Author: Aleksandr Voinov
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Formats: ebook, paperback
Hagen braced for the impact just before he hit the ground.
The moment his boots smacked the frozen earth, he tucked to one side and tumbled across the snow. He’d opened the chute so low that the impact jolted every bone in his body; risky, but still safer than sailing against a night sky that might allow a sentry to take potshots at him.
He stood and pulled the chute down, deflating it quickly to a heap, freed himself from the harness, and shoved both the pack and the chute beneath some bushes.
With his gear hidden and his limbs still tingling from the impact, he marched. Thick clouds obscured the moon and stars, though what little light there was illuminated the snow at his feet, making getting around slightly easier. At least he might not twist an ankle or collide with a tree, but knowing his location in relation to the rendezvous point would be trickier.
He listened, but heard no one nearby. So the others weren’t in this part of the valley—that much he’d expected. The weather hadn’t been ideal, and the pilot had likely scattered them all over the French countryside. But they’d planned for this, and as long as Hagen reached the rendezvous point within thirty-six hours, he wouldn’t be left behind.
He knew he was west of the rendezvous point, he just didn’t know how far. He’d head east now—in part to cover ground, and in part to stay warm—and would orient himself properly come sunrise.
He chuckled softly as he trudged across the dark, frozen landscape. Sieg was miles from here, no doubt impatiently waiting for Hagen and the others, but Hagen could imagine how much his brother must have grumbled and complained when he’d made the journey to the rendezvous point. Majors didmarch through the snow in the middle of nowhere if they could help it.
Leave that for the lower ranks, while the brass sat behind the lines swapping war stories. Hagen gritted his teeth. Much as he’d hated every single instructor he’d ever had with a cold passion, he was thankful to them now. Coming down over enemy-held territory in the dead of night and having to pick his way through thick forest was not something he’d have been prepared to do if gentler men had trained him.
Ironically, of all the instructors at the cadet school, he’d only liked the university professor who was regularly invited to hold guest lectures—his predilection to talk for hours about Aryan skull shapes and a mythical homeland that had birthed all culture-bearing peoples had been endearing, and had allowed many of the cadets to catch up on much-needed sleep, which made him one of the favorites. Unlike his old school master, the professor had never smacked his knuckles with the metal-reinforced wooden ruler at school, either. Though knowing about Aryan facial features got you exactly nowhere in the Burgundy countryside, especially in the gloomy half dark.
Hagen rubbed his eyes. The mission had just begun. He couldn’t possibly be so tired already that he was reminiscing about his training days. But it did keep his mind off the cold and the many miles that lay ahead, so why not? He’d been the last to jump—so he would likely be the last to arrive.
When dawn broke, he paused to work out his exact position with map and compass until he was sure where he was: a few miles away from the remote village of Saint Michel at the other end of the valley. In spite of the high winds during his jump, he’d landed reasonably close to where he was supposed to. The pilot had told him he’d likely be miles off target, and he’d been right.
Hagen hunkered down until he was shoulder-deep in snow-covered brambles, frost melting away under white puffs of breath as he took a short rest. His bones ached, his muscles burned, and his feet were numb from miles of stumbling over roots and stones.
Smoke curled over the horizon. Wood fire, not coal, but he couldn’t be sure if it was coming from a settlement or the remnants of an air strike. Whatever the case, with fire on the wind, he’d have to be careful, watching both the land around him and the sky. Bullets and bombs could come from anywhere these days.
It didn’t help that the rush of adrenaline was beginning to wear off, leaving the spikey sensation of the Pervitin pills that kept him alert and ready to strike like a wild animal. He didn’t particularly like those jitters—they made it hard to estimate how he’d react, even to himself, and he was never sure if the price was worth being able to go so long without sleep.
He got going again, slower this time, joints crackling like the frozen leaves and underbrush beneath his feet. He used what concealment the territory provided—dips in the ground, mostly—until, sometime in the late afternoon, the forest ended at a field.
A hedge provided more concealment but forced him to advance along the dirt road leading up to a cluster of buildings nestled against the hill opposite. It looked like an old mill with several outbuildings, some of which had collapsed. Aware that he might be seen from the top floors of the house, he rushed across the road, and kept his Luger drawn in case he needed to deal with guard dogs.
He crept along the hedge, sending more grateful thoughts to the men who’d trained him in camouflage and survival when he found a good spot next to a pile of lumber and observed the target building.
The rest of his unit should be waiting there, in the millhouse, but he couldn’t take chances. He could have just walked up to the door if this valley had still been German rather than enemy territory. Even if those inside were friends, the rest of the countryside could be teeming with foes.
He reached the corner of the fieldstone wall and found six rocks in a triangular formation. Good. All six of the others had arrived. The rocks pointed east, which meant the men hadn’t yet left.
Still, he crouched low, keeping his head down and his pistol at the ready. Hagen cast a glance back, then slipped from beside his cover to what was left of one of the surrounding outbuildings. No movement, no sounds. That didn’t necessarily mean he was alone; a sniper could be waiting for a clear shot.
And of course, his own men would be vigilant. He needed to wait until one of them came out to survey the area, which would be at fifteen-minute intervals. Though he was looking forward to some warmth and perhaps sleep after hours of trudging through the cold, he could wait a few more minutes if it meant not taking a bullet from his own side.
Fifteen minutes passed.
Something wasn’t right. Hagen pressed his back up against the building and took off his helmet. He put it on the end of his rifle and raised it so the brim was flush with the top of the wall.
Nothing. Not a sound.
Hagen swallowed. It wasn’t the Pervitin making his heart race now. An enemy would have taken a shot. An ally would at least have seen him. Recognized the helmet. Said something to someone. The men wouldn’t all be sleeping, either. Even if they were, Sieg himself would have taken over sentry duty.
No one stirred.
Hagen put his helmet back on and slung the semiautomaticover his back again. Pistol in hand, he got up and crept to the next building, this one just a few meters from the central house where the other men had damn well better have been waiting for him. He paused, listening to the smoke-scented wind for any signs of life. Still nothing. Somewhere in the distance, plane engines growled, and he almost expected to feel faint rumblings of explosions reverberating through the ground and into his nearly frostbitten feet, if not for the fact that the Americans’ morale-sapping air superiority had been ended by General Winter and his trusty second, Colonel Frost. But here, on the snow-covered land around this mill, silence.
He took a deep breath and started across the last stretch of ground toward the rendezvous point. Snow crunched under his boots, his joints protested, but no bullets flew at him as he tucked himself up against the wall between a dusty broken window and the wooden door.
He threw a glance around the area, watching for any signs he’d been followed and checking every window and possible perch for a rifle barrel, the reflection of a rifle optic, the visible exhale of a sniper before the shot. Then he leaned toward the broken window. He held his weapon up in front of the glass. Waved it back and forth.
Something was very, very wrong. Either the men were asleep, criminally careless, or . . .
Holding his breath, he inched toward the window.
Looked through it.
“” He spun away from the window and flattened himself against the wall, eyes closed and breath coming in short, sharp bursts. He’d imagined it. The darkness, the pills, the cold, the exhaustion, was making him go mad.
He looked again. When he turned away this time, it was to vomit into the snow. Twice.
No one had taken a shot, and no one moved, so he was presumably still alone, but at this point, he didn’t care if someone did shoot him. He stood and moved to the door, which opened with one forceful kick.
The overturned table, scattered playing cards. The toppled chairs. Blood smeared, splattered, sprayed over more surfaces than not.
And five bodies.
They must have let their guard down. Been ambushed while playing a game with the now bloody cards. And now all five of them were dead.
Five? Not six? There were six stones by the wall, so there should have been one more man.
He picked his way through the room, not even trying to avoid stepping in the pools of blood and brain. There wasn’t much left of the first corpse’s face, and the rats had already started in on it, but there was enough left for Hagen to be certain this wasn’t Sieg. Same with the next man. And the next.
He checked every one of them twice, but Sieg wasn’t here. He wasn’t a traitor. He hadn’t done this. Besides, if he had, he was outnumbered, and the men would have fedto the rats. Either he’d escaped, or he’d been captured.
Or, Hagen realized when he saw the staircase in the corner of the room, Sieg might be upstairs.
Hagen went up, but didn’t expect to find anything. Certainly didn’t dare hope for Sieg to be lying in the bed and gently snoring—the privilege of any officer, though Sieg was the type to forego leisure and go through reports or fill out endless forms; but whether his men had respected him the same way they’d have respected awas anybody’s guess. Well, probably not. Few would assume he’d earned the fencing scar on his face in battle. Maybe Sieg had escaped. Maybe he was hiding. Or wounded.
Hagen froze when the wooden steps of the staircase creaked under his weight. His heart jumped into his throat and pounded against the inside of his skull, and he paused to adjust the pouch holding his spare magazines. Damn. With the dead below and the unknown in front of him, he couldn’t decide what was worse. He wasn’t ready to see his brother dead, but he also couldn’t leave without knowing.
The first two rooms had been set up to serve as sleeping quarters. Kit was strewn everywhere, wet socks strung up in a line in front of small wrought iron stoves, the smell of wood and sweat and wet boots and wool and unwashed bodies pathetically familiar. He continued to the last two doors. A bathroom, the tub filled with water, cool, but not ice cold. It had probably been boiling hot an hour or two ago.
If he’d been faster, he might have walked straight into the ambush.
A shaving kit caught his eye. The familiar razor had an engraved stag antler grip and a print on the blade: Solingen. Sieg’s shaving knife. That hit him deep in the stomach, making him cringe. Not proof of life. Proof of nothing except that Sieg had been here.
A memory flashed through Hagen’s mind, one of Sieg receiving the kit as a gift from their father for all his hard work at school. Ready to go to university.
Hagen shook his head and folded the blade before sliding it into his pocket. Beside the place where he’d found the razor was some French shaving soap. Probably something picked up in Paris on leave. Lavender-scented., such trappings of civilization just didn’t belong in a war.
He turned and spooked again when the floorboards creaked. No one. Nothing. Just the house groaning in the cold wind.
There was still one last door. On his way to the closed master bedroom, he searched the aged wood for trails of blood, and found a few drops, dark and dry, but not very old. His heart beat faster.
He reached for the doorknob, then froze. His brother might be on the other side, pistol trained at the door, ready to fire at the first sign of movement. It made no sense, didn’t feel likely at all, but Hagen still called out, “Sieg? You there?”
Nothing. Silence as heavy and ungainly as the dead below.
He turned the knob and pushed through.
No, that wasn’t right. No one was here, but it was hardly empty. An all too familiar black officer leather coat was draped like a dis-substantiated body over a chair beside the shattered dressing mirror. Sieg’s kit was strewn all across the floor: boots, the whetting stone for his razor, a peaked officer’s cap. As if what little Sieg had carried had been violently shaken out.
And blood. Not a lot, but there were spatters here and there. A smear on the dusty bedclothes, and a streak on the graying white wall. Someone had been here recently, and when Hagen closed his eyes, he could see the fight that must have ensued. A unit of Allied bastards overpowering his brother? Sieg putting out a few of their teeth? There weren’t any teeth in the mess on the floor, so hopefully the bastards had choked on them.
Whatever had happened, it was over, and Sieg was gone. Maybe alive, maybe dead, but gone.
Hagen found Sieg’s leather briefcase open and discarded under the bed. He picked it up, but there wasn’t a scrap of paper inside. Nor was there anything in the black leather officer’s coat. No papers anywhere, and what was Sieg without papers?
You, Sieg had once mocked him, .
Who could know what the Allied codebreakers now had in their hands. Hagen himself didn’t know. It was sensitive enough information that it could only be entrusted to the care of a high-ranking officer like Sieg.
Hagen forced himself to breathe evenly against the stress-fired panic swelling in his throat. His gaze caught on a toppled chair near a heavy wooden wardrobe. He opened the doors wider, but the wardrobe was empty. On the floor beside it, though, he found a book, open and facedown like it too was as defeated as the men downstairs. Hagen picked it up and shook it like an Allied soldier undoubtedly had just an hour or so ago, but nothing fell from the pages.
He looked at the cover. Homer’s. His brother read Ancient Greek fluently, though this was a Greek-German translation. It seemed like the most personal thing here, as distinctly Siegfried as the razor. Hagen tucked the book into a pocket, then righted the chair—why, he didn’t know.
Dust on the chair seat.
Hagen glanced up, frowned, and stepped on the chair, like somebody had before him.
He stretched, and there, on top of the wardrobe—
He gathered the papers. They looked official, complex, and encoded. He tucked them inside his jacket, right next to his body. It might not be everything, but these were important enough to hide. The Allies had only done a rush job, not bothering to comb the room for evidence.
At least Hagen didn’t leave with completely empty hands. Though without the code . . . no, first things first.
He closed the door on the fight that had happened here, and backed away from it. What now? Every man on this mission save Hagen was dead, and even then, there were no guarantees.
Sieg would have waited for him. Maybe in another building or outside, but he wouldn’t have left when he knew Hagen was on his way into this. Not without arranging the rocks by the gate in a ring as a distress signal. If he was gone, then he’d left against his will.
The mission had now become more complicated, but that was all. The goal was still to find Sieg and get him to safety. Only now he had to get him out of wherever the Allies had taken him first. Then he’d deliver Sieg and the papers to their destination and then back home. Failure wasn’t an option. This was family.
John slammed the door hard enough to nearly shake its frame free from the building. The other men jumped, throwing each other wary looks and glancing upward as if they expected the skeletal church to cave in on top of them, completing the ruin of Saint Michel.
“What is the matter with you, you fucking idiots?” He waved a hand at the door. “Why didn’t you run him over with a goddamned tank while you were at it?”
Private Lawson showed his palms. “With all due—”
“Someone get me a medic.” John clenched his teeth. “Son of a bitch needs help.”
One soldier turned and dashed off. The others stared at John.
Massaging the bridge of his nose, John snarled, “I came all this way to interrogate a prisoner, and you give him to me like this? What in God’s name possessed you idiots to beat him within an inch of his life before he’d had a chance to talk?” He glared at each of them in turn.
One of the men cleared his throat. “With . . . with all due respect, sir, he wasn’t injured before. Not this badly.”
John narrowed his eyes. “I’m assuming he didn’t do it to himself.”
“No.” The man swallowed hard. “This morning. When he was transferred into our custody. H-he fought. Busted Private Manning’s nose and gave—”
“I don’t want your goddamned excuses!” John glared at the man. “I don’t give a damn if he was trying to fuck your mother. The information he’s carrying is useless if you kill him. Is that clear?”
“Sorry.” John rolled his eyes. Apologies would not fix the damage that had been done, nor would chewing these idiots out stop the clock and keep the prisoner alive any longer. Exhaling hard, John went back into the makeshift interrogation room in the church’s cellar. A couple of chairs. A rickety table. A bare lightbulb suspended from the center of the ceiling by a fraying cord.
And in one of the chairs, hands bound behind his back, was the Nazi that he had rushed across a hundred miles of godforsaken backwoods France to interrogate. With all the spies and saboteurs afoot, and German troops still not breaking, Allied leaders were desperate for any intel they could squeeze out of anyone who might have even the foggiest clue what was going on behind the German line. That was the only reason the lieutenant colonel had ordered the trip to this tiny scouting detachment. The sooner John had his hands on the bastard, the sooner they’d get their information.
The Nazi didn’t look good. Not just because of that gray uniform—which did look better now that it had some blood down the front—but because his face was almost the color of the metal table in front of him. His head lolled to one side. Blood and spit ran from a corner of his mouth. How was John supposed to get anything useful out of him? So far, all he’d gotten was a name (likely a false one) and three German variations of “Go to hell, American pig.”
But the intriguing thing was how far behind enemy lines he’d been captured. Burgundy had been liberated three months ago. And while some pockets of German resistance remained, an unattachedmajor on a jaunt in the French countryside made no sense.
At the rate the color was leaving his face, there wouldn’t be much time to get the answer out of him.
John swore under his breath and paced back and forth. They might as well have shot this one along with the others. Fucking morons. They had no idea that a prisoner like this one needed to be handled carefully no matter how belligerent he got. Officers carried orders, and thus, intelligence. Intelligence they’d take with them if they were beaten to death by a bunch of inept farm boys playing soldiers who—
“Do you ever stop moving?” the Nazi asked in heavily accented, slurred English.
“I will when you start talking.”
A single sniff of dry laughter. “Then keep pacing,” He spat blood on the floor, narrowly missing John’s boot.
John glanced back at the Nazi major—newly minted; the man was young, though he had earned three—count ’em, three—Iron Crosses, the Germans’ main bravery award, signified by a ribbon on his jacket button and a medal on his breast pocket. They all culminated in the Knight’s Cross situated just under his throat. Not exactly a paper pusher, or at least not just that.
“The more time you lose . . .” The Nazi regarded him coolly from under heavy eyelids.
“By the looks of you,” John said, “you’ve got less time than I do.”
The Nazi started to speak, but the door opened, and one of the camp’s two medics entered the room.
John pursed his lips. He gestured at the prisoner and stepped back.
The medic looked the Nazi over. Prodded his abdomen, which pushed more half-strangled curses from the German’s bloody, paling lips. Then he stood, faced John, and the grim expression confirmed everything he already knew.
John led the medic out of the room. Safely on the other side of the door, he lowered his voice to barely a whisper. “Can anything be done?”
The medic shook his head. Speaking even more softly, he said, “He’s bleeding internally. You’re lucky you’ve had as much time with him as you have. He’ll be dead within the hour.”
John swore. He nodded, gestured that the medic was dismissed, and went back into the room. “Good news, Kraut. Sounds like you’ll pull through. Which means we have all fucking night to talk.”
The Nazi’s eyes strayed back across the walls, but the cellar room had no windows. No way to measure time—just one of the many tricks in the book to drive home the fact that he didn’t control his own fate anymore. John had radioed ahead for the prisoner to be kept someplace dark until he arrived. He just hadn’t expected the man to be in this condition.
“The things you call talking.” The German sounded drowsy, weak, but maybe he wasn’t sharp enough anymore to notice how bad off he was. Maybe he’d speak once his willpower slipped and he was too confused to remember he wasn’t supposed to talk.
“The codebreakers are already working on the papers that came in with you.” John folded his arms across his chest. “So why don’t—”
“Then why do you need me to talk?” Something glinted in the prisoner’s eyes. Some knowing gleam that unsettled John, but he didn’t dare let it show. The Nazi’s lips pulled back across blood-stained teeth. “If your codebreakers are worth what you—” A deep, sickening cough interrupted him. He spat blood again and glared up at John. “If they’re worth what you pay them, they’ll know soon enough, won’t they?”
John narrowed his eyes. “So they’ll know soon enough that those are bullshit, decoy papers?” The flicker of surprise in those glazed eyes told John exactly what he needed to know. Shit. He’d had a feeling the papers were fake. No officer worth what they paidwould be so careless.
“You think I had time to . . . forge them?” The Nazi swallowed, cheeks tensing and eyes tearing up as he fought what was likely another one of those terrible coughs. “In the time it took them to slaughter my men?” A mocking eyebrow went up, though the effect was ruined by the extent of the bruising and the man’s white, nearly translucent flesh.
“I don’t think you needed time to forge them.” John stepped closer, looming over the dying Nazi. “You’re no idiot, are you?” He reached for the Knight’s Cross. “Not with one of these?” The German’s lips tightened, his cheek rippling, and his eyes darkened in an unspoken “get your hands off that.” John grinned and yanked sharply, ripping the medal free from the band it dangled from.
He let it drop to the floor, watching with no small amount of satisfaction as the German jumped at the sharpof metal hitting stone.
“You had forgeries with you,” John said. “Didn’t you?”
The German stared at the cruciform medal by his feet, eyes unfocusing, as if he was looking through it to a place beyond. Where he’d earned it, maybe, or when his commander had awarded it. Hell, with a major, maybe he remembered a handshake and a pat on the back from the Führer himself. He was young enough to be quite exceptional, from everything that John knew. But coming up against the real thing—the real beast—John felt like he couldn’t know enough about the Germans. Ever.
“that medal, you’re not stupid.” He stepped on the Knight’s Cross. “So you’re my shortcut.”
He let his words sink in, noticed the unhealthy gleam of sweat on the waxy skin, which gave the thick scar on his cheek a sickly gleam. The Nazi was still with him, though, still responsive. He hadn’t escaped yet.
“You’re not stupid, either.” The Nazi’s voice sounded far away. “Isn’t that impressive, how clever men are about killing each other? I can’t help but . . . marvel at it.”
“And how clever are you about men killing each other?” John’s patience waned at the same rate the German’s color drained from his face. “What do you know, Nazi?”
The prisoner laughed. It was the faint, dry sound of a dying man who knew damn well he was dying, and knew that he was taking his secrets to the grave no matter what John tried to do to convince him otherwise.
John pinched the bridge of his nose. This was pointless. The German wasn’t going to talk, and if he did, whatever information he produced would probably be as reliable as whatever nonsense the codebreakers pulled from those papers.
Minutes passed. Another of those wracking coughs that left the German gasping. It wasn’t his lungs that were going to kill him, just the blood loss. Maybe he should call back the medic and ask for a transfusion. Buy himself—and the German—more time.
The German closed his eyes and seemed to struggle to keep his chin up. His posture relaxed somewhat, like a drunk. It made John want to kick him in the balls—not that that would help any.
“One thing, American.” With what must have been a hell of a lot of effort, the German raised his head. “Do you listen?”
John shifted his weight. “I’m listening.”
“Do you have a priest? Catholic?” He sneered at John. “We are in a church, after all.”
“I can get one, yes.”
“You.” The Nazi’s pale blue lips quirked into a weird little smile. “Will you bargain over my soul?”
John slowly ran the tip of his tongue across his lower lip. He could bargain. He could dangle eternal damnation over this son of a bitch’s head until the very last moment. But to what gain?
“Tell me how you got here. I’ll call the priest.”
The Nazi looked down at his feet, head lolling forward. “We hit bad weather. The pilot pushed south into France. We took enemy fire. The plane went down. The pilot died in the crash. I radioed my position, asking for help. It—” He coughed again. “It arrived.”
That might explain what he was doing in this part of Europe—there had been reports of a small passenger plane crashing a few miles to the west, and the dead pilot was another piece of intel that matched. John itched to look at the wreckage. High-ranking officer traveling in secret, running into bad luck, and then? Ironic he’d walked away from a plane crash only to be beaten within an inch of his life by soldiers. But that didn’t matter now. What was his mission? Who was this guy?
“What was your destination?”
The Nazi didn’t respond.
John grabbed him by the throat, forced him to look up.
“You—promised.” He even felt like death to the touch, skin cool and clammy.
With a sharp sigh, he released the Nazi, went to the door and leaned out. “Get the priest.”
“Yes, sir.” Boots obediently started down the hall. “Get Father Charpentier. The captain wants to see him.”
John faced the German again. “He’ll be here in a moment.”
“Thank you.” The German looked at him, eyes clearly unable to keep focus. “It is getting . . . cold.” He mumbled in German, slurring to the point that John couldn’t understand him. He trailed off. Then he shook his head, probably lost his train of thought because he didn’t pick up the sentence again.
John wanted nothing more than to grab the Kraut by the jacket and shake him until he gave up what he wanted, but the only thing coming out of this prisoner’s mouth was more blood. As if for emphasis, the prisoner coughed again, a deep, wracking sound that made John’s chest hurt just hearing it. Blood mixed with spit ran down the man’s chin and onto his uniform. He didn’t seem to care.
A quiet knock on the door turned his head. Father Charpentier stepped in, a Bible tucked under his arm.
John glanced at the Nazi, who didn’t seem to be aware of anything, let alone the presence of the man he’d requested.
The priest’s lips pulled tight as he eyed the man in the chair. Even a man of God probably couldn’t help but be tempted to commit grave sins on a Nazi, especially when that man of God was all that remained of this gutted French village. If the good Father gave in to that temptation now, God Himself would probably turn a blind eye.
He looked at John, and John muttered, “He’s all yours.”
He left the priest to give the slumping prisoner his last rites. Hands shoved into the pockets of his trousers, he stormed out, avoiding eye contact with any of the sentries. Or the men who’d been responsible for the Nazi’s condition in the first place; they wisely didn’t approach him, or he’d have put the first one to speak on the ground. And likely kept him from getting up any time soon. Fuck being court-martialed; he’d just lost the most valuable intel asset he’d gotten his hands on in weeks. The war was getting much too hot in Belgium and the Low Countries to let valuable information slip between their fingers.
He stomped up the stone steps that led to the world above where the winter wind snapped at his face. One of the drab green tents had been set up right alongside the west wall of the stone church. Snow blew off the camouflage netting, and John ducked his head to avoid getting it into his eyes.
He leaned against the centuries-old stone wall and pulled his cigarettes and matches from his pocket. The wind blew out the first match, and John released a whispered curse and a cloud of breath as he lit a second. This time, his hand kept the wind from the flame long enough for the cigarette to catch.
“Get anything out of him?”
The voice behind him sent a pleasant shiver through John, and as he blew out a lungful of smoke, he turned to see Corporal Bennett—Michael to John and no one else—coming across the snow-covered ground. He was the only one here John knew, being the man John had handpicked to accompany him from the base.
John brought the cigarette to his lips again. “Nothing except blood and Nazi bullshit.”
Michael laughed dryly. “It’s only been a few hours. You have time.”
John grunted around the cigarette. “I do.doesn’t.”
“Oh. Shit.” Michael stood beside John, face nestled into the collar of his coat and hands tucked into his pockets. “After all this—”
“So what now? Any idea what he was doing all the way out here?”
John shook his head. He blew a cloud of smoke out into the freezing air. “I don’t get it. Said his plane crashed. Could have just run out of fuel. But then it gets interesting: he’s alone, he tells them where he is, and next thing, they send five paratroopers behind enemy lines to escort him like he’s something special?”
“You think he is special, though, don’t you?”
Tapping his ashes over the snow, John eyed his friend. “What makes you say that?”
“You’ve smoked that cigarette twice as fast as you usually do.” Michael nodded toward the smoldering stump between John’s fingers. John laughed quietly. He pulled in as much smoke as the cigarette had left, then flicked it away, adding to the crude fairy circle of discarded butts that had been accumulating since the unit had set up camp here. “You’re mighty observant.” He pulled out a second cigarette. “You should be doing my job.”
“No, thanks.” Michael watched him light the smoke, and as John took another long, deep drag, he said, “So what’s special about this guy?” With a smirk, he added, “Or is that classified?”
It was, John supposed. Or would be soon enough. But Michael was good at keeping his mouth shut when he needed to. Open when he wanted to, of course, John thought with a pleasant shiver, but shut when he needed to.
He tapped more ashes onto the snow and kept his voice down. “High ranking, for one thing. You don’t usually see majors in the middle of France with that many medals and shit.”
“A major?” Michael glanced around as if to make sure no one was nearby. “Are you serious?”
John nodded. “And he’d have been tough to crack if he’d lived. Would’ve taken some time.”
“Think you could’ve done it?”
“Maybe.” John shrugged. “The lieutenant colonel can’t spare me for long, so I probably would’ve tried for a day or two before shipping the Kraut off to one of the bases. Maybe hand him over to the British. Now those boys don’t play nice.”
Michael laughed, exhaling a thin white cloud. “And you do?”
“By comparison.” John brought his cigarette to his lips, and just then he met Michael’s eyes and couldn’t help laughing. “Honest! I’m a polite Southern belle compared to those assholes.”
Michael chuckled, shaking his head. “I’ll believe that when I see it. And besides, polite Southern belles turn into vicious creatures if you cross them.”
“Well then”—John finally took that drag—“don’t cross them.”
“Lesson learned, believe me.”
They exchanged a look, and even as the amusement faded, the gaze lingered. But not too long. Much as John wanted to suggest finishing his cigarette and then heading off to one of their racks for a while, they didn’t dare. Not during daylight hours or on an installation this tiny, and not while the camp commander was probably stomping around in search of the last man besides Father Charpentier to talk to the battered Nazi.
There’d be time for him and Michael later anyway. Since he was an MP, Michael had been assigned to sentry detail as long as they were here. He’d be in the guard shack all night. So would John.
He shivered again and pulled in another breath of smoke. At least the day wouldn’t be a complete loss.
Hagen hadn’t been informed of any Americans in this particular area during the briefing. Perhaps it was just a small unit, one that had escaped detection. Larger numbers of troops would have been noticed, and Hagen and his men would have made their landing elsewhere.
No matter. The Americans were here, and they had Sieg. And they’d killed the others. He wished he’d had time to bury them, or at least . . . make them decent, somehow. If anything about gaping skulls and the smell of shit and piss and brains could be at all decent. What he’d done, in the end, was all he could do—he’d taken one of the still-smoldering logs from the fireplace with a pair of cast iron tongs and tossed it onto one of the beds. Then he’d gone a safe distance and turned back to watch the old mill burn.
Viking funeral pyre. It would have appealed to his commanding officer, who fancied himself the reincarnation of the famous Viking hero Ragnar Lothbrok.
But even better, the fire had attracted attention, and he’d hunkered down behind the bushes as the Jeeps rushed past. Three, and they’d gotten here quickly. So he knew at least one thing: The base was very close. Close enough to reach on foot.
Once he couldn’t hear the engines anymore, he broke into a trot and ran beside the road, following their tracks in the snow.
They led him to a small camp, arriving at dusk. Before he could plan his attack, though, a unit of Americans drove out of the camp again, and they had Sieg with them. His brother was alive, thank, and Hagen followed this Jeep’s tracks down miles of country road.
The Pervitin kept him going through the night, but he felt exhaustion waiting around the edges. He was jittery, but he couldn’t risk stopping to rest. If more snow fell, or more vehicles came down this road, he’d lose Sieg. So he followed the tracks, heart hammering between his ears with worry and fear and anger.
Occasionally, he’d pause to collect his bearings, to ensure he hadn’t lost the track. But whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the blood spatters on the whitewashed walls. The memory of his brother. The taste and echo of violence in that room. And then he’d continue.
It was just after noon when he reached the next camp. This one was even tinier than the last, consisting of little more than a flock of green tents hidden beneath snow-dusted camouflage netting around an old church, one of those stone ones that had likely been here for a thousand years. Under that netting, a Jeep with fresh tracks in the snow leading up to its tires.
Around the camp’s perimeter, four small guard shacks had been erected, each little more than a hut or a lean-to constructed from found materials. This was a camp meant to support a few men. A forward base, and recent. The church was a wise choice of locations: slightly elevated from the surrounding territory, unassuming and abandoned enough that it wasn’t likely to be bombed by a rovingbattle pilot. If anybody could spare pilots for such minor tasks. Just a few short years ago, the had reigned supreme in these same skies, every enemy a fair target to the wrath of eagles.
Hagen’s gaze drifted over the church again. The damaged roof, the broken windows. Cracked stones and walls in danger of crumbling. Still a church nonetheless.
He couldn’t help a small laugh.
Not yet, though. Hagen ducked back into the forest, planning to stay behind the tree line until nightfall. One against dozens needed the element of surprise and cover of darkness, so even though impatience gnawed at him, he forced himself to stay low and still.
He nibbled some tasteless rations to keep his strength up. As the sun sank behind the leafless trees on the other side of the camp, he took another Pervitin too. He’d need to rest soon—the pills would only keep him going for so long—but first: Sieg.
Watching from a distance, he memorized the guard change rotation and the foot patrols’ timing. Once he made his move, he’d have a window of about seven minutes to neutralize a stationary sentry before another patrol went by. Plenty of time to dispatch one of these children the Americans called soldiers.
With darkness covering him, he inched closer to the nearest guard shack. That sentry was alert and kept sweeping glances over the ground Hagen needed to cross. Every few minutes, he’d even come outside and check the perimeter of his shack. He was probably one of the wild-eyed young types, bored with the monotony and itching for a fight. Hagen would stand out too much against the snow to escape detection by one paying that much attention. Creeping through the underbrush, he moved toward the next guard shack.
That sentry wasn’t quite as alert as the first, but still aware. They’d all been on shift for a few hours now; fatigue would be setting in. One of them had to be nodding off by now.
At the third shack, Hagen grinned. The sentry was alert and even a little agitated, but he wasn’t watching his assigned terrain. Whatever had the sentry’s attention, it wasn’t the landscape or Hagen.
Hagen waited for the next foot patrol to go by. The man stopped and exchanged a few words with the sentry, then they both chuckled, and the patrol continued his rounds. As soon as the patrol was a few safe meters away, Hagen emerged from his cover and crept toward the shack.
He pressed himself up against the wall beside the door. Looked around to make sure an ambitious foot patrol wasn’t ahead of schedule. When he was sure he was alone except for the distracted sentry, Hagen tapped on the door with his knuckles.
Movement on the other side. Hagen adjusted his grip on his pistol and held his breath, listening to every motion approaching the door.
The lock clicked.
The door opened.
“Didn’t expect you so—”
Hagen grabbed the sentry, clapping a hand over his nose and mouth, and dragged him into the shack. He snapped the sentry’s neck with a single, swift movement and let the body crumple to the floor as he toed the door shut behind him. He blew out the breath he had somehow kept deep in his lungs, still feeling the echo of the sickening crunch of bones.
Pathetic. They believed they could win this war with barely trained troops. He turned the body over and smiled. Lucky, for once. Of all the sentries, this one resembled him most in build and, near as he could tell in the low light, coloring. He’d half expected more blacks, but this one would do very nicely.
Hagen leaned his rifle against the wall and began to strip the corpse, keeping all senses alert, the sleep inhibitor thrumming through his nerves. As unwieldy as a body was, he’d helped dress enough stone-drunk comrades during his training—or rather, the rare and illegal trips to the nearby village to score drink and, for those who wanted it, a pair of warm arms to succor a heroic Aryan or two—that he proved surprisingly adept at this.
He removed his conspicuous SS jacket and trousers, and slipped into the enemy uniform. The other man’s boots were thankfully too large rather than too small, but much newer than his own.
After five years of war, the quality and newness of the American’s equipment struck him. Never mind that he wasn’t supposed to wear any of it. Well, maybe wear it, if it was useful, but he remembered his officer’s grave words that if he fin enemy uniform, he lost all protection under the laws of war:
He slipped Sieg’s papers under his jacket and shirt, keeping them against his skin at the small of his back. The American’s belt would hold them in place. He then dressed the corpse in his own uniform, which might very well buy him more time once it was discovered. Especially if he dragged the body out into the woods and dumped it there. Which he would after the next foot patrol went by.
He eyed his own rifle for a moment. Though he didn’t intend to let himself get captured, he’d have to leave the gun here for a time, and it might be discovered. Orders were orders. No functioning semiautomatic rifles could fall into enemy hands. Besides, he still had his Luger, and this sentry wouldn’t need his M1 again anytime soon.
He set the butt of hison the ground and held the barrel just below the muzzle. He braced his foot against the stock, held his breath as he listened for any footsteps nearby, and when he was sure no one was close, he shoved his weight against the stock, snapping off the butt and rendering the weapon useless.
For the moment, he shoved the broken gun and the limp body up against the wall and assumed the sentry’s position, M1 at the ready and searching the forest for intruders. Outside, boots crunched on snow. Hagen’s heart fell into sync with the footsteps, and he lowered his chin a little to make sure that when he came into view, shadows covered as much of his face as possible.
A soldier appeared from Hagen’s right and paused in front of the guard shack. “Got any smokes?” he asked. “I just smoked my last.”
Hagen cleared his throat, grateful he was well practiced in speaking with an American accent. He’d never have thought the few years spent as a child with his aunt’s family in America would end up being so useful. Well, “useful” in being taken out of his unit that had been destined for the Eastern Front and joining legendary Otto Skorzeny’s SS commandos on the Western Front. Considering how rare that skill was, he had by now forgiven his English teacher at school who’d mocked him for his “unrecognizable cowboy speech.”
“Only have two left to hold me until morning. Sorry.”
“Damn.” The soldier shrugged, his gear creaking and rattling with the motion. “I’ll see if Landon’s got any.” He gestured with his gun. “Stay warm in there, buddy.”
“Right. You too.”
As soon as the soldier’s footsteps faded into the distance, Hagen knelt beside the body. He pulled one of the limp arms around his shoulders, and—
Approaching, but from the wrong direction. He looked over his shoulder, furrowing his brow at the closed door as if he could see through to whoever was coming. Possibly a higher-up checking on one of his lax sentries.
The footsteps stopped outside. Hagen swallowed. Then came a sharp but quiet series of taps, like a crude imitation of Morse code, but meaning nothing. He double-checked that his pistol was ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice, and then unlocked the door.
It opened, and another soldier slipped past him into the shack. Hagen’s heartbeat shot up. The soldier was centimeters from the dead sentry.
“I’ve needed this all day,” came a coarse, exhausted voice, and a hand appeared from the shadows and landed on Hagen’s waist.
Hagen stepped back, but the other man followed, and before he could make sense of this bizarre ambush, Hagen was pressed against the flimsy wall with another man’s mouth—tobacco, coffee, stubbled chin—against his. His hands hovered uselessly in the air for a few seconds. Shove him away? Shoot him? Grab on and enjoy—
“What the hell?” The other man abruptly stepped back. “What is . . .” He furrowed his brow in the low light. “You’re not—”
Hagen hit the man in the gut, doubling him over. He drove a fist into his back, and the intruder dropped to his knees.
“What the fuck is going—oh my God.”
Hagen reached for his gun, but a fist slammed into the side of his leg. He swore as his knee buckled, and the soldier flew upward, shoving Hagen against the wall with an entirely different kind of force than before, nearly toppling the flimsy hut.
“I need some help in here!” the American shouted into the night.
Shit! Hagen’s amped-up pulse slowed to a trickle of icy slush in his veins. He knew that he had no time to strangle the man, so he grabbed the stolen rifle and swung it like a medieval club. The man ducked so the butt only glanced off his temple, but it was enough to send him to his knees. Hagen spat a toneless curse, aware that he could stand and fight, or run. Maybe the others hadn’t heard the shouts. Maybe he could talk his way out of here. Maybe if he just ran he could try again later.
But after they found these two, security would be tighter than a nun’s thighs.
Shooting the American would draw the attention of any soldiers who hadn’t already heard the cry for help, so he left the man crumpled beside the other corpse and exited the hut, loaded pistol in his belt and the M1 in his hands. He moved swiftly toward the church structure, ducking into shadows to avoid the guards running toward the sentry hut.
He had a few minutes to find Sieg. Maybe only moments. They might both already be as good as dead, but he’d thought that a few times already.
Not that any of that mattered right now, because they had Sieg.
He shouldered open a heavy door and wandered through what must have once been the sanctuary to a narrow hallway, passing makeshift doors. He ground his teeth, biting back even a whispered “Sieg?” Tempting though it was, the only response would likely be a bullet through his brain.
“Hey!” Someone grabbed his arm, and Hagen very nearly took the man down before a sharp, “There’s an alarm sounding! Get out there!” reminded him what uniform he was in.
“I’ve got orders.” Hagen gestured past him. “To get the prisoner.”
The other soldier stiffened, eyeing him in the darkness. “Then what the hell are you doing in here?”
“Right. Of course.” Hagen forced a laugh. “I was . . .” What? “I was told to come in here. Where am I—”
“Fucking moron.” The soldier shoved Hagen back toward the entrance. “Now get back out there before youthe fucking prisoner.”
Hagen didn’t have much choice, when the other man followed him outside. The tiny base was in chaos. Shouts and footsteps thundered in from the direction of the guard shack where he’d left the two soldiers. Shit. Not good.
Hagen ducked his chin into his collar and started to the right, opposite the approaching men, but the soldier caught his arm again.
“What’s the matter with you?” He shoved Hagen again, this time forward. “Now follow me, you fucking idiot.”
The soldier threw him a puzzled look, but shook his head and continued around the other side of the building. Hagen waited until they had a few meters between them, and then he followed the soldier.
“There! That’s him!”
The shout turned Hagen around. Behind him, three sentries carrying rifles jogged behind a fourth man. The blood streaming from that man’s temple brought more curses to Hagen’s lips. He should have shot the son of a bitch when he’d had the chance.
Hagen turned after the other soldier again and sprinted across the slick frozen ground. Too late, though. Soldiers came at him from all directions. Closed in on him. Surrounded him. He reached for his pistol, but half a dozen rifle barrels were suddenly at eye level.
Heart pounding, he let go of the pistol. He laced his hands behind his head.
The man with the bleeding temple stepped in between a pair of the soldiers, murder in his eyes. “Who the fuck are you?”
Hagen’s eyes narrowed. Rage pulsed inside him like something alive. That bastard stood between him and Sieg, and if not for all the soldiers, he could have wiped the ground with him. “I’m death,” he said, coldly. “Yours.”
“Death?” The American snorted. “You must be mistaken. Because this”—he gestured at the ring of rifles—“looks a lot more like death to me.” He inclined his head. “Give me one good reason not to let them unload every fucking round into you.”
Hagen held his gaze but didn’t answer. He spat at the American’s feet.
Something flickered across the American’s expression. The menace in his tight lips diminished just slightly, and an unspoken thought pulled his eyebrows closer together. “What’s your name, Kraut?”
Hagen laughed dryly. “Pick one. Maybe.”
“Todd?” The American released an impatient breath and dabbed at the blood on his temple. “You know what? I don’t have time for this tonight. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Will we?” Hagen asked. “I wasn’t planning on staying, but.”
Eyes still locked on Hagen, the American made a sharp gesture. “Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere anytime soon. But don’t fucking kill this one.”
Panic and fury shot through Hagen, but before he could make a move, the Americans lowered their rifles, and the ring tightened like a hangman’s noose around him. Fists. Boots. Cold, hard ground.
And just before darkness became deep, deep black, the American’s words echoed in Hagen’s mind: