Bones of Spring (Working Title) – Chapter 26: “Uncomfortable Intelligence”




Kat watched from her seat by the fire as Augustin brought the groceries and the luggage into the low building, his head bowed and expression tight, as though deep in some kind of unpleasant contemplation. He set the canvas bags on the counter, took the suitcases and paused at the door of the guest room, turning his eyes on her. 

“I’m going to lie down for a little while,” he said, something chilly in his tone. Jeanette was much more concerned with the foodstuffs Kat had chosen for her and took no notice, but Kat felt a little shiver run down her spine. 

“You brought me contraband,” Jeanette said brightly, pleased by the delivery of fruit and cheese. “And asparagus, you little villain.”

“Don’t forget the wine.” 

“Kill one of the chickens and bring it in. I’ll make coq au vin.” 

Kat did as she was bid, dispatching one of the larger birds with as much speed and mercy as she could manage. She was accustomed to the mechanics of slaughtering meat animals with her own hands, but she always felt a little guilty doing it. It didn’t seem fair to kill a creature that couldn’t fight back.

“Here,” Jeanette set her to plucking with a cup of the new red. “Don’t get feathers in your wine.”

The task once accomplished, Kat repaired to the bathroom, taking a quick shower to clean herself of any traces of her recent labour, then slipped into the guest room. She’d made an effort not to let her leg drag so as not to rouse her companion, but Augustin wasn’t asleep. 

Instead, he was sitting down in the carved wooden chair, hunched over with his hands folded as he contemplated the row of passports, forged and authentic, lined neatly up on the taut bedspread. 

“Well?” she said, forcing her voice to remain calm. 

He raised his eyes to her, all trust and affection gone from them. She crossed her arms, waiting to see if he would offer shame, indignation or contempt, but he didn’t look like a man caught. He looked aggrieved, as though she had somehow unjustifiably trespassed against him. 

“I thought I liked you cruel,” he said in a flat, empty tone. 

“When you thought it was a harmless flirtation,” she said, equally cold. 

He met her eyes. “You don’t mean me well, do you?”

She stared back at him, neither confirming nor denying his thesis. She wanted to snap at him, to know what he might have to say for himself, but she only returned his hostile gaze, waiting to see which lie he would choose for his explanation. 

He touched the very edge of Adrian Wehnert’s blue diplomatic Auswärtiges Amt passport, as though he found contact with the thing utterly distasteful. 

“This…” he closed his eyes, struggling to reach some argument, some excuse. “This person hardly existed. Do you understand?”

“No. I don’t understand.” 

His face coloured. He picked up the passport, bent it open to show her. For an instant she thought he was going to tear it apart, but he only held it up so that she could see the photograph. It was in remarkably good condition given its age, and corresponded precisely to the features she recalled with such clarity. 

“I could not swear to this man,” Augustin said, his voice shaking slightly. “I have memories, a name, an occupation, but I find nothing of his wartime conduct worth the recollection. It was short, unremarkable, and without injury to any other person.”

Kat felt her own face growing hot. For a moment her throat closed, a weight descending on her chest that made it difficult for her to breathe. She couldn’t tell if he was lying, or merely so deluded that he believed his own lies. If his memory was truly concealing itself from him, or if he actively rejected it, because his present self found it too morally unseemly to be consistent with the man be had convinced himself he was now.

“I recollect it,” she said slowly, forcing her voice to remain even. “I recollect it like it was yesterday. I recollect it every day. I recollect it in my dreams.”

He watched her for a long moment, and she watched him back, searching for signs of self-knowing hypocrisy. For the arrogance, the defiance she always imagined he’d shield himself with, but his grey eyes only gave back a cool interest. 

“I don’t understand,” he said finally. “What do you recollect?”

“Are you being serious?” she demanded. “You don’t remember?”

“I remember seeing you in my classroom last term,” he said coldly. “I remember meeting you at the beginning of this term, the one I should be teaching right now. I have no prior impression of you, and given you are…” he paused, letting his politeness do the razor’s work. 

“That I am distinctive, because I have limp and a hole in my foot,” she supplied for him. “Is that all it really takes to blind you?”

“I have trouble with memory, as you might have noticed,” he continued, giving a dull, put-upon sigh. “If we’ve met before, and I have somehow offended you—“

“Frühlingsmorgen,” she snapped. “Does that name mean anything to you?”

He paused, gave it his consideration, then pursed his lips and slowly shook his head. “No. Should it?”

Kat felt something inside her sink. She wasn’t sure if it was the disappointment of being denied a her confrontation, or the fear that what she needed from him — the information she required to make the amends she needed more than anything to make — was simply not there. That all her preparations and efforts would result in no useful intelligence product, or open the way for her to finish what she had started. To redeem something, however meagre, of her failures. 

She could tell him none of these things. She sat down on the corner of the bed, pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead as she tried to will the pressure out of her skull. 

“Yes,” she said finally. “It should.”

He sat up, taking his time as though it pained him. “I assume it is connected somehow to your injury.”

“Very insightful.”

“I still don’t understand why you have forged a West German passport for me, or why you procured a disused passport that you can clearly see has no diplomatic visas in it. Did you plan to blackmail me with it, or just give directly me to the Stasi?”

She laughed bitterly. “Why, do you think they’d pay more?”

He let out a hard exhalation of disgust. “Money? Really?” 

“What do you think?” 

“I just want to know it’s not something so tawdry,” he said with a mirthless smile. “You haven’t shown yourself to be wanting in resources, or restricted in your movements, so yes, I am puzzled.”

“You know what puzzles me,” she said, reaching to take Wehnert’s passport from him. “This man. This man puzzles me. I’ve hardly spared him a thought in twenty-two years. Now I find myself wondering all the time what might have been if he’d spared more thought for me. If I’d have lived half my life with a bullet in my foot, and a limp that warps my body into deformity.”

“Do you blame me for that?” he said cooly, but she could see the tightening in his jaw. 

She sat down on the corner of the bed, feeling the tension running down her side, knowing it would hurt her later. She folded her hands together, and pressed them between her knees to stop them from shaking. 

“I don’t know,” she said after a moment of hard silence. “Perhaps you are to blame. Conversely, if I’d stayed in Germany, my life might have ended under a bomb, or on the end of a Russian bayonet. Perhaps the worst that happened to me might have happened anyway, but with more permanent consequences. I never had the opportunity to find out. I certainly didn’t think too hard on it until one fine day…” she smiled at him, and the anger in it hurt her face. “I saw a man cross a street on his way to school.”

“So,” he said, looking increasingly more fatigued. “This is about revenge.” 

She met his eyes, wanting to see the lie there, but there was nothing but tired hurt. She took a deep breath. 

“It’s larger than that. I don’t know where you fit, only that you fit somewhere, and I’m trying to discover where that is.”

“Why not simply ask?” he said petulantly. “If you already knew about my past.”

“I do not know about your past,” she held up two fingers. “I know about two days. Two days, twenty years ago, two hours of time in which an unreasonable request was made of me by a strange man, a request I should never have acceded to.”

She could see him calculating the time frame, could tell by the narrowing of his eyes that he was truly attempting to place her. To see her as she would have been then, as she herself could no longer truly imagine except as something other than her present self. She knew she had been beautiful, confident of limb and whole, but she had no projected image of that acerbic, free-spirited girl. It made her angry that this man did not remember her in spite of the fact that he had spent so little time with her. That she had made such a small impression after what he had asked of her. 

“Explain it to me,” he said finally. “Tell me what it is you think I’m missing.”

“I can’t.” 

“Why not?”

“I can’t feed you information that might…” she bit her lip, searching for an explanation that would not reveal all of her intentions. “I don’t want to supply you with impressions that aren’t real. That aren’t fact.”

She thought he would question her as to why the authenticity of his recounting was so important, that he might demand just who or what required this consideration. He surprised her, leaning back in the chair, some of the tension leaving his broad shoulders. He considered her carefully, again trying to parse her, to understand her certainty. He seemed to believe her certainty, which was all the more baffling. He was more angry at her for charting a conspiracy against his present self than he was at the charge she’d laid the persona he’d discarded. 

“That’s wise,” he said quietly. “I don’t pretend to understand why it’s of such importance to you, but I won’t deny it’s fully possible that a past iteration of myself may have requested something of you. It is within a larger obscurity that recollection may have been lost. However…”

He trailed off, then frowned at her, licking his lips. Puzzling over her as she’d seen him do before, as though he could not make her out and the inability to do so caused him physical discomfort. 

“However,” she prompted dully. 

“I feel, and have felt that I have known you. That something about you is deeply, infuriatingly familiar. And now that you’ve raised this question, even looking back… this feeling exceeds all even what you’ve implied.”

“Perhaps, doctor,” she mocked gently. “You experience pathological déjà vu.”

“That I’m a victim of my own paradox I well appreciate, Kat,” he said dryly, with just the hint of a smile. “But if you wanted my participation in… whatever it is you intend… why go to the trouble of the emotional entanglement?”

This stilled her. She was completely unsure of how to answer. She didn’t really know which of her fragmented motives was the most true. She could easily have contacted her friends west of the wall, could have arranged the complexities of exfiltrating him against his will. It was difficult but not impossible. That she wanted to sexually manipulate him as an expedient to keeping him close wasn’t untrue, but it had not motivated the impulse to connect. To reach through the past and touch this man, his warm, solid presence. To understand him as real when he’d lived only as a footnote in her memory. A version of her life in which, for that sixteen year old girl, for those few days, he had represented so much less pain. 

It was a delusion, she knew. A fantasy based on a reality that would never manifest, because pain and death were destined to be certain companions for that Katerina Bergmann as they were for this one. His brief presence in her life wouldn’t have rescued her from firebombing any more than it had rescued her from Baier, or any of the other paths to an early grave. So she couldn’t claim that as her reason either. 

“I was curious,” she said finally. “Maybe I was lonely.”

“Should I believe that?” he said mildly. “Or should I view everything about you with suspicion? That seems like a safer course.” 

“Why not?” she shrugged. “You’re right. It is the safer course.”

“I do believe you,” he said, somewhat amused. “For one, it would make sense that you would be curious, from what you’ve described as your accounting between us. For another, you’ve only expressed your curiosity in me as incidental to this flirtation.”

“I don’t know what you mean by that.”

He tilted his head. “Meaning you conceal what you hold close, Kat. You surveilled me for three months, but you weren’t aware that I was watching you too, in my small way. I saw you ever week in your little corner, no books or notepads. A curious student audits a course for a few weeks, but you weren’t there to study the course. You were there to study me.”

“And yet,” she said, giving him a faint smile. “You didn’t press me about it. You asked me to go to bed with you almost at once. You knew damn well I could have been Stasi, or KGB, or—“

He raised an eyebrow. “CIA?”

“No,” she said firmly. “I was never CIA.”

He seemed about to ask her, to plumb the affirmation in this denial by identifying which possible agency she had omitted, but it seemed he was not tempted by the puzzle. It was enough, she thought with irritation, that he’d made the connection to America. That his assumptions would tend that way. But above all, she resented that now, she was the one who would be forced to remember. She wasn’t ready. 

They both jumped as a rapid knock on the door sounded. Jeanette called through it. “Dinner’s ready in five minutes. Dry off and get dressed, sinners.”

“Thank you,” Augustin replied, turning to Kat. “Well?”

She was quiet for a moment, still lost in the strange labyrinth of her confused, frustrated attempt at self knowledge.

“Kat,” he prompted.

She blinked up at him, then sighed, raising herself to her feet. Her hands were full of pins and needles from holding them pressed between her knees.

“Answer me this,” she said as she paused by the door. “What will you do?”

“You mean what would I do,” he corrected softly. “If you’d actually left me with the freedom to choose.”

“Fine. Yes.” 

“I don’t know,” he admitted, reaching for the door knob. “But then, I don’t know why I ever asked you for coffee in the first place.”

“Curiosity?” She gave him a quick smile, as much as her face would allow.

“Maybe I was lonely too,” he admitted, opening the door and stepping side for her to go first. 

She wanted to say something, find words to straighten out the impossibly twisted thread that connected them. Instead she walked past him and went to help their host with dinner.