Then his stomach curdled.
"A wonder!" repeated Hochburg. "You know, when the Reichsführer first saw it, he clapped his hands in delight."
"I heard that story," said Burton. "I also heard he filled two sick bags on the flight home."
Hochburg stiffened slightly. "The man has a poor constitution; we gave him a sumptuous dinner."
Burton glanced at the square again, then raised his eyes to the murk of the jungle beyond. Somewhere out there, concealed among the symphony of cicadas and tree frogs, were the rest of his men.
He imagined them: hearts jumpy but mouths set, faces thick with camouflage, counting down the final minutes on their watches. Patrick would already be slowing his breath to maximize the accuracy of his shot assuming, of course, that they were even there. The team had gone their separate ways twenty-four hours earlier, and Burton had no way of knowing if the others had made it to their positions. It was the one flaw in the plan. He might be about to leap into the abysswith only darkness to break his fall.
"How many would you say it took?" continued Hochburg.
"I've no idea, Oberstgruppenführer," replied Burton. "A thousand?"
"More. Much more." There was a gleam in his eyes. They were the color of coffee beans and not how Burton remembered them. When they glinted in his nightmares they were blackblack as the devil's hangman. But maybe that was just the years in between. It wasn't the only difference. Hochburg had also lost his hair, every last follicle of it.
Burton offered another guess. "Five thousand?"
"Twenty," said Hochburg. "Twenty thousand nigger skulls."
Burton looked back at the quadrangle and its gruesomely cobbled square. It gave Hochburg's headquarters their name: the Schädelplatz. The square of skulls. Inside him, something screamed. He saw children torn from parents, husbands from wives. Families left watching the horizon for loved ones who would never return home to smile and bicker and gather round the fire. Every skull was one more reason to kill Hochburg.
He saw the view of his childhood, the dark jungle of Togoland. He saw his mother's empty room.
Burton struggled to keep his voice level. "Can you walk on it?"
"You can turn panzers on it."
"How come?" His brain could only supply nonsense. "Have they been fired? Like tiles, to make them hard."
"Fired? Like tiles?" Hochburg stiffened again then roared with laughter. "You I like, Sturmbannführer!" he said, punching his shoulder. "Much better than the usual couriers. Obsequious pricks. There's hope for the SS yet."
With each word, Burton felt the breath wrenched out of him. He suddenly knew he couldn't do it. He had killed before, but thisthis was something else. Something monumental. The desire to do it had been a part of his life for so long that the reality was almost like turning the knife against himself. What would be left afterward?
Burton tried to glance at his watch, but it caught on his sleeve. He was running out of time. On the veranda, the wind chime tinkled briefly.
He must have been crazy to think he could get away with it, that Hochburg would reveal his secrets. Here was a man dedicated to making silence from living, breathing mouths.
Then the moment passed.
At 01:23, the north side of the Schädelplatz would vanish in a fireball. By then he'd be on his way home, justice done, Hochburg dead. He'd never have to look backward again. The future would be his for the taking.
"Your diamonds," Burton said, moving decisively toward the study.
But Hochburg barred his way, his eyes drained of humor. He seemed to want reassurance, to be understood. "We have to cleanse this place, Sturmbannführer. Let the flames wipe Africa clean. Make it as white as before time. The people, the soil. You understand that, don't you?"
Excerpted from The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville. Copyright © 2013 by Guy Saville. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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