The burlap sack emitted a loud metallic clang under the shaky cobblestone path. The cab driver wondered what his passenger’s contents could be, but he knew better than to ask. It went against every part of his code. His only job was to drive, not ask questions. Still, he couldn’t help but ponder.
The passenger in the back was in his mid-fifties, with blond hair and piercing blue eyes. The man was Herman Kline, and unbeknownst to the driver, the bounty on his head was a kingly sum.
Herman rested a nervous hand over the sack to mute its suspicious noise. They rode without conversation, the cab occasionally creaking or scraping against stone.
Herman looked down at his wrinkly hands. In the haste of chase, time had flown off the clock. Now it had all come down to this. After eight years of shameful retreat, Herman was at the gates of freedom. The upcoming exchange at the jewelers would be his passage, and in a few short weeks, he’d be reunited with his brothers again.
Herman’s smile wilted as he fidgeted in the grimy seat. How he missed his state-issued Mercedes Benz W31. He longed for the days when he used to motor beyond the camp’s walls and whip through the winding roads of Oranienburg. The war was deafening, and only motoring through that curvy forest pass could deliver his mind peace. There was a particular spot he’d frequent to clean his father’s old Dreyse M1907. It was there Herman buried a different forlorn treasure. He’d jeopardized everything to sneak back into Germany and retrieve it. Now that it was securely in his possession, nothing could stand in his way.
Or could it? Herman wondered. He scowled at paranoia. Undoubtedly the hardest part was behind him.
When the cab came to a stop in front of a jewelers, Herman counted out the exact amount for the fare and handed it to the driver. The driver hissed over his stymied tip, but Herman paid no mind. He stepped out with the heavy sack slung over his shoulder and shut the door. The driver angrily drove away with a parting horn blare.
Herman didn’t even hear it. Everything had come down to these next few moments. The world around him turned mute. As he took those steps up to the jeweler’s front door, memories came rushing back:
During the war, savagery was like a drug. Every time he shot an enemy of the state, his twisted tastes came alive. He loved it. His men loved it. They’d been wolves, and the ethnic plague was a carcass savored with ravenous zeal. His love for bloodlust earned a glowing commendation from the hierarchy. He was transferred to Sachsenhausen, where his demented talents truly shined. It was an effort that earned him the title of Kommandant.
But irony would steal the last laugh. The war effort fell apart, and once Herman’s men began deserting, he realized with horror what would come next: He’d be a war criminal. To await arrest was to accept besmirched death. So, he shed his medals, shaved his hair, and left his honor as a German soldier shattered.
Thrice, Herman was apprehended, and thrice he managed to slip away. The last instance was far too close. Five years prior, a British soldier recognized him in a public bathroom in Rome. The soldier grabbed Herman by the arm and pulled him into a stall. Before he could draw his gun, Herman slammed a pen into the soldier’s jugular. He slumped the soldier onto the toilet and hung his bleeding neck between his legs over the bowl as to catch all the blood. Since then, Herman suffered several close calls, but nobody had ever managed to fire a shot.
Just as he reached for the jeweler’s door handle, a terrible feeling crept back. He froze and nervously peered around. There was nobody suspicious in sight.
Little did Herman realize he had good reason to fear.
* * *
“Rabbit is in sight,” Uzziel Abraham confirmed into a short-wave radio. The muscular 61-year-old aimed a scoped Russian SKS-45 freehand from a second story window. He hated Russian guns, especially this one. Even with a scope, the SKS was bad at 100 yards, terrible at 250, and beyond 500, it wasn’t even worth taking the shot. But if apprehended inside Soviet territory, Nesher Unit couldn’t leave any trace of its true American origins. Foreign guns were a necessity for this reason. “Clear for go.”
“Streets are free of mice, Raptor. Wait for rabbit’s confirmation,” Nadir Horowitz replied. She stood across from the jewelers watching Herman like a hawk. As Nesher Unit’s intelligence wiz, it was on her to confirm the target. However, this was her very first time operating in the field, and she had to beg for deployment on such a risky mission.
“C’mon, look at me,” she muttered. Then, as if he heard her, Herman’s blue eyes bore directly into hers. Her heart practically leaped through her mouth. “Rabbit is confirmed,” she breathed.
Uzziel’s crosshairs fixed right on Herman’s temple. One bullet would pop his head like a grape... If he could hit the target.
Herman turned the knob and opened the door.
“Eagle, our window is closing!” Uzziel said. His finger was wrapped around the trigger waiting to pull.
Inside the back of a nearby Citroën H van, Bar-Yochai Ginzberg, Herschel Levine, and Vadim Kohn waited for orders.
Nesher Unit’s commander, Avery Thompson, shook his head and said into the radio, “Stand down, Raptor. We’re taking him alive.” He nodded to his men and sent the van into a symphony of snapping ammunition magazines and cocking guns.
Uzziel removed his finger from the trigger and replied, “Copy that, Eagle.” His sights remained locked on Herman as he disappeared off the street.
* * *
The air inside of the jewelers was dusty and stale. It didn’t take a detective to see very few people visited this particular vendor, but given the nature of his real business, Jinter Boozis relied on quality over quantity. To the laypeople of Budapest, he was a quiet shopkeeper who attracted very few patrons. In reality, he was a silent king with the power to acquire anything his clients sought. The precious stones on display in his storefront were a dismal fraction of his real operations.
Herman meandered around the vacant store, his steps echoing with the creaky wooden floorboards. When he turned around, he found the lanky, fair-skinned Jinter had not just appeared but was donning a Nazi salute to greet him.
Seeing the gesture, Herman nearly wept. “My God. No one’s given me a proper greeting in ages,” he mused in German, returning the salute with another.
Jinter lowered his arm and said in German, “This way, please.”
Herman followed Jinter into a private back office. “I can’t discuss much, even in private like this,” Jinter explained. “But Herman, once you see what your brothers have accomplished, you’ll be beside yourself.”
Herman remained cool as he rested the heavy sack on Jinter’s desk.
Jinter withdrew a loupe from a drawer and said, “First, I’ll grade quality. Then I’ll run the numbers factoring expenses, smelting fees, market value, etcetera. Only then will I give you a price. I support the cause, but I’m running a business as well. I will give you the passport and get you to your destination, but the amount I pay beyond-“
The two froze when they heard the entry bell jingle. A masculine-sounding voice called “Hello?” in Russian.
Herman picked up the burlap sack and tailed behind Jinter.
Jinter peered around the corner to discover four men who looked strong enough to crush diamonds. “May I help you?” he asked in a soft Hungarian tongue. With a little luck, a language barrier might banish the men with ease.
“Special Police. A man just came in here. We need to speak with him immediately,” Herschel replied in perfect Hungarian. Between the six of them, there were very few languages absent from Nesher Unit’s dialectic arsenal.
Jinter felt Herman’s icy fingers digging into his arm. He nudged him to deflect Herman’s worry. “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but you’re mistaken. Nobody has been in the store all day,” Jinter said.
Thompson was in no mood for games. They were deep inside hostile territory and had to get out as quickly as they could. He fought the urge to draw his gun and storm into the back. “Herschel, tell him we mean it,” he muttered under his breath in Hebrew. Since all of Nesher Unit’s activity was covert, English, in front of any witnesses, was strictly forbidden.
Herschel growled in Hungarian, “Listen, jeweler. We are not the people to play games. If he’s hiding in the back, make no mistake we will take you in and charge you with obstruction. We might even-“
Herman sprang into view with his father’s Dreyse jammed against Jinter’s temple.
Jinter shrieked when he felt the cold metal barrel pressed against his soft, supple skin. He pleaded to Herman in German, but his words fell on deaf ears, for primal instinct hijacked Herman beyond reason.
“Drop the gun, Herman!” Thompson shouted in German.
Everyone had drawn a weapon now. Thompson knew he had a split-second to make up his mind. He wanted to see Herman tried, shamed, and hanged like the beast he was. However secrecy reigned supreme, and a gunfight in the middle of Budapest was anything but.
“Herman, step away from the jeweler, and we’ll guarantee a fair trial,” Thompson pleaded. He was starting to think a bullet to Herman’s brain might be their only chance to issue justice.
Herman never looked so furious in his life. “Trial by Jew?! I think not!” he shouted. He threw Jinter forward, raised his gun, and unleashed a volley of lead.
Thompson and Vadim dove in opposite directions, while Herschel and Bar-Yochai held their ground and returned fire.
Bullets flew through the air, shredding Jinter in the crossfire. He was a mangled, bloody mess before he even hit the ground.
Herman hit nothing but storefront emptying the eight rounds in his pistol. As he turned to flee, his burlap sack was slit open by a hot bullet. Gold teeth spilled all over the floor and colored the room in gleaming light. He dove to the ground and stuffed his pockets before scuttling out the back door.
Everyone tore off after Herman except Vadim, who bent down to inspect one of the gold fillings. Disgust plagued his face. He muttered a Hebrew prayer, pocketed the filling, and ran out the back.
Jinter leaked blood all over the floor. He knew he only had a few moments left. He fished a cigarette into his mouth, lit it and then tossed the lighter onto an antique chair. The old piece of wood quickly caught fire. He puffed out his last few breaths while staring at the growing flames. His clandestine clientele would rest easy, for nobody would retrieve a single secret from his deathbed.
* * *
The art of stealth went abandoned in Herman’s pursuit. Nesher Unit replenished ammunition magazines with no regard for the empties. With nothing but Russian lead, their careless trail would still leave Soviet authorities scratching their heads.
Thompson put his radio to his lips and cried, “Rabbit is fleeing through the back alley! Raptor, engage at will!”
“Finally,” Uzziel said. He readjusted his vantage point to a window across the room. He struck a pose with his rifle and aimed.
Herman trotted only a few paces down the alley before a large-caliber bullet tore through his right shoulder. The sheer force of the round knocked him back, but adrenaline reanimated his body with the haste of a cheetah.
Uzziel fired off three more rounds. Each bullet found nothing but pavement. On the fourth shot, the rifle jammed.
Uzziel jerked it away and attempted to remedy it. “Not now!” he moaned in Hebrew.
Thompson and company stopped to examine Herman’s blood trail. “Raptor, where’d he go?!” Thompson radioed.
“Unknown. My gun jammed,” he said. He cleared the chamber, loaded a new round, aimed, and encountered a click when he pulled the trigger. “I can’t clear it. Rabbit is somewhere on the street.”
“Talon, do you have eyes?!”
The gunshots had drawn a crowd, and Nadir was trying to blend in. “Negative. There’s a big crowd gathering around the store.”
She spotted Herman in the middle of the street with a gun pointed at a car. “Got him! Eagle, he’s stealing a car! Blue Fiat. There are too many mice to engage!”
Thompson and his men ran into the street frantically looking around. “Raptor, give me something,” Thompson said into his radio.
Uzziel was now half-way through disassembling his rifle. “Out of commission, and we’ve got bats en route.” Uzziel took off the bolt cover, removed the bolt, and frowned at a broken firing pin.
The sound of faint sirens could be heard closing in. Vadim looked dreadfully at Thompson and said, “Let’s call it. We’ve got to get out of here.”
Thompson looked at Nadir across the street. He put his radio to his mouth and said, “Talon, rendezvous with Raptor and retreat.”
“Roger,” Nadir said.
“Roger,” replied Uzziel as he clicked his rifle case shut.
“Same goes for you two,” Thompson said to Vadim and Herschel. “Bar, with me. We’re not done yet.”
“Thompson, you can’t,” Vadim said.
“If Kline gets away, it might be for good this time. Leave General Fink to me. I’ll stand court-marshal if I have to. Now go,” Thompson said.
“I just hope you know what you’re doing,” Vadim said before vanishing into the crowd with Herschel.
Thompson and Bar-Yochai halted a man driving an MG Roadster. He beeped the horn and waved Thompson out of the road.
Thompson put up a friendly hand and approached the driver’s side. He turned his smile into a scowl as he drew his Tokarev pistol and waved it at the driver.
The man went pale as a ghost and vacated the MG.
“I’m driving,” Thompson said. The two piled into the tiny sports car and took off.
“We’ve sure managed to make a mess of things,” Bar-Yochai said over the windy ride.
“I think we’re a little beyond care now,” Thompson replied as he downshifted the gearbox.
The MG raced up a curvy hillside road. Bar-Yochai scanned the town below for the Fiat. When the MG reached the top of the hill, he exclaimed, “There! I see the prick!”
* * *
Inside the Fiat, Herman leaked blood everywhere. His useless wounded arm forced him to steer with his knees as he reached over to shift gears with his left hand. He had one spare magazine left. He ejected the empty Dreyse clip and inserted a new one.
The busy road spun out of the city to reveal an expansive countryside devoid of traffic. Once Herman fancied himself clear, he allowed his emotions to unfurl. The gold teeth had been his only way to get overseas. It took the cause years to find someone resourceful like Jinter. All Herman had left were a few handfuls of filings, and it wouldn’t be nearly enough for the trek across the ocean, let alone a new passport. He’d have to craft an entirely new plan from scratch.
Herman considered the men who thwarted his transaction. They’d caught him off guard and were extremely well-armed. He’d grossly underestimated the Jews who hungered for vengeance. Until his wounds could heal, he’d have to find a safe place to lay low and hide.
Herman wondered where he might go next. His thoughts hardly had time to mature before a bullet zinged through the back and exited out the Fiat’s windshield. He looked in his rearview mirror and recognized two men from the jewelry store barreling up in a convertible.
A second bullet ripped through the back window and shot the rearview mirror off.
Herman slammed on the gas. Survivalist adrenaline coached him through agony to keep him lucid. He grabbed his gun and carelessly waved it out the window to return fire.
While Herman threw away slugs, Bar-Yochai aimed with proper care. Each time he squeezed the trigger, his intended target was hit. He first wanted to alert Herman of their presence. Next, he wished to salt Herman with fear.
Herman’s bullets zinged past Bar-Yochai’s head, but Bar-Yochai’s aim remained steady. He carefully squeezed the Makarov’s trigger.
Air rushing down the barrel created a rattling effect against the Makarov’s chamber. The firing pin struck the bullet at an odd angle, launching it in an uneven trajectory. But Bar-Yochai knew pistols like a butcher knew a cleaver. He’d calibrated for the air vibration without even thinking.
The bullet launched from the barrel and careened toward the Fiat’s left-rear tire. It ripped through the rubber and sent shards flying up into the car’s undercarriage.
In all his years of running, Herman had never once been in a car chase. The stately Mercedes Benz of the S.S. made for grand show, but lousy evasive motoring. His driving skill was less than novice, and his poor decision to oversteer reflected that.
The Fiat spun helplessly out of control and careened off the road. Herman’s oversteer put it at such a poor angle that as it went into the ditch, it flipped in a tangle of crunching metal.
The MG came to a graceful halt a few dozen feet behind the ruined Fiat. Bar-Yochai and Thompson climbed out of the MG and slowly approached the steaming wreck.
“Careful, Bar. He might have another gun,” Thompson warned.
“Then I’ll blast his hand off,” Bar-Yochai growled. He could faintly hear Herman’s weak coughs coming from inside the ruined Fiat. He pointed the gun and peered inside.
Herman hung from his seatbelt like a carcass suspended from a slaughterhouse meat hook. Blood streamed down his face and collected in a pool on the roof beneath him.
Bar-Yochai noticed a few gold teeth scattered about the cabin. Herman’s blood had speckled most of them, an irony Bar-Yochai took exceptional pleasure at witnessing. He leaned in and undid Herman’s seatbelt, causing Herman to fall with an “Oof!”
Bar-Yochai yanked the flimsy Herman right out the window and threw him before Thompson’s feet.
Herman looked up dazzled and dumbfounded. He was finally at the doorstep of inescapable justice.
Thompson kneeled and looked Herman dead in the eyes to address him in German. “Well, well, well. Kommandant Kline. We’ve been after you for quite some time-“
Without warning, Herman defiantly spat in Thompson’s face.
Thompson wiped it off with a smile. “Now I’m thinking all you little Krauts had a chat back in the Wolf’s Lair about how when you were caught, you’d spit in their faces. Every single one of you does it. Do you know what we do back?”
Thompson extracted a small leather pack from his cargo pant leg and opened it up to show Herman a syringe full of green liquid.
“Your old pal Dr. Mengele concocted this. It’s quite nasty. This serum stimulates all of the body’s pain receptors at once.” Thompson jammed the needle into Herman’s arm and pumped the liquid into his veins.
A terrified look crept across the old Nazi’s face before he suddenly erupted with screams. Of all the agony they’d seen over their military careers, neither Thompson nor Bar-Yochai had ever heard a man scream with such torment. They winced for their ears as they held Herman down.
Herman writhed like a snake. It was as if lightning were shooting through his entire body.
Bar-Yochai kept Herman’s arms pinned with his knees and used his hands to hold his mouth shut.
“Now that we have your attention, Herman, I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Avery Thompson, and this is my associate, Bar-Yochai Ginzburg. We’re part a little unit that deals with... well, let’s say we’ve met plenty of your friends. We know you’re rendezvousing with more, and we know the jeweler was helping. We just don’t know how many or where.”
Herman’s muffled cries were loud enough to merit Thompson shouting, “Now you’ve only got about three minutes until your heart gives out, so I’ll make it very simple. Tell us what we want to know. I’ll inject you with the antidote, and then we’ll take you into custody to stand trial. Or you can die right here on the side of the road. What’ll it be?”
Thompson nodded for Bar-Yochai to remove his hand from Herman’s mouth. Through his screams, he managed to squeal “Vermin!”
They could hear sirens now. Bar-Yochai turned in their direction and said, “Thompson, we need to disappear.”
Thompson held up a finger, ferociously staring down at Herman in disbelief. “Do you really want to die like this, Herman?”
Herman’s vocal cords were withered beyond capacity to reply. All he could do was scowl with boiling fury.
Thompson sighed and said, “Very well. I hear it’s Chanukah every day in Nazi Hell, Herman. Have some Manischewitz on us when you get there. Bar, pat him down before he shits himself.”
Herman started to seize. His eyes rolled back into his head.
Bar-Yochai patted him up and down. All he found was petty cash and gold fillings. He tossed it aside and turned him over.
“Oh, fuck me!” Bar-Yochai shrieked, plugging his nose at the stench of feces.
“Keep searching,” Thompson said.
Bar-Yochai grimaced as he slid his hands into Herman’s soiled pant pockets.
“More cash,” Bar-Yochai fumed, throwing a wad of brown-spattered money that scattered when it hit the ground. He wiped off his hands and scoffed an utterance of revolted Hebrew.
“Dammit,” Thompson muttered. The sirens drew closer. When he looked at the soiled cash blowing in the wind, he noticed an unknown piece of paper was among it.
“Hey, wait a sec,” he said. He dashed over and snatched up the scrap.
“What is it?” Bar-Yochai asked, wiping his hands off on his black tactical pants.
The wrinkled parchment bore two hand-written numbers:
“I don’t know, but maybe we’re in luck,” Thompson said. He tucked the paper into his pocket. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“What about the body?”
“A John Doe with no papers is the Red’s problem now.”
“It’s a loose end, T. The Sovs keep records on Nazi fugitives too. It won’t take long to figure out his true identity.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Thompson said. He whipped out his pistol and discharged the entire clip into Herman’s face. “There. Let’s see them identify that.”
“You’re a real class act,” Bar-Yochai said. The two hopped in the MG and took off before the sirens were upon them.