THURSDAY, JULY 1, 1943
Sixteen black and white photographic prints developed from Nicholai Chernikov’s microfilm lay across a desk at 32 Berkaerstrasse in the heart of Berlin. They depicted thirty notebook pages from a German Communist, an escaped enemy of the Reich, working for an American war project whose secrets he was passing to the Soviet NKVD. After more than two and a half years of planning and awaiting the right moment, SS-Brigadeführer Walter Schellenberg—head of the Sicherheitsdienst Reichssicherheitshauptamt VI, the Reich Security Service’s foreign intelligence department—had intelligence in his possession worthy of activating his and Heydrich’s most daring SD operation to date.
He lifted his telephone’s receiver.
“Ja, Brigadeführer?” came his aide’s immediate response.
“Connect me with Reichsführer Himmler. I will hold the line.”
“Zu befehl, Brigadeführer.” As you command.
Although the Third Reich had already independently discovered the content of the photographs, the fact Schellenberg had obtained the microfilm was conclusive proof of an NKVD operation his agents in Moscow had been hearing rumors of for over a year. Last month, SD operatives in England “leaked” to the Soviets their infiltration of the NKVD’s London mission, causing the Soviets to go to careless extremes in rerouting the microfilm from America through Zurich on its way to Moscow.
More importantly, the American-based traitor to the Fatherland had included with the microfilm a handwritten message informing his Soviet spymasters he would have three full notebooks for them by Christmas. In the hands of the Third Reich, these notebooks would represent nothing less than the key to swift and decisive victory for Germany.
“And what good news do you bring me this morning, Walter?” Reichsführer Himmler said when the call was connected.
“I have found a mission for one of our Loki.
“And which one would that be?”
“Unternehmen Steppenfeuer, Reichsführer.” Operation Prairie Fire.
“New Mexico. I see. Our assumptions there have been confirmed?”
“Unternehmen Steppenfeuer,” Himmler’s voice warmed to the news as he repeated the Loki’s operational designation and dreamt of that agent’s future. “From one tiny spark in the desert to an unquenchable, all-consuming mass event. From which,” Himmler mused, “our New Order will be born on the firebringer’s success.”
TUESDAY, AUGUST 10, 1943
H. Howard Hendricks read out loud from a handwritten page. “‘Members of the New Mexico Board of Parole: I stand here today, humbly representing my daughter, Virginia Hendricks, victim of heinous rape by the remorseless and unrepentant inmate Tyler Keyes: the rotten coward seated before you.’”
Unpossessed of a shred of humility, Hendricks’s claim to “humbleness” was a hollow word inserted into his speech to allow him to fill it with his plentiful hate and abundant rage.
“‘As you look to grant this human scum a reprieve—’”
A tap of an interruptive gavel provoked a flash of anger in Hendricks’s faded-blue, age-watery eyes.
“Mr. Hendricks, to be clear: a ‘reprieve’ is a suspension of punishment.” In his voice, Rudolph Schneider—last-minute appointed chair of this hearing—carried the accent of his emigrant youth. “We are discussing a parole, which is the continuation of punishment outside of prison.” Schneider glanced right-left to the three other attending members of the state board. With nothing to add, he said, “Please continue,” and returned his pocket-sized “travel” gavel onto Tyler Keyes’s file—case and prison records, other hearing evidence—and gestured Hendricks speak.
“I’m not ignorant, Schneider—” Hendricks made the name sound a whole lot like he’d say Kraut—“I chose the word I see at being applied here in these circumstances. This is your first time, Schneider, leading one of these despicable attempts to subvert justice in my daughter’s case, but I assure you: retired Judge Holden—who should be chairing this hearing—understood that difference you speak of and made sure—as I’m sure you will today—that Tyler Keyes’s incarceration doesn’t change one single, damn bit.”
“Continue with your statement, Mr. Hendricks,” said Schneider, then, with a sympathetic look to the female board member on his right, “And please mind your language: we have a lady present.”
“I beg pardon, ma’am,” said Hendricks.
He snapped the crisp onionskin page of stationery, adjusted his half-frame reading glasses and resumed. “‘This human scum broke into my home in the dead of night, made his way into the bedroom of my only child, and stole her most precious possessions—her innocence and virtue—in the most contemptible, vile way known to humanity. These are the facts of his brutal crime to which—with the evidence and God’s truth so clearly against him at the time of his apprehension—Tyler Keyes chose not to defend himself in court and volunteered to the eight-year sentence he now must finish serving.’”
Hendricks paused to fix each parole board member in the eye, one after the other—bang, bang, bang, lady-included-bang—like shooting cans off a fence…or livestock thieves when the blasting of a buck Indian or a wetback bandido was still extrajudicially legal in the State of New Mexico and anything but frowned upon.
“‘Eight years. Not six years. Not the six years and the hundred- and sixteen-days today’s calendar indicate. Not five days from now. Eight years. His choice, his sentence. Within the span of my lifetime, within this county, the deserv-ed sentence would have been an eternity in hell delivered by me within my right. Eight years—’” and here he pointed at the woman appearing to hide under her the felt brim of her green cloche hat—“and you, ma’am, I know agree with me, ‘is a light sentence for what he did to that girl, but it is the sentence that predator and defiler was given and the sentence I will be—excuse me in advance—damned to see him serve.’ Thank you.”
Hendricks was of a stature that made the largest of horses look small beside him, and it took him a second or two longer than most to return to a seated posture. Mrs. Margey, the woman on today’s board, who never hid from anyone, stopped him mid-stoop with, “Mr. Hendricks, while you’re perfectly within your right to use your daughter’s Victim Impact Statement to let us know, once again, your understandable dislike for the inmate in question, the true purpose of this statement—its only value, if you will, to this board—is to help us better understand her continued suffering, and the adverse effects the parole of inmate Keyes would have on your daughter.”
Hendricks drilled Mrs. Margey with his eyes daring her to continue.
Which she did. “Many victims have found it helpful to voice how their lives have been impacted by the crime committed against them physically, emotionally, even spiritually. How they are unable to work, or socialize, or participate in society in any normal way.”
“Even with this monster behind bars, the girl had to leave the country to eve begin to feel safe!”
Mrs. Margey consulted her notes. “To England. Is that correct?”
“You know it is.”
Mrs. Margey nodded. “Where she was recently betrothed in quite an elaborate fashion.”
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t attend. There’s a war on in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I’ve not forgotten a single detail. From the war, which has no bearing, to those from the court record which no one, including Mr. Keyes, argues. The only person, I’d suggest has forgotten is the soon-to-be Mrs. Baker-Davies.”
The inmate in his prison denims seated in the wooden chair positioned before the panel, his back to Hendricks, who’d not shown a hint of life before, flinched as though gut-punched by the sound of Virginia Hendricks’s married name. It didn’t look good, and everyone noticed. And for that Hendricks felt glad.
But Schneider—who the hell was this Kraut?—had to jump in. He held up a sheaf of newspaper clippings. “I agree with Mrs. Margey, Mr. Hendricks. We have photos here of your daughter’s wedding. It outdid the war for coverage for two days in every British paper. These are not photographs of a traumatized woman or a woman who, in England, would be made unsafe were Mr. Keyes conditionally released back into society. Frankly, I find it unusual that while still Miss Hendricks, your daughter never provided a statement of her own about anything. Why do you think that is?”
“I couldn’t answer that. Like you, and the rest of us in this room—except for Keyes—none of us have firsthand experience of the devastating ravagement of rape.”
Silence followed a moment before Schneider spoke. “You may resume your seat, Mr. Hendricks while I question Mr. Keyes as to his attitudes and prospects were we to grant him this parole.”
There was no way in hell H. Howard Hendricks would listening to a word spoken by the dirt-scratch horse farmer. He liked to believe the next time he’d look upon Tyler Keyes’s face, it would be the face of a dead horse farmer.
He tugged his mustache straight, one thumb and one knuckle for each side, as if he meant to tear his face in half. That’s how angry Hendricks was. He shoved his luxuriously soft 10x silver beaver “Laloo” Stetson over his long-by-prerogative gun-gray hair he so wanted to make him look like Wild Bill Hickock, but since Hickok died while his hair still glowed healthy, Hendricks’s locks resembled more Annie Oakley’s who died gray. His nose and eyes were also a lot like Oakley’s and hers were seriously like Harpo Marx’s. No one had ever remarked, but everyone saw in him the clown. And Hendricks, a mean, and ugly man, strode for the door as the board chairman began to question Tyler Keyes.
The old sheep rancher and oilman—for that’s what Hendricks was—stopped, one hand on the door, and shook his head in disgust. He knew from the tone the dirty foreigner used, that this time, Keyes was getting out.
A set-up—by whom? Hendricks didn’t know and didn’t waste thought guessing—that’s what it was, though. He’d never heard of this Schneider, didn’t know where he came from, or how he got wedged in here over Judge Holden, but it wouldn’t make a difference. They had a term for what happened next in prison. Hendricks found it just as applicable on the outside. Keyes was ‘dead man walking.’ Whoever was helping him could suck a dick, or better, the barrel of Hendricks’s dirtiest shotgun.
Convicted rapist Tyler Keyes, released on parole five days later, had told the Parole Board, although he had no living family, he had his farm to return to, alfalfa he would plant, and, having made a living out of horseflesh—breaking and training man’s actual best friend since childhood, when it had become apparent to his parents and anyone who knew Tyler Keyes that he understood horses in a way they understood back—he’d go back to offering those services to ranchers and farmers and pleasure riders in the county and sometimes farther out, as he’d done his whole life. He had a string of horses, cared for these past five years by a family friend, and a steeldust filly among those, born while Tyler was incarcerated, now ready to be bred.
They gave him his parole and a whole bunch of rules he knew he’d probably break if he stuck around and followed the plan he’d spelled out for them. Instead of going on to Vaughn—the town nearest his old family homestead—he got off the bus in Albuquerque. Tyler Keyes went into the nearest Army recruitment office and enlisted. Told to return after noon the following days, Tyler did as much, eager to get on with his life and on out of New Mexico; getting back Virginia, fixing what he knew they’d had even if she’d forgotten—the idea of that: the only thing he’d held onto throughout his incarceration—well, he’d rolled the dice, but she’d left the table and now his stake was shot.
The recruiting sergeant slid his paperwork across the countertop, his finger like a dagger he’d have liked to drive through Tyler, indicated the reason for Keyes’s rejection.
“‘Morally Unfit,’ buster. So either you’re a perv, a molester, a rapist, or a faggot: whatever the case, the Army—hell, the United States—doesn’t want your sick ass anywhere near its Armed Services, and I don’t want to see your mug inside this station a mean-second longer, or me and the boys are going to break.”
“The boys,” were some enlisted fellows that had moved in around Tyler like so many bullies in a High School parking lot. The only thing going to be broken would be them and Tyler was the man for a try at it, but they were needed elsewhere. Tyler figured he’d let the German’s do the breaking if that were meant to be their fate. Beyond his ego, down deep, he hoped it wasn’t.
And maybe he was—morally unfit, that is—if not before he’d gone in, certainly by the time he’d gotten out. That’s what prison does to a man. Murder, the only actual crime he had committed, and not by any choice of his own, well that did it to a man real well. Unwanted by his community, by society, by an entire world war, at twenty-four years old, name ruined, spirit crushed, hope—that thing with wings—he’d find, if he’d had any desire or intention of looking for it, dead on its back, feet curled, hollowed out by ants on the floor of his barn.
He sent a pair of letters from the post office. One to Elijah Jefferson who’d been caring for his string. The other to Phil Dexter who’d been paying his property taxes and keeping his farm in trust so Hendricks couldn’t get hold of it and ruin the Keyes family completely, which is all the bastard had ever wanted to do, then he made his way home.
Tyler opened the single-room farmhouse to let the air chase out the must and went outside to barn. Went inside to see what five years of weather had done to his tools, his tack, and his equipment. He didn’t find a dead bird named “Hope.” What he did find was Cecil O’Hara accompanied by four of Hendricks’s roughest hands. They hauled him into the yard where Tyler caught a glimpse of De Baca County Sheriff Thedford’s car idling down a’ways along the easement road that ran between the Keyes farm and the Hendricks sheep range.
The five men did everything they could to get Tyler to fight back, but Tyler, knowing one fist from him would violate his parole and get him put back in the slam, let them beat him unconscious. He didn’t have anything better to do.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1943
Perhaps a thunderclap before the storm woke him, but now, standing in the doorway of Compound 3 officer’s mess, watching heavy raindrops fire like tracers through the roving beams of the guard tower searchlights, Standartenführer Jürgen von Hofmann of the SD, had heard no thunder since. It was possible that the reason his eyes had opened at precisely 4:19 that morning, a full minute before the present downpour, was he’d expected it. Strange, he’d never seen the pattern before today, but lying in his barracks bunk, listening to the rain’s hard hammer, he’d concluded certain storms were portentous to him. His body attuned to their arrival. Were he Reichsführer Himmler, he’d believe some strange Teutonic god loomed over him, directing his course with overwrought Wagnerian symbolism. The SS colonel sipped flavorless ersatz American coffee and allowed a faint smile to twist the corners of his mouth. His steel-gray eyes remained perfectly cold. Fixed on the rain.
“There’s bread fresh out of the oven, Standartenführer. We could split a loaf before roll call. It’d be nice to have it hot for a change.”
Von Hofmann turned and glanced at the twenty-six-year-old Afrikakorps captain stepping from behind the service counter. Von Hofmann didn’t answer. The captain approached, juggling a steaming loaf of the sweet-smelling white Kuchen the Americans passed off as bread between his hands.
Although it couldn’t be more than six degrees Celsius, the captain, Hauptmann Fritz Zundorf, eschewed the pseudo-civilian blue jeans and denim shirts provided by their captors. He wore, as always, the sun-bleached khaki shorts he’d been wearing upon his capture. Zundorf preferred to wear them for as much of the year as he could tolerate, and, to his credit, Hauptmann Zundorf could tolerate a lot. His only concessions to the early-morning chill were the trademark Afrikakorps forage cap atop his head, the coarse wool scarf made from a Red Cross blanket, its tattered ends disappearing beneath the collar of his long-sleeved desert battle tunic, and the thick woolen socks rising from his combat boots like a Tyrolean mountaineer.
All this appeared in contrast to von Hofmann’s black wool SS uniform, visible beneath his unadorned, black leather military overcoat. As the searchlights swept past, the tunic’s highly polished silver buttons caught the light and shot it glistening back among the raindrops. Von Hofmann looked ready for parade. Six months into his incarceration, the only imperfection to his uniform was the missing SD cuff title, ripped from his sleeve and buried in the Tunisian sand in those last dangerous seconds before capture.
It had been the right thing to do. Whereas a disguise was out of the question—his SS uniform and rank his only tool to impress absolute authority over the other prisoners—he should never have worn the cuff title into combat. When captured, his papers identified him as a protocol officer from Berlin on an inspection tour of field hospitals. If a smart British interrogator had discovered he was Sicherheitsdienst, right now he would still be under the lights in some moldy London basement, a florid-faced MI5 bastard trying to pull from him the darkest secrets of the Reich.
Instead, he was safely in position. America. Camp Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
Zundorf tore off a hunk of bread.
“Ja?” he offered.
Von Hofmann declined with a slight shake of his head. His mind was elsewhere. Another rainstorm.
Zundorf bit into the piece and, chewing, made his way back to the service counter for some marmalade.
Yes, von Hofmann was sure. Violent storms marked important events of his life. When he was a child, his mother told him snow had fallen for three hours in Stettin the morning of his birth. July of that year had been uncomfortable and humid, making the joint-swollen exhaustion of her final month of pregnancy unbearable. Afterward, for the rest of August while she recovered, the weather was as hot, close, and as miserable. Yet, from two until five on the morning of August second, 1900, as she lay on the hospital bed, legs spread, her entire being focused on pushing a blood-smeared, wrinkled baby into the world, snow had drifted like angels’ breath across the foggy hospital windows and Stettin had found itself somewhere in the middle of December.
Von Hofmann narrowed his eyes at the pelting rain outside. In 1936, a dry alpine lightning storm had marked his wedding—men laughing, the women nervous, as he and Agna dashed from the church beneath the upraised swords of his honor guard standing at lightning-rod attention as her veil tugged the comb from her flame red hair and she laughed with joy and radiant abandon. And again, the night at Wewelsburg two years back: a heavy rain without angle, hard drops hammering straight into the earth.
If it were that kind of storm, there would soon be much to accomplish, with a margin for error at absolute zero.