The Prize Part 2
Mel helped her friend smooth the collar of the heavy wool uniform. It was chilling to see the small blonde dressed in what looked like the black uniform of Hitler's elite police. The jacket was bare of insignia except for a swastika near each collar point. Mel touched one of these and pulled her hand back, as if it were burned.
"At least you don't have to wear this. . . .monstrosity," Janice mumbled. She ran her hands across the trousers, which had hastily been altered, Mel demonstrating her skill with the small sewing kit Eleni had provided. Margethe was a couple inches taller than Janice and built stouter. Mel felt renewed tenderness for her companion, realizing again the fragility and strength that combined in her body.
"What?" Janice asked, and Mel dropped her gaze.
Eleni entered, followed by "Dieter," who had arrived during the night. He wore the uniform of a Waffen SS enlisted man. "You need to get going. It is several hours to train station. Dieter knows the way, and he will do the talking if you get stopped by patrol. You both have your papers?"
"I'm carrying the ones you gave me last night and Maria's, as well," Janice said. "I figured that was what Margethe--what I--would do."
"You are right," Eleni said. "When captured, Margethe did have both sets of papers."
"I thought you weren't there," Janice reminded her.
Eleni didn't answer.
"That broken window still worries me," Janice stated. With that,
she walked to the other side of the car and came back carrying a small board.
Before anyone could protest, she swung the board twice, leaving two dents and
a deep scratch in the passenger door. She threw down the board and
rubbed her hands. "Slid off the road and sideswiped a tree."
Dieter and one of the other partisans opened both doors at the front of the
barn. The third man was nowhere to be seen. Eleni shook hands with Janice and
patted Mel once on the arm. "Good luck," she said and opened the damaged
door. Mel entered first, long legs accentuated as her calf-length
gray skirt pulled tight. Janice took her arm to help her slide over and followed her in.
Mel leaned over Janice briefly and said to Eleni in Greek. "Take care. Live to enjoy freedom."
Eleni answered, also in her native language, "Be sure you return to yours."
Then Dieter climbed into the front of the touring car and, starting the smooth-running engine, drove out of the barn.
The car bumped and twisted down a narrow trail at what seemed to the passengers
breakneck speed. Janice tried to lean forward to open the sliding window to
the driver's section but found herself thrown violently against Mel. All they
could do was hold onto the seat and to each other
until the car emerged from the cover of trees, and Dieter turned it onto a comparatively smooth roadway.
The position of the sun told Janice that they were heading almost due north.
"Eleni said it would take us almost 5 hours to reach the Macedonian border,"
Janice commented. "There is a shorter way, but we would have to pass a
major checkpoint on the road from Athens. The guards there might
have better communication with the German command and would be more likely to check when our documents were actually issued."
"Won't someone at the Rumanian headquarters figure out that Margethe and Marie left Athens three weeks ago, not last Friday?" Mel asked.
"From what Brinton said, the show in Rumania is mostly run by political troops, both SS and Gestapo, while Greek operations have been run by the regular army. There's little love lost among any of those branches. Also, most communications and transportation from Hungary and Rumania go directly to Germany by air and land. Greece has been serviced through the Mediterranean sea until the Allies disrupted German sea power in the area."
"I still think you're going to have questions to answer about where we've really been," Mel objected.
"No problem. I've been out terrorizing the Greek populace, no more than
a holiday excursion for Hitler's favorite monster. With my lovely Greek companion
at my side." Janice gave Mel a suggestive leer. Then she put on her fiercest
expression. "Anyone, and I mean anyone who messes with
Margethe Berndt will come to regret it."
Mel shuddered. "Just because we get past the Gestapo doesn't mean that the Rumanians will welcome us with open arms. Remember that they have a resistance, too. If the Greek partisans have been able to lay hands on German guns, so have they."
Janice was silent for some moments, then asked quietly, "Do we have more right to be safe than the men who are fighting the Nazis? In Italy and France and over Germany? Or the ones who are battling their way from island to island against the Japanese in the Pacific?"
Mel looked out the window at the rocky fields they were speeding by. She blinked away tears.
"If there is a secret weapon hidden in Rumania, we have to find it. If there's an effective underground, we have to make contact with them."
Mel turned now to study her friend and saw the determined tilt to her chin. "No matter what the risk?"
"Yes." Although she tried not to say it, her thoughts emerged. "You didn't have to come. I told you that I could handle things alone--and join you back in London or the states. You could have waited in safety while I. . . ."
"Do you think it's myself I'm afraid for?"
Mel's words cut through Janice's just as the car slowed.
"Halt!" German words were shouted as Dieter hit the brakes. Hard. Mel held the door strap and grabbed the smaller woman before she could tumble to the floor. "Halt! Get out of the automobile!"
As the car slid to a stop, Janice leaned forward and opened the sliding window to the driver's section. "What's wrong?" she whispered.
Dieter shook his head and got out of the car. There was the sound of arguing, not shouting now, but excited nevertheless. Mel's eyes were round as she exchanged a glance with Janice. Janice patted her thigh. "Stay here." Then she pushed open the door and slid out, straightening to her full, if small, height. She saw that two German soldiers, Wehrmacht, she thought, were questioning the driver and arguing, not with him, but with each other about his papers.
As she emerged, the soldiers paused in mid-sentence to stare at her. Up and down. Taking in her black uniform and the insignia on each point of her collar. "What is the trouble?" she asked imperiously. "Is this a checkpoint?"
"Fraulein?" one of them asked.
Janice took her documents from her inside pocket and handed them to the speaker. He took them and began to read. Immediately, he said one word, "Fuhrerbefehal" and returned the papers with a respectful salute. Fuhrer's orders.
Janice saw that the men were in possession of a military motorcycle with sidecar. "Were you sent to escort us to Kilkis? We are running late due to a slight accident caused by this incompetent driver." She indicated the dents and missing glass.
"No, Fraulein Berndt. We saw the car and decided to stop it. There has been partisan activity in this area."
"Good. Commendable initiative." She held out her hand for her documents,
and, without hesitation, he returned them. "Then we'll be on our way. Be
certain to give my . . . . regards to those partisans when you catch them."
She gave a stern look to the driver. "You there! Now!" With that,
slid back into the car and slammed the door. Dieter started the engine, and they pulled away before the soldiers were back with their motorcycle.
Mel reached for a small hand and found it trembling.
Kilkis proved to be a quiet Greek town, of interest to the Germans only because
it was a railroad gateway to Macedonia and the Balkans beyond. The car was stopped
twice by German patrols as they entered the outskirts and again at the train
station, but "Fraulein Berndt's" orders and manner
brooked no interference. Janice took a proprietary hold on Mel's arm and propelled her to the boot of the automobile as Dieter unloaded their military-style packs and one large black case. Not liking the tight grip, Mel pulled back until Janice gave her a jerk that almost took her off her feet. Mel gasped.
"What's in that?" Janice asked, indicating the case.
Dieter shrugged. "The monster's possessions."
"Get everything loaded on the train and get out of here." Not waiting for agreement, Janice gave another tug on her companion's arm. This time Mel came along with no resistance. "Much better, dear. We have to hurry. Transylvania awaits."
The train had one passenger car, the torn upholstery of the seats speaking of a past luxury that was no more. A few German officers sat in the front, one of them wearing a clean white bandage wrapped around his forehead and over one eye. All seemed exhausted or discouraged, and Janice figured they were on their way home from the front. Or on their way to another. She nodded to the officers, who seemed disinterested, and maneuvered Mel into the seat farthest from them. Only then did she release her friend's arm. The taller woman rubbed the area beneath her left elbow.
"Sorry," Janice whispered. "For show."
Janice gave her a sharp glance, then let it go. Two heavily armed soldiers
boarded the train and inspected the papers of the officers in the front. They
wore gray uniforms with red piping along with an arrogant air. The manner of
the battle veterans showed that they appreciated neither. With a
perfunctory salute, the soldiers passed on to where the women sat.
"SickerheitsDienst," Janice muttered, then rose to hand them her orders. Seeing who had signed them, their manner changed.
"You travel to Rumania, Fraulein?"
"Yes. There's some business that needs to be settled." She looked at him meaningfully. "Finally."
"And the woman?"
"She's my secretary, as my orders indicate. A Greek, but on the right side." She made sure they knew the first statement was a lie, the second possibly the truth. Mel, not understanding most of what was said, understood the raised eyebrows of the men.
"Fraulein," one of them acknowledged, and she forced herself to smile.
After folding and returning the documents to Janice, both soldiers saluted sharply. "Heil Hitler!"
"Heil Hitler," she snapped and returned their salute. With a click of the heels, both soldiers exited the car. Janice looked forward into the one eye of the wounded Wehrmacht officer. Then, shaking his head, he turned away.
The train traveled on level land for about an hour, then began a long climb
and a series of tunnels and bridges that would take them through the southeastern
range of the Alps and finally into the Carpathian Mountains. The crossings from
Macedonia to Bulgaria and finally into Rumania were no
more difficult than the first, with SS or SD passing quickly on Fraulein Brandt's orders at each stop. In Alexandria, just across the Danube River, the Wehrmacht officers left the train, passing the women without a glance. After that, the train traveled through the valley of the Olt River,
sometimes traveling beside the fast-moving water and sometimes high above it.
There were no food and no bathrooms, and Mel thought this train trip would
go on forever. As darkness fell, she finally dozed, her head bumping painfully
against the window, until her friend pulled it to her shoulder. Janice looked
down at the smooth lines of Mel's face and was both grateful
and sorry not to be alone.
Dawn arrived as the train pulled into a station whose small sign announced "Tlaj." Janice shook Mel awake. "What? Where?" that woman spluttered.
"We're there. Tlaj," she began gently. She detected a heavy step in the aisle and jerked her startled companion to her feet. "Wake up, you Greek bitch! Think we've got all day?" She turned to look into the pale gray eyes of an SS officer. Officiousness and amusement played over his face.
"Fraulein Berndt?" he asked.
She gave a short nod and reached for her papers.
He waved them away. "I am Reichskommander Ernst Grube," he told her. "Of the insatzKommando of the Cluj-Napoca region." He finished with a stiff bow. "Welcome to Klaj, Fraulein. I have come personally to see to your comfort."
"Thank you, Reichskommander, but I am here to serve the Fuhrer, not for any comfort" was her uncompromising retort.
"Of course. Heil Hitler."
She returned the words and salute, and Grube turned to lead the women from the car. At the foot of the steps was a small guard of SS, standing stiffly at attention. Beyond them sat a black staff car. Grube bowed, indicating that the women should slide into the back seat. They did so, and he joined the driver in the front seat. "Headquarters," he ordered, and the driver pulled the car into the dusty, narrow street. Grube spoke to Janice over his shoulder. "This is a backward place, important only for its mines and oil. We have been bombed twice in the last month, but little damage was done. The Allied bombers are no match for our Luftwaffe fighters."
"Of course," Janice agreed.
"One bomber was shot down."
"Oh?" she asked casually. "And the flyers?"
"Killed. Unfortunately," he informed her.
"Yes, I would have liked a chance to question them. What an opportunity to show what I could do." He shrugged. "But I'm sure you understand that better than most."
"Yes, I do understand," she agreed. Feeling Mel's shudder, she changed the subject. "Is it far to your headquarters?"
"No, it's about fifteen minutes from the village. We have a short track that leads back here so we can ship material and. . . . personnel back to the main line. For shipment to the Fatherland or other points."
"I see." She wasn't sure she did, but she didn't ask for details. "Do you have much trouble with the indigenous people?"
He shook his head. "No trouble. Not since my troops and I got here almost
two years ago. Much of Rumania is sympathetic to our cause, and only a few local
inhabitants resisted. They are now gone--either to serve in the factories of
the Fatherland or elsewhere. No, around here is nothing like
Hungary to the west or those stubborn Greeks you have been dealing with." His tone was sympathetic, but his manner hinted that the Greeks would not have been so stubborn had HE been dealing with them.
"The Greeks are following a tradition of resistance," Janice said mildly. "It has taken some work to persuade them that this is not the best course."
"As in France," he complimented her, perhaps thinking he had gone too far in baiting one of Hitler's favored.
"Yes, as in France," she said positively. Then, "Is that your headquarters?"
They were pulling up to a walled compound, strung with barbed wire and heavily
guarded. A soldier at the closed gate saluted his commander sharply and ordered
the way opened. Inside the wall, Janice leaned forward in her seat to study
the buildings and defenses. Mel felt a pang as she
turned to watch the gate swing shut behind them.
The car pulled to a stop in front of a white stone building slightly larger than the others, and, the driver holding the door, Janice and Mel slid out and followed Grube through a guardroom and outer office and into the commander's office. After motioning for the women to seat themselves, Grube settled into a chair behind a small wooden desk. Janice sat facing him, but Mel remained standing, placing herself behind her companion's chair, hands clutching the back. Grube looked over a couple of reports that graced the middle of his desk, then smiled tightly at Janice. "The Greek doesn't wish to sit?"
"I told her to stand." She nodded to the reports. "News from the Eastern front?"
"Yes," he said shortly, but then seemed to think her guess had earned her a more complete answer. "The Fuhrer's troops have made a planned maneuver. Toward our own border."
"Of course." Before she could say or ask more, there was a discrete knock at the door.
"Come," Grube barked.
An SS soldier entered and saluted smartly.
"What is it, Kruiken?"
"The Sergeant of the Guard has arrived with a prisoner, Reichskommander. A saboteur."
Janice raised an eyebrow. "A saboteur?"
The soldier continued to report to his commander. "A young man. He tried to break into a shed at the mine. Early this morning. Would you like him taken to a cell or to an interrogation room?"
"Interrogation." Grube got up and placed his hat back on his head. Then he seemed to have an idea. "Fraulein Berndt, would you like to see him? So you can tell the Fuhrer you have seen how we handle these situations."
"That is what my orders call for, Reichskommander. I am to assess the state of resistance and assure that there are no interruptions of material and personnel needed for the war effort." She paused for effect. "I don't need your invitation to carry out these orders. From Berlin."
Grube reddened slightly but recovered. "No, Fraulein Berndt. I understand. Would you like to see this saboteur?"
"Yes." She rose. "I would like my companion to stay here. Or in the outer office, if you can assure that none of your men will talk to her. She is. . . .sensitive, and I don't want her disturbed."
"In the outer office," he said. "None of my men will speak to her. Please come, Fraulein."
They all reached the outer office in time to see two SS Waffen roughly pushing a young man, or rather a boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, out the door. "Stay here," Janice ordered Mel and gestured toward a chair near the far wall.
"But. . . ." Mel started to argue, but a fierce look stopped her.
Janice followed the boy--and Grube--into the compound. The boy was being dragged
and shoved toward a building across the open space. He and his guards passed
a truck around which stood several soldiers and a small group of
civilians, both men and women.
Janice gained Grube's attention with a hand on his arm. "Who are those people? What are they doing inside the compound?"
"Them?" His tone dismissed their importance. "They're Rumanians, peasants from the village or farms. We use them for day labor, unloading trucks, digging ditches, things like that."
"Forced labor?" she asked.
He didn't bother to answer, except with a look. They had reached the building, and they entered just behind the guards and the boy. The building seemed to be one room, containing no furniture but a table and a few chairs. Two guards were busy cuffing the boy to a heavy wooden chair which was bolted to the floor in the center of the room. The boy struggled until the guards finished chaining him and stood back. Then he relaxed, his head down.
"Leave us," Grube ordered, and the guards went out, closing the door. Before Janice could react, Grube backhanded the boy, making his head fly back. Then he stepped back a pace. "Who are you? What sabotage did you attempt?"
The boy shook his head, either to clear it or in answer. Grube pulled his hand
back to deliver another blow, and Janice caught it. Anger flared in his eyes,
but he fought for and gained control. Janice released his hand. "May I
question him?" She made the request seem overly eager, as if she
were excited by the prospect. "I'm sure I can get all the information you want."
Grube's look of annoyance disappeared, but he protested mildly, "This is military business."
"He's a civilian," she reminded him. "A resister, possibly a member of an organized underground. The Fuhrer would very much like to know the extent of such activity in Rumania."
"Very well," Grube said and stepped away. "Do you need anything?"
"My case," Janice said. "It was placed in the trunk of the staff car." She had no idea what was in the case, but she was playing for time. Hopefully, it was filled with something other than French underwear.
The officer smiled and nodded. He seemed to be warming to the opportunity of seeing the infamous Monster of Montmere ply her trade. "I'll see to it." He stepped outside.
"Listen," Janice whispered to the boy, sticking to German, since she knew no Rumanian. "I can help you. You need to tell me your name and what you were doing in that shed."
The boy laughed. She thought what a handsome young man he was, jet-black hair, eyes so dark brown they looked black, delicate features....features that would soon be smashed beyond recognition if she couldn't get him to help himself.
"This isn't a trick. Just tell me your name. Quick, before he gets back." Her voice was almost pleading. "Give me a story for being in the shed. Something to show you're cooperating." She wanted to switch to English, try to convince him she was an American, but she knew anything she told him would be extracted by Grube. "Save yourself."
He seemed to consider, then said, "I was hungry. I thought there was food in the shed."
Janice turned and walked out of the building. Grube was approaching, a soldier
accompanying him and urging on a civilian, who was struggling with Fraulein
Berndt's heavy case. Janice addressed the civilian. "Who is that woman
helping to unload the truck? The tall young one, the one with the
red hair?" Her words were met with a shrug and a look of incomprehension. She raised her voice. "I know all you people speak German and half a dozen of your barbaric languages, so don't pretend not to understand me. Who is she?"
"Troika," he answered. "She's my daughter-in-law."
"Put down the case, and send her here," Janice ordered. "Now!" The man set down his burden and hurried to obey. Reaching the truck, he spoke with the woman called Troika and gestured toward Janice. Troika wiped her hands repeatedly on the front of her dark skirt, then walked hesitantly toward the small group by the interrogation building. She continued to touch and hold the fabric of her dress, and Janice saw that her hands trembled. Reaching them, the woman stood before Grube, face averted, until Janice spoke. "Troika. Is that your name?"
She glanced at Janice, then looked down before answering, "Yes, Fraulein."
"You know the boy. Who is he?"
Troika tensed but said, "I don't know who you mean."
"You looked at the boy the guards just dragged across the compound." Janice cupped the woman's chin and forced it up before letting go. "I could tell you knew him. Who is he?"
"I don't know him."
"Who is he?"
"I don't know him, but. . . .I know he belongs at the castle." When Janice continued to consider her, she added, "His name is Mikel or something like that. Magyar, I think."
"Go back to your work," Janice directed, and Troika ran back to the truck. "Reichskommander, what does she mean by the castle?"
"The Castle Klaj-meinke," Grube answered. "It belongs to the Count Pitesti. He's local nobility."
"And he's been allowed to retain a feudal estate? In territory occupied by the army of the Fuhrer?" She made sure that disgust mixed with disbelief.
"Count Pitesti is. . . .a friend of the Fuhrer's cause, Fraulein Berndt," he assured her. "He has been helpful."
Translating "friend" to "collaborator," Janice asked, "And this friend sent a boy to sabotage equipment dedicated to the needs of the Fatherland?"
"No, it couldn't be that," Grube denied. "There must be another explanation for the boy's presence. Maybe he was sent with a message for me--and got lost. Or he might have been curious. You know how children are."
From a saboteur to a curious child after a few words about the boy's origin, Janice noticed. "The woman said the boy is a Magyar. Is Pitesti ethnic Hungarian, too?"
"His family is Rumanian nobility from centuries back, but I'm sure they're really Volksdeutsche." When she didn't comment, he added, "Really, he is as blonde as you and has piercing blue eyes. Handsome and intelligent. I am sure he is ethnically German."
Still looking unconvinced, Janice suggested, "Let's talk to the boy again." The guard started to pick up her case, and she said, "No, I don't think we'll need that."
The boy looked at Grube and Janice alertly as they entered. She saw stubbornness, but no uncertainty, in his face. She stepped to within a foot of him and said, "Mikel, why did the Count send you from the castle?"
He couldn't quite hide a look of surprise.
"Were you supposed to bring a message to the Reichskommander?" She locked eyes with him, not allowing him to look away. She knew the instant he comprehended.
"Yes, I'm sorry, Fraulein," the boy said humbly. "The Count told me to invite the Reichskommander to dinner. We have no fuel to run the automobile, and he did not want to have the horses hitched to the carriage, so he sent me."
"And you decided to visit the mines and take a look in that shed?" she led him.
He hung his head and then nodded. She wanted to smile but did not. "Is that good enough, Reichskommander?" she asked, knowing that, for his own reasons, her audience was eager to believe the boy's story.
"Yes, Fraulein." Grube went to the door and ordered, "Come and release the boy. Return him to the castle." After the guard entered and set to work, the commander told the boy, "You are very lucky we investigated and discovered the truth. Be sure to tell Count Pitesti that. And tell him I will join him for dinner."
Rubbing his hands, now free, the boy surprised Janice. "The Count said to bring anyone who is visiting you."
Grube hesitated, then recovered. "Yes, I have two guests. Tell the Count."
The boy nodded and accompanied the guard to the door.
homepage - fan fic index