Bones of Spring – WIP – Chapter 31

Kiefernhafen

1962

Spring

Augustin woke to the sound of gunshots with a jerk as sharp reports echoed from the clearing. His immediate reaction was to throw himself on the cold pine floor and press himself to the wall. He spent a few moments paralyzed there, his breath coming quickly as he waited for a break in the shots, the brief delay for reloading when it would be possible to run. 

It was a few more moments before his conscious mind caught up to his situation. It was Kat’s absence he noticed then, and when he lifted himself up and hazarded a glance through the window, he realized the origin of the gunfire. She and their host were firing at targets that had been hung on the pine trees at the edge of the clearing. 

They were chatting together, both of them wielding long bolt-action rifles which they handled with the ease of professionals. Old friends from the war, he thought bitterly, feeling a little ill. Then he felt another slight shock as he recalled what had transpired the night before, and his sour mood suddenly took on the meaning he had not had time to acknowledge in his fit of panic. He decided as the women were well occupied, he would take advantage of the shower. Jeanette, or her dead husband, had laid on a well supplied hot water tank, something for which Augustin was deeply grateful. 

In the cold light of day, the warmth of Kat’s affection had ceased to feel redeeming, and he was reduced to anxious confusion again. Being terrorized awake by her marksmanship had only compounded the unreality of his situation. As he let the water steam her residue off his skin, he punished himself with questions about her reason for furnishing him with his original diplomatic passport. The forged West German passport he could reckon from the point of view of their stated mission. It was possible Dr. Augustin Vann might wish to visit the west, or else escape there with his golden haired harridan. 

The diplomatic passport, almost so virgin inside its faded covers as to be unbelievable, had never been used. He knew, as a listed fact, he’d once been a junior diplomatic attache, that he’d joined the Abwehr after his mentor Magnus Hirschfeld had left Germany. Or rather, his father had joined him to the Abwehr, calling on a favour from Wilhelm Canaris in order to shield his wayward son from the consequences of his deviant academic choices. In order to purge all doubts of his conduct, Kristoff Wehnert had required his only son to attend the burning of his friend’s library, something Augustin would have happy forgotten if it hadn’t lodged permanently in his mind. One of his chief regrets was being too cowardly to write to Hirschfeld before his death. The swastika-emblazoned passport was a piercing reminder of that.

Everything else was a blur. Everything from his acceptance into the elite intelligence club, his discovery that a college chum had been “developing” him as an Abwehr recruit for the better part of a year before he was asked to join. He dimly recalled the boss’s invitation to dine with him. Yes, Canaris had asked him to dine out to a restaurant, to talk of an important matter he wished to entrust to his newest, fresh-faced agent. It wasn’t an ordinary meeting. Not a single word of which Augustin could now recall. One of them, he supposed, must have been “Frühlingsmorgen”.

It was a shame, because whatever had been said there likely had something to do with the reason for his being sent to the front. He could tell Kat this if he chose to, for all the difference it would make, and he didn’t expect her to be impressed with the omission. He didn’t think she’d be impressed with the four year holiday he’d enjoyed while she was fighting tooth and nail in the worst winter France had seen in generations, either.

He resented her for her tacit accusation, wanted to rejected it out of hand, but it was too late. Now the mystery was already eating at him. He’d been content to ignore these questions for so long. There was a window of time when he might have recovered them, but he’d deliberately turned away from them, and now the intervening twenty years had entirely painted them out of his recollection. 

The horrors he carried now had been challenging enough for him. Now this woman was adding hers, and she wouldn’t give him an ounce of her own evidence. She’d accused him of the crime, but wouldn’t tell him the charges. That he understood her reason for withholding did not improve his feelings on the matter, only filled him with a fresh sense of trepidation.

He tried to recall, feeling a headache coming on as though some physically atrophied part his own brain was now struggling to actuate. It was useless. He’d seen the inside of prison cells, the blasted killing fields of the front, and more than a few communist-infested basements, but nowhere in his memory could he conjure up a reason for being caught red-handed in this supposed conspiracy of one. It was true that there were gaps in his memory, created by circumstances beyond his control, but he had never missed any of the information concealed there, or found his happiness wanting due to its absence. 

He decided he was was damned if he was going to own to whatever she was trying to pin to him if she wouldn’t add a single line of insight to his otherwise blank record. It was also possible she was simply mistaken, but he rejected that at once. That did not account for her possessing Adrian Wehnert’s passport. He had to admit, he had no idea if Wehnert was a victim of her misapprehension, or truly guilty. Augustin Vann did not keep good records on Dr. Wehnert for the simple reason that there wasn’t much he needed from him. 

It was her anger, however deserved, that sent a current of fear through him. This in turn made him angry. He resented her for that too, making him into an angry person, when he’d tried his best to be kind, to be civil. To be, if not an ideal man, at least one that no one had cause to complain of. Inoffensive and approachable, that was the personality he’d settled on after having gotten out from under the other ones he’d been obligated to. 

He couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t distance himself from the possibility that the murk of his subconscious concealed something horrible, something that might be his fault. Something worse than he could imagine himself capable of. Something that even Kat might only be partially aware of, the full discovery something she felt physical intimacy would facilitate. He hated the idea that he was simply being indulged as an expedient, or because she took some kind of sadistic enjoyment in his gnawing desire for her.  

He turned off the water and stood there, letting the heat evaporate the water from his skin. He was hard, as he usually was after waking, and he couldn’t stop his mind from going to the night before. He towelled off and returned to the guest room, wondering what the day had in store for him, and who she would be at the end of it.

The twisted sheets and soft light put him in mind of the photographs from Captain Fisher’s later oeuvre. He wondered why the discovery of those images had compelled him to turn around and walk back into this room. Maybe it was the clear adoration in them, each image evidence of the beholder’s love and desire for their subject. That the man had adored Kat was quite obvious. That she adored him was equally evident, however difficult it was for Augustin to imagine.  

That final image the young man on the deck, his admirable physique flattered by the muted overcast light, the tattoo just visible on his chest, that had struck Augustin somewhere deep. How, he wondered, had US Army Captain Fisher, not more than thirty years old when he was photographed, found himself with a Nazi prisoner pectoral designation? He had no idea which camp or facility 106 represented, wanted to ask Kat, but he wasn’t certain she even knew about the photos. It was unsafe territory, and he wasn’t prepared to cross it.

He went to the kitchen and poured himself some coffee from the percolator, watching from the kitchen window as Kat and Jeanette lounged in lawn chairs, neither interested in walking across the dewy grass to review their targets. He wondered if he could get away with cracking the window and listening to their conversation, but as he raised his eyes, the loft above presented itself as a much better listening post. 

He took his coffee with him up the steep stairs, and went to the window. It was small, round but hinged, and he was able to get it open just enough to catch the words being spoken below. 

“— given your taste in men,” Jeanette gently mocked, and Augustin had to listen carefully to keep up with her French. His spoken fluency was rusty, but he was pleased to find his comprehension was up to this little bit of clandestine listening.

“Jerome —“

“I know, I know. Any port in a storm.”

“I was young.” 

“You really think this one’s going to give you what you want?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s left to find, if anything.”

“So this is just a vendetta for you. Little chaton’s last ride down the path of glory.”

“It’s not for me.”

“Is that what you told yourself when you decided to play the honeytrap?”

“I didn’t shoot him,” Kat muttered. “Isn’t that an improvement?”

“Say you get your truth,” Jeanette’s voice dropped a little. “Say he owns up to everything. He names every colour of the rainbow and leads you to the pot of gold. What do you do with him then?”

A long silence. Augustin wished he could see their faces, wished he could see more than Kat’s body sprawled out on the chair, her shoulder pensively hunched. 

“You don’t know, do you?” Jeanette said.

Kat’s voice hesitated for a moment. “I need to know what happened, Jeanette. I need to see the thing in its entirety, to understand it. I don’t care if I ever find the pot of gold, but I promised —“

“You and millions, Katerina. Crimes and abuses linger every corner, under every rock, soaked in this ground under us. Don’t let it be the only thing that gives you meaning.” 

“It’s better than spending my life mourning inside of my own tomb. Though I admit, mine isn’t as nice as yours.”

“Here,” Augustin spotted Jeanette’s hand as it reached down, picked up what appeared to be a stone, and put it in Kat’s hand. “Put it on your head.”

Augustin used their laughter to cover his exit from the loft. He made it down the stairs and into one of the easy chairs before they came through the bay door, walking close by each other. 

“You couldn’t make a fire?” Jeanette accused, then gave him a smile. “City boys, you’re all the same.”

“Where do you keep your wood pile?” he said, setting down his coffee. “I’ll start it.”

Jeanette nodded to one of the converted animal stalls near the entrance of the house, which had been made into a kind of indoor wood shed. Kat stalked wordlessly past him to the guest bedroom, closing the door behind her. He tried to ignore the rising, compressing feeling of irritation, and went to go fetch wood for the fire. 

His hostess remained seated, her good eye on him as he set about constructing a serviceable blaze. He sat back down, unsure of what to say to this woman. He had no illusions about her allegiances, but the look she was giving him now was calculating rather than hostile. He had the impression that she was aware he had eavesdropped. Taking her time, she rolled a cigarette, rested it on her lip, and rolled another, extending it to him. He wasn’t much of a smoker, but he accepted it, lighting it from a piece of smouldering tinder. 

“You know why she’s so mad at you?” 

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said, letting out a sigh that seemed to have been lodged in his lungs for the past six hours. “I am completely ignorant of the reason, and she thinks that’s an offence in itself.”

“That’s beside the point,” Jeanette said, taking a long drag. “Whatever personal business there is between you, that reckoning will come as a matter of course.”

“You don’t seem troubled by any of this.”

“I have no stake in you. All of this — “ she flapped her hand in the direction of the closed door. “— came after we parted ways in 1944.”

Augustin tried the cigarette, found the tobacco to be of decent quality and flavour. “Would you believe I wasn’t in Europe in 1944?”

“But you were in 1940.” 

“Briefly.” 

“You left Germany?”

“I don’t recall the exact date. Forgive me, but that time… it’s very disorganized in my mind.”

Jeanette gave him a little quirk of her eyebrow, then shrugged, tapping the ash of her cigarette over the now-crackling fire. “As I said, that’s for the two of you to fight over, if that’s how you both want it. No, that’s not the reason. It’s personal for her, but she never told me the complete story.” 

“What is the reason, then?” Augustin demanded quietly, struggling to keep his voice under control. For all that he hated the tense hostility between himself and Kat, this woman’s level calm was infuriating in its own way. 

“Because she’s in love with you.”

Augustin, unable to conjure up a reply for this, stared in confusion at her. He opened his mouth, prepared to attempt some kind of denial, but the idea was simply too deranged for him to credit it. Before he could request an explanation, Kat opened the guest room door, and limped out with both packed suitcases in hand. She dropped them by the sofa, and looked at Augustin. 

“We’re leaving.”

“Maybe he doesn’t want to leave,” Jeanette said with a grin at him. “We’re having a nice talk.”

“Fine,” Kat growled, and picked up her bag. “I’m leaving.”

“You’re not leaving until I’ve confirmed my shipment in… ” Jeanette looked at her watch. “Two and a half hours.”

“I’ll drive you into town, then,” Kat said, a little flush coming to her cheeks. “We’ll have lunch, and then you can go to the post office.”

“Leaving your man here to walk into town by himself? Sit down.”

To Augustin’s private amusement, Kat sat down abruptly, as though incapable of defying a direct order. She glared just slightly to the left of him, but her eyes darted to his for just an instant. He didn’t know that he agreed with Jeanette’s thesis, but there was something intense and passionate behind Kat’s feeling for him. He felt again that surging combination of contempt and desire, everything below his waist arguing for a physical remedy. 

“I often find a man’s invention of himself to be illuminating. And you promised my chaton a story, Augustin Vann.”

Now he felt that single-eyed gaze aimed at him like a dagger. In spite of her teasing remark, he could tell that this woman would know a lie, and punish him for the insult. It wasn’t his cowardice or his unbecoming conduct that he didn’t want to share with these two valkyries — it was the shame of not having fought, not having risked himself the way both of them had. He was confident he deserved that scorn. But he also knew to add more misunderstanding to this debt would not serve him. 

“I had recently completed doctoral candidacy. I don’t know who I offended, but I had associations…”

“Jewish ones?” Jeanette asked with a smile. 

“Psychology,” Kat supplied, looking evenly at him, her mouth thin. “Heretical Jewish brainwashing. Anathema to the Reich.” 

“I studied under sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld early in my career. He was Jewish and queer, and that counted against me with the conservatives. My father arranged for the Abwehr to develop me as a recruit. I accepted a fictitious diplomatic post in that capacity.”

He met Kat’s eyes, but they were cool behind the haze of smoke. She tapped the ash off into the fire, her spare movements slightly mesmerizing to him.

“You told me you were in the Pera Palace bombing in Istanbul, but that’s not true, is it?”

Augustin met her gaze and held it. “No. I was on the Russian front. That’s the truth.”

“They sent you east?” Jeanette pressed. “Not to France?”

He shook his head. “I was housed in a prison for unwilling recruits for a little while, then put on a train to Romania in 1941. And before you ask, I honestly have very little memory of how I arrived there. I didn’t enlist, I don’t remember being drafted. I don’t even remember being issued a uniform. Only that I was remanded to the medical corps.” 

“Ah,” Jeanette said as though he had clarified something for her.

“What?” Kat demanded, frowning. She clearly wasn’t buying his claim, her mouth set in a contemptuous line.

Augustin suddenly hated her. For her to doubt him, to call him a liar without even troubling to open her mouth, when he was trying so hard to recover this truth for her felt like a knife in the back. He wasn’t a warrior, or even a fighter. The violence he had experienced might not be as glorious, but it had been real. He had been a casualty of it. 

He focused instead on Jeanette, who kept her good eye trained on him. He felt a shiver as she listened to his silence, to his posture and the way his hands tightened around each other. 

“How did it happen?” she prompted, tapping her own temple. “How much did you lose?”

Augustin took a deep, shuddering breath, and met her gaze. “May I have another cigarette?” 

The old woman shoved the papers and tobacco pouch into Kat’s hand. “Roll me one as well, little chaton.”

Kat held his gaze for a moment, her expression completely inscrutable. Then she bent head to her task, and did as she was told.