Jovanovich slumped as if he carried the weight of the world. Bundled up against the cold, the walk to leave his mark announcing tonight’s meeting failed to improve his mood. His own stupidity caused this. They warned them in training. Never get romantically involved with an agent. Entanglements like that make them ineffective. The people they recruit are tools who they might sacrifice for the Party’s good. Despite this, he found himself attracted to her.
This morning the watchers told him an American visited her regularly. On one occasion, he spent the night. Then last night Justine and the American had locked in a passionate embrace in his Jeep before they retired to her apartment. The American had stayed late, nearly the entire night.
Disappointed now, both with the situation and himself, he ached deep inside. He neared the cafe where they once met. One of the most enjoyable afternoons of his life. Now it must mean nothing. He wanted to kick himself for his stupidity.
Paused for traffic at the curb, he thrust his hands deep into his pockets as a Jeep, followed by a truck, crossed his path. Once they passed, he crossed to the cafe. With hours to kill before they met at her apartment, he might as well enjoy a nice long lunch.
As arranged, his car pulled up outside the cafe after he finished eating. He had other agents to meet before he met with Justine. He also needed to arrange someone else to maintain contact with her. It had been foolishness on his part to keep in touch with her after her recruitment, but he had been a young man with a young man’s weaknesses.
He hoped she made progress on the list. He recalled his last meeting with Zhukov as he studied the Von Braun file Justine copied.
Zhukov waved the sheet in the air. “I will send this off to our so-called allies.” He sneered. “I can’t wait to hear the Field Marshal’s report. Particularly, how the Americans explain it.”
“My contact copied the others. I will retrieve them shortly.”
Zhukhov’s shoulders shook as he chuckled. “They might claim that one mistake can happen, but so many? We hold them by the balls. If successful, this will mean promotion for us both.”
Promotion did not interest Jovanovich. These Nazis raped and murdered their way through his homeland. Killed his mother and father. They must not escape justice.
After his car parked before the warehouse, Jovanovich entered through a Judas gate in one of the large closed outer doors. Colder than outside, an oily smell permeated the air. Light streamed from the upstairs office windows, providing the buildings only illumination. In the dark, Jovanovich crossed the vast open area to the stairs. Careful to avoid any object lying about unseen in the shadows.
As he climbed to the walkway leading to the office, faint strains of music came to his ears, which grew louder as he neared the office door. Before he knocked, a shadow passed the door’s frosted glass.
“Come in, Commissar, I was expecting you.” a voice said from within as the music faded.
Warm air spilled out as he opened the door. The man in shirtsleeves behind the desk’s eyes narrowed. “You’re letting all the heat escape. Close the door.”
As Jovanovich closed the door, his eyes roamed the office. “Herr Moeller! Your lovely daughter is not here today?”
Werner leaned back, folded his arms across his chest. “No, she has no part in this.” He gestured. “Would you care for some schnapps, or would you prefer vodka?”
“With the chill in the air, brandy might be in order.”
After retrieving a bottle and two glasses from a cupboard, Werner poured a two-finger measure in each. Re-corking the bottle, Werner handed a glass to Jovanovich.
Jovanovich sniffed the glass before sipping. “Excellent.” He raised his glass in salute. “To your health.”
Werner raised his own glass, “And hopefully to the safe return of my son.” He set his glass aside and scowled. “We have heard nothing since the surrender. How soon will he return?”
“Ah, these things take time. We have thousands of German prisoners to process, but I expect word soon.”
“I have always been a loyal party member and would willingly do the work you expect without leverage. I hope he is not being detained because the Party feels I need pressure.”
“No comrade, I know of your loyalties. I assure you he is safe. It is just with all the current transportation demands, the return of one prisoner is a low priority. After our troops receive their critical supplies, we can arrange his delivery. Possibly even by the summer.”
“Good, I will reassure his mother.”
“I came today to set up a new procedure for contact. It is too dangerous for us to meet like this. The Western Allies hunt our people. So, I will send someone else. A local comrade to gather your information.”
Werner arched an eyebrow. “How will I know him?”
Jovanovich retrieved a playing card from his pocket. After tearing it in half, he passed one half to Werner. “The person will bring the other half when he comes. He will make his own arrangement with you for contact, including an alternative way to contact me if they compromise him. Do you understand?”
“I believe so.” After glancing at the card, Werner slipped into an envelope before tossing it into a drawer in his desk. Once he locked the drawer Werner gave Jovanovich an appraising glance.
As Jovanovich drained his glass, the potent liquor warmed him his insides. He re-buttoned his coat as he stood. “I regret ending our personal visits. But for your safety, it will be best this way. Good Day, Herr Moeller.”
“Good day to you, Commissar.” As Werner escorted him to the door, he handed Jovanovich the brandy bottle. “Take this, and I hope you have a Merry Christmas, comrade.”
Jovanovich chuckled as he examined the bottle. “You sound as if you still harbor bourgeois beliefs, but I appreciate your kindness.”
Outside, the afternoon sun brought more light than warmth.
“Take me to the old city,” he told his driver as he climbed into his car’s backseat.
In lightly damaged section, they pulled up outside an apartment building where children played on the doorstep. The concussion when blockbusters exploded nearby had shattered all the windows. Besides the boarded-up windows, the building had little damage. As he wove around darting children, he climbed the building’s stairway.
The shattered glass in the entryway door had not been boarded over. He could step through without opening the door, but respecting its function, he opened it.
For exercise, he bounded up the stairs two at a time, arriving on the top floor panting. A woman stood in the open doorway, the light behind her captured her in silhouette. Her loose flowing robe almost transparent with the backlighting gave her voluptuous body a strange aura.
“You are early, Commissar.” The woman leaned to one side of the doorway, allowing him entrance. “We heard you at least two floors below. Right, Joseph?”
As he removed his gloves to shake hands, Jovanovich turned to the man in the wheelchair. “Good evening, Joseph. Are they moving you soon to a place where you can get out once in a while?”
“We applied, but with so many homeless people, we are far down the list.” Joseph shrugged, gestured to a window. “But at least I have a window to sit beside. Not like those poor devils across the hall.”
As the woman moved to the stove where a tea kettle whistled, she tossed her hands in the air. “Yes, who knows when they will fix the windows? Will you stay for tea?”
“No, sorry, I have another stop ahead of me.” Jovanovich seated himself next to Joseph.
“Martha brought some excellent bread and cheese back from the Ministry.” Joseph turned his chair to face Jovanovich. “I would enjoy the company. Not that Martha isn’t enough.”
“I am sure she keeps you well entertained.” Jovanovich removed a playing card from his pocket. “I am afraid this might be my last visit for a long time.”
“Why is that?” Martha set a tray with bread and cheese on a side table between the two men.
“The Amis hunt our people. If I visit in person, it might attract attention to you. I will send someone else. One of the old comrades from before the war.” He tore the card in half, handing half to Joseph. “You will know him when he brings you the other half of this card.”
“Are you sure you cannot stay for tea?” After passing the card to Martha, she gave him a steaming mug. She held the card up. “Let me put this someplace safe.”
“No, I really must leave, but I will instruct whoever comes to at least play a game of chess with you when he comes.” Jovanovich stood, squeezed Joseph’s shoulder. “You might show the new person some mercy once in a while. Otherwise, I might have to pay him to come.”
“Your problem is you play like a bully.” Joseph shook his head and chuckled. “You need to work on your subtlety.”
As he walked to the door, Martha returned to the room. She took his arm, and they strolled to the door. In the hallway, she gave a furtive glance back inside the apartment. “He pretends he is all right, but it is so hard for him not being able to go out.” She leaned close, menace in her whisper. “Someday, I hope I catch those Nazi bastards who did that to him. See how they adjust to life without balls.”
“One more thing.” Jovanovich reached inside his jacket. “Here is a list of names of SS we seek. Can you look through your files? If you can, use your camera to copy them. We need to find out where they are.”
“Take care, Comrade.” Martha gave him a peck on the cheek as she slipped the list in the robe’s pocket. “Perhaps someday, we will not have to hide our beliefs.”
Darkness had long fallen before they pulled up outside Justine’s apartment building. Before entering, he darted into a nearby alley where a man stood in the shadows.
“Johan, you may leave now. I am sure they will watch this place soon and having you here will be suspicious.”
“I have been redundant here for a long time. The Jews also watch her. I am sure they will let nothing happen to her.”
“Well, others will also watch her soon.” Jovanovich’s eyes roamed the alley as if they might pierce the darkness. “If you are also here, it will draw too much attention.”
Finished, he slipped out of the alley and climbed her stairs. As he approached the second landing, he collided with a blond-haired boy dashing down the stairs. The boy wore a bayonet slung over one shoulder. He fell to the floor with the collision but jumped to his feet. After darting around Jovanovich, he raced down the stairs and out the front entrance. Paused at the second-floor landing, he peered out the hole in the wall. Outside, the boy clutched a girl’s hand as together they raced through the shadows.
Justine’s door opened, flooding the stairway with light. A sack sat in front of the door at her feet. As he approached, she stooped to pick up the bag.
She held out the sack, smiled. “A surprise for me?” She held up a long crusty bread loaf.
“It’s not from me. You have a secret admirer.” He told her about the boy on the stairs.
“I wonder if that was the boy who stole my food bag several weeks ago. Maybe he finally had some extra and is trying to pay me back. I hope not. It seems right now that I have more than enough. I am sure others need it more than me.”
“I am glad to hear you are well kept.”
“Commissar, you sound like my father when he suspected me of doing something he did not approve.”
“I am sorry. I feel responsible for your being here. I am concerned that you may not be meeting the right people.”
“I know you have people watching me. You already made a point of telling me. Do you mean like the American, or are you referring to my friends from Palestine?”
Jovanovich’s cheeks warmed as he struggled with his feelings. She is his agent, nothing more.
Before he blurted out words he might regret, he changed the subject. “Have you had success with the list?”
“Yes. Photographed all the files you wanted.” After placing the sack on the table, she pulled the camera from her purse. “Let me get the film out.”
“That won’t be necessary.” He held out his hand. “I’m taking the camera with me.”
“Does that mean I am finished?”
“We have what we want for now. Once they know we have this information, it might become uncomfortable in your office for a while. They will suspect someone in your office shared this information with us.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Americans will investigate you all. Put you under surveillance. They might even search your apartment or your person.”
“What might they do if they discover it was me?”
He massaged his forehead. “I am not sure. At the very least, you might lose your employment.”
“So, you are taking the camera and hoping they won’t discover me.”
“I am also doing things to lead them away from you, but I cannot tell you more than that.”
She clutched his sleeve. “So, what do I do?”
“Just go on with your life as before. I will not contact you directly for a long time. One of my associates will contact you and set up new communication procedures to make sure we protect you.”
“How will I know this person comes from you?”
Again, Jovanovich removed the packet of cards from his pocket. He fanned them out on the table before selecting one. He tore it as he did the others. “The person will have the other half of this card. Follow his instructions carefully. He will arrange ways for you to communicate with me that will be safe for you to use.”
She grinned as she held out the card. “You gave me the Queen of Hearts?”
“You are a beautiful woman.” He stammered as he continued. He took a deep breath before continuing. “I carry all this in my memory. I write nothing down. It makes it easy to remember who is who. That is all.”
“You know, I wanted to find records about my family. Where they went? What happened? There is nothing there.”
“I hoped so, too. I will continue to search in what we have. I am sure it will eventually emerge.” As he slipped on his gloves, he turned to the door. He paused as if taking one last look.
She grasped his sleeve. “I am grateful for the chance you gave me. Because of what you did, I can feed myself, have a roof over my head. More than others have right now. For that, I thank you.” Kissed his cheek.
His knees trembled as he fought the urge to take her into his arms. He thrust back his shoulders, nodded before stepping through the door. For his and everyone else’s safety, he must now tend his flock from afar.
Rudi pulled while Louise pushed the sled, Earnest made from scraps Rudi scrounged, piled with boards. Today the new-fallen snow allowed it to glide down the street. They spent the entire day in the park gathering this firewood. Hoped it might be enough to last through the night. As they neared their destination, the aroma of wood smoke drifted towards them.
Louise glanced up. “My tummy growls like a bear.”
Rudi strained on the pull rope. “I hope Irene has the soup ready. I am starving too.”
“Perhaps Earnest is over his sickness.”
“I know. We haven’t kept the appointment for a week. It would be a shame to have missed mother or father. They might give up looking.”
The sight of Earnest huddled behind a rubble pile, clutching the Mauser pistol he brought home from the war, halted Rudi in his tracks. As Louise continued pushing, the sled hit the back of his legs. Jarred loose, boards from the top clattered on the paving.
The sound of the collision prompted Earnest to turn. He waved them back, putting his finger to his lips, prompting them to silence.
Rudi lunged behind the corner before peering around the building’s edge. In the clear space between their home and the rubble pile, a body lay in a growing blood pool.
He leaned close to Louise, whispered. “Wait here.”
He dashed to the old man’s side. “What happened?”
“The thugs attacked. They killed Irene. Cut her throat.” Earnest turned to Rudi, a dark spreading stain on his shirt front. “They stabbed me, but I shot one in the cellar and got out here. I shot the other one there by the door as he chased me. The rest are inside.”
“How many are there?” Rudi’s eyes locked on the growing bloodstain.
“There are four, plus the one I shot. I don’t know if that one is capable of anything or not.”
“What should we do?”
“You and Louise must go away from here and hide. They said they wanted her, and they would also skin you alive for what you did to their mate.”
“Come with us. We can pull you on the sled.”
“I don’t think I will last much longer.” Earnest patted Rudi’s arm. “I already feel the chill that comes from bleeding bad. I would slow you down. I will keep them from coming out for a while with this.” He held up the broom-handled pistol. “But you must get yourself and your sister away from here.”
“Maybe we can find the Amis.” A lump formed in Rudi’s throat as tears welled in his eyes. “Curfew starts soon. They will be patrolling. They will come and help.”
“Yes. Try that. You will be safe with them at least.” Earnest’s eyes drooped as if he might fall asleep. They popped open as he clutched Rudi’s arm, his grasp weak. “But unless you have protection, do not return. More than anything, they wanted our warm home. Surely, they will guard it well. Now go while I can still help you.”
Rudi peered over the mound, brushed a tear from his cheek. Fought the urge to tear the pistol from Earnest’s hands. Charge the basement. Earnest nudged him. “Go now.”
Rudi sprinted back to Louise. Grabbed up the hatchet, they used to cut wood. “Come, we must run. The big ones are after us.”