Russell had no intention of acceding to von Kleist’s request. He couldn’t afford to alienate Wilson still further by engaging in risky, undercover activities whose outcome was unclear. But as Grace abandoned him yet again to that too-quiet mansion near Savignyplatz, Russell found himself reconsidering. Nearly a week had gone by, and Wilson still hadn’t said anything and likely never would. Count von Kleist must know Il Cazzo, so perhaps his little scheme would bring Russell closer to Grace. Not seeing his wife was the worst thing that could happen to Russell as it robbed him of the power of persuasion. If only he could talk to her, she would forgive him, as she had done so many times before. Also, he missed his children, more than he’d thought possible. Their constant chatter, the debris they left in their wake, were former annoyances he now longed for.
And so Russell found himself four days later on a Sunday afternoon in late September, in a chauffeur-driven limousine, escorted by von Kleist to a villa on the outskirts of Berlin, the home of his dear friend code-named Taube, or Dove, who had Czech relatives. Taube must be the code-name for a woman. As they drove along, Russell tried to picture Frau or Fraülein Taube.
“How old is she?” he asked von Kleist.
“She?” Kleist smiled faintly. “She is a lady in her fifties.”
Russell resumed his ruminations. Frau Taube was probably a matronly lady, her figure thickened by child-bearing and too many marzipan confections, sweet breads, and Kaffee mit Sahne. He tried out one or two Czech phrases in his head:
Good afternoon. Dobré odpoledne.
I am pleased to meet you. Rád tě poznávám.
Lovely weather for the time of year. Jsme s krásné počasí na ročním období.
He glanced out the window. It was a glorious afternoon, the trees changing color, their leaves glowing in the sunlight. As they turned south near Pichelsdorf to edge around the western side of Lake Wannsee, through Gatow and Hohengatow, multi-colored leaves drifted lazily down as cooling breezes came off the lake. Finally they came to Kladow, a pretty village with a church. Nearby, up a winding drive stood a pale green stucco villa, pavilion-like, very much the summer house, a Sanssouci in miniature. They exited the car and entered the foyer, which was palatial and ornate.
A stocky man with iron-gray hair turned his head, and Russell found himself looking into a pair of icy blue eyes.
He recoiled. What was he doing in the home of his arch-rival?
Carl von Lietzow gave him a feral smile. “At last, the industrious Herr Russell has spared enough time from his busy schedule to come to my door.”
Of course he’d been expecting him. Russell glared at von Kleist who smiled back. He had fallen into a neat trap.
“Let me introduce my friends and comrades-in-arms: General von Witzleben, and Obersleutnant Oster.”
Merda. It never occurred to him Il Cazzo could be involved in the Oster conspiracy.
“I gather that you have gone to a great deal of trouble to meet them,” continued von Lietzow. “But I know them all personally. You had only to ask, my dear fellow.”
Russell glared into their smiles.
“What would you like?” von Lietzow snapped his fingers, and a flunky scurried forward.
“Nothing,” muttered Russell.
“Oh come now, my good fellow,” remarked von Lietzow, smiling. “You need a little something to relax the nerves. We are not the Borgias, you know.”
Russell stiffened. How dare Il Cazzo cast slurs upon his Italian heritage! How dare he suggest—Russell’s cheeks prickled as his face drained of color. What was he suggesting? Surely he didn’t know about Grace’s mother—
“You seem upset,” remarked von Lietzow. “I have just the remedy. How about a little Armagnac from Condom? I am told it is one of the best.”
Russell glared again. When the brandy arrived, he pursed his lips to take the smallest of sips. Il Cazzo was right, it was excellent. But how had he managed to acquire such a luxury?
“Why a cleaning lady?” asked Oster, an annoying grin plastered across his face.
Russell remained silent, his cheeks warming.
“You do realize there are laws in this country against men dressing as women?” Il Cazzo gave him a wolfish smirk.
Russell drew himself up. “I have diplomatic immunity. My war record is superlative. I received the Congressional Medal of Honor—”
“You are not at the American Embassy,” remarked Oster, smiling.
“If we reported this to the Gestapo…” said Il Cazzo.
Il Cazzo laughed in his face. “Come! Let us sit down so that we can chat more comfortably.” Between them, they herded Russell to a sofa that was penned in by a coffee table. Il Cazzo sat down next to him, putting his boots upon the white marble table-top.
“I know you do not believe me, Herr Russell, but I am a gentleman. As a proud Prussian aristocrat, I do not allow my guests to be—how do you put it? Ah yes, to be roughed up.”
The others chuckled.
“But we wish to warn you,” said von Witzleben. “Don’t ever do that again.”
“We cannot be responsible for the consequences,” said Oster.
“Believe me, you do not want to make the acquaintance of the Gestapo,” remarked Il Cazzo, smiling.
Russell’s hands shook as he contemplated the white marble table. It was a handsome piece veined with gray. The Geheime Staatspolizei or the German Secret State Police was known for its brutality. It had the authority to investigate treason, espionage, sabotage and attacks against the Nazi Party. Of course these conspirators were not going to report him to the Gestapo, they must live in fear of it every day themselves. They had just been playing with him, and he hadn’t understood because he was worn down with exhaustion. He should never have come here—but where was Grace? Peter?
Von Kleist sat on his other side. “I have a commission for you, if you are interested.”
Russell rose to his feet. “I am not interested in your games. I wish to speak to my wife and son.”
“All in good time.” Il Cazzo bared his teeth into a smile. “First, we would like your assistance.”
“It is a pleasant task, I assure you,” remarked Kleist. “It concerns a lady.”
Russell’s cheeks flamed. He was utterly in their power, and that lava-like fury he curbed with an iron bit so that it only emerged during those dark hours when his head touched the pillow and he could not sleep, that fury threatened to erupt as he realized they would not stop in their efforts to humiliate him.
“Her name is Mabel Phelps,” said Oster.
Russell winced. How did they know about her? Did they know about that indiscreet meeting in his office?
“We want to know if she is a double-agent,” said von Witzleben.
Russell picked up his goblet and took a long swallow of his brandy. “Why me?”
“Well,” drawled Il Cazzo, “your English is good—”
“And we have reason to believe that she…fancies you,” remarked Oster.
Russell bit his lip. Dio Cane. Someone must have given them a thorough report.
“A little harmless flirtation, eh?” Il Cazzo zigzagged his eyebrows as he raised his brandy glass.
“Why not invite her out for coffee, you know, that sort of thing?” remarked Oster, with a smile that would have been charming if the fellow were not so irritating.
“What happens if I refuse?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” replied General von Witzleben.