CHAIN REACTION

It was after ten o’clock when the submarine finally broke through to the surface.  The gray water washed back and forth across its deck, hissing down the conning tower as the massive shape rocked from side to side and then was still.  The darkness closed around it, as if it had been there forever.  A light snow was drifting down.  There was no sound.

Meyersdorff had ordered the running lamps extinguished, so nothing was visible from the coastline when the hatch opened.  First one man and then another came out, looked around for the landfall they had expected to see but which gave the impression of having been swallowed up into a seamless, distanceless void, and shoved their hands further down into the pockets of their greatcoats, as if they couldn’t imagine what they should do next.  The cold was appalling, and not even the stars were out.

“Kapitän,” one of them said in a low voice, turning back to address the blank space occupied by a third man who had only just joined them on deck, “do we risk a searchlight?  How will we even know in which direction to paddle?”

Meyersdorff shook his head, perfectly aware that that too would be lost in the darkness.  “You are a sailor, are you not?  Use a compass, and you will find the shore quickly enough.  It is no more than a hundred meters.”

“Yes, Kapitän.”

And then, quite suddenly, like the next sentence in their conversation, the cloud cover parted, allowing the moon to flood them with a pale, silvery light.  Meyersdorff grinned.

“Is that better, Hopf?  Now you will have no difficulty seeing the shore, and if there is anyone on the shore he will have no difficulty seeing you.”

“Yes, Kapitän.”

Another two men climbed out through the hatch, and then two more, making the narrow wooden deck almost crowded.  The last man reached back inside and pulled up an awkward bundle that someone must have been pushing from the other end.

“Be quick, Sauter,” Meyersdorff whispered hoarsely.  “There is no need to be all night about this business—the Americans doubtless patrol these waters.”

Sauter dragged his bundle to the prow of the ship, opened a valve, and stood back as the raft unfolded like some obscene, flabby jungle flower.  Somehow, in the dim moonlight, it was a profoundly disgusting thing to witness.

Two of the men standing on the deck were not dressed in naval uniforms.  They wore topcoats and civilian hats, and they carried suitcases.  One of them was making his way through the little crowd that had assembled in front of the conning tower, shaking hands with each in turn and murmuring “Auf Wiedersehen” with almost machinelike efficiency.  He was in his early twenties—about the same age as most of the crew—and a shock of dishwater-blond hair stuck out from beneath the brim of his hat.  He had large hands, with thick, short fingers, and nothing about his figure suggested much agility.

The other man stood a little apart, as if waiting for these ceremonies to be finished.  He was perhaps as much as ten years older, slender and dark.  His face, under the shadow of his hat brim, was rendered somehow even more handsome by the thin, careworn lines that looked as if they had been scratched in around his eyes and mouth with an awl.  Except for the eyes, which moved restlessly from one object to another, he stood so still that he hardly even seemed to be breathing.

Meyersdorff came up to him and touched him on the elbow.

“Well, Niehauser,” he said gently, the way one might have spoken to someone recovering from a long illness, “we are here, my friend.  Seven weeks across from Kiel, and there it is.  You have everything you need?”

It was one of those questions one asked simply to be asking something, because a certain kind of relationship demanded it, because, aside from Wentzel, who was still only a boy, they were the only two officers aboard.  Because of the kind of intimacy that grows up at sea between two men who know they will probably never meet again, and who for that reason alone find it possible to speak frankly.  It was, on the face of it, a stupid question—they both knew that in an undertaking of this sort there were no charms against the unforeseen—but von Niehauser nevertheless understood, and smiled and nodded his head.

“Yes—well. . .  At least you will have enough money.”

“Did he show it to you?”  The smile on von Niehauser’s lips had died, and he seemed almost angry.  “But he would, of course.  Fifteen thousand American dollars—he managed to convince the SS we would need as much as that for living expenses if we were kept longer than six months.  He is not without guile.”

Meyersdorff found it possible to laugh.

“Perhaps he feels it might be too much trouble to conquer America.  Perhaps he plans simply to buy it.”

“I think there is little enough chance of our managing either.”

It was a long moment before either of them spoke again—it was as if they both were trying to ignore the fact that anything of the kind had been said.

“You should learn to be more discreet, Niehauser.”

“You forget my privileged position,” he answered, smiling again, a smile that had taken on the character of a disguise.  “If I fail, the Gestapo will be saved the trouble of hanging me.  And if I succeed. . .”  His right shoulder moved in an almost imperceptible shrug, indicating how little in that case he would have to fear from the Gestapo.

“Do they put such importance on it, then?”

“It would seem so.”

Meyersdorff asked no more questions.  He was very far from being a fool—he understood as well as anyone how the fuel shortages had curtailed operations, especially in the Navy.  And von Niehauser had had a submarine placed at his disposal.  Such an extravagance would have had to be cleared through Dönitz himself.  Yes, it would seem they put a very great importance on it.

As if the same idea had occurred to both of them, they watched the blond young man’s back as he stood in conversation with a couple of the crew—it couldn’t have been much of a conversation, since Stafford understood hardly any German.  

“You had better take care with him,” Meyersdorff said, turning aside slightly so that he was speaking almost directly into von Niehauser’s shoulder.  “That one will get you killed if you aren’t careful.”

Von Niehauser nodded slowly, as if he had pondered the matter for hours and come to a similar conclusion.

“The SS is quite satisfied that he is genuine, but what does that mean?  Those idiots seem able to convince themselves of anything.  For myself, I can’t decide which would constitute more of a threat—if he turned out to be an American agent or if he didn’t.”

Meyersdorff looked at him questioningly, but for several seconds von Niehauser hardly seemed to notice.

“Patriotism is a matter of instinct,” he went on finally.  “A man who will turn his back on his own country like that is not to be trusted in anything.  You may be sure I will be careful.”

He smiled again, and then happened to glance down and saw that Meyersdorff was holding a small automatic pistol in his hand.  It simply rested there on the flat of his palm.

“Take it,” Meyersdorff said.  “I have been carrying it around with me ever since the start of the war, and I have never had a reason to fire it.  Perhaps you can put it to better use.”

Von Niehauser shook his head.  “Thank you, my friend, but I will be better off without it.  It isn’t the sort of thing I should care to have found on me, and there are plenty of other ways of gaining the same end.  Thank you just the same.”

“You’re quite sure?”  Meyersdorff, who was the best soul in the world, actually seemed disappointed.

“Quite sure.  Good hunting on your way home.”

A quarter of an hour later the raft scraped ashore, and von Niehauser and Stafford jumped out onto the beach, their shoes making a harsh crunch on the gravel.  And then the sailors who had done the rowing jumped out, and one of them made a joke about how now they would be able to tell people that they had invaded America.  Everyone laughed except Stafford, and then von Niehauser translated the joke for him and he laughed too.

“Good luck, Herr Baron.”

Both the sailors were standing at salute, and von Niehauser couldn’t be sure which of them had addressed him, so he put out his hand to the one who looked like he might have been a year or two the elder, who took it rather hesitantly, and then shook hands with the other man.  No one spoke again.

And then the two sailors turned their raft around and started back toward the ship, which was only a dull gleam in the shining blackness of the water.  In a few minutes they were almost invisible, and the sound of their oars was dying away.  Von Niehauser and Stafford picked up their suitcases and disappeared into the woods.

It wasn’t a very pleasant walk.  The snow was probably five or six inches deep, and neither of them was wearing anything except ordinary street shoes.  And it was cold, probably ten or fifteen degrees below zero.  The slightest breath of wind seemed to go straight through their overcoats.

But von Niehauser felt very little inclination to complain—at least they were off that damned submarine.  Seven weeks.  Seven weeks, with never more than an hour or two each day in the fresh air, and all the rest of their time lived within the narrow iron walls of the ship.  There had hardly been room to stand up, and von Niehauser, who was a tall man, had noticed that he was continually scraping himself on bulkheads and the edges of tables.

It had been torture—the constant smell of ozone and other men’s bodies, the eerie yellow light that made everyone look like a corpse—it had been like being shut up in a mass grave.  He had found that he slept hardly at all and was subject to disturbing dreams when he did sleep.  That had been the worst part of it—there had been too much time with nothing to do except to brood.

It had almost been enough to make him miss the Russian front.

But still, these woods weren’t comfortable either.  It was difficult to see precisely where you were going—the moonlight threw peculiar shadows across the ground, making it almost impossible to keep from stumbling and running into things.  At one point von Niehauser was startled by a loud crash and turned around to find his partner lying on the ground, cursing in a manner frightful to hear in such solitude.  It seemed that he had tripped over a fallen log.  It would have been funny except for the saving thought that one’s life might be put at hazard by this clumsy American.  He waited impassively for Stafford to regain his feet.

“God—couldn’t they have landed us somewhere a little closer to civilization?  We’ll probably freeze to death before we get out of here.”

Von Niehauser couldn’t summon up much compassion.  The mortar fragments in his left arm and along that side of his rib cage were giving him trouble, as they always did when he was outside in cold weather.  “They are very small,” the surgeon at the field hospital had told him, “and extracting them all would have taken several hours of operating time we need for men whose wounds are critical.  Yours is the sort of case that can safely be left until after the war.”  It was the great lesson of the Eastern conflict, that one must learn to bear with one’s infirmities.  Von Niehauser had learned.

“You would prefer to hang?”  His voice was calm, almost scholarly, as if he were offering instructions in tolerance.  “In 1942 the Abwehr landed eight men along the south shore of Long Island—they were supposed to act as saboteurs, to dynamite power stations and disrupt communications in the New York area.  It was considered a good plan.  None of them lasted a week before they were arrested, and none of them managed to blow up so much as a balloon.  Be patient, and you may yet live to serve the Reich.”

It seemed to work.  Stafford nodded glumly and followed along.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“You mean, immediately?  We are going to push ahead until we find a road.  Things will be easier after that, and there are a lot of little towns around here.  A hot meal, and a few hours of sleep, and we can catch a bus south.  You mustn’t worry.”

‘‘I’m not worried—I’m just cold.”

Von Niehauser smiled to himself, wondering how Stafford would have managed in Russia.

“Quite right.  There isn’t anything to worry about.”

Would that it were so.

“He can help you find your way about,” Schellenberg had said.  “It isn’t every day we get a native American volunteering for espionage work, and too much significance is attached to this mission to entrust it to a single, unaided man.  You have your orders, Major.”

It was only in the SS that a hoodlum like Schellenberg would have been able to climb his way up to Brigadier and Head of Foreign Intelligence, and all by the advanced age of thirty-three.  Schellenberg had never seen a shot fired in anger in his life; everyone knew he was nothing but a desk soldier, a protege of Reinhard Heydrich, for whose memory no one in Europe had a decent word.  One found only two sorts of men in the SS, the buccaneers and the madmen.  One hardly knew which was worse.

And now, on what seemed little more than a whim, they had encumbered him with this American turncoat who had visions of himself as the stuff of the Wehrmacht officer corps.  A mere boy, clearly unsettled in his mind, who steps off a merchant ship in Lisbon and turns himself over to the German consulate with some story about wanting to serve the Fatherland.  What could they have been thinking of?

Von Niehauser had been keeping watch for any signs of another human presence, but found nothing.  Except for their own, there were no tracks in the snow, which unfortunately was hard and crusted and would probably show a footprint for days.  There were no fences or NO TRESPASSING signs, no beer bottles or crumpled, half burned newspapers, nothing to suggest that they ran any risk of being seen.  And yet, so one was told, this part of the Maine coast did a modest tourist business in the summer months.  Schellenberg had been reasonably clever on that point—no place on earth is more deserted than a summer resort in January.

He shifted his suitcase over to his left hand and instantly felt a stab of pain along the inside of his arm.  For a few seconds, until he had made the adjustment, it was difficult even to breathe.  It had been necessary, however; his right arm was getting tired, and he didn’t want to stop and rest—one had to think of young Stafford’s flagging morale.

The boy was an inconvenience—perhaps he was something worse, for all that the SS so trusted him—but perhaps there, too, Schellenberg had been right, up to a point.  Since 1933, the Americans had probably gotten used to the odd accents of European refugees—in the big cities, he imagined, he would hardly be the object of much attention—but perhaps just at the beginning it would be better to let Stafford speak for him.

“Where did you learn English?”

The question was so unexpected, and so perfectly in accord with his own train of thought, that it was difficult for von Niehauser to fight down the disagreeable suspicion that Stafford must somehow have been able to read his mind.

“In England,” he answered, with tolerable calmness.  “I went to school there.  My father was attached to the embassy for five years.”

“I just wondered—you sound like a duke or something.”

Was Stafford trying to flatter him?  Could he be so obvious as all that?  It was a disturbing enough thought about one’s partner in espionage.

Or perhaps there was a touch of hero worship mixed into it—he was rather fixated on martial glory, was this young American, and there had been other evidence that he had not failed to be impressed with the fact that von Niehauser was a decorated veteran of the Russian campaign.  Apparently someone had shown him a dossier, because for the week they had trained together back in Holland, until von Niehauser had gotten so sick of it that he had been forced to say something, Stafford had pestered him with personal questions, had even asked to see his medals.  On top of everything else, it had been an intolerable liberty.

At any rate, it was one of the reasons von Niehauser found it impossible to like him.  To be chums with a person like Stafford was simply more than he could manage.  Still, one was obliged to try.

“I was introduced to the Duke of York once,” he said, forcing himself to smile.  “That was in 1925, and today he’s the King.  I remember that he stuttered.”

“Well, I didn’t mean anything like that.”

“I know you didn’t.  Have you ever been to England?”

“Four months ago.  My ship stopped off for forty-eight hours on the way to Portugal, but I figured to hell with the damn English.  They’re the enemy, aren’t they?”  The question carried all the sullen vehemence with which Stafford usually freighted his political remarks and must have been so endlessly reassuring to the SS.  He had a knack for making it seem that, really, it was your own patriotism which was open to doubt.  “By then all I wanted was to get to Germany and join up.  Anyway, I never got out of Southampton.”

“Ah, then. . .”

But by that time they had come to a road.  It wasn’t much of a road, just a couple of lanes of asphalt, but it was a road.

“God, my feet are freezing.”

Von Niehauser hardly even looked at him.

“In Russia,” he said finally, as if speaking to himself, “sometimes when it was really bad the leather of our boots would freeze.  Solid, as if they had been cobbled out of brass.  You couldn’t even unlace them—you would have had to cut them off with a saw, if you could have found a saw, and you didn’t dare because you would never have seen another pair.  Half the Army marched on blood soaked rags.  When we could finally find somewhere warm, and put our feet up against a fire to melt the ice, we would find men who were grayish black from the ankle down.  You could smell the rot as soon as they had thawed out.  At the merest touch the flesh would slough off in a single piece, just fall away, all the way down to the bone.”

Stafford grunted derisively.  To him, it was just a story.

“Yeah, well, this isn’t Russia.”

“Then we mustn’t complain.”

They walked on in silence after that.  The road seemed to be deserted, and the only sound was the grinding of their shoes on the snow.  There was nothing near them, just endless distances of empty road, leading nowhere.  It was like the landscape of a dream.  Finally, Stafford began to mutter—very quietly at first, as if ashamed he might be overheard, but loud enough in time.

“How far is it to the next town?  God, don’t you ever get tired?  We must have come five miles.”

“We have come perhaps two,” von Niehauser stated quietly, simply as a neutral fact.  “And there should be a place called ‘Sullivan’ no more than three or four miles along this road.  We will be there in another hour, no longer.”

“An hour?  Jesus, we’ll freeze to death by then.”

“We will not freeze; we will merely be uncomfortable.  If we sat down and fell asleep, with our backs resting against a tree, then we might freeze.  But we will not do that.”

No, they would not freeze.  But, still, it was cold enough to make you forget the possible existence in the world of anything except misery.  Von Niehauser wondered what sort of life Harry Stafford must have been leading all these years to make him look with such offended surprise on a little common inconvenience.  In Russia, boys of sixteen and seventeen, fresh from home, had slept in shell holes on nights that froze the very hair in your nostrils—boys who by then had forgotten all about serving the Fatherland and the Führer, or turning aside the wrath of the godless Bolsheviks; who had forgotten everything except that they were expected to be men.  Some of them had died, with their heads down as if they were praying and their hands clasped around their rifles, but they hadn’t complained.

It was close to eleven before they saw the headlights in the distance.  At first it was merely an uncertain glimmer through the trees, and then there was the low, sullen groaning of an engine.

Before they knew it, it was almost upon them.

But they still had time.  Von Niehauser took Stafford by the arm and started back toward the cover of the trees.  Two yards off the road and no one would see them.  Why should they?  Who would be looking for anyone out on foot on such a night?

But Stafford had other plans.  He pulled himself free from von Niehauser’s grip with a jerk and turned around, glaring at him.

“Are you kidding?” he asked, his voice unnaturally shrill as he stepped back a pace.  “We can catch a ride.”

And by then, of course, it was too late.  Even as Stafford spoke he had come into the field of moving light.  The driver of the car must have seen him by then:  a man standing directly in your path isn’t the sort of thing anyone would miss.

There was nothing else he could do.  Von Niehauser stepped out from the edge of the road, where the lower part of his body was immediately washed in the hard glare of the headlamps.  He took off his hat and held it in his left hand, feeling the sort of embarrassment one might experience at being forced to witness some pointless cruelty one was helpless to prevent.

“Leave it to me,” he murmured, turning his head a little toward Stafford but keeping his eyes on the approaching car.  “Just stay where you are and let me deal with it.”

It was obvious that Stafford didn’t have any inkling of what he meant.

Von Niehauser raised his arm, holding the hat over his head and waving it back and forth.  He tried to smile, to look the part of the stranded traveler grateful for this chance of being rescued, but he found the effort was beyond him.

For an instant he thought whoever was driving might not stop, might do the sensible thing and keep right on going, just as if he, too, might not relish an encounter with strangers on a lonely road.  Von Niehauser almost hoped that he would.

But it wasn’t to happen that way.  The car slowed gradually, trying not to fishtail on the patches of ice that dotted the road here and there, and stopped almost directly in front of the spot where von Niehauser was standing.  He could almost have reached out his hand and set it on the brow of the right headlamp.

It wasn’t a new car.  Except for the staff limousines of the SS, you didn’t see new cars, not since before the start of the war; it was probably the same in America—but someone had obviously gone to a great deal of trouble to maintain this particular survivor in pristine condition.  Even in the dark the paintwork seemed to glow under uncountable coats of wax, and, if the sound of the engine slowing to an idle meant anything, the same kind of care had been lavished there too.

Von Niehauser could see the driver now, peering out through the windscreen at him.  It was an unpleasant surprise to realize he was hardly more than a boy, just a fresh faced farmer’s son with a shock of reddish brown hair hanging heavily down over his forehead.  He couldn’t have been more than about seventeen, and he was watching him with the unsuspecting alertness of someone who had not yet learned to mistrust the adult world.

“Problem, mister?” he asked, rolling down his window and thrusting his head and left shoulder out through the opening.

A glance back at Stafford insured there would be no trouble from that quarter.  He merely stood where he was, his hands thrust deep into his overcoat pockets as he stamped his feet against the edge of the pavement in a profitless effort to strike up a little warmth in them.  He was too absorbed in his own misery and too happy at the prospect of getting in out of the cold to interfere.  He would let his partner deal with the specifics.

Von Niehauser walked around the front of the car, forcing himself to appear relaxed.

“Our car has broken down,” he said as he approached the door on the driver’s side.  He moved slowly, with a deliberate weariness, all the time appalled at the transparency of the deception—couldn’t the boy hear his accent?  Couldn’t he see the danger?  What sort of fool stops in the darkness, in the middle of nowhere, for men who could be anything?  “I wonder if you could perhaps just take us to a phone?  I could call a mechanic, and. . .”

He had his hand on the door latch now, just resting it there casually, as if it were something he did unconsciously, merely to support his weight as he leaned down to have a word with this healthy, accommodating, apparently rather stupid youth.

If the boy suspected anything, he gave no sign.  His arm still rested along the top of the door and he was still smiling, the way anyone might smile at a poor stranger in distress.

“Sure, mister.  If you—”

But he never had a chance to finish.  He had been leaning against the door and suddenly it was gone, just as if it had disappeared.  The sound of its opening was like a pistol shot.

Von Niehauser took him by the back of his collar, jerking him the rest of the way out onto the road.  He was a big lad, tall and solid, but surprise and balance were all against him; he simply fell, like so much dead weight.  He struck the pavement with his shoulder and chest, without even the time to cry out.

After that it was simple.  Von Niehauser brought the heel of his shoe down just a little to one side of the boy’s spine.  There was a hoarse little bark, something between a cry and a gasp, as his ribs pulled loose and the air shot out of his lungs.  He was alive and conscious, but that kind of pain would render anyone as helpless as a sucking babe.  There would be no resistance now.

Von Niehauser turned him over onto his back, almost gently.  Already it was like handling a dead body; the eyes were large and frightened but seemed to be looking out at nothing.  Already the boy and his murderer seemed to inhabit different worlds.

“My God!  You. . .”

It was Stafford, of course.  He had been attracted by the sound of a struggle—or perhaps just by the sound.  Perhaps he had been half afraid of being left behind.  In any case, he was there now, looking down at them, apparently too astonished to speak.

Von Niehauser glanced up at him, the expression on his face conveying nothing.  It was only an instant.  And then, with a sharp, delicate movement that was almost too quick to be seen, he broke the farm boy’s larynx with the back of his fist—it made a noise like the crushing of a walnut.

It was impossible to know whether the boy felt anything.  After a few seconds he tried to roll over on his side, and a heavy trickle of blood ran out of the corner of his mouth.  He seemed to struggle for a moment, like a man drowning, and then he was still.  His eyes were still wide open, but no one had ever looked like that while he was alive.

Stafford retreated a few paces, his movements rusty like those of an old man, as if he were afraid of falling.  He looked at the dead body on the road, and then at von Niehauser.  He seemed to be trying vainly to swallow.  Von Niehauser rose to his feet.

“Yes.”  He stood with his arms dangling at his sides; he gave the impression he couldn’t have raised them if he had wanted to.  “Yes—as you see, I’ve killed him.  What did you expect?  He saw our faces.  He could have placed us, here, tonight.  How should we have explained ourselves?  Did you imagine no one would think to ask us?”

He turned away, as if in disgust, and stared down at the dead farm boy, whose limbs were twisted around at odd angles.

“You did a stupid thing, my friend,” he went on, his face, which was still illuminated by the harsh yellow light from the car’s headlamps, was as rigid as a mask.  “And because of that, I have found it necessary to do this.”