Burton flinched. "Of course, Herr Oberstgruppenführer." He tried to pass.
"Any fool can pull a trigger," continued Hochburg, "or stamp on a skull. But the square, that's what makes us different."
"Different from who?"
"The negroid. We're not savages, you know."
In his mind, Burton could hear the precious seconds counting down like a tin cup rapped on a tombstone. He tried to move forward again. This time Hochburg let him throughas if it had been nothing.
They resumed their positions at the desk.
Hochburg poured himself a glass of water from a bottle in front of himApollinaris, an SS brandand sent it down his throat in a single, gulpless motion. Then he reached beneath his black shirt for a chain around his neck. He seemed greedy for his loot now. On the chain was a key.
Burton released the attaché case from his wrist and set it on the desk between them, feverishly aware of the blade hidden inside. He thought of the fairy tales Onkel Walter (his gut convulsed at the words) used to read him at night, of Jack lifting the ogre's harp and it calling to its master. For a moment he was convinced the knife would also speak out, warn Hochburg of the looming danger, its loyalty to Burton forgotten in the presence of the hand that had once grasped it.
Hochburg took the case, placed the key from his neck into the left-hand lock, and gave it a sharp turn, like breaking a mouse's neck. The mechanism pinged. He swiveled the case back. Burton inserted his own key into the second lock. Another ping. He lifted the top and slid his hand in, finding the bag of diamonds. He took it out, the knife still hidden inside the pouch, and stared at Hochburg. Hochburg looked back. A stalemate of unblinking eyes.
Ask, a voice bellowed in Burton's head; it might have been his father's. What are you waiting for? Ask!
But still he said nothing. He didn't know why. The room felt as hot as a furnace; Burton was aware of the sweat soaking his collar.
Opposite him, Hochburg shifted a fraction, clearly not used to such insubordination. He ran a hand over his bald head. There was not a drop of perspiration on it. In the silence, Burton caught the prickle of palm against stubbly scalp. So not bald, shaved. Any other time he might have laughed. Only Hochburg possessed the arrogance to believe his face needed something to make it more intimidating.
Burton's fingers curled around the handle of the knife. Very slowly he withdrew it from the pouch, all the while keeping it out of sight.
Hochburg blinked, then leaned forward. Held out a grasping claw. "My diamonds, Sturmbannführer." He offered no threat, yet there was confusion in his eyes.
Burton spoke in English, his mother's language; it seemed the most appropriate. "You have no idea who I am, do you?"
Hochburg's brow creased as if he were unfamiliar with the tongue.
"Was?" said Hochburg. "Ich verstehe nicht." What? I don't understand.
In those restless nights before the mission, Burton's greatest anxiety had been that Hochburg might recognize him. It was twenty years since they'd last seen each other, but he feared that the boy he'd been would shine through his face. Throughout their whole meeting, however, even with their eyes boring into each other's, there hadn't been the slightest tremble of recognition.
Now something was creeping into Hochburg's face. Realization. Alarm. Burton couldn't decipher it. Hochburg glanced at the portrait of Hitler as if the Führer himself might offer a word of explanation.
Burton repeated his question, this time in German, revealing the knife as he spoke. The blade caught the lamplight for an instanta blink of silverthen became dull again. "My name is Burton Cole. Burton Kohl. Does it mean anything to you?"
The faintest shake of the head. Another glimpse toward the Führer.
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.
Blood at the Root
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