardhouse and a candy-striped pole barring the path. Three soldiers snapped to attention as an officer rushed from the temporary booth.
Seyss did not want him to speak with Sergeant Schneider. Flinging open the door, he leapt out of the car and intercepted the stocky man at the front bumper.
"Good evening, Colonel," he said, spying the golden laurel that decorated the Russian officer's epaulets and noting the blue stripe that indicated he was a member of the secret police. "My name is Gavin. Daniel Gavin. I have an urgent message for President Truman. Eyes only."
"I'm sorry, Captain. No uninvited guests are permitted beyond this point. If you'd like I can phone and allow you to speak to one of your President's security detachment. Perhaps Mr Cahill? If necessary, he can come and fetch you."
The Russian gestured to the guardhouse and smiled obligingly. Black hair cut to a stubble, pronounced cheekbones, and a single bristly eyebrow forming an uninterrupted hedgerow above his eyes, he was every bit the Mongol warrior. But his English was flawless and unaccented. Delivered in an unctuous voice the product of Moscow's finest diplomatic school, it was every bit as fluent as Seyss's.
"That's very kind of you," said Seyss. "I take it you have a direct line?"
"This way." Seyss followed him to the hut, but before the Colonel could pick up the phone, he leaned close and spoke to him in the earthy Russian of a native Georgian. "Evening,tovarich. I commend you on your English. Impeccable. I only wish you had the same control over your men. Are you aware that a mile back a few of them had a cozy little bonfire going just out of sight of the main road? You should see them, smoking American cigarettes and giggling like a bunch of maidens."
Before the colonel could ask a question or voice his disagreement, Seyss handed him the identification card carrying Truchin's name. As the colonel studied it, Seyss continued speaking. "I lost enough men at Stalingrad to give two shits about this petty bullshit. But humor me. Send a man back to clear it up, won't you, Colonel…"
"General Vlassik wouldn't be too happy to discover his men were loafing. 'Tiger' is one for discipline, isn't he?"
Seyss handed Klimt the telephone. He could only pray that the information discussing Russian security measures in Patton's dossier was correct, and that Vlassik was indeed the commanding officer. "Now. Please."
A worried cast came over Klimt's face. Dereliction of duty was punished with a bullet to the back of the neck for suspects and their commanding officers alike. The colonel dialed a number, then barked out some orders to send a patrol to Dingelstrasse double time. Hanging up, he retained a suspicious scowl that suggested he was only half won over. "May I inquire, Comrade General, what you are doing in an American uniform?"
Seyss lit a Lucky Strike and handed the colonel the pack. "Someone must tell Comrade Stalin what the American President is up to. With your English, I'm surprised you weren't selected."
Klimt chuckled as he took a cigarette. "Alas, no such luck."
"And you, you're from where? Kiev?"
Klimt brightened. "Yes, you've a good ear. I thought I got rid of my accent a long time ago."
But Seyss was no longer listening. He walked to the buick and with an open hand banged it on the hood. "Okay, Schneider. Everything's hunky dory from here. Colonel Klimt has graciously consented to take me the last little way. Go home."
Seyss walked around the crossing pole, not once looking behind him. A moment later, he heard a pair of boots thumping behind him. Klimt appeared at his side, red faced with frustration and indecision.
"Well?" asked Seyss. "Get the fucking car, you miserable pissant. Do you think I came just to tell you about your worthless troopers? I have an urgent message for Comrade Stalin."
Whatever doubt Klimt had retained was excised by Seyss's derisive voice. Only a proper Russian could insult another so thoroughly. "_Da, Comrade Truchin_. Right away."
But as he watched the Russian Colonel rush to retrieve his car, Seyss permitted himself only a blush of satisfaction. Getting in was the easy part. It was getting out that had him worried.