Zwolf bent over the desk, engraving the plate. Through the jeweler’s magnifier, he peered first at the Russian bill before scribing the line on the metal sheet. The pot-bellied stove beside him ticked as its heat radiated into the room. While he considered himself lucky to be close to the heat, his duties included keeping the heater fueled and stoked. The other offices relied on the ventilation grills in the walls for their heat. Others near the floor directed cooler air toward the stove, while the warmed air circulated from vents near the ceiling. With his workroom in the center, he provided warmth for the other offices. While his workspace remained toasty warm, the others often complained about the chills and drafts. But the engineers claimed this would be the best they could do until they replaced the boilers.
While Zwolf’s location provided the most comfort, the open vents around him allowed noises, aromas, and conversation to drift into his area. He didn’t mind the music one Sergeant played on his radio, or the fragrances from foods or beverages the others prepared throughout the day. But with all the staff in the office, the nearby conversations distracted him from his work.
But today, only the Colonel worked in his office. Except for the occasional drawer sliding or chair squeak, the Colonel made no sound. The creaking hinges on the Colonel’s door as someone entered prompted Zwolf to glance up from his work. He raised the magnifier. Scowled at the vent. Perhaps his peaceful day might end.
The Colonel’s voice drifted through the vent. “Anything yet?”
Mundt’s voice replied. “It takes time for word to travel up the line.”
“The Major claims the guys out there in the woods are getting restless.”
“I’m sure the price of a million dollars American for each might also delay the Russian’s response.”
Mentioning the men in the woods drew Zwolf’s attention to the conversation coming from the Colonel’s office. Willi feared these two men. Perhaps they might say something his friend needed to know. He set aside his work, moved close to the vent.
“Why? I’m sure they’ve stolen enough to cover that easily.”
Mundt’s sinister laugh in response to Butler’s statement sent chills down Zwolf’s spine. “I’m certain they could print enough currency to cover it.”
“Think they would do the same as us?”
“Why not? What better way to destabilize then flood the market with bad money?”
“How is our little forger coming with the plates?”
“I planned on checking as soon as I finish reporting to you.”
As the door squeaked once again in Butler’s office, Zwolf rushed back to his table. After pulling the magnifier down once again over his eyes, he picked up the engraving tool. What is going on with these men in the woods? He must tell Willi as soon as possible. This might be something he needs to know.
Snowflakes drifted down as Ross marched to his rendezvous with Willi. Zwolf didn’t share details when he rushed into his office for his usual session. Frantic, he insisted that Ross skip his portrait sitting to meet Willi at the cafe. By the time Zwolf left, Justine had already departed for the day. So, he could not let her know he might be detained. She might worry, but would probably understand. He hoped Willi had a good reason for this urgent meeting.
Ahead, light streamed through the cafe’s windows, illuminating the giant flakes floating down from above. Like back home, perhaps the snowfall might herald a rise in temperatures, giving the city’s citizens a respite from the bitter cold that descended in the last few days.
A bell tinkled over the door as he entered. A new addition since his last visit. Perhaps business improved. The aroma from freshly brewed coffee and meat roasting greeted him as he stepped inside. Willi, seated at his regular table, smiled in greeting.
“Zwolf claims you might have some urgent news.” Ross seated himself at the table.
Willi shrugged, offered a sardonic smile. “It is news, but I am uncertain how urgent.”
Willi told Ross what Zwolf overheard. When he finished, he leaned back. “I do not understand what it means, but it involved the house in the woods and Mundt.”
“Is Werner still delivering supplies?”
“Once a week.”
“Has he mentioned anything about what happened there?”
“Only that they are ordering more booze. He also took several prostitutes out on his last trip.”
Willi nodded. “When I delivered them, the one who called himself the Major promised that as well.”
“And Butler said they requested a million each from the Russians.”
“It is what Zwolf overheard. Why would the Russians want with a bunch of thugs like that? Their NKVD has an abundant supply already.”
“And it was Butler who said this.”
“Has Zwolf had any dealings with a man named Fisher?”
“Zwolf only deals with Mundt. Mundt mentioned his name a few times, but Zwolf has never seen the man.”
As he drove through the ruined city after meeting with Willi, he pondered what he learned. Butler offered the Russians the men in the cabin for a million each. Could the man really be that big a scoundrel? Images of Butler’s thugs both in New York and here came up in his mind. Mundt, too. Butler ran in a bad crowd. But what about this mysterious Fisher? What could be his connection? Did Fisher have the links that gave this bunch their power?
He’d seen the lengths America had gone to grab Nazi technology in Austria. Ari claimed that all the Allies, including the Russians, did the same thing. What to do? Better yet, who to involve?
He needed to talk to Harrison, but Harrison said earlier he had a date himself with that girl who worked with Justine. Perhaps Justine might know where to find her colleague after hours. But that meant involving her. Butler tried to kill Willi. Would he treat her any differently?
Zhukov paced in his office. His head snapped around when Jovanovich entered. “Ah, Major, you got my message.”
As he beckoned to the vacant chair before his desk. Zhukov held up a vodka bottle. “Will you join me?”
Jovanovich nodded as he set his peaked hat on Zhukov’s desk. Finished pouring Zhukov, passed a glass to Jovanovich, hoisted his own. “Vashe zdorvye.”
Jovanovich nodded, raised his glass. “To your health, as well.” before tossing it back.
After refilling both glasses, Zukhov dropped into his chair. “What do we know about this man Fisher?”
Jovanovich shrugged. “Not much. He has several diplomatic contacts. Switzerland, Sweden. Even Syria.”
“Not sure, might be Kurds.”
“He wants eight million American dollars for the men from the Silbervogel project.”
“How many does he have?”
“Eight, and it includes Sänger.”
“A grand coup for you, Colonel.” Jovanovich raised his glass once more. “Comrade Stalin will be ecstatic.”
“I heard rumors that we might be close to producing the atomic bomb.”
“Like the Americans dropped on Hiroshima?”
Zhukov nodded. “Some of their scientists shared the secrets. As a courtesy.”
“They believe the best way to prevent its use is to share.”
“And this Fisher wants eight million for the scientists to build the bomber?”
“Imagine, Major. The Silbervogel and the atomic bomb? No one would dare defy us.”
Jovanovich rubbed his chin. “Eight million? That could be a bargain.”
“Not if we can get them without paying a cent.”
“How would we do that?”
“The network you set up located them.”
Jovanovich arched his eyebrows as he sipped his drink. With a contented smile, he studied the glass. “And, where are they?”
“Sitting in a cabin in the woods.”
Jovanovich grinned. “And we know the cabin’s location?”
Zhukov nodded. “Only a few kilometers outside our zone. I’ve requested assistance from the Navy Scouts.
“The Navy Scouts?”
“They are part of the Cheka now. Available for special operations.”
“Will Leonov be among them?”
“You are familiar with him?”
“Only by reputation. He and one hundred men bluffed a three-thousand-man Japanese garrison to surrender. He is coming?”
Zhukov shrugged. “Perhaps, but no matter. They promised to send the best.”
As Ross rushed up the stairs to Justine’s apartment, she opened the door, flooding the stairway with light. All the way over, he plotted how to reach Harrison without involving Justine. As he stepped in, Rudi and Louise seated at Justine’s table, glanced up from their plates. Both greeted him with smiles. Justine embraced him. “I worried when you didn’t come. Are you all right?”
“They called a last-minute meeting. You left before I could tell you.” He turned to the children, switching to German. “How are you two?”
Louise grinned. “We are getting ready for a party.”
A grin spread on Rudi’s face. Louise nodded. “It’s Rudi’s birthday next week. Today we got some flour and eggs. If we can get chocolate, sugar and other stuff, we’ll make a cake.”
Rudi nodded. “Will you come?”
Ross grinned. “Will I come? I would consider it an honor. In fact, give Justine a list of what you need for the cake. The PX should have it.”
Louise leaped up, hugged his leg. Ross ran his fingers through her hair, wishing he could make everything else better as easily.
Justine gave Ross a smile. “Why don’t you two go tell Wilma the news?”
Rudi grinned. “Time for adult time?”
Justine turned to him. “What do you mean?”
“Mother used to tell me that whenever she wanted to be alone with father. That usually meant she would be extra nice to me the next day.”
She kneeled beside him. Ruffled his hair. “Someday, we will find your parents.”
The boy nodded. “Father promised no matter what he would be back once the war ended.” He took his sister’s hand. “Come on.”
Louise waved to Ross as she left. She leaned close to her brother as they passed through the doorway. “Tell me more about father and mother. What was he like?”
Rudi’s voice drifted up the stairway as the pair descended, telling a story about his father and a kite.
Once Justine made sure the pair made it to Wilma’s apartment, she closed the door. “That was sweet.”
Ross nodded, tossed his peaked cap on the table before dropping into a vacant chair.
Justine moved to the cupboard. “Would you like some wine while I cook?”
“Sure. You haven’t eaten?”
“Remember? I promised to dine with you.” She brought a wine-filled jar to him. After she placed it before him, he took her hand, pulled her down onto his lap. As they kissed, she ran her fingers through his hair. When their lips parted, she smiled into his eyes. “You have something on your mind besides eating?”
“Always around you.”
She chuckled. “Not worried about keeping up your strength?”
“You invigorate me. Instead of cooking, how about we go out?”
She frowned. “Out? Where?”
“I don’t know. Where do your friends, like Gretchen, go when they go out?”
“Yeah. She and Harrison go out often. He never says much about it, but I thought Gretchen might tell you where they go.”
Justine scoffed. “I doubt she takes him anywhere that serves food.”
“Harrison mentioned he had a date with Gretchen tonight.” Ross shrugged, did his best to sound casual about finding Harrison. “Just figured women talk, and she might tell you where they go for dinner and stuff.”
“Why this sudden interest in Gretchen?”
Her tone sent images of her with the burp gun slung over her shoulder through his mind. So, much for his skills as a subtle interrogator. He switched to part of the truth. “I need to talk to Harrison. Figured if you knew where they might be, we could catch up with them.”
Her brow furrowed. “He wasn’t at your meeting?”
“Who did you meet?” The burp gun in the forest now switched to an image of her shooting to save Rudi and Louise. The truth might be his only salvation at this point. “I met with an informer.”
“Informer? About the Doctors’ trial?”
“No, something else entirely. Probably not my business.” He drained his wine jar, she put down the knife, approached him with the wine jug.
“Is this something to do with that file you found in Berlin?”
“It’s best if you don’t get involved.”
“It’s Ari, isn’t it? What did he tell you?”
“I believe one of our people might sell contraband to the Russians.”
“The last person I got involved in this got shipped off to the States. They tried to kill the informer I met with.”
She placed her hands on her hips, scowled. Her resemblance to his mother almost made him chuckle. “I am not a little piece of fluff, needing some man’s protection.”
Ross massaged his forehead. “If they discover you’re involved, I’m not sure what they would do. Especially if they also found out about Ari.”
“How would they?”
“How do they find out anything?”
“Who is this they?”
“I’m not sure of. I only know three names. The rest are like shadows.”
She frowned. “Shadows?”
“That’s another thing that worries me. While I don’t know who they are, they’ve got a lot of power. Enough to gain the support of important people back in the States.”
She drew him to her. “I am sorry. I would like to help you find Harrison, but Gretchen claims they usually find some private place for the evening. Never the same place. Perhaps you will find him in the morning. So, let’s have some sausage and cheese, and then we can, as Rudi said, do some adult things, eh?”
Before resuming her slicing, she moved Ari’s plant to the window.
After dropping Justine off at the streetcar stop, Ross raced to his billet. At the front desk, he called Harrison’s quarters. After leaving a message, he returned to the Jeep without taking the time to change clothes or clean up. Harrison trotted down the stairs as Ross pulled to the curb. Harrison gave Ross an appraising glance, shook his head. “What’s the rush?”
As he drove, he told Harrison what he learned from Willi. When he finished, Harrison shoved his cap back on his head. “A million apiece?”
“Butler’s doing the scam, we figured.”
“Yep. Arranged for those phony files to come to us so they could be shipped to Langwasser. Then he springs `em from there to stash `em out in the woods while he cuts his deal.”
“Not sure where he fits in.”
“How about expendable go-between?”
“Makes sense. It all goes to shit, they make Mundt the fall guy. Who’d believe anything he might say?”
Harrison nodded. “Plus, he fucks it up, they ship him off to the Russians like they promised. Either way, the guy’s toast.”
“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“So, now what?”
“Do we ignore it? Let it happen?”
“Yeah, I know. We have a patriotic duty.”
“You brought it up.”
Harrison sighed. “And I also mentioned it would be my duty to figure out how.”
“Thought you warned everybody about volunteerin’.”
“Let me rattle some cages. Maybe I can find some way for us to move on it without gettin’ ourselves in a jam.”
Ross grinned. “A Sergeant’s role since the days of Julius Caesar, right?”