Categories
Book I

Chapter V – Midnight Train

Colmar, Alsace
9th of December, 1938
9:15 PM

Klaus slowly lowered the receptor, visibly dismayed as he gave Reythier a smirk in the corner of his mouth.

“I phoned to Paris, told them what happened. They couldn’t give me much help but they told me to look out for anything suspicious.”

Reythier shrugged. He heard that before. Two hours before they were close to solving the problem of the Nazi spies, now they were both injured, almost murdered by a lone gunman and with no leads to follow. A whole team of local policemen and two experts joined in from Strasbourg to examine the crime scene but it would take a bit more time before they could tell them more information than they knew already. Worst of all, they were easily spotted.

Reythier stood on a chair in the room adjacent to the interrogation room they used before, standing at the desk of the local constable. Klaus stood by the edge of the whisky coloured table, phone receptor still in hand, looking at Reythier as if to ask what to do or where to phone next. Reythier motioned with his hand and Klaus dropped the receptor back in its place. He watched as Klaus took a beige wooden chair and drew up near him.

“So, what now, Alexandre?”

Reythier raised his eyebrows, twisting his hand to his colleague. “You tell me Klaus. You came here and brought me in this mess in a small town by the edge of a perilous border. Why did you come here in the first place? Just for the interrogation?”

Klaus shook his head. “No. And yes.”

“No and yes? That makes no sense.” Klaus hesitated. “Or maybe it does.” Reythier straightened his posture, suddenly curious. “There’s more to this. You were expecting something from those Nazi boys.”

Klaus nodded. “I did. Let me call the constable.”

Klaus stood up and returned a couple of minutes later with the local constable of Colmar, the chief of the police of this little snowy town, visibly shaken and greeting rather meekly Reythier whom he met a couple of hours earlier. Sporting a sleek moustache, the man’s greying hairs were overtaking his little remaining hair, somehow accentuating the deep wrinkles on his forehead. Border constables are not exactly having an easy time, Reythier thought. The constable was dressed in the typical dark uniform but he kept his pistol unholstered this time, visible and always at hand in case any more gunmen would have a swift swipe at Reythier and Klaus. The police officer took a wooden chair from the corner of the room and placed himself on the other side of the table, facing Reythier directly.

Bonsoir again, Monsieur Reythier. I believe you wanted to speak to me.”

Reythier switched his position and smiled to the constable. “Oui, c’est vrai, monsieur Pernod. I asked to speak to you and I will be short about it. Have you experienced this before?”

Constable Pernod shook his head. “No, clearly not like this. But I have heard many stories and read more than a dozen reports about random people asking about our troops, our defences, our police even. Someone even asked whether the mayor of Colmar has a gun in his house.”

Reythier gave Klaus a quick look, underneath his eyebrows. “When did this happen, Monsieur Pernod?”

Constable Pernod dabbed for a few moments. “First report arrived on my table about four months ago. Ever since they have been increasing weekly, but nothing serious has ever happened until this very incident.”

“Four months. Did you know about those two young men?”

Pernod nodded. “I did. Two months ago one of my policemen came to inform me about them two posing as tourists, asking around about the Maginot line and other military objectives. One of the local farmers became suspicious and related that to one of my men.”

“Who then reported to you.”

“Correct. We counter-spied them, watched their movements, but nothing ever happened.”

“Until they stabbed those two farmers.”

“We knew it was them immediately. It happened just outside a deserted guard post. So I gathered my men and we arrested them quite quickly.”

“And brought them to us,” added Klaus, to which Pernod nodded.

Reythier nodded, but nodded out of reflex more than anything. The constable knew nothing more, and that was evident. They were no closer than they were a couple of hours ago. Reythier looked at Pernod.

“Constable, have you had any trouble with your men lately?”

“Yes, I have, but minor incidents. Why would you ask, Monsieur Reythier?”

Reythier did not immediately answer. He glanced around the room, scanning every inch of the desks, until he noticed a sheaf of blank papers in the corner just beside him. Sliding a piece of paper to the constable, he took out a fountain pen and wrote in the very corner of the paper: Do you suspect any of your men?

Much to Reythier’s dismay, Pernod nodded.

The constable coughed. He coughed again, and again, and then stopped, pointing with his fingers towards the sheaf of papers. Three times. Three men he suspected, three men of aiding these foreign spies who were liquidated by a member of their own and nearly killed Reythier and Klaus as well. Reyhier looked at his undercover companion who motioned quickly with his fingers, signaling that Pernod should leave. The constable understood the motion, bowed slightly and stood up.

“Monsieur Reythier, I will send you more information once I have it.”

“Merci, Monsieur. Let us know as quick as you can.”

The man nodded in agreement, shook their hands and left the room to return to his policemen, leaving Klaus and Reythier alone in the room with their thoughts, suspicions and an awkward silence. Reythier leaned back on his chair and tapped the edge of the desk, lost in thought, using the fountain pen in a rhythmic movement that somehow did not annoy neither of them. He switched his gaze from the white gold nib to Klaus, whose rugged features and a slight six o’clock shadow were amplified by the lost look he wore for the past hours. Out of them, it was Klaus who was the shocked one, but Reythier had his moments when he needed his friend to slap him back into the real world. The Frenchman rose from his chair.

“I’m lost. What now?” asked Reythier.

Klaus kept rubbing his forehead. “Pernod was fidgeting too much.”

“Excuse moi?”

Klaus looked up at Reythier and nodded. “Yes. He was fidgeting quite a lot, he seemed nervous, his right foot was always jumping up and down. You could not see it, it was hidden by the desk, but I kept my eyes on his movements. For a police constable he was far too nervous.”

“You think he is hiding something?”

“I think there’s more to it than the three suspicious policemen under his watch. And three…” Klaus stood up and held up 3 fingers. “Three policemen is three too many for this little place. How many does he have in the first place? 3 policemen out of 12, that’s a quarter of his force. If 3 policemen are aiding these guys, then we should be lucky we escaped alive.”

“Keep in mind two of them have been killed.”

Klaus shook his head. “Those were our men. Counter-intelligence. I told them to disguise as local Colmar policemen.”

Reythier pointed to the door. “Did Pernod know about it?”

Klaus shook his head. “No. I kept him in the dark. I only asked for the room and for his silence on the matter.”

Reythier said nothing more. A number of moments later, a young policeman, no more than twenty years of age, pale skinned and rather shy in approaching them, knocked on the opened door. He bowed curtly, removed his cap and handed Klaus a crumpled note.

“Monsieur Pernod sends his regards.”

“Our salute to him. Thank you!” replied Reythier.

The policeman bowed again and left, leaving the two men alone. Klaus looked at Reythier, then back at the crumpled note. Reythier watched as his companion opened the note, revealing a small scribble in black ink.

“Follow the Night Train. What night train, what’s this all about?”

Reythier took the paper from Klaus’s hand. “Train, train, are there any trains coming back to Colmar this evening?”

“I have no clue. Let me check on that.”

Klaus phoned the train station and waited for a couple of minutes until a groggy foreman answered him. He slammed the phone receptor thirty seconds later.

“There’s two more trains coming to Colmar. The next one is in 15 minutes and it’s a regional train, stopping in Metz. The second one is coming back from Lyon, the red striped train I came with.”

“When is it coming?”

“In 35 minutes.”

“Arm your pistol, get two more cartridges with you and let’s go. We’ll wait at the station.”

Categories
Book I

Chapter IV – Den of Spies

9th of December 1938, 9:00 PM
Obergruppen Aachen HQ
Aachen
Germany

It reeked of tobacco smoke.

Tobacco smoke, cheap tobacco smoke, wafted around the whole office and no matter how much they dared to leave the windows open, the tobacco smoke was better than the bitter cold outside. Most of them smoked in the office, a rather large space that housed more than ten men who served primarily as the links and bureaucrats of the group. Neither of them was known to the public and it was best served that way. Not even the higher in command knew of these men, except for a select few, because these were the ones who were supposed to not have any single link to any government whatsoever. It would have been bad public relations if they were to be found. Not that it mattered by now. Neither of the men in the office were supposed to be known. They all had to follow orders. Be they his, or be they someone that trusted in him.

Richard Elbe was the heaviest smoker in the room. And the leader of them all.

Leaning against a black wooden desk, with two bare chairs beside them, Elbe scanned with his grey eyes the constant flurry of activity that went on around the office. The men under his command, none of them older than twenty four, were tasked to link with the field agents and provide information as quick as possible. Elbe’s group was a paramilitary hidden group of young men who acted as the eyes of the government. Few knew about them and none of them even held local passports. Elbe was a registered Frenchman, hailing from Alsace, with Norman ancestry. At least that’s what he trained himself to say whenever someone asked him where he was from. There were no brown shirts, white shirts or black shirts in the office which he held. In this industry, everyone was free to wear whatever they wished so long they did not omit a small round rune attached to the collars of their shirts. Elbe in contrast had three. He was the general and the chief of the unit and it had to be mentioned as such.

He stumped the cigarette in one of the small glass ashtrays. That was his sixteenth for the day, enough for him to get to his ratio of almost a pack a day. The cigarettes made him no calmer. The news of the capture of his two men made him agitated, so much so that the messenger on duty felt the need to apologise for giving such news. When the messenger came to his office, he expected smiles and thunderous applause. All he got instead was a meek apology and a rather fast exit from the messenger who had to report on the news that the two men had been captured by the French counterintelligence. And of all places, in Colmar, a small border town with only four policemen. Elbe walked away from the table and climbed a small flight of black stairs to a small heightened platform that was actually built as part of the attic. The platform was half open, allowing him to view the two long tables that made up the battlestations for his men as he called them.

Ten radios, endless sheets of paper and a constant flurry of activity and telephone calls. That was the Obergruppen HQ like. They had an important task to do and Elbe was there to supervise it.

He tapped his knuckles against the railing of the platform.

“Walther and Karl, in my office!”

Elbe’s office was totally different from the spartan like interior of the hallway. It resembled a magical wooden attic fit for a children’s fairy tale book. With a mahogany table in it’s midst and two windows behind it, the attic was bathed in a warm glow from two small lamps hung from the ceiling, illuminating dozens of bookcases on each side, children’s toys strewn on the floor in the corner and small cushions piled up just beside the office table. Elbe found it like that when they bought it from a local owner. He kept it the way it was because it reminded him of his childhood in the Schwarzwald. Elbe sat down on his chair, folded his arms and waited. And waited. And waited so for ten minutes, idle and silent, until Walther and Karl came.

Two brothers, two identical brothers with matching white shirts, both of them fairly tall and well built, came inside the office. Both of them smiled, something which Elbe picked up but said nothing. They saluted in the typical fashion to Elbe.

“Those two are your men. What in the world happened?” asked Elbe, his voice as calm as the river running in the midst of Aachen.

Walther, to Karl’s right, gave his brother a quick glance. “They got captured. We don’t know how.”

“Did you not do the proper training?” asked Elbe, in the same eerily calm voice.

“We did.”

“Then?”

“They failed.”

“So you want to ditch them, that’s what you’re saying?”

“We’ve already taken care of it,” countered Karl.

“How?”

“We sent another one of our men to make sure they say nothing.”

“So we are going to lose, or probably did already, two men. Because they were incompetent or you were incompetent?”

Both brothers shifted nervously, glancing at each other without saying a word.

“Well?”

“Herr Elbe, we trained them. We instructed them. We do not know why they acted like this,” replied Walther.

Elbe rose from his chair, rather methodically, his leather boots emitting a familiar clacking sound against the wooden floor of the attic.

“I hope they will not say anything. Because the next time there will be a price to pay. And the next time you will dearly hope the French counterintelligence is going to catch you.”

Both brothers bowed their heads.

“One last thing. I want every single detail of the capture investigated and known.” Elbe turned around to face his office. “And the next field mission is on you. Both.”

Categories
Book I

Chapter III – Alsatian Letters


7:05 PM
9th of December 1938
Colmar, Alsace
France



“Look what I found.”

Reythier rose his eyes from the ground, his glances lost somewhere as he smoked a cigar just outside the interrogation building. Outside Colmar the light slowly began to fade, leaving way for the illuminated lampposts of the town. For more than twenty minutes he stood outside, glancing aimlessly at the ground. His only discernible memory were his black boots which made a distinctive chromatic difference in contrast with the whiteness of the snow flurries. Reythier exhaled his puff of cigar smoke and glanced towards Klaus who offered him two envelopes.

“What are they?” asked Reythier.

“Letters. I found them on the two men.”

Reythier took them and glanced at the envelopes. One thing stood out right from the beginning.

“Sealed with wax?”

Klaus nodded. “Quite odd.”

“That’s something a Prussian Junker would do a hundred years ago, not those two right now. Why are they sealed with wax?”

“I have no clue.”

Reythier held up the envelopes. “I’m opening them as part of the investigation. When the constable of Colmar comes, make sure you note that down and you explain it to him.”

Reythier slid his thumb finger underneath the lid of the envelope, running his index finger over the smooth texture of the red wax. The envelopes were yellowy, identical in shape and size, with no discernible heraldic symbol stamped on it, which made it even odder. Wax seals held heraldic symbols as a matter of identification and guarantee; these ones were almost blank. There was no writing on the envelopes but the red wax seemed of very fine quality. Reythier gently applied pressure with his fingers on the wax seal until it broke diagonally, revealing a battered, even yellower piece of paper inscribed with blue ink. He gave Klaus a curious glance and unfolded the first letter in the light of a lamppost.


Dear cousin,

Such good news from you makes my heart jump. I’m still back at home, waiting for my turn. I miss the times when we used to play together without a care in the world, like that school camp we went together to. You managed to get out and live your life, I still have to complete the last part in order for me to finally do the same. My parents are eagerly awaiting for me and hopefully we will get to meet each other again very soon so we can talk now like men.

Speaking of that, I heard you obtained your qualifications! I am very very glad for you – make sure you put them to good use so when you come back home we celebrate together in the tavern, drinking a good beer. I heard Helga is still waiting for you, so do not disappoint her. And keep your eyes open, we don’t want anyone else to steal you from her!

When you have some time, please call me, I am more than eager to hear what you have been doing lately.

Yours,
Alex



Reythier did not make much of it, so he opened the second envelope in the light of the lamppost, drawing even closer as by now night was in full swing. To his dismay, the second envelope was almost identical to the first but with some notable changes. There was no cousin; it was nephew. Helga was replaced by Hilda and Alex now became Helmuth. Reythier slid the letters back in the envelopes and gave them to Klaus.

“They’re coded.”

Klaus frowned. “What?”

“Coded. Encrypted. They don’t show the real meaning. And it has two meanings, one which you can understand and another one which you have to find out.”

Klaus took the letters. “They’re very similar, almost identical. I don’t see how the have different meanings.”

“Klaus, think of it from a different perspective. Who keeps letters from their cousin and their uncle in the hidden pocket of their pants?”

“They do.”

“Yes, but it’s not uncle or cousin. Usually you keep letters from your girlfriend, wife or mother. Not your cousin.”

“I’m not following.”

Reythier placed his finger on the envelope. “Uncle is the commanding officer, cousin is the platoon sergeant. The nephew is the leader of the group, the cousin is the follower. A private in name. And it’s all part of a military group, and we have no idea which one it is, why are they doing this and how come it all ended up like this. We’ve got too many questions and not enough answers.” Reythier glanced at his watch. “Where’s that constable?”

“Five minutes.”

“Good.”

“I don’t understand. How did you figure this out?” asked Klaus.

“Read it throughly. Matter of fact, read the second letter out loud.”


Dear nephew,

I have no words, no words but joy at such news, my dear nephew. Such good news from you makes my heart jump. I’m still back at home, waiting to hear about everyone’s good deeds. I miss the times when the whole family used to gather and eat together without a care in the world. You managed to get out and live your life, I still have to complete the last part in order for me to finally do the same. Everyone is eagerly awaiting for news and hopefully we will get to meet each other again very soon so we can talk now like men.

Speaking of that, I heard you obtained your qualifications! I am very very glad for you – make sure you put them to good use so when you come back home we celebrate together in the tavern, drinking a good beer. I heard Hilda is still waiting for you, so do not disappoint her. And keep your eyes open, we don’t want anyone else to steal you from her!

When you have some time, please call me, I am more than eager to hear what you have been doing lately.

Yours,
Helmuth

Klaus held it up.

“So, explain to me.”

“The nephew is one of the men. The joy is that he completed his training and the CO is waiting for the news about their mission. Remembering old times is about the training back at base camp, and as for keeping your eyes open, it’s a gentle reminder to not get caught. As for the last bit, inform the base immediately after mission completion.”

Klaus smirked. “You think this is it?”

“It has a second meaning too. But until we get to Paris, we have no idea what it is. And the problem is we might have a surprise on our hands before we get to Paris.”

Reythier pointed to the building, ushering both Klaus and himself inside as the snow flurries intensified.


Categories
Book I

Chapter II – Swords Made of Letters

9th of December, 1938
Interrogation Room Nr. 2
Colmar, Alsace
6:50 PM



There was nothing they could pursue.

From the little window of the adjacent room, Alexandre watched as small snowflakes gently dropped from the white winter sky, drifting through the air until they latched on the cobbled streets that were teeming with snow. Those words came back to him, the words of that war poem, but between them the words of those two youngsters flashed inside his mind. Their declaration of allegiance, so open and so brazen, left Alexandre brooding. There was no remorse. And there was no remorse from their killer either in that room. It had been swift and calculated and somehow the assassin knew about the room. Alexandre and Klaus left the room intact, waiting until the local Colmar police would come. Klaus went outside by himself for some air but Reythier stood behind and waited by the window of this little chamber opposite of the interrogation room. Beneath his heavy overcoat the service pistol was in the pocket of his pants, easy to access should the need arise again. With two spies interested in the Maginot line, and a killer who killed them both, there was nothing else they had. They were blank.

Just like the snowflakes gently drifting through the streets of Colmar.

Alexandre turned round from the window and glanced around the little chamber. There was nothing in it, apart from a little desk with three chairs, two on one side and one on another. There were two other chairs in the back of the room but everything else was a simple yellowy wallpaper and the window he watched the snow from. He glided out of the room, down the small flight of stairs and reached for the door. He hesitated for a moment, keeping his hand in the middle of the air. With one quick movement he spun sideways and glanced back to the stairs and towards the two rooms. The room with the window led to a small backstreet. But the interrogation room had the window right into a major street of this little town. They had been noticed from outside. And someone knew that this building was used for police interrogation.

Reythier smirked. He spun on his heels, back towards the door and exited into the gentle snowstorm of Colmar.

Huddling inside his overcoat, with a small cloud of steam rising from his hands as he clutched two mugs of hot tea, Reythier watched as Klaus slowly approached him. He gave is mug-carrying friend a smile and pointed towards the building.

“Go inside, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”

Klaus frowned. “Where are you going in this storm? The constable is away, he won’t be here for a while. He’s been notified and he is coming to us as soon as he can.”

“Yes, I realised that. I’m going for some fresh air, keep the tea warm for me.”

Without a second glance, Reythier adjusted his hat and left Klaus to his tea, steam columns and a strong desire to enter the building to escape the cold. He turned left, going around the interrogation building and up a little hill that junctioned with another main street of Colmar in a T shaped intersection. From the top of this small hill Alexandre turned on his heels and glanced at the police building. He was right. It wasn’t that hard to spot the building, and worse, the window was low enough for someone on the hill to look directly into it and glimpse some random figures. As the interrogation room had no curtains, something he just realised right now, Alexandre could only frown in disbelief. He did not even had to look at the other streets or even the buildings around it. The attacker could have easily seen what was going on within the room.

Dismayed, Alexandre could only alternate between a nervous laugh and a clenched fist. His eyes drifted from the hill further upwards to the street that ended with a row of timber-framed houses on the top of it. In fact, most of the houses in Colmar were timber-framed and despite their similar shapes, they somehow managed to look different because of their exterior decoration. The interrogation building had no decoration except the timber-framing. But all the other houses near it had some sort of exterior decoration. Alexandre raised an eyebrow.

He returned less than ten minutes later back into the room on the left, the chamber now invaded by the aromatic scent of green tea. Klaus glanced at him from the edge of the table, holding the mug tight in his hand to capture the warmth of the tea into his palms.

“You said fifteen minutes.”

“Yes, well, that took much earlier than expected.” Alexandre pointed to the little hill junction. “All it takes is to just look closely and maybe jump a bit.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It took me less than five minutes to understand how it happened. The window of the interrogation room is so low that it can be seen from an angle on the little hill behind this building. You cannot see it if you’re standing directly underneath it but from the junction it’s clearly visible.” Alexandre waved his finger. “And why are there no blinds for this thing? The attacker saw everything.”

“Are you sure?”

“All it took for me was to walk up and turn around.”

“And you saw this how?”

“I did not even have to try, Klaus. It was there for me to see. Look at it in a slanted angle, just twist your body sideways, and you will see at least a portion of the interrogation room.”

“Did you look from the other sides?”

“There was no point. I saw everything from the hill. All he had to do was walk around and see us.

Klaus sighed, his hands still clutched on the mug. “Was it on purpose?”

Alexandre drew up to the table and raised the mug of warm tea.

“I think we were set up on purpose.”

Categories
Book I

Chapter I – Night Train

9th of December 1938

Gare du Colmar

Alsace

France

6:35 PM

“Cold as it were

Cold as it came

The dashing of war

Was nobody’s gain”

It echoed inside his mind for years, those faint, whispered words from the rough voice of a war veteran. He heard stories of the Great War from almost everyone older than him, but he was a small child back then, he had no personal recollection of the war. Except for that poem. He heard it from the veteran on the bombed-out streets of Amiens in the north of France, injured and ignored by passers-by, begging on the street where his uncles lived. Alexandre came up to him and gave him some money to which the veteran only gave a faint smile and the utterance of that poem he kept remembering. That was in 1920. He was eight years old. All he could do was grow up and do his bit to avoid another one.

Eighteen years have passed since then. Dark skies once more loomed over France’s horizon. 

Horns blared in the distance, twice then, thrice even, shattering the utter silence that engulfed the little train station where he waited. The shrill of the blaring train made his spine tingle, forcing him upright and making him forget for a fleeting moment the bitter cold that crept under his heavy woollen overcoat, somehow inadequate against the galloping winter. It was a cold December evening, all alone on a small train station platform right on the border with Germany. France was tingling with worry, the newspapers were rolling out in record numbers, global diplomacy was failing and here he was waiting on the border with a hostile country. Alexandre sighed. Small snowflakes gently fell on the train tracks in front of him, illuminated by a half-moon that made joyful light pockets around his leather boots. Everything else however was a dark, lifeless maze. Around him were six illumination lampposts, each one of them holding a small oil lamp, but only two of them were lit. None of that mattered now. The train was coming.

Horns blared again. The train was getting closer. His fingers dug deeper inside the side pocket of his overcoat and reached for a cigarette. He brought the cigarette to his mouth and fumbled about for an entire minute until the wind died down to allow him to light up the heavy Turkish blend. Flurries of snow wafted around the station with increasing intensity. He was curious. And his curiosity would be quenched once that singular train would stop in the station.

Moments later, he caught a glimpse of the steel behemoth. In the darkness of that December evening, there was not much to distinguish from a nondescript black locomotive that chugged along on the railway lines. But the red stripes on the side of the locomotive were evident, causing him to frown a bit. Red stripes usually indicated trains that would stop in big cities, not local train stations. And Colmar was far from being a city. At most, it was a local town, a border outpost. Despite his sudden anxiety, the train stopped in the station as planned, dropping off one single passenger who waved meekly as he approached.

“Good evening, Alexandre.”

The man from the train shook Alexandre’s hand firmly. Dressed in a similar woollen overcoat, he wore a generic brown fedora on his head and twisted the collar of his overcoat upwards to protect himself from the rushing flurries that swept through the station. Somewhat shorter than his station guest, he bowed his head slightly, indicating Alexandre as his superior, even if on paper he was the one of higher rank. His fellow Frenchman gave a curt nod.

“I see you have changed trains, Klaus,” replied Alexandre.

“Sort of. There was a murder on the train from Strasbourg to Colmar, so they sent over one of the trains chugging on the Geneva – Paris route.”

“A murder?”

“Nothing related to our concerns. A triangle of love, as is rather the norm these days.”

“Ha, a triangle of love. The gutter press loves those kinds of stories.” Reythier flicked his cigarette in the snow.

“Indeed they do.”

“So you came with the red stripes?”

Klaus smiled. “That was not a red stripe or any special train of the sort. I’ve asked the Bureau to add a special marker to the train.” Klaus glanced at Alexandre. “It got me here faster.”

“Fast it was. I was expecting to be another twenty, maybe thirty minutes alone on that desolate station.”

Klaus nodded. “Quite. I got here in record time, I did not expect to arrive at 6:40.”

Alexandre gave a cursory glance to his gold wristwatch. The sleek line of the bezel stood out in the darkness, the two thin hands showing fifteen minutes to 7. He slid his hand back into his pocket and nudged his fellow companion onwards. Fresh, powdery snow crunched beneath their boots with a satisfying sound. They walked away from the station in silence, crackles of snow echoing in the devoid absence of any person on the street. Colmar was a quiet place, with rows of timber-framed houses huddled around a small bridge over the narrow Lauch river. Small pockets of lights could be seen in various houses, the inhabitants still awake, the snow gently frosting over the city. Most of the population lay their sympathies with the French republic, but they received police reports of more than than just a vocal minority who would be more than happy to see the Nazi Party install the swastikas on the roof of the town hall. Alexandre knew. Klaus as well, but neither of them spoke of this openly. They trodded through the beaten path from the station down to the centre of the village, whisking themselves to the snow-capped bridge over the Lauch. 

Alexandre caught one of the bridge rails and stopped for a moment. 

“It’s been one month, Klaus.”

Klaus nodded, more to himself rather than for Alexandre to see. He stopped close to the guard rail, peering down into the frozen river.

“One month since that night. Not what we wanted to hear about but I guess we are more prepared now for what will come.”

“Are we?”

“I hope so. I rather hope so. Don’t you?”

Alexandre nodded. “That night, what was it you called it, Kristallnacht?” he said, accentuating the German word with a particular Parisian twist. 

Klaus smiled to himself but nodded in agreement. “Yes, that night. A shame it was. The outlook is grim, Monsieur Reythier, it’s grim.” He glanced to his French companion, but the man only stared at him back. “But I suppose you already know that.”

Alexandre nodded. “Kristallnacht scared some of the locals away. Colmar is now turning into a ghost town, afraid to live on the border. Some still remember the Rhineland incident. No matter how we put it, we cannot convince the locals to stay around these places unless they’re committed to our cause or committed to their families.”

“This place sits right on the border, I would expect them not to stay around.”

“Some do.” 

“And some don’t. Most don’t in fact, we had to give specific orders to those around the Rhineland border to stay in their places.” Klaus sighed. “We don’t have a choice. And we cannot blame those in the way of the beast either.”

Alexandre sighed. “Why have I been called here?”

Klaus stopped. For a moment he stood silent, unsure of what to say. He fumbled his hands in the air, trying to force his words to come out, to express at least some semblance of a coherent idea, but nothing came out of it except for a meek, guttural sound. He felt Alexandre’s stare on him. Klaus sighed and pointed towards a row of houses, even if they were not what he wanted to convey.

“We caught two Germans trying to infiltrate themselves around these places by the border. Colmar is a target in itself. They went right under our noses, and worse even, we caught them with a Frenchman who lived in the villages down the south of the Maginot line.”

“That’s all they’ve done?”

Klaus shook his head. “The plan was not well thought out. They posed as tourists from the Far East, even if they looked as every bit from here as possible, and tried to ask around about the Maginot line. It was rather clumsy but it worked.”

“It worked?”

“One of the local farmers took them to a deserted area of the line that we have not even bothered to repair since the war. One huge hole in the wall we know about and we did nothing to repair.”

“Spies?”

“More than that. Something is going on around these places, and I don’t like it.”

“More than spies?”

“Not infiltrators, but close. At the very least they are doing terrain reconnaissance, drawing maps and sending the information back over the border. Not a welcome idea to Paris, and clearly not to our military brass.”

Alexandre rolled his eyes. “And what am I supposed to do?”

“We caught and locked them in the prison of the Colmar police station. Don’t imagine a whole group of policemen guarding them, it’s four men manning the station plus the chief. We will go there now. As for you, well, we want you to interrogate them.”

Alexandre frowned. A criminal inquiry, a hands-on at that, was not something he particularly enjoyed, his visible frown causing Klaus to tap rather nervously on the rail twice and eventually turn his back. Silent, Alexandre glanced over the bridge, down the length of the Lauch, watching the snowfall caress the slanted tiled roofs of houses built about a century ago. By now it was bitterly cold, the snow had picked up in intensity and the weight of the interrogation was enough to force another heavy silence. 

They snaked their way down the length of the riverbank in silence until they reached a small plaza close to the city hall. The junction connected four smaller side streets, but Klaus led Alexandre into a timber-framed two-story house right on the edge of the riverbank. A small light above the door waned and flickered as the wind blew. Klaus twisted the weathered door handle and pushed the door aside, closing it behind them with the wind howling one last time in their ears. A small flight of stairs led them to the first floor, nothing more than a room adjoined by four separate doors in the dim glow of another flickering light. Klaus pointed to the first door on the right.

“After you, Alexandre.”

Reythier raised an eyebrow for a moment but said nothing. He quickly twisted the door handle and entered the room, a rectangle-shaped assemblage area with two windows overlooking the plaza below and a large table with eight chairs occupying most of the space. Two wooden bookcases occupied the back of the room, filled with binders of documents which Alexandre speculated were local police records.

Two men stood at the table, both of them lazily puffing from their cigarettes, their eyes fixed on this tall newcomer and his more known companion. At first, they did not pay much attention to Reythier, dressed rather similar to his companion with the heavy overcoat and evening stubble. Klaus intervened rather quickly and ordered them to a quick salute. The policemen rose from their seats and did so as they were ordered, receiving a curt nod from Alexandre in return. 

“Where are they?”

“Locked in the prison below, Monsieur,” replied one of the policemen.

“Bring them. Let us have a chat with them.”

The two policemen nodded in approval and left the room, leaving Alexandre Reythier, a lieutenant of the French intelligence agencies, standing by the desk with his direct superior. They spoke nothing before the policemen returned with two young adults, no more than twenty years old each, dirty and ragged, dressed in brown tattered clothes and reeking of body odour. The policemen threw the prisoners onto the desk with brutality, chaining them down to the small wooden chairs underneath. Not content just with the chain, they pinned them down to the edge of the table and took out their pistols, sticking the barrels against the prisoners’ necks. Reythier said nothing, and neither did Klaus, watching the scene unfold with uneasy composure. The policemen nodded. 

Eyeing both of the boys, Reythier took up a chair and sat down beside them. 

“I’ve been told some stories, some fascinating stories about you two going on a field trip. Something about a wall. Can I ask why were you so curious about it?” asked Reythier in perfect German.

Neither of the boys said anything. Their eyes were fixed on Reythier, but he only returned an elegant smile with the corner of his mouth. He turned his head to Klaus and nodded, to which his superior produced from his overcoat a small notebook. Alexandre took the notebook and opened it on the table, hunching closer to his prisoners.

“Two weeks, that’s all it took you. Two weeks in which you bought rifles, war grenades, stabbed two innocent farmers and proceeded to investigate the south part of the line. And on top of that…” Reythier paused, extracting two files from the back of the notebook. “You two are part of the Nazi youth. Top recruits.”

Reythier expected no reaction. He got none from them, except two dismissive shrugs and a roll of the eyes. Alexandre flipped the notebook around.

“All this gets you a one-way train to prison for life. Or, in the worst case, a quick hanging in the woods just down the river.”

The remark hit a soft spot. One of the boys, a short-haired blonde with scratch marks all over his face, hissed towards Reythier.

“Herr Hitler will save us.”

Reythier laughed. “Your superiors won’t even know you’re missing by the time the local judge orders your execution. So, in case you want to live, help us and spill the information to me. I believe you can help us answer the question of what were you doing around the Maginot.”

“We were doing nothing. We are tourists, nothing more!”

Reythier sighed. He nodded off to one of the policemen, who saluted and left the room, leaving Klaus to attend to one of the prisoners. Alexandre closed the notebook, rose from the table and headed for the window behind him. The window’s handles were black, rotten bits of wood, forcing him to twist the mechanism before the window finally budged from its position. Cold winter air swept inside the room with an almost destructive force. The unsecured papers on the shelves quickly flew through the room. It didn’t bother Klaus, or Reythier for that matter, who lighted up another one of his Turkish cigarettes at the edge of the window. It was only a short puff before he heard the crackle of the gun echo in the Colmar silence.

Before Reythier reacted, and before Klaus even understood what happened, the door swung wide open and crashed violently against the edge of the wall. A lone gunman, dressed in a beige overcoat, held up a large calibre revolver and barged inside the room. With quick, agile movements, he shot the other policeman in the head before turning to aim at Klaus who ducked underneath the table. The gunman shot but missed his target, dropping the last bullets in the two prisoners chained to the table. That was enough time for Reythier to take own his own issued gun, firing two quick shots towards the gunman. The bullets hit the assailant in the chest and the neck, severing the carotid artery before he collapsed in a pool of blood by the edge of the door.

It lasted less than twenty seconds. The policemen were dead but so was the gunman. And so were the two prisoners they needed information from. 

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