Berlin, 19 December 1939
The Christmas party had not long begun when Gerda Korzeny and her escort arrived at half past eight that evening. The snow was deep and they kicked the ice off their boots before stepping into the lobby and handing their coats and fur hats to a maid. Gerda removed her boots and placed them by the door before taking some Louis-heeled evening shoes from the bag she had brought with her and slipping them on. She examined herself in a mirror on the lobby wall. Smoothing down her cocktail dress, she reached up and brushed her brown hair lightly into place with her fingertips. She noticed her companion smiling behind her and pouted.
‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘I feel more human now.’
He grinned and took her elbow as he stepped up beside her. His black boots gleamed and in his neatly pressed uniform he cut an impressive figure.
‘We make a handsome couple,’ she said, lifting a gloved hand to stroke his chin. ‘Too bad we’re not married. Not to each other, at least.’
His smile faded and he steered her through to the large hall beyond. At least half the guests had already arrived; more than a hundred of the capital’s high society stood in clusters beneath the glittering chandelier that illuminated the voluminous space. White-jacketed waiters and aproned waitresses bearing trays of champagne glasses moved from group to group.
Conversation and laughter echoed off the high walls as Gerda scanned the crowd looking for familiar faces. There were people from the film industry whom she knew from her years as a star of the UFA studio. Some were actors, like Emil Jannings, the portly man with the high forehead who was bellowing with laughter. There were also some directors she recognised, as well as producers, screenwriters and composers. Sadly, many of the more familiar faces had long since emigrated. Most to Hollywood, and some to other European nations, where their politics or religion were less likely to land them in trouble with the authorities.
Besides the film people, there were artists and writers, leading figures from the world of sport and those wealthy Germans who acted as their patrons, such as Count Harstein, once a backer of the Silver Arrows motor-racing team. There were also many guests in the uniforms of the army, navy and air force, as well as those who represented branches of the ruling party. One of the latter, an SS officer, returned her gaze with a cold expression.
Gerda turned towards her companion and muttered, ‘Dear God, that oily creature Fegelein is here. Do me a favour and keep him away from me.’
‘Because, my dear Oberst Karl Dorner, he is a loathsome hypocrite who will take me to task for cheating on my husband in one breath and attempt to seduce me with the next. I’d rather not have to endure him tonight.’
What would you like me to do about it?’
‘If he causes me embarrassment, I would expect you to do the gallant thing and strike him down.’
‘I am not sure if it would be wise for an army officer to punch one of Himmler’s favourites.’
‘Then think of it as a gentleman teaching a lesson to an unscrupulous arriviste.’
‘There was a time when I would do that happily,’ Dorner responded. ‘But the arrivistes rule Germany now and they are not inclined to allow their betters to forget it. But I will do what I can to keep him occupied.’
Gerda smiled. ‘It’s only for an hour or so. Then we can leave. I have the key to a friend’s flat. He won’t be returning to Berlin until the new year, so the rest of the night will be ours alone.’
The officer smiled as he took her hand and kissed it. ‘I will look forward to that.’ He felt her tremble beneath his touch.
‘Wouldn’t you like to be with me every night, my love?’
She spoke softly so only he could hear. ‘Don’t we deserve that happiness?’
He sighed. ‘We have talked about this. I told you, I am not going to divorce my wife until I can afford it. If you leave that dolt you are married to, he will give you nothing. What do you think we will live on then? Eh?’
She glared back. ‘We will have each other. Isn’t that enough for you?’
‘No. It isn’t. And it certainly isn’t enough for you. Not with your tastes. So why not let things stay as they are and we can enjoy what we do have?’
‘But I want more than the occasional evening and afternoon with you. I want you. All I am to you is a good fuck. Isn’t that the truth?’
He froze, and then smiled coldly. ‘Maybe you are not even that. But at least you are an easy fuck.’
‘Bastard.’ She pulled away from him. ‘You think you’re the only man who wants me? You’ll see.’
She strode towards a group of guests from the film industry and her face lit up in a brilliant smile as she called out a greeting. ‘Leni!’
A woman dressed in a trouser suit, with shoulder-length dark hair and manly features, smiled back and opened her arms to welcome the new arrival. They exchanged kisses before Gerda greeted others she knew and was introduced to the few she did not.
Dorner watched her for a moment from the edge of the hall before he made for two officers standing by the bottom of the wide staircase that climbed up to a gallery overlooking the hall. He nodded to them as he approached. One was the aide he worked alongside at his office in the Abwehr, Germany’s
military intelligence. The other man, General von Tresckow, wore the red collar tabs of a general staff officer. Even though he was not yet forty, his hair had receded, marring his otherwise handsome features.
‘Good evening, sir.’ Dorner bowed his head slightly.
‘Dorner, good to see you again,’ von Tresckow replied.
‘Tell me, I recognise that woman’s face. The one you arrived with.’
‘I imagine you did, sir. She’s an actress. Or at least she was. Gerda retired from the film industry some years ago.’
‘Ah! That Gerda! But I thought she was a blonde.’
‘She was back then. But brown is her natural colour.’
The general stared towards the group, which had now arranged itself around Gerda as she began to exert her magnetic charm over her audience.
‘Blonde or brunette, she is a fine looking woman. Lucky you.’
‘Yes, lucky me.’ Dorner raised his glass, took a sip and stepped in between his superior and Gerda before he continued.
‘So, General, after Poland, what has the general staff got planned for the Western Front?’
Von Tresckow laughed and wagged his finger. ‘I am not at liberty to give any details, my friend. But let’s just say our French and British friends are in for a shock when the time comes . . .’
The general began to extol the superiority of German arms and tactics over those of the enemy, but Dorner’s attention wavered as his thoughts returned to Gerda. It was not enough that she was there to warm a bed for him when his lust demanded satisfaction. He was a jealous man, and could not
tolerate the idea of sharing her with anyone else. It was true that they were both married, but she had assured him that she no longer slept with her husband, a Nazi lawyer. For his part, Dorner had married young to a pleasant girl from a family who owned a large estate below the Harz mountains. But she had proved to be dull. Certainly compared to a former film star like Gerda. And there was the problem. He could choose the comforts of his wife’s wealth, or the sophistication of Gerda. But he wanted both.
As more guests arrived, the hall became crowded and it was difficult to hold a conversation over the swelling din. Music started playing from a gramophone in the gallery, an upbeat number by a former cabaret singer still tolerated by the party. At length the general exhausted his shop talk, and his voice, and moved off to get another drink.
Dorner’s aide rolled his eyes. ‘I thought he’d never finish. The man has no idea what social gatherings are for. Who invited him?’
‘I have no idea, Schumacher. But I do not intend to let him bore me any further. If he comes back, keep him occupied. There’s someone I need to speak to.’
‘Your friend Gerda? If were you, I’d not leave it too late.’ Schumacher nodded behind his superior.
Dorner turned, and his eyes quickly fixed on the far side of the hall, where several couples were dancing to the music. Gerda was amongst them, her arms around a slender young man in a velvet jacket, their bodies pressed close together. She looked over the man’s shoulder at Dorner and kissed her
dancing partner on the neck. He held her closer still and his right hand slipped from her shoulder to her waist.
‘Damn her . . .’ Dorner growled. He thrust his empty glass at his aide and strode through the crowd towards her. Pulling her away from the man, he grabbed her by the arms and leaned to speak into her ear. Her dancing partner stood two paces away, uncertain how to react. As the pair continued their tense exchange, he backed away and returned to the large crowd of guests from the film industry. A moment later, Gerda tore herself free and hurried towards the lobby. Dorner glared after her before following.
At the same time, von Tresckow returned to the bottom of the stairs, champagne bottle in one hand and glass in the other. ‘Oh, where’s Dorner gone? I had more I wanted to tell him.’ ‘I think he has decided to leave early, sir.’ Schumacher lifted his glass in the direction of the lobby, and both men watched
as Gerda put on her coat and changed back into her boots.
Dorner addressed her earnestly, but she shrugged off his attempt to take her hand and turned to open the door. Dorner clenched his fists and snatched up his coat and hat before setting off after her, leaving a footman to close the door behind them.
‘What was that about?’ asked von Tresckow.
‘I’m not sure, sir.’ Schumacher raised his glass and took a sip. ‘But I’d say there’s trouble brewing tonight . . .’
Gerda broke into a run to put some distance between her and Dorner as he emerged from the house. Her boots crunched over a thin layer of fresh snow that had fallen while they had been at the party. The sky was clear and stars glinted sharply against a velvet blackness.
‘Wait!’ he called. ‘What do you think you are doing? Gerda!’
She heard his footsteps as he followed at a quick stride. She had reached the end of the street when he took her arm, forcing her to stop and turn to face him. She saw the anger in his expression as his lips pressed into a thin line.
‘How dare you humiliate me like that?’ he muttered in a quiet voice laced with fury. She could smell the brandy on his breath.
She gave a bitter laugh. ‘How dare I? Who the hell do you think you are? I offered you my heart. I said I would give up everything to be with you. You led me to believe you felt the ‘I never promised you anything.’
She stared back at him and shook her head sadly. ‘Karl, you are nothing more than a liar and a cheat. Just like most of the men I have ever known. You seduced me and encouraged me to make plans for a future you never intended to share. I despise you—’
He moved so quickly that the blow caught her by surprise.
The back of his hand smashed into her cheek and jarred her neck. White sparks jumped before her eyes and she staggered, tasting blood in her mouth.
‘You bastard . . .’
He froze, seemingly aghast at his loss of control. His expression twisted a moment before he shook his head. ‘Gerda . . . forgive me.’
‘Keep away from me!’ she cried, retreating. She raised a gloved hand and stabbed a finger at him. ‘It’s over. We’re finished, you hear?’
‘No, my love. It’s not over.’ He advanced on her with a pained smile, arms wide to embrace her. ‘I’m so sorry. Forgive me.’
‘No! You come any closer and I’ll scream blue murder. I mean it. And when people come, I’ll say you attacked me. Tried to molest me.’
He paused in alarm. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘Try it and see,’ she said defiantly. ‘Then all Berlin will know what kind of a man you are.’
Gerda looked at him with contempt, then took a few paces back before turning and walking quickly in the direction of the nearby station at Pape-strasse to take the most direct route home now that she was not with Dorner. Her heart was beating fast and her cheek smarted from the blow she had received. If it left a bruise, she was going to have to think of a way to explain it to her husband when she returned home. Not that he was averse to subjecting her to his own bruising treatment, she reflected bitterly.
There was no sound of anyone following her, no cry from her lover to ask her to stop and change her mind. With every step, her resentment at Dorner’s lack of willingness to fight for her grew. Even as she had berated him, she had half hoped he would try to talk her round. In truth, she wanted to be with
him. Only him. And she needed him to want her in return. Which was why she had tried to provoke his jealousy at the party.
She continued along the wide avenue that led towards the station, occasionally passing other pedestrians still abroad on this freezing night; dark figures, hunched into their coats, picked out against the dull loom of the snow and ice. As she neared the entrance to the station, she saw the red flare of a
cigarette in the shadow of the arched gateway of a trader’s yard. Instinctively she tried to give the smoker a wide berth.
Then a husky voice addressed her. ‘How much?’
She ignored him and quickened her pace. There was still nearly a hundred metres to go before she reached the station, and with a surge of panic, she realised there was no one else in sight on either side of the street. She cursed Dorner for not coming after her.
There was a faint cough from behind, and she glanced back and saw the dim glow of the cigarette tip as the man eased himself out of the shelter of the arch and began to follow her.
She lengthened her stride, but when she was halfway to the station, she looked again and saw that he had closed in. Fear gripped her, and she broke into a run as she saw a man in a uniform emerge from the station’s entrance.
‘Hey!’ she called out, waving her arm as she ran. ‘You there!’
The uniformed man stepped into the street to meet her. She could see he was a railway conductor.
‘Miss? What’s the matter with you?’
‘There’s a man.’ She pointed back down the pavement. But there was no one there, not even the telltale glow of the cigarette.
‘What man?’ asked the conductor.
‘He was there. Following me.’
‘I can’t see anyone.’ The conductor stared at her. ‘Are you sure, miss?’
‘I . . .’ Gerda breathed deeply. ‘Never mind. It doesn’t matter.’
‘Don’t worry, miss,’ he chuckled. ‘It’s easily done on a dark night. People imagine all sorts of things. Believe me.’
‘I didn’t imagine it,’ she snapped. ‘Excuse me.’
She brushed past him into the station and made for the waiting room on the platform for the Anhalter-bound trains. The remains of a fire smouldered in the iron grate and the room was pleasantly warm. The only other occupants were a fat man in working clothes and a thin, frail-looking woman whom Gerda took to be his wife. They exchanged a brief nod, but no words. Every few moments, Gerda glanced out of the window onto the platform, but there was no sign of the man who had followed her.
After ten minutes, her train drew into the station and the three of them emerged from the waiting room. As the others boarded the second-to-last carriage, Gerda made for the rearmost and settled into a seat facing the back of the train. A few doors slammed, a whistle sounded and the train jerked
into motion. As it clanked out of the station and into the night, passing through the blacked out suburbs of Berlin.
Gerda settled in her seat and lifted the edge of the carriage’s blind to peer into the darkness. She was furious with Dorner, and vowed to win him back or else avenge her wounded pride.
There was a click and a blast of cold air before the door linking the carriages closed again. She released the edge of the blind and turned to see that a man had entered the carriage and was approaching her. Her eyes widened in recognition.
‘You . . .’
THE STUNNING SECOND WORLD WAR THRILLER FROM THE CELEBRATED SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR SIMON SCARROW
The Times bestseller
'Taut and chilling - I was completely gripped' Anthony Horowitz
'A wonderfully compelling thriller, reeking of authenticity, and a terrific depiction of the human world within the chilling world of the Third Reich' Peter James
'Pivotal moments in history; utterly authentic characters; a gripping plot. The perfect way to bring history alive' Damien Lewis
Berlin, December 1939
As Germany goes to war, the Nazis tighten their terrifying grip. Paranoia in the capital is intensified by a rigidly enforced blackout that plunges the city into oppressive darkness every night, as the bleak winter sun sets.
When a young woman is found brutally murdered, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is under immense pressure to solve the case, swiftly. Treated with suspicion by his superiors for his failure to join the Nazi Party, Schenke walks a perilous line - for disloyalty is a death sentence.
The discovery of a second victim confirms Schenke's worst fears. He must uncover the truth before evil strikes again.
As the investigation takes him closer to the sinister heart of the regime, Schenke realises there is danger everywhere - and the warring factions of the Reich can be as deadly as a killer stalking the streets . . .
'Scarrow has created a character who's a more than worthy successor to Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther. Blackout is a gripping, terrifying read . . . historical crime fiction at its finest' David Young