The Trench Rats: Part 12
RAIN BEGAN PELTING the windshield as the car turned and pulled up to the gate. The soldier standing there pulled the gate open and waved the vehicle through. It made its way up the driveway, picking up speed until one of the tires slipped and splashed down into a pothole, bringing the car to an immediate halt. It backed up and out of the hole while the soldier from the front gate came jogging forward, then made its way toward the house and turned to park near the side. The soldier caught up, stopping momentarily to catch his breath before opening the car door.
An officer immediately brushed out, pushing the saluting soldier aside and glancing around him disdainfully. He stepped to the ground and walked to the front of the vehicle, bending down to look at the tire.
"Good morning, Sir," the soldier called.
"Hardly," the officer snapped. He stood and sniffed, nodding at the tire. "Take a look, one jolt and the thing is ruined. Have you any idea how much this type of car costs? Now ruined. Of all things, a pothole. This is beyond ridiculous."
"I apologize, Sir--but I'm not in command of who fixes the driveways--"
"Don't get snippy with me, Private. I have enough on my plate to deal with without the attitude." He took his case and slipped it under his arm.
"No attitude intended, Sir...but I thought you should know--"
"I came here on another matter," the officer said. He glanced around him again, then made his way for the entrance to the giant house, which more closely resembled a manor. "But I think I'll take this up with him as well. With as much money as he has, you'd think he could get someone to fill in a damned pothole."
The private jogged to catch up with him again. "Sir, I--"
"Truly, how much is he worth now? Of course, the place does seem to be falling into disrepair--and he hardly keeps any servants around--"
"I don't think you'll be able to--"
"--though why they would want to stay around is beyond me."
"I'll see to it he doesn't have the money left to keep even them around," the officer groused, knocking on the huge front doors until they were opened, then pushing his way inside, the private following. "Ruining my car like that because he's too cheap to fix his drive properly."
They made their way into the parlor, the officer looking around. "Parlor," however, implied a small size...whereas the room that greeted them was practically cavernous.
"Good God!" the officer exclaimed. "You could outfit a fleet of ships with the drapes in here!"
"Sir, please keep your voice--"
"What is this, a footstool or a table?" He kicked at the leg of a long winding table in the middle of the room. The floor was carpeted in a luscious wine color, and the drapes reflected that same hue. Everything seemed to be in shades of wine and red and cream. A fireplace loomed off to the side, a large painting above it; the officer gravitated toward this, then walked along beside the walls, scanning the rest of the artwork hanging around them.
"He collects these? Or does he steal them? Are these even originals? Probably not, knowing him..."
"If you'd come back ano--"
"Good GOD!" The private cringed as the officer's voice echoed through the room. He'd just discovered the stairway, off to the right on entering the parlor.
"How many steps are ON that thing?" he yelled, walking to the bottom and peering up. The marble steps ascended in a graceful curve to reach a landing overlooking the parlor far below.
The private approached and tugged on his sleeve, putting a finger to his mouth. "Sir, please. You must be able to think of a better time to come around."
"Better time? What for? I have some papers I need him to look at." As if just remembering his mission, he pulled the case out from under his arm and, inexplicably, shoved it under the other self-importantly. "I will hardly leave before he does so."
"Sir, the inspector's occupied right now. It's best if you--"
"Occupied? With what? Has he got a woman up there?"
"He hasn't awoken yet, Sir. If--"
"Not AWAKE yet?" His shrill voice nevertheless managed to boom off the ceiling. "It's after nine in the morning, and you tell me he's not awake yet? Does he have a woman up there? What's your name, anyway? Do you even know who you're talking to?"
"Private Konrad Helmstadt, Sir. I know who you are. Which is why I think you should--"
"What room is he in? I'll hunt him down and wake him up myself if I have to!" He put his hand on the bannister and started jogging up the steps.
Helmstadt grew alarmed. "Sir!" He hurried to catch up.
"Sir, this isn't a good idea," he continued when the officer reached the second floor and started down the long hallway, footsteps echoing too loudly off the walls. Windows lined the right wall, facing the side yard of the house, and the woods. The officer ignored the view, but once in a while glanced at yet another painting upon the wall, grimacing with disgust at each new discovery as if the sheer opulence of the place made him want to gag.
"Why not? I was promised he would look at these papers. This is important, Private Hammerstadt."
"Whatever. We're in a war, in case you haven't noticed."
"I have noticed, Sir, but when he's busy, you shouldn't--"
"Ah, jump off the balcony, Private, or find someone who's concerned to tell. I have to speak to the inspector." And he muttered just loud enough for Helmstadt to hear, "Why I have to speak to him, I have no idea."
Helmstadt dared to speak up again. "Perhaps then if you don't know you should wait until a better--"
"Look," the officer snapped, whirling on him and practically shoving the case in his face. "I took the time to come out here. I bothered driving out to this horrid estate. I even damaged my car in the drive! I'll hardly leave now just because the inspector needs his beauty sleep!"
Helmstadt stared at him in silence, then stepped aside. The officer gave him one final glare before making his way to a door near the end of the hall. He waved at it.
"Is this the room? God knows the place is full enough of the damned things!"
Helmstadt nodded. "Yes, Sir."
"I suppose he gets lost every so often and you have to go looking for him," the officer muttered, and reached out to knock on the door. It pulled open before his knuckles had a chance to strike it. Helmstadt snapped to attention and the officer just frowned with some surprise.
The man who stared back at him wore a pristine uniform that was not of the Nazi party, but was comparable. He looked quite far from having allegedly just been asleep; rather, it looked as if he had been anything but. The look on his face was neutral; even his eyes told the officer nothing, but the way that icy blue stared at him made him want to start squirming, if only because he couldn't tell what the stare meant. He bit the inside of his mouth instead and offered a halfhearted salute, his former insistence gone.
He opened his mouth to continue but the inspector turned his head to look at Helmstadt. Helmstadt stood at attention again.
"Sir. I tried to tell him you were occupied..."
The inspector nodded once, silencing him, and turned back to the officer. The officer coughed into his hand and attempted to draw himself together.
"Inspector. I was informed that you should peruse some documents I have on hand. They need to be signed later on today, but apparently...for some reason...my superiors felt you should look at them first."
Helmstadt shot him a look from the corner of his eye, a silent warning. He ignored it.
"I thought I should also tell you," he continued, finally gathering himself, "of the horrid state of your main drive. Do you have any idea how hideous the thing is? On driving in here my automobile fell into a pothole. There is obvious damage. This car cost much money, and it would be nice to know that someone responsible will pay for it. I am hardly responsible for the deplorable state of your property."
"Sir," Helmstadt murmured between his teeth. The inspector lowered his head a little bit but appeared more aloof--or amused, even--than insulted or angry. The officer went on, his voice rising.
"For years I had hoped to obtain such a car, and now I'll be lucky if I can even replace the tire--not to mention what other damage has been done! All because you cannot simply pay someone to fix your drive. I took time out of my busy schedule to come here and see you, and you could at least acknowledge my presence aside from giving me that look." He shook the case. "The papers you need to see are in here. Though I hardly see why your approval is so very important. You're not even one of us! How do we know where you truly stand? If it were not the will of my superiors, I would not even have wasted my time bringing you this--"
A sharp cracking sound cut him off abruptly. Helmstadt jumped. The officer stared at the inspector with surprised eyes. Helmstadt turned to look at him and his own eyes widened when he saw the dark red spot flowering in the middle of his chest. The officer looked down at it and touched his hand to the blood, pulling his hand away and staring at it with some confusion. He swayed a little.
The gun in the inspector's hand was still smoking.
Helmstadt continued staring at the officer, who looked back up at the inspector for a moment before his eyes rolled back and he went limp. He collapsed to the floor, red seeping out into the wood beneath him. His fingers still clutched the handle of the small case, even as he let out one last gurgling breath and fell still.
Helmstadt swallowed convulsively.
Inspector Dobermann lowered the gun and turned back to his room. He stopped before entering and his eyes met Helmstadt's. The private drew himself up straight.
"Private," he said, voice perfectly neutral, "please make certain I'm not disturbed again."
Helmstadt clicked his heels together. "Yes Sir."
Without giving him--or the officer's body--another look, the inspector turned and went back into his room, quietly shutting the door behind him. Private Helmstadt was left trying not to stare at the body lying on the floor, and wondering which was more important--keeping on the inspector's good side, or finding someone to clean up the mess he'd left behind.