The room was cold. He stood at the casement, pressing his forehead against the icy glass and trying to focus his gaze on the street below. The dawn was without character, still and empty and gray, and a spittle of snow eddied across the housetops.
He was in a hotel, of course, one of the bleak, impassive places that dotted the Old City near the Marienplatz. He blinked his eyes and tried once again to identify the street, but Munich’s ancient core, a webwork of cobblestone canyons faced in medieval gloom, could be perplexing under the best of conditions; shuttered and opaque, dim on the steel-colored rim of day as it was now, it told him nothing.
The anxiety and guilt were, as always, the stuff of nightmares. He continued to peer down at the deserted pavement, willing himself not to confront the bed behind him, because to avoid the fact was to prolong the fiction that he knew who she was. In awakening, he’d seen only a cloud of dark hair and the pale shoulders of a woman who slept uneasily in a snarl of bedding, facedown and clutching her pillow.
Eyes shut tight now against the gathering panic, he probed the night before, seeking a benchmark that would explain this day’s portion of the familiar remorse.
He had left Sonnenstrahl in the Mercedes. After lunch. He’d driven to—where? Rudi’s place? Or had it been Karlo’s? There had been agreement to meet somewhere, and he was almost certain that Rudi and Karlo were to have been there with Friedl and Lisa. But where? Karlo favored Der Goldene Ritter, an inn near the Andechs monastery beside the Ammersee; Rudi doted on the intimacy of the Kabaret Odeon in the artists’ quarter of Schwabing. The woman in the bed would not likely have been attracted by the pastoral beauty of the Andechs, so he must have found her in or near the other place. Such women were as available as beer in Schwabing. So it had probably been the Odeon. There were little tables, all connected by telephones, and when the dances and skits were under way it was acceptable practice to glance around the cabaret for attractive women to ring up. They would always answer, and he would always make the same outrageous proposition, and for all the shocked faces—all the angry slamming of receivers—there would be occasional laughter and acceptance.
But what difference did it make? The fact was that she was here, and he was here, and the barren room was a simple statement of the duplicity and degradation that had become his lot.
He tried to think of Kaeti, because he had found over the years that self-reminders of her arrogant tyrannies had routinely served to ease the wretchedness that always followed his binges. But on this gray morning its therapy failed, and he saw instead that recitals of his wife’s little savageries were no justification—they represented, rather, rationalization of his own propensity for the rotten life.
In his fit of private honesty he recognized that Bruno Stachel was where he was not because of Kaeti’s shortcomings but because of his own.
He knew, too, that it was absolutely fundamental that he begin—at this very moment—the effort to regain control of himself. An hour’s delay could be fatal; in an hour he could resume his drinking and that would be that. He’d had his last spree months ago, a gross, demoralizing thing that had lasted for seven weeks, and he’d promised himself never again. So there was no explaining this new one, whose beginning had been worst of all. The drunkenness had come swiftly, fiercely, storm-like, despite his every will to the contrary. There had been none of the initial incandescence; none of the mellow Gemütlichkeit which, in the better times, had characterized the twenty minutes following the first drink.
The woman stirred, and there was a rustling, and he heard her step on the worn carpeting. He simply could not turn to face her.
“Morning, Liebchen.” Her voice was dry, and without emphasis.
“Go back to bed,” he said, his breath making a fog on the window.
Her arms encircled him from behind, and he could smell the female smell and the stale perfume and yesterday’s tobacco and alcohol. He vowed he would not be sick.
“Why?” she murmured against his ear. “You have something in mind?”
“I have some thinking to do.”
“You’re a strange one.”
“I’ll say.” (Why did he feel such panic? Why was he so frightened? And of what?)
“War hero. Flier. Playboy. Lover. And now—thinker.”
“Go back to bed, I said.” The realization that she knew who he was stirred an anger.
“Come with me. It’s so early, and I’m cold—”
“No. Leave me alone.”
“You’ll freeze, standing here.”
“Will you please shut up and leave me alone?” The anger surged, hot and barely contained. He knew he would have to get out of this place at once. His mind showed him tabloid headlines: “Woman Strangled in Old Town Hotel.” (Oh, Jesus God, what was he doing here? What was his life, that he could materialize in this grubby corner of a rotting city, contemplating the murder of a whore? Who was he? Why?)
“Well, then,” she said neutrally, her arms releasing him. “The party is over, I see.”
“Right. So put on your clothes and go. If I owe you anything, take it from my wallet there on the table.”
He sensed her hesitation, a kind of incredulous silence followed by a hard little laugh. “Owe me?” she said. “Why, you ridiculous whelp. I could buy and sell you with my lunch money.”
That voice. That sudden imperiousness. He turned, unbelieving. “My God.”
“You don’t remember a thing, do you.” It was more than a statement; it was accusation, mixed with contempt.
“I don’t know what to say—”
“What does one say, Liebchen, when he awakens in a fleabag with the mother of his best friend?”
He felt an absurd need to correct her. Rudi had never been—could never be—his best friend. Rudi, heir to the Klingelhof-und-Reimer riches, for all his money, was a vacuous little bore. And his mother, for all her castles and manor houses and shiny automobiles and winters in Turkey and social renown, had the mind of a trollop.
The night just gone began to take shape in the gauze of his mind. Rudi had been in one of his intellectual poses, a pretense of interest in things artistic and academic, although in truth Rudi had the intellectual capabilities of a glowworm and endured concerts and galleries only as a means to some earthier end. (He loved to boast of the afternoon he’d had Monika von Diessen behind the biography stacks in the Staatsbibliothek—a dubious conquest at best, since Monika could be had by a cretin in the lobby of the Vierjahreszeiten at high noon.) There had been some preliminary drinking at the Kleinhesselohe, of all places, because Friedl said William Langhorn, the famous American actor, was rumored to be among the current crop of tourists who favored the place. Actually, the only actor they had seen there was the waiter, who pretended to be delighted with Rudi’s beggarly tip. From the Englischer Garten they’d gone on to Brakl’s Kunsthaus on the Beethovenplatz, where Rudi’s mother was sponsoring the paintings of a fellow named Delocke, whose work, Rudi confided, had caught his Mutti’s attention while slumming in Montmarte before the war.
Stachel had never met the Baroness von Klingelhof-und-Reimer, current custodian of billions amassed in generations of shipbuilding and colonial exploitation. Rudi talked about her a lot, of course, and he and Stachel had staged some rather spectacular parties at Schloss Lowenheim, her main home, where a hundred rooms had been piled atop a Bavarian hill by her medieval forbears. But the lady herself had always been in Italy, or South America, or Greece, and so Stachel’s knowledge of her had been limited to Rudi’s rambling anecdotes and the rather gaudy (and tastelessly flattering, it turned out) portrait hanging over the library fireplace in the Schloss’ west wing. And so, with their introduction in the indirect lighting of the perfumed gallery, Stachel had felt that he was meeting a stranger who was no stranger.
There had been much talking, much laughing—that he could remember. And the later evening was marked by a champagne supper. But nothing, beyond the candlelight and a string quartet made up of old men with boiled shirts and drawn faces, was clear about supper or its aftermath.
She had dressed and was at the door, her expensive furs wrapped primly about her, her hair covered by a felt hat dotted with sequins. Her eyes were dark and oblique.
“Will I see you again?” she asked.
“I doubt it.”
“Ah. You are feeling guilty, eh? You have betrayed the Gräfin von Klugermann. And adultery doesn’t become you.”
“She’s not a von Klugermann. She’s my wife.”
She laughed softly.
“What day is it?” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“Friday, November 9, 1923.”
“God. What happened to 1922?”
“Call me tomorrow, eh? I’ll be at the town house. I’ll be there through Christmas.”
“I’m busy tomorrow.”
“Mm-hm. You’re a real adventure, my little war ace. But do cut down on your drinking. You drink entirely too much. It’s bad for your stomach.”
He closed the door behind her and went to bed, and, falling across it, drifted into a feverish half-sleep full of half-dreams.
* * *
There was much singing and shouting. Noise. A drumming of thousands of feet on pavement. Horns sounding. Cheering.
His eyes were lacquered at the corners and filled with brine. His mouth was thick with a sourness, and it was difficult to lift his head from the pillow. In time, though, he managed to roll over and sit erect, struggling for breath and awareness, eventually to make his way unsteadily to the washstand.
Only after he was dressed did he venture a look out the window.
The mean little street was teeming with people, all jostling and waving red and white flags with black swastikas in the centers. Many of the men were wearing steel helmets—the kind issued to the army in ’17. (Or had it been ’16? In the latter half of the war, anyhow. He wasn’t sure, since the Imperial Flying Corps hadn’t taken steel helmets seriously until shortly before the Armistice, when the Allied bombers had been so thick overhead.) Whoever they were, and whatever they were up to, they were a ragged bunch, and angry, and shouting slogans.
He remembered the Mercedes, and suffered a spasm of alarm. He must have parked it somewhere nearby, and if it was in the way of that mob it could be reduced to tinfoil in minutes.
He pulled on his camel’s-hair overcoat, settled the fedora on his head, and made for the stairway. The man at the desk was absorbed in the goings-on outside and barely glanced at him as he entered the tiny lobby.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Forty billion marks,” the man said, his eyes fixed on the crowd seething past the front windows.
“Your sign says ten billion.”
“That was yesterday. This morning it’s forty. Our fabulous German inflation waits for no man.”
“I’ve got only twenty-eight billion with me. Will you take a check?”
“Well, then. What do I do? Wash dishes or something?”
The man, a suety fellow with blue jowls, shrugged. “So I’ll take the twenty-eight. It doesn’t make any difference anyhow. Money is worthless.”
“Not if you have it in Swiss or American, like our beloved aristocracy has it.”
The man humphed and said nothing, his bitterness beyond words. “What’s all the row outside?” Stachel said, placing two ten-billion mark notes on the counter.
“I’m not sure. Otto Dittmann—he’s the policeman for our street —Otto says it’s those Nazi fellows. They’re marching on Berlin, or something.”
Stachel, blinking his aching eyes, counted out the remaining eight billion. “That’s a hell of a march, I’d say. Think they’ll make it before 1925?”
“I wouldn’t joke about them if I were you. I hear they’re a bunch of tough customers.”
“What do they want?”
The man coughed dryly. “Who can say? The newspapers are all confused and they contradict each other. But Otto says they want to take over the government and end the inflation and kick the Jews out of the country.”
“Well, I wish they’d do it more quietly. My God, what a din.”
“Who was the lady? Your mother?”
“Yes. We’re visiting the art galleries.”
“Well, then, you’d better fill out another police card. The one you signed last night says you’re mister and wife. From Wiesbaden.”
“Can’t we just let that one stand as it is?” Stachel sighed.
The man held out a pudgy hand, palm up. “That’ll be another forty billion.”
“I have only the twenty-eight.”
“I’ll take a check for the rest.”
Stachel sighed again. “Such inhospitableness. With an attitude like that, you’ll never win high ratings in the tourist guidebooks.”
“Say it isn’t so.” The man laughed openly this time and Stachel wrote the bank draft with the scratchy desk pen, his hand trembling badly.
“Is there a back door to this place?”
“Down the hall, through the kitchen. The alley leads to the Rezidentsstrasse.”
“Thanks. Here’s your check.”
“Keep it. I was only kidding. An extortionist I’m not.”
“Take it. I feel charitable today.”
“All right. So do I, as a matter of fact. I’m my favorite charity.” The man laughed again, overwhelmed by his own wit.
* * *
The Mercedes was in the alley, aloof and unruffled by the clamor echoing in the streets beyond. Stachel went to the end of the narrow way and found that the Rezidentsstrasse was even more choked by crowds than the other street, which must have been Weinstrasse or one of its tributaries. He was about to return to the car—where he could at least sit in comfort while waiting out the carnival—when a face caught his eye.
The street, lined on both sides by applauding crowds and vicarious demonstrators, was only wide enough for eight men to march abreast. General Ludendorf, the World War brass hat, was leading the marchers, his famous scowl severely in place, his hands thrust in High Command arrogance into his overcoat pockets. But Ludendorf’s was not the face that caused Stachel to pause. It was, rather, the broad face of a man in the van of the column, marching briskly in a leather coat whose open collar revealed the pale cross of the Blue Max.
Göring, of all people. Marching with a bunch of rabble.
Stachel hadn’t seen him since the day Jagdgeschwader 1 had flown its Fokkers to Darmstadt, rather than surrender them to the French. Göring had been the last to lead the Richthofen Jasta and its JG 1 units, and, typical of the man, he had ordered the pilots to wreck their planes so that “those Frog swine” would have “nothing but splinters to play with.” Stachel had wanted to keep his own machine and had plans to land it in the meadow behind his father’s little hotel in Bad Schwalbe, where he could dismantle it and hide it under the hay in the cow barn. But Göring wouldn’t hear of it—not that he was against hiding an aircraft, or even risking its being found by the French, but because he’d prided himself on never changing his mind after having given an order. So Stachel had flown dutifully to Darmstadt and, upon landing, steered his airplane directly into the side of a warehouse. It was a satisfying crash, even though he had split his lip in the impact.
The business of remembering gave way suddenly to an old soldier’s reflex awareness of impending danger. There was a brittleness in the air, an electric tautness, and the subtle smell of fear seemed to emanate from the marching column. It was soon all around him, this feeling that something important and quite dreadful was about to happen.
He was standing at the curb, evaluating the sensation, when the sound of a shot, oddly muffled by the crowd noises, came from the Odeonsplatz. Almost at once there was answering fire—the thin crackling of rifles and the deeper thumping of a heavy machine gun.
He heard screams and the crying of women, the pounding of running feet, motors racing, the keening of ricochets.
Ahead, toward the Feldherrnhalle, he could see the turbulent scrambling of panic. People were falling, some to remain still, others to crawl, moaning, for the cover of buildings. Ludendorf had disappeared, but huddled in a gutter, rocking slowly in ponderous agony, Göring clutched his leg and mouthed soundless curses.
Stachel, responding to some peculiar shade of anger, fought the human surf—shoving, elbowing, kicking. Somehow he got through to where Göring sat in a pool of blood, his gashlike mouth a zigzag of pain.
“Here. Hold on to my arm. I’ll get you to a doctor.”
“Hello, Captain. It’s been a long time, eh? Five years, at least.”
“You are with us? I didn’t know—” Göring’s voice fell off. “Oh, God; it hurts,” he managed a moment later.
“Hold on, I said. I’ve got a car.”
“The Führer—is he dead?”
“Adolf Hitler. Our leader—”
“I don’t know. Everything is very confused.” Stachel peered toward the Odeonsplatz. “There are a lot of casualties. People lying in the street. Ludendorf must have got his. He was out in front.”
“I’m in great pain, Stachel. My leg—”
“Put your arms around my neck. I’ll lift you.”
“I must know if the Führer is dead.”
“We’ll find out later. Now hang on.”
“Watch out, for God’s sake—I—” Göring’s smoke-blue eyes stared fearfully over Stachel’s shoulder.
Stachel glanced to his rear and saw a policeman coming at them in wild-eyed lynching madness, waving a riot club in furious anticipation and shouting unintelligibly.
Rising to his feet, Stachel held up a hand and bellowed, “Hold on, you idiot. This man’s been hurt.”
The policeman swung the club in a great, lopping arc, and Stachel, flung back, heard the hiss of its passing.
“What the hell are you trying to do? We’re not—”
The club rose again, suspended for a tiny interval, then came down. This time it brushed Stachel’s arm below his shoulder, and he could feel the shock even through the heavy sleeve.
Hotly angry now, Stachel launched a savage kick, which caught the policeman solidly in the crotch. The scream was lost in the cataract of noise that caromed through the Old Town labyrinth, but Stachel could see the man’s pain and the club’s impotent spinning on the pavement.
The policeman crouched, clutching his violated body, and Stachel snarled, “Have another, chum.”
With the second kick the man went down, sinking beyond sight under a wave of mindless humanity.
Stachel turned to help Göring once again, but several men and two women, one who appeared to be a nurse, were half-dragging, half-lifting the big man to safety in the vestibule of a house.
Stachel brushed the gutter grime from his coat, adjusted his hat, and headed for his car. He sat behind the wheel for a time, numbly waiting for the streets to clear.
Somewhere in the interval a thought formed. Führer?
Any man who’d have Göring on his roster was no Führer. He’d be a follower. Göring tolerated no ideas, no directions, but his own.
Copyright © 1979 and 2008 by Jack D. Hunter. All rights reserved. No part of this
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