CHAPTER NINETEEN, contd.
Von Keller then stepped from the staff car with careful deliberation.
“Corporal, take the other motorcyclist and one troop carrier. Catch that damn bread truck! If it’s headed up the valley, they must be climbing over the top of the mountain to Rogia and then back down into the Drava Valley and Maribor. They have a twenty-minute start but there’s only one road. In the meantime, I’ll radio for troops from Maribor to block that road at the river. They have no escape. SCHNELL! ”
While the pursuers sped off up the valley, von Keller turned sharply to address the remainder of his patrol. “Until I can determine whether our prime suspects have remained here or taken flight in the bread truck, we will stay to interrogate the two inside. I rather suspect that McClain will be trying to escape in the truck but he will find himself back here anyway.”
“In your dreams, Sturmbahnfuhrer.” Chez grinned. “The chances of them finding—let alone catching— Savo in those mountains are somewhere between slim and zero.”
Then it was time to focus on the immaculate bastard in the polished black boots and jodhpurs as the major raised a megaphone and addressed the house. Simultaneously five Wehrmacht soldiers trained their headlights and machine pistols on the windows, a sixth manning the MG-42 light machine gun mounted on the troop carrier.
“I know there are at least two of you in the house. You have five minutes to surrender and step outside.” The surrounding facets of the old marble quarry gave von Keller’s already amplified voice an added quality of menace. Malcolm thought back to the movies he’d watched at the Arcadian on Albert Street, goggle-eyed as a kid in Belfast. No money needed from those who had none; two jars of jam had been enough to get a front row seat. He smiled.
“Seems this is another fine mess you’ve got me into, Ollie,” he said.
Chez looked blank: going to the cinema had never been part of his childhood prison camp experience but he thought, “Damn, this Irish guy has ice in his veins. I like that!”
Regardless, their survival time was shortening by the second. Malcolm blinked as, without warning, his companion suddenly ripped a sheet from the Brodniks’ bed then pulled up the casement and proceeded to hang the linen outside.
McClain was about to blink even harder when the Spider’s shout in German took on a most uncharacteristic whine.
“I have Flying Officer McClain here. He’s badly wounded and the occupants of the house were sent to get medical help. We surrender! Allow me a minute to get him downstairs...but please don’t shoot.”
Malcolm spoke no German but the meaning was easy to follow.
“What the hell...?” McClain began to blurt before Chez whirled urgently.
“Shut up an’ follow me to the Wine Vat in the barn.” Without waiting, Chez turned and led the way downstairs, navigating each flight in one effortless jump. On reaching the ground floor, he darted left into the kitchen where a rear door led directly into the barn. By the time Malcolm caught up with him, the young Pole was already holding open the Wine Vat’s secret access to the passage. He gestured for Malcolm to enter. With the Irishman inside the void, Chez started to close the secret door from the outside.
“You go ahead, Malcolm. There is one small detail I need to take care of before I catch up.”
Sturmbahnfuhrer Abelard Hans von Keller was exceedingly pleased with himself. Although he had not expected it to be this easy, he had the two bastards he’d wanted and could leave it to others to apprehend the Partizani bit players in the bread truck.
There was no hurry, therefore he had time to savor his coming rehabilitation in the eyes of his superiors. While the knowledge that McClain was virtually back in the bag with no harm done to his career, von Keller would also be able to exact retribution on that still-mysterious traitor to his Führer’s beloved Third Reich: the man with the Berliner accent who had almost pulled off the successful kidnapping of his prize.
Walking briskly back to his staff car, he could already feel the adrenaline coursing through his body. He vividly imagined himself placing his gleaming jackboot between the bastard’s shoulder blades before shooting him in front of McClain.
Sliding into his car seat, von Keller reached into the glove compartment, retrieving a short, black ebony cigarette holder into which he carefully pushed a Balkan Black Sobranie. He’d never permitted himself to become an inveterate smoker—the Führer would have disapproved—but there were occasions when one could justify a brief, discreet deviation from the SS model of perfection. He thumbed the flint of his silver, monogrammed lighter, drawing the rich, satisfying smoke deep into his lungs. He smiled a very cold smile and murmured out loud, “As you stagger through that door, you treasonous cretin, appreciate your last few moments on this earth...”
The major felt a slight pinprick, the irritation of a mosquito biting his neck. It was a curious sensation in itself. As he swatted it, a dark spray splattered the inside of the windshield in front of him. Puzzled, Hans von Keller slowly raised his warm, wet left hand until he could see the sticky glint of what could only be his own blood. While he was still frowning in confusion, a strong hand clamped across his sagging jaw and he heard a soft Berlin accent from the back seat.
“I am not a treasonous cretin, Herr Major, because I do not consider myself a German. I am Czeslaw Orlowski, a proud Pole and one of those resistance fighters you hold in such contempt. You might know me better as the Spider?”
As von Keller’s carotid artery continued to pump out warm blood, his body involuntarily began to shut down. With a supreme effort, he compelled his brain to focus on analyzing the facts. Unmistakably, he had just heard this same voice from the upstairs window. He’d detected neither movement from the house nor the slightest sound since returning to his car. He hadn’t even felt the blade slice his throat. He still felt little pain. It made no sense, and for the analytical mind of Sturmbahnfuhrer Abelard Hans von Keller, that came as a terrible revelation.
“Spider, Spinne ...? But you’re a myth. You don’t exist outside the pipe dreams of your filthy Partisa ...” Nevertheless, before he slipped down to the eternal flames of Hell, Sturmbahnfuhrer Abelard Hans von Keller heard the voice softly utter the last earthly words he would ever hear.
“With fond remembrance of Goran...and Biba!”
Chez slid silently out of the car and dissolved into the shadows but his luck finally ran out as he returned to the barn and was swinging hand-over-hand between the roof trusses. Suddenly, a powerful flashlight snapped a fix on him. He had little option but to freeze.
“Come down now, whichever one you are, or you’ll be shot,” demanded Corporal Manfred Gimmstadt, one of three grey-uniformed Wehrmacht troopers in the barn.
But then, a most unexpected event occurred. “I believe you may be looking for me as well?” Flying Officer Malcolm McClain called almost conversationally from behind them. Without understanding his English, the three soldiers whirled in shock. Gimmstadt redirected his torch towards the new challenge. Then, the confused corporal briefly reshone his flashlight back into the rafters, which were now empty.
“Verdamnt!” he snarled, quickly returning his flashlight back to illuminate McClain while a second soldier trained his Schmeisser on the seemingly nonchalant British flyer. The third slung his machine pistol across his chest and motioned for McClain to step forward, hands above his head, to be searched.
Commendable standard practice, only Gimmstadt didn’t realize he was dealing with a man from Belfast. McClain’s demeanor transformed into a whirl of action as he took one step forward to grab both lapels of the German’s uniform. In a crisp motion, he pulled the soldier towards him, simultaneously smashing his forehead into the bridge of the trooper’s nose. A brutally unsophisticated but extremely effective tactic known colloquially as giving ‘a stitch’ by those fighting for survival around the Falls Road.
Allowing his victim’s semi-conscious body to slump to the floor, Malcolm swung on the second soldier and in a continuous, flowing movement, launched his right foot straight into the man’s crotch. With this foot still airborne and the unfortunate soldier already doubling in agony, Malcolm completed the scissor kick with a round house left foot to the soldier’s right temple.
When kicking a leather ball, a professional football player’s boot can travel at over 75 miles per hour, and McClain had perhaps the most lethal left foot in the game. The second guard was brain-dead before his body hit the floor. Two down in as many seconds, McClain was already pivoting to dispatch the last captor when he suddenly stopped in his tracks.
Before his eyes, the beam of light that had started the debacle began to rise steadily towards the rafters. Then the torch dropped with a clatter to the accompaniment of a strangled gasp. McClain could just make out Corporal Manfred Gimmstadt’s knees hovering in front of him, shortly to be replaced by frantically kicking jackboots as Gimmstadt continued to swing higher. Malcolm recovered the lamp to observe the elevated soldier dangling helplessly, his neck pinioned in the vice-like grip of the Spider’s thighs. Hanging effortlessly from the rafters, Chez rotated his hips savagely, first to the left and then right. There came a snap and Corporal Manfred Gimmstadt’s corpse joined his inert comrades on the floor of the barn.
“Well done, Chez,” Malcolm announced almost matter-of-factly as the Spider landed like a cat in front of him. The young Pole’s respect for his foreign charge had tripled in the last few seconds.
“Now for the rest of those bastards!” McClain said.
“Enough, Malcolm. Remember, my prime mission is to get you safely out of here. Though, I’m starting to think you are looking after me!” Just as they were ready to close the secret passage door, they heard urgent shouting from the courtyard.
“Hold on here for now, Malcolm,” Chez grinned as he caught the gist of the guttural conversation. “If they’ve found what I suspect they’ve found, then we might not need to negotiate that long damp passage.” It seemed the three Wehrmacht soldiers remaining outside in the yard with von Keller’s increasingly nervous SS driver, had become restless while awaiting Chez’s promised surrender.
Even more unsettlingly, Corporal Gimmstadt’s party who had entered the barn to prevent any back door escape had not reappeared. Nor had they heard the reassuring sound of shots from within. Direction was needed...but where the hell was Major von Keller when the arrogant bastard was needed?
They soon found out. The panicked shouting Malcolm and Chez had heard provided evidence enough. To compound their disarray, the soldiers then ran back to the barn to locate the missing men and tripped over three bodies, only one of which retained any signs of life. The decimated squad’s leader, a grizzled veteran of the Russian front, stared at the seemingly vacant farmhouse and made a battlefield decision.
“Load the bodies into the Krupp, leave the staff car for now, and we’ll return to Maribor for orders!”
Only while they were carrying the dead major to the troop carrier, did one of them see the salutation pinned to Sturmbahnfuhrer von Keller’s chest by the Thiers Issard cut-throat razor Chez had commandeered from the Brodniks’ bathroom.
The square of paper showed the infamously feared caricature of a spider. Beneath the eight legs was a terse message in German.
“To the Führer. With the compliments of the Spinne!”