You couldn’t win. Sooner or later, somebody’s fragment or bullet would have your name on it. (Kuchkov could neither read nor write, but he understood what people were talking about when they said things like that.)
“Now is the time to press on to victory!” Lieutenant Maxim Zabelin shouted. “Even the degenerate bourgeois capitalists of the West have finally realized that the Fascist jackals are beyond the pale. The Hitlerites will be pressed from both directions, smashed like bugs between two boards!”
“Attack! Attack fiercely! Never a step away from the enemy! Never even a single step of retreat!” the
“Questions?” Zabelin asked.
Now Kuchkov kept his big mouth shut. You didn’t have to ask questions. You took a chance every time you did. They didn’t care what you knew. They didn’t want you to know anything but what they told you. And if you let them know you wanted to find out more than that, or you already knew more or knew better, they wouldn’t pat you on the back and tell you what a clever fellow you were. Oh, no. They’d figure they couldn’t trust you, and they’d give you one in the neck first chance they got.
Kuchkov knew such things instinctively, the way he knew he breathed air and drank water (or vodka, whenever he could get it). He never failed to be amazed that men better educated than he was, men by all accounts smarter than he was, didn’t get it. Almost every time the
Sure as hell, a soldier raised his hand now. “Comrade Political Officer, are the English and the French still class enemies of the Soviet state now that they’re fighting the Hitlerites again?”
The company commander ambled over. First Lieutenant Obolensky puffed on a
A couple of other fools asked questions, too. The
As usual, the
“Thank you so much, Comrade Political Officer,” Obolensky replied dryly. Kuchkov’s head went up as if he were a wolf taking a scent. Sarcasm was what educated people used instead of
Off to the west, German artillery growled itself awake. Kuchkov’s head came up again. Artillery was serious business-it could slaughter you without giving you a chance at the bare-chested cunts serving the big guns. But this barrage would come down on some other sorry bastards’ heads. Kuchkov relaxed.
He wondered whether the Nazis were saddled with
In spite of the
When rumors failed to turn into slab-sided German panzers painted dark gray, the retreat stopped. The men dug in amongst the brush and scrubby trees on the east bank of a stream that might slow down an arthritic goat but that wouldn’t keep anyone serious from crossing.
Lieutenant Obolensky came up to Kuchkov. “You’ve been around the block a time or two, eh, Comrade Sergeant?”
“Oh, fuck, yeah.” Kuchkov remembered formality at the last instant: “Uh, sir.”
One corner of the lieutenant’s mouth twisted upward. “What do you think of our dispositions?”
That was a word Kuchkov had learned in the military. It still sounded faggy to him, but he got what it meant. Shrugging, he answered, “We’ve got some cover. We’ve got fucking mortars. We’ve got our machine guns. If the cocksuckers in
“Yes. For a while.” This time, Obolensky’s smile lifted both sides of his mouth, but it never touched his eyes. He peered west, as if expecting to see a whole
The Germans showed up late in the afternoon, when the sun setting behind them made them harder to spot. It might have been chance. It might have been, but Kuchkov didn’t figure it was. The Nazis still in business in Russia were pros, damn them. The dumb ones were mostly dead by now.
Scouts in Nazi gray filtered forward across the fields. The Red Army men in khaki sat tight, waiting for bigger, tastier targets. With the sun going down, they probably wouldn’t get them till morning. They’d have some then, though. The Germans had got better at concealing themselves, but they still weren’t up to Soviet standards.
And it all turned out not to matter. The Hitlerites slipped across the stream a few kilometers south of the company. They didn’t have tanks, but they did have armored cars and armored personnel carriers, which were almost as deadly. The Red Army fell back again.
Falling back meant watching out for Ukrainian nationalist bandits as well as the Nazis. By now, Ivan was used to it. He also watched out for vodka to liberate over and above the daily hundred grams, and for peasant girls who didn’t bother with bourgeois affectations like morals. Even when he didn’t find those, he watched out for his men. They’d be fighting the Hitlerites again, and probably soon.
When the U-30 put in at Wilhelmshaven, technicians swarmed over the boat the way they always did. But something about the way they went about it put Julius Lemp’s wind up. He went back to the engine room to talk with a diesel technician he’d known for a long time.
“What’s cooking, Gustav?” he asked quietly. “Something’s going on, sure as hell.”
Gustav was checking a valve’s clearance with a butterfly gauge. After a satisfied grunt, he went on to the next one. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied, his voice elaborately casual. To judge by his broad Bavarian dialect, he might never have set eyes on the sea. It only proved you never could tell.
Lemp’s snort filled his nostrils with the heavy stink of diesel oil. It was even stronger back here than it was in the rest of the boat. That really said something-nothing good, but something all the same. “
If Gustav would understand one word from how Berliners talked-so different from his own way of speech that it might almost have been a different language-it would be their pungent slang for
“Nothing for someone who spends most of his time at sea to worry his head about,” Gustav answered after due consideration. “Politics starting to bubble again, that’s all.”
Lemp wanted to clap a hand to his forehead. That was the stuff of bad movies most of the time, not a U-boat’s crowded confines. Every so often, though, life wanted to imitate art, even bad art. “Politics is never ‘that’s all,’ ” Lemp said with great conviction that he hoped would replace the extravagant gesture. “Who’s gone and pissed in the stewpot now?”
“Huh.” Gustav said nothing more for a little while: not till after he’d made sure the next valve was still working as designed. He checked his comrades again, as carefully as he’d checked the valve. Then, not quite whispering, he continued, “Well, you won’t be too surprised to hear some folks aren’t jumping up and down now that we’ve got our two-front war back.”
“As long as things are going good, politics looks like nonsense, ja,” Gustav said. “When they aren’t …” He didn’t go on, or need to.
Now Julius Lemp felt like banging his head against one of the engine’s sharp, greasy projections. “The more we squabble amongst ourselves, the more the Ivans and the Tommies and the froggies laugh.”
“Well, there you are,” Gustav replied, which might have meant anything or nothing. “But folks are as jumpy as a pail of toads.”
He wouldn’t say anything more than that. He’d told Lemp what the U-boat skipper absolutely had to know. Who was doing what to whom … Lemp would have to piece that together for himself.
The officers’ club would have been a good place to check, if only anyone were saying anything. But it was uncommonly quiet there. People drank with a grim intensity Lemp had seen before. Even when they’d taken on enough torpedo fuel to sink them deeper than the
All the schnapps was rotgut. Lemp drank anyway. If you couldn’t talk about the monster under the bed, at least you could blur its outlines. He didn’t seem to be the only one with that attitude. Oh, no. Nowhere close.
“This place is like a morgue,” he said to the petty officer behind the bar. The man was older than he was, and might have mixed drinks here for the Kaiser’s bewhiskered officers during the last war.
“Yes, sir. Sure is,” the rating agreed. “Wish we could pep things up a bit.”
Before Lemp answered, he asked himself the necessary question:
With such gloomy reflections on his mind, Lemp answered, “Sometimes peace and quiet is the best thing you can hope for,” after what he hoped was an imperceptible pause.
“Well, I don’t expect anyone could argue about that.” The petty officer pointed to Lemp’s empty glass. “You need to take some more ballast on board, sir?”
“Oh, you bet I do,” Lemp said.
He woke up with cats yowling the next morning. Timbermen, the Danes called a hangover: little guys felling trees inside your sorry skull. By the way he ached, they were using power saws. He dry-swallowed three aspirins. They helped some. The coffee he poured down would have done better had it held more of the real bean and less chicory or whatever other ersatz they used to stretch it. The military got the best the country could give. If this
Lemp had better sense than to say that out loud. He got called on the commandant’s carpet even so. Rear Admiral Markus Apfelbaum looked as if he’d been left out in the North Sea brine too long. He stared at Lemp with eyes of Baltic gray. “You have been asking questions.” By the way he said it, that might have been a capital crime. And indeed, if the
“Sir, it’s always a good idea to find out which way the wind’s blowing,” Lemp said stolidly. “How else do you judge how to trim your sails?”
“You trim them by loyalty to the
“I don’t want to do anything else. If anyone doesn’t think I’m loyal to the
But that wasn’t good enough. Lemp might have known it wouldn’t be. As a matter of fact, he had known, but he’d hoped against hope he was wrong. “You are loyal to the
When some families lost a son in the war, the death notice said
“I am loyal to the
Admiral Apfelbaum went on studying him. “People who are loyal don’t need to go snooping around.” The senior man might have been Moses delivering the Tablets of the Law-except Moses was a damn Jew, while Apfelbaum was anything but.
What the admiral said admitted of only one possible response. Lemp gave it: he came to stiff attention, saluted, clicked his heels, and said, “
“All right. Get out of here. You’ve wasted enough of my time,” Apfelbaum said.
Lemp saluted again, and got. He half wondered if a couple of blackshirts would be waiting for him outside the commandant’s office. But no. He let out a discreet sigh of relief. The enemy, you could fight. Your own side? That often seemed a hell of a lot harder.
Elections were in the air. It was a midterm campaign, of course, with only Congressional seats up for grabs, not the White House-the big prize. All the same, the Democrats were doing their best to hang on to as many seats as they could. The GOP tagged the fight against Japan FDR’s war, and said he wanted to mix it up with Germany, too.
Peggy Druce would have liked nothing better than giving Hitler one right in that stupid little toothbrush mustache. Charlie Chaplin had worn one like that for comic effect. The damn thing wasn’t so funny on the
She’d seen photos of Hitler from before he got famous, from the days when he was just another soldier in the trenches during the last war. He’d had a mustache then, too, but an ordinary one. She wondered what had made him change it to such an unbecoming style.
But that was neither here nor there. The Republicans were screaming at the top of their elephant lungs that FDR was such a donkey, he wanted to drag the country into a war with the Nazis while it was already fighting the Japs. Peggy only wished the President
All the same, that put him well ahead of the GOP. She was convinced it did, anyhow. And she was willing-hell, she was eager-to say so in front of anyone who would listen.
“I don’t know why the Republicans use the elephant for their mascot,” she told a big crowd at a Masonic lodge in Scranton. “They ought to use the ostrich instead, because all they want to do is stick their heads in the sand!”
People laughed and clapped. She knew she wasn’t being fair. Wendell Willkie hated and distrusted Hitler at least as much as Roosevelt did, which was saying something. But more isolationists lived in his party than in the President’s. And politics wasn’t about being fair. Politics was about winning elections. If you did that, you got to do what you thought needed doing. If you didn’t, the yahoos on the other side grabbed the chance to pull off their stupid stunts instead.
“The Republicans think-when the Republicans think; if the Republicans think-the Republicans think, I was saying,
“And look at all the trouble Hawaii is having from bombers flying off the islands the Japs grabbed right after they jumped us. If they’d got lucky and grabbed Hawaii, too, they might be doing that to the West Coast right now.”
“Little yellow monkeys!” somebody in the crowd yelled. That drew more cheers and applause. The Japs were easy to hate, especially in a place like Pennsylvania, where hardly any of them lived. They looked odd. They spoke a language nobody could understand. The nerve of them: Orientals who thought their country deserved to be a great power!
Getting worked up about the Germans was a lot harder in this part of the country. So many people here had parents or grandparents or great-grandparents who came from Germany. Even people who didn’t knew or were married to people who did. Germans looked like anybody else, too. It made a difference. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did.
“They’re the measles,” Peggy said firmly. “The Germans … The Germans are smallpox.” Shudders ran through the crowd. Plenty of people there, like Peggy herself, were old enough to remember when the horrible disease hadn’t been rare. Warming to her theme, she went on, “And the Republicans are a social disease.”
She smiled suggestively. People whooped and hollered. A couple of wolf whistles rang through the hall. “They are,” Peggy insisted. “They want to get rid of Social Security. They still want to do all the things they did that gave us the Depression. Want another dose?” She leered again. “Then vote for the grand old GOP!”
They gave her a big hand as she stepped away from the mike. She waved-she knew she’d earned it. The local politico who came up to introduce the next speaker wore an electric-green jacket with a big purple windowpane check. The hand-painted hula dancer on his scarlet tie was either voluptuous or built like a brick shithouse, depending on your attitude toward the language.
“It’s my great pleasure to present to you, ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, as if announcing at a prize fight, “di-rect from Hollywood, California, that fine actor and good guy, Mis-ter George Raft!”
Raft didn’t especially look like a good guy. He looked more like the small-time hood he was supposed to have been before he got into acting. His shiny black silk shirt and knife-sharp lapels did nothing to lessen the impression.
He grinned out at the gathering. “I was gonna say I didn’t want to go on after Mrs. Druce, on account of she did such a great job there,” he began, and led a fresh round of applause for Peggy. Not surprisingly, she found herself liking him even if he did look like a hoodlum. When the clapping died down, Raft continued: “But I
Peggy laughed so hard, she almost wet her pants. She wasn’t the only one, and wondered how long it had been since the Masonic hall rocked with mirth like that. Gryboski stood up to show off the hula dancer again. The crowd cheered him. They cheered again when he sat down.
George Raft had a performer’s sense of timing, all right. He sensed just when to start his own speech. The audience was still happy after giving Eddie Gryboski a hand, but they were also ready to listen to whatever the marquee name had to say.
And Raft had plenty. Herb would have said that he tore the GOP a new one. He wouldn’t say what the new one was, not where Peggy could hear him, not unless he was extremely provoked and probably not then, either. It wasn’t that he thought she didn’t know or couldn’t figure it out. But he’d been taught not to cuss in front of women, a lesson no doubt driven home by a clout in the ear when he goofed.
The crowd ate it up. Well, no surprise there. They wouldn’t have come to this hall if they were America Firsters or other people with views like that. When Raft finished, he got a roar of applause. A big hand, yeah, but Peggy didn’t think it was much bigger than the one she’d earned for herself.
As things were breaking up, the actor came over to her and said, “I really meant what I said when I was working the crowd. You were great. You’ve done this a time or two before, I betcha.”
“Now that you mention it,” Peggy said, “yes.” They smiled at each other.
“Me, I haven’t done a whole lot of politicking. Never saw much point to it, not till the fighting started,” Raft said. “Maybe you could give me some pointers, like.”
Peggy blinked. “You’re kidding!” she blurted.
“Not me.” Raft shook his head and raised his right hand as if swearing an oath. “Nope, not me. How’s about you come up to my hotel room? We can talk about stuff there. I’ll call room service for a bottle of champagne on ice or somethin’. Help us relax while we talk, y’know?”
She laughed out loud. “Oh, I know all right, you wolf.” When he said
He laughed, too, also unabashed. “Can’t shoot a guy for trying.”
“Sure,” Peggy said. He’d been a gentleman about it, or as close to a gentleman as a guy who’d started out as a small-time hood could come. Getting asked never bothered Peggy. What bothered her were guys who didn’t understand when no meant no. George Raft plainly did. As he turned away-looking for someone else to try to charm-part of Peggy went
Mail came to the Republican lines north and west of Madrid when it felt like coming. The Spaniards called that kind of thing
Not that he ever got mail, anyway. The only people in the world who cared about him and weren’t in the Czech government-in-exile’s army lived in Nazi-occupied Prague. He hadn’t heard from family or friends since the war started. He had to hope they were all right.
The Spaniard who carried the burlap mail sack made a horrible hash of Benjamin Halevy’s name. But the Jew was used to Spaniards botching it. “
“Here.” The Spaniard handed him an envelope with his name typed on it, and with a printed return address Vaclav couldn’t read upside down.
It wasn’t upside down for Halevy, of course. He whistled several tuneless notes. “Well, well. Isn’t that interesting?” he said. “I wonder what the Ministry of War wants with me.”
“No, of course not. The Paraguayan Ministry of War,” Benjamin Halevy answered tartly. Vaclav’s ears heated. Halevy pulled his bayonet off his belt and opened the letter with it. Letter opener, tin opener, candlestick … Those were all more common uses for the bayonet than sticking enemy soldiers. The Jew took out an official-looking-which is to say, typed on letterhead-letter.
“What’s it say?” Vaclav asked. If it was from the French military, it would be in French. Even if it weren’t upside down for him, he wouldn’t have been able to make much of it. German he could speak and read. He could swear in French, and order booze and food-and come on to the barmaid, too, if he was so inclined. But the written language was a closed book to him even if the book chanced to be open.
Instead of answering, or perhaps by way of answering, Halevy threw back his head and laughed as if he’d just heard the best dirty joke in the world. He laughed till tears cut clean tracks down his grimy cheeks. Speechless still, he held out the letter to Vaclav.
Vaclav pushed it back at him. “Just an asswipe to me,” he said impatiently. “You know I can’t make heads or tails of French.”
“You’re shitting me!”
“Could I make up such a thing?” Halevy shook his head, answering his own question. After a moment, Vaclav did the same thing. He didn’t believe it, either. The Jew went on, “I have a good imagination, sure, but not that good. It takes a government ministry to have an imagination that good.”
“But they waved bye-bye when you left,” Vaclav said. “They didn’t want you around after they cozied up to Hitler. You didn’t want to stick around after that, either.”
“You bet I didn’t,” Benjamin Halevy agreed. “But now I am recalled ‘to fight the Fascist foes of France.’ ” He waved the letter around. “That’s what it says here, anyway.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Jezek asked. Halevy might be a Jew with parents from Prague, but he thought of himself as a Frenchman. He’d been proud to think of himself as a Frenchman till his government hopped into the sack with the Nazis.
That, though, must have been the last straw, because he answered, “What am I going to do? This.” He crumpled the letter into a ball. “And this.” He flipped it up and over the earthen parapet in front of the trench.
A split second later, a rifle shot rang out from the Nationalist lines. A bullet thudded into the dirt in front of them. “Hel-lo!” Vaclav said. “They’ve got a sniper over there keeping an eye on us, to hell with me if they don’t.” Sometimes you’d fire at any motion you saw and worry later about what it might be.
Halevy didn’t care about that. He knew better than to stick his head up where anybody on the other side might see it. And he managed to strike a silent-movie pose without putting himself in danger. “Here you see me, a man without a country!” he said in melodramatic tones.
“Big fucking deal.” Altogether undramatic, Vaclav fumbled in his tunic pocket for his cigarettes. As he lit one, he went on, “About a division’s worth of men without a country within mortar range of where we’re at.”
By some standards, he and the other Czechs in the line here were men without a country themselves. The Germans sat on two-thirds of what had been Czechoslovakia. Father Tiso ruled the Slovaks in the remaining third as a Fascist dictator-and as a Fascist puppet. The Czechoslovakian government-in-exile insisted that would all be put right one day. Jezek had to hope it was right. The Germans and Poles and Magyars and suchlike in the International Brigades had even less reason for optimism, and less of a chance of ever seeing their homelands again.
“I know, I know.” Halevy pointed to the pack. “Give me one of those?”
Vaclav did. “You’re a scrounge without a country, is what you are,” he said. “Plenty of those within mortar range of here, too.” It wasn’t as if he hadn’t bummed plenty of butts off the Jew.
After lighting up, Halevy said, “All of us guys without a country, we should get together and make our own new one. Hell, we could conquer a province somewhere-a lot of us carry guns, right?”
“Sounds great,” Vaclav said. “We could fight some big old wars against our neighbors, whoever our neighbors turn out to be. And if that ever gets boring, we can have civil wars about which language we should speak or whether we should raise taxes or not.”
“I like it.” Halevy clapped his hands together. “We’re not even a country yet, and already we’ve got big-time things to fight about.”
“Oh, hell, yes. Nothing but first class for us.” Vaclav sent him a sly look. “Good thing we’ll have some Jews to kick around.”
“Jews are the original people without a country,” Halevy said seriously. “Hard to be a number-one country without ’em. I mean, look at Germany. How much fun could the Nazis have if they just went and persecuted Gypsies and queers and Czechs and no-account folks like that?”
“Oh, I expect they’d manage.” Vaclav sounded as dry as his cosmopolitan comrade usually did.
Halevy grunted. “Mm, you’ve got something there. The Nazis are a cancer on humanity. They’ll eat up whatever they’re next to. Unless surgery works, they’ll eat up the whole world.”
Cancer. Surgery. Vaclav had heard a lot of nasty talk about the Nazis, but none that made more sense to him. “You’ve got a way with words, you know that?” he said, genuine admiration in his voice.
“Oh, sweetheart, I didn’t think you cared,” Halevy lisped, and blew him a kiss. The Jew was as grimy and bestubbled and smelly as any other soldier who’d stayed in the front line too goddamn long. When he swished that way, he caught Vaclav by surprise and reduced him to helpless laughter.
“Well, at least you smiled when you said it,” Halevy replied. The other Czechs were gaping at them as if they were both nuts.