DAVID REUBEN hadn’t changed. His unruly, too-long dark hair still met the top of metal-rimmed glasses, and his shirt was creased as if it had never had the privilege of being introduced to an iron. His trousers were neatly pressed. His appearance had always reflected the contradictions of his personality, but his eyes were now tinged with a sense of sadness and worry that was out of character. Kristopher sighed loudly. He reached over the table to offer comfort, acting on instinct rather than common sense, then withdrew his hand quickly when he realized what he’d done.
They’d known each other a long time, becoming close friends at university although they’d studied different fields. Kristopher was passionate about physics, intrigued by how the specifics of the universe worked and why, while David, acting on a genuine desire to help those less fortunate than himself, had decided to become a doctor. After graduation they’d drifted apart, but Kristopher doubted David was aware of the real reason why.
There was so much about their friendship that Kristopher regretted, especially the way he’d eroded the closeness they’d once shared to what was left now. Part of him didn’t want to remember the painful memories and the guilt of what he’d done, but he’d convinced himself at the time that it was needed. David was a good-looking man, and while the physical desire Kristopher felt for him was not as strong as it once was, enough of it remained to remind him why their friendship could not be allowed to develop further. Seeing David again, however, Kristopher wasn’t so sure he’d made the right choice. Perhaps he should have been honest with himself, and with David, instead of taking the coward’s way out and choosing not to face up to the reality that he was falling for his closest friend. But now, seven years later, it was too late. The spark that had once brought them together was gone; Kristopher had deliberately killed it.
David sipped his coffee, not having said anything since their initial greeting. Kristopher wound his fingers tightly around his cup, trying to ignore his restlessness and curiosity, knowing David would speak when he was good and ready. It was David who had requested this meeting, which in itself was unusual. They tended not to meet in person, although they still kept in contact through Kristopher’s sister, Clara, and the occasional letter. Those letters had become rarer since most of the Jews had been rounded up in February—David having escaped because of his position at the Jewish hospital.
Even so, he was taking a huge risk meeting Kristopher in a public place. Not only was he a Jew in a Kaffeehaus, but he wasn’t wearing his yellow star. If someone asked to see his papers….
The door of the Kaffeehaus opened; Kristopher glanced over his shoulder to see a tall man in a dark suit enter and walk over to sit at a table on the other side of the room. David lowered his cup onto the table with shaking hands, his gaze darting toward the man, then back to Kristopher.
Kristopher wanted to ask David whether he was all right but decided against it, as it was very obvious he wasn’t. Once he would have had the right to ask anyway, but not now. Focusing his attention on the steam rising from his cup didn’t help him to ignore the emotions he’d thought he had worked through, so he settled on forcing himself to drink his coffee slowly in measured sips instead.
Eventually David removed his glasses and reached over to place his hand on Kristopher’s. “Have you any idea what kind of people you are working for?” David spoke quietly, as always, but there was an underlying tone of fear in his voice that Kristopher didn’t remember hearing before. David’s emotions were always controlled; it was something that Kristopher had envied. “Have you any idea of their real agenda?”
Kristopher snatched his hand away, trying to ignore how fast his heart was beating. Why had David come to him? Surely he couldn’t have presumed to use the closeness they’d once shared to further his agenda?
“I’m a scientist, David, trying to make the world a better place, just as you are. We are working for the advancement of science and for the good of the Fatherland.” The last sentence came out sounding like the mantra it was. Any doubts Kristopher had were always dealt with efficiently when he repeated those words. While he knew the potential danger of the device they were working on, he still clung to the hope it would be used to benefit mankind, rather than someone utilizing its potential for catastrophe.
“You always were naïve, Lehrer.” David raked a hand through his hair and replaced his glasses, adjusting them when they slipped down his nose. “Wake up and take a look at what’s going on around you before it’s too late.” An edge of desperation and fear sharpened his voice as he lowered it to almost a whisper; it sounded as though he was talking about the end of the world.
“Too late? Too late for what?” His earlier fears of being used vanished at David’s tone. Kristopher’s voice rose in pitch, all attempts of hiding his conflicting emotions lost as he tried to desperately work through his rapidly growing confusion.
David shook his head, unwilling to say more, his eyes darting nervously around the small Kaffeehaus before his gaze settled on the man who had entered several minutes earlier. “I have to go. I’ve said too much already.”
“Wait!” David was already halfway out the door before the word was out of Kristopher’s mouth. He pushed his chair back, ready to follow his friend, then hesitated, suddenly unsure as to what had just happened.
“I SAW the God of Death today.”
“What?” Kristopher scrutinized Clara across the dinner table, noticing too late the slight smile turning up the corners of her mouth. He studied his soup bowl for a moment. “I wasn’t listening, was I?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head in confirmation. It was a standing joke between them of late. He’d be thinking about the events of his day, and Clara would divulge something far-fetched to see if she could win his attention. Some evenings the stories she spun would be completely ridiculous; this one was a little closer to home, considering her profession. “Honestly, Kristopher, the world could end and you’d never notice. Were you thinking about your project again?”
Kristopher nodded. Often he thought Clara knew him better than he knew himself. He usually looked forward to these conversations and the lighthearted banter and teasing that accompanied them, but tonight it failed to capture his attention.
Dinner at the Lehrer residence would be an extremely silent affair if it wasn’t for Clara. He shuddered at the thought of just him and his father sharing their evening meal, each ignoring the other because they were focused on their own thoughts. Formal dinners were one part of his life he’d discontinue in an instant, given the chance. He’d be just as happy sitting in a park somewhere with a packet of sandwiches, rather than playing the dutiful son. Paul Lehrer, however, certainly never worried about the opinions of his children in regard to the running of his household. Each night was a repeat of the same scenario, food served on fine white china on an impeccable white linen tablecloth, a servant hovering in the background ready to top up glasses if required. Kristopher hated it with a vengeance. It was stifling, a reminder that even though he’d gone his own way in life, as Clara had, his father still maintained parental control on some level.
“Kristopher?” Clara’s voice softened when her brother still didn’t reply verbally. “Kit?” Her use of the nickname their English mother would have used always got his attention.
“Sorry, Clara,” he mumbled, forcing a half smile. “What were you saying?” He’d spent the last few days mulling over an equation; the answer was so close he could almost touch it. While he knew his obsession with work was not healthy, for the moment, it was consuming him to the exclusion of all else.
“One day you’ll find a pretty girl to distract you from your equations,” Clara teased, taking a sip of wine. “If you can find one prepared to share you with whatever project you’re working on.”
Instead of laughing as he usually did, Kristopher mentally winced. A part of him had always yearned to find someone who would listen to his ideas and want to be with him. It wasn’t as though he wanted to live only for his work, but until he met the right person, he didn’t see any reason to change. He’d dated a few times while he was at university, knowing that he should attempt some semblance of a social life, but hadn’t connected with anyone he’d met.
Except for David.
“David Reuben missed our meeting today. I asked at the Jewish hospital, but all they’d tell me was that he didn’t come into work.” Clara repeated what she’d said when Kristopher realized that she’d continued speaking and he’d missed it. Her eyes met his. She seemed tired, more so than usual; her voice lacked its usual fire. His sister always managed to sound enthused about everything of which she spoke, the spark in her voice often ensnaring others into assisting her with her current charity case. Clara couldn’t resist someone in need—it was one of the reasons she’d become a doctor—but apparently the long hours she was putting in at the hospital, in addition to the extra volunteer work, were beginning to take their toll.
Watching her carefully, Kristopher noticed the lines around her eyes and the way she brushed an errant lock of dark blonde hair off her face in a gesture of annoyance. Clara wasn’t just tired, she was also very much on edge. He wondered how long she’d felt like this; judging from the pallor of her skin, the stress of work had been building for some time. Why hadn’t he noticed before now?
“Have you managed to find out why?” Kristopher glanced at their father, but he was slowly sipping his soup from his place at the head of the table. Often it seemed that the long hours he spent running the family business were of a higher priority than time spent with his family. Many of Kristopher’s earliest memories consisted of being in the care of his sister and various nannies while his father worked long hours at the bank.
“No, but I’m worried about him.” Clara ignored the way her father’s eyebrows knitted together, his spoon paused just above his bowl when he looked up from his meal to glare at her. Father never approved of their conversations of late and still worked under the illusion that his show of disapproval should be enough to divert the subject material to something deemed more suitable.
“David wouldn’t disappear without telling anyone. He was very involved in his work and wouldn’t leave without good reason.” A slow, cold feeling crept through Kristopher as memories of their meeting the week before trickled through his mind. David was scared, his words, both spoken and not, more ominous than ever. Surely Clara must be mistaken. He was only allowed to practice medicine at the hospital where he worked, but that hadn’t stopped him doing what he could to help those in need. After the law banning Jewish doctors from practicing medicine on non-Jews had passed five years ago, Clara had used her influence to secure David a job at the Jewish hospital, and discreetly called on him for help with patients who sympathized and would not report either of them.
Kristopher shivered. He reached for his glass and took a gulp of wine.
“Do you really think he would have had a choice?” Clara rolled her eyes. “You’re so involved in your work that you haven’t noticed what’s going on around you.” There was no teasing in her voice now. “He’s Jewish.”
Frowning, Kristopher placed his wineglass on the starched linen cloth. “So?” Why would that be a reason for it? While the Jews had to follow a different set of laws in regard to some things, David had always been careful to stay out of trouble. He had done nothing wrong, and this could not be anything to do with his assisting Clara, or she would have mentioned it earlier.
The sudden silence in the room was broken by the sound of Paul Lehrer dropping his spoon onto his plate with a loud clunk. “So?” he reiterated, the outrage in his voice resounding across the room. “They are Jewish, Kristopher. What other reason is needed? Better that they are rounded up and sent somewhere more suited for their place in the scheme of things. We must not lose sight of the fact that the Jews are nothing more than parasites interested in taking control of the economy for themselves.”
Gripping the side of the tablecloth, pulling the fabric into a hard ball in his hand, Kristopher fought to repress what he really wanted to say. How dare he? He’d suspected his father had disapproved of his friendship with David but had never heard these arguments voiced before.
He shoved back his chair and stood, still struggling to quell his anger. “Father,” he said in a low voice, his tone devoid of the disgust he was feeling. His stomach twisted, threatening to expel its contents as he eyeballed his father. “Most of these people have spent their lives as useful contributing members of German society. You have no right to judge them just because their beliefs are different from ours.”
“Someone has to protect the future of the Fatherland. The Nazis will lead us into a glorious new age.”
His father had always believed in looking after his own interests alongside those of the German people. He’d never turned down an opportunity to spread his own “empire” and to meet potential customers, especially those connected with the upper echelon of society. It was important to him, more so than being there for the milestones in his son’s life. Not even Kristopher’s graduation ceremony had been enough to drag his father away from his work.
While Kristopher agreed in principle that something needed to be done to help the Jewish people, and had read about how some of them lived, that did not mean they should be considered a threat. After all, David was still a qualified doctor; he helped people, as did Clara.
“These people might need help, Father, but relocation without their consent is not the answer.” Kristopher leaned toward his father, knocking the contents of his wineglass over the table in anger.
Although the relocation of the Jews had been ongoing for some time, it didn’t mean he agreed with it. Usually he said nothing and allowed his father to state his opinions on the matter without arguing with him, but tonight he couldn’t bring himself to stay silent.
“I should turn you over to the authorities for this treason! How dare you question me, question the ideas of the Führer?” His father turned an interesting shade of white, his hand shaking as the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees.
Clara stood, leaning over to place a hand on each man’s shoulder. “I think we should leave this discussion for another time. Father, I’m sure that Kristopher is tired after a long day’s work, as are you.”
Muttering something under his breath, Paul Lehrer pulled away from Clara. “We will discuss this further in the morning,” he said coldly, stalking out of the room.
This was far from over. Holding on to his standing as head of the household was of utmost importance to the elder Lehrer. Losing control in public was even less of an option than being disagreed with in any shape or form in front of the servants. Was it really so hard for him to listen to his son’s opinion?
Kristopher sighed, wishing not for the first time that his mother was still alive. From what Clara had said, their father had been much more approachable before he lost his wife. When she died giving birth to their only son twenty-nine years ago, part of her husband died with her. All Kristopher had of his mother were the stories Clara told him and the old photos she’d shown him. While Clara’s slightly darker coloring was closer to that of their father, Kristopher inherited his blond hair, pale blue eyes, and slender build from his mother. It—and his name—was another reminder to his father of what he lost. For all intents and purposes, Kristopher was orphaned when Kristine Lehrer died. His father tolerated him because society dictated he should, although it often felt to Kristopher as though he was disliked and blamed for the death of the one person his father ever truly loved. In Kristopher’s mind, his family consisted of himself and Clara; she was ten years older and was always there for him. Discussions such as these only served to confirm that feeling.
“Are you all right?” Clara wound a stray lock of hair around her finger as she studied him.
Sitting down, Kristopher leaned back against the hard wooden chair and took a deep draft of wine when the serving man refilled it. “No, I’m not!” he snapped, guilty after he saw the hurt on his sister’s face. She was the last person on whom he should be taking out his anger.
Clara nodded toward the servant, and he backed quickly out of the room, following her unspoken request to give them some privacy. Someone would return later to clear the table.
“I’m sorry, Clara.” Kristopher buried his face in his hands for a moment, trying to pull himself together. He’d always felt things deeply, even if sometimes he didn’t possess the strength to admit those emotions to himself or others. Clara told him it was because he cared so much about others. Kristopher found that difficult to believe now. He’d cared so much he hadn’t noticed what was going on under his very nose. The work he was involved in was so important and absorbing that he didn’t have time for anything else.
Had this absorption cost the life of a friend? It was ironic that he’d entered science to advance the quality of life of those around him and yet become so engrossed by it that he’d ignored reality. When had he stopped caring, stopped noticing?
“Maybe you should get an early night, Kit. You’ll cope with Father better in the morning if you do.”
She was right. Discussions with Father, especially when they couldn’t be avoided, usually upset him even when he wasn’t tired. Herr Lehrer was only interested in his own opinions. Kristopher had once hoped he and his father would grow closer as time progressed, but instead they were drifting further apart. Kristopher’s refusal, as son and heir, to take over the family business, or show an interest in it, only rubbed salt into an already existing wound. According to his father, Kristopher had shirked his responsibilities to their family name by choosing to become a scientist.
After a brief hug to Clara, Kristopher said good night and climbed the old wooden staircase at a snail’s pace. He was barely aware of the rail under his hand as he trudged toward his bedroom, his mind trying to digest the information about David. Kristopher had ignored the fear he’d seen in David, permitting it to take a backseat to his work. What had happened to his friend?
He quickly changed into his nightclothes, leaving the curtains open slightly so he could observe the stars. After climbing into bed, he pulled the crisp white sheets over himself and lay his head on the pillow, hoping sleep would bring some respite to his confused state of mind. A dark cloud passed over the clear night sky, obscuring the small pinpricks of light. He wondered again where David was and what had happened.
David’s disappearance was connected with the Nazis, he reasoned, his thoughts returning to something he’d read months ago but dismissed as fiction. What if the stories on the leaflets circulated by the underground group, White Rose, had some element of truth to them? The rumors of concentration camps were no longer as easy to ignore as they’d been when he first heard them. What had really happened to David and the other Jews? Clara always chose her words carefully; if she said he disappeared, she meant just that.
Dr. Kluge, the head scientist working on the project, and the man Kristopher answered to directly, had always spoken highly of the Nazi party. Kristopher sighed, wriggling farther down the bed. He would not help them or allow them to use his work to bring harm to others. But he was only a scientist; this couldn’t be connected to what was befalling the Jews.
“Have you any idea of their real agenda?” David’s words echoed through Kristopher’s mind over and over until he finally drifted off to sleep.
HE WALKED slowly, taking comfort in the familiar regularity of his breathing and the echo of the leather soles of his shoes against the hard pavement. They were loud in the apparent absence of life. Looking around, Kristopher realized he was in his own neighborhood. These were the streets he saw each morning from his bedroom window when he started his day.
Wondering what had happened to all the people, he turned upon hearing a rumble of an engine from behind, just in time to observe a large, covered truck pull up to the sidewalk. The brakes screeched when the driver came to a sudden halt. Kristopher moved back into the welcome safety of the shadows, shivering as a dark shape slithered through the street, leaving a sense of coldness in its wake. Death was moving through the empty streets and buildings; he could smell it, sense it. He pitied its victims. They would lose their lives tonight.
A plaintive cry for help echoed through the silence.
Carefully Kristopher edged out from his hiding place, out of the safety of the shadows, just in time to see David being ushered into the back of the truck by a group of soldiers.
“This is your fault.” David tried to pull away from the well-built man who held him. “I tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen, and now it’s too late.”
Kristopher stepped forward, placing himself between his friend and the vehicle, only to have one of the soldiers bring his rifle up to bear down on him. As he reached out to Kristopher, David had his arms pulled roughly behind him before he was thrown, none too gently, against the side of the truck, his head connecting with a dull thump.
“Do you want to join your friend?” asked the soldier. “It can be arranged very easily.”
The sharp intake of breath he heard was his own. He opened his mouth to protest the rough treatment but couldn’t get the words to form. One look at David, still trying to free himself despite the blood dripping from his forehead, brought Kristopher to a sudden halt, fear for his own safety quickly becoming paramount.
“I can’t help you,” he whispered. “This isn’t my fault. I didn’t know.”
“Wake up and take a look at what’s going on around you before it’s too late.” David’s eyes lacked their usual spark; his spirit was already dying. Kristopher remembered the creature he’d thought of as Death, and realized his friend would soon be one of those sating its hunger.
Kristopher stood frozen. He tried to force himself to move but couldn’t. It was too late to help David, too late to help the others he could see cowering in the back of the truck.
The soldier shoved David into the rear of the truck. Then he turned to stare at Kristopher before joining his prisoners. The street spun momentarily when Kristopher registered the expression he’d just seen on the man’s face. He both despised and pitied Kristopher for his cowardice and lack of action, as did Kristopher himself.
After the truck drove away into the darkness of the night, Kristopher stood, knees bent, breath rasping, alone once more on the quiet street with only his thoughts and growing feeling of guilt. He hadn’t known. How could he have?
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he whispered, but it was too late to apologize to the one person who needed to hear it. Looking up again at the once-clear sky, now completely covered in darkness, he dropped down onto his knees and screamed the words again, trying to purge himself of a sin he knew he’d never forget or be forgiven.
“It’s not my fault.” He closed his eyes, seeking respite from the images embedded in his mind, lashing out when he felt strong arms around him. The soldier had come back for him.
“Wake up, Kristopher, wake up!” The voice wasn’t that of the soldier, but of someone else—his sister, Clara.
Relief flowed through him as he opened his eyes. He was on the floor next to his bed, Clara leaning over him. He let her assist him in getting back under the covers, taking comfort from her gentle touch as she stroked his brow, her fingers cool against his damp forehead.
“It’s all right, Kit. It was a bad dream.” Clara would look after him. She always made things right. He took a few ragged breaths, snuggling into her when she held him close. Once he grew calmer, she disentangled herself, tucking the covers around him before settling herself on the chair next to his bed.
“It was only a dream,” he whispered, more to himself than to her, taking refuge in the security of the soft feather pillow and allowing sleep to claim him once more. “Only a dream.”