WIP – Bones of Spring – Chapter 21

Salzwedel, East Germany

1962

Spring

Salzwedel was a toy town, a Prussian relic full of narrow lanes flanked by half-timbered houses and shops. It was poorly lit with inadequate lanterns, making it more difficult to interpret the directions she’d been given. It took her fifteen minutes to find the designated garage, a little outbuilding situated across a canal from a field containing series of low dilapidated bunkers. 

Augustin kept conspicuously quiet during this stretch. She’d given him something to think about, though what that might be he was not presently ready to share. She felt a little rattled herself, but as she heard herself speak, recounting details she’d shared with no one in years, she knew it was the way to securing her mission objective. The true story preserved her cover better than invention, and she didn’t need to look at him to know he was growing increasingly more fascinated as she unfolded her tale. 

As time wore on, as she pushed Betty forward over the freshly paved autobahn, it became easier to let go of the memories, to bequeath them to the man sitting beside her, his comprehension making them fresh again. Making them real, when they had felt so far from her that she might have dreamed them. 

“I assume you have a reason for not driving straight into town,” he said as he looked out on the complex. 

“Narrow streets. I don’t want to risk her,” she said, handing him a small key. “Go open the doors, won’t you.”

He got out and went to unlock the padlock. A drizzle of rain spotted the weathered wood doors as he pulled them open. She backed the Romeo into the tight space, exceedingly careful not to scratch the car’s magnificent dark green finish. 

She peeled herself out of the driver’s seat, and gripped the window frame to steady herself. The pain in her foot was now noticeable in places where she shouldn’t be able to feel it, though it came in the form of tightening, swelling discomfort rather than the knife edge pain she would have felt in her younger days. She’d need to bind it up for the next leg of the journey if she wanted to be able to use it. 

Unusually, Augustin did not offer to help her as she hopped slightly to stabilize herself before bending to get her cane from the the back. It was tight quarters in the garage, and damp from the nearby canal. As she freed herself from it, she realized what had drawn his attention.

There were a few dim floodlights illuminating the complex situated some fifty yards away, each beam casting hard low shadows. There was no mistaking the nature of the locale, though it was not as other camps were, no looming brick towers, no distinctive silhouettes. She happened to know something about this place from her prior work, knew that its reputation as a soft option only went so far as what its liberators reported — which only included what they’d been allowed to see.

“It was a sub-camp for female prisoners,” she said, gazing out on the complex. “Mainly Jews, but also for lesbians, for gypsies, political prisoners and other so-called antisocial elements. The commanders called their charges “the mermaids” because instead of burning the bodies, they’d throw them chained together into this canal. There was a cloth dyer’s factory upstream, and the discharge was acidic enough to dissolve all of the osteopathic evidence.”

 He followed her gaze, something rigid in his expression. “Why wasn’t it destroyed?” 

“There are no chimneys, no remains, so the Soviets decided it would clean up nicely. Why bulldoze a few perfectly good bunkers?”

“Practical as always,” he muttered in low condemnation. He looked at her. “Is this where they intended to send you?”

“Not this place in particular,” she said. “Somewhere like it, perhaps. After all, the train they put me on didn’t have a conductor announcing the stops.”

He gave a strange, harsh little laugh that seemed somehow unlike him. He stared at the low, innocuous looking buildings, his gaze thoughtful, but he did not appear especially moved. She couldn’t tell if it was contempt, or anger, or some other emotion. 

He was, she knew, no chauvinist, that his self-made victimhood was not that of the hard hearted generation of unrepentant order-followers. His disdain for the brutal hierarchies of power-hungry men originating in the rise of the übermensch ideology was not merely fashionable or performative. She might almost have loved him for that, but it hadn’t stopped him from leaving her at their mercy, and then apparently forgetting about it.

It wasn’t a long walk to the half-timbered antique Union Hotel, but her foot was throbbing in that strange not-quite-painful way. The flesh was aware it was traumatized and inflamed, but the severed nerves didn’t register the sensation. She must have been limping more than usual, because Augustin noticed, and wordlessly put his arm through hers to support her.

“You don’t need to — ” she protested, but he just looked at her with gentle exasperation, and she let it go. 

“We’ll check in under my name,” he said, again cutting her off. “My employers think I ran off with a woman for the summer, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some kind of investigation. I have to show up somewhere in the record in that capacity.”

Abwehr Man emerges, she thought with dull amusement. She didn’t argue this point, but allowed herself to be conveyed to the first floor room. Once inside, she kicked off her shoes and immediately fell back on the bed with no intention of getting up again. Augustin sat at the end corner, reaching out and taking her swollen foot in his hands. She jerked her head up, ready to tell him off, not to examine her or touch her. 

“Give it a damn rest, Kat,” he advised, and began to peel the sock from her foot.

It was only now that she realized she had been bleeding from the pulling of old stitches on the inner side, the part of her foot where her nerves had been surgically trimmed. She hadn’t felt it, and she didn’t really feel it when he took a wet warm cloth and sponged the blood traces. It wasn’t much, just the result of blistered cracking, and her neglecting to moisturize it with vaseline, which she hated doing.

Before she could stop herself, she sat up and glared at him. “If you were a diplomat, why were you close enough to combat to get blown up? And don’t tell me you don’t remember.”

He paused in his ministrations, looking at her with an expression of slightly guilty frustration. After a moment, he shrugged. “I was in a hotel in Istanbul when a suitcase bomb went off. It was quite terrible, actually. A lot of people were killed.”

Kat pulled her leg under her, and looked him in the eyes. “You were in the Pera Palace bombing?”

He visibly swallowed, his face slackening into an unconvincing credulity. “You know about it?”

“I was recovering at the Swiss hospital, remember? I spent a lot of time reading the papers. What were you doing in Istanbul?”

“I’d intended to present my credentials,” he said with measured slowness. “That didn’t happen, obviously.”

“And you were aware that the bomb was planted in the luggage by Gestapo?”

He dropped his chin and looking hard at her. “Why are you interrogating me, Kat?”

“Presumably,” she continued, ignoring his question. “Because you had not yet presented your credentials, they failed to get warning to you that there was an unexploded bomb in the British diplomatic entourage.”

Augustin went very, very still. She met his angry stare, wondering if this was his precursor to going limp, or if he was priming himself to run, or perhaps even lash out at her. She knew she’d made a mistake, showing him just how much she knew about his self-invention, but she didn’t care. She’d never been skilled at keeping her temper in check when she knew she was being lied to. 

He opened his mouth as though intending to speak, paused, ran through whatever untruths he’d lined up, and decided to use none of them. He wasn’t a very good liar when it came to details, something that gave her to suspect that some of his offerings were honest. She knew he had some form of diplomatic office, because she had his passport — but the lie stood out by the absence of any Turkish stamp in it. It made his claim of suffering an amnesia inducing injury far more dubious, and it was remarkably convenient to cover any gaps where he might have been acting for the Abwehr. 

Growing bored with the impasse, she pointed to her handbag, sitting on the chair. “Please pass me that.”

He continued to stare for a moment, his brows knit, his entire aspect caught in the act of trying to make her out, to figure out what precisely she wanted from him. She was about to get up, to go retrieve the thing herself when he rose, picked it up and dropped it next to her on the bed. He remained standing as she dug out a little jar of petroleum jelly, watching as she she massaged it over the ugly, roughened skin. He was silent throughout, his resolve confused by the sight of her tending the old wound. 

“Is the restaurant any good?” she inquired, softening her tone just enough to suggest a truce.

“I don’t know,” he said stiffly. “It’s been a few years since I was here last.” 

“I was curious,” she said as she rose from the bed, then went to her luggage to unearth her soft shoes. “You can’t hold that against me.”

“You have a very strange way of showing it.”

She met his eyes. “You mean I didn’t grab hold of your appendage and demand to know where it’s been? Was that gallant or sensitive?” 

He had the shame to look away, the hard line in his mouth softening into something more uncertain. Then he met her eyes again. “I thought we weren’t supposed to be candid indoors.” 

“About our pasts?” she cast a mean smile at him. “I have nothing to hide. But it’s hardly fair to keep it so one sided, Augustin. So tell me about Istanbul.”

He gave an exasperated sigh. “There’s not much to tell. Shall I start with the hospital? Or the long dark absence preceding it? Or the countless hours spent in neurological clinic in Vienna?”

“So you went back to Germany?”

“Enough. You don’t get to do this, Kat. You watched me — you stalked me — for months. I’m not telling you about my war until you’ve told me about yours. Until you’ve told me about your life. About the reason why.”

She limped the few steps over to him, half expecting him to cringe away, but he remained steady as she lay her hand on his chest. Expressions of frustration, of apprehension chased each other on his features.

“My life is nothing,” she told him honestly. “I’ve lived at the bottom of my own grave for the past decade. It’s the easiest place to hide from the mistakes I’ve made.”

“What mistakes could be so bad that you would martyr yourself by staying here? I don’t believe the state could really keep you here if you decided you wanted to leave.”

“I didn’t stalk you,” she said firmly, wanting him off this line of questioning. “I didn’t audit your course intending to… “ she gave a helpless shrug to accentuate the lie. “I enjoyed listening to you talk. Maybe I was confused, I don’t know. Maybe all of this was a mistake.”

He caught her hand as she withdrew it, pulled it to his lips. “I don’t believe you. But I’m not nearly ready to admit defeat, so let’s go get dinner. I want to hear what happened at the chateau.”

She assented, grateful for his self-deception, and allowed him to the lead the way.