THE LINZ TATTOO
Havana, Cuba: February 26, 1948
“I’m quite sure its him, even without his uniform. It hasn’t even been half a year, and that isn’t the sort of face one forgets.”
“I think he’s really quite good looking.”
Major Robert Briggs, late of His Majesty’s XXIst Army Group, glanced across the narrow cabaret table at his new wife and felt a sharp pang of something like jealousy—they weren’t very encouraging words to hear a mere four days after one’s wedding night.
But she was right, of course. The man he had pointed out to her, standing at the back of the tiny smoke-curtained stage, almost hidden behind six or seven other musicians and a huge double bass, was tall and strikingly handsome. His shoulders could have been a yard and a half wide, and his tarnished blond hair, which he wore rather long, made him look like every schoolgirl’s notion of a Viking prince.
It was his face, however, which had struck the chord in Briggs’ memory, the pitiless blue eyes—even at this distance one could see that they were a deep blue, like precious stones—and the hard, sharp, impassive features, as if the bones underneath were made of iron.
And, of course, across the back of the left hand, catching a gleam from the footlights as the fingers moved back and forth over the strings of his double bass, was a wide, flat scar. Briggs had noticed the scar the first time they had met, in a prison yard in Germany. There couldn’t be any doubt it was the same chap.
“I stood right next to him that god awful morning at Rebdorf. Seven big bloody Nazi generals took the drop in less than forty minutes, and he never even raised an eyebrow. I felt rather sick, I don’t mind telling you—no one looks his best after he’s been hanged, and a couple of them had bitten clean through their tongues at the last second, making quite a mess of themselves. It was a pretty horrible thing to watch, but he might as well have been waiting in line for his tea.”
“What was he doing there?”
Thelma smiled with interest. He had learned early that, like a lot of American girls, she rather liked gamy stories about the war. She was really quite a blood-thirsty little bitch, which was one of the reasons he had decided to marry her. But just at that moment he found himself wishing she would exhibit a little decent feminine squeamishness.
“Same as my sweet self, I suppose,” he said finally, making sure to look away as he spoke. “We were ‘official witnesses’ if you will, he for the Norwegians and me for the British. There were five or six of us. Yes, six. They served us coffee in tin cups while we waited for sunrise, and there were introductions all round. Probably we were all a bit nervous; the Russian, a great big cad of a fellow with a face as red as a radish, actually started to giggle, I remember. And then, after an hour, the executions began. I’m not likely to forget anything connected with that affair.”
The music from what presumably was supposed to be a Jazz combo was as bad as any Briggs had ever heard, even in his own country, which over the last several months he had come to regard with a certain distaste. Since moving to New York, where, on the strength of his war record and the profound respect every former colonial feels toward the British upper classes, he had gotten himself a very soft job as a sales representative for one of the big Manhattan advertising agencies, he had become a connoisseur of all things American. American music was louder and better to dance to, American women were more amusing in bed, and American food, well, there was simply no comparison. He was acclimatized and happy and on his honeymoon, so there was little enough to complain about. He simply wished Thelma hadn’t insisted on this absurd package cruise, and that the rum didn’t always taste like diesel fuel, and that sometime or other they could stumble across a band that didn’t make “Tea for Two” sound like the Guatemalan national anthem.
He was also rather beginning to wish that he hadn’t run into Christiansen—he was almost positive that had been the fellow’s name. Or at least that he had kept his mouth shut about it. Thelma was watching the stage with an attention in no way justified by the music being produced there.
“Ask him to come and have a drink with us,” she said, turning toward her husband and smiling as she brushed back a wisp of pale brown hair. It was an astonishingly seductive gesture. “Perhaps he’s noticed you too—it wouldn’t be very nice to let him think you were trying to snub him, would it?”
Briggs didn’t even allow himself time to hesitate.
“All right. If you like.”
He pinched back the sleeve of his coat to have a look at his watch. It was a quarter after two in the morning—in a few minutes they would be starting back to their ship where, if he hadn’t drunk too much, perhaps Thelma’s enthusiasm could be channeled into some more useful direction. It wouldn’t hurt anything if she ended the evening a bit spiky. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt anything.
“They seem to be taking a break. Shall I just pop over there and renew acquaintance?”
By the time he reached the bandstand, most of the musicians had already left it and were making their way among the closely packed tables to the bar. But Christiansen hadn’t stirred, his attention was absorbed by one of the strings of his gigantic instrument, which he seemed to be attempting to tune. He appeared even larger up close, his white dinner jacket stretched across his massive chest, and the expression on his lace registered a sullen concentration.
When he noticed Briggs moving around the edge of the stage, his blue eyes narrowed, reminding one of a wary animal.
“I suppose you don’t recall me,” Briggs began, allowing his mouth to stretch into what he realized had to be a not-terribly-dignified grin. He extended his hand up toward the double bassist, who stared down with what amounted to open hostility. “We met that day at Rebdorf. The name is ‘Briggs.’ I was the British officer—I stood right next to you.”
There was no response. The man appeared not to know what he was talking about. The hand remained suspended in mid air until finally Briggs started to feel just a trifle foolish and allowed it to drop back down to his side.
“I remember you very well—Captain Christiansen, wasn’t it? Surely you can’t have forgotten the prison.”
“My name isn’t Christiansen, and I’ve never been in prison. What would I have been doing in prison?”
The voice was expressionless and rather gravelly, as if from disuse, but the accent was American. It had been American at Rebdorf as well—Briggs had wondered how a Norwegian could have learned to speak such perfect Yankee English. The startlingly blue eyes never wavered as the man who claimed not to be Captain Christiansen seemed to wait with patient resignation for whatever might come next.
Briggs hardly knew what to say—could he have been mistaken? No. There was still the scar. Everything, even the voice, could be explained away, but not the scar. It covered the back of Christiansen’s left hand like a bandage, the sort of scar that suggested a deep, crippling wound. This was Christiansen.
“We were there to witness the execution of some German war criminals,” he answered, with somewhat greater confidence. “You were the Norwegian representative. Surely you don’t deny it, old man.”
“My name is ‘Barrows.’ I’ve never been to Germany.”
One finger of the scarred hand glided slowly and delicately up a string of the double bass, as if measuring its tension. The action seemed completely unconscious; the man “Barrows,” who had never been to Germany, regarded the veteran of His Majesty’s XXIst Army Group with the closed expression of someone who expected that his answer would be taken as definitive.
“Well then, I’m sorry to have troubled you.”
What else was there to say? Briggs turned and started making his way back to the table where Thelma was waiting with what struck him as unseemly eagerness.
“It appears I dialed a wrong number,” he said, suddenly not very keen on explanations. It was late at night, he was tired, and, yes, he had drunk too much. By the time he sat down again he could see that most of the musicians had returned to the bandstand and the entertainment was about to resume. It was an appalling prospect.
“I thought you were so positive.” Thelma smiled. There was something just faintly contemptuous in her smile, as if he had displayed some sort of weakness. Briggs found himself wondering what she was going to be like to live with in another ten or fifteen years.
“Well, I still think it was him. Probably he was just embarrassed. It must be a bit of a comedown, after all, from officer and gentleman to playing backup in a cheese box like this place. The man’s entitled to his feelings—By God, he’s gone, isn’t he.”
Yes, he was. The double bass was resting quietly on its side, like a fat woman asleep in the sun, and the wall behind it was empty.
. . . . .
Christiansen had walked no more than a few blocks when the rain started. At that time of year it came down in torrents, as rhythmic as the bearing of a heart. It was impossible to go on; one simply had to run for cover and wait until the downpour ended.
He stood under the tin awning of an empty grocery store and lit a cigarette. First that damn fool Briggs and now this rain. It just didn’t seem to be his night.
Of course he remembered. Briggs had been within arm’s length of him there in the prison yard, quietly going green. Imagine anyone who had been through the war sicking up at the sight of a few men being hanged—one would have thought that by then everyone would have seen enough death and horror to render them immune for life, but maybe Briggs had been a clerk or something.
It had rained that night too. There had still been pools of water in the prison yard, and he remembered how in the hour before dawn, in the light from the guard towers, a team of German POWs had swept the walkways so their generals wouldn’t get wet feet walking to the gallows. He remembered how von Goltz had stood up there on the narrow wooden stage, his face expressionless, almost frozen, as they slipped the hood over his head. There had been no last words, just a kind of thud as the rope jerked tight. All things considered, it would hardly seem to have been enough.
Anyway, tonight wasn’t the occasion for talking over old times. The last thing in the world Christiansen needed was to get entangled with some nostalgic former comrade-in-arms—the fighting hadn’t been over even three years, but everyone seemed to have forgotten what it had been like. It was astonishing how sentimental some men seemed to have become about the lost opportunities of carnage.
But tonight there was only time for business. The business the war had left unsettled. Briggs and his reminiscences and his whiskey and his lady friend could wait.
After about twenty minutes the rain started to slacken and then, quite suddenly, it was just gone. Christiansen ground out his second cigarette under the toe of his shoe and started on again.
The note left at his hotel that afternoon had been as explicit as it needed to be: “If the man with the strings wishes to hear of mutual friends, he may join me for breakfast tomorrow morning at my home. Gerhart”
Gerhart Becker lived above his tobacco shop on the Calle de Machado under the name of “Bauer.” He had moved to Havana in 1946, coming from Argentina, and had paid to establish his new business enterprise with seventy-five hundred dollars in cash. Christiansen knew all about Gerhart Becker. The information had cost him most of his savings, two years of his life, and three murders. And now Herr Becker was offering a deal to avoid becoming Number Four.
Or perhaps he was merely interested in tricking Christiansen into some foolish mistake so he could eliminate that threat once and for all.
Christiansen had no trouble finding the tobacco shop. It look up the first floor of a two-story building between a luggage store and a small hotel. There was a taxi stand on the other side of the street, at the end of the block, and even at a quarter to three in the morning there were still a couple of cabs about, the interior lights on to show their drivers asleep behind the steering wheels. Perhaps there was a cabaret or a brothel somewhere about—Havana was like that—little clusters of nightlife hiding out in what appeared to be the most respectable of middle-class business districts.
The upper story, where, to all appearances, Becker was sleeping quietly, was curtained and dark. But Christiansen was putting little faith in appearances, so he found himself a convenient shadow to hide in and settled down to wait.
The rain had left the air feeling slightly clammy, and Christiansen kept his hands in the pockets of the blue overcoat he wore over his dinner jacket. He wished he could have had another cigarette, but of course that was impossible under the circumstances. He was watching the windows across the street.
A man walked by on the sidewalk in front of where Christiansen was standing. It wasn’t Becker, who had reddish hair and a round, rather Slavic face, but one of the natives, out, from the looks of him, for a little catting around. Under the wide brim of a light-colored felt hat, Christiansen could see a pencil-thin moustache, a narrow jaw, and two rather frightened-looking eyes. Perhaps he was aware that someone was there in the shadow of the archway that marked the entrance to a darkened restaurant, because his pace seemed to quicken slightly as he passed.
Christiansen was tired. He had been awake for something like twenty hours, and it seemed like a good deal longer than that since anything had passed his lips but cold coffee and cigarette smoke. And on top of everything else his hand felt as if it were stuffed with broken glass. It always throbbed after a night of playing, even the thump-thump-thump of a bass fiddle, but tonight it was worse. The surgeon had told him he would always have trouble with it. Anyway, there wasn’t any point in complaining—he should probably count himself lucky it was still attached to his wrist.
It was about ten minutes before four when he noticed that the inside edge of one of the curtains behind the middle window upstairs was no longer hanging quite straight. Someone had pulled it a little to one side in order to see out onto the street.
So, Herr Bauer—the former Herr Becker, the former Sergeant Becker, Ninth Occupation Division, Fifth Brigade, Waffen-SS, Norway—Herr Bauer was at home, and just as restless as everyone else. It would appear he wasn’t looking forward to the morning very much.
Or perhaps he was. From his point of view the strategy made a certain amount of sense. If he knew he was being hunted, why shouldn’t he take the opportunity of choosing the time and place for an encounter he probably realized was inevitable? Didn’t he have a life here, something worth defending? If he was sufficiently sure of himself—and this, after all, was his warren, not Christiansen’s—why should he run?
And when were the SS ever unsure of themselves?
And, of course, Becker was perfectly aware that he was being hunted. Christiansen had been no more than a little surprised that morning when he had returned from breakfast and the man at the desk had handed him a small buff-colored envelope in exchange for his room key.
“This was left for you a few minutes ago, Señor Barrows,” he had murmured, smiling his polite, inoffensive Latin smile. “The gentleman said he did not wish to disturb your meal.”
Becker wasn’t even bothering to be coy—the address of his shop was printed right on the flap. It was the sort of envelope that might accompany a box of gift cigars, and even in Cuba it paid to advertise.
And why should it be so surprising that Becker would know he was being hunted? These men were all condemned, convicted in absentia for crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by a Norwegian court. But more than that, the old boys’ network the SS maintained was probably humming with word that somebody was killing off the alumni of Colonel Hagemann’s command. People tend to get nervous and efficient after three of their own have been found hanged in lengths of catgut. Probably by now they knew all about Inar Christiansen, even down to the name on his forged American passport.
The slight hitch in the curtain disappeared. Christiansen waited for perhaps a quarter of a minute and then stepped quickly across the street to the hotel that stood pressed up against the tobacco shop like the next book on the shelf. He wanted to look at Becker’s garden.
It was astonishing how no one ever questioned the presence of a strange man in a hotel lobby at four in the morning—provided, of course, that he appeared to know what he was about and didn’t loiter. The night porter merely glanced up from his newspaper, perhaps wondering for an instant which of the resident ladies would still be receiving callers at such an hour. He had lost interest by the time Christiansen disappeared up the stairway.
The roof, of course, was deserted.
The hotel had only three stories, but Havana was a city of low buildings so it was possible to stand there on the parapet and look out over the whole broad tangle of streets, smeared here and there with colored light, all the way to the harbor. Above, the stars twinkled as brightly as if it had never rained, mocking in their indifference. If all this ceased in the next instant, they seemed to affirm, who would care? It was a strangely comforting idea.
Christiansen stared down into the tobacco shop’s back yard, which was partially illuminated by a light over the hotel’s rear entrance. Still, he wouldn’t have cared to walk around in it, since its owner had done a thorough job of booby-trapping almost the whole area.
Old paint cans were stacked up precariously at intervals along the gravel pathway that led to the rear entrance. There were boards and tangles of wire. In that semidarkness, no one could have crossed the twenty or so yards of open ground without stumbling over something. And making an unholy racket in the process.
That was undoubtedly the plan. Should he knock at the front door, Christiansen would be invited inside and promptly shot; should he try to sneak in the rear, he would trip the alarm and meet the same fate. In either case. Becker would tell the police he had surprised an intruder, a few pesos would change hands, and that would be that.
As he peered down into the shrouded garden, Christiansen couldn’t help but marvel at the Teutonic tidymindedness of the scheme. The SS were such careful, planning bastards. They had murdered people in their millions and laid waste to most of Europe, and all with the precision of an army of file clerks. Everything was always thought through in advance—one arrived at a plan and then followed it to the letter.
Anyone who approached either of the tobacco shop’s two doors was as good as dead.
Becker had learned his villainy at a good school. He was down there now, prowling around the rooms of his little house, wound up like a mechanical toy, but he suffered from the same weakness as all the rest of them; he simply couldn’t deal with the unexpected. The Germanic soul had no powers of improvisation.
So the attack would come from the one place Becker hadn’t troubled to fortify. His own roof.
There had been a couple of straight-backed wooden chairs leaning against the wall in the hotel’s third-floor hallway. Christiansen decided he would also see if he couldn’t steal fifty or sixty feet of clothesline—if there was a utility closet around anywhere, he should be able to find something.
There wasn’t any clothesline, so he had to break into an empty room and make off with the drapery cord, which was only about two thirds the length he would have liked, but he thought he might be able to get by with it.
Like all the establishments around it, Becker’s had a flat roof— Latin architects always seemed to ignore the fact that it rains sometimes, even in Havana—and it was about a fifteen-foot drop down from the hotel parapet. The great thing was to get down there without making any detectable noise, since Becker was playing this game for his life and that was enough to make any man preternaturally alert.
Christiansen set the two chairs together on the parapet ledge, seat down, balancing them so that it wouldn’t take more than a breath to make either one fall over. Then he took out his pocketknife and cut off about fifteen feet of drapery cord, tied one end to a leg of each chair, and let the loop drop down over the side of the building. From Becker’s roof he would only have to give a little tug and they would topple into his arms, one after the other. It was getting himself down that was going to present the problem.
There was a curved drainpipe near that edge of the roof. He could tie the rest of his drapery cord to that and then lower himself over the side—except that he wasn’t at all confident the cord would hold his weight unless he used a double length, and that would leave him hanging against the outside wall of the hotel with about a seven-foot fall to the edge of Becker’s roof. Christiansen weighed close to two hundred and twenty pounds; dropping from that height, he would make enough of a bang to wake up all the sweating former SS men who had ever lived.
He took off his overcoat and tied the sleeves together through the circle of drapery cord around the hotel drainpipe, wondering the whole time if the thing wouldn’t simply pull to pieces the instant it had to bear the full load—he didn’t even know if it would reach far enough. He threw it over the edge and watched it as it fluttered to rest against the wall, and he still didn’t know. The bottom was lost in darkness.
But at least he could console himself with the thought that he wasn’t encumbered with an impossible number of alternatives. He could climb down on his coat—and trust that the Portuguese tailor who had made it for him hadn’t economized on the stitching—or he could take the stairs back to the lobby and forget the whole thing. There simply wasn’t a third choice.
And so it was that with a thousand misgivings Inar Christiansen found himself clinging in the black of night to the back of a dress overcoat, working his way down handful by handful as he felt for something solid under his feet and listened with expectant dread for the sound of tearing fabric. As he changed his hold from one hand to the other, he could feel himself swinging against the hotel wall. There was nothing down there, it seemed, except air. His left hand was aching until he could hardly feel his fingers—possibly he wouldn’t even know he had lost his grip until he started to fall. And still the edge of Becker’s roof seemed no closer.
He changed hands one last time—they were both so slippery with sweat that it hardly seemed to make any difference—and felt again for something solid under him. Nothing. It was all up with him. In another second he would come down with a crash, and then where was he supposed to go? Becker would be able to kill him at his leisure.
He tried once more—nothing. And then once more, stretching down so far that the shoulder joint in his right arm felt as if it might be ready to pull loose.
And then, there it was. The point of his shoe scraped against what felt like a flat surface. Possibly he might have caught on nothing more than a protruding piece of brickwork, but right at that moment it hardly mattered. The hem of his coat was greasy with sweat and slipping between his fingers. He was going down, whether he liked it or not.
And then, as if by some miracle, he found himself clinging to the hotel wall, his feet pressing against something that felt solid enough to convince anybody it was the cinderblock edge of Gerhart Becker’s roof.
It was several seconds before Christiansen could bring himself to breathe, let alone try to move. He was afflicted with a terrible fear that he was about to topple over backward, that there was really nothing there beneath him but perhaps an inch or two of shelf, but finally, after what felt like an eternity, he nerved himself up to let his eyes follow the line of the brick wall down to where he could see that it joined the flat, granite-colored plane of the next building. So far, so good.
Moving his feet slowly and carefully, and staying flush against the hotel wall, he made his way to the rear, where he could see the whole of Becker’s little garden and could put his hand on the loop of drapery cord that ran up to his two chairs. One after the other, be pulled them down and set them to rest on the roof beside him. Near the seam where the two buildings joined at right angles there was a downspout running from the hotel gutters. It was round and made of cast iron and seemed well anchored. It would do for the descent.
Finally, he leaned his shoulder against the wall and began to collect himself. His little plan, such as it was, was ready to be put into execution. Everything was assembled. It would have been nice to have had some idea where Becker was hiding himself, but one couldn’t ask for the moon. It was time to start. That was the problem.
It was four-thirty in the morning. In three quarters of an hour, sooner perhaps, certainly well before first light, the rubbish carts would start on their rounds and everywhere the city would begin stirring into sullen life. There was simply no space left for the luxury of weariness—or fear, or scruples, or whatever it was—but Christiansen could hardly bring himself to keep his eyes open. His head touched the cool bricks of the hotel, and he found himself wondering why he wasn’t home in bed.
Except that there was no longer anywhere on earth he could rightfully call home, something that Becker and his friends had seen to on that second Sunday in June, 1942. Something they had seen to with amazing thoroughness.
No one wears his past comfortably. Christiansen realized he was probably no worse than anyone else—after all, his parents had sent him away. He hadn’t asked them to; it had all seemed so natural at the time. He hadn’t even wanted it, not at first. But at that age one learns new ways fast, forgetting the old. The two of them had stood together on the dock at Oslo and waved goodbye. He hadn’t been any more than a kid, so how could he have known what it cost them, what was in their hearts? He was their pride, and he had watched them growing smaller and smaller as the ship pulled away and left them behind. And now he couldn’t ever go back.
There was always so much that had been left undone and unsaid. All the small sins of a thoughtless, selfish childhood accumulate like dust in an unused room.
No, he wasn’t any worse than anyone else. He was merely an exile. The fourteenth day in June, 1942—it was as if they had cut something away with a sharp knife, burning the wound closed so it wouldn’t bleed. Not flesh and bone, just a part of his life.
A slight tremor went through Christiansen’s body, like a reproach, and he pushed himself disdainfully away from the wall. He was finished with being human.
Because somewhere under his feet Gerhart Becker was waiting with a gun and a mighty fear of death, and it was time to settle old scores. Christiansen picked up one of the chairs, holding it by the back like a club, and pitched it as far out into the darkness as he could manage. It came down with a great crash against the wooden gate that separated the garden from the alley behind. The gate was left standing partially open and the lights from the house clicked on, staining the ground a lurid electric yellow.
Come on out, you bastard. The words formed in Christiansen’s mind, and his lips moved soundlessly. Otherwise he was still as marble. Ten seconds, then fifteen. . . Nothing. Then the garden fell into darkness again, as if the light had shrunk back into its source out of simple dread.
Becker wasn’t as stupid as all that. He would be expecting some sort of trap—he would have to have his look around first.
Christiansen listened with almost painful attention, but he couldn’t hear the sounds of footsteps inside the house. He tried to visualize the man’s movements—was he still on the second floor, or had he gone downstairs? It was an awkward business, shooting at someone from above, so Becker would want to be right there in the doorway when the moment came. He would check the front first, just to be sure no one was trying to come at him from behind, and then he would be back. There was nothing in the garden—he had seen that with his own eyes—and pretty soon he would begin wondering what had made all the noise. An animal, maybe? Havana was full of stray dogs. He would want to know, he wouldn’t be able to stand not knowing. And the continuing quiet would make him bolder. He would come back. It only needed a little patience.
Below a certain latitude there is no such thing as silence, and that subtropical night was filled with tiny sounds. Splashes of rainwater were still falling from tree branches and telephone lines, and the dull, scraping noises of insects rose and fell like a bad radio signal. It was a question of listening for the one slight suggestion of a human presence in all the chaos of overlapping, patternless murmurs.
Christiansen tried not to move. He didn’t want to create any distractions, not even so much as the whisper of his coat sleeve as it brushed against the side of his dinner jacket. He would have liked to stop breathing.
And then, there it was. Some twenty feet below him, the screen door strained slightly on its hinges. Becker was standing there behind it, his hand pressing against the wire mesh, wondering if he had the nerve to step outside and check to make sure there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for him in his back yard.
When the lights went back on, Christiansen could hardly keep himself from starting. But he was patient. He almost didn’t breathe as, slowly, the screen door opened and Becker stepped out from the protecting walls of his house.
What can you tell about a man from looking down at the top of his head? Becker’s hair was thinning—that was about all. The light shone against his scalp as he stood with his left arm akimbo. For the rest, he was simply a blank.
He was still too close to the house. He was waiting—he wanted to feel safe before he began moving out into the garden. Christiansen could see the pistol in his right hand.
And then, one pace. And then, two. The screen door closed quietly behind him. He was out now, looking around. In another second he would turn back to the house. There was no time to lose.
Christiansen picked up the second chair, lifting it all the way up over his head. He had only the one chance to make good.
Perhaps Becker heard something, because at the last instant he glanced up. The chair caught him across the face and shoulders, knocking him to the ground, but Christiansen didn’t wait to see—he was already over the side of the building, his hands clamped around the metal downspout as he began sliding to the ground. He hit the earth with a thump, the impact almost making him lose his balance. As he turned around, he saw Becker trying to push himself up with his hands. He was looking at Christiansen with eyes that flickered fearfully in the yellow light. The gun he had dropped in falling wasn’t more than a foot from his right elbow. It would have been little enough trouble to pick it up again.
But Christiansen didn’t give him a chance to remember about weapons. He covered the distance between them in a few quick strides and, with a kick like the stroke of a piston, caught Becker precisely on the side of the head.
. . . . .
The basement was small, square, astonishingly deep, and permeated with the smell of tobacco. There were a few packing crates around made of dark rough wood with what might have been the names of plantations burned into the slats, so perhaps Becker stored his wares down here.
Becker was still unconscious, hanging from a sewer pipe by a rope that looped around his chest and under his arms. His hands were tied behind his back and his head was drooping down forlornly. He would twist clockwise through a slow quarter of a turn and then gradually stop and then begin slowly twisting counterclockwise. He looked like a corpse on a gibbet.
There was a double strand of heavy catgut around his neck, knotted just behind his left ear. It was hanging loose for the moment; as gradually Becker began to come back to himself, he seemed not even to know it was there. He shook his head and looked down at the chair that had been placed about six inches beneath the points of his toes. He stretched out one foot, trying to touch the flat seat, but he couldn’t quite reach it.
Christiansen, who was sitting on an old steamer trunk only a few yards away, watched unsympathetically.
“Let me down from here,” Becker whispered hoarsely. He had probably been a strong man once, but in his middle thirties, and after only a few years of peace, his face had begun to take on a doughy appearance. The color in his checks and across the bridge of his nose was blotchy, and his small, close-set brown eyes seemed wet and nearsighted. He was streaming with sweat; it collected in the creases around his mouth and made the bald crown of his head gleam like a polished window.
“For God’s sake, let me down.”
Christiansen got up slowly and took the pocketknife from his trousers. He smiled as he opened it, as if he were looking forward to drawing the blade across Becker’s throat. He wanted Becker to be afraid. A frightened man was easier to manipulate.
Becker’s eyes widened as he watched—the knife blade held them as if by some enchantment.
“If you want down, you can come down,” Christiansen said, stepping up beside Becker and resting a hand delicately on his shoulder. With a slight pressure he set him rocking back clockwise at the end of his rope, which creaked against the sewer pipe as Becker swayed back and forth and then came to rest. Christiansen reached up and cut the knot.
Becker’s heels hit the chair’s wooden seat with a loud smack, and a panicky gurgle escaped him as the catgut noose tightened on his windpipe. He lost his balance almost at once and, as his knees buckled, he tried to scream for help, but the sound was cut short. His face went a deep purplish red as slowly he began to strangle.
For a moment Christiansen merely watched. The faint smile had never left his face and his cold, pitiless eyes narrowed slightly, as if he found the spectacle amusing. Then, finally, he grabbed Becker by the arms and helped him to regain his footing. For the moment, Becker was worth more alive.
“Stand up straight— that’s it.” Christiansen sat down again on the steamer trunk and crossed his legs. He took a half-empty packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his dinner jacket and lit one. “The noose will slacken of its own so long as you keep the pressure off. But, of course, if you relax a little. . .”
He made a vague gesture with his right hand, as if to suggest that he couldn’t he held responsible for the inevitable, and the smoke from his cigarette drifted through the air in a ragged line. Becker, who was filling his lungs in quick, heavy gasps, watched him with an expression of undisguised horror.
“Of course, it’s only a matter of time until you grow tired, isn’t it. One can’t keep at attention forever. You could try switching your weight from one leg to the other—you might last a little longer that way—but it’ll all come out the same in the end. You’ve been a soldier. You’ve seen men faint on parade, just keel over from one minute to the next. Or your muscles will cramp up and you’ll lose your balance again. Only next time I won’t come to your aid. I’ll merely sit here and watch.”
The two men understood each other perfectly. Becker knew that no one was kidding, and that was fine. Christiansen allowed himself the luxury of a shrug.
“How long do you think you can last?” he went on, flicking the ash from his cigarette onto the basement’s cement floor. “A few hours? More? I can wait—I don’t begrudge you the time.”
“What do you want? I’ll give you anything you want!” Becker’s head squirmed pleadingly in the noose, and the white catgut disappeared into the folds of his neck. His eyes seemed ready to start out of their sockets. “What is this about?”
Christiansen frowned suddenly and threw his cigarette to the floor. “You shouldn’t have tried to trick me. You should have known it wouldn’t work. I don’t make deals with members of the Fifth Brigade.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t lie to me, Sergeant. Don’t compound your mistake. There’s no limit to how hard I can make it for you to die.”
“What do you want?”
For a moment Christiansen seemed to have lost the power of movement. And then, as if something had just occurred to him, he shook his head and laughed—or, at least, made a sound that was something like laughter.
“Do you remember Kirstenstad, Sergeant? And you can ask me what it is I want?”
“I wasn’t there. I thought you were. . . Oh my God. you have to believe me—I wasn’t there!”
“You were there.”
Christiansen lit another cigarette and waited. He had been through it all before. Three times in the last two years he had looked into a man’s face, pronounced the name “Kirstenstad,” and been witness to the change that was like a fall from grace. And it was never simply a matter of some poor hunted wretch realizing that his time had come, that he was finally in the power of his deadliest enemy—that was a part, of course, but not the whole. It was a kind of moral terror. No one who had been at Kirstenstad that Sunday morning, who had had eyes to see what had happened there, could fail to know that he had been delivered over to the purest evil. Christiansen had learned as much as that.
“I want Colonel Hagemann, Sergeant. And you can tell me where to find him.”
“I was only his orderly—I was. . .”
“Then you would have been standing beside him that morning, wouldn’t you, Sergeant.” Christiansen’s face was without expression. Only his eyes, cold and blue, like ice in the sun, showed that he was still a man, with a man’s hatred. “You would have seen the mayor of Kirstenstad, wouldn’t you, Sergeant. He was a tall man, in late middle age, with a white moustache—quite a dignified figure, Sergeant. Surely you must remember him. As the trucks rolled up. he came out of his house to see what the disturbance was, to see what the Waffen-SS could possibly want with his little village, and your Colonel Hagemann had him shot down on his own doorstep. It was one of those heroic moments destined to live forever in the myths of the German people, Sergeant, so surely you must recall the scene.
“And perhaps you remember his wife as well, how she knelt in her husband’s blood, unable to understand what had happened, and how the Colonel, that fearless paragon, doubtless to set an example for his men, himself put a pistol to the back of her neck and pulled the trigger. Did you clean the pistol for him that night, Sergeant? Wouldn’t that have fallen within the scope of your duties?”
The muscles in Christiansen’s jaw were working rhythmically as he stared at his captive, precisely as if he had never seen such an exotic creature before. For all its calm, there had been something wild in his voice as he talked about that morning in 1942. But when he spoke again, his tone was once more empty, without inflection, almost dead.
“You soldiers of the Fifth Brigade, you killed nearly everyone In the village that day,” he went on, like a man reciting a story learned by heart. “Hardly a soul escaped. I wish I could claim that I wanted to avenge them all, but I can’t. I just want the man who murdered my parents.”
The cigarette in Christiansen’s hand had burned down almost to his fingers—he seemed to have forgotten it was there. Finally he put it out, grinding out the ember under the point of his shoe. Becker watched the whole performance with a kind of morbid fascination.
The strain was beginning to tell on him. It had been three years since Becker had worn a uniform. He had lost his soldier’s bearing, he looked faintly ridiculous standing there at attention on top of a kitchen chair. His nose was beginning to run, although he hardly seemed to notice it, and every so often, to keep from falling, he would have to catch himself as he swayed a few degrees to one side or the other. And now he was trembling—just slightly, just enough that he couldn’t keep his shoulders still.
“I can tell you how to find him,” he said finally, his voice thick, as if the noose were choking him already. His eyes cast about the room; he seemed to be looking for a way to escape. “Why shouldn’t I? I don’t owe him anything—I thought you were from him, come to clean me away. Maybe if you kill him, I can start to sleep at night”
“Then tell me where to find him.”
“Not where—I have not seen the Colonel in a long time and he keeps his movements a secret. But I can tell you how to find him.”
He forced himself to smile. His lips drew back from his teeth in a grotesque manner. They were in each other’s confidence, he seemed to be suggesting. Hagemann was the common enemy.
It was a lie, of course. There was a network that kept the survivors of the Fifth Brigade safe and solvent. There was money to procure new identities for men still hunted by the Allied War Crimes Commission, money to finance new lives—how else had “Herr Bauer” come by his tobacco shop?
But what difference did any of that make? Gerhart Becker wanted to live.
“What can you tell me. Sergeant?”
“There is a girl. . .”
His sentence trailed off as he heard Christiansen’s dry, mocking laughter.
“No—really—there is a girl I’ve heard he’s looking for. He—”
“Half the men in the world are looking for a girl, Sergeant. And you know as well as I that the Colonel’s is not precisely a romantic disposition. I’ve heard all the stories. There were probably hundreds of girls.”
But something in the way Becker kept twisting his head from side to side, as if he were trying to saw through his neck with the catgut noose, made him stop laughing.
“Go on then, if you must. Tell me about this girl.”
“She is a Jewess. She was his mistress—in the camp.”
“Yes. She was the General’s before that. The General gave her to him. My colonel was obsessed by her.”
“If she was at Waldenburg, she’s probably dead.”
“No.” Becker swallowed hard. He seemed to be telling the truth. He wanted to be believed. “The General made sure she got away alive. She is alive somewhere—you have only to find her and Hagemann will come to you. Even if he has to follow you into hell itself.”
“Why? What’s so special about her?”
“I don’t know.”
Egon Hagemann in love? Christiansen didn’t believe it. But he believed Becker’s story. A girl. A girl who had probably lost herself somewhere in Europe, who could be anywhere. Who could be dead, for all Becker knew.
Still, it was more than he had had that morning. He was perhaps a step or two closer to the Colonel Hagemann who had butchered his family, who had. . .
“What is her name, this girl?”
“Esther. . . Rosensaft, I think. Esther Rosensaft”
“That was her name. Esther Rosensaft. He called her ‘Saftag,’ though she was a little stick of a thing. It was his joke.”
“I will strip the flesh from your bones, Sergeant—a piece at a time if you lie to me.” Christiansen showed his strong white teeth in a fierce grin, although he never moved from the steamer trunk. “Nothing in the world will be as hard as your death if you don’t tell me everything you know. Believe me, Sergeant, I would enjoy making you die by inches.”
“There is nothing else!” Becker gasped and sweated and told the truth. He was just a little man after all—he wouldn’t have had the courage to lie in the extremity of his life.
“I’ve told you everything. God, don’t do it to me—please let me down. I’m no one. I never killed anyone.”
“You were there. You let it happen without a word. You helped your colonel—you’re helping him still. Don’t plead your innocence to me.” Christiansen stood up slowly, giving the impression that his legs had grown stiff from disuse. “But I won’t make it too bad for you—I won’t leave you here to linger in agony. I’ll merely carry out the sentence of the court.”
When Becker saw what was coming, his chest heaved wildly and his neck seemed to swell as he rocked his head back and forth. He tried to speak, but at first only a strange gurgling sound came out.
“No!” he screamed—the tiny basement vibrated with the word. “No! You can’t—I thought you were from Hagemann! Hagemann was going to—”
But the words stopped with a jerk as Becker kicked his legs in the empty air. His back arched and the catgut ground against the sewer pipe as he trembled and twitched and tried to open his mouth wide enough to let in a breath.
Christiansen had pulled the chair from under him.