Chapter Thirteen

Late 1944

 

From the top of the short flight of steps leading to the solitary confinement cells, Hauptmann Ulmann watched as the main courtyard gates were opened and two vehicles swung in. He suppressed with difficulty the cynical reflection that under wartime conditions and when fuel was short using two vehicles instead of one was exactly the kind of ostentation he could expect from the security services; allowing such thoughts to cross his mind distracted him from his duties, and even though these days he was merely walking through his role as Abwehr officer he still made an effort to concentrate - particularly where the welfare of the prisoners was concerned.

He had made strenuous endeavours to preserve the boundaries between inmates and staff; the longer the war went on, the less of a boundary there appeared to be, yet to allow the barriers to fall would be to admit to some subtle defeat he was not yet ready to acknowledge. Besides, with the eyes and ears of Major Mohn seemingly everywhere at once in the camp, a man must be certain his thoughts were under control at every moment of every day. Even when sleeping, he must not entertain any notions Mohn could consider disloyal.

Especially when sleeping.

Mohn was already awaiting him in the courtyard. This draft of American prisoners would be UImann's responsibility, and he had been alerted of their expected arrival some days in advance. He had wondered what, precisely, was so interesting about this particular group - apart from the fact that they were almost the first Americans to arrive at Colditz. The very first, Lieutenant James Phipps, had arrived from Marburg some six weeks previously after an ingenious tunnelling scheme had - literally - collapsed around him.

Moving smartly down the steps, accepting a somewhat sketchy salute from a guard posted at the foot of the flight, UImann approached the group of prisoners being greeted by Major Mohn. Mohn's studiedly superior tone seemed to have little effect on the men, who slouched with rounded shoulders and stared at him blankly as though simply waiting for him to finish so that they could get in out of the cold. It was only October, yet the chill in the air was vicious and would cut more bitterly into men who had been kept in stern conditions and on short rations. To Ulmann's mild amazement, however, Mohn had ordered a regime for these three which would not disgrace a country hotel; their food would be on a par with that of the German officers, appreciably better than anything the prisoners had seen in years

That Mohn had some nefarious plan afoot concerning these Americans was beyond question. Ulmann was determined to be vigilant; Mohn's schemes were always unpleasant and troublesome to the smooth-running of the camp, and had been known to get men killed. What was more, it was often difficult to discover whether or not the Kommandant had any idea what Mohn was doing. With his increased awareness of his commanding officer's thoughts and feelings Ulmann was more or less certain that most of the time Mohn acted without the Kommandant's knowledge or permission, but it was always dangerous to make assumptions without checking the facts. Mohn had powerful friends.

Taking the sheaf of printed orders from the second-in-command, Ulmann scanned it briefly before making any attempt to address the Americans. It was just as well he did, as it gave Mohn and the two SD men who had delivered the prisoners time to get inside the building and therefore left them oblivious to his stunned reaction.

"Um Gottes willen!"

His head lifted and his sharp gaze scanned the ragged parade in front of him. The name on the paper did not appear to match up to any of the three officers, so far as he could see. Anxiously he studied them: a tall, distinguished-looking officer with greying fair hair and blue eyes - Lieutenant-Colonel Maximilian Dodd, of course; a short, Italianate type with a moustache - Captain Harry Nugent. Then his attention reached the man at the back, the one who looked like the survivor of an Arctic storm. This huddled, bearded, dull-eyed creature, this lost-looking being whose very quietness held its own threat - this man was known to him.

"Flight Lieutenant Carrington? It is really you - but I see you are a Major now. My apologies. It distresses me to see you here again." The words were out of his mouth before he had time to think about them properly, and he was grateful that Mohn had not been present to hear them.

"Hauptmann Ulmann, it distresses the hell out of me to be here. How've you been?"

"Better," Ulmann said. "And worse." To his own amazement he realised he had been offered and had accepted a warm handshake, and now he took the extraordinary step of patting the man on the shoulder. "Your friends here have missed you greatly," he heard himself say, and wondered bewilderedly whether he would count himself among them. To be sure he had thought little about Carrington in the intervening two years, but when he had done so it had been with a certain fondness.

One becomes attached to one's charges, he thought. There is no shame in it, although perhaps it is a sign of a weak character.

"Lieutenant Player?" Carrington asked, breathlessly. "He still here?"

Ulmann glanced quickly in the direction of Colonel Dodd, watching this exchange with mild bafflement. What had been common knowledge in the camp two years previously would doubtless be news to this man, and Ulmann's personal code of conduct did not allow him to betray a man's private life to his commanding officer without good reason. "I regret not, Major. He has been gone some months now."

"Not ... " The haunted dark blue eyes betrayed the suspicion that Player's pneumonia had risen again to claim him, and that without Carrington's help and support the fair-haired man had been unable to drag himself out of its clutches.

"No, not dead," Ulmann said, guardedly. "Merely ... gone."

Carrington's eyes closed briefly. "He escaped," he said, softly. "Richard escaped."

"Phil?" Colonel Dodd's anxious tone broke through Carrington's confusion. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes, Colonel." Briefly Carrington reached out and patted Ulmann on the arm, an act of lèse-majesté that would have astonished his earlier self

"There will be time to talk, Major Carrington," Ulmann told him, briskly. "You gentlemen will wish to be inside, where it is warmer. This way, please."

Stepping aside smoothly and giving the unconscious impression of a well-schooled maitre d' escorting diners to their table, U'mann guided the three American officers across the courtyard towards the solitary confinement cells.

 

Solitary at Colditz was not exactly as Carrington remembered it. Glancing around at his two countrymen, he said solemnly; "You know, the food's better - but it's still the same old Colditz."

"Uh-huh?" Colonel Dodd sat forward, intrigued. In their short acquaintance he had come to respect Phil Carrington's judgement, aware that the man spoke only when he had something of importance to say. "How long were you here the last time?"

"Twenty-three months. The guy I escaped with, Pat Grant, told me we could all be captured and escape from here a half-dozen times before the war's over. Once was about enough for me."

"Oh, I don't know." Captain Harry Nugent, the Italian-looking New Yorker, was not slow to join in the conversation of the two senior officers. "Matter of fact, Phil, that tall Jerry Captain seemed mighty friendly towards you. Anybody'd think you were his long-lost brother."

Carrington leaned back in his chair, hands thrust into greatcoat pockets, and glanced over at Nugent. He couldn't blame the man for his suspicions; there were undercurrents to their reception at Colditz that he himself had noticed but had been unable to interpret, and the vague feeling that something was not right had impressed them all.

"Hauptmann Franz Ulmann, Security officer," he said, slowly. "When I was here before he was Acting 2I/C as well; obviously that Luftwaffe Major with the wound stripe and the Heidelberg duelling scar has that appointment now."

"That's Major Horst Mohn," Dodd said, unexpectedly. "The SD man told me about him coming down in the car. He's some kind of hero - a personal friend of Der Führer."

Carrington's eyebrows lifted. "Is that so? There's no love lost between them, anyway, that's pretty obvious. UImann's changed, though; he's not quite as formal as he used to be. I guess maybe we do have a sort of respect for each other; Ulmann got me let out of solitary once to help take care of one of the British officers in the hospital. He didn't have to do that. He's no soft touch, but he's human. A decent guy doing a rotten job. We won't have any trouble from him, Max - Ulmann plays the game by the rules - but we need to look out for that Major."

"So what's he up to?" Nugent asked, briskly. "Or are you telling me everybody gets this kinda treatment in solitary here? Only I know quite a few guys who're gonna be lining up to be let in!"

"No, this is something new. The last lot of solitary I did I had a book of poetry and a pack of playing cards with the Jack of Spades missing. I had turnip soup for breakfast, black bread for lunch, potato and turnip soup for supper, maybe a cup of ersatz coffee once in a while. No meat. No canned fruit; not till I got out. You're not gonna tell me the supply situation's improved since then!"

"Not with the way our people have been sinking their convoys in the Mediterranean," Dodd agreed. "What's it about, Phil? You figure they're going to shoot us?"

An almost imperceptible shrug. "They should," Carrington conceded. "But they want to find out about our mission first. If all this good food and easy treatment is some kind of attempt to soften us up, I don't see how they can expect it to work. And I'll lay odds Ulmann had nothing to do with it," he added, firmly.

"You're very sure about that," Colonel Dodd remarked doubtfully.

"I know Ulmann. Sure, he can be devious - but I've met Brits I'd trust less. You know where you are with Ulmann; I understand him. That's all."

"Uh-huh?" Nugent's tone was downright disparaging. "So when are the two of you announcing your engagement, huh? It sounds like you've got quite a thing going for this Kraut officer, Phil; I never figured you for a Nazi-lover - or a queer."

"That's enough, Harry." Dodd quelled the rebellious Captain with a sharp word and an even sharper look. "We can't afford to fight amongst ourselves. Let's save our aggression for the enemy, shall we?"

"Whoever that may be," Nugent added snidely.

Carrington sighed; a heartfelt, deep sigh that seemed to travel up from some inner well of despair.

"Just give it a little time," he said, unhappily. "Don't take my word for it, see for yourselves. There are tougher enemies to fight than Ulmann in this place; you'll meet them soon enough."

"Unless they shoot us after all," Dodd reminded him.

"Yeah. Unless they shoot us," Nugent conceded. "By that time, I guess we'll be past worrying about Hauptmann Ulmann, anyway."

"Uh-huh," agreed Carrington, solemnly, "I guess we will."

 

The nature of Mohn's plan was revealed only after the three Americans were released from solitary. Escorting them to the British quarters, Ulmann left them to the mercies of a group comprising Colonel Preston, Carter, Brent, Downing, two British officers Carrington had not met before but whom he disliked on sight, and Lieutenant Jim Phipps, US Army Air Corps. Awed by the weight of their gazes on him, Carrington retreated into a distant formality and made the introductions between the two Colonels somewhat diffidently. Indeed, he had praised Colonel Preston to Colonel Dodd so highly that he was now in some doubt as to whether his own opinion of the man could possibly be borne out in Dodd's estimation. Time distorted perceptions; maybe Preston was no longer the paragon he had portrayed; maybe he was just a mean-minded bureaucrat without humour; maybe he had never been half the man Carrington thought he was.

Indeed at first his reservations seemed to be borne out. It rapidly became apparent that this welcoming committee was no such thing; this was an interrogation by a distrustful group of British aided by a somewhat abashed American pilot who simply happened to be the closest thing they had to an expert on the subject. Even in the tense atmosphere of a traditional military debriefing session, however, the occasional personal touch was never far away.

"How was Dick when you saw him?" Carter asked, abruptly. He had never been the most tactful of mortals but the bluntness of the question caused Colonel Preston's eyebrows to climb in amusement.

"Last time I saw Lieutenant Player," Carrington replied cautiously, "was at the crossroads in Colditz village, October of '42. We shook hands, and then he went one way and I went another." His reserved mode of expression made it clear that his fellow American officers had no notion of the significance of Dick Player's name. "I knew he hadn't gotten out on that trip; I was expecting to find him back here. It was Ulmann who told me he got away eventually."

"Ulmann?" Downing sounded surprised. "When was that?"

"He mentioned it when we arrived. He said Dick'd been gone some time."

"Yes," Carter said. "A year. We had a postcard in just after Christmas."

"You won't know about Peter Muir then, Phil?" Brent put in, grimly.

"Peter? No. Is he still here?"

"In a manner of speaking," Colonel Preston answered on behalf of them all, compassion and regret evident in his tone. "When he was recaptured just short of the Swiss border he was shot and also rather badly beaten. He died in hospital a few weeks later; Merriman thinks that ultimately his death was due to kidney failure. The Kommandant arranged for his remains to be brought to Colditz; he's buried in the village churchyard. I'm assured that as soon as the war is over he'll be returned to his family."

Carrington nodded. "Jesus Christ, poor old Peter," he said, sadly. "That's really tough." For a moment he allowed himself to remember the good-natured Muir; he'd liked the man a lot, and he knew Player had valued his friendship. And without Muir, who would have partnered Player on his successful escape? "Richard went out alone, then?"

"No. Bob Walsh - an Artillery type - went with him," Downing supplied, with a smile. "Two French chaps tried the same route the following day, but they were caught in the village. Bentinct-Boyle's gone home, too; he went out with a draft of Dutch prisoners to another camp, and three of them made it to Switzerland from there."

"Gentlemen," Preston said, softly, "much as I hate to interrupt your reminiscences -I know we all have a lot of catching-up to do - I really feel we ought to concentrate on the matter in hand." The calmly-spoken suggestion carried as much weight as the screamed order of another man. With some difficulty, the officers in the room recalled themselves to their duty. "Colonel Dodd, I'm sorry but I'm afraid we must ask you to tell us as much as you feel you can about how and where you were captured. As I'm sure you'll understand, we're obliged to treat all new arrivals with a certain amount of caution; we've had cause to be grateful for that policy in the past."

One greying eyebrow lifted in mild surprise, but Colonel Dodd disciplined his expression and calmed his tone and - with the help of Carrington and Nugent - began to relate the history of the mission whose failure had brought them to Colditz.

He kept it vague, non-committal as to names and dates and places; an early-morning flight from an airfield 'somewhere in England', a parachute drop into an Eastern European nation desirous of establishing a separate peace with the Allies. The object of the exercise had been to discuss terms with a trusted agent of the regime in power, only by the time they had gone through a complicated rigmarole of arrest and confinement by the local police and been taken to their man supposedly for interrogation it was already far too late for their purpose to be achieved; his position was much more precarious than they had been told. Within twelve hours of their visit, indeed, their contact - an old acquaintance of Carrington's - was dead. He had leapt from a fifth-floor window rather than betray them to the Gestapo - which left the three Americans as the only possible source of the vital information the Germans wanted.

"What happened to you then?" Downing asked, his languid tones concealing an acuity of mind not dulled by his years of captivity.

Nugent took up the reply. "We were under arrest. The SD came along and interrogated us, but they didn't get a lot out of us. We were taken to Vienna - we all got pretty badly beat up there. Then they brought us here."

"Why?" Carter asked. "I mean, why aren't you still in Vienna?"

It was a fair enough question. if Peter Muir had been tortured, beaten senseless and condemned to a lingering death simply for escaping from Colditz, why had these three who had undertaken a secret mission to divide the loyalties of the Axis powers been treated so much less cruelly? In particular, why were they now receiving so much courtesy and consideration? It was not in the Nazis to apologise for their excesses, neither individually nor collectively; there must be a reason for the sudden change of tactics.

The answer was slow in coming to Carrington, but when it did it was blindingly simple.

They want to make the Brits suspicious of us so they'll turn against us and drag the details of our mission out of us, all without the Glorious Reich having to lift a finger. Jesus. This guy Mohn's a sneaky, subtle bastard all right. And that means that either they've got a stool-pigeon in the room with us ... or they're listening to every word ...

His eyes lifted to the ceiling. Was that a patch of new plaster above the table at which they sat? How come Simon or George or Tim hadn't noticed that?

Dammit guys, this is no time to relax your vigilance!

Colonel Preston was excusing himself to Colonel Dodd, stepping away from the table to consult in private with his officers. They had taken Phipps with them, leaving Carrington, Dodd and Nugent alone at the table. Aware that he had very little time, Carrington leaned over and spoke urgently but in a whisper to his Colonel.

"Max, this is a set-up; I think this guy Mohn's got the British doing his work for him. Let me do the talking for a while, and when I ask you to write something down write a poem or your mother's maiden name or something ... okay? There's no way any of these guys would help the Nazis deliberately, but if they were tricked into it ... "

Dodd grunted understanding. "Okay, Phil, I'll be guided by you."

Preston and the others returned to the table, and Carrington immediately forestalled what his former CO was about to say by interrupting him as he began to speak.

"Colonel, in order to establish our bona fides we think it would be helpful if Colonel Dodd wrote down the names of some of our contacts in that country. You'll have your own methods of checking the information, and perhaps it will serve to put your minds at rest about us."

"I assure you, gentlemen, it's not necessary," Colonel Preston said, calmly. "We have already made up our minds to accept your word.'1

"Not at all' Colonel Preston," Dodd said, scribbling furiously. "I feel sure you'll find this most enlightening." So saying, he added a final flourish to the document and handed it to Preston.

The SBO ran his gaze down the page briefly, a slight smile playing across his lips. Before he had a chance to comment, however, the door burst open and Major Mohn and two underlings burst into the room to seize the paper. With no choice but to hand the document to the second-in-command, Preston did so without protest. Mohn scanned the few pencilled lines without expression, then crumpled the paper and threw it to the floor before stalking away.

"I take it, Colonel," Preston said, mildly, retrieving the page from the floor, "that these are the opening lines of your Declaration of Independence?"

"Nothing personal, sir," Dodd told him wryly, bestowing a warm smile upon his opposite number.

"Of course not."

Relaxing, Preston allowed himself to become accustomed to the idea of having Maximilian Dodd around for the foreseeable future. It was an agreeable prospect; the man seemed likely to prove good company, and any new face was welcome for the variety of conversation it brought with it.

"I suggest we see the Kommandant immediately," he went on, more cheerfully, "and insist on the removal of the listening devices Mohn has apparently seen fit to plant in our quarters. I would doubt they had the Kommandant's unqualified approval. At the same time, we will establish that you are henceforth to be accorded equal status with myself as Senior American Officer."

"Admirable idea, Colonel." Grinning, Colonel Dodd held out a hand for a handshake. Preston accepted it with alacrity, and with the tension between the two groups broken there was suddenly a more informal atmosphere in the room as Americans and British exchanged greetings again - this time as friends.

"We'd better go immediately," Preston said, decisively. "Phipps, would you be kind enough to help Captain Nugent get settled in? I think Major Carrington should remember his way around fairly well. We'll talk later, Phil."

"I'll look forward to it, Colonel," Carrington said cheerfully as the two senior officers left the room. Immediately his old friends clustered around him, not so much clamouring for his attention as feasting their eyes on him and assuring themselves he was real and not some figment of their deranged imaginations.

"It's so good to see you again, Phil," Brent said, sincerely. "There's an awful lot to tell you - about the wake we held for Peter, and Dick's escape, and a lot of other things that have happened since."

Carrington smiled, the other man's obvious delight in his presence a welcome contrast to the stilted interview just concluded.

"Well I wish I could say I was happy to see you boys again - but I'm not. I hoped you'd all be home with your families by now. This damn' war's gone on too long already."

"You can say that again. Look, there'll be loads of time to catch up on all our news later, but there's something you just have to see."

Reaching behind him to his bunk, Brent produced a tobacco tin full of letters from home. On the top of its contents was a folded picture-postcard bearing a sepiatone view of Basle railway station. "Read it."

For a moment Carrington perused the contents, then in an amused tone he read the words on the back of the card aloud.

"'My darling George, I am taking a short holiday in Switzerland with your cousin Roberta. We are so sorry you cannot be with us but are thinking of you constantly. Your loving Aunt, Frances Thompson.' This is Richard's handwriting; do you really have an aunt named Frances Thompson?"

Brent grinned. "No. But Francis Thompson was that poet Dick liked - the one who wrote that cricket thing. If you remember, there used to be a book of his stuff in the library here."

"Disappeared after Dick left," Downing said, indignantly. "We all thought he'd taken it with him. Bally selfish, I call it."

"Yeah? Just like him, though."

"Absolutely."

"'My darling George', huh? Is there something you want to tell me, Brent?"

Downing and Carter's lewd chuckles indicated that the text on the postcard had been a source of amusement before and would be so again.

"Of course not!" Colouring, Brent was slow to realise that he was having his leg pulled. "Well," he added ruefully, "only that Dick and I were better friends by the time he escaped. I made some mistakes, Phil; it's nice to have a chance to put them right."

"Good for you," Carrington told him, approvingly. "But then I guess we're all a lot older and a lot wiser, aren't we?"

"I'm afraid so. Here." Brent thrust the folded postcard into Carrington's hands. "I was rather hoping I might see you again after the war, but this is as good a time as any. You keep it. I assume you still … "

"Yeah," was the somewhat world-weary reply. "I still do. Thanks, Brent, I won't forget this. Have I mentioned how good it is to see you guys again?"

 

Carrington and Colonel Dodd had each been allocated small single rooms in the Saalhaus, the building which served as senior officers' quarters. Settling in was the matter of only a few minutes as they had so few personal possessions, although their British fellow-inmates in a burst of generosity had pooled whatever they could spare in the way of books, clothing and food from Red Cross parcels to ease them through the first few days until they could be issued with whatever they needed and lagermarken to spend in the canteen.

The standard accommodation for senior officers comprised one iron-framed bed -of the kind that Carrington remembered vividly as being stored in the palliasse room in the former French quarters - one table, one chair, one crudely-made set of bookshelves. It did not take Carrington long to examine the room assigned to him, although he lingered a moment over a couple of elderly magazines and some playing cards which looked suspiciously like the deck with the Jack of Spades missing he'd had with him in solitary more than two years previously.

The view from the window, too, was familiar; that same Kommandantur courtyard across which he, Muir, Grant and Player had ventured on the night of the pit escape. There were searchlights installed there now, he noticed; no escaper could rely on the deep wells of shadow in which the four of them had hidden. Doubtless the kitchen window and the exit from the pit had also been sealed off. Getting out of here a second time was going to be a hell of a lot more difficult. Besides he was older, heavier and tireder than he had been two years ago; two years on the outside had taken their toll just as surely as two years of captivity. Being back at Colditz - looking up again at those sheer walls, those forbidding towers, those barred windows - had struck him like a physical force. He'd had some of the happiest times in his entire life here, but it didn't stop him hating the place and everything it stood for.

Shrugging off introspection he wandered down the corridor to pay a visit on Colonel Dodd. That gentleman, also completing a morose inspection of his new home and finding it less than impressive, was glad of the diversion.

"Not exactly the Waldorf-Astoria, is it, Colonel?"

"Nope. It sure isn't."

"I see they've left you a chess set, though. Maybe you'd like a game some time?"

The Colonel nodded, accepting the suggestion. "Sure. In a day or two, maybe; I'm still getting used to being here. Do you notice many changes?"

"A lot." Carrington perched himself on the corner of Colonel Dodd's table. "Different faces, more guards, more wire, more searchlights ... Every time they found an escape route, every time something failed, something changed. I'm told there have only been two British home runs and two French since Mohn arrived at the end of '42, but there's still plenty of activity going on. Carter's promised us a guided tour of their current escape schemes whenever we like."

"That's a generous thought, Phil," Dodd told him, approvingly. "I'm beginning to agree with you about these guys; Preston's a fine officer, and his people are a credit to him."

"Yes sir, they are."

"So tell me about Player," his CO went on in a tone that, although kindly, made it clear that this was an order.

"Player? What's to tell? He's a Royal Navy type - submarines. One of the leading lights of the escape committee when I was here before. Probably the toughest guy in the camp, too; he caught pneumonia twice on escape attempts and fought it off both times."

"Uh-huh. Close friend of yours?"

"Colonel? Has Colonel Preston mentioned something about Player?"

Dodd sighed. "Not a thing. Only my mother didn't raise any stupid children, Phil. We've hardly got through the gates and you and this Ulmann character are discussing some guy named Player. We go talk to the British, and Carter assumes you've seen Player. I noticed he didn't ask about Grant, who got out with you. Why was that, do you think? Why is this Player so important?"

Carrington grimaced, turning to face his superior officer. He could not have hoped to conceal very much from Maximilian Dodd, but had thought he might have rather more time to prepare for this conversation.

"Okay," he said, "it's like this. Before I left the States in '39 I got engaged to a girl by the name of Patti. She had everything my parents wanted; good figure, face like a movie star, wealthy background and a father with his very own bank and a vacancy for the combined post of Vice President and son-in-law. My folks liked her; her folks liked me. It was all settled."

He trailed off; reflecting briefly on the ironical twists and turns his life had taken since that time of apparent golden promise.

"Everything your folks wanted? Doesn't sound to me as if the young lady had an awful lot that you wanted. Am I right?"

"Pretty close. The war happened, I joined the RAF, was shot down, captured, escaped ... ended up in Colditz, escaped again, got home eventually. That much you know. When I got back to Long Island I went to see Patti and we broke off our engagement. Turned out she wasn't too cut up about that, either; you see, by that time we'd both found somebody else."

Dodd moved from his place by the door, crossed the room, glanced out of the high window. The sentry in the middle of the Kommandantur courtyard was scanning the windows of the Saalhaas for signs of illicit activity. Dodd merely glared at the sentry sullenly until the man finally turned away.

"So what you want me to take from this, Phil, is that you had found your 'somebody else' during your time in captivity - am I right?"

"Yes sir."

"Specifically, this guy Player?"

"Yes sir."

Having only with difficulty found the courage to admit to that involvement, Carrington was more than a little surprised when Dodd allowed himself a soft, gently amused chuckle by way of reply.

"Jesus, Phil, Harry was right when he said he'd never have taken you for queer - I wouldn't myself - but I guess if you dumped Patti for Player that's exactly what you are."

"That's exactly what I am, sir," Carrington agreed, hollowly.

"And you say Colonel Preston knew about this? He didn't do anything to stop it?"

"He tried. But it didn't work. After a while he just gave up. They all got used to the idea, in the end."

"All? Did the whole damned camp know about you carrying on with this guy?"

"No, sir. Some of the British knew - Downing, Brent, Muir, Carter - and at least one of the French officers."

"Germans? Ulmann seemed to know you two were close."

Carrington shrugged. "I never could tell what Ulmann knew or didn't know. He's pretty smart, there were times when I thought maybe he did have it figured out ... Like when he got me out of solitary to nurse Richard through pneumonia. He said a lot of things about comradeship ... but there are other ways of interpreting what he said. I'll tell you, though; Mohn sure as hell doesn't seem to know."

"No. From what ~ seen of that gentleman he wouldn't hesitate to make good use of that kind of information." Dodd paused in his perambulations of the small room to shoot a friendly grin in Carrington's direction. "Well, you needn't worry, Phil, I won't be telling him. I don't see the two of us exchanging confidences, somehow."

"Thanks, Colonel."

"That's okay. And for what it's worth - if John Preston didn't see a need to take any action, neither do I. You're a valuable man in this situation, Phil; I don't want to see you suffer for something you couldn't help. Besides, this is a big bad world and the Army - even the U.S. Army - don't always get it right. You mind me asking whether you figure to settle down with Player after the war?"

"I don't know, Colonel. If you could tell me when the war's going to end and whether we're both going to survive it, maybe I could answer that question. All I care about right now is that the two of us get through this with our lives and our wits intact; anything more will just have to wait."

*

 

Chapter Fourteen

January 1945

 

It was plainly apparent to all the residents of Colditz that the Christmas of 1944 would be the last Christmas of the war. The prisoners diet had declined to the point where it was hardly better than starvation rations and the supply of Red Cross parcels had almost completely disappeared, so they contemplated a meagre festival as the year drew to a close. However spirits were high; some of the brighter optimists expected an end to the war almost hourly, and one hardy soul even went so far as to wager that if they were still captive on Christmas Eve he would run naked three times around the courtyard. History called his bluff. He paid up with the best grace he could muster, his fellow-inmates cheering and shouting at him as he ran.

If there was any consolation in the prisoners' predicament, it was that the Germans were in no better case. They, too, were tightening their belts and cutting their rations. The poultry and rabbits they had been breeding for meat were all sacrificed to furnish their Christmas dinner, and it was generally acknowledged that the food supply was unlikely to improve in the months to come.

Most of the guards now were over fifty and completely unfit for active duty. Those who were young enough to be sent to the front were disqualified in other ways - by colour-blindness, perforated ear-drums, and in at least one case by a monumental stupidity that would have made the youth concerned a liability to any fighting unit unfortunate enough to be granted his services. He was little more use as a prison guard, and had generally been confined to running errands for the Kommandant and dealing with the simplest clerical tasks in which his lack of any sort of ability would not be too much of a handicap. The prisoners called him the 'Errand Boy', and teased him mercilessly in his own language whenever he was within range.

Religious services and the usual concerts and plays were scheduled for the Christmas period; most of the entertainments were the same old routines the prisoners had been amusing themselves with throughout the war, since long before Player and Walsh's escape from the theatre light-well and the chaotic scratch show Downing had thrown together to disguise it, but their familiarity was part of their charm. There were monologues and musical interludes, cross-talk comedians and tap-dancers, hearty drinking songs and operatic arias performed with greater or lesser skill. In the evenings the talk turned to Christmases at home and - more persistently than any other topic - to the Christmas of 1945. It seemed so near - a mere twelve months ahead - but so far away that they could hardly grasp the concept of it. A mood of introspection descended, which even news of an air raid on Berlin on Christmas Day could do nothing to lift. Emotions see-sawed between elation and despair, and when Christmas was over and hunger began to bite again the winter seemed unending.

It was during this winter that the most outrageous escape attempt ever contemplated by the Colditz inmates began, quite literally, to take shape. In a sectioned-off area in one of the steep attics above the prisoners' library a workshop had been constructed which could be reached only through a hidden entrance behind a bookcase. It was here that Squadron Leader Shaw and his team of willing volunteers worked on their incredible project. Laboriously and using only the most primitive of materials, they were constructing a glider. Its framework was made from beech bedboards, its skin from palliasse covers meticulously hand-stitched and doped with suet, its metal components stolen or scrounged from a thousand sources around the camp. The workshop had everything; a fantastic range of stolen or scratch-built tools, electric lighting, even an alarm system which sounded whenever a German patrol was near enough to give cause for concern.

Within this private little empire Shaw ruled, instructing his assistants in the finer points of aircraft design, going over and over every aspect of his seemingly insane plan as though to convince himself repeatedly that it could work, it would work. It was the project of men who had too much time and imagination and too little to occupy themselves, and although the very impertinence of the idea delighted most of those who knew about it there were many in the camp who secretly believed that Shaw's pipe-dream would turn out to be at best a folly and at worst a dangerous liability.

 

A cold January day found Hauptmann Ulmann making his usual patrol of the prisoners' courtyard in somewhat reflective mood. Major Mohn had triumphantly informed the Gestapo of the success of his ruse to extract information from the American prisoners before actually ascertaining it, which had led to his being interviewed by that organisation. Ulmann was quite sure it had been an unpleasant encounter. It had certainly ensured that Mohn's dislike of Carrington - to whom he rightly attributed the failure of his scheme - was well entrenched. It heartened Ulmann to realise that Carrington had clearly distrusted Mohn on sight, although he had entertained the notion only fleetingly before suppressing it with uncharacteristic ruthlessness.

With the Americans well accepted, he saw Carrington once again as the still centre around which much of the activity of the British officers moved. This was more apparent now that some of the others had gone who made up the group of high-risk prisoners Ulmann had most admired; Grant, Muir … and Player.

His mind dwelt on Player for a moment, thinking - as he often did - about his relationship with Carrington. He recollected those late-night conversations he had shared with Carrington during Player's illness, and the way he had charted his progress in nursing Player back to health with a devotion and a single-mindedness which had impressed him. The line of demarcation between friend and enemy had seemed to blur, and on occasion to disappear altogether. Through the seemingly endless nights he had occasionally interrupted the silent vigil, knowing every time he did so that his presence was welcomed.

On one occasion, when illness had threatened to pull Player in and never release him, he had taken a flask of coffee into the sickroom. He had known it was against regulations and that it could have had serious consequences, but he had also known that the Kommandant would support his act of compassion. His earlier visit that evening had shown him a man almost at the end of his tether, whose devotion to his self-imposed task had almost broken his own health; the suspicion that any gesture of kindness in these circumstances would be misinterpreted simply did not cross his mind.

We are not monsters, Herr Carrington, he remembered saying. Not all of us.

The gratitude with which his offering had been received had made it worthwhile, though he had been careful to couch the gesture in military terms - to represent it as a necessary expedient. Carrington had grinned tiredly at him, and he had known in that moment that his subterfuge had been pointless. Discomfited by the perceptiveness with which he was regarded by the American he had taken his departure, returning later to retrieve the evidence and to talk again with Carrington, with both their masks now firmly in place.

He had wondered since whether that meagre flicker of friendship could be rekindled. He himself had changed significantly since that time, but he felt that his closeness with the Kommandant had been made easier to accept and to respond to by the relationship he had begun to build with Carrington. It had taught him a great deal about himself, some of the American's uncomfortably acute comments forcing him to defend many of his preconceptions. Carrington had opened Ulmann's eyes, made him aware of what was going on all around him beneath the façades of prisoners and captors alike. This had, in fact, considerably enhanced his proficiency as Security officer, although he doubted that Carrington would wish to be thanked for that.

He was aware suddenly that his slow, almost leisured patrol of the prisoners' courtyard - deserted, even in the middle of the day, due to a thick layer of ice on the cobbles and a sky which promised worse to come - had brought him to the foot of a certain staircase. Often, glancing up from the courtyard, he had seen Lieutenant Player sitting at the uppermost window on this staircase; here, indeed, he had found him on more than one occasion, smoking languidly and thinking who knew what distant thoughts. It was a good location for those who wanted peace and quiet to nurse a secret misery or - he acknowledged it - to hatch some complicated plan, and it was fairly safe to assume that despite the cold weather he was likely to find Carrington there. That would suit his purpose well, as he had something in his possession he wished the American to have.

From habit he moved silently, climbing the stairs without conscious effort until, rounding the final twist of the spiral, he discovered that his assumption had been correct. Carrington was sitting on a blanket, knees drawn up to his chin and arms curved around them, in just the attitude Player had always adopted. His gaze was directed out through the panes of glass and away across the frozen rooftops to some unseen horizon, but Ulmann knew well enough that his thoughts had taken an inward turn and that whatever images he was seeing would be invisible to anyone else.

Carrington sighed once, then seemed to rouse himself. His expression became wary as he turned his head and noticed the man standing on the stairs.

"Hauptmann Ulmann."

"Herr Major. Your thoughts seemed far away; perhaps you are regretting your lost liberty?"

"Not at all, Hauptmann. How could anybody not feel at home in such a charming spot?"

"You are being sarcastic, Major Carrington. Very few of us have chosen to be here, but we must make the best of it - all of us. You got home to America, I believe?"

"That much you already know," Carrington conceded ruefully, acknowledging with a nod the mild expression of dissatisfaction which was a significant departure from form for the austere German.

Ulmann did not fail to recognise the American's sly allusion to the business of the hidden microphone.

"And you were not able to see Lieutenant Player." A flat statement of fact.

The remark did not strike Carrington as anything other than a concerned enquiry. "No. I didn't know he'd escaped until you told me. I guess he might have tried to find me, but I've been moving about a lot. I was in Canada some of the time - advising on security in POW camps, believe it or not. I wish I'd known ... " He trailed off; shrugging helplessly.

"Of course. I ... have something here which I believe belongs to you." Abruptly Ulmann handed over a battered volume he had been carrying, minus its covers and only shakily stitched together along its spine. "You will see, it has your name on it."

Puzzled, the American took the book from the German officer and examined it. "'Philip R. Carrington'. Well, yes. But it's not my book. It's not even my writing."

"It is Lieutenant Player's writing, I think. At least, it matches that on the postcard he and Lieutenant Walsh sent from Basle."

"You knew about that? Yes, I guess you would. It had to go past you for censoring, didn't it?"

"Yes. And obviously Mr Player wished you to receive this book - which naturally I have examined thoroughly. Of course he could not have known you would be returning here, but perhaps he felt that should he not escape to Allied territory one of his fellow-officers would enable the book to reach you after the war. However, I found it first. I have ... a passing interest in English poetry."

"Have you indeed?" Carrington was flicking through the pages. "You're full of surprises, Hauptmann. I know you studied in England, though."

"Briefly. I studied for one year at an English University. Unfortunately my mother became seriously ill and I returned home to be with her. My academic career was never resumed. Nevertheless I have retained a great fondness for English literature and poetry."

Carrington nodded approval. "This is the Francis Thompson book," he said, recognising the unlovely object it had become. "Downing reckoned Richard had taken it with him. You see he's marked this one?"

"'The Hound of Heaven'," Ulmann said, leaning over to glance at the open page. "I am familiar with it. The 'him' of the poem, of course," he continued, his tone altering, "is intended to be God. I was not aware that Mr Player was a religious man."

"No. Not at all. But like any poem it's capable of more than one interpretation."

'Yes. You would know better than I what interpretation Mr Player would be likely to put on the words."

"I think I understand what he was getting at. What I don't understand is how come you fastened on to the book like that."

A mildly uncomfortable expression crossed the German's face. "I was aware that it was a treasured possession of Lieutenant Player's," he said, thoughtfully. "On several occasions I discovered him reading it; often in this very place. It seemed to offer him some consolation for his ... "he paused, selecting the word carefully, " … aloneness. He had no other friendship as close as that with you, and as a memorial to that friendship ... Well, the book is of greater significance to you than it is to me," he ended, somewhat incautiously.

Carrington was watching him, scanning the pale features minutely.

"I'll tell you, Hauptmann," he said at length, "Captain Grant always figured you knew about Richard and me, but I could never be sure. You did, though, didn't you?"

"I shall always deny knowing anything of the sort."

"That's not a proper answer, Hauptmann."

"It was not a proper question, Major."

A sudden explosion of laughter burst from Carrington, and then he realised with dull amazement that he had laughed not at Ulmann but with him, although the German's expression had not altered.

Dammit to hell, he really is human, he thought bewilderedly.

"I will leave you to enjoy your book in peace, Major Carrington," Ulmann said, cutting through the American's confusion.

"Thanks. Oh, before you go, Hauptmann ... "

Ulmann was on the point of taking his leave, but he turned back and re-ascended a couple of stairs.

" ... Did you know about Mohn's scheme?"

The mood of mutual sympathy was so encouraging that the question had shot from Carrington before he had time to consider the consequences, but he made no attempt to retract it.

The German looked uneasy. He had already allowed this man far too much latitude, an informality for which even the Kommandant would probably rebuke him, but it was becoming impossible to be dishonest with him. He might need such an ally before the war was over. ''Yes.

"Did you think it would work?"

A slight shifting of the feet. "No. There was a possibility, of course, but I did not think you were likely to be deceived."

"Would ... you ... have been pleased? If it had worked. If you had got the information."

Ulmann considered him seriously for a moment, and then answered truthfully. "Yes. I would have been pleased."

He was not sure what to expect in response to this remark, but the broad grin which crossed Carrington's face took him by surprise.

"Same old Hauptmann Ulmann."

There was silence again, a silence during which the camaraderie they had so slowly and painfully built up two years before reasserted itself and a new trust was established alongside it.

"And you say he left this book for a friend to pass on to me?"

"That was my understanding, yes."

"Yeah." The thought that had occurred to them both was better left unspoken, although Carrington's silence was eloquent enough for Ulmann to take from it the words he had thought it wisest not to utter.

A friend did.

Wonder what Richard would make of that?

"Well, maybe I'll get to return it to him one day. After the War. Nach dem Krieg, eh, Hauptmann?"

"Nach dem Krieg, Herr Carrington. For your sake, I hope it may be so."

 

Descending the tower staircase some considerable time later, Carrington stepped out into the courtyard and immediately encountered Major Mohn. The Luftwaffe officer was as usual immaculately turned out with a shine on his jackboots which in itself seemed a calculated insult to the prisoners with their necessarily scruffy clothes and much-mended shoes. Hauptmann Ulmann at least had the decency to look as if he polished his own boots, but Mohn gave the impression of standing by idly whilst some overworked flunkey took care of his. Carrington could not help resenting this devious man's lofty attitude and superior ways, but controlled his feelings as Mohn hailed him and ordered him to stop.

"May I see what you are carrying, Herr Major?"

Without a spoken answer Carrington pulled the sad relic of the Thompson from his greatcoat pocket and handed it over to the Major.

"Poetry?" Black-gloved fingers flicked through the leaves until the book fell open at a place where a comer had been turned down to mark a page.

"An English poet. Francis Thompson."

"Indeed?" Mohn's eyebrows rose as he scanned the open page. "This love is crueller than the other love," he quoted, disapproval written across his features. "It seems a rather emotional verse; I should not have taken you as a man given to reading ... ah ... sentimental poetry."

"Well, maybe I'm not - in normal times. But these are not normal times. Every man in here has a wife or girlfriend or lover he's missing. I remember mine by reading poetry, that's all."

The German officer smiled, a crocodile's smile. "Really? I did not know you had a lover, Major Carrington. You have never received letters from her."

Belatedly Carrington remembered that Mohn had taken over the censoring of the prisoners' mail and cursed his own stupidity. Wallowing in his misery at being parted from Dick he had not been sufficiently on his guard and had inadvertently given the man cause to think he was lying - or at least to be suspicious of his words. Frantically he searched his mind for some plausible excuse.

"She's - uh - Can I confide in you, Herr Major?"

Amused by the earnest tone, Mohn leaned forward to receive Carrington's 'confidences'. "You may."

The American lowered his voice. "I don't want the guys to know about this, but well, my girlfriend isn't too strong. She's ... nervous. When I was first captured back in '40 she had kind of a breakdown and was in the hospital for a long time. She's home now, but her folks don't let her write to me any more. Her mother thinks she would be happier if she forgot all about me."

"Oh? And what is her name, this fragile young lady?"

"Patti - Patti Lavington." Inwardly he apologised to the robust, tennis-playing Navy nurse whose only offence lay in not being Dick Player.

Mohn shrugged, obviously relishing the information.

"I am sorry to hear that your friend is unwell," he said, unexpectedly. "Perhaps it is true that American women are so pampered and fawned upon that they have all become weak. German women, fortunately, do not have the same tendencies. Nor would a German woman be interested in such feeble verse as this." He tapped the book with an authoritarian finger, returning it as suddenly as he had taken it, all interest lost. "if you care at all about real literature you should study Goethe or Schiller. There are volumes of both in the camp library."

Not any more, Carrington thought, savagely, aware that they had been plundered to provide good thick German paper for preparing false identity and travel documents.

"Oh, I read German poetry, too," he observed, airily. "Wasn't it a German poet who said:

Ob aus Langmut Er sich saümet, bringt mit Schärf' Er alles ein?"

The Luftwaffe officer stared at him for a moment, his face draining slowly of its colour.

"Is this intended as a threat?"

The lined face of the American took on its closest approximation to an innocent expression in many years.

"Not at all, Major Mohn. That was from Friedrich von Logau ... "

"I am well aware of that. I believe you will find yourself being just a little too clever one of these days, Major Carrington," Mohn told him with an expression of contempt as if for a lesser form of life. "Good afternoon." He ended the conversation by stepping aside and continuing on his way, annoyance written in every line of his retreating back.

Carrington watched him cross the courtyard with some satisfaction and, turning back to return to his intended route, discovered he was under the scrutiny of a large, bluff man with the most improbable moustaches ever seen outside a comic book. Squadron Leader Shaw had obviously been privy to the whole conversation.

"Carrington." He sauntered over, smiling cheerfully. "What on earth was it you said to upset that blighter? I know it was poetry of some kind but my German's none too good."

The American grinned. "Just gave him a little of his own medicine," he admitted.

Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.

The translation's by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; he's one of ours."

"Yes, yes, indeed he is. I hadn't realised you were a literary man, Carrington; we must talk. That's rather my subject, as you probably know."

"Yeah, I'd heard."

He sighed deeply. An hour or so's introspection over Richard's book had only served to remind him of the high walls and the impenetrable barriers that lay between them and of his growing sense of the utter impossibility of their ever meeting again. Richard, however, would not approve of his moping around like some heartsick Victorian maiden; Richard would expect him to begin making new escape plans immediately. In this context Shaw would be a valuable ally. Not only that, but his open and uncritical manner made him appear a refreshing companion. It was not a decision that required a good deal of thought.

"Okay, Shaw," he said cheerfully, "I'd rather talk literature with you than Mohn any day."

"I quite agree; the man's a philistine bastard. Still, the Germans are not entirely without culture; I've had some quite civilised conversations with Ulmann about books. What's that you're carrying, by the way? Ah, Thompson, eh? A little too churchified and moralistic for my taste, but distinctly underrated. Care to join me for a stroll and discuss him?"

A raised eyebrow in the direction Mohn had taken indicated that there was no further threat to be expected from that quarter in the immediate future. With a shrug, Carrington returned the book to his pocket.

"Sure," he said. "Why not?"

"Good man," Shaw commended, and towed him off for yet another repetetive circuit of the courtyard.

 

"Hey, Phil!"

Wandering slowly back in the direction of the Saalhaus an hour later, Carrington was surprised to be hailed by his countryman Lieutenant Phipps. As a contingent the Americans in Colditz were still only four strong and, being an easy-going nationality anyway, they had more or less dispensed with the courtesies of rank amongst themselves, so Phipps' friendly form of address was becoming familiar to him.

"Jim. What's happening?"

"Message from Colonel Dodd; can you call by and see him before Abendessen?"

"Sure. He in his room?"

"Uh-huh."

"Yeah. Thanks, Jim."

Parting from Phipps, Carrington made for the Saalhaus staircase and within moments had bounded up past the theatre to the level on which the senior officers had their quarters and knocked on Dodd's door.

"Yeah, what?" came from inside, a short-tempered growl unlike Dodd's usual relaxed style.

"It's me, Colonel. You wanted to see me?"

"C'mon in, Phil. Only stand well back unless you want to catch whatever the hell this is I've got," was the somewhat discouraging response.

Hunched up in his greatcoat and wrapped in a blanket, Colonel Dodd was obviously having something of a struggle to fight off the chill that enveloped him in the tiny room. He was sitting on his one chair, glancing across towards the bed with the expression of someone desperate for a good night's sleep.

"You feeling okay, Colonel?"

"Do I look as if I'm feeling okay?" Dodd regretted his testy answer immediately, shrugging by way of apology. "The way I feel at the moment the only way my legs'll ever be warm again is if I set fire to my pants."

Carrington failed to suppress a smile. "This place is certainly no health spa," he conceded, "but the last thing I heard Florida wasn't taking any prisoners in this war."

"Too bad. I could do with a little sunshine. I think I'm sickening for something, Phil. I've got the shivers."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Colonel. Have you been to see the Stabsarzt?"

"Not yet. Next job on my list, soon as I get the energy to cope with all those stairs. And crossing the courtyard - brrr! Listen, Phil, sit down a moment. I've got some news for you."

Obeying his commander's indication, Carrington sat on the end of the bed. "Sir? Good news or bad?"

One shaggy white eyebrow rose in silent comment. "Now that," Colonel Dodd said, "depends very much on your point of view. I was speaking with Colonel Preston a short while ago. He asked me to pass something on to you. His people found out - he won't say how, but I guess you'll have a pretty clear idea how they do it - that your friend Player has been returned to active service. They had word he's been given command of a submarine in the Med. - HMS Tercel. And he's a Lieutenant-Commander now. Y'see, I don't know if it's good news or bad to be told that somebody you care about is back in the front line."

No flicker of reaction had crossed Carrington's features. "I know what you mean. He's out of Colditz, but he's back in the War. Still, that's why he spent so much time trying to get out of here; there's a lot of guys who don't want to escape."

"That's right." The Colonel nodded sagely. "It was the same for you, wasn't it? You could both have stayed here if you wanted."

"I guess so. Only we'd have stopped caring about each other if we had."

Dodd coughed uncomfortably. "You know I've been hearing a lot about Player from Colonel Preston. Seems he was highly regarded around here."

"And not just by the British," Carrington told him, wryly.

"No?"

"No. Maybe I shouldn't mention it, but a couple of hours ago I had the damnedest conversation with Ulmann. He said ... well, he implied ... that he knew what happened between Richard and me."

"Oh?" Sudden animation crossed Dodd's face. "That make him a blackmail prospect?"

"What? Blackmail Hauptmann Ulmann? I'd sooner try to blackmail the Statue of Liberty! The guy's incorruptible!"

"Phil, do you hear yourself? This is a German officer you're talking about. Oh, I know he's the best of the bunch - but they're a pretty rotten bunch on the whole, although I guess the Kommandant's halfway human at times. Maybe you just need to consider what side you're on."

Carrington regarded him evenly, charitably attributing his irascibility to whatever encroaching illness was making him so uncomfortable.

"Colonel," he said softly, "there could be a day when we need Hauptmann Ulmann and he needs us. He's no Nazi sympathiser, he's just a guy doing a job - like you or me. if he knew about us and he's hidden it from the Gestapo then he's already put his life on the line for our sake. I wouldn't call a guy who could do that an enemy, no matter what uniform he wears."

"Yeah? Well, whatever Ulmann knows the Kommandant also knows - and if Ulmann's changing sides, then so is he. Did you consider that?"

"Yes, sir, but I don't know what to make of it. The one thing I'm sure of is that Mohn doesn't have the first idea. I just talked to him; he was pumping me for information about Patti - why she didn't write to me. I told him she'd been in a mental hospital. He seemed to believe it, so I guess that means Ulmann and the Kommandant are shielding us. Shielding me."

"Any idea why they'd do that, Phil?"

Carrington's hand went unconsciously to the spine of the poetry book in his greatcoat pocket. There was no theory that fit all the facts. True the two German officers had been very concerned to keep the SS at bay, but that shouldn't have extended as far as Ulmann's obvious compassion for Dick's illness. Their simpler purpose would have been served equally well by allowing Dick to die. That led him unerringly to the conclusion that Ulmann and the Kommandant were inclined to be sympathetic, and since he and Player had faced prejudice and open hostility from their own compatriots when their relationship started that shed a very curious light indeed on the conduct of the Germans.

"They're pretty tough on homosexuals in the German forces," he said, thoughtfully. "You know what happened about the Storm Troopers in 1934. The penalty for their own guys is execution - no matter who, no matter why." Suddenly, for no readily apparent reason, he remembered Mitzi. if she was alive and had managed to suppress her nature, she was probably in uniform somewhere.

Dragged up as a soldier. She'd hate that.

He shuddered. A uniform could conceal a vast variety of emotions and persuasions, disguise a whole geometry of inclinations.

"All I can say, Colonel," Carrington continued cautiously, lost in a maze of strange thoughts he hardly dared express, "is that I'd trust them both to do the right thing. Sounds crazy, I know, but you ask Colonel Preston. We have plenty of things to worry about, but Ulmann and the Kommandant aren't among them."

"Uh-huh? Well, if you say so. I guess you know Ulmann better than anyone else."

"Know him?" The thought struck Carrington by surprise. "No, I wouldn't say I know him exactly. But lately I'm beginning to think ... in a weird kind of way ... that maybe I understand him just a little."

Dodd's eyebrows rose, the tone in the younger man's voice alerting him to the possibility that Carrington possessed some insight he himself had missed.

"Is that so? Then that could make you a very valuable commodity around here in the next few months. If you're right and we're going to need Ulmann, then I guess that means we're going to need you, too."

A sigh escaped Carrington and he turned a tired grin towards his Senior Officer. "That's okay, Colonel, I don't have any other plans. And it's always nice to be needed," he added with a shrug.

*

 

Chapter Fifteen

February 1945

 

By the end of January Colonel Dodd's illness had shown itself in its true colours. Beginning as general lassitude accompanied by a splitting headache, it had developed into a case of catarrhal influenza which necessitated his being confined to the sickbay without visitors for as long as he was infectious. Nor was his the only case; poor diet had made the inmates prey to any opportunist infection and once the disease became established in the camp the doctors had their work cut out to deal with the sufferers who inundated their limited facilities. Dodd, being one of the oldest prisoners, automatically merited a bed in the sickbay and the concern of Dr Merriman, who explained carefully to Carrington that influenza placed an added strain on the heart and that until it had run its course the SAO was not to be troubled with any day-to-day administrative matters. For the next few weeks, therefore, this made Major Philip Carrington the ranking American Officer at Colditz Castle, a dubious privilege which was only of significance on Appel when he found himself standing at the head of his small contingent trying to look diligent instead of skulking in the back row plotting nefarious escape schemes.

Where are you Richard? he found himself wondering one bitterly cold morning. What would you think if you could see me now?

He had the uncomfortable suspicion that Player would have something uncomplimentary to say about his moustache and full beard, but this was winter and he was not prepared to part with his whiskers until the weather improved. Other than that he could expect some pointed remarks about people who allowed themselves to be captured and brought back to the same prison twice, but he liked to think that his one-time lover would relish the thought of his being a Senior Officer and - if only temporarily - the confidant of Colonel Preston.

What had surprised Carrington about this arrangement was how well he and Preston had got on. They were not the likeliest of soul-mates and but for the war they would scarcely have given one another the time of day, but being thrown into a situation where they were dependant on one another for moral support had taught each a great deal about the other. The SBO was not a man who made friends readily but he had learned to feel at ease in Carrington's undemanding company in the same way he had once learned to feel comfortable with Pat Grant - and, more recently, with Maximilian Dodd.

Moreover, from the casual conversation in the courtyard some three weeks earlier a burgeoning friendship with Shaw was developing. On his arrival at Colditz the man had been swamped by sycophants whose facile admiration had soon worn off, leaving him with a shortage of friends. Other than a nucleus of slave-labourers who had made his glider project their raison d'etre and the core of academic types who attended his lectures on English literature the camp as a whole had forgotten about Shaw, treating him as last year's sensation. As soon as he had demonstrated his unwillingness to risk his neck in some hare-brained escape scheme he had lost his celebrity status and been absorbed into camp life seamlessly, so that it came as a surprise now to the old lags when some new arrival's jaw dropped with the reverent exclamation; "Not the Tony Shaw?"

These new friendships, together with the revival of those with Carter, Brent and Downing, had gone some way towards filling the gap Richard's absence had left. He had never been so aware of being apart from his lover until he had returned to Colditz. Now it was difficult to remember that two years had passed and that the war, which had brought them together, had flung them apart again to possibly quite separate fates.

He could not, of course, have hoped to put Dick Player out of his mind now that he was back at Colditz even had he wished to. Every brick and stone was a reminder of his previous tenure, every familiar face in the courtyard heightened the unsettling sensation that he might suddenly turn a corner and be met with the spectacle of a mop of blond hair above a pair of serious blue eyes and run headlong into his lover about some perfectly ordinary business. The knowledge that Richard was safe - escaped and long since returned to a free country - was sometimes not enough to keep at bay the laughing fair-haired ghost which always lurked just ahead of him around the angle of a corridor or a few stairs higher on the spiral.

For weeks he carried the volume of Thompson1s poetry with him everywhere, rereading often the poems Dick had marked. Other men carried about letters from their wives, sweethearts, families, which in moments of melancholy they could take out and read to reassure themselves that the world outside had not forgotten them: he, although he had occasional letters from his family and friends, was more inclined to bury himself in the words of the verses Richard had enjoyed. It was the only form of contact they could now share, and sometimes he imagined he caught a stray wisp of thought that flickered from the pages of the book and bound them together again on a level above all imprisonment.

One poem in particular haunted him, so that it returned over and over again and captivated him with its very particular relevance. It was the 'emotional verse' whose words had inspired Major Mohn to his tirade about sentimental poetry and the inferiority of American women. In a small corner of his mind Carrington agreed with Mohn's criticism of the stanzas, but that did not stop him finding comfort in the poet's words.

We had the Dreams for Tryst, we other pair;

But here there is no we; - not anywhere

Returning breaths of sighs about me move.

No wings, even of the stuff which fancy wove,

Perturb Sleep's air with a responsive flight

When mine sweep into dreams. My soul in fright

Circles as round its widowed nest a dove.

 

One shadow but usurps another 's place:

And, though this shadow more enthralling is

Alas, it hath no lips at all to miss!

I have not even that former poignant bliss,

That haunting sweetness, that forlorn sad trace,

The phantom memory of a vanished kiss.

 

He was not a fanciful man, but a great believer in the power of the written word to express emotions that otherwise could have no outlet. While he did not seek to abdicate from the world and its responsibilities he found, even within his prison, a measure of the freedom he had known through loving Richard returned to him in the poet's carefully-crafted lines. Hauptmann Ulmann's gift had touched him more deeply than the German would ever know, and had given him the strength to face this new captivity alone.

Carrington's drifting thoughts were recalled abruptly. Ulmann was calling the parade to attention and the Allied officers obeyed automatically. There were few malcontents among them who would think of disrupting a winter Appel without good reason; those who had that kind of energy to spare were now for the most part involved in the glider project and anxious not to draw attention to themselves if they could help it. Experience had shown that the more efficient and military the Appel the quieter the life they could expect from their captors; even the fanatical Major Mohn was not given to spending half the morning standing around in an icy courtyard counting and re-counting prisoners who at the moment had better things to do than mount extravagant doomed escape attempts.

Ulmann was no different. He looked as though the limited comfort of the Kommandantur was calling him. Shivering, Carrington could only sympathise.

"Thank you, gentlemen. You may dismiss."

Carrington turned to his men. A few yards away the British Officer of the Day, Brent, was formally dismissing his contingent. Carrington scanned Nugent and Phipps with a jaded eye and then, in subdued tones but with something approaching a smile, said; "Okay, fellers, scatter."

His two subordinates, grinning, stood to attention and dismissed. 'In the melee that followed, Carrington found himself accosted by his new British friend.

"D'you play mah-jongg, Carrington?"

The American shrugged. "It's been a while," he said. "In the States it's pretty well considered the sort of game elderly ladies play in the afternoons. The blue-rinse bunch."

Pale grey eyes studied him cautiously. "I suppose you know I haven't a clue what you're talking about?"

"That's okay, it's not important. Yes, I play mah-jongg."

"Good man. I gather the camp's acquired a set from the Red Cross but no-one has much idea how to play. I thought we might have a game and try to instruct a couple of others as we went along. What say?"

"Fine by me."

"Good." Shaw lowered his voice conspiratorially. "And you're invited to visit the glider workshop. I've had a word with the chaps and they're quite willing for you to be shown around, although you'll have to work whilst you're with us. Later on today, perhaps?"

"Okay."

"And I understand you're also a cricketer," the Englishman went on, more loudly as they sauntered past the courtyard sentry on their way back into the building. "You know, Carrington, you really are a most surprising chap."

"Yeah," Carrington told him, stepping back to let Shaw go first through the doorway, "so I've been told."

 

As the Appel ended, Ulmann found himself forced to cast aside any thoughts he may have been entertaining of sheltering inside the buildings and settling down for a quiet morning of paperwork. He had been vaguely aware of the jalousie door in the courtyard main gate opening and closing and now glanced over to see Major Mohn standing beside the striped sentry box and watching the proceedings silently, scanning the hurrying prisoners keenly. He had never troubled to disguise his contempt for the British prisoners in general, nor his fancied superiority to them, and although he stopped somewhat short of wearing a permanent sneer he nevertheless affected an air of master-race supremacy which would not have sat ill on a caricature monocled Junker. Mohn was very conscious of his own status as a proven war hero, a confidant of the Führer and the second-in-command of an important prisoner-of-war camp - a second-in-command, moreover, who believed himself more competent and a better soldier that his own Kommandant. Such confidence in itself was almost enviable, Ulmann thought, crossing to him. He had prepared himself to like and respect the Horst Mohn of whose exploits he had heard long before he met the man himself - but Mohn the man had fallen far short of what he expected from Mohn the legend. Not only was he arrogant and personally ambitious but he was also - which was far worse in Ulmann's opinion - completely devoid of any spark of humour or compassion. In his immediate acquaintance there was no-one else on either side in the present conflict of whom he could say the same.

Mohn's presence would seem to indicate a break in the normal routine. Ulmann strode across to him smartly and took pains to favour the man with an impeccably correct salute which Mohn barely troubled to acknowledge.

"Ulmann." Never had the Kommandant made the gulf in rank between himself and the Hauptmann seem as great as that implied by the Major's tone.

"Sir." Mildly Ulmann suppressed the distaste he always felt when addressing this man as his superior.

"I had not realised," Mohn drawled, his hooded gaze following Carrington and Shaw as they retreated towards the British quarters, "that Squadron Leader Shaw and Major Carrington were such good friends. Surely they can have very little in common?"

Ulmann's brows furrowed as he turned to follow Mohn's gaze. He too had noticed recently that a new friendship seemed to have sprung up between the two, and had been intrigued by it. He had supposed that Carrington was feeling somewhat isolated, detached from his former friends by virtue of the two years of freedom he had enjoyed and they had not, and that he and Shaw had accidentally discovered common ground - although he had never asked himself what that might be.

"Of course they were both pilots," he said, as much to himself as to Mohn. "As you were yourself, sir. I have always understood that all pilots consider themselves comrades, whatever their other differences."

"The 'fellowship of the air'? I have heard it called that. Personally I do not believe any such thing exists." Mohn dismissed the suggestion crisply.

"Yes, sir. Then again, they are both literary men. Perhaps that is where their paths cross?"

"A newspaper reporter and a Professor of English Literature? I hardly think it likely. In any event," Mohn went on scathingly, "judging by what I have learned of Major Carrington's taste in literature that would imply that they are spending their time discussing weak poetry and trashy novels. No, Ulmann, I think they are probably collaborating on something a great deal more important than books," he almost spat the word in a way that made Ulmann think irresistibly of torchlight parades and ceremonial book-burnings, "although perhaps you with your foreign University education are unwilling to consider anything quite so down to Earth. They are both dangerous men, both high-risk prisoners with past escape attempts and the sort of backgrounds which inspire other more impressionable prisoners to follow their example. We must keep a watch on them."

"Their literary group is always kept under close observation. So far there have been no grounds to suspect any particular activity on their part, but we will increase our efforts."

Mohn nodded. "Very well. Perhaps a snap search of the British quarters during the afternoon when their precious group is meeting?"

Ulmann grimaced. "Yes, sir. Do you wish the library to be included in the search?"

"Certainly. Also the sickbay, the chapel, the canteen and the theatre. I will arrange for some of the off-duty guards to be put at your disposal. That is all."

The Hauptmann snapped to attention in acknowledgement of Mohn's orders, and then watched as the other man stalked off towards the kitchens on his surprise tour of inspection. What the Kommandant would think of this conduct was something Ulmann did not care to dwell on at the moment - no doubt his language would be colourful and explicit even if his tone was weary beyond measure; the autocratic second-in-command with his more-Prussian-than-thou demeanour was yet one more burden resting on Karl's increasingly frail shoulders, and one of which Ulmann would have been more than happy to relieve him. The knowledge that the end of the war would bring with it the end of any necessity of dealing with Major Horst Mohn was just another reason for scanning the sparse news reports with mounting eagerness in anticipation of the Castle's final liberation. When it came, it would not only be the prisoners who considered it a merciful release.

 

The only way to approach the glider workshop was through the library. Shaw had found a concealed grating hidden behind the bookshelves soon after his capture when he had been making a serious effort to work on the great epic of literary criticism he had always thought would be his life's monument. He had been disillusioned about his abilities as a writer, but along with that revelation had come a second - that the skills and the facilities existed within Colditz to construct and launch a glider capable of carrying two men well beyond the confines of its walls. An attic, served by a long-forgotten staircase which could be reached by climbing through the grating, provided ample space for the construction, and a regular literary class conducted by Captain James Porteous supplied cover for the builders' activities.

"We found all the information we needed about constructing airframes and calculating stresses and so forth in a book in the library," Shaw explained to Carrington, his bemusement at the Germans' lack of imagination on that score evident in his tone. "Obviously there's no shortage of wood for the struts - we're using floorboards and bedboards - and to brace the frame we've used angle iron from the bedsteads in the Saalhaus. Field telephone wire for the controls, of course - failsafes on every system. It's a real belt-and-braces job." He ran a hand lovingly over the blue-and-white bulk of the infernal machine sitting so demurely in the midst of what had apparently for many years past been the domain only of pigeons. "As you can see, the skin's made from palliasse covers, double-seamed, and we're doping it with a foul concoction made from our ration of suet."

Carrington raised an eyebrow in appreciation, and strolled slowly around the wing to take a look at the glider from every angle.

"Lines are a little like a Spitfire's," he remarked, approvingly.

"Apart from the wingspan, yes; we make her about half as wide again. She should sink at about four feet a second which gives us a flight time of something like twenty-five seconds, depending on the weather. I make that round about a quarter of a mile," Shaw added, thoughtfully, "which should just about take us beyond that line of trees on the far side of the park. After that ... " He shrugged.

Carrington peered out of the tiny chink between roof-slates which gave Shaw his only present view of the intended target area.

"Going to be kinda conspicuous, isn't it?"

"Not at dusk. Anybody getting out just before full dark would have the whole night to start walking - like you and Grant did. We'd be making for the same border crossing."

That was no surprise. Most of the British sorties from Colditz had been directed towards the identical supposedly vulnerable spot. Carrington remembered how Muir and Player's escape attempt had ended somewhat short of the crossing and shuddered at the thought.

"You and who else?" he asked, quietly.

"Don't know, old boy. Names in a hat when the great day comes; I'll take whichever lucky bugger's number comes up. Only fair way to do it," he added, diffidently. "Wouldn't care to join us, I suppose?"

The American cast wistful eyes over the emerging graceful lines of Shaw's masterpiece. "Thanks," he said, shaking his head in genuine regret, "but with Colonel Dodd on the sick list I can't even think about escaping for a while. Maybe when he's better. You've got a great plan here, Shaw; I hope it goes well."

"Ah ... er, yes. Good of you, Carrington."

The potential awkwardness of the moment was broken suddenly by a loud 'clang' very close at hand. Whirling, Carrington became aware of a tin mug on the workbench which had fallen onto its side.

"Damn," Shaw muttered softly. "Alarm system. When the electro-magnet's switched off a large nail falls down into the cup." Rounding the fuselage he leaned across Carrington to peer out through the small gap between the slates and focus on a window in the British quarters some fifty feet below. A large red coffee-pot was just visible on the windowsill. "Red. Goons making random searches. Look lively, Carrington, we've got about seventy seconds while they come thumping up the stairs, and we've got to get back to our class. It's Bleak House this afternoon; d'you know it well enough to be intelligent on the subject?"

The question was thrown over Shaw's shoulder as the pair of them dived for the concealed staircase but Carrington answered it anyway.

"Probably."

Two helpers were awaiting them anxiously as they reached the grating and crawled back through it. The helpers - members of the team of glider volunteers who all took turns to attend Porteous's literature classes - shoved the bookshelves back into place and then expertly brushed down Shaw's and Carrington's clothing, ending by rumpling their hair to remove the dust from the roof trusses. The two officers made themselves as presentable as they could whilst a stooge at the window gave a running commentary on the search below.

"Ulmann and Mohn in the courtyard," he said. "Mohn and three guards on their way up here. Looks like the Errand Boy and two others - can't tell which. Ulmann's mob are in the chapel."

A book was thrust into Carrington's hands and a page of hand-written notes and a pencil placed before him. He glanced anxiously around the room and was rewarded by the sight of Shaw and the other volunteers slipping smoothly into their seats. The thundering of his own heart sounded far louder to him than the approaching footsteps of the guards on the staircase.

"Go on, Carrington," Shaw said, controlling his breathing carefully as he spoke. "What was it you were saying?"

A moment of complete blankness, and then a bemused Carrington found himself speaking calmly and clearly just as the door opened.

"Ah - er - just that John Jarndyce is probably just about the most benevolent character Dickens ever created," he said, hearing himself with astonishment. "Without being a sickening goody-goody, I mean. He takes in the two kids for the sole purpose of protecting them from the lawsuit and he takes in Esther Summerson because she doesn't have a home ..."

"Is that entirely altruistic, though?" asked Porteous, sharply, an unholy gleam in his eye. He was an unpleasant weasel of a man whom Shaw detested but he revelled in his role as the Castle's headmaster - at which he excelled. "I mean, wasn't he already in love with her?"

"Oh, surely not!" Shaw told him, with affected scorn. "His feelings for her were purely motivated by pity after she was disfigured by smallpox... Is there something we can do for you, Major Mohn?"

Mohn was leaning over Carrington's shoulder at the open book he held. "Oh, Dickens," he said, with a shrug that showed how unimpressed he was. "Well, I suppose it serves to pass the time." He glanced up. His three Goons had toured the library briefly, looking into all its nooks and crannies, and were returning to the centre of the room with singularly blank looks on their faces. "Gentlemen your activities do not go unnoticed," he said, suavely, to the prisoners.

"Good!" Shaw's exclamation sounded positively expansive. "Do spread the word at every chance you get, Major, new recruits are always welcome."

"What interest, Major Carrington, can a novel about the corrupt British aristocracy possibly hold for an American?" Mohn asked icily, ignoring Shaw's interruption.

"You think we don't have a class structure in the States, Major? Sure we do. We have crooked lawyers, too. That's what this book's all about. It has a lot of relevance to us, even today. I guess a classic like this never really goes out of fashion."

Mohn had returned to the doorway, his henchmen around him. "I shall be keeping you all under close observation," he said.

"Just as you like, Major," Shaw told him. "Good afternoon."

Mohn did not deign to reply but turned and closed the door behind him.

"That's an interesting point about the modern-day relevance of Dickens' work," Shaw said, loudly, so that his words would carry to the Luftwaffe officer outside the room. "Admittedly the English legal system - not 'British' as the Major mistakenly called it - has improved somewhat since the writing of Bleak House, but it's still a juggernaut capable of crushing individuals beneath its monstrous wheels..."

"They've gone," the stooge by the door said, cheerfully. "I can hear them going down the stairs. Any moment now they'll be out in the courtyard."

Shaw put down his book and breathed a hearty sigh of relief. "Well done, everyone," he told them. "Carrington, care to stay and join in the class? Or do you have somewhere else you'd rather be?"

Bemused by the sudden switches of direction the man seemed capable of making, Carrington caught up a little belatedly.

"Oh... uh, I'll stay, thanks," he muttered, smiling. "Always had a soft spot for old Charlie. Only don't spring anything like that on me again, huh?"

"Try not to, old boy," Shaw promised him, with such a grin on his florid face that Carrington knew better than to believe a word he said.

 

"Lose anything in the search?" Carrington asked softly, dropping into the pew beside Carter in the otherwise deserted chapel an hour or so later.

"Nothing we weren't planning to lose," Carter chuckled. "A few little titbits we stashed away in the sickbay, just to keep them interested. Might be enough to keep Mohn off our backs for a day or two. I think he's trying to prove something."

"Yeah, you're right. I just wish he wouldn't try to prove it on us."

Carter nodded, accepting the comment. "A little bird tells me you've been to look at the glider workshop," he said in a conversational tone. "What did you think of it?"

The American shook his head wryly. "Simon," he replied, barely above a whisper, "those guys are crazy. You know what Shaw told me? That he's going to launch that thing using a bath full of concrete as a counterweight. Only he never said where he plans to get the bath full of concrete."

"The cellars are full of debris. We've got mortar and aggregate up to our eyeballs. Getting a bathtub up there's the least of our worries; what he hasn't taken into consideration is that it'll probably take a week to rig up the runway."

"So how come you and the Colonel let him go ahead with it?"

"We didn't have a lot of choice as I remember it. But it's keeping Shaw and his cronies out of mischief - and out of our hair. Winter's never much of a time for escape schemes - it's too cold to tunnel and you'd be too conspicuous if you got out anyway. I'm just glad to have people occupied and ... well, you know, optimistic. They've got something to hope for."

"Uh-huh. You know it's going to take them months. The war could be over by the time they're finished."

The fair-haired man shrugged. "It's keeping the children quiet, Phil. Be grateful for small mercies."

"I guess." Conversation lapsed a moment, and then Carrington said; "Tell me about Mohn. You and he don't seem to be signed up in each other's fan clubs."

"Hah! You can say that again. You watch that one, Phil, he's a bosom buddy of Hitler's - sits next to him at the dinner table, wipes his arse when he has a shit. Our Major Mohn is the most dangerous bastard you ever set eyes on. Even the bloody Germans are terrified of him. Have you noticed the way they all fall over themselves to salute him when he goes through the courtyard just in case he has them whisked off to the Russian Front? The only guy who isn't afraid of him is Ulmann. Hey, that reminds me - have you heard about the time Ulmann got beaten up?"

Carrington's dark eyebrows shot skywards. "Ulmann? You're kidding me!"

A shake of the head. "Perfectly serious. Only keep it quiet, there's only a few people who know." Briefly and succinctly he told the story of the attack on the Security officer by the embittered French tunnellers, and of the German's mysterious disappearance and reappearance afterwards.

"Where d'you figure he was hiding?"

Carter grimaced. "He didn't leave the Castle," he said. "He wasn't in his own quarters or Mohn'd have found him, and he must have had some kind of medical attention to get him back on his feet so quickly. Only one place Mohn and his spies couldn't find him."

Carrington was puzzled for a moment. "I don't know of any place where Mohn wouldn't look," he mused, "unless it was the Kommandant's private quarters."

Carter grinned at him. "We racked our brains," he said, "but that was all we could come up with. You know as well as I do, Phil, the Kommandant and Ulmann would do just about anything to keep the SS out of Colditz - look what happened when the guard was murdered, after all."

It had been a long time ago, but nothing of the matter had eluded Carrington's memory. "Sure I do. And if they could connive at concealing a murder, they'd hardly stop at covering up an attack on Ulmann."

"Mohn would probably have had half the French shot," Carter reminded him, gravely. "The stupid bastards didn't think about that. When they tried bragging about what they'd done, we put it about that we'd seen Ulmann and he was fine. Even Mohn seemed to believe that; he couldn't imagine why we'd lie about it. We were out on a limb, because at any moment he could have found out what really happened. Then Ulmann just showed up for his regular morning Appel. He looked like a week-old corpse," Carter went on, revelling in the memory of that morning, "but he got through it without passing out. In fact he was in a pretty good mood, all things considered; he could see we'd thumped the tar out of the Frogs for it, and he told us he hoped we hadn't been fighting. Next thing I know there's a bottle of schnapps left in the sickbay for me and George. No message, just a bottle. Looked to me like it came out of the Kommandant's own personal stock."

"An expression of gratitude, you mean?"

"Could be. You see, Phil, you have to understand; I don't hate the Germans. Well, not all of them. I hate Mohn, but there's a good reason for that. To him I'm an easy target. He thinks I'm a peasant. I also hate being here when I could be at home with Kathy just being her husband. But I've got to admit if Ulmann hadn't done what he did that time it could all have been a hell of lot worse. If you really want to know, I don't think Ulmann likes Mohn any better than we do. And that goes for the Kommandant, too."

Carrington leaned back in the pew, stretching his legs out in front of him. "What would you say, Simon, if I told you Hauptmann Ulmann knew all about my relationship with Dick Player?"

An alarmed expression crossed Carter's face, swiftly followed by one of the most complete bafflement.

"The murder," he whispered. "The attack on Ulmann. Your affair with Dick. They've been covering up all along."

An ironic laugh. "Who says the only good German is a dead German, eh?"

"I can't work it out, Phil. Why? Why go to such lengths?"

"Because they're more afraid of their own side than they are of us," Carrington told him, sagely. "In fact, I don't think they're afraid of us at all - any more than we are of them."

"Yeah. I stopped being afraid of them a long time ago."

"So did I. As a matter of fact, Simon," the American went on, thoughtfully, putting into words for the first time the strange and rather disquieting idea that had just occurred to him and knowing how eccentric it would sound, "these days I'm more afraid for them."

 

"One pair of civilian trousers," Mohn said, disgustedly, lifting the lank object on the desk in front of him with gloved fingers. "One cap, one partial set of false papers; not a very good forgery, someone's 'trial run' perhaps? Oh, and sundry German uniform buttons, some chocolate and a pair of pliers. I hardly think this is to be taken seriously as a contraband cache, do you Ulmann?"

Ulmann's personal opinion was something he preferred to keep to himself. "The cap and papers were found in the sickbay, sir," he said patiently. "The rest of the collection at various points throughout the theatre - which, as you know, has been kept locked for several weeks since the incident when the prisoners stole the workmen's tools."

"Of which these pliers are the only item to come to light so far," Mohn told him sourly. "And no doubt these were only returned because tile prisoners already had better ones concealed somewhere in the camp."

"It is possible, sir," Ulmann said, because Mohn's silence seemed to demand some kind of answer.

"It is more than possible. It is likely."

"Yes, sir."

"And to what do you attribute our continued failure to find this contraband, Ulmann? Also our singular lack of success recently in intercepting any escape attempts?"

Ulmann's spine stiffened. "Herr Major," he said, calmly, "the prisoners do not make many attempts to escape during the winter months. They are ... "

"They are too busy studying literature? Are you a complete fool, Ulmann? Surely you are not deceived by these charades any more than I? Or perhaps," Mohn went on, his tone lowering to a most dangerous pitch, "you are only too well aware of their escape plans?"

"Sir, if you mean to suggest ... "

"I mean to suggest nothing but that I have seen you talking with Major Carrington on several occasions and I insist on knowing the subject of your conversations. It seems to me that the British and Americans are always one step ahead of us; are they all clairvoyant, do you suppose, or is it possible that someone on our staff is dropping hints to a particularly favoured prisoner? I wonder what lengths you would you go to, Hauptmann, in order to curry favour with Major Carrington? Do you have some arrangement with him for after the war? If so, that would very much depend on you both surviving to the end of it - would it not?"

The veiled threat had very little effect on its intended victim Ulmann's steady blue gaze washed over Mohn's frothing fury and was then directed at a point in the middle distance; for a moment the junior officer's right hand twitched in a reflection of his conscious desire to rearrange Mohn's supercilious features, and then his fingers straightened again as he felt the tension slip from his shoulders and knew that he had conquered his anger against Mohn. The man was simply an irritation he must endure for a few more tedious months and would then be rid of. Mohn was still dangerous, but whatever fear of him Ulmann had once entertained was now all gone.

"You are implying, sir," he said, coolly, "that Germany will not win the war, when you know as well as I do myself what the outcome will be. I have never doubted it for a moment. Whether I survive it or not is unimportant, as long as I can be certain I have been faithful to my duty."

Mohn glared at him, gimlet eyes boring holes through him, his expression as icy and hostile as the Saxon landscape.

"That, Hauptmann," he said, turning away dismissively, "is something that still remains to be seen."

*

Chapter Sixteen

March 1945

 

By the time March arrived chill and cheerless over Colditz, Colonel Dodd's influenza had more or less succumbed to treatment except for complications in the form of an inflammation of the middle ear, which left him feeling dizzy and sick. He was depressed by his failure to recover quickly, confined to his bed in sickbay feeling thoroughly miserable and generally had displayed little of his former spit-and-vinegar ebullience. Carrington had gradually grown into the role of Senior American Officer - not that it was a particularly onerous one at the moment, but being included in the confidences of the other Senior Officers and in occasional formal meetings with the Kommandant had by now become a familiar part of his routine.

He had been an enthusiastic contributor to Porteous's literary circle, making infrequent forays into the glider workshop to comment on some aspect of the design, but on the whole his undemanding friendship with Shaw had continued as something that was not especially concerned with escape unless of a metaphorical nature. Shaw's cultured conversation stretched Carrington's mind in ways that the years of war and captivity had not, and he was able to rediscover the intellectual side of his personality which of necessity had recently been suppressed. The greatest value of Shaw's friendship to Carrington lay in the flights of fancy woven by his mind rather than in the particular fanciful flight he planned, providing as he did a welcome antidote to the tedium of everyday existence at Colditz.

This morning's Appel, however, was something a little out of the ordinary. It appeared it was to be one of those rare occasions when the Kommandant decided to take the parade personally. Whist he was a reasonably frequent visitor to the prisoners' side of the Castle, he did not often choose to involve himself in the mundane checking of prisoners' numbers and as a consequence any Appel he attended became something of a showpiece.

Carrington could not help noticing that the Kommandant was looking much older these days. The amount of grey in his hair had increased markedly, and he leaned a little more heavily on the walking-stick that in earlier days had seemed almost to be an affectation. Most of the German officers seemed to be especially preoccupied recently; Carrington had his theories about that. The numbers of Prominente prisoners who had begun to congregate at Colditz were not there by coincidence; if Hitler wanted hostages to use as bargaining counters when the time came, these were the right people to choose and this was the right place to put them. He didn't envy the Kommandant the responsibility of holding these valuable prisoners against the Fuhrer's personal order.

The formalities of the Appel were concluded rapidly. Nobody wanted to spend any longer than necessary standing about in the cold, especially as it looked as if it could snow again at any moment. The Kommandant exchanged a few brief words with Colonel Preston and then turned to Carrington.

"Good morning, Major," he said urbanely. His face was particularly expressionless, giving away even less of his thoughts than usual.

"Good morning, Kommandant," Carrington replied, somewhat surprised to be addressed.

"How is Colonel Dodd this morning?" asked the Kommandant. "In better health, I hope?"

A raised eyebrow was the American's first response, followed immediately by a cautious answer. "I haven't spoken to him today, Kommandant, but he wasn't very well yesterday. I think the Doctor is still worried about the possible effect on his heart."

The Kommandant nodded. "The Stabsarzt has mentioned his concerns to me. I understand it is largely a matter of rest and good nursing - unfortunately we are not equipped for anything more advanced. I have requested a visit from a physician from the Leipzig Hospital, and I hope he may be able to reassure us about the outcome. I should not like you or your fellow countrymen to think we were not doing all we could."

The information seemed somehow at variance with the grim expression on the Kommandant's face. Judging by that look he had half expected to be told that his Commanding Officer was much worse, that there was no hope for the older man who in a very short time had become his firm friend. Now the strange dichotomy between the Kommandant's demeanour and his words struck him quite forcefully, and his brows creased in puzzlement.

"Thank you, sir," he replied simply. "I know you're doing everything possible for the Colonel. I appreciate it. We all do."

He's protecting his back, he thought savagely. If Dodd dies, he wants me to speak up for them and say they did their best.

"Very well. Major Carrington, I have something of importance I wish to discuss with you and Colonel Preston. I shall be obliged if you will both come to my office in one hour's time."

"I'll be there, Kommandant," he confirmed with a nod.

The older man looked at him sharply, then acknowledged his words and turned away without further comment and ordered Hauptmann Ulmann to conclude the parade. By the time Carrington had gathered his thoughts the Kommandant had marched stiffly back to the shelter of the buildings and Hauptmann Ulmann was requiring the Senior Officers to dismiss their men. Within seconds the courtyard was filled with a rabble of different nationalities all with the same thought in mind - to get inside and as close to a stove as possible. In the circumstances, curiosity about the Kommandant's mood and motives did not remain long in Carrington's mind. Whatever the problem was, he would learn about it soon enough.

Thus, in dismissing these concerns, Phil Carrington was able to enjoy the last untroubled and relatively peaceful hour he was to know for some considerable time - for when the hour was over and he and Colonel Preston were escorted to the Kommandant's office he was to find himself plunged into the kind of horror he had often imagined but except in his worst nightmares had never really expected to meet.

 

The Kommandant was on his feet as they entered. Two chairs had been placed ready, and he gestured for the two Allied officers be seated.

"You wished to see us, Kommandant?" Preston began, mildly.

"Yes, Colonel." The Kommandant also sat, and glanced up to ensure that Ulmann had closed the double doors to the outer office. "In fact it is to Major Carrington that I wish to speak but I have asked you here both as his personal friend and ... er … in the place of Colonel Dodd whose illness makes him unable to attend."

A silent figure crossed the room to the small sideboard behind the Kommandant's desk. Hauptmann Ulmann, who had for some reason removed his cap - an astonishing informality in the presence of senior officers - had possessed himself of the schnapps bottle and four small glasses, and was pouring out measures of the spirit.

Carrington was watching the diminutive figure of the German officer behind the desk; his curiosity about the man was unabated, even though he knew he had been summoned here for no very pleasant reason.

What is it you 're hiding, Kommandant? he wondered, directing the thought at the older man as though he stood some chance of receiving an answer by mental telepathy. What makes you tick?

The Kommandant found the scrutiny disconcerting and avoided it by glancing sideways towards Ulmann, who had now completed his task.

"Thank you, Franz," he said, softly.

Ulmann turned and brought the small salver bearing the filled glasses over to the desk, setting it down lightly on one comer.

"Major Carrington," the Kommandant said, clearing his throat uncomfortably, "one has many unpleasant duties in wartime, but perhaps this is the worst. I regret that I am compelled to inform you ... Lieutenant-Commander Player's submarine has been reported lost in the Mediterranean with all hands."

There was a long, appalled silence, during which Carrington somehow managed to realise that Ulmann had lifted the salver and was brandishing it under the noses of the two Allied officers.

"Gentlemen, a glass of schnapps," he said, insistently.

Preston's expression suggested he thought Ulmann had gone mad, but Carrington seized a glass as though his own life depended on it. He had known the moment he set eyes on those schnapps glasses that there was bad news to be broken, and subconsciously he had anticipated it so that it was perhaps not the shock it might have been. He was standing back from himself; viewing his own actions as though through the wrong end of a telescope. He had been bereaved, and the Germans knew it as well as he did himself; yet he felt nothing except a sickening sense of inevitability. It had been too good to last. when they had parted in Colditz village in October 1942 he had fell at the back of his mind that he might never see Richard again - a conviction that had only increased with the knowledge of Peter Muir's death. Now his worst prediction had come true, and he was suddenly unable to feel anything - even anger.

The Kommandant rose to his feet and lifted his glass. "To the memory of a brave man," he said. "Lieutenant-Commander Player."

Carrington was on his feet in a moment, his movements mechanical and automatic. "Richard," he said, numbly.

Reluctantly Preston unwound himself from his chair. His fundamental objections to drinking with the enemy could hardly prevent him accepting the Kommandant's civilised gesture. "Dick Player. May he rest in peace."

Ulmann raised the fourth glass. "Herr Player," he added solemnly.

As one the four threw back their heads and drank, each finishing the toast in one long swallow. Afterwards they could not look at each other until Carrington, with finality, set his glass back on the salver.

"Damn the war," he said, with feeling.

"As you say, Major," the Kommandant conceded. "I have told no-one else this information, which I assure you is from a most reliable source. I assumed that you would wish to ... break the news ... yourself. We considered that our duty was to inform you as quickly as possible after verifying the facts. Regrettably there is ... no possibility of error."

"I don't doubt your word, Kommandant." Bleakly but correctly Carrington acknowledged the unusual display of concern.

Ulmann is behind this. Ulmann has talked him into this. Why? Why? And why couldn't we have been content with what we had? Why did we have to insist on freedom as well?

Yet even as he thought it, he supplied his own answer. Love without freedom was an empty pleasure; it would wither and die eventually. Highly as they had both valued the relationship they shared, it would never be enough for either of them as long as they were prisoners. If they had become lovers in a free world there would have been nothing that could have kept them apart, but in Colditz they had been prisoners first and lovers second. Their first duty was to escape, and thus it was their duty to be apart when they would sooner have been together.

We did what was expected of us, he thought dully. But we had something. We really had something.

"Our condolences, Herr Major," Ulmann said. His tone was as usual soft and reassuring, and his regrets carried the ring of authenticity. "When you are ready, I will escort you back to the prisoners' courtyard."

"Thank you, Hauptmann, I'm quite ready. Colonel?"

"Yes. Yes, thank you, Phil."

Carrington glanced across the desk to where the Kommandant stood. The senior German officer's expression was shuttered and difficult to read.

You're telling me something that I still don't understand, Carrington thought bitterly. I'm missing a piece of the puzzle here. I'll find it, though; you obviously want me to see the whole picture eventually.

"Thank you for your courtesy, Kommandant."

"Not at all, Herr Carrington." The Kommandant nodded in acknowledgement, and Ulmann resumed his uniform cap and ushered the two Allied officers towards the double doors. The Kommandant sank back down into the chair behind his desk and let out a heartfelt sigh which none of his three visitors failed to interpret correctly, and Carrington found a reserve of detachment with which to feel sympathy for the German.

I wouldn't want to be in your shoes, Kommandant, he thought. The end of the war's getting closer all the time, and there have to be a lot of people who'd like to see you shot first and stop to think about it afterwards. Well, they're going to have to go through me. There are enough good men dead already - and somebody loved them, every damn' one of them.

 

Returning to the prisoners' courtyard under escort, Carrington was only peripherally aware of the small groups of inmates wandering around or huddled in doorways chatting. He knew that once the word spread about Dick Player's demise he would be faced with the sympathy of most of those who knew about their relationship, and instinctively he distrusted it. These same people who in a short time would be queuing up to utter their condolences had in the past done everything they could to ensure that Player and Carrington would have no chance to express their affection for one another. Even Colonel Preston, now so reassuring and compassionate that his presence in the Kommandant's office had been a positive comfort, had tried to separate the two lovers, and that knowledge preyed on Carrington's mind. He did not sincerely doubt Colonel Preston's motives, but somewhere in a dark recess of thoughts he did not care to admit to lay the suspicion that possibly the SBO was relieved to have the whole affair finally over and done with.

Hauptmann Ulmann had halted them just inside the gate, at the bottom of the cobbled incline that led up into the courtyard.

"Gentlemen," he said, civilly, indicating that he was about to take his departure.

"Thank you, Hauptmann Ulmann." It was Preston who spoke for both of them, aware that Carrington was preoccupied with his own thoughts. The two of them watched as the German strode away about his business. "Well, Phil, it's your decision. What do you want to do about telling people?"

One dark eyebrow rose as Carrington turned towards him. "He was one of your officers, Colonel. I guess maybe the British should hear it from you. I'm going on over to see Colonel Dodd and tell him myself."

"What about Phipps and Nugent?"

The four American officers were all good friends, and for a moment Carrington felt a stab of guilt at what seemed like disloyalty, but he could not face the explanations involved. "No, you tell them. They didn't know Richard, and they don't know he was anything special to me."

"As you wish." A brief silence, and then the SBO said; "You know, Phil, I think I have some idea how you must be feeling at this moment. I really am very sorry for your loss. I want you to understand that."

Carrington nodded. "Thank you, Colonel. I was glad of your support back there, I can tell you."

"It must have been very difficult for you, although I thought Ulmann and the Kommandant behaved pretty well about the whole business."

'Yes. I agree with you. But I'm asking myself why. It's obvious they've known about Dick and me for some time but they haven't taken any action. Why d'you suppose that was?"

They were strolling around the edge of the courtyard lost in their very quiet conversation. Those who saw them were well aware from their expressions that something serious was under discussion, and with Carrington acting in the capacity of Senior American Officer most assumed that some important matter of camp policy had arisen which had to be decided at a high level. Good manners and Colditz rules of conduct dictated that Senior Officers in such deep debate were not interrupted.

"I can only assume," Preston said slowly, "that Peter Muir may have let something slip. They had him for rather a long time, I'm afraid, and there seems little doubt he was questioned under torture. I certainly wasn't aware of any reprisals taken against Dick, or of any additional scrutiny of him alter he was returned here, but I have no explanation for that - unless perhaps they thought that with you on the outside it was no longer important."

"No," Carrington said, softly. "With all due respect, Colonel, I don't buy that. I get the feeling I'm being told something, but I don't know what it is." A long, reflective pause while Carrington looked down at the cobbles at his feet, but found no answers there. "Do you mind telling me where you got the information you passed on to Colonel Dodd about Player's promotion?"

Preston looked at him askance, puzzled by the request.

"As a matter of fact it was from Hauptmann Ulmann. Is there some significance in that fact?"

"I doubt it. And I don't think Ulmann's too impressed by Mohn's underhand tactics, so I imagine we can believe it."

"Are you suggesting that some of this might be misinformation?"

"Hell, no. At least, if it is it's from higher up than the Herr Oberst. He and Ulmann obviously believed every word of it."

"Hmmm." Preston was thoughtful, glancing around the courtyard whilst turning over in his mind the scene in the Kommandant's office. "When my wife died the Kommandant offered me schnapps," he said, the pain of the memory still apparent in his voice. "I couldn't drink it, but I felt it was fairly civilised of him. It's a filthy job he's got."

Carrington's brow furrowed at the news. "Was Ulmann there?"

"Not on that occasion, no."

"Then why was he there this time?"

"I don't know. By the same token, why was I?"

"The Kommandant explained that. Only ... I don't know if I buy his explanation." A pause, and then a sudden change of the conversational direction. "If you'll excuse me, Colonel, I guess I'll go talk to Colonel Dodd immediately," the American said, as though it was some kind of decision he had reached.

"Certainly, Phil. Please give him my regards and tell him I hope he'll be back in circulation soon."

"It'll be my pleasure, Colonel."

Automatically Carrington observed the courtesies of the situation; however as he strode away with his back rigidly erect and a fierce determination not to succumb to his grief evident in every line of his body it was readily apparent that pleasure was positively the very last thing on his mind at that particular moment.

 

"Max?"

The soft voice woke Maximilian Dodd from an untroubled sleep. His breathing was much easier than it had been although there was still a tightness in his chest that the doctor was concerned about. Merriman had his hands full with so many cases of influenza and related illnesses complicated by malnutrition, and the second doctor - who had arrived during Carrington's two-year absence - was a very necessary addition to the strength now that Doktor Hoffner was taking responsibility for the town of Colditz as well as the Castle.

"Oh, Phil." Wriggling around in bed Dodd attempted to sit up, but Carrington's hand on his shoulder stopped him where he was. "What are you doing here?"

"Urgent Senior Officer business."

Dodd's pale face clouded over. "Oh? Something I should know about?"

Carrington dropped heavily onto the ancient wooden chair beside the bed.

"I've just been to see the Kommandant," he said bluntly. "He tells me Player's dead."

"Player? Jesus Christ, Phil, that's tough. You believed him?"

"He has no reason to lie to me. In fact, I don't think Hauptmann Ulmann would let him - not after the business with Mohn and the microphones. Besides, Colonel Preston was there as well; neither of us doubted their word."

"Uh-huh. Well, you're the expert." Dodd looked his compatriot over thoroughly. Outwardly calm and composed, Carrington gave the impression of seething inside. His dark eyes were almost feverish in a face so impassive as to appear quite resigned. "Want to talk about it?"

The younger man shrugged. "Not now. Maybe another time. I have to get used to the idea first." However a pensive look crept across his lace and when he spoke again it was almost wistfully. "You know, when I joined the RAF back at the start of the war I had a lot of very old-fashioned patriotic notions about what I was fighting for - freedom and Mom and apple pie and stuff like that. After I met Richard I had a whole new set of things to fight for; that was why I volunteered for that mission with you. Now ... Colonel, what the hell am I gonna find to fight for now?"

"You're asking the wrong guy," Dodd told him drily. "Ask John Preston how he kept going after his wife was killed."

"He has children. I don't."

'You think his kids are the only answer? I doubt it. If you asked him, I bet you he'd say it's his self-respect he's fighting for. His own pride. You cave in now, Phil, and Player's death goes for nothing. Don't think of it as a defeat; he'd expect you to turn it into a victory."

"Yeah, I ... "

"Why, Major Carrington!" Intruding across their quiet conversation came the venom-dripping tones of the camp's second-in-command who, unnoticed by either of them, had entered the sickbay and was advancing towards them. "But you should not be in here at this time of day."

With a show of extreme reluctance Carrington got to his feet and turned slowly to face the Luftwaffe officer.

"I have permission from Hauptmann Ulmann, Major. I had an urgent matter to discuss with Colonel Dodd."

Mohn strode over and stood at the foot of Dodd's bed, staring down at the rumpled and draggled man with obvious distaste. "I will of course check this with the Hauptmann," he said, suspiciously.

"Be my guest."

The phrase was somewhat out of the general run of Mohn's conversational English and he paused a moment to consider whether he had been insulted before dismissing it.

"And how is Colonel Dodd?"

The manner affected was that of the over-jovial bachelor uncle completely out of touch with the mood of the nephew. Dodd winced at its falsity.

"Colonel Dodd is doing just fine, Major," he said, sourly. "Thank you for asking."

"Indeed. The welfare of the prisoners is of course very much on my mind," Mohn informed him, smiling tightly. "Your business is concluded, gentlemen? Then Major Carrington should be leaving, I think."

"Yeah, Phil, you run along and play," Dodd suggested, his expression saying much more than his words. He didn't know what Mohn had thought he was interrupting or what good he expected it might do, but the further Carrington was from this man's clutches just at the moment the better.

"I'll be back to see you tomorrow, Colonel."

"I'll look forward to that, Phil. Go on, now, clear out."

Even as he took his departure Carrington could hear Mohn starting up again on Colonel Dodd with more of his patently phoney concern, and he was grateful for his own sake that he was not a captive audience for the German. He, at least, could get up and walk away from that sort of thing.

Minor tribulations could be shaken off so easily, he thought, stepping into the corridor, but there were agonies from which he could not walk away and griefs from which he would never escape.

Colditz is always gonna be with me wherever I go.

It had been with him during his two years of freedom as the memory of Richard and an incredible happiness snatched from the teeth of War, but from now on it would remain in his memory as the sarcophagus of hope.

The Tomb of the Unknown Lover, he told himself bitterly. Hell, shit and goddamn!

 

Returning to the courtyard, the first person he encountered was Brent, and it was obvious from the man's expression that he had already seen Colonel Preston and been told the news.

"Phil?"

"Brent. I see you've heard."

"Just this moment. Can ... can we talk? Or would you rather not?"

Carrington looked at him. Brent was a thin man who had become gaunt in Colditz; somewhat reticent and cautious he had also gained a reputation for timidity by refusing to take unnecessary risks in escaping or concealing contraband, but had worked hard to overcome his own failings and been a valuable supporting member in many escape teams.

The American sighed. "Yeah, we'll talk," he conceded. All sorts of people were going to want to talk to him about Player, he realised. He'd better get used to it in a hurry.

They fell into step side-by-side, slowly patrolling the circuit of the cobbled yard the way both had thousands of times in the past. It was a comforting sort of routine by now, even though they knew by heart exactly how many steps each would take and exactly how many seconds of walking time each circuit would occupy.

"When Dick got out on the palliasse escape with Ted Bentinct-Boyle," Brent told him shakily, "do you know what Ted told us? Abiit ad plures. Petronius, you know. Seems ironic now, don't you think?"

'You'll have to help me out, there, Brent. My Petronius is a little rusty."

"'He's gone to join the majority'. Of course, Ted only meant that he was out of here - but the sense of the original … "

"I get the picture."

Brent swallowed awkwardly, not certain whether or not he had said the wrong thing. "Well," he went on, "it's just that I feel I owe you and Dick an apology. With Dick - well, there was always going to be another chance, if you know what I mean. I thought he'd live forever."

Carrington groaned. 'Yeah. Me too."

Brent stared at him, taking in the slumped shoulders and the haunted look. Phil Carrington had already been through so much in this damned war that this latest blow seemed just too cruel to contemplate. Never easy when dealing with deep emotions, Brent floundered helplessly for a moment and then decided just to plough ahead with what he had intended to say.

"Look, Phil, I might as well just say this and have done with it. I simply wasn't brought up to be comfortable with the sort of ... arrangement ... you and Dick had. My people wouldn't have understood it at all, and it wasn't something I ever thought about." He paused there, aware that he was unintentionally sounding condemnatory.

"Don't worry about it, Brent," Carrington suggested in a deceptively lazy tone. "No-one blames you for anything. We knew we made you a little uneasy, but a lot of people get that way. It embarrasses them. It's nobody's fault."

"There's a little more to it than that, though," Brent put in sharply. "A couple of years ago, when you were safely on the outside, Simon came up with the idea of the ghosts. He persuaded Colonel Preston to let him stage a fake escape and ferret away a couple of chaps who could be held in reserve for the next genuine escape. Then they'd be brought out to cover at Appel for the people who'd got away, and give them a better chance in the first few hours."

"Yeah, I know," Carrington said absently. He had heard the theory of the ghosting system from Carter already and thought it a sound one, although he could scarcely understand the mentality of the people who volunteered to be concealed in hides around the castle on the off-chance that they might at some stage be needed as camouflage.

"Well, Dick and I were the first pair chosen," the Englishman went on, relaxing into his narrative. "We were down a hole in the chapel, and Simon had trouble getting food to us. You see the Germans closed the chapel, and the Colonel had the devil of a job to get it open again. It was January. We were starving and freezing and the place was full of unearthly noises ... we discovered later that the bloody French tunnel was only about six feet away from where we were. Doesn't sound quite so bad now, but at the time … "

"I can imagine."

"Can you?" A sudden spark of optimism touched Brent's tone. if Carrington could, for just one moment, visualise how it must have been to be entombed under the chapel floor for five days in the middle of winter with very little food - without even a blanket - it would be far easier to explain to him what had happened.

"Sure." The distracted note in Carrington's voice was not exactly encouraging, but Brent chose to ignore it.

"I was afraid," he admitted, without demur. "I don't care who knows it. No sane man wouldn't be, in the circumstances. Dick talked to me a lot to take my mind off it. Told me things about himself; growing up, and so forth. How he found out he was … "

Carrington turned towards him, fascinated now. "Yes?"

"Well, what's important is that he talked about you a lot. He said ... " Brent lowered his voice still further, from conspiratorial whisper to almost indecipherable sibilance, ~ that he loved you, but you'd both decided you'd never mention it. I've got to admit, Phil, there were times when I thought the pair of you were selfish bastards - just taking your fun and not caring about how much you were upsetting the rest of us - but then I began to realise I'd got it wrong. You see I didn't understand that you'd really cared about each other the way ... the way men care about their wives. I thought it was just ... well, sex, I suppose. I just always imagined that queers were unpleasant men who made use of each other in unpleasant ways, and I didn't particularly want to associate with anyone like that. Stupid of me, but I'd never thought of queers being in love."

"It happens," the American shrugged. "Same as with anybody else. It was like that with Richard and me from the first moment we set eyes on each other, only it took us a while to do anything about it."

"I know. I mean, he said all that. What I'm really trying to say, Phil, and making a complete hash of ... is that Dick helped me through a bad patch when I thought I was going to die. After that it wouldn't have mattered to me if he was buggering Adolf on a regular basis; he was a damned good bloke and I was proud to call him my friend. I just wish I'd had the guts to tell him so before it was too late."

Carrington smiled warmly. "Don't let it prey on your mind, Brent," he advised, gently. "Richard wouldn't have needed telling. He was always pretty clued-up about what people were feeling; intuitive, I guess. Sounds to me as if you made up your differences before he left here, and he was never a man to bear a grudge. If it's my forgiveness you need ... There's nothing to forgive. Why don't you just stop worrying about it?"

"I can, now. But Dick never got to tell you what he said to me when we were under the chapel floor. I just thought it might be ... some comfort to you now."

"That he loved me? I knew that anyway, but thank you. And I'm glad you two were friends."

"Yes," Brent said, enthusiastically, aware that a vast gulf in understanding between himself and the American had been closed. "By God, Phil, so am I."

*

Chapter Seventeen

March 1945

 

Life in Colditz Castle became more and more difficult as the spring progressed; Red Cross parcels disappeared completely, supply lines were interrupted and communications began to disintegrate. The only item that seemed plentiful was red tape and with each passing day there were copious files, contradictory instructions and multiplying varieties of forms to complete. Above all there was a terrifying growth of new powers in the land, corporate bodies which had no shape and hovered like shadows over the landscape. Only a fanatic could possibly hold fast now to any idea of victory. This was the slow death of the Third Reich and the prisoners and garrison at Colditz recognised it as such.

Now there were other concerns, which faced both contingents in the camp and which slowly began to draw them together against common threats. Deep in the heart of Germany the war approached from two fronts, and it was clear that either the Americans or the Russians could be the first to reach the castle. The strategic importance of the camp was another consideration and both the Kommandant and the Allied Senior Officers worried about the possibility of the SS using it as a stronghold, or the Allies assuming it was being used as such and attempting to destroy it.

For the Kommandant there was the added worry of the new authority, a group that seemed answerable to no-one. In furious disbelief he received orders informing him that he must have the Prominente ready for transport at twelve hours' notice. He protested, but the only reply was the information that Obergruppenfuhrer Berger was now in control of all Prisoners of War in Germany.

Abandoning his natural caution the Oberst told Major Mohn of his intention to inform the Senior officers about the Prominente. He conducted the interview with Preston and Carrington with such unusual candour that Preston went so far as to remark on the Oberst's openness and to request a visit from the Swiss Protecting Power. The Kommandant had agreed to that request, hoping it would be enough to hold the Obergruppenfuhrer's hand, although he was not sanguine as to its chances. Once he had finished the interview he requested Ulmann's presence, needing to discuss the situation in which they found themselves.

Ulmann, with his natural caution, broached the subject of Mohn. "The Major tells me that you believe the Prominente are to be used to bargain with the Allies?"

"That is what I believe, yes."

The Hauptmann hesitated to criticise his superior officer but Karl saw the concern in his face and knew what prompted it.

"Go ahead, Franz," he urged, "and tell me what is on your mind."

"Was it wise - to say so much before Mohn?"

"I suspect not," the older man agreed calmly before exasperation surfaced. "How long can this farce continue?" he demanded. "The war will soon be over and it is time that everyone accepted that. I intend to keep Mohn fully informed - "

Ulmann interrupted. "And if he contacts Berger?"

Karl did not answer him, asking instead; "What do you think our chances are?"

"Our chances?" the Hauptmann's glance was puzzled.

"The likelihood that we will get out of the war alive?"

Shock passed swiftly across the craggy features, schooled away rapidly to impassivity. "I think, Herr Oberst, our chances are as good as any other German officer's - assuming we do nothing foolish."

Karl leaned back in his chair, ignoring the rebuke and the warning so implicit in the other man's tone. He smiled. "Assuming we survive - what then?"

It was the first time any mention had been made between them of a life after the war and Ulmann was not sure for a moment whether he expected an answer. The silence lengthened until finally he was forced into speech. His voice was quiet but his words sincere.

"Then we begin our life."

Karl swallowed an initial urge to laugh. Neither of them was young and the thought of the pair of them starting again struck him as humorous - but only for a moment, and then the significance of the words struck him. He stared at Ulmann and allowed himself a moment to believe that it could actually happen - that they might live through this at all, and be able to remove all the obstacles in their path.

"Karl?"

Ulmann's uncertain query roused him and he realised he had been silent for too long. Standing, he moved to walk past the younger man, resting a hand on his shoulder in a contact that had become a recognised gesture between them.

"Thank you, Franz."

Ulmann remained in the office after Karl had left, for once allowing his thoughts free rein.

 

The Kommandant had no doubt that his protests to OKW regarding the Prominente would have been reported to the Obergruppenfuhrer. Mohn had said that Berger was Himmler's deputy and not an easy man, neither of which was likely to render him susceptible to reason. With a certain amount of trepidation the Kommandant waited for Berger's response.

Despite having anticipated the visit, Berger's unannounced arrival took the senior officers of the camp unawares. Ulmann hurried to the office in advance of the party, wishing to give the Kommandant some time to prepare himself for this encounter. He was relieved when the Oberst ordered him to stay, neither of them appreciating until later that in doing so the Kommandant had signalled to Berger how much trust he placed in his Security officer. By that time Ulmann had no doubt that his name was grouped with the Kommandant's under the heading of those who must be watched for any sign of incipient rebellion.

Berger was a large, balding man, oozing self-confidence and the same fanaticism they had come to recognise in Mohn. In him, though, it was something altogether more dangerous; this was the edge honed to razor-sharpness, a steel blade admitting no compromise. His aide, Schankel, followed him into the room and Ulmann recognised the stamp of the same character on the younger man's face. With a sinking heart he admitted to himself how dangerous both were and knew that this would be the first of many trials.

After an exchange of pleasantries made remarkable only by their patent insincerity, Berger opened his attack. "And what about my Prominente, Oberst? I want them ready for transportation at 06.00 tomorrow morning."

Ulmann was standing by the doors where he could see the beleaguered form of his Kommandant across the desk. Already he could anticipate the sequence of events and directed his gaze at Karl, willing him to accept the inevitable and accede.

Karl was not looking at him, however, his eyes fixed on Berger's face. "I have had no orders to that effect from OKW," he ventured. "Without such an order, no prisoner can be moved."

"I just gave you the order."

Berger moved to the armchair and ensconced himself in it. Karl glanced at Ulmann who interpreted the gesture and moved to the drinks tray while the Kommandant tried another tack.

"We have always abided by the Geneva Convention here."

"You may have. I bloody well haven't. Any sabotage by prisoners or staff - my SS will move in here and tear the place down."

That was it - the incontrovertible truth. Ulmann saw the Kommandant's head go down as he absorbed the threat and those that followed, his attempt at defence brushed aside. If there were delays then hostages would be taken and shot. If the delay reached two hours then the Kommandant would be executed. The Oberst nodded at Ulmann before turning away and the Hauptmann moved back to the drinks tray, refilling Berger's glass. As he passed Karl he tried to catch his eye, to impress upon him that there was nothing he could possibly do but obey the orders he was given.

Berger's tone became patronising. 'You're a good man, Oberst, done an excellent job in unrewarding circumstances and all that - but you're behind the times, you know."

Karl spun round, stung to reply. "Herr Obergruppenfuhrer, such remarks issued in the presence of junior officers leave me no choice but to hand in my resignation."

For a brief moment of fury Ulmann wanted to shake him, damning his sense of honour and the old Wehrmacht values that pushed him to these lengths. Why could he not see that there was no way out of this trap? If he accepted that then at least there might be hope for the rest of the garrison and inmates of the Castle. Without a doubt Ulmann knew that if the Oberst was removed from this command today then the garrison would be posted elsewhere and the prisoners would find themselves under the none-too-gentle rule of the SS. Surely Karl could see that?

Berger laughed, apparently delighted at this show of intransigence, but he moved swiftly and with surprising ease for a large man until he was face to face with Karl. He may have laughed off the attempted resignation but it was accompanied by more threats, a warning to the recalcitrant, and it was clear the Oberst understood.

The Obergruppenfuhrer sat himself down at Karl's desk, stamping his authority metaphorically as well as physically, and called for more schnapps. Ulmann handed the glass to Berger and then stood beside him, looking intently at Karl. This time there was a brief acknowledgement of his stare before both men concentrated on Berger's closing statements.

"The easy days are over, Oberst. I must impress that upon you and your staff. Don't let there be bloodshed."

The interview drew to a close, Karl capitulating at last, as all in the room had known he must. At least, thought the Oberst savagely, they knew exactly how he felt about it. Numbly he saluted the two officers, and then he and Ulmann were alone.

There was a long, ominous silence.

"I will need to see the Senior officers - "

"Did you really think you could change his mind -."

They both spoke at once, Karl subsiding into the chair behind the desk and a brief chord of sympathy resounded through Ulmann, but anger still had too much of a hold of him to give way or to accept how much the incident had told on the older man.

"You know he will carry out his threat, Karl." In frustration Ulmann raised his voice, as the man before him seemed sink in what appeared almost a stupor. At the insistence in his voice, he roused up.

"No. No, I did not think I could change his mind. But the honour of the Wehrnacht ... "

"Honour? Do you think Berger cares about honour?"

"And because he does not, you suggest we abandon our principles?"

For a moment they stared angrily at one another, concerned about one another and worried by the situation in which they found themselves.

Karl sighed. "Pour some schnapps, Franz."

Ulmann stared at him, torn between anger and concern, recognising that both stemmed from the same source, and complied with the request. They sipped their drinks in silence for a brief moment before the Kommandant spoke again.

"We must try to ascertain their final destination." He sighed.

"You had no choice, Karl." Ulmann spoke persuasively, his anger finally swamped by concern.

"I know," the Oberst admitted. "But I doubt I will be able to convince Colonel Preston and Major Carrington of that." He was quiet for a few moments more, then voiced the revolutionary concept that had occurred to them both independently over the past weeks. "But that is what I must do, Franz. The garrison and the prisoners will have to work together if we are going to survive this madness."

 

Karl glanced up and then stood as Mohn ushered Colonel Preston and Major Carrington into the room. His eyes rested on the bearded figure of the American. Carrington looked decades older than the Kommandant's first memory of him and there was no disguising the exhaustion in this eyes or the pain that lurked in their depths. His attention was side-tracked as he tried to imagine his life without Franz and wondered how he had ever managed without his presence. It was an impossible task and his expression softened as he met the American's world-weary gaze, schooling his features into impassivity when he realised that Carrington had recognised his compassion.

The news the Oberst delivered about the departure of the Prominente was received badly, as Karl had expected, and the debate grew ever more acrimonious, particularly between Carrington and Mohn. Karl was trying not to repeat the threats Berger had used, unwilling to admit even now that Germans could shoot unarmed prisoners. Eventually, he interceded. "We have done all we can. If the SS are brought in then all chance for all of us collapses - for the Prominente, for you and for us."

Preston surveyed the man's exhausted face for a brief instant and had to quell a sudden sympathy. As far as he could see there were, as the Kommandant had said, few options open to them and he suspected he could guess what tactics the SS would use if they became involved in the running of the camp.

The interview deteriorated further when Mohn informed Carrington that Lieutenant Phipps would henceforward be counted among the Prominente and so would be removed from the camp with them the following morning.

Carrington was furious. Through conversations with Phipps he knew that the young man had mentioned in Mohn's hearing that his father was an American Ambassador. Only since then had the SS shown an interest in him, and Carrington placed the blame for Phipps' present predicament firmly at Mohn's door.

"Major Mohn, I must inform you that if anything should happen to Lieutenant Phipps you'd better not be anywhere I can get my hands on you. I'm holding you personally responsible for his life."

Mohn reacted in typical fashion, accusing Carrington of threatening him, and it took the Oberst's intervention to stop the argument although tempers had by no means cooled. Preston stood to one side, his calm and composed surface hiding his deep anger and concern at the unfolding events. The Kommandant recognised this and risked appealing directly to him to use his influence on the men under his command. On this unsatisfactory note the meeting ended.

 

From his viewpoint by the window of the British quarters, Carrington saw the man for whom he was looking. The form of Hauptmann Ulmann was easily distinguishable, standing in a pool of light, talking to a man the American did not recognise. He bit his lip, wondering if the idea which had occurred to him would have any success, and he turned to Phipps.

"I'll take your bag over to the Prominente block."

Phipps, sunk in gloom, did not question the favour, merely muttering a 'thank you' before turning his attention back to the battered letter, the last he had received from his girlfriend. He had been informed earlier in the day that he was to leave with the Prominente. The Colonel, reluctantly accepting the validity of the Kommandant's argument, had informed the British Officers that there would be no action taken against the Germans. It was not a popular decision and some of those who had spent less time in the Colditz environment and lacked imagination were less than impressed.

Phil sent a compassionate look in Phipps' direction but knew there was nothing he could say to improve the situation and instead he picked up the half-full white bag and made his way down the steps. As he had anticipated, he did not get far before the Abwehr officer was moving purposefully towards him.

"Major Carrington, where are you going?"

"Hauptmann Ulmann. Good evening."

"Good evening. Where are you going?"

Carrington almost smiled as the Hauptmann refused to be swayed from his inquiry and the American explained about delivering Phipps' baggage.

A keen look pierced him. "But one of the guards could have taken that."

Meeting the steady gaze, Carrington suddenly abandoned artifice. He knew this man by now - and he trusted him "Hauptmann Ulmann, something terrible is going to happen if I don't get to talk to someone in the Prominente block."

Ulmann relaxed visibly, moving closer and lowering his voice. "I have some news that might interest you."

"What?" Carrington gazed at him curiously.

"I know where they are going."

"Where?"

"Stalag IVz - at least it is under Wehrmacht control." With a sudden shock Ulmann realised just how much he had given away with that statement, his surprise increased by the realisation that, to Major Carrington, it came as no surprise whatsoever.

The American took the information calmly, answering; "That is good news. There's only one problem."

"What's that?"

"How can we be sure?" He paused for a brief moment before voicing the thought that had occurred to him earlier. "I have an idea. Why don't you go with them? You could get a receipt - signed by the Kommandant and countersigned by one of the Prominente."

"I can't go with them." The words were out of Ulmann's mouth before he could stop them, an instant denial, and only he knew that the words 'I can't go' really meant 'I can't leave Karl.'

The argument continued until Carrington finally hit home with; "I'm sure the Kommandant would at least be interested in hearing the idea."

Ulmann stared at him "I suppose I could ask him," he managed at last. It was a good idea and would help to ease the tension in the castle and possibly avoid a physical conflict, but it was a journey fraught with difficulty and danger. Suddenly it was something he wanted to do - not just for the prisoners' peace of mind but also for the sake of Karl's conscience. He knew the man far too well to believe that he could ever rest easy if he thought he had sent the Prominente to their deaths.

He looked at Carrington again, aware that the American had something more to say.

"You know - we've come to trust you. You know that, don't you?"

In some way he had, he realised, but to hear it was stunning all the same and he could find no answer to the declaration.

"I will talk to the Kommandant," he managed at last, bringing to an end a conversation which had suddenly become uncomfortable.

 

With some trepidation Ulmann entered Karl's office. His worried expression turned to alarm as he saw Karl slumped forward over the desk, his head resting on his folded arms. Relief surged through him as he realised he was sleeping, and he hardly dared accept his original fear.

"Karl." He spoke the name softly.

Wearily the older man looked up at him. "Hauptmann. What time is it?"

Ulmann ignored the question. "You need to rest, sir."

"Still trying to look after me." Karl's voice was gruff but he had no defence against the slow smile that spread across Ulmann's features.

"Yes, sir."

Karl snorted. "Did you want to see me, Franz?"

"I have been talking with Major Carrington."

"Indeed." The Kommandant's tone was not encouraging.

"He suggested that I travel with the Prominente - to ensure their safe arrival at Stalag IVz."

The older man stared at him, aware from the determination on the Hauptmann's features that he had already made up his mind. Cold fear clutched at him and he fought it down, knowing that any colour he still retained had drained from his face. Trying to buy time to gather his self-possession, he asked; "Do you think it is a good idea?"

"Yes, sir." Ulmann presented no justification, simply a statement of what he believed.

Karl stood up and moved to the drinks tray, spending some time pouring schnapps, thankful that the other man did not interrupt and did not try to hurry him. Eventually he placed the drinks on the desk and sat down, his fingers twisting the glass around while he stared fixedly at it.

"Why?" He questioned eventually.

"It will relieve the tension in the camp if it is generally known that the Prominente have arrived safely and are still under Wehrmacht jurisdiction.

Karl could find no fault with the argument except; "And if the intention is not to move them at all ... ?" His worst fears rose to haunt him.

Ulmann's imperturbable calm did not waver; having decided on this course of action, his reasoning was clear. "I do not believe they will shoot them." He made the statement deliberately bald, catching the wounded gaze as the Kommandant's eyes were suddenly fixed on his face. "Think, Karl," he continued, his voice soft but persuasive. "They are far too important. Ordinary prisoners or commandos might have been at risk, but these men still have a value even in the eyes of the SS."

There was a long silence while Karl struggled with a dilemma. He felt it was his duty to ensure the safety of all those in the camp and Ulmann had offered him the chance to do that and - as he knew was a major consideration for Franz - it would relieve the Kommandant's conscience. Against that there was the desperate looming shadow of a nightmare; the possibility that Ulmann might never come back.

His thoughts flew to Carrington and Player. They could have waited out the war in relative safety, and yet they had both chosen to fight against the odds and break free. When he considered that decision, he realised that they had done what they knew to be right, regardless of their personal feelings. With their example before him, he could do no less.

"Very well." He knew his voice was harsh but saw in Ulmann's relieved expression the understanding he needed.

Ulmann stood, replacing his cap and lifting his empty glass. As he passed the seated man he paused, copying the gesture Karl used so often with him, and rested his hand on the Oberst's shoulder. For a moment he let the contact linger, then placed his glass on the tray.

"Thank you, sir," he murmured, before leaving the office and the lonely man sitting behind the massive desk.

 

The following morning saw the Kommandant's worst fears realised. Although the Prominente were ready and seemed resigned to their departure, there was no sign of Lieutenant Phipps. The tension in the yard was heightened by the arrival of the SS and Berger's aide, Schankel, became a threatening presence. Reluctantly Karl had signalled Mohn and it was he who had informed the senior officers of the ultimatum. If Phipps was not found then three hostages would be shot for every hour's delay, but the Kommandant had said nothing about the threat to his own life. He placed his faith in Preston and Carrington, sure that they were fully aware of the consequences and trusting them to retrieve the situation. Having heard Mohn's words the Oberst turned away, leaving the two Allies to discuss their options.

When the officers reassembled in the courtyard Lieutenant Phipps was among them - as was the pale, dishevelled figure of Colonel Dodd. The Kommandant knew he was still officially confined to sickbay and realised that he must have dragged himself from his bed to be here now. Goodbyes were exchanged and the men clambered into the lorries which were to transport them to their new camp. Karl watched as Ulmann climbed up behind them and they exchanged a long look before the vehicles trundled out of the yard. There was a moment's silence and then Karl, knowing what was coming next, turned and stalked towards the Kommandantur. He felt sick with a combination of deadly worry and shame; shame at his own conduct and that of his countrymen.

For the men in the courtyard there was one further shock to come. Mohn approached Carrington.

"Major Carrington, you are under arrest - charged with insubordination and threatening the life of a German officer. The mandatory sentence is death. Take him away."

With Carrington's departure the Major suddenly became aware of the prisoners surrounding him, finally recognising the hatred in their silent, contemptuous looks. With a twist of his mouth, he walked away from them.

 

*

 

"Major Carrington."

At the sound of the Kommandant's voice the Major scrambled up from his bed in the solitary cell and stood to attention - then relaxed, eyeing the man warily.

"Arrangements are being made for your court martial, Major," the Oberst told him. "I think given the situation it may take some time." It was as close to a reassurance as he could come and he changed the subject before the American had time to make any further enquiries. "Hauptmann Ulmann told me it was your idea that he accompany the Prominente to their destination."

"Yes, sir." Carrington stared at him, wondering what the man might say next.

"Mm, then I shall ask him to inform you when he has returned - safely."

Carrington noticed the slight stumble, recognising suddenly that the man was desperately concerned about his junior officer. "When do you think he'll be back?" he questioned, realising suddenly that he was just as concerned about Ulmann's safe return as he was about Phipps and the Prominente.

The Kommandant bit his lip, clearly worried. "I do not know. The roads are difficult at present." His eyes were fixed firmly on the stone floor of the cell. Both men were denying the possibility that the SS, having decided to shoot the Prominente, would simply shoot the inconvenient Wehrmacht officer who accompanied them.

Something in the worried expression touched Carrington's heart as nothing had managed to do since the moment he had been informed of his lover's death. "I'm sure he'll be fine."

At his sympathetic tone the Kommandant's head snapped up, his expression settling once more into its habitual austere lines. "Yes, yes, of course. Good day, Major."

The Oberst departed, leaving behind a man puzzled by the visit. Once again Carrington had the impression that the Kommandant had been trying to tell him something, but that a vital ingredient was still missing.

 

Four days later Carrington had given up seething at his arrest and imprisonment and was spending time reviewing the years he had languished in Colditz. Inevitably many of his memories of the place revolved around Richard Player; quite apart from the fact that all their time together had been spent in the camp, he was presently ensconced in the very cell in which he and Player had first discussed the possibility of becoming involved. At least this time he had not been beaten up, he thought wryly, although he would happily have undergone any amount of torture if it meant that he would wake to find Richard by him. A burning sensation at the back of his eyes and a tightening of the muscles in his throat warned him that he was straying too close to recent pain and to divert his attention he turned his thoughts to Hauptmann Ulmann.

The friendship that had evolved so slowly between them was a constant source of wonder to the American and he spent some time tracing its inception and growth. He remembered how Ulmann had persuaded the Kommandant to allow him out of solitary to nurse Richard and the conversations they had shared during those long nights. He had been more grateful than he could ever express openly, not simply for the man's original gesture but for the strength he had so unobtrusively lent him. He laughed quietly and then sobered. There were many in the camp who believed that the only good German was a dead German. Carrington, with his long experience of different peoples and different wars, saw good and bad in equal measure everywhere he looked. For a moment he wondered about his many German friends, hoping that some of them would make it through. He had lost enough friends, he decided, and if he could do anything to ensure he didn't lose another then he would do it.

Pushing the pain to one side he recalled the extraordinary way he had been told of Richard's death. The Kommandant's sincerity and sympathy had been a revelation, the man showing an understanding which the American had never expected; an understanding which neither his compatriot Colonel Dodd nor his British allies had managed to grasp. Only Ulmann and the Kommandant seemed to recognise what he had lost. They both seemed to appreciate the reasons that had driven the two prisoners to escape, despite the possible consequences, and accepted the reality of the intimacy Player and Carrington had shared with a calm that had stunned the American once the first shock of the news had passed. It was as if they could imagine the hell in which he had found himself ...

Carrington's forehead creased. The missing piece of the puzzle. Except it hadn't been missing at all. It had been so obvious he simply hadn't seen it.

"My God." With a certain amount of awe he spoke the words aloud. "That's what it was. That's what he was trying to tell me."

 

Carrington did not look up as the door to the cell opened but remained on his bunk, hands tucked behind his neck, deep in his own thoughts. Ulmann stared at him for a moment, remembering a visit he had paid to Player's cell many months before. He hesitated by the door and then entered, shutting it behind him.

"Major Carrington," he said softly.

At his voice the American looked up, swinging round until he was sitting on the bed, with his back braced against the damp stone wall.

"I am sorry to find you here, Major."

"Well, I ain't so pleased myself, Hauptmann." Carrington's off-hand reply did not hide his anger, but before Ulmann had time to comment he added; "You got them there safely?"

The German nodded, handing a piece of paper to the captive, and in the dim light Carrington recognised Phipps' handwriting. He did not try to decipher the message, returning the receipt to Ulmann's care. As he did so he noticed that the Hauptmann's hand was trembling. It was so surprising an occurrence that he was stunned into immobility, staring at the shaking fingers.

Carrington looked up into Ulmann's face and wondered what he would see. His breath caught in his throat as he searched the man's features. Ulmann had slumped against the wall, exhausted, dirty, his usual immaculate appearance gone and with it some sense of assurance that Carrington had always associated with him. He was very close to breaking and that thought alone horrified Carrington, aware of how much both Ulmann and the Kommandant would be needed in the days to come.

"Sit down," he ordered.

Ulmann looked at him blankly, not moving from the wall, and Carrington wondered whether he had even heard him.

Standing he walked to the other man and gripped him under the elbow, urging him onto the only chair. Once there the German seemed to collapse, pulling off his cap and running a weary hand through his hair. Carrington perched on the edge of the table.

"What happened?" His voice was low and he kept the enquiry gentle.

There was a long silence which Carrington did not try to shorten, believing that Ulmann needed the time to gather his self-possession. As he waited he realised that the German could only just have returned to the Castle and had therefore seen neither the Kommandant nor Colonel Preston. Instead he had come straight here, and Carrington wondered at how far their friendship had travelled - for he had no doubt that Ulmann had come to him as a friend.

After a long time Ulmann spoke, his voice rasping as if his throat was bone dry.

"I had not realised ... there are people everywhere - the old, women, children, all with their belongings. They are trying to get away from the Russians. There were terrible stories ... " His voice faded for a moment and Carrington nodded in acknowledgement. It was the age-old story of an advancing army wreaking vengeance on an undefended population.

Ulmann stared at him for a moment as if measuring his words, wondering if he should speak, and then the American saw a hopelessness in his eyes.

"That was not all," he whispered. "There were ... people ... from camps. Jews, I suppose, walking through the mud. They were like skeletons. I have never ... I saw one woman collapse and they shot her. They just shot her in cold blood." His voice had risen and he stopped for a moment, attempting to gather his fast disappearing self-control, his mouth working. "I talked to the camp Kommandant. He said there had been hundreds, thousands walking like that. He said other things, too. Things I just can't ... They were Germans, Carrington. It was our own people. He said millions ... millions were dead." Ulmann looked up, meeting Carrington's eyes for the first time and the aching sympathy he saw there finally broke him. With a strangled gasp he buried his face in his hands. Carrington reached out, reacting not with words which he knew could do no good but with touch, gripping the man's shoulder and holding hard, offering the only comfort he could. After a few moments Ulmann looked up once more, and seemed to accept the reassurance he saw in Carrington's expression. His eyes were dry, the pain of witness going far too deep for the ordinary release of tears. When he spoke again his voice was stronger but still husky and sounding unusual to the American.

"I cannot believe I have been so blind - that I have never realised what was happening to Germany."

"You didn't know about the camps?"

Ulmann's snort was full of self-derision. "Of course I knew - everyone knew - but I did not understand. I swear to you, if I had ... " He shook his head, faced had he known it by the same dilemma which had faced many of his compatriots. What could he have done to stop this carnage? "I do not know how those people could have survived."

Carrington was aware that Ulmann had witnessed scenes which would never leave him; which he would carry and feel guilt over for the rest of his days. There was little he could say or do to mitigate that, acknowledging that the most culpable would not suffer in that respect - only people like Ulmann and, he suspected, the Kommandant would react with horror at what had been done. The decent people. The ordinary people. Those who would have to build new lives and a new Germany.

"It's happened before," he commented. "The British in South Africa, the Spanish in South America, the Americans and the Indians. All you can do is make sure it can never happen here again."

Ulmann's voice was dry but had at least recovered some of its strength. "You would think, at least, that we might have learned from those other examples."

Carrington thought about that one before replying. "I guess you have to want to learn the lesson."

Ulmann seemed to be calmer, standing up and preparing to take his leave. Quietly he spoke. "I must go to the Kommandant."

"Yeah," remarked Carrington, reassuringly. "He'll want to know you're back safe and sound."

The German stared at him for a moment, colour searing his skin for a brief instant. Ignoring the comment he replaced his cap and stood up.

"Thank you for your time, Herr Carrington," He spoke formally, apparently fully in control once more, but the American could see the fine tremor in his hands and hear the undercurrent of stress in his voice.

"You can learn to live with anything in time." His own voice was sober, his thoughts returning to their earlier subject, the blond, laughing ghost with him once more.

Ulmann, shaken out of his own pain reached out and copied the other man's comforting gesture, resting a hand on the broad shoulder.

"As you say," he agreed, gently. "And there are always other people who need us. Goodnight, Major."

*

Chapter Eighteen

March 1945

 

"Yes. What is it, Hauptmann?"

Ulmann hesitated by the door; already aware from the Kommandant's tone that he was not enjoying his best humour. "Your transport has arrived, sir."

Karl grunted. "Another meeting," he grumbled. "Tell me how I am supposed to carry out my duties here when I am are constantly summoned to Leipzig. And why are you laughing?"

Ulmann was not smiling but his expression had softened slightly and there was a light in his eye which the Kommandant had correctly interpreted as amusement.

"Last week," the Hauptmann ventured, "you were complaining because you were not included in these meetings."

Karl stared at him for a moment before his features relaxed and he smiled at Ulmann. "Be careful what you wish for," he advised, dryly, "you may get it."

There was a moment's uneasy silence as their eyes met. Ulmann was the first to break the eye contact.

"Your meeting, sir," he prompted.

Nodding, Karl moved haltingly to the hatstand, shrugging into his greatcoat. Once he had put on his cap and collected his cane, he addressed his Security officer tersely. "Keep an eye on the Major."

"Yes, sir."

Ulmann walked to the car with Karl, watching the vehicle until it was out of sight before turning towards the prisoners' yard with thoughts of the Kommandant's last instruction in his mind. He stood by the gate and glanced round, mentally reviewing guard positions before wondering why on earth he was bothering. Duty is duty, he reminded himself grimly, and carried on. That scrupulous inventory completed to his satisfaction he turned his attention to the prisoners, his eyes scanning across the huddled knots of men playing cards or chatting, realising from the activity that a football game was in preparation.

His attention was caught suddenly by another small group, something in their bearing and actions striking him as being out of the ordinary. With alarm he realised that they had Pilot Officer Page trapped in a corner. The two men facing him were apparently relaxed, their hands tucked into coat pockets, but their very bearing looked threatening. Ulmann recognised Mawson and Walters, two of the newer members of the British contingent, and guessed that the silent and solitary habits of the RAF officer were probably being mocked.

As he made his way across the yard he was joined by Carter and Brent. Since their rescue of him the previous year he had come to accept that his relationship with them was easier than with many of the others. For a moment he wondered whether he should leave the intended rescue to the British, but then decided that his presence could be helpful.

Captain Brent walked ahead, breaking into a tableau and cutting across Mawson's jeering tones. "Page," he remarked, cheerfully. "You were going to explain that French novel to me. I can't make head nor tail of the damn thing."

Ulmann had to admire the man's finesse, recognising that Page was responding to Brent. Instead of his usual blank stare he had focused his eyes on the Captain.

"It's not that difficult," he averred and, as if he had suddenly come to life, he walked unconcernedly past the two men who had been tormenting him. Brent turned to walk with him and they began to stroll round the courtyard already deep in conversation.

Flight Lieutenant Carter eyed the remaining two officers with an expression which left no doubt as to his opinion of them. Mawson had the courage to meet Carter's gaze but his own soon dropped at the jaundiced air. The Flight Lieutenant's voice was calm as he delivered his warning, and Ulmann wondered at the change in the man over the past two years. The hot-headed firebrand had been replaced by someone who could see beneath the surface and react with understanding and compassion.

"Leave him alone. Life is hard enough in here without chaps making it worse for one another. If I see you at it again - it goes straight to the SBO."

Mawson rose. "Sneaking to the teacher, huh."

Two years ago, thought Ulmann, Carter would probably have lift hint As ft was he merely glanced at him but the disgust in his gaze brought searing colour to Mawson's face.

His voice still quiet, Carter remarked; "This is not school. You haven't been here as long as the rest of us and you can't understand how close to cracking some of the chaps are. Page is dangerous. Leave him alone."

Ulmann draw their gaze to him as he interjected. "Flight Lieutenant Carter is quite correct, gentlemen. Such behaviour is not fitting for officers and is bad for discipline within the camp. Should I see any further incidents of this nature then I shall have to inform Colonel Preston that two of his officers will be spending twenty-eight days in solitary confinement." All three men stared at him, Carter obviously impressed, Mawson and Walters in abject horror. "You may go."

The two Army officers almost scuttled out of sight and Carter was left standing by the Hauptmann, his hands tucked into his pockets. "Well, you put the fear of God into them," he remarked, with so much satisfaction in his tone that the German almost smiled. Carter turned to face him, his tone serious. "Any chance of getting a doctor to examine Page?"

"Do you mean a psychiatrist?" Ulmann questioned, cautiously.

"Yeah, I suppose so. He's pretty close to the edge, Hauptmann."

The German nodded in agreement. "I will talk to the Kommandant when he returns. In the meantime I will consult the Stabsarzt."

"Thanks."

Captain Downing's voice cut across their conversation. "Come on, Simon, you're in goal for my team. Get a move on."

Carter grunted and muttered, "I hate playing in goal," but began walking towards the end Downing had indicated.

Ulmann crushed the urge to inform him that had he not attempted a foolhardy and dangerous escape he would not have injured his ankle so badly that he was still unable to run. He was startled to find himself addressed once more.

"What position did you play, Hauptmann?"

"How did you know I played football?"

Carter grinned at him. "I've seen you watch. One of these days we just might invite you to play." His tone was teasing.

"Indeed," was Ulmann's only reply to that, although he was aware that a half-smile had touched his mouth before it could be repressed. "I was a centre forward."

"Simon!" Downing's exasperated tones cut through the air once more.

Carter grimaced and then grinned suddenly. "Bet you hated getting stack in goal, too." With that remark he scuffled away, dragging on a pair of disreputable woollen gloves and ignoring Downing's long-suffering tone.

"About time," the Captain grumbled, while the Flight Lieutenant waved the game on.

 

Ulmann walked across the courtyard towards his office, his mind on Pilot Officer Page, and for once missed the silent presence of Major Mohn. The man was watching him with narrowed eyes. The Hauptmann brought himself to attention and saluted. Mohn smiled at him, and the junior officer had a struggle to maintain his impassive expression.

"At ease, Ulmann." The tone was all congeniality.

Ulmann was immediately suspicious, trying and failing to recall an occasion on which the Major had been polite to him, let alone pleasant.

'You and Flight Lieutenant Carter appeared to be having an interesting discussion." Ulmann opened his mouth to defend himself but was forestalled by Mohn's next words. "I have always believed that it is in all our interests to try and - mm - mix with the prisoners. They are, alter all, fighting men like ourselves, eh, Ulmann?"

"Yes, sir." His reply was wooden, sheer surprise at the Major's change in tactics robbing him of breath even while his quick mind identified the possible reasons.

"So, tell me, what were you discussing?"

"We were talking about football, sir."

"Ah, an excellent game - one I have always enjoyed. I must have a chat to Flight Lieutenant Carter myself. He and I have a great deal in common, you know - chess, football, flying." He paused for a moment, clearly considering a plan of action. "Carry on, Hauptmann."

Ulmann saluted gravely. "Thank you, sir." He left the man's presence as quickly as he could, worried in case the sudden and inexplicable hilarity bubbling within him should escape. For a brief moment he wished he could be a fly on the wall when Mohn attempted his conversation with Carter.

 

For Ulmann the day proceeded according to routine but with an increasingly surreal edge. His own suspicions had crystallised alter a meeting in Mohn's office during which, with a continuation of his earlier jovial attitude, the Major tried to enlist his support against the Kommandant. Not for the first time Ulmann wondered that a man as intelligent as Mohn clearly was could have so little insight either of human nature or of the way he was viewed by those around him. With difficulty the Hauptmann had retained his control, finally drawing the interview to an abrupt close simply by asserting his belief that Germany would win in the end. It was an argument to which Mohn had no counter unless he wanted to give himself away completely.

They next met during an air raid. Ulmann had ensconced himself behind some sandbags and was spending the time worrying about the Kommandant's safety in Leipzig when Mohn arrived, bringing with him a list of British officers he wished called to a special Appel. The thought of the Major trying to win round any of the prisoners was laughable, but at this further development Ulmann felt bound to protest.

"Surely, sir, it would be better to wait until the return of the Kommandant?"

"Sonderappel, Ulmann, 18.00 hours."

In the face of a direct order the Hauptmann had delivered the message, ensuring it was passed to Carter. The Flight Lieutenant had raised his eyebrows but had said nothing.

Ulmann had no wish to be associated with what he was sure would be Mohn's attempt to ingratiate himself with the British and when 18.00 hours arrived he removed himself from the prisoners' yard. He climbed the stairs to the Kommandant's office and spent the time pacing to and fro worriedly until the doors opened and the Oberst stalked through.

"Is everything in order?" the older man demanded.

One of the guards had entered with him and Ulmann contented himself with murmuring; "Yes, Herr Kommandant," while assisting the man out of his coat. "Any news, sir?"

"News?"

This was Karl at his most taciturn, a sure sign that the man was tired and exasperated.

"The requested reinforcements."

"There will be no reinforcements - and no requests for leave until further notice."

"Yes, sir."

"Where is Major Mohn?"

Ulmann eyed him warily, realising that his answer was not going to be received well. "Addressing the British prisoners, sir."

"Addressing ... ? On what subject?"

"I don't know, sir."

"On whose authority?"

"Yours, sir."

"Mine?"

"So I was given to understand by the Major."

Karl stood and moved over to the drinks tray, asking; "Is there a memorandum to that effect?" He poured schnapps into a single glass, throwing the liquid down his throat.

His apparent calm acceptance of the information suggested to Ulmann that he might have been over-reacting. "I beg your pardon, sir?"

He was aware he was trying to buy time, to think of some way that he could shield Karl. It was soon clear, however, that the Security officer had been correct in his initial assumption that the Oberst would be furious. The Kommandant was in no mood to be pacified or to have hard facts kept from him. Eventually, obviously irritated by Ulmann's uncharacteristic evasions, he demanded; "Ulmann, are you sick?"

The Hauptmann stared at him, clenching his fists tightly, trying to think of anything to say to the angry man before him.

"You will report to me everything that has occurred in my absence."

Ulmann cursed himself for staying in the office at all. He should have retired for the night and ensured that Mohn had received his answer from the British prisoners and taken what the Security officer was sure would be his eventual action. That way he could have spared the Kommandant what was sure to be a bruising encounter with the Luftwaffe officer.

"Kommandant, I assure you I have nothing to report." He tried one last time to avert possible disaster.

Karl looked steadily at him for a moment before pouring a second glass of schnapps. Without ceremony he placed the glass before his junior officer and in a voice that brooked no argument he insisted; "I believe you have a great deal to report. And you will do so. At once."

There was no gainsaying the Oberst in this frame of mind, as Ulmann knew from long experience. With a sigh he fetched a chair and, after disposing of the schnapps in one swift swallow, related the events of the day.

When he had finished the Oberst's face was grave and he despatched one of the guards to fetch the Major. Ulmann he kept with him, wishing Mohn to see that despite his best efforts he was still unable to sway the loyalty of the other senior officers.

When the Major arrived he dismissed the Hauptmann, knowing that he would remain close. He did not need to tell him to do so, it was simply understood between them.

"I have a very disquieting report here, Major Mohn."

As the interview continued Mohn's sullenness made it apparent to the Kommandant that he had finally accepted defeat, and he also discovered that the Major had spent most of the day talking to prisoners and trying to curry favour with them. Far from acknowledging his position and concentrating on salvaging his personal honour, Mohn had been more concerned with saving his own skin at the expense of his senior officer.

Karl's lips compressed into a hard, thin line as he listened to the man's weaselly justifications. "Are you by any chance making out a case to excuse the fact that not so long ago shots were fired in this camp?" he asked, disdain evident in his tone.

"Self defence, sir."

"I see. You are making out a case."

Mohn's reply was a model of misplaced arrogance. "Sir," he said coolly, "if it comes to a choice between your word and mine, I believe at the moment the British are far more likely to accept mine. I made the charge against Carrington, certainly, but it was you who authorised it and forward it to Leipzig. Do you see, sir?"

Karl had regretted putting through the charge against Carrington but he could hardly inform the Major that he had only done so in the belief that it would either get lost in the mounting confusion and red tape or that Colditz would be overrun long before anything could be done about it. He had underestimated Mohn's contacts and the trial had taken place with a speed that had left Karl gasping and horrified when the sentence of death was pronounced.

Hatred fizzed through him as he replied; "Oh, I do see, Major. Very clearly."

"I knew you would, sir."

"As you must see that in view of what has just passed between us, I should hand you over to the SS."

Mohn's face changed, his own hatred and contempt etched starkly on his features. The Kommandant would not report him to the SS, they both knew that, but the mere threat caused Mohn to abandon any pretence and finally he presented himself in his true colours. The man who was so brave when faced with physical danger was possessed of a glass jaw when meeting the harsh realities of life. His prop and mainstay, National Socialism, had crumbled beneath him and the child who had been forced to rely on the State and nothing else to sustain his strength now had no inner resources of his own. Unwilling pity banished Karl's hatred. This could so easily have been his own son.

His attention was claimed by the Major's continuing verbal onslaught, hearing with disbelief the man's words.

"I could, at this moment, call in the Gestapo and offer proofs of acts of betrayal on your part. I could even shoot you and swear it was in self-defence."

It was time to end this farce, but in attempting to do so Karl was faced with some hard truths which rang in his ears. He was hearing what the Major truly believed and some of it echoed his own thoughts and the disquietude of years, raising the spectre of his own accountability for the mess in which his country found itself. "So you chose to blind yourself to everything around you - to the truth - and to see only the rules. Well, now there are no rules - and there is nothing left for you to hang on to."

He was wrong, thought the Oberst, with a sudden sense of relief. Perhaps it was true for Mohn - perhaps he truly had been cut adrift from all that he had trusted and worked for -but not the Kommandant. He had his anchor.

"Ulmann."

His call brought an instant response as he had known it would and Ulmann strode into the room. At his entry Mohn seemed to accept that at last everything was over and he made no further protest as Karl relieved him of his duties and ordered him to his quarters. If he was angry at Ulmann's immediate promotion to the post of second-in-command he did not show it.

When he had gone Karl slumped down, steadying his breathing. It had been a nerve-racking and dramatic encounter. He waited, aware that Ulmann would return as quickly as he could. Within ten minutes he entered, not troubling to knock, and without a word he walked across the room, poured a glass of schnapps and placed it in front of the Oberst.

"Drink."

The order was quiet and spoken with great gentleness but there was steel behind it and the Kommandant, emotionally bruised and battered, picked up the glass and did as he was told. When he finished he looked up into the understanding gaze which was fixed upon him. The sympathy was almost too much for him to bear and he closed his eyes, feeling strong fingers close around his shoulder.

Ulmann did not leave the Kommandant until he was sure he had regained his composure. Knowing Karl as well as he did, he recognised both the recovery and the Oberst's need to be alone. Accordingly he had expressed his intention to carry out a tour of the castle and promised that he would return later. As he descended the steps from his own office he heard someone walking up and waited at the corner.

"Flight Lieutenant Carter." He may have surprised the Englishman but the reverse was also true. "What are you doing out of your quarters?" His shrewd eyes took in the full and spotless, if threadbare, uniform and the brushed cap.

The British officer stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. "You know the Major came to see us earlier. He wanted us to sign a paper to say he'd always treated us well."

"So I believe." Despite himself Ulmann could not hide the distaste that coloured his voice.

"Yeah, well, the men have asked me to deliver our answer."

"I see."

A devil had entered Carter's expression. "Would you like to join me, Hauptmann?"

As repressively as he could manage, Ulmann replied. "I have other duties, Flight Lieutenant. You may carry on."

"Thank you."

Much to the German's surprise the Flight Lieutenant drew himself up and saluted. Numbly Ulmann returned the salute and they parted.

Ulmann was not sure about the contents of Carter's paper but the following morning Major Mohn had vanished. His personal belongings and uniform remained in his quarters but to all intents and purposes the man himself had disappeared without trace. The official reason presented to the camp was that Mohn had been transferred and that, Ulmann was tartly informed by Colonel Preston who clearly disbelieved it, was good riddance to bad rubbish.

 

Over the following days a stalemate seemed to have been reached in the outside world as the American guns still sounded but drew no closer. Prisoners and guards were restless, everyone wanting the inevitable end to come soon so that, in whatever form, they could restart their lives. The atmosphere was edgy and several arguments came close to fisticuffs. Ulmann became resigned to sudden calls to the courtyard and so was not unduly perturbed when a Gefreiter scrambled into his office, breathless, dishevelled and gasping out a tale about a fight in the yard. Sighing he collected his cap and followed the man, heading towards the knot of British officers.

"What is going on here, gentlemen?"

Ulmann's voice acted like a douche of cold water to the milling British prisoners. As they drew back Ulmann found himself confronted by the sight of Mawson, unconscious and bleeding badly from his nose. A scatter of movement behind the Abwehr officer heralded the arrival of the doctor and the other prisoners moved back at his sharp command. Ulmann picked out Carter, whose colour was several shades paler than usual.

"Flight Lieutenant Carter? An explanation please."

"It was Page." There was little more that needed to be said. Ulmann glanced around the courtyard and realised that the Pilot Officer was not present.

"Where is he?"

"He took off towards the attics. Hauptmann ... " Carter paused, clearly unwilling to voice the thoughts echoing through his mind though they were written on his ashen expression. It seemed as though Page had finally slipped over the narrow edge he had been treading between depression and insanity.

"Find Colonel Preston," Ulmann ordered, then turned to one of the guards. "Find the Kommandant." Having delivered the orders he made his way purposefully to the stairs, heading to the attics above sickbay. As he toiled up the spiral steps he wondered why Page had come here and an uneasy dread settled in the pit of his stomach as he reached an obvious conclusion. Following the sound of voices he entered one of the top rooms, where the prisoners had no right to be, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the sloping ceiling. Downing was half out of the window with Captain Walters dithering close by.

"Captain Downing!" Disquiet sharpened his voice and the order was harsher than he had intended but he had no wish to see anyone else clamber out onto the roof, guessing that Page had taken refuge there.

Downing scrambled back, turning his own colourless face to the German, relief etched deeply. "Hauptmann ... Thank God. Look, Page went out there before we could stop him. Brent's talking to him but he can't get close. The man's finally gone stark raving mad!"

Ulmann moved to the window, his heart failing as he saw Page, his body upright and vivid against the blue sky of a perfect spring day. Brent was sitting part-way along the roof by a chimney that hid Page from the courtyard.

The German turned to Walters; "Go down and tell them to keep quiet and do nothing. I will try to persuade him to come back to the window"

He waited until the man had disappeared and he could hear his footsteps receding down the stone steps. Without thinking further he handed a stunned Downing his cap, quickly shrugging out of his jacket and pushing that, too, into the unprotesting man's arms.

Downing finally found his voice; "I say, Hauptmann ... " only to discover that words had failed him " … be careful," he finished, lamely.

 

Preston and the Kommandant entered the courtyard at the same time, both gravitating to the centre of the cobbles where they could see the open window and the chimney where Brent was perched. Of the other man on the roof they could see nothing. At that moment Walters emerged into the yard from the stairs, panting out the Hauptmann's orders. The Kommandant's pale face leached to a haunted grey and he spoke as if he did not believe what he was saying.

"Ulmann? Ulmann is going onto the roof ... ?" Even as he spoke the unmistakable figure of the camp second-in-command eased itself out of the window, drawing all eyes to him. Unable to do anything but watch the Oberst gripped his walking stick, his pale face losing what little colour it had. Carter, standing close by, glanced at him curiously and moved forward, aware that the German was close to collapse.

 

Ulmann had no time to think, edging along the rooftop sit by Brent for a few moments. The gaunt Englishman turned a despairing face to him and on this occasion there was no distinction between friend and foe, prisoner and captive, German and British, only a desperate attempt to save the life of one man.

"I tried to talk to him. He says if I go any nearer he'll jump."

"Did he say why?" Ulmann's voice was pitched low and Brent answered in the same tone.

"You saw Mawson?" At Ulmann's nod he continued; "I really thought Page was going to kill him. It was as if there was no-one inside him." He paused, not sure if he had conveyed to Ulmann exactly what he had seen. At the Hauptmann's encouraging expression he took up the story. "When we got Page off him - he looked down at him, then looked at his hands. I don't know. Those two have baited him a bit. Serves Chris right if Page hit back, but he nearly killed him. Next thing we knew he screamed and bolted. Last time I heard a sound like that it was Squadron Leader Marsh ... " His voice tailed off and he shuddered. "What can we do?"

"I must try to make him see reason." Ulmann's mouth was set in a determined line.

"Look, Hauptmann," Brent interposed. "He has lost his reason and if he won't listen to me ... " At the man's enquiring look he elaborated. "I've been trying to help him recently. I felt sorry for him, I suppose. I thought I was getting somewhere."

"We cannot leave him there and it is unlikely he will come back of his own accord nicht wahr?" Firmly, Ulmann added; "The welfare of the prisoners is my responsibility, Captain Brent. Please stay here."

"Ulmann." Brent placed a hand on his shirt sleeve. "For God's sake, his mind's gone. Is he worth dying over?"

A humourless smile touched the German's mouth. "And what were you planning to do, Herr Brent?"

The Englishman shrugged sheepishly. "Don't take any risks," he advised, amazing himself at his own concern for a bete noir five years old.

Ulmann was also surprised, realising that for the second time the Castle inmates had expressed unwillingness to see him in danger. "I have no intention of taking risks, as you put it, but I must try." He hesitated for a moment and then continued; "If I should fail please inform the Kommandant that I was most emphatically not avoiding the issue." He saw the puzzlement on Brent's face even as the man nodded his agreement and just hoped that the message was enigmatic enough to be understandable only to the person for whom it was intended. With luck it would never have to be delivered.

"Hauptmann?" he was brought back to his task by Brent's voice, realising with surprise that the man had extended his hand. Stunned, he accepted the handshake, then turned to edge past the chimney and so out of sight of those watching below.

He stopped where Page could see him and called softly; "Pilot Officer Page. May I talk with you?"

"Why?" The reply was bald and barely interested. Page was standing poised on the ridge tiles of the roof, his balance that of a man used to walking a physical tightrope rather than a mental one. He stared into the middle distance with no expression on his face save mild introspection.

"Your situation is not safe, Pilot Officer."

Page took enough notice of this to allow his expression to settle into an ironic mask. "And if I come down, Hauptmann, no-one else's situation is safe."

Ulmann did not try to deny what Page was saying, knowing that only by dealing in truths could he hope to talk the man out of what he was sure was his intended course of action. The time for comforting lies had long since passed this man by - if there had ever been such a luxury in his life. "We could put you into solitary confinement. The war is almost over, Page," he added in his most persuasive tones. "You will soon be able to go home."

"Home?" The word was not an echo but an accusation, full of bitterness and self-hate - the voice of a man who had forgotten what the word meant. "I have no home. I have nothing."

Despairing, Ulmann searched for any way to reach him. "You have worked for this victory, Pilot Officer. You are close to winning. Does that not give you hope?"

"Hope of what?" The whispered sentence hung in the air between them and Page finally turned his head to face the man perched astride the roof. "I have nothing left, Hauptmann, nothing left to give - nothing left to be. Can't you understand that?" The voice ached with pain and Ulmann gave him truth for truth.

"No, I cannot understand - but having no hope now does not mean there will be no hope in the future."

"You're wrong. I have no control left, you must understand that. I cannot govern myself - and if I can't do that then how can I guarantee that the next person I attack won't die? Hauptmann, let me go?" It was almost a cry, anguish and despair an almost palpable wave of emotion stunning the German.

"Page, do not give up!" He put all the force he could into a whispered exhortation.

The man stood, seemingly as firm as an outcrop of rock on the top of a steep slope. Clearly, he stated; "My name is not Page."

Ulmann, searching desperately for any way to delay the inevitable asked; "Then what is your name?"

Haunted eyes searched his face before meeting his gaze and Ulmann bit back an exclamation as he saw how deep the pain went before the man whispered; "I can't remember."

Ulmann could never have believed that whispered words could echo and yet these did, vibrating with the agony of a soul whose life had lost all meaning and could see its own slide into madness. The German stared at his Hamlet and silently willed him to live, to make a different choice. A half-smile touched the stranger's mouth, the peace engendered by a decision made stealing across his face.

Ulmann lurched forward, almost losing his hold, desperate to cross a distance that was too far, to rescue someone who did not want to be saved. He knew it was impossible and yet he tried anyway, his shout echoed by Brent …

… as the man who was not Pilot Officer Page stepped off the roof ...

In the courtyard they heard Brent's cry, floating down on the silent, tension-ridden air. "Oh, my God - he's fallen!"

 

Carter, standing by the Oberst, caught him under the elbow as he swayed, hearing the words of dismay echoed around him although perhaps only the SBO's "My God," was truly heartfelt. A gentle pressure on his arm brought his attention back to the Kommandant and he released the arm he held, nodding briefly as the older man murmured his thanks. From above he could hear the Hauptmann's voice shouting orders to the guards on the other side of the castle.

Ulmann was still perched on the roof-top, beginning to wonder just how he was going to make it back to safety. He felt sick and dizzy, accepting it as shock and trying not to see it as weakness but as a natural reaction. He leaned forward, breathing deeply, almost startled into following Page by Brent's voice close behind him.

"Hauptmann, are you okay?"

He nodded. "A moment."

Brent's voice, decisive and in control. "Don't try to turn. Edge yourself backwards to the chimney. I'll guide you. You're perfectly safe."

With the Captain's reassuring comments and orders in his ears, Ulmann moved along the rooftop until he felt the solid bulk of the chimney at his back. With Brent's help he passed the obstacle and within moments Brent and Downing were helping him through the window. Once inside he slumped onto the floor. For a few moments he could do nothing but concentrate on banishing the swimming dots before his eyes and could not even find it within himself to be ashamed at showing weakness in front of his captives. Brent turned to Downing.

"You'd better go down and let them know what's happened, Tim."

Downing nodded and slipped silently out of the door.

Brent propped himself against an adjacent wall and watched the German in silence for a few moments before speaking.

"He really had made up his mind to jump, hadn't he?"

Ulmann nodded, still not fit for speech.

"You did what you could, Hauptmann. Thank you for that."

"It was not enough." Ulmann was shocked at the flat bitterness in his own voice.

"There was nothing that anyone could have done. We've all seen the way he's been going. God, you've had to put him in the cells twice in the past month!" Brent laughed shortly. "He was locked in some kind of nightmare - haunted by a ghost."

Ulmann looked up in surprise, meeting Brent's eyes for the first time.

"You did what you could," the British officer repeated softly, then brought his voice to a more normal tone. "Do you feel better?"

Surprisingly Ulmann did, Brent's allusion to Page being haunted helping to provide a sense of perspective. He was not the only person who had recognised a tortured and ultimately doomed man. Perhaps it was better this way, he conceded, and only hoped now that if there was a hereafter Page would find the peace his soul had craved.

 

They made their way down the stone steps, the German leading the way, his customary walk hesitant and his emotions clearly expressed on his face. At the bottom of the stairs he entered the sunlit courtyard to find himself facing Karl. The older man's face was grey and fear still lurked in his eyes. Brent, following behind, was in time to see Ulmann reach out. For a moment they stood, oblivious of the mayhem around them, no-one taking much notice of the Germans as Downing was questioned about the events on the roof Ulmann's hand rested on the older man's shoulder, gripping hard in silent reassurance, while the Oberst's fingers were curled tightly around the Hauptmann's elbow. They stood like that only for a moment, before breaking apart and moving as one towards Colonel Preston. George Brent was left standing on the stairs, unable to tear his gaze away from the two German officers, his mouth a round 'o' of astonishment as sudden understanding burst upon him.

*

Click here for THE FIRST DUTY - Part Four