Writing

Novel Excerpt 2: Chapter 35 – Beginning of Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard

The rest of the fall was just as disastrous as his marriage. On October the first, the Munich Agreement forced the Czechs to give up the Sudetenland to the Nazis. On October the second, the Poles occupied Teschen and Freistadt. On October the third, Hitler toured the Czech defenses that Russell had seen for himself a month before. 

Russell wandered along Bendlerstrasse, so tired he couldn’t sleep, so on edge that everything was too much, the corners of the buildings too sharp, the sunlight too bright, his starched shirt too scratchy. He needed a doctor. He wasn’t getting any rest, but even in his current state, Russell drew the line at using drugs. He drank far too much black coffee in the mornings, then tried to induce sleep by downing too many scotches on the rocks in the evenings. But the alcohol woke him too early, before he’d had a chance to catch a deep sleep. Most of all, his rage had nowhere to go. It detonated in his too-quiet bedroom as he went to bed. It revved him up during the early hours, as he paced, smoked, drank. It slid into his thoughts at awkward moments during the day. It choked every breath. And sometimes it seemed that every time he drew breath, his chest threatened to explode. This couldn’t be good for his heart. If matters didn’t improve, he could find himself in an early grave, like Lamo.

Russell paused for a moment. How he missed his brother, how he longed for his advice. Lamo’s absence was profound, deafening. Now that this mess over Czechoslovakia was over, he could leave Berlin and head home. But he couldn’t go without his children, he couldn’t depart without his wife. Grace was still his wife, wasn’t she? Russell had heard nothing, seen nothing, since that encounter with Grace in London. 

Feeling nauseous, he pushed his way up the steps of the American Embassy, forcing himself along the dim corridor towards his office. Slowly, he grasped the brass knob and opened the door. A figure was sitting in a club chair in front of his coffee table, powdering her face. Angelina raised her head and twisted her lips into a ghastly smile.

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Violet had arrived early that morning, changing trains in Hamburg. She went straight to the American Embassy, inquiring for Mrs. Russell. The young man behind the counter carefully wrote the address on a strip of paper. Violet grabbed a cab and made for Savignyplatz. How cold and grand these frozen mansions seemed, reminding her of Aunt Louisa’s lodgings in Berlin. She glanced at the piece of paper. She was going to Mommsenstrasse 1, on the corner of some other street whose name she couldn’t make out. The taxi cab stopped, she paid him off, and went up to the front door. Grace had come up in the world to live in such a fancy mansion. Violet pressed the bell on the front door. How was Frau Varga? She must go over to Nollendorfplatz and find out. The house exuded silence. Violet frowned and pressed the buzzer again. No response. She stepped down the marble steps and walked around the back of the house. Everything seemed untended, the grass overgrown, the roses blowsy with neglect. 

Violet walked to the Ku’damm and hailed a cab, returning to the embassy to ask, this time, for Mr. Russell. She was directed to a reedy young man who favored skinny ties.

US Embassy Bendlerstrasse (now Stauffenbergstrasse) in 1928

“I’m looking for my brother-in-law, Mr. Russell.”

The young man blinked. “I didn’t know he had family.”

Violet stifled a retort. “Bitte,” she said. “I’ve come all the way from America to see him.”

“Ah, I see.” He opened the door to a large and well-furnished corner office. “May I offer you refreshment?”

He brought coffee in a gilded china cup with matching saucer and minuscule teaspoon, offering cream and sugar.

Violet took a sip and grimaced.

Es tut mir leid, wir haben nur Kaffee-Ersatz, I’m sorry we have only fake coffee.”

“I thought things were improving.”

The secretary looked down and fiddled with his tie, explaining that the German people were required, by their Führer, to make sacrifices for the good of society. 

Violet rolled her eyes. “Tell me about Mr. Russell. How is he?”

The young man glanced up. “Do you really want to know?”

Violet blinked. “Of course I do. I’m his—-how do you say sister-in-law? Schwägerin?”

The secretary nodded as he hovered near her seat and licked his lips.

“You look uncomfortable, please sit down.”

“I’m not sure Mr. Russell would approve.”

“He’s not here, is he? Besides I asked you to sit.”

The young man closed the office door oh-so-quietly and perched himself on the very edge of a Louis Quinze chair. He leaned forward. “I’m quite worried about him.” He lowered his voice. “He’s been acting strangely recently. He keeps falling asleep at his desk.”

“So he’s been working too hard. Is that surprising?”

“No, but—” He twisted his fingers. “He eats—nothing. Well—not much.”

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know, but it is said that Mrs. Russell spends a great deal of time these days with Count von Lietzow at his villa in Kladow.”

Oh. So that would explain von Lietzow’s telegram. But why hadn’t Gracie said so?

Violet put her cup and saucer down and asked the secretary to give her directions, which he wrote down for her in large spidery handwriting.

She pocketed the note. “What else?”

“Well—” He fiddled with his tie again. “One day, it must have been a month or so ago, I opened his door. You understand he instructs me to open it very quietly so I don’t disturb him when he’s working. And he was walking—I don’t know the word in English.”

“Show me.”

The secretary rose, stuck out his derrière, and pranced around the room, taking mincing steps.

“Are you sure?”

Jawohl. Later that day, he returned to the office. It was very late, you understand, around seven in the evening. He carried a bag with him, and in it was a wig. A lady’s wig.”

Before Violet could ask more, a telephone rang. The secretary made his excuses and scurried off. 

Goodness, gracious, she had no idea that Russell had those kinds of interests. She’d no idea he was a pervert. Did Grace know about this? Is that why she was spending time with von Lietzow?

She’d just opened her powder pack to refresh her face when the door opened. As Russell’s eyes locked onto hers, his pupils dilated, and his face drained of every ounce of color. He grasped at the door knob as if to stop himself from falling.

“Surely you remember me. It’s Violet.” 

Slowly, the color returned to his face. “Maledizione, Damn,” he muttered.

“Thanks,” returned Violet. “Same to you too.”

He glared, then laughed reluctantly.

Violet scrutinized him. Outwardly, he seemed normal, immaculate in an expensive suit, shirt, and silk tie, with one of those irritating matched silk handkerchiefs. But he was too thin, his skin stretched taut over high cheekbones. He must have lost at least twenty pounds. 

“Mr. Russell, I’m concerned about you.” 

“You may call me Domenico.” His tone was gently reproving.

“Sorry. May I call you Dom? Your name is a bit of a mouthful.”

“You may call me Nico.” His face sagged as he shut the door behind him. “It’s what my brother called me when we were young.”

“So, Nico. I’m concerned about you. You look exhausted, and you’re making mistakes.”

He sat behind his huge desk, and compressed his lips. “Who says so?”

She leaned forward. “Now, don’t go all prickly on me, I know I’m offending your pride by saying so, but this is dangerous. Someone spotted you with a lady’s wig.”

He paled.

“I had no idea—”

“It’s not what you think,” he replied between gritted teeth.

“How is Grace?”

“That is none of your business.”

Violet folded her arms. “I come all this way to Berlin, at Grace’s request, and the first thing I hear is my brother-in-law has been seen going around as a drag queen. Naturally, I have a few questions.”

He made exasperated clicking noises between his teeth.

“What on earth were you doing in that getup?”

“I really cannot tell you.”

“Okay. So you’re a spy.”

“Will you please keep your voice down?”

“Okay, okay.” She lowered the volume. “I don’t mean to blow your cover. I’m concerned, that’s all.”

“You say Grace asked you to come.”

“We talked over the phone.”

He frowned.

“She didn’t tell you?”

“No.” 

“Well that’s a pretty pickle. She sounded really upset.”

“What about?”

“She was crying because Count Whatsit wants to take Peter away from her.”

“Oh. That.”

“Yes, that. Has she been to see him?”

He took a cigarette out of his monogrammed case and offered her one, which she declined. He lit up with a matching monogrammed lighter

“You’re not sure?” she asked.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“How am I supposed to look? You’re married to her, aren’t you?”

There was a pause. “Indeed I am. Thank you for reminding me.” He curled his lips, baring nicotine-stained teeth. “Please tell your sister, when you see her, that I expect her to return home, to me, immediately.”

The expression in his dark eyes made her shiver. Violet rose. “I don’t think—”

“I do not care what you think,” he snapped. “Your sister is my wife. Her duty is to me.”

“Okay, okay. Keep your hair on. I’ll go see her right now.”

Violet exited the room before he could say more, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling. Never before had her fussy, irritating brother-in-law creeped her out quite like this, even though she’d privately called him a creep more than once. What on earth was going on?

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