In July 1953, when Xavier March had not long turned thirty and his work as yet consisted of little more than the arresting of whores and pimps around the docks of Hamburg, he and Klara had taken a holiday. They had started in Freiburg, in the foothills of the Black Forest, had driven south to the Rhine, then eastwards in his battered KdF-wagen towards the Bodensee, and in one of the little riverside hotels, during a showery afternoon, with a rainbow cast across the sky, they had planted the seed that grew into Pili.
He could see the place still: the wrought-iron balcony, the Rhine valley beyond, the barges moving lazily in the wide water; the stone walls of the old town, the cool church; Klara’s skirt, waist to ankle, sunflower yellow.
And there was something else he could still see: a kilometre down-river, spanning the gulf between Germany and Switzerland — the glint of a steel bridge.
Forget about trying to escape through the main air or sea ports: they were watched and guarded as tightly as the Reich Chancellery. Forget about crossing the border to France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy — that was to scale the wall of one prison merely to drop into the exercise yard of another. Forget about mailing the documents out of the Reich: too many packages were routinely opened by the postal service for that to be safe. Forget about giving the material to any of the other correspondents in Berlin: they would only face the same obstacles and were, in any case, according to Charlie, as trustworthy as rattlesnakes.
The Swiss border offered the best hope; the bridge beckoned.
Now hide it. Hide it all.
He knelt on the threadbare carpet and spread out a single sheet of brown paper. He made a neat stack of the documents, squaring off the edges. From his wallet he took the photograph of the Weiss family. He stared at it for a moment, then added it to the pile. He wrapped the entire collection tightly in the paper, binding the clear sticky tape around and around it until the package felt as solid as a block of wood.
He was left with an oblong parcel, ten centimetres thick, unyielding to the touch, anonymous to the eye.
He let out a breath. That was better.
He added another layer, this time of gift paper. Golden letters spelled GOOD LUCK! and HAPPINESS!, the words curling like streamers amid balloons and champagne corks behind a smiling bride and groom.
By autobahn from Berlin to Nuremberg: five hundred kilometres. By autobahn from Nuremberg to Stuttgart: one hundred and fifty kilometres. From Stuttgart the road then wound through the valleys and forests of Wurttemberg to Waldshut on the Rhine: a hundred and fifty kilometres again. Eight hundred kilometres in all. “What’s that in miles?”
“Five hundred. Do you think you can manage it?”
“Of course. Twelve hours, maybe less.” She was perched on the edge of the bed, leaning forward, attentive. She wore two towels -one wrapped around her body, the other in a turban around her head.
“No need to rush it — you’ve got twenty-four. When you reckon you’ve put a safe distance between yourself and Berlin, telephone the Hotel Bellevue in Waldshut and reserve a room — it’s out of season, there should be no difficulty.”
“Hotel Bellevue. Waldshut.” She nodded slowly as she memorised it “And you?”
I’ll be following a couple of hours behind. I’ll aim to join you at the hotel around midnight.”
He could see she did not believe him. He hurried on: “If you’re willing to take the risk, I think you should carry the papers, and also this…” From his pocket he drew out the other stolen passport. Paul Hahn, SS-Sturmbannfuhrer, born Cologne, 16 August 1925. Three years younger than March, and looked it.
“She said: Why don’t you keep it?”
“If I’m arrested and searched, they’ll find it. Then they’ll know whose identity you’re using.”
“You’ve no intention of coming.”
“I’ve every intention of coming.”
“You think you’re finished.”
“Not true. But my chances of travelling eight hundred kilometres without being stopped are less than yours. You must see that. That’s why we go separately.”
She was shaking her head. He came and sat beside her, stroked her cheek, turned her face to his, her eyes to his. “Listen. You’re to wait for me — listen! — wait for me at the hotel until eight-thirty tomorrow morning. If I haven’t arrived, you drive across without me. Don’t wait any longer, because it won’t be safe.”
“You should aim to cross the border as close to nine as you can.” Her cheeks were wet. He kissed them. He kept on talking. She had to understand. “Nine is the hour when the beloved Father of the German People leaves the Reich Chancellery to travel to the Great Hall. It’s months since he’s been seen — their way of building excitement. You may be sure the guards will have a radio in the customs post, and be listening to it. If ever there’s a time when they’re more likely just to wave you through, that’s it.”
She stood and unwrapped the turban. In the weak light of the attic room, her hair gleamed white.
She let the second towel drop.
Pale skin, white hair, dark eyes. A ghost. He needed to know that she was real, that they were both alive. He stretched out a hand and touched her.
They lay entwined on the little wooden cot and she whispered their future to him. Their flight would land at New York’s Idlewild airport early tomorrow evening. They would go straight to the New York Times building. There was an editor there she knew. The first thing was to make a copy — a dozen copies — and then to get as much printed as possible, as soon as possible. The Times was ideal for that.
“What if they won’t print it?” This idea of people printing whatever they wanted was hard for him to grasp.
They’ll print it. God, if they won’t, I’ll stand on Fifth Avenue like one of those mad people who can’t get their novels published and hand out copies to passers-by. But don’t worry — they’ll print it, and we’ll change history.”
“But will anyone believe it?” That doubt had grown within him ever since the suitcase had been opened. “Isn’t it unbelievable?”
No, she said, with great certainty, because now they had facts, and facts changed everything. Without them, you had nothing, a void. But produce facts — provide names, dates, orders, numbers, times, locations, map references, schedules, photographs, diagrams, descriptions — and suddenly that void had geometry, was susceptible to measurement, had become a solid thing. Of course, this solid thing could be denied, or challenged, or simply ignored. But each of these reactions was, by definition, a reaction, a response to some thing which existed.
“Some people won’t believe it — they wouldn’t believe it no matter how much evidence we had. But there’s enough here, I think, to stop Kennedy in his tracks. No summit. No re-election. No detente. And five years from now, or fifty years, this society will fall apart. You can’t build on a mass grave. Human beings are better than that — they have to be better than that — I do believe it — don’t you?”
He did not reply.
He was awake to see another dawn in the Berlin sky. A familiar grey face at the attic window, an old opponent.
“Your name is?”
“Twenty-fifth October 1939.”
“I live at home with my parents, in Berlin.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Waldshut, on the Rhine. To meet my fiance.”
“What is the purpose of your visit to Switzerland?”
“A friend’s wedding.”
“What is this?”
“A wedding present. A photograph album. Or a Bible? Or a book? Or a chopping board?” She was testing the answers on him.
“Chopping board — very good. Exactly the sort of gift a girl like Magda would drive eight hundred kilometres to give.” March had been pacing the room. Now he stopped and pointed at the package in Charlie’s lap. “Open it, please, Fraulein.”
She thought for a moment. “What do I say to that?”
There’s nothing you can say.”
Terrific.” She took out a cigarette and lit it. “Well, would you look at that? My hands are trembling.”
It was almost seven. Time to go.”
The hotel was beginning to wake. As they passed the lines of flimsy doors they heard water splashing, a radio, children laughing. Somewhere on the second floor, a man snored on regardless.
They had handled the package with care, at arm’s length, as if it were uranium. She had hidden it in the centre of her suitcase, buried in her clothes. March carried it down the stairs, across the empty lobby and out the narrow fire exit at the rear of the hotel. She was wearing a dark blue suit, her hair hidden by a scarf. The hired Opel stood next to his Volkswagen. From the kitchens came shouts, the smell of fresh coffee, the hiss of frying food.
“When you leave the Bellevue, turn right. The road follows the line of the valley. You can’t miss the bridge.”
“You’ve told me this already.”
Try and see what level of security they’re operating, before you commit yourself. If it looks as if they’re searching everything, turn round and try and hide it somewhere. Woods, ditch, barn — somewhere you can remember, a place where someone can go back and retrieve it. Then get out. Promise me.”
“I promise you.”
There’s a daily Swissair flight from Zurich to New York. It leaves at two.”
“At two. I know. You’ve told me twice.”
He took a step towards her, to hold her, but she fended him away. “I’m not saying goodbye. Not here. I shall see you tonight. / shall see you.”
There was a moment of anti-climax when the Opel refused to start. She pulled out the choke and tried again, and this time the engine fired. She reversed out of the parking space, still refusing to look at him. He had one last glimpse of her profile — and then she was gone, leaving a trail of blue-white vapour hanging in the chilly morning air.
March sat alone in the empty room, on the edge of the bed, holding her pillow. He waited until an hour had passed before putting on his uniform. he stood in front of the dressing-table mirror, buttoning his black tunic. It would be the last time he wore it, one way or the other.
“We’ll change history…”
He donned his cap, adjusted it. Then he took his thirty sheets of paper, his notebook and Buhler’s pocket diary, folded them together, wrapped them in the remaining sheet of brown paper, and slipped them into his inside pocket.
Was history changed so easily? he wondered. Certainly, it was his experience that secrets were an acid — once spilled, they could eat their way through anything: if a marriage, why not a presidency, why not a state? But talk of history — he shook his head at his own reflection — history was beyond him. Investigators turned suspicion into evidence. He had done that. History he would leave to her.
He carried Luther’s bag into the bathroom and shovelled into it all the rubbish that Charlie had left behind — the discarded bottles, the rubber gloves, the dish and spoon, the brushes. He did the same in the bedroom. It was strange how much she had filled these places, how empty they seemed without her. He looked at his watch. It was eight-thirty. She should be well clear of Berlin by now, perhaps as far south as Wittenberg.
In the reception, the manager hovered.
“Good day, Herr Sturmbannfuhrer. Is the interrogation finished?”
“It is indeed, Herr Brecker. Thank you for your patriotic assistance.”
“A pleasure.” Brecker gave a short bow. He was twisting his fat white hands together as if rubbing in oil. “And if ever the Sturmbannfuhrer feels the desire to do a little more interrogation…’His bushy eyebrows danced. “Perhaps I might even be able to supply him with a suspect or two…?”
March smiled. “Good day to you, Herr Brecker.”
“Good day to you, Herr Sturmbannfuhrer.”
He sat in the front passenger seat of the Volkswagen and thought for a moment. Inside the spare tyre would be the ideal place, but he had no time for that. The plastic door panels were securely fastened. He reached under the dashboard until his fingers encountered a smooth surface. It would serve his purpose. He tore off two lengths of sticky tape and attached the package to the cold metal.
Then he dropped the roll of tape into Luther’s case and dumped the bag in one of the rubbish bins outside the kitchens. The brown leather looked too incongruous lying on the surface. He found a broken length of broom-handle and dug a grave for it, burying it at last beneath the coffee dregs, the stinking fish-heads, the lumps of grease and maggoty pork.