OSKAR WEINKENNER HELPED to lift Adolf Hitler from his bed to an unfolded wheelchair in the underground medical centre. As Dr. Marzius pushed his semi-conscious patient toward the tunnel to the guest villa, Weinkenner bullied his way through the switchboard to place a call to the airfield's control tower. A Hauptmann Falken was on duty. His accent suggested that there was a von available for social occasions.
"I'm Sturmbannführer Weinkenner, calling from the Führer Bunker at Supreme H.Q.," said Weinkenner grandly. "I wish to speak to your C.O., Oberst Lorenz."
"I'm afraid he's not available at this minute." Falken sounded moderately impressed by Weinkenner's location.
"All right, you have about half an hour to find him and give him my message. Tell him I'm calling under RSD priority Alpha. You can check that by calling Oberführer Rattenhuber here. I'm sure you have the number. I want Dr. Marzius's aircraft on the runway and ready to take off the instant we arrive. Is that clear?"
"Perfectly. I shall pass the message on as soon as possible."
"I should get on with it right away," said Weinkenner. "Heads will roll if that aircraft isn't ready."
"Noted and understood," Falken replied with the calm politeness of a society type, who was never flustered by military nonsense.
Dr. Marzius was applying Herr Müller's beard when Weinkenner reached the villa. Hitler had rallied slightly. He seemed resigned to his fate, but not content with it.
"I should not be leaving my headquarters at this crucial time," he told Weinkenner. "When the whole fate of the nation may hang on a single decision."
"You shouldn't be talking, Herr Reichskanzler," chided Dr. Marzius. "You should be conserving your strength."
"If you're in the vicinity of Berlin when the traitors think you're out here, Führer," Weinkenner added, "we still have the Müller plan available; a lighting personal appearance to fire up loyal troops."
"Yes, that's my only reason for going," said Hitler. "An opportunity for the unexpected."
Weinkenner and Dr. Marzius zipped the patient into Weinkenner's spare flying overall, covering up his usual semi-uniform of brown jacket and dark trousers. The ambulance arrived with two plain-clothes RSD-men aboard as additional security for Dr. Marzius' party. He hurried to the Führer Bunker. As one of Hitler's personal physicians, he required permission from the Führer; the real one or whoever was on duty as the Führer; to leave the site.
Sentries at Gate Three saluted as the ambulance rolled past. The barriers at Gates Two and One (South) swung open as the vehicle approached. An escort of four motorcycles with a machine gunner in the sidecar formed around the ambulance to shepherd it to the airfield. The level of security was a compromise between protection and attracting too much attention.
Trees and hectares of angled camouflage net screened the buildings at Rastenburg's airfield. The concrete runway had been painted mottled greens and browns to match the grass. Despite the camouflage, it was clear to Weinkenner that there was no Heinkel transporter waiting to take off. He told his driver to cut across the field, straight to the control tower.
Weinkenner was running for the external staircase as the ambulance came to a full stop. He burst onto the upper gallery like a black avenger. He made straight for a grey-haired Luftwaffe colonel.
"Weinkenner," he announced, making his name both a threat and a question.
"Before you start creating," Oberst Lorenz said defensively, "it was your own boss who took your aircraft."
"What?" Weinkenner said blankly.
"Reichsführer Himmler came hurtling in here like a bloody thunderbolt about an hour and a half ago. He commandeered your aircraft and your pilot. We've been trying to organize a replacement since you phoned."
"If you want to go as far as Berlin, we have another transporter on the way. It should arrive in half an hour. And it will need refuelling, of course."
"What else have you got here?"
"Nothing with the range to make Berlin in a single hop. Nothing ready to fly, that is. Look, it's getting on for seven in the evening. It'll start going dark in a couple of hours. Anything flying then is liable to be shot down as an enemy bomber. At this time of day, we're only receiving flights. And carrying out maintenance work on aircraft already here."
"You must have something," Weinkenner insisted. "If not, you could find yourself standing against a wall smoking your last cigarette. That's not a threat, it's a fact. And I could be standing next to you. That's how serious it is."
"Well, there's always the Führer-fighter, Herr Oberst," Hauptmann Falken mentioned, being as irritatingly pedantic as ever.
"What's going on here?" Dr. Marzius demanded from the doorway. "What has happened to my aeroplane? I am travelling on the direct orders of the Reichskanzler himself."
"We don't have a pilot for the Führer-fighter," Oberst Lorenz told Falken patiently.
"Yes, you do." Weinkenner unzipped his flying overall to show off the Luftwaffe pilot's eagle-with-swastika on his field green uniform. "I can fly anything with wings."
"We must leave immediately," Dr. Marzius insisted. "What are you arguing about? This is an airfield. Give us an aeroplane."
"But...," said Oberst Lorenz. "Without authority..."
Weinkenner took a folded paper from his right breast pocket and handed it to Lorenz. "There is my authority to take the Führer-fighter." He drew his pistol and worked the slide ostentatiously to push a cartridge into the breech. "And I have eight more reasons for co-operation here. Which I will deliver if I don't get immediate action. Starting with you, Oberst. Nothing personal, you understand. It's just the Führer says those who oppose us must be eliminated ruthlessly. But I have a feeling you're definitely on our side."
Oberst Lorenz made an instant decision. If he gave the Führer-fighter to the gangsterish SS officer, he would get him off his hands. And if Weinkenner was less of a pilot than he claimed and crashed, Albrecht Lorenz was hardly responsible. Weinkenner had the authority to take the Führer-fighter and anything else he fancied, including von Falken's stuck-up bitch of a wife.
Lorenz passed the single sheet of hand-made paper to Hauptmann Falken so that he would have a witness, then he reached for a telephone. The pre-flight checks were just a formality. Weinkenner carried them out while the engines were warming up. No aircraft received more thorough maintenance than the half-squadron of Führer-fighters.
Dr. Marzius pushed the twin machine guns out of his way as he wriggled into the rear seat. Herr Müller was helped into the centre seat, behind the pilot. Oberst Lorenz logged the time of departure as 19:04 hours. The ambulance team of RSD-men and their motorcycle escort headed for the airfield's canteen for refreshments before the half-hour journey back to Supreme H.Q.
On a course of 256 degrees, Weinkenner levelled off at 1,000 metres to spare Hitler's damaged ears the pain of a serious pressure drop. He was just below the lower height limit for his sector. Safety demanded that he fly according to a list of height bands, each allocated to a particular air-defence sector. Any aircraft detected flying outside the local band was deemed to be an intruder and fair game for the Luftwaffe or ground-based air defence forces. Weinkenner was used to taking risks with his own and other lives. He hoped that he still had a small reservoir of luck.
At least, he had been spared the dangers of a night landing at Rangsdorf now, with the risk of an intruder alert plunging the runway into darkness when he was on final approach. He had been expecting to act as non-flying co-pilot on the Heinkel. He had not flown anything as powerful as a Messerschmitt Zerstörer for months, which made his nerves flutter. He had an hour and a quarter to get the feel of the aircraft before he reached his destination. He expected to reach Berlin at 20:20 hours. There was nothing he could do about the nervous tension caused by being responsible for Hitler's life.
"Right," said Weinkenner when he was satisfied that everything in the aircraft was working properly, and he had his map and the directory of height bands and air-defence zones comfortably to hand. "We're on course for Berlin, and we just have to sit back and endure the boredom. How's everyone feeling?"
"Herr Reichskanzler?" prompted Dr. Marzius.
"Rather weak and a little faint," Hitler admitted.
"Try some oxygen, Führer," Weinkenner suggested. "How are you doing back there, Doc?"
"Just the usual claustrophobia from sitting in such a restricted space," said Dr. Marzius. Having to sit with his back to his patient was extremely awkward for a doctor. "Is the oxygen helping, Reichskanzler?"
"A little," said Hitler. "I understand pilots recommend it as a headache cure, Weinkenner."
"Best hangover cure in the world, Führer," chuckled Weinkenner. "They can pour you into the cockpit feeling like a lump of long-dead meat, and after a quarter of an hour of pure oxygen, you don't want to die any more. It's marvellous stuff."
"What sort of headache do you have?" said Dr. Marzius. "Is it general or localized?"
Hitler raised a hand to his leather flying helmet. "The left side of my head, about the middle."
"Would you please tell me if the headache gets worse, or you feel faint again?" Dr. Marzius said anxiously.
"Of course," said Hitler. "It must be very frustrating, trying to make a diagnosis from the back of the patient's head in a flying helmet."
"That's the advantage of the Heinkel," said Dr. Marzius. "It may be slow, but we have room to move about."
"But not speed. How fast are we travelling, Weinkenner?"
"Our air-speed is four hundred and ninety kilometres per hour, Führer," said Weinkenner. "We're cutting across a thirty k.p.h. wind from the south-west, which affects the ground speed."
"How fast would we be flying in the Heinkel?"
"A hundred and ninety, maybe two hundred on a good day. But you can get steward service on the Heinkel."
"Do you have much experience with this type of aircraft?"
"Some, Führer. I did actually fly one about eighteen months ago," Weinkenner realized. "It was unmodified, of course."
"Not a happy memory, Weinkenner?" Hitler divined.
"I'm not sure you'll want to hear about it, Führer."
"After what I survived at the conference today, I doubt anything else can shock me."
"It was in February a couple of years ago. Right in the depths of a Russian winter. I was ordered to take a repaired One-Ten up to a forward airfield. Strictly a volunteer job. You, you and you; get on with it. So three of us headed up the line. All transport pilots, but we'd all flown single-engine fighters so we were used to a bit of speed, and we'd had more than enough experience of multiple-engine aircraft to get a One-Ten into the air and down safely.
"It wasn't until the half-squadron of Russkies jumped us that we found out they don't load the guns on delivery flights. We had a few words to say about that when six Yaks showed us how much ammo they were carrying. Luckily, they weren't much good. We were able to stay out of their way until some of our fighters dropped in to find out what all the swearing on the R.T. was about. We were faster than the Russkies, for one thing. We didn't have the weight of armour plate they put on this mark.
"The other two got down all right when we reached the forward airfield. They started firing off red flares when I started my approach. The trouble was, they'd only given us just enough fuel for the trip. Dog-fighting had left me with just a smell in the tanks. It was a question of get down fast while the engines were still running.
"Someone was saying something about wheels on the radio when I reached the runway. Mine had stuck half-way down, pointing back at forty-five degrees, despite what the indicator light was telling me. The tips of the propellers started chewing the ground when I touched down. Then the undercarriage just gave way. I just put my head down and crossed my arms in front of my face. There's not much else you can do at a time like that. You just have to hope your luck's in.
"I slid right along the runway and finished up buried in a snow bank at the far end. They had to take an axe to the canopy to get me out of the cockpit. The grease on the runners had frozen solid."
"And were you injured?" said Hitler.
"Walked away without a scratch, Führer. That's often the
way it goes. You think: Right, this is it! My number's up for sure. And then you
get away with it."
"I had the same sensation this afternoon, with the bomb so close."
"Blast can do strange things. You can have two men standing side by side when a bomb goes off. One gets killed, the other's completely untouched. I was about twenty metres away from the Lagebaracke. It blew me right off my feet."
"It was like being back in the Great War," said Hitler. "If one has time for thought, it's to be sure that one's last moment has come. I think what convinced me that I'd survived was the strange feeling of openness around my legs where my trouser legs had been ripped apart."
"If it hasn't got your number on it, you can stand as close as you like."
Weinkenner began to click through the radio channels for gossip; strictly for his own benefit. Some of the anonymous chatter on the air was hardly fit for the country's leader. Amid the routine was an undercurrent of uncertainty. The group in the Führer-fighter had missed some sort of national announcement on Deutschlandsender. In the opinion of most of the military radio gossips, if they had to announce that the Führer was still alive, then he was probably dead.
"What was that authorization you showed at the airport?" said Dr. Marzius.
Weinkenner unzipped his overall and passed the folded sheet of paper back over his left shoulder. Hitler relayed it. The paper was high-quality, hand-made and embossed in gold with an eagle with out-spread wings clutching in its talons a laurel wreath containing a swastika. Beneath the crest was ADOLF HITLER in uncompromising capitals. Dr. Marzius had seen similar notepaper in Hitler's private office. There was another version with DER FÜHRER printed below the crest.
"What does it say?" prompted Hitler.
"The bearer of this document," read Dr. Marzius, "Sturmbannführer Oskar Weinkenner, is acting under my direct orders. He is to receive unquestioning and immediate co-operation."
Beneath the four typed lines was Hitler's unmistakable signature: the first name reduced to something akin to a stylized Continental figure seven, the surname a cramped slide.
"Might I see, Professor?" said Hitler.
Dr. Marzius passed the paper forward.
"A remarkable document," said Hitler, recognizing his own signature without the aid of his reading glasses.
"Is it genuine?" Dr. Marzius asked suspiciously.
"Be your age, Doc," said Weinkenner. "It's as real as Herr Müller. One of them signed it for me. Don't ask which; they all look alike to me. And it got this plane for us when we needed it. That, a bit of bluster and a fully loaded pistol."
"Your file mentioned you show initiative combined with an unfortunate streak of irresponsibility, Weinkenner." Hitler returned the folded paper, giving it tacit endorsement.
"People divide into two camps in an emergency, Führer," said Weinkenner. "Those who do something and those who try to stop anyone doing anything at all in case what they do is wrong. That's when you need something to frighten the do-nothings."
"You don't have to tell me," Hitler said with a dry laugh. "I have a General Staff packed with do-nothings. Do we have anything to drink? The oxygen seems to be drying my throat. Not to mention the taste of the rubber from the mask and the steel from the bottle."
"The water bottles should be full of iced water," said Weinkenner. "And I have some barley sugar sweets. I can taste the mask a bit myself. I must have been out of the air too long."
"This is probably the wrong time to mention it, but how are you feeling?" Dr. Marzius said as he unwrapped a barley sugar from the bag that reached him after Hitler had taken one. "Remembering you were discharged from hospital only nine days ago, after severe injuries."
"I'm okay," Weinkenner said confidently. There was no point in admitting how much his nerves were jumping. "This baby practically flies itself, and we'll be landing in an hour."
The trio settled into a routine for the flight. Dr. Marzius monitored his patient's pulse and state of consciousness regularly. Hitler soon became weary and sleepy. Weinkenner monitored the ever-changing network of radio gossips as he passed from one district to another on the westward journey. He made gradual changes to move from one district height band to the next.
Supreme H.Q. may have been starved of hard news, but there was more than enough idle speculation circulating among those with access to a radio set and time on their hands. There was talk of Paris falling into the hands of the rebels and the entire Western army disengaging to allow the enemy to jump 150 kilometres closer to the Reich unopposed. Weinkenner made sure that treason could not cross into the intercom system. That sort of speculation was likely to drive Hitler into enough of a rage to let him fly on to Berlin under his own power.
As an exercise in navigation, the flight was a milk run. Weinkenner was crossing a sometimes marshy plain that runs from the Ural Mountains deep inside Russia all the way to the sea at Holland and northern Belgium. He had to keep roads, railways, towns and lakes in the right places relative to the aircraft. He was flying below the wispy clouds. The sun was starting to become a nuisance as it dipped in the sky, but Weinkenner was wearing a cardboard visor on a strip of elastic on his borrowed flying helmet. He had found it in the cockpit. He had a clerk's green eyeshade in his flight bag, but that was still at Rastenburg. There had been no time to pack and he had not anticipated having to do the flying himself.
The Führer-fighter was ten minutes from Zlotow, Weinkenner's check-point at the pre-war German-Polish border, when Dr. Marzius began to become agitated. He had been attempting the difficult task of examining a patient in the middle seat of a narrow cockpit.
"Trouble?" divined Weinkenner.
"I don't like this," said Dr. Marzius. "I think he's unconscious rather than asleep. Unfasten his harness."
Weinkenner set the autopilot on, then released his own harness and struggled over the back of his seat to operated the quick release on Hitler's harness. Dr. Marzius pushed on Hitler's shoulders to force him down in his seat, then squeezed himself forward over the top of the centre seats. He managed, with difficulty, to examine Hitler's pupil reflex.
"We have to get him to a hospital right away," said Dr. Marzius. "Can you fasten his straps?"
"Lift him up a bit," said Weinkenner. "Okay, that'll do. Find somewhere you like. We're about twenty kilometres west of the River Vistula. Follow the line of ticks." He passed the map back to the doctor, then he re-fastened Hitler's harness, offering mental apologies to his country's leader for tugging the straps.
"Schneidemühl," said Dr. Marzius. "There's a clinic there. An excellent one. I knew a surgeon there before the war."
"You think they'll have the right sort of doctors and facilities there?"
"Certainly, at that sort of clinic."
"Let me have the map. Yes, there's a Transport Command training airfield quite near there. And we're only five minutes away. You can't find fault with the Chief's timing."
Weinkenner corrected his course toward the south, then switched the radio to the emergency frequency. "Dora Dora calling Schneidemühl Control. This is a Mayday, repeat a Mayday. Respond, please, over."
He repeated the message twice without receiving a reply. "I think the sods are asleep," he remarked over the intercom to Dr. Marzius. Then he tried again.
"Schneidemühl Control calling Dora Dora," said a breathless voice. "What is your emergency, over?"
"I am a hospital emergency flight," said Weinkenner. "My patient has become critical. I have to land and I need an ambulance to take him to your local clinic, over."
"I have no listing for your call sign, Dora Dora, over."
"My base is Rastenburg and I have RSD priority Alpha, over."
"The airfield is closed, Dora, Dora, over."
"Well, you'd better re-open it double quick because I'm going to land in three minutes, over."
"I don't have authority to re-open the field at this time of night, Dora Dora. I'll have to phone the C.O., over."
"Identify yourself, name and rank," barked Weinkenner.
"Alven, Leutnant," said the radio voice cautiously.
"I am Gruppenführer Weinkenner of the Reichssicherheitsdienst, and I have priority Alpha. I am on final approach. I expect to see your ambulance beside my aircraft when I come to a stop. Even if you have to drive it yourself, Leutnant Alven. You will now give me the local weather report and wind direction."
The lieutenant gave a brief report based on a quick look out of the window at the sky and the wind sock. Before he could object further, Weinkenner signed off.
"What does that mean exactly? The airfield is closed?" Dr. Marzius asked anxiously.
"It doesn't mean they've rolled up the runway, Doc," chuckled Weinkenner. "It just means everyone but Alven is in the mess. No control tower staff, no fire brigade, no nothing."
"I see. Congratulations on your promotion, by the way," the doctor added drily.
"A general has more fire power than a major. And who's to know if I keep my overall zipped up? Make sure your straps are tight. I can see the runway and I'm going straight in. Bugger me! What's that driving hell for leather away from the buildings? Could it be an ambulance?"
Leutnant Alven was a lanky, twenty-year-old with almost invisible copper-blond stubble on his head. He was clearly out of his depth. He was amazed to find three men in the Messerschmitt 110. He helped Weinkenner to lift the patient out of the cockpit, down from the wing, and to carry him to the open doors at the rear of the waiting ambulance.
Alven looked fresh-faced and quite innocent despite several years of warfare. He was enough of an old hand to know the value of covering himself, and he began to ask questions as soon as the patient was in the ambulance. The Ritterkreutz at Weinkenner's throat drew Alven's admiring eyes when the older man unzipped his overall to reach his tunic pocket. Weinkenner closed the zip again before Alven could see his insignia of rank The medal proved that Weinkenner was a VIP hero. Alven was ready to be impressed when Weinkenner unfolded his personal charter.
"You recognize the Führer's signature, of course, Leutnant?" Weinkenner was careful to keep his true rank on the other side of a fold in the sheet of heavy paper. The visible part of the document included the demand for co-operation and the familiar, scrawled signature.
"Well, yes," mumbled Alven. "Herr Gruppenführer."
"You know the way to the clinic near here?"
"The Seckendorff Klinik? Well, yes, Herr Gruppenführer. But I'm the duty officer."
"Find a relief." Weinkenner drew his pistol and released the safety catch. He kept the weapon pointing at the grass rather than Leutnant Alven, but the threat was clear.
"We've heard reports the Führer was assassinated by a bomb this afternoon," Alven said cautiously as he drove the ambulance across the grass to the paved area before the hangers.
"There was a bomb," said Weinkenner. "It went off at about a quarter to one. The Führer was looking remarkably healthy when he saw us off at six-thirty, an hour and a half ago."
"So he isn't dead?"
"Not by a long way." Weinkenner leaned back to a sliding panel between the cab and the body of the ambulance. "Isn't that right, Herr Professor? The Führer is alive?"
"Against all the odds, yes, he is," said Dr. Marzius. "We must telephone the clinic to warn them to expect us."
"They can do that from the main gate."
Weinkenner put his pistol away and took out the sheet of headed notepaper. He let the sergeant of the guard scan the lower half while Leutnant Alven delivered orders: ring the clinic to warn of the arrival of a patient with head injuries, ring the officers' mess to tell another junior officer that he was in charge of the airfield, and have the aircraft on the runway moved to a dispersal bay and guarded.
Weinkenner became just a useless appendage when the ambulance reached the long, low building at the end of a winding, tree-lined drive. Dr. Marzius and his patient disappeared along a corridor into the crisp sanctuary of the Seckendorff Klinik. Weinkenner knew from experience that no one would have anything to say to him for hours. That was the way with hospitals, as far as Weinkenner was concerned. They existed to suck people into a secret world where only doctors and senior nursing staff knew anything. The poor old patient, and his friends, relatives and acquaintances, received lofty reassurance that everything was under control right up to the moment when they pulled a sheet over the patient's head and made plans to refill the bed.
"What do I do now?" said Leutnant Alven. "Herr Gruppenführer."
"Take me somewhere for a drink," said Weinkenner. "I need a bloody big 'un. I'll buy you one, too. Phew! I'm bloody melting in this heat." He unzipped his flying overall, stepped out of it and rolled it up.
"Those are an SS general's insignia?" Alven said in a neutral tone.
"A slight exaggeration." Weinkenner shrugged. "You can't show someone your Führer-Pass over the radio. But I do hope to be a general some day. The pension is excellent. You were going to take us to a bar, Leutnant."
They returned to the ambulance and climbed into the cab.
"But you are in the RSD, Sturmbannführer?" said Alven.
"Bodyguard to my V.I.P., the Professor. That's why I have my piece of paper." Weinkenner patted his right breast pocket.
"And your patient is in a critical condition?" Alven turned right at the gates of the clinic. The red-tiled roofs of the town could be seen beyond bushy hedges.
"Still is, according to the Professor. But if he survives, there might be something in it for you to brighten up your uniform."
"You reckon?" Alven flashed a glance at Weinkenner's Ritterkreutz.
"I may not be a general myself yet, but I talk to the people who give generals their orders. But I need a drink first. And maybe a couple more after that."
"Have you met Reichsmarschall Göring?"
"This may sound like a tall story, but I was drinking his champagne this afternoon. He didn't like drinking alone. Things were a bit gloomy at Rastenburg while we were waiting to hear where the bomb had come from. The Führer was feeling his bruises and the Wehrmacht generals were keeping their heads down. One of their officers left the bomb."
"You were there when it went off?" Alven stopped in a side street in a pleasant little town full of trees, undamaged roofs and intact, brown-paper-taped windows. There were none of the heaps of brick and timber that were normal now in Berlin.
"I was nearby. Close enough to get blown arse over elbow." Weinkenner put his flying overall on his seat as he left the ambulance. He had spotted the bar across the street. "The conference hut was a real mess inside. There were three officers on the Führer's right. The first two were killed outright and the third's in hospital. The Führer came out of it a bit deaf and with cuts and burns. Ruined his trousers. They were cut to ribbons. And I ended up ruining a perfectly good uniform digging in the wreckage. And the material they make them out of these days is pure junk. Keitel was standing on the Führer's left. Not a scratch on him, of course."
"All we've heard is some radio gossip. Some say nothing happened, some say half the High Command was wiped out, along with Himmler and Göring."
"Himmler was at Rastenburg but not at the conference. Göring wasn't even there at the time."
"I hope none of my superiors see me in here." Alven pushed open the street door of the bar. The windows were wide open, but there was no movement of the hot, humid air inside.
"You're under the Führer's direct orders." Weinkenner offered his cigarettes. Alven produced matches. "I'll have to phone my boss when we get back to the airfield. He'll have to know the change of plan."
"That might be a bit difficult," said Alven apologetically. "We have trouble with the phones mid-week. Saboteurs sneak over from what was Poland to blow up parts of the network every so often. Always on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. They do it to undermine morale. Sometimes the engineers are working all weekend. Then it happens again. It was Wednesday this week; well, last night. The engineers are still finding some of the faults."
"How long will it take them to get things fixed?"
"It shouldn't be much longer. They've been at it long enough."
"Well, we should know what Herr Müller's chances are by then." Weinkenner smiled at a pretty girl behind the bar. "Two large schnapps and two enormous beers, please."
"No schnapps, sorry." The girl stared at Weinkenner's Ritterkreutz. It was an unusual sight in a small town beside a training airfield.
"Not even for two heroes?" Weinkenner kept his smile at a relentless level.
The girl blushed and glanced at Leutnant Alven. She had never considered him hero material. He was more of an aerial bus driver, teaching other pilots to fly lumbering transporters instead of glamorous fighters. "I'll ask my father." The girl put two half-litre glasses of beer on the polished counter and slipped away.
"Two heroes?" said Alven with a grin.
"Deserting your post on active duty is pretty heroic," Weinkenner said with a smile. "You could be shot for it. Prost!"
"Prosit!" Alven took a long swallow of weak beer. "I think I'd better phone my C.O. It might help if you speak to him."
"Okay. You get hold of him. I'll bring the schnapps."
A tall man with a green patch over his right eye looked into the bar from a private room. Weinkenner wondered if the landlord had a briefcase. The eyepatch reminded him immediately of Oberst Graf von Stauffenberg. The hero's impressive swatch of campaign ribbons passed inspection. The girl brought two shot-glasses out of the inner room. She gave Weinkenner a conspiratorial smile. He returned the smile and gave her an empty beer glass to fill.
A quarter of an hour later, Leutnant Alven stopped the ambulance at the airfield's main gate. He looked relieved when the guard saluted and directed him to one of the dispersal bays. He had been half expecting to be arrested on the spot for immediate court martial.
Weinkenner offered his identity documents to Oberst Pohl, the C.O. of the training squadron, who was standing beside the Führer-fighter with his flight commanders. Pohl belonged to the same age group as Hitler and Dönitz, the veterans of the Great War. He had an impressive chestful of medals and ribbons. Weinkenner attracted frowns from the flight commanders. Campaign ribbons from Spain and a pilot's wings were an
unusual sight on a black-collared Waffen SS uniform.
Weinkenner explained that the converted Me 110 was an RSD passenger transporter for VIPs and that the ailing Herr Müller was a member of Dr. Marzius' staff. He saw no point in refusing to answer reasonable questions. The greatest security, he believed, lay in satisfying curiosity with a self-consistent fiction. People would take the matter further only if he created a mystery.
After telephoning the clinic to report his position, he joined Oberst Pohl and his officers in their mess. Long distance calls and the teleprinter service were still out of action. Leutnant Alven resumed his interrupted spell of duty in the control tower.
Over a meal and a bottle of Mosel wine, Weinkenner gave a detailed account of most of the events of the afternoon at Supreme Headquarters. The fish in the pie was fresh, the wine crisp and refreshing, and his audience was fascinated. Officers who moved in the highest government and military circles never dropped in at their backwater. Weinkenner was a visitor from another world.
The airfield's communications staff made several attempts to reach Rastenburg by telephone and teleprinter. There were still breaks in the lines, and everything going into Berlin was being swallowed up in the confusion of the revolt.
The sun was setting as Weinkenner accepted a lift into Schneidemühl from one of the flight commanders. He strolled up the drive of the Seckendorff Clinic with no great sense of urgency. His personal experience of hospitals was that they involve a hell of a lot of hanging around.
As expected, the nurse at the reception desk made a brief telephone call to tell someone that he was back, then she invited him to sit down. Weinkenner parked himself in a comfortable armchair and smoked slowly through a Dutch cigar, which one of the Luftwaffe officers had given him.
He was feeling full of decent food and good wine. He could afford to relax now. He had done his duty. he had brought Hitler to a hospital. What happened next was in the hands of the doctors.
An elderly matron in a uniform with cutting edges rather than just starched creases arrived to collect him just after Weinkenner had ground the life out of his cigar butt. She took him along bright, clean corridors to an office beyond the operating theatres. Dr. Marzius and a colleague with iron-grey hair and a matching circle of beard around his mouth were drinking coffee and finishing a plate of sandwiches.
Weinkenner shook Professor Seckendorff's hand, then dropped into a comfortably padded chair. Everything about the clinic suggested that it catered for the well-off or the powerful, which amounted to the same thing where most Party members were concerned. It was another extraordinary island of luxury in a country which had been bled dry by five years of war.
Professor Seckendorff's accent was upper-class in the extreme. Weinkenner would have felt decidedly inferior if the surgeon had not found his SS insignia intimidating.
"How is Herr Müller?" Weinkenner asked in his regionless accent, which was an American-German hybrid.
"The operation was successful," said Dr. Marzius. "The patient is now recovering from the anaesthetic."
"Yes, but how is he, Professor?" Weinkenner adopted a strictly formal tone to address Dr. Marzius in the presence of a stranger.
"In good condition," said Professor Seckendorff. "We were able to repair a leaking blood vessel and drain off an accumulation of fluid. Herr Müller could not have received better treatment in Berlin. And he benefited from prompt treatment here."
"But there's something bothering you?" Weinkenner divined. "Go on, I can take it."
"Professor Marzius removed the patient's beard and most of the moustache. There was something familiar about the face even with the disguise," Seckendorff said uneasily. "And there was the uniform under the overall."
"And the good doctor, being a doctor, told you nothing because that's what doctors are good at?" grinned Weinkenner. He took out his identity card. "All right, you're used to confidences, Herr Professor. You see I'm a member of the RSD? And you know what that means?"
"You are involved in State Security?"
"In the security of important people."
"Weinkenner...," Dr. Marzius said in warning.
"It's all right, Herr Professor. You can't fool an intelligent man. But you must realize, Professor Seckendorff, what I tell you now is highly confidential. It must not leave this room. Is that clearly understood?"
"Of course," said Seckendorff with a grave nod.
"Weinkenner...," repeated Dr. Marzius.
"I know what I'm doing, Professor. The thing is, the RSD has been getting good information from the Gestapo about a plot against the Führer. An attempt on his life to be made this week, by the weekend at the latest. That's why Reichsführer Himmler and my C.O. decided to put a double into the staff conference this afternoon. That's the only time the Führer's exposed to potential assassins.
"Of course, the Führer was dead against the idea. But he went down with a mild cold yesterday. So my C.O. was able to use the double for the first time. Well, you know what happened. It gives every one of us in the RSD the shakes to think what might have happened if the Führer himself had been in the conference room when the bomb went off." Weinkenner rolled his eyes to the ceiling dramatically.
"There was an announcement on the radio half an hour ago, at nine o'clock," said Seckendorff. "The Führer will broadcast to the nation shortly."
"And so he will. We had to give him a quick haircut and a briefing on Herr Müller's injuries; a lot of people saw him in pain with his hair burned off; then the Führer took over again as himself to meet Mussolini and so on. We smuggled Herr Müller out when his condition began to deteriorate. We thought we could get him to Berlin. That's how we ended up here."
"There have been rumours the Führer uses a double."
Weinkenner shrugged. "All heads of state do. They're busy people. It's sometimes necessary to attend a meeting or a parade when they have work piled up to the ceiling. So they send their Herr Müller. But that information must stay top secret, Professor. It's not something we want to tell our enemies about. And people might lose the thrill of meeting the real Führer if they thought he could be Herr Müller."
"Yes, of course," said Seckendorff.
"The resemblance will be more complete when Herr Müller's had the next lot of plastic surgery. I don't know much about it, but I understand it's something you have to do in stages."
"Yes, there were one or two details not quite right," Seckendorff said with a nod. "Müller looks too old."
Dr. Marzius rubbed his nose to hide a smile. He had not suspected that Weinkenner was such a fluent liar.
"How long will he have to stay here?" Weinkenner added.
"Several days," said Dr. Marzius. "At least until after the weekend."
"I'll try and report that to Rastenburg with where we are," said Weinkenner. "I've been trying to get through since we got here. But I've had no luck so far."
"Those saboteurs," said Seckendorff. "They keep blowing up our telephone lines. It's terrible."
"Well, if they stay blown up, I even might have to go on to Berlin," Weinkenner concluded.
"What about a guard for Herr Müller?" said Dr. Marzius.
"There are two ways we can do it," said Weinkenner. "We can surround the clinic with armed troops and tell the world we have a real VIP here. Or we can put a couple of good men in with him, just in case, and keep it quiet."
"I would prefer the latter," said Seckendorff. "I know the Chief of Police very well. I could ask for two detectives."
"Sounds like the best solution to me." Weinkenner looked at Dr. Marzius, who shrugged his agreement. "Let's sort that out, then I'll get back to the airfield."
Walther Krocher was a naturally inquisitive sort. He had started his working life as a clerk in the post office. Then he had managed to join the police force, off-setting an unimpressive physique with keenness and hard work. He had been recruited into the Gestapo at the beginning of the war. He had gone willingly in search of access to greater secrets, which, he knew, would provide promotion and prosperity. He was thirty-seven now, and he had yet to find much of either. He remained optimistic, however.
Krocher was on assignment in the Schneidemühl district as part of an anti-saboteur detail. Most of the work was just chasing shadows, but he remained optimistic about catching an important terrorist. His arrival at Bischoff's Bar at sunset marked the end of his official working day. Emil Bischoff had lost his right eye and his left foot in the last war. He was flagged in Gestapo records as having socialist leanings: more Soviet Socialist than National Socialist. Krocher felt that it was his duty to keep an eye on Emil, which left his other eye free to admire nineteen-year-old Hildi Bischoff.
The conversation died when Krocher entered the bar, just to let him know that everyone knew who the man in the dark grey suit was, then it resumed at a reduced volume. Krocher reached the counter as the music on the radio reached a natural conclusion.
"This is Deutschlandsender," the announcer said in an important voice.
"A nice, cold beer," said Krocher.
"Hush! The radio!" barked Emil Bischoff as he turned up the volume. He glowered at the Gestapo agent, glowing with inner satisfaction at shutting him up. Owners of bars and cafés were bound by law to keep their radios playing loudly so that government directives would reach both their customers and passers by. Socialists, like Bischoff, were full of ways to turn such regulations against representatives of their authors.
"...bomb attempt on the Führer's life," the radio announcer was saying. "The Führer received just minor burns and bruising. Three staff officers died of their injuries. A number of others were severely injured. The Führer will be making a special address to the nation later this evening. Stand by for further announcements."
"A nice, cold beer," Krocher repeated when the music resumed. "If you please."
He took the frosting glass to a table; inevitably at the window to watch the street. He had some notes to make. The paper stuck to his sweaty fingers when he held it flat ahead of the methodical advance of his fountain pen, which was loot from a raid on a subversive family two years before. The nib was real gold. Pens like it were unobtainable now, except by high-ranking Party officials and those fortunate enough to know them.
Ten minutes after Krocher's arrival, Hauptmann Franck, one of the flight commanders at the airfield, sat down at his table. Franck was a Party member and Krocher's source of airfield gossip. He brought more than gossip tonight. Franck delivered a complete account of the assassination attempt at Supreme Headquarters as told by an RSD officer, who had been there at the time.
Krocher made his way along empty, blacked out streets to the local Gestapo building at 10.30. Clouds had gathered to keep in the heat of the day, but he could see well enough in the long, summer twilight. The Gestapo had taken over an unimpressive brick building at a crossroads in the middle of town. An overlarge banner hanging down the front made the building look rather ridiculous during the day.
Most of the offices were in darkness, but lights burned behind some of the frosted panes in the doors. There was always someone doing something at all times of the day and night. Krocher looked in at the records room. He had some notes to add to the files. That was the essence of his work; finding things out, writing them down, building up information, looking for patterns, and then the 3 a.m. kick on the door when clues merged into hard evidence.
Georg Topf, one of his colleagues, was busy with the files. He lifted a long face with a high brow to direct a disapproving stare at Krocher. Topf was also in his middle thirties, but he acted twenty years older.
"I suppose you've been out boozing while the rest of us have been hard at it," Topf remarked.
"Gathering essential information on the political scene," said Krocher loftily. "The airfield is an excellent source of such information because people with hot news pass through it."
"Gossip!" scoffed Topf. "The only hot news we've had all day came in from Berlin a quarter of an hour ago. The teleprinter is working now."
"Surprise me," invited Krocher.
"An RSD Sturmbannführer called Weinkenner and some doctor have disappeared from Rastenburg airfield with a very expensive experimental plane. Arrest on sight."
"They'll be in Switzerland or Sweden by now, not our backwater. What did you say his name was?"
"Weinkenner. Good name for a boozer. And they were last seen heading for Berlin. They may have crashed on the way."
"Really?" said Krocher dismissively. "Did you know the Führer's going to make a radio broadcast tonight?"
"When?" said Topf.
"When he's ready. I see all the hot news doesn't come through here."
Krocher returned to the corridor and headed for the stairs down to the cellars and the communications room. He flipped through the signals book casually, as if he was being nosy rather than looking for something specific. He noted that the missing doctor was called Marzius. He put the book down with shaking hands.
Krocher went straight to his office to telephone the airfield. Hauptmann Franck had been back for just ten minutes after his trip to Bischoff's Bar, but he had caught up with the news already. He confirmed that the experimental aircraft was at the airfield under guard, and that Dr. Marzius and a patient in a critical condition were at the clinic in town, less than half a kilometre from the Gestapo building. Weinkenner had given up trying to contact Rastenburg from Schneidemühl. He had caught the 22.15 mail train, and he was on his way to Berlin to see Reichsführer Himmler.
Krocher chatted on for a few minutes, apparently testing his own memory of the news of the assassination attempt prior to sharing it with his colleagues. Franck seemed not to be aware of the general arrest order issued on Weinkenner and Dr. Marzius. After he had rung off, Krocher picked up a pencil and wrote names on a sheet of greyish, reprocessed paper. He drew a box around AEROPLANE then MARZIUS. He had both in his grasp. He put vertical, prison bars on the boxes to reinforce his hold on them. He put a large question mark beside MÜLLER. He used dashes to enclose WEINKENNER, and added wheels and a smoking funnel to the porous box.
There was something very strange about the whole business. Weinkenner had some sort of pass from the Führer: clearly a forgery. The mysterious Müller was obviously a person of great importance; too important even to be mentioned in a Gestapo flash signal. Krocher inferred that Marzius and Weinkenner had kidnapped him, and that Himmler was involved too, unless Weinkenner was throwing his name around as a bluff. The communications break-down made checking his story impossible.
On the other hand, Krocher realized, Marzius and Weinkenner could be involved in the plot to kill the Führer. Müller could be another member of the conspiracy, injured somehow in their flight after the bomb had failed to do its job. That scenario also fitted the facts. In either event, it was his clear duty to take all of them into custody. And if he claimed the glory for the arrests, it could hardly damage his career.
Krocher looked up at the clock over his door. In twenty minutes, the mail train would be in Kreuzfeld, an important junction between Stettin and Posen. He had to find out if there was anyone in Kreuzfeld who could be trusted to share the credit for a successful ambush. If not, he could tell a couple of friends at Landsberg to be at their station at ten to midnight.
When he had sorted out that problem, Krocher could dwell on the personal benefits to come. A rescue mission to save Müller if he had been kidnapped, or arresting him if he was a traitor, would bring promotion and a much higher security rating. If he could throw in Weinkenner as well as the experimental aircraft, he could well be on his way to headquarters: the brain-repair workshop on Prinz Albrechtstraße in Berlin.
Ordering his priorities, Krocher realized that he had to take a look at Müller. If he recognized him, if he could put a name to the face, he could find out whether he was dealing with kidnappers or traitors. If the man's face was unfamiliar, it would be safe to assume that the three fugitives were traitors. Nobody in his right mind kidnaps a nobody. Krocher paused to admire his own clear thinking, then he resumed his note-taking.
He drew a box containing a question mark at the end of his action plan. All that remained to be decided was whether it would be in the national interest if two kidnappers or three traitors were shot while resisting arrest or trying to escape. His superiors were known to prefer tidy solutions when the honour of the Reich was at risk.