The smell depressed him the most.
Rein Werner swiped a yellow-stained cloth across the grimy counter of his dead brother’s bar and tried to block out the dispiriting stench. Wooden casks, far past their prime, rose in an unwieldy stack in the alcove behind him, stinking of decay. The sagging boards beneath his feet, sodden day after day with spilled beer, tobacco spittle, and worse, emitted a sour cloud of odor, no matter how hard he scrubbed at them after closing.
During daylight hours, he liked to throw open the windows and let the golden springtime light flood in, painting stripes across the loathsome floorboards like healing swaths of antiseptic. The breeze fluttered the coarse muslin curtains and tinkled the windchimes so treasured by his bereaved sister-in-law, temporarily lifting and carrying away the dismal smell.
At such times, Rein could almost forget the crumbling state of his world. The simple pleasures in life were still within his grasp—a pleasing book, a glass of wine, Brötchen spread with jam, though butter was now out of the question. While the sun shone through the open windows, this could almost be enough.
But now it was night.
The hour grew late and only two customers remained in the malodorous bar. A crabbed old man slumped in a corner, muttering to himself, nursing the last of a large stein of beer. Perched at the counter, a younger man in workman’s clothes wiped the grease from his plate of fried potatoes with a slice of brown bread. He finished his glass of Pschorr ale and signaled Rein for another.
“Closing time, I’m afraid,” Rein told him, collecting the empty plate and clanking it down behind the bar.
The man nodded amiably, but his words disagreed. “Draw me another, and one for yourself,” he said. “We’ve got something to talk about.”
Rein’s pulse quickened. He eyed the man’s rough clothes and scruffy appearance, the slightly pudgy fingers and soft jawline. This was no brown-shirted Storm Trooper. More likely, one of the vast networks of informers spreading over his beloved homeland like a poisonous web.
“I don’t know you,” he said, “and I’ve got nothing to say to you except Gute Nacht.”
“I am called Dimas Klossner, and I know you, Rein Werner. I know you were exceedingly good at your job in the Kripo, taking many dangerous criminals off the streets of Bavaria. And how do the fine leaders of our police force repay you?”
He pushed his beer glass closer to Rein’s elbow, now resting on the pitted countertop. “They remove you from the payroll. A disgraceful mistake on their part, but a boon perhaps for me. I have a business proposition.”
Rein took the glass in his hands, staring into the amber pool at its bottom and debating whether to hear the man’s offer or show him the door. Before he could decide, the man spoke again.
“Ach, I sympathize with your position. Half of Germany is currently unemployed and though we have new money now—fresh, crisp Rentenmarks—no one has enough of it. Except the politicians.”
A tiny flame ignited in the pit of Rein’s stomach, sending tendrils of heat into his chest, spreading up his neck. “Get out of my bar,” he said, keeping his voice quiet, controlled. “I don’t know you. Nazi or Bolshevik, I don’t care. Leave now.”
“But no, my friend. That would mean a missed opportunity for you. What do you know about Moses Pinkeles?”
“Nothing whatever. Get out!”
“Moses Pinkeles is a wealthy Jew who financed the purchase of the Munich newspaper now known as The People’s Observer. It is a political mouthpiece.”
Rein gritted his teeth, tightening his hands on the beer glass until he was afraid it might shatter. “And why should this matter to me?” he growled.
“It matters,” Dimas Klossner said, “because Moses Pinkeles doesn’t exist.”
He reached out a hand, grasping Rein’s shoulder in a friendly manner and grinning impishly.
“But his room full of gold bars does.”
Rein drew a deep breath of musty, beer-stained air and rang a brass bell beneath the counter, signifying the close of business. The mumbling man from the corner shuffled across the barroom floor, shooting Rein a malevolent look from beneath a set of grizzled brows as he passed over the threshold and into the night.