Read an Excerpt
The Sequel to Rogue Male
By Geoffrey Household
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Geoffrey Household
All rights reserved.
My first thought was that in a world where there was any mercy I should have been killed cleanly then and there, for I had no doubt that a more protracted death after days and nights of agony awaited me. Yet I seemed to be the only living thing among the rubble apart from two rats. One of them was squealing; the other was eating its own bowels with apparent appetite. I saw no point in remaining alive with freedom of choice limited to those two alternatives.
When shock had worn off and the only noises were the trickle of falling rubble and the occasional crash of heavier bits of masonry, I stood up cautiously. This provincial gaol where I was temporarily held, stone-built long ago by some prince of Mecklenburg, had taken a direct hit – as I learned much later – from a block-buster or a whole string of bombs dropped by the RAF in the first raid on Rostock. Meanwhile the ancient wooden houses of the town were a giant bonfire uninterrupted, inextinguishable.
The bars of my somewhat antique, underground cell – a dungeon one might call it – still stood up and had sheltered me. On both sides the wall had collapsed. I staggered out and, looking for protection rather than a route to nowhere, felt my way under a massive beam, one end of which was still doing its duty in supporting a part of the floor above me. There I remained in a fantasy of hell. In black night there were tongues of red though I could see no flames, and here and there tongues of silver where crevices in chaos allowed the shafts of a low, bright moon to enter.
First light came early so far north and my tomb of black and red changed to a dim grey in which objects could just be distinguished for what they were. One end of the corridor past the line of cells was open. Slinking along it like a beast through a line of beaters, I entered what had been the office and the guardroom. Hauptmann Haase was sitting at his desk in a chair tilted backwards and held in position by his knees. His head was flattened but the rest of him outwardly intact. The feldwebel, his under-officer, was still recognizable. Another man who must have taken the full force of the blast was – well, the detachable parts of him were scattered about somewhere. I remember him only as a splash on the wall.
That was because my whole concentration was directed towards the hauptmann's head. He must have been chatting with the feldwebel, likely enough about his important prisoner, when a bomb fragment hit him in the face, flattening it beyond recognition and knocking him backwards. His head on its broken neck was hanging over the back of the chair, dripping into the dust and not on to his uniform. The odd spots on his collar could have been red wine not blood. He was the sort of untidy enthusiast who might well have waved his glass about while toasting Hitler and victory.
Even before my partly conscious self had formed any plan, I began looking for that deadly Nicaraguan passport, once the very private property of the so-called Major Quive-Smith, which had enabled me to return from Tangier to France and France to Germany. It was in the top drawer of Haase's desk and easy enough to find. A copy of his signal to Berlin HQ reporting my arrest was also there. At that point conscious human cunning began to take over from animal instinct.
I dragged the body out to my cell and with great care removed the uniform and underclothes. I then dressed him in my own suit. That was very difficult, like putting a full sack into an empty one while at the same time avoiding any stains. For me his uniform was a tolerable fit though baggy at the waist. However, I was unlikely to appear on parade and it would serve.
My last act was to lay the chunk of steel which had killed him close to the body and beneath a ragged hole in the ceiling through which it could have burst its way. With reasonable luck no one could doubt that the corpse in the ruined cell was mine. I would have liked to leave the passport in an inner pocket as conclusive proof of identity but it seemed probable that the Gestapo would have taken it off the prisoner in case he destroyed it. Anyhow there was proof enough. Hauptmann Haase's file gave, with true German thoroughness, details of my arrest and listed the clothes I was wearing, the contents of my pockets including my money, and even the number of the cell in which he had confined me pending the arrival of higher authority. I left the lot in his desk drawer except the money, trusting it would be assumed that someone under cover of the chaos had pinched it. I had hopes of getting away with the exchange of identity if ever I could reach the surface unseen; in such a morgue detailed detective work would hardly be possible, considering the mess of dust and rubble with further collapses as rescuers dug down to the guardroom and the cells. On second thoughts I retained Don Ernesto's passport – deadly if I were searched, but if searched I was doomed anyway.
The climb up to the ground floor was no harder than finding a path up a dangerous slope of scree and boulders, but I could not tell whether I had reached the right level till splintered lengths of floorboard suggested that I had. I saw no other survivor. I did hear cries for help. It was safe to assume that everyone in the upper storeys of this antique police station was either incapacitated or dead. Could I find a way out to the open? Above all, could I find it before the authorities summoned by Haase arrived from Berlin to fetch me?
Somewhere above me I could hear heavy movements and shouted orders, no doubt from a party trying to clear wreckage. Walls released from strain were crumbling around. I took refuge in a fireplace where the bricks of the chimney had jammed and formed a roof which looked as if it might hold until someone poked at it. On this floor scraps of humanity were visible and many more must be under the tons of masonry. When there was a search for Haase's missing body, it would occasion no great surprise if they had to give it up until the whole site was cleared. From the blood beneath and on the back of his chair it would be obvious that he had been badly wounded. A fair guess – at least it would be mine if I were looking for him – was that he had crawled into some hole to die and been buried. As for Don Ernesto Menendez Peraza, so urgently wanted by the High Command, his body could be supplied and its identity authenticated.
There was no way through or over the piles of rubble. I knew little of the effects of bombing; so far as I could see, the blast had opened the building outwards like the petals of a flower and the upper storeys had then collapsed into the central void. I could hear a machine already at work and managed to get close enough to glimpse the jaws of an excavator eating up bricks. It had to be standing outside on hard ground and presumably had a crowd of anxious civilians and military around it so that the sudden appearance of a dusty officer was sure to be observed. In the other direction, towards the centre and away from the excavator, was no conceivable passage; so I returned to the basement to try to plan the unplannable.
I had been escorted down to the basement from the main entrance by a staircase which had now disappeared. There ought to be another way. It was unlikely that food, slops and blankets would all be taken through the imposing entrance hall. An inner court, kitchen and dustbins should exist on or near the level of the corridor which ran past the cells. This corridor, at the opposite end to the guardroom and office, appeared hopelessly blocked. The next cell to mine had suffered similar damage. The iron grille still stood up, but the ceiling had fallen and there was a crumpled corpse beneath it.
Poor devil, I had listened to him throughout the long night. Though our cells were princely and primitive, upstairs there must have been all the Gestapo refinements. My sleepless neighbour had been whimpering like a sick child, murmuring, 'Lotte Liebchen, Lotte Liebchen.' If he had lived, I doubt if ever again he would have been able to make love to his Lotte. I knew that whimpering. After they caught me rifle in hand at Berchtesgarten I had managed to preserve a Spartan silence while they prised out my nails, but I remember too well the animal grunts and cries, retched not from my brain but from my body as they attended to it, which were the result of panting, broken breath and uncontrollable larynx.
Hours later, when they had, as they thought, killed me, and I had wriggled into the shelter of trees, I heard myself – and can still hear myself – whimpering like my late neighbour.
I squeezed round the iron grille of his cell and could then get at the slope of debris fallen from the floor above into the corridor. This was a fairly solid mass, easy to climb, and I worked my way along the top of it without risk of anything else falling on to me. Then came a mess which at first looked impassable. It had been a kitchen and scullery. I had guessed right.
Profiting by all the experience of the last hours, I looked for some solid object across which a beam or door had fallen leaving a triangular gap through which I could crawl or start to crawl. A concrete pillar that had crashed across the kitchen range provided the gap but beyond was only a buckled, bulging brick wall. Since the pillar provided protection, I dared to batter at the wall with a stout table leg. This was effective. There was a roar of falling masonry, and when the dust cleared I found that I had opened a way into the garage. A partly crushed bus was holding up a bit of the roof. Of two cars, one was shattered and the other appeared to have been blown across the garage. There was a lake of petrol on the floor. I could only thank the lord that my demolition of the party wall had not caused a spark. I had no temptation to explore that garage for a way out into the open.
All this time I had been obsessed by the blind determination to reach the back entrance of the basement. Now, as I became more and more capable of constructive thought, I decided to try the level of the ground floor if I could scramble up to it. A tall slab of wall was standing upright unattached to anything else and seeming as flat as a stage backdrop. The bricks protruding at the side formed a ladder to frighten an ape, but a frightened ape I was anyway. I climbed until I saw that I was about to be outlined against the flames soaring from the town and could go no farther.
However, I had caught a glimpse of the courtyard below and the pattern of the hillocks of rubble below me. If I came down a bit and jumped to my left, I should land on an impenetrable mass of devastation which would give me a view of the whole courtyard through the slots and clefts without a chance of being spotted.
The courtyard was full and gave me the impression of onlookers waiting for the worst, apart from a party of police and auxiliaries who were digging frantically with pick and shovel to effect an entrance into the basement. Two ambulances were parked near the outer gate. A fire engine was standing close to the ruins ready for action. I remember that half of me hoped there would be no fire so that the body of Don Ernesto, so carefully prepared for inspection, could be discovered, while another half hoped that the building would catch and make a clean sweep of Hauptmann Haase and his prisoner. With so many people standing about there was no hope of getting from ruins to courtyard and courtyard to gate unobserved. Yes, I could probably stand up to questioning and account for my presence, but afterwards at any inquiry the identity of the unknown Gestapo captain who had inexplicably appeared and disappeared was bound to call for investigation.
I had to divert the attention of the enemy. Garage and fire engine together suggested a way, providing a vivid image of the near future, so long as it allowed any future for me. I did not much care if it didn't, for I had lived with risk so long that I was weary of it. I was at war, had been at war ever since I tried to kill Hitler and very nearly succeeded. Now my country too was at war, and the fact that I was in the heart of the enemy homeland pretending to be a sympathetic neutral no more inhibited me from killing than it would a franc-tireur of any resistance movement. So my conscience was clear. The extreme brutality of my act was justified.
What I needed was a box of matches. Hauptmann Haase must have been a non-smoker for there were neither matches nor a lighter in his uniform pockets. I couldn't simply appear from nowhere, walk up to a fireman or ambulance and ask for a light. The person who supplied me had to be silenced. And for the choice of that person convention counted. I would not kill any of the gallant civilian workers who were risking their lives. I wanted an armed enemy.
There was one, and not far away: a real captain in the Gestapo, a gross man compounded of beer, cruelty and cowardice. I could tell all that from his appearance and the fact that he stood by directing workers while calmly smoking a cigarette instead of lending a hand. So he had matches.
I slid down the outside of my pile of rubble into a sort of tangled bay where I could only be seen by someone at the back of the courtyard and behind the ambulances. I had noticed that my chosen victim, strolling importantly up and down in his jackboots and spotless, black uniform sometimes came as far as that. I lay face downwards and pushed my right arm under a slab of wall as if it were hopelessly caught. There I waited for perhaps ten minutes until again he came near enough. Then I cried feebly for help. Of all the risks I had accepted that was the most outrageous gamble. I reckoned that after taking a look at the trapped casualty and appreciating that there was no danger whatever he would do a single-handed rescue in the hope of a decoration when he staggered out of the ruins carrying his comrade. Often in this predatory life of mine I have been able to sum up a potential enemy with even less evidence. Danger gives second sight to the hunted rogue male.
I was half right and half wrong. He took a look at me, was falsely hearty in his words of comfort and said he would bring help. I had rather overdone the stage business. He could well assume that it was impossible for one man to lift the slab and free me. As he turned to go I caught hold of his boot and brought him down. I then killed him. I regret that his death was slower and less merciful than I would have wished, for he was wearing a steel helmet and my only weapon was a brick. I dared not fire Haase's pistol.
Having dragged his body into safe cover and taken off it a useful sum of money I returned to the basement. Scraps of paper were everywhere: wallpaper, files and, best of all, a roll of toilet paper still attached to a pyramid of white tiles. I dropped this through the hole I had opened into the garage, where it unwound itself across the floor, and walked away with the loose end. It made a good fuse, but too fast a fuse; so I built a little fire of wood splinters the flames of which were bound to reach the paper in two or three minutes. Closing my eyes, I lit a match. Nothing happened. There was hardly any smell of petrol where I was, and the slight movement of air ran from kitchen wreck to garage. But I could not be sure.
When the fire was well alight I cleared out over the rubble and back to my bay, where I was protected from heat and explosion – provided the effect of the latter was confined to the garage. I had just tucked myself in under a sheet of corrugated iron when explosion there was and the whole of that flat, still-perpendicular slab of wall came down into the courtyard. Before the dust had cleared, I was running for the gate. The firemen were fully occupied. The ambulance men had taken cover. The courtyard was like a disturbed ants' nest with everyone in movement. I doubt if I was noticed at all. If I was, I should naturally have been mistaken for the crouching, running figure of the late captain.
Outside the gate I turned left, knowing that the other direction would lead me to a crowd in front of the building. I walked fast and importantly down the street, which was empty, probably having been closed by the police. Looking on to the prison courtyard was a wounded, windowless house with no guard on it, so I entered as if on business. What I needed was a clothes brush, a boot brush and a drink. I found all three, shaved off Don Ernesto's moustache and sat down to examine Haase's papers.
Excerpted from Rogue Justice by Geoffrey Household. Copyright © 2014 Geoffrey Household. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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