At the Table of Wolves
1 WESERMARSCH SUB CAMP, NORTH COAST OF GERMANY
FRIDAY, MARCH 27, 1936. In the distance, across the marshland, a large black car sped under a leaden sky toward the gates of the sub camp. The road led straight across the wild plain with its sere yellow grasses. Beyond lay the immense gray wilderness of the North Sea, stretching all the way to the British Isles.
As Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Stelling stood on the parade ground, his adjutant at his side, the wind blew the scattered rain sideways, driving into his cheek like frozen needles. He clasped his gloved hands behind his back and watched as the car approached. A Mercedes-Benz 770, favored by the Nazi Party. Hitler’s parade car. It bore an SD officer, Colonel von Ritter, whose purpose in coming Stelling did not know.
It was bad enough to have been holed up on this flat and frozen plain for the past ten months, much less to have to wait in the rain for a Sicherheitsdienst officer who must be given “every
cooperation” by the sub camp’s commandant. It was common knowledge that Hitler mistrusted his own army, preferring his loyal SS and their intelligence arm, the SD, to keep his secrets and discover others. Stelling had the feeling that this SD visit was to inspect him more than the sub camp. Despite his role in their audacious operation, they didn’t like that Stelling wasn’t a Party member.
He nodded at the guards, who opened the chain-link gate. The gate arms of the guardhouse rose up in a wooden salute as the car roared in, Nazi bumper flags rattling in the wind.
The car stopped, and the driver moved smartly to open the door for his passenger.
The SD officer stepped out. In plain clothes rather than in uniform, he wore a finely tailored camel-hair coat. He looked around him, observing the perimeter of the camp with its guardhouses, massive barracks compound and officers’ quarters. When he had taken in his surroundings, he drew off his gloves and tucked them under his arm.
Stelling stepped forward to greet him, clicking his heels and extending a hand. They would not salute, since von Ritter was in plain clothes. “Colonel Stelling at your service, sir. Welcome.” He introduced his adjutant, Lieutenant Hass.
Von Ritter made a bow and shook Stelling’s hand.
He was smiling, or almost smiling. Stelling noticed how the man was completely at ease here in the work camp, as though he were in charge and not a guest. “A very great pleasure, Colonel.”
The second thing he noticed was von Ritter’s astonishing good looks. Somewhat over six feet tall, lanky in build, dark eyes in a patrician face, black hair combed back and hardly stirring in the wind off the sea. Stelling gestured to the camp headquarters building. “Some refreshment, sir. Please.”
Stelling led the way, leaving Lieutenant Hass to escort the driver.
His adjutant had laid out food: crackers, a plate of herring, black bread and a round of Tilsit cheese with good coffee in an urn. Noting this, von Ritter smiled, as though the bread and cheese were unprofessional, leaving Stelling uncertain as to the impression he had made.
After washing up, von Ritter walked toward the outer door, putting on his gloves. “I don’t mean to be abrupt, Colonel. But I have been eager to see the . . .” Here he paused, spreading his hands in apology. “The fence. You will think me foolish. But I would see the fence without delay.” He gave a self-deprecating smile that left Stelling taken aback. When he smiled, the man could be called—the man was—beautiful.
“Of course. The fence. It is where it all began, after all. I understand.”
As they turned to leave, von Ritter held up a hand and swung by the table, taking a piece of bread. “There. We will not let it go to waste!” His driver had followed them into the building, and now von Ritter waved at him to help himself.
“We will go alone, Colonel. Yes?”
Stelling followed him out, both troubled and excited. It had been a long time since he had felt such a surge of attraction. His tongue felt dry in his mouth, and his chest ached as though a stone pressed on it. The man had a charm that was not forced or manipulative, but almost playful. A man who was not afraid to enjoy himself. Despair hovered at the edges of his consciousness, reminding him that nothing could come of such longing. But to be swept away by five minutes in the man’s presence . . . it was exhilarating.
They passed Barracks Unit 6. “Here are the strongest
Talents,” Stelling explained. “They rank from 5.3 to 8.2 on the scale. Naturally, we take the best care of them.”
Von Ritter smiled indulgently. “Naturally.”
“Behind are Units 4 and 5, also assigned to the operation. Lower rankings, but still of the utmost importance.” Beyond the three elite barracks were the brick prisoners’ barracks. On the eastern border, the laborers were constructing the bivouacs to accommodate seventy-five army divisions for the staging phase.
“You yourself are also of the Talent—our special Talent,” von Ritter said as they walked. “A 6.5. Am I correct?”
“Yes, sir. It still seems strange to me. I never guessed that I had a Talent. I was not an adolescent, after all. One forgets that those who were older when the bloom first began can have a Talent burst through for them, no matter the age. So, when it emerged on that day three years ago, it took me quite by surprise. The ice Talent. We were lucky to discover it.”
“There is no such thing as luck, Colonel.”
“You don’t think so? You do not believe in coincidence?”
“There is only deserving.” Von Ritter stopped, forcing Stelling to stop as well. He turned to him. “We cannot blame fortune for what comes our way, that is superstition. We make our destiny. That is why we will win in the coming struggle. Because we have the will and our enemies do not, England does not.” His black gaze held Stelling in a disturbing, compelling lock. “Tell me that you believe this, Colonel.”
“I do.” He had never thought about it, but held in the man’s demanding gaze, he was sure he did believe it.
“Ah, I thought so.” Von Ritter clapped Stelling on the back. “Now, the fence.”
They crossed a broken surface of concrete and approached a section of the perimeter fence between two guard towers. The
closest guard could be seen on the tower walkway. He turned to note their approach to the fence, then swung back to survey the unrelenting flat plain, beyond which the North Sea rolled out, deeply etched with foam-tipped waves.
Stelling nodded at the fence to indicate it was the one.
“Tell me,” von Ritter said.
“I stood here as we marshaled the new prisoners into a line for provisioning when they first arrived. Some of us touched the fence.”
Von Ritter murmured, “And then?”
“It froze. Froze solid. It was as though a frigid current ran in a wave down the fence. Our hands tingled, then felt a shock of ice. It had frozen, holding some of us melded to the links.”
“The ice Talent,” von Ritter murmured. “Fascinating.”
“We were all tested to see which of us had such a Talent. I was the only one who did.”
“Such a thing had never been seen before,” von Ritter said. “That the ice Talent could go beyond the freezing of merely small things.”
“They poured cold water to release us.” Stelling held up his gloved hand. “But one can still see the effects.”
He removed his right glove. Von Ritter took Stelling’s hand, turning it over, examining the scars from that day. The man’s touch burned through his veins. When von Ritter broke contact, he left Stelling unable to speak.
Von Ritter stared out at the sea. “It started with you. Your Talent of the ice. And it will end with England under our boot.” He grasped the fence with both hands. “Sturmweg,” he mused. “Can you imagine what it will look like, Colonel? The invasion of England. They will be helpless. Stupefied. They think their
island nation is protected. In Sturmweg, we will march to their door. More than that. To their very beds!” He turned back to Stelling. “You are a celebrity, Colonel Stelling. We have all heard this story. What a pleasure to hear it from you personally.”
Stelling found himself acutely listening to the timbre of von Ritter’s voice, as though drinking a shamefully expensive wine.
Von Ritter cocked his head. “What is it, Colonel?”
Stelling realized he was staring helplessly at von Ritter. He stammered, “I . . . I . . .” He felt paralyzed but longed to be set free.
Von Ritter stepped closer to him. “What, Colonel? You have something to say?”
They were very close now. “I . . . do not.”
“But would like to?” Von Ritter asked quietly. “But wish that you could?”
“I think that you do.”
“No, sir. What you say about England, this is true—”
“—I think it is something more personal, is it not? That you would like to say?”
“No. You mistake me.”
“I do not think so, Kurt. It is Kurt, is it not?” When he got no answer, von Ritter turned away, then swung around explosively, reaching across his chest to a holster under his arm. He pressed a Luger to the side of Stelling’s head.
Stelling stepped backward, but von Ritter followed, keeping the gun at his temple. “You are disgusting!” he hissed. “A corrupt thing, a mongrel.” He leaned in until his face was inches from Stelling’s. “Do you lie with dogs, Colonel? Tell me, are you degraded, unnatural in your manhood?”
“No,” Stelling whispered. “Please.” He staggered back, his head smashed against the fence. He heard the gun cock. He
would die here, his brains blown through the chain link. The wind blew, carrying the smell of salt water and oblivion.
“Open your mouth,” von Ritter ordered.
Stelling could not move, could not contemplate the order.
The gun muzzle prodded at his lip, chipped at his teeth. He opened his mouth, and von Ritter jammed the Luger up to the roof of his mouth, sliding the barrel savagely against his teeth. It tasted of fresh oil.
Stelling closed his eyes. It was better to die than to endure the gun in his mouth.
Then von Ritter ripped the gun out of his mouth and stood back. “Perhaps I am wrong.” The gun now pointed at Stelling’s legs. “Do you say I am wrong, Colonel?”
“Yes, wrong,” Stelling managed to whisper. It had not been obvious how he felt, had it? No, no, it had not. But, oh God, it must have been clear in his face. Smitten, smitten. “Wrong,” he repeated.
An expression of contempt crept over von Ritter’s face. “You would say anything to save your life, of course.” He put the gun back in its holster beneath his coat.
The wind roared in Stelling’s ears, as his eyes seemed to fill with a silvery light from the low clouds. He began to realize that he was not going to die on the fence. Tears lined his eyes in a rim of ice. Sweat lay as a frozen mask on his face.
“You are a 6.5. Too valuable to lose, do you not agree, Colonel?” Von Ritter cocked his head mockingly, waiting for an answer.
“Yes,” Stelling said, pushing away from the fence and finding that he was barely able to stand on his shaking legs.
Von Ritter laughed. “Say ‘I am a dog but I am too valuable to kill.’?”
Stelling looked into the beautiful man’s eyes and thought he would rather die than obey such a command. “No.”
Again, the cocked head, but now an appraising look. An almost-smile. “Very good, Colonel. You are willing to die for your honor. I admire that.”
He turned and walked away.
When Stelling heard the car rumble off, he walked slowly back to the headquarters building, his senses so acute that he could hear the muted roar of the North Sea against the beach and, once inside, marvel at the remarkable smells of herring and coffee.