Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

    by Peter S. Beagle
Artwork by Kevin Wasden

Jansen knew perfectly well that when Arl asked him to drive her to the clinic for her regular prenatal checkup, it meant that every single one of his daughter's usual rides was unavailable. She had already told him that it wouldn't be necessary for him to wait; that Elly, her mother, would be off work by the time the examination was done, and could bring her home. They drove down to Klamath Falls in silence, except for his stiffly-phrased questions about the health of the child she was carrying, and the state of her preparations for its arrival. Once he asked when she expected her husband back, but her reply was such a vague mumble that he missed the sense of it completely. Now and then he glanced sideways at her, but when she met his eyes with her own fierce, stubborn brown ones, he looked away.

When they parked at the clinic, he said, "I'll come in with you."

"You don't have to," Arl said. "I told you."

"Yeah, I know what you told me. But it's my grandson in there" -- he pointed at her heavily rounded belly -- "and I'm entitled to know how he's getting on. Let's go."

Arl did not move. "Dad, I really don't want you in there."

Jansen consciously kept his voice low and casual. "Tell you what, I don't care." He got out of the car, walked around to the passenger side, and opened the door. Arl sat where she was for a moment, giving him the I just dare you face he'd known since her childhood; but then she sighed abruptly and pushed herself to her feet, ignoring his offered hand, and plodded ahead of him to the clinic. Jansen followed closely, afraid that she might fall, the walkway being wet with recently melted snow. He would have taken her arm, but he knew better.

This one would rather die than forgive me. Gracie almost has, Elly might -- someday -- but Arl? Not ever.

In the clinic they sat one chair apart after she signed in. Jansen pretended to be browsing through Sports Illustrated until Arl disappeared with the Ob/Gyn nurse. He lowered the magazine to his lap then, and simply stared straight ahead at the gray world beyond the window. A sticky-faced child, running by, kicked his ankle and kept going, leaving its pursuing mother to apologize; a young couple sitting next to him argued in savagely-controlled whispers over the exact responsibility for a sexually-transmitted disease. Jansen froze it all out and asked himself for the hundredth useless time why he shouldn't sell the shop -- or just close it and leave, the way people were walking away from their own homes these days. Walk away and put some daylight between himself and trouble. Hanging around sure as hell wasn't doing him any good, and alimony checks didn't care whether you mailed them from Dallas or down the block. Neither did Elly and the girls, not so you'd notice. At least in Dallas he could be warm while he was lonely. He let his eyelids drift shut as he tried to imagine being somewhere else, being someone else, and failed miserably in the attempt. Eyes closed, all the screw-ups and disappointments just seemed to press in closer than ever.

Shit, he thought. All of it, all of it. And then, At least the little rugrat quit zooming around. That's something.

The magazine slid from his relaxed fingers, but he didn't hear it hit the floor, and when he opened his eyes to reach down and pick it up he saw that he wasn't in the waiting room anymore.

He wasn't in Klamath Falls anymore, either. It was night, and he was on the Axel-Springer-Strasse. Instantly alert, he knew where he was, and never thought for a second that he was dreaming. Despite shock, beyond the uncertainties and anxieties of age, he knew that after more than forty-five years he was back at the Wall. The Wall that didn't exist anymore.

Kreuzberg district, West Berlin, between Checkpoint Charlie and the checkpoint at Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, just past where the Zimmerstrasse runs out and the barbed wire and barriers start zigzagging west . . .

There it was, directly before him, just there, lit by streetlamps -- not the graffiti-covered reinforced concrete of the Grenzmauer 75 that had been hammered to bits by the joyously triumphant "woodpeckers," East and West, when Germany was reunited, and the pieces sold off for souvenirs, but the crude first version he had patrolled in 1963, a gross lump haphazardly thrown together from iron supports, tangles of barbed wire, and dirty gray cement building blocks the East German workers had pasted in place with slaps of mortar no one bothered to smooth. Jansen said softly, "No." He put his fingers to his mouth, like a child, shaking his head hard enough that his neck hurt, hoping desperately to make the clinic waiting-room materialize around him; but the Wall stayed where it was, and so did he.

He was sitting, he realized, in the doorway of a building he did not want to think about; had, in fact, refused to think about for many years. The old ironwork of the entrance was hard and cold against his shoulders as he pushed away from it and struggled to his feet.

Everything around him was familiar, his memory somehow fresher for so rarely having been examined. To his right the Wall angled sharply, blocking the road and continuing along the Kommandantenstrasse, while across from him he could see, just barely, the top of the eastern guard tower that looked down on the Death Strip, that deadly emptiness between the eastern inner fence and the Wall, where the VoPos and Russians would fire on anyone trying to make it across to West Berlin.

Jansen turned from the Wall and took a few hesitant paces along the street. Most of it had actually belonged to East Germany -- the Wall had been built several meters inside the formal demarcation line between East and West, so in some places any West Berliner who stepped too close was in danger of being arrested by East German guards; but elsewhere, in the West Berlin suburbs and beyond, there had been small family gardens growing literally in the shadow of the Wall, and even a little fishing going on. Jansen had always admired the Germans' make-do adaptiveness.

Here in the city's urban heart, however, the buildings and shops and little businesses displayed a jumble of conditions, some still unrepaired nearly twenty years after the Allies had bombed and blasted their way into Berlin. Aside from the pooling glow of the streetlamps, Jansen could see no slightest sign of life. All the windows were dark, no smoke rose from any chimneys, and there was no one else in the street. The world was as hushed as though it had stopped between breaths. Beneath the unnaturally starless, cloudless black of the night sky there was not so much as a pigeon searching for crumbs, or a stray dog trotting freely.

Jansen moved on in the silence, confused and wary.

A few buildings past the Zimmerstrasse he couldn't take it any more. Feeling overwhelmed in the empty quiet, he knocked at the next door he came to, and waited, struggling to bring back what little German he had ever had. Sprechen Sie Englische?, of course. He'd used that one a lot, and found enough Germans who did to get by. But there was also Wo bin ich? -- "where am I?" and Was ist los? -- "what is happening?" -- and Bitte, ich bin verloren -- "please, I'm lost." They all seemed entirely appropriate to his situation.

When no one responded, he knocked again, harder; then tried the next door, with the same result, and then the three doors after that, each one in turn. Nothing. Yet he had no sense of the city being abandoned, evacuated; even the front window of the little shop where he and Harding had taken turns buying sausages and cheese for lunch was still crowded with its mysterious, wondrous wares. He saw his dark reflection in the shop window, and recognized his daily grizzled self: lean-faced and thin-mouthed, with deep-set, distant eyes . . . no change there, he thought: an old man caught, somehow, in this younger Jansen's place.

He might have graduated from knocking to shouting, except for what he discovered at the next intersection.

Ernie Hamblin -- one of the traffic section MPs quartered with Jansen in the Andrews Barracks -- had gotten a big laugh out of Jansen getting turned around and lost, twice, in his first week on duty, all because the two streets that met here had four different names, one for each direction of the compass. Jansen looked to the right, up the Kochstrasse, and saw nothing unusual when compared with his memory. Straight ahead -- as Axel-Springer-Strasse became the Lindenstrasse -- looked wrong, but in the darkness he couldn't quite make out why. To the left though, down the Oranienstrasse, there was nothing.

Literally nothing. No street, no houses, no streetlamps . . . only the same endless black as the sky, extending both outward and downward without the slightest hint of change. He walked as close to the road's sharp edge as he dared, trying to make sense of what he wasn't seeing, but could not. It wasn't a cliff face or a pit: it was simply emptiness, darkness vast and implacable, an utter end to the world, as if God had shrugged, shaken His head and walked away in the middle of the Third Day. The ground that should have been there was gone. The city that should have been built on it was gone and worse than gone, carved away with absolute, unhuman precision. Looking out and away at that edge, where it floated rootless in the black sky, Jansen could see buildings that had been neatly sliced in half, as though by some cosmic guillotine, their truncated interiors looking pitifully like opened dollhouses.

After a while Jansen realized that the edge had a shape; and that it matched, block for receding block, the cartoon lightning jag that was the corresponding section of the Wall. In the face of that understanding, rational thought was impossible. He turned and ran, and didn't notice anything at all until he stopped, out of breath and shaking, in front of the same doorway where he'd come back to this place.

It was open.

Jansen stood for a long time at the foot of the narrow stair, looking up into the shadows and becoming more aware with every passing moment that the last thing he wanted to do was go even one step further, because that would commit himself irrevocably to whatever reality lay in wait at the top. When he did finally begin to climb, his body felt like the body of someone heavier than he, someone older, and even more weary.

The second floor stairs creaked on the sixth and eleventh steps, exactly as he remembered. All the interior doors were closed, blocking out the light from the street, so by the time he reached the fourth landing he was feeling his way, palms and fingers rasping over the rough burned wood and ragged wallpaper. The Berlin Brigade may have sworn by spotless uniforms and occupied fancy officers' quarters, but they took their OPs -- their observation posts -- largely as theyfound them. Jansen counted right-hand doorframes, stopping when he got to the third. His hand found the familiar shape of the brass doorknob, turned it, and eased the door open, grateful to see light again, even if it wasn't very strong this high above the streetlamps.

The first thing his eyes registered was the neatly folded khaki sweater on the one old armchair in the room. Just where I left it . . . transferred to Stuttgart on half an hour's notice, never did get back here. Then he saw the folding chair placed carefully on its handmade wooden riser, in front of the open window, and the crude signatures and battalion numbers and obscenities scratched into the walls, including six-inch high letters that said T HE "40" HIRED gUNS. Next to that was a blocky '50s-vintage German wall telephone, its cord dangling above a beaten-up oil heater. On the cheap metal table in the corner were a couple of paperbacks -- Mickey Spillane, Erle Stanley Gardner -- and some torn candy bar wrappers. Harding, he thought. Three crap mysteries from the PX every week, like clockwork, along with half their Baby Ruths and Mounds. Good as gold or cigarettes when it came to bartering with the street kids.

Jansen picked up the Spillane book, opened it, and realized that it was completely blank inside its lurid cover. He frowned, then dropped the empty book and lifted the wall telephone's absurdly light-blue handset. He held it to his ear, and the result was exactly what he expected: no dial tone, no static sputter -- nothing but the dark silence of a long-dead line. He jiggled the hook, which was pointless but irresistible, and then hung up, a little harder than he perhaps needed to do.

After that he moved to the window, easing gently down into the folding chair positioned before it, because the dream-prop wooden riser under its legs was obviously just as flimsy as the one he'd teetered on so many times back in the real West Berlin. All he needed were his old binoculars and some wet-eared short-time 1st Lieutenant bitching at him and it would be like he'd never left. Except, of course, that there had been a couple of Germanys then, and as he looked out across the street he could see that the world was just as gone on the GDR side of the Wall as on this one. Ahead of him lay the Death Strip he had looked down upon every day for almost two years, the pale gravel raked over the flat ground between the crude outer Wall, topped with Y-shaped iron trees supporting a cloud of barbed wire, and the even cruder inner wall on the other side of the ramshackle watchtower. But the VoPo barracks he knew from before, the decaying and abandoned pre-War buildings that should have been there, were not; and as he looked from right to left, as far as he could see, sharp-edged blackness traced a line that paralleled the Wall itself. Spotting one or two of the old Russian T-62 tanks would have been a strange but distinct comfort right now, but of course there weren't any.

The telephone rang.

Jansen spun in his chair and the riser gave way beneath his shifting weight with a sharp crack, spilling him heavily to the ground. His back twisted, muscles on the lower left side spasming, and his right knee flared red with pain. Damn. Real enough to hurt like a son of a bitch!

The phone rang a second time, then a third ring, a fourth. It took him that long to struggle back to his feet and hitch straight-legged over to it, his right knee still not trustworthy.

He put his hand on the receiver. It seemed to buzz like a rattlesnake in his fingers, and he held onto it for a second he could make himself pick it up and put it to his ear.

He said, "Who is this?"

An instant of silence; then a sudden burst of surprised laughter. "So who should it be, bulvan?" The accent was Russian, as was the gruff timbre of the voice. Even the laughter was Russian. "Come to the window, so I can see you again. I am wondering if you are the Rawhide or the Two-Gun Kid."

Jansen said, "For God's sake, who are you? Where are you?"

"Come look. I will turn on light."

Jansen moved stiffly back to the window, the receiver cord just long enough to stretch. Stepping over the fallen chair, he put his free hand on the windowsill and leaned down to look out. A hundred yards away, toward the far side of the Death Strip, the lights inside the East German guard tower were blinking on and off. As he watched, the pattern stopped and the lights stayed on, allowing him to see a small, bundled-up figure pointing one forefinger at him, sighting along it like a pistol.

Into the handset, Jansen said, "You?"

"Garazhi, Rawhide. Me. So good to see you again." The distant figure executed a clumsy bow.

"Why are you calling me that?" Jansen's mouth was so dry it pained him.

The chuckle came through the receiver again. "The glorious Soviet army was not nearly as efficient as your leaders liked to believe. Knew only the names of your officers, no one else. But from first day we looked across at each other, I had to call you something. I was learning English from comic books -- very big on black market, you see, the westerns with horses and guns and silly hats, so I called you Rawhide Kid and that short man --"

"Roscoe Harding."

"Really? For us he was Two-Gun Kid, and your mostly night fellows, Kid Colt and Tex Hopalong. Very satisfying, very shoot-'em-up. We had many such jokes."

"You don't want to know what we called you."

Another laugh. "Possibly not. But what name should I give you now, Rawhide? We are both older, I see, and it does not suit."

"My name's Jansen. Henry Jansen. Listen, you, whatever your name is --"

"Leonid," said the voice in his ear. "Leonid Leonidovich Nikolai Gavrilenko."

"That's a mouthful."

"True. But we are such old acquaintances, you must call me Lyonya. Or not, as you prefer. I do not presume." He paused, then said "Welcome back to the Wall, my friend Jansen. Henry."

"Look behind you." Jansen kept his voice deliberately flat, but he could feel himself struggling not to panic. "This place isn't real."

"Da, temnyi. The darkness. I have seen."

Jansen said, "What the hell is going on? I can't be here. I was in a clinic waiting room with my daughter. She's seven months pregnant, and her husband's run off somewhere. She'll need me." Even as he spoke the words, he tasted their untruth in the back of his mouth. Arl had never had a chance to need him, and wouldn't know how to begin now, even if he wasn't who he was. But the Russian was impressed, or sounded so.

"Lucky man, Henry. I congratulate you, to have someone needing you. A good life, then? Since we saw each other last?"

"No," Jansen said. "Not so good. But I have to get back to it right now. Arl -- my daughter -- she won't know where I am. Hell, I don't know where I am."

"That is, I think, what we should be finding out. We put our thinking caps on, you and I." A certain growling bemusement had entered the Russian's voice. "Do Americans still say that? It cannot be accident, this place. Something is happening to us, something has brought us here. Have looked, but seen no one but you. So I think now, yes, after all, we must meet in person, do you not agree? At last, meet. With thinking caps."

As absolutely as Jansen wanted to leave the room, the deep suspicion that had been born in him here -- never to abate fully -- had its own hold. "I'm not sure that's a good idea, tovarich."

"No one is using that word anymore." Gavrilenko's voice was flat, without rancor or any sort of nostalgia. "Except the comedians. A comedy word now. Listen, Jansen, we don't give it up so fast! It is not good to be in this place alone, surely, whatever it is. That is why I called you. Old place, old face from old place, old time -- this cannot be coincidence."

Jansen frowned. "Maybe, maybe not. But that's another thing. How did you know this number? Nobody was supposed to have it but the commander and the NCOIC. They didn't even give it to us! Some kraut spy sneak it out to you? Was that another one of the jokes?"

"You are not thinking, Henry."

"Go to hell, Gavrilenko. Why should I trust a single goddamn thing you say? I want to go home!"

There was a long silence.

He threw the receiver down, grabbed the empty window frame with both hands and stuck his head out into the night. "Do you hear me, you Russian asshole? I want to go home! I have to go home!"

He saw the woman then, entering the Death Strip from somewhere just beyond and to the right of the watchtower. She walked quickly, looking from side to side, shoulders tense, head forward. She wore a faded light-brown coat, a transparent kerchief over her hair, and flat, rundown shoes. In one hand she carried what looked like a small duffel bag.

Oh God, oh no, Jansen thought. Not this, not this, not again.

The Russian had seen her too. Even at this distance Jansen clearly heard him shouting in Russian, and then in German. But she kept coming on, and suddenly Jansen understood that she was a ghost. He had never seen one before, but there was no doubt in his mind.

As the woman came even with Gavrilenko's tower she began to run, racing toward the Wall. Halfway there a battery of searchlights came on, so bright they were blinding to Jansen's dark-adjusted eyes. Automatic, self-activated, never did figure where the trip must be. Maybe they moved it around, be just like them . . .

And then the firing started.

He couldn't tell where it was coming from: there were no snipers shooting from jeeps or gun-trucks, and in the guard tower there was only the Russian -- yelling and screaming, yes, but without any weapon in his hands. Yet real bullets were somehow crackling and spitting all around the woman's churning legs, kicking up little spouts in the neatly-raked gravel like pettish children scuffling their feet. It wasn't happening exactly as it had happened, though. Back then there had been alarms, VoPos and West Berliners shouting -- Harding too, right in Jansen's ear -- dogs barking, engines revving, the mixed sounds of panic and hope and adrenaline-spiked fear. Here, after Gavrilenko stopped shouting, there was only the spattering echo of gunfire as the woman dodged left and right between the concrete obstacles.

I couldn't have done anything.

I couldn't!

The two paired hooks of a ship's ladder sailed over the Wall between two of the iron Ys, under the barbed wire, catching among the irregular concrete blocks and mortar. On the other side, out of his sight, the ghost pulled the ladder taut -- Jansen could see the hooks shift, almost coming loose before catching. The woman climbed rapidly: in another moment her head topped the Wall, and she pulled a pair of clippers from her waistband and swiftly opened a gap in the barbed wire barrier. Then she braced herself with her hands and looked directly into Jansen's eyes.

She was twenty-three, or so he'd been told, though at the time he had thought she looked older. Now she seemed incredibly young to him, younger than Arl, even, but her plain little face was as gray as the Wall, and her eyes were an inexpressive pale-blue. They were not in the least accusatory or reproachful, but once they had hold of Jansen, he could not look away. He wanted to speak, to explain, to apologize, but that was impossible. The nameless dead woman held him with eyes that neither glittered nor burned, nor even judged him, but would not let go. Jansen stood as motionless as she, squeezing the window frame so hard that he lost feeling in his fingers.

Then a single shot cracked his heart and the woman was suddenly slammed forward, her body twisting so that she fell across the top of the Wall, her left foot kicking one of the ladder hooks loose. She rolled partway onto her side, lifting her head for a moment, and again he saw her eyes. When they finally closed and freed him, he began to cry silently.

How long he stood weeping, he couldn't say. Gavrilenko did not call out to him across the gap, and there were no other sounds anywhere in the world. Jansen was still staring at the body on the Wall when -- exactly as though a movie were being run in reverse -- the dead woman sat up, crawled backwards to the ladder, reattached the dangling hook, and began descending as she had come. This time she did not look at him at all, and as her head dropped almost out of view the barbed wire knitted itself together.

He watched for a time, but she did not reappear.

The receiver felt as heavy as a barbell when he finally lifted the telephone. He could hear Gavrilenko breathing hoarsely on the line, waiting for him. "The Friedrichstrasse," Jansen said. "Checkpoint Charlie. I'll meet you there."

It had never taken Specialist 4 Henry Jansen -- 20 years old, of the 385th Military Police Battalion, specially attached to the 287th Military Police Company -- more than eight minutes to cover the four and a half blocks from the Axel-Springer-Strasse observation post to Checkpoint Charlie. The 66-year-old Jansen, kidnapped by the past and all but completely disoriented, took longer, partly because of his knee, but mostly due to mounting fear and bewilderment. The guillotine dark was constantly visible over the Wall that flanked him on his right, and to his left it waited at the end of every side street. Passing the t-intersections he couldn't help but stop and stare.

He consciously attempted to hold his shoulders as straight and swaggering as those of that young MP from Wurtsboro, but despite the effort his head kept lowering between his shoulders, like a bull trying to catch up with the dancing banderilleros, jabbing their maddening darts into him from all sides. The further he went into this unreal slice of an empty Berlin, the deeper the banderillos seemed to drive into his weary spirit.

I couldn't have helped her. I couldn't have helped, I couldn't . . . She lay there two hours, she bled to death right in front of me, and there wasn't anything I could do. Harding wouldn't let me go to her, anyway, and he outranked me.

But that thought didn't ease him, no more than it ever had. Why should he expect it to help now, in this false place and timeless time, this cage of memories?

By the time he reached Checkpoint Charlie he was sweating coldly, though not from exertion.

The checkpoint was a long, low shack set in the middle of the Friedrichstrasse, with a barrier of stacked sandbags arrayed facing the "Worker and Farmer Paradise" gate on the East German side. Just past the shack he could see the imbiss stand where he and his buddies had grabbed coffee, sodas, and sandwiches while on duty, and also the familiar hulk of a massive apartment building, abandoned and empty both then and now.

Someone was standing at the checkpoint, thoughtfully studying the guard shack, but it was not Gavrilenko. Jansen could tell that even from a distance. This stranger was a tall man with thinning blonde hair -- probably American, to judge by his neat but casual dress -- who looked to be in his middle to late 40s. When the man turned and caught sight of Jansen he looked first utterly astonished, and then profoundly grateful to see another human being. He hurried forward, actually laughing with relief. "Well, thank God. I'd just about come to believe I was the only living creature in Berlin! Glad to see there's two of us."

He had the faintest of German accents, hiding shyly under the broad, flat vowels of the Midwest. When he got to Jansen he put out a hand, which Jansen took somewhat cautiously.

"Hi," the tall man said. "My name's Ben. Ben Richter."

"I'm Henry Jansen." He let go of Richter's hand. "This isn't Berlin, though. It's not anywhere."

"No," the stranger agreed. "But it's not a dream, either. I know it's not a dream." He peered closely and anxiously into Jansen's face. "Do you have any idea what's happened to us?"

"Don't fall asleep in a Planned Parenthood clinic, I'll tell you that much," Jansen said. "That's where I was."

"I was trying not to fall asleep," Richter answered. "I was driving home from a business meeting, and my eyelids kept dropping shut. Just a few seconds at a time, but it's terrifying, the way your head suddenly snaps awake, and you know you're just about to crash into someone. Couldn't figure it out. I wasn't tired when I started out, got plenty of rest the night before. Weird." He seemed suddenly alarmed. "Do you think my car just went on, with no driver?"

Jansen felt his face grow cold, almost numb. "Couldn't tell you." After a pause, he added, "Ben, was it?"

"Actually, it's Bernd, but everyone's always called me Ben, since I started school. Kids just decide, don't they?"

Jansen said, "I knew somebody named Richter when I was in junior high. You got any relatives in Wurtsboro, New York?"

The tall man laughed slightly. "I don't know if I've got any relatives anywhere. Not in the States, for sure."

"Forget it. Guess I'm just looking for connections."

Richter grinned. "Not exactly surprising, given the circumstances."

"We're not alone," Jansen told him. "There's at least one more of us, anyway, a Russian. Name's Gavrilenko. We spotted each other across the Wall. He was supposed to meet me here -- I don't know what's keeping him." After a moment, he added, "Don't know how he got here; I mean, if he was asleep or not."

Richter asked hesitantly, "Did you and your friend -- uh, the Russian -- did you have any luck figuring this out?"

Jansen thought of the running dead woman, and the barbed wire mending itself. Even now some things were too crazy for him to say straight out.

"It has to be something to do with the Wall. Right? Has to. I mean, it's what's here." He watched for a reaction, but saw none. "And Gavrilenko and me, we were both on the Wall a couple of years after it went up. Nineteen sixty-three, sixty-four -- kids, both of us. He was a guard over there, I was an MP over here. Never got above Specialist 4, so I did some of everything. Pulled patrol, hauling drunk GIs out of bars, clubs, like that. A little checkpoint duty right here" -- he gestured around him -- "but mostly I was in an observation post over on the Axel-Springer-Strasse. That's how we knew each other back then, two strangers waving across the Wall in the mornings." He realized that he was now talking much too fast, and consciously slowed his speech. "Long ago, all that crap. You wouldn't be interested -- you weren't even born then."

"Yes, I was," Richter said quietly. He said nothing more for a few moments, studying Jansen out of chestnut-brown eyes set in an angular, thoughtful face. "There's a Marriott there now, you know, at that corner. In the real world, I mean. Right where the Wall was."

"How do you know that?"

"I've stayed there. My wife's German, so we visit. And I've got a little business going." He looked around slowly, then shrugged. "Weird. Only seen it like this in pictures. Maybe you can tell me about it?"

Jansen blinked. "Tell you about what?"

"Berlin in those days. When you were a kid MP -- probably a couple of years out of high school, right?" He did not wait for Jansen's answering nod. "See, I was born in Berlin, but I wasn't raised here. Didn't come back until the Wall fell in eighty-nine -- just felt I had to, somehow -- and that's how I met Annaliese." The smile was simultaneously proud and tender. "We live in St. Paul. Three boys, a girl, and an Irish setter. I mean, how bourgeois American can you get?"

"Wouldn't know," Jansen said. "Wish I knew what's keeping Gavrilenko."

"Listen, let's sit down somewhere, okay? While we wait for your Russian friend."

Richter walked around the guard shack and hoisted himself up onto the top row of sandbags. Jansen followed him, and he and Richter sat with their legs dangling, looking straight ahead, both of them unconsciously kicking their heels against the sandbags' brown canvas. The tall man was the first to speak. "Hard to believe these were for real. Not exactly a lot of protection."

"Better than nothing," Jansen said. "I wasn't in the Army then, but in October of '61, a few months after the Wall went up, there was an all-day standoff right here between our guys -- Fortieth Armor, Sixth Infantry -- and about thirty Russian tanks. See, we were set to show them that we could still drive anywhere we wanted in the GDR, and they were going to show us that those days were over. And you better believe there were dogfaces crouching behind these same sandbags, locked and loaded and ready to start World War Three, just say the word. I saw the pictures in the Wurtsboro paper."

Richter shrugged. "I've read about the standoff. Seems a little ridiculous, frankly. Awful lot of chestbeating for something that didn't even last a day."

"True. But it could have been worse. Ask me, the Russkies came out on top, any way you slice it -- from that point on they handed out a lot of shit here, every crossing, and it may have been small shit, but we couldn't give it back since we had orders to play nice. Well . . . not all of them. That's not fair. Mainly it was the generals who were trouble, the big ones who gave the orders and made asses of themselves when they'd come into West Berlin. The men were okay. Russkies, Krauts, they were okay. Even some of the VoPos."

"Ah. The Volkspolizei."

"Just like us MPs, only with more training and a lot more firepower." Jansen chuckled in his throat. "We had a big snowball fight with a bunch of VoPos one time." He paused, reflecting. "Couldn't make a decent snowball for shit, most of them. Always wondered about that."

Richter cocked his head slightly to the side, considering Jansen meditatively. "So you actually had fun, too. It wasn't all confrontations with tanks and going into bars after drunken soldiers."

"Trick was to keep from staying in the bars with the drunken soldiers," Jansen told him. "The city was booming with bars, with clubs, a couple new ones opening every week. Some you'd go to for the beer, some for the great music -- one time I heard Nat King Cole and Les Paul and Mary Ford on the same night. Two-buck tickets! Some places, you'd take a young lady, some others you'd go to find a young lady. Yeah, we had a lot of fun in Berlin. Nineteen, twenty-year-old kids with guns and money, never been away from home before, never drunk anything stronger than Pabst? We had fun."

Jansen studied Richter. The man's expression was an odd mixture of wistfulness and something deeper, something impatient beyond his interest in Jansen's surfacing memories. For his part, Jansen had not talked this much to anyone in a very long while, and he'd never shared these stories, not even with Elly or the kids. Sharing would have meant deliberately remembering everything, which even the drinking couldn't deal with. Here, though, that self-imposed restriction was as pointless as the rest of it.

"There was a game we used to play," he said. "Worked best in the winter too, only we didn't need snow for this one, we needed ice." He pointed ahead of them, toward a broad white line painted on the ground. "That's the border, near as anybody could figure. Ground got good and icy, you'd take a run and throw yourself down, and slide, like you're sliding into a base, only you're sliding right into the GDR." He laughed outright at the memory. "Then you'd get up and run right back across the line, safe in the good old American Sector. The Krauts used to watch us and just laugh themselves silly."

Richter said musingly, almost to himself, "All those good times . . . and all the things going on just under the surface." Jansen frowned, not understanding. Richter went on. "More than a hundred thousand people tried to escape into West Berlin from East Germany in the twenty-eight years the Wall sealed it off. Did you know that, Henry?"

"Knew it was a lot," Jansen said. "Didn't know it was that many -- thought the big rush was all before the Wall."

"It was. But another hundred thousand, afterwards. Most went to jail. Maybe five thousand made it through. And a lot died. But you were here. You know that."

Her dark hair, her pale-blue eye, the little sound she made at the last, dying . . .

"Yeah. I do."

Richter had turned away, looking toward the point where the blackness slashed down forever on the East German apartment buildings. But his voice was clear and precise as he said, "Different organizations have different estimates. When the Wall fell, when Germany was reunited, the East German state wasn't in any hurry to release records that made them look like the killers they were. We've had to build up a database one case at a time, literally. One escape attempt at a time. One body at a time. Counting the heart attacks, the wounds that turned fatal on the other side of the Wall, the ones who just disappeared forever, the babies smothered trying to keep them quiet. Officially -- you check the encyclopedia articles, the tourist handouts -- only 136 people died. But we're figuring twelve hundred, minimum. Not that we'll ever be able to prove half of them." His voice was calm and almost expressionless, utterly dispassionate.

"We," Jansen said. "Who's we?"

Richter laughed suddenly, warmly, with a touch of embarrassment as faint as his accent. "I'm sorry. I forget not everyone is as obsessed with this as I am. We is the August 13 Society -- I do fundraising for them in the States, and volunteer work for them when I'm here . . . I mean, there. Real Berlin. We're actually trying to document every case where people died trying to cross, not just the Wall, but the entire East-West border -- to memorialize them, make them real for everybody. So they won't be forgotten again."

Jansen nodded, but did not respond.

Richter said presently, "What I can't figure out is the connection between all three of us -- you and me and our absent Russian. Before you showed up I thought I'd driven into a rail, that maybe I was dead and this was Hell; or else maybe I'd stroked out and was in a coma somewhere while my imagination played really bad games with me. But those two possibilities would exclude you, so cross them off the whiteboard . . . which leaves nothing. I've never before met either one of you, and you were both long gone from Berlin by the time I came back. So what's the link?"

"What's if it's just . . . I don't know, random. Coincidence."

"I don't buy that. I'm a mathematician, Henry. Anyway I was a mathematician, before I put together my little software company. This place may be impossible, but the odds against a common pattern when two of the three of us have an obvious connection? Maybe not totally impossible . . . let's just say highly unlikely."

Jansen said, "We sort of have the Wall in common. But it isn't the same. You obviously know a lot about it, what with this Society thing you do. But it's not like you ever served here. You didn't live with it every day, like us. You weren't ever on the Wall --"

"No," Richter agreed. "I wasn't."

To Jansen's eye, Richter seemed suddenly tense and hesitant, like someone trying to avoid making up his mind.

"Well," Jansen spoke up. "What is it? You going to shoot that bird or let it fly?"

The tall man nodded. "Interesting choice of words."

"My stupid mouth is half the reason I'm divorced. What'd I say this time?"

Richter hopped off the sandbags and walked a few steps before answering. When he did, his voice was dry and tight. "My mother was a Berliner."

"Yeah, you said you were born here. So?"

"East Berlin, Henry. She died on the Wall."

Jansen wanted to run again, like before, but his legs wouldn't get him down off the barrier. If he couldn't run, maybe he could scream?

Not your hell, maybe, you poor bastard. Definitely mine.

When he finally found words, they surprised him. "You don't sound like you're sure."

Richter turned and looked at him oddly. Jansen wondered if something unheard in his voice had given him away. He was about to speak again when the tall man finally answered.

"The records are all scrambled -- when there are records at all -- and they mostly don't have names in them, just scraps of facts and description. An address here, an occupation there, a set of initials, shorthand reports of a thousand disconnected, meaningless conversations . . . it's a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. I've been digging through the archives for a long time, learning how to read what's there and what's been omitted." His mouth tightened. "She died on the Wall, all right. The pieces of the picture are there."

"But you aren't certain."

"If you're asking me whether I have the Stasi-stamped file folder to prove it, no." Bitterness colored Richter's voice, and something Jansen couldn't begin to put a name to. He watched as the tall man stared fiercely at the ragged fringe of East German buildings that were visible from here.

"I never knew her," Richter continued. "My step-parents were friends with my mother, and they brought me with them when they got out of East Germany in 1960. It was her idea. She wasn't well -- pregnancy and childbirth had been rough -- and anyway she knew it would be easier for them, because they'd had a baby who died and they still had the right papers. The idea was that my mother would make it out on her own when she got better, and we'd all be in America together." His faint smile was small and young. "Only they built the Wall, and things didn't work out. She never showed up. One letter made it: nothing else. The Bruckners raised me on their own, in Wisconsin. They were good people. I can't complain."

"What about your father? Where the hell was he?" Unsummoned, there was a vision of Arl in Jansen's head, crying into Elly's arms because Larry had left without so much as a note two days after the little pink dot on the dipstick changed everything.

"Apparently I'm the by-product of a little too much Pilsner at a college party. She never told anyone his name, not even the Bruckners, not even with all the pressure of being nineteen and pregnant in a police state where social pressure favored abortion. All I know about der fehlende vater is that he must have been tall and blonde, because according to my step-parents nobody in my mother's family was. It had to come from somewhere."

The woman at the Wall. Got to be his mother. Goddamit, goddamit, tell him what you saw, you stupid coward . . . but maybe I don't have to. Maybe, maybe if I just shut up he'll talk about something else.

Where the hell's Gavrilenko?

At the same moment, Richter said "Enough with my sob story. I seriously don't think your Russian's coming. Let's go find him." He started off without looking back.

"Hold up," Jansen said, easing down off the sandbags. His knee had stiffened while he was sitting. "Old guy, here. Anyway, maybe we shouldn't be in such a hurry."

Richter stopped and looked at him quizzically. "Why not?"

Tell him you saw his mother. Tell him you saw her die. Twice.

"No reason." Jansen stared into Richter's eyes. How could he have missed how much they looked like hers? "It's just . . . what if we take a different route than he does, coming here, and we miss each other?"

"Then we'll come back. Anyway, there's not a whole lot of there over there. Come on," Richter said, and this time his grin was a young boy's. "It's not icy, but I bet we can imagine we're sliding across the line."

The Wall on this side ran behind houses that looked like an abandoned stage or movie set: if the west side looked as though every inhabitant had suddenly left town, but might return at any second, here the air of a forced and permanent evacuation was glaringly inescapable. Doors and windows were not merely boarded over, but bricked up as well; many buildings had been demolished, and the rubble -- often topped with barbed wire -- left in place, to block any passage to the Wall. There were warnings, genuine or not, of minefields -- Richter translated the signs for Jansen -- and the whole effect was of desertion and neglect. The two men walked close together, automatically speaking in low voices and moving at a pace tailored to accommodate Jansen's slower steps.

Chickenshit. You could walk faster. You're just afraid of getting there.

Jansen asked presently, "You got into it, this August thing, because of your mom?" But Richter shook his head.

"Not exactly, not the way you mean. My step-parents wanted me to grow up to be a good American, so I was assimilated as hell. They told me about my mom -- her name was Zinzi, by the way -- but not much else, not until I was older. I definitely had the American habit of not thinking about the past very much, and certainly not some faraway European past that might as well have been in an old library book, as far as I was concerned. My head was all forward, all the time. I went to a good college, studied math and computer programming, got naturalized, taught for a while. I was an assistant professor of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin when I came to Berlin to drink dark beer and knock down my own piece of the Wall and wound up meeting Annaliese instead. Hah. Hey, I never asked -- you married?"

"Already told you I was divorced. Twice, actually."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Don't be. Just the ways things are." Jansen felt his heart thudding harder in his chest. "My first ex used to say I was a coconut in a world of bananas. I can hurt people just bumping into them."

"Colorful. Any kids?"

"Two daughters. They hate my guts too, but the pregnant one hates me worse. So there's a bright spot."

Richter stopped walking and turned to face Jansen. "Even if things righteously suck with your kids, I'm sure you remember when they were little. So maybe you'll get this. When Jacob -- my son -- when Jacob turned six months old, the same age I was when I was brought to America . . . I remember, I looked down at him in my arms, burping bubbles and trying to eat my shirt buttons, and I tried to imagine what Zinzi Richter would have said if she could have seen him, her first grandchild. And I thought how lucky I was to be able to tell him everything my step-parents had told me about her, even if it wasn't all that much. Then I started thinking about all the people who wouldn't ever know what happened to their grandparents or their parents, and I'd read about the August 13 Society, and one thing led to another. I'd started up my company by then -- we do case management software for big legal firms -- and our code was pretty useful for what the Society does, so I had an in. And here I am." He smiled crookedly, spreading his hands.

"Makes sense," Jansen said.

"You should tell Jacob that. He thinks I'm crazy. My mother really is just a page in a scrapbook to him. He's going to be fifteen next June, and what he likes about coming over here is that he's tall enough now to get away with telling the local girls he's really seventeen."

They started on again, both of them unconsciously keeping to the right side of the road, away from the darkness they could see on the other side of the decayed and empty buildings. To Jansen it definitely seemed closer here, which bothered him. He thought of the suddenly open door back on the Axel-Springer-Strasse, and the words herding us passed through his mind.

Richter said, "You can tell I'm nervous, because I'm talking too much."

That surprised Jansen. "You don't act nervous."

"Quaking in my Nikes. Not the slightest sign of danger since I showed up here, but this place is really starting to creep me out. Hence the talking."

"So talk," Jansen said firmly. "Tell me more about your kids."

"I'd rather listen. Tell me what you do."

Jansen grunted, waved the question away.

"No, seriously."

"Nothing important. I remodel stuff. Kitchens and bathrooms, mostly. One-man gang, hire extra help when I have to. Been doing it more or less since I left the Army."

"That's good work," Richter said. "You do your job, and then when you're finished, when you look at what you've done, you get to see that you've made something better, made it work, made it beautiful. There's pride in that. You're a lucky man."

"Gavrilenko called me that too," Jansen said slowly. "I don't think I'm so damn lucky." Richter regarded him curiously. Jansen said, "I'm good with my hands, with wood and tile and plastic piping, but that's it. Sinks and toilets, cabinets and countertops? Sure. People? Forget it. My exes, my kids, they're all right about me. Since I got back from Germany, I can't think of one damn thing that's gone right, except work. Not one damn thing in forty years."

Richter said, "It's the Wall." Jansen looked up in surprise. "People I work with -- former refugees, their families -- they tell a story that one guy who didn't make it over put a curse on the Wall with his dying breath. He made it so even if you escape, even with the Wall down and gone, there's still a curse that follows you in your life. Because you got out and he didn't."

Jansen thought nobody ever gets out. But what he said was "No offense, but that's bullshit. Anyway, I didn't have anything to escape from. I did my time, got rotated to Stuttgart and then stateside. Period."

They walked a little way further in silence before Richter continued. "Maybe. But people tell stories like that because they mean something. And you said yourself that your troubles started here. It wasn't all snowball fights, Henry."

"Crap. I was a kid."

"Which makes it better how?" Richter's tone had shifted, the hint of impatience becoming more pronounced. "Good lord, man, you know I've been through the East German records fifty-seven times. I'm the guy with the damn database. So why are you dancing with me like this? Even on the official record there are at least three or four deaths that correlate with the time you must have been here. Fechter, he's the most famous, but there were others. And at least twenty, thirty more the Society is researching. Are you telling me none of that ever touched you, that you never saw anything? If not, then why the hell are you here? What's our connection?"

Jansen was shaking his head before Richter was halfway finished. "That's not it! It can't be it."

"What can't be it?"

Jansen started to turn away, but Richter squared off on him. The tall man's hands came down on Jansen's shoulders, and they were bigger hands than Jansen had noticed. He said nothing. He only waited.

Oh, God.

Jansen said tonelessly, "You can't put this on me."

"I didn't," Richter answered. "But you can take it off."

"Shit!" For just a moment Jansen couldn't breathe.

Richter's eyes were hot behind a face suddenly flattened into an unyielding mask. "I'm not an idiot. You've been wanting to tell me something since we were back at the sandbags. Spill."

"I -- I don't know who it was. Just some girl, some woman . . . I never knew her name." Jansen heard the sirens and shouting, the gunfire; only by Richter's lack of reaction did he understand that the blaring cacophony was all in his head. "But I'll never forget what happened. Hell, I still dream it."

Richter nodded him on.

"It was 1963. I was almost out, just screwing around on duty in the observation post, joking with Harding about making a midnight run to clip a little barbed wire off as a souvenir, something to take home with me. Then his eyes went all spooky and he said 'Oh Lord,' just like that, quiet as if we were in a library . . . and I saw what he was seeing. This woman --"

"Wait a sec. That was the Axel-Springer-Strasse OP?"

Jansen nodded.

Richter bored in. "July or November?"

"July. I wasn't here in November."

"Tell me what she looked like."

Jansen felt himself snapping. "Don't make me do this!"

"Tell me."

"You have to hear me say it? It was your mother! Of course it was your mother. She had your goddamn eyes, you bastard, and she came out of nowhere on the far side of the Death Strip, and maybe she would have made it if she were a little faster, or maybe she wouldn't, I don't know, I only know it was like they were playing with her, like they could have cut her down at any time, but they waited until she was halfway over the top. Then somebody took her out with a single shot and she lay there on top of the wall for two hours, two goddamn hours, bleeding out, never making a sound until the end, and the whole time I . . . the whole time . . ."

He turned his head, unable to bear looking into Richter's face.

"I wanted to go to her. Harding wouldn't let me. I did call the NCOIC and scream for a doctor, for help, for somebody, but nobody came. Nobody came. It was just me and Harding, and he wouldn't look. But for the whole two hours I did. I saw her die."

Richter's hands closed once, briefly. They seemed to sink past flesh and muscle to leave their fingerprints in his bones; yet, strangely, Jansen felt no pain at all. When Richter let go and lifted them away, something iron went with them that Jansen never tried to name.

"Yes," Richter said without expression. "I thought that might have been the one." He turned away.

"That's not all," Jansen said to the tall man's stiffened back.

Richter slowed down, but didn't stop.

"Here's the thing." Jansen had to raise his voice as the other man moved away. "You fell asleep in your car, and you woke up here in this theater set, but you didn't get to see the play. Me, I had to watch it all over again. So did Gavrilenko, from his guard tower. The run, the bullets, her death on top of the Wall. Everything. Do you hear me? I saw your mother die all over again . . . and when it was over I saw her climb back down, just like she was getting ready for another show. That's why Gavrilenko and I were supposed to meet. I don't know why I'm here, I swear to God I don't, but whatever I've done wrong in my life I can't possibly deserve having to see that again -- and you don't want to see it either. Trust me on that!"

Richter stood still and said nothing for what felt to Jansen like a very long time, but which was certainly only seconds. Then he heard Zinzi Richter's son say, simply, "Huh," and had to hurry to catch up with the tall man as he walked, with quickening strides, toward the darkness.

The guard tower had looked considerably more impressive and ominous from a dingy room in a crumbling apartment house across from the Wall than it did at close range. At once splintery-new and yet already rickety, it had far more of an agricultural air than a military one, looking somewhere between a flattened silo and a hayloft. Jansen felt that there should have been a weathervane on its squared-off roof.

Richter stopped in his tracks so suddenly that Jansen bumped into his back before he could halt himself. At the foot of the tower stairs stood the ghost of Zinzi Richter.

Ashen, slender, with dark auburn hair limp against her skull, as though with sweat, she paid absolutely no attention either to Jansen or to her staring son. All her concentration was directed up the single flight of rusted metal steps to the doorway where a big old man stood hugging himself as he rocked erratically against the doorframe. Zinzi Richter made no attempt to go up to him, but simply stood waiting at the foot of the stair.

"That's her," Richter whispered. "The Bruckners had one photo. Oh my God."

As though she had put on her Sunday best for the occasion, the ghost looked as clear and solid as any human being whose heart still jumped in the cage of her ribs, still ordered blood out to her fingertips and back through her throat and her thighs. Richter took a step toward her, but this time it was Jansen's hand clamping hard on his arm. Jansen said softly, "Wait. She's here for him."

Through binoculars -- the closest acquaintance he had ever had with Leonid Leonidovich Gavrilenko over the Wall -- Jansen had always seen the Russian as bull-featured and powerfully built, with an undomesticated mass of heavy black hair that stood up crazily on either side of his broad, high-boned face when he pulled off his knit woolen cap. The man he saw now had none of that force, nothing of that implicit swagger: he only slumped against the doorframe, his lips moving as though in prayer. Jansen thought, He's old; and then, No, I'm old, and I don't look like that. What's happened to him?

"That's why he didn't come to the checkpoint. He can't come down," Jansen said to Richter. "She's there, and he's afraid of her."

Richter ignored him. He pulled away from Jansen's grip and approached the ghost of Zinzi Richter, plainly trying not to run to her. He said, "Mother, it's me, I'm your son. I'm Bernd." He tried to take her hands in his, but she did not move, or look at him, or respond in any way. She stayed where she was, looking up the stair at Gavrilenko.

Jansen said, "Ben." A strange calmness was upon him, as though for the first time in his life he actually knew what to do. He said, "Ben, we have to go up there."

Richter turned to him, so determinedly not crying that Jansen felt tears starting in his own eyes. "I can touch her -- I didn't know you could touch ghosts. But she doesn't see me, she doesn't even know I'm here. I don't understand."

"She's waiting for Gavrilenko," Jansen said. "She'll wait forever, if she has to. You want to find out what all this is about, we have to bring him to her. Now."

The last word snapped out in a tone that surprised him; he hardly recognized his own voice. But it seemed to help Ben, who managed to get hold of himself and follow Jansen as the older man started up the guard tower stairs. Well, I did make it to corporal before it was all over. Might have made sergeant if I'd stayed in. Things I could have been. Jansen looked back once at the ghost. She had not stirred at all from her position, nor changed the direction of her gaze. Holy shit, the Russian's treed, is what it is. She's got him treed. He could not control a swift shiver.

Near the top of the stair he looked away from the tower and saw the darkness closing in, pitilessly paring away everything that was not itself.

The guardroom door was open. Gavrilenko backed away as Jansen and Richter came in, still seemingly holding himself together with both arms. In a rough, throaty grumble, a ghost itself of the striding peasant vigor Jansen had heard over the phone, the Russian said, "Unavoidably detained, Rawhide. Trouble on the range, I am afraid."

"You have to come down to her, Gavrilenko," Jansen said. "It's time."

"Is time, is time." Something of the jovial telephone derision flickered in the Russian's gruff voice. "Now you are sounding like a priest come to walk me to firing squad. No, Rawhide, I do not go with you. I stay here until she goes away. I can stay here.." He rose shakily to his full height, arms firmly folded across his chest.

"Leonid," Jansen said. "That woman down there -- the man with me is her son. Talk to him."

Gavrilenko turned to face Richter. His still-powerful face had gone grayish-white, making the beard stubble stand out starkly, like the last stalks of a gleaned-over wheat field.

"Her son . . ." Gavrilenko did not move, nor take his eyes from Richter's face for a long moment; then, to Jansen's astonishment, he began to smile. His teeth were remarkably white, unusual for an East European of his generation. He drew a short breath and recited, in the classic half-chanting Russian style, "After the first death, there is no other. Mr. Dylan Thomas, English poet."

When there was no response, Gavrilenko repeated, "He understood. Shakespeare, Pushkin, they did not understand so well as Mr. Dylan Thomas." He seemed unable to take his eyes from Richter. He said suddenly, "Your mother -- I knew her." The smile drew his lips flat against the good white teeth. "This one --" he jerked a thumb at Jansen -- "he only sees her dying, no more. But I . . . I saw her living -- she was good at living, Zinzi. Only a short time, we had, but we made of it what we can. Could -- what we could. You see, I forget my English so soon." The wide smile still clung to his lips, fading only slowly, like the shape of a cloud.

Richter's face was also taut, but his eyes remained steady and composed. He said quietly, "You were not my father."

Gavrilenko sighed. It was a long, slow sigh, almost theatrically Russian, and its wordless tone carried the suggestion of sorrow at once too deep to be born, and too hopeless to be worth bothering with. "No, I am not your father -- that was some student, she told me, gone off to the West before she even knew she was pregnant. But I could have been. For three weeks, I could have been."

It was not said boastingly or mockingly, but was somehow part of the sigh. Jansen thought about Arl's vanished husband and had to shake free of a sudden spasm of pure rage. "You helped her plan that run, didn't you? Had to be someone who knew the triggers, the timing."

"I do more, Rawhide. I show her the weak places, I show where the big searchlights are, where the VoPos hide -- everything I know, she knows." His voice had taken on the same singsong quality as when he quoted the Thomas line. "She had a little money, not so much. I spread it among the VoPos, everybody getting something -- so when she runs we are all turning into very bad shots, you understand? No big deal, everybody getting something." He clasped his big hands at the waist, like a child set to recite at school. To Richter he said, "I do all that for Zinzi Richter, for your mother. Because she was funny, and I liked her, you know? Also, I was young."

"Because you were screwing her and taking her money," Richter said harshly. "You used her."

"So? She is using me too." Gavrilenko appeared genuinely indignant. "You think she sleeps with me out of love? Chort -- she knows what she does, and so did I. She comes to me, straight to bed, down payment, right? Was a bargain, and both kept our word." He laughed abruptly. "Like I said, young."

Jansen said, "Something obviously went wrong."

Gavrilenko was silent for a long time. He did not turn away from them, but he ceased to look directly at Richter, and his glances at Jansen had become defiantly despairing. He said finally, "The Stasi, Stasi, KGB -- eyes everywhere, even when you know they have eyes. The day she makes her run . . . suddenly, no VoPos I recognize, no VoPos I pay money to, whole new crowd. Stasi agents, every one -- I know this. What to do? I want to warn her, but I am on duty, they have made sure I have no chance. You understand?" He was glaring at them both now, looking more like an old bull than ever. "You understand? I had no chance!"

After a moment he shrugged, long and deliberately. "Also no choice." Now he clearly forced himself to meet Richter's eyes, and the physical effort was visible on his face. He repeated doggedly, "No choice."

Richter's silence was more than Jansen could bear. He had to speak. "So you shot her. She trusted you, and you killed her."

"They were watching me!" It sounded as though Gavrilenko's throat was tearing from the words. "All of them, firing wide, missing and missing, watching, looking like this --" he mimicked someone stealing covert side-glances -- "waiting for me to shoot and miss, so they know I am traitor. Her or me, and what would you do, brave Rawhide?" He was breathing like a runner whose strength has ended before his race. "Sweet, funny little Zinzi, nice girl -- you tell me what you would do, eh? I wait."

Neither Jansen nor Richter responded, nor did they look at each other. For his part, the constant image in Jansen's mind of Zinzi Richter's doomed attempt to reach her baby kept being replaced by one of his own daughters. Outside the guardroom door, the edged darkness was slicing in closer, while through the window, in a strangely dizzying sweep, he could see back across the Death Strip and the Wall to the apartment where he had spent much of two years staring at this very room.

"I wait," Gavrilenko repeated, and this time it was not a mocking challenge. This time it was soft and urgent, almost plaintive, as though he really did want an answer, was in desperate need of any reply at all, For a third time he said, "I wait to be told what I should have done. Speak, wise Americanski friends."

"That's a comedy word," Jansen said. "Nobody uses that anymore."

Then Richter answered him at last, his words falling like the muffled strokes of an old clock. He said, "Mr. Gavrilenko, I have to thank you. If your guilt were not so great, if you had just been an agent, a VoPo, who shot my mother and went off to lunch, it would never have dragged you here to see her again. It would never have called to Henry's guilt, or to my own guilt for being born, and causing her death . . . her stupid, stupid, needless death." For those few words there was a sound in his voice like claws on stone, and his hands kept opening and closing at his sides.

"You can't think that," Jansen said. "She could have died the exact same way, even if you hadn't been born. Believe me, you do not want to spend your life thinking --"

Richter cut him off. "What I think is not important. We're here, and this has got to be why we're here. What we do now is what matters. We go down to my mother, to look into her face. All three of us. This is not a request."

He looked sharply at Jansen, who nodded. But Gavrilenko backed away, shaking his head, saying, "No, no, I cannot, will not, no, never possible." He wailed and struggled frantically when Jansen and Richter caught hold of his flailing arms and literally dragged him out of the guard room. Old and ill, half-mad or not -- his eyes were rolling as wildly as those of a terrified stallion -- he was still stronger than either of them alone, and their cramped passage down the guard tower's stairway was a battle. Jansen had a bloody nose by the time they had the Russian near ground-level, and Richter's shirt was splitting down the back seam. Through it all, Gavrilenko wailed and cursed in a absurd and piteous mix of Russian, German, and English, going utterly limp at the last, which meant hauling him the final few steps like a side of beef or bale of hay, until they were finally able to dump him at Zinzi Richter's feet and step back, breathless and exhausted.

The ghost saw them.

On her plain, unremarkable little face the joy of Richter's presence, his existence -- the fact of him -- leaped up like a flame in dry grass. Seeing this recognition, the tall man took her hands between his, bowed over them, and began to cry, almost soundlessly. She drew her hands free and held him close; but over his shoulder her eyes met Jansen's, and he actually staggered back a pace, shaken by the depth of the sorrow and sympathy -- sorrow specifically for him -- that he read there. He heard himself saying aloud, in absurd embarrassment, "Hey, it hasn't been as bad as all that. Really." But it had been, it had been, and she knew.

Then she gently released her son, and knelt down beside Gavrilenko, where he lay on his face, hands covering his eyes. With her own hands on his upper arms, she silently coaxed him to face her. Gavrilenko screamed once -- not loudly, but in a tone of pure terror, and of resignation to terror as well, like a rabbit unresisting in the clutches of a horned owl. He scrambled to a sitting position, his hands now flat on the ground beside him, face dazed and alien. The ghost commanded his eyes as she had Jansen's -- how long ago? -- holding them in thrall to her own, seeing through them and past them, down into uttermost Gavrilenko, his body shaking with the need to hide his eyes again but unable to do so. He whimpered now and then; and still clung to himself.

By and by he began to speak. "After first death, really is no other. You and me, Henry -- you remember us? Two tired, lonely, nervous boys in uniform, pretending to be men, doing job . . ." He rose slowly to his feet. "I kill so many people since then -- you know? Easy, really. Easy. Killings, I am telling you honestly, but no deaths . . . not after her." He did meet Zinzi Richter's quiet eyes then, though again Jansen saw the physical shock spread through his body. He said, "Different, you understand?"

Jansen asked, "You stayed in the army? No . . . what, you were KGB?"

"Oh, please, no KGB anymore," Gavrilenko reproved him. "In new democratic Russia, FSB -- execute you with new democratic pistol. No, Henry, I did my time in private enterprise. Big capitalist, all American values, even before it was common. You would be proud."

"The Mafia." Richter's voice was tight and thick, for all its evenness. "You worked for the Russian Mafia. You killed people for them."

Gavrilenko grinned at him like a skull. "Kill for the Mafia, kill for Mother Russia -- what difference? I was an independent contractor, just like American plumber." He nodded toward Jansen. "I went here, I went there, fix the sink, the toilet, go home, rest tired feet, watch the TV." He spoke directly to Zinzi Richter now, to no one else in the world. He said, "This is your blessing. You made me so."

Something he couldn't guess at made Jansen look away, and he fancied that he could actually see the darkness moving in around them if he watched it closely enough. From where they stood, nothing was visible now but the tower, the Wall in one direction, and the dark wall itself in the other . . . and after studying it, when he looked again on Gavrilenko he saw something that he could not have been expected to recognize, yet felt he should have seen from the moment he and Richter had entered the guardroom. With a sudden surge of wonder and pity, he whispered, "Leonid. You're like her . . ." He was trembling, and it was hard to get words out, or to remember what words were.

Gavrilenko shook his head slowly, heavily. "Not like her. She is long dead, forever young, forever innocent. While Leonid Leonidovich Nikolai Gavrilenko lies in Petersburg hospital, Walther PPK bullet in coward's brain." He grimaced in bitter disgust. "So many heads, so many bullets, one to a customer . . . only Gavrilenko, pig-drunk, old, sick, shaking with fear, cannot even kill himself decently . . . coward, coward, pathetic . . ." There were a few more words, all Russian.

The ghost of Zinzi Richter spoke then, without making a sound. Picking up her blue duffel bag, she looked at the three of them and mouthed a single word, rounding it out with great care and precision. Jansen could not read her lips, but Richter nodded. His mother gestured broadly, intensely with her free arm: pointing first toward the crouching, stalking darkness, then toward the Wall, unmistakably inviting them all to run with her while there was still time. She mouthed the silent word a second time.

Jansen and Richter both sensed Gavrilenko's decision before he even turned. They clutched at his arms, but he broke free with a frantic, wordless cry and dashed away from them, lunging and stumbling back toward the East Germany of their memories. Richter, quicker off the mark than Jansen, almost caught him at the inner wall; astonishingly, the old Russian hurled himself at it like a gymnast, leaping to catch the top, and was up and over it and straight into the darkness without hesitating. He vanished instantly, like a match-flame blown out, leaving no sound or glance behind him.

Richter stopped, staring at the edge.

Jansen joined him, and they stood together in silence for some minutes. The darkness, if it did not retreat, at least advanced no further. Jansen said finally, "You really think it was him that brought us here? It wasn't your mother?"

"I have no idea," Richter said, turning away from the void. "Maybe we all did it."

Jansen looked at the ghost of Zinzi Richter, waiting for them by the guard tower, forming for a third time the word he could not understand. "What is that?" he demanded of Richter. "What's that she's saying?"

Richter smiled. "Freiheit. German for freedom."

Abruptly Zinzi Richter turned and began to run, heading once again for the Death Strip, and Richter ran after her, his face as bright and determined as the face of any small boy racing with his mother. Jansen came panting in the rear, no better conditioned than the average sixty-six-year-old kitchen remodeler, but resolved not to be left behind in this place, to find his way back to a maternity clinic in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Arl . . . Arl . . . I'll be right there . . .

The spotlights came on, and the gunfire began.

Crossing the Death Strip, Jansen placed his feet exactly in Zinzi Richter's tracks, as her son was doing, and hunched down as low as he could, even as the rifle shots kicked up gravel close enough to sting his face and twitch at his shirt. He tried to shut the awareness out of his consciousness. Real bullets? Memories of bullets? Ghost bullets, fired by ghosts back in 1963 -- God! And then, despite a sudden blossoming fear of dying where he didn't belong, a single thought consumed him. It's not enough to follow. I've got to get there first.

Just as Gavrilenko's old legs and big old hands had taken him over the inner wall without assistance, so Jansen's legs, when called upon, somehow responded with speed that did not belong to him, and never had. He passed up a surprised Richter and forcefully crowded past Zinzi Richter as she set her ladder's hooks, stopping only long enough to pull the wire cutters from her duffel before starting to climb. Up the shaking rungs, atop the Wall, he worked faster than she could have, snapping wires real enough to tear his face and hands in half a dozen places. Then they were there with him, the mother and the son, and he swept them before him through the gap he had created, holding their hands as they eased themselves over the other side. He turned his back on the gunfire, covering both his charges with the width of his own torso, breath pulled deep into his lungs as if he could somehow expand to shield not just these two, but everything in the world. He felt their fingers slip away from his and he smiled.

The rifle fire kept up, but Jansen didn't move, thinking shit, if the Krauts didn't fire in damn platoons, they'd never hit anybody.

He heard the one sharp crack they say you never hear, and closed his eyes.

Arl, hugely pregnant and wheezing with the effort, was trying to keep him from falling out of bed in what must be the clinic's emergency ward. There were half a dozen beds around him, most empty, a couple with curtains drawn around them and nurses coming and going. Jansen caught himself, scrambled crabwise back onto the bed, said, "What the hell?" and tried to sit up. Arl pushed him back down, hard.

"No, you don't -- you stay put, old man." There was relief in her voice -- he caught that, having looked long for such things -- but also the same dull rancor and plain dislike that colored their every conversation, even the most casual. "You're staying right here until Dr. Chaudhry comes."

"What happened? The baby?"

"The baby's all right. I'm all right too, thanks." That wasn't just him, he knew; everybody asked about the baby first, and it was starting to piss her off as she neared her term. She said, "They found you on the floor in the waiting room. They thought it might be a stroke."

"Oh, give me a break. I just fell asleep, that's all. Been staying up too late watching old movies. I'm fine, shit's sake." He looked at his hands and wrists, saw no barbed-wire wounds, and started to get up, but she pushed him down again, and he could feel the real fury in her hands.

"You stay there, damn it. A lot of people think they're just fine after a stroke, and they get on their feet, take a few steps, and bang, gone for good this time." Her face was sweaty with effort and anger; but he saw fear there as well, and heard it in her voice. "On good days I can just about stand you, and on the bad ones . . . God, do you have any idea?"

"Yes," Jansen said. "Matter of fact."

Arl drew a long breath. "But when I saw you . . ." Her voice caught, and she started again. "I realized right there, I am not ready to have you gone, I'm not. Not you too, it's too damn much, do you understand me? Don't you dare die on me, not now. Not now."

Jansen found her hand on the bed, and put his hand over it. She did not respond, but she did not pull the hand away. "You look like me," he said. "Gracie's all Elly, but you've got my chin, and my nose, and my cheekbones. Must have really hated that, huh?"

The smile was thin and elusive, but it was a smile. "I hated my whole face. Most girls do, but I had reasons." She looked down at their hands together. "I even hated my hands, because they're too much like yours. I'm okay with them now, though, more or less."

Jansen said, "You're like me. That's what you hate." Her eyes widened in outrage, and she jerked away, but he held tightly to her hand. "What I mean, you're like the good me. The best of me. The me I was supposed to be, before things . . . just happened. You understand what I'm saying?"

Arl was beginning to frown in an odd way, staring at him. "You sure you haven't had a stroke? I wish the doctor'd get here. You talked while you were out, I couldn't make anything out of it, except it was really weird. Like you were havinga weird dream."

"Not a stroke," Jansen said. "Not a dream." He did not try to sit up again, but kept his eyes fixed on her. He said, "Just someplace I needed to be. Don't ask me about it right now, and I won't ask you about stuff you don't want to tell me, okay?" She did not reply, but her hand turned slightly under his, and a couple of fingers more or less intertwined. "And I promise I won't die until you're finished yelling at me. Fair?"

Arl nodded. "But this doesn't mean I actually like you. Just so you know that."

"Fair," Jansen said again. He did withdraw his hand from hers now.

Dr. Chaudhry came in, a brisk young Bengali with a smile that was not brisk, but thoughtful, almost dreamy. He sat down on the opposite side of the bed from Arl and said, "Well, I hear that you have been frightening your good daughter quite badly. Not very considerate, Mr. Jansen."

"I'm not a very considerate person," Jansen said. "My family could tell you."

"This is something you must change right away," Dr. Chaudhry said, trying to look severe and not succeeding. "You are going to be a grandfather, you know. You will have responsibilities."

"Yeah. Been thinking about that," Jansen said. He looked up at the lights on the ceiling then, and let Dr. Chaudhry count his pulse.

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