July 20, 1918
The horse’s hooves hammered the earth in a frenzied escape from the dogs. Hedda Klein couldn’t hear their growls anymore, not through her own ragged breathing trapped behind her mask. But the vicious animals were back there, somewhere beyond the woodlands, whipped onward by their ruthless master who was as thirsty for her blood as they were.
She bent lower over her mount’s neck and kicked her heels against his ribs, again and again. Faster, faster. The old bay was unaccustomed to such harsh expectations; she feared any moment he’d collapse beneath her from his efforts.
Her gaze clawed through the German terrain, searching for the blackened shape of the old cowhouse that would give her refuge. She was almost there, only minutes away, and the first stirrings of relief curled through her.
Until movement at the base of the hills jerked her cold. One man rode out of the darkness, the lope of his horse swift but not frantic. He lifted his arm in a wave, and only then did she see the second horse with him.
She fought down a sudden sting of emotion and straightened in the saddle, flexing her fingers after their tight grip on the reins. The old bay slowed, as if sensing their ordeal was over. That they were almost home. And safe.
Claus Nussbaum rode into the yard ahead of her. Hedda knew he wouldn’t have done so if he wasn’t sure they were no longer being pursued. It was why he’d gone into the hills first, leaving her to escape by herself, so he could scout the countryside from a higher vantage point, making sure the master of the bloodhounds had lost their trail.
Her horse halted near a crude corral built along one side of the cowhouse and shuddered in exhaustion. Fritz Gissibl waited for them near the doorway, a lantern held high.
“Where’s Benjamin?” he asked sharply.
Claus removed his mask and stuffed it inside his shirt.
“Dead,” he said, dismounting.
Hedda remained in the saddle. Her breathing quickened at the memory of her friend’s murder. Its utter senselessness. She yanked off her mask, too, and ran a quick hand through her hair, chopped boyishly short. Cool midnight air swirled across the skin on her face.
“Claus shot him,” she said, unable to hold back her contempt.
Fritz’s sharp glance swung toward her. “I didn’t think you would have.”
“I wouldn’t have been so careless.”
He appeared to consider that. “It seems to be an unfortunate turn of events, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a fucking disappointing turn of events,” Claus snapped.
Fritz set the lantern on top of a fence post. He grasped the bridle on Benjamin’s horse and patted the glistening neck, accepting the news with no more regret than if they’d announced Claus had just lost his hat.
“What happened?” he asked finally.
“Benjamin made a stupid mistake exposing us to his brother,” Claus said coldly. “He was a fool to believe he could convince the infamous Major Michael Malone to work for us.”
“He did not expose us,” Hedda said. “Our identities were concealed. Malone knew nothing about us then. He knows nothing now.”
Fritz glared at her. “Claus is right. It was a risk we could not afford.”
Of course, he would agree, like he always did, and as much as she longed to continue the argument, she didn’t dare. She’d worked hard to gain their trust, but every day she walked a thin line with them. Any moment, they could discover who she really was. Hedda Klein, leader of the Red Poppies, a secret dissident group at Munich University, and that she was working as an informant for the United States Army under the code name of Agent Delilah.
But to them, she was a German nationalist, as zealous as they were.
Besides, what did it matter now? Benjamin was dead, and her work, the risks she had taken as a spy for the American government, had gained them nothing.
Claus and Fritz were more like brothers themselves than best friends. A cohesive pair, inseparable, each as dangerous as the other. As German nationalists, they lived only to see Germany establish a master race and reign supreme in economic and military power to the rest of the world. Nausea roiled in her stomach.
“Where is the body?” Fritz asked, bending to loosen the cinch on Benjamin’s saddle.
Hedda finally dismounted. Her bones felt full of lead. Her work, seemingly impossible to succeed. “We hid Benjamin in the creek.”
“Where he can soon be found?” he asked sharply.
“We had no time,” she grated. “The dogs were coming.”
She bent to loosen the cinch on her own saddle and swallowed hard at the memory. Vicious dogs terrified her, and few deaths could be as horrifying as mauling by an entire pack. It’d been a terrible risk, but she couldn’t allow them to find Benjamin, vulnerable to the indignity of their ferocity, even in death.
“And Major Malone. Where is he?” Fritz asked, straightening.
“Escaped.” Claus sounded disgusted. “Saved by his captain. Both jumped in the creek before I could fire off a shot at either of them.”
In the lantern light, Fritz’s alarm was unmistakable. “Captain Drew Hammond? He was there for the rendezvous? But I thought–”
“That Major Malone was to come alone?” Claus’s lip curled. “He didn’t.”
Hedda closed her eyes in relief. Captain Hammond and Major Malone were two of the finest soldiers to enlist in the United States Army. As leaders of the covert unit called the Secret Seven, their deaths would’ve been a crushing blow to the Expeditionary Forces’ capability to gather intelligence against the Germans. It wasn’t surprising one would risk death for the other.
Collecting herself, she reached up and grasped the edges of the saddle. The hair on the back of her neck rose, and she realized the conversation had fallen silent. She darted a quick glance at Claus.
He was staring at her, the shadows flickering across the hard planes of his face turning him sinister. Muscular, with a thick neck and chest, he possessed the heart of a devil, her father had told her once. Lucifer himself. Hedda knew it to be true; too many times, she had seen his cruelty.
She cursed herself for allowing her emotions to slip. Her grief over losing Benjamin, her worry for the major….
She shuttered her expression and hefted the saddle off the old bay’s back. She had to be more careful. She could make no mistakes. Keeping her eyes downcast, she stepped past the two men and headed to the edge of the corral, dropped the saddle in the dirt and busied herself trying to find a tack brush in the dark.
“Major Malone will waste no time informing his superiors of the incident,” Claus said bitterly, pulling his saddle off, too. “It would’ve been far better to let him believe Benjamin had simply disappeared the past two years. Now the major knows he was working for Germany. For us.”
“Major Malone is in a prisoner-of-war camp, Claus,” Fritz said. “He won’t be communicating with anyone any time soon.”
“Tonight, he escaped the camp, Fritz!” Claus snarled. “He knows the way out.”
“He will not leave his men behind. Tonight, he returns to the camp with his captain. I am sure of it. We can make arrangements to ensure he is killed for his escape.”
Miserable at what the Germans intended, Hedda found the brush. She straightened, turned and… froze.
Claus stood in front of her, feet spread, the saddle in both of his hands. She didn’t like being close to him. She didn’t like that he’d stalked her like this, either, a cold light in his eyes.
She angled her body away from him, her legs moving to escape him, but too quick, he hurled the saddle aside, grasped her shoulders and slammed her against the side of the cowhouse.
Her head snapped back against the weathered wood. He clamped a grimy hand against her throat. She knew not to resist. He would only kill her for it.
“Why do you disagree with me, Hedda?” he taunted, his voice a lethal warning of what would come. “You don’t like that I shot Benjamin, do you? Why? Is he not the enemy for you? He and his clever brother, the major?”
Her eyes fluttered. Darkness swirled before her. “No,” she managed. “Nothing like that.”
“You have sympathy for them. I can see it in your face. Why, Hedda?”
He couldn’t know the truth, could he? She’d been so careful. Every minute, she’d tried to keep her disguise in place. Had he seen through it all?
What did he know about her?
“No. You’re wrong. Please.” She hated having to beg. She couldn’t be so weak, not in front of these men, but there was no help for it. Not this time. “Please, Claus. You’re… hurting me.”
He didn’t move. So long, her muscles weakened, her body on the verge of falling limp.
“Maybe I’m wrong.” He eased his grip. “But maybe I’m not. Very soon, I will know for sure, eh?”
He let her go, then, and her legs wobbled before they found strength to stand. She dragged in air, and just when she thought he’d move away, that he was done with her, he swung his fist against her jaw. Her body flung outward from the blow, and she crumpled face-down in the dirt.
Pain, white hot and searing, lashed through her. She tasted blood… and raw, debilitating fear.
The next time, he would kill her.
* * *
Hedda lay very still on her bed roll. The slightest movement crackled the straw beneath her wool blanket, and she worried about alarming the horses. Sometimes, they grew uneasy having her with them these past few nights, sleeping on the floor. Claus and Fritz, too, lying nearby. For a little while longer, she must remain silent.
As soon as she gathered her courage, she had to get away. Quickly. Before dawn. Great damage had been done tonight. Benjamin’s death, Major Malone’s escape, her own foolish emotions. And now Claus and Fritz didn’t trust her anymore.
Her jaw throbbing, she stared up at the cowhouse rafters and listened to the men’s soft snores. She refused to give them an opportunity to hurt her again. Besides, they were of no use to her anymore. Without Benjamin, her work must find a new direction.
Commander Philip Van Fleet, her contact in the United States Army, would help her do that, but not until he was informed of how the rendezvous had failed. Hedda hoped she could contact him in time, before Claus and Fritz found a way to have Major Malone killed in the camp.
She could delay no longer.
She drew in a breath and braced herself for the risks she must take. Gripping her Luger pistol, she rose nimbly to her feet. The straw crackled unforgivably but the snoring continued, and she swallowed hard in relief.
Stepping toward the old bay, she grasped the bridle and led him outside. She stuffed the pistol into her waistband and worked quickly to saddle him, her fingers fumbling, her nerves stretched taut that Claus or Fritz would appear, quick to shoot her dead for attempting to escape. But, thanks to God’s saints, they didn’t.
The horse seemed to know her haste. He waited quietly, muscles quivering, and no sooner had she buckled the cinch tight and leapt onto his back than he took off at full gallop. Now, at least, she had the advantage. Neither of the Germans could mount fast enough to catch up with her, and the dark night worked in her favor. Still, Claus would likely guess her intent, and she hunched over the bay’s neck and urged him onward, ruthlessly faster.
But as she approached the creek where Benjamin’s body lay hidden, she reined in. She wasn’t strong enough to lift him onto her horse, and she didn’t have a shovel to dig a grave. Casting a quick glance over her shoulder, she warred with indecision. The black horizon showed no sign of the Germans in pursuit, but she wasn’t so foolish to believe she’d succeeded in escaping them. Any moment, they could appear, and it would be dawn soon….
The bay pranced; she held firm on the reins, sweeping her gaze around her, one side and the other, and latched onto a faint light in the distance. A farm house, an easy ride away….
She spurred the horse in swift approach and pulled up in a small cluster of oak trees beyond the yard. The light, she determined, came not from a farm house but a barn with its door wide open. Dismounting, she tied the leathers around a low branch and pulled her mask from inside her coat. After yanking it over her head, she took the Luger firmly into her hand.
She fought her apprehension down. She refused to think of all that could go wrong, or of who might be inside that barn. Man or woman, soldier or citizen–no one could be more dangerous than the pair she’d escaped.
Crouching low, she ran toward the structure, holding her breath that a dog wouldn’t determine her presence and bark in warning. Back pressed against the side of the barn, her pistol ready, she moved within the shadows until she reached the open door.
Lantern light sprayed onto the ground, and she peered inside. A farmer sat on a low stool, his big hands working a Guernsey’s full teats. An orange cat sat near him, body coiled to catch a few drops of fresh milk.
Hedda left the shadows and headed toward them, her feet quick across the dirt floor. The startled tabby bounded away. Oblivious, the farmer continued splashing milk into the tin bucket in rhythmic spurts.
Hedda jammed the nose of her pistol into his back. The milking halted.
“I won’t hurt you if you cooperate,” she hissed. “Lift your hands.”
He straightened, easing away from the cow. Slowly, his hands rose.
“If you have come to rob me, I can give you milk and a few eggs, but little else,” he said.
“I’m not here to steal from you.” Like a ticking clock inside her head, precious seconds came and went. Time Claus would use to find her. “I–I need some help.”
“Help?” He turned, then. His gaze locked on her mask, and his surprise shifted to contempt. “What is this–this costume you wear?” he demanded sharply.
Impatient, Hedda jerked the Luger. “It’s necessary.”
“You are German?”
“Yes,” she said.
Her mouth opened to snap that it didn’t matter, but, she knew, in these times it did. It wasn’t easy to lend assistance to one’s enemy when hate ran deep.
She wasn’t yet sure where this man’s allegiance would lie, but she had to believe he was like most of her countrymen. Honest and hard-working citizens whose love for Germany was unlike the left-wing radicals who had made life miserable for them all.
Besides, she was armed. And he wasn’t.
“I will tell you only that I come because of a friend,” she said carefully. “American. Killed by a German.”
The farmer stood. His age, his size, the shrewdness in his blue eyes, reminded her of her father. Her throat thickened.
“You side with the Allies, then,” he said.
He nodded. “As I do.”
Hedda nearly slumped in relief. She lowered her pistol and dared to trust him.
“My friend was left behind,” she said. “After he was murdered.”
“I had no choice. The dogs were coming.”
His expression sharpened. “From the Wittenberg camp?”
“Was he a prisoner there?”
Hedda clamped her mouth shut. Already, she’d said too much.
He grunted, regarding her for a long moment. “How do I know you will not lead me to the enemy?” he demanded. “Maybe you will burn my farm and kill my wife and children.”
Desperate to convince him, she pulled off her mask, revealing the identity that could cost her her life. “This is how you will know.”
He stared, her face first, then her swollen mouth. “You are just a girl!”
“Who fights against those who make Germany an embarrassment to the rest of the world!” she shot back, stuffing the mask inside her shirt.
A small smile of approval formed beneath his thick moustache. “The passion in your voice assures me you speak the truth.”
“Then we must hurry.”
The smile disappeared. Abruptly, he took her elbow and pulled her with him toward the open door. “We will take my wagon. Every morning, I sell milk and eggs in town, so the rig is ready. Climb up and show me where to go.”
In moments, the buckboard clattered across the yard toward the woodlands lining the creek. Hedda grasped the edge of the driver’s seat, steadying herself against the rough ride, and frantically studied the horizon. Already, the dawn was creeping in, but there were no signs of men on horseback.
Hedda pointed to an opening between the pines, the site of the rendezvous, and the farmer pulled up.
Setting the brake, he glanced over at her. “You are expecting someone to come after you?”
“Yes.” She jumped to the ground, the Luger ready, her senses fine-tuned to someone hidden in the woods. “The man who shot my friend.”
“And he does not approve of you being here now?”
“He’ll kill me for it.”
The farmer appeared grim. He jumped down, too. “Where is the body?”
Hedda hurried to the creek’s bank and dropped to all fours. Lingering traces of moonlight glinted on the inky water, flowing from the prisoner-of-war camp southward as a tributary of the Elbe River. The waters were calm now, hiding the secrets within, the horrors that occurred only a few hours previous, and her heart squeezed with hope that Major Malone and Captain Hammond managed to return to the camp, safe and unharmed.
“He’s here,” she said softly, crawling closer. Leaning over, she spied a dark bulk. Her stomach turned from the stench. “Tied to the tree roots.”
In that, Claus had helped her to prevent the body from being traced to them–and implicating him as the killer. Afterward, she’d sprinkled pepper over the grass, all she had in the old tin, to throw off the scent for the bloodhounds. She swung her leg over the bank, but the farmer stayed her.
“Let me,” he said firmly, scrambling into the water ahead of her. “There is a blanket beneath the driver’s seat. Fetch it.”
She hurried to do as he commanded. By the time she spread the dark covering over the grass, he’d cut the ropes that kept Benjamin’s body out of the water. Grunting from effort, he lifted the corpse over the bank and onto the blanket. Quickly, he flipped the edge over Benjamin’s face.
“Spare yourself, child,” he said, climbing out. “It is not a sight you will want to remember.”
She conceded him the kindness, but not before she glimpsed the hole in Benjamin’s chest and the blood staining his shirt. Claus had shot him in the back at close range, and the bullet had gone clear through. Hedda would never forget her shock from the unexpectedness of his murder.
“No, I suppose not.” She attempted to distance herself from what she was doing, rolling Benjamin up in a blanket like fruit in a jelly-roll. “We must bury him. But where?”
The farmer grasped the blanket’s edges at Benjamin’s head. Hedda took his feet, noting the worn soles on the bottom of his wet boots. They’d joked about it–his need for new boots. Now, he’d never need them again. Her chest ached.
“I know a place,” the farmer said. “Let us get him in the wagon, and I will take you there.”
Awkwardly, they hefted him into the back, then jumped into the driver’s seat. The farmer made quick work of turning the rig and hastening out of the woodlands back to his farm. He pulled up in front of a pair of matching red beech trees. Jumping out, he reached into the wagon bed, opened a wooden box and withdrew a small shovel.
“Someday, you will come back for your friend, eh?” he said, thrusting the shovel into the ground, again and again.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Hedda said, dropping to her knees and scooping the earth with her bare hands. Major Malone would want to know where his brother laid. Hedda vowed to find a way to show him.
“When you come, you will remember this place. It is where my wife and I planted the trees on our wedding day, one for each of us.” His breathing labored from his efforts, he worked tirelessly lifting the dirt, making the hole bigger and bigger. “The beech is very strong wood, a symbol that our marriage would endure. We will never cut them down. They will always be here for you. For your friend.”
By the time the grave was dug, and Benjamin laid carefully to rest, the sun glowed above the horizon. Sweat dripped from the farmer’s brow. Exhausted, Hedda stared numbly at the mound of soft dirt.
She uttered no prayer from her childhood, no plea to the Almighty to forgive Benjamin’s troubled soul. A terrible loneliness descended upon her, an overwhelming sense of despair from all that was lost. The waste of a young man’s life, the futility of her cause, the war that seemed to have no end.
And for the first time since Benjamin was killed, Hedda cried.