Erich Seyss was a connoisseur of destruction. He had only to hear a shell's whistle to know its caliber; to catch a rifle's report to guess its bore, to lay eyes on a ruin and know who and what had devastated it. Staring at the ravaged façade of a three-storey building in a squalid, bombed-out district of south Munich, therefore, he needed only a few seconds to recreate the action that had rendered it a teetering, gutless wreck. Sustained machine-gun fire had chiseled a thousand pockmarks into the building. Fire from a phosphorous grenade had garlanded the windows with wreaths of impregnable soot. Any fool could see where the tank had rammed through the bottom floor, leaving the house lopsided and in need of a crutch.
Seyss imagined the American troops scrambling up the road, each squad providing covering fire for the next, as slowly, inexorably, they took up position around the house. He could hear the tap-tap-tapping of small arms, the thudding of the machine gun, the muffled roar of the grenades, and above them all, the screams of the wounded. City fighting was slow, sweaty, and unimaginably loud. The mere recollection left his mouth dry and sticky. Sometime during the pitched battle, an artillery piece had been brought to bear; seventy-five millimeter Howitzer by the size of the hole rent in the wall high on the second storey. That was the end, of course. The boys defending the house would have had no choice but to give it up and move down the road to the next parcel of land worth dying for. One more piece of Germany swallowed by the relentless green tide.
Seyss poked his head round the stack of empty ammo crates that for the last twenty minutes had served as his blind, glancing a last time up and down the street. Satisfied that no unfriendly eyes were watching the building, he crossed the road and jogged up the front path, neatly threading his way through a field of debris. He paused by the entry long enough to read the address inscribed on a soot encrusted brass plaque. 21 Lindenstrasse. He offered an unfeeling smile. Home.
Hurrying inside, he made a quick tour of the ground floor, through the salon, the living room, the kitchen. His eyes scanned what floor remained for boot prints, cigarette butts, any sign of a recent visit. He saw nothing to alarm him. At times, he was forced to tiptoe across the coarse spars that had supported the flooring. Hearing a strange flutter, he froze and glanced up. Through the torn floorboards, he glimpsed the ceiling of his bedroom three stories above him. The tail of his curtains gently slapped the wall, then fell back.
Twenty years had passed since he'd lived at Lindenstrasse. At the age of eight, he'd been sent away to school, first to the state military barracks at Brunswick, then to the SS Academy at Bad Toelz. Home had always been simply a way station between postings. If he'd expected an onslaught of nostalgia, he was mistaken. His only sadness was at the condition of the house itself. Nearly all the flooring had been torn out, probably to use as firewood. It went without saying that the furniture, paintings, carpets and assorted bric-a-brac that had made up his home were gone. Even the wallpaper had been rudely torn off. The house was nothing but a husk.
"Father?" he called,sotto voce. "I'm home."
His whisper died inside the barren shell and he laughed silently. He had no idea where his father might be, nor did he care. Six months had passed since he'd last seen him, a lunchtime visit on his way to the Austro-Hungarian border. There he'd sat, Otto Seyss, gray and paunchy, proud holder of National Socialist Party number 835, one of the oldest of thealte kampfer, loudly proclaiming over his ersatz coffee and ersatz sausage that the retreat of the German army on all fronts was a ruse.A ruse! And that any day now, Hitler would unleash his secret weapons under construction at the rocket laboratories at Peenemunde and the war would be over -snap – like that. The Allies forced to surrender, the Russians driven back to Stalingrad, the German army once again victorious with all Europe its prize. Seyss had branded his father's talk of secret weapons a sham, arguing that the war had been over for two years already, and that he should get the hell out of Munich as soon as possible if he wanted to survive the coming fight. His father had responded accordingly, calling him a traitor and a coward. The same things he'd called his wife six years earlier when she'd declared herself unwilling to support the tyrant who had shipped her youngest son to a detention camp. Only that time, he'd punctuated his remarks with a vicious right hook that sent his wife home to Dublin for good with a shattered jaw.
Seyss returned to the front door before venturing upstairs and scanned the road in both directions. Lindenstrasse was deserted. The once noble townhouses had been picked clean and abandoned, the entire neighborhood left to its decaying self. Not a GI or German was in sight. Reassured, he made his way to the main staircase. Remarkably, it was intact, except for the banister which was nowhere to be seen. He climbed quickly, taking the stairs two at a time, stopping only when he'd reached the top.
The third floor was composed of three rooms. His parents' bedroom occupied the northern half. The southern half was divided into two rooms for Seyss and his younger brother, Adam. He glanced into Adam's room, imagining a lanky, argumentative boy with a crop of honey-colored hair and his own blue eyes. He stood still for a moment searching for some reminder of his loss, waiting for a sliver of remorse, hoping even, but none came. Adam was just one more casualty of the war. That he had never donned a uniform or picked up a rifle mattered little.
Seyss continued down the hallway and entered his own room. Crossing to the opposite wall, he lowered himself to one knee. A carpet of glass, mortar and dust an inch deep covered the floor. He cleared a small circle, then hooked his fingers under the heating grate, gave a firm tug, and laid it to one side. Delicately, he inserted his hand into the rectangular void. His fingers crept to the right, to the shallow shelf he had carved as a boy to hide his collection of French postcards, sepia-toned photographs of "adventurous" French women. A wall of dirt tickled his fingertips. Confounded, he reached further into the hole, but froze when he heard the whine of an approaching engine. After a moment, another engine joined it, then another. An entire fucking armored column was advancing down Lindenstrasse!
Seyss slid his hand from the hole and lifted his eyes above the windowsill. Two Jeeps and an armored personnel carrier crammed full of troops were a few hundred meters away and closing. Egon had warned him that the Americans would make the search for Janks's murderer a top priority. In light of the extraordinary information he possessed, Seyss had been foolish not to heed the admonition. For three hours last night, Egon had discussed the most intimate details of Terminal: the Allied leaders' meeting place in Potsdam, their daily schedule, proposed security measures, even the addresses in the leafy suburb of Babelsberg where Churchill, Truman, and Stalin would reside during the conference. The intelligence was far better than any soldier could expect and, if accurate, had come from the highest levels of the American command. Seyss made it a point to question such things.
Outside, the growl of the motors grew louder. Seyss pressed himself against the wall, darting a glance out the window every few seconds. One hand dropped to his waist, but the Luger he sought wasn't there. His only defense against inquisitive Americans was thepersilschein folded neatly in his breast pocket. Issued by the occupational government, the document declared that one Sgt Erwin Hasselbach was free of any ties to the Nazi party and eligible for all manner of work. Signed by a major general in the Third Army, it was what passed for identification these days. The document got its nickname from a laundry detergent called Persil. Hold apersilschein and you were clean.
He'd taken other precautions, of course. Along with his papers, Egon had provided some black hair dye, a pair of his father's reading specs, and some cheap ill-fitting clothing. He'd be fine as long as someone didn't look too closely.
Seyss peeked out the window again. Damn! The little procession was continuing along Lindenstrasse as if it were rolling along a streetcar track. His heart was beating very fast now. He was sweating. Embarking on a mental reconnaissance of his home, he plotted his escape should the soldiers, in fact, be charged with his arrest. Move now and he could make it to the ground floor in time to get out the back. His eyes shot to the exposed vent. What lay inside was imperative to his coming journey. His passport to Potsdam, as it were.
Clenching his fist, he forced himself to wait a second longer. No fugitive in his right mind would return to his home. It was the first place any policeman would look. Ergo, no policeman would think he'd be stupid enough to go there. Ergo, no policeman would waste his time checking the place, especially once they knew that his home was situated in a suburb of Munich that had been razed from the map.
Daring another look, Seyss noted that the vehicles showed no sign of slowing. If anything, they were moving faster. One by one, they rumbled past, leaving only spirals of dust in their wake. He wanted to laugh. He always did when he got out of a tight scrape.
Returning to the floor, he delved his arm into the heating vent. This time he reached in as far as he could, meeting the curtain of dirt and pushing through it. His fingers touched a blunt metallic object. Taking hold, he worked it brusquely through the earthen shaft until it passed through the rectangular opening and sat on the floor by his feet.
The sterling silver box was the size and width of a hardbound book. Embossed on its cover were the twin bolts of lightning that denoted the SS. Beneath the runes, engraved in a neat cursive script, was Seyss's name. Once, the box had held his medals.
Commanding himself to relax, he removed its cover and sorted through the contents, cataloguing each item even as he slipped them into his pockets. Old folding buck knife, SS issue, sharpened to a razor's edge. One billfold, contents a thousand Reichsmarks. Two dog tags taken from dead GIs. And finally, wrapped in a sheet of wax paper, a sturdy white card with a black stripe running diagonally across it from top to bottom. Typeset Cyrillic, not western lettering. The government issue identification of one Colonel Ivan Truchin, late of the Russia NKYD or secret police.
Seyss ran a finger along the card's edges, marveling at its immaculate condition. Few Russian soldiers were issued official pieces of identification. Fewer still managed to keep them in any kind of decent condition. A document issued by the Comintern itself, one bearing the signature of Lavrenti Beria, now that was a rarity, indeed, and spoke of Colonel Truchin's importance to the revolution. Seyss gingerly slid it into his breast pocket. His ticket to Terminal. Nothing else would have brought him back to his house.
But Seyss wasn't quite finished. A last foray into his adolescent hiding place yielded a canvas web belt, black, tattered with age, eyelets and buckle freckled with rust. The belt was unremarkable except for its surprising weight. Around a kilo, if he wasn't mistaken. Cut into the belt were ten oblong pockets. In each rested one hundred grams of gold smelted from the SS private foundry near Frankfurt. The slim ingots had been labeled "non-monetary" gold because of their lesser purity – just.95 versus the Reichsbank's standard of.999. It was difficult and costly to purify gold extracted from candelabras, wedding rings, eyeglasses, watches, dental fillings and the like. Each ingot bore the imprimatur of the Third Reich: an eagle holding a wreathed Swastika in its talons.
Seyss clinched the belt low around his waist, tucking in his shirt over it, then patting himself down to make sure it wasn't visible. Egon had provided him with two thousand American dollars, an amount well in excess of his needs. Still, Seyss preferred to be prudent. Egon Bach's intelligence wasspitzenclasse, but his planning was too meticulous, cut through with the fanciful ambitions and precise timetables of an armchair general.
Seyss was to lead a squad of men into the Soviet zone of occupation, travel two hundred kilometers along the main corridor to Berlin, and pierce the guarded enclave of Potsdam. Former members of Seyss's command had been tracked down and recruited. Good men, all. Contacts had been established along the route of travel – in Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and the German capital itself. He would have access to safe houses, revised intelligence, and most importantly, Soviet weaponry, transport, and uniforms.
Once in Potsdam, however, he would be on his own. He knew the objectives. How he chose to fulfill them was his choice. Only five days remained until the conference began and Egon had made it clear he must act soon afterwards. Something about insuring the last wishes of a country's leaders be respected.
The rest, Egon had said, would take care of itself. Dominos, he'd laughed. One falling onto the back of the next.
Reviewing the carefully laid out plan a final time, Seyss selected those elements that would be of use and discarded the rest. While impressed by Egon's logistics, he was also wary of them. Information flowed two ways. To his mind, the operation was already too big. He worried that Weber or Schnitzel, or one of their cronies among the Circle of Fire, might find the details of such a plan helpful in bartering his freedom from his American overlords. Then, of course, there was Egon, himself. His uneasy arrangement with the Americans left Seyss nervous. Very nervous indeed.
One last item remained inside the box. A photograph of a young couple standing in front of a sparkling fountain. Out of habit, he turned it over to read the date and place inscribed, though he hardly needed a reminder:3 September 1938, Nuremberg. My God, he looked magnificent, his uniform just so, his jackboots buffed to a high polish. So did Ingrid. Like the princess she was and would always be. He skimmed his nail over her face, imagining the feel of her cheek. Staring into her eyes, he saw only the heartache that was to follow – his abrupt goodbye, the cancelled nuptials, the failure even to explain himself – and he was accosted by a wave of shame.Sachlichkeit, he reminded himself. You gave her up for the Fatherland. He'd practically memorized Darre's letter:The Office of Race and Resettlement therefore denies your application for marriage on grounds of violating section IIC of… He winced at the memory, though his belief in the verdict was undiminished, then continued his mental recital…so that the purity of the Fatherland may not be further diluted.
And with that recollection came another, not of Ingrid but of Egon, which given his current circumstance was perhaps more appropriate. The time was November 1940. A gray Friday morning in Munich. The two men were standing in the grand entry hall of Bach Industries headquarters following an armaments production meeting. Egon was raised high on his tiptoes, red in the face, lecturing Seyss with a rude forefinger.
"All you had to do was ask your superior officer for an exception," he railed, "and you would have been permitted to marry Ingrid. She's devastated, Erich. What is one eighth, anyhow? She's a Bach, damn it. The Fuhrer has seen the family tree worked up by the Office of Race and Resettlement. You know yourself he overlooks this type of thing when it's crucial to the Fatherland. I'll ask him myself for an exception. He'll only be too happy to oblige."
Angered by Egon's transparent artifice, Seyss managed a curt "No, thank you." Egon was arguing on behalf of the family Konzern, not Ingrid. Somehow he thought an alliance with the "White Lion" might save the firm from future difficulties. Rubbish! Whether Seyss might obtain an exception was beside the point. It was a question of principle. An officer did not knowingly harm his own country. Blood was blood, and any foreign strain beyond an eighth was deemed to tarnish the country's bloodstock. It was all there in the Nuremberg decrees.
"You're a coward, Erich," Egon spat, after a minute. "You're much too afraid of the state you serve. I admire your devotion, but there comes a moment when a man stands up for what is his. If you loved Ingrid, you'd be married today."
And then something inside of Seyss broke. One minute he was standing at perfect attention, the next he was whipping Egon across the face with his leather gloves, sending his glasses flying, forcing him to a knee. "Shut up!" he hissed. "Shut up! What do you know about courage or sacrifice? You, little Egon Bach, who fights his war from a quilted leather chair and a mahogany desk? You are a Jew, understand. Not a German.A Jew. You have no right to judge me."
And saying the words, he finally believed them. Egon was a Jew. And so was Ingrid.
"I'm sorry, Erich. I'm sorry. Calm down, damn it!"
Seyss redirected his arm in mid-flight, slapping the gloves against his thigh instead of Egon's simpering face. The lapse of self-control was regrettable, a sign his heart was not yet wholly subjugated to his Fuhrer's will. Pulling the soft black leather tightly over each hand, he breathed easier. Egon's glasses lay next to his boots. Seyss bent, polished them with a handkerchief and handed them to his newest enemy. "Next time, think before you talk."
Nearly five years later, he hadn't forgotten the incident or the stare of unvarnished hatred that had greeted his parting words. And neither had Egon. He would bet on it.
Giving a wistful nod, Seyss slid the photograph into his breast pocket behind Colonel Truchin's identification. The room had grown warm and stuffy. A fly zigged and zagged through the air, its incessant buzz a drill in his ear. He replaced the cover and returned the box to its hiding place. He began to feel antsy. The railway station was a good hour's walk and he didn't want to miss his train. His persilschein was good for a one-way ticket home, listed for purposes of the mission as Heidelberg. Yes, he decided, he must leave now. Kneeling, he fitted the heating grate into place. And as his fingers pressed the metal into the floor, he experienced an odd sensation on the back of his neck, rather like a feather tickling the base of his scalp.
Get out, a familiar voice whispered.You've been here too long.
He was at the window in a second, venturing a lightning glance down the street. No cars approaching. No one was visible. He turned his ear into the wind, listening. Nothing. He breathed easier, happy that this time his instinct had misled him.
Then he heard it. A lone motor trawling down Lindenstrasse.
And he froze.