A number of people have been of great help to me over the time it's taken to complete this story. Kathy M. and Kate Brown have both given suggestions and commentary. And Syl Francis invested a great amount of time with me way back when. Marilyn Penner, however, has been incredibly generous with her time and assistance. Her eye for detail has saved me from many embarrassing pratfalls. All mistakes are mine, since I never can resist poking and prodding at a story after it's been sent off for beta work.
This story will make more sense if you have read "The Hand of a Friend" first.
Feedback is always appreciated.
"Brother clasps the hand of brother, stepping fearless through the night."
- Sabine Baring-Gould, 1834-1924
Early May; 1944
The Hauserhof, one of Hammelburg's oldest taverns, was especially busy for a week night. Nearly every table was seated to capacity and each of the old, wooden bar stools was occupied. A thin, blue haze and an acrid smell drifted over the room from a meal recently scorched beyond hope by the tavern's harried cook. Neither the odor nor the haze dampened the crowd's mood. Laughter and conversation flowed freely, creating a festive atmosphere.
The sole waitress passed from table to table, dispensing conversation and smiles along with beer from her pitcher. The majority of her customers were men, most wearing Wehrmacht gray or Luftwaffe blue. They greeted her warmly, ever hopeful of more than just refreshment and pleasantries. They courted her with winks and endearments, rejoicing when her brilliant green eyes sparkled merrily in reaction. She tossed back gentle wit but no encouragement, leaving them dreamy-eyed and yearning. They returned to the bar at every opportunity, each time patently convinced that this visit would finally secure her affections. And with every visit, they drank and ate and drank some more, warming Max, the tavern owner's heart.
One of the soldiers at a crowded table turned to face her as she approached. He was a gangly youth, not more than nineteen, and she cringed inwardly as his strident wolf whistle split the air. The steins at his table were full, so she continued past without stopping. The men at the table burst into laughter, one of them slapping the youth on the shoulder hard enough to send him to the floor in a heap. The waitress sighed to herself and bent to fill a half-empty stein at another table.
"Risa! Ein Bier, bitte!"
Tossing her honey-blonde curls back over her shoulder, she flashed a smile and nod in the direction of the yell. Hands reached out from beside her in attempt to pluck her off her feet and into a waiting lap. She twirled out of range, nimbly avoiding the grab while keeping her pitcher steady. Not a drop of beer was lost. Hoping to dissuade more attempts yet not offend the soldier (and paying customer), she waggled her finger at him, gentling the rebuke with another smile.
Max, red-faced and sweating, popped out of the kitchen as though sensing a situation that might keep a pfennig from his pocket. His wide-set eyes homed in on Risa, fending off yet another advance.
"Risa! Schnell!" Max impatiently shook a ragged towel in her direction, urging her on to the next customer.
Giving the soldier's nose a dainty nudge with the tip of her finger (causing him to laugh in good-natured defeat), Risa moved on to fill more steins.
It was some time before she had a chance to catch her breath from the constant demands. Going behind the polished bar, she sat down and winced from the painful reminder of an enthusiastic pinch that she had failed to avoid. Her cheeks ached from smiling and her feet had swollen from the lengthy shift and nearly unrelieved activity.
She toed off one of her shoes and gently started massaging her foot. Waiting tables was hard work. The pay was small and the existence was a far cry from the life she had been born to. But it was work, and she was grateful to have it. She reminded herself of that when she looked up to find the door to the bar swinging open again -- another late night patron, hoping to have a few beers before closing. Risa slipped her shoe back on, fluffed her hair, took up her tray, and went to greet the newcomer.
Her mood brightened considerably when the Wehrmacht captain faced her. Her brother swept his cap off and bent to place a chaste kiss on her forehead.
"Abend, Risa. Hermann sends his love."
She peeked around him toward the door, disappointed that their friend was not present. "He's not coming tonight?"
"A matter came up that required his attention."
Wrapping a free arm in his, Risa escorted Klaus across the floor to an available table. "At this late hour?"
"This was the only time he had to take care of it."
Risa wondered at that. The shops were all closed for the night. What possible errand could be keeping Hermann? The question fled her mind as the crowd surged around them. Klaus' arm flexed, his strength steadying her against the push. She smiled up at him, her heart suddenly full.
It was good to have him back in town again.
Klaus found the hostility being directed at him by the bar's other male patrons highly amusing. He had been stationed in Hammelburg for only a short time. Obviously, not long enough for more than a few to discover that he was Risa's brother and not another suitor for her hand.
Knowing his preferences, Risa led him to a small table for two in a corner of the room. He took the chair nearest the wall, giving him an unobstructed view of the room. Most of the men had gone back to their drinks and conversation, but a few kept sneaking glances in their direction. Ignoring them, Klaus laid his cap to one side, leaned his elbows on the table and grinned up at Risa.
"I have had a long, frustrating day. A beer would do nicely to drown my sorrows."
"Poor Klaus," Risa crooned, puffing out her full, lower lip in feigned pity. "I will -- "
Her voice cut off mid-sentence and her teasing expression dissolved like quicksilver. Internal alarms blaring, Klaus followed her line of sight to the bar's front door. A tall, lanky Luftwaffe colonel was perched on the landing just inside the door, eagerly scanning the crowd. The light flashed and winked off a monocle seated to one side of a patrician nose. Klaus' eyes flicked back to his sister. Risa's face was screwed tight - as though she had just taken a mouthful of something extremely unpleasant. Thoroughly intrigued, he quickly re-located the object of her revulsion.
"Who is that?"
"Kommandant Wilhelm Klink, of Luftstalag 13," came her clipped reply. "He's been in every night for the last two weeks. It's a wonder Max hasn't asked him to help wait tables!"
Klaus peered sharply at the man still searching the crowd. The Kommandant hardly looked capable of the deeds Klaus had heard about.
Klink's gaze swept past their corner then immediately darted back. Beaming with obvious satisfaction, he launched himself into the crowd. His route led straight in their direction. Risa groaned and put her back to the room.
"Well, you're plainly quite taken with him." Klaus grinned as Klink came up hard against a wall of human flesh. The men barring the Kommandant's chosen path ignored every polite, pleading and sorrowful look he gave them. His pleas and whines to be let through could faintly be heard over the crowd noise. One drunken reveler finally turned around, a piggish expression of irritation on his face. Klink cringed back a step, stammering apologies. Apparently satisfied, the man went back to nursing his beer. Klink surveyed the impenetrable barrier, threw his hands up in frustration and tried another approach. Keeping an eye on his progress, Klaus tuned back in to Risa's continuing complaints of Klink's shortcomings.
"The man is a dreadful boor. He prattles on and on about what an impeccable record he has and how he has the Führer's ear --"
"Sounds messy," Klaus murmured, then laughed openly when Klink had to quickly back-pedal to avoid having a very large and very drunken corporal topple onto him.
"Everything is about him. His life, his career, his ... his .... his everything! When he is not talking about himself he is hounding me for a date. A whole month of listening to him, Klaus! I swear if he calls me 'my dear' one more time I will throw every stein in this bar at his head!"
Klaus absently brushed his fingertips back and forth across the table's top as he watched Klink's struggle to reach them. A large number of the crowd pushed toward the bar, opening a clear path toward their corner. Spotting it, Klink sprinted forward.
A grin slowly spread across Klaus' face. It had been a long time since he had had an opportunity to get under his little sister's skin. Quickly hiding the grin, he looked up at her.
"Why not put the man out of his misery and grant him a date, Risa?"
"His misery?! He. . . You. . ."
Klaus lifted an eyebrow. "If you agree to a date, perhaps then he'll lose interest. Sometimes, the chase is more attractive than the prize."
Risa's green eyes widened with the light of battle. "Oh, you think I'm not worth the effort? I am perhaps too short, or my hair is the wrong color, or one of my eyes is higher than the other? Or maybe --"
"Ah, Risa! There you are!" Klink arrived at their table, ruffled but triumphant, his face bearing a wide smile.
With a final blast of green fire in Klaus' direction, Risa faced her most persistent admirer.
The coolness of her greeting was lost upon Klink. He executed a courtly bow. "Please, call me Wilhelm."
"Kommandant," Risa repeated with deliberate meaning. "May I show you to a table?"
"The Kommandant is welcome to join me," Klaus said, pushing back his chair and getting to his feet. He brought his heels together and saluted. "Captain Klaus Leidel."
Klink stared down his nose at him as if sizing up the competition. A light eventually clicked on in the pale blue eyes.
"Leidel, did you say?" Klink asked, returning the salute. He waved a long finger back and forth between Klaus and Risa. "You are related?"
"Klaus is my brother." Risa took a few steps away from the table. "Would you like this table, or another?"
Klink loosed the blinding smile upon her again. "Danke, but there is no need for a table, my dear. I simply wanted to extend another invitation for an evening of fine food, fine wine and ..." he gestured airily at his own chest, "fine company, at Stalag 13. I have a marvelous French chef, a prisoner, really, we call him -- "
"Kommandant, I . . . "
The opportunity to further bait Risa was one Klaus couldn't pass up. He pointedly arched an eyebrow, silently daring her. Considering her revulsion for Klink, he really didn't expect her to accept the challenge. She surprised him.
" . . . would be delighted to accept your very kind invitation to dinner," Risa finished with evident resignation.
"Wonderful!" Klink cried, clapping his hands together. "Would tomorrow evening around eight fit your schedule?"
"That would be perfect, Herr Kommandant, since it is my evening off. But I must ask Klaus if he is also free." She smiled sweetly first at Klink, then Klaus.
Klink's smile fell away. "I'm not certain I understand."
"Klaus has only recently been stationed in Hammelburg and we have had so little time together. It would be a great favor to me if he were allowed to join us, Herr Kommandant." Risa lifted an eyebrow at Klaus, her smile growing even wider.
"But of course, of course," Klink assured her with false good humor. "I am more than happy to be able to grant you as many favors as you wish." He directed his stilted smile toward Klaus. "You are most welcome to join us, Captain. That is, unless you have duty?" The question held obvious hope.
"As a matter of fact, I do have tomorrow evening free. I have heard much of your accomplishments at Stalag 13, Herr Kommandant. It will be a privilege to spend an evening in your company. I'm certain to be the envy of every man at headquarters."
Klink's smile became genuine. "Well, now -- "
"Tomorrow night at eight, then," Risa interjected hurriedly.
"Ja." Klink briskly rubbed his hands together. "I promise you," he declared, pointing a finger toward the ceiling. "We will have a marvelous time! You won't be disappointed!" He bowed to Risa, returned Klaus' salute, did a quick turn and ricocheted back through the crowd like a ping-pong ball.
Risa plucked Klaus' cap off the table and shoved it down over his eyes. With a quick flick of his hand, he set it at a jaunty angle and laughed up at her.
"Klaus, don't you dare back out on me!" Risa snapped, tapping one small foot. "I agreed to this lunacy but I don't intend to suffer that man's company alone." Her anger quickly drained away and she gave into his infectious laughter. She reached out and gently finger-combed his stubborn mahogany forelock; a habit she knew he didn't like. "Your promotion hasn't changed you at all. You are still a troublemaker."
"Admit it, little sister," he countered playfully, tickling the underside of her chin with the tip of one finger; something she hated. "Your life was boring before I returned."
She swatted his hand away. "Go home and get some sleep. You look tired."
"But you haven't brought my beer yet!" He was completely uncaring of the whine in his voice. He wanted that beer! He deserved that beer! After the day he'd had, he needed that beer!
"You don't need beer; you need sleep," Risa scolded, as if hearing his thoughts. Before he could protest, she ended the argument by leaving in a flurry of movement. Within seconds, she was in the midst of the crowd.
His smile held equal parts of affection and irritation. She had picked up a bothersome tendency of mothering him since his return to Hammelburg. The habit was probably the result of her fear that his luck would one day run out and leave her completely alone. The war, not to mention the dangerous role he was playing, made that very likely. He could only hope that she would remain ignorant of his double-life until the war's end. She worried too much about him already.
He laughed suddenly. Not only had she had retaliated for his prank by getting him included on her supposed date, but she had kept him from his beer as well.
Still smiling to himself, he bid farewell to the beer, took up his cap and started for home.