© Kyle R Fisher
Projekt Half Light Excerpt

Chapter 1

Nine steps and a flaking gray steel airlock door were all that stood between SS Gruppenführer Herman Fegelein and his escape from Hell. All, that is, except for the Russian army to the east of Berlin and the American army to the west. He would have to deal with that later, but for now, escape from the Führerbunker, this place of putrid air, blaring Wagner music, and rambling, incoherent diatribe, would be the most challenging task. Once initiated, there would be no turning back. “That was the worst one of all, Herman,” said Erika Lorenz as she matched strides with Fegelein up the stairs. It was April 27, 1945, only a week after the Führer’s 56th birthday yet he appeared to have aged ten years in that time. The skin hung flaccid and pale from his face. He moved slowly with a stoop and his hands shook visibly. He alternated from stoicism to despondency to fury all without a moment's notice. “Not the worst I’ve seen,” Fegelein said, “When the Steiner attack didn’t come off as he ordered—that was the worst.” He cast an immodest glance at her body as her skirt rocked back and forth. She was no Kirsa, with the features and body right out of an Aryan recruitment poster, but Erika was attractive and even sexy in her own way. It’s too bad he’d never sample that delicious piece of strudel. “Why don’t we run away together?” he asked. “Right now. I’ve heard that we can still get out of the city by following the U-Bahn.” Erika stopped outside the airlock door and turned to face him. She admired his good looks for a few moments with a sad smile and leaned in to kiss him firmly on the mouth. After a long few seconds, she pulled away. “Don’t talk that way, Herman. Do you want to get shot?” “For you, Erika, I would battle the entire American army—not the Russians, of course—but the Americans, yes indeed.” They allowed themselves a brief laugh, a rarity for both of them as of late. “All these months you’ve been flirting with me, I’ve known of your reputation. You think you’ve been fooling me, but I’ve been fooling you,” she said. His playful smile fell, replaced by a look of concern. “What do you mean, Erika?” “I mean I haven’t believed you for a second. Oh, don’t play innocent, Herman. You’re married to Eva Braun’s sister. Even if you don’t love her, that political plumb is too juicy to leave on the vine. If things had been different…” She looked back down the short hallway toward the bunker. “Well, you would have gone far and there would be no room for Erika Lorenz anywhere in the picture.” Fegelein breathed an unseen sigh of relief. The sad smile lingered on her face, but he was not certain if it was for him or for Germany. She looked away. “But things aren’t different and they will soon get much worse.” He lifted her face with his finger and looked into her eyes. “But if things had been different, you would have been the light of my life.” He had always been able to lie to pretty girls, ever since he discovered they nearly always believed him. His good looks and charm didn’t hurt, but lying to women was an art form he’d mastered at an early age. With one last wistful glance at Fegelein, Erika turned the large metal handle and pushed the steel door open. Though they were entering the dank basement of the Reception Hall in the Chancellery garden, the air smelled as fresh as a spring day. Two SS guards, both part of the Führer’s personal bodyguard detachment, stood outside holding machine guns but paid little attention to them. Fegelein had passed through these doors hundreds of times since Heinrich Himmler had appointed him as Liaison Officer to Fuhrer Headquarters and Erika was Himmler’s secretary. She had been there dozens of times at a minimum. Through the long basement hallway and up another flight of stairs and they were in the Grand Reception Hall, which had been thus far spared from the relentless bombing. As of February 1, Berlin had seen over eighty air raids by the British and Americans. He did not know how many tons of bombs had been dropped, but he knew it was turning their beautiful city to rubble. As Fegelein pushed open the Reception Hall doors, the chirp of morning birds and the fresh smell of lilacs greeted them. “Ah, yes, it is spring, isn’t it?” he said, breathing in deeply the aroma. “When you’re down there, you tend to forget.” Now that his decision was made, he was anxious to begin the journey, and this smell reminded him of safety, of home, and of passion. A slight gust of wind from the east brought another smell mixed in with the fragrant lilacs. Fegelein could not place it at first, masked as it was, but recognition quickly dawned. In Yugoslavia, he had been a cavalry commander fighting the partisans—he had won the Knight’s Cross for it—and that was where he’d smelled this before. Intermingled with the lilacs was the smell of rotting corpses. Except these weren’t partisans, these were undoubtedly his fellow soldiers and countrymen. The Russians would indeed have their revenge for the atrocities at Moscow and Stalingrad. He walked Erika to her Volkswagen in silence. There would be no kissing here in the open, but nobody was in earshot. “Will you be attending the afternoon Situation Meeting?” he asked. “No, Himmler has asked me to travel to Fischhorn Castle for some things he needs finished.” This was Himmler’s current headquarters in the Swiss Alps near Zell am See. The SS had appropriated a castle to serve as the SS Horse Farm, where Fegelein was Commandant. He knew Himmler wanted Erika to ensure the destruction of all his personal records, which firmed Fegelein’s resolve even more. “Well, you must be careful. The south should yet be open, but you never know.” “He’s sending a detachment of SS to watch over me.” Her smile faded. “What could go wrong?” Fegelein closed her car door behind her and watched her drive out of the parking area. His 1942 Mercedes-Benz 320, a fringe benefit of the job, sat nearby, and he hurried toward it. There was no time to waste. He followed the Volkswagen's path out of the parking area and headed south himself. He drove past Potsdamer Platz, a half kilometer from the bunker, to swing west onto Kürfurstenstraße toward the Kürfurstendamm, a neighborhood of expensive shops and elegant clubs. He kept a small, though expensive, apartment there within sight of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church—or at least what was left of it. As he drove, the haunting strains of Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung—Twilight of the Gods—echoed in his mind from his time spent at the Führerbunker. How ironic that it was the Führer’s favorite opera. Fegelein had grown to detest it and fought to clear it from his mind. While the streets around the central government area remained passable, the further away he drove, the more debris he had to skirt, forcing him to slow his pace to a frustrating crawl. The daily bombing raids from the Americans and nightly bombing raids from the British left burned-out buildings, twisted and blackened cars, and often, the corpses of the unfortunates caught between. He had acquired the apartment shortly after marrying Gretl Braun in June of the previous year, primarily for his occasional dalliances, one of which was waiting there for him. Gretl was attractive enough, but everyone understood it was a political marriage. After all, her nickname among the SS was “the nymphomaniac of the Obersalzberg” and she was pregnant with another man’s child when they married. Well, the nymphomaniac part was true enough, but he just could not see himself with only one woman. As he neared his apartment, he could see the fire-blackened shell of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church belfry. This was all that was left standing of the breathtaking Romanesque-style church, completed in 1895 in tribute to the Emperor William 1st. Allied bombs had destroyed it two years before. A slow smile played across his face at the thought of the destroyed church. Although he was not a religious man, he hated the thought of another German landmark destroyed. However, it was the perfect place to hide the carefully wrapped bundle of memos, letters, and official orders he’d purloined over the last year. If things went badly during his escape, these may just save his life. He parked on the street in front of his building and headed for his apartment on the second floor. Kirsa should be packed and waiting for him. To his dismay and delight, both in equal measures, she was indeed waiting for him, but unexpectedly lying in the large bed. She sat propped up on several pillows, reading, naked from the waist up and a thin sheet hiding little of the rest. Her breasts were large and magnificent with the firmness of a twenty-year-old, despite her extra ten years. She had strong Aryan features, blonde hair, and a beautiful smile. She was smart in addition, a quality he’d found in few of his selections so far. As he entered the bedroom, she put her book down and suggestively cupped both her breasts. “Come to bed, Otto,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about you all morning.” That was his middle name and what she called him when she wanted something. Kirsa was a secretary at the Propaganda Ministry that he had noticed a few months back while attending a meeting. It was unfortunate he had not met her before meeting Gretl—he might have married her. “You know I like it when you’re naughty but we should be on our way.” Fegelein crossed the room to a small table and poured a half glass of schnapps—real schnapps—into a tumbler. He turned back to Kirsa who had her arms crossed over those superb breasts. He took a tentative sip, trying to fight the urge, but already knowing he would lose. “Otto, we’ll be traveling for days. Who knows when we’ll get the chance again?” Her eyebrows arched in a pleading manner. Of course, she was right. Who knew when they would get the chance or even if they would get the chance? This was a war and it was going badly. Bombs, Stalin organs, enemy bullets, and sometimes even German bullets: there were so many ways to die out there. He had even heard his fellow SS were looking for German deserters to give them justice at the end of a rope. He owed it to himself to take one more moment of pleasure before leaving. “You’re right,” he said. He finished the schnapps in one long drink and winced from the slight burn. Kirsa giddily pushed her book from the bed and kicked the sheets from her legs. She was indeed naked. Fegelein began removing his black SS uniform and laying each article on a chair in his precise manner. Pushed into the back of his mind, he knew they should go, but the slow ritual of the uniform was intensifying the longing for both of them. It should be as memorable as possible, after all, it may be his last. When his breeches were neatly folded on the chair under the peaked officer’s cap and Fegelein was naked, he climbed on the bed beside Kirsa and took her in his arms. She felt wonderful pressed against him and he wanted to take her now, but he forced himself to slow down, to take his time. They would make it one to remember, one to last until the next opportunity came along, whenever that may be. Two hours later, Fegelein’s eyes snapped open and he cursed under his breath. Kirsa lie beside him, sleeping soundly and covered by the thin sheet. There was nothing more anesthetizing than an hour of sex with Kirsa: they had both fallen asleep. He rose from the bed and crossed the room to the chair holding his uniform. His watch read 2:30 pm. That was bad. The Situation Meeting in the Führerbunker started at 2:00 and Fegelein was late. His absence would be noticed but he had no idea if there would be any ramifications. He gathered his uniform and strode toward the bathroom. He would finish dressing and awaken Kirsa afterward. He stopped short when he reached the leather traveling bag that sat innocuously on the dresser. It appeared no different from any other bag, but the contents could get them both killed on the spot. He peered inside to see a change of civilian clothes on top. Pushing them aside, he could see the false passports, a nondescript envelope containing a large amount of Reichsmarks and Swiss Francs, a small pouch containing jewelry, diamonds, and a few other precious stones. Tucked underneath these items was a second envelope, bearing official military markings. This was the proof that he did indeed have something stashed in the church to use as a bargaining chip. They would travel west toward the Americans as far as his legitimate papers would take them. This would not be far, perhaps near the Elbe, where they would change into their civilian clothes and use their false passports to go south to Switzerland. Under no circumstances did they want to cross paths with the Russians. The Führer’s decision to invade Russia with Operation Barbarossa in 1941 showed his contempt for the Molotov-Ribbentrop German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact and, in hindsight, likely cost Germany the war. Now the Soviets were on the offensive and were after a taste of revenge. Better to run into the Americans where they might have a chance for fair treatment. With a pace more rapid than the removal process, he dressed. When complete, he smoothed his black wool tunic and admired how striking it looked on him. He would miss the SS uniform. The black, peaked cap with the Death’s head insignia below the German eagle completed the look, but nothing came close to the prestige he garnered with the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords hanging about his neck. Only 159 other men among all of Germany could boast of wearing this prestigious award and Fegelein made certain he held his chin up high so nobody would mistake what was hanging there. He felt a deep disappointment for the impending fall of Berlin and the Third Reich, not so much because of any great loyalty to the Führer or reverence for his so-called supernatural powers. Perhaps at first he’d bought into that horseshit, but the Führer’s schizophrenic tirades in the last few months at the daily Situation meetings had convinced him otherwise. No, his disappointment came from the certain loss of the power and prestige he had enjoyed up to now, for the way he looked in his black uniform, and from the fear it invoked in everyone who looked at him. From the opened bathroom window, the sound of a large vehicle stopping jolted Fegelein from his contemplation. Few trucks were on the streets these days and rarer still was the coincidence of one stopping in front of his apartment. He pulled aside the curtain and peeked outside to see an SS troop transport bristling with soldiers parked at the curb below. They were the Führer’s bodyguard detachment. In fact, the two fellows he’d passed earlier that morning at the airlock doors were among them. Several men stayed behind with the transport, but the rest were wasting no time heading toward the apartment entrance. For the briefest of seconds, as his mind raced at high-speed from the adrenaline surge, he agonized over how he would get Kirsa awake and dressed before the soldiers knocked down his door. No sooner had this plan run through his mind before he realized Kirsa would not be going with him. Moving quietly, he entered the bedroom and quickly walked to the traveling case. Due to his escape route, he would not be able to take the entire case, but he could get the most important items. He fished out the small bag of precious stones and jewelry, the false passports, and the envelope with the official military markings. He glanced one last time at Kirsa. She looked so beautiful as she slept on the bed, her full breasts commanding his attention even under the sheet. Her confusion upon waking would surely buy him the precious minutes he needed to escape, but it was too bad. He hadn’t yet tired of her exquisite Aryan body. As he moved toward the next room, he consoled himself that there would be a whole country full of beautiful blondes in Switzerland. In his living room, he pushed open the large window and peered out to the street. The two men at the truck were talking in low tones and occasionally glancing at the apartment entrance. Fegelein eased himself out the window and onto the balcony. Too small to hold more than one person comfortably, the balcony was more decorative than functional. For his purposes, however, it would be a lifesaver for it was located at the exact corner of the building. Moving slowly, he climbed over the metal railing and stepped onto the brickwork ledge. With white fingers, he gripped the slots between the bricks and stepped around the corner of the building. He listened but heard nothing. The men had not seen him. He duck-walked another few feet until reaching the coiled length of rope he’d secreted there weeks before. He pulled the rope from its niche and dropped it. One end was secured to a metal framework on the roof and with a jerk, the rope stopped falling and hung taut in front of him. He could hear a muffled pounding coming through the open living room window. Kirsa would be waking up, not yet knowing what was going on. She would know soon enough.  He climbed down, hand over hand, and dropped the last few feet to the ground. With one longing glance down the alley to the south, blocked by the presence of the Führer’s bodyguards, he turned north and began moving quickly. Once clear of his pursuers, he would double back and head south. The alley opened to the next street north and Fegelein immediately began dodging rubble and blackened automobiles. The stench hit him before he saw the bodies. Rotting corpses littered the ground around a storefront bombed several days before. Fegelein was no stranger to death, but tried not to look as he gingerly picked his way around the bodies and limbs. Once past the storefront, he noticed the large block letters scrawled on the last remaining wall of the building, “Berlin bleibt Deutsch.” “Berlin will remain German,” Fegelein read aloud, with no one but the dead to hear him. He shook his head and continued with a wary eye toward the south. Perhaps they had not seen the rope and would not be following him. Had he made a mistake leaving Kirsa behind? Maybe he could double back by the apartment. Maybe they had searched it, found only the Reichsmarks Francs, and left Kirsa alone. The cash would look suspicious, but they were looking for him, not her. His thoughts of Kirsa were interrupted by the sight of a small group of German soldiers ahead of him. His actions and the items on his person would be suspicious, but he still held his rank and papers. He would have to lie his way out of this situation. As he neared the group, his unease disappeared. They were a small contingent of Home Guard. Nothing more than feeble old men in ill-fitting uniforms, if they had uniforms at all. Most carried Panzerfaust anti-tank rockets, extremely effective single shot weapons when fired at close range. Of course, at that distance, the odds were slim for the man firing it to survive. They marched past him on toward the east, toward the Russians. The expressions on their faces told Fegelein they knew well the shortcomings of their weapons. As he continued north, the bombing damage decreased until the buildings were mostly whole. Here civilians braved the outdoors. Fegelein passed two men flaying a dead horse that had begun to stink. They looked at him with the usual respect built upon fear, but quickly looked away and continued their grisly task. Passing a boarded-up shoe store, he saw a small shadow tucked tightly into the recessed entryway leading to the front door. It was a young boy, perhaps twelve, wearing a Hitler Youth uniform and holding a Panzerfaust. Tears cut channels down his dusty cheeks and a large dark spot covered his loin where he had wet himself. His eyes grew wide at the sight of Fegelein. He thought about trying to comfort the boy, but there was no time. It sickened him that the Führer would send old men and frightened boys to fight his battles, but Fegelein had lost his faith in the Führer long before. Hitler ignored the military advice of seasoned commanders, issued his own flawed plans, and blamed the commanders when his plans failed. He left the boy without a word and continued north but stopped short at the next intersection. Hanging from a thin rope tied to a lamp post was a Wehrmacht soldier who couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old. The rope was slowly decapitating the corpse and causing the head to jut off at a grotesque angle. The now-blackened, swollen lips were locked in a grimace of fear and rage. A small sign around his neck read “Wer kämpft Kann sterben. Wer sein Vaterland verrät muss sterben.” Whoever fights can die. Whoever betrays his fatherland must die. Perhaps this is what had the Hitler Youth so scared, and with good reason. If caught fleeing, a similar fate awaited both Fegelein and the boy. He forced himself to keep going, ready to turn to the west per his original plan, but unsure if it was the right decision. A faint sound issuing from that direction made up his mind. It was a series of high-pitched screaming whines followed shortly by thunderous booms. They were the Soviet’s mobile Katyusha rockets, called Stalin Organs because they resembled the pipes of a church organ. He had come too far north, passing the Americans’ eastern advance and moving toward the Soviets’ northern flank. Going west would mean certain death with the Katyusha raining down. He weighed the options and, faced with so few at this point, continued north. If he could make it through the Russian lines, he would head for Sweden, which was neutral yet leaned pro-German. He did not have any Swedish currency, but he had the jewelry and precious stones. They could easily be converted to cash. And besides, it may not be Switzerland, but there would still be plenty of blondes. As Fegelein continued north, he absently fingered the outline of the official document in his breast pocket and thought of Erika. He’d taken it, along with most of the others now hidden in the church, during his occasional flirting sessions at her desk outside Himmler’s office. If she noticed the absence of any documents, she never mentioned it. In fact, although totally devoted to Himmler, she often made excuses to leave the office saying she would be right back. Was she helping him? He’d made her many promises that would not be kept, but as Fegelein learned that morning, she already knew this now. Hell, she probably knew it then. As he walked, a chilling thought struck him. These documents were his insurance policy past the Americans. The one he carried was the bait; the cache in the church was the payoff. Where would he be if the Russians had no interest in them? At best, he would be a prisoner of war and likely die from the deplorable conditions. At worst, he would be shot on sight before he had a chance to discuss it. That’s when he noticed the smoke. Up ahead about three blocks, billowing black and oily in a wide swath, rose a dozen or more concentrated plumes of smoke. He was in the Gesundbrunnen district on the far north side of Berlin and as he drew closer, the wails and moans of the wounded and dying reached his ears. Clearly, the Katyusha rockets had landed here as well. Soon, whole buildings gave way to blackened ruins and the rubble grew to become objects to step around instead of over. At what surely was the impact site for several rockets, a bakery blazed fiercely, as if secure in the knowledge nobody was coming to put out the fire. Here was the source of the plaintive noises: dozens of burned and dismembered bodies littered the streets, their humanness nearly disguised by a combination of blood and charred skin. Many writhed in pain or jerked with final death spasms. Fegelein could feel the heat from the fire on his face as he skirted the injured, ignoring their moans and wails. He stepped over suitcases and unrecognizable limbs. He went around pushcarts and even a baby carriage to make his way past the smell of cooking flesh. The carnage and rubble quickly diminished past the initial point of the rockets’ impact. As the sound of the moaning turned to silence, a new sound took its place: a faint mechanical humming coming seemingly from every direction. Before he could look around to try to pinpoint the location, a Russian soldier stepped in front of him with his rifle raised. The man’s plain brown uniform was ragged and spattered with blood. The only markings Fegelein could see were the bright red stars on each collar. On his feet, the Russian sported a new pair of SS boots like Fegelein’s—obviously raided from a storage depot or taken off the feet of a dead German. He wore a bristled mustache that was waxed at the ends into a sloping grin and a four or five-day growth of stubble everywhere else on his face. Fegelein slowly raised his arms and remained still. The mechanized sound grew louder and Fegelein could tell it was coming from the north, the direction he’d been walking. Occasional muffled explosions and sporadic rifle fire accompanied the rumbling sound and as the source rolled into sight, Fegelein understood why. Traveling two abreast, an entire Soviet brigade of T-34 and the larger KV-1 Russian tanks filled the street and moved toward him. Atop each tank sat groups of haggard infantry soldiers. These men wore rags wrapped around their feet while the few soldiers on foot wore German boots. Many displayed styles of facial hair similar to the soldier standing in front of him. At various intervals along their path, the soldiers would toss grenades through doorways and windows of the buildings that lined the street. Others fired machine guns blindly into darkened windows, both intended, he thought, to discourage any German snipers from an easy ambush. His captor still said nothing, nor did Fegelein attempt to speak. He knew no Russian save for a few derogatory phrases, which would definitely not help him now, and he assumed the Russian spoke no German. As the head of the convoy reached him, the lead tanks ground to a rumbling halt, causing a chain reaction that continued as far as he could see and hear. Dozens, if not hundreds, of unfriendly eyes locked on Fegelein and burrowed their way into his fear. Some of the men spoke to each other and smiled wickedly. Fegelein hoped not to learn what they were saying. From the top of the second tank in the convoy, a similarly clad soldier slid down from his perch and shuffled toward them on his rag-wrapped feet. He raised his rifle and spoke in fluent German with a Munich accent like Fegelein’s. “What is your name and rank?” “I am SS Gruppenführer Herman Fegelein.” “Any sudden movements would be a bad idea, Gruppenführer. Do you understand?” Fegelein nodded while the first Russian shouldered his rifle. He approached warily and performed a careful search of Fegelein’s person, relieving him of everything he carried. After a brief discussion between the two, several of the SS-booted soldiers joined them. They all moved off to the side of the road as the tanks again moved forward in a roar of engines. There they stood as pairs of tanks carrying the tired-looking but spirited Russian soldiers rumbled past, all straining to get a look at the captured German officer. Everyone but the translator kept their rifles pointed at Fegelein’s chest while he held the items taken from Fegelein. Dust rolled in waves over the four men for fifteen minutes before the end of the convoy reached them and a 1939 convertible Opel Kapitän pulled up and stopped. This was a favorite vehicle of high-ranking SS officers, but the man riding in the passenger seat was no German. As the car halted, he exited and strode casually toward them. He wore a light brown tunic with gold shoulder boards sporting red bars with a single silver star on each. His tunic bore no decorations save for a single blue ribbon holding a tarnished gold star. His breeches were black with red stripes running down the sides and he wore a peaked cap like Fegelein’s, except brown with a red band around the bottom and a black bill. He was a clean-shaven man in his mid-fifties and wore the Slavic look of a Russian, though no expression showed on his face or in his dark eyes. The translator conversed with him in Russian, saying Fegelein’s name, and handing him Fegelein’s possessions one at a time. The man’s face morphed into a look of smug satisfaction at the pouch of precious stones, but returned to blank as the translator held out the letter. The men again spoke briefly, and the translator read the message aloud, word for word. When he finished, the older man spoke one sentence and turned to face Fegelein. “This is General Kuznetsov of the 3rd Shock Army under General Zhukov, the man who will be taking your beautiful city.” Fegelein fixed a cold stare at the translator, who paused a moment to cast equally unfriendly eyes back at Fegelein before continuing. “The General would like to thank you for your generous donation of diamonds and jewelry to the Russian war effort.” Fegelein tipped his head in a mock acknowledgment of modesty and said, “Please tell the General the documents I have cached in a safe place are many times more valuable than the jewels. For the promise of freedom, I would be happy to reveal their hiding place. That letter is a small taste of the treasures that await.” The 3rd Shock Army’s intermittent self-defensive barrages of the buildings lining the streets continued, but became less intrusive with each passing second. The translator spoke in Russian while General Kuznetsov looked on thoughtfully. When he finished, the General took the letter from the translator and studied it, almost as if he could read it himself. He turned his attention to Fegelein, his dark eyes appraising him up and down until they landed on his Knight’s Cross. He stepped forward, grasped the award between his fingers, and tore it off Fegelein’s neck. He admired it indulgently for a few moments before putting it in his breast pocket with the letter. The General spoke a few short sentences to the translator and walked back to the passenger seat of the Opel. The driver started the engine and they drove off. “What did he say?” asked Fegelein. The translator sneered smugly at Fegelein before answering. “He said to torture you until you tell us where the rest of the documents are.”
© Kyle R. Fisher
Projekt Half Light Excerpt

Chapter 1

Nine steps and a flaking gray steel airlock door were all that stood between SS Gruppenführer Herman Fegelein and his escape from Hell. All, that is, except for the Russian army to the east of Berlin and the American army to the west. He would have to deal with that later, but for now, escape from the Führerbunker, this place of putrid air, blaring Wagner music, and rambling, incoherent diatribe, would be the most challenging task. Once initiated, there would be no turning back. “That was the worst one of all, Herman,” said Erika Lorenz as she matched strides with Fegelein up the stairs. It was April 27, 1945, only a week after the Führer’s 56th birthday yet he appeared to have aged ten years in that time. The skin hung flaccid and pale from his face. He moved slowly with a stoop and his hands shook visibly. He alternated from stoicism to despondency to fury all without a moment's notice. “Not the worst I’ve seen,” Fegelein said, “When the Steiner attack didn’t come off as he ordered—that was the worst.” He cast an immodest glance at her body as her skirt rocked back and forth. She was no Kirsa, with the features and body right out of an Aryan recruitment poster, but Erika was attractive and even sexy in her own way. It’s too bad he’d never sample that delicious piece of strudel. “Why don’t we run away together?” he asked. “Right now. I’ve heard that we can still get out of the city by following the U-Bahn.” Erika stopped outside the airlock door and turned to face him. She admired his good looks for a few moments with a sad smile and leaned in to kiss him firmly on the mouth. After a long few seconds, she pulled away. “Don’t talk that way, Herman. Do you want to get shot?” “For you, Erika, I would battle the entire American army—not the Russians, of course—but the Americans, yes indeed.” They allowed themselves a brief laugh, a rarity for both of them as of late. “All these months you’ve been flirting with me, I’ve known of your reputation. You think you’ve been fooling me, but I’ve been fooling you,” she said. His playful smile fell, replaced by a look of concern. “What do you mean, Erika?” “I mean I haven’t believed you for a second. Oh, don’t play innocent, Herman. You’re married to Eva Braun’s sister. Even if you don’t love her, that political plumb is too juicy to leave on the vine. If things had been different…” She looked back down the short hallway toward the bunker. “Well, you would have gone far and there would be no room for Erika Lorenz anywhere in the picture.” Fegelein breathed an unseen sigh of relief. The sad smile lingered on her face, but he was not certain if it was for him or for Germany. She looked away. “But things aren’t different and they will soon get much worse.” He lifted her face with his finger and looked into her eyes. “But if things had been different, you would have been the light of my life.” He had always been able to lie to pretty girls, ever since he discovered they nearly always believed him. His good looks and charm didn’t hurt, but lying to women was an art form he’d mastered at an early age. With one last wistful glance at Fegelein, Erika turned the large metal handle and pushed the steel door open. Though they were entering the dank basement of the Reception Hall in the Chancellery garden, the air smelled as fresh as a spring day. Two SS guards, both part of the Führer’s personal bodyguard detachment, stood outside holding machine guns but paid little attention to them. Fegelein had passed through these doors hundreds of times since Heinrich Himmler had appointed him as Liaison Officer to Fuhrer Headquarters and Erika was Himmler’s secretary. She had been there dozens of times at a minimum. Through the long basement hallway and up another flight of stairs and they were in the Grand Reception Hall, which had been thus far spared from the relentless bombing. As of February 1, Berlin had seen over eighty air raids by the British and Americans. He did not know how many tons of bombs had been dropped, but he knew it was turning their beautiful city to rubble. As Fegelein pushed open the Reception Hall doors, the chirp of morning birds and the fresh smell of lilacs greeted them. “Ah, yes, it is spring, isn’t it?” he said, breathing in deeply the aroma. “When you’re down there, you tend to forget.” Now that his decision was made, he was anxious to begin the journey, and this smell reminded him of safety, of home, and of passion. A slight gust of wind from the east brought another smell mixed in with the fragrant lilacs. Fegelein could not place it at first, masked as it was, but recognition quickly dawned. In Yugoslavia, he had been a cavalry commander fighting the partisans—he had won the Knight’s Cross for it—and that was where he’d smelled this before. Intermingled with the lilacs was the smell of rotting corpses. Except these weren’t partisans, these were undoubtedly his fellow soldiers and countrymen. The Russians would indeed have their revenge for the atrocities at Moscow and Stalingrad. He walked Erika to her Volkswagen in silence. There would be no kissing here in the open, but nobody was in earshot. “Will you be attending the afternoon Situation Meeting?” he asked. “No, Himmler has asked me to travel to Fischhorn Castle for some things he needs finished.” This was Himmler’s current headquarters in the Swiss Alps near Zell am See. The SS had appropriated a castle to serve as the SS Horse Farm, where Fegelein was Commandant. He knew Himmler wanted Erika to ensure the destruction of all his personal records, which firmed Fegelein’s resolve even more. “Well, you must be careful. The south should yet be open, but you never know.” “He’s sending a detachment of SS to watch over me.” Her smile faded. “What could go wrong?” Fegelein closed her car door behind her and watched her drive out of the parking area. His 1942 Mercedes-Benz 320, a fringe benefit of the job, sat nearby, and he hurried toward it. There was no time to waste. He followed the Volkswagen's path out of the parking area and headed south himself. He drove past Potsdamer Platz, a half kilometer from the bunker, to swing west onto Kürfurstenstraße toward the Kürfurstendamm, a neighborhood of expensive shops and elegant clubs. He kept a small, though expensive, apartment there within sight of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church—or at least what was left of it. As he drove, the haunting strains of Wagner’s Gotterdämmerung—Twilight of the Gods—echoed in his mind from his time spent at the Führerbunker. How ironic that it was the Führer’s favorite opera. Fegelein had grown to detest it and fought to clear it from his mind. While the streets around the central government area remained passable, the further away he drove, the more debris he had to skirt, forcing him to slow his pace to a frustrating crawl. The daily bombing raids from the Americans and nightly bombing raids from the British left burned-out buildings, twisted and blackened cars, and often, the corpses of the unfortunates caught between. He had acquired the apartment shortly after marrying Gretl Braun in June of the previous year, primarily for his occasional dalliances, one of which was waiting there for him. Gretl was attractive enough, but everyone understood it was a political marriage. After all, her nickname among the SS was “the nymphomaniac of the Obersalzberg” and she was pregnant with another man’s child when they married. Well, the nymphomaniac part was true enough, but he just could not see himself with only one woman. As he neared his apartment, he could see the fire-blackened shell of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Church belfry. This was all that was left standing of the breathtaking Romanesque-style church, completed in 1895 in tribute to the Emperor William 1st. Allied bombs had destroyed it two years before. A slow smile played across his face at the thought of the destroyed church. Although he was not a religious man, he hated the thought of another German landmark destroyed. However, it was the perfect place to hide the carefully wrapped bundle of memos, letters, and official orders he’d purloined over the last year. If things went badly during his escape, these may just save his life. He parked on the street in front of his building and headed for his apartment on the second floor. Kirsa should be packed and waiting for him. To his dismay and delight, both in equal measures, she was indeed waiting for him, but unexpectedly lying in the large bed. She sat propped up on several pillows, reading, naked from the waist up and a thin sheet hiding little of the rest. Her breasts were large and magnificent with the firmness of a twenty-year-old, despite her extra ten years. She had strong Aryan features, blonde hair, and a beautiful smile. She was smart in addition, a quality he’d found in few of his selections so far. As he entered the bedroom, she put her book down and suggestively cupped both her breasts. “Come to bed, Otto,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about you all morning.” That was his middle name and what she called him when she wanted something. Kirsa was a secretary at the Propaganda Ministry that he had noticed a few months back while attending a meeting. It was unfortunate he had not met her before meeting Gretl—he might have married her. “You know I like it when you’re naughty but we should be on our way.” Fegelein crossed the room to a small table and poured a half glass of schnapps—real schnapps—into a tumbler. He turned back to Kirsa who had her arms crossed over those superb breasts. He took a tentative sip, trying to fight the urge, but already knowing he would lose. “Otto, we’ll be traveling for days. Who knows when we’ll get the chance again?” Her eyebrows arched in a pleading manner. Of course, she was right. Who knew when they would get the chance or even if they would get the chance? This was a war and it was going badly. Bombs, Stalin organs, enemy bullets, and sometimes even German bullets: there were so many ways to die out there. He had even heard his fellow SS were looking for German deserters to give them justice at the end of a rope. He owed it to himself to take one more moment of pleasure before leaving. “You’re right,” he said. He finished the schnapps in one long drink and winced from the slight burn. Kirsa giddily pushed her book from the bed and kicked the sheets from her legs. She was indeed naked. Fegelein began removing his black SS uniform and laying each article on a chair in his precise manner. Pushed into the back of his mind, he knew they should go, but the slow ritual of the uniform was intensifying the longing for both of them. It should be as memorable as possible, after all, it may be his last. When his breeches were neatly folded on the chair under the peaked officer’s cap and Fegelein was naked, he climbed on the bed beside Kirsa and took her in his arms. She felt wonderful pressed against him and he wanted to take her now, but he forced himself to slow down, to take his time. They would make it one to remember, one to last until the next opportunity came along, whenever that may be. Two hours later, Fegelein’s eyes snapped open and he cursed under his breath. Kirsa lie beside him, sleeping soundly and covered by the thin sheet. There was nothing more anesthetizing than an hour of sex with Kirsa: they had both fallen asleep. He rose from the bed and crossed the room to the chair holding his uniform. His watch read 2:30 pm. That was bad. The Situation Meeting in the Führerbunker started at 2:00 and Fegelein was late. His absence would be noticed but he had no idea if there would be any ramifications. He gathered his uniform and strode toward the bathroom. He would finish dressing and awaken Kirsa afterward. He stopped short when he reached the leather traveling bag that sat innocuously on the dresser. It appeared no different from any other bag, but the contents could get them both killed on the spot. He peered inside to see a change of civilian clothes on top. Pushing them aside, he could see the false passports, a nondescript envelope containing a large amount of Reichsmarks and Swiss Francs, a small pouch containing jewelry, diamonds, and a few other precious stones. Tucked underneath these items was a second envelope, bearing official military markings. This was the proof that he did indeed have something stashed in the church to use as a bargaining chip.