Authors: James Rouch
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Men's Adventure
The police HQ had to be retaken quickly. Every weapon and every round the Special Combat Company could lay hands on was going to be needed in this fight.
The sniper fire from the area of the Karlstor Gate forced on Revell the decision to detour through the Stachus underground shopping, mall. They lost two men in the dash from cover to the nearest of the pedestrian ramps.
It sloped gently. The textured non-slip surface rasped beneath their shuffling feet as they edged down towards the entrance.
Revell kept a grip on the handrail, straining his eyes to make sense of the shapes that loomed ahead. He could hear a growing noise, like a magnified restless murmur.
“What's the hold-up?”
At the bottom of the ramp, the major caught up with Carrington and the scout section. The corporal was in a heated argument - conducted in hushed undertones - with an armed civilian wearing an auxiliary-police armband.
By the faint illumination of a well-shielded flashlight, Revell saw the German energetically shaking his head. While he did so, he managed to keep a rifle levelled at them, blocking the way through the heavy blackout curtain.
“This old fool says we can't go in. He says the place isn't an authorized shelter, and it's his job to keep everybody out. Shall I knock him down?” Carrington edged closer to the man as he asked.
Sensing rather than seeing her beside him, Revell told Andrea to speak to the sentry. “Tell him we know it's not a shelter. We don't want to stay in there, we simply want to cut through to reach the gunmen.”
Though she spoke too fast for Revell to catch all that she said, he knew she was putting the point across more brutally than he had dictated. The German took a nervous step back, but still kept the weapon aimed. He was opening his mouth to speak, when a fist caught him on the side of the face. His head cracked hard against the tiled wall, and he went down without uttering a sound.
Carrington caught the rifle as it fell. He rubbed his knuckles. “Boney little runt. I could have hurt my hand.”
“Keep the rifle. Search him for ammunition.” Revell took hold of the corner of the screening material. “Pass the word for every one to keep their wits about them. This place may be deserted, but it's like a rabbit warren. I've gotten lost when the lights were on.”
Pushing through, Revell led the way into the complex of stores, and into a scene that could have come straight from a horror movie.
By the faintly glowing emergency lighting, he could see that every inch of floor space was occupied. Families and individuals sat or lay or slumped, as space about them dictated.
The air was hot, and stale with cigarette smoke and the reek of lager, vomit, and urine. Close inside the entrance, the floor was slippery with blood, and several imperfectly shrouded bodies lay there.
In a nearby corner two men were propped against a poster-decorated wall. Improvised bandages swathed their bare chests and supported their smashed jaws. Both were moaning and whimpering in pain.
The strangely sibilant sound that Revell had been only partially aware of, now grew in volume as the huddled masses of civilians recognized the newcomers.
From one woman came shrieks of fear as she mistook the NATO battle dress and weapons for Russian. Others hissed her to a sobbing silence.
“What the bloody hell was that old fool on about, not letting anyone in.” Sergeant Hyde surveyed the crowd. “There must be thousands here.”
“But they didn't get in through his entrance.” It was a peculiar mentality that Revell had encountered before in West Germany. It seemed to be compounded of devotion to the rule book and pigheaded stubbornness.
As they moved forward, they were bombarded with questions and pleas from all sides. Further in, the press about them became worse, and Revell had to call Dooley up to the point, to force a way through.
In the confined space the hubbub grew to a head-aching din that nothing could quiet. The plate glass storefronts and their bright goods reflected such slight il- lumination as there was, mostly from ornate candles looted from a gift counter. Their flicker gave faces a spectral appearance that deepened the lines of worry and fear they displayed.
From a distant recess came singing and shouting, discordant and guttural. The blare of a portable cassette player carried clearly, but failed to drown the calls and pleas of the mob.
A beer can rolled away from Hyde's boots, to be instantly trampled flat by the crush. “It'll only take a fight among a handful of drunks to start a rush for the exits. Where the hell are the police?”
They passed an entrance to a subway. Surrounding it was a scrum of struggling people packed so tightly most could hardly move. Everyone who had seen what a death trap the shallow glass-filled mall would be in an air raid was trying to reach the greater safety of the rapid transit system.
Several caught among the throng looked terrified. Their eyes bulged, all colour had drained from their faces. Hyde was reminded of the appearance of the bodies he'd seen hauled from the tangle of dead at the other subway entrance.
Even as he noted the similarity, he saw a tall blonde woman in the middle of the crowd close her eyes and loll against those about her. As the mass shuffled and surged back and forth, she sank gradually lower until she was lost from sight.
There was nothing he could do. It would have taken the united efforts of the whole company to bring some degree of order to the mad scramble. The odd one or two at the back who did give up were instantly replaced by others prepared to try.
He didn't like to think what it would be like lower down, in the passageways and on the stalled escalators. On the platforms, furious fights would be taking place as those already safe resisted the efforts of others to replace them.
The flashlight beam moved on to fresh scenes as they skirted the heaving jam of people. With every step they took, hands reached out of the crowd to try to detain them. It was as though their owners hoped to pluck answers to a hundred different questions from their sleeves.
Many of the accompanying voices conveyed anger, others terror. The majority had a sharp hysterical edge. None were satisfied, and they tried the same interroga- tion of one soldier after another as they filed past.
Twice Revell located exits, to find below them dead and-dying who had already tried - and failed - to leave by those routes. Everywhere the Russian snipers appeared to be waiting.
It was Garrett who discovered a service stairway, when he stepped aside to search the scattered cartons of a kiosk in the hope of finding a candy bar.
A padlocked steel grill barred their path. It did not resist their combined efforts for long. A hinge twisted and tore from the frame with a gunshot like crack. Quelling the local panic it created took several anxious moments.
The staircase spiralled as it climbed steeply. Revell could hear the quiet cursing of the men behind him, as he followed the silently moving scout section.
“So where the hell are we?” First to reach the head of the stairs, Ripper looked out into the narrow service road it connected with. He crouched low, using the cover of a stack of empty crates.
Carrington joined him. The rear of a building further along looked vaguely familiar.
“If that's the rear of the multi-storey car park that I think it is, then we're in the same block as the puppet theatre. That's a bit north of Karlstor Gate. Looks like we've had a slice of luck, and come out in the right place.”
“And since when have you been into marionettes, Corporal?” Garrett pushed the machine gun out through the door and sighted it in the direction of the Stachus. “Thought you liked more grownup entertainments than that.”
Ripper dived across the alleyway and into the concealment of wheeled garbage bins on the far side.
“Spent the week with a girl who's got a couple of kids.” Carrington waited to see if there was any reaction, before waving Ripper to move on cautiously. “So most of the days we spent as a foursome, didn't we.”
“Sounds fun.” Garrett thought of his own seven days. It had been a week of restless drifting from one tatty hotel to another, hoping to pick up a girl, anybody. He'd wandered the streets in the evenings until he'd got fed up. To dull the boredom he'd look for oblivion in the nearest cheap bar, and usually find it. Shit, any week had to be more fun than that. Even having a couple of brats in tow had to be more fun.
“Have you orientated yourself, Corporal?” “I know the area, Major. Been dragged this way on a couple of shopping expeditions recently.”
“Right, then get us to St. Michael's Church. We'll want to get in the back way, not off the pedestrian precinct. You know it?”
“Opposite the police station? Big fat block of a building. Loads of statues all over the front.”
“What if the Reds are inside?”
“I don't think they will be. They're spread thin on the ground. If they are holding the police HQ, then I can't see them also holding the place virtually next to it. They might be in the twin towers of the cathedral on the far side though, so keep us out of the line of sight of those.”
Revell watched the scouts move out. He allowed an interval, and then fed the rest of the company through the doorway after them.
When Sgt. Hyde came up with the rearguard, some civilians were already close behind them and had to be held back.
For a brief moment the major tried to remonstrate with their leaders, but it was no use. About twenty dashed off in either direction as soon as their exit was no longer obstructed.
“Poor bloody fools.” Hyde shouldered his machine pistol. “It wasn't nice down there, but it's got to be safer than running about up here.”
As he spoke, the first of the civilians who had gone that way reached the junction of the alleyway and the broad open space before the Karlstor Gate. Shots and screams blended as they were mowed down.
Swirling clouds of white tear gas issued from the broken windows of the police headquarters. From the upper floors and rooftops of surrounding buildings came shotgun blasts that shattered more panes. After each would come another shower of the canisters. They would burst and fill yet another room or staircase with their choking fumes.
Dislodged and torn blackout curtains let light escape, forming a series of pearly halos. A few rounds missed their goals. Those grenades rolled in the gutter, wreathing the ground floor and roadway in the chemical fog, adding to the ghostly effect.
There had been a smattering of returned fire to the initial assault. It had petered out in the absence of identifiable targets, fallen to no more than an occasional random shot.
Leading the first attack group, Hyde rushed his men from the church, through the thickest of the smoke screen and into a small courtyard. Several police vehicles were parked there. They took cover among them.
Above the archway by which they had entered, and on the other three sides of the enclosure, the building rose to three or four floors. All windows at ground level were barred. Many had frosted glass.
Several doors led off the courtyard. Tentatively tried, all were found to be locked or barricaded.
Looking back, Hyde saw Revell's assault group racing through the open gates. There wasn't going to be sufficient concealment for all of them in the confined space. If they were spotted, it would be instantly turned into a killing ground.
Straight ahead was the heavy double door the major had briefed him about. He waved Ripper and Ackerman forward.
Standing braced to either side of the large cast-brass handles, both men fired together. Smoke and splinters flew thickly about them as they fired twice more.
A combined shoulder charge by Dooley and Burke caved in the shattered timber. They threw themselves flat as blasts of automatic fire were sent up the corridor running away to left and right.
The respirator keeping out the effects of the gas didn't mask the smell of the gun smoke as Revell moved quickly inside. Not much of the irritant had yet found its way to this quarter of the building.
He knew the armoury was on the top floor. The cloud of gas would grow thicker as they moved upwards and towards the front of the building. That was where the brunt of the barrage was taking place.
After the hours of darkness, it seemed strangely unreal to be in a well-lit building. Holding up his hand for silence, Revell listened for any clue to the whereabouts or the approach of the Russians. There was only the sound of his own breathing, muted by the filtering mask over his face.
Pausing only to let those men who would accompany him reload, the major moved onward. The building was an enormous maze. If he posted men to guard every intersecting corridor, then before he was on the third floor, he'd be on his own. The alternative was to search every room as they went. There was not the time nor the manpower to do that.
Finding the short flight of stairs that he'd been looking for, Revell started up. At its top, glass double doors opened into a broad passageway that ran the length of the building. He knew it would be covered.
Try as he could, he couldn't remember which way the doors opened - inwards towards the stairs or out into the corridor. He was scrutinizing them, endeavouring to judge, by the way the hinges were mounted, when he noticed the gap between them.
Visible for only a tiny fraction of its length, a filament of fire wire bridged the gap on the side away from him. Signalling the others back, Revell edged down the stairs until the barrel of his pump gun rested on the top tread. He lined it up, ducked low, and squeezed the trigger.
The report of the firing was drowned by the roar of the detonating booby-trap grenade as the doors burst open. A mad hail of glass, wood, and plaster smothered them. Before it had begun to settle, Revell was leading his men through the wreckage.
No shots came, and they crouched low, hugging the walls as they waited for the smoke to clear. It did so to reveal two bodies. Both - a man and a woman - were in police uniforms.
The woman's was close enough for Ripper to reach out and touch. Cautiously he rolled the body over. Dust from the explosion failed to hide the closely spaced holes across face and neck.