Bones of Spring (WIP) – Chapter 16 – Betty

Augustin, as was his habit, arrived early to the rendezvous point they’d agreed on — a petrol station uncomfortably near the wall just at the northwest outskirts of town.  He lingered at the standing counter with his cup of stale coffee, trying to look casual as he perused the magazine rack. All of the periodicals were expired by at least a week, but the proprietor hadn’t troubled to mark any of them down.

He suppressed the desire to check his watch, and wondered at Kat’s decision to choose this of all places for their point of departure. Stasi monitored petrol stations near the wall with the intensity of vultures on fresh corpses, and whatever she was driving would likely go straight into the day’s registry of possible flight risks. 

Then he recalled with another little surge of apprehension that there was no need for additional surveillance. Over the past week he had forced himself to unremember the meeting with the young man, and had been more or less successful, but every so often he would be reminded like an unpleasant itch. It was already such an effort to suppress the usual stress of peripheral awareness, but now he was grateful to be going somewhere where being monitored would be more difficult.  

The old lady propped on her elbows at the cash register watched him with an excess of interest, a sweet little smile on her wrinkled face. She didn’t disguise her interest as she topped off his mug, looking directly into his face as though assessing him for some purpose. Memorizing his features, he thought, so she could provide an accurate report of his likeness to her Stasi handler. 

He tried to give back her smile, but the tension in his face was painful. He was beginning to regret his decision not to tell anyone where he was going. He was not, in spite of the young man’s warning, apprehensive about Kat. In fact, the admonition had just fuelled his intrigue, and by extension, his desire for her. He had the maturity to admit that much. 

It was more a personal concern that he might disappear, and his very few personal friends would have no indication of it. It wouldn’t be for his own sake. He, Augustin Vann, had no secrets worth uncovering that were within date. His exploits had been so many years ago and so inconsequential as to have little value for blackmail or give anyone cause to jam him up over his conduct. He’d built his cachet early as one of the home-grown evangelists for a new German Communism, a cipher for Stalin’s less-than-popular political approach after the initial wave of rape and desecration. His actual contribution was negligible, but on paper his ideological credentials were perfect. 

Not that the Stasi needed a reason to detain him, he reflected bitterly. That he had engaged in any secret work at all, however worthless the product, would be enough to land him in an interrogation cell. That, or strong armed into serving their domestic espionage machine, something his early work for the Soviets had helped him avoid since his return at the war’s end. That he had avoided serving in that war for longer than it took to run away should have counted in his favour, but there were no laurels for deserters, even in the supposedly denazified German intelligence apparatus. 

A car backfired, and he flinched so badly the ersatz coffee leapt over the rim of his cup, splashing the week-old newspaper he’d been pretending to read. The old woman was there in a flash with a rag and a refill, giving his hand a reassuring pat as though for all the world she was exactly what she appeared to be. He muttered thanks, and was immensely relieved to see Kat coming through the door.

As usual, his regrets vanished immediately as her presence seemed to warm him. She was dressed in a rather jaunty blue frock and headscarf, large sunglasses covering her ice-blue eyes, and there were a pair of fine brown suede driving gloves clutched in one hand. As she propped her glasses on top of her head, her first greeting was, to his surprise, not to him, but to the old lady. 

“Have you been watching over my friend?” she said in French, casting a mischievous smile at him. 

“The nervous one?” the old woman responded. “Think you can trust him?”

“Augustin Vann,” he said with an offered hand, wanting to gently inform them both that he understood — or at least give the impression, since his French was extremely rusty.

“This is Lorelei Brideux,” Kat said. “The best mechanic in the country. She’s been kind enough to give Betty a quick look before we get on the road.”

“Betty is your car, one assumes.”

“Come see.”

He followed her out into the warm spring air. Lorelei met them inside the small garage, where a gleaming dark green Alfa Romeo coupe sat on a pair of raised struts, its boot open to show a wide suitcase with barely room left over for his. He’d packed for the increasingly pleasant weather, a task he hadn’t performed in so many years that it had actually been confusing. It had been a decade since he’d had anything close to a real love affair, and even longer since he’d had any kind of romantic holiday.

“It’s lovely,” he said, reaching out to touch its spit-shined body, admiring its long eager curves, the haughty deco design of its grill and headlights. Inside, the upholstery was a dark red leather, not a scratch or a scuff on it that he could see.

“1949 Alfa Romeo Villa d’Este,” Lorelei Brideux said proudly as she patted the car. “Drives like a lightning bolt.” She glared at Kat. “When you trouble to drive it.”

He looked over at Kat, whose expression was subdued as she looked at the vehicle, her hand absently covering her mouth. Lorelei gave her a gentle little shove, and Kat silently waved her off. Then, by way of explanation, the old woman looked him dead in the eyes. He did not glean understanding from this, but looked to Kat, who beckoned him on. 

Lorelei pressed a button set into the wall, and the struts lowered slowly into the floor. She went to a workbench and retrieved a picnic basket, opened the car’s door and hoisted the basket into the space behind the seats. She was quite spry for her age, Augustin noticed, and imagined she was probably quite handy with a spanner if crossed. Scrappy, that was the word for Fraülein Brideux.

“You really don’t need to — “ Kat began, but the old lady cut her off.

“No arguments,” she scolded, then kissed Kat on the forehead. “Happy hunting, petite chaton. Catch lots of mice.”

Kat was quiet as they pulled away from the gas station. He observed her, the strangely tender way she touched the wheel and the gear stick, as though gently waking the machine from a long slumber.

“Where did you get this beauty?” he said, drawing a finger across the leather upholstered dashboard.

“It was an inheritance,” she said, then gave him a look. “From a friend.”

He understood that to mean he was not to question, but as with all of her forbidden territory, he marked it anyway for a future inquiry. He wanted to know her, but he did not wish to hurt her, and so calmly resigned himself to being patient. 

He turned to the window, watching as the edges of the Berlin metropolis gave way to concrete suburbs. They were ugly as sin, but he appreciated the way the residents tried to brighten them up. Each building’s balcony sported boxes full of a riot of spring flowers, reds and pinks and blues that, collectively, seemed to carpet sections of the building faces like great patchwork quilts. 

“Dreamer,” she said when she saw him wistfully admiring them. 

“A little,” he admitted.

“Why didn’t you leave?” she asked, not unkindly.

He shrugged. “I could say that I’m comfortable here, that I find satisfaction in my work. Those are true things.”

“But you aren’t a communist,” she pressed. “Maybe one of convenience, your socialist interlocution is flawless, but you’re not one of them.”

“I’m not convinced the egos of men who would lead are less corrupt in any given system,” he said truthfully. “Maybe I delude myself thinking I can undermine the fundamental Stalinism of this society, but it has so many obvious flaws.”

“That’s not a reason,” she insisted as she turned Betty on to the autobahn. 

He smiled. “Maybe it’s because there was no one worth leaving for.”

She glanced at him, one eyebrow arched. “That’s a little bit pathetic, Augustin.”

He considered pointing out that her reasons weren’t any more robust, but he decided against raising it. Instead, he shrugged. “The wall surprised everyone.”

“I suppose. Is teaching political science what you thought you’d be doing when you took up psychology?”

“My father bought me a place in the diplomatic corps, so psychology was never that likely to figure. But we’re not talking about me. We made a deal, remember?”

She eyed him with irritation, something that he found amusing as her gaze flicked back to the road. She leaned back in her chair, stretching her lamed foot, and pursed her lips.

“What do you want to know?”

“How did a bullet come to be in your foot?”

“Someone fired a gun at it.”

“All right, but who?”

She looked at him again, gripped the steering wheel, then sighed.

“When I was young, I had associations that put me afoul of the Nuremberg laws. I was at an academy on the border with Alsace, which was some protection for us, until it wasn’t.”

“You were arrested?”

“In a manner of speaking.”