Colonel Wolf watched as the remains of Blackgate Prison were excavated and examined. His aide stood by his side, detailing orders and overseeing things. Wondering why, of all places, anyone would strike at the regime here, he idly checked the list of prisoners’ names Lieutenant Hoffmann had provided earlier in the day.
One name stood out above all the others: Corporal Wilhelm Schultz, due to be shot for dereliction of duty.
That put a light on this so-called mystery-man. He had moved to save Schultz because of some connection. Or was it another blind alley he was following? Maybe he saved Schultz to attack me, he privately considered. How many people were my enemies in this country? How many would want to turn my life and career into a joke? He might now have a clue or some kind of key to his unknown enemy. Schultz had been set free; ergo, Schultz might be a means to lay a trap for this jester, this clown.
“Hoffmann, send a capture order for Wilhelm Schultz,” Wolf told his subordinate. “He’s to be taken alive at all cost.”
“Yes, Colonel,” said the aide, heading immediately for the radio tent to issue the order.
Wolf smiled. If he could lay his hands on Schultz, then he might be able to lay hands on the mystery-man and unmask him once and for all.
Within a few moments, Wolf was called over to a tent set up as a portable lab, where they watched the technicians at work. There had been much discussion and argument over what they had discovered under the remains of Blackgate, and Wolf was eager to learn the truth.
“We believe we know what happened, Colonel,” said Captain Theodoric Kort.
“Go ahead with your summation,” said Wolf, noting that Hoffmann had now joined him in the tent. “A full report will need to be on my desk by tomorrow.”
Kort blanched when he heard that. He knew he would be filling out forms through the night. “We believe that the subject scaled a wall and gained access to the ventilation system without the guards noticing. He then used some kind of device like a laser to drill holes into the supports of each building of the prison. Then he packed each hole with an unknown type of explosive to be triggered by either a remote or a timer.”
“What do you mean by unknown?” Wolf asked.
“The chemical breakdown doesn’t match anything that we have seen before,” Kort said.
“Ah. Continue,” Wolf said.
“He put a narcotic in the air supply and put everyone to sleep,” Kort said. “The security system was turned off at this point. Best guess is that either he awoke the prisoners or carried them one by one to some kind of transport. Then he woke the guards up and told them to clear the building before he triggered the explosive.”
“He woke the guards?” Wolf asked, surprised. “Why did he do that?”
“When you arrest him,” Kort said, shrugging, “maybe he will tell us.”
“Didn’t he save Schultz’s life also?” Hoffmann asked.
“That’s what Schultz said,” Wolf said quietly.
Wilhelm Schultz jogged through the forest in northern Scotland. He hadn’t been surprised when none of the other prisoners wanted him along, but he couldn’t blame them. His ruined face made him stand out now. It would attract a lot of the wrong attention when the security service began looking for him. They would most likely catch him, but not easily, Willie vowed.
It was a few more miles before he encountered another human being. He was slightly surprised to see an old man sitting on a rock beside a camp fire. The man smiled when he saw Willie and gestured for the younger man to sit on the other side of the flames.
“Hello,” said Willie, looking around for other people before sitting down.
“G’day, young’un,” said the old man. “What brings you hereabouts?”
“I was walking and saw your fire,” Willie Schultz said to the old man. “How long have you been camping here?”
“Not long,” said the old man. “I just put me supper on. Want some?”
“That’s very kind of you,” said the fugitive.
“I always cook more’n I can eat,” said the old man. “It’s no bother. Been on the run long?”
“What makes you say that?” asked Willie.
“They don’t let you keep the prison uniforms, from my experience.”
“A lot of us were released without permission,” said Willie, standing up and ready to run.
“Here, put this on,” said the old man, digging out a suit of clean but patched and worn clothes from the duffel bag he sat on. “We’re about the same size.”
“Why would you help me?” asked Willie, taking the clothes.
“No one cares for the Jerries,” said the old man.
Colonel Wolf gritted his teeth in frustration and barely controlled rage. “So Corporal Schultz has vanished from the Earth?” he said. “Are you joking with me, Hoffmann?”
“No, sir,” said Lieutenant Hoffmann. “I’m not joking. Most of the others have been rounded up. Some were shot while resisting arrest, while ten have successfully eluded our forces. Wilhelm Schultz is on the list of those who have remained free. We believe a local is helping him.”
“Why is that, Hoffmann?” said the colonel.
“The last sighting of Schultz placed him in the company of a tramp heading south toward London.”
“Put a net up,” said Wolf. “I want those two in front of me by this time tomorrow.”
The call went out. Security services in black joined the regular army fatigues at every entrance to London. They were looking for a man in his late fifties dressed in a worn corduroy suit, hat and boots, and another man in his twenties with a heavily scarred and damaged face. But neither man was seen at the observation posts.
Hoffmann calmly inspected his men and women on duty, knowing that he had missed something somewhere. Schultz would never come back to London, would he?
Wilhelm Schultz felt his face again. It did not seem real to him, but others passed him by without comment. How had the old man been able to do this?
He had been given some kind of poultice for his wounds, and he had applied it every day while the two took their slow walk south toward London. He was amazed by the results.
Willie’s face had become almost normal under the constant application of the poultice. With a bridge put in to replace his destroyed teeth, he looked almost normal. Even his hair and nails had grown back.
“I’d say you’re just about recovered, Willie,” said the old man. “We’ll have to go our separate ways when we reach the city.”
“You have been a great help to me,” said Willie. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said the old man. “We’ll meet again. I’m sure you will have a chance.”
The ferry came to a stop on the docks. The men got up and went different directions as the security services and regular army inspected everyone. Willie walked through the checkpoint easily.
As Willie Schultz crossed into the city, administration computers began going blank, one by one. When they came back on-line, a smiley face stared out at the operators.
The virus jumped from one system to the next in a haphazard way, avoiding efforts to neutralize it. It then spread into civilian nets, attacking the Nazi presence at every turn. It vanished as quickly as it came, razing every record on the resistance it touched as it left.
Colonel Wolf looked at his top experts, one after the other. He paced up and down the five-man line, his teeth grinding together audibly. “How did this happen?” he demanded from the first man in line.
“We believe the perpetrator installed the virus when he destroyed the paper files,” said the expert. “It remained dormant until something activated it.”
“Do you know what activated the virus?” the colonel asked.
“I’m afraid not,” said the expert.
“So most of our intelligence is gone?” said Wolf.
“Not all,” said the expert.
“What remains?” asked Wolf.
“A lot of the projections from the actions that have happened, the resistance movements, most of our identifications — we think,” said the expert.
“What is needed here is an object lesson,” said Wolf.
He picked up the heavy pistol from his desk and thumbed the hammer back. Closing his eyes, he fired into the line blindly. The bullet went through one man’s leg. He fell down screaming.
“You will find this man,” said Wolf. “You will find him. And you will dig him out of whatever hole he is in.” He paused to take a deep breath. “Or… there will be a more object lesson for all of you, one by one. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir,” said the spokesman.
“Why are you still looking at me?” screamed Wolf. “Get out of here!”
Wilhelm Schultz walked the streets of London unchallenged. The poultice the old man had given him had massaged his face almost to normality. At least people did not shy away any more. That was a marked improvement. Willie liked his new freedom but knew he was likely to be shot on sight if recognized. He had to do something, but what?
He bought a newspaper from a boy standing on the corner, flipping through it in an effort to appear like he belonged on the streets. One item caught his attention. He was still on the security forces’ most-wanted list. Worse, he was connected with this latest joke.
Why did they insist on that? He had never seen the man until that that one time in the records room, probably when he planted that virus in the administration’s system.
There were too many targets to protect them all. The guy would probably hit and run until they tracked him down. If they could track him down. Wolf was an obvious target — high profile. Why hadn’t he gone for Wolf?
Maybe he had, decided Willie. Maybe Wolf was behind these jokes. He was in a perfect position to carry out everything. Willie decided he needed to talk to the man.
He considered ways to gain an audience with Wolf. The security chief was probably the most-protected man in England at the moment. Probably the only way to get at him was by bribing his staff.
But Willie knew that bordered on the impossible. The SS was noted for its loyalty and lack of sympathy. A bribe would just take him back to cell 711 to await execution. There had to be some other way to achieve his ends.
Three soldiers lurched out of a pub ahead of Willie. It was obvious that they’d had too much to drink and were now on their way to their billets. Willie fell in behind the three soldiers, walking more slowly to allow them to lead him to their quarters. Finally, one of the men pulled out a set of keys and began trying them in the lock of an apartment. It took the drunken soldier three tries to find the right key.
The door sprang open as soon as the lock was turned. The trio tried to enter the place at the same time, shoulder to shoulder, until they vaguely realized their problem and began to juggle how to enter through the narrow frame.
Stepping up behind the three men, Willie pushed his way into the apartment, spilling the intoxicated soldiers to the floor. Then he grabbed a rifle from one of them and shot each of them at point-blank range.
Willie searched the apartment of the soldiers he had killed, then pieced together a uniform he from their closets and took one of the dead troopers’ identification papers. He wiped the things he had touched with a cloth, then locked up behind himself.
Now he had to get by ministry security and find a way to talk to Colonel Wolf alone. That wouldn’t be easy.
Taking the Underground to the ministry building, he flipped his ID wallet at the interior guards, keeping part of a finger on the picture on the card as if by accident. The guard signed him in absently, not even looking at the identification. Willie thanked his good fortune as he walked inside the main doors and across the lobby.
The guard looked up from his paper, smiling quietly. For a second, his regular features shimmered, revealing a yellow face with a smiling slit for a mouth and two small eyes. Then the shimmer vanished, leaving a man who seemed to enjoy his paper when he should have been more vigilant.
Willie stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the administration offices. Knowing the cab could be stopped and gassed or blown up to prevent entry by enemy forces, he was glad that the door opened without incident to let him out in the admin corridor without even a small amount of fuss.
The corporal walked down the hall, looking for Wolf’s office. When he located it, he found that the door was locked. He used a pocket knife to jimmy the door open and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.
Willie Schultz quickly searched the office and found some personal papers in the desk. They indicated that Wolf had moved into a safe house because of the threat, codenamed Jester. Another kidnapping was not ruled out of the question by High Command. Additionally, Wolf was bait for the terrorist if the man should happen to come after him again.
He felt he could get through security to talk to the colonel, if he had to. He also knew he could take a rifle to the nearest hill and kill the man outright from a distance. Pondering what to do as he left the office, he headed for the elevator. He wanted desperately to talk to Wolf and be reinstated, or at the very least clear of the collusion and treason charges hanging over his head. He wanted to go home and be far away from this travesty of justice. Only Wolf could clear him to settle down without a shoot-to-kill order over his head.
Willie walked out of the building and hired a cab to travel to the safe house address. When he arrived, he paid the cabbie with some stolen money and paused at the walk of his foe’s home. What could he say to get him past the gate and into the house? He walked over to the guardhouse at the gate, keeping his head down.
“What do you want?” asked the sentry on duty.
“Eyes-only message for a Colonel Wolf,” said the ex-corporal. “Can you pass me through?”
“I’ll have to call up to the house,” said the guard.
“Fine with me,” said Willie. “I’m supposed to mention Wilhelm Schultz.”
The guarded nodded as he called the house. A few seconds later, he opened the gate with a push button in his kiosk. Willie ran up to the front door as if he were in a hurry to deliver his message and leave.
He knocked on the front door quietly, and a guard inspected him through a peephole before opening the door.
“Your pistol,” said the sentry, holding out his hand for the sidearm Willie wore on his belt.
The corporal handed it over without the slightest protest. He knew the guard would just shoot him down if he protested the matter. “Colonel Wolf?” he asked.
The guard pointed to an office converted from a small library off to one side of the main hall. A voice could be heard talking through the thick, wooden doors. Willie nodded as he walked over and knocked on the door.
“Come in,” said the voice.
The fugitive opened the door and slipped inside. Wolf sat behind his desk, talking on the phone. Willie took a moment to look around the huge room.
“What’s the message?” Wolf said impatiently. Willie disconnected the phone silently, and the colonel turned to examine his visitor more closely. “Schultz!” Wolf exclaimed.
Wilhelm Schultz seized his enemy around the throat with ferocious strength. Colonel Wolf tried to break the grip in sudden panic, and his skin took on a jaundiced appearance that made the ex-corporal pause in his throttling. Bubbles had begun to push against the flesh from inside the officer’s body.
There was something very familiar about the phenomenon Willie was witnessing. Wolf’s skin pimpled and burst slightly, and the ex-corporal heard a distinct hee sound. Another bubble spattered blood on the colonel’s desk with a ha, while Wolf’s eyes grew distended.
Having placed that awful noise and known what it must mean, Willie ran for a window. He threw himself through the glass and landed lightly outside.
Watching through the broken window, Schulzt saw as Colonel Wolf tried to get to his feet, his hands clutching his throat as he tried to breathe. His jaundiced skin took on a more yellow hue as the flesh crawled and boiled, and a fog filled the room with the stench of methane. The guard came into the room with weapon drawn. He immediately backed out, coughing from the yellow gas Wolf was emitting.
Wolf’s last thought before he died was, Has it been twenty-seven days already?
Willie shivered as he watched his enemy wither away. When it was over, he turned and headed for the wall. He was still an enemy of the state, and he would be identified more than ever with the Jester after this.
It was a practical joke on him, he thought, as he climbed the wall and disappeared into the city. All a joke.
Lieutenant Hoffmann stepped into his office after Colonel’s Wolf’s funeral. It had been a closed casket ceremony, of course. The assistant had to attend the autopsy and was glad the few others present had not seen what he saw.
He turned on his computer and hooked into the local service. “You have mail,” said the machine. Hoffmann opened the e-mail and blanched as he saw a short message.
Hoffmann closed the mail and decided to put in a transfer to some other area of operations.