“A powerful debut full of fear, suspense, violence and geopolitical machinations, plunging us into a labyrinth of high-stakes intrigue involving the Gestapo and British spies. Michael Smith explores turf reminiscent of the historical fiction of Alan Furst and Joseph Kanon. He writes with the detail, precision and sophistication you’d expect from a top journalist and historian who also happens to be a veteran of British military intelligence.”
Sebastian Rotella, author of Rip Crew
Monday 9 November 1942
It had begun to snow again by the time Ritter decided he’d seen enough, wondered too much about who the dead man was, tried too hard to imagine the circumstances in which he came to be lying lifeless by the bridge over the Inn. The uniformed police officers were showing their impatience. Stamping their feet on the ground. Slapping the sides of their bodies to keep warm. He called over Oberwachtmeister Kurt Naumann, the most senior Schupo officer still there, and told him to have the mortuary assistants take the body away.
“There’s nothing in his pockets. I’ve looked. I want everything else left as it is for the pathologist Kozlowski. I don’t want anyone removing anything they think might be more use to the living. Kozlowski sees it all. Got it?”
Naumann nodded, with half a smile, as if to say: “It’s fine. I understand. Some of us remember the old days.” It wasn’t something Naumann would say. It wasn’t something any police officer would think about discussing openly anymore. Only Ritter seemed able, or willing, to suggest there might be merit in the old ways. He looked across at Messel, standing by the BMW, waiting for him, still embarrassed by the dressing-down. Ritter had trodden too carelessly on his sensitivities and he probably needed to ease the situation. Maybe he’d find an opportunity, but right now he was too angry, still seething inside over Kleidorfer’s intervention and Messel’s eagerness to impress the Gestapo officer.
Ritter turned away, took the silver flask out of his coat pocket and snatched a quick swig, just to ward off the cold. Then he strode over to the car. Back straight. Ever the soldier. He had nothing to prove to these idiots, with their fancy uniforms and constant heel-clicking. He’d served his country on the front. He still served his country, putting criminals away, putting the real criminals away, when the likes of Kleidorfer and the Special Court in Munich let him. Whom did they serve? Other than themselves and the idiots in Berlin?
He got into the passenger seat without a word. Messel was already waiting behind the wheel. The boy started the engine and set off in the direction of the Kufsteiner Strasse. Ritter closed his eyes, trying to work out how and why the dead man might have come to be lying there by the bridge and whether the White Rose resistance was anything more than a bunch of students protesting for the sake of it, the way students had always done, and always would do. He was tired, dead tired. The snow on the road had been compacted by traffic, and frozen solid. Messel was taking great care to drive slowly. With the gentle swaying of the car and the steady noise of the engine, Ritter began to doze off.
He woke as the BMW went into a sudden skid. Messel spun the wheel to regain control over the car. It slid sideways across a sheet of ice. Heading straight for a tree. Dragging Ritter back five years to the accident. He was the driver, with Sophie in the passenger seat. He couldn’t control the car. Couldn’t prevent it smashing into the tree. Couldn’t prevent the devastation of their marriage.
But this time there was no collision. The BMW slid gracefully into a drift, stopping with a slight jolt. For a moment, he stared straight ahead, stuck five years in the past, with Sophie beside him. There had been no drift to save them back then. He saw the blood dripping slowly onto the floor of the car. Perhaps it would have been better if she’d died back then. The early beauty of their love would have survived.
Messel’s apology dragged Ritter back. He shook his head, as much to remove the bitterness as to clear his mind.
“You can’t help the state of the roads, Messel.”
“A lucky escape.”
The boy was seeking reassurance. Ritter breathed in deeply and motioned to him to drive on.
“Yes, Messel. A lucky escape.”
He kept quiet for the rest of the journey. The tension from the confrontation with Kleidorfer played on his mind. Messel glanced over occasionally, as if waiting for him to initiate a conversation, but he declined to take the hint, until suddenly, as the car came to a halt outside the house in the Kufsteiner Strasse, the frustration and anger boiled over.
“Nothing Kleidorfer is going to tell you is going to be worth a pile of shit. You do know that, don’t you?”
“I was just…”
“Just what? Just do your job. You’re a detective. You’ve got one job. One role. To find out who committed the crime. Not to cozy up to the Gestapo. Who killed that boy? That’s all that matters right now. All I care about, all you should care about, is who killed him and how he came to be lying there by the bridge.”
Ritter paused, his lips contorted as if trying to remove a nasty taste from his mouth. But he wasn’t finished yet.
“Kleidorfer isn’t about to help you, or me, work out the answer to how that body came to be lying there. He has one job alone: making sure we all lift our Pavlovian paws to the Führer. Nothing else. That’s all he does.”
He turned his eyes to the road and took a moment to control his rage.
“You’re lucky, Messel. In a world where truth has lost its meaning, you’ve landed a job where moral choices actually matter. Someone murdered that man. Your job—my job—is to find out who it was. To stop them doing the same thing to someone else. Understood?”
“Yes, of course.”
It was an instinctive response, almost indignant, and with no great enthusiasm. Messel looked at him with a mix of perplexity, pity, and fear. For a brief moment he thought it might be respect. But no. It was pity and fear. At least the boy was going to do as he was told for the time being.
Messel had stopped the car outside his house. He couldn’t have parked with more precision, right outside the gate. But there was absolutely nothing about Messel and the situation they were in that didn’t irritate him right now. He knew there was no logic to his mood. That it was Kleidorfer, not the boy, he needed to confront. But he couldn’t help it. He was angry even at Messel’s attempt to give him the least possible distance to walk to his house. He got out of the car without saying anything more and stood waiting as the BMW drove off. He watched the freezing fog from the river wrapping itself around the taillights until they disappeared. Only then did he look up at the bedroom window for some sign that Sophie might still be awake, waiting for him. He knew the answer already.
They’d met in Munich a few months after the last war. He’d been wounded on the Somme during that final push, the abortive Kaiser’s Battle, and had gone to university to read law. Sophie Küster was the professor’s daughter and all the young students were chasing after her. Kleidorfer among them. But none of them could match up to the dashing war hero with his Iron Cross First Class and Bavarian Order of Military Merit. Even old “Ludo” Küster, the Ludwig Maximilian Professor of Legal Science, had seemed impressed. Ritter had been young back then. Slim. With a mop of dark hair brushed straight back over his head and the upright bearing of a proud Bavarian officer. Sophie’s eyes always seemed to light up whenever she saw him. They were happy. Very happy. Or so he’d thought. Until the accident. Now his hair was receding and peppered with grey, while nothing he did seemed to stop the fat from piling on. He and Sophie barely said a word to each other. The only reaction he ever got from her was when he criticized Kleidorfer. She seemed to care more about that bastard than she did about her own husband.
Ritter went into the front room, poured himself an Asbach, a good German brandy, and sat in the old leather chair, staring up at the painting of Sophie’s father above the fireplace, trying to draw inspiration from his long-dead professor, trying to imagine what had really happened out there by the bridge. Kleidorfer had been dismissive of his mention of a resistance movement, and in truth it was difficult to imagine. But this was definitely not a straightforward killing. Why the white rose? And the jacket, with its old Berlin label? It was too worn for the rest of the man’s clothing. The shirt and trousers were in good condition. Why wasn’t the jacket?
The pressure from the vipers at the Gestapo offices over on the Adolf-Hitler-Strasse was grinding him down. His response had been to bury himself in the unsolved cases piling up against his office wall, working ever-increasing hours in an attempt to prove to himself that somehow he could make a difference. But his only achievement so far seemed to be to put yet more distance between himself and Sophie. They supposedly shared the same bed, but all too often he was too tired from the constant fights with the Gestapo, or too drunk, to do anything other than slump down in old man Küster’s leather chair and wonder what the professor would have made of the new order ushered in by the Führer and the Kleidorfers of this world.
“It’s just politics, Peter. Why should I make anything of it?”
“What are you saying, old man? That you think all this shit is right?”
“It’s no different from the last war, Peter. You were a good Wilhelmine. You went off to fight for the Fatherland. Look at the slaughter that happened then. What did you make of that?”
“I thought we were on God’s side, Professor. That’s what we all thought. We realized pretty quickly it wasn’t like that at all. Anyway, it’s not the war I’m talking about, it’s all this…”
“Every soldier who ever went to war thought he was fighting evil. Do you think this is somehow different? How can you be sure you’re on the right side here? What makes you think your squabbles with Kleidorfer are about good and evil?”
“Hold on a minute, Professor. Aren’t you the one who used to give every class that little lecture about how working in the legal profession gives you the opportunity to make moral choices?”
“The one you gave young Messel, you mean? Yes, I did. But it wasn’t until I heard you parroting it that I realized how vacuous it was.”
“Who asked you, anyway, old man?”
“That’s your problem, isn’t it, Peter? You’re not really interested in what I make of it all. You’re not interested in what anyone else makes of it. You’re the same arrogant fool who came back from the last war. There’s more to life than good versus evil. There’s no point in trying to take on Kleidorfer. Whatever you think he’s doing. The Gestapo look after their own. And anyway, whoever murdered that guy, it certainly wasn’t the Gestapo.”