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By Jack Higgins
G. P. Putnam's SonsCopyright © 2003 Harry Patterson
All right reserved.
It was raining when they buried Kate Rashid, Countess of Loch Dhu, a rain that swept in across Dauncey Village like a solid curtain, sending people hurrying for the shelter of the church. They were all there, the great and the good, to say farewell, their cars blocking the High Street.
General Charles Ferguson's Daimler had just arrived. He sat in the rear with Sean Dillon, who took a silver flask from his inside pocket, swallowed a little Bushmills whiskey and lit a cigarette.
"Are we going in?"
"No," Ferguson said.
"Then why are we here?"
"It's the civilized thing to do, Dillon. It's a great story, after all. The world's richest woman crashing into the sea off the English coast at the controls of her own plane. Her cousin Rupert mysteriously disappeared." He leaned back. "You couldn't improve on it if it was a made-for-television movie."
Dillon took another swig from his flask. "I've said it before, but it's the cold-blooded bastard you are, General."
"Really? I thought that was you, Dillon."
"All right. But I repeat: If we're not going in, what are we doing here?"
"Patience, Dillon. I'm waiting for someone."
"And who might that be?"
"Well, for starters, a good friend of yours." A Mercedes rolled in and braked behind them. "And here he is."
Blake Johnson emerged, ran through the rain and scrambled into the back of the Daimler.
"Great to see you, General." He took Dillon's hand. "And you, my fine Irish friend."
"And where in the hell have you come from?" Dillon demanded.
"The White House, of course."
Blake was in his early fifties, his hair still black, and an ex-Marine. He was also director of the White House's General Affairs Department, though everyone who knew it-which wasn't many-just called it "the Basement." In actuality, it was the President's private hit squad, totally separate from the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service or any other governmental organization.
Dillon was intrigued. "But what are you here for?"
Ferguson ignored him. "Is it true? About the Baron?"
"Yep. Just announced. The President ordered me straight to you, General, and here I am."
"And who's this Baron creature when he's at home?" said Dillon.
"You're about to find out," Ferguson said.
A Rolls-Royce pulled in at the church gate. A uniformed chauffeur emerged, got an umbrella up and opened the rear door. A young man in his early thirties emerged, a trench coat over his shoulders, and hurried to the other door and waited.
The man who stepped out was very old, wore a black leather overcoat and slouch hat, and carried a silver-topped walking stick. The young man held the umbrella over him, offered his arm, and they went up the path to the church.
"There he goes," Blake said.
Dillon frowned. "Who is he?"
"Baron Max von Berger," Ferguson said. "An exceedingly rich man. And-as Blake has just confirmed-none other than Kate Rashid's silent partner."
"Rashid?" Dillon said. "Just a minute. Are you saying Berger as in Berger International?"
"But they're worth billions."
"And they now have control of Rashid Investments?"
"Well," Dillon said, and paused. "That could be a problem."
The rain hammered on the roof, organ music swelled from the church. Blake said, "Why does it always rain at funerals?"
"It's the way Hollywood does it," Dillon said. "It's life imitating art. Who was the hard man?"
"The one escorting him?" Blake nodded. "Interesting you should call him that."
"It's the broken nose, Blake. I'd hate to see what was left of the man who did that to him."
Ferguson joined in. "The name is Marco Rossi. He studied economics and business at Yale, then joined the Italian air force and flew a Tornado in Bosnia. You'd have a lot in common with him, Dillon. He was shot down and had a very energetic time behind Serb lines. Very unreasonable people, the Serbs, but then you know that. His mother once worked for the Baron. She was born in Palermo, and, yes, her uncle, one Tino Rossi, was Mafia in a very big way."
Dillon said, "So what's young Marco up to now?"
It was Blake who answered. "Amongst other things, he's taking over all security operations for Rashid Investments worldwide. Don't kid yourself, Sean. This guy is good. He's not to be screwed with, even on the pavement." He shrugged. "I've even met him on the social circuit in Washington. He's charming and civilized, and the women love him."
"Only don't push him the wrong way," Ferguson said. "When he was on the run behind the Serb lines in Bosnia, he killed at least four men that we know of. He keeps an ivory Madonna in his pocket. When you press the button, the blade jumps out and shears right up under the chin." Ferguson smiled thinly. "Your kind of man, Dillon."
"So if he's taken over all the security operations at Rashid Investments, that means that he can access everything the Rashids ever had on us in their computers."
"Exactly," Ferguson said. "Including how you shot Kate Rashid's three brothers and interfered rather harshly in their oil operations in Hazar. And I do think he's going to find it more than a remarkable coincidence that Kate Rashid subsequently went into the drink at the controls of her Black Eagle and her dear cousin Rupert vanished off the face of the earth."
"So they're going to be coming for us."
"Oh yes, Dillon. I should very much think so."
He reached into his briefcase and extracted a large envelope.
"You'll want to read all of that. Especially the bit about what von Berger did in World War Two. That's especially enlightening."
He leaned back. "Yes, Dillon, I think we're in for a very, very interesting time of it."
If there was a hell on earth, it was Berlin. It seemed to be on fire, a charnel house, black smoke drifting everywhere. The city was doomed, everyone knew that, and the Russians were already in control of the eastern half.
The people were on the move, refugees from their own city, carrying what they could, a few pitiful belongings, with the desperate hope that they might somehow get to the West and reach the advancing American army.
Groups of SS were stopping anyone in uniform. Those without a pass or some sort of order were shot on the spot. Shells were dropping in, fired at random by Russian artillery. People cried out in alarm and scattered.
Sturmbahnführer Baron Max von Berger sat in the front passenger seat of a Kübelwagen, the German equivalent of a jeep. He had an SS corporal driving, a sergeant in the rear seat clutching an MP40 Schmeisser machine pistol. As they moved along the Wilhelmstrasse close to the Reich Chancellery, they saw three SS soldiers with two men in civilian clothes on their knees, about to be shot.
Von Berger told his driver to halt. "Stop!" he said. "What is your authority for this?"
The men paused. Their leader, a sergeant, had a brutal unshaven face. He took in von Berger's black leather coat and the young face, and failed to notice the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords under the collar of the coat.
"And who the hell are you, sonny?"
"Sturmbahnführer von Berger."
The smell of brandy was powerful. "At your age? You look about nineteen. I bet you stole the uniforms, you and your mates here." He cocked his Schmeisser. "Let's see your authority."
"Oh, I can show you that."
Max von Berger took a Luger from his right-hand coat pocket and shot him between the eyes. The sergeant in the rear of the Kübelwagen sprayed the other two as they turned to run.
The two men who had been faced with death got up in a daze and von Berger waved them away. "Clear off." He turned to his driver. "Carry on."
The Kübelwagen turned out of the Wilhelmplatz and into Vorsstrasse and approached the Reich Chancellery, which was, like everything else, a victim of the bombardment, defaced and crumbling. It had long since passed functioning as any kind of headquarters, but under thirty meters of concrete was Adolf Hitler's last command post, the Führer Bunker. It was a self-supporting, subterranean world complete with electricity, fresh water and extensive kitchens; still in touch with the outside world by radio and telephone; and crowded with people like Bormann and Ribbentrop and numerous generals, all trying to avoid the harsh reality that, thirty meters over their heads, the Third Reich was coming to a disastrous end.
The vehicle ramp was ruined, but there was room to park the Kübelwagen to one side. The SS sergeant got out and opened the door for von Berger. "Quick thinking, Herr Baron."
"A reflex, Karl-it's been a long war. You didn't do too badly yourself." He got out, reached for a briefcase, turned and walked to the two SS sentries at the Bunker entrance.
They sprang to attention. "Sturmbahnführer."
"One of you deliver this to Major General Mohnke's aide. It's the report the general wanted on the state of Number Two Brigade's readiness for the final assault." One of the men took it and went downstairs. Von Berger turned to the other and clapped him on the shoulder. "Find me a drink. I got shot in the left hip last year, and some mornings it hurts like the devil. I'll be in the garden."
The boy went off on the double and von Berger said, "Come on, Karl," and went round to the once-lovely garden, now a wreck, with some trees uprooted, the occasional shell hole. There was a sadness to the place for what once had been and, for a moment, the artillery seemed like only the sound of distant thunder on the horizon. He took out a cigarette case, selected one, and Karl Hoffer gave him a light. A tough, hard young man of twenty-five, Hoffer was a forester from the Baron's great estate in the forest of Holstein Heath, the Schwarze Platz, the dark place. They'd served together for four years.
"So, my friend, we're in a fine fix, aren't we?"
"We were in Stalingrad, too, but we made it out, Baron."
"Not this time, Karl. I'm afraid we might have to take up permanent residence. I wonder how it's like at home."
He was thinking of Schloss Adler above the village of Neustadt. It had been his family home for seven hundred years, a huge expanse of forest, dark and mysterious, dotted with villages, every inhabitant a member of the extended family of which he was the head.
"Have you heard from the Baroness?" Hoffer asked.
"I had that letter four months ago, but nothing since. And you?"
"Just that one from my Lotte in February. She mentioned the Baroness, of course." Lotte worked as her maid at the Schloss.
Von Berger's father, a major general, had been killed during the Polish campaign in 'thirty-nine, elevating Max suddenly to the title of Baron. His mother had died at his birth. The only woman in his life was his beloved Elsa, and they had married early because of the war. Like von Berger, she was twenty-three, and the boy, little Otto, was three years of age.
The young SS guard appeared clutching a bottle and two glasses. "I'm sorry, Herr Baron, it's vodka, I'm afraid."
Max von Berger laughed. "I'd say that's rather appropriate, but you've only brought two glasses."
The boy flushed. "Well, I did put one in my pocket, Sturmbahnführer." The Baron turned to Hoffer. "See how well we train them?" He took the bottle, jerked off the cork, then poured liberally into one of the glasses and tossed it down. He gasped, "God, that hit the spot. The Russians made this one in the backyard." He poured another, which went the same way. "Great. Take that for a moment, Karl."
Von Berger removed his leather greatcoat and handed it to Hoffer. "Suddenly my hip feels fine." He poured a third vodka and gave the boy the bottle back. "Now you too."
He got a cigarette out of his case one-handed, the glass of vodka in the other. Hoffer gave him a light and the Baron walked away, enjoying his smoke and sipping the vodka.
Hoffer and the boy had a quick one and poured another. The boy was fascinated by von Berger. "My God, his uniform. I've never seen anything like it."
Hoffer was wearing combat camouflage gear. He shrugged, "I've got the same thing under this lot. Except for the medals." He grinned. "The medals are all his."
In spite of his youth, Baron Max von Berger had seen action in Poland, France and Holland with the Waffen SS. Afterward, he'd transferred to the 21st SS Paratroop Battalion and been wounded at Malame in Crete. Then had come Rommel's Afrika Korps and the Winter War in Russia. He wore a gold badge, which meant he had been wounded five times.
In spite of the silver Death's Head badge on his service cap and the SS runes and rank badges on his collar, he was all Fallschirmjäger, in flying blouse and jump trousers tucked into paratroop boots Luftwaffe-style, though in field gray.
The gold-and-silver eagle of the paratroopers' qualification was pinned to his left breast above the Iron Cross. The Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords hung from his throat.
Karl Hoffer said, "He's special people, the Baron. We've been through four years of hell together and we're still here."
"Maybe not for much longer," the boy said.
"Who knows? In Stalingrad, we thought we'd had it, and then right at the end we both got wounded and they put us on one of the last planes out. Three hundred and fifty thousand men went down the drain, and we made it out."
At that moment, General Mohnke appeared from the garden entrance of the Bunker. He ignored them and moved toward von Berger.
"Baron, the Führer wants to see you."
Max von Berger turned, puzzlement on his face. "The Führer?"
"Yes, at once."
Von Berger paused beside Karl and held out his glass. Karl filled it and von Berger toasted him. "To us, my friend, and the three hundred and sixty-five men of the battalion who died for whatever." He tossed the drink back and threw the glass away. "So, General," he said to Mohnke, "let's not keep the Führer waiting."
He followed the general down a flight of steps, the concrete walls damp with moisture. Soldiers, mainly SS, were crammed in every nook and cranny of the apparently endless corridors and passageways. There was a general air of despair-more than that, resignation. When people talked, it was in subdued tones against the background of the whirring electric fans that controlled the ventilation system.
Excerpted from BAD COMPANY by Jack Higgins Copyright © 2003 by Harry Patterson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"Starts off at light speed and goes quickly into warp drive, never easing up on the throttle so that readers never quite catch their breath. " -BookBrowser
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