A modern day historical thriller set in Chicago, begins with an elderly bookseller and Holocaust survivor, Max Bloomberg, being brutally murdered in his own home by a trio of thugs. Max’s closest relative, Dr. BRUCE STARKMAN, chief ER resident at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital is shocked when he learns his Holocaust survivor uncle is dead—his body already cremated, a violation of Uncle Max’s Orthodox Jewish views. A change in the will shortly before Max’s death provides a clue, allowing Bruce to find a hidden journal in Max’s handwriting detailing his uncle’s ordeal some fifty years before, during which Max is ordered by a Waffen SS Colonel to craft a silver box which is to be a birthday present for Hitler. The silver box contains a document written by Nazi leaders, which if discovered will lead to a worldwide Nazi resurgence. Max manages to hide the birthday gift after a strafing run interrupts their journey to Berlin to present the box.
Bruce decides to try and find the box and to solve the mystery of his Uncle’s untimely demise. He and a gorgeous Israeli female companion are followed by the thugs, who turn out to be present day Nazis intent on reviving the Reich.
The novel leads from Chicago to Paris to Prague in swift, hair-raising turns. And the novel concludes with a nearly heart-stopping climax.
The full journal of Max Bloomberg is included in the book and alone, is worth the cover price.
Moscow: Wednesday, October 12, 1994
Daylight was fading on the late autumn day as Vasilevich made his way up from the subway and plodded the five blocks to his modest apartment in the Petrovka district.
The file clerk took the rattling elevator to the tenth floor, unlocked the heavy door, and began peeling off his coat. He momentarily wondered why there was no pleasant odor of shchi, his wife’s delicious cabbage soup, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a tall stranger holding a handgun.
He carefully raised his hands and turned to face the man, forcing himself to move slowly and keep his breathing even. It was probably just a robbery, not unusual with the soaring number of drug addicts in Moscow. He’d give the man what money he had, and probably be fine.
But the intruder was too well dressed, too clean to be an addict. He waved his weapon and placed a finger over his lips. “Put down your hands and sit.” Passable Russian, but with a heavy German accent.
Vasilevich sank slowly into a large armchair in a corner.
“I’m not here to harm you,” the man said, “but don’t provoke me. You are Danislav Vasilevich, and you work for Rudolph Pikhoia?”
Vasilevich’s mouth became dry, and he had trouble forming the words. “Who are you? Where’s my wife? What do you want?”
The intruder waved his hand in a calming manner and spoke softly. “It’ll be better if you just listen and answer my questions. Then, perhaps, I’ll answer yours.”
Vasilevich took a deep breath to try to calm himself. Something strange and deep was going on here, but it left him with no choice but to obey. He lifted his chin. “Director Pikhoia is the chairman of the State Archival Service of the Russian Federation. While I work in the archives office, I’ve only met the director once. I’m just a clerk … a clerk. You must need someone higher up.” Knots formed in his stomach, and a wave of nausea hit. “Please, where’s my wife?”
The stranger smiled. “Svetlana is a lovely young woman. Don’t worry. No harm will come to her. Not if you pay attention to what I want.”
The gunman knew her name. And his. And where he worked. What were they doing to her? Vasilevich stood and took a step toward the armed man. “If you harm her … .”
The intruder waved the automatic again and said in an almost-kindly manner, “Sit back down and listen. My needs are simple. We know you have access to many German documents from what you Russians still call the Great Patriotic War.” The man pulled out a small notebook. “They are kept in the … Central State Special Archive, division 14B, room 2.” He returned the notebook to a pocket. “We need a small amount of information. If you obtain it without letting anyone know what you have done and deliver it to me, you’ll have enough rubles to enjoy a nice seaside vacation. With your wife.”
“My Sveta. You’ve not harmed her? Please don’t. She’s … very sensitive.” He heard a quiver in his voice but was beyond embarrassment.
“The Soviets captured a camp in the Czech Republic called Theresienstadt.”
“I mostly file old documents. I’m able to read some German, but I usually only read enough to get an idea of the contents, so the papers can be properly classified. Our great Soviet armies liberated a number of concentration camps. I can’t remember hearing that name before. Frankly, I’ve never paid much attention to what happened such a long time ago.”
“That’s not important. The Soviet NKVD grabbed many records from the camps, and we’ve discovered these documents are now in your Archives of the Russian Federation. We need you to find certain information and bring it to us. Quickly. You must start your search tomorrow.”
The Russian shook his head and was on the verge of tears. “Not easy. We need special permission to enter areas we aren’t assigned to.”
The German’s face registered no emotion. “I’m sure you can deal with that. I don’t want to spell out what will happen if you fail. Listen carefully now. No notes. Nothing ever in writing, except copies of the information I need. Back in 1945 an SS Colonel Steinhauser had a prisoner make a silver box while in Theresienstadt. I must know the name of that silversmith. It has to be in the archives here. My countrymen kept excellent records. I need any and all information about this prisoner. Everything. Understand?”
“But, what if—?”
The German speaker didn’t allow Vasilevich to finish. “Better you should not think of that.”
The man reached into his pocket and handed the Russian a cellular phone. “Tomorrow at this time, I’ll call you. Let the phone ring without answering. Then go at once to the Cafe Gallery. You know the place?”
“I know where it is. Not far from here.” He frowned and shook his head. “Never been there. Too expensive a restaurant for people like us.”
The intruder handed the young Russian a small stack of rubles. “Order a meal and start to eat. Sit near a window. While you’re eating, I’ll call you again. If you have the information, simply say ‘I’m busy.’ Otherwise, just say, ‘You have the wrong number.’ Better that you be busy. Understand?”
Still shaking and still sick to his stomach, Vasilevich simply nodded.
“I’ll give you instructions about delivery tomorrow. Remember, not a word to anyone if you want your lovely Sveta back home unharmed. Now sit on the floor and face away from the door.”
Unable to think of any other response, Vasilevich obeyed.
As the German opened the door, he murmured, “Remember, your wife’s life is in your hands. We have informers everywhere, so don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
And he was gone.
A few minutes later, just as he calmly exited the building, a shiny black Mercedes pulled up alongside. He jumped in before the car came to a full stop, and was whisked away.
“And so, Gerhard, did it work out?” the driver asked in German. “Can he do it?”
Gerhard nodded. “Your information on the archivist was correct. I think it’ll work.”
“Suppose he does obtain what we need to know about that Jew,” the driver went on, “how do we handle him and his woman, after we get it?”
“No question about Herr Vasilevich. He has to be erased. An accident. Can you arrange it?” His contact had better be able to, or of what use was he?
“Shouldn’t be a problem. And the lady?”
“That depends. Did she see or hear anything? Has she been touched by your people? You know what I mean.”
“Absolutely not. She was blindfolded and kept isolated. Given food and water. No one has spoken to her, except a few whispers. We even made her wear earplugs. She has a little bell she can ring with her fingers if she needs to use the facilities.”
Gerhard’s expression conveyed indifference. “In that case, no matter how this turns out, just take her somewhere, give her a few thousand rubles, and turn her loose. She’s young and pretty. She can still have a life.”
You’ve entered a different world from the one you knew. At home, we planted gardens. Here we only plant the dead.
Max Bloomberg’s journal
“I trust these ruffians didn’t harm you, Herr Bloomberg, and the bindings aren’t too tight?”
The tall, well-dressed man projected civility, even benevolence. He was perhaps thirty and handsome in a craggy-faced, broad-shouldered, athletic sort of way. Unlike the cracked and dirty fingernails of the others, the smiling man’s nails were professionally manicured. Speaking in fluent German, he seemed sincerely apologetic that his prisoner, whose arms were securely bound to his leather armchair with clothesline, was being inconvenienced.
Max Bloomberg understood every word, though he hadn’t used his native language in decades. If only he could get a grasp on what was happening here. The men must have crept in during the middle of the night and deftly disconnected the security system. They seemed well-armed, although Max understood little concerning firearms—except the ones that had been pointed at him by guards herding him and his fellow Jews into boxcars, herding them off boxcars, herding them through “processing” at the camp.
But that had been eons ago. Max closed his eyes, squeezing them tight to push away the memories. He opened them, blinked a few times, and glanced around. The home invaders had drawn the drapes before turning on the table lamp. Not amateurs, any of them, he supposed. It occurred to Max that the two rough men who accompanied the well-spoken, well-groomed, well-dressed man relished their work. He’d seen too much brutality not to recognize when someone enjoyed delivering pain.
Glancing toward his accomplices, the elegant interloper continued, “I told them not to gag you, but if you cry out, well, as they say in America, all bets will be off.” The stranger switched to English with only the faintest hint of a German accent. The man almost sounded Jewish, with a few Yiddish phrases thrown in, though Max considered that was probably an act, an attempt to ingratiate himself.
The intruder still spoke softly, but his almost coal-black eyes bore into Max Bloomberg’s own like steel daggers. There was something familiar about the man’s manner, something Max couldn’t help but recognize. He’d seen eyes such as these before—the color was of no importance. He’d heard voices such as this one long ago—the words didn’t matter. The words soothed and the lips smiled, while the hands choked the very life from your throat.
But, how could this fellow possibly know Max? Though he’d encountered the type, Max had never seen this particular man before. And this incident couldn’t be connected to what had happened so long ago. Not possible.
Since Winston, Max’s companion cocker spaniel, had recently died, Max lived alone in this two-story Georgian in River Forest, an affluent western Chicago suburb. Head throbbing, Max found concentration difficult. He’d been having trouble sleeping since finding Winston’s small body sprawled lifeless in the backyard. How long ago was it that his beloved Winnie had died? A week? Two? Max had taken a Seconal only an hour before the rough men, on the German’s orders, had dragged him—an old bookseller, not a rich man—out of bed and down to the small den that served as his library. Now they sat or stood among his treasured books, books Max had accumulated throughout his career and cared for like dear friends, though they had little monetary value. Were these devils here just to rob him? Could he be that lucky?
The other two men were each shorter and not nearly as well dressed as the German. They’d held handguns of some kind when they’d stormed into the bedroom, but the weapons were now out of sight. Standing almost like soldiers at attention on either side of Max, they stared at their leader as if awaiting orders.
A hint of a smile once again crossed the tall intruder’s face. “Bitter cold and snowing tonight. Mind if we light a fire in your beautiful fireplace? Make the room cozy, yes?”
Max didn’t answer.
The heavyset man standing to his left, wearing an old Navy peacoat, said, “Come on, we don’t have time for fuckin’ around. Let’s get on with this shit.”
An American with a hint of a Southern accent. Unusual here in Chicago. As he spoke, “Peacoat” played with a roll of quarters, tossing them from one hand to the other, sometimes grasping the roll tightly in his massive right fist.
The German held his left hand up, palm outstretched. “Now, now. Let’s be civilized, shall we?” He crossed his arms and nodded. “Perhaps—hmm—perhaps, we can even put the heat to some good use. Very good use. Verstehen?”
A pile of dry kindling was stacked in the fireplace.
The man on Max’s right, wearing a worn sheepskin bomber jacket, moved to the fireplace and nodded as well. “Yeah, Ich verstehen.” No southern accent, but not a German speaker, either. “I’ll need some newspaper to light the fire. Or something.”
The leader glanced at Max. “Our good friend won’t mind if we take a few of his old Jew books to use. That’s what they were made for, don’t you think?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “Remember those good old days when the Führer burned all the Jew books, old man?” The tall stranger’s voice deepened, the tone no longer benevolent.
“Sheepskin” snatched several of the oldest books with Hebrew on the covers and ripped them into chunks, tossing the pieces onto the fireplace with the tinder and the wood. Although he couldn’t make out the titles, Max had placed each book in its slot so often he knew exactly the ones chosen. One was a siddur, a prayer book considered holy to Orthodox Jews. If such a sacred book accidentally fell to the floor during a religious service, the owner would instantly retrieve it, treating it as gently as one would an injured child, and plant a kiss on the cover. Tears filled Max’s eyes.
Soon, they had a blazing fire. The leader nodded to his henchmen. “Bring him closer. Careful not to mark this beautiful floor.”
With Max still bound securely, Peacoat and Sheepskin dragged the chair across the waxed parquet floor, only stopping when the well-spoken German motioned for them to do so. Now Max was so close to the fireplace his bare feet began to feel uncomfortably warm, although he didn’t yet feel any pain.
The German stared hard into Max’s eyes. “You know what we want. So, tell me where the box is. Hmm? Then, we go. We know all about you. You’ve hidden long enough, old man. Too long.”
Max shook his head. “No idea what you’re talking about.”
His aching head began to clear. He kept the rest of his words inside himself. He wasn’t crazy. Something had been going on around him in recent weeks. My God, after all these years. How? How’d they find him?
Max tried to lift his right arm, but was only able to raise his index finger. Pointing it as best he could. “Get out of my home! Now!”
He felt like screaming for help, but knew no one could possibly hear him. The closest house was perhaps fifty yards away, and the windows would be shut during the freezing weather. His house was modest—one of the least expensive on the block—but it occupied a quarter-acre corner lot, carefully landscaped with Northern Accents rose bushes as well as tall red oaks and American elm trees.
He tried to study the men, so he could describe them to the police, but they had handled him roughly when they’d forced him out of bed, and he had difficulty focusing. His heart was pounding. Did that mean the drugged feeling from the sleeping pill was wearing off, or was he becoming even more frightened?
The German simply stood there, allowing Max’s helplessness to sink in. “Oh, you’ll tell me whatever I want to know. Perhaps time has caused you to forget the methods we can use on you Jew bastards? You’ve forgotten the camps?”
Heaven forbid, the camps. That was going back over fifty years. Before these evil men were even born. What could they know about the camps? Only stories they’d read. Max knew—really knew. And, sometimes in the dark, alone at night, his flesh bathed in a cold sweat, he only wished he could forget.
In the next instant, it came to him. His dog, Winston. That was what had happened to his sweet little friend.
“You, you rotten, filthy Nazis. You killed my beautiful little Winnie.”
Now, for the first time, Max began to sob. He became even more short of breath as his chest tightened, and he began to wheeze. Prayers came automatically to his mind. Please, dear God, no time for my emphysema to act up. I’m choking.
He tried to take in deeper breaths, but it didn’t seem to help. If only he had the inhaler with him. But that was still atop his bedside table.
Ignoring Max’s comment and grief, Peacoat lit a Camel, flicking the old-fashioned kitchen match with his thumbnail near his prisoner’s face. The sulfur smell caused Max to cough, and the tightness in his chest increased. The room began to spin as his breathing became ever more labored.
“Go in the kitchen,” the German said. “Get a dish for those ashes, so you don’t leave a mess. No cigarette butts left behind. Verstehen?”
The leader had just confirmed what Max already suspected, since the men wore neither masks nor disguises. When they left, there would be no evidence of their crimes. Alive, Max would be evidence.
Resigned to his fate, Max turned his thoughts to his nephew, Bruce. If Bruce were half as smart as Max knew him to be, he’d find what Max had left for him.
Max silently thanked God he’d been suspicious. And that he’d carefully shredded his notes after finishing the detailed review of exactly what had happened to him so long ago. He had never spoken of it, even to his closest friends or family. But when he finished the journal, he’d hidden the document and left a clue for Bruce, should Max’s worst fears be somehow realized.
The German put his hands on Max’s shoulders and shook him, almost gently. “You haven’t answered. Where’s our box?”
Shortness of breath made speaking nearly impossible “Why … why are you here? Take what you want … leave. I just sell … a few old books.”
Peacoat laughed. “Look who’s asking questions now.” He turned toward the leader. “Better let this Jew vermin know who’s running the show. Before you know it, he’ll be ordering us around. And you’ll probably click your heels and say, ‘Yes, sir, your honor!’ That’s what guys like you are trained to do.”
The leader ignored Peacoat and tapped his right index finger on Max’s head. “Pay attention. I’m running out of patience, and, as you see, my friends here are not as pleasant as I. I must have that box and its contents. Then we’ll leave, and you can get on with your miserable life. You mean nothing, the box everything.”
At that second, the fire crackled and flared, and Max felt a burning sensation in his feet. He did his best to pull them back. His eyes closed for an instant, and he silently prayed. Please, dear God, let me be strong. This may be the last favor I ask.
Max leaned forward as if to whisper something. The German leaned in toward him.
Max spat into his interrogator’s face.
The German straightened, snatched a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and without uttering a sound, carefully wiped the sputum from his cheek. At almost the same moment, with the rolled coins clutched in his right fist, Peacoat punched Max on the left side of the head, knocking him and the chair onto the floor. Max let himself go limp. The pain in his head was excruciating, but he didn’t cry out.
“Pick him up and cut out that kind of thing!” the tall German shouted. “Leave that to me. You’ll kill the old Jew before we get him to tell us what we need to know.”
As the two men lifted the chair along with the apparently semiconscious Max, the German carefully removed three fluid-filled syringes from the side pocket of his cashmere topcoat and laid them on a little table. Max began to groan. The German strolled to a nearby armchair, removed his coat, and folded it over the chair back. He dragged the chair close to Max, who was thinking desperately, trying to dream up some way out of this. Through half-open eyes, Max watched the German sit down and cross his legs.
After a moment, Max slowly opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He shook his head, acting as if he were still trying to clear his mind. His whole body throbbing, he needed a few minutes to figure out if he had any options. From previous experience though, he knew these types wanted people to grovel, to be frightened out of their wits.
Max took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as possible. “Please, don’t hit me again,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you.”
“Speak up,” the German urged.
“Those papers. Burned ’em. In the woods. Didn’t … didn’t make any sense to me. That’s the truth.” Max looked the interrogator in the eyes without blinking. “They important?”
The German nodded. “Sure. And the silver box? What did you do with that?”
“Box? Oh, the box.”
“You know exactly what I mean. You made it. Called yourself a silversmith back then. Where is it?”
Max didn’t hesitate. “Melted … melted it down. Sold the silver.”
Peacoat stepped up to Max and waved his clenched fist, the roll of coins still in it. “You’re a filthy, fucking liar.” He turned toward the leader. “You going to let this piece of shit get away with this nonsense? Look! Let me at him. Leave the room, if you need to. Just give me ten minutes. Probably won’t take that long.”
“Patience, patience.” The German waved his hand. “Now, do me a favor. Take a deep breath and sit down.” Then the German whispered just loudly enough for Max to hear, “We do only what we have to in order to get what we need. Yah? After all, we are not animals. So.”
Peacoat stared hard at his leader, shook his head, and frowned. “Talk. Talk and experiment! That’s what you’re best at. The way you’re going at it, we’ll be here all fuckin’ night. My way will be lots faster. You’re too damned smart. And you know what? That makes you too damned soft.”
“And you never learn how to follow orders. So, shut up and maybe we’ll all learn something besides how strong you are and how brave when your victim is an old man, tied up and helpless, hmm?”
The German picked up one of the syringes. “So. Let us begin.”