by Lenore Van Muller
(Editor’s Note: Lenore Van Muller is obviously a pseudonym of Lucille Van Helsing, evidenced by her using the same as an alias during the Brasov Autonom raid.)
A war is a war is a war is a war.
The band on the Titanic played until the ship sank into the cold, merciless sea. Music to lull doomed souls. And the passengers danced. To their deaths.
The world is at war. Rumania is in the iron grip of Hitler's toady, Antonescu. This country, my country, the whole of Europe, is at war.
And the fine folk of Brasov dance. They put on a festival. St. George's Day, a trifling celebration. The first day of spring. Villagers will rise before dawn and bathe in the cold river in the primitive belief that doing so makes them healthy and strong. This in the age when planes drop hell from the sky.
While the world shudders, the young maidens of Brasov plant basil, storing the seeds in their mouths to ensure the health of their crop. Madness. Their country has become an offering on Hitler's altar of war and they spit seeds like country bumpkins.
The previous evening when the clock struck midnight the locals extinguished the lights in their houses, turned the kitchen utensils topsy-turvy in the drawers and hung bundles of garlic over doors and cow sheds for protection against the malefic creatures that haunt their medieval imaginations. While the real danger was the conscription of their menfolk to feed the German war machine.
Some farmers took their cows to pasture so that they could carefully watch over the beasts and protect them against witches intent on stealing the milk. Others hit each other with nettles to insure their health for the coming year. Sometimes Lucille thought she did not live in the Twentieth Century but the Sixteenth. There was evil out there. Not in the form of witches and goblins and Blajini. The true evil seeped from Berlin like dark flood water.
These were the thoughts of Lucille Van Helsing as she bicycled her way down the country path into town. The last vestige of a fog lay low about the fields like frosty breath from the squatting remains of haystacks.
Lucille knew from her own St. George Day memories that in the village square confectioners were now setting up tables laden with sweets. Gypsies were erecting stands for fortune tellers and other diverse entertainments. There would be a puppet show for the children, acrobats tumbling across the cobblestones, a stilt walker making everyone crane their necks as the village wits asked about the weather "up there".
A fire breather would belch flame to the alarm and subsequent delight of all. A wire would be strung from the Town Hall bell tower to the building across the plaza so that a tiny man in tights could precariously stride from one end to the other as the crowd below "oohed" and "aahed."
And if one of the gypsies lifted a wallet or snatched a watch off an unsuspecting wrist, caused a necklace to disappear as if by evaporation, the pilfering did not seem to dissipate anyone's enjoyment any more than the war that loomed over Europe.
Even the Rumanian soldiers would be in high spirits, laughing and drinking, partaking of the foods in the various stalls. A few would even pay.
On the doomed ship the music played and the passengers danced as the icy seas crept to their knees.
Lucille's father had driven into town earlier, called to a meeting of the town leaders by the local Nazi Liaison Officer Captain Lobenhoffer. Usually Lucille attended town meetings with her father, but today's presence of the German prohibited her. Lobenhoffer would have recognized her from the incident at the Brasov Autonom where she had absconded with his Luger. During the encounter she had worn a black wig but she wasn’t sure that was enough disguise to fool even the dense Nazi.
She was aware of the irony as she carried the German’s weapon nestled inside her knapsack like a loaf of fresh-baked bread for Grandmama.
Lucille did not mind having to bike into town. It was a trip she had made so many times as a child. On this very bicycle. Memories met her at every turn. Every house and farm field she passed cued a reminiscence. She soaked in the sights and sounds of spring, the budding flowers in the fruit trees, apple, plum, pear and cherry, mixed with the acrid bite of manure spread about the freshly-turned fields. The brilliant green grass spread beneath the trees was decorated with fallen petals as if carefully laid there by an artistic carpet designer. She almost lost herself in the bucolic, verdant scenery.
The ship’s band played on. But Lucille was one who did not dance to their funereal song.
Most of the houses along the road were deserted, the occupants already in town for the festival, the roads likewise as empty. In the blue sky a flock of starlings swarmed in an undulating cloud, a collective mindless flight much akin, she thought, to this collective mindless war.
Lucille tried to lose herself in the halcyon springtide. And it seemed to work. Her angry thoughts were slowly being ameliorated by the passing pastoral view. Until she heard a great rumble and engine growl behind her. Glancing back, she was able to see a convoy coming down the road.
She pulled her bicycle over to the narrow shoulder before she was forced off the road. Teetering at the edge of a drainage ditch, she was buffeted by the gusts thrown at her by the passing vehicles.
They were German.
Every human knows the value of appearances, women aware of this more than men; a red dress makes one kind of statement, a black sheath another. The proper coif, the persuasive artistry of make-up and the right shoes, always the right shoes.
So Lucille could appreciate the adroit hand that was behind the creation of the German uniform, especially that of the dreaded Waffen SS. Comparing the grey, stylish, imposing Nazi SS uniform to the baggy brown serge of the Rumanian Army livery was the difference between a falcon and a yard chicken. Even the German transportation exuded ruthless power.
Lucille watched them pass, the lead vehicle a half-truck half-track combination, rubber tyres up front and steel treads in the rear. The only passenger was an SS Major standing upright, one hand braced casually on the machine gun stand mounted in the center of the vehicle. Lucille’s eyes were drawn to the officer’s dress hat and the dreaded death's head insignia. Under the shade of the cap bill were the cold, blue eyes of a man as hard as the steel upon which he rode. Over his shoulders, a long black leather coat hung to the ankles of his black boots. He stood erect, as if he was a statue carved to honor the German Teutonic ideal.
He passed Lucille without a glance in her direction. This was in itself unusual as Lucille Van Helsing was used to being appreciated. Her radiant red hair, striking features and lithe but curvaceous body usually caused at least one look, more often a second and third. She took no great pride in this. It had been a fact of her life since her teens. She just took it for granted. And yes, she used it more than a few times, but regarded it as no more than a bit of luck in the hereditary lottery.
The half-track rattled past her, the slapping of the steel treads a loud obscenity in the rural idyll that surrounded Lucille. Four trucks followed, filled with German soldiers, also standing. What lower-ranking man would dare sit if their commandant stood? Their uniforms were smart, clean as the rifles and machine guns strapped across their chests. Every truckload that passed sent a chill through Lucille. These were not peasant soldiers. These were hardened troops, every man having the countenance of a combat veteran. Lucille knew the difference. She recognized the look, had seen it in her own mirror. These were killers.
The game had changed.
As soon as the last truck had passed, Lucille remounted her bicycle and pedaled as hard as she could into the dusty wake of the convoy.
She had to warn her father and the others.
As she neared the outskirts of town, she began to see familiar landmarks with new eyes. With German eyes. The fire-blackened hulk of a tank, pushed to the side of the road. The graffiti scrawled in whitewash on the turret, "Antonescu Die!" A series of Rumanian army helmets set atop fence posts - all riddled with bullet holes. The Resistance had displayed these trophies in the same manner that medieval legions set out the decapitated heads of their enemies. Lucille now had second thoughts about the taunts and worried that they would suffer for it.
She redoubled her pedaling. The air was rent with the pealing of bells from the Brasov churches, whether tolling in celebration or warning, Lucille could not tell. She did notice that one of the bells gave off a discordant note as if cracked. She had never noticed this before. Was this a recent event or were her nerves magnifying her senses?
The convoy roared through the narrow streets of Brasov. With a silent, raised hand from the Major, the half-track stopped a dozen blocks from the square. The following trucks lined up behind it. Lucille saw them park and she hurriedly made a brisk turn down a side alley. In her handlebar mirror she could see the Nazi officer consult a map and spit out orders to his underlings.
Racing through the narrow side streets and alleys of Brasov, her mind flew from one frightening scenario to another.
Her father was in danger. The committee meeting was a trap. The resistance had been betrayed. Who? Why? What could she do? She had to do something. Anything to save her father. Anything!
She entered the Old Town section, speeding through the narrow paths between the ancient Saxon buildings, having to tuck in her arms to escape brushing the Thirteenth Century walls. She curled around the old Greek Orthodox Church, brilliant white in the noonday sun. Past the graveyard of Rumanian and German dead from the First World War, the German crosses still visible on the weather-worn cement markers, poking their grim heads over the tops of the uncut grass.
The band played an old familiar song.
At the Schel Gate she almost collided with a gaggle of school children. They were dressed in traditional costume for the St. George Day pageant. She sped past the Johannes Honterus School and approached the Black Church, so named from when it was burnt down by the Austrians during one of Brasov's many invasions. Her bicycle rattled over the cobblestones so violently that she was afraid it would shake itself apart.
Dumping her bicycle against the church wall, she snatched her knapsack from the basket and entered the small door at the "wedding" portal. The church interior was dark and smelled of sandalwood incense. Lucille hurried down the aisle, past the wooden pews alongside the nave reserved for the old Guilds, their emblems emblazoned across the fronts.
Checking to make sure the church was empty and she wasn’t being observed, Lucille hurried toward to the bell tower stairway. She paused but a second and dashed up the spiral stairs. The climb seemed to go on forever and her breathing became loud, deep, rasping gulps of air. She felt a stabbing pain in her side. When she had reached the belfry landing, she took a moment to catch her breath before peering out one of the towers narrow slits.
Lucille remembered how she and her girlfriends used to sneak into the church and climb these endless steps to hide in this belfry and smoke illicit cigarettes while they giggled over the racy bits of Lady Chatterly's Lover, the only sections they actually read. Had she ever been that innocent? It was also here that she secretly read that Forbidden Book, by herself, of course.
From her sixty-five meter high vantage point she could view the entire Brasov Town Square below her. The festival looked like an Arabian bazaar, most of the town having turned out for the celebration. The food stalls and gypsy entertainment were at full frolic. Children’s laughter and adult shouts of joy rose up to Lucille's ears. The pleasant aroma of gomboc and budinca mingled with the noise.
Reaching into her knapsack, she withdrew the Luger. Pulling back the toggle, she chambered a round, flipped on the safety and stuck the pistol into her sweater pocket. Rather a sweater of her father's that she had claimed as her own. The weight of the handgun pulled down the ancient knit until it hung a foot below the other pocket. That wouldn’t do.
Pulling the pistol out, she instead stuck it in the back waistband of her pants, the motion reminding her of a Bogart/Cagney gangster movie for a brief moment. She felt foolish.
But then, reminded of the impending danger, she fumbled in her knapsack for her binoculars. She often bicycled around future ambush sites, playing the role of bird watcher, peering through her glass at various birds, even cataloguing her sightings in a tiny notebook. She had, of course, studied a guide on Rumanian birds in case a suspicious soldier stopped and queried her. She could recite enough particulars to fool any amateur and probably a few professionals, being fully knowledgeable about the short-toed and golden eagle, the black woodpecker, assorted dippers, and the scarce ring ouzel. It was a way to monitor troop movements without arousing too much suspicion.
Lucille was usually able to bat her lashes and twist a flirtatious finger through her copper hair and talk her way out of any encounter, more of them lately, but the notebook, the binoculars and her avian spiel were always ready to prove her case, the pistol if they failed.
So far the use of Luger had not been required.
She focused her glasses on the building at the center of the plaza - the three-hundred-year-old Town Hall. Two stories tall with a clock tower adding a third, the Council House was formerly where the one hundred privileged citizens, representatives of the various Guilds, used to rule Brasov. The upper floor now contained the Mayor's offices, his own inner sanctum facing the Square, fronted by a large portico that he could step out upon and observe his domain. This porch, roofed, but with large, open arched windows, was where the town leaders were now meeting, the men drinking and dining alfresco, able to gaze down at the festivities in the plaza below.
She could see the men gathered in the portico. They were obviously waiting for something or someone. They ambled about the great office, glasses of sherry in hand, smoking the sulphurous cigars handed out by the Mayor, who kept the good tobacco for himself in a humidor hidden in his side bar.
Lucille knew them all. General Suciu, the Rumanian commander of the Mountain Division which held dominion over Brasov and the surrounding area of Transylvania. He was a lackadaisical officer, wearing his wrinkled, ill-fitting uniform as if it were a pair of overalls. Never comfortable with his military position, he spent more time with his lumber business, fleecing the government, selling overpriced green wood. Business was good. War, as always, was good for business.
The General had recently expanded his interests into a manufacturing plant in Targuiste, relining gun barrels to enable various field cannon to fire the same 75mm round the Germans used. Not coincidentally, his own units were ordering these artillery refits in large numbers. Lucille had personally put his factory on the Resistance's list for sabotage.
He was a soft-looking man, always seeming distracted from the conversation at hand, his unit known for their lack of aggression and general slovenliness. Every resistance mission was grateful for this listless attitude. There were rumors that Suciu regularly stole his men's rations for resale and that one could purchase an officer's rank or a promotion within his organization with coin or, in one instance, a land deed. He was doing well in the war and so was his tailor, who kept busy letting out the waistband of the General's uniform trousers.
Right now the fat-faced General was leaning out the window, his dishwater-grey eyes enjoying a bird's eye view of the women's cleavage below. Since it was proper during festivals to wear the traditional open-necked peasant blouse, his eyes were flitting about in his head like a canary trying to escape its cage and his little pink tongue constantly slimed his lips.
Father Petrescu, the Catholic priest, was glancing at the General with resigned contempt. Though most of Brasov was Lutheran, Catholic Petrescu was the agreed-upon religious leader in the area, a position earned by his Krakow University education and his equanimity in any dispute. His face was always red, made more so by the stark contrast with his white collar and black cassock, his skin burnt by the sun in the summer, wind-chafed in the winter, as he bicycled from one end of the parish to the other trading selected morsels of gossip for food and drink. For the isolated farmers, wives and children of the valley, he performed the role of newspaper, radio and even every once in a while, priest.
His whippet-thin physique induced every woman on his route to try to fatten up the cleric with a hearty meal, often providing provisions for the road, which he parceled out to the least prosperous of his flock. It was a tribute to the man's conviviality and charity that a good many of his invitations were often from non-Catholic homes.
Constable Chiorean leaned over the priest to refill his glass. The regional police officer was a great bear of a man, his imposing height and barrel chest enough to intimidate any criminal or rabble-rouser, a useful attribute for his job. This and his benign calm in any situation. No matter how excitable anyone else became, the good Constable's quiet demeanor, accompanied by his giant hand on a shoulder, was enough to defuse any volatile situation. He was also the hairiest human Lucille had ever encountered. His mustache sprouted from nose to sideburn, his hands were carpeted with hair long enough to braid, tendrils of hair curled out from his collar, tufted out of his ears, and his eyebrows grew like one long hedge over his brown eyes.
The Constable and priest were in deep conversation with Mayor Muresanu, a tiny man who compensated for his bald pate with an explosion of beard. His face was dominated by a nose the size of a pear, tapestried with a filigree of red and blue veins. He assumed the mantle of office as if it were a birthright and strutted around Brasov like the majordomo of an exclusive French restaurant, his self-importance bloated miles beyond his station.
Lucille's father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing, was accepting a light for his cigar from Captain Lobenhoffer. She would chide him later for this, he had promised to give up nicotine, which he himself declared a poison. He was in his eighties now and, by his own diagnosis, his lungs were not what they were. Lucille was going to give him hell - if he lived to hear it.
The Nazi, Lobenhoffer, was a tall, sallow man with glasses who always appeared to have a bad taste in his mouth. His thin, blond mustache seemed to be constructed of only twelve hairs and hovered over a wet, thin mouth that twitched when he was frightened. Lucille knew this first hand.
The Captain and her father were in deep conversation, most likely about Lobenhofer's distinguished heritage going back to Gebhard von Blucher, the famous Teutonic General. Her father had told Lucille that Lobenhoffer could recite his lineage like a child declaring the alphabet and did it with the same sing-song rhythm. The trouble was that the German could never remember who he had told so that Van Helsing and everybody Lobenhoffer encountered in Brasov had heard the list of ancestors so many times they could repeat it back to him.
Her father, who still maintained a remarkable memory, was probably biting his tongue to keep from finishing the recitation for Lobenhoffer.
From Lucille's view, the group in the Mayor's office seemed a congenial lot. They were completely unaware that the dreaded German SS were about to interrupt the conviviality.
Lucille tried to think of a way to warn her father, pull him out of danger. She could not do it herself, Lobenhoffer might recognize her. Was there a phone downstairs in the church Chapter-house? Could she enlist one of the gypsies to carry a message? She surveyed the crowd below and spotted Janos. Janos!
Lucille and Janos had been lovers since the partisans had ambushed the convoy in the forest, their union the result of a celebratory bacchanal. He had also played a major part in the Brasov Autonom rescue, commandeering the tank, but he had covered his face with a scarf so Lobenhoffer might not recognize him. Janos could go warn her father and the others. Was it worth the risk?
Focusing her binoculars on the plaza below, she found Janos gorging himself on pup de crump at Afina Vula's table. The woman was throwing her great bosom into his face at every opportunity, feeding him with her own hand like one would offer an apple to a horse. Somehow grated potato crumbs kept falling into that great chasm of cleavage, forcing her to forage for them. It appeared that Janos was suffering from momentary vertigo as he watched her fat fingers dive into that fleshy abyss.
Lucille decided to go down and pull him away, if not to warn her father then to save him from himself, a task she had performed before. She began to slip her binoculars back into the case when she heard that terrible clatter and roar as the SS convoy rolled into the Square from all directions. The trucks instantly blocking any escape routes out of the plaza.
The half-track with the upright officer plowed directly through the carnival, crushing stands and stalls under its wheels and tracks without regard to any pedestrians who might be in the way. The startled populace frantically fled out of the mechanical beast's path. Janos snatched a frozen, transfixed child into his arms, seconds from being crushed.
Those not in harm's way just stood and stared as the Nazi troops leapt off the trucks and aimed their weapons at the crowd. There was an efficiency and sureness about their movements that indicated that they had done this before. And more than once. The commanding officer dismounted his vehicle with an imperious nonchalance. He turned to his adjutant and spoke an order. Not loudly, barely above a whisper, the kind of leader who believed that men who spoke too loud did so out of weakness.
Lucille could not hear what was said, but need not have worried as the adjutant repeated the command in a shout to his men.
"Arrest the gypsies!"
And the soldiers rushed to obey. The gypsies tried to flee, but there was no sanctuary to be found. Every street was blocked. A gypsy man clutched his wife and tried to enter the front door of the bakery, most likely to escape through the back door. A gunshot barked across the plaza and the man fell. The shot echoed across the square and was replaced with the wail of the fallen man's wife.
Everyone in the Square froze where they stood. SS soldiers dragged the wounded gypsy and his weeping woman to one of the trucks and tossed them into the bed. The rest of his people were now easily rounded up and loaded into the trucks.
The commanding officer strode into the Town Hall without a glance at the turmoil he had just created.
Lucille held her breath, tore the binoculars from the case and focused them upon the mayor's office. She was too late to give any warning. Her father was sitting by the window, staring down at the tragedy happening below him. Lucille tightened her view until his face filled the glass. She stared into his heartbroken eyes and muttered one plaintive cry.
* * *
Professor Van Helsing listened to Captain Lobenhoffer scamper through the branches of his family tree like a squirrel after fallen acorns and let his mind wander to more weighty concerns; such as how and why some cultures came to consider themselves better than others.
He had witnessed it all over the world. The British lording it over the East Indians, the Turk's disdain for the Armenian, the Germans looking down their noses at, well, everyone, the rich thinking the poor were a lesser species, his own Dutch and their low opinion of the African, the Oriental.
In Van Helsing's wide experience, every race displayed the same panorama of human attributes, from the most low to the highest, intelligent and idiotic, good and evil in equal proportions. And they all exhibited the most dangerous characteristic, the feckless passivity that allowed evil to prosper. What seemed to unite the arrogant was simply power over their assumed underlings. It was rare to find one of these vainglory egotists admitting that they held such a lofty status by mere accident of birth - like this Teutonic blowhard Lobenhoffer.
And what was it in the German character that induced them to initiate so many wars in the last hundred years? If Lobenhoffer were any example, it was that presupposition of superiority. The only catalyst needed for this poisonous brew was a charismatic politician who knew how to capitalize on that presumption.
Lobenhoffer had reached the Hapsburg twig of his great Austrian oak when the recitation was interrupted by a substantial din coming from the Square outside the open windows. The cacophony of steel striking stone leapt into the Mayor's office and everyone rushed to view the source.
Van Helsing saw the Germans roll into the plaza below. He recognized the emblem of the SS and knew at once that the game had just escalated. He watched the SS troops collect the gypsies with efficient brutality. He saw the calm execution of the man attempting to escape, Traian, a stalwart member of the Rumanian resistance.
The Professor scanned the Square, seeking another freedom fighter, Janos. The young man was manning a table peddling his mother's weinerschnitzel. Janos was excitable, a reactionary, not necessarily a leader but a fierce soldier. Van Helsing had put him down there when the meeting in the Mayor's office had been announced. Janos and three other men were to provide some security. Van Helsing would have preferred his daughter to lead this contingent, but she had made her face familiar to the German Captain and some of his men so she was left to pacing the floor at home.
Janos looked up and their eyes met across the square. Van Helsing gave a small shake of his head. Janos nodded, for the moment controlling his baser urges. He desired nothing more than to kill Germans; his sister had been raped by a gang of Nazis in Bucharest. Her subsequent suicide only added fuel to the fire that burned in the lad.
Van Helsing turned his attention to the SS Major, who had stepped down from the lead vehicle and was making his way to the Town Hall. The Professor and the other men in the Mayor’s office were silent, listening to the crisp footsteps on the stairs that led up to the Mayor’s office. Van Helsing turned accusingly to Lobenhoffer.
"I am sorry I could not tell you," Lobenhoffer apologized without sincerity. "Military secrets."
Lobenhoffer had called an important meeting of the Brasov community leaders for what he described as a very important announcement and then, when everyone was assembled, had waffled and tread conversational water. Meanwhile, cigars had been distributed, Van Helsing accepting even though he knew that Lucille would smell it on him later and lecture him. Sherry was consumed. Conversation stretched until it gave way like taffy pulled into too fine a string.
And now the waiting was over. A lot more than the wait might be finished.
The new SS officer strode into the Mayor's office, stopped short within the doorway and took inventory of the occupants, his blue eyes without expression, flitting from one man to the next, like a sharpshooter seeking targets.
Captain Lobenhoffer, straightening his tunic, stepped forward and snapped to attention, raised his hand to show his palm to the Major. They exchanged "Heil Hitlers"; the Major's salute much more offhand.
"Major Reikel, so very glad to meet you. I have heard of your exploits in Poland."
The one called Reikel only nodded. Lobenhoffer went on.
"I have gathered together the local leaders as you requested. This is Mayor Muresanu, Father Petrescu and Constable Chiorean."
Reikel nodded to each man in turn. The Mayor offered his hand, but it was ignored by the Major and Muresanu let his hand slowly drop to his side as if the appendage itself was sighing in regret.
Lobenhoffer clapped Van Helsing on the shoulder with a hearty bonhomie.
"And this is the renowned Doctor Van Helsing. He was building a university here before the war."
Reikel gave the Professor a more thorough inspection.
"You are Dutch?" It was more a statement than query.
"Yes," Van Helsing replied. "I married a local woman and settled here."
"A medical doctor?" Reikel asked. "Your specialty?"
"I have some medical training, but mainly as an academic interest. I hold doctorates in philosophy, anthropology, languages, and assorted other fields. Still, I help out the locals with a general practice clinic."
"An educated man," was Reikel's response and he turned back to Lobenhoffer. "Captain, you are dismissed and are ordered to report to General Schubert and the 11th Army."
"The 11th...?" Lobenhoffer could not contain his shock. "Basarabia.... Facing the Soviet line...?"
"Yes," Reikel said with that nod. "Immediately."
Lobenhoffer stood rooted in place, calculating his future. The numbers were not turning out in his favor.
"No need to tarry." Reikel prodded the reluctant hero.
"But may you not need me to...brief you on the area, the, uh, local conditions, status of our anti-resistance operations, my understanding of the..." Lobenhoffer swam against the current, searching for a life preserver. Reikel interrupted and pushed the man under.
"I have been briefed. I read your reports. Go."
The last word was the softest and at the same time the most forceful order Van Helsing had ever witnessed.
Lobenhoffer snapped his heels together with an audible clack, saluted and left like a man walking to the guillotine, which was close to the truth. The rumors were that the Russians were amassing an army of millions on the Soviet line in preparation for the inevitable German invasion. The non-aggression pact was nothing but a delaying tactic for both sides as they gathered their men and materiel for what was inevitably going to be a bloody slaughter.
Van Helsing heard the Captain's steps fade down the stairway and then the cough of his staff car, the banging of the engine as the man rode away to his grim fate.
Reikel turned to the others.
"As I said, I have been briefed on the nefarious activities of the terrorists operating in this area." He eyed each man as he spoke. "None of you would know anything about these resistance activities, of course."
"We know nothing," Mayor Muresanu announced. "We have done everything in our powers to stop them. But..."
The Mayor's shrug was most European. It spoke volumes.
"Everything," General Suciu confirmed.
"Why would you do anything else?" Reikel's lips formed what Van Helsing interpreted as a smile. Reikel put both hands behind his back, cocked his head.
"Let me explain my theory of war," Reikel began. Van Helsing recognized the posture of a man about to give a lecture he has given before. "It is not the theory that they teach in our military academies. 'Honor on the battlefield.' This code of the 'gentleman soldier.' I attended Heidelberg, heard this romantic philosophy of war, assumed it into my very being, like every young cadet. Then I tested my teachings. In Warsaw. And they failed. Yes, they failed completely” Reikel strode to the open arch, gave a perfunctory gesture to the men below. He continued to speak to the men in the room with his back to them, words so soft that those gathered had to strain to hear them, the priest stepping forward and cupping an ear with one hand.
"Poland changed my mind about these theories. I realized that they were a Nineteenth Century concept, destined to die on this modern battlefield. How I came to this reversal is of no significance to you. It is the idea that is important."
There was a commotion down in the square. Cries of protest, sounds of struggle, and wails of fear. Van Helsing had to restrain himself from rushing forward to see what was the cause. He could see the others of the council were also under this compulsion and fighting the urge.
Reikel turned back to face them.
"Total war. You do not win by pretending that war is anything but slaughter. He who slaughters the most - wins. No caveats. No quarter given. None expected. Do you understand?"
The Mayor nodded, not really comprehending. General Suciu and Chiorean followed suit. Van Helsing saw no reason to answer and edged toward the open arch. Reikel countered the move, stepping in the Professor's path, that thin smile returning.
"For example, this resistance," he continued in his lecture mode. "It is ultimately futile and will cost your people more than can be gained. The question is how to communicate this message. Quickly. Efficiently."
He waved a hand toward the archway, as if he were a waiter offering a table, inviting the five men to step forward to view the plaza below. Now they could see the SS soldiers herding the people in the Square and lining them against the walls of the buildings that surrounded the Square.
"What is the meaning...?" Mayor Muresanu began, but was halted by Reikel raising a silencing hand. Then the Nazi turned to Chiorean.
"Constable, give me a number from one to ten."
Van Helsing felt the room grow cold, a heaviness forming in his chest. Chiorean was caught by surprise.
"I, uh, I cannot think of one." He was by nature a plodder, not a fast thinker by any means. Sudden fear had paralyzed him.
Reikel shrugged as if the answer was of no importance and turned to Father Petrescu. "Then you, priest. Those in your field are fond of numbers, the Holy Trinity, Ten Commandants, seven deadly sins.... A number, please."
The priest's thinking was a bit faster than the constable. I know you and your kind disdain any religion but your god Hitler and I will not stand for any mockery of mine.”
Father Petrescu stood straight, chest puffed as if bravely facing a firing squad. Priest, Van Helsing thought, always trying to become saints, preferably the dead sort.
Despite his own misgivings, Van Helsing found himself stepping in front of the Nazi Major, meeting the German face to face.
“I do not know your game, Major,” Van Helsing said, “But we will not play.”
“Maybe you have no choice,” The Major’s eyes glinted with a sudden enthusiasm, he had finally found a worthy opponent.
“We always have choices, Major,” Van Helsing ssaid to the German in the man’s own language.
“You speak German?” Of course you do. You are Dutch. We are of the same native blood, are we not?”
“We have no more in common Major, than the worm and the apple it infests.”
The Nazi’s eyes went dead. “You, my Dutch friend, you will state a number.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Have you heard of the East Indian bed-of-nails? I have a variation of this trick I would be happy to show you.”
Van Helsing's dread came creeping into his consciousness with bared claws.
* * *
What to do? What to do? Lucille was desperate, her mind a whirligig of myriad responses. She could rush down into the square to her father’s rescue. But there were all those armed men between here and there. And she with only her pistol. There had to be something she could do. Anything.
She dug into her trouser pocket and withdrew a handful of coins. Quickly she sorted through them, selecting coins. How many were in the Mayor’s office? Five. She picked out five coins, a one, five, ten, twenty and a fifty lei denomination.
Returning the rest of the change to her pocket she set the five coins on the cement floor at her feet. Knowing she did not have the power or the expertise to protect everyone in the office she designated the fifty as her father.
Dragging a knuckle across an exposed nail she waited for the blood to well in the cut. First she kissed the fifty lei, then pressed her blood upon it’s surface and laid it on the floor. Mumbling a protection spell in crude Portuguese she drew a circle of blood around the coin. It took a few tries as the cut wasn’t deep. Doubts intruded upon her thoughts as she chanted, hoping that she remembered the spell correctly.
On a visit to Brazil, Lucille had learned the Macumba magic from a Santeria High Priestess. It was probably the only white magic the ancient woman knew except for some love spells that could go hideously awry if the purchaser somehow offended the prickly witch. Lucille had seen the horrifying results.
She arranged the other four coins into a square around the fifty, bent over and spit on each of them. Finished with the spell, her mind became frantic with the thought that she might have made a mistake in the ceremony that would result in serious if not deadly consequences.
Lucille hurried to her view port, staring at the Town Hall, wishing she had a spell to see through walls.
* * *
‘Is this how your new style of war works, Major?” Van Helsing met the German’s cold stare with his own. He was not afraid of the Nazi. Van Helsing had face more formidable adversaries. “Through threat and bluster?”
“There is no threat or bluster, Professor. Quite the opposite. I am a man of action and results. As you shall see. Right now…”
A frown formed on the Major’s forehead and his gaze left the Professor and stared beyond the old man as if he was not there any longer. There was a blank, fugue like moment and the German officer suddenly turned to the Mayor. It was as if the confrontation between Reikel and Van Helsing had never happened. Van Helsing was confused over the Major’s sudden change of focus. The Nazi was acting as if Van Helsing was no longer in the room.
"Mayor?" Reikel's voice was insidiously calm. "If you will oblige me, a number."
"Could you tell me what you are getting at?" The Mayor asked. He was beginning to grasp that the Nazi was heading toward something dire. "What are your intentions, sir?"
Reikel ambled over to the Mayor's desk, casually picked up a framed photo, and seemingly admired the picture. "Your family?"
"Yes." Muresanu's face became as white as his beard.
"Major." General Suciu stepped forward. "I do not like what is going on here. This is my area of responsibility. I am in command. State your purpose."
Van Helsing had never seen the man so imperious and was surprised at his temerity. It was the first time Suciu had ever impressed him.
"My purpose, dear General, is to rid you of the vermin that have spread from your area of responsibility, that have polluted your country, endangered your people and our mutual goals. For some reason you have failed to eradicate this pestilence yourself. I could step aside and allow you to pursue whatever plan you may have. If that is what you desire. And I assume that you will also accept the full responsibility for the success or failure of your actions."
Once again that little smile, an imperceptible, barely discernible upturn of the very edges of his mouth.
"And of course," he continued, stepping forward so that his face was inches from the General's. Suciu flinched. "Then you would also accept the consequences of any failure on your part. By the way, your lack of success so far has been pointed out to your commanding officer."
The General backed away a step. "I have neither the inclination nor the manpower to pursue these rebels. They are all yours."
Reikel nodded, went back to the Mayor as if he had never been interrupted. He contemplated the photo. "Your daughter, she is beautiful. How old?"
"Seven," Muresanu said with a trembling voice.
Reikel turned back to the open archway and spoke to the SS Lieutenant below.
"Seven, Lieutenant Guth. The number is seven. Adults only."
Leaning over the balustrade, Van Helsing watched Guth, a thinner, younger version of the Major, his blond hair sheared close to the sides of his head, blue eyes without emotion. Guth walked over to the line of Brasov citizens who stood against the walls of the storefronts that lined the plaza. He drew his pistol from his holster and began counting the people, skipping the youngest.
"Eins, zwei, drei..."
"No," Van Helsing heard his voice utter that single word.
At the count of "sieben", Guth shot the man standing in front of him, Mihail Palade, a taciturn truck driver and sometime taxi service. Van Helsing winced as if he had been shot himself.
There was an audible gasp from the people lining the square as Palade's body slumped to the cobblestones.
Guth proceeded counting without pause. "Seiben" and another shot. Another innocent, Nadia Tiriac, a woman who took in cleaning and sewing, very popular for her communion dresses. She collapsed like a string-cut puppet, a bullet in her head.
The people lining the square roused from their shocked silence. A few began to protest. These were instantly and brutally clubbed by SS rifle butts. Other protestors were held back by the threat from the other end of the rifles pointed at them.
Guth kept on. Bodo Frontzek, an iron monger and plow repair man, father of eight girls.
Counting and shooting. Again and again and again. The people of Brasov began turning their heads away at the seventh count.
Van Helsing knew every one of the victims. Knew their children, their parents, their wives and husbands. He felt every bullet.
One man, Mik Banfy, shouted, “Take me!” as the woman next to him, the widow Abady, faced the seven count. His appeal made no difference.
Women began to weep and wail. Grown men cried. Walderman Zirndorf raised up his hands, either to beg or futilely ward off the bullet that tore through his palm, then his face.
Janos Maer, former carpenter, now fierce partisan and lover of Van Helsing's daughter, stood further down the line. He could take no more and pulled his ancient Wembley pistol from under his shirt.
"No! No more!" He shouted. "Let's take them! We outnumber them!"
And he fired at the German Lieutenant. The bullet chipped the stucco in front of Zingher's candy store. Guth did not even duck.
Janos was instantly the target of a dozen rifles and machine guns. His body danced for a brief second under the fusillade's impact, then fell. The plaza was quiet, the report of the guns still echoing off the surrounding hills. The Germans eyed the residents with an intense vigilance, anticipating another outburst. It did not come.
"He does not figure in the count," Reikel said in that quiet voice with the same insouciance as he did everything.
Van Helsing could only grit his teeth. He had heard a cry when Janos pulled the gun, a female voice that sounded much like his daughter Lucille. He searched the faces in the plaza, but could not see her anywhere. He reversed the process and examined the line again, but still no Lucille. Had his mind played a trick on him, presenting his worst fear in this dreadful moment?
Guth kept counting and shooting, the shock weakening at every killing until at the end of the line his victims just stood and awaited with a fatal torpor, standing in place as Guth reloaded, shot and reloaded again, a large Corporal followed handing him full magazines.
One man looked down the line and visibly counted the people from one victim to himself. The result was obviously a multiple of seven and he began to keen like an injured cat until the bullet from the German Lieutenant's gun mercifully silenced him.
Van Helsing could barely restrain his outrage and grief, grinding his teeth until the muscles in his jaw ached.
"Barbarous," Van Helsing spat, glaring at Reikel. The Nazi Major met his gaze without emotion.
"Exactly," Reikel replied. "Total war. Nothing less. Once people witness the consequences of any hostile action, they will cease their futile resistance. Or their wiser neighbors will persuade them. Oh, I forgot." He leaned out the archway. "Lieutenant Guth, prepare a bed for the Mayor."
Then he turned to the office entrance where Van Helsing could see two SS waiting patiently in the doorway. Had they been there all along? He could not remember them arriving. Reikel nodded to them and the two soldiers quickly approached the perplexed Muresanu and, before the little man could react, grabbed him by his feet and shoulders and tossed him over the portico wall.
Van Helsing and the others rushed to look down and saw six German soldiers standing at rigid attention below, bayonets mounted on the barrels of their rifles, weapons held at the vertical.
The Mayor fell upon the upright knives and was impaled. He screamed in agony, writhed like a snake struck by a hoe.
Reikel, too, leaned out and impassively regarded the poor wretch.
"Finish him," Reikel ordered softly and quickly withdrew his head.
The six soldiers fired their rifles, perforating the man stuck to their weapons. There was a report, a fountain of blood and meat spewed into the air.
"You bastard!" Growled Constable Chiorean and lunged at the Nazi Major. Van Helsing put his body between the policeman and Reikel. The impact was formidable, staggering Van Helsing. The two SS soldiers used their rifle butts to knock Chiorean to the floor and the air went out of the man.
Reikel surveyed the angry faces of the four remaining men.
"It is always best to make an example of one of the elite, to show that no one is immune from reprisal." Now that infinitesimal smile played across his mouth. "Absolutely no one."
Reikel took the seat behind the Mayor's desk, made himself comfortable, tossed the photo of the Mayor's family into the trash basket. He looked at the four men as if he was surprised that they were still there.
"You are dismissed.
* * *
"Revenge has no place in war." This was a pronouncement from Lucille's father after a partisan raid when many of her resistance comrades were killed. Lucille's anger and sense of loss had overcome her and she was about to shoot a captured soldier. Her finger tightened on the trigger of the Schmeisser she had pointed at a poor Rumanian soldier's weeping face. But her father gently pushed the gun barrel aside and whispered those words into her ear.
She had relented and later contemplated that wisdom. The curious morality of war was thus: War was about killing the man who was trying to kill you, killing the man who was thinking about killing you, killing the man who had the potential to kill you. He had killed your friend, was that not reason enough to exact some kind of justice? She still disagreed with her father’s pronouncement. These were her thoughts as she dashed down the belfry stairs, taking them two, three at a time, in one headlong rush.
Lucille Van Helsing opened the church door and slowly walked across the Square, one hand deep inside her sweater, fingers tight around her Luger, ready to kill the SS Major if her father was to follow the Mayor out the window. Revenge may not be justifiable in war but on a personal level revenge would be all that she would have remaining to her.
Lucille’s confidence in her protective spell had completely evaporated. She feared the worst had happened or was about to occur. Seeing the barbarous murder of the Mayor had made her shudder in horror and knowing that her father could be next made her fly down the belfry steps.
In the plaza the dead were being collected by their families under the watchful eyes and guns of the SS troops. Lucille saw an old woman, Ecaterina Tula, cover the dead face of Janos Maer with her tatty shawl while his mother moaned in misery.
Lucille did not pause to mourn. There would be a time for that later. She had learned this during preceding months, in raid after raid, losing one compatriot after another, some of them friends, close friends. The ordeal had taught her another lesson, not becoming emotionally involved with anyone who fought alongside her. Until Janos. He had been a slip, one that she knew she would pay for in tears. She swore, not for the first time, never to let anyone get close to her again.
The only exception, of course, was her father. Father and daughter were exceptionally close due to the early death of her mother when Lucille was ten. The mother was much beloved and after the loss Lucille clung to her father and he to her.
The Professor had always treated his perspicacious daughter like an equal. Lucille, thrust into a sudden maturity, tried to take the place of her mother in the household, cooking, supervising the help, assisting in the clinic. Her intelligence and lively mind made her a formidable companion. As a teenager, her mind became more than a match for his own far-ranging intellect.
He tutored her himself, outside the local school curriculum, and furthered her education at Swiss private schools. He brought her with him for his own lengthy studies in Munich, Prague and Zaragoza. Her enrollments at a succession of private schools were brief due to what she called "an independent spirit" and the schools labeled in other terms.
She always rejoined her father, telling him that she learned more in a week with him than in an entire semester with immature, rich brats and boring, doltish instructors. He wondered if she was just trying to flatter him, if there was a spoonful of honey in that tea, but she meant every word.
To tell the truth, she was a daddy's girl, as lonely without him as he was without her. This was why Lucille was determined to personally assassinate every German in Brasov, Rumania, the entirety of Europe if the Major had so much as harmed a hair on her father's head.
But just as she was fueling the furnace of revenge, within a few steps of the Town Hall entrance, her father walked out of the doorway with General Suciu, Father Petrescu and the Constable. Each man at the moment was intent on being somewhere else. Professor Van Helsing was last, his face twisted with his inner thoughts.
He saw his daughter. "Lucille, what are you doing here?" He glanced back at the two SS soldiers who braced both sides of the door. Neither paid particular attention to the Van Helsings. And Lobenhofer’s men had obviously left with their Captain.
He put an arm around her, whether for support or comfort she could not tell, as he led her toward the small group of mourners gathered about the bodies scattered around the plaza perimeter. Lucille also felt weak, the familiar aftermath of a spell casting and the usual residual headache that threatened to split open her skull.
"Did any of them...?" he began, mournfully perusing the aftermath.
"They are all dead. The Germans are, if nothing else, efficient," Lucille told him and pulled him away. "Please father, leave this place now."
"What are you doing here? You could have been shot," he chided in alarm. "Like those unfortunate ones."
"I was in the bell tower," she told him. "I saw...everything." Her voice was filled with bile. "When the shooting started...I came down. I couldn't...there was nothing I could do.... Nothing."
“I know," he whispered. "I know."
"I just stood there while they executed innocent people." She shook her head at her own failings. "I am a coward. I am ashamed."
"We live to fight another day." Her father offered what little comfort he could. "We could have fought. And all died. Then who would resist the barbarians?"
"Janos fought them."
"And Janos fights no more. What good is he to the resistance now? We don't need martyrs. We suffer under a surplus of martyrs."
He sagged against her shoulder. She led him around the corner of the church. Her father paused to glance back at the Square. She turned, too. In time to see a giant Swastika flag unfurled from the Town Hall portico.
"There are not that many of them," she said. "We can eliminate them. Every single one of the bastards."
“They have plenty more in Berlin,” her father said.
They collected her bicycle and walked in silence toward the outskirts of town and around the green dome of Tampa Mountain. Their house sat in the southwest shadows. They trod the entire way to their tiny villa without a word spoken. Lucille did not mention her spell cast. Her father was a man of science, a non-believer in the arcane arts. This despite his own experience with that great emblematic creature of the occult. He was unaware of his daughter’s dabbling in the mystic and she wanted to keep it that way, avoiding any useless confrontation. Her only regret was that she had not the strength to save everyone in the Mayor’s office, only protecting her father. She took the death of the poor Mayor on her own shoulders.
Sucking on her torn knuckle, Lucille observed her home as if she had never lived in it. The hundred-year-old cottage, the outside walls plush with climbing roses just beginning to bud. Her mother had planted them and her father had faithfully tended the vines. The buds were but hints of color, red, pink, yellow and white, so full of promise that Lucille felt the irony deep in the pit of her stomach. Janos...
She fought the pull of her memories of the young man, as a drowning victim fights for air, clawing toward a surface that kept receding as she sank into the depths of despair. The buoy that saved her was the thought of revenge. She clung to that desire to keep herself sane.
They were approaching their own door when her father finally answered. "If we kill these they will only send more," he said. "We need to reevaluate our tactics. Circumstances have been altered."
"I'll call a meeting," she told him as he opened the door, glad to have some thought other than that of Janos to occupy her mind.
"Be most careful," he advised, hanging his hat in the hall. "I have a feeling that this...Major is not as tepid an adversary as Lobenhoffer."
A noise drew their attention to the front window. Coming down the road was another German convoy, trucks filled with stoic SS soldiers. The worm of dust sent up by the vehicles took forever to settle in the windless air.
"Reinforcements already. We have to be careful," her father said. "Very, very careful."
The knock at the back door startled both of them. She put her hand on her pistol and went to answer. Easing the door open, finger on the trigger, she saw a nervous figure standing in the shadow of the eaves. It was Closca, one of the partisans.
"We have caught us a spy," he said.
Lucille's first and only thought was, "Revenge."