ON THE HIGHWAY OUTSIDE NUREMBERG
“The truck with the medical supplies will be along shortly.” Werner standing beside Willi, peered down the road as they stood in the dark next to his idling truck. “This should fill up the back so you will have a full load for the trip.”
Willi stomped his feet to keep up the circulation as the cold seeped into his thin boots, numbing his toes. He walked to the truck’s cab while breathing into his hands to warm them. His security guard snored away in the cab’s passenger seat. Willi hoped the trucks heater tonight worked. Keep them warm, but awake for their run into Nuremberg.
Lights appeared on the horizon down the road, crossing theirs. Willi turned to the man beside him. “Is that it?”
As Werner moved closer to the intersection, the approaching truck’s engine grew louder. Werner clicked the flashlight on and off three times. The oncoming vehicle turned off its lights as it stopped just short of the crossroad. Once Werner flashed his torch again, the idling truck’s gears ground before it crept forward. After passing through the intersection, the vehicle reversed its direction, backing until its rear came next to the back of Willi’s truck.
Concerned the new arrival might be a hijacker instead of their expected delivery, Willi stepped behind his own truck, putting it between him and the new arrival.
Two car doors slammed, followed by a hushed conversation from the truck’s other side.
“Come help us load up Willi, so we can get you on the road!” Werner shouted from the other side of the truck.
As Willi walked around the truck, he fumbled with his trousers. “Just had to take a leak.” He would be damned if he had survived the war only to be killed by some crook on a country road stealing a truckload of food.
“Your man does not trust us?” A man wearing a peaked hat next to Werner shook his head as Willi approached. A second man wearing a beret carried a box to the back of Willi’s truck while Werner drank from a bottle.
As Willi joined them, Werner passed him the bottle. “Here, this will warm you up a bit. We got damn cold out here waiting for you, but since you brought schnapps, I forgive you.”
As the man in the peaked cap nodded, moonlight illuminated the British Insignia on the cap’s front. “Nothing but the best for his Majesty’s customers, right?”
Werner handed the man a roll of currency. As the officer held it up in the moonlight, he grinned, gave Werner a salute.
After climbing into the truck’s cargo area, Willi arranged the transferred load into stable stacks. As he moved them, glass tinkled inside, so he wedged them together to prevent breakage.
As he finished securing the cargo, the security guard who napped in the truck’s cab appeared near the tailgate. A Schmeizer machine pistol slung over his arm, he yawned then stretched before reaching out for the bottle. Finished drinking, he belched, then shuffled back to the cab.
Willi scowled, turned to Werner. “I feel so much safer with your brother-in-law guarding me.”
Silent, Werner shrugged as if to say, “It can’t be helped.”
Willi tamped down his annoyance as he finished securing the load. He had few complaints, Werner treated him well. After their first meeting on the road, Werner offered him a job.
Now in Werner’s employ, Willi met other trucks out on these lonely country roads. After the cargo transfer between vehicles, Willi would drive the finished load to Nuremberg or Frankfurt. Once, he had gone as far as Berlin. Pleased with Willi’s performance, Werner claimed they made so much on that trip he could afford another truck.
Finished with the transfer, Willi and Werner ambled to Werner’s old Benz, while the other truck disappeared in the darkness.
As Werner opened the driver’s door he turned. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the office in the afternoon. Drive careful. You’ll thank me. Oscar may not be much of a guard, but at least his snoring will keep you awake.”
As Willi woke the next afternoon, the sun streamed through the window. With his breath forming a steam trail, he shivered as he tossed the blankets off. Unheated, the room cold as ice. As he slipped on his shoes, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee drifted on the air. After putting on his coat, he strode to the kitchen.
The little man glanced over his shoulder as he stood at the stove, supervising a sizzling skillet heaped with potatoes and onions. “You got in late. I finished the eggs. They are in the oven, and this should be finished shortly.”
“Ah, Zwolfe, you feed me too well.” Willi moved near the stove, hoping to share in its warmth. “I am getting too fat to be a German. Someone might mistake me for an American or, God forbid, a Russian. If you keep this up, they will stop me at every roadblock.”
The little man scowled. “I am not yet comfortable with that name.”
“If you persisted in using those numbers, people will consider you crazy, and lock you up again.”
“If the Nazis come back, they will think I forgot my lesson and have fallen back into the old ways. Next time they might just kill me and not give me another chance.”
Willi shrugged. “If they do, tell them we made the name from the numbers. We summed the first set as your first name and used the sum of the last numbers as your last name.”
“And the zeros?”
“Without a middle name, you honor the nulls.”
The little man shrugged. “So, now I am Zwolf Siebzehn, with no middle name.”
“It even says so on your identity papers. Even though I notice you include the number when you sign things. Including the pictures, you sell on the street.”
“It’s ready, now sit down.”
As Willi settled at the table, Zwolf scooped the potatoes and onions onto a plate. “Werner came by this morning before you got back and told me you would be in late. He is such a nice man. You know he offered to buy one of my drawings?”
“No, I hadn’t heard.” Willi smiled as he sprinkled cheese from a bowl on the steaming food before him. “Which one?”
Willi glanced up at the charcoal sketch of Justine and Jovanovich. While neither he nor Zwolf knew her name, he believed her to be one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Her delicate features captivated his attention whenever he sat near it. The man though handsome, seemed ominous. Not only to the girl but a threat to the entire world.
“I will keep the basic sketch. When he pays me, I will buy some oils so I can do it again properly.” After setting the eggs before Willi, Zwolf stepped back, gazed at the picture looking smug. “That way, you can enjoy it properly.”
“How do you do this from memory?”
“I don’t do it from memory, silly boy. I see her all the time.”
“Is she always with this man?”
“No, that one time, but the contrast between the two drew me to them. She? So beautiful and innocent. Him?” Zwolfe grimaced. “Sinister.” He placed a finger to his cheek, his eyes narrowed. “But I could be wrong about her. The more often I see her, the stronger she looks. In fact, she might be a match for that lordly man.”
After eating, Willi marched down the street with his hands in his coat pocket. One hand rested on Werner’s money, the other clutched the pistol.
As he rounded a rubble pile of rubble, a band of teenagers approached. While passing a bottle between them, they shouted and shoved each other. Like a pack of starlings enforcing a pecking order, the larger boys kept to the group’s middle while the smaller ones got pushed to the group’s edge.
One near the band’s center pointed at Willi. The others locked their eyes on him like a pack spotting prey. As they drew nearer, they fanned out, forcing Willi into their path.
The hand covering the money came out, allowing him to grasp his coat and draw the pistol smoothly.
As a soldier, he had killed without qualms, but these looked like children. Viscous, but children not much older than his own would be.
The largest boy in the group’s center sneered. “I like your coat. Why don’t you give it to me so I can be warm tonight? You might be cold later, but alive.”
Instead of talking, he would act. Shoot the talker, and the others would flee. He thumbed off the pistol’s safety. As he drew the gun from his pocket, the roar of approaching vehicles halted both his movement and the gang’s approach.
A Jeep followed by a large truck racing down the street screeched to a halt behind the gang. As soldiers leaped from the vehicles, the teenage band milled around, searching for an escape. With the rubble piles blocking the side streets, most jostled Willi as they stampede past. As several soldiers sprinted after the fleeing gang members, others surrounded those who remained. One soldier turned. Aimed his carbine at Willi. “Hands out where I can see `em fellah.”
A second soldier, his pistol drawn, approached as Willi removed his hand from the pistol pocket and dropped it to his side. He eyed Willi’s Army forage cap. “Hands on your head, Fritz. Like you learned in the Army.”
As Willi complied, the nearest soldier patted him down before jamming his hand into the pistol carrying pocket.
“Got a pistol here, Sarge.” The soldier stepped back, holding the gun high over his head. As he stepped behind Willi, he groped the other pocket. “Shit, look at all the dough.” He now held up the roll of bills he retrieved from Willi’s pocket.
The Sergeant turned to the boy who had threatened Willi. “I probably saved your life, kid. Let’s take this gang of thugs along with this gangster here to the camp.”
The soldier with Willi’s pistol and money shoved Willi towards the waiting vehicles. Willi kept his hands above his head until he climbed into the back of the designated truck. As he shuffled to a corner separated from the teenagers, he said nothing. In turn, they stared wide-eyed at him while the vehicle rumbled away down the street.
After arriving at the soldier’s base, they seated Willi beside an empty desk. At the same time, they herded the teenagers into a cage near the room’s back.
As a soldier slammed the cell door, he scowled. “You kids make yourselves comfortable. At least the people you planned to rob tonight can get a night’s peace.”
The Sergeant leading the squad unloaded Willi’s pistol before placing it and the cash in a desk drawer. “The Captain will have a word with you, before we decide where you spend the night, Fritz.” His eyes narrowed as he locked the drawer. “My job is to round up assholes. He decides who gets wiped and who gets fucked.”
The Sergeant turned, as a small man with thick, slicked-back hair approached, and saluted. Willi recognized the twin silver bars on the man’s shoulders, showing his rank as a Captain.
“Sir, this guy had a pistol and a wad a cash.” The Sergeant nodded towards the filled cage in the room’s rear. “The clowns in the cage were about to jump him when we arrived.”
“I see, Sergeant,” The Captain gave Willi an appraising glance. “And you searched him?”
“Yes, Sir! Pretty well fed for a Kraut. And that coat?”
“So, you suspected he might be a criminal.”
“Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck.” The Sergeant shrugged.
“I see. And the money and the gun?”
“Locked up in your desk drawer, sir. He hasn’t said a word. Don’t know if he knows English or not, but that stuff needs sortin’ out above my rank, sir. If there is nothing else, I’ll take the boys back out on patrol. Might be a quiet tonight, though, since we rounded up those assholes in back.”
“Very well, Sergeant. Carry on.”
The two men exchanged salutes before the Sergeant exited.
The Captain sat down at the desk. After unlocking the drawer, he peered at the money and the gun before re-closing the drawer.
“Do you have some identification?” the man asked in German.
Willi reached inside his coat pocket to produce the papers issued by Sergeant Harrison from the camp. He handed them across to the Captain without saying a word. After studying the documents, he rose and left Willi alone. Soon he returned, trailed by Sergeant Harrison, now carrying Willi’s papers.
Harrison glanced at Willi, shook his head. “Yes, Sir. That’s the man. May I take him to my office? I’ll take the currency and the gun also, if I may, sir, for his processing file.”
Alone now in the barren interrogation room, Harrison sat down at the table across from Willi. “We’ve got a problem.”
Willi said nothing, waiting for Harrison to continue.
Harrison scowled, held up the pistol. “You know it’s illegal for Germans to have guns.”
Willi sat up straight, remained silent.
He shook the money in Willi’s face. “And this? Look at you.”
Silent Willi returned Harrison’s gaze.
“We pulled a hell of a lot of strings to get you out of that shit hole before the French could grab your sorry ass, and you show up here already up to your eyeballs in the local crime.”
“I am not sure what you mean?”
“Every respectable German is starving, and damn near-naked in the filthiest rags. Only the crooks look well-fed wearing decent clothes.”
“I have a job. It allows me to buy extra food and find decent clothes. That is illegal?”
“What the hell kind of job does a German have now that’s legal?”
“I drive a truck and deliver things from one city to another.”
Harrison shook his head. “Jesus, what are you carryin’ in this truck, gold bars?”
“Probably better. Clothes, food, sometimes liquor.”
“You know the Military Government supplies that stuff here.”
Willi scoffed. “Their handouts don’t meet people’s needs. So, we bring in extra and sell it to those who can afford it. That money goes to buy more, driving the prices down so more people can afford to eat and stay warm and so forth. Someday our people will not have to depend on your charity to live.”
“I ain’t a dunce. Don’t need a lesson in basic economics. Right now it’s illegal, and you know it”
“It must happen eventually. We are like pioneers.”
“You were a policeman once, right? Have you lost all respect for the law?”
“I became a policeman because I wanted to protect people, not just enforce laws. The Nazis did that. Made evil laws and made everybody follow them. That’s why I quit the police force.”
Harrison scowled. “Yeah, then joined the army and marched through Poland.”
“I had to feed my family somehow. It was difficult finding work after you shunned the party. Then they lied to us about the need for the war. We thought we would go there to rescue fellow Germans. They never said what they intended to do.”
“Right now, you’ve broken the law. That officer outside want’s you charged. I may sympathize with you and what you’re doin’, but I just can’t let you walk out of here. You need to give me something.”
Willi’s heart sunk. This man saved his life. After that, he and Captain Ross arranged his discharge. Had Harrison now just become another crook? Did he expect part or all of the money to produce his release? How much would his freedom cost? “What do you want?”
“I want you to work for me. You’re hangin’ with crooks. I want you to bring me information occasionally that’ll let me catch some of `em.”
“Become an informer?”
Harrison said nothing, just met Willi’s stare.
“These people are helping me live. Turn them over to you and your justice for supplying people with what they need?”
“Are all these people that noble? There aren’t some stinkers out there just raking in the profits and screwing over everyone around them?”
“I don’t know. Like I said, I am a simple truck driver.”
“But you hear and see things. I’m not asking for a certain weekly quota. Just that you let me know about things that need to be made right when you find out about `em.”
“And if I refuse?”
“The officer out there is intent on arresting you for suspected black marketing. All he has is the money and the gun as evidence. They’ll hold you until the magistrate sees you. Even if he releases you, that would be a week or more. But with the gun, that’s illegal, so you might not get out at all. But in the meantime, you sit here in our jail.”
“If I agree to work for you, what then?”
“Then I inform the officer you are one of my informants working undercover, and we cut you lose.”
“What about the money?”
“To protect you, I have to give it to you along with the gun.”
“Then what do you expect? You said I would have no quota of betrayals. How do you know I won’t just walk away and do nothing? As you say, I am just a crook.”
Harrison crossed his arms. “You could have done that in the camp and didn’t. You got extra rations without strings, and still, you went out and discovered that forgery ring. Damn near cost you your life.”
“Perhaps I am smarter now.”
“That may be, but I’m betting you’re still as honest.”
Harrison lit a cigarette, then passed the pack to Willi. After drawing one, he examined the package. “You Americans have the best of everything,” After lighting the cigarette with Harrison’s Zippo, he set it on the table. “What happened to Captain Ross?”
“He’s gone on leave. Says he needs to decide on whether to stay in the Army or go back to being a cop in New York. I am betting he comes back.”
“You would work together then?”
“You can bet on it.”
“Will this be your office?”
“I am not sure yet.”
Willi flicked an ash into the ashtray. “How would I contact you? I am sure I just can’t walk in here. That would be dangerous.”
“Do you have a suggestion?”
“Do you remember that little fellow that worked as a forger?”
“You mean the goofy little guy that went by his number? Is he still around?”
“Yes, we share an apartment. He goes out during the day and draws things. People sometimes buy his drawings.”
“You want to use him as a courier?”
“Not exactly, but I could have him deliver instructions to you for meetings. You could also use him to send messages to me. It will cost you.”
“I am not sure. But people buy his drawings. You would have to become a regular customer for him and buy his pictures. That way, people will not suspect what he is up to.”
Harrison grinned. “So, I’ve gotta be a patron of the arts.”
“Well, at least one artist. He is quite good. Maybe his work will be worth a lot someday. You never know. All the great artists seem to be a bit crazy. He might be enough to fit into that category.”
“Then, you agree?”
“How could I refuse? Besides, I always liked Captain Ross.”