|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.08(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.19(d)|
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Lichtenau was a little town—not much more than a village—a few miles south and west of Nuremberg. Charlie Pytlak walked down what was left of the main street, a BAR cradled in his arms. He had the safety off and a round chambered. He knew the Nazis had surrendered the day before, but some damnfool diehards might not have got the word—or might not care. The only thing worse than getting it during the war was getting it afterwards.
He admired the shattered shops and houses and what had probably been a church. The bright spring sun cast his shadow ahead of him. “Wow,” he said with profound unoriginality, “we liberated the living shit out of this place, didn’t we?”
“Bet your ass, Sarge,” said Dom Lombardo. He’d liberated a German submachine gun—a machine pistol, the krauts called it. He kicked a broken brick out of the way. “Got any butts on you?”
“Sure thing.” Pytlak gave him a Chesterfield, then stuck another one in his own mouth. He flicked a flame from his Zippo to light both cigarettes; his unshaven cheeks hollowed as he sucked in smoke. He blew it out in a long stream. “Dunno why they make me feel good, but they do.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Lombardo agreed. “Couldn’t hardly fight a war without cigarettes and coffee.”
“I sure wouldn’t want to try,” Pytlak said. “I—”
He broke off. Half a dozen German soldiers came around a corner. A couple of them wore helmets instead of Jerry field caps—a sign they’d likely fought to the end. One of the bastards in ragged, tattered field-gray still carried a rifle. Maybe he just hadn’t thought to drop it. Or maybe . . .
“Hold it right there, assholes!” Pytlak barked. His automatic rifle and Dom’s Schmeisser swung to cover the enemy soldiers.
The Germans froze. Most of them raised their hands. The guy with the Mauser slowly and carefully set it down in the rubble-strewn street. He straightened and reached for the sky, too. May 1945 was way too late to die.
One of the krauts jerked his chin toward the Chesterfields Charlie and Dom were smoking. He wasn’t dumb enough to lower a hand to point. “Zigarette, bitte?” he asked plaintively. His buddies nodded, their eyes lighting up. The past couple of years, they must have been smoking hay and horseshit, except for what they could take from POWs.
“I can’t give ’em any, Sarge,” Lombardo said. “I had to bum this one offa you.”
“Fuck. I don’t wanna waste my smokes on these shitheads. A week ago, they’d’ve tried to waste me.” Pytlak looked the Germans over. They were pretty pathetic. A couple of them couldn’t have been more than seventeen; a couple of the others were nearer fifty than forty. The last two . . . The last two had been through the mill and then some. One of them wore an Iron Cross First Class on his left breast pocket. But they were whipped, too. You could see it in their eyes.
Charlie flicked the BAR’s safety on. He leaned the weapon against a wall and dug in his pocket for more cigarettes. As he started toward the Germans, Dom said, “I’ll cover you.”
“You goddamn well better, Ace.”
But there was no trouble. The German soldiers seemed pathetically grateful as Pytlak passed around the Zippo. And well they might have. The way things were in the ruins of the Reich these days, he could have got blown for half a dozen Chesterfields. He really was wasting them on these guys.
He scooped up the rifle the one guy had carried. Its safety was off, too. He took care of that. Then he tapped the other kraut’s Iron Cross. “Where?” he asked. The guy just looked at him. “Uh, wo?” Like most GIs, he’d picked up a few words of German.
“Ah.” The Jerry got it. “Kharkov.” He pointed east. “Russland.”
“Right,” Charlie said tightly. If you listened to the Germans, all of them had done all their fighting on the Eastern Front. Trouble with that was, Uncle Joe’s boys fought back a hell of a lot harder than the Nazis figured they would. As the war wound down, all the Germans wanted to do was get away from the Red Army so they could hand themselves over to Americans or Englishmen.
Well, these guys had made it. Charlie carried the rifle back to Dom and handed it to him. “Here. You can handle this and your grease gun. I’ve gotta lug the BAR around.”
“Thanks a bunch,” Dom said, slinging the Mauser. But Charlie knew he was right. The Schmeisser didn’t weigh even half as much as a Browning Automatic Rifle. And he was a sergeant, and Dom nothing but a PFC. What point to rank if you couldn’t use it?
They marched the Germans out of Lichtenau. There was a camp of sorts a couple of miles outside of town: a big barbed-wire cage in a field, now rapidly filling up with Jerries. If the surrendered soldiers had to sleep out in the open and eat U.S. Army rations for a while—well, too goddamn bad.
A truck’s carcass lay by the side of the road. It wasn’t a big, snorting GMC model from the States, but some shitty little German machine. It must have been machine-gunned from the air and then burned like a son of a bitch. Later, a tank or a bulldozer shoved it to one side so it wouldn’t block traffic.
A German in civvies was fiddling around in the wreckage. “Wonder what he’s up to,” Charlie said.
“Scrap metal—waddaya wanna bet?” Dom returned. “Fucking scavengers are gonna be everywhere for months. Years, probably.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Charlie laughed. “We turned this whole stinking country into scrap metal and garbage. Just what the assholes deserved, too.”
“I ain’t arguing,” Dom said.
The POW camp looked to be getting more organized by the minute. Charlie had to sign a paper saying he’d brought in six krauts. The corporal who manned a typewriter actually gave him a receipt for them. “The fuck’m I supposed to do with this?” Pytlak asked. “I feel like I just got into the slave-trading business.”
“Hang on to it,” the typist said. “We need to ask you anything about these guys, now we can.”
“Hot damn,” Charlie said, and then, “Jesus! I gotta figure out how many points I have. Sooner I get out of the Army, happier I’ll be.”
You earned discharge points for time in the service, for time overseas, for medals, for campaign stars on theater ribbons, and for kids under eighteen back home. Eighty-five would bring you home. Till now, Pytlak hadn’t worried about them much. But the war was over. That still took getting used to; damned if it didn’t. And damned if I wanna hang around on occupation duty, either, he thought.
“Don’t get hot and bothered, man,” the typist advised him. “They’re gonna ship all our asses to the Pacific so we can punch Hirohito’s ticket for him, too.”
Charlie’s reply was detailed and profane. Dom also chimed in with some relevant opinions. The corporal just grinned. He’d got under their skins, so he won the round. The really evil thing was, on top of that he was liable to be right.
Finally, in disgust, Pytlak said, “I’m gone. Next to this crap, Lich- tenau looks goddamn good. You with me, Dom?”
“Oh, hell, yes,” Lombardo said.
They were both shaking their heads as they trudged back toward the town. “Fight the fuckin’ Japs,” Charlie muttered. “That’s just what I fuckin’ need. Time they ship my butt home, I’ll have a long white beard.”
Dom was more than ready to help him bitch. Dom was always ready to help a guy bitch. He’d been pretty handy with that Schmeisser when they really needed it, too. Before long, it’d be nothing but a souvenir—that or more scrap metal, one. Charlie had heard they weren’t letting GIs ship weapons home. One more chickenshit regulation, almost as bad as getting a receipt for POWs.
He and Dom came up to the corpse of the German truck. The scrounger who’d been messing around there was gone. “Who’s that asshole gonna sell his scrap to?” Charlie said. “Us—you wait and see. We’re dumb enough to pay good money to put these mothers back on their feet now that we stomped ’em.”
“Yeah, that’s like us, all right,” Dom agreed. “We—”
The truck blew up. Next thing Charlie knew, he was sprawled on the ground a surprisingly long way from the road. Dom—no, a piece of Dom—lay not far away. Charlie tried to reach out. His arm didn’t want to work. When he looked down at what was left of himself, he understood why. It didn’t hurt. Then, all at once, it did.
His shriek bubbled through the blood filling his mouth. Mercifully, blackness enfolded him.
Lieutenant Lou Weissberg looked at the crater by the side of the road. “Son of a bitch,” he said. “Looks like a five hundred-pound bomb went off here.”
That won him the first respectful glance he’d got from the ordnance sergeant already on the scene. “Damn near, sir,” Toby Benton agreed, his slow Texas or Oklahoma drawl halfway to being a different language from Lou’s clotted New Jersey. “Reckon some Jerries snuck one of their two hundred and fifty-kilo jobs into the truck an’ then touched the mother off. Blew two of our guys to hell and gone.” He pointed over to the corpses.
They’d left the GIs where they lay, so Weissberg could look them over and use his brilliance to pull a Sherlock Holmes and tell everybody what was what. To ordinary soldiers, the Counter-Intelligence Corps did stuff like that. Lou belonged to the CIC. He wished like hell he could do stuff like that. Unfortunately, unlike ordinary soldiers, he knew better.
He went over anyway and trained a camera on the bodies. “I hate taking pictures of these poor guys, you know?” he said, snapping away anyhow. “But I gotta have something to bring back to Nuremberg so the big shots there can see what happened.”
“You better be careful, sir,” Sergeant Benton said.
“How come? Is the ground mined?” Lou stood as still as if he intended to take root right where he was. And if Benton nodded or said yes, that would be about the safest thing he could do.
But the noncom shook his head. “Nah—didn’t mean that. You keep talkin’ the way you are, though, people’re liable to reckon you’re a human being or somethin’.”
“Oh.” Lieutenant Weissberg wondered how to take that. To ordinary grunts, CIC officers probably weren’t human beings, if by human beings you meant those who lived the same way they did. Lou had fired his carbine exactly once during the war, when his outfit almost got overrun during the Battle of the Bulge. He’d slept warm and eaten well, unlike most mudfaces. Therefore . . . this was likely a genuine compliment. He treated it as one, answering, “Thank you, Sergeant.”
“You’re welcome, sir,” Benton said seriously. “I figured you’d be one o’ them behind-the-lines assholes . . . uh, no offense. But you don’t want to be doing this shit, neither.”
“You better believe it,” Lou said. “Somebody has to, though. German army surrendered. Unfuckingconditionally surrendered. If they think they can get away with crap like this . . .”
“What do we do about it?” Benton asked. “Take hostages and shoot ’em if the mothers who did this don’t turn themselves in? That’s what the Jerries woulda done, and you can take it to the bank.”
“I know.” Lou’s voice was troubled. “All kinds of things the Jerries would’ve done that I don’t want anything to do with.”
Toby Benton eyed the CIC man in a way he’d seen before: as someone who knew the straight skinny and might be tempted into talking about it. “That stuff they say about those camps—Dachau an’ Belsen an’ them all—they really that bad?”
“No,” Lou said tightly. Just when Benton started to breathe a sigh of relief, he went on, “They’re worse. They’re a thousand times worse, maybe a million. Far as I’m concerned, we should hang all the mamzrim who ran ’em. And you know what else? I think we’re go- ing to.”
“If that shit is true—Jesus!—we ought to.” Sergeant Benton paused. “The what? Mom-something?”
“Oh.” Weissberg realized what he’d said. “It’s Yiddish. Means bastards. And they are.”
“I ain’t arguin’.” Benton eyed him again, this time not as a source but in another way he’d seen before. “Yiddish, huh? You’re, uh, a Jewish fella?”
“Guilty,” Lou said. How many Jews had the sergeant seen before? If he came off an Oklahoma farm, maybe not many. And was he a Regular Army guy or a draftee? Lou thought he might be career military, and not many Jews were.
“You really don’t like the krauts then, right?”
“You might say so, Sergeant. Yeah, you just might. If they were all in hell screaming for water, I’d pull up with a gasoline truck.”
“Heh.” Benton let out only a syllable’s worth of laughter, but his eyes sparked. “I like that—damned if I don’t.”
“Glad you do.” Lou came back over to the crater. “Me, I don’t like this. If the Germans think they can fuck around with us while we’re occupying their country . . .” His voice trailed away. What exactly could—would—the United States do about it?
“Awful lot of guys just want to head on home an’ pick up their lives where they left off,” Sergeant Benton remarked. “Hell, I sure do.” He was a draftee, then.
“I know. So do I,” Lou said. He’d been teaching high school English in Jersey City when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Nothing would make him happier than going back to diagramming sentences. But he was not the master of his fate or the captain of his soul. The master of his fate was back in Nuremberg, waiting to hear what he had to say about this. He sighed. What could he say that wasn’t obvious?
Benton’s eyes slid to what was left of the two GIs’ bodies. Those would either get buried in a military cemetery here or go back to the States in sealed coffins, probably with sandbags to keep them company and make them weigh what they should. Lou hoped the Graves Registration people would plant them here. The less these guys’ relatives knew about what had happened to them, the better.
He walked over to the jeep that had brought him out from Nuremberg. Benton had his own jeep. A bored-looking private sat in Lou’s machine, checking out a magazine full of girls in pinup poses. Reluctantly, the driver set down the literature. “Take you back now, sir?” he asked. Violation of the surrender terms? A honking big crater and two mangled bodies? He probably didn’t care much about anything, but he cared more about the leg art than this business.
And maybe he had the right attitude, too.
“Yeah, let’s go,” Lou said.
The driver started the engine. Jeeps were almost as reliable as Zippos. They fired up first time every time. Not much traffic on the road. What there was was nearly all U.S. military: olive-drab vehicles marked with a white star, usually inside a white circle.
Lou didn’t get his ass in an uproar about trucks and jeeps and halftracks that ran. He didn’t worry about the Germans he saw, either, even though a lot of them still wore Feldgrau and some hadn’t handed in their weapons yet. But he flinched whenever he rolled by crumpled metal wreckage—and there was plenty of it. If those Nazi schmucks had booby-trapped one dead truck, who could say they hadn’t done it to more than one?
Nuremberg looked as if God had jumped on it with both feet and then spent a while kicking it, like a kid throwing a tantrum. The town where the Nazis threw their big wingdings, the town where Leni What’s-her-name filmed Triumph of the Will, was the biggest rubble field in the world.
Or maybe not. Lou hadn’t seen Berlin yet. The Russians played for keeps. And well they might. Hitler’s team had come that close—that close—to doing unto them instead, and they had to know it. It never occurred to most Americans that they might have lost the war. The Atlantic and Pacific didn’t shield the USSR from nasty neighbors. Fighting their way west across their own smashed and shattered country, Red Army men could see what a narrow escape they’d had.
Lou suddenly snickered, which made the driver look at him as if he’d started picking his nose. He didn’t care. Suppose that truck had been sabotaged by organized diehards who weren’t ready to quit. Maybe they thought Americans were too soft to give them what they deserved. Maybe they were even right.
But he would have bet dollars to doughnuts that the surviving Nazis had too much sense to piss off the Russians. He laughed again, louder this time. If the krauts didn’t have that kind of sense, the Reds would be happy—fucking delighted—to pound it into them.
Marshal Ivan Stepanovich Koniev was about as unhappy as a jubilant man could be. His First Ukrainian Front had done everything an army group could do to smash the last German defenses in the east. It had broken into Berlin, and paid its share in blood to take Hitler’s capital away from him and throw the Third Reich into the coffin it deserved.
So far, so good. But Stalin’s orders gave the most important targets in Berlin to Marshal Zhukov’s First Byelorussian Front. “Yob tvoyu mat’, Georgi Konstantinovich,” Koniev muttered.
No matter what he said about Zhukov’s mother, Koniev hadn’t really expected anything else. Hoped, yes; expected, no. Zhukov was Stalin’s fair-haired boy, and that was that. Stalin trusted Zhukov not to try to overthrow him: the kind of trust a dictator didn’t give lightly—or, sometimes, at all. Having given it, Stalin could afford to be extravagant in giving Zhukov anything else he fancied.
That Zhukov was a damned good general had nothing to do with anything, not so far as Koniev was concerned. Without false modesty, the commander of the First Ukrainian Front knew he was a damned good general himself. So did Zhukov. And so did Stalin.
All the same, Stalin had only one favorite. Koniev knew he wasn’t it. Zhukov was. So Zhukov’s men got the Chancellery and the Führer’s bunker. It seemed unfair. It certainly did to Koniev, whose men broke into Berlin ahead of the other marshal’s.
“Nichevo,” Koniev said. And it couldn’t be helped, not unless he felt like quarreling with Stalin. He might be—he was—irked, but he wasn’t suicidal.
Scrawny Germans, many still in threadbare uniforms, trudged gloomily through Berlin’s wreckage-strewn streets. They got out of the way in a hurry when Red Army men came by. If they didn’t, they’d pay for it. The stench of death hung in the air. Corpses still lay in the gutters, and sometimes in the middle of the street. Quite a few of them had got there after the surrender. No surviving Germans wanted to give the conquerors an excuse to add more.
Off in the distance, a woman shrieked. A Russian a few meters from Marshal Koniev chuckled. “One more cunt getting what she deserves,” he said. His buddies laughed out loud.
Koniev didn’t. The Red Army had avenged Nazi atrocities in- side the USSR ever since it crossed the Reich’s borders. Berlin was no exception. Who’d wanted to say the Russian and Asiatic soldiers couldn’t have their fun after the war’s last battle? They owed the Germans plenty. But discipline was supposed to be returning. That scream—and others like it Koniev had heard in the ten days since the surrender—argued it still wasn’t all the way back.
Which went a long way towards explaining why almost all the Germans Koniev could see were men. German women feared Red Army soldiers would drag them off and gang-rape them if they showed themselves. They might have been right, too. They’d be safe enough in a few weeks. Not yet.
A driver came up to Koniev and saluted. “Comrade Marshal, your car is ready,” the man said.
“Good,” Koniev said. “Very good. I won’t be sorry to get out of this place for a while. It stinks.”
“Sure does.” The driver didn’t seem to care. “If you’ll come with me, sir . . .”
The car was a captured Kubelwagen—the German equivalent of a U.S. jeep—with red stars painted all over it to keep trigger-happy Russians from shooting it up. The driver carried a PPSh41 submachine gun to fight off not only stupid friends but stubborn enemies. Little dying spatters of resistance went on. Massive reprisals killed plenty of Germans, and would eventually snuff out the resistance, too—Koniev was confident of that.
Even a couple of kilometers outside of Berlin, the air improved. And then, abruptly, it got worse again: the Kubelwagen rattled past the bloated carcasses of a dozen cows in a cratered meadow. Koniev scowled at the stink, and also at the waste. “Our men should have butchered those animals,” he said.
“Sorry, Comrade Marshal.” The driver sounded afraid Koniev would think it was his fault. He added, “I never saw the beasts till this minute.”
“All right, Corporal.” While the fighting was still going on, Koniev might have looked to blame . . . somebody, anyhow. With the war over, he could afford to be more easygoing.
Artillery had chewed up the woods outside of Berlin, too. Some trees still stood straight. Others leaned at every angle under the sun. They’d been down long enough that their leaves were going from green to brown. Some of them would have fallen on the road from Berlin to Zossen—the former Wehrmacht headquarters, now taken over by the Red Army. Koniev wondered whether Red Army engineers or German POWs had cleared it. He would have bet his countrymen put the Germans to work.
Three or four men in field-gray scrambled off to the side of the road when they heard the Kubelwagen coming. “Those fuckers better move,” the driver said. “They stand there knocking pears out of the trees with their dicks, I’ll damn well run ’em over.”
“Right.” Marshal Koniev had to fight to swallow laughter. Russian profanity—mat—was almost a language in itself. The driver might have said If they stand there goofing off . . . Or he might not have. Even generals sometimes felt like using mat.
The road bent sharply. The driver slowed down. Something stirred among the dead trees near the asphalt.
Alarm stirred in Koniev. “Step on it!” he said urgently. If he turned out to have a case of the vapors, the driver could tell everybody he didn’t have any balls. Koniev wouldn’t mind, not one bit.
As the driver’s foot came down on the gas, somebody—a man in a gray greatcoat—stood up. He aimed a sheet-metal tube at the Kubelwagen. “Panzerfaust!” the driver yelped. He grabbed his submachine gun at the same time as Koniev reached for the pistol on his belt.
Too late. Trailing fire, the bazooka-style rocket roared toward the car. Marshal Koniev ducked. That did him exactly no good. The Panzerfaust was made to smash tanks. A soft-skinned vehicle like the Kubelwagen was nothing but fire and scrap metal—and torn, charred flesh—an instant after the rocket struck home.
Faces blank as if they were so many machines, Soviet soldiers led out ten more Germans and tied them to the execution posts. Some were men, some women. All were in the prime of life. Orders from Moscow were that no old people or children be used to avenge Marshal Koniev. For him, the defeated enemy had to give their best.
The Germans had to give, and give, and give. Blood puddled at the bases of those posts. Flies buzzed in the mild spring air. The iron stink of gore made Captain Vladimir Bokov’s nose wrinkle. He turned to the officer commanding the firing squads. “Smells like an outdoor butcher shop.”
“Er—yes.” That officer didn’t seem to know how to respond. He was a Red Army major, so he nominally outranked Bokov. But the arm-of-service color on his shoulder boards was an infantryman’s maroon, and infantry majors were a kopek a kilo.
Bokov’s shoulder boards carried four small stars each, not one large one. His colors, though, were bright blue and crimson. He wore a special badge on his left upper arm: a vertical sword inside a wreath. No wonder a mere infantry major treated him with exaggerated caution—he belonged to the NKVD.
“Well, carry on,” he said.
“Very well, Comrade Captain,” said the infantry officer—his name was Ihor Eshchenko. That and his accent proclaimed him a Ukrainian.
He gestured to the troops tying the hostages to the posts. Make it snappy, the wave said. The men blindfolded the Germans. Eshchenko glanced at Bokov, but the NKVD man didn’t object. Moscow hadn’t said the executioners couldn’t grant that small mercy.
A fresh squad of Red Army soldiers came out to shoot the hostages. The local commanders didn’t make their men kill and kill and kill in cold blood; they rotated the duty whenever they could. One man in each squad had a blank in his weapon, too. If the soldiers wanted to think they weren’t shooting anybody, they could.
“Ready!” Eshchenko called. The soldiers brought up their rifles. “Aim!” he said. A couple of the Germans waiting to die blubbered and moaned. They might not understand Russian, but they knew how firing squads worked. “Fire!” Major Eshchenko shouted.
Mosin-Nagant carbines barked. The Germans slumped against their bonds. Back in pagan days, a chieftain who died took a retinue with him to the next world. Good Marxist-Leninists didn’t believe in the next world. All the same, the principle here wasn’t so different.
Some officers in charge of executions armed their men with submachine guns and let them blast away at full automatic. Major Eshchenko seemed to have too much of a feel for the military proprieties to put up with anything so sloppy. Vladimir Bokov had watched and taken part in plenty of executions, and this one was as neat as any.
One drawback to using rifles, though: two or three hostages weren’t killed outright. Eshchenko drew his pistol and gave each the coup de grâce with a bullet at the nape of the neck.
Stone-faced Germans carried away the corpses. Once Germans were dead, the Red Army stopped caring about them. “Nicely done, Major,” Bokov said as Eshchenko came back. “Cigarette?”
“Spasibo,” Eshchenko replied, accepting one. He leaned forward to let Bokov give him a light. After taking a drag, he added, “This American tobacco is so mild, it’s hardly there at all.”
“I know.” Bokov nodded. “Better than going without, though.”
“Oh, you’d better believe it.” The infantry officer inhaled again. He blew out a perfect smoke ring—Bokov was jealous—and said, “Better than the horrible crap we smoked at the start of the war, too.”
Bokov sent him a hooded look. Though the NKVD man’s eyes were blue, they were narrow like an Asiatic’s: good for not showing what he was thinking. All he said was “Da.” Tobacco was wretched after the German invasion because the Nazis overran so much fine cropland. A vindictive man—or even a man with a quota to fill—might construe Eshchenko’s remark as criticism of Comrade Stalin. A word from Bokov, and the major would find out more than he ever wanted to know about Soviet camps.
But Bokov had other things on his mind today. As if picking that from his thoughts, Major Eshchenko said, “Naturally, we also seized prisoners for interrogation. We’ve already, ah, questioned several of them. The rest we saved for you.”
Questioned, of course, was a euphemism for worked over. Well, a marshal was dead. You couldn’t expect the Red Army to stay gentle after that. And the GRU, the military intelligence unit, thought it knew as many tricks as the NKVD. The two services were often rivals. Not here, though. “Any real leads?” Captain Bokov asked.
Eshchenko shrugged. “None I’ve heard about. But I might not.”
Bokov nodded. If the infantry officer didn’t need to know something, nobody would tell him. That was basic doctrine. The NKVD man asked, “So where are these prisoners?”
“Over there, in that cow barn.” Eshchenko pointed to a big wooden building surrounded by shiny new barbed wire and a couple of squads’ worth of Soviet guards. The major snorted. “Damned thing is fancier than we’d use for people, fuck your mother if it’s not.”
He was taking a chance, talking like that. What he wanted to say was, I’m a regular guy, and I figure you are, too. But if Bokov decided he meant the insult personally, he was dead meat. Again, Bokov had bigger worries than a major with a loose tongue. All he said was, “I’ll see what I can get out of them.”
His blue and crimson arm-of-service colors got him past the junior lieutenant in charge of the guards. The lieutenant did give him a couple of men with submachine guns, saying, “My orders are not to let anybody go in amongst the Nazis by himself.”
The kid spoke of them as if they were lions or bears. His orders made sense, too. If the Germans took a hostage . . . Well, it wouldn’t do them any good, but they might be too stupid to realize that. And Bokov was sure the Soviets would deal with the hostage-takers without caring what happened to the man they held.
One of the soldiers opened the barred door. The stink that wafted out said the barn didn’t have much in the way of plumbing. Most likely, it didn’t have anything. “Give the swine the works,” the trooper said.
“I aim to, Corporal,” Bokov said. Then he switched to German and shouted, “Prisoners, attention!” He’d learned the language before the war started. Only luck, he supposed, that that hadn’t made someone suspect him.
How the Germans scrambled to form neat lines! They all wore uniform, and ranged in age from maybe fourteen to sixty-five. Bokov found himself nodding. Whoever’d taken out Marshal Koniev had used a military weapon, and used it like someone who knew how. So the occupying troops would have hauled in as many men in field-gray as they could catch.
Bokov could see which Germans had already been interrogated. They were the ones who stood there with fresh bruises and scrapes, the ones who had trouble standing up at all. He pointed to a fellow who still wore a senior sergeant’s single pip on each shoulder strap. “You. Feldwebel. Come with me.”
Gulping, the man came. He hadn’t been thumped yet. Plainly, he thought he was about to be. And he was right. But the Red Army men would have shot him on the spot had he even peeped.
“Tie him to a tree,” Bokov told the troopers. “Do a good job of it.” They did. From somewhere, one of them produced wire instead of rope. The Feldwebel wouldn’t be going anywhere, no matter what. Bokov took out a pen knife. He started cleaning his nails with it. The German watched the point with fearful fascination. Casually, Bokov asked him, “What do you know about Marshal Koniev’s murder?”
“Only that he’s dead, sir,” the noncom said quickly. Too quickly? Well, Bokov had all the time in the world to find out.
He slapped the German across the face, forehand and backhand. “That’s just a taste of what you’ll get if I decide you’re lying. Now—let’s try it again. What do you know about this murder?”
“Nothing. On my mother’s honor, sir, I—” Another pair of slaps interrupted the Feldwebel. Blood and snot ran from his nose. Bokov eyed him with distaste. He didn’t particularly enjoy this, but it was part of the work. If he got something useful from this poor bastard, his bosses would remember. Unfortunately, they’d also remember if he didn’t.
With some help from the troopers, he did what he needed to do. The Feldwebel didn’t enjoy it, but he wasn’t supposed to. Bokov soon became sure he wasn’t the fellow who’d fired the Panzerfaust. That didn’t mean he was a born innocent. At a certain point in the proceedings, he shrieked, “Jesus Christ! Why are you doing this to me? Why don’t you torture the Werewolves? They’re the ones who really know something!”
“Werewolves?” Vladimir Bokov paused to light another mild American cigarette. He blew smoke in the prisoner’s eyes. “Tell me more. . . .”