“Good, Major, you are back.” Zhukov motioned to the vacant chair in front of his desk as he filled two glasses from the bottle he kept in his desk drawer. He set one before Jovanovich. “Tell me. How did it go?”
“Our agent copied the files we wanted.” Jovanovich waved a stack of documents before planting them on Zhukov’s desk. “I read them. You will find them interesting.”
“Interesting? In what way?” Zhukov slipped on his glasses as he snatched the document on the stack’s top.
“All belonged to the SS, but none worked the camps or factories using slave labor. All belonged to the German Gliding Research Institute.”
Zukhov’s jaw dropped as he glanced up wide-eyed from the document before him. “Does that mean?”
Jovanovich grinned. “I believe so. Silbervogel.”
“When the big Comrade first heard rumors about it, he demanded we do whatever it took to get it.”
“Yes, even sent his son, Vassily, to kidnap that Sänger fellow who designed it.”
“Such a prize. Hitler’s American Bomber. It would glide in space. Undetected and without interception it could bomb anywhere in North America before gliding onto land in Japan. Getting these men would be a plum.”
“It would neutralize counter-revolutionaries around the world. No one would attack us.”
Zhukov pointed to the stack. “And these men worked on it? Is Sänger among them?”
“Yes. Plus, the others had a high rank in the program.”
“What do we know of their status?”
“From what I gathered in the files, they were all offered removal from Saxony under a program the Americans called Operation Safe Haven.”
Zhukov frowned. “That kidnapping thing?”
Jovanovich nodded. “Since they could take their families, most went willingly.”
Zhukov tossed his hand in the air. “The West’s decadence appeals to many. But these declined?”
“Yes, and with luck, our networks will also discover where they are hiding.”
“Why did these go into hiding?”
“I am uncertain. Perhaps they trust no one. Fear a trap to lure them back for execution.”
Zhukov set the papers aside, removed his glasses. “Are you still working directly with your networks?” Refilled his glass.
“No, as you suggested, I arranged for others to work with them directly.”
“Good. The Western Allies are suspicious. I understand they set up their own agent networks along with counterintelligence. With the last war over, it seems a new one is about to start.”
“You remember we suspected the Nazis infiltrated many of our networks in Germany before the war.”
“Do you suppose the others that disappeared might be the Nazis who penetrated our networks?”
“That is an interesting hypothesis. That might be the case with that first list. I mean, these were blatant criminals. SS all. Maybe Gestapo. Von Braun’s file shocked me. They even calculated the calorie intake required to maintain productivity along with a satisfactory death rate. What you are saying makes more sense than that nonsense Komarovsky spouted.”
“For that reason, I would like to get permission to use a lower-ranking person with diplomatic immunity as the one who services the networks directly.”
“That would be wise. If they discover him, we pull him out, and you can stay.” He shook his finger at Jovanovich. “Major, you are learning well the techniques of deceit.”
Rudi used to love winter. Sliding, skating, snowball fights with his friends. Also, that was when Christmas came. He would go with his friends around the neighborhood on the night before to sing songs for the neighbors. The people would come to their doors, smiling. When the song ended, they always clapped or cheered. Most also served them hot cider and cookies. He never knew if his group of friends sang that well, but the people always seemed to enjoy their little concerts.
This winter brought no joy. For a while, he thought they would be safe and warm with the old people, but then the big ones attacked, forcing them again to live on the streets.
At first, he considered going back to the old couple’s little basement home. Cover the chimney to smoke the big ones out, then ambush them as they emerged. As if they expected that, they posted a guard. He then thought about burning them out. They had shown him how to make gasoline bombs with bottles and rags before the Ami’s came. Told them to throw them at tanks and in trucks to kill the enemy. But Rudi decided his duty lay in protecting Louise, instead of these people who had taken his father away.
The plan seemed simple. Attack the guard, then toss in a lighted bottle. He had found a suitable container, but had no luck with gasoline. Helpless, they resigned themselves to living wherever they could find adequate shelter each night, warmed only by each other’s bodies.
As he held his sister close, he recalled the pretty woman who let him steal her bread. When not helping the old man find food or fuel, he followed her to and from the streetcar stop. Once he jumped on the trolley to follow her to where she went each day.
As he stared up at the Ministry building, he wondered what she did in that giant building where they used to try all the criminals. His father had taken him there a few times when he had to testify in the courtrooms. He would sit with the spectators, feeling proud as his father gave evidence. Rudi told the old man about stealing her bread. He suggested that he make amends. So, he had taken her a loaf of bread, and the man coming up the stairs nearly caught him.
“We found the little rat and his sister!” A shadow looming outside their little cave shouted, “I have them cornered.”
Louise bolted up with the shout. Rudi clutched her hand as he drew the bayonet from its sheath. He dragged her along as he charged, screaming with all the ferociousness he could muster. The shadow leaped to the side, but as they passed, Rudi felt a sharp pain in his side. Rudi swung his fist back, catching the apparition near the eye with the butt of his knife, sending the bigger boy to the ground with a grunt.
Louise clenched his hand as he ran, seeking shelter through the rubble-covered street. As they rounded the corner, the pretty woman’s apartment building lay a short way ahead. Its open front door the only sanctuary in sight. He dragged Louise up the stairs into the darkened foyer as the sounds of the bigger ones hunting drew closer from behind. As they cowered in the shadows, the big ones charged past their hiding place.
As they caught their breath, an old woman carrying a candle stepped into the hallway. She scowled when she saw them huddling on the steps. “What is all this noise about?”
Drawn by the light and sound, the hunters burst into the foyer. The tallest one stepped forward. “We’ve got you now, you little worm.”
As Rudi stepped between the hunters and Louise, he brandished the bayonet, like a swordsman prepared to duel.
The tall boy laughed as he drew the broom-handled Mauser from beneath his jacket.
Upstairs in Justine’s apartment, Ross bent over the sizzling steak as if willing it to cook. “See? You just wait for the blood to ooze up.” With a fork, Ross poked at the steak in the skillet. His other hand clutched the sheet that draped down from his legs. “Then, you turn it.”
“I don’t know why you wrapped that silly sheet around you.” Naked, Justine stood behind him, nuzzling his neck while he cooked. “You have an adorable bottom. I like to see it.”
“When you fry, grease splatters. It can cause second or even third-degree burns.” He turned to kiss her. “I can tolerate a little pain on my chest, but Johnson’s more sensitive.”
He guided her hand to his manhood. “Meet Johnson.”
She frowned. “I see. So, then you would be of no use to me. Do all men have names for their schwanz?”
“Actually, I didn’t name it, Johnson. It’s slang American men use in referring to that body part.”
“So, I would be free to name it any way I want?”
“What did you have in mind?”
“Perhaps something majestic.”
“What about Der Fuhrer?”
She slapped his back. “That’s awful. I would have to give it some thought.” Her hand slipped beneath the sheet. As she caressed him, she nibbled on his ear. “See? He likes me very much. Like a cat I had when I was little. When I petted him, he arched up like that and purred. Perhaps I should name him Rolf, after my cat.”
“You’re distracting the chef. Timing is critical here. I might ruin it. Then where would we be?”
She chuckled. “Food isn’t everything. Perhaps I have other needs.”
“That’s short-sighted. If you expect me to meet your demands, I must have sustenance to keep up my strength. There it’s perfect.”
After placing the steak on a platter in the table’s center, he waved the fork in the air as he shuffled back to the stove, trailing the sheet. “Now, after I sauté these mushrooms and onions, we’re set. Why don’t you put those hands of yours to use and open up one of those cans of peaches? That’ll be dessert.”
Before going to the cupboard, she slipped on her robe. While Ross stirred the sauté, she opened a can and poured the peaches into a bowl on the table. “I met an old acquaintance of ours yesterday.”
“Remember the man you had with you at Mauthausen in the Jeep?”
“The guy in the dress?”
“Yes, that one. He works for that strange man upstairs.”
Ross paused in his cooking. “Yeah. Strange bunch. Not sure what they’re up to. Did you speak with him?”
“No, but I am certain he recalls me as well.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him. He’s a bully. He’s seen you in action, but he might want some fashion advice.”
After pouring the sauté over the steak, Ross joined her at the table where she filled two jars from a wine bottle.
She sniffed, then sipped her wine. “It smells delicious.”
“I’m not sure this is Kosher, but I bet you like it.”
“Was your family orthodox? Mine were not religious until the Nazis moved us to the ghetto. There, it seemed like the practice was all that was important to them.”
“Mine weren’t either.” After carving the steak, Ross served her from the platter. “But my father became extremely observant when I went overseas. Seemed like a totally different person.”
“This is delicious, as a member of my harem, I must remember that you have more than one skill.”
“Harem? I thought I was your one and only.”
“Let us say you are my first. One never knows what might come along. A woman must keep her options open.”
He shook the fork at her. “You continue to disparage me, I might have to send you to bed without your supper.”
“Well, as long as you come along, that does not sound so terrible.”
“You remind me of Br’er Rabbit.”
“Who is that?”
Ross’s eyebrows arched. “He was a cagey little character in a story my father read to me when I was little. A Fox catches Br’er Rabbit. While the Fox ponders what to do with him, he keeps begging the Fox to do anything but throw him in a thorny patch. The Fox then tosses him into the brambles, and the rabbit leaps away and escapes. All the time taunting the Fox about how much he always loved those thorny bushes.”
“Should I say then, please, oh please, don’t take me to bed?”
A gunshot roared in the hallway. As they leaped up, Ross grabbed his trousers. After slipping them on, he drew his pistol from the holster on the web belt hung from the chair. Justine raced to the cupboard to get her gun. As Ross went to the door, Justine extinguished the candle on the table. The room’s only light now moonlight streaming through the window and a glow from the crack at the door’s base.
As Ross eased the door open, a scream came from downstairs, and a woman shouted, “Mein Gott in Himmel!” As both slipped out, feet scuffled on the stairs below. The flickering light from below cast shadows on the wall.
“After we carve you up, we will make use of your sister,” a voice threatened from below, “Tell the old woman to shut up or we will cut her throat!”
Ross peered around the corner. On the stairway below, a small blond-haired boy waved a bayonet in a larger boy’s face standing on a stair below him. The larger boy gripped a knife and seemed poised to strike. Behind the small boy, a tiny brown-haired girl trembled wide-eyed, using the boy as a shield. Another older boy stood behind the attacker from below, sneering up at the scene on the steps holding a pistol.
Two other teenagers pinned the landlady against the wall, still clutching her candle. One held a knife to her throat, while the other pointed a broom handled Mauser up the stairs.
Ross turned to Justine. He pointed to his eyes with two fingers, then gestured around the corner. Justine nodded, then moved next to Ross so she could view the scene below. Both drew back from the scene below.
Unaware of Ross and Justine’s presence, the one holding the Mauser’s eyes narrowed as he held the gun out at arm’s length. “Move out of the way, Kurt, I think I can hit him now!” The smaller boy moved, keeping himself shielded from the pistol by the one below.
“I think the little ones are the good guys,” Ross whispered.
She nodded her agreement.
“I’ll go high and take the one with the pistol. You go low and take the one coming up the stairs. If you have to, shoot the one behind next, and I’ll take the one holding the old lady.”
She again nodded, then crouched. The safeties on both guns clicked.
“Now,” Ross whispered, and they both swung around the edge of the corner, firing nearly simultaneously. The roar of Ross’s 45 echoed in the hallway as he fired once then again, drowned out the crack of Justine’s pistol as she also fired twice. Justine’s bullets crumpled the lead teenager at the small boy’s feet, clutching his shoulder while the second toppled down the stairs. Wide-eyed, the wounded teen stared at Ross. The gunman staggered from Ross’s first shot. The second slammed him against the wall as the bullet hit his chest.
Ross leaped across the landing, shifting his aim towards the one holding the knife to the old woman. Shocked by the suddenness of their attack, the teen released his grip on the woman. As she bolted toward the stairs, her candle flickered.
With a clear shot, Ross fired twice more, driving the old woman’s tormentor against the wall. He collapsed, leaving a blood trail on the wall. Ross shoved the children and woman aside as he rushed down the stairs to snatch the pistol, lying now at the stairway’s base.
Both the girl and the old woman screamed as the boy holding the bayonet staggered forward, driving the knife into the wounded teen’s chest. After withdrawing the blade, he plunged it again and again into the teen, screaming, “You bastard! This is for Earnest and Irene!”
Once his fury subsided, covered in blood, he dropped on the stairs panting and sobbing. Seated on the step above the stabbed boy, he glanced up wide-eyed at Ross before his eyes rolled back and collapsed. Ross bent over the boy. Rolled him on to his side, exposing a growing bloodstain.
A siren wailed down the street. The sounds of roaring engines joined the siren as vehicles approached outside. As tires squealed outside, a spotlight trapped Ross in its glare.
“Drop the weapon and put your hands on your head!” a voice ordered from the darkness behind the spotlight. As his pistol slipped to the floor, two American soldiers entered the building. One covered Ross with a carbine. The second swept the area with his M-1 rifle. He aimed at Justine. “Drop the pistol, ma’am. We got a real mess in here, Lieutenant.”
A third man with Second Lieutenant’s gold bars on his shoulders entered. Glanced at Ross, then scanned the stairwell. Justine sat on the steps clutching both the girl and the old woman who still held the candle. All three stared wide-eyed at the soldiers clustered in the foyer.
While his carbine pressed against Ross’s midsection, the soldier snatched Ross’s dog tags dangling from his neck. After peering at them in the spotlight’s glow, he turned to the officer. “Says here this man’s a Captain James Ross.” After releasing the tags, he peered up into Ross’s face. “You get drunk and shoot the place up, Bud?”
The little girl wailed, while the old woman jabbered in German while pointing at the boys that lay dead on the floor.
“Shit! What’s she sayin’?” The Lieutenant scowled at Ross and shook his head. The old woman leaped to her feet, shook her fist, and shouted until Justine stroked her back and whispered in her ear.
Justine pointed to the bodies. “These four attacked the children. They also threatened the landlady, but Captain Ross and I stopped them.”
“That one over there on the stairs.” The second soldier, through the door, pointed to the dead gunman. “Looks like one of the gang preying on folks around here, remember the ones we think killed those old people the other night?” He bent over Rudi. “He’s still breathin’. Been stabbed. We need to get him to the hospital, pronto.”
The Lieutenant turned to Justine and the old woman. “Do you know where these kids live or who their parents are?”
After Justine translated, the old woman shook her head, while the girl talked to Justine. When she finished, Justine turned to the officer. “They don’t know where their parents are. They lived with an old man and woman, but these boys killed them and took their home away.”
“Shit, what a mess,” the soldier covering Ross said, “This whole country is FUBAR.”
“Load the boy up. We’ll take him to the hospital,” the Lieutenant ordered, “I suppose we should take the girl too. We’ll turn her over to an orphanage.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Justine said after talking to the old woman who nodded, “She can stay here with us until her brother is better. Maybe by then, we can find their parents.”
The Lieutenant now turned to Ross. “I want you to get in uniform. You’re coming with us. You will surrender your weapons to the Sergeant here.” He nodded, indicating the man who covered Ross with the carbine. “I’ll need your written statement.”
Ross nodded. “I’d like to go with you to the hospital. Make sure the boy’s taken care of.”
“Is that your Jeep outside?”
The Lieutenant turned to the Sergeant. “Stay here with the Captain. We’ll take the boy now, and you can bring the Captain along.”
Two more soldiers entered the foyer with a stretcher. After setting Rudi on it, they carried it to a truck idling in the street.
The Lieutenant turned to Justine. “We’ll send the meat wagon for the others. I’ll also leave a couple men. Might be more of these assholes around.”
After the soldiers left, Ross and the Sergeant followed the women upstairs to Justine’s apartment. The Sergeant sat at the table while Ross dressed. Seated on the bed, the two women comforted the little one. Finished dressing, Ross approached the bed. He bent down and whispered in the girl’s ear, making her smile.
As he turned to go, Justine took his hand and drew him close.
“This is not how I pictured the rest of the night would be, you know.”
Ross smiled and kissed her forehead before he turned to leave. The Sergeant touched his index finger to his helmet as a salute to the women as he closed the door behind them.