19 December 1944
Hagen braced for the impact just before he hit the ground.
The moment his boots smacked the frozen earth, he tucked to one side and tumbled across the snow. He’d opened the chute so low that the impact jolted every bone in his body; risky, but still safer than sailing against a night sky that might allow a sentry to take potshots at him.
He stood and pulled the chute down, deflating it quickly to a heap, freed himself from the harness, and shoved both the pack and the chute beneath some bushes.
With his gear hidden and his limbs still tingling from the impact, he marched. Thick clouds obscured the moon and stars, though what little light there was illuminated the snow at his feet, making getting around slightly easier. At least he might not twist an ankle or collide with a tree, but knowing his location in relation to the rendezvous point would be trickier.
He listened, but heard no one nearby. So the others weren’t in this part of the valley—that much he’d expected. The weather hadn’t been ideal, and the pilot had likely scattered them all over the French countryside. But they’d planned for this, and as long as Hagen reached the rendezvous point within thirty-six hours, he wouldn’t be left behind.
He knew he was west of the rendezvous point, he just didn’t know how far. He’d head east now—in part to cover ground, and in part to stay warm—and would orient himself properly come sunrise.
He chuckled softly as he trudged across the dark, frozen landscape. Sieg was miles from here, no doubt impatiently waiting for Hagen and the others, but Hagen could imagine how much his brother must have grumbled and complained when he’d made the journey to the rendezvous point. Majors did not march through the snow in the middle of nowhere if they could help it.
Leave that for the lower ranks, while the brass sat behind the lines swapping war stories. Hagen gritted his teeth. Much as he’d hated every single instructor he’d ever had with a cold passion, he was thankful to them now. Coming down over enemy-held territory in the dead of night and having to pick his way through thick forest was not something he’d have been prepared to do if gentler men had trained him.
Ironically, of all the instructors at the cadet school, he’d only liked the university professor who was regularly invited to hold guest lectures—his predilection to talk for hours about Aryan skull shapes and a mythical homeland that had birthed all culture-bearing peoples had been endearing, and had allowed many of the cadets to catch up on much-needed sleep, which made him one of the favorites. Unlike his old school master, the professor had never smacked his knuckles with the metal-reinforced wooden ruler at school, either. Though knowing about Aryan facial features got you exactly nowhere in the Burgundy countryside, especially in the gloomy half dark.
Hagen rubbed his eyes. The mission had just begun. He couldn’t possibly be so tired already that he was reminiscing about his training days. But it did keep his mind off the cold and the many miles that lay ahead, so why not? He’d been the last to jump—so he would likely be the last to arrive.
When dawn broke, he paused to work out his exact position with map and compass until he was sure where he was: a few miles away from the remote village of Saint Michel at the other end of the valley. In spite of the high winds during his jump, he’d landed reasonably close to where he was supposed to. The pilot had told him he’d likely be miles off target, and he’d been right.
Hagen hunkered down until he was shoulder-deep in snow-covered brambles, frost melting away under white puffs of breath as he took a short rest. His bones ached, his muscles burned, and his feet were numb from miles of stumbling over roots and stones.
Smoke curled over the horizon. Wood fire, not coal, but he couldn’t be sure if it was coming from a settlement or the remnants of an air strike. Whatever the case, with fire on the wind, he’d have to be careful, watching both the land around him and the sky. Bullets and bombs could come from anywhere these days.
It didn’t help that the rush of adrenaline was beginning to wear off, leaving the spikey sensation of the Pervitin pills that kept him alert and ready to strike like a wild animal. He didn’t particularly like those jitters—they made it hard to estimate how he’d react, even to himself, and he was never sure if the price was worth being able to go so long without sleep.
He got going again, slower this time, joints crackling like the frozen leaves and underbrush beneath his feet. He used what concealment the territory provided—dips in the ground, mostly—until, sometime in the late afternoon, the forest ended at a field.
A hedge provided more concealment but forced him to advance along the dirt road leading up to a cluster of buildings nestled against the hill opposite. It looked like an old mill with several outbuildings, some of which had collapsed. Aware that he might be seen from the top floors of the house, he rushed across the road, and kept his Luger drawn in case he needed to deal with guard dogs.
He crept along the hedge, sending more grateful thoughts to the men who’d trained him in camouflage and survival when he found a good spot next to a pile of lumber and observed the target building.
The rest of his unit should be waiting there, in the millhouse, but he couldn’t take chances. He could have just walked up to the door if this valley had still been German rather than enemy territory. Even if those inside were friends, the rest of the countryside could be teeming with foes.
At least they aren’t Russians, he reminded himself. After the stories filtering back from the Eastern Front, that scarce comfort warmed him.
He reached the corner of the fieldstone wall and found six rocks in a triangular formation. Good. All six of the others had arrived. The rocks pointed east, which meant the men hadn’t yet left.
Still, he crouched low, keeping his head down and his pistol at the ready. Hagen cast a glance back, then slipped from beside his cover to what was left of one of the surrounding outbuildings. No movement, no sounds. That didn’t necessarily mean he was alone; a sniper could be waiting for a clear shot.
And of course, his own men would be vigilant. He needed to wait until one of them came out to survey the area, which would be at fifteen-minute intervals. Though he was looking forward to some warmth and perhaps sleep after hours of trudging through the cold, he could wait a few more minutes if it meant not taking a bullet from his own side.
Fifteen minutes passed.
Something wasn’t right. Hagen pressed his back up against the building and took off his helmet. He put it on the end of his rifle and raised it so the brim was flush with the top of the wall.
Nothing. Not a sound.
Hagen swallowed. It wasn’t the Pervitin making his heart race now. An enemy would have taken a shot. An ally would at least have seen him. Recognized the helmet. Said something to someone. The men wouldn’t all be sleeping, either. Even if they were, Sieg himself would have taken over sentry duty.
No one stirred.
Hagen put his helmet back on and slung the semiautomatic Gewehr over his back again. Pistol in hand, he got up and crept to the next building, this one just a few meters from the central house where the other men had damn well better have been waiting for him. He paused, listening to the smoke-scented wind for any signs of life. Still nothing. Somewhere in the distance, plane engines growled, and he almost expected to feel faint rumblings of explosions reverberating through the ground and into his nearly frostbitten feet, if not for the fact that the Americans’ morale-sapping air superiority had been ended by General Winter and his trusty second, Colonel Frost. But here, on the snow-covered land around this mill, silence.
He took a deep breath and started across the last stretch of ground toward the rendezvous point. Snow crunched under his boots, his joints protested, but no bullets flew at him as he tucked himself up against the wall between a dusty broken window and the wooden door.
He threw a glance around the area, watching for any signs he’d been followed and checking every window and possible perch for a rifle barrel, the reflection of a rifle optic, the visible exhale of a sniper before the shot. Then he leaned toward the broken window. He held his weapon up in front of the glass. Waved it back and forth.
Something was very, very wrong. Either the men were asleep, criminally careless, or . . .
Holding his breath, he inched toward the window.
Looked through it.
“Oh, verdammt.” He spun away from the window and flattened himself against the wall, eyes closed and breath coming in short, sharp bursts. He’d imagined it. The darkness, the pills, the cold, the exhaustion, something was making him go mad.
He looked again. When he turned away this time, it was to vomit into the snow. Twice.
No one had taken a shot, and no one moved, so he was presumably still alone, but at this point, he didn’t care if someone did shoot him. He stood and moved to the door, which opened with one forceful kick.
The overturned table, scattered playing cards. The toppled chairs. Blood smeared, splattered, sprayed over more surfaces than not.
And five bodies.
They must have let their guard down. Been ambushed while playing a game with the now bloody cards. And now all five of them were dead.
Five? Not six? There were six stones by the wall, so there should have been one more man.
He picked his way through the room, not even trying to avoid stepping in the pools of blood and brain. There wasn’t much left of the first corpse’s face, and the rats had already started in on it, but there was enough left for Hagen to be certain this wasn’t Sieg. Same with the next man. And the next.
He checked every one of them twice, but Sieg wasn’t here. He wasn’t a traitor. He hadn’t done this. Besides, if he had, he was outnumbered, and the men would have fed him to the rats. Either he’d escaped, or he’d been captured.
Or, Hagen realized when he saw the staircase in the corner of the room, Sieg might be upstairs.
Hagen went up, but didn’t expect to find anything. Certainly didn’t dare hope for Sieg to be lying in the bed and gently snoring—the privilege of any officer, though Sieg was the type to forego leisure and go through reports or fill out endless forms; but whether his men had respected him the same way they’d have respected a front pig was anybody’s guess. Well, probably not. Few would assume he’d earned the fencing scar on his face in battle. Maybe Sieg had escaped. Maybe he was hiding. Or wounded.
Hagen froze when the wooden steps of the staircase creaked under his weight. His heart jumped into his throat and pounded against the inside of his skull, and he paused to adjust the pouch holding his spare magazines. Damn. With the dead below and the unknown in front of him, he couldn’t decide what was worse. He wasn’t ready to see his brother dead, but he also couldn’t leave without knowing.
The first two rooms had been set up to serve as sleeping quarters. Kit was strewn everywhere, wet socks strung up in a line in front of small wrought iron stoves, the smell of wood and sweat and wet boots and wool and unwashed bodies pathetically familiar. He continued to the last two doors. A bathroom, the tub filled with water, cool, but not ice cold. It had probably been boiling hot an hour or two ago.
If he’d been faster, he might have walked straight into the ambush.
A shaving kit caught his eye. The familiar razor had an engraved stag antler grip and a print on the blade: Solingen. Sieg’s shaving knife. That hit him deep in the stomach, making him cringe. Not proof of life. Proof of nothing except that Sieg had been here.
A memory flashed through Hagen’s mind, one of Sieg receiving the kit as a gift from their father for all his hard work at school. Ready to go to university.
Now you’re a man.
Hagen shook his head and folded the blade before sliding it into his pocket. Beside the place where he’d found the razor was some French shaving soap. Probably something picked up in Paris on leave. Lavender-scented. Gott, such trappings of civilization just didn’t belong in a war.
He turned and spooked again when the floorboards creaked. No one. Nothing. Just the house groaning in the cold wind.
There was still one last door. On his way to the closed master bedroom, he searched the aged wood for trails of blood, and found a few drops, dark and dry, but not very old. His heart beat faster.
He reached for the doorknob, then froze. His brother might be on the other side, pistol trained at the door, ready to fire at the first sign of movement. It made no sense, didn’t feel likely at all, but Hagen still called out, “Sieg? You there?”
Nothing. Silence as heavy and ungainly as the dead below.
He turned the knob and pushed through.
No, that wasn’t right. No one was here, but it was hardly empty. An all too familiar black officer leather coat was draped like a dis-substantiated body over a chair beside the shattered dressing mirror. Sieg’s kit was strewn all across the floor: boots, the whetting stone for his razor, a peaked officer’s cap. As if what little Sieg had carried had been violently shaken out.
And blood. Not a lot, but there were spatters here and there. A smear on the dusty bedclothes, and a streak on the graying white wall. Someone had been here recently, and when Hagen closed his eyes, he could see the fight that must have ensued. A unit of Allied bastards overpowering his brother? Sieg putting out a few of their teeth? There weren’t any teeth in the mess on the floor, so hopefully the bastards had choked on them.
Whatever had happened, it was over, and Sieg was gone. Maybe alive, maybe dead, but gone.
Hagen found Sieg’s leather briefcase open and discarded under the bed. He picked it up, but there wasn’t a scrap of paper inside. Nor was there anything in the black leather officer’s coat. No papers anywhere, and what was Sieg without papers?
Your trade is bullets, Sieg had once mocked him, mine’s paper.
Who could know what the Allied codebreakers now had in their hands. Hagen himself didn’t know. It was sensitive enough information that it could only be entrusted to the care of a high-ranking officer like Sieg.
Hagen forced himself to breathe evenly against the stress-fired panic swelling in his throat. His gaze caught on a toppled chair near a heavy wooden wardrobe. He opened the doors wider, but the wardrobe was empty. On the floor beside it, though, he found a book, open and facedown like it too was as defeated as the men downstairs. Hagen picked it up and shook it like an Allied soldier undoubtedly had just an hour or so ago, but nothing fell from the pages.
He looked at the cover. Homer’s Illiad. His brother read Ancient Greek fluently, though this was a Greek-German translation. It seemed like the most personal thing here, as distinctly Siegfried as the razor. Hagen tucked the book into a pocket, then righted the chair—why, he didn’t know.
Dust on the chair seat.
Hagen glanced up, frowned, and stepped on the chair, like somebody had before him.
He stretched, and there, on top of the wardrobe—papers.
Sieg, you tricky bastard.
He gathered the papers. They looked official, complex, and encoded. He tucked them inside his jacket, right next to his body. It might not be everything, but these were important enough to hide. The Allies had only done a rush job, not bothering to comb the room for evidence.
At least Hagen didn’t leave with completely empty hands. Though without the code . . . no, first things first.
He closed the door on the fight that had happened here, and backed away from it. What now? Every man on this mission save Hagen was dead, and even then, there were no guarantees.
Sieg would have waited for him. Maybe in another building or outside, but he wouldn’t have left when he knew Hagen was on his way into this. Not without arranging the rocks by the gate in a ring as a distress signal. If he was gone, then he’d left against his will.
The mission had now become more complicated, but that was all. The goal was still to find Sieg and get him to safety. Only now he had to get him out of wherever the Allies had taken him first. Then he’d deliver Sieg and the papers to their destination and then back home. Failure wasn’t an option. This was family.