Chapter Sixty-Three

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David and Rick left Strum's shop and walked back toward the car, for the first while in silence. Then Rick asked, "Are they all as easy as that?"

"What? Selling the watches or gathering the information?"

"Both."

"Never be surprised by information gained from innocent conversation. Learn how to ask seemingly innocent questions, but be careful not to react or to probe for more. Assemble snippets of information in a random fashion to prevent suspicion." David shrugged "Connect the dots later."

"And with the ease of selling the watches?"

"With their certified quality, they sell themselves. The difficult part is in selecting the shop."

"I watched as you examined the windows, but I have no idea for what you were looking."

"For what would you look?"

Rick shrugged. "Something that showed he would do well for you."

David stopped in front of a shop window. "What do you see here?"

"Clumsy arrangement. No artistry. Untidy, dusty..." Rick paused and nodded. "Wouldn't want to do business with this one."

"Exactly."

A few minutes later, they arrived at the car, and David drove back down to the train station. From there, they followed the street on the south side of the rail line, and shortly after they had left the town, the tracks veered away from the road and disappeared into the hillside above them. To the north, on the ridge top, they saw huge tanks amid a cluster of tall stacks emitting white vapours. "No need to get any closer. We know what it is. And where."

David continued along the narrow country road, stopping at an intersection to turn around. When the gasworks came into view again, he pulled to the verge and stopped. He drew a sketch map in his notebook, and on its reverse, he scribbled a short shopping list for the market before he tore out the page and put it in his satchel.

As they continued back toward Pirmasens, Rick asked, "What were the onions, potatoes, cheese and all the other things about?"

"In case I'm stopped and searched. I have several scraps of paper in there with shopping lists, maps to places like the library, and so on. I'd look like a sloppy organised person."

"So many details to think..." Rick paused and pointed. "That's where the train tracks disappeared. There's a tunnel under the ridge. The only way to get rail line into the town, but it doesn't go to the gasworks."

"There's likely a junction on the other side of the ridge that leads up to them." David glanced at his watch. "Too late now to make to the border before it closes."

"What border?"

"The Swiss. They don't allow crossings after dark. We'll take a hotel in Mannheim, then head south in the morning."

Rick was quiet as they drove back into Pirmasens and out the other side. When they passed the place where he had waited the previous day, he asked, "Do you think they made it back?"

"I hope they have." David ran his fingers through his hair. "I try not to dwell on things such as this. Things I have no power to affect."

An hour and a half later, David stopped in front of Hotel zum Rathaus in Mannheim. At the reception desk, he asked for two rooms.

"I'm sorry sir, we have only large corner suites available." He pointed to the rate card. "With all the soldiers in town, we're very busy."

David looked at the price, then at Rick. "Would you mind sharing?"

"Fine with me if you don't mind."

David presented his passport, signed the register and paid for the room, then he asked the clerk, "Why are all the soldiers staying here?"

"Entertaining." He grinned. "But also their families visiting them while they're here. All the hotels in town are busy for the next three days."

"Is the dining room fully booked tonight?"

"No, Sir. Very few of these..." He ran his hand over the register. "Few can afford to eat here."

After David had reserved a table for two at 1930, he and Rick went up to their suite. He set his satchel down, took off his overcoat and tossed it over a chair back, then he explored the rooms, nodding his approval as he did. "Herr Engelhorn told me this is the finest in town."

"Posh! Is this where you stayed when we were in Ludwigshafen?"

David walked into the bathroom to pee as they continued talking. "Only one night. Then I stayed in a pitiful dump in Worms the next night. Dirty toilet down the hall, ineffective heating, stingy breakfast. From then, I promised myself I'd always take comfortable accommodation. Besides, this is not much more than two regular rooms would have cost."

"I guess as a Lieutenant, you're given a higher expense allowance."

"Possibly, but I've never submitted an expense claim."

"You pay for all this yourself? What about our hotel and meals?"

"The paperwork would be too time-consuming. It's easier this way." He washed his hands and dried them. "My towels are the ones on the right."

Rick went in as David came out. "Where do you get the money?"

"I made a little over four hundred and eighty Marks commission from the sale to Herr Strum, and this whole trip for everyone — travel, rooms, meals and rubbers — won't amount to anywhere near that."

"Fuck! Four eighty is more than three months pay for me."

"I try to give it back to the war effort. So, what did you learn while we were at the registration desk?"

"A lot of soldiers have arrived in town, and it appears they're not being given leave. They're leaving in three or four days."

"Excellent observations. What might they mean?"

"They're being redeployed. They're in town to re-kit and re-equip."

"Those were my thoughts. And this all fits with everything else we've learned the past several days."

As Rick came out of the bathroom, David pointed to a chair. "Relax here while I return the car to Frau Schneider." He reached into his satchel and pulled out Knulp. "You can start reading this if you wish. It's superbly written, and I really appreciate the effort you put into the selections."

Rick nodded as he took the book and ran his gaze around the suite of rooms. "I could easily become accustomed to this."

A while later, when David stopped at the train station to buy tickets to Bern, the agent told him he couldn't sell passage to destinations beyond the border. David asked the agent if there was a travel agency in town. "Yes, Sir, a Thomas Cook a block up the street, but it was closed at the beginning of the war."

"So how do I return to Switzerland? I bought tickets directly from Bern to here."

"We can get you to Weil am Rhein, and I'm told the Customs posts are two hundred metres from the station."

"The war has disrupted so much. For my next trip, would you honour a ticket from here to Bern?"

"Not if it's through a foreign agency. But the word is that the war will soon be won."

"Thank God! We all look forward to getting our lives back to normal."

David bought two First Class tickets to Weil am Rhein, then after he had returned the car to Frau Schneider, he walked back toward the hotel. The sidewalks were busier than he had ever seen in Germany, and there was an upbeat atmosphere. As he neared the Rathaus, he passed small groups singing and dancing in the streets and in the square.

What if they're right? What if they've conceived the decisive assault? What if this actually is the beginning of the end? 

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