DISCLAIMER: All named characters in this story do not belong to me, they belong to the creators and producers and studios that own Xena: Warrior Princess.
THE HISTORY: I am not a historian, or a history major or a major expert on history. This story, first and foremost, is a work of fiction. Not everything depicted in this story is historically accurate, particularly the details pertaining to the Nazi nuclear program. For example: the Nazis never developed a nuclear reactor capable of firing a nuclear bomb. Fritz Houtermans is a real German scientist who worked on fission experiments and developing nuclear technology. However, he did not remain in Germany and joined the war effort in America. Merkers was a mine but not a cover for a nuclear storage facility, etc. etc. I tried to be as accurate as possible without interfering with my intention to explore the effects of WWII. Plus it creates drama, and I know how much you guys love drama
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: THE XENA SCROLLS.
Two knocks. Any more would mean Gestapo, any less would be ignored. A Nazi flag was draped over the top of the doorframe. Her patience waned. She knocked again. There was shuffling behind the doorway and then he emerged, a glass full of whiskey. Barely acknowledging her, he stepped aside to let her in. Her boots echoed on the wooden floor. The home of a Nazi officer.
There was a candle on the kitchen table, a flame burning away the wax. The golden drapes were drawn to keep the house dark and away from curious eyes. She walked behind him, feeling nervous. He knew who she was and she knew that he was a friend. But the swastika on his lapel stood pronounced. A symbol of protection from the East. A sign of hatred and destruction for all eternity. She was forced to wear it too.
He opened the cellar door and they headed down the stairs, boots clicking on the solid concrete. It was much smaller than the cellar at Melinda and Jack's. The walls were spotted with dark stone and grey cement. There was a wooden table in the far corner and a single light bulb in the ceiling. Beneath the stairs was a plain, white fridge.
They won't talk to me, Jack told her at the café over breakfast. They want you to use the radio at Becker's. Too many ears, I guess. He drew a map, told her to hide it in the rim of her hat and to follow it. So she did.
Becker lifted a loose stone from the ground and pulled out a large metal box, followed by a desk microphone. She helped him with the transceiver as he connected the power. When it was setup, he awkwardly smiled at her and disappeared up the steps. She turned the radio on and walked back toward the staircase to see if Becker closed the door. Satisfied, she went back to the radio and input the frequency. Strange nostalgia. She spoke the transmission in code, afraid that Becker could hear:
"Rembrandt calling Arcadia. Come in, Arcadia."
The radio whirred, and she jerked in surprise as the muffled reply came through.
- Rembrandt received. This is Arcadia. Transmit your message.
"Awaiting orders, sir."
There was a high pitched shriek of feedback and Janice stepped back from the table to cover her ears. The static came back, the scratching sound empty of voices. Her brows furrowed. She pressed down on the buttons and spoke into the desk mic:
"Arcadia, do you copy?"
Another burst of feedback and then static. She reached to turn the radio off, but the response stopped her.
- Well, well. The prodigal son returns. Have you enjoyed your vacation in Germany?
- Shh! No names you stupid woman! I do believe we've met. I've heard rumours that you've how shall we say, 'gone round the twist'? Are you quite capable now, of completing your mission?
"You asshole! If you had any idea what I've been though-"
- Language! Unbecoming for a lady, you know. And yes, I've seen precisely what you've been through. Though that will have to wait.
- No, no, my dear. No time for idle chit-chat. This is the last location you need to visit. You are looking for stolen art and gold. Understand? Latitude: 50.81667, Longitude: 10.11667 in the state of Thuringia. You have one week to prepare, then get on the train at 23:00h. Complete this task and send us a radio confirmation. You will get what you've been promised. Arcadia out.
"Roger. Over and out."
Janice removed her SS cap and ran a hand through her red-gold hair. One week. The end of the madness was in sight. She sighed. She would be going home: back to America, to New Jersey. The thought of her house made her ache, collecting dust in her absence, abandoned, grey and filmy with the daylight. She longed for it, for her study with the towering library, her personal collection of artefacts, her bedroom. It would take her backward, into the past, before Germany, before Greece, to the mundane and trivial struggles of her former life.
She dismantled the radio and put it back into the ground, covering it with the loose stone. She bounded back up the stairs, keeping the coordinates in her head, repeating them over and over. Acknowledging Becker, Janice left the house, smoothed the creases in her uniform and headed toward the café.
She burst through the front door of the home, locking the door behind her. Janice quickly stepped out of her boots and padded into the bedroom, searching the bookcase. Her index fingers traced the spines of various anthologies. She pulled out the books with titles that captured interest, books on German culture and geography, a book of world maps. In one of the books, she removed an enlarged map of Germany, the state and topography details carefully etched into the paper. She searched the coordinates, latitude: 50.82, longitude: 10.12, tracing a path with her fingernails. She stopped at the converging point, her eyes narrowing on the closest name. In the state of Thuringia, her last task: Merkers.
The inked name stood in relief from the page. Merkers. Catch the train at 23:00h for Merkers in one week. She closed the books, putting them neatly in the bookcase. It all felt unreal. Soon she would be home. The nightmare would end, the screaming would stop, the homunculus would die and she would be fine. It was a dream.
She went into the café and sat down at an empty table. Jack went over and sat in the chair opposite; Melinda approached with a glass of wine. Janice took the offering and gulped it down. They stared at her expectant. She looked around the room, made sure no one had any interest in them. Janice cleared her throat.
"I leave in one week."
"Where to?" Jack whispered.
Janice leaned forward, "Merkers."
"The mines," Jack said under his breath, eyes flickering over the tablecloth, "So it's true."
Melinda's expression was unreadable. Janice glanced at her before Mel turned, briskly heading into the kitchen. Jack frowned.
"You know of it?" Janice asked him.
"People talk a lot when they're drunk. They say it's a gold mine."
They both stood, "Then I guess I'm headed to the right place."
"It's heavily guarded."
"One week to prepare," she said.
He brushed past her, said in a low voice, "We'll start today."
The days passed and Janice trained, perfected her role as the young male soldier, the new guard to be posted at Merkers: Christofer Gottlieb. She bought a new rifle, an MP40 from the Nazis, made sure they knew her face. She had to be properly integrated. There were enough suspicions: her tanned complexion, her height. She had to dispel the rumours.
Becker helped her, improved her image among the guards and officers. She had drinks with them, caroused with them at the café and gradually, they treated her as a naïve boy, an inferior among their ranks but a Nazi just the same. A patriot. She would play cards with them, make bets with them, sing with them. She would watch the bargirls flirt, tempted them when prompted. She would make the General laugh. She noticed the unusual regard with which the Resistance treated her. She ignored it. Sacrifice was necessary.
At night, Becker would accompany her to the cellar and they would sit at the table between the wine barrels. She did not reveal the room that she had been hiding in, instead remained in the area where the Resistance met. He showed her pictures of the mine tunnels, blueprints of Merkers. She studied them, learned every room and how to reach it. She learned how to escape, knowing that if she could not, she would have to take her own life. She would not be captured again.
One night, a crowd of Resistance members joined them. Jack was at the front, assuming Braun's position as leader. They reviewed inventory, future plans and swapped news from the battle fronts. Jack told of reports from American advances, others recounted the news of the Soviets. The Nazis were losing the war. Everyone was hopeful. It would all be over soon.
Jack called Melinda up to the front of the room and she eyed him with a curious expression, turned to Janice for an answer. Janice grinned at her and Mel returned it with a wide smile. She headed through the crowd, stepping gingerly through the seated Resistance members.
"Here she is," Jack said as Melinda emerged, narrowing her eyes at the crowd.
"I wanted to celebrate," he said, "this amazing twist of fortune. I don't think we thought it would ever come."
There were nods and sounds of agreement from the collection of bodies. Melinda stood awkwardly nibbling on her bottom lip, her hands folded and resting at her waist.
"We may actually be able to get back to the lives we wished to live before this war came over us," Jack continued, "And to mark such an occasion "
He reached into his pocket, turning to Melinda. There were sporadic chuckling noises and whispers from the crowd. He removed a small box and held it up to her, gaze fixated on her face. Parts of the crowd stood and blocked Janice's view. With deliberate slowness, Jack removed the top of the box, revealing a small diamond ring. Melinda gasped and covered her mouth in shock.
"I had to shoot a few Nazis for this," he said jokingly, and those who heard his quiet voice began to laugh. "Melinda," he began, "Throughout the years this whole hellish ordeal, you have been what has kept me positive, kept me alive. And if you will let me I'd like to spend the rest of my life with you."
Her mouth hung agape as she stared at him, eyes glossed with disbelief. Janice stood on the bench and stared over the silent congregation. She saw the ring and held her breath.
"Jack " Mel's voice caught in her throat.
"Marry me, Melinda."
She glanced at the crowd, searching until she found Janice. Something flashed across her eyes, and then Janice smiled. Melinda turned back to him.
"I " Blue eyes flickered back toward the prying, bulbous gazes and then settled on Jack, "Yes."
The men erupted in a cheer and Janice hesitantly joined them as she watched Jack remove the ring and slip it onto Melinda's finger, embracing her, kissing her. They blushed from the attention of the crowd.
When the Resistance had gone, Janice paced her room. She told Melinda to stay with Jack that night and she went without much persuasion.
"Are you sure?" Melinda stared at her, grimacing. Her voice was unusually quiet.
"Yeah," Janice said, a smile on her lips, "Enjoy tonight. I'll be fine. I've been doing much better, haven't I?"
Melinda nodded, pursed her lips, "Okay. I'll see you in the morning."
And she disappeared up the steps.
Janice was glad for it. She knew Jack expected it. Perhaps Melinda did too. It was the first night they spent away from each other, and for Janice, it was endless. Sleepless.
"Why did you shoot me?"
Janice turned, sitting on the bed. A boy in soldier's garb sat at the wooden desk, chubby face staring down at her with crystal-grey eyes. His jacket was matted with blood and bullet holes, ears and blonde hair stained with crimson. So young.
"Why?" He had an eerie, whiny voice that sounded breathless and high-pitched.
Her jaw tightened as she sat up on the bed, "Because you were going to shoot me." A pause. "How old are you?"
She ran a hand through her hair, stared at the crusted scarlet at the corners of his mouth. Lung-shot. She remembered the blood frothing from his lips, the curious eyes. Damn, stupid boy. Leave me alone! Leave me alone!
"What is your name?" She asked.
He didn't answer, unnerved her with his stare. She lay down on the bed about to turn away from him when he replied,
She swallowed. She didn't want to know. Her mouth moved in spite of her and the words formed, "What were you trying to tell me? When I shot you your mouth moved. You tried to speak " Silence. Then the whiney voice, trembling as though on the brink of tears:
"I don't want to die."
She willed him to disappear, covered her face.
At dawn, she circled the wine cellar, convinced that there was little point in trying to rest. She polished her gun, dismantled it, put it together and polished it again. She reviewed the photos of Merkers. Suddenly, her stomach rumbled, hunger gaining influence. She walked up into the larder and glanced at the clock. 05:00h. Breakfast.
Janice stared at the stove and the cupboards filled with food. She had always been ineffectual in the kitchen. She ran her hand through her hair. A sound from the café floor startled her and she felt around her waist for her gun. She cursed, realising the holster was in her room with her uniform. She wore only an undershirt and dark slacks. She grabbed a knife from one of the drawers.
The larder door from the café opened and she pressed her back against the wall. She turned the corner as she heard the figure approach, held the knife prone. A high-pitched shriek emanated from the woman in front of her and Janice stopped as she felt recognition settle in. It was Helen and Ben following close behind her. She sighed.
"Christ, Janice!" Helen said, placing her hand over her heart, "Good morning to you too."
"Sorry," Janice mumbled, putting the knife back into the drawer, "Thought you were breaking in."
"Thought wrong," Helen said, heading for the stove. "Had breakfast yet?"
"Was just about to."
"What were you making?"
"Hadn't gotten to that part."
Helen chuckled, "Alright then. Eggs, toast, and there's some salami that we can have."
She sat at the small, circular table in the corner and Ben joined her at the opposite end. He was silent. She nodded toward him and he acknowledged her. Her stomach audibly gurgled and she listened to the sounds of the frying pan crackling, absorbed the emanating aroma of food. Janice obtained a portion of salami and placed it on a cutting board, grabbed a knife. She put it between herself and Ben on the table, cut a slice and ate it. Ben put some bread in the oven and stared blankly as it toasted.
At last, the dishes were finished cooking and they gathered around the small table. Janice offered Helen a seat but she insisted on standing between her and Ben. Janice was the first to stab at her meal, and she watched as Ben shovelled it into his mouth. He didn't take any pleasure in it, attacked it out of necessity. Convincing theatre. Janice knew it well.
"Eat up you two," Helen said, reaching for a piece of toast, "You have important days ahead."
Janice nodded. Ben was to leave tomorrow morning and she had to take the train the night after that. Helen ran a hand through the shock of gold-blonde hair atop Ben's head.
"He's getting a haircut today," she said, directing her comment at Janice. She turned, pointing her fork at Janice, the ends dripping with the bright yellow yolk of an egg.
"And so are you."
It was late morning before Melinda and Jack appeared. The café was already open and Janice was helping Ben take customers' orders as Helen plated them. The Nazi officers teased her for it, poked fun at her peasant clothing, took pleasure in complicating orders to watch her stumble through them. She pretended not to notice.
Melinda arrived and took over her position, told Janice it was better to get dressed in her uniform. Mel seemed remarkably pleased with herself, satisfied. Janice smiled at her and raised her eyebrows in suggestion: a coy expression that made Melinda blush. Jack whistled as he walked into the café, bid good morning to the customers. The perceptive observers caught the ring on Melinda's finger and flustered themselves with the news, inquiring anxiously. Janice caught Ben staring at Melinda and Jack. She turned to Ben and nudged his arm, stuck out her tongue with her finger pointed into her mouth in mock gesture. A grin tugged at the corners of his lips. She smiled at him, heading into the larder toward the cellar.
After lunch, Helen cleared a space in the kitchens and placed two wooden chairs in the center of the floor. Becker snuck in through the house entrance and Ben followed him. Janice sat quietly, hair dripping from the shower, narrowing her eyes at Helen as she reached for a pair of scissors. Ben occupied the chair beside her, waiting as Becker began to trim his hair. Janice frowned and her brow creased as she heard the sharp, scratching sound of the metal blades severing the strands of her auburn hair. The scraps fell to the floor, collected in an array of red and gold, piling over the light hardwood.
Helen was gentle, careful not to pull to hard but the act threatened to unnerve Janice as she remembered the cold draft of her prison cell, the yanking grip of the SS officer as the blades sheared her once prided locks, cherished and cared for since childhood. They took everything from her: her beauty, her body.
She was a commodity, auctioned to science for the privilege of a few rich Nazis, sold to the Americans as a hapless lackey, and now to the German Resistance, the good ol' boys, the sacred, moral liberals. She bit her lip. She could not scream and dared not stir. Silence.
Ben knew it too, hushed and secluded in the captivity of his mind. Becker finished with him first, wet the boy's hair and parted it on the side with a comb like the Fuhrer's. Standard uniform. Helen walked in front of her, sucked on her bottom lip as she scrutinized her handiwork. Satisfied, she took the wet comb and parted Janice's hair, now too short and too thin to reach the tops of her ears.
"Done," Helen's voice chimed as she held a mirror up to her.
Janice hardly recognized herself. She was odd looking, certainly masculine but child-like. She pursed her lips, unsure of how to feel. She gave the mirror to Ben and he put it on the counter without pausing to look at himself.
Becker stared at Janice, arms folded over his chest, "In your uniform, you'll do wonderfully." He smiled and turned to Helen who smiled with him. Janice's eyes narrowed at them. Something lurked behind their grinning faces, an air of mockery, some juvenile amusement. Janice averted her gaze and hopped off of the chair.
She headed into the cellar and dressed in her uniform, re-read the books Melinda loaned her over a year ago. She touched the fringes of her cropped, damp hair and squeezed her eyes shut, staying in bed for the remainder of the day.
Janice sat with her feet propped up on the bed, staring at the page of a novel. Her SS cap was abandoned on the bedpost hanging with her blazer and belts. Her gun was in its holster on the desk weighting down piles of aerial photographs. Her boots were placed neatly beside the door.
The lock inside the iron door clicked and the hinges groaned as Melinda entered. Janice put her book down on the bed, regarded her with curiosity. She did not expect Melinda for another hour.
Mel approached, setting two glass tumblers on the nightstand and dangled a bottle of cognac in front of her, a playful grin on her face. Janice smirked and arched her brow, reaching for one of the tumblers and tossing the book onto the desk opposite the bed.
Janice watched as Melinda broke the seal on the bottle and filled her proffered glass with the bronze coloured liquid, "Congratulations are in order."
Melinda grimaced, "How's that?"
Janice gestured with her glass toward the engagement ring.
"Oh," Mel said, concealing a smile, "Yes. Thank you."
She filled her glass and sat beside Janice, obtaining the ashtray from the drawer and the cigarette pack from her pocket. She removed the paper wrappers and handed a long cylinder to Janice, tossing the matchbox at her. Janice struck the match and waited for Melinda to place a cigarette between her lips, lighting it first and then lighting her own. Melinda chuckled.
"You're quite the gentleman."
Janice took a long drag from her cigarette, replied in a mocking tone, "Ha-ha."
It earned her a smile. Melinda sipped her drink, reached out toward her and ran her slender fingers through Janice's clipped hair. Janice swatted her hand away.
"I don't like it."
Melinda giggled, "No? But it's charming. I like it like this."
She nodded and they fell silent, sipping their drinks, smoke collecting in a cloud in front of them. Janice peered over at the bottle of cognac.
"Hennessy," she said quietly, "That has to be getting expensive "
Melinda shrugged, drank from her glass and raised the cigarette to her lips, mixing the flavour of alcohol and smoke. She poured herself another drink and turned to offer more to her friend, eyes glancing nervously at the bed sheets.
"There's no one else I'd rather drink it with."
Janice offered a half-smile, downed the rest of her drink to cover it up and held the glass out to be refilled.
The muffled sound of a radio emanated through the ceiling, barely audible. Janice craned her neck to listen, staring up in the direction of the sound. She smiled, recognising the tune.
"What is it?" Melinda asked.
She paused, eyes narrowed in concentration. " Glenn Miller?"
Janice nodded, "Moonlight Serenade."
Mel lay back on the pillow, leaning against the headboard. Janice glanced over at her.
"Do you remember it?"
Melinda nodded, put the cigarette in her mouth and exhaled a puff of smoke, "Greece." After a long pause, she continued, "Feels like another lifetime. I thought it was banned here?"
"It is," Janice said, exhaling the smoke through her nostrils, "Must be Jack playing an American station." She frowned, "That's dangerous."
"I know," Mel replied, "He's happy. He gets careless when he's happy "
Janice finished her cigarette, and Melinda gave her another, lit it. "I first heard this song in New Jersey "
She smiled, "Of course," chuckled, "So you remember that too."
"Mmhmmm " Mel said, lips attached to the cigarette as she drained the last of it. Smouldering embers glowed in the dim light. "God, I miss home "
"I've never been to Princeton."
Janice gulped her drink and cringed from the large blast of alcohol burning down her throat. It settled warm in the pit of her stomach, "Well, I've never been to Abbeville."
Melinda sighed, "Maybe when the war is over -"
Janice shook her head, "No nothing will be the same."
Mel reached for the bottle of Hennessey and poured Janice another drink. Janice moistened her lips, stared at the emptying bottle.
"Are you sure?"
Mel nodded, "I insist."
Janice accepted the drink and balanced her cigarette in the hand holding the glass. She ran her fingertips back and forth over her temple. Melinda peered at her from the rim of the tumbler.
"Do you really hate it that much?"
"Your hair," she said simply, drinking and bringing the glass down from her lips.
Janice sighed, stared at the wall for a while before she responded, "It reminds me of when they cut it."
Mel watched her with mourning, willing the memory of her friend to surmount the impostor: the broken woman. She fantasized about the day that Janice would return to her, restored and remade into the friend she had grown so fond of. Her faith in the vision drained from her slowly.
"I know you want me to tell you," Janice said, "But I can't."
"No," Mel said, "Whatever it is that has so changed you I don't want to know."
Janice nodded, contemplative, "Is it all bad?"
"No. Not always."
Melinda cupped the glass tumbler in both hands and stared as though deciding what to do with it. She brought the drink to her mouth and drained it, reaching for the bottle to pour another. She tilted it back and concentrated on the liquid coating her tongue, cool as it rolled to the back of her mouth, burning in a path down her chest to her stomach. She sighed, breath hitching.
"I can't let you leave."
Janice's head snapped up and she gazed at her in confusion, "What?"
Mel chewed at her bottom lip, freed it from her teeth reddened and raw, "It's too dangerous. You'll be killed. It's idiotic all of this!"
Janice turned to her, "Is that why you came down here?"
"No," Mel said, grimaced from insult.
Janice clenched her jaw, rose from the bed and walked around to the night table, pulled another cigarette from the frayed pack and lit it. She paced the small area, inhaled the smoke, lightweight and soothing in her veins, mingling with the alcohol. Pacifying. She daubed the cigarette into the ashtray, turned to face her, "I'm going, Melinda."
Mel placed the tumbler on the night table and rose to stand towering over Janice's smaller gait, "Why?"
"I refuse to stay here I can't stay here. I need to go home." To be purified, she thought.
"It's not about you, Melinda. I can't do this anymore! I want my identity back. I'm nothing, no one. Do you have any idea what it's like to be erased? To be stuck here without even a little hope of getting out?"
"Yes!" Melinda snapped. "You think you're the only one who feels trapped?"
"It's not the same," she replied, shaking her head, "You can escape. That little stash of yours: your passports, money. It's something, a possibility. You can hold onto that. Even if I had what you have, I couldn't get back into America, not until they clear my name. They won't do that until I finish this!"
"That's not true," Mel pleaded, "They're lying to you, using you." She stammered as she spoke, "I could get Jack to help you. I'll get you new papers. I'll get people at immigration involved. We'll get around it. It's just bureaucracy. We've beaten it here; we can beat it in America. They can't lock you out."
"They have!" Janice said defiantly, her face flushed with anger. She watched as Melinda's eyes glazed with tears, cheeks, nose and the tips of her ears went red as her pain threatened to surface. "Please, Mel," she continued, feeling her energy wane, "This is just something I have to do."
Melinda pulled her into an embrace, voice catching in her throat, "I won't lose you again." Janice wrapped her arms around Mel's neck, burying her face into her shoulder and long black hair. The hands at the small of her back grasped her shirt. Warm, shuddering breaths electrified the nerves on her neck and the tip of her ear as Melinda's voice reverberated into it, "Don't."
Janice sighed, "Mel -"
"Pretend," she whispered, interrupting her, "I just want to hear it "
Janice kept still, felt her pulse throbbing in her temples, on her back beneath Melinda's hands. It was just an act; it didn't have to be true. Make them happy. Comfort them. She stared at the wall, tried to distance herself. Melinda's heartbeat drummed in Janice's ears, though her chest.
"I promise you, Melinda."
When she pulled away, Janice cupped Mel's face in her hands, watched a stray tear trickle down her flushed cheek beneath the rim of her glasses. Words were cheapened things.
Melinda froze as soft lips closed over her own with agonizing slowness, a whimper struggled from her throat. Gentle, profound calm. She relished in it: felt the novelty of it before the shock settled in. Warm, aggressive desire quivered through her abdomen, sparking arousal further down, each wave of craving more demanding than the one before. She tilted her head absently and leaned into the contact, struggling against her body's response.
As they broke apart, the wet sound of their lips filled their ears. Janice looked up, hands shaking. She was terrified by what she had done. Melinda's eyes became wild with fear and she pulled herself from the embrace, stumbled backward into the wall. Her hand snaked up to her lips, fingertips brushing the swollen flesh.
Melinda felt her pulse lodge into her throat. She kissed her. Janice kissed her and she was a woman. Her body trembled violently. It wasn't her fault. Her body reacted from shock. The response was reflexive. Mel covered her mouth with her hand and muffled a horrified sob. She was insane and now it was certain. Janice was insane.
Janice watched her back into the door like a wounded animal, her shaking hands searching for the latch. Janice stood petrified, legs fixed to the ground, jaw clamped shut. The homunculus in her brain awoke to tear up the flesh inside of her head. She stared as Melinda fumbled with the door, unlocked it and slammed it shut, the sound of her shoes thrumming on the up the stairs outside.
Janice collapsed on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. She was sinking, fading into the sewage of her brain. Swallowed in the nausea of rejection, Janice wept quietly into the pillow.
Laughter: evil and wicked cackling. A low voice, his voice, delighted by her misery.
She turned. He was next to the bed, knees bent as though sitting in a chair, hands folded in his lap. The severed flaps of his throat twitched as he laughed maniacally. The curls at the side of his bald head bounced as his chest heaved. Dr. Hertz.
"You can't even save yourself, can you?" His voice was thin, sickening.
He laughed again. She covered her face in her hands, drowning to the sound of laughter, desperate to claw out of the madness, to get back to the empty room as he shouted, "Faster! Go on, try! Fight like you do. We love to see you fail."
Shut up, all of you! Please, please, please She sobbed, giving in, rocking back and forth, hitting the back of her head on the headboard.
Morning. The tender rays of sun lit the world in pale yellow gold, warming the cool air that surrounded them. The familiar scent of rich earth, the smell of summer, filled their nostrils. They stood in a line: Janice, Helen, Melinda and Jack. In front of them, Ben swung his brown duffel bag onto his back, cold eyes staring up at them. Removed, he was dressed in soldier's uniform, listening to the mechanical sounds of the train behind him.
To Janice, he nodded, a half-smile on his lips. Understanding. She held her hand out to him and he shook it firmly. With Helen, he hugged her and she kissed his forehead, though Janice noticed the exchange was indifferent. Bizzare. Helen sobbed but there were no tears in her eyes. Janice continued to observe him.
Ben moved on to Melinda who kissed his cheek and embraced him. He gazed into her eyes as they broke apart, his jaw cradled between her fine, alabaster hands. At last, she let him go and he turned to Jack. He put his duffel bag down and Jack embraced him. As he pulled away and bent to pick up his bag, they shared a knowing glance, a coveted knowledge between them that pierced through his daze.
The conductor called and Ben lingered on the vision of Melinda and Jack. Finally, he turned, headed into the train car to disappear as the steam hissed into the atmosphere and the groaning machinery crawled forward.
The day passed without a word from her; Melinda would not look at her. Janice grew frustrated, drank with Becker on the patio, watching the orange sun drift blithely into the plum-gray clouds of sunset. She raised the wine to her lips, savoured the tart aftertaste on her tongue before she swallowed it. Staring at the sky, painted the warm colours of dusk, she couldn't decide if she liked it. The sun was glowing; a perfectly tinted mass of light, burning fire on its swollen surface. It looked playful from the safety of earth. A child's toy.
She took another sip of wine and regarded it bitterly. Burning and obliterating mass of fire, the same torch that illuminated the world. Life was a destructive force, chaos a natural process. It was order that was human-made, imposed on the docile earth. Was it chaos or order that damaged it more? Janice shrugged. There was little point in knowing. The world would continue to blunder beneath the marching boots of soldiers' feet.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?"
Janice shook her head, startled by Becker's voice, "What?"
"The sunset," he said, reaching in his pocket for a packet of cigarettes.
"Yes of course." A performance of necessity. Do tricks for us! She eyed the cigarettes, "I thought it was against the law to smoke?"
He placed a white cylinder between his lips, pinched another from the package and offered it to her, "Some of us can get away with it."
She took the cigarette and he struck a match to light it. Smoke escaped from the corners of her lips as she puffed on the cylinder. Her flesh numbed, pulse calmed at the influx of the starchy, customary flavour. She inhaled slowly, filled her lungs with it and exhaled in ecstasy. Becker eyed her curiously.
"You seem distracted." He leaned back in the cast iron chair and tilted his head toward the sky, cigarette smouldering between his lips.
Janice shook her head, "I'm not."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes," she replied, her jaw clenched.
The sound of their breathing was exaggerated as they smoked their cigarettes, streams of fine, gray lines coagulating in a swirling haze around them. Becker was examining her from his seat like a specimen. Janice turned to him, narrowed her gaze.
"What's so damn interesting?"
Becker chuckled, leaned in close to whisper, "What a harsh woman you are. Are all American women like you?"
Janice looked away from him, stared at the dwindling sunset, "No."
He tossed the finished cigarette into the ashtray, reached for the package and lit another, "Are they like Melinda?"
She cringed at the name, a wave of anger burning through her. Melinda. "Yeah. They're like her."
Jack walked onto the patio with another bottle of wine in his arms. He motioned toward the bottle and Janice took it gratefully. Celebrate while you can, he said under his breath; the other customers were sitting too close, It's your last night. And she placed the bottle in the center of the table, her eyes flashed toward Becker, finding his expression peculiar: shamefaced.
It occurred to her how young he looked, that behind his composure he knew tragedy, knew combat. Back from the Russian front last year, death and deformity became a routine display: the morning and afternoon show in the dug-out forts, running blind through buildings saturated with enemies and automatic rifles, men yelling just before a grenade bounced off the wall and blew them apart. Darkness and exploding shells. Shrapnel lodged in soldiers' eyes and mines that exploded at the waist. His stoicism was a lie.
"How old are you, Becker?" She asked absently, wrenching the cork from the wine bottle.
"Eighteen," he replied nervously, turning to see if anyone heard her, "Like you, Christofer."
For a second she appeared dumbfounded. She'd forgotten. She was eighteen too, and not a woman, but a man. And she wasn't sick anymore, but strong and worthy of respect. A man named Christofer, a good Nazi. A real hero, idol to the old mothers and the young children. Ration this, buy that. Have another drink.
Eighteen. It was young, wasn't it? To fight at fifteen, only to return years later unrecognisable and disfigured, if not externally then within. Janice remembered it suddenly. The history of her new identity, her disguise: it was Becker's life.
The deception grew as Becker wove elaborate tales of the two of them in battle: Christopher and Becker on the lines of the Russian front, killing Allied soldiers by the thousands. Strong German boys nurtured by war, returning as infallible men. The Nazis loved it, living proof of their crusades. The golden boys, Gottlieb and Becker. Let the whole Reich know! The ubermench lives! We have attained perfection.
And as if on impulse, her deviance was erased. Becker remoulded her public image and the change was incontestable. Her madness never existed, her skin was as ivory: flawless and ideal. She was handsome now to everyone. Still just a boy, still young and stupid, but Christofer was a symbol of power, the image of victory and health. Becker too, with his dull brown hair, his big blue eyes and naturally red lips. Both pretty faces, masculine and feminine and balanced: easily attractive, commanding of respect.
The General saluted walking out on the terrace and she and Becker stood to respond. They gestured with arms outstretched and nodded to the General. His men crowded behind him, quiet and pleased. He placed his hands on the sides of his paunch stomach, hooked his thumbs into his tight leather belt.
"My, my, Gottlieb, every time I turn around, you are in this café. I should think you never leave!"
The men chuckled and Janice offered a weak smile, raising her glass of wine to her lips.
"You too, eh, Becker?" The General continued, "Well I suppose you boys deserve it. But Germany will need her heroes again. The Fuhrer will be calling upon you both soon."
Becker's face was blank, "Of course, it would be an honour."
The General's expression soured a little, the mirth in his eyes dimmed, "Of course." He waved his hand in the air as if to wave away his suspicion, "You two must join us for drinks. Have you had dinner? Yes, of course you have. It's quite late. Then perhaps a bit later. Jager will send for you when we're finished."
Becker nodded, "That would be fine, General."
"Splendid," he replied, a tight smile on his face sagging the loose skin of his jowls and cheeks.
He nodded to them again and turned, his company following behind him, vanishing through the open door to the upper tier of the café, shouting and laughing as they passed the bargirls and soldiers in the halls.
Becker poured himself a glass of wine and they sat in silence for a while, listening to the muffled sounds of the radio on the main floor. Scantily dressed women stood in the doorway, eying them, walking back and forth to the terrace, peeking through, waiting and then disappearing again. The women regarded them with curiosity.
Janice too, felt the piquing interest of mystery, and her gaze travelled to one woman: white-blonde, thin and tall, standing at the side of the doorframe. Beautifully formed, the girl was very dainty, slight from the slender shape of her legs to the features on her face. Her eyes were dark. Passionate. Her expression was coy, darting from the floor to Janice, wondering about the boy in uniform. A prize.
"I think I would like to go to America after the war," Becker said and Janice whipped her head in his direction, startled by his voice.
She reached for another cigarette, lit it on the candle centerpiece, "Why?"
He was quiet for a moment, pensive, staring down at the ground. His head lifted as he exhaled a stream of smoke, "If American women are like you say like Melinda I think I would like to go there."
Her brows furrowed and she shook her head, "How can you have affection for them? For women? For anyone?"
He took a sip of wine, "It comes and goes. I suppose I would like a wife. Someone to take care of me. Someone to watch doing those busy little things that women do, you know, cooking, dressmaking, primping themselves. I knew a woman who made hats once it was completely uninteresting to me, but I felt comforted observing her. To be surrounded with domesticity " He chuckled, voice trailing off, "It is outside of your nature. You don't understand."
"Women help you to forget the war " She said, exhaling a puff of smoke, "I know." She turned back to the blonde at the far side of the terrace.
His brows furrowed as he watched Janice, taking a few gulps of wine before he added, "Even if you wanted to she thinks you're a man."
Her gaze darted back to him, eyes wide with panic. His face was cold. There was no contempt in it. He would leave her alone, let her be.
She nodded, continued to drink. She did not look back at the woman, feeling suddenly repulsed by her. An hour past and the wine was gone, the cigarettes reduced to ashes, burning embers eating through the crumpled foil of the empty cigarette pack. The night air was cool against her skin, felt odd against the thick warmth of alcohol in her veins. Janice glimpsed fleetingly at the doorway. The blonde woman was gone.
The world was awash in a dark haze, purple and black shadows punctuated by bronze streetlamps. She moved between them, stumbling and feeling displaced. She hummed the German national anthem, stuttering on words. Her hands were out in front of her, kept her from colliding with objects: a lamppost here, a wall there, an iron fence, a garden bed. Back and forth, swaying, she wobbled through the streets intoxicated. Too many drinks with the General and Becker and those other officers what were their names? Forgotten.
She turned the corner and nearly collided with a man leaning on the brick wall of a house, smoking a cigarette. She pushed him away and kept walking. Becker's house was just a few feet away. Gradually, footsteps sounded behind her as the man followed.
- Christofer! The voice hissed at her. Janice turned, slurred her response.
"To talk to you, Christofer," he replied.
"Who're you?" She asked, backing away from him.
The man chuckled, "Nemo." A sinister grin, "It doesn't matter."
Her face twisted in a mask of confusion as he approached her, tossing his cigarette to the ground and trampling it. He looked around suspiciously as he neared her, turning to check the shadows. Then his hands reached out, seizing her shoulders as he pulled her against him.
"You look like a nymph, boy," came the seedy voice, saturated with the scent of cigarettes and liquor. His hot breath was on her ear.
Janice struggled. She did not know the man. He positioned her in his arms so her back faced him, and pinning her down, he proceeded to touch himself, unfasten his trousers. She fought his grip, backed him into the wall and he smacked hard against it, grasp loosening while he groaned in pain. She turned to punch him and he put his hands around her neck. She gagged, raised her hands to the man's face, thumbs finding his dark eyes and pushing them inward, wiggling the eyeballs obscenely inside of his head.
She crushed them harder as she heard him groan, watched as blood oozed from beneath her thumbs. He wrenched himself away and fell to the ground, hands covering his eyes. He whimpered and she kicked him in the gut. He fell forward, head on the cobblestone street. She stood over him, raised her heavy boot and slammed it onto the side of his head, hammered her foot over and over into the softening meat. At last she stopped, heard the silence again.
There was blood beneath her boots, staining the soles and collecting in a scarlet mess on the ground.
"Christofer!" Another voice. She scowled. She was sick of voices.
Becker emerged from the corner, huffing and resting on his bent knees. He had an idiotic smile on his face, blissful and as drunk as she was. He approached her casually, grin fading as he saw the body and his eyes stayed fixed on the dead man, growing wider.
He stood over him, "What the fuck did you do?"
"Deserved it," she answered coldly.
"Fuck!" Becker ran his hands through his hair. "Why? You were supposed to go to the house!"
"Right there," she pointed at the home, "I was almost there."
He ran his hands through his hair again, face twisted in shock, "Pick him up. Help me carry him."
She grabbed the shoulders and the head lolled back in between her arms, bouncing with each step she took. Becker grabbed the feet and they walked inside Becker's house across the road. Leaving the front door open, they trailed the limp, heavy body through the living room and bedroom, placed him in the porcelain tub in the bathroom. They panted as they dropped it into the vessel, exhausted.
"Go into the bedroom. Take the sheets off the bed," Becker said without looking at her.
She stumbled into his bedroom, ripping the thin sheets from the mattress, carrying the bundled heap beneath her arm. She returned to the bathroom and deposited the ball of fabric on the floor. Becker had removed his dagger and was drinking from a bottle of vodka. He sipped from the long, clear bottleneck, sitting on the toilet lid, staring at the body's butchered face.
"Get out," he demanded.
"You said I could stay here back at the café," she said, voice low.
"Not anymore. Get out."
She obeyed, staggered through the streets again, struggled to put the key in the lock at Jack's place. She lumbered through the kitchen to the larder and down to the cellar, used her other key on her bedroom door. It was empty. Of course. And the light was still on. The same dull room.
Janice collapsed onto the bed fully clothed, feeling dizzy. She closed her eyes to ease the nausea, and as the wave of discomfort passed, she quickly fell asleep.
She cursed as she woke, reeling from a hangover. It was an hour before she rose from bed, pressed the wrinkles in her uniform. She listened outside the door and finding it safe, exited the empty cellar and went into the house.
In the bathroom, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, eyes red-rimmed, complexion more yellow than gold. She peered out the door to the clock on the wall. It was late afternoon. There was little time. The light hurt her eyes and she brought her hand up to shield them, the smell of floral scent on her fingers. Melinda's perfume. Her brows furrowed. What happened last night? She couldn't remember.
Still wearing her boots, she removed them, noticed the dark encrusted stains on the soles. Blood. How long had it been there? Had she trailed blood through the house? What Melinda must have thought
It mustn't have mattered. When she awoke, her room was empty, the house was empty and the café was bustling with customers. She could smell the aroma of food, taste the flavour of it in her mouth as it filled her nostrils, heard the sound of the people and Jack talking to someone from inside the kitchen. It was a day like any other, running smoothly, quietly. She started the shower.
When she emerged through the front doors of the café, dressed in full uniform, she sat down at a secluded table. Jack joined her with two glasses of wine. Melinda ran back and forth between the tables, avoided making eye contact. Janice sighed and sipped the wine, listening as Jack spoke.
"Good afternoon," he said, slight sarcasm in his tone, "Are you ready for tonight?"
She swallowed a mouthful of wine, felt her headache improve slightly, "More or less."
He nodded, "Good. Listen. Tonight, when you get off the train, there will be a jeep waiting for you. The driver's name is Oskar. He's going to take you to the mines. Remember that."
She sipped her wine gingerly.
"You've studied the landscape?"
"The tunnels and rooms?"
"Then it's all up to you now."
Her brows furrowed, "What about Becker?"
"What about him?"
"He's not coming with me?"
His expression was bemused, "No. Did he say he was?"
She shook her head, "No. Forget it."
He sighed, "I'm sorry to have to do this to you. You've got to go alone. I'd go with you if it didn't endanger you."
"Be ready tonight for the train."
He got up and disappeared behind the bar. Be ready for the train. What would she bring? Her uniform, her gun. That was all there was. She finished her glass of wine and left the café, re-entered the house through the front door and went down to the cellar. She would study the photographs again. There would be no room for mistakes.
Standing on the platform, the steam rose up from the tracks beneath the dark machinery of the train. Her rifle hanging loosely on its leather strap, she stared at the train car, thought of Smythe and Merkers, Nazis and her home in Princeton. She thought of Jack and how much respect she had for him, grateful for everything he did for her. She thought of the doctors and her sickbed, her medicine and her wounds, the ghosts of her past. She thought of Ben and the silence that they shared, the mourning. Hesitating, she thought of Melinda.
It was the end. She would return victorious or she would die. If she was successful, she would go home to America, with or without Melinda and Jack. She would find a plane somehow, have her quiet life. She would forget everything that transpired in Germany, in Wewelsburg, all the residual images of a bad dream. In Princeton, surrounded by the trappings of her home, she would abandon years of memory. She would have peace.
The train was ready to leave. Jack stood behind her with Helen beside him. He was irritated, disturbed by Melinda's absence. Helen seemed indifferent. She approached Janice, hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, wished her well. Jack stepped forward.
"Be careful, alright?" He said, leaning in to hug her and then nervously looking about. He held out his hand instead. Janice shook it firmly. "Come back safe," he added.
- All aboard!
The conductor's voice carried across the platform. Janice inhaled deeply, turned from them both and headed toward the train. She stepped into the doorway of the train car and heard a shriek.
Her head whipped in the direction of the sound. Melinda bounded up the platform, stopped just short of crashing into her. The train began to move. Melinda's hand reached out and Janice took it, feeling a light, malleable object shoved into her palm. She did not pause to look at it, stared at Melinda. She had been crying. Mel's fingers clawed at Janice's hand, holding on until she was forced to let go.
Behind her, a man urged Janice to step away from the door and close it. She reluctantly agreed, stumbling back into the isles between the seats. She found a vacant space, the object clutched in her hand, creasing in her tight grip. Settling into a seat, she put her rifle in the empty spot beside her.
Janice waited a few minutes, looking around at the other soldiers, suspicious of being watched. When she was satisfied that she was alone, she uncovered her reddened palm, finding a small scrap of folded paper. Swallowing, she opened it with trembling fingers.
The note was tiny, scrawled with black ink in Melinda's hand:
I love you.
Janice crushed the note in her fist. Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes and she hid her face in her hands.
So it was true.
Her blurred vision wandered absently to the seat across the aisle. There was a man with scarlet, cable-like flesh, burned and hollowed-out cheeks, teeth visible through the holes in his skin. His ear was missing. No uniform. A white cloth was draped over his lap. He turned. The French pilot, dead in the castle. The scorched ends of his mouth turned up in a wide, macabre grin. His bony fingers raised into the air by degrees and staring at her, eyes and nose missing, he waved: Hello, there. Hello!
It was still dark when she arrived in Merkers, got off of the platform and found a jeep parked nearby, the driver asleep over the steering wheel.
"Oskar?" She asked, loud enough to wake him.
He recovered from slumber gradually, rubbing his eyes. "Private Gottlieb?" He asked, a bemused expression on his face as his vision focused, "Thought you'd be taller. No matter. Hop in." The engine sputtered to life.
The drive to the mines was a sombre blur, the cold air of the dawn cutting through the thick fabric of her uniform. She shuddered, glancing out at the barren landscape as they approached a series of buildings. Two large smokestacks billowed dark clouds into the air. Industrial pipes stretched into and from the brick structures, connecting them; thick cables suspended from towers swooped down from pulleys to objects obscured by large rectangular buildings. The jeep wandered closer. The buildings were lined with darkened windows and marked by iron fences at the entrance.
The main building loomed over her. Rickety pulleys creaked, revolution after revolution, a clamorous echo of metal off in the distance. Stepping out of the jeep, Oskar headed toward the main building while Janice walked to the lift. The dirt path was littered with signs: Achtung! Achtung! And the mineshaft elevator screeched from wear.
She glanced at the control panel, the buttons glowing red and green, humming with the steady stream of electricity behind them. The pad looked familiar, of the same design as those in the tram at Wewelsburg. She shivered, pressing the green button and jerked as the lift filled with the sound of metal squealing, the machinery shaking from the strain.
The elevator was dark, iron bars suspended over the entrance hanging like fangs. She opened the door and the corroded hinges creaked; eroded metal slammed as the door closed. The lift travelled downward, the ground disappearing above her as she descended into the earth-scented darkness, tiny dim lights illuminating the tunnel every few feet. Devoured like hapless prey, she held onto her gun. Her pulse quickened as the ground came into view, the partly illuminated tunnels lined with cables and light bulbs.
She cautiously stepped forward, felt inside her pocket for her forged papers, adjusted her SS cap. Not unlike France, she thought, like the catacombs. The frigid air cut through her heavy jacket and all around her the atmosphere was cold. Her boots crunched on the ground but the tunnel was silent. She turned the corner, descending down a steep spiral staircase, hands braced on the wall to keep herself from falling.
She tripped on the beginnings of iron tracks, fell forward onto the edge of a metal cart. She cursed as she recovered, rubbing her side and adjusting her hat. Janice looked up. Her brows furrowed. Tiers of suitcases were stacked in mountainous piles, lining the large tunneled area on both sides. The iron tracks continued between the masses of suitcases, and behind the suitcases were bags tied with rope cluttered about the floor, so numerous that the ground was invisible beneath them. A black cable hung above her head; light bulbs at ten foot intervals stretched for yards.
"What the hell " Her voice trailed off as her hand traced over the dust covered surface of one of the cases.
She examined it, a faded nametag tied at the handle. Her fingers travelled down to the latches, pressed on the buttons and the fasteners flipped upward. It was unlocked. She slowly lifted the lid and gasped, cursed as her eyes greedily scoured the contents.
Gold. Platinum. Jewellery. Silverware. She reached out and touched it, lightly ran her nail against the fine metals. Janice swallowed hard, looking around suspiciously. She retrieved a handful of gold pieces and stuffed them into her trouser pockets, hastily closing the suitcase and opening another. More treasure. She recognised it instantly. A sketchbook from the Northern Renaissance, the work of Albrecht Durer. Priceless German art from 1495.
Her pulse hammered in her chest, breasts swelled as she uncovered more silver. She closed the suitcase and headed further down the tracks. There were millions of dollars hidden in the cases, precious art, gold. Smythe, the bastard. He already knew. She obtained one of the sacks and reached in. Solid gold coins. On the wall, a large canvas of a portrait by Monet. Janice smiled, smothered the desire to laugh. Appalling. They had it all.
Her head snapped up as she heard the rumble of voices. She dropped the bag, left it unfastened in the pile and scurried down the length of the tracks. In her mind she pictured the maps, burned into her memory night after night in the cellar. Turn left. A red door with a light over the top of the frame. She went through it, looking back to see two Nazis appear from the staircase far in the distance.
Contact Smythe. She remembered the location of an office at ground level. Janice wandered down another tunnel, illuminated eerily by red lights. Another door at the side. She frowned. She did not recall any of it. The maps had been different. She panted, feeling the panic steep into her veins. Her hands trembled as she reached for the handle and pushed the next door open.
The room was barely lit, the shape of it obscured by darkness. A single table, stainless steel, sat in the center, hydrogen lights and cables on strange supports, papers strewn about the cluttered surface. An upturned chair behind it. She could see little else.
A rough voice, hoarse and tinny. She froze, wrapped her hands around the rifle, cocked it back. A man crept from the shadows, tiny specs and a large nose protruding from his bald head. He was tall and had large swollen lips. An odd-looking man.
He approached her, stared at her for a while, lost inside of his head.
"What is your name?"
"Private Christofer Gottlieb," Janice said, reaching in her pocket for her papers. She presented them to him and he hardly glanced at them, brushing past her toward the door, the echoing click of the metal lock filling her ears. His shoulders tensed. Something was wrong.
"Where are you from, Private Christofer Gottlieb?" He asked, the tinny voice making her wince.
"Born in Trier," she replied, "But I lived many years in Wewelsburg."
His podgy, calloused hands felt along the wall to a switch, and as he activated it, the sound of a generator revved behind her, the lights flashing on above her head revealed the expanse of the room. She scanned it. More iron tracks lead into a tunnel with openings on both ends of the large room. Behind the steel table was a giant contraption, hidden before by the darkness, now living with the swish of internal mechanisms: a loud buzzing sound.
"Isn't it beautiful?" He said, standing beside her, looking up at the machines. He squinted. She stared at him, then at the large device. "You've never seen it before, have you?" He asked. She shook her head. He nodded.
A siren blared through the hallway, vibrated through the door. An announcement blared through the loudspeaker, the horrified and enraged voice: Intruder in the mines! Enemy soldier in the mines! Her eyes were wide with fright as she listened.
"They know you're here," he said simply, his vision trained on the enormous object.
She lifted her gun and aimed it at him. He turned his head, glimpsed the gun barrel and casually glanced back at the end of the room.
"I'm not armed but you would be doing me a favour." He pushed his specs up the bridge of his nose.
She grimaced. "Who are you?"
"Houtermans Fritz Houtermans. I doubt you know my name. Few people do. I know you're not German. Please tell me: where do you come from?"
She scowled at him, "Why?"
He spoke without looking at her, "You see that?" He was staring at the machine, "That's what's called a nuclear reactor. I built it." He smiled, melancholy lines etched into his face, "A lifetime of work. It can generate immense power. Clean power. Provide energy for homes and businesses. Many useful things for the German volk. For mankind."
He continued to mumble as she approached him, uranium, element 94... Janice pressed the gun barrel into his back. In a low voice, she murmured, "American".
"American," tears collected in his eyes, "My boy, I pity you. So young and full of hope too, no doubt, that American blood of yours: the American lust for freedom. I pity you. One day, the earth will burn and all that you love will be lost in seconds. And mothers and wives, yours someday, will give birth to little monstrosities. If you manage to live, you cannot eat, cannot drink or it will kill you. You will die by inches, liquefy from the inside out. I am ill with this consciousness. I have condemned the world of man for an eternity I beg of you to kill me. You do not have to make it quick."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Janice barked. Her jaw clenched as she poked him in the back with the gun.
"A bomb a bomb as the world has never seen," he said, voice cracking with emotion, "Man has the hand of God "
Janice slackened her grip on the rifle, the alarm screaming in the background. It was futile. The man was harmless. He glanced over his shoulder at her.
"Will you not shoot me?"
"How do I get out of here?" She asked.
"There," he said, pointing to the tunnels on each side of the room, "Go right. There is an old elevator shaft. It's broken. You'll have to climb it."
"Fine," she said and headed toward the opening.
"Christofer," the bald man called. She pivoted and turned back to him. He continued, "Take a message to your American friends to the physicists, to your president." He scrambled to one of the tables, grabbed a first aid pouch and emptied it in a pile. He stuffed the papers on the desk into it: schematics, notebooks. Finally he jotted down a small note and closed the pack. "Tell them to hurry up."
Uncertainty twisted into her expression, she nodded and took the bag, swung it over her shoulder with her rifle and disappeared through the narrow tunnel.
Janice ran blind. There was no light and little air. Her hands were out in front of her, skimmed the sides of the tunnel ceiling to orient her path. At last, meager shards of light from a channel that stretched toward the surface, the cage of an elevator lift broken and rusted on the rocky ground.
She climbed it gingerly, tried not to cut herself on the eroded metal. Pulling on the suspended cables, she shimmied upward, made slow, feeble progress until she reached the top terrified and sweating. Janice hauled her body from the pit, rolled onto the cold, pebbled ground. She inhaled the scent of the dawn and fresh air with ecstasy. Alive. She got to her knees and examined the area.
A small cabin, with cables suspended from the roof stretched down the side of the wall to the ground. The office building. She headed toward it, stopped as she saw two officers patrolling the street behind it. She ducked behind the bumper of a nearby truck. The office had windows and the guards would see her. She had to risk it.
On bent knees, she hobbled toward the cabin door, waited behind the wall until the patrols turned to walk down the street. When they were far enough away, she snuck along the wall to the door, opened it and ducked inside.
The cabin was larger than she imagined it to be, a stove in the corner, a set of bunk beds, a row of lockers and two tables. On one, an abandoned plate of sausage and bread, and on the other, a radio. She ambled toward it and activated it.
"Rembrandt calling. Acadia, do you copy?"
Static and then the voice. Smythe. Her permanent contact now.
- Acadia here. Did you find it?
"Yes. All of it. Like you predicted."
- Excellent. You'll be glad to know your reward is ready.
"Where do I go?"
- Very close by.
A man shouted from outside the door and she quickly shut the radio off. In a frenzied panic, she searched for a place to hide, opening one of the lockers. She squeezed her body into it and closed the door as the cabin door slammed open. A Nazi officer walked inside, rifle bouncing on his chest. He went to the table, obtained a morsel of cut sausage and ate it, turned toward the lockers.
He opened the locker next to hers, removing his jacket and hanging it. Janice tried to quiet her breathing, to calm her erratic heartbeat. She trembled and squeezed her eyes shut. She could not shoot herself in the narrow space.
In an instant, a gunshot sounded and blood sprayed through the small openings in the locker, covered her face in a splattered mess. The Nazi hit the locker with force and slumped down to the ground. Janice looked through the opening into the room. There, with a Luger in his hand, stood Smythe in SS uniform. He stared into the room suspiciously, wondering where she was.
She kicked open the door, rifle immediately level with his head. Her cold eyes narrowed on him.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
His shock evaporated and was replaced with a sinister grin. He walked to the cabin door, shut it from prying eyes.
"Now, now, Miss Covington, there is no need for violence."
"Shut up, Smythe," she hissed, "I'm sick of all this bullshit. Just hand it over."
He laughed blithely, "You know, you really are entertaining. If only you could see yourself."
She frowned, "What are you talking about?"
He shook his head. "What did you find down there?"
"Art and gold. Tons of it. It was everything you said it would be."
His eyes narrowed, "That's it?"
She stared at him perplexed, "Yeah."
He pointed to the bag on her shoulders, "What's that?"
"The ravings of a lunatic."
"Goddammit, Smythe!" She shouted, gesturing at him with her rifle, "I've had enough of this."
"Give me that bag."
He reached into his pocket, retrieving a bound pack of papers and a small book. Yanking the book from the stack, he opened the front cover: a glossy photo of her new American passport.
"I'll trade you."
The land will scorch with the heat of the sun mothers will give birth to little monstrosities She frowned. It couldn't be true. It was impossible. To the physicists, to your president Tell them to hurry up! The man was insane, mad with power like the Nazi doctor. All of the scientists were drunk with prided intellects. A bomb did not last. It purged and dissipated, destroyed and then rested. There was no such weapon, no such magic.
She hesitantly shrugged the bag from her shoulders, held it out to him while her other hand steadied her rifle. He took the bag and placed the stack of papers in her palm. She stared at them, lowered her gun and searched through the pile: her American passport, birth certificate, American money, and a small map. On it were co-ordinates to a private airspace and a pilot's name. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes.
"Good girl," Smythe said, rifling through the bag, "Yes, yes." He chuckled, "Very, very good." He looked up at her, "Ah, right. There's a car waiting for you just outside the entrance. I suspect this bloody siren will be turned off eventually. Someone will lie, finding a dead American spy in the mines. You can walk to the car if you'd like. No one will stop you, but I'd hide those papers for now. Take the car to the co-ordinates on that map "
"I'm going back to Wewelsburg," she said, interrupting him.
He eyed her dubiously, "Now why on earth would you do that?"
"I have some things I left behind."
He stared off at the wall, smiling, "Dear girl, there will be nothing for you in Wewelsburg by the time you reach it."
She froze. "What?"
"They're gone. Betrayed by one of their own. Didn't you know? How else would anyone have known you were here?"
She swallowed, feet carrying her past him. She heard his voice continuing, "They radioed your position quite a while ago " And that was all she heard.
Janice ran to the parking lot at the mine entrance, blind with fury. She found the car, stripped the power wires beneath the steering wheel and twisted them together. Touching the ignition to the twisted chain, the engine revved. She yanked at the gearshift, peeled away from the parking lot shielding her eyes as the sun rose and lit the world around her in the bliss of summer warmth.
She drove off the road into the woods, certain the Nazis were waiting for her at the train station. Janice parked the car in the forest and hiked for a few miles. She reached the village wall exhausted. There was no posted sentry. She snuck inside. Winding through the streets, she made it to Jack and Melinda's. The lock on the front door had been glued shut. The café doors were sealed.
Janice walked to the side of the house where the eaves trough pipe stretched to the terrace. Swinging her rifle onto her back, she gingerly climbed it, entered the café on the second floor. It was empty, engulfed in a lifeless silence. She checked the bedrooms. Ransacked. The mattresses on the beds were slashed, lamps broken and pulled from the wall. Chairs upturned. Windows shattered. On the back of one of the doors was a list chiselled into the wood with lines struck through the names: Ben, Janice, Melinda, Jack. A swastika carved in black above it.
Janice covered her mouth in shock. She cursed under her breath. Checking the hallway, she ambled toward the staircase and peered over the railing. Her face twisted in a mask of horror and she stifled a scream, plastered her hand over her eyes.
In the center of the café floor, Jack lay dead in a crimson pool with a bullet wound in his forehead, his arms and legs stretched out. A Pentagram was drawn around him in his own blood, burnt out candles assembled around his body in a circle. Beside one of his hands, aggressively scrawled into the floor was the infamous mark: Juden. Janice didn't want to move, afraid of what she'd find.
Lethargic, agonizing minutes passed before she gathered enough courage to push forward. She aimed the rifle in front of her, slinking down the stairs apprehensively. Her eyes kept travelling back to him. A tear trickled down her cheek and a sob escaped her.
Janice scoured the café floor. Melinda was nowhere to be found. Janice headed into the kitchen, to the larder, coming to the steps of the wine cellar. The shelving on the wall had been moved and the door to the hidden room was wide open. Voices murmuring: a male and a female. She crouched low on the stairs and peered around the corner. The General.
He stood arguing with a woman in front of him. Janice knew the voice too well. She thought of Jack upstairs, of his desecrated corpse. Infuriated, she aimed the rifle, stared down the gun barrel at the General's head: bloated, warbling jowls and cheeks, the swollen stomach. Piggy, piggy, piggy! Her hands wavered slightly as she pulled the trigger.
His eyes went wide as his stunned body began to drop, blood spurting from the hole where his ear had been. Janice rushed from the staircase and saw the woman bending over the General's body. She kicked her in the jaw. The woman went flying back, her ribs unprotected.
Janice stood over her, aimed at her stomach and shot into the woman's gut. She cried out from the pain and Janice leaned down to her face, seized a handful of her hair in a fist and demanded that she look at her.
"Where is she?" Janice growled.
Helen stared back defiantly, her lower lip trembling from the pain.
"Where?" Janice yanked the fistful of hair. When Helen continued to whine, Janice took her thumb and knifed it into the bullet wound. Helen cried out.
Janice eased the pressure with her thumb. "Where?"
"I dunno," Helen groaned. "Out the front door."
"Who shot Jack?"
Helen was quiet again. Janice pushed her thumb further in.
"Me I did!" It was out in one breath.
"They're going to destroy this place. Niederhagen. The castle to be blown up. Witnesses killed. The General offered me freedom if I went with him. So I did. Sent Ben away. Shot Jack. Becker " She coughed.
Janice shook her, "Becker what?"
"Supposed to shoot Melinda. She shot him."
"I don't remember." Helen's eyes rolled back, her breathing slowed.
"Why was there a pentagram upstairs?"
Helen shook her head, gurgling, going still, "The castle is a holy place "
Janice shook her in anger. She grasped her rifle, shot at the limp bodies and filled them with bullets. She let the sobs escape, squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands on her head. It was all undone, unravelled completely.
She went up the steps and back into the house, hoping that Melinda was only hiding. She moved the bookcase, opened the trap door to the muddy foundation. Empty. Janice cursed and threw any objects within her grasp. Melinda ran, ran out the front door. She descended the steps and scoured the space beneath the floor boards. Uncovering the small container, she retrieved a handful of bank notes and Melinda's American passport.
Janice opened it and stared, passing her thumb over the phantom photo. Closing her eyes, she stuffed it into her breast pocket with her own I.D. and went back up to the larder, through the café, stepping over Jack's body without looking at it.
Past the door, the sun was warm and peaceful, birds chattered in the branches of trees; life was thriving. She stared into the distance. Empty space. The sound of her boots echoed hollow on the cobblestones. A forsaken village in the mountains; no one would ever hear of it. Janice marched through the streets in anguish and rage. Alone again. Abandoned.
Hours gone, slipped through the sieve of time, like memories of her life before the war. The sun was hot. She threw her hat on the road, her hair stuck to her forehead. Janice followed them for miles: the marks, drawn in blood, like ciphers in the tombs of Egypt. First the letter J the cobblestones in the road, and an arrow pointing beneath it. Then an A on the wall of a house, an N, I, C, each dark and dried in crusted blood.
Away from Wewelsburg, the land stretched in fields and dirt roads. She felt dizzy, decided to rest beneath the shade of the barn in the distance. Janice hurried to it, the iron gate creaking as she pulled the door open to the field. She wandered toward the barn and collapsed beside a cellar window, indulged in the comfort of the shade. A large tree stood in the middle of the field, a child's swing swayed in the light breeze suspended from the thick branches. She recalled a story Melinda told her one night as she struggled to sleep. "My father's house," she said, "has this giant tree in the middle of the yard. He said it must have been there for hundreds of years " Mel recounted the memory with enchantment at first: the tall tree that she and her mother read books beneath in summer, pretending to be annoyed by her father and little brother as they played baseball. "That stopped when I was a teenager my mother got Tuberculosis," her voice sobered, "spread it to my little brother. He died first. From that moment she never left her room, and I wasn't allowed to visit her. After she died, the house was disinfected and their bodies removed. I was banned from the funeral too. My father couldn't stand the thought that I might be sick. But I got lucky, I guess.
Baseball was my brother's favourite sport. I buried his glove and bat at the base of the tree in the yard "
Janice squinted in concentration. The bark around the center of the trunk was bizarrely disfigured, an irregular shape to the wood. Apprehensive at first, she rose from the shade to examine the hulking tree.
Within several yards she could see it: E, carved brutally into the wood with sharp lines. An arrow pointed downward. She started, saw a limp, dirty hand obscured by the thick tree trunk. Someone on the other side. She followed the hand, palm open and fingers curled like the legs of a dead spider on its back. Ugly. The arm was limp, the jacket stained with crimson at the side. Janice collapsed to her knees when she saw the face.
He looked peaceful despite the violent mess of blood on his clothes, with his feminine lips and handsome jaw. His eyes were closed, the face pale-white. Her chest ached as she stared at him. Brother, ally and mirror; another part of her had been taken. His skin was clammy and decomposing, the cold nothingness of the dead. She knelt beside him and mourned. Time became incalculable.
When at last she pried her mind away from him, Janice wandered back to the other side of the tree. Following the arrow, she clawed at the soft dirt at the base of the trunk. Red objects surfaced in the dark soil: a pair of shoes. Janice bent to examine them. On one, the heel was broken, splintered at the top. On the inside of the shoes, the size was stamped and fading: ten. She turned the objects in her fingers, stared at the rubber sole. Made in America. It was the right size.
A rolled scrap of paper peeked from beneath the insole of the broken shoe. Gingerly, she retrieved it, unfolded the mangled scrap. It was Melinda's handwriting, tremulously scribed:
My dear, a little Rätsel:
Swoon, belle, dearest,
This ache, near god.
The Baker lies here.
Heading to the thorn.
It's too soon to say goodbye,
But I am afraid.
Janice frowned, wiped her forehead. The sun bore into her back and the top of her head, made her lethargic, slowed her logic. She removed her passport, flipped to an empty page and sat down in the grass, decoding the message.
My dear, a little Riddle:
Soon we'll be arested
I can hear the dogs.
Becker lies here.
Heading to the north.
It's too soon to say goodbye,
But I am afraid.
Janice cursed, read the message over and over. Her mind translated the ciphers, all Archaeologists' tricks. Perhaps the Nazis had not yet found her. Becker died before Mel wrote the letter. All of the signs meant she was alright. She stared down at the pit where the shoes had been.
Was it death, then? The symbol of the burial, and the colour of the shoes: ruby-red. No place like home. Mel had decided she would die on German soil. It was permission to surrender, a plea: Forget it all and run, it said, run home, run home, run home.
Her eyes darted up and down the dirt road, over the endless green field. A cool breeze rustled the leaves above her, brushed through the tall grass and the blades dipped and swayed in unison. It raised the hair on her neck, tinged the flesh of her cheeks. She collapsed back against the tree and closed her eyes, sealed away from the world.
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