Sergeant Freudenberger squinted again at the tiny print on the manifest list, struggling to find his place. He jumped at the sudden sound of the train whistle as yet another load of prisoners disembarked into the makeshift station, dropping his glasses into his cup of tea.
"Oh, I'm frightfully sorry! Oh-oh my, just a moment, I'll have you processed and ready to go! My apologies, um, Fraulein…Fraulein…"
The woman standing before him slowly jabbed a finger towards the top of the page Sergeant Freudenberger was working on. "Aldon. Zuzanna Aldon. No Fraulein."
Sergeant Freudenberger gave his glasses a quick shake, then affixed them once more upon his bulbous nose. "Oh… oh! There it is! I-I'm sorry, erm, Frau Aldon-"
"It's not 'Frau' either. Just Aldon."
The sergeant peered once more at his manifest sheet, then back at Aldon. "Ah, pardon me. Whatever you prefer, er, Aldon. Whatever is most, uh, polite."
Aldon rolled her eyes. "I think we passed the point of polite introductions sometime after the raid in Kleparz." She pointed to the dark blue, rifle butt-shaped bruise on the right side of her face. "I've had enough German etiquette, thanks."
"Ach, dreadful! I would never sanction such barbarous treatment, surely! I-"
Aldon glared at the sergeant, gesturing at the sprawling intake center and the lines of prisoners waiting to be processed.
"Oh. Right. Um, that." The Sergeant's face went red with shame, not for the first time that day. "You're in Sector B, Tent 48, Fraulein- er, Aldon. They're not really tents, though, there was some confusion at the command center, and, um-"
"Would you please just hurry up and put me in the damn concentration camp!" Aldon said as she crossed her arms.
"Yeah, we don't got all day you know!" a man's voice called from somewhere behind them in line.
Several black-clad SS guards glanced towards the general area of the remark, heavy wooden truncheons in hand. The Sergeant quickly signaled to the guards to remain calm; the guards, after several moments, relented and acknowledged the Sergeant's direction, though not without an angry glare for their superior. Sergeant Freudenberger waved Aldon back towards the camp as the next prisoner came forward.
He sighed. Had there really been so many degenerate artists in the Reich? There must have been a thousand people here. The sergeant thought of his own sister, and her paintings and poems. He couldn't imagine her or her friends hurting anyone, much less presenting a threat that had to be solved like this. His hand again crept to his brace-supported right leg. He was not a fighting man, and it didn't take long before he was rendered unfit for combat by a Russian grenade. But as awful as that was, it was preferable to this. He waved the next person in line through to his station, employing the etiquette that he thought was the least he owed these people. His finger went back to the manifest.
"Erm, uh…Allendorf, I beg your pardon Herr Allendorf…oh, I've lost my place again."
A tall red-haired young man made his way through the assembled inmates in the central yard, already bedraggled and rumpled looking in his recently-issued bright red uniform. He picked his way through the milling crowd, spotting a long, lean young woman in the midst of a small knot of people, dressed in a blue uniform, her wavy blond hair in its trademark pile pulled to the left side of her head.
"Hey, Zuzu! Hey! Over here!"
Aldon looked up. A smile broke out over her face. "Werner! You're alive!" She rushed over to the young man and embraced him tightly, the two artists clutching each other tightly to reassure themselves that both were still there. "We thought they had killed you! Zanzibar heard that they were carrying your body out of the lobby when they marched us off!"
Werner smiled. "A little sleight of hand. They caught me two days later, though. Turns out Ratzinger's basement wasn't a Way after all. Rotten little phoney."
Aldon dismissively waved her hand. "You were the one who bought the instructions for the ritual from him!" Her smile evaporated. "And how about that, hmm? We were supposed to be able to get away from those Gestapo jerks when you chanted the words!"
"I figured that one out, actually." Werner assumed his crouched-over old man pose that he did whenever he used his Aleister Crowley impression. "Be it sealed in truth, by a man of foreign land, who speaketh the words of power, bearing the marks of his opponents."
The rest of the group had gathered back around the two errant members of the Young Collective of Weimar Artisans, now accounted for in its entirety. Aldon waited expectantly.
Werner straightened his posture again. "Well, I had the words of power from the other sheet, and I had the Hitler Youth costume."
"Yes, what could possibly go right?" interjected Aldon.
Undaunted, Werner continued. "I just wasn't a man of foreign land, that's all! Germany isn't foreign enough to Poland, you see."
"You mean that was what put this all screwy? I could have told you that, you lummox!" She tossed a ration of bread at Werner's chest. It immediately dissolved into an unsatisfying mist of dry crumbs and sawdust. "And now look! Another fine mess you've gotten us into."
Zanzibar O'Reilly slowly shook her head. "Yep, just like home again."
"It's simple. All we need to do is find someone else who can complete the ritual, and we'll all be out of here in a snap." Werner casually brushed the crumbs from his shirt.
Aldon shook her head. "How are we going to do that? These goose-stepping knuckleheads run all of Europe now, it's all Germany as far as this two-bit ritual is concerned."
Werner was interrupted by the speakers wired over the yard, as a disembodied voice addressed the inmates of the camp through squeaks and crackles.
"All inmates report to the central staging area." Repeated over and over, droning ceaselessly until all assembled were pestered into compliance. The guards were curiously absent.
As they made their way to the staging area, the assembled degenerate artists and moral deviants of the Reich found a stage, hastily constructed from exposed beams of freshly cut planks of white pine. To Aldon, it looked like someone had smashed together about eight sets of gallows. Most of the guards were assembled shoulder-to-shoulder in the front of the stage, uniform in stance down to the manner in which their rifles were slung over their shoulders. Others were busy separating the inmates into color-coded groups; green for the writers, red for the painters, white for musicians, blue for sculptors, and so on. The throngs of prisoners were a riot of color, surrounded by drab gray structures and hemmed in by a line of black SS men.
"That's the ugliest chorus line I've ever seen! I want my two reichsmarks back!"
The mysterious voice was back, calling somewhere from the crowd. The accent was strange, though familiar to Aldon. Where had she had heard that voice before? The guards separating the prisoners scowled, surveying the crowd in vain for the heckler. After several moments of searching, they went back to their tasks.
Aldon stood in a crowd of other blue-clad sculptors. This is a travesty, she thought, I'm a multi-media artist. Lumping me in with just sculptors.
She looked back over the crowd. That voice. She was still missing something about it, but she knew enough to recognize it as belonging to a New Yorker. She thought back to Werner's two-bit ritual. She kept searching the crowd. A loudspeaker from the stage called everyone's attention forward.
"Willkommen, my friends!" called a high, insistent voice. A small man with a pencil-thin mustache and slick, pomaded hair took the stage, carrying a large microphone. The freshly pressed tuxedo sporting a blood-red party armband may have seemed out of place, but what stood out to Aldon was the pancake makeup and rouge outlining the man's facial features.
"Oh, how delightful! Look at you all, assembled and sorted! It's like being back on the set!" The man punctuated his remarks with a bout of extended giggling at some internal joke.
Aldon squinted. She recognized Max von Gruben, the German silent film star of the early 20s. He was still wearing the same makeup from Der Schüler. God that movie was terrible. His career vanished with the introduction of sound, and she now understood why. His high-pitched, nasal voice set her teeth on edge. From the looks of things, though, that may not have been the only impediment to Herr Gruben's continued work.
"Now, I know what you are all thinking. 'Why must I be persecuted for my art,' blah blah blah, ja ja ja. But we are here, not to imprison you, but to educate you on what art truly is!" Gruben giggled to himself once more. He strutted across the stage, behind the row of SS guards, walking the ramparts of an absurd human castle.
"I shall tell you what art is not. It is not the subversive doggerel."
The white-clad prisoners mumbled grumpily, though not too loudly.
"It is not ghastly paintings of twisted-up people, who don't even look like people."
Gruben kept strutting, stopping in front of Aldon's knot of blue sculptors. He seemed to fix his painted, purple-shaded gaze directly on her. He jabbed at the air, slowly, for emphasis.
"And, it is most definitely. Not. An ambulatory phallus. That ejaculates spoiled milk in the presence of party officials."
The guards, seemingly anticipating this remark, tightened their grips on their truncheons and rifles. Aldon bit her cheek in attempt to not burst out laughing. Others were apparently having the same problem. Her greatest work, recognized. She was equal portions pride and restrained hilarity.
"We have brought you all here for a single purpose. Would anyone here care to guess what it is?"
A silence fell on the gathering of artists, momentary mirth quickly forgotten. Every one of them had had time to speculate on what fate awaited them. Every one of them had come to the same answer.
"To witness the holy matrimony between Hitler and his mother?"
Gruben scowled at the heckler's interruption, seeming to come from a different part of the crowd than before. Silently, he dispatched two guards into the crowd with a flick of his wrist. He put the ersatz smile back on, and resumed.
"You, the corrupted potential of the Reich, are to be rehabilitated! You shall put on a grand production, the likes of which never attempted before, to show the world the power and strength of our Führer's vision! A tremendous spectacle we shall make, a worthy use for your misguided talents!"
The silence seemed to only grow more ominous. They were going to make them put on a Nazi propaganda play? Horror gripped Aldon, the only thing worse than death now confronting her; enforced tackiness.
"What, did you think we were going to kill you? How dreadfully boring! No, we have much better, more efficient uses for all of you! This camp shall be a marvel, a testament to the triumph of our Führer's values!"
A slight, spindly man stepped out in front of the white-uniformed writer's contingent. He raised his expressionless face to Gruben. It was Bartleby, the quiet, unassuming poet of Aldon's group. Bartleby's voice was surprisingly loud and resonant for such a small man, audible to everyone in the courtyard.
"I would prefer not to."
Gruben scowled once more. "You would…prefer not to?" His voice trailed off into disbelief.
Bartleby remained where he stood. "I would prefer not to."
"I see. I am afraid we will have to make things quite dreadfully boring for you if you do not wish to join this effort."
Still expressionless, still resolute, Bartleby replied once more. "I would prefer not to."
The two guards, previously dispatched to find the phantom heckler, now descended upon Bartleby, grabbing him roughly by the shoulders and leading him off out of view and to a different part of the camp. Aldon immediately started to follow after her friend, silent while a number of high-impact curses and expletives churned in her mind and competed to see which would be the first to fly forth, before she felt a hand catch her arm and pull her back. She rounded quickly on a dark-haired man, eyes heavy-lidded behind a set of round glasses, his finger to his pursed lips.
"Shhhhh. You'll interrupt the show for these nice folks."
Through the confusion, surprise and anger, Aldon recognized the voice. It was the heckler! How had he managed to make his way over here without being noticed?
Aldon lowered her voice to a whisper. "But they're going to kill him!"
"Not yet they won't. They like to do things real by-the-book, these guys. Whatever ones they haven't burned yet, anyway. Your friend is real brave, he should be fine till we can spring him."
Aldon kept studying the heckler's face. There was something familiar about him. "Brave? But he always says that! Do you know what his latest collection of poems is called? "I Would Prefer Not To"! He's going to get himself killed before- wait, what do you mean when we spring him?"
"You're the lady that makes the moving putz statues, right?"
"Um, I, uh, yeah. Why?"
A wry twinkle crept into the heckler's deadpan face as gave Aldon a quick once-over. "You know, speaking of moving-"
"Ugh, stop, just stop." Gruben had started yammering again in the background. Aldon checked around to see if anyone was noticing this conversation. So far, no one had. "Tell me. What the hell is going on here?"
"You do some unusual stuff, lady. So unusual that certain bigwigs have noticed and decided to pull your little menagerie out of the cage here."
"Why'd they send you? You don't look like a soldier."
"Really? That's a relief, I'll tell that to the fella at the draft board when I get home. I'd hate to get sent over to a place like this."
Aldon sighed. "Is there anyone else coming?"
The heckler stroked his chin. "You got any friends that aren't jailbirds?"
"Ugh. You really don't have any sort of plan, do you?"
"Not at all, plans get you put into prison camps around this neighborhood."
Aldon shook her head. "These bigwigs you were talking about earlier. Who are they?"
"The kind that can get a guy out of a studio contract. So I dunno? God, maybe? I don't think he's got good enough lawyers, though."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"That makes two of us sweetheart. Now, if you'll excuse me a moment." The heckler waggled his eyebrows slightly, and cupped his hands to his mouth. "Get a load of this," he said to Aldon.
A voice suddenly called out from somewhere among the assembled guards on the stage. "Whatever it is, I'm against it!" Gruben stopped dead in the middle of his harangue, the guards suddenly turning their glowers and gazes on one another. Confusion erupted as the heckler's voice somehow kept emanating from within the fray on the stage. "Your proposition may be good, but let's have one thing understood, whatever it is, I'm against it," he sang out to the increasing fury of the camp guards. The scene devolved into chaos, as the stage was now a roiling mass of black clad guards, barking accusations at one another and jostling Gruben repeatedly. All eyes were now on the stage, which had turned against all odds into the scene of something of genuine interest.
"There, that ought to buy us a little more privacy for a few minutes."
Aldon had heard that song before. She thought back to a movie house in Krakow…no. It couldn't possibly.
"How…how did you do that?"
"Old vaudeville trick, sweetheart." The heckler began removing his blue uniform, a red one now showing underneath. "Now, let's talk about getting your little group out of here."
"Wait. This seems fishy. How do I know I can trust you?
At this statement, the heckler produced from his back pocket a small tin of black greasepaint. He dabbed some on his finger, and with slow, precise movements, painted two thick black lines over his eyebrows. Then he applied another across his upper lip.
Aldon gaped. Things clicked into place suddenly as she looked at the man's exaggerated new mustache and eyebrows, recognition striking her like a lightning bolt.
He put his glasses back on. "Is this the face of someone looking to pull a scam?"
The young artist stammered. "You're…you're…" She stopped. She narrowed her eyes. "American."
"What gave it away sugar, the posh accent?"
The members of the Weimar Artisans knew that nothing made Aldon happier than some act of insane troublemaking, usually ending with a sudden relocation of wherever their headquarters happened to be at the time, minutes ahead of the authorities. A huge smile began to appear on her face.
"I think I have a plan instead. To get all of us out of here."
The heckler pulled a crisp new cigar out from his sleeve, bit the end, and thoughtfully put it in his mouth, preparing to light it with a clandestine Zippo. "I'm listening."