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Vaclav Jezek slogged up a dirt track in eastern France. Crusted snow crunched under the Czech corporal's boots. Like anyone from central Europe thinking of France, he'd always imagined Paris blazing with lights and beaches on the Riviera packed with girls in skimpy bathing suits. Freezing his ass off in the middle of a war had never been in the cards.
But here he was, freezing his ass off. This would have been a nasty winter by Czech standards. From everything he could pick up-he spoke only foul fragments of French-it was a bloody godawful winter by French standards. Which didn't do anybody stuck in it one damn bit of good.
And here he was, in the middle of a war. And it was his own fault, too. When the Nazis jumped on Czechoslovakia in October 1938, he'd fought till he couldn't fight any more. Then he'd gone over the Polish border and let himself be interned. And then he'd agreed to join the forces of the Czech government-in-exile still fighting the Germans from its base in Paris.
A good thing, too, he thought, lighting a Gitane without breaking stride. He didn't breathe out much more fog with the cigarette than he had without it. Poland and Hitler were on the same side these days, both fighting the Russians. If he'd stayed in that internment camp, he'd probably be a German POW now.
Of course, he might yet end up a German POW. It wasn't as if the Nazis had gone out of business. They were playing defense in the west for the time being, not pushing toward Paris with everything they had. That was something. Things looked a lot better now than they had when Vaclav got to Paris. He could still get killed or maimed or captured if his number came up.
As if to underscore the point, German artillery grumbled off to the east. Shells screamed through the air. Vaclav cocked his head to one side, gauging their flight. This lot wouldn't come down anywhere close to him, so he kept marching.
The rest of the Czechs in his outfit made the same automatic calculation and did the same thing. They wore a motley mixture of Czech and French khaki uniforms. Most of them kept their domed Czech helmets in place of the crested French model. Vaclav did-he was convinced the Czech pot was made from thicker steel. The German Stahlhelm was better yet, but wearing one of those wouldn't do, not if he wanted to keep on breathing, anyway.
Most of the Czechs carried French rifles. That made sense. French quartermasters didn't want to have to worry about somebody else's ammunition.
Jezek, by contrast, listed to the right as he marched. The piece slung on his shoulder was longer and heavier than an ordinary foot slogger's rifle. It was made for wrecking tanks and armored cars. The 13mm armor-piercing slugs it fired would punch through twenty-five millimeters of hardened steel. It kicked like a jackass, too, despite padded stock and muzzle brake, but everything came with a price.
It also made one hell of a sniping rifle. Those big bullets flew fast and flat. And when one hit a mere human being, it commonly killed. Vaclav had picked off Germans out to a kilometer and a half. And he'd picked off a German sniper specially sent out to get rid of him: a compliment he could have done without.
Those 105s in the distance rumbled again. Again, Jezek cocked his head to one side. This time, he didn't like what he heard. "Hit the dirt!" he yelled. He wasn't the only one. The cry went up in Czech and French.
Even in his greatcoat, even with wool long johns, doing a belly flop into the snow wasn't his idea of fun. And the goddamn antitank rifle thumped him when he landed. The stupid thing wasn't content with bruising his shoulder every time he fired it. Oh, no. It wanted to leave black-and-blue marks all over him.
But snow and bruises weren't so bad, not when you set them alongside of getting blasted into ground beef. Half a dozen shells came down not nearly far enough away from the Czech detachment. Fire at the heart of the burst, dirt and black smoke rising from it, fragments whining and screeching through the air . . . Vaclav had been through it more often than he cared to remember. It never got any easier.
Nobody was screaming his head off. That was good, to say nothing of lucky. They'd flattened out soon enough, and none of the shards of steel and brass decided to skim the ground and bite somebody regardless.
A couple of Czech soldiers started to get to their feet. "Stay down!" Sergeant Benjamin Halévy shouted from right behind Jezek. "They may not be done with us."
Sure as hell, another volley came in half a minute later. One Czech swore and hissed like a viper, but only one. Bright red blood steamed in the snow under his leg. It didn't look like a bad wound-but then, any wound you didn't get yourself wasn't so bad.
As the injured man bandaged around, Vaclav twisted around (trying his best to stay flat while he did it) and told the sergeant, "You may be a Jew, but at least you're a smart Jew."
"Fuck you, Jezek," Halévy answered evenly. "If I'm so smart, what am I doing here?" He was redheaded and freckle-faced. He was a French noncom, not a Czech. His folks had brought him from Prague to Paris when he was little. Equally fluent in Czech and French, he served as a liaison between the government-in-exile's troops and his host country's army.
Before the war started, Vaclav hadn't had much use for Jews. But, in Czechoslovakia and now here, he'd seen that you could count on them to fight the Nazis with everything they had. Anybody who'd do that was all right in his book. Plenty of Slovaks had thrown down their rifles and hugged the first German they saw. Slovakia was "independent" these days, though the next time Father Tiso did anything Germany didn't like would be the first.
Since Halévy was a smart Jew, Vaclav asked him, "What d'you think? Can we get up now, or will those shitheads try to be really cute and throw some more shit at us?"
"What did I do to deserve getting asked to think like a German all the time?" The sergeant seemed to aim the question more at God than at Vaclav Jezek. That was good: God might have an answer, and Vaclav sure didn't. After screwing up his features, Halévy went on, "I think maybe it's all right. Maybe."
"Yeah, me, too. C'mon. Let's try it." Vaclav scrambled to his feet. Snow clung to the front of his greatcoat. He didn't try to brush it off. If it made him harder for the poor, shivering bastards in snow- spotted Feldgrau to spot, so much the better. Halévy followed his lead. So did the rest of the Czechs. They moved with no great enthusiasm, but they moved.
Stretcher-bearers carried the wounded man back towards a dressing station. Some of the other guys eyed them enviously: they were out of danger, or at least in less of it, for a while.
The German guns growled again. Jezek tensed, but these shells headed somewhere else. He nodded to himself. The artillerymen had a prescribed firing pattern, and by God they'd stick to it. Of course they would. They were Germans, weren't they?
A stretch of snow-covered open ground several hundred meters wide lay ahead, with woods beyond. Vaclav eyed it sourly. He turned to Halévy. "What do you want to bet the Nazis have a machine-gun nest in amongst the trees?"
"I won't touch that," the Jew answered. "And there'll be two more farther back covering it, so when we take it out it won't do us much good." He seemed no happier than Vaclav, and with reason. "Be expensive even getting close enough to take it out."
Vaclav unslung the antitank rifle, which made his shoulder smile happily. "If we send a few guys forward to draw their fire, maybe I can do something about it at long range. Worth a try, anyhow."
"Suits," Halévy said at once. He told off half a squad of Czechs to serve as lures. They looked as miserable as Jezek would have in their boots. The rest of the men looked relieved. A well-sited MG-34 could have slaughtered half of them, maybe more.
Flopping down into the snow again, Vaclav steadied the monster on its bipod. He aimed where he would have put the gun if he were on the other side. Even with a telescopic sight, he couldn't see anything funny. But nothing could hide a machine-gun muzzle when it started spitting fire. And maybe-he hoped-he'd spot motion when the crew served the gun.
Like sacrificial pawns, the handful of Czechs started crossing the field. They hadn't gone far before the machine gun opened up on them. That was German arrogance. Letting them come farther might have drawn more after them. But the Nazis were saying, Thus far and no farther. This is our ground.
They could think so. Vaclav shifted the rifle a few millimeters-he'd guessed well. Blam! He winced even as he chambered a fresh round. Muzzle brake or not, padded stock or not, shooting that mother hurt every goddamn time. His right ear would never be the same again, either.
Blam! This time, the scope let him see a German reel away with his head nothing but a red ruin. Another one stepped up. They wouldn't have caused so much trouble if they weren't brave. Blam! He killed that one, too, and then another one a few seconds later. "Forward!" Halévy shouted. "Everybody forward!"
Forward the Czechs went. More Germans ran over to keep the machine gun firing. Vaclav methodically shot them. Before long, his side had a lodgement in the woods. The MG-34 fell silent. Maybe they'd captured it, or maybe the guys on the other side had pulled it back.
Either way, he could go forward himself now. Another few hundred meters reclaimed. Sooner or later, the rest of France. Later-how much later?-Czechoslovakia. It would take a while. Oh, yes. The antitank rifle seemed to weigh a tonne.
theo hossbach stood in front of the goal of what had to be the worst football pitch he'd ever seen. The Polish field was frozen and lumpy. The ball could have used more air, but nobody could find a valve that fit its air inlet. Nobody much cared, either. The German soldiers were back of the line for a while. The Ivans weren't shooting at them, so they were letting off some steam.
The match was panzer black against infantry Feldgrau. Theo was the radio operator in a Panzer II. His black coverall wasn't warm enough. His teammates heated themselves up running and falling and bumping into one another-and into the Landsers on the other side. A goalkeeper just stood there, waiting for something horrible to happen . . . and freezing while he waited. Theo didn't complain. He never did. Come to that, he rarely said anything at all. He lived as much of his life as he could inside his own head.
If he had been moved to complain, he would have bitched about the quality of the match in front of him. Both sides would have been booed off the pitch if they'd had the gall to try to charge admission to an exhibition like this. He wasn't the best 'keeper himself, but he liked to watch well-played football. This was more like a mob of little kids running and yelling and booting the ball any which way.
One of the guys in black missed a pass he should have been able to field blindfolded. A fellow in field-gray seized control of the ball. The mob thundered toward Theo. He tensed. A good defense would have stopped the attack before it got anywhere near him. Unfortunately, a good defense was nowhere to be found, not here.
He also tensed because there was liable to be an argument if one got past him. He hated arguments. And the makeshift goals were made for them. A couple of sticks pounded into the ground marked each one's edges; a string ran from the top of one stick to the top of the other at more or less the right height. No net to stop the ball. Did somebody score or not? There'd already been two or three shouting matches.
But he didn't have to worry, not this time. A tall man in black headed the ball away from danger before the incoming infantry could launch it at Theo. "Way to go, Adi!" one of the other panzer crewmen yelled. Theo couldn't have put it better himself.
Adalbert Stoss took the praise in stride-literally. He ran the ball down, took it on the side of his foot, and expertly steered it up the field. Theo watched his back with proprietary admiration. Adi drove the panzer on which he himself ran the radio.
Smooth and precise as an English pro, Adi sent a pass to the right wing, then dashed into position in front of the other side's goal. For a wonder, the guy to whom he sent the pass didn't let it roll past the touchline. For a bigger wonder, he sent back a halfway decent centering pass. And Adi booted it past two defenders and the infantry's 'keeper.
"Goal!" the panzer men yelled, pumping their fists in the air. The soldiers in Feldgrau couldn't argue, not about that one.
Glumly, the infantrymen started from the halfway line. Before they'd done much, Adi Stoss swooped in and commandeered the ball. He charged up the pitch with it, sliding past Landsers as if they were nailed to the dirt. Only a wild, desperate lunge from the enemy 'keeper kept him from scoring again.
"No fair," a panting foot soldier-right now a footsore foot soldier- complained. "You fuckers snuck a ringer in on us."
"Like hell we did." The closest panzer man pointed back toward Theo. "He's in the same crew as our goalkeeper."
"Scheisse," the Landser said. "You ought to take him out anyway. He's too damn good."
"I didn't know, that wasn't in the rules," the panzer man replied.
"Well, it ought to be," the foot soldier said, bending over and setting his hands on his knees so he could catch his breath. "Playing against him is like going up against a machine gun with water pistols." He looked up. "Christ, here he comes again." Shaking his head, he clumped off.
Theo had known Adi Stoss was uncommonly fast and strong, even among the extraordinarily fit men of the Wehrmacht. He'd never seen him play football before. He was even more impressed than he'd thought he might be. If Adi wasn't good enough to make his living in short pants, Theo couldn't imagine anybody who would be.
Thanks largely to his efforts, the panzer side beat the infantrymen, 7-4. Soldiers in black passed bottles of the distilled lightning the Poles brewed from potatoes to soldiers in field-gray. Theo was glad to get outside some of the vodka. He wasn't normally much of a drinking man, but in weather like this he figured he needed antifreeze as much as his panzer did.
Sergeant Hermann Witt, the commander of Adi and Theo's machine, had run up and down the rutted field. He put an arm around Adi's shoulder. "Man, I didn't know you could play like that," he said
expansively-his other hand clutched a bottle.
"Fat lot of good it does me." Adi sounded surprisingly bitter.
"You just made those ground pounders look like a bunch of jerks," Witt said. "Nothing wrong with that. They think we're out of shape because we don't tramp like horses all day long. I guess you showed 'em different."
"I like to play. That's all there is to it." Adi shook himself free of the sergeant.
From the Hardcover edition.