After the ‘War to End All Wars’, the German post-war recovery in 1933 still staggers under the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Erich von Schellendorf, a career cavalry officer, has two desires in life: that his beloved wife, Britt, can break free from the psychological turmoil that prevents her from living life to the full; and that he can ride on the German equestrian team in the 1936 Olympics.
Both dreams seem reasonable, until a British agent named Trudell blackmails Erich into doing a small job for Special Intelligence Services. And a political rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler assumes absolute control of the German government.
Erich pushed the mess door shut against a blast of hard-blown snow, stamping boots and shrugging out of his coat, shaking snow from it and from his cap as he handed them over to the waiting orderly. He paused to dab melted snow from his face and throat with his handkerchief.
The mess was crowded tonight. All the officers were under orders to keep the League delegates out of mischief, keep them smiling and off balance. On his way into the dining room, Erich heard English and French on all sides, mixed in with German.
In the dining room the tables stood in straight measured ranks, already set for tomorrow’s breakfast. He sat over by the farthest window where the noise from the bar came less stridently. An orderly snapped to his side. “Special menu for the visitors, sir. Schnitzel or fresh trout.”
“Bring me the trout, then.”
“The C.O. left word he wants to see you when you come in, sir. In the bar.” He gave him a conspiratorial wink. “League of Nations, sir. Reparations Commission.”
“Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Erich wasn’t in the mood for this. He was tired. He was hungry. It had been a long cold ride this afternoon. He’d run a tough course to weed out weak riders, two of them already eliminated over hard ground, lost their seat, almost lost the horse. “Your animal,” he’d told each of them, “is not fit for the cross-country...”
A surge of laughter burst from the bar.
Another delegation, another inspection. It had become such a nuisance. They kept marching back like ants to a picnic, you wanted to swat them and get on with work. Fourteen years along, and they still thought they could make the Treaty of Versailles work.
Treaty. A joke. Diktat was the word, decreed by France to bury Germany under a paper tombstone of eternal debt.
He lingered half an hour over supper before going out to the bar. Smoke raised a blue fog throughout the crowded room, like snuff in the nostrils. The officers were resplendent in mess dress and medals, while the wives wore their prettiest cocktail dresses, and were laughing and chatting and flirting with the delegates. It was all such a joke on both sides. Rules of the game ~ you smiled and lied and dodged.
The commandant stood over near the end of the bar chatting with a civilian.
Erich nudged through the crowd, nodded to friends, smiled at wives, probably the only man in the room wearing riding kit and stinking of horse.
The commandant brightened to see him approach. “Ah, Schellendorf!”
Erich joined him and nodded to the civilian.
“Mr Trudell,” said the colonel, “here is Lieutenant-Colonel von Schellendorf, chief of logistics. He’ll answer your questions better than I, he knows all the figures. Also, he speaks English, he originally comes out of England, you know.”
“Ah yes,” In English. “How do you do.” Lipless mouth, mud-blond hair and pencil moustache. In a rumpled tweed suit he looked like a broom salesman. “My word! But you fought on the German side! Abandoned king and country and all that?” North-country accent, perhaps Yorkshire. “Does one play cricket in Germany?”
Irritated, Erich beckoned the barman. “Myself,” he said in German, “I never cared for cricket. May I order something for you?”
“Scotch, single malt? If you have it here.” He hitched a hip onto a tall bar stool.
Erich translated to the barman and ordered his usual lager.
The commandant wandered away to attend to some other social duty.
Yielding to diplomacy, Erich switched to English. “What brings this mob of yours all the way out here to Königsberg, Mr Trudell?”
“Making the tour, making the usual tour. Checking that our friends at Krupp are being good fellows, manufacturing farm machinery rather than heavy armaments as is the rumour.”
Erich sipped his lager. “I didn’t know we had a Krupp Works in East Prussia.”
Trudell shifted abruptly. “Do I detect a Cambridge accent there?”
“Didn’t know it stuck.” He felt truculent. “Only two years at Cambridge. Transferred over to Heidelberg, never went back.”
Trudell nodded and tasted the scotch. Nodded again, as if satisfied. “And then married the little wife, did you?”
“What?” He studied the bland, pink face. Something... something nasty here...
Trudell guarded his glass of scotch between soft palms. “Your pater-familias still lives in London, I understand?”
A shiver shot down his scalp. “And how, exactly, would you understand that?”
“Well, it’s no particular secret.” He met Erich’s eye. “Sir Edward Foster, senior judge on the King’s Bench. And your mother? Keep in touch, do you?”
This was not chit-chat. Erich frowned at the line of sandy moustache under a pointed nose.
“I hear,” Trudell pushed, “that your Mutti has not been well in recent days.”
A skip of the heart. Mutti?
“Well,” the man added, “I do hope it’s not serious.”
“I have an idea,” Erich said cautiously, “you could probably tell me.”
“The fact is, Lieutenant-Colonel von Schellendorf, I do understand that they were rather shaken by your fighting service in the war. And afterwards by your persistence in making a career of the German army—”
“Germany is my home. I apologise to no-one. When I took my wife over to meet them, my father refused to see her—”
“Oh yes, I understand about the wife. Very sad. Very sad, indeed. These aristocratic Prussian military families, inbred over generations as it were. Aborted a baby? And her father murdered that same year, as I understand it? Terrible. Terrible.”
He stood rooted. Aborted? Murdered? Who could know of murder...?
“Listen, Colonel,” said Trudell, “I meant to ask you about something quite different.”
“We’d be interested in knowing from the horse’s mouth, as it were, just precisely the degree of rearmament that’s obviously underway.”
“Well, it seems certain this Hitler chap is manoeuvring to throw off the Versailles Treaty any day now. We need to know what jump-start he’s already taking on rearmament. Ordnance figures, that sort of thing.”
“I’ve no idea what the chancellor is thinking.”
Trudell smiled. “You are, in fact, the logistics specialist here. Hmm?” He sipped whisky and held his glass up to study it in the light.
Erich stood mute, his lager pushed aside. He should call the military police, have this Englishman removed. Where had the commandant gone in this crowd...?
“So you see,” said Trudell quietly under the noise, “we need an inside source.”
“An inside...” He jerked around. “What?”
“Inside Germany. Source of intelligence. Military.”
“You think I...?”
Trudell smiled coldly.
Erich had to force his voice above a harsh whisper. “I have no way of... No possible—”
“Oh, you’ll find a way.” A new hardness glittered in the man’s eyes.
“This is a bloody joke!”
“You’ll do as you’re told, Colonel.” His voice had become brittle. He leaned closer. “Let me be quite clear. First, a charge of capital murder, then your professional career shot dead in the resultant scandal. We have it in our records; I need only bring it to public attention. We want a military man here and, like it or not, you are the chosen one. Very carefully chosen, may I say.”
Erich’s heart thundered like a bass drum in the wrecked side of his chest. “I don’t...” He coughed. His voice would not come above a whisper. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, of course you do. The official certificate recorded the father-in-law’s death as ‘brain storm’, which covers any number of possible sins, one could say. We have our infallible sources.” He sipped at his drink, eyes roaming the room.
Noise surged throughout the bar and the smoke grew thicker and the crowd seemed denser... and the room had got too hot. Erich stared at Trudell. Couldn’t utter a word.
The mild little fellow sat easier on his bar stool. “So now, Colonel, you know what we want, and we know you’ll get it for us. Or, as certain as I sit here, this fascinating story will appear in the London Times, all tied in with dear old dad on the King’s Bench and your ailing mum with her charitable causes and your stunning little wife at home in Heidelberg. Tell me Colonel, does Germany have a statute of limitations for capital murder?”
Erich did not move, could not breathe.
“The question.” Trudell took another sip of whisky. “The question of the moment is the rate of rearmament. Weapons, transport, manpower. A matter of numbers, nothing more.”
His mind turned a dark loop, looking for a way out.
“Now,’” said Trudell, “the mess subscribes to the Berliner Tageblatt. Read it. Watch the adverts for a Voigtländer Bessa for sale, a folding camera, nearly new. I understand photography is a hobby of yours, so it will seem natural to respond. One always wants to appear natural in such affairs.”
Erich couldn’t take his eyes from that fascinating line of moustache twitching over a lipless, grimly smiling mouth.
“You’ll respond using the name of Lazarus.”
“Nobody,” he managed to whisper, “calls himself Lazarus.”
“Exactly, old boy. The response will be, ‘Yes, a Voigtländer for Lazarus’, completing the code. You will follow instructions then to provide the answers to specific questions. Right?”
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t protest.
“Right.” Triumphant nail driven home.
The crowd in the mess was thinning. The officers had begun escorting the visitors out to their night quarters. Come back, he screamed in silence. Come back, come back, do not leave me with this...
“So!” Trudell pierced his skull again. “Capital murder versus army career. Hmmm? A simple choice. You may have abandoned your country, Lieutenant-Colonel von Schellendorf, but let me assure you, sir, your country shall never abandon you.” Smiling, he raised his glass in a solo toast, “Cheers!” and drank back the expensive single-malt scotch whisky. Then he turned to glance down to the stripe on Erich’s breeches. “General Staff, is it?”
“Truppenamt,” Erich retorted. Troop Bureau...
Part of the great conspiracy.
Nobody was fooled.
In the morning he walked from the mess around the parade square into the exercise arena. Shafts of pale sunlight slanted through the east windows. Under the arched roof the air was brown and dim and hushed. Hooves thudded in sand, leather creaked, and deep horse-breathing sounded in hollow bursts.
Twelve riders already worked in their own spaces, warming their horses in individual figures at different gaits. Kits in good shape, horses sleek, hooves well oiled. Erich folded his arms over the barrier and swept a hard gaze from rider to rider. Uniforms pressed, boots shining, white gloves immaculate. Everything counted here. Today they succeeded or failed. Twelve cavalry officers competed for one spot on the national team, with three years left to prepare for the Olympics in Berlin. They rode close to the boards, skirting the jumps set up across the middle of the arena. Brush-jump, wall-jump, double-oxer, Erich had personally measured each.
“I’m told you’re the horse-master here.” English.
Trudell stood beside him. Mirroring Erich, he folded his arms over the boards, one elbow just touching Erich’s elbow.
Erich edged half a step away. “I’m Logistics, this is a supplementary duty.” He had no room for this little man. To hell with it, diplomacy was out the window.
“So what’s this lot?” Trudell asked.
“They’ve applied for the Olympic team.”
“They must be rather good, then.”
“The best in the East Prussian cavalry.”
“I didn’t know Germany had a team. You didn’t go to Los Angeles last year.”
“Germany couldn’t afford to go to Los Angeles, thanks to Versailles.”
Trudell nodded. He was taller than Erich, but he stood with eyes level, hunched in the same rumpled tweed he’d worn last night. Today he had on a brown fedora hat. “Interesting,” he mused, his gaze following horses.
“Interesting? That the country’s bankrupt?”
“No, no, not that.” He turned to face Erich directly. “No, I mean, interesting that you lot think Germany ought not to be bankrupt. Not be held at all responsible for the war.”
He would not rise to the bait. “Serbia, more like. And Austria.”
Trudell snorted. “Austria, my God. Their day is done.” He looked again to the riders. “I thought,” he said mildly, “they dissolved the General Staff. Yet here you are, wearing the red stripe. I see it quite often in my travels these days.”
“It’s not General Staff, it’s... I told you, it’s logistics in the Troop Office, just another department.”
Trudell smiled knowingly. “Oh, of course, why not.” His head bobbed in a series of small stiff nods that seemed calculated as an insult.
“And I’m no turncoat.” It slipped out of him.
“Oh...” lazily... “I take turncoat to be anybody who goes over to the enemy.”
“We were not enemies back in those days.” He hated being thrown on the defensive this way. “The King of England was himself honorary colonel of the First Prussian Guard.”
“That may well be, but the instant the war broke out...” He shrugged and left it hanging.
That casual shrug, Erich mused, masked a certain developing peril.
“What about this Hitler chap?” Trudell asked.
“What about him?”
“Well, I hear he’s rescinded all civil rights—”
“They activated Article 48, after the Reichstag fire—”
“Precisely. Rescinded civil rights. But why?”
“To prevent Communist agents from further acts of violence. And to prevent civil war.”
“You have a fire and you blame the Communists and call it civil war?”
“I don’t call it anything. I’m a soldier with work to do.”
He turned away to the groom beside the barrier, holding his horse. He did not want another word from Mr Trudell, whoever he was. Certainly not a League of Nations delegate.
The groom tightened the girth. Aware of Trudell watching, Erich swung up Cossack style without touching stirrups, deliberately grandstanding. He gathered in the reins. Under him Sieger collected, ready to explode. And he thought, Should I? Jump the boards? But he let the notion pass and lowered his hands, and with a shift of heels impelled the horse quietly forward on a loose rein. The groom ran to swing open the gate.
“You didn’t read that newspaper!” Trudell called in English.
He rode out to the centre of the arena and halted between the jumps. The other riders brought their animals into a circle around him.
“Gentlemen,” he announced, “you will be judged on ability and presentation. One rider will emerge. If anyone questions my decision he may lodge a written request with the Olympic committee to be tested at a later date by a separate judge.”
He concentrated on the work at hand. When next he looked, Trudell was gone.
He did not see the little man again in Königsberg. In his mind Trudell remained the ‘little man’, the face a blot with blurred edges in the dark place of his mind, eyes coldly humorous, the mouth a straight slit beneath a sandy moustache. And the voice a faint echo, “...shall never abandon you...”
Every day, obeying, Erich opened the Berliner Tageblatt to the classifieds. He didn’t know what he would do when he found a Voigtländer listed there.
He filled his days with work. He’d got the Fokker assembly plant organised. All he had to do now was monitor from the top, nuts and bolts and rolls of canvas and sheets of metal and wood and rubber and leather, formed into thousands of parts shipped separately from factories throughout Germany, across the Danzig Corridor to the railhead at Königsberg, then funnelled south to Ortelsberg, a quiet town near the Russian border. There, inside a farm machinery plant, the parts were assembled into aeroplanes.
Ortelsberg was the end of his responsibility. He travelled there from time to time to check for efficiency, and never in any visit to the factory had he ever seen a finished aeroplane. The path onward was immediate. As a plane rolled out of assembly it was serviced and fuelled, and was given its first air test when its crew flew it south to Grodno in Poland, thence by two more hops to Lipetsk in farming country, four hundred kilometres south of Moscow.
Rumour had it that Hitler was planning to bring all his new squadrons back home from Russia. Then they would no longer need this ridiculous secrecy.
The first Voigtländer message came almost two weeks later. The advert gave a local telephone number.
He must obey. He was poised to call from the officers’ mess, but stopped even as he reached for the receiver. No. Not here. Not where he could be overheard. And no telephone that could be traced.
He went over it many times, how to do it without generating suspicion. He could not use a military telephone or the call might be traced to the military through the exchange. He could not just walk outside to a public box. Anyone seeing him would wonder, when a free telephone was at hand in his office, why he would go out of his way to drop a coin in the slot.
Nervously he waited. On the following Tuesday he was at the Königsberg railhead to sign consignment papers when he glimpsed a public telephone near the entrance of the rail office. He stepped into the booth and dropped his coin and dialled the number that he carried in his head.
The answer came on the second ring. “Yes?” A woman’s voice.
“You advertised a Voigtländer for sale?”
“We may not have it still. Who is calling?”
“Here is Lazarus.”
“Yes. A Voigtländer for Lazarus.”
“Where have you been!” The voice became crisp. “We need to know the number of caissons on inventory at the army base.”
“Transport caissons?” His mind raced. Should he give a false number...?
“Yes, transport caissons.”
There was no secrecy about transport. If this was a test he must give the actual number.
“Forty,” he said.
He replaced the handset, shaking.
It was nothing. Nothing. He’d given them nothing. They were testing him, that was all, and Britt was safe. Anyone with eyes could stand outside the army post and count forty caissons parked in geometric rows along the perimeter fence.
* * *