By: Keith Kappes
for Carter County Times
(AUTHOR’S NOTE – Welcome to the first chapter of “In the Shadow of War”, a novel I wrote over the last three years. Some national book publishers have rejected this exciting, 40-chapter love story about an unlikely couple thrown together as World War II is about to erupt in Europe. I invite you to read this chapter and give me your feedback on whether or not you would consider buying a paperback book with the entire story. Please send your response to me at email@example.com. Thanks in advance for your help in this market research experiment. Please be as candid as you choose.)
No question about it, Joshua Harlan Stebbins III was perplexed.
He simply didn’t understand how a rich, smart, good-looking, young American writer like him had been in Europe for two weeks without persuading at least one beautiful woman to be his companion.
If his Sigma Chi fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt University found out about it, they might revoke his nickname as the “Sweetgum Stud”.
But today would be different as he waited for an open chair at the Café Tulip. While lighting his pipe, he noticed a young woman with her head down on a table, sitting alone. Her body was trembling.
He reached for his handkerchief just as any Southern gentleman would do. He dropped his book satchel at her feet and offered the handkerchief.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he whispered in his best Tennessee drawl. “Can I help you? You seem to be upset. Please let me help you.”
It was a warm, sunny day across Central Europe. The sidewalk café beside the Tulip House Hotel was crowded. The Danube River flowed gently a few yards away from the Old Town section of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.
Standing regally above Old Town was Bratislava Castle with its red-roofed towers reaching skyward from the gleaming white stone walls.
A discarded newspaper on the pavement rippled in the breeze. The dateline of the tattered paper showed May 1, 1939.
To this moment, no one else seemed to have noticed the distraught woman Josh was trying to help. She was dressed stylishly, like most of the other patrons. The Tulip Café was known for its wealthy clientele.
But she brushed the stranger’s hand aside without looking up. And began to speak to him in English with a slight German accent.
Her words were not clear. Her speech was slurred. She looked up at him with teary, bloodshot eyes. Her face was flushed and puffy. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“Leave me alone,” she whimpered. “I’m not worthy of your help. My life is over. Please go away.”
Her voice faded to a whisper as her head fell back onto the table, knocking her empty wine glass to the cobblestones below.
Patrons at the other tables turned their heads at the sound of breaking glass. A nearby waiter started walking toward them.
The young man quickly seated himself at her table and laid his hand tenderly on her shoulder. The waiter was red-faced and angry as he reached the couple. He spoke in a demanding voice.
“Was geschieht hier? Quel est le problème?”
The young man quickly responded.
“I know you just asked me something in German and in French. Can you ask it again in English?
The waiter paused then smiled as he recognized Joshua Stebbins, the handsome young American writer who lived in the hotel basement, a converted wine cellar. Tanned and well-muscled, he seemed confident and experienced.
The waiter replied in perfect English but in a lower voice.
“Herr Stebbins, I didn’t realize it was you. Is there a problem with your friend? She’s been sitting here all afternoon. She drank most of two bottles of wine before her money ran out. The café manager has been watching her. May I be of assistance?”
“Thank you…it’s Bernhard, isn’t it?”, Josh said with a sigh of relief. “I’ve heard the staff say you are the best waiter at this hotel. I don’t know this woman, but she needs our help.”
Flattered by the young American’s words, the stocky, bearded waiter walked closer and spoke quietly as the woman stirred and started to raise her head from the table.
“I will bring the fraulein some coffee. She can’t sleep here or disturb the other guests. I will tell the manager she is one of your students from the University…and that you are responsible for her.”
Bernhard began to walk away before Josh could protest. As he looked around Café Tulip at the other well-dressed patrons, Josh began to feel uncomfortable. He offered to help this stranger, but she refused him. Should he just walk away? He looked at the woman and turned back to Bernhard.
“Thank you. I’ll try to get her back on her feet. But she wasn’t too friendly when I first offered to help.”
The woman finally sat up, quietly staring at the river, trying to regain her composure. She avoided looking directly at the handsome but uninvited guest at her table. Finally, she spoke.
“Warum helfen sie mir?”
Josh shook his head and reached for his German-English dictionary. Before he could open it, she spoke again, this time in English.
“I asked why are you helping me? Am I not a stranger to you?”
Tears began pooling in her eyes as Josh leaned over to push the dark, matted hair away from her face. This time she accepted his handkerchief.
The coffee arrived and he poured her a cup. Before she could turn away again, he gently touched her trembling arm and spoke in low, soothing tones.
“I grew up in Tennessee in the States. My mama would be mad as the dickens if she ever found out that I didn’t help someone in trouble, especially a lady. I don’t want to meddle in your life but I am curious about why a beautiful woman like you would be so upset and say her life was over.”
A faint smile crossed the woman’s lips as she responded.
“If you knew the truth about me, you would leave and never look back. I am not a good person. I married a man for his money and now I have nothing. No family. No money. No place to go. Nothing.”
Josh was shocked by her candor. His mind raced with questions about this mysterious woman. She was not as young as he first thought but close enough for him. She was tall and slender, his favorite body type.
Elsa, at 29, was a few years older, but seemed to respond to his energy and enthusiasm.
In turn, he could feel a growing physical curiosity about her. He was handy with the ladies back home and hoped his time in Europe would be more of the same. He was determined to learn more about this woman.
“I must go back to the University within the hour. May I escort you to wherever you live?”
Again, her eyes brimmed with tears.
“No. You don’t understand. I am destitute. Hotel Central is holding my luggage because I couldn’t pay for my room. The Polizei will take me into custody and send me back to Germany because my name is on the list.”
Josh recognized “Polizei” as “police” in German. Was she a fugitive from justice? His writer’s instincts were taking over. Who is she? What is her story? He had to know more. He gently squeezed her hand.
“What list?” he asked.
Now it was her turn to be surprised. Did this young American not realize what was happening in Europe?
She hesitated, then answered.
“It is the list of Jews living in Czechoslovakia. This used to be a German city called Pressburg and the Nazis intend to reclaim it for the Third Reich, much like they did to Austria this spring with Anschluss.”
Josh wasn’t sure what that last word meant. His facial expression said so and he blurted out the obvious question.
“That’s what they call the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany,” Elsa said. “It happened three months ago.”
Her words suddenly came in torrents.
“Too bad for me I married a Jew and must always be Jewish and not Aryan. My name is Elsa Muller and I am Catholic but not to the Nazis. They have my picture on wanted criminal posters in this area.”
Her voice grew more frantic.
“To them, I will always be Frau Bleiberg, wife of the Jew merchant, Jakob Bleiberg, my divorced and very dead husband, the man I hated but had to marry to support my mother and brother. If they find me, I know they’ll take me to one of those camps. I’ve heard what happens there to Jews and gypsies.”
She pulled Josh closer and whispered.
“I’ll kill myself before I let them take me.”
At first, Josh was taken aback by the sheer power of her vow never to be taken alive. For a fleeting moment, he thought it would be a great line of dialogue for one of his future novels.
He leaned back and closely watched her, admiring both her courage and her nicely proportioned body. Later, he would learn, much to his delight, that she had been a standout athlete which left her with very well-developed muscle tone.
Elsa, too, found herself becoming more and more intrigued by this friendly, courteous newcomer with killer blue eyes, blond hair, and a chin dimple. At six feet tall and well-muscled, he might offer her refuge and protection from her pursuers. At this point, she really had no other options.
She was flat broke and had only one bargaining chip left… herself.