The warm weather made the whiff from the Schultheiss Brewery more than usually rank. Denham told the driver to stop on the corner of Kopischstrasse, and saw the man’s nose wrinkle in the mirror. A second smell, of paraffin, followed a dog that tore past with a burning rag tied to its tail. Some children on the corner were laughing.
‘You live round here?’ the man said, pocketing the tip. ‘It stinks.’
Denham got out and slammed the door.
Welcome to Berlin!
After a day riding the world’s finest passenger aircraft he couldn’t face the crowds on the Ringbahn and had treated himself to a cab home from the airfield. The drizzle of the afternoon had eased off, leaving the air heavy and the streets smelling malodorously sweet.
Kopischstrasse, in the Kreuzberg district of the city, was a row of Wilhelmine buildings standing in the shadow of a Gothic brick water tower. The solemn balcony facades with wrought iron work were relics of grander times, but now each monumental house was carved into small, run-down apartments.
In the sepulchral hallway of number five, radio music was coming from the ground-floor apartment of Frau Stumpf, his landlady. He put his head round her door, but saw she had company. At her kitchen table, back towards him, was the balding fat head of his downstairs neighbour, Reinacher. The man was a tireless bore. If he wasn’t collecting for one of the Party’s endless relief drives, he was knocking on doors, enlisting the tenants into some sort of activism. The red collection tin sat on the table. Frau Stumpf, hunched in her shawls, shot Denham a look that said, ‘I have to listen to this Quatsch,’ so he placed the bottle of schnapps he’d brought for her next to the door and closed it without Reinacher hearing.
He was fond of Frau Stumpf, a delicate, absent-minded woman who treated the tenants with an old-fashioned courtesy. She’d lost her only son at the third battle of Ypres and had led a kind of half life since. He’d sometimes keep her company and eat her terrible stollen cakes.
The two-room apartment he rented on the third floor smelled scorched and musty after his week away, and a jade plant had withered in its pot beside the tile stove. He opened a window onto the courtyard, with its lines of greying laundry, threw his hat onto the corner of the door, and noticed the thin layer of soot covering everything. A sour smell of hops wafted in.
He wound the handle of the Victrola and placed the needle on the record left there a week ago, the Hot Five playing ‘Alligator Crawl.’ Humming the riff and lilt of Armstrong’s trumpet, he lit an HB and sat for a few minutes, watching the smoke unfurl in the dusty light.
He’d give Rex a call. The old hack usually had good sources and might even have a lead on how to contact her. There even was a chance he was still in the office.
He answered after one ring.
‘Rex, beer at the Adlon?’
‘Be there in half an hour, old boy.’
Denham put his hat back on, but before leaving the building climbed to the fifth floor and knocked gently on the door of the attic apartment.
‘Everything all right, Frau Weiss?’
After a while a chain rattled and the bolt turned. The door opened ajar and an old lady’s face peeped out like a bird’s. Her eyes moved fearfully in their sockets, but she smiled like a little girl when she saw him, then unhooked the chain and took his forearm in her avian claw.
‘Could be better; could be worse,’ she said with a shrug. ‘It’s these children. They don’t behave the way they used to. Would you get me some coffee and sugar this week?’ She fumbled for a note in her apron pocket, but he waved it away.
Frau Weiss, the building’s only Jewish tenant, had not left her apartment in two years. Not since her husband had gone out to buy a newspaper and never returned. A week after his disappearance his bloated remains were dredged from the Landwehr Canal showing fatal wounds to the head, but the police had declined to investigate.
B y the time Denham arrived at the Hotel Adlon it was a fine summer’s evening. Unter den Linden was closed to traffic for the opening of the Games, and crowds of strolling Berliners and tourists were out enjoying the heat. Loudspeakers along the avenue played Strauss waltzes in between official announcements, as though the city were one great carnival. He was ready for a cold beer.
Rex Palmer-Ward, chief correspondent for the Times, was waiting for him at their usual corner table in the upstairs bar, puffing on his calabash pipe, the long strands of his salt-and-pepper hair tumbled down over his forehead. He’d been a friend of Denham’s for years in ways for which Denham would always be grateful. Godfather to Tom and, during the hollow days of Denham’s divorce, comforter and fellow sorrow-drowner.
The place was packed with press, shouting and chatting in a dozen languages. Rex rose to greet him, extending a stick-thin arm. Denham had rarely seen him eat. He seemed to subsist on nicotine, alcohol, and salted nuts.
‘Hello, old boy. Did you catch the opening of the Games?’
‘I made a flying visit,’ Denham said and ordered a beer for himself and another for Rex. ‘Are your chaps over from London?’
‘Yes, the Times and Daily Mail boys were mightily impressed, of course.’ He began stoking his pipe with a cocktail stick. ‘Took them to the press briefing at the zoo ballroom this morning. The little Doctor was as quick as a whip as usual… made a ringing speech about how the Games had nothing to do with propaganda-Germany merely wanting to show its best side-this from the world’s master propagandist…’
Their beers arrived.
‘Look at this,’ Rex said, lifting the Berliner Morgenpost from his side pocket. ‘I had to read the Nazi press to find out the King is holidaying on a yacht in the Med with this American woman, Wallis. Our boys are pretending he’s at Balmoral.’
‘That’s game of them.’ They both laughed.
Denham said, ‘You wouldn’t happen to know of a Jewish sports organisation I could contact? Got a story about an athlete I’m following up.’
Rex frowned. ‘Not likely. Independent sports bodies are banned as far as I know. Can’t you simply doorstep this person?’
‘Maybe. If I can get close. But I suspect this one’s protected in case people like me come along asking questions. The athlete is Hannah Liebermann. She’s competing under duress.’
‘Good God.’ Rex looked up from his pipe. ‘Be careful. They’re twitchy. If they think you’re snooping behind their Olympic stage scenery they’ll throw you out. And then who will I drink with? So, where on earth did you hear that?’
‘A source I had to charm and coax,’ Denham said, seeing in his mind’s eye the intensity of Friedl’s face on the airship, the light of ploughed fields and sky reflected in it. That bizarre question. ‘Did we meet at a poetry reading in Mainz last year?’
Rex was watching him, curious.
‘You know, you’ve got one of those faces, old chap. People confide in you… They trust you. It’s why you get the good stories.’ He tapped out the carbonised debris and cleaned the bowl of the pipe with his finger.
They were silent for a moment; then Rex changed the subject.
‘Been invited to any of the parties?’
‘Here.’ He pulled an envelope from his jacket and slid it across the table. ‘Can’t make this one-if you want to go you’ll have to pretend you’re me.’
Denham removed the thick card invitation with embossed italic lettering. ‘Ah, the language of diplomacy.’ The inscription, in French, began:
On behalf of the Reich Government
Reichsminister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda
DR JOSEPH GOEBBELS
requests the honour of your company for dinner at an ‘Italian evening’
The party was to be held on the Pfaueninsel, a nature reserve island in the Wannsee, where many of Berlin’s rich and powerful had their homes.
‘I’ll dust off my dinner jacket,’ Denham said.
‘Won’t do. It’s white tie and tails.’
Over the noise of the bar a pianist began playing ‘Frauen Sind So Schon Wenn Sie Lieben,’ a tango Denham had been hearing a lot on the wireless. Women are so beautiful if they’re in love.
Rex said, ‘Phipps will be at that reception. Introduce yourself to him.’
‘Sir Eric Phipps? Are you serious…?’
Rex nodded. ‘He may look like a squirrel with stage fright, but our ambassador’s no fool-and he doesn’t have the time of day for the appeasers. Phipps is one of us. Tell him you drink with me.’
‘You’ve pulled him up a peg in my estimation,’ Denham said. ‘I didn’t know you knew him.’
Rex leaned towards Denham, his face grave and confiding. ‘By the way, old chap… with that trustworthy face of yours… if anyone were to pass you some intelligence-significant intelligence-I know you’d act in the nation’s best interests. Keep yourself above reproach and all that. Am I right?’
Denham put his beer down. ‘If it’s important I’d put King and country first, if that’s what you mean.’
His old friend’s expression was hard to read.
‘Rex, this is cryptic even for you. Was there some intelligence in particular?’
But Pat Murphy from the Daily Express had appeared at the table, rubbing his hands. ‘Evening, gents. There’s a rumour going around that one of the German lady high jumpers is, in fact, a man.’
‘Only one?’ Rex said, his face amused again.
Two Americans from the Reuters Bureau also pulled up chairs, and soon the table was in a haze of smoke from Rex’s reignited, smouldering pipe. Denham decided it was time to eat.
He was leaving the grand lobby when he found himself sharing the revolving front door with two women who were entering. One was short and chattering, the other a tall blonde with a stylish pillbox hat tilted low to one eye. She had a long neck, a wide, full mouth, and a beauty spot just to the right of her nose. No makeup. For a long moment they exchanged glances through the glass.
H is favourite bistro on the Bergmannstrasse usually put him in a good mood. On quiet evenings, and if there were no uniforms in the place, the patron tuned the wireless to a Parisian jazz station that played live sessions of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. But tonight the place was crowded and noisy, along with every other restaurant on the street. He tried jotting some shorthand for his Hindenburg piece, but the evening’s conversation with Rex had riled him.
It seemed to confirm something he’d long suspected about his old friend: he had links to the British Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS. Not so surprising, perhaps. Spies and journalists alike were in the information game, courting contacts, mining for secrets. In times like these the jobs were almost identical. And as the chief Times correspondent Rex had sources all over Germany.
Phipps is one of us. Tell him you drink with me.
First an entree to the ambassador at a high-level reception-what had prompted that? — then a heavy hint that any intelligence passing Denham’s way should be handed in to the British authorities. In other words, his longest-standing journalist friend was asking him not to be a journalist. He chewed his bread slowly as he considered this.
By the time he asked for the bill he’d decided that intelligence work, divining meaning from the tea leaves of figures, rumours, and whispers, or whatever it involved, was a game he’d leave to Rex.
T he streetlamps were lit when he returned to Kopischstrasse, whistling ‘Frauen Sind So Schon Wenn Sie Lieben,’ which echoed around the gloomy hall. Why was it only the annoying tunes stick in your head? All was dark behind the frosted glass of Frau Stumpf’s door.
At the top of the stairs he switched on the landing light, only half registering the smell of an unfamiliar cigarette. He was putting his key in the lock when his door swung open from within. An enormous man in a hat and raincoat lunged from the darkness inside, shoved his fist into Denham’s chest, and sent him crashing against the landing wall. He had barely slid to the floor when a hard blow struck the right side of his head, knocking him flat. A mewling pain cried from his jaw and ear, and blood filled his mouth where he’d chomped down on his tongue.