I was set up in a quaint townhouse in the middle of the city. With a fireplace in the corner and a wood burning stove in the kitchen, I mentally prepared myself for a very different life. The house smelled of smoke from an existence of days and nights of burning logs and cigarettes. The way the scent sunk into the carpet and the sofa and the plaster walls should have made me sick, as it had with Jack, but I found the fetor a comforting reminder of normalcy.
I took in my new home with a touch of pride. Yes, everything about the surroundings and my life was a façade, but it was still my own—at least for a moment in time. Niklas took a corner apartment nearby for easy to access in the event of an emergency. I snorted in his face when he told me he expected I cook meals. I was nothing if not terrible in front of a stove. The last time I attempted a meal was for Jack’s birthday, and the local fire house had to save us when the kitchen went up in flames. Unless Niklas was fine with things like raw potatoes and eggs I’d had to eat during survival training in Ireland, he’d soon learn I wasn’t the one for the job.
I entered a small room in the back corner of the house with a large window I could easily escape from if necessary, and heaved my leather suitcase onto the bed. My hands trembled as I unpacked. Inside were two maps: one of the whole of Europe for marking troop movements, escape routes, and so on, while the other mapped the Austrian-German border for if—when—the Nazis invaded. The inside walls of the suitcase contained a radio I was trained to put together with quick accuracy. I took it from it’s hiding place and pushed it all under the edge of the mattress, smoothing down the quilt to conceal its secret. It would be a lumpy night’s rest.
In the middle of folding blouses and bras, a stiff knock echoed from the front door. My heart raced as I glanced out the bedroom window, expecting to see SS officers circling the house, ready to arrest and torture me. Slipping a tiny pistol out from my suitcase to the pocket of my trousers, I walked slowly to the living room.
When I opened the door only enough to peek out and see whoever was there, it was pushed open. I didn’t realize I had the gun in my hand and pointed at Niklas until he wrenched it from my grasp.
“You have to be more careful, Elsa!” He waved the gun in my face, angry and snarling as I ducked away. “You can’t expect every person at your door to be Gestapo. And never point this fucking thing at me, ya?”
I grabbed the pistol back and pushed it behind a mirror atop the fireplace mantel. “I’m so sorry, Niklas,” I apologized, wishing myself calm enough to lock the door. “What are you doing here? We weren’t supposed to meet until tonight,” I asked an empty room before realizing he walked away. I found him in my bedroom, holding my ivory bra from his fingertips. Snatching it from his grasp, I threw it into the dresser and closed the drawer with a resounding thud.
“I should have known women take forever to unpack. Where’s the radio?” I pointed toward the edge of the mattress and Niklas rolled his eyes in dissatisfaction. “Very inconspicuous, really,” he mocked, lifting the mattress and taking the pieces as I turned to arrange my rouge and perfumes and curlers.
I stared back through the mirror with stormy eyes, watching him handle the fragments of our security. “Don’t touch my bras or any of my things again.”
His eyes twinkled with mischief as he answered back, “I don’t know why they didn’t give us the cover of marriage. It would have saved so much time and effort to just share this one home, this one bed . . . not to mention the other conveniences men and women can partake.”
“How very incestuous of you, dear Cousin.” I studied him carefully in the mirror, silently agreeing with his logic only because of I wasn’t convinced the rouse of cousins was a suitable cover. We had little in common in our looks. His hair was ashy; mine raw honey. His sharp, angled features spoke of Frank ancestry, while my soft round cheeks told of the Norse and Gothic royalty my father hailed from, and I’d quickly decided not even his charm could attract me to him. His skin was pallor and his grin too diabolical; he was as thin as I was, and I doubted he’d offer much protection if it came to hand to hand combat.
Not that it would matter. This was all for the audience. The world was our stage, and we had only to perform . . . and let no one know we read from a script made just for us.
Making sure Niklas understood it was all an act, however, promised its own challenges.
“It’s better for us to be separate in case one or the other is found out,” I reminded, watching his eyes grow hard.
He carried the pieces of the radio and the map near the fireplace, sliding his spindly fingers along the mortar until one of the large bricks gave way. He wiggled it free, revealing a hollow block and slipped our treasures inside.
“How did you know that was there?” I wondered, curiosity and confusion owning me.
Nicklas responded without looking up and brushed the dust from his pants. “This house wasn’t randomly selected,” he informed me. “My great-great-grandfather owned the home—passed it down the generations. It’s been used for the kind of work you and I are doing since the war with Napoleon in 1813.” I glanced around the house, not realizing the age of it beforehand. “It’s a big family secret, and since you’re my cousin, that makes you privy to it,” he added with a toothy smirk.
“I just don’t want to take any chan—”
“We won’t be discovered,” he interjected. “Don’t be so afraid, Elsa.You and I are perfect. You have your perfectly German name and your Ahnenpass since you’re from München,” he said, speaking of the documentation verifying her Aryan heritage, “and the Germans aren’t even here yet.”
“But they will be,” I insisted, slipping a tube of red lipstick from my bag and applying it while the new woman I’d become stared back in the mirror.
“Not while we’re here, darling,” he said, endearing me in overfamiliarity. The greatest misfortune of men was their misinterpretation of reality, and Niklas seemed to be following such a path.
“You can hope all you’d like, but there is war coming to Austria, Herr Böhm.” I stood and smoothed my hair. “Der wahre Krieg, der alle Kriege beenden.”
The true war to end all wars.
December 31, 1937
“Nein, nein, Elsa.” Niklas shook his head, disapproving of the brown gown I’d chosen which proved lackluster at best. “We’re going to see important people tonight, we can’t dress like peasants. Put on that black dress you bought from the Jewess tailor, Frau Lipstein.” I nodded and turned back to my room, exiting several minutes later in the dress he requested. I purchased it on a whim of fancy for my old life, and it was the first comfort I’d felt in the winds of my changing world.
“It’s not too revealing for the people we’re meeting tonight?” The dress was stunning in its design, with fabric scrunched together at the shoulders and covered in ornate jewels; the neckline was so low in the front, dropping close to her bellybutton. I witnessed Barbara Stanwyck wear something this showy once, but I was so exposed. The roundness of my breasts, bare beneath the silk material, would leave nothing to the imagination. “It isn’t too . . . indecent?”
Niklas grinned through his crooked teeth, hungry with desire as he eyed the curves appreciatively. “There is nothing at all indecent about this gown, Liebes. In fact, it could certainly save a few sinners from hell.”
“You remember I’m your first cousin, ja?” I scolded until the lust in his eyes dissipated into the saltless broth of annoyance.
“Let’s go then, cousin of mine,” he spoke through disgruntled rumbling, spinning me around and slipping a silver fox fur coat over my shoulders.
“Where did this come from?” I asked, burying my face in the silky luxury and inhaling deeply. The scent of musk and dust and notes of an old fragrance lifted to my nose. It tickled, transporting me to the Jazz Age, for I’d smelled the same scent on the glass mirror holding Mother’s bottles of perfume. “Silver foxes are North American.”
“It belonged to my mama,” he said with cotton soft words as he turned me back toward him and fastened the buttons. “Papa bought it for her on a trip they took to New York in 1913. Mama died while I was studying in Engl—”
I lifted a white-gloved finger to his lips to silence him. “You mustn’t finish that sentence, Niklas. Looking back...”
His eyes blazed into my own and he gingerly removed my finger from his lips. “…Will turn us all to salt,” he finished the motto we’d adopted when I spent our first night in Vienna crying on the sofa. He took it from the biblical story of Lot’s wife—a reminder to never think of our former lives. Niklas ushered me to the door and to the waiting car.
I wished to know more about this man who was meant to be protector and savior because he was a walking clash of attributes: a gentleman, quiet and calm who’d lost his mother and now spied on his own country, and a snake-tongued devil full of lust and vexation. He reminded me of Jack, and there was nothing complimenting about such a thing.
Through arranged connections, Herr Böhm was invited to a gala to ring in the new year at the home of the rich and affluent art museum curator, Jorg Göring. The event was brimming with Austrian aristocracy, and I learned of Niklas’s patrimony through a gossiping circle of women I was tossed to. His father was the chief counsel to President Wilhelm Miklas from the late 1920s until his death two years earlier and was a true believer in nationalism. Though the Austrian Nationalists remained at odds with the Nazis, it was based upon religious differences, grasping tight to their Catholicism, rather than political ambiguity.
I watched Niklas from the corner of my eye as he mingled with fellow guests, wondering what his ambitions might be. Did he believe in Austrian nationalism as his father had before him, or was his heart even against the German Führer? And as I observed, I realized how little I knew about him, so little in fact, that I had yet to ask why he was willing to commit treason.
A jazz orchestra picked up a melody of joy and life, drawing me from the clandestine thoughts to a buttery baritone voice, filling the room after several measures of instrumental grandeur. I turned toward the source of the euphonic notes and paused with champagne lifted to my lips, the bubbles tickling my nose as they popped and splashed against my skin.
The master of the baritone was striking in the most peculiar of ways. There would never be a marble statue of him; no Pantheon built for his worship. Yet he was everything the stars orbited in perfect, strange moment. He towered above the crowds who watched him sing the tune; he was a mountain unmovable in their sea of floating and dancing and sparkling wine. Tall and slim with a long oval face and a commanding nose, he wasn’t someone I would normally be drawn to; he was Jack’s opposite in every way. His hair reminded me of the hot Santa Monica beach when the waves rolled in, moistening and darkening the shore—an odd color, a muddy, dark sandy brown. But his voice . . . His voice was a mix of Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby, as though they’d come together and created a demigod with their wonder.
For as much as Austrians were a traditional people, rooted in their Germanic ancestry, they appreciated the Western influence of modern music. As the man crooned the final notes of the jazzy Russ Columbo number, the crowd erupted with applause. He bowed with chivalrous grace, soaking in the praise lifted his way, and backed away from the stage. The moment was broken as I blinked away from the fog I’d been swimming through, captured by his siren voice and drawn to distraction like a sailor to rocky cliffs. The band continued to play and the music went on as though nothing enrapturing had transpired in the course of the past moments, as I turned back to find my companion.
“Ah, here is my cousin. Elsa Brenner,” Niklas introduced. “Meet Generaloberst Hans Meyer.” My heart seized in my chest—a painful display of fear I could not show on my face. The man’s gray wool and doeskin uniform filled my throat with bile, burning all words in its path. My vision flashed red, plastering a bullseye across his chest. This was an enemy, but there would be many, many more to come.
The general stood before me with an eyebrow raised and a hand extended. I willed myself calm, stilling my trembling limbs, and slipped my hand into his.
“Fräulein Brenner, I’m pleased to see you look nothing like your cousin Niklas. Your beauty has no equal, my dear.”
Was it so obvious that we weren’t related? It was exactly as I feared. Perhaps this alpha test stage of espionage had underestimated the depth of human perception. Swallowing down the butterflies in my throat, I forced a blasé smile. “Indeed, Herr Generaloberst—”
“Generaloberst will do fine, Meine Liebe,” he corrected my naïve façade, and I begged his pardon before continuing.
“Indeed, Generaloberst, Niklas takes after the Böhm side of the family, I’m afraid,” I said with a honeyed oath meant to erase his thinking of our flawed, spun tale. Niklas eyed me with bruised pride radiating as he reached for another glass of champagne from a passing waiter, draining the coupe in a swift gulp. Certainly, he was aware of his own physical misgivings, and I knew to keep my mouth shut about such things in the future.
“Ah!” he shouted around a mouthful of the drink, swallowing it in a hasty gulp before signaled with wild vigor into the room. “Elsa, Generaloberst.” He motioned us to turn around. I came face to face with the embodiment of her bewitchment. The man was further enrapturing up close. “My old friend! How are you? It’s been too many years.”
“Yes,” the stunning man agreed and turned his attention first to the general, a sign of respect. “Generaloberst Meyer,” he greeted with a sharp nod of his head, offering no heil and none seemed required of him. “I trust you’ve been well?” The air between the two men was charged with tension, but I resigned to keep my business to myself and stay out of theirs.
“Yes, Danke. How’s Lilyia?” The stranger stiffened beside me.
“She’s well—happy, married—and I’d be pleased for her to remain that way,” he replied—a warning-laced heavy and thick in his voice.
“Happy or married?” the general taunted.
“You won’t come calling, will you?” I couldn’t pretend to comprehend the dissent between the men, and I found myself in the awkward position of pretending not to overhear the conversation taking place centimeters away. Something had happened with this Lilyia woman, and it had caused a rift as wide as the Grand Canyon between the two men.
“Nein,” the general replied, his jaw clenching and flexing, a dragon holding himself back from delivering a menacing fate to the young challenger. “And you’ve seen Miriam?” he retorted.
The man narrowed his eyes and shook his head. “Nein.” The general nodded in satisfaction and tossed back the rest of his champagne.
“Ja, well,” Niklas stepped in, a neutral party privy to the awkward circumstance. “This is my cousin, Fräulein Elsa Brenner,” he told the disarming man who turned to me at last. His gaze met mine only a moment before he took my hand, lowered his eyes, and bowed with grace.
“Fräulein Brenner,” he greeted, the husky timbre of his voice playing games with the air around me, like ballerinas dancing around my hair. His touch was as warm as any other’s, but his voice was like nothing I’d ever heard. When he raised his eyes again, I swallowed down the discomfort and allurement of the alarming and strange shade staring back at me—sapphire blue like the gems from the deepest parts of the earth or something alien and foreign of another world. He studied me in earnest, seeing into me and through me. “I am Maxim Schneider. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Mutual,” I agreed with a nod, pulling my hand from his fingers to occupy my tingling palm with a passing hors d’oeuvre, and tore my eyes from the uneasy feeling of his steady scrutiny. “You have a lovely voice, Herr Schneider,” I told him, trying to avoid his gaze again and forcing myself past the arresting distraction. I studied his neck, the pulse throbbing there with hammered thuds, and the crisp white collar of his tuxedo and pristine black bow.
“Danke. And what a lovely gown,” he said, eying the curves of my body as any man would. I should have felt the annoyance—the discomfort—I had when Niklas had done the same, but it never came. Instead, I pulled the pile of blonde curls over my shoulder to expose more of my neck, wishing his eyes to adorn my porcelain skin like jewels. “Would you care to dance, Fräulein Brenner?” Maxim asked as the background faded in my sight. I’d never been looked at by a man in such a way; he was exploring my soul and searching out the shades of sin I kept hidden. I glanced at Niklas, seeking an escape, but found him engrossed in a conversation with the general.
“I’m a poor dancer,” I lied, praying to be released from the request.
Maxim’s nod and muttered, “Aren’t we all?” was the only acknowledgment of my plea before he pulled me into his arms and spun us onto the polished floor. Clarinet vibrato filled the air as trumpets and saxophones joined into the tune of a German-style Charleston.
The music was alive and so was he. Utterly and perfectly alive. He swung me around in circles, kicked up his feet and whirling me like I’d never been spun before. I followed along with him, each of us daring the other to falter in the high paced quick steps of the dance, but neither did.
“Why aren’t you singing up there?” I asked with breathless gasps for air as we stepped back and forth, around and around, and a bead of sweat ran into my low cut dress. “You lied about being a poor dancer.”
“As did you,” he muttered, following the droplet with his eyes until it soaked into the black silk at my midriff, and his steps faltered for a moment—enough of an instant for me to take the upper hand. I spun away from him, stepping into a solo Charleston while he and the rest of the room stilled to watch.
My golden hair was perfectly coifed, and my cheeks kissed the warm room with a coral caress as I kicked up my legs in time with the music. A loud blast of a trumpet pulled Maxim out of his daze, and he swung around and took my hand again, flipping me over his back in a dramatic finale of our dance.
The room erupted with cheers and whistles, and Max, a performer to the end, bowed to the crowd as the orchestra slowed into the strains of Blue Moon and pulled me back against his chest.
“I typically only sing a handful of songs at these parties,” he answered my earlier question. “The band does all the work.”
“And you usually fraternize with the guests?”
He was a perplexing man with something unsettled burrowed under his skin. I didn’t have to be a spy to see such a thing. The way his hand splayed over my back with strength and finesse left my head floating away like a yellow balloon on a bright summer day, but he was reserved as though displaced among his own audience. His confusing presence was suffocatingly potent; I’d never felt this with a man.
“I’ve known Niklas since we were young boys,” Maxim spoke, the words hushed and firm, tangible in the air between us. I refocused my gaze from his features to his eyes. The suspicion I read in them sent anxiety coursing down my spine. “He never mentioned a cousin.”
Panic struck me in the chest like a freight train. “I—”
“His uncle died in the Great War, and they’d only been married a week before he left for France. He has no other relations on either side.” My eyes darted toward Niklas, still speaking with the German officer and regarding me closely. Why didn’t I know these things? They were imperative. How was this passed over in training?
Forced to decide what course of action I would take, I responded hastily, “I... It’s amazing what little time it takes to conceive a child, Herr Schneider.” My words held seductive innuendo, suggestive and used commonly to bring men to their knees. There were two people I could be: silent as a mouse, or temptress; the latter already existed as my forte.
Maxim considered the falsehood and belief never lit his face. The seductive words had no effect on him. “Whatever this is, trust is a dangerous thing when misplaced.” The presage in his voice froze me, stilling my feet and pulling me off balance when he continued to sway to the music. His grip righted me against his body. “Do be wachsam, Fräulein,” he spoke hushed and hurriedly, leaving me standing in the middle of the dance floor.
There were several words for careful and cautious in the German language, but he chose this one for a reason.