JSA and all related characters and elements © DC Comics
Rolf Steiner drew a last nervous puff on his cigarette before flicking the butt into the black, oily water of the Nord-Ostee-Kanal. The port at the mouth of the north German shipping canal in Kiel, which connected the Baltic with the Northern Sea some one hundred kilometers to the west, was, in the daylight hours, a bustling and heavily trafficked place.
After dark was another story. Now, in the dead of night, it was deserted and just plain scary.
This was a mistake, he thought. He never should have agreed to meet all alone like this. Who, outside of characters in bad espionage movies, arranged secret waterfront meetings at 3:30 in the morning?
Well, the dark haired man told himself, patting his overcoat pocket for reassurance, maybe it wasn’t only spies. People with contraband to sell also had to play like spies, better safe than sorry.
Except how safe was it to agree to these conditions, suggested by a stranger he knew only from an internet bulletin board and e-mails?
And a stranger interested in this sort of stuff, at that. A stranger who had seen Rolf’s posting on a site dedicated to such things. What kind of sick mind thought this stuff was cool anyway? He thought the whole fascination with the subject and its memorabilia was warped, yet it was all around, even here in Germany where you would think people knew better.
Rolf had learned at an early age to keep his own familial connection to the Nazis to himself. He was less than proud of the Steiner family history, and when anybody asked about his grandfather, he would say only he had never known the man, that he died in the war, thirty years before Rolf was born. Which was true, more or less. So what if he fudged the dates and omitted a few salient details? Yes, it was true that his grandfather Hermann Steiner had died a long time ago, though not exactly during the war. More like in 1947. In a Communist prison in East Germany, a result of the role he had played in the war.
The only reason Rolf even had the damned thing in his possession to begin with was because his father had hung onto it in the belief it might one day prove valuable. Which, as it turned out, it had. Still, if Rolf hadn’t been in need of money since losing his bartending job in Hamburg two months ago, he never would have even thought of going online to investigate its worth in the first place. Lord knows, there were more than enough internet sites dedicated to the Nazis. He had received over three hundred e-mails responding to his inquiry, most of them frightening in their adoration of Hitler and the Nazis. On the one hand, he felt the damned thing was cursed and hated to feed some Aryan sicko’s diseased interest. On the other, had he known what he would be offered for it, he might have done this a lot sooner.
Rolf pulled the red and white pack of West cigarettes from his pocket and lipped a fresh one from the crumbled package. He looked at his watch. The man, this Isaac, was due in just a few minutes and, for the umpteenth time that night, Rolf hoped he was doing the right thing.
“You are Rolf?”
The voice, speaking in accented German, came from the shadows of a stack of cargo containers piled on the edge of the canal, scaring the hell out of Rolf. The cigarette dropped from his mouth and he took a step backwards.
“Who...,” Rolf stammered. “Isaac?”
“Yes, I am Isaac.”
Isaac shuffled out of the shadows and into the meager lights that illuminated the waters edge.
Rolf almost laughed out loud in relief. Isaac was an old man, seventy-five or eighty years old if he was a day. He had once been a tall man, over six feet Rolf guessed, but time and age had bent his back. The white hair that framed his narrow bony face was long, combed straight back to hang below the collar of his black overcoat. His hands, when he took them from his pockets as he approached Rolf, were gnarled and twisted by arthritis.
There was nothing to be afraid of here, Rolf thought. He bent and retrieved his fallen cigarette, lighting it with deliberate nonchalance, as if to compensate for his earlier show of fear.
“It is good to meet you,” Rolf said.
“Yes,” Isaac said in German. “Do you speak English?”
Rolf nodded. “Yes,” he said, switching to English. “Enough, if it will make you more comfortable.”
The old man shrugged. “I just want to be sure there’s no misunderstanding.”
The unemployed bartender smiled. “As long as you can translate dollars into euros, there will be no problems. Your accent... you are American?”
Isaac ignored the question and said, “Do you have it?”
This one was all business, Rolf thought. He pulled the cloth-wrapped bundle from his pocket. Very well, two can play at that game. “Yes. Do you have the money?”
Isaac held out a gnarled hand. “May I?”
The corner of the old man’s mouth twitched. His breath became labored and his gnarled hands trembled as he carefully unrolled the rough, crumbling burlap that surrounded the object. Rolf felt a twinge of revulsion at the almost sexual reaction the nearness of this thing seemed to bring about in the other man. These people truly are mentally ill, he thought. Let’s just finish this as fast as possible and get out of here, Rolf thought.
Isaac gingerly pulled the object from its wrapping and held it up to catch the light from the nearest lamppost. As always when he looked at it, Rolf was struck by the sheer ordinariness of it: a hunk of wood, maybe half a meter long and roughly turned to a thickness of less than four centimeters, jagged at both ends where it was broken off from a larger whole. It was chipped with age and the tattered remnant of some dried, cracked leather binding hung from one end.
Just a hunk of wood.
But a hunk of wood with a provenance.
“Tell me again,” Isaac said, licking his lips. “How did this come into your possession?”
“It was all in my e-mails...”
“Tell me again!” the old man repeated, louder this time, waving the stick in one twisted fist.
“Calm down,” Rolf said, further repelled by Isaac’s vehemence. He liked nothing about this man or their business together. “My grandfather was Oberleutenant Hermann Otto Steiner. He was an SS officer who served on Hitler’s personal staff at the end of the war... I brought his service papers with me, in case you need proof of his record.”
Isaac waved this aside, “Yes, yes, later. Go on.”
“Well, Hermann disappeared for almost a month after the fall of Berlin. My father said everyone believed he had died with Hitler in his bunker, but, he returned home to Bremen by the end of May, 1945. He would not say where he had been and he had with him this... item, which he said had been a piece of Hitler’s own walking stick. My grandmother wanted to burn it, but he wouldn’t allow it.”
Rolf shook his head in disbelief. “Grandfather was apparently a believer until the end. Until after the end. At any rate, he hid it away while making plans to escape with his family from Germany. I believe the idea was to go to South America and join other escaped Nazis. But Bremen was, of course, in the Soviet sector and the Russians were on the lookout for men such as him. He was arrested and died in prison some time later. After my grandmother’s death in 1992, my father was cleaning out her house and found the walking stick hidden in the basement where it had been since 1945. He kept it and, just before he died of cancer three years ago, passed it on to me.”
Isaac smiled. “So it’s been in your family’s possession since 1945?”
“Yes. I cannot vouch for my grandfather’s story of its origins, but I can assure you it is the same item that he brought home.”
“That’s good,” Isaac muttered, nodding and stroking the old piece of wood. “That’s excellent.”
“So,” Rolf said. “We have a deal, yes?”
“Indeed we do,” the old man said. “This is exactly what we’ve been searching for.”
Isaac’s eyes danced with light, his aged face creased in a smile. “My friends and I.”
The younger man didn’t care to know anything about this strange old bird, but he could tell Isaac was just waiting for him to ask the question, so he said, “You are some sort of group? A club?”
“A society,” Isaac said, and reached into his pocket.
“Well, good. I am pleased this goes to people who will appreciate it. So, the price we agreed upon was, I believe, 10,000 euros?”
“That’s what we agreed on, yes. But now that I see it, I think it’s worth far, far more than that.”
Rolf blinked in surprise and confusion. “Yes?” If what he said was true, why in the world would the silly old man talk himself out of a bargain?
“Oh, yes, I’d go so far as to say it’s priceless.”
Isaac’s hand came out of his pocket. He fired a single shot into Rolf’s forehead from the silenced nine millimeter pistol gripped in his fist. The younger man went down as the back of his skull exploded in a grisly spray of blood and brain matter. He was dead before he hit the ground, before he had could even register what had happened to him.
Isaac pocketed the gun and without another look at his victim, turned and walked back into the shadows, smiling.
“Priceless,” he said to the night.