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Oberammergau, Bavaria April, 1945
He could hear their heavy, hobnailed boots pounding down the cobblestone street in pursuit. There must be at least six of them, he thought. The steady tramp hammered on his ears and reverberated in his battered mind. His breath came in convulsive gulps, and a sharp sting in his side knifed through him with every step. But he forced himself to go on.
A few steps ahead of him he could make out the shadowy form of Willi as he followed his friend down the dark and empty street of the little Bavarian village.
There was a nightmare unreality to the whole thing. He had an eerie feeling of being outside himself, watching his own struggle, caught in the trap he had set for himself. Why had he ever thought they could succceed in escaping?
He ran. Ahead, the square, cupola-topped church tower disappeared into the overcast night sky. Next to him, almost brushing his side as he hugged the shadows of the buildings, Christ labored under the cross on his way to Golgotha, and the Virgin Mary looked down on him benevolently—fresco paintings that adorned nearly every house in Oberammergau.
HOTEL ALTE POST, he read as he raced by. High on the wall, Christ hung on the cross. The houses thinned out. The streets were utterly deserted. Wartime Oberammergau had retreated into itself. A wire fence stretched before them. They ran on. Unseen—but inexorably heard—their pursuers were gaining. The massive building dead ahead of him began to take form. He knew what it was. The Passion Play Theater. The huge open-air stage where the Passion Play was performed once every decade.
He followed Willi as his friend entered the auditorium area. Desperately he tried to keep up as he clambered onto the great stage, open to the majestic Bavarian mountains beyond, dominated by the looming Kofel Mountain. He raced across the expanse of the stage.
He didn't see it in the dark. It was only an old plank left lying in the open. His running step hit the edge. His ankle twisted under him, buckled—and he fell, hitting the floor hard.
From the stage floor he saw Willi running for the wooded hills beyond—being quickly swallowed by the blacknesss.
He struggled to his feet. Pain lanced up through his leg. He knew he could not follow his friend. Frantically he looked around. There. In the wings. An open door ...
He stumbled toward it. Perhaps. Perhaps the pursuers would follow Willi.
He slipped through the door. For a moment he leaned against the wall, trying to quiet his breath and his racing heart. He could hear the pursuers pound through the auditorium toward the stage....
A flight of stairs led to the area below the stage. Painfully he hobbled down....
Corridors. Turns. Right. Left. He limped on.... Doors. Some open. Some locked. He lost himself, his sense of direction—of time—as he hobbled on....
He found himself in a large, high-ceilinged room. Row upon row of racks filled with costumes on hangers. Biblical costumes for the Passion Play. Used only once every ten years. The robes of priests and Pharisees; the simple garments of Hebrew men and women; the togas and tunics of Roman nobles and soldiers. He brushed between them, breathing their musty smell.
Through another door. Another room. Props. All kinds of props. Crude wooden furniture—the benches for the Last Supper—sharing space with Roman shields, swords and spears, helmets and standards—the tools of war.
He stopped. Spent. He sank down behind a rough-hewn cart with huge wheels.
And he heard it.
The dull thumps of heavy boots on the wooden floor. He sobbed. He knew he could run no more.
The beam from the flashlight struck him in the face. He blinked—but remained huddled on the floor.
There were three of them. Black-clad SS men, their red swastika armbands looking like bloody wounds; the silver death's-heads gleaming in evil mockery from their black caps. All three were carrying Schmeisser submachine guns.
"You!" one of them growled. "Get up."
Holding on to the cart, he pulled himself to his feet.
"Where is the other Scheisskerl?" the SS man snapped.
He shook his head.
"Who is he?" the man demanded. "His name?"
Wearily he looked at the SS men who stood glowering over him. He said nothing.
Suddenly one of the men jabbed a gun butt into his back in a crushing blow. A ball of livid pain exploded and spat fire through his entire body. He fell to his knees. Tears of agony burned his eyes, blinding him.
"His name?" the SS man barked.
"Krebbs." He forced the word from his lips. It did not matter. They would find out soon anyway. "Wilhelm—Krebbs.... Dr. Wilhelm Krebbs."
The SS man placed the gun muzzle under his chin and lifted up his head. "You," he growled. "Your name?"
"Marcus," he whispered, his voice hoarse with despair. "Dr. Theodor Marcus."
The three SS men came to attention as a young officer strode into the room. Arms akimbo, legs spread slightly apart, his trim black uniform strangely at odds with the colorful Biblical robes, he stood looking at the man huddled on the floor.
A thin smile played on his lips. He took a small object from his pocket and began to flip it into the air, catching it as he contemplated the captive.
Marcus followed the little oblong metal object as it rose and fell with hypnotic rhythm. He shivered, dread turning his blood cold. He knew what the young SS officer was playing with. The identification disk of the Gestapo ...
The officer glanced at one of the SS men with an inquiring look and nodded toward the man on the floor.
The soldier snapped to attention. "Dr. Theodor Marcus, Herr Obersturmführer," he called. "The other one, a Dr. Wilhelm Krebbs, got away."
The young Gestapo officer nodded. He returned his eyes to Marcus.
"Dr. Marcus," he said. He flashed him a quick smile which stretched his lips while his eyes remained cold. Gestapo Deputy Chief Heydrich himself had once told him that under certain conditions a smile was far more frightening than a frown. He had never forgotten. "Dr. Marcus, I am SS Obersturmführer Gerhardt Scharff." He paused. He smiled. "Gestapo."
"I have three questions for you, Herr Doktor. Three." Another quick smile. "I shall expect an immediate answer to each one."
Leisurely he took out a cigarette and lit it with a lighter on which the lightning insignia of the SS was prominent. He took a luxurious drag.
"Now, Dr. Marcus," he said evenly, "these are my questions. First—who else besides you and Krebbs is trying to escape? Secondly—who helped you? And thirdly—what were your plans?"
Marcus stared at the young Gestapo officer. Inside he shriveled up in dread. There were no others. Only he and Willi. No one had helped. And they'd had no plans—except to get away. He suddenly realized how utterly naïve they'd been. But how? Oh, Josef-Maria, how could he convince this Gestapo Lieutenant of that?
He stared at him, not knowing what to do.
"First," the young Lieutenant said. "Who else is trying to escape?"
"There were only Willi—Dr. Krebbs—and me," he whispered, fear constricting his throat.
Scharff did not change his expression. Slowly he nodded. "Secondly. Who helped you?" he asked pleasantly.
"No one helped us, Herr Obersturmführer," Marcus breathed.
"So," the SS officer said. "And last—your plans?"
"We—we had no real plans," Marcus stammered. "We—we just wanted to—to get away."
Scharff smiled at him. He took a deep puff on his cigarette. Slowly he brought out his lighter. He turned to the soldiers. "Strip him!" he ordered curtly.
At once the soldiers hauled Marcus to his feet. They tore his jacket off and ripped his shirt until he stood trembling, naked to the waist.
Scharff nodded toward the cart. "On the wheel," he said.
Two of the SS men slammed Marcus against the huge cartwheel; the other grabbed a bridle from a hook and ripped it apart. With the straps they tied Marcus to the wheel, his arms stretched out and lashed to the top of the rim. His legs buckled under him. He could neither stand nor kneel. He hung against the spokes.
Scharff contemplated him. If the man knew anything, he, Scharff, would have to get it from him. Now. While the pursuit was fresh. There was no time for a—eh, proper interrogation. He would have to improvise. He was good at it. He flipped the tinder wheel on his SS lighter. A flame flared up at once.
"Now, Dr. Marcus," Scharff said almost kindly, "has your memory improved?" He smiled at him.
Marcus stared at the lighter. He was stiff with terror. He shook his head in desperation. "Please, Herr Obersturmführer. There was no one else. I am telling you the truth. No one ..."
Scharff suddenly stretched out his arm. The flame from the lighter touched the hair on Marcus' chest—and it flared up, shriveling into black curls as it burned.
Marcus screamed. The flash-fire seared his chest. The sickening stench of burning hair assailed his nostrils and made him retch.
"Well, Herr Doktor?" Scharff asked pleasantly.
Marcus stared at him in horror. "Please," he whispered hoarsely. "Please. There—was—no one.... Please. I swear ..."
Scharff sighed. With deliberate care he tapped the ash from his cigarette. He inspected the glowing tip. Slowly he inched it toward Marcus' chest.
Marcus strained against the wheel, trying to shrink away from the fiery point.
Suddenly Scharff jabbed it lightly on his hairless, already blistered skin.
Pain shot through him. He cried out.
"Who else, Dr. Marcus?" The question was asked in a low, almost silken voice.
Marcus shook his head, too terrified to speak. Again Scharff touched the burning cigarette to his skin.
Marcus was petrified. He made no reply. He only whimpered softly in abject fear.
Suddenly Scharff jabbed the glowing cigarette at him and ground it into his skin.
A searing flash of agony shot through him.
The sweet stench of burning flesh retched him. He gagged. He heaved—and the vomit spewed from his mouth. It ran down his chest, acid in the fresh wounds.
"Your plans?" Scharff demanded.
"We—had no plans. Oh, Josef-Maria, we—had—no—plans...." He collapsed, hanging in limp agony, crucified on the wagon wheel.
Meticulously Scharff tapped another cigarette from his pack and lit it. He gave the petrified Marcus one of his special smiles.
"There is one specific little spot," he said affably. "A spot that is especially sensitive. It is usually regarded as being particularly—eh, effective in persuading females to remember, Dr. Marcus. Reserved for them. I think you will find it interesting to experience that it is equally effective—equally sensitive—on a male." He smiled. "I am, of course, referring to the nipple."
Marcus stared at the burning cigarette. It filled his world. His mind whirled in a turmoil of anguish. Why would the man not believe him? There had been no one else! There were no others. Only he and Willi. There was nothing to tell.
"Once more, Herr Doktor," Scharff said softly. "I ask you once more." He held the fiery cigarette tip close to one of the terrified man's nipples. Marcus could feel it distend in the heat.
Marcus pulled his chin rigidly into his chest. His bulging eyes stared down at the glowing red ember so close to him.
"No—no one," he croaked.
Scharff jabbed the burning cigarette end into his nipple, gouging and grinding it into the tender flesh.
A fiery shock seared through him. He arched against the wheel, the leather straps cutting into his arms. A million white-hot needles burned into his chest.
Through a world of cotton he heard a dreaded sound. The click of the lighter being flipped.
Oh, Jesus God! No more! No more ...
And he heard the voice of the Gestapo Lieutenant.
"Who, Dr. Marcus? Who?"
He felt the searing tip touch his already inflamed nipple. Agony shot through him. Agony he could not bear. And the voice—
"Manfried? Dr. Manfried?"
"Yes!" he screamed. "Yes!"
Again the fiery touch.
"Yes! Oh, Mother of God—yes!"
And he shrieked. A hideous sound that threatened to tear his throat asunder. Slowly, bit by bit, Scharff bored the fiery cigarette ember into the tortured flesh of the nipple, charring it, prolonging the agony as long as possible.
He ground it out.
"You are a fool, Dr. Marcus," he said contemptuously. "And a liar. I do not like being lied to."
He flipped the dead cigarette away.
"Take him down," he snapped at the SS men.
They cut the leather straps. Marcus fell to the floor. He lay whimpering, adrift on a sea of pain ... of anguish—and self-contempt.
Scharff lit another cigarette. This one to be enjoyed in the conventional way. Scornfully he looked at the heap of sniveling humanity sprawled at his feet. It had been a waste of time. And of cigarettes. And not ersatz. Real ones! The idiot had been telling the truth. The two of them—Krebbs and Marcus—had been alone.
"Take him back," he ordered.
The SS men dragged Marcus to his feet.
Scharff gave him one of his special smiles.
"I suggest you do not try anything like this again," he said. He blew a puff of smoke into his face.
"I shall not forget you—Herr Doctor Theodor Marcus!"CHAPTER 2
Vandenberg Air Force Base, California June 18, 1979
His mouth was dry, his palms clammy. They always were at this time. It was his personal reaction to the mounting tension; the only factor he could predict with unfailing certainty. From the dais of the Project Director he watched the projected image on the big color-television screen on the far wall of the control room. The huge Titan III rocket stood poised for flight on the launching pad, wafting impatient whiffs of vapor into the morning air. He was acutely aware of the steady countdown droning from the PA system:
He stopped breathing.
His eyes were riveted on the screen. Suddenly a fist of fire slammed from the base of the giant rocket. He could feel the raw power shake his very bones.
"Ignition ... Lift-off. We have lift-off.... Plus two—three—"
He did not relax. Not yet. He followed the fiery flight of the rocket as it streaked toward space. It was a good launch. On the screen the rocket was slowly shrinking into a tiny point of brightness dancing in the blue sky.
The telephone on the desk next to his right arm rang. It startled him. He picked it up.
"Marcus," he said crisply. He listened. "Thank you, General, it was a beautiful launch. All should go well."
Again he listened. He glanced toward the large, lighted clock on the wall. "Yes, General Ryan, I can be at Edwards Air Force Base late this afternoon.... Yes, your office."
He replaced the receiver. For a moment he sat in thought. He had a good idea why the General had summoned him from Vandenberg on the Pacific to the Mojave Desert flight test center 150 miles inland. He felt a surge of excitement. At last ...
He returned his attention to the activities in the huge control room spread out below him: Technicians seated at many stations before a labyrinthine array of control panels and consoles; the vastly intricate machinery of space exploration; the orderly, measured chaos of a major launch. He never tired of it.
Dr. Theodor Marcus, Project Director, sat back in his chair. For the next several minutes he could do nothing but wait. He allowed his mind to sift back. Back to another time. Another place. Peenemünde. The rocket research center of the Third Reich. He savored the remembered excitement of those days of experimentation—the Stone Age of space exploration, as it were. Those minutes of almost unbearable tension. Die Peenemünde Minuten, they'd called them. No different to him from the Vandenberg minutes now—even after all these years, he thought. Both seemed so much longer than sixty seconds.
He smiled to himself. He had been a young scientist then. Twenty-seven. Eager. Dedicated. Thrilled to be working with men such as Wernher von Braun and Walter Dornberger—pioneers in man's greatest adventure; fired with the excitement of exploring new realms of science—and pushing to the outer limits of his awareness the realization of the deadly uses to which their work would be dedicated.
His thoughts went back to that fateful launch thirty-seven years ago almost to the day. June 13, 1942. The launch that had catapulted him into his life's work ...
Excerpted from The Marcus Device by Ib Melchior. Copyright © 1980 Ib Melchior. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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