Janus Weber preferred running in the morning to the evening. On those days when his unit had a collection on the far side of the city, he would often have to wait until they returned after dark. Mornings were better. He liked running in the softness of the morning and the way the steady staccato sound of his feet hitting the pavement would allow him to center himself and get into the proper mind set for the day’s work.
Running also freed up time for him to think about the future of things and, for that, the morning was infinitely more appropriate. Jan liked having goals. He had only been in the SS for a few months and already was the next in line to be the squad leader. He ran through the streets of Amsterdam dreaming of the day when he would become an officer and lead his own regiment, preferably somewhere at Eastern front. There was where the glory was to be won and not in Amsterdam collecting refuse. Running at night, his mind could only ruminate upon the issues of the day.
A few days ago when the unit had went out early. It turned out to be a long and troubling day. Most days, the job was fairly simple, scoop up the trash and leave. This time the people he had been sent to gather decided to barricade themselves in a small room beneath a raised floor. There was no way to get at them and Jan and his mates had to chop through a thick wooden floor.
It took more than an hour before the hole in the floor was big enough for a man to crawl into the space below. Uber was chosen to perform the task. He first stuck his head into the hole and pointed his flashlight around a bit before he descended feet first into the hole and groped around a bit before he finally found and pulled the latch that opened the hidden door. He quickly poked his head back out and reported that the family inside had saw fit to take their own lives.
Jan was one of those ordered to remove the bodies. The stench was unbearable, at least one of them had voided themself. Jan retrieved a green kerchief out of his pack, drenched it with water from his dented canteen and wrapped the kerchief around his face. The grandparents were lying intwined in one corner, their arms wrapped around each other and one of their grandchildren, a young boy dressed in brown lederhosen. Jan wondered if the boy's outfit meant that the dead family were German. They reminded him of the shorts he wore to school in Austria. The drop-flap of boy's shorts had a big urine stain on the front. The clean-up had taken the whole morning.
After returning to barracks, Jan barely had time to put on his running shoes and clothes before the light died out completely. He was troubled by the events of the day, and his efforts to empty out his brain and emotions were thwarted by the memories of the actions.
Later, that afternoon, the unit had responded to information provided by an informant and had gone to round up a family of Jews found hiding in the attic of a warehouse at 263 Prinsegracht. The operation had gone fairly smoothly until a damn cat attacked Weber. Weber instinctively threw the cat against the wall and then used the stock of his rifle to finish it off.
As he was helping to lead an older Jewish man out of the buiding, Huber had called to him and gestured for Janus to return to where the dead cat lay. Janus looked down at the crushed feline and saw the fleas fleeing the feline's carcass. Uber poked his shoulder and started laughing.
Outside, they loaded the family into the back of the truck; the youngest girl, a brunette with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, looked at him and smiled. She was surprisingly calm and serene considering her situation, but she was also indicating her disdain. Imagine that, Janus thought to himself, a Jewess who exhibited disdain toward warriors of the glorious German Reich.
He thought about how most of the Dutch people respected this uniform he wore, or did they?
He was now starting to see small signs of fear in the eyes of the native citizens he dealt with on a daily basis.
The incidents had unsettled him, but it was Hans Uber who really pushed his equanimity over the edge. Uber was the one man in their unit who really didn’t belong. He was out of shape, chronically late and would often show up to morning muster with alcohol on his breath and the crumbs of his breakfast on his chest.
They were old school chums. Uber had somehow attached himself to Janus in their last two years of school. In fact, Uber was with him when Janus last saw his father before shipping out from Germany. They were eating lunch at small sidewalk café near the train station. It was a beautiful morning with lots of golden light and the bluest of skies. In Jan's memories of the moment there was never a single cloud to be seen. He and Uber had arrived late, Uber had lost one of his shoes and had taken several minutes to find it. Jan's father was already sitting and chatting with the innkeeper's daughter, a blue-eyed beauty with thick blonde braids.
His father, a tall, withered, white-haired gentleman, motioned to the young soldiers to sit. The old man was smoking his pipe and was wearing the dark glasses that signified his blindness. He started the meal out by embarrassing Janus and telling Uber the story of how he had selected Janus’s name.
“We were in the trenches when a bomb exploded almost on the very top of us. Three of us were buried up to our waists in the dirt. Right at that moment, two Tommies came over the rise in front of us. One had his rifle pointed directly at me. I thought I was a goner.” The old man halted the story to take a long draw on his pipe.
“What happened?” Uber asked impatiently.
“He killed me.”
The old man waited. Uber’s face was a perfect picture of confusion. Then the old man burst out laughing. Uber, realizing the joke, laughed good-naturedly too.
“Then what should happen, but our Captain appears out of the smoky haze and with his pistol, pow, pow! Kills both of them just like that. Uber, I swear on my dear mother, that man was the bravest man I ever knew. Then when Janus was born, he used to roar like a tiny lion whenever his diaper needed changing. So, I named him after the only lion I ever knew, Captain Janus Koeh.”
“What happened to the Captain?” Uber inquired.
“I don’t really know. I lost touch with most of those who survived the war. Right after he saved my life, the bomb that took away my eyes exploded near us,” the old man stopped to gently touch his glasses. “ The Captain was there too. Six dead, one blind, and the captain, he was mangled and taken to the rear. I heard that he survived the war then married some high society lady and left Germany, to France, I think.”
Then it was Uber’s turn to embarrass, “Herr Weber, you don’t have to worry about Jan. I am going to help him find a girl friend, so after the war he will give you a lot of grandchildren.”
The old man straightened a bit and then smiled at the thought. “ Uber, I can wait for the grandchildren. You just promise the keep an eye on my son and help him to get back alive.”
Janus blushed, “ I can take care of myself, Father. I am going to make you very proud, and I am going to win lots of medals and bring glory to the Fatherland. This I promise you.’
The seriousness of the talk suppressed further conversation and then the train whistle blew. As Janus hugged his father, the old man whispered into his ear, “ Janus, you forget about those medals, you forget about bringing glory to the Fatherland, you just come home in one piece. Being alive, that’s the greatest glory of all.”
On the train, Janus chided Uber for telling the old man that he was going to help Janus find a wife.
Uber burst out laughing, “I didn’t say wife; I said a girlfriend, and I am. One with big tits like this.” He held his hands in front of his chest and laughed even harder. Janus looked away disgusted.
As he approached the bridge near the barracks, Jan slowed his pace. This where he liked to let his imagination take over. He would quickly slip backwards into the past and instead of a silent, deserted street in Amsterdam beneath a darkening sky, he would imagine himself as he was ten years before.
The cold dark sky overhead turned a bright, sunny blue and cheering crowds lined the area near the finish line. Elsa was standing in the front cheering, and Auntie Sophie too. She was absolutely beaming with delight. It was the only time in his entire life that he had seen her smile.
And Elsa? Elsa was radiant beyond belief; her blonde hair shone like gold in the morning light, her large, blue eyes luminous and filled with joy. Ah, Elsa before the cancer turned her frail and gray, before the light went out of her eyes.
After the collection from the warehouse had been completed, Uber and Jan had sat down quayside to eat their lunch. As usual, Uber had augmented their rations with items he procured by whatever means. He pulled out a couple of sausages, some cheese and two small rolls from his backpack. He tossed half to Janus.
Uber, who for some unknown reason trusted Janus far more then he should have, spoke about the older sister of the family they had taken.
“ She was kind of pretty. I’d do her. Wouldn’t you?” he said it half laughing like he was telling a joke.
“Of course not, she’s a Jewess,” Jan responded mechanically.
“ I didn’t say I wanted her marry her. Come on. You tell me that you haven’t any of the women we have gathered attractive?” Uber flashed an incredulous look.
“No, and I can’t believe that you would even ask this.”
“And why is that? Are we not men?”
“I can’t believe I even have to say this because of everything the Fuhrer has taught us; haven’t you learned anything these last few years?” Jan was very uncomfortable about the direction the conversation was heading.
Uber waved his hand dismissively toward him, “ Don’t tell me you believe that all that poppycock.”
Jan stopped eating and dropped the piece of cheese he was eating to the level of his lap.
Uber continued, “ The Jews had the money. We needed their money, so we took it. You know that old man we shot trying to run the other day. I went over to where he lay and saw for myself. Their blood is every bit as red as our ours.”
Jan was miffed, “ You don’t believe everything that we’ve been told? You know about our duty, the sacred oath we took?”
It was Uber’s turn to get angry, “ We are soldiers working with the secret police and scumbag informers who would sell their own mothers out for a piece of silver. I do what I am told. I do know that I don’t know what goes on in the minds and the meetings of those who give the our orders. My superiors don’t even know what our leaders think. That is far above my rank, as well as yours.”
“If you don’t believe in our superiority as a race, or in our destiny as people, how can you do this job?”
Uber laughed as he brushed the crumbs from his mustache, “ I like to eat. I like to send money back to Mena. I like to wake up in the morning. I would rather do this job than have this job done to me. See what I mean?”
“How about Hitler? You don’t believe in the Fuhrer?”
Uber stood staring at the water, “I believe that he believes in himself. I am getting kind of tired of all of the posturing. My cousin Ernst was killed in Russia. The Nazis take all of the credit for their successes in the East, then, when things go bad, it’s the soldier’s fault. I think the Fuhrer is like a father who gloats about how hard his sons work”
“You are a damn communist then?” The words were laden with contempt.
“Screw the communists too. Rosa Luxemburg was the opposite of Hitler. She was the all-suffering mother. Look at me, how much I suffer for you my children!” He mimicked a crying mother.
“Then tell me what do you believe? What is it in your little world that justifies what we do here?
After several tense seconds, Uber brushed the bread from his lap and stood. “ I believe in the kingdom of Uber, my dreams and visions take primacy in my world. I want to survive this war so I can go home and make the dreams of my sons come true. Little Hans loves to draw. I am going to buy him lots of paper and colors. If he don’t want to do his math lessons because he’s drawing pictures, that’s fine with me. Tobias beats on his drum. He already hums along with the songs that Mena sings to him.”
“And when they can’t read and write, or even think for themselves, what’s are they going to do then?”
Uber thought for a second then smiled, “ The they can join the Hitler Youth.” He gave Jan time to digest the words, then he continued, “Come, Jan, let’s forget this and think about happier things. The air attacks at night lead me to think that such moments might become few and far between in the days ahead.”
On the trip back to the barracks, Uber had pointed a blonde woman and made the gesture about the size of her breasts. Jan nodded so that Uber would leave him alone.
Jan sprinted the last few meters imagining that he was back in Hamburg at the citywide championships. It was a race that he won for his age group ten years before. He held his arms aloft in victory before coming to a stop and taking a few moments to catch his breath.
He imagined it exactly as it had been the cheering crowd roaring in delight, accepting the trophy on the stage, looking out and seeing Elsa's smile, seeing his Auntie pointing toward the stage and telling his father about what was happening.
It was reverie that he used often, but this time, as he held the trophy aloft, he saw something different, faces in the crowd. One was the serene, smiling face of the young girl they had loaded onto the truck the day before, and behind her, an indifferent Uber, his arm around the shoulder of the girl’s sister leaning into her and whispering something as he tried to draw her behind the crowd.
After breakfast the next day, the unit loaded back onto two trucks and headed out to an apartment house near the Waterloopen. According to reports, there was one-armed Jewish man living there who had so-far evaded detection by hiding out in his ex-wife’s apartment. A neighbor living across the street had spotted the man looking out of the window the night before and reported it.
Uber had gone to relieve himself and caused the rest of them to wait as usual. They were already in the truck when he emerged from an alley and the sergeant barked out an order for him to run to the back of the truck. Jan grabbed his outstretched hand and lifted him in. Uber stumbled over the back gate and fell onto the floor. Quickly, pulled himself up and sat beside Jan. He reeked of alcohol.
“ Evi was a beast last night. I am telling you, Jan. I had gotten this large sausage from Frank Weil the cook, and I gave it to her along with some spicy mustard I had scrounged up. I tell you, that crazy girl was so happy. Then I gave her the real sausage later,” He thought this was so funny he laughed until he started coughing.
Evi was Uber’s Dutch girlfriend. She was a blonde, stringy haired, skeletal looking mother of three who had fallen on hard times when her husband Bram had died defending Holland in the first days of the war. Uber was not her first German boyfriend, and Jan strongly suspected he would not be her last. They had tried to set up Jan with her younger sister, but he wanted nothing to do with that.
Jan tried to ignore him, but finally said, “I know you don’t believe in what we do. How do you live with yourself?”
When Uber regained his breath, he leaned in closer to Jan and began to whisper, his breath smelled of garlic and peppermint, “Three things, Jan,” he held up three thick fingers and began to click them off,” I like to eat; I told you this already. Before the war, I ate maybe one time every two days. Two, I like to send Mena money for her and the boys. I also told you this. Third, “ he hesitated a second, leaned in closer, then hoarsely whispered, “ schnapps. I drink lots of and lots of schnapps!” At this he lurched backwards against the canvas side of the truck laughing uproariously.”
Jan shoved him away disgusted. They rode in silence the rest of the way. Jan looked sullenly out of the back of truck. The streets of the city were deserted for the most part. The sky above them was an unusual leaden gray. The smoke in the air suggested that the normally blue skies of summer were being held at bay by the ashes from something burning nearby.
The two trucks finally rumbled into a tiny square with a huge, ancient marble fountain in the center. The fountain was dry. The brown grass surrounding the fountain was dead. Several of the buildings around the square dated from the 18th Century. Jan knew that this meant they would be running up several flights of stairs.
The trucks jolted to a stop in front of faded old building three stories tall. The gold paint of the exterior walls was peeling and some of the green shutters were missing. Years ago, back before the first war, it had been one of the most luxurious apartment dwellings in the city. But that was years ago; it looked like an architectural version of one of the many vagrant humans that haunted the city.
As they jumped out of the back the truck, a dark, squat figure darted from out an alley across the square. The figure was wearing a dark blue dress, a white apron and a shawl. The figure ran to a black wrought iron fence that enclosed a small cemetery. Trying to scale the fence, its dress got caught on the iron work. Dirk Mueller, the new man in the unit, stepped quickly to the front, raised his rifle and fired. The figure toppled and fell to the sidewalk.
Mueller’s side-kick Hugo Larson, the butcher from Munich, ran to where the body lay sprawled on the ground. He bent down and pulled the shawl away from the face. Even from where they stood across the square, they could all see it was not a woman.
Kropek, the fat sergeant from Dusseldorf was cursing under his breath about the unnecessary paperwork that the shooting would entail; he then pointed to the top of the building. Their group leader gave the orders and the unit trotted into the building. Jan let Muller go ahead. That way Mueller would be the one to break the door down which left Jan in position to shoot if necessary.
When they reached the third floor landing, Mueller rushed over to the first blue door on the left. The ornate gold numbers on the door identified it as 333, the numbers were all hanging upside down. Little incongruities like this always bothered, but he forced himself to ignore it and knocked three times on the heavily scarred black wooden door. No one answered. Then Mueller raised a heavy hobnailed boot and kicked the door in.
The door gave way with a crash and the sound of splintering wood, and the force of the kick carried Mueller into the room. The old grey-haired woman who lived there was standing by the door and was knocked to the floor screaming. Out of a hallway, the man they were seeking appeared and rushed at Mueller menacingly waving a long military saber in his right hand. The man's other sleeve was empty and pinned up.
Before he could swing the sword downwards, Jan shot him in the chest, and the man tumbled down, first to his knees, and then face first to the floor. The sword slipped from his upraised arm and fell right into the hands of the frightened woman who grabbed it. without thinking and plunged it into Mueller’s thigh.
Uber put a bullet right between her eyes.
As the others dragged the bodies outside, Jan, Uber, and two other men ransacked the apartment looking for valuables and contraband. Jan went over to a small, ancient looking desk that rested up against the wall nearest the door. There he found a gold-framed picture lying face down on a stack of papers. He picked it up and turned it over. It was a picture of the dead man and the woman in a much earlier time.
Uber held up another document he had taken from a small table, “ The stupid bitch wasn’t even a Jewess. She could have avoided this whole mess.” He shook his head, “Some people? You just have to wonder.”
Jan didn’t comment; he just looked at the picture. The Eiffel Tower was in the background. The woman was very elegant and beautiful. She was wearing a very smart, stylish white wedding dress. The man was in the uniform of an officer in the German army. The sleeve facing the camera was pinned up. He was darkly handsome. A long dueling scar ran across his right cheek. Jan eyes focused on the Iron Cross that hung about his neck.
Jan discovered a small writing pad on the table next to a telephone. The pad was blank, but looking closely, Jan could see that someone had written a number on it. Thinking it might be of some value, Jan carried it to where two glass doors opened out into a little balcony. He stepped outside and stood near the small wall that enclosed the balcony and held the document up to the light. He strained to see the numbers on it.
Uber came out of the hall excitedly shouting and running across the room waving a picture in his hand, “Come, Janus, you must see this!” Janus noticed the unopened wine bottle that lay on the floor between them and tried to warn him, but it was too late. Uber stepped on it, and his foot kicked the bottle backwards where it hit the wall. Uber lost his balance and fell forward; his momentum carried him out into the balcony where he lurched into Jan’s chest causing Jan to lose his balance.
Jan stumbled one step backwards and then fell over the side of the small wall.
His outstretched arms might have broken his fall somewhat had it not been for the upside down wooden bucket that was sitting on the sidewalk. Before the Germans had arrived, the landlady’s son had been washing the windows and had turned the bucket over and left it there to dry.
Jan had fallen head first feet in the air and struck the bucket right below his left cheek, and it snapped his head upward at a sharp angle. He was confused because didn’t feel much pain; it was more like a giving way, a release of tension.
The way he landed, his head was pointed upward. He couldn’t move it and his vision was limited to a small patch of gray sky blurry around the edges. He could see a single stalk of small plant next to his face, a weed waving gently in the breeze.
Had he not fallen, Jan would probably have been contemplating the picture that Uber was so eager for him to see. It was a picture of a one armed German officer, the Jew they had killed, kneeling beside a soldier in a wheelchair, a soldier whose eyes were swathed in bandages. Uber wanted to show Jan how much the soldier looked like Jan’s father.
Instead of contemplating the mystery offered up by the picture, Jan could only contemplate the small movements of the weed as it waved back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.