The Prize Part 7
As the sudden silence stretched into minutes, the two soldiers exchanged a
glance. When they had brought the prisoner into the stone building, the small
woman had directed them to tie him to a pipe that ran high along the back wall.
The taller of them had to stand on a wooden bucket to accomplish this task.
The woman had ordered them outside and closed the door. Then there had followed
several minutes of silence, followed by what seemed to be a long period of screaming.
Now this strange silence again. Should they check to see what was happening?
Grube had said only to follow
the woman's orders.
The door opened, and Fraulein Berndt emerged. She was wiping her hands on a
rag, and they realized at the same time that this was the albino's shirt. And
that it was covered with blood, only the part where she was wiping her hands
still showing that it was originally white, not red. One of the
soldiers looked beyond her into the dim room and saw the prisoner. He was still tied to the pipe, but now he was slumped, not standing, and his face and naked chest were covered with. . . .with more than blood. . . .with gore. This soldier had seen much in his years with the SS, but he thought
he must be imagining some of what he thought he could see now. He started to enter the room.
"Leave him," the woman ordered. She threw the shirt onto the ground
and started to roll down the sleeves of her uniform jacket. "He's past
needing a guard." She stalked toward the castle, and the two soldiers followed
in her wake. "Tell Grube I need to see him," she ordered as they entered
kitchen. One of the soldiers went to do this task, and she told the other, "I forgot to bring my tools from the storehouse. Get them and bring them here."
The man hesitated, but he was too used to following orders to question this one. He went out the kitchen door before Mel stepped out of the stairway. "What happened?" she whispered. "How did Alasandre get those clothes? And why was he burning them?"
"To protect you," Janice replied, answering the second question first. "He has been hanging around spying on us since the first night. He decided that you needed protection from me, especially after he learned that I beat you. He tried to eliminate me entirely, but. . . ."
"That didn't work. He missed me and killed the wrong German."
Mel started to ask more, then realized what must have happened. "When Alasandre went hunting and returned without a deer, he had really been hunting you."
"Oh," said Janice, "he got a deer, too. Later."
"He saw you hide the clothing?" Mel asked, catching on fast.
"Yes, and he saw a lot more than that. He knew that you and I had gone somewhere in those clothes that could cause you a lot of trouble, maybe even get you killed by the Nazis. So, after I had hidden the clothes, he dug them out and tried to burn them."
"And got caught."
"Why did he do it?"
"Love? Infatuation?" Janice looked into blue eyes that had never been able to comprehend their owner's beauty. There was a noise in the dining room, and Mel ducked back into the stairway. "Wait. Did you talk to Betta?"
The question went unanswered as Grube entered the kitchen. Only one soldier accompanied him. "Well? I hope you got the information, since you saw fit to kill my prisoner."
Janice smiled. "I had the information long before he died, Reichskommander. Do you think I am careless?"
"Long before. . . ." Grube shook his head. No wonder this woman was called a monster. He looked into her eyes and realized that the look there was one he had seen in a woman's eyes before. But rarely. He tried to return his thoughts to the important business at hand. "What did he tell you?"
"Many things, starting with his sad childhood." At Grube's glare, Janice added, "And that his accomplice was a man named Gyorgy Rakoczi. And that Rakoczi is on the way to Gyulafehervar with the sword."
"Rakoczi," Grube repeated. "From the village here?"
"No," Janice said positively. "None of the villagers was involved."
"Why Gyulafehervar? Isn't that the Transylvanian name for Alba Iulia?"
"I don't know," Janice answered. "The freak said Gyulafehervar.
He said that there's a resistance cell there, but they are going to move on
when they get the sword. He also said that he couldn't understand why you came
here so quickly. He was sure he had left a trail that led away from here
and the village."
"That's right," Grube agreed. "He and his accomplice came on
horses and rode a good distance into the mountains to the north. It was just
luck that one of my patrols was going out at dawn with a work crew to cut new
timbers--and one soldier noticed where their trail turned back south. When
the patrol got back to the mines and found out there had been an attack, that man remembered what he had seen, and we were able to follow the trail back here."
Janice nodded, cursing herself for thinking her backtracking trick was so clever.
"Enough of wasting time," Grube stated. "How is this man traveling? Still by horse?"
"Uh, no," Janice said. "He has a motorcycle, and he is following the railroad tracks that run north along the Siret River."
Grube started toward the dining room, then stopped. "You're sure he has the sword on him?"
"That's what the prisoner said." She forced a wolfish smile. "I doubt that he was lying at that point."
"The Count and I have had our talk, and I think he understands the reality of his situation. But I'll leave a couple of men here."
"I sent a soldier back to the storehouse to get something for me," she told him. "Leave him and take the others with you. I'm sure the Count will be reasonable."
Grube nodded and then was gone.
"Mel?" Janice said to the unseen woman.
"Yes?" Mel poked her head out of the stairwell but did not step into the kitchen.
Janice repeated her question from earlier. "Did you talk to Betta?"
Then Mel did step out of the stairwell, Betta right behind her. And in Betta's hand was an automatic pistol, dark and menacing. "Sit at the table," she instructed Mel. She pointed the pistol at Janice. "You, too."
Mel hesitated, and Janice quickly said, "Do as she says." She moved to match her own words to action, sitting where she could face the Transylvanian woman. Mel sat at Janice's right, back to the outside door. Betta approached the table but remained standing, gun pointed at Janice's chest.
"Betta," Mel began, "I told you that we are Americans. This is my friend Janice, not Margethe Berndt." Janice noticed that Mel's soft southern drawl had returned now that concealment of their nationality was no longer necessary.
The look Betta gave the dark-haired woman was one of pity. "You will say anything she tells you to. I don't blame you, and, if the others agree, I will spare your life."
"The others?" Janice asked.
"I sent Mikel for my friends. After the Germans took Alasandre prisoner." Her knuckles turned white from her grip on the pistol. Janice prayed the trigger had a hard pull. "They should be here soon. Too late to save him."
"Betta, I told you. . . ." Mel started again.
"I heard what this Nazi bitch told you and what she told Grube."
Betta leaned over the table, the barrel of the pistol no more than six inches
from Janice's chest. Mel held her breath as Betta addressed Janice directly.
"You told the Greek that Alasandre was burning the clothing to
protect her. Because you and she were the ones who really went into the mine last night. Then, when you talked to Grube, you said that Alasandre admitted the theft from the mine. And that you killed him after he confessed. And you sent Grube running off after a man who doesn't exist. Grube probably figured you killed Alasandre because you enjoyed it. He would understand that. But you really killed Alasandre so no one else could question him--and find out that you stole the sword."
"You know about the sword?" Janice asked.
"Everyone knows the legend of the Greek sword. And that the Nazis thought they had found it."
"Betta, listen," Mel tried. "Grube was digging the sword out to send it to Germany. If Janice were really Margethe, if she were a Nazi, why would she steal it?"
"Power," Betta answered. "That's all the Nazis understand. She
took it so she could be the one to hand it to Hitler. Or maybe she took it thinking
she herself could wield its power." The woman sighed and straightened her
arm, bringing the barrel of the pistol almost into contact with Janice's
left breast. "I was going to let my friends deal with you. You would have known what Alasandre--and all of your other victims--went through. But it is taking them too long to get here. And I have other things to do."
Mel lunged forward, and, as Betta shifted the direction of the gun, Janice lifted her side of the table. One shot penetrated the ceiling, and a second rang off the iron stove as Mel struggled to hold onto the struggling woman's wrist. Janice landed a hasty punch on Betta's cheek and another, harder one on her jaw that caused the woman's knees to loosen. As she fell, Mel wrenched the gun from her hand and then, as if it were hot to the touch, shoved it toward Janice. Sitting on the kitchen floor, Betta shook her head, finally clearing it enough to see the dark barrel pointed at her own temple. She waited for the pain and darkness.
"Get up." A small hand reached out, and Betta looked into clear green eyes. The gun had been lowered and shifted to Janice's left hand. "I'll help you."
There was noise at the outside door, and a tall form loomed between the kitchen and the sunlight. Three pairs of eyes shifted in that direction and widened at the apparition. It was Alasandre, dressed in blood-stained trousers, chest bare and gleaming with moisture, in his hands a German military rifle. His pink eyes rolled wildly around the kitchen as he took in the three women, Mel and Janice standing over Betta, the gun in Janice's hand. He looked for another threat.
"Alasandre," Betta whispered. Unthinking, she took Janice's hand and rose. She walked toward the man in the doorway. "Are you alive? Or. . . ."
"I'm alive," the man answered. He indicated Janice. "Thanks to her." The tall man stepped into the kitchen.
Janice glanced at the rifle. "Where's the German?" she asked.
"You don't want to know."
She nodded, sure this was true.
"But how?" Betta asked. "She tortured you to death."
Alasandre smiled. "She had me taken to the cooling house and had the guards stay outside. Then we talked, she and I." He met and held Janice's eyes. "We learned that we have a lot in common." Janice inclined her head. "So we decided to join forces."
Betta looked from Alasandre to Janice in wonder. "But how did you convince the Germans that you killed him? Didn't they look?"
"When I had Alasandre taken to the cooling house, I was trying to get him away from Grube--and hoping there would be something there I could use in a little deception. I was lucky."
Alasandre continued the explanation. "I killed a deer yesterday, and had hung it over a pail in the rear of the shed. It's dark back there, and the Germans didn't see it. Margethe. . . .Janice. . . .used the organs of the deer and some of the blood in the pail to create an illusion. An illusion of bloody murder."
"Your screams helped," Janice added. "My ears are still ringing from listening to those sounds in that small building."
"You said to make it convincing."
Betta turned to Janice. "So you are an American, and you're trying to help us. Just as she said. And I almost killed you. Maybe I'm no better than the people I'm fighting. A murderer."
Janice held out the gun, grip forward, and Betta took it. "You were doing what you thought you had to do. And you're no murderer. If you were, you wouldn't have talked so much. You would have just pulled the trigger."
Mel shivered and changed the subject. "What do we do next?"
Alasandre answered. "We have to tell Count Pitesti what is going on. And that I am all right. Where is he?"
"The Germans held him in the library. I suppose he's still there." Janice started for the kitchen door, and Alasandre stopped her.
"No," he warned. "I'll go. If he sees you, he may not be as talkative as Betta." Still holding the German rifle, he hurried into the dining room.
There was a faint scuffling sound at the doorway, and the women saw a dark head poke around the frame. "Mikel?" Betta questioned. The boy stepped into the kitchen and looked around. He sniffed, and Janice knew he was smelling gunpowder. "It's all right. They're. . . .friends."
He nodded as if never in doubt about that. "Your other friends are in the woods beyond the stable. They weren't easy to find--and not sure they wanted to come on my word. It was almost impossible to get here without being seen. The SS have been all over the countryside and poking into everything."
"Where are the Germans now?" Janice asked. "Is anybody watching them?"
"Troika was at the mines when Grube came roaring in. Everybody was called out of the tunnels and sent to work in the fields and cutting timber. That takes fewer guards than when they're working in the mines, and Grube was taking most of the men with him, wherever he was going." Mikel continued, his tone admiring, "Troika went with the woodcutters and slipped away to the village. She said the Germans were there threatening the old people and the children, but they left after getting a call over the radio. Troika sent the villagers into the mountains to hide and came here."
"Troika sent them?" Janice asked.
"Troika is a leader," Betta explained. "People listen to her."
Alasandre hurried back into the kitchen. He was now wearing a dark shirt and clean pants. He acknowledge Mikel with a nod. "The Count wasn't in the library. I looked around the rest of this floor and didn't find him."
"Could he be upstairs?" Mel asked.
"I went through the second level and up to the servants' quarters and didn't see him. I shouted, but there was no answer. It would take too long to search the whole castle. Besides, I don't think he's here. The castle feels. . . .empty. You understand?"
Figuring the Count would show up when he was ready, Janice picked up on what Mikel had said. "The mines are closed? Unguarded?"
He smiled, guessing what she was thinking. "Not unguarded exactly, but, from what Troika said, there can't be many Germans there. Walatz, of course, but he's not a German. And, for once, none of the villagers are in the mines."
Janice found herself lying on the ground close to where she and Mel had observed the mines the night before. This time the woman called Troika was beside her, and Alasandre lay just beyond. Troika handed the American a beat-up pair of binoculars. "Do you see anything helpful?"
Janice scanned the few soldiers in evidence around the tunnels There was no
gold-bricking today, with each man walking or standing guard, alert and armed
with rifles and machine guns. "Six men I can see," she said. She looked
toward a machine gun emplacement on the slope above the tunnels.
"Two, no, three more up there." Then at the ridges still farther up. "A couple more patrolling the ridges to control the high ground."
Troika replied, "That's what I saw. Anything else? Anything to show this isn't a trap?"
"A trap?" Alasandre asked.
"It seems too easy," Troika answered. "Maybe Grube wants us to think there are only ten or eleven men. Then we attack, and he comes out of the mines with a hundred more."
"I don't think Grube has a hundred men," Janice said. "I saw the duty rosters, and I . . . .Wait." She tried to get a better focus on the binoculars. "That man walking patrol along that ridge. It's too far away to be sure, but he looks familiar." She reached across Troika to hand the glasses to Alasandre. "Take a look. What do you think? Was he one of the men at the castle? One who tied you to the pipe?"
Alasandre squinted through the binoculars, then shook his head. "I'm sorry. My eyes aren't that good in this bright sunlight. It could be." He handed the glasses to Troika. "Want me to find out?"
Troika considered. "How long will it take?"
"I can have him back here in half an hour."
"Let me go with you," Janice offered. "We won't have to bring him back. Make it fifteen minutes."
"What do you want from him?" Troika asked.
The resistance fighter considered. "All right. Fifteen minutes. Take a couple more men with you. If you find out it isn't a trap, take out the one on the other ridge. Then we have to eliminate that machine gun before we can take the mines."
Janice, still wearing the uniform of the enemy, dragged her knapsack until it was between her and Troika. . She opened the flap and showed its contents to the other women. Dynamite, caps, and fuses.
"Where did you get that?" Troika asked.
"I took it last night and hid it near the stables. I retrieved it while Mikel got the horses ready." She smiled. "I figured it would come in handy."
Troika stayed where she was, and Alasandre and Troika crawled and then crouched
and then ran into the small valley on the other side of the hill. There among
the trees waited Mel and fifteen men and women from the village and countryside.
All were dressed in the rough clothing of Rumanian
peasants, but they were armed with old pistols or rifles or shotguns, not a torch or pitchfork in the lot. Mikel stood a few paces away with horses from the castle stable and the horses and mules, still wearing wagon harness, that the farmers had ridden from their fields when summoned for
this mission. Betta stood with him, but, when Alasandre and Janice appeared, she joined the group waiting to hear what would happen next.
"Troika is sending us to capture a soldier on the opposite ridge. Depending on what he tells us, we'll take out the others guarding that side," Janice said. "We need a couple more to go with us."
"We'll be the ones taking out the machine gun, too?" a young farmer asked. Janice nodded. "Then count me in."
"Me, too," a villager said. "I'm real good with this." He held up a battered shotgun.
Several others stepped forward, but Janice held up a hand. "We only need two. First come, first served."
Janice looked up into her friend's face. "No, you're not. And don't start with 'whither thou goest.' You don't have the skills to do this, and you'll be a danger to all of us who do." Mel opened her mouth to argue, but she knew she was hearing the truth. "Listen, if things go wrong, or if we find out this is a trap, get on the horses and get out of here. You. . . ." She pointed to the third person to volunteer, a young woman with wheat-gold hair. "Go up the gulley to where Troika is. She may need a messenger. Be sure to crawl when your head comes even with the crest of the hill."
The girl smiled. "I've been doing this sort of thing since I was twelve." She headed up the gulley.
"Betta," Janice said, "I don't have long, but I want to talk to you. You know that, no matter what happens, anyone from the castle is going to be in trouble with Grube. Alasandre is going to head for the hills, and he's got the skills to live there. What will you and Mikel do?"
"I too will join the resistance fighters who don't return to the villages at night," she told her. "Troika will do the same now, as will most of these others."
"And Mikel?" Janice asked.
"That's a problem," Betta admitted. "He can't go with the resistance."
Mel spoke up. "Why not? He's young, but no younger than that girl when she joined."
"Even now he stands, not with the Rumanians, but with the horses," Betta pointed out. "They have come to accept Troika and me. Although we are not from Tlaj, we are Christians."
"I don't understand," Mel said.
It was Janice who answered. "Mikel is a Jew. And the people around here don't like Jews much more than they do Nazis."
"That's right," Betta said. "They only suspect him, and no one
has turned him in. But they know he's the fourth 'Mikel' the Count has sheltered
since the beginning of the war. The others stayed only a few weeks, but this
Mikel has been here six months. There hasn't been any way to get him out."
Alasandre called softly, "We have to go. Our fifteen minutes are now ten."
Before turning to go, Janice said to Betta, "We'll work something out." She put her hand on Mel's arm. "Please stay up here and stick close to Betta. Things will go better if I'm not worried about you." Mel nodded. There was nothing to say that she had not already told this woman.
The small group trudged toward the far end of this hill, Alasandre in the lead.
They crossed into another narrow valley and from that through the edge of the
forest, where it had not yet been cleared for timbers or to provide an open
line of fire from the mines. This put them on the lower slope of the mountain,
and they carefully worked their way above the ridge they sought. All this was
ccomplished silently, with Alasandre making hand signals, as needed, to Janice
and the other two men. Janice was
surprised that the others accepted the pale man's leadership and figured this must be a testament to his abilities.
Finally, after most of the ten minutes had passed, Alasandre signaled for a
halt and pointed down. Janice looked over the edge of the small rock outcropping
where they crouched. Directly below, so close she could almost touch it, was
the metal helmet of the soldier walking the ridge. Janice
pulled back and looked questioningly at Alasandre. He held up one finger--wait--and disappeared the way they had come. Within seconds, there was a hollow thunk, and the helmet rose toward Janice's astonished face. The two resistance fighters leaned around her and pulled the unconscious
soldier onto the rock and then back toward the wall of the mountain. Alasandre reappeared, and Janice motioned for him to stay out of the line of sight of the captive.
One of the men was pouring water from a canteen on the man's face and slapping
him none too gently. The soldier sputtered, and a hand was hastily placed over
his mouth. Janice moved so she was directly in front of their prisoner. "Remember
me?" she asked. Unable to speak, the man
nodded. His eyes were unnaturally wide. "I think you saw the results of some of my . . . . work." If possible, his eyes got even wider. "Anybody have a knife?" Without leaving his position beyond the man's head, Alasandre handed her a straight razor. It was the one that had been in Margethe's case. Janice grabbed both sides of the man's uniform jacket and pulled sharply, popping off the buttons and exposing his chest. "I have a couple of questions, and I think I can trust you to tell me the truth."
She pulled a hair from the man's chest and split it with the razor. "Nice." She leaned toward him.
"The questions," the young farmer said.
"You didn't ask him any questions."
"Oh." Janice looked disappointed, but she leaned back on her heals. "Where is Grube? And how many men did he leave here?" She gave the farmer a look that asked if he was satisfied, and leaned forward again, the razor making light contact with the prisoner's chest.
"He didn't have a chance to answer."
Janice sat back again and sighed deeply. "Take your hand off his mouth. Briefly." The villager removed his hand, and she immediately said, "No, I guess he doesn't want to answer. . . ."
"Yes, I do," the soldier gasped. "It's no secret. Grube took almost the whole command to the Siret River. In trucks and on foot. He left eleven of us to guard the mines."
"Damn, he did want to talk," Janice said. She looked toward Alasandre, who brought the butt of his rifle down on the German's head. Hard. Janice glared, but the tall man shrugged. "Now for the man on the other ridge."
"I'll take him," Alasandre said, and he slipped off again. Janice
wondered how such a big man could just disappear. Must have more to do with
width than height, she decided. Opening her pack, she began preparing the dynamite,
working swiftly and surely. "Grenades would be better," she
said, "but I don't suppose we have any."
The farmer shook his head and put out a hand for a stick of the explosive. "Don't we need to get a signal to Troika and the others?"
"I'm sure she's watching the ridges. She'll know those guards are gone." Janice finished the last fuse. All were very short. "And I think the sight of the machine gun emplacement flying through the air will tell her it's time to attack." The three worked their way a short way back up the mountain, being careful not to expose themselves to anyone looking up from below. Then, as Alasandre rejoined them, they crept back down, ending up only a few yards above the machine gun. And found themselves looking down on solid rock.
Janice swore softly. From the hill on the other side and from the valley floor,
it looked as if the emplacement was screened only by some tree branches. Those
branches must have concealed this rock ledge. It was clearly impossible to drop
the dynamite into the bunker from above. The
farmer pointed to himself and to one side of the ledge. The villager did the same. Janice shook her head and started to crawl around the ledge herself. Alasandre reached out a hand and stopped her. "Our fight," he whispered. "Mine--and theirs."
Less than a minute passed before there was the sound of a shotgun being discharged,
then the answering staccato of the machine gun. And a blast. The machine gun
stuttered, then continued, and there was a second blast and then a third. All
was quiet. Then there was a shout and gunfire from far
below. The small group of soldiers tried to form a skirmish line in front of the explosives shed but, even with their superior weapons, they were fighting attackers shooting from above. One of the men turned to run into the shed, and Alasandre raised his rifle and fired off one shot. The man
fell, his body half through the doorway.
"But your eyesight?" Janice started to ask.
"I can shoot," the man answered, raising his weapon and firing again. Another soldier fell, whether from his shot or another's, Janice couldn't tell. "Always could."
The fight lasted only a few minutes, and ended with three resistance fighters slightly wounded and one, the young farmer who helped blow up the machine gun, dead. There were no German prisoners.
When Janice's group, now numbering only three, reached the area outside the
mine, Walatz was just emerging from a tunnel. A Rumanian raised his rifle, but
Troika barked, "No!" and he lowered it. "Franz," Troika
greeted the engineer, "I'm afraid we're going to have to blow up your mines.
Germans aren't going to use our ore in their bombs and airplanes. Not anymore."
Walatz looked sad, but he nodded. "I can tell you where to set the charges so that it would take months to open the tunnels. The way the war is going, the Germans probably won't even try."
Janice found Mel kneeling beside one of the wounded fighters, a young woman. "You all right?" she asked.
"You're asking me that?" Mel rigged a sling from a piece of her own slip and slipped it around the woman's neck. "You're the one who went on the mission. How are you?"
"I'm fine. I have some explosives to set."
"Well, it's always something, isn't it?" Mel helped the woman up, and one of the men appeared to walk her to where the rest of their group waited. Mel turned back to Janice. "Can we go home after that?"
"One more stop. Then we go home."
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