At one minute before dusk they said it was safe to use the streets, but then safe was a relative term in Berlin’s eastern sector, as was dusk, for that matter. At one minute after that they would shoot you without hesitation or warning, and that was a Soviet guarantee.
There were many who believed the curfew was just another Bolshevik excuse for furthering Stalingrad’s vengeance. They said the average Red Army soldier didn’t care about the time. They said he couldn’t even tell the time. They said if he ever got a clear shot on a dull day, he’d kill you just for the meanness of it. Others went further. They said the average Red Army soldier would open fire under the mitigating shade of a drifting cloud. All fat Martin Kube knew was that dusk had fallen thirty minutes ago, and he was still on the street.
He had been at the rendezvous point on time, but the contact had failed to show, and so he’d waited there for over an hour, crouched in the alleyway, silently cursing from the shadows, allowing the sweat to slide, the panic to calm, and the breathing to quieten. He shifted position to ease the cramp and mopped at heavy jowls with a grime- and sweat-stained sleeve. Then he shuffled his uncomfortable bulk back into deeper shadows, to wait a little longer.
As dusk became darkness he gathered his courage and peered out from the alley, panning the grim silhouettes of bombed-out buildings and crater-strewn streets dotted with piles of rubble and fallen masonry. He was looking for hidden snipers and approaching patrols, listening for the sound of a voice, or the clatter of boots on the cobbles. Praying they wouldn’t see him there, crouched among the shadows; praying, too, for salvation.
For a moment of curious bravery he peered around the corner. Narrow-set eyes squinted through the gloom as he mentally gauged the distance from where he now hid to the single yellow light at the street’s western end. It acted as a beacon for returning Red Army foot patrols and a killing field for the machine-gun nest they’d hidden in the ruins beyond. He judged the distance from his current position of safety to that SG43 and certain death to be around three hundred meters. He decided this was as close as sanity allowed.
He racked his memory and made a further calculation. Assuming he could somehow negotiate the foot patrols and the killing fields, the distance from that solitary light to the back of the burnt-out Reichstag building was a matter of five hundred or so meters more. From there a desperate man could work his way around to the front of the building. Then it was only a brief, albeit terrifying, dash across the rubble to the safety of the American sector.
Unhappily for Martin Kube, the proximity of sanctuary only mocked at his cowardice. It was less than a kilometre away. It might just as well have been a million.
“Where the hell are you, you bastards!”
The oath echoed around the alley and out to the street. He ducked down and mentally cursed his own stupidity, while frantically scanning the surrounding gloom for any sign of other’s awareness. There was nothing he could see or hear, or was there?
It was then that he saw it, to the rear of the building across the street: the faintest of lights for the briefest of instants. It had momentarily glowed out from among the piles of rubble and tangled metal. He peered harder and silently mused. Broken glass perhaps, reflecting a passing light from the street beyond? But then the glow was there again, and the scuff of footsteps on rubble carried through the night. It was obviously the light from a cigarette, but who was on the other end?
He clutched at a breath, and held it, while a bolt of adrenaline surged from somewhere to nowhere. Then he remembered the Radom and fumbled in the coat’s right-hand pocket for the pistol’s reassurance. After that, he kept his place among the shadows and gripped the butt in blunt fat fingers and a palm that was slippery with sweat.
He could see them now, three of them, shadowy figures moving slowly through the rubble, slipping and sliding as they searched.
They paused and he heard them muttering. A flame briefly flared in the darkness as someone lit another cigarette. The muttering stopped. They began moving again. Then they altered course and started towards him.
The shapes were clearer now. They were undoubtedly Russians, a lone patrol with three at the front, and three more a few paces farther back. They were obviously searching for someone, and more than likely him. He wondered if they had seen him, crouched there in the alleyway, or if their sudden change of direction was just another slice of the same bad luck that had dogged him since Prague.
He wiped the sweat from his palm, then pulled the Radom and aimed it at the nearest Bolshevik, feeling the pulse thumping against his temple and knots of fear gripping at his stomach.
“Put the gun away, Herr Linz, before you get us all killed.”
The voice had come from somewhere behind him. Despite the even tone, it made him start and almost drop the gun. He swivelled around to see who had spoken, but saw nothing in the alleyway but blackness. As he peered into the gloom the voice spoke again, the accent clipped and precise, the instructions delivered in the same low and even tone.
“Stay low, keep quiet, move slowly. There is a gap in the wall, ten paces back and left. Get into it.” As he started backing up, his foot dislodged a brick. The sound echoed around the alleyway. The voice stopped him. “Keep calm. Turn around. Look to where you are going.”
He slid the Radom back into his coat and did as ordered, turning on all fours and then slowly creeping his way back along the alley, with the sweat running and his limbs trembling. The voice had told him the distance to the gap was ten paces. Expecting to feel a bullet in his back at any moment, it felt more like a hundred.
But then fear suddenly turned to panic as he heard the sound of another voice. It was startled and agitated and shouting in Russian. It came from behind him and alerted the rest of the patrol. It told him that whatever luck he’d had to this point had just run out. Then another voice shouted at him in broken German. It ordered him to stay where he was. When he pulled the Radom and began to move, a shot cracked into the night. He heard the bullet whine as it passed overhead, before ricocheting off the wall to the right.
Now the whole patrol was shouting and running. He could hear them, excitedly calling to one another as they clambered across the rubble. Another shot cracked. Another bullet hit the same wall in the same place. Terrified, he lay still and dropped the Radom.
It was over.
He held up his hands to show they were empty and began clambering to his feet.
That was when the roar went up and the building across the street suddenly exploded before his eyes. It lit up the night sky and briefly illuminated every street and alleyway and jagged outline for a thousand meters. Almost immediately the blast hit him, and then it was raining concrete and rubble. He dropped to the ground, then lay still and covered his head with his hands, while the rubble continued to rain and the dust and smoke began choking his lungs. Then he felt hands clutching at his arms. They lifted him from where he lay cowering and hauled him to his feet. Someone told him to follow. Someone else told him to run. They said the place would be full of Bolsheviks at any minute. Then he heard the sound of boots, clattering away down the alley.
He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand, and then coughed up some dust-laden mucus and spat. He picked up the Radom and peered around in fear and confusion. The Russian patrol had disappeared, as had the building across the street where the patrol had been sifting. Kube turned in the opposite direction and peered down the alley. He could just make out three figures at the far end. One of them called to him through the gloom and smoke and dust. The voice shouted “Linz!” and then swore at his dithering and told him to get a move on. Despite being out of condition, with his eyes streaming and his lungs clogged with smoke and dust, despite being grossly overweight and disoriented, Martin Kube started running for his life.
He reached the far end of the alley, and looked again for his saviours. At first he couldn’t see them, but then he spotted the last man, around fifty meters away, running along the far side of the street. Kube followed at a lumbering canter, with his breathing laboured and his legs drained of energy. Up ahead, he saw them duck into a building. He reached the same place and ducked through the same hole in the wall. Then he stumbled through a maze of bomb craters and rubble and ruined buildings, across the street beyond and through more ruins, then across another street and through more ruins still.
He didn’t look for machine-gun nests and hidden snipers. He didn’t look for foot patrols or Russian check points. He just ran blind and prayed that his luck would hold.
Up ahead they kept running and calling out to him, and he followed as best he could. He reached the next derelict block and stopped to retch. Then panic drove him on and he started running again, following the disappearing shapes through the rubble and along the next street, then down yet another alleyway and into yet another building. When he reached the far side of that he stopped and gasped for breath, then looked around in rising exhaustion and wild-eyed terror.
His saviours were gone. They had disappeared into the night and he was alone in the blackness with no idea of where he was or how far he’d run. He thought he heard a noise and swivelled left and right, pointing the Radom at anything and everything. Then a door opened on the far side of the street. The same familiar voice called to him. He staggered across and through the open doorway, then dropped to his knees in exhaustion. The door closed behind him. He started retching again. His lungs ached and his eyes still streamed from the dust. He felt weak and the nausea wouldn’t clear, but at least he was safe.
There were four of them in the room. They stood in the light from a kerosene lamp, watching while he spluttered and choked, saying nothing as they waited for the coughing to stop and the breathing to calm. Someone passed him a canteen of water and he greedily drank. Then he saw the Luger pointing at his chest.
Somebody reached out and took the Radom from his hand, then searched the rest of his pockets and found his papers. The man with the Luger fired a question.
“Where is Horst?”
“I do not know anyone named Horst.”
“We sent him to meet you; him and a colleague. They did not return.”
“I know nothing about that. All they told me was to wait in the alley. They said someone would meet me half-an-hour before curfew. No one came.”
One of the men walked to the lamp and scanned his papers. Kube watched the brow furrow.
“These belong to you? You are Martin Linz?”
Kube nodded. The questioner studied the papers for a while longer.
“These papers are in order. Why did you not use them? The Bolshies would have let you through during daylight. You had no need to use us. Why did you?”
“That is my business.”
The man with the Luger spoke again.
“No, Herr Linz, it is our business. We lost two good men tonight. I want you to tell me why.”
“They think I killed a Russian, in Prague; an agent, an infiltrator, one of their best.”
“And did you?”
The man with his papers studied him for a while and then nodded to the gunman, who pocketed the Luger. He returned the papers and then held out his hand with the palm up.
“You owe us five hundred American dollars, Herr Linz.”
He blurted a refusal.
“No. . . Not until I get to the American sector. . . That was the agreement.”
“You are in the American sector. Now give me the five hundred.”
“This is it? I am here?” A nod confirmed the truth. Kube smirked in triumph. He unbuttoned his shirt, exposing a grey cloth money belt fixed around an ample waist. He pulled a wad of American dollars from one of the pockets, counted out five bills and passed them to the speaker. Then he replaced the balance, rebuttoned his shirt and posed a question that had bothered him since the alley. “What happened back there?”
“You mean with the explosion?” He nodded. The speaker smiled grimly. “You are a lucky man, Herr Linz. I would have to guess that someone woke a sleeper in all the commotion. You should thank the Woolwich Arsenal and the Royal Air Force. Tonight they saved your life.”
“An unexploded bomb. The whole city is littered with them, the whole country probably. Anyway, that is six less Bolshies we have to worry about. Serves the bastards right.”
“I need to get away from here, out of Germany, out of Europe. Do you know anyone who can help?”
“It will be expensive.”
Kube patted the money belt. The speaker nodded.
“Very well, Herr Linz. For now, though, you had better find yourself a corner and get some rest. I will take you to meet someone in the morning.”
“What about my gun?”
“You can have it in the morning.”
The questioner studied his uncertainty and offered a reassurance.
“Herr Linz, we are former SS officers, gentlemen of the Reich. We are not thieves. You and your money are quite safe.”
Kube again patted the belt.
“Maybe, but this is a lot of money.”
“Get some rest, Herr Linz. I will take you to meet someone who may help, but only when it is light.”
Kube saw the determination and nodded a weary acceptance. He looked around for somewhere to rest and found a blanket on the floor in the corner. He wrapped it around himself and then sat on the floor, warily studying his aggressive-looking saviours until someone turned down the lamp.
He didn’t much like them, and he certainly didn’t trust them. He ought not to fall asleep, but what difference would it make? They had guns. He had nothing but his wits. Anyway, he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Ten seconds after that he was asleep.
“You lied to us. Why did you do that?”
Kube woke with an ache in his body that went all the way from his neck to his knees, and the glare of the Berlin early-morning sun hurting his eyes. He squinted hard at the figure towering above him, while his eyes accustomed themselves. Then he stalled for time, while his brain raced to understand what had suddenly gone wrong.
“I do not understand. What do you mean?”
He could see the speaker now, tall and gaunt, with the Radom in his hand and a look of loathing distorting weathered features. He hadn’t seen him clearly the previous night, but now the light was streaming in and he could see every pore and nuance. The face was familiar, and that wasn’t good. He vaguely remembered it; from Warsaw, or was it Prague? He didn’t remember the name, but he never forgot a face. His accuser spoke again.
“Your name is not Linz. Your name is Kluge, or Kluber, or something like that. I remember you. You were on Heydrich’s staff in Warsaw. You were Gestapo.”
By this time the rest had gathered to listen. Kube got to his feet and tried a bluff.
“You are mistaken, my friend. My name is Martin Linz and I was a Stabszahlmeister. I worked in the Ogrodowa headquarters for a short while, yes, but I was just a Stabszahlmeister; in charge of the cipher section.”
His accuser looked again, seemingly less certain following that well-delivered and entirely plausible denial. Kube sensed the possibility of a reprieve and held the pose of outraged nonchalance, but then his accuser spat a confirmation and he knew that he was in trouble.
“Kube! That was it. Your name was Martin Kube, and you were a Gestapo chief in Warsaw. I knew I had seen you before. I did not recognize you at first without that black trilby hat, and I did not realize just how bald you were. But I remember you now. Fat Martin Kube. How could I have forgotten? You were there, in Warsaw, with Heydrich.”
Kube looked from one set of accusing features to the next and persevered with the lie.
“I have never heard of Kube, and I never spoke to Heydrich. I was Wehrmacht. For a short time I was in Warsaw, you are right, but then I was posted to Prague. My name always was and always will be Martin Linz. Now stop all this nonsense and give me my gun back.”
It was never going to fool them and he knew it.
The leader who had questioned him the previous night stepped forward and reached into his coat. He took the papers belonging to Martin Linz and tossed them aside. Kube offered no resistance, but protested when the man then began fumbling for the money belt. A vicious punch to the solar plexus halted the protest and sent him to his knees, where he remained groaning and massaging the pain. A pair of hands pushed away his and snatched at the money belt. He sneered through the pain.
“SS officers and gentlemen of the Reich? Huh! You are all traitors, nothing more than snivelling cowards and common thieves. Do you have any idea who I am?”
The leader sneered back at him.
“We do not care who you are, and we do not care what you did. In war we each had our tasks; SS, Wehrmacht, even Gestapo pigs like you. You could have been on your way to Bremen, and then Bari, and from there to the Americas. Instead you chose to lie to us.”
Suddenly fearing for his life, Kube babbled his mitigation.
“You do not understand. I had to lie for the Children, for the Reich, for the Führer.”
He only succeeded in angering them further.
“How dare you use his name to save yourself, you filthy Gestapo scum!”
A single punch to the jaw toppled him from his knees. Then they started kicking. A boot connected with his genitals. He screamed in agony. Another thumped hard into his belly. He gasped for air and begged and groaned and tried to cover up. A savage kick bruised his ribs. Another broke a bone in his forearm. He heard and felt it snap, and screamed again. Then a steel toecap caught him across the temple and he mercifully passed out.
When Martin Kube regained consciousness the sun was still shining, but the face looking down on him was altogether friendlier than the last he’d seen. She was a nurse, middle-aged and bustling, dressed from head to toe in white, with a benevolent smile and caring features. He muttered a question in German.
“Where am I?”
“You are in Stubenrauch-Krankenhaus, Herr Kube.”
That didn’t make sense.
“The SS Hospital?”
She smiled and shook her head.
“It used to be, but now it is Station Hospital Number 279; an American army hospital.”
He breathed a sigh of relief, and looked around to find he was in a small side ward with two beds. The second was empty. Someone had drawn the curtains to shield the sun’s fierceness. A glass and water jug sat on his bedside cabinet. A white-coated doctor, engrossed in a chart, stood to one side. Kube looked up at his nurse.
“How did I get here?”
“Some men brought you in. They gave us your name and said they found you lying in the street. They said a street gang had attacked you. Do you not remember?”
He shook his head, but then she bustled away and he found himself looking up at an American army captain, who spoke to him in English.
“Good afternoon, Herr Kube. I trust you are feeling better.”
He suddenly remembered his cover.
“My name is Linz, Martin Linz. Why are you calling me Kube?”
The captain looked surprised, but then smiled and apologized.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Herr Linz. I thought that was the name they gave us. In all the commotion somebody made a mistake. I will make sure everyone knows.”
“They took my money and my papers.”
“Yes. We’ll sort all that out when you’re better. You rest now, and we’ll talk later.”
The captain wandered over to talk to the doctor. Kube sank back into the pillows and assessed the damage. There was a plaster cast on his broken arm, and heavy strapping around his ribs, but that apart, his injuries seemed no more serious than some stitched cuts and colourful bruises. He’d lost all his money, and that was a serious setback, but on balance he’d been lucky once again.
But then a man in a charcoal-grey suit came to the door and stood watching him. When the captain left the room to speak to the man, the door swung wider. That was when Kube saw the military police standing guard. That was when he looked more carefully around the room and saw bars at the window, blocking the sun’s rays and leaving tell-tale shadows on the curtains.
That was when he knew the captain had lied.