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Authors: Christopher Reich

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The Runner

BOOK: The Runner
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For my parents, Babs and Willy Reich, with love

CHAPTER

1

A
T NINE O

CLOCK, ON A WARM
J
ULY
evening in the Bavarian Alps, Erich Seyss stepped from the doorway of his assigned barracks and walked briskly across the grass toward the burned-out stable that housed the prisoners’ latrine. He wore a shapeless gray uniform that carried neither rank nor insignia. No cap adorned his head. Only his arrogant gait and undaunted posture remained to identify him as an officer of the German Reich. In the distance, the sun’s last rays crowned snowcapped peaks with a hazy orange halo. Closer, and less angelic, twin barbed-wire fences and a succession of spindly-legged watchtowers surrounded a five-acre enclosure, home to three thousand defeated soldiers.

POW Camp 8, as it was officially designated by the United States Army of Occupation, sat in a broad meadow on the western outskirts of Garmisch, a once chic resort that in 1936 had played host to the Winter Olympic Games. Until three months earlier, the compound had served as the headquarters of the German Army’s First Mountain Division. Like Garmisch, it had escaped the war unscathed—weathered, perhaps, but untouched by a single bomb or bullet. Today, the assembly of stout stone buildings and low-slung wooden cabins housed what Seyss had heard an American officer refer to as “the scum and brutes of the German Army.”

Seyss smiled inwardly, thinking “the loyal and proven” was more like it, then jogged a few steps across the macadam road that bisected the camp. In contrast to his relaxed demeanor, his mood was turbulent, a giddy mix of anxiety and bravado that had his stomach doing somersaults and his heartbeat the four-hundred-meter dash. To his left ran the prisoners’ barracks, a row of stern three-story buildings built to sleep two hundred men, now filled with a thousand. Farther on hunched a weathered cabin that housed the radio shack, and ten meters past that, the camp commander’s personal quarters. Barely visible at the end of the road was a tall wooden gate swathed in barbed wire and framed by sturdy watchtowers. The gate provided the camp’s sole entry and exit. Tonight, it was his destination.

In ten minutes, either he would be free or dead.

He had arrived at the camp in late May, transported from a hospital in Vienna, where he had been recovering from a Russian bullet to his lower back. The wound was his third of the war and the most serious. He’d suffered it in a rearguard action against lead elements of Malinovsky’s Ninth Army, maintaining a defensive perimeter so his men could make it across the Enns River and into the American zone of occupation before the official end of hostilities at midnight, May 8. Surrender to the Russians was not an option for soldiers whose collar patch bore the twin runes of the SS.

A week after his surgery, a chubby American major had showed up at his bedside, a little too solicitous of his good health. He’d asked how his kidney was and confided that a man didn’t really need a spleen. All the while, Seyss had known what he was after, so when finally the major demanded his name, he gave it voluntarily. He did not wish to be found in two months’ time cowering in his lover’s boudoir or hiding beneath his neighbor’s haystack. Peeling back his hospital smock, he had lifted his left arm so that the SS blood group number tattooed on its pale flank could be read. The American had checked the group number against that written on his clipboard, then, as if declaring the patient cured, smiled, and said, “Erich Siegfried Seyss, you have been identified by the Allied powers as a war criminal and are subject to immediate transfer to an appropriate detention facility, where you will be kept in custody until the time of your trial.” He didn’t provide any specifics as to the nature of the crimes or where they were alleged to have taken place—on the Dnieper, the Danube, the Vistula, or the Ambleve, though Seyss acknowledged it might have been any one of those places. The major had simply produced a pair of handcuffs and locked his right hand to the bed’s metal frame.

Recalling the moment, Seyss paused to light a cigarette and stare at the fiery silhouette of the mountains surrounding him. He considered the charge again and shook his head.
War crimes.
Where did the war end and the crimes begin? He didn’t loathe himself for acts from which other, lesser men might have shrunk. As an officer who had sworn his loyalty to Adolf Hitler, he had simply done as he’d been told and acted as honorably as circumstances did or did not allow. If the Allied powers wanted to try him, fine. He’d lost the war. What else could they do?

Dismissing his anger, Seyss cut behind the hall, then traversed a dirt infield littered with bales of firewood. Dusk brought quiet to the camp. Prisoners were confined to their barracks until dawn. GIs freed from duty hustled into town for a late beer. Those staying behind gathered in their quarters for heated games of poker and gin rummy. He walked slower now, guarding the shambling pace of a man with nowhere to go. Still, a sheen of perspiration clung to his forehead. He ventured a glance at the wristwatch taped high on his forearm. Three minutes past nine. Tonight everything would hinge on timing.

Fifty feet away, a lone sentry rounded the corner of the latrine. Spotting Seyss, he called, “Hey, Fritz, get over here. Time for bed check. What’re you doing out?”

Seyss approached the GI, pleased he was precisely on schedule. “Just have to make a pee,” he answered in English. “Plumbing’s messed up and gone to hell. No hard feelings, though. It was Ivan’s doing, not yours.” Born of an Irish mother and a German father, he’d grown up speaking both languages interchangeably. He could recite Yeats with a Dubliner’s impish brogue and quote Goethe with a Swabian’s contemptuous slur.

“Just give me your pass and shut up.”

Seyss retrieved a yellow slip from his pocket and handed it over. The pass cited an irregularly functioning kidney as grounds for permission to visit the latrine at all hours.

The sentry studied the slip, then pointed at his watch. “Bedtime, Fritz. Curfew in five minutes.”

“Don’t worry, Joe. I’ll be back in plenty of time for my story. And don’t forget a glass of warm milk. I can’t sleep without it.”

The sentry handed him back the pass, even managing a laugh. “Just make it snappy.”

Seyss said “yessir,” then moved on toward the latrine. Americans were easily seduced by foreigners who could speak their language and he’d been quick to take advantage of their garrulousness, using any pretext to ask carefully disguised questions about the camp’s security. What he’d learned was useful to a man with an eye bent on escape. Twenty-four soldiers were posted on night watch—one in each of the eleven towers that ringed the camp, ten walking the area perimeter and three in the camp commander’s office located just inside the gate. Only seven of the 150-man camp garrison had been in Germany longer than three months. The rest were replacement troops—green soldiers who had never fired a gun in anger. Most interesting, Colonel Janks, the reed-thin martinet who commanded the camp, had forbidden the use of the klieg lights mounted in the watchtowers except in emergency situations. He had cited a paucity of diesel oil as the reason, but word around camp said otherwise. Janks was selling the oil for dollars on the black market.

Stepping into the latrine, Seyss took a last drag on the cigarette, then threw it into the slit trench running the length of the stable. Despite the absence of a roof and the steady breeze sweeping the building, the stench was ungodly. He smiled grimly. At least he wouldn’t have to bear this particular hardship any longer.

Two weeks earlier, the camp doctor, Peter Hansen, had given him word that his presence was required in Munich. Individuals whose intentions could not be questioned, he’d said. Powerful men whose decisions would govern the Fatherland’s future.
Kameraden.
As to the identity of the patriots who had requested Seyss’s presence, Hansen provided no more information. Nor could he explain the nature of their interest in him.
Kameraden
was all he had said. And that was enough. He was, however, able to supply several items necessary to effect an escape: a wristwatch, a dagger, and, of course, the pass. The rest Seyss managed himself.

Inside the latrine, he acted quickly. Removing his tunic and his pants, he turned both inside out, then put them back on. A pool table’s green baize darkened by paint from the camp motor pool had left the garments the same olive drab as an American infantryman’s uniform. He ran to a corner of the stable, fell to one knee, and dug at the ground. The earth was loose and came away easily. A minute later, he found what he was looking for. He stood and brushed the dirt off what appeared a dented bedpan, then placed it on his head. His “helmet” was, in fact, a camp soccer ball, deflated, cut in two, and painted the same dull green as his tunic.

Seyss poked his head out of the latrine. The sentry was turning left, past the last barracks. He would continue to the southwest corner of the camp before doubling back to meet up with the officer of the watch and conduct the nightly bed check in Fox, Golf, and Hotel Barracks—or Fichte, Goethe, and Hegel Haus, as some closet intellect from Wittenberg called them. He would not return for at least eleven minutes. Dr. Hansen’s Swiss watch had timed his movements for the past twelve nights.

Seyss moved as soon as the sentry disappeared. Thirty yards away stood the camp storehouse, and fifty yards beyond that, the kitchen of the American officers’ mess—his destination. Leaving the latrine, he set out across the soccer field. He kept his shoulders pinned back and his head held high. Fifty feet above his right shoulder stood a watchtower, and in that watchtower, an untested twenty-year-old with a hankering to fire the Browning .30-caliber machine gun he hadn’t shot since his last day of training.

A voice yelled at him from the tower. “Jacobs, that you?”

Seyss shuddered, but kept walking. He raised an arm in greeting, but his gesture failed to satisfy whoever was in the tower.

“Is that you, Conlan?” came the voice. “You’re the only prick that walks like he’s got a spading tool up his ass.”

Seyss knew he had to respond. Emboldened by the fact that he must at least look like a GI, he lifted his head toward the parapet and yelled, “Shut the hell up! Don’t you know Jerry’s sleeping?”

No response came from the tower. Reflexively, he bunched his shoulders. The initial burst would strike his back dead center. Finally, the voice answered, “Miller, that you?”

Seyss waved him off and a moment later was swallowed by the shadow of the camp storehouse. He jogged to the far corner and peeked around it. It was a forty-yard dash across open terrain to the rear of the camp kitchen. Every tree inside the compound had been cut down to improve the guard towers’ fields of fire. Walk it and he risked being engaged in conversation by a tardy sentry or a clerk on his way to the radio shack. The doctor’s pass would do him no good then. He had no choice but to run. Pulling up his trousers, Seyss swept the “helmet” from his head and dropped it to the ground. At the western end of the camp, a pair of sentries disappeared inside Hotel Barracks. Bed check in Hegel Haus.

A glance to his left. The main road was deserted.

Steeling himself, he remembered a maxim he’d been taught at the officers’ academy. In battle, the intrepid soldier must follow Nietzsche’s maxim to “live dangerously.” Only in this manner could victory be achieved. It was one of the quaint catch phrases the older professors quoted to convince their students that war was the natural offspring of the German intellect and thus a legitimate undertaking.

“Live dangerously,” he whispered, his lips curled with irony.

And taking a deep breath, he ran.

He ran tentatively at first, his steps short and ungainly. His stitches had been removed two days earlier and he’d had no choice but to wait until this moment to explore the gravity of his injuries, or, more important, the extent of their healing. Any moment, he expected to be leveled by some demon pain kept hidden by his inactivity. None came, so he lengthened his stride. The shadow of a watchtower threatened from the corner of his eye, but he could see no movement from its parapet. In the alpine night, he was a fleeting shadow. He pressed harder, enjoying the soft stamp of grass under his feet. His legs felt strong and limber. The legs of a runner, he reminded himself. The legs of a champion. And then, he was there, hugging the kitchen wall.

Seyss flattened his back against the building. Sliding to the corner, he peeked to his right. Vlassov’s two-horse rig was parked in front of the kitchen. The black marketeer came every Sunday night at eight-thirty hauling a bounty of souvenirs pilfered from a dead army: battle flags, Walther pistols, Schmeisser machine guns, you name it. And, of course, all manner of military decoration. Rumor had it the souvenirs brought top dollar among Allied soldiers who had never seen battle. A Luger fetched seventy-five dollars. A Mauser automatic rifle twice that. He wondered how much an Iron Cross would bring.

Seyss darted to the center of the kitchen and fell to the grass. The cabin was built on cement foundations sixteen inches above the ground, a protective measure to guard against the flooding of the Loisach River, which cut through the meadow a hundred yards to the south. He slid under the wooden frame and crawled toward the front of the kitchen. Here the earth was muddy, soaked by the runoff from an afternoon thundershower. He moved more slowly now, carefully freeing each knee and elbow from the mire. His hands were slathered with red clay. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together, savoring its gritty texture, and the memory of another day filled his mind.

He saw himself settling in the blocks, spreading his hands in the fine ocher dirt. Laying his fingers along the starting line, he cocked first one leg, then the other behind him. Suddenly, the crowd murmured as one, the communal sigh of 100,000 spectators, and he knew it was Jesse Owens, the American, two lanes to his right, standing down. He lifted his head and the world collapsed to the narrow lane stretching before him to eternity, and there just visible, the white ribbon that would wrap him in his country’s glory. He felt himself rise in the blocks, his body quivering with anticipation, his being an instrument of physical expression.
Macht zur Sieg.
The will to victory. And then the snap of the starter’s pistol. The explosion of the crowd as he sprang from the line. The dark blur flashing past his right where no one had passed before, the instant knowing that all was lost, that the race was the American’s, and that Germany’s White Lion was defeated.

BOOK: The Runner
5.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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