Parker House’s secret inheritance is either his greatest blessing . . . or his deadliest curse. The fresh-faced North Carolina attorney shares his German grandfather’s uncanny ability to see future events in his mind’s eye—a gift that has haunted 82-year-old Frank House through decades of trying to erase a murderous wartime past.
While Parker navigates the intrigue and politics of small-town courtroom law, Frank is forced to face his darkest regrets. Then, a big career break for Parker collides with a new love he longs to nurture and the nightmares his grandfather can no longer escape. Sudden peril threatens to shatter not only Parker’s legal prospects but also his life and the lives of those dearest to him.
Two witnesses, two paths, an uncertain future.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By ROBERT WHITLOW
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Robert Whitlow
All rights reserved.
Germany-Belgium Border, 1939
Franz Haus entered the small chapel. The dark stone walls were bare, and the windows were narrow slits that hearkened back to the days when archers defended a monastery from military attack. Light from the windows cast sharp, distinct lines on the stone floor. A junior officer in the German Wehrmacht, Franz's high black boots clicked against the floor of the church as he walked slowly down the aisle.
"Hello!" he called out in German.
No one answered, and Franz stepped up to the altar rail that separated the common from the holy. To the left was a wooden pulpit made of dark wood that shone with a deep luster. A massive Bible lay open on a broad table directly across the railing. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure he was alone, Franz opened a small gate in the railing and approached the table. The Holy Book was a work of art with gilted edges. The first letter of each chapter was embellished by fantastic creatures from land and sea. The Bible was open to 2 Kings 6. Franz read the words translated from Hebrew into classic German by Martin Luther. When he reached verses 8 through 12, his heart started beating so hard he thought it might jump out of his chest:
Then the king of Syria warred against Israel, and took counsel with his servants, saying, "In such and such a place shall be my camp." And the man of God sent unto the king of Israel, saying, "Beware that thou pass not such a place; for thither the Syrians are coming down." And the king of Israel sent to the place of which the man of God told him and warned him, and saved himself there, not once nor twice. Therefore the heart of the king of Syria was sore troubled by this thing; and he called his servants and said unto them, "Will ye not show me which of us is for the king of Israel?" And one of his servants said, "None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, telleth the king of Israel the words that thou speakest in thy bedchamber."
Elisha was a witness to what no one else could see, and the prophet's secret knowledge turned the tide of battle for his nation. To reveal the unseen, to protect the fatherland, was a noble calling. Franz put his hand in his pocket and felt the Iron Cross awarded to his grandfather for extraordinary valor during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. This was Franz's hour, his time to step into his destiny.
Turning around, he left the church.
* * *
Southwestern Germany, 1944
There was a sharp knock on the door. Hauptmann Franz Haus hastily folded the letter and slipped it into the inner pocket of his military jacket. He neatly draped the jacket bearing the insignia of a captain over a plain wooden chair.
"Come in," he said crisply.
The door opened, and a soldier entered who looked so much like Franz's younger brother, Wilhelm, that Franz suddenly wondered if he'd stepped into the unseen realm. The soldier's salute and "Heil Hitler" banished any doubt of present reality.
"General Berg will see you in fifteen minutes in the library of the main house, sir. You will then accompany him to the briefing."
"Thank you, Private. You're dismissed."
The soldier didn't move. "He ordered me to accompany you, sir," he continued.
Franz's mouth suddenly went dry. It was his job, not that of his commanding officer, to discern secret thoughts and plans.
"Very well. Please wait outside. I'll be ready in a few minutes."
The soldier turned on his heel. Franz waited until the door closed, then retrieved the letter he had written to his father in Dresden. He read it again. The vision that prompted the words had been clear. In his mind's eye he'd witnessed the horror of the all-consuming flames and could almost feel the searing heat. However, Franz had been mistaken in the past in interpreting what he saw.
Sitting in a simple wooden chair, Franz polished his dress boots with an oily rag and made up his mind. Better to warn of danger and be wrong than to keep silent and bear the guilt of disaster. Seeing the resemblance between the private and Wilhelm strengthened Franz's resolve to act. Overcoming his father's doubts would be as hard as dislodging an entrenched enemy from a well-fortified position, but the last blood Franz wanted on his conscience was that of his family. Perhaps his father would at least discuss the letter with Franz's mother. She would act.
Tossing the rag in the corner of the room, Franz stood and slipped on his jacket. It was not typical military protocol for a twenty-three-year-old without any military pedigree to receive regular access to the commander of an infantry division in a German army group. But Franz was no ordinary soldier. He inspected himself in the handheld mirror that was part of his dopp kit. He kept his light brown hair cut close to his scalp, masking the tight curls his mother had loved since his hair first sprouted. He had a square jaw and clear blue eyes. The ability of those eyes to see what others could not caused General Berg to call him "the Aryan Eagle." Franz hated the label.
A shade under six feet tall with a slender build, Franz rubbed his hands across the front of his uniform. When he did, he noticed a dark spot left from a wine spill the previous day. He didn't worry about the spot. One welcome perk he enjoyed because of General Berg's favor was a pass from close inspection of his appearance or quarters, a privilege that drove Major Deigel, his immediate commander, to red-faced distraction. Deigel may have been Franz's superior on an organizational chart, but not in practice.
Franz opened the door and the private snapped to attention. He followed the soldier down a narrow hallway in the former dormitory of an abandoned school at the edge of the estate. They stepped outside into the sleepy warmth of an early-summer afternoon. Linden, beech, and Norway spruce trees, the same trees that covered the nearby Black Forest, surrounded the buildings. The linden trees were Franz's favorite. On a class trip when he was seven years old, he'd had his picture taken in front of the squat, gnarly trunk of the Kaditzer Linde, the oldest tree in his hometown of Dresden.
"Private, what sort of trees grow where you live?" Franz asked.
The soldier glanced over his shoulder. Outside, he looked even younger — a boy who should be kicking a soccer ball, not carrying a rifle.
"I'm from Kiel, sir. There is a big maple tree in my aunt's yard. It turns bright red in the fall."
Kiel was a major port on the Baltic Sea and home to people with a mix of German and Viking heritage.
"Why didn't you join the navy?" Franz asked.
"I tried to, sir, but I was sent to the army."
"Is this your first assignment?"
"Yes, sir. I arrived last week."
They turned toward the chateau and stepped onto a narrow stone walkway rubbed smooth by years of countless footsteps. Bits of moss peeked from the cracks between the stones. They reached the front door where two guards with machine guns stood on either side of the entrance.
"Thank you, Private," Franz said.
The freshly minted soldier delivered another smart salute and a "Heil Hitler."
Franz casually reciprocated. The young man turned to leave.
"Oh, one other thing," Franz said, causing the soldier to stop and face him.
Franz looked into the private's eyes and knew the young man had not yet seen or smelled death.
"If an opportunity to join another unit in the north comes up, don't accept it, even though it might look like a chance to be closer to home."
The soldier's eyes widened. "My uncle is an oberst with the Army Group North and is trying to arrange a transfer."
"Respectfully ask him to stop."
The private opened his mouth, then closed it without speaking. Franz turned away and walked up the steps toward the chateau. One of the guards opened the door for him. Franz didn't look back. He doubted the young man from Kiel would heed his warning.
Faded Oriental carpets that whispered of their former glory covered the marble floor of the expansive foyer. Inside the library eight or nine senior officers were sitting in leather chairs. A thin haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air. General Berg hadn't arrived. No one paid any attention to Franz, who slipped to the side of the room. Many of the volumes on the shelves were in French. He thumbed through Germinal, a novel by Émile Zola about the brutal life of coal miners in northern France in the 1860s. Franz had read parts of the novel in French class in school, but he couldn't remember much about it beyond the difficulty he had conjugating the verbs.
"Zola?" a man's voice said. "That's trash, Hauptmann. Don't waste your time."
Franz turned and faced a middle-aged oberst with red cheeks and a thin goatee.
"He's the Jew-lover who came to the defense of Dreyfus," the officer continued, referring to the Jewish French officer convicted of spying for Germany in the 1890s. "It turned out he was innocent, of course, but it took the French years to sort it out. However, no Jew can be trusted. It's not in their nature to love any country."
As a boy Franz was friends with two Jewish brothers. Their father served in the German army during the Great War and received the Iron Cross first-class. It was hard to imagine anyone more patriotic than the boys' father, who proudly displayed his service medals in a case on the wall in the foyer of the family home. Franz had lost track of the brothers when he joined the army. He returned the book to its place on the shelf.
Every man sitting in the room suddenly jumped to his feet as General Berg entered. The general, a short man with thinning gray hair and a paunch caused by a lifelong love of sweet pastries, quickly made his way around the room. Flanked by three aides, the general stopped in front of Franz, who stood ramrod-straight.
"Hauptmann Haus, come with me."
Franz saw a puzzled look cross the face of the oberst who'd spoken to him about Zola and felt the eyes of other officers in the room on his back as he followed the general from the room. Army Group G, tasked with defending southern France from an anticipated Allied invasion, was a recent creation, and few officers knew that Franz had long been a part of General Berg's inner circle.
"We can't talk in there," the general said when they reached the door. "It's smokier than an Egyptian coke factory. Apparently they haven't gotten the word about no smoking in my presence."
Franz followed the general down a hallway, up a half flight of stairs, and around a corner into a small windowless room with white cabinets on the walls.
"Leave us," the general said to his aides, who backed out of the room and closed the door.
"A footman's antechamber," Berg said, opening the door to an empty cabinet. "These cabinets should be filled with silver serving platters."
The senior commander coughed into the back of his hand. Berg was more likely to die from emphysema than to fall in battle.
"I sent your report on the Allied invasion to a senior officer I know on General Von Rundstedt's staff. Are you one hundred percent sure the landings at Normandy aren't a feint, with the real invasion to take place at Pas de Calais? I'm sticking my neck into someone else's fight, and I don't want to get it chopped off."
Franz licked his lips. "As sure as I was about the enemy's intentions southeast of Sedan," he replied.
Sedan, on the France-Belgium border, was the site of a major battle in May 1940. Franz, a junior lieutenant at the time, made an unorthodox tactical recommendation to his captain, who reported it to General Berg. The general summoned a trembling Franz to his headquarters for a fuller explanation. Reconnaissance confirmed Franz's hunch, and the resulting victory boosted General Berg's career and cemented the relationship between him and the fresh-faced lieutenant.
Franz's mind flashed back to the carnage after the battle was over. The bodies of enemy soldiers lay contorted and dismembered throughout the woods. Although he'd not fired a single shot, Franz knew he was connected to every corpse. Since then he'd seen thousands of dead bodies: German, French, Italian, British, and American displayed in a macabre mural of untimely death.
Inwardly, Franz trembled at the horror of war. His toughest struggle was trying to erase from his memory individual faces, comrades he knew from the mess hall and unknown enemies whose countenances, for one reason or another, remained imprinted on his mind.
Two specific events — a mission in Siena in northern Italy and the treatment of resistance fighters in a nearby French village — had undermined Franz's loyalty to the German cause. And he was still reeling from a terrifying dream of tornadoes he saw sweeping toward Germany from the east at the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Franz's homeland had sown to the wind and was now reaping the whirlwind. The Allied invasion of France would succeed unless immediately repulsed. Without question, Germany was on the verge of losing the war, and there was nothing he or any other loyal soldier could do to stop it.
"Have you considered asking General Blaskowitz to exert his influence?" he asked. General Johannes Blaskowitz was the supreme commander of Army Group G. His headquarters lay ten kilometers to the west. Franz had not yet met him.
"General Blaskowitz is a soldier first with little interest in politics. He spent a couple of years in internal exile after complaining about the conduct of SS units during the invasion of Poland. Now that he has a command again, he's not going to cross Berlin when the big shots are wedded to a Calais invasion. And I'm not sure I want to tell him about you. Not yet, maybe never."
The general coughed again. Franz could hear the older man wheeze as he took in his next breath.
"At any rate, he'll be here this evening for a formal reception," the general continued. "I want you to evaluate him and let me know what you think."
"Do you have anything new to tell me?" the general asked, clearing his throat.
The question was always part of their conversations. Franz kept his hand from going to the letter in his pocket. Dresden was hundreds of kilometers to the east. What happened there had no relevance to Army Group G.
"If something comes to you, I'll need it prior to the reception. It's supposed to be a social event, but I anticipate General Blaskowitz will pull General Kittel and myself aside for a private conversation."
"Oh, one other thing," the general said. "There's a possibility General Krieger will be here next week."
Franz shifted on his feet. The powerful staff officer from Berlin had visited General Berg when the division was in the Tuscany region of Italy and was the person who ordered the mission to Siena. Young for a general, the ambitious Krieger was cold-blooded, cruel, and greedy.
"Do you know why he's coming?" Franz asked nervously.
"It probably has to do with this." The general rubbed his thumb against his fingers. "We're close to France, and the general is always on the lookout for something of value. He appreciates what we did for him in Siena."
Franz's mouth went dry. "Herr General," he began but then stopped.
"Out with it," Berg ordered. "Don't waste my time."
Franz took a deep breath and licked his lips. "Do you think General Krieger may transfer me to Berlin?" he asked.
The general swore. Franz stepped back.
"It's possible," the general growled. "And I'm not sure I could stop him, especially if the high command wants you there."
"I want to remain on your staff, sir," Franz said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
"Of course you do. But if duty calls ..." The general paused. "Maybe Krieger won't show. The adjunct who contacted me said it was only a possibility."
They left the antechamber. Franz lagged behind the general's entourage as they made their way to the large dining room where the briefing and reception would take place. The threat of a transfer to Berlin was real. Anxious thoughts began racing through Franz's mind. A soldier stepped in front of him. Franz almost ran into him.
"Hauptmann Haus, a telegram for you," the young man said, holding out his hand.
Franz wasn't expecting a message. Shaking his head to clear it, he took the telegram into the dining room. An enormous chandelier filled the room with a stunning display of reflected light. Stepping into a corner, he opened the message. It was from his aunt. As the impact of the words hit him, the lights of the chandelier blurred, and his concerns about General Krieger vanished.
Franz's family was dead.CHAPTER 2
Franz held the telegram tightly in his right hand as he blinked and tried to refocus on the room. He saw one of General Berg's aides standing a few feet away and stepped over to him.
Keeping his gaze lowered, he spoke in a hoarse whisper. "If he asks, please tell the general I don't feel well and went to my quarters.
Not waiting for a response, Franz walked rapidly from the room. By the time he reached the smooth stone pathway outside, tears had begun to fall down his cheeks.
His father, mother, brother, and little sister lived in a modest working-class neighborhood in one of the industrial areas surrounding Dresden. Two nights earlier, a solitary bomb had scored a direct hit on the house, killing everyone instantly. His family was most likely asleep when they died.
Excerpted from The Witnesses by ROBERT WHITLOW. Copyright © 2016 Robert Whitlow. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.