The crowd pushed the three of us between the Marathon Towers toward the Berlin Olympic Stadium. The left tower displayed a simple clock. On the right, both politically and geographically, hung a twisted iron cross—the swastika. I understood the message: It was 1936, and the time of the Nazis had come.
Inside the stadium, I shied away from the enclosed white cabins that signaled press boxes. The journalists inside knew me as German crime reporter Hannah Vogel, wanted by the Gestapo for kidnapping the young son of the now-deceased Ernst Röhm. I nervously tilted my wide-brimmed hat to conceal my face and moved with the crowd down the stairs. Surely I would be difficult to notice among so many faces.
My current identity was Adelheid Zinsli, neutral Swiss reporter and, hopefully incognito, part-time spy for the British. I looked over at my contact, SS Hauptsturmführer Lars Lang, as we moved toward our seats in the stadium. Years of our deadly game made most trips feel routine, but this time I was frightened.
Lars and I pretended to be lovers, a fiction he enjoyed, and every few months, we switched off weekends in our home cities of Berlin and Zürich. But instead of a few days, my editor had insisted that this time I stay in Berlin for a full two weeks to cover the Olympic Games. To keep my job, I had agreed to attend events clogged with my old colleagues.
The crowd stopped and I bumped against Lars’s friend, chemistry professor Andreas Huber. When he caught my arm, his sweaty hand lingered there.
I pulled my arm free. He let go reluctantly, and I shot him an inquisitive glance. Lars did not seem to notice. “Forgive me for running into you,” I said.
“Of course.” Andreas looked down at me with a crooked smile. “Quite a crowd.”
“I believe that the German government expects one hundred thousand people for the opening ceremony.” I quoted the statistic just to make conversation. I did not add that what the Nazis expected, they too often made happen.
“I hope it doesn’t rain on them all.” Andreas looked at the overcast sky.
“We will have to hope for sunlight,” I said. “Even the Führer cannot control the weather—”
“There’s a bar nearby,” Lars interrupted. He pushed his black hair back. Longer now than he usually kept it, the new length made him look less militaristic. “We have time for another belt.”
“I must stay in the stadium. For the paper.” I hiked my leather satchel up on my shoulder. A drink sounded like just the thing to calm my nerves, but Lars did not need another one.
“So dedicated.” Lars glared at me. “To your job.”
“Not such a bad quality, dedication.” Andreas took Lars’s arm and led us down the nearest row to a seat at the end. A staunch party man, he understood the possible consequences of Lars’s indiscretions. And his own responsibility to report them.
Lars sat, peeled off his dark brown suit jacket, clumsily folded it in half, and rolled up his wrinkled shirtsleeves. He caught me watching and blew me a sloppy kiss. If my life did not depend on the world thinking we were lovers, I would have left without a backward glance. Instead I put a warning hand on his bare arm.
Although he was not, he looked harmless in civilian garb. Ordinarily, he cleaved to his black SS uniform, but an order had come down, requesting all SS and SA members to refrain from wearing uniforms to the Games.
The German government had issued the order in response to criticism from the Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen the previous winter. Reporters had commented on the number of uniformed Germans in the crowds. This time we would have to guess how many men were trained for warfare.
Although I noted the new order, I would not write about it. If I did, I would not be able to move freely into Germany. Instead of exposing Nazi politics, any story I wrote would have to extol Nazi pageantry.
Indeed, it felt like a royal court with the peasants awaiting a thundering and massive coronation. I spotted a complete orchestra, several military bands with gleaming brass instruments, and a choir dressed in white that must have numbered a thousand. All calculated to impress German and international spectators. Nazis staged spectacles as cleverly as ancient Greeks.
My eleven-year-old adopted son, Anton, was far fonder than I of such events. He would have adored it. I wished I could take photographs for him, but foreign journalists were forbidden from taking pictures at the Games. I would tell Anton details when I got back home and retrieved him from Boris, my onetime lover, but for now I tried not to think of him. Superstitious, I knew, but I did not like to bring even thoughts of Anton into Germany these days.
As I searched for a pen, my fingers rolled over my perfume atomizer, a costly French gift from Boris. The tiny mother-of-pearl creation was called a Le Kid and evoked memories of the Charlie Chaplin movie and happy times together.
When this assignment came up, Boris had begged me to stay safe in Switzerland. After I refused, he ended our five-year relationship. It had been more than a month, but I still felt unmoored. I woke every night with my hand searching for him across empty sheets.
I dropped the atomizer and rooted around until I found my pen. I sketched the arc of the stadium first, then the crowd, the bands, the special booths, and the far-off oval of the field. I had often drawn pictures of courtroom scenes in my days as a crime reporter, and I enjoyed using the skills again. A shadow fell across the page and I looked up.
Overhead, the Hindenburg ponderously circled the stadium. A white Olympic flag, bigger than a house, flapped under her gondola. The familiar black swastika stood out on her tail. The Nazis owned even the skies.
Although Anton and I had traveled by zeppelin from South America to Germany a few years before, the giant silver shape made me nervous. One spark in the wrong location, and explosive hydrogen would ignite and shower a stadium of eager spectators, including me, with flaming debris.
Andreas followed my gaze. “They are very safe. All precautions have been taken to ensure it.”
“Yet hydrogen is quite flammable, is it not?” I countered.
“Under the correct conditions, everything is explosive.” Lars draped a heavy arm across my shoulders and I gave him an annoyed look. “And don’t I always protect you?”
“So far, we have escaped fiery death,” I said. “But that is no reason to let our guard down.”
“Must you always keep your guard up?” Lars leaned in close and mouthed the word Hannah.
If he said my real name aloud, fiery death might look like a good option, and he knew it. I turned the worry in my voice to anger. “It has served me well so far.”
In the past, I had relied on his natural reserve and the caution he had cultivated during his years as a policeman to maintain enough discretion to keep us both out of trouble. But, as with everything else, those rules had changed. I had to figure out a strategy to deal with him before he got us both killed.
To spite me, he kissed me on the nose. I smelled Korn schnapps. “Back in a flash, Spatz.”
I wanted to tell him that I was not his sparrow. Instead, I smiled so unconvincingly that he snorted out a laugh. He forced his way down the row and hastened up the stairs. I hoped his destination was the men’s room and not the bar. I yearned to abandon everything and head back to Switzerland, but I worried about how I could support Anton without the newspaper job. We did not have Boris to rely on anymore.
I moved to the seat next to Andreas, leaving my satchel to hold Lars’s seat from the crowds that thronged into the stadium. The smell of the antiseptic tar soap Andreas favored drifted to me. He and Lars seemed like an odd match. They had met back when Lars was still a policeman and Andreas often testified as an expert witness about the presence of poison in corpses. I wondered what they had in common, save an early interest in National Socialism. Perhaps they had grown close during those protracted and fevered meetings.
“How long has he been like this?” I asked in a low voice to prevent those nearby from overhearing. The noise of so many excited voices chattering made it unlikely, but you always had to be careful in Germany these days.
“Off and on for about two months. Worse in the past month.”
My stomach sank. He had been drinking and perhaps indiscreet for over a month. “Do you know why?”
“Do you?” His brown eyes were curious and perhaps accusatory. What had Lars told him about our relationship? Did he know it was a sham?
“Should I?” I met his challenge with one of my own.
He spread his thin hands wide in a gesture of peace. “I am not trying to make problems. I fear you have enough of your own.”
“Have I?” I struggled to appear calm while I wondered what he thought my problems were. Had Lars told him the true reason for my trips to Berlin?
“I apologize.” Andreas kept voice low as well. “I did not intend to imply anything.”
“What would there be to imply?”
“Indeed,” he answered.
We sat in awkward silence until Lars slid in next to me, face shades paler. He gave me an apologetic look. “I might have a touch of stomach flu.”
“I hope you feel better soon,” I said, as if I believed that his trip to the men’s room had more to do with flu than it did with alcohol. At least now he seemed fairly sober.
When the orchestra curtailed our conversation, I closed my eyes in relief, concentrating on the music and the weak sun on my arms. With my eyes shut, I did not see the swastikas, and I pretended that Germany was as free as it had been when I first escaped with Anton five years before.
But it was not, and that was why I was here. I had to do everything I could to keep the Nazis from taking over Europe as they had taken over Germany. The Nazi regime had killed many already, and I feared that many more would die before they were removed from power. Anything I could do to save those lives, I had to do, and not just because it was morally right, but also because I bore some blame. To save Anton, I had traded my chance to discredit Nazi leader Ernst Röhm by publishing his sexually explicit letters. Perhaps their publication would have made no difference, but perhaps my decision had helped the Nazis more than I dared to contemplate.
The music faded. Fanfare trumpeted from the fortresslike Marathon Towers. Hitler must have arrived. I opened my eyes and sighed. No more pretending.
Instead I pulled battered field glasses from my satchel and trained them on Hitler as he descended the stairs in a khaki suit and knee-high boots in front of two men in dark frock coats and top hats. Both wore the heavy gold chains of the International Olympic Committee around their necks. A larger group trailed behind.
Everyone rose to scream and clap. I stood, too. Tens of thousands of arms shot up in the Hitler salute, mine, regrettably, among them. I dared not stand out. I wished I knew how many in this forest of arms saluted out of fear, and how many out of patriotism. I quickly dropped my arm and picked up my field glasses again with both hands. Surely demonstrating a desire to see the Führer up close would excuse me from continuing the vile salute.
Hitler marched around the crimson cinder track while strains of Wagner, his favorite composer, rose above adoring screams. A girl in a cornflower blue sundress, blond braids pinned up in a wreath, ran to Hitler. She looked about five, the same age Anton had been when he showed up dirty and alone on my doorstep. I hated the way the little girl lent the proceedings an air of gentleness and innocence.
She dropped into a curtsy, bare knee pressed onto red cinders. Her upraised hands offered a bouquet of posies. Smiling indulgently, Hitler took the flowers and pulled her to her feet. He patted her head once before trotting to his loge of honor. The child scampered off the field and I lost sight of her in the crowd. Her sweet and simple gesture would be reported across the globe tomorrow. Another shrewd Nazi propaganda victory.
I glanced at Lars’s wristwatch. I needed to sneak away soon to meet my erstwhile mentor, Peter Weill. Peter claimed to have uncovered something that would change the course of the war we were both certain would come. Thousands of lives were at stake, he had said.
I had a few minutes before my meeting with Peter, but I decided to leave while the men were distracted so I would not have to invent an excuse. I had not told Lars about my appointment and hoped to keep it from him. The less he knew about anything beyond our work together, the better, especially now that he seemed to be falling apart.
I stepped through standing crowds and lifted voices, hoping that Lars would not follow. I suspected that he trusted me no more than I trusted him, and he kept very close to me when I visited Berlin, but perhaps he was drunk and distracted enough by the spectacle to let me alone.
I hurried up the stone stairs. At the top, I turned and ducked behind one of the wide square pillars lining the corridor that circled the upper rim of the stadium. Spectators filled even the topmost row of seats, but the pillar hid me from their view. With all eyes on the spectacle, I felt blessedly alone. I breathed in the dusty smell of limestone.
Silence descended as the last notes of the German national anthem died away. The “Horst Wessel Song” followed. Written by a Nazi killed by a Communist in 1930, it had served as the accompaniment for more Nazi events than I cared to think about. A hundred voices sang it when a Nazi mob attacked Anton and me in front of Wertheim, a Jewish-owned department store, in 1931.
A hand grabbed my shoulder. I gasped.
“Shush,” said a familiar rasping voice.
“Peter!” Rumpled navy suit, fedora tilted too far back on his head, grin as wide as ever. Peter Weill had mentored me at the Berliner Tageblatt and insisted that I take over his crime beat when he moved to Dresden to retire. I had not seen him in years, since before I fled, but it was his urgent message, more than anything else, that made me brave coming to the Games. Seeing him, I was glad I had.
His faded blue eyes sparkled with excitement when he pulled me into an embrace. Never large, now he felt like a bundle of sticks. I hugged him back with care, conscious of every one of his seventy-four years.
“Hannah!” I winced at the sound of my name. He gave me an appraising look. “It is good to see you again.”
I stepped back and glanced up and down the empty corridor. “Likewise. But we are supposed to meet farther down. How did you find me here, and early?”
“Always so suspicious.” He chuckled. “Made you the best Peter Weill.”
“After you, of course.” I had taken his name when I took over his beat at the newspaper; someone else used it now. “So, how did you find me?”
“I’ve been watching you for over an hour.”
I imagined him dividing the stadium into sections and methodically sweeping each with binoculars, patient and thorough. And, like so many things he did, it had worked despite the odds. “Have you?”
“You and your SS consort. With your blond hair and blue eyes, you are quite the Aryan prize, I see.”
“Why do you think he is SS?” I knew better than to lie to Peter directly.
Military music and applause swelled. Below, athletes marched in, starting with Greece.
“Did I teach you nothing? It’s how they walk. How they stand. Their sense of entitlement.” He ticked items off on his thumb and twiglike fingers. “They don’t need uniforms anymore. It’s under their skins.”
Correct and dangerously astute, as always. I kept quiet.
“I could also see, even from across the stadium, that you are not pleased with the one who is pawing at you. Although he fancies you. I think Huber does, too.”
“It is a very long, very private story.” I paused. “How do you know Andreas’s name?”
“Chemist. Used him as a source once.” His blue eyes shifted left, away from mine.
I would follow up on how he knew Andreas later. For now I hugged him again, smelling pipe tobacco and whisky. “It has been far too long.”
“Hasn’t it, though? But I did not skulk around here to question your dubious taste in men. I’m here because I have news.” His voice rose on the last word, as it had a thousand times before.
I smiled. News. Peter always had news.
He studied the empty hall. Then he stepped closer and lowered his voice as if to keep unseen watchers from hearing. “I’ve found out something horrible. Something that will show the world definitively that the Nazis are not peace seekers or peacekeepers, or whatever they call themselves these days.”
Two huge Olympic bells, cast for the occasion, tolled homage to Hitler and the Games; softly at first, but steadily increasing in volume. “And you would tell me this, though you just saw me with the SS? Seems like bad judgment.”
He grinned. “You’re not one of them. Whatever you’re doing over there, it has more to do with Bella than with them.”
“Bella?” I cocked a curious eyebrow, knowing I would not fool him. My head throbbed with the peals of the bell.
“She gets things out, doesn’t she? And I guess you work for her.”
“Interesting guess.” I did not work for well-connected socialite reporter Bella Fromm, but he was close enough. When Lars delivered me canisters of film containing pictures of top secret SS documents, I couriered them not to Bella, but to a British espionage contact provided by an old friend and journalist, Sefton Delmer.
“I want you to get information out. Information and something else.” His faded eyes sharpened as he studied me.
He pulled a silver flask from his hip pocket: Peter’s Famous Flask. He carried it everywhere and started drinking from it when events got well under way. He offered it to me, and I knew that the news was sure to come soon.
I took a small sip to be polite. Although Peter’s expensive whisky tasted smooth as always, watching Lars today had soured any taste I had for alcohol. “And if I say I have no idea what you are talking about?”
Peter took the proffered flask and raised it in a mock toast. “Then I’d be proud of you.”
“If you think Bella can get your information out, why not go to her directly?” As curious as I was to know Peter’s news, something did not make sense.
His gnarled fingers lined up with geometric patterns engraved in his flask. “We don’t move in the same circles.”
A lie. But why? I knew that he and Bella were acquainted. The lie appeared pointless, and he did not believe in pointless lies. “When does the pfennig drop?”
His face crinkled in a smile. “There is a certain package that she can’t deliver. But you can.”
“Package?” Bella’s network of sources and helpers was far more extensive than mine. I would have thought that she could deliver anything. A wave of heat ran through my body. I brought my hand to my forehead. I could not have a sudden fever. That made no sense.
Peter took a swig of whisky and coughed. He sniffed the flask.
He wiped his trembling chin. “I don’t feel well.”
Tears coursed down his cheeks. Sweat broke out on his brow. Saliva dripped from both sides of his mouth. He reached up to wipe it off, knocking his fedora to the ground. I thought of picking it up, but took his arm instead.
“Are you in any pain? Chest pain?” His pulse raced under my fingertips. My own heartbeat sped up.
“No.” His voice rasped.
“Perhaps you should sit?” We took a step toward a nearby bench.
“Hannah—” His face darkened to brick red. Not a sign of a heart attack. I listed conditions in my head, but none seemed to match his symptoms.
I wrapped my arm around his thin shoulders and dragged his trembling body another step toward the bench. Should I leave him and fetch a doctor? Did I dare leave him alone? Could I find one even if I did?
Before I decided what to do, Peter collapsed against my side, convulsing. Together we fell heavily to the concrete. My hip took the brunt of our weight, and the flask clattered to the floor.
“Peter!” I rolled off his too-light body. His pupils shrank to pinpoints.
His bowels let go. He twitched once, then lay quite still. I knew what to expect before I lay my cheek against his wet lips. “Please. Oh please.”
No need to check his pulse.
Copyright © 2011 by Rebecca Cantrell